Tapas
I didn’t have time to photograph it all

The people around the mediterranean know what makes a good party. They know the ingredients, the method, what is required and what should happen. They understand that a party only becomes a trues success if it is centred around an event and an entertainment. They have also worked out that the best entertainment, the best event is food.

There is nothing more boring, more mundane and more of a mood killer than the standard British buffet. This abomination, this complete insult to everything that is good about food has been given far too long a life; it should have been kicked out of the house many decades ago because it is, without doubt, a total party pooper.  Since when does a party take on life and joy by the addition of three bowls of crisps, an anemic cold rice dish, a preprocessed slop of egg and salad cream on a pappy roll and those horrendous fake scandinavian tasteless prawn rings?

Compare that to Tapas. Tapas is a rolling adventure that originates in the tiny, local bars of rural spain. These small family run concerns often only have one chef, so Tapas does not happen all at once, it rolls out bit by hot, delicious bit over an entire evening. Every few minutes, platefuls of delicious mouthfulls of food appear on the bar or a large serving table, to be gobbled up enthusiastically by the combined greediness of a crowd constantly hungry for more. The bar may have music and fun and lots of Spanish beer and wine, but it is the food, the Tapas and its imaginative creator that sets the mood and keeps the party going.

This makes it perfect for a party at home, of course since you do not need to have everything ready at once. Indeed, it is far better that you don’t. That does not make it easy – this is hard work – but it makes it a lot of fun. Here is the trick of doing it.

Spend a couple of weeks looking up what you want to cook, taking into account your guests likes and dislikes (Try and invite people who really love food – those who prefer prawn rings should fall off your christmas card list). This is fun in itself; finding the sites with the most genuine advice and recipes and translating that into what you can buy locally. Make sure you have far more dishes ready that you are actually going to make. Don’t worry about variety or whether the food clashes; you want that to happen. The guests need to be surprised, so go as mad as you want/can, have fun and just make sure it is rich, luscious and leaves your guests hungry.

Shop just the day before, as usual, and remember that on the day of the cook you are going to spend THE WHOLE DAY doing it, so if there are any bits that you can prepare the night before to marinate, go for it and get a good nights sleep. There are some set ingredients you will use that you must have – herbs (parsley and oregano), peppers, chorizo, goats cheese, Manchego (hard sheep’s cheese), paprika, garlic, chilli and loads of olive oil.

Most of the cooking will be done the actual night of the party and continuously throughout the party, so during the day you need to create little bags of pre-prepared ingredients ready to go. Somethings you can get halfway done. For instance, Tortilla (Spanish omelette) is based on slow fried potatoes, so get those done earlier so you can do the tortilla much easier. If things need tomato sauce bases (like meat balls) get those cooked and ready to warm an mix in. Get all your peppers stuffed and your squids, get your shell fish cleaned and prepared and fillet your fish. You know the drill.

You will use lots of serving dishes. Remember, this is a spectacular, so no matching. You can use metal baking tins, pottery dishes, old victorian bits, tin foil, baskets – the more variation the better. Nothing formal – rural is the name of the game, this is village fare that has become trendy; honour its origins.

Face it, you will be knackered by the end of the night so think about kidnapping a couple of guests to help you with a little bit of waiting and doing things like sticking cocktail sticks in things. Have fun, buy your selves some really big, proper butcher’s aprons and put on bandanas – it looks right and keeps hair out of the food.

When you bring out dishes, don’t do it quietly. Never expect a good party to run itself – you are the chef, you are in charge and it is your responsibility to make the entire thing an event. Announce each dish, explain what it is and really go for the ooh’s and ahhs and hopefully some applause. You should be showing off like mad – You and Your food ARE the party!

Trust me – if you really break your back, really go for it, people will talk about it for years. People are so expectant of crisps and prawn rings that they won’t know what hit them – they will love it.

