Great British Chefs #GBCCookSchool with Adam Gray

Adam shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

Adam Gray shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

I’ve talked before about the general wonderfulness that is Great British Chefs, and I was again honoured and delighted to join them for one of their fabulous events. This time it was for a cook school – not dissimilar to when Pinterest kindly invited me along to learn from Tom Aikens – at the aptly named Cookery School in Little Portland Street, London.

This time the chef was Skylon’s own Adam Gray; some years back my then-boyfriend (now husband) took me to what was then Rhodes 24 – where Chef Gray was busy earning Michelin stars. It was one of my first grown up fine dining experiences and I still remember elements of that meal very fondly, so it was great to now be learning tips and tricks from a master of the trade who had already contributed to warm and fuzzy memories.

We kicked off with Adam and his sous chef Damon making a fish dish that essentially required making a spring roll out of very thinly rolled slices of bread wrapped around fillets of mackerel flavoured with a dash of English mustard. He took us from filleting the whole fish to plating up beautifully with rhubarb chutney and sea purslane. There’s an alternative, BLT-inspired version of this on the GBC website.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Next came the opportunity to get our hands on some beautiful ingredients and mix Ticklemore goats cheese with cream cheese to form a sort of sausage; this was double-dredged in panko breadcrumbs and fried; with the gorgeous, simple tomato salad that made up the rest of the dish it was absolutely delightful. Plus I can now say a Michelin-starred chef has made suggestive jokes while I attempt to get hands-on with a roll of cheese. #lifegoals.

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Dessert before…

Dessert was a fluffy flourless lemon, almond and polenta cake topped with a warmed strawberry jam sauce and served with vanilla-scented natural yogurt. Sugar-free or not, I did take a bite and it was beautifully light yet rich; I might just work out how to do a lower sugar version. There were so many we couldn’t actually finish them and I ended up bringing some home for the family who were very appreciative.

Learning from Adam was really a great privilege; as well as demonstrating dishes and checking on everyone’s progress, he held a little mackerel filleting masterclass and was very generous with his time and his knowledge. He’s very passionate about British ingredients – he only uses locally produced rapeseed oil, for example, and was specific about the British brands, such as Tiptree strawberry jam, he supported when using a ready-made product. He’s visited the sources and investigated the factories. Best of all, he’s realistic about what can be achieved at home, and recognises the role of budget in the average household; mackerel is a fairly cheap fish, and rapeseed oil is much more affordable than some olive oils (though, being Greek, you’ll pry my olive oil from my cold, dead hands, obvs).

The sticky aftermath.

The sticky aftermath.

The Cookery School is a lovely venue; for my pal Christina, it was essentially her home for the week as she’d been on a baking course for three days and plied me with amazing cheese straws and quiche while supplying macarons and sponge cake to the rest of the crew. It’s well-stocked and spotless and founder Rosalind is incredibly, rightly, proud of what she’s achieved.

Best of all, the people who come along to GBC events are always interesting. We’re a very mixed bag, all connected to food in different ways (other than, you know, eating it, that is). Everyone’s always so ready to get stuck in, help out and produce something beautiful; I leave every event with five new people to stalk online, which can never be a bad thing.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

If any of the recipes above sound as delicious to you as they should, you can find the cake under Adam Gray’s profile on the Great British Chefs website, plus a number of his other recipes, including a few other gluten-free options. It is all much more manageable than it might look (looks, I think, are half the problem; I’ll never manage presentation like that!) and the other lovely friend who accompanied me, Tiff, has already made the mackerel dish at home. My thanks again to Adam and the GBC team for another very enjoyable event, and for giving me the opportunity to again learn something new.

Edit: GBC has produced a guide including all the recipes which is right here! Handy.

Disclosure: If it’s not obvious, Great British Chefs invited me to the event.

