Wednesday, 25 March 2009


I recently went for lunch to an Argentinian restaurant with my son. The restaurant is one of a chain called Gaucho and the particular branch has an amazing view of London's Tower Bridge.

Steak is clearly the mainstay of the menu at Gaucho and very excellent it is too. The waiter brings you a wooden board with all of the various cuts of steak on offer and then you choose your cut, the weight you want and how you would like it cooked - as simple as that. I usually just head straight into the main course when I go to Gaucho as the steaks are so huge. However, my son (whose middle name should be A la Carte) looked aghast when I suggested this route and so we settled on a selection of empanadas to set us on our way.

The empanadas were filled with cheese and ham, beef or corn. We had some of each and, in particular, the corn ones were unexpectedly delicious with lovely chewy pieces of corn in a rich sauce. They were served with a tomato sauce on the side.

The very next day on my way in to work I was reading the free London paper "The Metro" and I came across an article on Argentinian food which included, to my delight, the following recipe for the Gaucho Grill's empanadas (makes 10) :


450g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
70g butter
50g vegetable shortening
pinch of salt

Rub the butter and shortening into the salt, flour and baking powder. Then sprinkle water in slowly and mix with your hands until the dough forms a ball. Rest for 30 mins and then roll out fairly thinly and cut out 10cm rounds.


50ml corn oil
50g diced shallots
1 chopped garlic clove
50g corn off the cob
100g tinned corn
100g mozzarella diced
50g cream cheese
50g diced red pepper
1/2 bunch of chopped chives
Salt and pepper
1 egg yolk for glazing.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the shallots and garlic. Sauté gently for 5 minutes then add the two kinds of corn and sauté for a further 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the two cheeses, peppers and chives to the pan, then mix well and season.

Place a dessert spoon of the filling in the centre of each pastry disc then wet the edges of the disc and fold it over to make a small pasty shape, pinching the edges closed. Brush the empanadas with the egg yolk and place on a non stick baking tray in an oven at 175 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes until they are golden. Serve them hot with the sauce.


Peel and grate five plum tomatoes and mix with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

If anybody has any other favourite fillings that are good in these little golden parcels it would be great to hear from you.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Chip Off The Old Block - Not!

I know I resolved to cook meat at the end of my last post but the Whitstable Mackerel from a few posts back have been burning a hole in my pocket (metaphorically of course as they have literally been frozen solid in the freezer). So, on Saturday I decided to cook two of them and very delicous (and huge) they turned out to be.

I defrosted the fish and then made some deep incisions into the flesh and marinated them for a while with a mixture of fresh herbs and lemon juice. Then I baked them in a fairly hot oven for 25 minutes wrapped loosely in foil parcels which I opened for the last 5 minutes of the cooking time.

Mackerel being an oily fish, I decided to serve it with a fennel and blood orange salad (nothing more than finely sliced fennel and segments of blood orange with a little olive oil, blood orange juice, salt and pepper as a dressing). The aniseedy sharpness of the salad worked very well with the fish.

To accompany the fish and the salad I wanted to make some fat chips. Now, I have to confess that I cannot remember the last time that I tried to deep fry food - that kind of thing is reserved very much for treats whilst eating out. I, therefore, had absolutely no idea how to cook a fat chip.

This is doubly shocking when I think back to the omnipresent chip pan that was a major part of my childhood and adolescence. It would be kept ready charged in the pantry with its milky contents of solidified lard (no poncey vegetable oil for us hardy Valleys folk) and would be brought into use at least two or three times per week. I have happy memories of chips being cooked by my mother on Summer evenings and then handed out to me and my friends (who would inevitably be playing on the street somewhere nearby) wrapped in newspaper and liberally sprinkled with biting salt and stinging vinegar to create the authentic chip shop experience (at presumably a fraction of the price).

Notwithstanding this impeccable pedigree on the chip front, I have lapsed I regret to say. These days I take my (well diluted) chippy pleasure at home from oven chips or microwave chips. In relation to this last category I limit myself to the thin chips that come individually packaged in a little grid within a box. My standards have not slipped so low as to countenance the microchips that come in a box with a lid you have to leave ajar whilst a series of microwave blasts, interspersed with frantic shaking of the box, result in a soggy pallid excuse for a chip.

