Saturday, 31 October 2015

Queso Dip 'n Chip (Mexican fondue) recipe

queso chip and dip recipe pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

queso chip and dip recipe pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
My ongoing love for all things Mexican never abates. While I love authentic Mexican food, equally I adore the trashy American Tex-Mex version of it. Watching 'Boyhood' last year, there was a scene at the end where the boy in question and his girlfriend go for midnight 'queso' in Austin, Texas which is apparently an exam revision ritual. Queso is Spanish for cheese but in this case it's not real cheese, but processed and homogenised and a bunch of other stuff is done to it. The dip is probably entirely unhealthy but also bloody delicious.
This is the ultimate TV dinner. Me and my daughter eat it in bed with a big bowl wedged between ourselves and the laptop while we watch X Factor or First Dates or some other trash TV. This is such a regular occurrence that we now have a kind of altar for the laptop called 'The Viewing Cushion', which is at the perfect height for us both to watch. Trouble is, it's kind of hard to find decent queso in the UK although Tesco is selling it. So here is a homemade British version that is more nutritional but fear not, it doesn't taste at all healthy.
Now ideally it is made with Monterey Jack cheese - sort of the American equivalent of cheddar and gouda, but a bad processed super mild cheddar. I rather like it. The only place you can buy it is Wholefoods and it costs an arm and a leg. I've also seen it sold in slices in Waitrose online.
I grow my own jalapeños but those jarred pickled jalapenos work fine too.

TV Queso and chips recipe

Feeds two, lasts maybe 30 mins (approx. half an episode of a BBC drama, e.g. Doctor Foster)

400g Monterey Jack cheese or
{200g plasticky mild cheddar
{200g gouda
3-4 tbsps cornflour
150ml milk
1 ball mozzarella
3 tbsps of chillies (either fresh thinly sliced jalapenos or pickled jalapeños diced)
1 bag tortilla chips (blue or white)
A shot of tequila (optional)

Grate the cheddar and gouda and toss them in the cornflour. Put them in a pan on a low heat and add the milk gradually. Keep stirring and do not walk away. (It's best to make it more liquid at the start as it will start to solidify like a cheese fondue as it cools.)
Finally, add the mozzarella and the chillies. Then, if you want it a little naughtier, add some alcohol like tequila.
Serve warm with tortilla chips.

WARNING: this substance is highly addictive.

queso chip and dip recipe pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
queso chip and dip recipe pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Monday, 26 October 2015

10 things to eat and drink in Cretan cuisine

The leprosy colony of Spinalonga in Crete
Former leprosy colony Spinalonga overlooked by the Blue Palace hotel where I stayed
Map of Crete, with cretan rusks, Crete wine
spinalonga leprosy colony on crete
The best Greek cuisine, most Greeks will agree, come from the island of Crete. In ancient times Crete was the centre of the ancient Minoan culture, the earliest known advanced civilisation in Europe. (Astrological note: in world astrology, each great year lasts 2000 years. We are emerging from the age of Pisces going into the age of Aquarius. The Minoan period, obsessed with bulls, was the Taurean age.) It has always been a mercantile, trading island, thanks to its position midway between Europe and  Africa. This geographical location also means that Crete benefits from a particular micro climate, which is fantastic for growing fruit, vegetables, producing high quality olive oil, cheese, yoghurt, honey and wine. Until the 1960s, there was an emphasis on a vegetarian diet, meat was eaten on special occasions.
I stayed opposite Spinalonga island, the leper's colony about which Victoria Hislop wrote so movingly in her novel The Island. (Definitely recommended reading if you visit, it was quite funny that people didn't realise her husband, Ian Hislop, is far more famous in the UK. They'd never heard of him in Crete.)
I only spent two days in Crete, mostly holed up in a posh hotel, so here is just a brief look. 

1. Great wine

 Nikos Miliarakis, owner of Minos wines, crete

I spent an afternoon with Nikos Miliarakis, owner of Minos wines in the Peza area of the island, and tasted the range of his wines. It's an ideal spot, with a cool maritime breeze and mountains that protect the vines from the hot southern winds. We strolled along the vineyard, brushing branches heavy with plump olives out of our path. The sky was marine blue, the sun was shining, a perfect summer's day in October. Nikos told me that the olives would be ready for harvest in December. 
I asked Nikos about Greek wine today:
"Thirty years ago, Greece was known for cheap resinous wines for package holiday tourists. But for the last ten or fifteen years we have been producing dry and sweet wines which are not resinous, not retsina. We cultivate Cretan varieties such as Vidiano, Kotsifali and Mandilari as well as Mourvèdre and other international grapes. We age them first in steel then in French oak barrels."
Minos wines crete

