Week one: 69-er challenge

I was given various cook books for my birthday a couple of weeks ago which obviously filled me with joy.  But as I put the lovely new books on my shelves that were already crammed with recipe books, I felt a twinge of regret that I hadn’t ever cooked from many of them.  Which led to the idea of challenging myself to cook a new recipe from each and every one of my books to a deadline.  I counted them and believe it or not I had sixty-nine recipe books.   I loved the clickbait appeal of a cheeky 69-er challenge so I pounced on that as the name.

My quest needed to be difficult enough to be impressive, but not so difficult that my normal life had to stop to complete it.  I came up with end of September as the deadline – which worked out at just over four months to try sixty-nine new recipes. That works out at seventeen recipes a month and about four a week.  And just to hold my hands up to this right now – my boyfriend Jamie would be helping me with this.

We started on saturday and got really stuck in. By monday we’d done six recipes.  At this rate I’d be done by the end of June! I will talk you through them:

Chicken couscous from the ‘Urban Cookbook’.  This book was a birthday present about seven years ago. I have not cooked a single recipe from this book. I’ll be honest it’s quite an intimidating book.  Part travel/art guide and part cook book – I never knew where to start with it – it mainly consisted of photos, pictures and chat which made it hard to find the recipes in the first place.  But my 69-er challenge forced me to take the plunge.  My criteria was that I wanted a healthy straight forward dinner. So spicy chicken couscous with french beans, carrots and chickpeas was my choice.  Jamie cooked this one as I was recovering from a nine mile Peak District hike (done on a hangover!), so I was next to useless.  The hearty, flavourful stew was perfect to sooth an exhausted walker.  The ingredients were simmered for an hour which gave it a lot depth of flavour.  I was a happy customer.

Sunday brought fresh enthusiasm to crack on with new recipes.  And we nailed ‘Indian beans on toast’, a simple Indian lentil curry from a ‘Good Food 101 Meals for Two’ book.  It took ten minutes to make using a tin of green lentils – we chose to serve it with rice instead of ‘toast’ (naan bread).  Jamie is always a good litmus test on food because he’s not as into experimental stuff as me and he bloody loved it.

In the evening I moved onto Granola from Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Notes from my Kitchen Table’.  It’s a surprisingly enjoyable read with many tales of favourite family dishes from her childhood and recipes she cooks for her children.  It’s also pre her super healthy phase so there’s quite a bit of buttery and sugary stuff in the recipes.  The granola took five minutes to prepare (literally mix ingredients and put on baking tray) and twenty minutes to cook.  I liked the rogue garam masala addition to the mix of ingredients. I now have a brand new tasty breakfast which is perfect for getting me out of my dull breakfast rut.

Monday was my most productive cooking day, but I did have a day at home, so that helped. It started with Paul Hollywood’s pitta.  I’ve been wanting to and talking about making bread for about four years so I was chuffed with myself for giving this a stab. It wasn’t difficult – mix flour, yeast, salt, water and knead for five mins then leave to rise.  Unfortunately mine didn’t ‘double in size’ in an hour as was predicted.  So I interfered by shoving it in the oven at gas mark 1 which basically cooked my dough and it developed a crust (definitely wrong!), but hey it DID double in size! Then I rolled it out into six little oval shapes and baked them for eight minutes.  Despite my questionable approach to proving dough – they were beautiful! There’s nothing like hot fresh bread.

Ice-cream was next on the itinerary. I decided to keep it simple and do plain vanilla from ‘Become an Ice-Cream Maker the Easy Way’. The instructions are pretty much: make a homemade vanilla custard with eggs yolks and double cream and churn it in the ice-cream maker.  Although not so brilliant when the custard curdled!  But no matter, we sieved the lumpy mixture and churned it and it was a really tasty treat.  It may have tasted more like frozen creme caramel and it’s certainly the brownest vanilla ice-cream I’ve ever eaten, but it was a success in my books.

