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.

They need better photos
They need better photos

There is a reason why this blog is not stuffed with Restaurant reviews, well a couple actually. Firstly, I find the restaurant food available within a normal budget is often disappointing, so I simply do not eat out often. The other reason is when I do I am very rarely surprised, at least nicely.

The other week I had the opportunity to visit the China Brasserie in a new district of Aylesbury. Aylesbury has a large and diverse community from many parts of the world, which opens up the opportunity for some interesting food. Despite that, my experience of other similar communities has shown that much ethnic food is in the hands of the opportunist and the best of it is still to be found in their home countries. Indian restaurants are a prime example and however much people in the UK might enjoy popping out for “an Indian,” trust me – that is not how great food from the Indian Subcontinent is meant to taste!

Chinese food has a similar problem. I suspect the majority of Chinese food in the UK is eaten via a take-away and that really is the worst possible punishment for the humble Chinese dish. Chinese food is distinctive in its freshness. The people of the various provinces of China enjoy very different approaches to their food, but they are united by both the wok and a love of steaming. Sadly, steaming is something we see far too little of in the West. The food in Beijing, both in the street and in their noisy, competitive restaurants, is cooked right there, right at the time you want it. It has lightness and subtlety and great love. In many of the takeaways in the UK, the food has the weight of a whale and probably most of it’s oil to boot.  It is thick, sticky and every dish tastes pretty much the same.

The China Brasserie is, happily, trying to buck this trend and we had a thoroughly enjoyable meal the other night. Being midweek, and me being lazy, we chose a set menu. I admit this was completely unfair since the set menus were pretty much the same as you get every where else, and we ignored any original and inspiring unique dishes they might well serve. But then, I did not go in order to review; this was just a pleasant evening out!

This was a Wednesday and the restaurant was very quite, so the service, as you can imagine was prompt. The Thai lady that served us was friendly and chatty, yet polite and efficient. The food, when it arrived, was fresh, generous and quite delightful. It is rare I stop talking to mention something is nice, but I did several times.

It was made up of pretty predictable dishes including satay chicken, crispy seaweed (!) and crispy aromatic duck, but it was well cooked, properly seasoned, and had some subtlety, which was very much appreciated. Reading through the rest of the menu on their dreadful website (please contact me for a nice new one!) there is not a lot on there that cannot be found elsewhere and I would really like to see less dishes and more originality. But the chef, who I suspect might be Thai, can cook properly and I am sure if he or she decided to move away from the predictable and venture into interesting they would make a very good job of it.

The restaurant itself is very modern, large and sited on a new square in the Fairford Leys village, which is a new, well noted development within Aylesbury. Not actually a village then.  Pricing is fairly typical for the menu style and is generally affordable. Checking through the public reviews, the restaurant is well liked and popular and I have no reason to disagree with any of those reviewers.

It is now up to other restaurants in Aylesbury to up their game and present their food, whether that is Asian, European, American or African with as much style and care as the China Brasserie.

Website: http://www.chinabrasserie.co.uk/

 

 

Lentil and Vegetable Soup
Warm, spicy and filling

There is something gratifying about returning home on a blustery autumnal day and warming up your tunny with a big bowl of thick, spicy soup. The only let down is that this is still August and it is not meant to be autumnal at all!

But, through fair weather and foul, as they say….

This is an easy dish and low priced so there is precious little excuse. I have made this with red lentils since that was what was in the cupboard. Likewise, the vegetables chosen are what happened to be in the fridge. So, this is very much a larder recipe – vary it according to what you have in stock.

 Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons ground nut oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 small lump ginger
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 4 cups chicken stock (or veggie stock if you prefer)
  • 1 chili
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup chopped coriander
  • Salt and black pepper

Cook it!

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil and gently fry the spices. Make sure they do not burn!

Add finely chopped onion, garlic, ginger and chili and cook till the onion is just turning colour – do not brown it too much as that wont work as well.

Stir in the lentils, carrots, celery and stock. Bring to the boil and turn down to simmer till the lentils are properly cooked. You might need to add more stock if it is too thick.

Add the peas and the coriander and cook for a couple of minutes more.

Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

If you want it spicier, increase the spice levels and you might want to drizzel some chili oil over the bowls of soup.

Thermometer
Warming Up

Slowly and gently, the ground is getting warmer. Each night it cools a little less and each day it warms up a little more. And you can see it everywhere on the allotment and in the garden. Grass seed is germinating, peas are popping up, strawberries are blossoming and the insects and butterflies are busy doing their thing – which is generally good for the garden as long as it does not involve eating the produce!

