A table for 25? Not currying any favour with me…

Many of you will know that I’m involved in organising the UKNOF meetings.

Some of you will know that I don’t understand this obsession that many UKNOF attendees have with going en-masse for a curry (usually with someone’s employer picking up the tab) the evening beforehand.

What is the attraction, apart from maybe not having to pay for it yourself, of sitting at a big long table, when all it achieves is you having to yell at the person next to you in order to have a conversation while receiving iffy service of usually disappointing (sometimes downright poor) food?

It’s no good for mixing and networking, one of the attractions of going for dinner with industry colleagues, as you can only bellow your conversation at your immediate neighbours, either because everyone else is pissed and shouting, or just to make yourself heard over the loud sitar music.

Sitting in tables of 6-8 would help a lot with conversation, and probably improve service as well!

It’s also not a good dining experience. The most recent curry being a particular lowlight, when a) I hardly ate any of what I ordered because it was so unpleasant (and it wasn’t as though I’d ordered a phall!), and b) I was later unwell in the middle of the night. I should have seen the warning signs when they handed us each a sticky, laminated menu card, I guess.

While I don’t think of myself as entirely Grumpy Old Man as yet, I still don’t really see the attraction…

I also can’t talk about drunken behaviour in curry houses without a link to Rowan Atkinson’s Indian Restaurant sketch… It is a tricky bit of floor. Deceptively flat…

Flowery marketing adjectives gone wrong

If you live in the UK, you’ll know the purple phenomena which is Premier Inn, advertised by that jolly Lenny Henry. (He’s a very tall chap. I wonder if they have a special bed for him when he stays?)

They actually do well at providing a reasonably good and consistent hotel product, something which the UK has long been lacking. Remember we’re talking about the country where you could end up in an antique hotel complete with rattly plumbing, school-canteen food, and that epitome of UK hotel kitsch, the Corby Trouser Press.

However, the warm, fuzzy, “I know what I’m getting”, brand consistency which comes with Premier Inn, also comes at a cost: There’s a marketing department back at Premier Inn Central in Dunstable, which feels the need to use lots of adjectives. Fairly standard marketing practice, but it’s almost like it’s there for the sake of it, and often downright odd.

My current cringe-worthy favourite is from their “grab and go” breakfast, or whatever it is they call it. It stood out as being odd when I first saw the flowery prose, talking about grabbing:

“A Costa Coffee and a baked croissant“…

The first thought that came into my mind was “Baked as opposed to what?”

Poached? Steamed? Deep-fat fried? The mind boggles.

Some copywriter in the marketing department just had to put in an adjective.

Yes, it made me pay attention to their “baked croissant”, so maybe it worked, but it’s just bloody weird when you read it.

Happy Hallmark Day

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not single, but still call today “Hallmark day” and despair of the basic concept of vomit-inducing cards, overpriced rose bouquets, and lamb cutlets and other foodstuffs arranged in a schmaltzy heart shape.

Morrisons seem to have taken vomit-inducing food to new depths with a “cupid seasoning” that they are slathering on their steaks today. What sort of marketing desperado signed that load of arse off? (Oh, one earning more money than me, probably. Bugger.)

More to the point, what’s in it? My money is on an anti-emetic.

What’s wrong with VT’s at-seat 1st Class Service?

Following on from Why the Virgin Trains Pendolino is fail…, someone asked me what was actually wrong with the onboard 1st Class service. They didn’t share my negative impression of it, and had experienced, by all accounts, some enjoyable breakfasts. I think they have been incredibly fortunate, compared to my personal experience.

Firstly, there’s the token “weekend” 1st Class service… Continue reading “What’s wrong with VT’s at-seat 1st Class Service?”

Slow Roast Moroccan-style Shoulder of Lamb

I’ll be cooking this at some point over the Xmas period. It’s a twist on a recipe from the second Moro cookbook – “Casa Moro“.

It’s a “low maintenance” slow roast oven dish – you do your prep, then get it going in the oven and leave it for about 4 to 6 hours, occasionally basting the joint with the pan juices. It’s cooked on the bone for extra flavour, and the bone helps conduct the heat into the centre of the joint.

You need a bone-in shoulder of lamb. (You often see boned and rolled shoulder on display, but any halfway decent butcher should be able to get you a bone in joint.)