And the final recipe of my six was Delia’s Frugal Food.  A book I’d neglected to use because it didn’t have ANY photos of the food! A massive downfall in my eyes.  However I like the essence of the book – cheap wholesome tasty seventies style cooking.  I chose a baked eggs in a cheesy spinach sauce recipe as my mum used to cook something similar in the eighties – so it was a nostalgia choice.  I had to make a white sauce with an excessive amount of butter, double cream and cheese (maybe that’s why Delia’s food tastes so good – lots of fat). Then blitz in some cooked spinach using a hand blender and pour it over some boiled eggs, cover in cheese and grill.  Fairly straightforward and exceptionally tasty – but if I put that much fat in everything I cooked – it would all taste good.

Six recipes completed, sixty-three to go! Keep reading my blog to see if I can keep up the momentum.  And if anyone fancies joining me with their own cookbook challenge please do comment and let me know.

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It all got a bit Willy Wonka at the Vegetarian Supper Club

Eddie Shepherd is a purely vegetarian chef – and he’s VERY experimental! Think Heston Blumenthal meets Simon Rogan meets a magician.  An evening with Eddie is a colourful culinary adventure.  I went to one of Eddie’s supper clubs in November and raved about it so much that I booked an eight seated supper club especially for myself and some friends.

It was advertised as a ten course taster menu, but as we discovered on arrival there appeared to be fourteen courses.  I was unfazed – I had after all easily demolished seventeen courses last week at L’Enclume.

Surprisingly we started with a ‘butterfly’ iced tea, but not any old iced tea – this was purple iced tea with a metal tea bag of dry ice – all made with entirely natural products – not a load of food colouring. And we each had cute mini teapots to pour our own tea. It was sweet and tasty, the dry ice beautifully blending the fragrant flavours.

iced tea
Butterfly tea

Next up was my favourite course! Maybe not for flavour, but for true interactive experience. Eddie told us to look behind us and behold, there were eight pretty, decorative baubles hanging from the ceiling in his lounge. We had assumed that it was just decor, but no that was our next course. So far, so Willy Wonka. It was tofu, dandelion and pickled apple served in a perspex bauble with a hole to access the food. The experience was made more enjoyable because all the guests were hanging round the ‘work of art’ gasping and trying to work out what the hell it was.  A great ice-breaker.  The dish itself was a perfect sweet and savoury combo.  And to be a true food wanker – umami is the Japanese word to describe that sweet spot of flavour that rests between sweet and savoury.

Hanging food
Tofu, dandelion, pickled apple

For course three things got even more Willy Wonka with what looked like a glow stick.  The menu told us it was Chamomile and Raspberry. Basically a raspberry puree with fresh mint that we had to suck it through the stick! Not my most elegant moment, but very delicious.

glow stick
Chamomile and raspberry

The remaining eleven courses were equally glorious! Although not quite as Crystal Maze – everything else we just had to shovel down our gobs in a more straight forward manner.  I think once the ice was broken amongst the guests with the first three ‘wonder’ courses, we were free to kick back and enjoy the food a bit more.  A wise move on Eddie’s part, as we were pretty inebriated by the end of the night and Eddie might have a had a few smashed baubles and glow sticks had they occurred at course thirteen and fourteen.

What I loved about the evening was just how tactile and thought-provoking the whole affair was.  Eddie was a delightful host – enthusiastically introducing each course and explaining what it was.  There was not a quiet moment in the entire four and half hours we were there – each dish was a great talking point.

The feta with pineapple sauce was another good ‘umami’ course.  I suppose cheese and pineapple is a classic, but this was a delightful take on it, the saltiness of the feta in rich contrast to the super sweet pineapple. And the onions marinated in blueberry vinegar (obviously) draped on the feta were an attractive and tasty bonus.

pineapple and feta
Feta, pineapple

The cured egg, truffle and smoked yoghurt was whacky and awesome.  It tasted smoky and otherworldy and was scoffed in one happy mouthful.

egg
Cured egg, truffle, smoked yoghurt

A couple of favourites from our November supper club were back on the menu – warm walnut bread with homemade creamy butter was a big hit.  And the deep fried halloumi with potato fondant and a creamy dill sauce – whilst a bit on the conventional side for Eddie – was comfort food at it’s best – and a pleasantly hefty portion after all those little mouthful sized-courses.