Great British Chefs and #SMWFoodPhoto: Food photography, David Griffen & Marcus Wareing

Although I’ve never defined exactly what kind of blogger I am – parenting? Disney? Cat? – one of the things that has always been a big part of my writing is food. As a result I’ve been privileged to get to know some of the Great British Chefs team and community, and even blogged for them once or twice.

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During Social Media Week, the only thing that could rival the excitement of having been asked to speak in a panel myself was attending GBC’s free food photography workshop.

Not only would I get a chance to hear photography secrets and tips from the brilliant David Griffen – who is responsible for more than 50% of the imagery on the gorgeous GBC site – but I’d also get to go fangirl and be in the same room as a food hero, Marcus Wareing. The menu for the evening was to be provided by the team from his St. Pancras-based restaurant, The Gilbert Scott. As icing on the showstopping cake, it would be at Google’s London HQ, allowing me to tick off another square of my Social Media Bingo card (I need Twitter for the big-name hat trick).

photo 1So, what did I learn? Other than the fact that rabbit and prawn pie is not just a thing, but a very, very delicious thing and that gin and lavender cocktails are insanely gorgeous?

Well, how to take slightly better photos than that wobbly cocktail and popcorn one, for a start.

What I particularly loved about David’s presentation was that he focussed almost exclusively on photography with an iPhone or similarly app-happy smartphone. Since for the vast majority of those of us likely to whip out photographic equipment before eating this is going to be the most commonly used device, it was considerably more useful than fancy DSLR settings. It also focussed much more of the classic elements of photography, such as composition and lighting – because to be a better photographer you need an understanding of those much more than you need expensive kit.

David’s Top Tips

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Take photos where there is already good natural light. Unfortunately, for many of us this isn’t something we can control; David – quite justifiably – suggested doing your shooting at lunchtime, and simply enjoying your food at dinner time, but how often do you get to go to some great place more than once in order to do that? For many of us, we’re grabbing the opportunity to snap away for a one time only deal; but do try at least to remember the importance of the best lighting you can get.

Try some different apps. David recommend the (free) ProCamera, and it really is quite outstandingly awesome. My two favourite features are the ability to separate exposure and focus (so you can work with the best available light without compromising the composition you’ve chosen) and the rapid fire mode for action shots. The latter I’ve not yet applied to food – just to my daughter, dancing! – but I can see it working very well for cooking shots.

Try several layers of filters before you hit Instagram. I’ve recently become quite enamoured of VSCO Cam, and was pleased to see David rated it too. But his most valuable recommendation for me was Snapseed, a Google app I’d somehow missed entirely and which is absolutely brilliant for correcting brightness and white balance. His suggestion to use the Drama filter is one worth taking.

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There were many more points raised, but those were the ones that sank in, and that I’ve been trying to apply ever since. Not always successfully, I might add, but that is entirely my own fault.

Once David had imparted his hard-earned knowledge and Marcus had his say (more on this in a moment), we headed off into the canteen (left) to sample more delights and try out his tips, while the man himself darted around offering assistance generously.

The first subject to catch my eye for practice photography was this member of the TGS team, assembling the moreish oxtail sliders that were probably the most praised of the evening’s treats. On the right is one of the original photos (sadly I accidentally deleted the same one, but as it was taken within a few seconds, conditions were extremely similar). On the left, it’s been taken through Snapseed’s Drama filter, had the saturation tweaked and then been run through one of VSCO Cam’s more cinematic filters.

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Next I set my sights on the elegant rabbit and prawn pie; the softness of the rabbit, firm bite of the prawns and flaky gorgeousness of the pastry were all nearly enough to make me put down the damned phone and eat, but I managed to get a few shots in… of which this, again tarted up with Snapseed, was probably my best.

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As we all plunged into a shared bowl together, I was quite taken by the look of the plundered dish afterwards, and this time managed to save the original shot, the one after a VSCO Cam filter was applied and then the final one after it had been put through Snapseed (yes, Drama again).

A beautiful Dorset crab, spiced pear and cobnut salad followed, but sadly I wasn’t happy with a single shot I took of that. I focussed my efforts then – photographic and gastronomic – on the Snow Egg dessert.

