Tuesday, 19 June 2012


I’m not from around these parts. I’m not a royalist and; at best, I find the class divide of my adopted home rather bemusing, dahling. What I can say for certain is that anyone who has dedicated sixty years of their life to something deserves a bit of a party. If that someone happens to be the monarch of the United Kingdom, countless other Commonwealth realms and Supreme Governor of the Church of England...well, it’s definitely time for top shelf bubbly. Toss in an Olympics and Wimbledon, wrap it all up in reams of pomp and circumstance bunting and you’ve got the making of a cracking British summer. Even that coquettish tease the sun, won’t be putting a dampener on these proceedings.
1953. Tea, sugar and eggs had only just come off rationing, with meat and cheese still regulated until ‘54. Culinary speaking, the UK was largely a no go zone. Food was often scarce and was considered sustenance, period. It is no secret that a nation’s wealth can be judged by the number and occupancy of its decent restaurants and this was not a time for chef frippery. Yet, classic pairings and simple dishes remain throughout all ages. So, let’s cast a jaundiced eye back to the British table of the early 1950’s and see what can be reworked into something fit for a Queen and palatable to the post Master Chef golden age.

Chilled Cucumber Soup with Gin Jelly
Serves 6

Often chilled cucumber soups are watery graves based more upon a gazpacho technique but lacking any punch. This velvety cooked soup served chilled holds its own incorporating two of Britain’s most famous ingredients.

2 cucumbers, sliced and de-seeded
½ cucumber peeled into ribbons with a potato peeler
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil
1 onion, diced
1ltr vegetable stock
150ml double cream
2tbsp wild garlic leaves
1tbsp chives
1tbsp chervil
2 gelatine leaves
150ml gin
mint leaves and edible flowers

1) Heat the oil and add the cucumber and onions. Cook until slightly softened, then add the stock. Cook for two minutes then liquidise with the cream and herbs. Taste, season and chill.
2) Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes until soft. Warm the gin over a low heat without boiling it and add the gelatine leaves. Stir until dissolved but do not let the mixture boil. Let cool to room temperature.

Coronation Chicken
Serves 6

Well, I couldn’t exactly leave this one out could I?
Coronation chicken can be a lovely dish if attended to with a bit of care. Don’t crucify the chicken during the cooking process, don’t cram it between boring sliced bread, season well and just enough mayo to bind.

4 Good sized chicken breasts
Quality mayonnaise
Creme fraiche
Mild curry powder or paste
½tsp Turmeric
2tbsp Reconstituted sultanas
2 tbsp Toasted flaked almonds
½ Green mango
2tbsp Freshly chopped coriander
Juice of one lime
½ stick finely diced celery
12 cooked asparagus spears

1) Poach the chicken in stock or water until just cooked 8-10 minutes. Cool and slice into good size chunks. Place in a large bowl.
2) Combine with the desired amount of mayonnaise and creme fraiche. Equal parts. Stir in well the curry powder to taste and the turmeric for colour. Add the celery, lime juice and coriander. Season to taste.
3) Heap a pile of watercress on each plate with two asparagus spears. Pile on the chicken and top with the flaked almonds, sultanas and peeled shavings of mango.
4) Serve with toasted pitas or grilled flat bread.

Spam Fritters & Mushy Peas
Serves 6

Right, I’m using a bit of poetic license here with the description. In the restaurant I will fore go the spam for our own ham hock terrine and of course, true mushy peas are yellow-grey of the marrow fat variety. Whenever you get bright green mushy peas with your fish n’ chips, that’s called E102/E133 colourants. Better to be traditional or go for actual petit pois.
And what do I think of actual spam? There is no denying it has a moreish flavour albeit over salted and cloyingly fatty. It reminds me of my Dad. A go to dish whenever Mom was out.

12 slices of spam (feels quite weird to write that!)
2 beaten eggs
Flour to dust
Panko or fine dry white bread crumbs
400gm petit pois
Small handful of mint leaves
200ml Vegetable stock
Sunflower oil for frying

1) Lightly flour, egg wash and breadcrumb the spam slices. Refrigerate.
2) Liquidise the peas with hot stock, the mint and seasoning. Adjust the consistency with more stock if needed. You want a thick mixture, ripe for dolloping.
3) Heat a large fry pan and add a few tbsp of sunflower oil. Fry the fritters until golden.
4) Divide the mushy peas on dinner plates, and top with the fritters. Garnish with sliced gherkins.