halloum
Halloumi, potato, dill

And then there were the puddings!  My boyfriend’s favourite was the fennel pollen, blueberry and lemon candyfloss – which I have to admit was pretty cool.

candyfloss.jpg
Fennel pollen, blueberry and lemon candyfloss

For me, the most intriguing pud was the cherry, coconut and chocolate which was a combination of a mousse and ice-cream.  Eddie theatrically prepared it in front of us on what was called an ‘anti-griddle’ – a contraption that looked like a 1980s photocopier. This piece of equipment can go as cold as minus fifty degrees and exclusively freezes the bottom piece of the food you put on the ‘griddle’.  Which left us with a creamy dessert that was half ice-cream at the bottom and unfrozen mousse at the top.  Eddie Wonka at his best!

ice cream
Cherry, coconut, chocolate

And as a massive chocoholic the final pudding was entirely pleasing to me – a bergamont and juniper truffle wrapped up like a present in shiny rainbow cellophane.  A simple fun touch that appealed to the child in all of us.

Truffle
Bergamont and juniper truffle

I apologise that I’ve been unable to describe the flavours of the various dishes I ate in detail.  The problem with eating fourteen experimental courses with so many flavours that were new to me, is that it’s difficult to have a clear memory of it all (and the booze may not have helped!). But, every course tasted sensational and was a visual feast!

I had a whale of a time as did all my friends, and for £40 (and it’s BYO) it’s brilliant value for money.  To find out more go to Eddie’s website:

http://www.veggiechef.co.uk/

A bloody marvellous Spanish fortieth fiesta

So I’ve got into themes for my birthday parties.  Last year it was New York as I’d just got back from my hols there (think bagels, pizzas and key lime pies) and this year given our recent trip to Madrid we decided to go Spanish.  The only thing is, it’s not as easy as with New York to theme the food.  What are Spanish cakes?!  How do I cater Spanishly for vegetarians?  Realistically can I be bothered with the faff of cooking and serving complicated courses of tapas when I just want to be getting drunk and talking to my friends? So, after much deliberation I came up with a plan –  it wasn’t wildly original and it was admittedly a little cheaty – but whateves!

  1. Paella served in a slow cooker (thanks for the recipe Tesco!)
  2. Espinacas con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), also served in a slow cooker
  3. A shed load of spanish cold meats and spanish cheeses, olives and baguettes
  4. A massive Jamie Oliver mothership tomato salad
  5. Five M&S pizzas that had nothing to do with Spain but would be easy
  6. Nigella’s chocolate olive oil cake
  7. A double batch of Spanish chocolate jaffa brownies
  8. Savarin with cream and strawberries (a big rum ba ba).  Nothing to do with Spain, but I saved it in the freezer after my John Whaite cookery class.  It was so lovely I wanted to share it regardless of the nationality clash.

We chose food we could prep before and wouldn’t require us to do anything once the party had started – people could just help themselves – nice and low maintenance. I’m not going to lie though – the food preparation itself got tense! Jamie and I slaved away the day before the party – making up the Espinacas con Garbanzos and all the cakes. At the time it felt like we’d gone completely crazy and done WAY too much.  I multiplied the spinach and chickpea recipe by three and as we stood in the kitchen surrounded by bubbling woks and a huge carrier bag full of spinach I felt very doubtful as to how popular this dish would be.

spinach
Jamie is unimpressed with my mass catering ambitions!
brownies
Knocking up the Spanish jaffa brownies

However by the evening we had a vat of chickpea stew, 32 brownies and an olive oil cake. We were starting to feel a bit more in control.  Saturday morning (‘party day’) saw more stressing in the kitchen as Jamie realised the enormity of preparing a triple quantity of paella: chopping three onions, twelves tomatoes, nine chicken breasts didn’t look like fun – Jamie tersely requested that we reduce the ridiculous and unnecessary quantities.  I refused – which was very easy for me to do as he was making it and I wasn’t!