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Having wanted to try this floating island-esque confection since reading about it when the restaurant opened, I was not remotely disappointed by it’s light yet substantial deliciousness. Though I still don’t feel I did it justice, lighting-wise.

And what of Mr. Wareing? Well, he’d admitted with frankness that in anyone less renowned for speaking his mind, would have seemed disarming, that the initial rise of food blogging had taken him by surprise and had scared him. At one point, cameras had been banned in the dining rooms, a move that he now concedes was completely wrong but at the time was meant to try and preserve the atmosphere of fine dining that to him is such an essential part of the experience.

He is not, he confesses, at all interested in street food trends or fun little side projects; he is in the business, first and foremost, of flavour, but also in providing the very best experience he can and constantly overseeing his profitable restaurants. For example, he found the canteen environment quite odd for serving the food his team were providing, because to him the restaurant setting and its menu are so inextricably linked. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to draw a Disney parallel in there somewhere, but honestly I think it’s apt; if Walt’s devil was in the detail, so is Marcus’s.

marcusWhat was really interesting was how much he was willing to answer and be completely honest about – and he asked questions too, so that at one point I found myself explaining about professional bloggers and blogger outreach (I’m amused to find this made it into GBC’s own account of the evening!).

I left on an absolute high, calling my husband from the street and babbling at him so inanely I’m sure he thought I hadn’t had just one cocktail. But this was the very essence of what such an event should be: fun, educational, memorable and interesting. Hats off and many thanks, as ever, to the fantastic Mecca and the GBC team.

Cooking with rhubarb and small children

Since my headline is anything but, I’d like to make it absolutely clear I didn’t cook Ramona. The idea is occasionally tempting.

So, for the full explanation of our adventures in growing rhubarb, and a great recipe for stuffing apples with rhubarb, see Great British Chefs. Because, yes, I’ve been lucky enough to get another post featured and I am One. Happy. Woman. With any luck – and if I can pull my finger out – this will be a slightly more regular occurrence. I’m feeling sufficiently buoyed by my unusually positive experience with an almost-three-year-old in the kitchen that I might let down my guard further and attempt something a bit more complicated.

It might also involve rhubarb, because I’m getting a little wee bit obsessed with it. Every time a tiny shoot of it gets large enough to munch on, I rip it up, slice it fairly thinly and simmer it in a small puddle of melted butter with a sprinkling of sugar so that it becomes a soft, eye-wateringly tart and delicious compote for porridge or yogurt – and even, one morning, a toast topping. Sadly, I can’t much get Ramona involved in this process – knives! hobs! hot butter! – though I did use the magic of Sam I Am to get her to try the resulting gloop after she announced without tasting it that she didn’t like it. She then stole the remainder in my bowl and snaffled it happily.

As an aside: she’s actually not at all a fussy eater – her key list of dislikes at the moment amounts to peanut butter and bell peppers, and even then she’d eat the latter if they were cooked and concealed. Not exactly things she can’t live without, anyway; we get no-sugar-added peanut butter, but it still has plenty of unnecessary salt.

My challenge now is how to eat more rhubarb without eating more sugar. I already eat far too much and am looking to make some reductions; nothing terrifying, just making sure most of the sugar I eat comes from vegetables and fruit, rather than being added, and that I reduce the amount of baked goods I eat in general, including bread.

So how is unsweetened rhubarb to be eaten, short of wincing and gulping until my battered taste buds learn to cope (that’s an option)? In a fit of attempted common-sense thinking, I loaded up the fruit bowl with apples, on the basis that perhaps mixing the ‘barb with sweeter fruit would increase the fructose content overall and balance out the tartness. Perhaps a few berries in there as well?

And what about potentially including it in savoury food? Or is that too Masterchef? All suggestions welcome.