So, I did one of these last night for eleven people. The cost of the ingredients came to around £90 and I was on my feet from eight in the morning when I put my dough on, till the early hours. Today I am shattered, but everyone had a great time. Here is what I dished up, more or less:

  • Toasts with olive oil and roasted veg
  • Mini spare ribs
  • Cold tomatoes stuffed with onion, olives and grated Manchego
  • Mussels
  • Long thin pickled peppers
  • Warm olives with warm olive oil, lemon and goats cheese#
  • Deep fried sprats till crunchy
  • chicken kebabs – little ones in the middle of huge wooden skewers
  • Tortilla with potato and peppers
  • Roasted dates wrapped in pancetta
  • Potatoes deep fried and served with a tomato sauce and home made mayonnaise
  • Baked quails eggs with serrano ham and cheese
  • Sardine fillets cooked on toasts with lemon and olive oil and chilli
  • Tiny Meatballs (found in EVERY tapas bar)
  • Plate full of marinated anchovies
  • Big bowl of olives
  • Squid stuffed with rice and tuna
  • Peppers stuffed with salmon and potato (traditionally done with salt cod, but the salmon was cheap)
  • Bowl of dates, nuts and chillis
  • Baby closed mushrooms fried with sherry
  • Rice cooked with saffron and herbs served in cup-cake cases
  • Chorizo cooked in a little wine
  • grilled mackerel fillets
  • Peppers and Serrano ham tossed in hot oil and lots of oregano

And a couple of more I forget now that I made up as I went along.

The Spanish have a saying, “Me casa es su casa.” My house is your house. Prove it by giving your guests an evening they will remember.

Salt Beef
Salt Beef

A small collection of village folk arrived at the residence today for a luncheon. Well, in my own way, I felt this mostly Christian band could do with some good and honest Jewish sustenance, so Salt Beef would be the main event.

Where I was brought up many of our neighbours were Jewish, mostly from families who had emigrated to this country arriving in the East End of London.  Salt Beef was very much a part of their culture and when I visited with my friends, it seemed to be a regular event at lunch.

Now, I have to admit that I did not do the brining myself this time round as our butchers, Parrott Bros in Whitchurch, Bucks have a briner and were happy to do the job. They are also the proud owners of the famous, award winning Beechmoor Herd of Aberdeen Angus, so their beef is well worth trying.

However, I thoroughly recommend you do brine your own – it really is pretty easy and there are recipes everywhere.

So, onto the lunch.

Cooking Salt Beef
Cooking Salt Beef

I picked up the beef from its three week soak in the briner at the weekend, and at eight this morning, started cooking it in a large pot, completely covered with water and with added carrots, celery, a whole head of garlic, tablespoon of pepper corns, a teaspoon of nutmeg, some coriander seeds, an onion, and 3 red beetroot.

That lot cooked for four hours at a gently rolling simmer. I served it up hot together with Rye bread I made yesterday and pickled cucumber that we made a couple of months ago – a really, fresh tasting pickle with lots of spices in it.

It went down well, even if the genteel village folk insisted in eating it with a knife and fork. Well, except the one lady from Ohio, who took one look at the fare and shoved a huge pile of beef between two slices of rye, complete with mustard and pickle and sat there happily munching through the lot. Now, that was a lady who knows her salt beef!

Picled Girkins
Pickled Girkins

But however you eat it, do eat it! In the UK we have mangled the wonderful salt beef into tins of less than interesting corned beef and seemed to have forgotten this low cost but truly wonderful meal made from brisket. It doesn’t even need to be the best beef around! This will make a meal out of just about anything.

So, don’t let the trendy London media types in Soho be the only ones to eat great hot piles of beef and mustard, go buy a brisket and get brining! You will love it.

Smoked Haddock and Cabbage
Smoked Haddock and Cabbage

This is a gentle but warming dish for those who do not want to get stuffed, but want a rich taste to last the evening. It only takes about ten minutes to prepare and 20 to 30 minutes to cook and so is ideal for a working day.

You can vary the ingredients, to be honest, even moving it away from the East Asian influence I have here. The most important idea is that this is fish steamed in the oven over stock and served on a bed of cooked cabbage.

Ingredients for two people

  • 2 fillets of fresh smoked haddock
  • 400 mil fish stock
  • 2 tablespoons coconut cream
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 stick lemon grass
  • 1 thumb size of fresh ginger
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1/4 bulb of fennel
  • 2 lime leaves
  • big handful green cabbage
  • small handful french beans
  • ground nut oil
  • Fist of coriander
  • 2 eggs
  • Good chilli powder

How to do it

The haddock will be steamed in an oven. So, take a small roasting tin or pan and cover it with thickly sliced fennel bulb and the carrots. Slice up the lemon grass very thinly and scatter over the top. Chop up the ginger and 2 of the garlic cloves and scatter this over too.  Finely chop up the stalks of the coriander, keeping the leaf for later, and scatter this over. Tear up the lime leaves and add them. Add the coconut cream and the stock.