I was not therefore wildly optimistic about my fat chip experiment. This pessimism was well founded I regret to say. I opted for the twice cooked method (which I assumed would give me the crispy, crunchy exterior and fluffy interior of a good, home cooked chip). I peeled the potaoes and cut the chips, which I then let soak for 10 minutes or so in cold water. I then drained the chips and heated about 3" of vegetable oil to 170 degrees and cooked the chips for 10 minutes or so. Then I drained them and let them cool. When the fish and salad were ready I put the (now cold) chips back into very hot oil (200 degrees) for about another 3 minutes. They browned very quickly and my hopes were high! The end result, whilst being cooked and looking not too bad, had nothing of the crispy exterior to it that is the hallmark of a fine chip.

If anybody out there can spot my (no doubt obvious) error in preparing and cooking these chips I would be grateful to hear from you because, if I am going to the trouble of cooking real chips (with the resultant cost in terms of calories and fat intake), they need to be perfect. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Spicy Ricey Herby Prawny Thingy

When clearing out my freezer recently I came across a sorry looking plastic bag containing about 6 medium sized peeled raw prawns. They were hardly medium sized enough to constitute a single portion on their own so I decided to make them into a starter for two people.

A further root around in the fridge and storecupboard came up with a bunch of fresh herbs, a tomato, some basmati rice and some chilli infused olive oil (part of a hamper from Carluccios that I received as a Christmas present a few years back(!) as I recall).

I cooked the rice in my customary way (twice the volume of water to rice, a little salt, bring to the boil then reduce to the lowest heat for 15 minutes with the lid on). Whilst the rice was cooking I chopped each of the defrosted raw prawns into about 5 pieces then quickly stir fried them in a combination of the chilli oil and sunflower oil. To this I added a very generous amount of finely chopped mint and coriander and the cooked rice and continued to fry for a couple of minutes. Tasting it showed that the chilli oil had lost little, if any, of its kick and so I made a tomato and basil salad to sit it on. The cool tomatoes worked really well with the spicy rice and prawns.

I think I need to go searching in the furthest reaches of my freezer more often, although it does occur to me that this dish bears more than a passing resemblance to an inverted version of the post stomach bug cod loin dish in an earlier post. Note to self: cook some meat!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Cherry and Almond Pudding

In the wake of the stomach bug referred to in an earlier post, I found that my fridge was more or less completely empty (if you don't count beer) on Saturday. So, as my son was spending the afternoon with me, we called into a local independent supermarket on the way home to pick up a few supplies. As I was perusing the shelves my eye was caught by a tin of Epicure stoned black cherries in syrup. I don't know what it is about Epicure, but their products and packaging put me in mind of food from the Fifties. Needless to say, the tin found its way into my shopping basket even though, at the time, I had no firm idea to what use I would put the cherries. It is not just cookbooks and kitchen equipment to which I am addicted - I am also something of a storecupboard food hoarder.

Once back home I had a quick flick through some cookbooks and happened upon a recipe in a Delia Smith book (and there is a whiff of the Fifties about Delia too in my opinion) for an Almond and Apple pudding. Almonds and Cherries being a fine combination too as far as I am concerned, I decided to adapt the pudding to incorporate the cherries. I drained them of their syrup and then let them sit for 30 minutes or so in a little kirsch.

Whilst they were drinking up the kirsch I made the almond sponge by creaming 4oz of softened butter with 4oz of caster sugar. To this I gradually added 2 large beaten eggs and finally folded in 4oz of ground almonds. I then put about a third of the sponge mixture in an ovenproof pudding bowl. On top of this I put the cherries (with a little sugar and lemon juice) and then the remaining pudding mix. Is it just me or do other people also think that uncoooked pudding or cake mix tastes even better than the cooked pudding/cake?.

Delia states that you then put the pudding into a preheated fan oven at 180 degrees for exactly one hour (she can be quite masterful at times!). However, being the brave, rebellious type (and having tried a similar pudding before) I reduced the temperature to 140 degrees and it was fine.

The resulting pudding, which I served with double cream, was delicious and the kirsch somehow seemed to bring out the egginess of the pudding mix. However, for me, it fell someway short of the sublime combination of almond sponge and tart damsons which truly is, in my book, a combination made in heaven.