Preheat your oven to about 160C, get your meat out of the fridge and start to let it come up to room temperature.

Grind up 2 to 3 tablespoons of whole cumin seeds – with a mortar and pestle if you’re feeling hard or traditional, or with a coffee/spice grinder if you’re soft/lazy. Ready ground/powerdered cumin just doesn’t give the same result in my experience. Go for the freshly ground.

Mix the freshly ground cumin with about 1 to 2 teaspoons of sweet smoked paprika. This is a bit more than the Moro recipe suggests. I’ve been using La Chinata sweet smoked paprika, which is maybe which I’ve been using more of it, as it’s quite mild and pleasant.

Next, add about half to one teaspoon of hot paprika, and a tablespoon of crushed/ground sea salt and mix it all together to create what is basically a cumin salt.

When you’re ready to put the lamb in the oven, melt some butter, and brush it all over the meat, then rub the meat down with the cumin/paprika salt mix.

Roast the meat at 140-160C for about 4-5 hours (I usually turn the oven down slightly after the first 30-45 mins), occasionally spooning the pan juices over the meat, until it is falling off the bone. The cumin salt rub may form a bit of a “crust”, which is okay.

Serving: I usually do some roasted veggies, such as slow roast red onions, peppers, possibly aubergines or a squash, and cous-cous, that sort of thing. The best way I’ve found to present this is family style – just pop it in the middle of the table with a couple of forks and knives, let people help themselves, and don’t keep count of how many times they come back for more.

In the unlikely event you have any leftovers, try to strip any left over meat from the bones before it cools down fully (it’s just easier that way), and it’s great for sandwiches or using to make Mediterranean-style meatballs.

Ash Mair – Masterchef Pro 2011’s worthy Champion

Lo, the judgely tastebuds have had their say, and Ash Mair was revealed as Professional Masterchef 2011, as many expected.

He also did it in style, with another round of exquisite yet somehow hearty food that showcased the ingredients as much as it showcased his own skill. Merging often delicate Michelin star standard cooking and presentation with a plate of serious substance seems to be an elusive skill, yet Ash manages to pull it off time and time again.

I’m told that look on his face isn’t angst, it’s concentration and grim determination to pull it off.

But, I think it was a close call, as all three finalists pulled the stops out to make an amazing three courses.

I loved the look of Claire‘s smoked pigeon – getting the cooking and smokiness just right must have taken some serious timing and judgement. It’s something I’d have happily ordered in a restaurant. Great looking chocolate and coffee marquise for dessert as well, that would have tied with Ash’s “Spanish pain perdu”. Even though choc and cherries are a classic combo, Claire is clearly clueful when it comes to what works with pastry – just think of that lime cheesecake and bitter chocolate sorbet she did! Sadly, I wouldn’t have touched the oysters – they just aren’t my cup of tea, unadventurous prole that I am.

Steve‘s starter of confit salmon was right up my street, and the duck with braised chicory got my mouth watering. But his dessert – an abstracted peach melba – looked a lot on the plate, a bit too cluttered.

If I’d have walked into a restaurant and been presented with a menu composed of the dishes from all three finalists, I’d have had a tough time choosing – especially for main course!

Ash has been commenting on Twitter about the whirlwind which he now finds swirling around him, and it’s not just the howling south-westerlies we’ve been having earlier this week: He was on BBC Breakfast with Michel Roux Jr this morning, and I don’t know if it was just his laid-back Aussie style, but he still seemed almost stunned!

While Ash is the worthy Champion, the other two are still winners: Hopefully Steve is now on the road to his ambition of a small country house hotel with fantastic food, and as for Claire, I think the world’s her oyster. Just as long as I don’t have to eat any.

Update – 24th Jan 2012:

A lot of the searches which hit this page are wondering where to find Ash so you can go and eat his food. From this recent tweet it seems like he’s off to Barcelona to consult for a restaurant there. So, it may be a bit longer. There is a basque restaurant opening up in London, but so far, Ash doesn’t seem to be associated with it.

The other frequent search term landing here is for Claire’s chocolate sorbet. Sadly, it looks like that recipe is a secret known only to Claire, and now Michel Roux Jr. But, a selection of Claire’s recipes from Masterchef (including the rather good looking chocolate moelleux) can be found on the BBC Food recipe database, along with selected dishes from the other finalists.