Stir it all up and then gather the carrot and fennel in the middle. Lay the fillets of haddock on top and then cook in an oven for around 20-30 minutes at 200 degrees C.

While that is cooking, finely chop the cabbage, the other cloves of garlic and the spring onions. Stir fry them with the beans in a little ground nut oil, salting to taste and adding chilli powder so it has a gentle heat.  Do not cook this too hot or the cabbage will catch and it will be inedible! Just get a little toastiness to it.

In a separate saucepan, poach a couple of eggs.

To Serve

Pile the cabbage in the middle of two large bows. Place the carrots and fennel on top and then the fish. Ladle the stock out round the edge. Top with an egg and chopped coriander.

And that is your lot. Quick, easy, warming and delicious. Healthy too!

Hungry Horse
Double Heart Attack Burger

Why do retailers produce incredibly high calorie food?

Well, it is simple really. They know that modern society loves over the top food and they know that high calorie food eaten on a regular basis makes us hungrier both physically and psychologically. So, why not? As a retailer you would be stupid to worry about health issues in case they got in the way of fat profits. After all, tobacco companies have been trading on that ideal for years.

In the race to be more gross than anyone else, enter Hungry Horse, a chain of pub restaurants in the UK owned by the old Green King brewery. The chain has been going since 1995 and serves value offerings – a sort of modern, fast food version of a gastro pub.

They have imported an idea from the US of multi layered burger sandwiched between two glazed doughnut rings and come up with a product that kicks in at 1900 plus calories – that is more than the entire daily allowance for a female and pretty much all of it for a male. It is 500 calories more than my current diet!

According to the BBC, Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in Applied Physiology at Birmingham City University, said: “To me, this is simply ludicrous and irresponsible. I am no killjoy but why is this sort of food available?”

But this is not about being irresponsible. That makes it sound like they are not really bothered about whether something is fattening or not. Of course they care. They know well that the selling of this kind of food over a couple of generations has made us hungrier, greedier, perhaps, and more likely to buy more. This kind of food makes a fortune and Hungry Horse are jumping on a well known bandwagon.

They go further too – one of their dishes clocks up over 3000 calories.

Hungry Horse themselves make the point that they cater for a range of tastes and appetites and print the nutritional information on the menu.

However true that might be, no business sells something because they don’t think they can make a profit out of it. They do it because they see pound signs. That is the only reason they are selling this lump of fat, sugar and salt.

 

Drink slowly, but drink thoughtfully – that is how to enjoy the finest coffee

(Me, about two minutes ago)

Coffee right next to my desk
Coffee right next to my desk

Years ago, around 1997 I think, I had the privilege to record old man Illy in our studios in London. Ernesto, would that have been his name?

Today, I set up my coffee machine in my small studio at home (I am a composer these days) and made myself a wonderful Espresso – Illy, of course. It took me back to that interview.

Illy was accompanied by two young women and he was absolutely wicked, in a charming, mischievous way. But we did chat about coffee, something I am very passionate about. His English was dreadful, as I remember it, but one of the young ladies (who I think may have been a daughter or granddaughter) worked hard to keep up with the translating between the jokes.

He is among several people who have come to the studio and, though the work was simple, impressed me with their wit. Another was Michael Anderson, director of films such as the Dam Busters, Around the World in 80 days and Logans Run. I spent a week with him recording extra dialogue for his last film, The New Adventures of Pinocchio with Warwick Davis and Martin Landau. He sat in the studio, content to let me direct and just fill our week with wonderful stories from an incredible career – most of them completely unrepeatable. I also had a memorable couple of days with Alessandro Alessandroni. He wrote some music for Toby Russell, son of Ken, for a modern day marshal arts sequel of the famous Trinity spaghetti western films. Alessandro was another full of stories, and since I am also a musician, we quickly fell into swapping stories and jokes that completely alienated dear Toby and the producers. Oops! We did have a lot of fun, however.