Miraculously by 2pm (guest arrival time), we had all the food and sangria prepared and an immaculate house.  Unnervingly though, we had no guests.  Vast quantities of food and booze and not a single guest.  For an entire hour.  Thankfully this changed in a dramatic whirlwind between 3-4pm when literally about 30 people arrived.  Unfortunately no-one seemed to notice the food.  The poor food table sat ignored for a good couple of hours.  And then one or two people tucked in and then it was mayhem.  ALL the chickpea strew and paella went in about an hour.  I could not believe it – every single crumb of food literally got demolished and more importantly everyone was raving about the food. Very happy me and Jamie.

dinging room
Where are the guests? 
Me & Sangria
Gulping sangria to steady my nerves while I await guests

It was stressful prepping for the party, but worth every ounce of sweat.  It gave me great pleasure to have so many lovely friends in our house enjoying our specially crafted Spanish menu. But I just want to go to other people’s parties for the next few years  – Jamie we’re going to the pub for your 40th!

And here are the recipes if you are interested (we found the brownie recipe link only worked on our laptop, not our mobiles)

https://realfood.tesco.com/recipes/paella.html

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/01/vegan-garbanzos-con-espinacas-jengibre-spinach-chickpea-stew-ginger-spanish.html

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jamie-oliver/the-mothership-tomato-salad-recipe.html

http://www.goodfood.com.au/good-food/cook/recipe/jaffa-brownies-20140811-3di0r.html

https://www.nigella.com/recipes/chocolate-olive-oil-cake

 

 

 

Getting photobombed TWICE at L’Enclume

It must be a ‘thing’ at L’Enclume, but both times Jamie and I asked for our photo to be taken – once at our table and once in the kitchen – L’Enclume staff photobombed us! Which I found hilarious.  It’s also testament to the fact that it may be a double michelin starred restaurant with impeccable food and service, but the staff don’t take themselves too seriously, which I love.

photo bomb 1
Photobomb one: our waiter decides to join our photo
photo bomb 2
Photobomb two: yes that’s the head chef leaping up in the background

I did wonder when we entered L’Enclume whether the service would be too stuffy as we were immediately fussed over by some serious seeming waiters. It was only as the evening wore on that I realised that these guys were quietly quirky and fun.

We took our seats and were presented with a fancy wax sealed envelope with the menu in. Beautiful branding by the way, oh and the plate was stunning too.

menu.jpg
Anticipation built when we were given the menu in a fancy envelope

We opened the menu which revealed seventeen courses! None of which made any sense to me – not that that was a problem.  But first things first we needed to focus on booze.  I sensibly declined the wine flight as I knew that would be bad news for everyone. However Jamie was game, and opted for eight wines matched with eight of the courses.  I stayed safe and had a glass of english sparkling wine from Kent which was light and scrumptious.

The food commenced with one of my favourites of the evening: smoked cod roe and parsley served on a pebble with some flatbreads for scooping it off.  Fishy, seasidey and delicious – the excess of parsley giving it a very unique flavour.  And I loved scraping it off a pebble.  My only beef was that the waiter removed the pebble before I scraped all the cod roe off! I was too intimidated by the fine dining atmosphere to complain though.

cod roe
Smoked cod roe, parsley, flatbread

I won’t take you through all the seventeen courses or this could become a very long blog post. However mouthwatering theatrical course after course appeared, each subtle and intriguing  and a work of art.  The most dramatic course was called ‘Humphrey’s Pool’ on the menu – which obviously tells you nothing.  The waiter appeared with a bunsen burner and glass bottle contraption on top – there was a broth in the bottom part and seaweeds and seashells in the top. The broth was magically cooked up involving broth going up and down the bottle.  Next it was poured on to a wave shaped plate of seafoods.  I’m not quite sure what I was eating but it tasted fine, and that’s all that mattered!

bunsen burner one

The bunsen burner broth contraption

bunsen burner two
The ‘broth’ being poured onto the seafood mix on the special wave plate

Towards the end of the meal we obviously got to the puddings.  It’s hard to pick a favourite when everything tastes so good – but Holker yoghurt, rhubarb and sorrel did it for me.  Not only did it look exquisite with little flowers sprinkled on top, but this was a dynamite flavour – an extremely posh rhubarb crumble with a moussy sweet cheese topping (which I assume was the yoghurt). Divine!

