The chicken’s tale

November 11, 2007

Roast chicken

Sit down by the fire while I tell you a tale, of a sweet country chuck who came down to London, in search of romance and adventure. She arrived in a box all perky and fresh with her free-range friends – bacon, burger and boned leg of pork.

But far from leading a glamorous life, she soon found herself basted with butter and herbs (sage, rosemary and thyme), with half a lemon and a few chunks of white bread stuffed up her bum. Just as she was thinking the worst must be through, she was popped in the oven on a bed of her sliced country cousins – carrot, onion and leek.

Roast Chicken

She came out a while later all wrinkled and brown, and was left to sit naked while a bath of hot gravy was prepared for her debut appearance. In the gravy went red wine, stock and a bay leaf, some sugar and seasoning, tommy ketchup and soy, and a dribble of Worcestershire sauce.

Roast gravy

And after the meal, without further ado, her carcass was picked clean of the last scraps of meat, for a mustard-drenched sarnie to go in a London boy’s lunch-box. And even then her ordeal wasn’t through, for her bones were boiled up with more of the same – carrot and onion, leek and bay leaf, peppercorns and a bucket of garni.

Chicken stock

Into this rich stock went garlic, ginger and chilli, with brocolli and chard and a handful of rice. And so the last traces of a poor country chicken were drunk as a Monday night soup. Let this be a warning to all Devon poultry – stay in your coops all cosy and safe, and don’t dream of a life in the city.

Chicken, brocolli and chard soup

Beetroot Soup

November 3, 2007

Beetroot soup

We celebrated Hallowe’en this year with a blood-red bowl of spicy beetroot soup. The really scary bit happened the following day when it had worked its way through our systems…

Gastropunk’s Beetroot Soup

Ingredients: beetroot, pumpkin or squash, carrots, garlic, ginger, Panch Poran (an Indian mixture of five whole spices and seeds), stock (beef or vegetable), lemon, oil and butter, seasoning

1. You’ll need beetroot, pumpkin or squash and carrot in a ratio of roughly 2-1-1 (I used 3 beetroot, 2 carrots and quarter of a small pumpkin). Peel and chop into chunks. Finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic and a small knob of ginger.

2. Heat a glug of oil (not olive) and a small schlep of butter and gently fry the garlic and ginger for half a minute. Add 1 teaspoon or so of Panch Poran and cook for a minute longer, allowing the spices to release their aromatic flavour. Add the chunks of vegetable and continue to saute gently for a few minutes, stirring regularly.

3. Add enough stock to cover the veggies, bring to the boil and leave to simmer for about an hour.

4. Once the veggies are soft, blitz everything thoroughly and check the seasoning. I found it benefitted from a generous addition of both salt and pepper. A squeeze of fresh lemon at the end adds a citric balance to this sweet, spicy soup. You may also need to add some more water or stock if the soup is too thick.

5. Serve with a swirl of double cream or a spoonful of yoghurt.

Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

October 30, 2007

Pak Choi with caterpillar

I was surprised last night to discover a plump and chilly caterpillar curled up on a pak choi leaf, surrounded by a number of large, healthy-looking droppings. Its body-to-poo-size ratio was really impressive. It had eaten its way through almost an entire pak choi before a spell in the fridge had cast it into Cryonic suspension.

Fortunately the wee critter had been well potty-trained and confined his efforts to a single one of the four cabbages that arrived with this week’s box, leaving me plenty of untainted leafage with which to cook up this seasonal stir-fry.

A bowl of mussels

Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

You’re going to need… basmati rice, mussels, pak choi, garlic, chilli, ginger, a lemon, soy sauce.

To start, put the basmati rice on to cook – enough for however many folks you’re feeding.

Wash the caterpillar poo from your pak choi and break them into seperate leaves. If each leaf is too large, break them into more managable sizes. I like my pak choi leaves cooked whole so you get the contrast of crunchy stalk and tender leaf in the same mouthful. And it looks more Ken Hom.

Stir-fry pak choi

Prepare the mussels by pulling off the beard and throwing them in a wok over a fierce heat until they open. Throw away any that remain closed, and remove the flesh from the shells. Strain the mussel juice and put to one side.

Chop the flavourings finely – a couple of garlic cloves, a fresh red chilli and a small knobule of fresh ginger.

Heat some sunflower or corn oil in the wok until smoking. Throw in the pak choi and stir-fry until wilted, ensuring the stalks retain some bite. Next add the garlic, chilli and ginger. Keep stirring for a few seconds to allow the flavours to mingle. Chuck in the mussels next. Stir again over the heat for half a minute or so.

Next add the rice. But not so much that it overwhelms the other ingredients. Again, stir around long enough for the rice to heat through. Add the mussel juice back to the wok.

Finally add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a few glugs of soy sauce. A splash of Thai fish sauce would also be good.

Mussels, Pak Choi and Rice

Herring, oats and bacon fat

October 26, 2007

2 lovely herring

I just wanted to share the sleek, metallic beauty of these two herrings with you. I only get to indulge my plebian passion for these oily little critters when Maths Chick has vacated the building. The pungent smell of Clupea Maxima under a fierce grill is enough to make her dainty nostrils flare with disgust.