Back to Illy, the old man really believed in the purity of good coffee and told me that whatever coffee I drank in any part of the world, always make sure it was an honest product. (And make sure it was Illy because he needed the cash!) He wasn’t exactly flattering about coffee in the UK and even less flattering about the growing chains like Starbucks. He pointed out that there was far more to coffee than what it looked like or how slick the barista was.

I agree. Back in the day, I used to buy coffee from the Algerian Coffee Shop in Old Compton Street, London. They did a special blend which I adored and I miss greatly since I moved out of London. But, Illy is good and now I have my machine up and running right next to my desk, I will continue to drink slowly, but thoughtfully and enjoy every sip.

So, tonight, I made myself a second cup and took a photo of it while I was at it – this cup is dedicated to that wicked Old Man Illy who died back in 2008 – it was an honour to meet him and talk about coffee.

Erika and Diogo from The Muesli Café
Erika and Diogo

 

I am always on the look out for new ideas, new ventures, new tastes. I come from a world which is all about invention and reinvention, the world of turning creativity into a product.

The problem with such a world is that finding people to back an idea with cash, even a great idea, is taking a crash course in futility.  Enter the world of crowdfunding, where for little financial risk, hundreds or even thousands of people can look at a project and decide that these people deserve that rare chance.

Such a couple are two, young-ish designers in the north of Portugal.

The Muesli Café

“She came up with the idea,” says Diogo Olivera, a talented web designer with a love of muesli – eating it, that is.

Erika Göbel, the German half of this enterprising duo, and the one with the cooking flare, explains why opening the Muesli Cafe in Porto is such a wonderful idea.

“It totally fits into the modern diet! Muesli is so easy to prepare and you can take it to the office or school. It’s a light meal, it boosts your energy and keeps you satisfied for a long time. You can use any ingredients you like, even if you are vegan, just use (home-made) almond milk instead of dairy products.”

One of many wonderful bowls
One of many wonderful bowls

But the philosophy is probably better explained by the photos on their website. If ever a dish deserved to have a colour palette named after it, muesli, or at least Diogo and Erika’s take on muesli, certainly does.

The idea is to open a small breakfast cafe in the vibrant, beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Porto on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. This city of colourful and historic buildings already has a café culture ripe for the picking and ready to try something new. “Muesli is not for any specific age,” Diogo explains, “and we want to create a place that doesn’t leave anyone out, although we understand that younger people will probably be more open to try something as new as muesli will be in Porto.”

The locals only taste of Muesli up until now has been the usual industrialised box loads in the supermarkets. “We will try to communicate that our muesli is much tastier than the industrial versions. People already connect muesli to something that is healthy, which is good, but now we have to show them that it is not a boring healthy thing, but the contrary!”

Crowdfunding in Portugal

Raising the money through crowdfunding, if they succeed, could give them more than just the cash they need to rent a property, get it looking they way they want, get staff in and get their message out to the locals.

“In our opinion, the advantage of crowdfunding is that the business happens only if there is interest. This dilutes the risk of failure after opening. We also get the opportunity of making great marketing even before the café exists.” It is a very good point. Another friend who has crowdfunded a games book knows he has a fan base waiting – they have just invested in him.

The crowdfunding site they are using is Portuguese venture website, PPL. This is probably a good move – they want investors who are not just interested in them, but want to come and gorge themselves on the product and then go away and tell more people.

Both Diogo and Erika are designers by trade and develop serious business websites. Diogo is also an accomplished illustrator and has put his skills to good use on their cheerful promotional video for the venture. The proposal is certainly both flavour and design lead, and that is important in food. People don’t just want a feast for the stomach, it must be for the eyes too and if they can get as much colour and flavour into the final venture as they have into their photographs, then surely they will make an impression on Porto society.

But, of course, one has to ask, do they eat Muesli themselves? I mean, every day?

“YES!” Erika shouts into my inbox, adding that her current seasonal favourite is Pomegranate muesli with Roasted Almonds.

“Well, sometimes I eat a typical Portuguese breakfast,” Diogo admits. I am not exactly sure what that is, but I am sure Erika will educate him in the error of his ways…..

Read more about the people and the venture at the Muesli Café Website.

If you are interested in funding this project, you can read all the details at PPL