When we moved in, back in September, there was still loads of rhubarb growing, so I’m hoping we’re going to get the Doctor Who of rapidly regenerating crops here. There are at least four crowns of it growing away, and one even survived my ill-conceived (and, it must be said, ill-intentioned) butchery in those days before I actually tried eating it and discovered its awesomeness. It’s possible Green Eggs and Ham has struck a chord with more than one Goldstein.

And to finish this vague ramble about what I reckon could be the most divisive vegetable since Brussels sprouts, some photos I didn’t use for GBC. Outtakes, if you will. No, I can’t explain the random heap of aubergines in the background, and yes, I would normally use actual butter but we’d run out.

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New Year’s Food Resolutions

Looking back, it feels like most of what I’ve written about in the last year has been food. There are many reasons for that: for one, now that I write a monthly piece for Bea, as well as occasional pieces for BitchBuzz and The F Word, I feel like I get all my parent-blogging done elsewhere (and yes, I really should link back more often). And frankly, even that is being overtaken by food! For another, I have my own kitchen again and have really enjoyed experimenting; plus I got to blog for Great British Chefs and I’m a horrendous food TV addict.

A family friend recently sent me a link to Will Self’s radio item and article, The British Vomitorium, which enthusiastically lays into everything that I’ve become when it comes to food. While he makes some horrifyingly good observations towards the end about a state where some people in this country – this rich, developed country – are struggling to find any food to eat at all, I find the whole a little over-egged. (Sorry). In any case, I think the answer is not to stop appreciating or playing with food, but actually to pay more attention – and better – to all our food: to access to it, to the freshness of it, to the manipulation of ingredients that confuse and abuse our senses. Sure, roll your eyes at molecular gastronomy by all means – something of the ‘modern art’ of cooking, anyway, bound to enthrall, confuse and repulse in equal measure – and revolt at ludicrously indulgent and embarrassingly expensive, exclusive creations. But, at the risk of sounding like an apostle of the church of St. Jamie, a little bit of attention in the right place is far from being a distraction from social issues; in fact, it shines a spotlight on them.

That said, I have some food resolutions for the New Year. I’ve decided to avoid the nebulous, and try and give myself some small, specific goals. I feel like I owe the food I eat a little bit more respect, somehow, and these aim to remind me of this as well as increasing the household’s general health and keeping us within budget.

1. Meat-Free Days (or Weeks?)

The meat-free Monday is nothing new, and I do want to try and make our staple food vegetarian for at least one day a week – preferably a few days. There are several reasons, including budget (I think I’m finally at the point where I’d rather splurge on one really nice piece of something I don’t get to eat very often at all, like venison, than spend loads on endless bleedin’ chickens) and digestion (ever noticed how long it takes to get over a roast?). This might mean plumping for a bigger veg box, but I think that would still be cheaper than getting lots of meat. Anyway, I still have quite a bit in the freezer to use up.

2. Something Fishy

I’m actually not a fish bore by nature; frankly, I think cod is entirely underwhelming, though I am really fond of salmon and mackerel. Plus I’m obsessed with seafood. But for our non-veggie days, I’d really like to explore some less common types. I’d love to say it’s because I’m a Hugh Footely-Pootely fish warrior, or whatever, but – while waste makes me cross and I’m obviously not against sustainability – my main motivation is just keeping things interesting.

3. Gardener’s World

I have a back garden now. It has a vegetable patch already in place. It would be silly not to get it sorted and grow some of our own staples so we don’t have to buy them. Top of my list are rosemary, coriander and garlic, and I’d like to have a go at courgettes and maybe potatoes as well. Ooh, and have a stab at strawberries. I am no gardener, so I’m going to have to do a lot of research here, and try not to screw things up – idiot-proof resource recommendations welcome.

And that’s it. There are many, many more I could add, but I’d like to keep to those three so that I have a hope in hell of sticking to them. Hell, I might even blog about doing so, if you’re really lucky.