Boned herring

The other day I was reading about Billingsgate Fish market back in the 19th century, when it was estimated that 250,000 barrels of herrings, holding about 150 fish per barrel, were sold at the market every year. Which comes out at 37,500,000 herring in total, a large proportion of which would have been eaten by the labouring classes of the capital. It seems that Victorian London went to work on a sprat.

Herring in oats

This dish came about from a lazy mis-reading of a Jane Grigson recipe, which called for a boned herring to be covered in oatmeal, fried in rendered bacon fat and served with plenty of chopped parsley and lemon wedges. I used porridge oats instead of the oatmeal, and despite being both crunchy and chewy at the same time, it wasn’t half bad. But then I’m a Bakewell lad by upbringing, with an inherited faith in culinary mistakes.

The meat box cometh

October 25, 2007

Riverford meat box delivery

We received our first Riverford meat box delivery on Saturday. I’d spent the morning hovering in the frontroom, gazing down the garden path like a little kid waiting for the birthday post to arrive. We were both totally stoked (Ozspeak for jolly glad) when it arrived, and danced a little caper around the kitchen.

Riverford meat box

And this is what we got for our hard-earned moolah (46 squid, give or take a bob or two):

750g pork roast
400g sausages
300g bacon
300g beef burgers
400g beef mince
400g braising steak
400g rump steak
A whole organic chicken
200g ham

Which, like the legendary England all-rounder, is very Beefy and none the worse for it.

The rump steaks have been scoffed already, providing two hearty meals. We partnered them up on both occasions with the pickings from our latest forraging expedition to Hampstead Heath. On one occasion the MC served them under a pile of unidentified ‘shrooms, which we thought at the time were Clouded Agarics, but which we later realised bore more than a passing resemblance to the deadly poisonous Death Cap (result: complete organ collapse in about 72 hours). The next evening we played safe and served them with a splodge of harmless sweet chestnut puree. All very Hugh Firmly Whatsisface.

Sweet chestnuts

Grilled mackerel

This week I started a part-time Masters in London Studies at Birkbeck College. At the tender age of 35 I find myself a student yet again. This is the fourth Masters course I’ve started, and hopefully, in 2 years time, it will be the third one I’ve finished.

The MA I dropped out of was in Modern British History at Hallam University, which I enrolled on back in ’95. At the end of the first term I was faced with the horrific prospect of writing a 3000 word essay on Britain’s pre-war tariff and trade policies. At that point I did the decent thing and fell on my academic sword, returning with relief to my job as second chef at Scottie’s Bistro.

My tutor on that course was a legendary climber, Paul Nunn, who died in a Himalayan avalanche the same year I quit. I only found out when I stumbled across his obituary in the paper. He was a lovely, funny, bearded northern bloke and I was very sad to hear the news. I hadn’t even known he was a climber. I learned later that he’d inspired an entire generation of British mountaineers, including Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame.

So I am once again a slave to the reading list and the seminar schedule. The cash I save on cheap cinema tickets and 10% book discounts will go towards buying cartons of Bulgarian merlot and paying hefty library fines. After 6 cold hard years in the labour market, it’s good to be back in the warm fluffy bosom of academia. Whether I’ll have time to do much blogging over the coming months is another matter. I’ve already started another blog for recording my research ideas and course notes, but I can’t see that one crashing into Technorati’s Top 100 any time soon.

Which is a pretty long-winded way of introducing what I had for dinner tonight.

Grilled Mackerel with Swiss Chard and Carrot

This recipe came with the Riverford newsletter a few weeks ago, and I’ve made it several times since. It’s colourful, tasty, and makes you forget you’re eating carrots. Again.

1. Peel some carrots and slice thinly on an angle (about 3 carrots per person seems about right). Boil until al dente, then drain.

2. Take a big handful of chard per person and seperate the leaves from the stalks. Chop the stalks into 1 inch pieces and boil ’til tender. Drain. Now also boil the leaves and drain when cooked.

3. Chop a garlic clove or two and some red chilli finely. Heat some olive oil in a wok or saute pan and add the garlic and chilli. Stir a couple of times and add all the vegetables. Saute for a few minutes to let the flavours mingle. Season, and, if you like, dress with another glug of strong, peppery olive oil.

4. To serve with grilled mackerel: Get a nice plump shiny-eyed fish. Chop off ‘er head and gut ‘er. Make diagonal scores in both sides of the fish. Rub salt, pepper and oil into the scores, the skin and the cavity. Get the grill nice and hot and bung her under. 4 or 5 minutes each side should do the trick. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a learned article on the water supply in 16th century London to attend to.

Blue Cheese, Bacon and Walnut salad

We had Stratford Girl and Tom Rom round for Sunday lunch this weekend. It felt like the last fleeting moments of summer as we sat among the rampant foliage in our tiny back yard, knocking back the kir and batting away kamikaze wasp attacks.