rhubarb
Holker yoghurt, rhubarb and sorrel
me eating pud
Me greedily scoffing pudding number two: chocolate malt, red currant, barley (and check out the beautiful bit of drift wood behind me)

Words are failing me when I try and sum up the evening – it was a very special meal and there many elements at work that made the night sing.  The waiters were brilliant and genuinely very friendly – subtle, knowledgeable, polished, but as I discovered with the photobombing – not too polished that they’ve lost their sense of fun.  The setting was charming – it was minimalist but not too minimalist – lots of touches of nature and art thrown gently into the mix with a bit of driftwood here and a shell art work there and delightful hand made asymmeticral crockery.  The decor felt contemporary but lovely and tactile and natural too.  And obviously the food from start to finish was an adventure – each course surprised us and piqued our curiousity – with each mouthful you were greeted with a new flavour sensation.  So L’Enclume thank you – you’ve nailed it!

Rustic French Baking with John Whaite

John Whaite’s brand new cookery school is based in Wrightington, Lancashire.  It’s in the countryside between Wigan and Chorley.  John has refurbished the 400 year old barn that’s part of his mum’s house.  And it’s beautiful – rustic, but modern.

I tipped up in my car at 9.45am and was welcomed personally by John who came out of the barn to greet me and invite me in.  The day started with coffee and croissants and a little chat with the group I’d be baking with.  There were ten of us.

Today we would be learning about rustic french cooking – and we’d be walking home with a tarte tatin, coffee eclairs and a savarin (a giant rum ba ba).  It was all sounding good to me – apart from the awkward issue of transporting this stuff home.  I was on a night out in Manchester afterwards.  Oh well!

The day kicked off with savarin pastry and my first ever experience of a Kitchen Aid. Those things are cool! Savarin is a yeasted ring cake that we would be soaking in a rum based syrup and filling with cream and summer fruits.  We beat our yeasty mixture together and left it to rise.

kitchen aid
My first Kitchen Aid experience – so good!

In honesty the rest of the lesson was a whirlwind of activity that’s kind of merged into one for me! The three bakes were approached simultaneously.  As soon as we’d done a choux pastry for the eclairs, we’d be cutting out the puff pastry for tarte tatin, and when we’d done that we’d be creating the craquelin (a frozen rectangular of pastry to strengthen the eclair) and the next minute we’d be beating up a creme patisserie, then we’d be creating a caramel syrup for the apples in the tarte tatin.

It was a fast paced, intensive, hands on, educational day and BAGS of fun.  John was a joy. He clearly adores sharing his passion and knowledge about cooking.  His teaching style was relaxed, informative and incredibly playful – he loves entertaining a crowd. And I think getting ten pastry novices through three complicated dishes and keeping us all feeling chilled and competent is quite something!

It was quite surreal when at 3pm I had three fabulous pastries to my name!  I wasn’t quite sure how I’d done it!

tarte tatin
Tarte tatin
savarin
Savarin (disclaimer this was John’s – I failed to photograph mine!!)

 

eclairs
Coffee eclairs (erm, these were also John’s – mine were just as good – honest!)

The day ended with us drinking prosecco and tucking into a delicious lunch prepared by John.  And what a highlight that was.  Getting to hang out al fresco on a beautifully sunny day stuffing our faces with delicious salads, quiche, cheeses and meats and a homemade onion fougasse bread.  We definitely deserved a sit down after the frenetic day we’d had.  It was also a great opportunity to chat with my fellow ‘chefs’.  I think cooking together is quite a bonding experience, so we all felt at ease with each other at this point.

For me the day from beginning to end was a delight.  John runs the classes with his bubbly sister Jane who slaved away over our washing up all day long.  She was quite the dynamo! And John’s partner Paul was on hand all day to help with lunch, prosecco pouring and photography. It felt like a real family affair – and all three of them went out of their way to make us feel at home and fussed over.  I feel like I learnt a lot, but actually most importantly I had a ball with a bunch of great people in a really beautiful location.

Here’s a link to John’s Cookery School – check it out!

John Whaite’s Kitchen

eating lunch
A beautiful al fresco lunch
john serves puds
John brings out the puds!