Finally, I want to mention some food-related charities for those interested in spreading the food goodwill beyond their own kitchens; I’ve focussed on the UK here for simplicity’s sake, but, sadly, I’m sure you can search and find many for any country in the world.

The first, Magic Breakfast, is a personal favourite. The team works in partnership with the food industry to ensure that children in schools where 50% or more of the pupils are eligible for free school meals get access to a fresh, filling breakfast every day. Something as simple as a bagel and orange juice can make all the difference between a hungry, distracted and tired child, and one that is ready to learn.

FareShare works in the UK to tackle and relieve food poverty and reduce food waste.

The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity which splits it focus between projects in Bulgaria and setting up UK food banks. Demand for their assistance has doubled in this country in the last year, and continues to rise.

FoodCycle takes surplus food and adds volunteers and free kitchen space to create nutritious meals for people in food poverty.

Great British Chefs: Summertime, Action Against Hunger and Blogging!

I’m really very excited, as my very first post for Great British Chefs has appeared on their blog today! Being me, I managed to combine social media and food in a post, asking about the future of food programming and the role of platforms like Twitter in developing the competition and campaigning side of things.

I consider myself extremely privileged to have now appeared on four sites I regularly enjoy reading (BitchBuzz, Bea Magazine, The F Word and now GBC), talking about all my favourite things.

And speaking of GBC, campaigning and privilege, have you downloaded the new Summertime app yet? You should, because it’s ace.  One of the things I really love about GBC apps is the emphasis on really beautiful design; I don’t think I’ve ever actually made anything from Feastive which is not a failing of the app’s, but entirely my own; still, I could look at it all day. Plus I think I’ve mentioned before – about four million times – what a Wareing fangirl I am, and his recipes appear on both. But what’s really special about Summertime, apart from its current relevance, is that it was developed in partnership with Ocado which has allowed GBC to donate all the proceeds to Action Against Hunger. It’s priced at £1.99, of which at least £1.20 goes to the charity. Just £36 can provide a month’s supply of therapeutic nutritional products (such as Plumpy’nut, for example) to nurse a severely malnourished child back to health. That’s maybe thirty app downloads – and of course there’s nothing stopping you heading to their website to donate too.

Food! Technology! Non-profits! Blogging! It’s a Christmassy day in August. And now I’m off to write a review of Brave for BitchBuzz, which means two more of my very favourite things in the world: reviews and Disney.

Bloody hell, I’m a lucky woman.

2012: The Year of Eating Beautifully

I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions. I used to make them (nickle-dime stuff like not biting my nails or largely uncontrollable stuff like getting people to love me), but not really believe I was going to stick to them because a) no-one does and b) if I cared that much about doing those things I’d just Do Them and not Resolve To Do Them.

So really what I’ve found is that rather than starting the year with a resolution, I might happen to finish a year with a move forward into something new and interesting that has just developed through being alive, and busy and interested. Last year it was running, and that was great until it stopped happening (I don’t want to talk about it). These past few months, I’ve developed a new obsession: food.

Now, obviously, I’ve always eaten plenty. I’ve even appreciated the difference between good and bad food, though clearly not enough to stop eating the bad food. And when I say ‘bad’ food, I don’t mean ‘bad for you’ (I don’t give food a moral status if I can avoid it; as Crowded House remind us, everything is good for you, if it doesn’t kill you), I mean actually bad: bad-tasting, badly-cooked, bad-looking and just plain bad.

I reckon I’ve had enough of eating bad food. A combination of reading Health at Every Size (and everyone should), cyber-stalking Great British Chefs, obsessing about MasterChef and a bit of hypnotherapy has had me, for the first time, actually paying attention to what I eat. I still eat hunched over a book, or in front of the television, or quickly before Ramona wakes up and tries to run off with my plate, but I simply don’t eat anything I don’t enjoy, or that I’ve already had enough of – when I’m concentrating enough to realise that.