Avocado and Orange Cocktail
Serves 6

Apparently all the rage at the time and a good excuse to go camp as a row of tents.
Avocados are such a silky, subtle foil to all things acidic. This really does taste lovely.

3 Ripe, yet firm avocados, peeled into shavings just before serving
8 Oranges, half segmented, half sliced into rounds
1 Ruby grapefruit, segmented
200gm Marie rose sauce
Picked chervil leaves
Edible flowers (optional)
150ml Orange juice
150ml Cointreau
4 gelatine leaves

1) Make the jelly with the orange juice and Cointreau following the same principle as the gin jellies with the cucumber soup. Divide the orange segments between six martini glasses and top up to equal levels with the jelly mix. Refrigerate.
2) Arrange the orange slices along the rim of the glasses, interspersed with the grapefruit segments.
3) A great dollop of marie rose sauce topped with all the avocado shavings. Artfully dot with flower petals and chervil leaves.

Pimm’s Jelly

I’d hazard a guess that this summer will see record breaking consumption of the classic fruit cup. What could be more festive, more apt for the moment than an elegant and fresh Pimm’s cocktail.  Go upmarket and substitute the usual lemonade for bubbly and you have a ‘Pimm’s Royal Cup’.
Just about any decent charity shop will throw up a classic old Victorian jelly mould. The bigger the better for a bit of theatre. Work on these principles:
-Approx 300ml liquid to 4 leaves of gelatine
-Make the jelly mix to your taste. How boozy/sweet do you want it? Adjust it to you and your guests’ palates.
-Jellies should be wobbly. Fear not, they will take an awful lot of side to side without breaking.
-Build the innards of the jelly uniformly against the edge of the mould for a showy aspect. The classic ingredients are- cucumber, strawberry, mint, orange, lemon and apple. Top with borage flowers for complete authenticity and serve with ice cold pouring cream or clotted cream.
-When warming a tipping a large jelly...a quiet prayer usually helps.

My personal Jubilee celebrations highlight.
Grace Jones at 64

An edited version of this piece was published in Devon Life Magazine, June 2012.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Spears of Aspiration

True lovers of food; whether they be cooks, chefs or rapturous eaters often blur the line between stomach and loins.  A sublime morsel can be a tickle to make one swoon; a great meal, foreplay.  If aphrodisiacs do indeed exist, the lofty asparagus spear is a true royal with its delicate points d’amour.  Elegant, dainty, short-lived and of a hue that evokes fertility, freshness and surely jealousy from lowlier vegetables, asparagus is king right down to its rooty crown.
Like many a splendored thing gone squandered, asparagus is subjected to much abuse.  Let’s run through some rules of respect and points of interest.

1) A foreign spear is not so dear
-No point. Delight in the British asparagus season that runs from April-June. Asparagus should be a treat gorged upon for these three fleeting months.  The key to proper product is the short time from picked to plate.  Look for moistness at the cut, tight buds and a firm stalk.  The sugars quickly turn to flavourless starch when left to sit.  Hypermarket asparagus from Peru or Thailand in December is a cardinal sin.  White asparagus is indeed amazing, but only when at source.  Otherwise an overpriced delicacy travelled too far.

2) A kept woman
-If you acquire some recently picked spears but aren’t able to cook them straight away, the best manner in which to protect is to carefully snip that oft too tight rubber band, stand them in a glass or container with an inch of water and then refrigerate.  Don’t pack them too tightly together and always mind those delicate tips.

3) To peel or not to peel
-A matter of finesse.  Does peeling asparagus make it taste better? Arguably, but then you are losing some of the texture contrast.  Does it make the asparagus more attractive?  Well, we’re talking about the difference between fishnets and ultra sheer.  It’s all in the eye of the beholder.  I would say; peel thick, au naturale for thin.  On the subject of asparagus trimming, I was always told, ‘The more expensive the restaurant, the closer to the tip the asparagus is snipped’.  As long as all those off-cuts are saved for a nice soup, it matters not a whit.