Masterchef – The Professionals 2011: Everyone’s a winner…

Another diversion from the usual tech and travel diet, to something which might mean you need to go on a diet…

It’s the big final tonight of Masterchef – The Professionals, and we have three deserving finalists, angsty Aussie Ash Mair who battled on in an heroic-stylee despite getting hot fat splashed in the eye to produce an amazing main course last night, “Spiky” Steve Barringer making delightful desserts from disaster-zone-looking messy workspaces, and clever Brummie Claire Hutchings, who has made some amazing food during the series with brave flavour combinations, all the more astonishing considering she was 22 at the time they made the programme.

So, who’s going to nail it tonight?

Despite wanting Claire to win, my money is now on Ash. He’s consistent in so many ways – quality of the cooking, the high standard of presentation, and after a shaky start being criticised over weak or bland flavours, he’s learned something, now packing a real punch with his seasoning and sauces. He’s even consistent at looking totally embattled and under siege, yet still manages to bring it all together and plate up on time.

While Claire’s scallop sashimi for the chefs’ table last night was definitely brave and innovative, it wasn’t a plate I’d have wanted to eat. It felt like a step too far. Sometimes simple is good, less is more. It just might have been her undoing. It’s a shame, because throughout the series, Claire has just “got it”, time and time again.

But, they all have learned something along the way – Ash with flavours, Claire with preparation, timing and organisation during plateing up, and Steve with keeping it simple and keeping everything cleaned down – which is why they are here in the final.

While there can only be one champion, all three are winners, and deserve to go on to great things.

The final of Masterchef: The Professionals 2011 is on BBC Two tonight at 8pm.

The Return of “Scary Monica”

I don’t normally blog on things like TV programmes, but this week marked a highlight in the Autumn TV calendar for me: The return of Masterchef: The Professionals. Maybe it’s because I love good food. But maybe it’s because it appeals to my sense of schadenfreude.

The format is different to “vanilla” Masterchef: the eager amateur cooks are replaced by earnest chefs, ready to take their cooking up a gear; and while cuddly Gregg Wallace and his sweet tooth still front up the show, co-judge John Torode is replaced by Michelin-starred Michel Roux Jr with his classical French cooking, perfectionist presentation, demanding palate and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for good food – you just watch the smile on his face as he plates up a demonstration dish.

Just what *are* you doing to that octopus?
Just what *are* you doing to that octopus?

However, if cooking for a member of the Roux kitchen dynasty isn’t enough to make you want to raise your game, Michel Jr has a (not so secret) weapon up his sleeve – his fearsome sous chef, Monica Galetti, who seems to have a reputation for perfection and ruling the kitchens of Le Gavroche with her amazing set of facial expressions. One look from Monica, and you know whether you’ve got it right, or whether you’re in serious trouble and need to start bailing.

It’s right there on Monica’s face. The expressions say it all, you know almost exactly what she’s thinking.

I’ve never seen anyone quite have the same effect on men hardened by working in a commercial kitchen. Cooking for Monica seems to reduce the most competent of people to timid, quivering, shaking wrecks quicker than you can reduce a red wine jus on full gas. They are quaking in their boots before they even pick a knife up.

One test is that they make the chefs perform a 10-15 minute technical challenge, set by Monica, to demonstrate certain basic kitchen skills and the ability to work under time pressure, e.g. make an Italian meringue, decorate these desserts with spun sugar, make a crab salad using only meat from inside the shell, make a steak tartare, that sort of thing. To increase the pressure further, Monica demonstrates to camera first and makes it look effortless, then the chefs are brought in one-by-one to complete the challenge, receiving Gregg and Monica’s undivided attention. They are often shaking so much that I’m amazed no-one has sliced their fingers off yet.

Monica surely can’t be all scary, though? The good news is that the widened eyes, cutting critique and looks of incredulity as the hapless masscare yet another innocent scallop are rapidly replaced by warm smiles and compliments all round when there are shows of genuine kitchen prowess.

But, if you want to see grown men, some with tattooed forearms, cry, look no further.

Masterchef: The Professionals is on BBC Two Monday-Thursday evenings for the next few weeks – times vary from day to day.