Apparently in denial over the impending arrival of autumn, this week’s veg box arrived with a bag of sexy salad leaves perched daintily on top. On closer inspection it contained a mix of tender chard leaves, sprightly rocket and what looked like a deep purple frisee – a winning combo of textures, colours and flavours. I made this easy starter to celebrate the last of the salad days.

Tom Rom chez us

Bacon, blue cheese and walnut salad

To make the blue cheese dressing mash a good wedge of soft blue cheese (we used Bleu d’Auvergne) with a clove of garlic. Stir in a small splash of vinegar and a few tablespoons of Greek Yoghurt. Mix well together and season with black pepper, and, if necessary, salt. If it’s too thick you could thin it with a small amount of water.

Make some croutons by removing the crust from a couple of slice of bread, cutting them into cubes and tossing in a little oil. Spread out on a baking tray and bake in the oven until golden and crisp. Season and set aside.

Meanwhile, fry some nice thick lardons of bacon or pancetta in a small amount of oil until crisp.

Dress a few salad leaves with the blue cheese mixture and place in the middle of the plate. Strew some walnuts, the bacon and the croutons around and place the rest of the salad leaves, perhaps dressed with a little olive oil, on top.

Dollop some more dressing on the side of the plate, spin around three times and do a little shimmy across the lino. Serve immediatement.

Blue Cheese, Bacon and Walnut salad

Potato and Onion Frittata

September 21, 2007


Hailing from land-locked Derbyshire I’ve never developed a strong attachment to the sea. Coastal towns make me a little nervous, partly, I think, because the sea cuts down your escape options. From wherever I’m standing I like to be able to move quickly in any direction, just in case.

Nonetheless, Mopsa’s mussel-foraging expeditions on the Cornish coast do have me feeling a tad jealous of his coastal lifestyle. London has a surprising amount of wild food, but unfortunately there’s no shellfish to be found clinging to the arches of Tower Bridge.

So here in the city we have to make do with what the veg box man brings. Last night was the first evening for a while that Maths Chick and I managed to sit down and have a meal together, and I cooked up a homely frittata from Marcella Hazan to mark the occasion.


Potato and Onion Frittata for two

1. Cut four or five small potatoes into 1cm cubes. Shallow fry in medium-hot oil (enough to come 1cm up the side of the pan) until cooked through and golden brown all over. Drain on kitchen paper.

2. Slice an onion finely and add to the oil. Continue to fry, on a lower heat, until soft and golden.

3. Whisk up 5 eggs in a bowl, season well and add the fried potatoes and onions. Add a good grating of parmesan at this stage if you like.

4. Heat some butter in a deep frying pan until it froths a little. Pour in the eggy mixture and turn the heat down to low straight away.

5. Cook slowly until mostly set through. Flash under the grill for a few minutes to finish off the top of the frittata if need be.

I served it with julienned cabbage and carrots, steamed then dressed with butter and fresh parsley and tarragon.


Penne with tomato sauce

September 18, 2007

Penne with tomato sauce

I guess posting a recipe for pasta with tom sauce is liking writing a recipe for a cheese sarnie – it’s a patronising statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

My excuse is I wanted to show off a recent addition to my gadget collection – a food mill. Being a luddite I’m suspicious of all things electrical in the kitchen (including my oven) and prefer the reliability and control of grinding, slicing, whipping-up and mushing by hand. I also like the shiny gleaming curves of the mill, and its exuberant handle, which looks like the gear stick on the old Renault 4 my mum had when I was a kid. It’s a bugger to clean, mind.

I guess most people have their own favourite way of preparing tom sauce for pasta, even if it’s just opening a jar of Dolmio. Another excuse for including mine here is that it’s also a way of using up any stray carrots cowering in the shadowy recesses of your veg tray. I like my tom sauce sweet and simple, without herbs, occasionally without even garlic, but always enriched and sweetened at the end with butter.

Tomato sauce for penne

1. Finely dice an onion, a carrot and a couple of sticks of celery. Slowly saute them in butter or olive oil (not extra virgin). After these have started to soften, mash a garlic clove and stir that in.

2. Add a tin of Italian tomatoes (or skinned ripe fresh toms if you’re lucky enough to have a supply) and season well. Cook over a high heat, stirring regularly, for a good 15 or 20 minutes until the toms have broken down and the veg are soft.

3. Pass the sauce through the food mill, using a medium-holed attachment. Put it back in the pan and, if too thick, loosen with a splash of water. Check the seasoning.

4. Add the penne (cooked al dente, natch) to the pan, a good schlep of butter and a grating of parmesan. Mix it all up well and serve immediately. Good olive oil, extra grated parmesan and pepper should be out on the table for everyone to help themselves to.

Penne with tomato sauce

Maths Chick goes solo

September 17, 2007

Maths Chick has started her own vegetable-free personal blog. Featuring wasp attacks, ingrowing toenails, her new job in a posh school and her mum’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, it’s funny and moving, and not for the faint-hearted.