4) The cooking

-Not a lot and very quickly, or not at all.  Find the subtle, yet natural breaking point, snap and trim straight.  Discard the woody bits as they aren’t really fit for anything bar a possible addition to vegetable stock.  In a perfect world you would then boil in a special asparagus steam/boiler that blanches upright whilst saving the delicate tips from actually being submerged in the water.  Us peasants can make do by boiling a large amount of heavily salted water and blanching them for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness.  Or steaming a little longer.  Serve immediately or refresh in ice water for later warming or grilling.  Raw asparagus can be lovely when sliced ultra thin and married with an acidic emulsion.

5) The pairing
-Well, what doesn’t go with asparagus? A subtle flavour that lifts, augments and adds a touch of class.  Seasonality dictates lightness but the options are endless. Born for butter, quality oils, hollandaise, Parmesan, mayonnaise, mustard dressings, cured ham, crab, eggs, pickled in a Bloody Mary etc. etc. I love Hugh’s idea of using them as soldiers for a butter enriched soft boiled egg.  Add a few drops of truffle oil and phwoar...

Here we have a few very simple staples with one of my signature dishes.  A bit involved but well worth the effort and shouting spring/early summer with every step.

Lamb Sweetbreads, Asparagus, Wild Garlic Gnocchi & Morels

Ingredients for 4:

4-500gm Lamb sweetbreads
Milk to cover
1 Bay leaf
2tbsp Water
2tbsp Unsalted butter
5tbsp All purpose flour
1tsp Dijon mustard
1-2tbsp Finely chopped wild garlic
3tbsp Grated gruyere
1 Large egg
12 Medium size morels
8 Asparagus spears
Butter for basting
Lemon juice
Sunflower oil
Flour to dust


1)   Soak the sweetbreads overnight in a container of cold water.
2)   Drain and place in a saucepan with the bay leaf and cover with milk.  
3)   Bring the saucepan to a boil and simmer gently for five minutes.
4)   Drain and immediately plunge into ice water until completely cooled.
5)   Peel off the membrane and fat from the sweetbreads and lay out on a plate covered with cling film.
6)   Press under a heavy weight, for a couple hours.  Refrigerate.
7)   Set up a mixer with the paddle attachment.
8)   Combine the water, butter and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan and bring to simmer.
9)   Reduce the heat, add all the flour at once and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan.  The dough should be glossy, smooth and moist but not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
10) Continue to stir for about five minutes, keeping the heat low to avoid colouring.  When enough moisture has evaporated, steam will rise from the dough.
11) Immediately transfer the dough to the mixing bowl.
12) Add the mustard, wild garlic and a couple pinches of salt.
13) Mix for a few seconds to incorporate the ingredients, then add the cheese.
14) With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the egg and beat until fully incorporated.
15) Place the dough in a piping bag and let it rest for 30 minutes.
16) Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and keep at a simmer.
17) With one hand, evenly and slowly squeeze out 2cm nuggets of the gnocchi whilst slicing them off with a small knife into the simmering water with the other.  This task should be done rapidly so that the gnocchi all cook at relatively the same time.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, then plunge into ice water.  You should get 40 gnocchi.
18) Drain and reserve.
19) Season and dust the sweetbreads with a little flour.  Fry on a high heat in a little sunflower oil, basting with a knob of frothing butter until browned. Add the gnocchi and morels and toss, toss until browned and cooked, adding more butter and seasoning if needed.
20) Simultaneously in a large saucepan of salted boiling water, blanch the asparagus for 3-4 minutes depending on thickness.
21) Scalding your fingers, rough cut the asparagus and add to the sweetbreads pan.  Crank up the heat and drizzle a little lemon juice as the butter yearns to burn.  A quick beurre noisette.

To serve:
Arrange the sweetbreads, gnocchi, asparagus and morels divided amongst four plates. Top with spoonfuls of hot beurre noisette and a few choice leaves of watercress or chickweed if handy.  A glass of prosecco would not go amiss with such a luxurious dish.  Some finesse required but a rustic presentation devoid of pretension.

“...asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."
-Marcel Proust

An edited version of this article appeared in Devon Life Magazine, May 2012