It was a favourable twenty four degrees Celsius in my little conservatory at the shed and warmer in the greenhouses. With very little rain, a good part of my afternoon was spent treading the path between my beds and the tap, filling up a double load of watering cans to make sure my young shoots make it to good plants. Once that was complete it was on to the main intent of my visit; Canes.

I have managed to get hold of some really heavy duty canes this year from Amazon. I really recommend spending out on these as they are much thicker than your average B&Q sticks, a good 18mm diameter at the base. I bought 50, though I could have easily used more.

I have been using them where I need the greatest strength and then infilling with my lighter canes where it was less important. They look good too; being that bit thicker has definite design advantages and my wigwam for a squash or two has a strong, business like feel about it.

It is not quite time for much planting out, though I have planted out my broad beans. The other seedlings are too young and the ground still a little too chilly for them. I have some solid plastic cloches turning up next week, so that will help warm up the ground and protect the youngest – especially from the cat!

Other than that, it is mostly just watering and getting ready. The weeds haven’t got going yet and all the ground is dug, so there is little else to do. But it will all change very rapidly over the next few weeks…

Two Chefs and a Green Grocer
Two Chefs and a Green Grocer

The MasterChef franchise is very uneven, generally speaking; the celebrity version can be tortuous and over produced (get with the crocodile tears) and the amateur version, though it holds the spirit of the original Master Chef, can be a bit too … long!

But the jewel in the crown for the last few years has been MasterChef: The Professionals. This wonderful series, if it does nothing else, showcases the truly talented future of the British restaurant industry, giving it much needed promotion – yes, we have one of the best restaurant cultures in the world, but it is a pity so many of the British public don’t realise it.

The Pro version also has a few things that the others do not.

It has Monica Galetti, the Sous Chef at La Gavroche who is not just stunningly talented, but has the Roux brothers philosophy on education running right through her, but is obviously willing every contender to grow and improve … well, most of them. She does suffer a little from the cynical blade of the editor, but the viewer is not really fooled.

It has, of course, Michel Roux Jnr. An Anglicised Frenchman, Roux is not just highly skilled, building on the towering reputation of his father and uncle, but he knows how to communicate, when the producers let him! Over the years he has suffered from far too much over direction, “say this, say that, say it this way and that,” but he has slowly asserted his authority and his own naturalness and confidence does come out from time to time.  I would love to see more of that and less set pieces to camera only made to make the producers life easy.

And lastly it is wonderfully lacking in something that the others suffer from – this ain’t no beauty pageant buster! And good thing too. We are seeing young chefs in the raw – no make up, no concealer,  so smoothing of the image in post pro (a favourite trick). Instead we have zits and wonky teeth, and bad skin, and terrible hair styles all mixed up with passion and skill and talent. It is exactly how it should be because it is what we all are in real life.

I never manage to catch all 20 plus episodes of this contest – I tend to find the early stages ware on me after a while – but I will catch what I can. It is not about getting recipes or natty little tips or finding out that “anyone can do this,” but its about seeing how truly difficult top level cooking is. About how much knowledge you need of techniques and the classics. About how hard the work is, how long the hours are and how much passion is needed to carry you through.

It is a great series with a good presenter team and well worth missing all the other celebrity festooned rubbish for.

MasterChef is on BBC2 and BBC iPlayer most weekday evenings for the next few weeks. 

Piles of breads
Piles of breads

On the twenty sixth of October, 2013, I served twenty nine people with, I hope, one of the nicest Indian lunches that they have had for sometime. The quantities were a bit mind bending: six chickens, a very large bag of peas, six cans of coconut milk, a large bag of red lentils, fifteen cups of basmatti rice, 6 large tins of tomatoes, a few kilos of fresh tomatoes, around 8 bulbs of garlic and a huge hand of ginger. And there was much more as well, like the eight kilos of bread dough and the wonderful cake created by my brother’s family.

I shopped for the ingredients on the Friday morning and started cooking at mid-day. By eight that night, I had cooked the main curries and made up various kits (like a bag of chopped onions, and the separate elements of the tarka dahl) ready for the Saturday. The following morning I made the bread dough, cooked the breads, packed everything up and headed to the hall by noon. There, with some much needed help from my brother, I reheated the curries, cooked the rice, made up the dahl, and we ate, on time, at two o’clock.

Twenty nine people stuffed to the gills with curry and one very happy mother. After all, it was her 90th!

So, what did I cook? Continue reading