Weirdly, I’m finding I’m enjoying things I thought I hated. After years of waxing furious about my hatred of meat and fruit eaten together, I found myself heaping chicken with cranberry sauce, until Ash asked who I was and where his wife had gone. I braised red cabbage (not very well, actually, but that’s cos I was impatient and tired). I created salads with chicory and freaking-delicious-made-up-as-I-went-along blue cheese dressing. I started saying things like “we’ve had enough rich food this week, let’s have something else”. Tonight I turned down one of my favourite fast foods, pizza, because I didn’t feel like it, and made strapatsada instead. You probably have to had had a similarly disordered and dysfunctional relationship with food to understand why that’s remarkable.

In the last month of 2011, I also had three of the best meals I’ve ever had. And now, a bit in the manner of my Dad who likes to itemise everything he’s ever eaten, I’m going to tell you about them. Come back another time if you’re looking for recipes. There are no photos of the restaurant meals because there are times when whipping out an iPhone and snapping away just isn’t right.

Best Meal Ever: Private Dining at Marcus Wareing @ The Berkeley

I have to admit, this one was purely jammy (pardon the food pun). Ash and I stood in for another person  who couldn’t attend, and enjoyed Dinner Menu D. Enjoyed it until we felt like exploding with the sheer delight of it. The wine-matching over the three hour meal was also lovely, as was the Aussie sommelier, who patiently responded to Ash’s questions about MasterChef and described her former boss, Matt Moran, as extremely good to her and strict only in the way that he had to be. Which was nice.

I won’t describe each course because I’ll end up sounding like a pretentious tool, but also because the three most charming things we had aren’t specified on the listed menu. The first was an amuse bouche of almost piping hot Jerusalem artichoke soup topped with a gorgeous cold sunflower cream and sunflower seeds. The second was a pre-dessert of the most beautiful, light white chocolate sorbet with frozen redcurrants. The last was an extremely clever non-dairy chocolate ganache slab.

And that doesn’t even touch on the deliciousness of milk ice cream, devoid of any sickly aftertaste and with a clean, pure, nostalgia-inducing taste.

Oh, okay, I sound like a pretentious tool anyway. But one that’s had a seriously good, bucket-list type meal.

Best Meal I’ve Cooked: Christmas Roast Beef

Here’s where I crow a little, but seriously. I cooked Christmas lunch for the first time in 2010, stepping into the breach to rescue a flu-ridden Mum from the stovetop. It was good, but I didn’t feel like I’d really got the roast beef just right.

This year I planned to take the helm, and I got the roast beef 98% Just. Sodding. Right. (I dock 2% from myself for not browning it better before roasting, cos it was still a little tiny bit browner around the edges than I’d like and for not cutting it thinly enough). But it’s still really good.  Don’t take my word for it; look at it.

(The photo at the top includes my mother’s outstanding chicken liver, mince, chestnut and pine nut stuffing, which I admit looks like cat food but tastes like heaven. There are also goose fat roast potatoes. And there weren’t just peas, it’s just that at that point people stopped taking damn photographs and ate.)

Best Romantic Meal Since Ramona Was Born: The Cinnamon Club

Okay, that’s a dodgy title. But it’s not the best romantic meal ever (our first anniversary at Asia de Cuba nabs that). Still, it was a really lovely meal, and what was wonderful was actively craving a mainly veggie meal and knowing that I was in good hands – if you can’t get a good vegetarian meal from an Indian restaurant something’s gone badly wrong.

Mainly veggie except for the astoundingly kick-ass masala chicken livers which I just had to finish all on my own because Ash doesn’t do liver. The gorgeous crusty mushrooms, the fulsome cauliflower parcel, the amazing Jerusalem artichoke and red onion side, and – also not veggie – the perfectly cooked sea bass bites I cadged from Ash… well, they were all delightful. Also, you’ve got to love eating in a converted library.

And yes, since you’re not asking, I paid.

So there it is; not my New Year’s resolution, but my New Year’s adventure. To cook food. To enjoy food. To obsess about it, for the first time in my life, the right way.