Monday, 9 March 2009

I'm just an occasional user

My name is Tony and I am an addict - there, it is out!

According to the AA (and I don't mean the Automobile Association) website the first step to recovery from addiction is:

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (for me read all things foody) - that our lives had become unmanageable".

I am struggling a little with the "unmanageable" bit, but if I could substitute bloody expensive I pretty much fit the bill for Step 1.

This realisation dawned upon me after my recent visit to Leiths School of Food and Wine. I have to confess that this was not the first time I had visited such an establishment, but up until now I was very happy to characterise myself as an occasional user. OK, I did go overboard a bit when I did the week long course in Tuscany (get over it - it was a holiday!) but, apart from the odd occasional lapse since then, such as a Borough Market Saturday cooking course at the Enrica Rocca school , I have left the Class A stuff pedalled by the cookery schools to those that were powerless to resist them and kept myself happy with the more socially acceptable addiction to cookery books and cooking implements. You know the kind of thing - innocuous looking brown parcels from delivered to the office and the occasional furtive visit to the kind of places that social users like me call into for a fix when they have told everybody they are off to town to get their hair cut. I am not proud to admit that my kitchen is littered with the paraphernalia of this clandestine world.

However, after the knife skills lesson, I have found myself unable to stop thinking about the sordid delights that these pushers of cooking skills offer those people not strong enough to resist them. The pull of these dealers in culinary knowledge is almost overwhelming. Indeed, I am not sure that Leiths alone will now be able to satisfy the cravings that have surfaced. I am ashamed to admit that I found myself looking at really hardcore stuff on the website of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons cookery school when nobody was around at work recently. So far I have succeeded in remaining just a voyeur of these top end dealers' seductive blandishments (I hope the Government moves swiftly to nip them in the bud before we end up with the Pru Leith World Darts Tournament or Cordon Bleu McClaren F1 teams) but am not sure that I will be able to resist for much longer. The re-runs of Masterchef are just not hitting the spot any longer.

There is a day long course on sauces coming up at Leiths soon - I might just go to that one and then stop - what harm can that do?

Stomach Bugs and Knife Skills

Well, as they say, the best laid plans......

Following on from my Borough Market trip, my plans for kedgeree (and indeed anything else of an edible nature) were put on hold for over a week by the onset of the stomach bug from hell. I awoke on Monday morning (after a friend's birthday lunch party on Sunday) feeling decidedly dodgy. I initially put this down to a certain level of over consumption on the Bouillabaisse (delicious!) front or, more realistically, the red, white and pudding wine fronts at lunch on Sunday. However, over the coming hours and days, I realised it clearly had nothing to do with any of that and was indeed a virus or bug of some kind. The end result, when coupled with possibly my busiest week of the year at work, was a week when, for once, food did not appear anywhere near the top of my priorities.

By the following Monday I was beginning to feel a little more human again and on the Tuesday I had a morning off work to attend a knife skills course, at Leiths School of Food and Wine, that I had been bought as a Christmas present. The course was the first in a series of three that aims to teach students how to choose, sharpen, store and use knives of various sorts. The morning was very enjoyable and, whilst nothing we were shown was rocket science, it was useful to be reminded of the correct way to handle the various different knives and, most importantly, the need to keep them sharpened - something I am very bad at remembering to do. The first part of the three session course focused on vegetables and fruit, so by the end of the morning the 16 or so students had generated an impressive pile of chopped vegetables, herbs and fruit. The staff prepared some of the vegetables as a soup which the class ate before leaving and they also prepared a caramel sauce which the students were at liberty to pour over their segmented oranges to take away with them. I took them up on this kind offer!

Inspired by all the chopping, and with the first real appetite I had encountered in over a week, I set about looking for an idea that would allow me to cook something using some of my newly practised skills but that would not reverse the gastric progress that I had achieved over the last seven days. A dash to Marks & Spencer (which made a pleasant change to the dashes I had more customarily been making in the preceding few days) on the way home resulted in roasted cod loin (marinated in lemon juice and olive oil) with brown rice and a tomato and basil salsa. Whilst it was hardly the deconstructed kedgeree I had been planning the week before it was at least food that I could fancy eating and that, I am pleased to report, had no dire consequences!

And that salsa contains diamond shaped pieces of tomato I will have you know!