I sipped the wines while snacking on different Cretan cheeses and fruits. Nikos talked about how hard it was to run the business during the recent crisis:
"We were prepared to a certain extent, we knew capital controls were coming but we didn't think businesses would also only be allowed to get out 60 euros a day."
"Sixty euros a day? How can you run a business like that?" 
Nikos laughed, "It's not possible. We had to cope with that. Even if you are prepared you cannot stock millions, you can stock some money, some cash, to manage the problems for a while."
Capital controls happened in late June? Is this a crucial time in terms of getting ingredients to produce wines? 
"Yes, in order to bottle you need corks and labels, you need money to buy them. 
And this year has been difficult, because of the rain, so we needed to treat the wines. In Crete, we treat the wines six or seven times a year, which is not very much. In the North of Greece, it's like 13, 14 times a year, like in France. This is why we call Crete the green island." 
Nikos expanded on the financial crisis: "In Greece people don't use e-banking, the percentage of e-banking is much less here than in the rest of Europe. The people are not used to credit cards and e-banking. They don’t trust it because they have badly used credit cards before, having ten and running up credit. Once they understood that this is not the way to do things they said I don’t want any credit cards because it's too dangerous." 
Now everything is paid by cash?
"There are a lot of things paid by cash, but in Europe, cash doesn’t exist, nobody uses cash. Due to this problem of capital controls, Greek banks have created more cards in two months than in the last five years. So people who didn’t have cards, even old people who didn’t have cards, had to get a card. In order to withdraw cash from the ATM, everybody had to get a card."
In terms of getting Greece back on its feet economically, food and drink is quite a large part of that?
"Crete is in a better position compared to Athens and Saloniki, it’s thanks to tourism that we have a real income. Even under these critical circumstances it doesn’t stop."
Was there a dip in numbers of tourists?
"We had some gaps, because people were afraid, 'Do you have food?' They believe what they see in the media, on the news."
We laughed at that. The one thing that Crete always has plenty of is food, being self-sufficient for the most part.
Nikos: "it’s not the food we import, it's mainly all the rest. Food, cheese, everything... we have it. Most Cretan hotels are all inclusive so you also have consumption of imported foods.
The (only) worst thing we could have after this year is war."
I read later that day in the Greek national newspaper that British numbers of tourists to Greece have gone up 37% over the summer, a big spike. Nikos' wine Turtle is available, along with other Greek wines, on Aegean airlines flights, for quite rightly they are serving excellent domestic wines as opposed to foreign wines.

2. Cretan rusks

cretan rusks, Dakos salad

Paximathi is Cretan barley rusk. The Cretan rusk came about because the women worked all day in the fields like the men and didn't have much time to bake. So they would make a huge batch of bread then dry it in a low oven. This way it would last a month.
They would soften the bread by pouring a little water on it. The 'dakos' salad is a crust or two of cretan rusk, then softened with water, olive oil, skinned crushed tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper, a kind of bruschetta on hard tack.

3. Cretan olive oil

Cretan olive oil, cretan rusks, cretan wine

Cretan olive oil is some of the best and most ancient in the world. Much of Italian olive oil is actually bought in bulk from Crete then a small percentage of Italian olive oil is added. It is then bottled in Italy so it can be called Italian olive oil. This is not illegal. (Next month I'm visiting Sicily to find out more about olive oil). This is partly because it is only recently that Cretans wanted to get into the retail side of selling olive oil, it was easier to sell it in bulk. Nowadays they see what a great business it is. 
I did an olive oil tasting with a young Cretan, Giorgos Mavrakis returned from Athens to start up a business on the island.  He gave me these tips on what makes a good olive oil and how to taste it.
There are three steps in the tasting of olive oil:
  1. Smell it, it should smell like olive oil, not like paint or anything else. The glass should be warmed with your hand and be tasted in a dark blue glass so that the colour doesn't influence your judgement. 
  2.  Taste it, roll it around in your mouth. It should taste bitter. Bitterness is a characteristic of quality olive oil.
  3. The after taste in the back of your throat should be peppery but only after you've swallowed, not during. If you feel spiciness when it's in your mouth, it's a defect. So pepperiness is a sign of good olive oil
  • Never try more than three oils in a tasting, your palette can't cope with more.
  • Always buy olive oil in a tin or in a dark bottle. If the bottle is clear don't buy it, sunlight damages good olive oil.
  • Buy olive oil in a large tin, say 3 or 5 litres then decant it into a dark green bottle for use in cooking or at the table.
  • Never buy olive oil in a plastic bottle.
  • Extra virgin olive oil is a question of acidity. Extra Virgin has low acidity, not above .8% of acidity, it can go as low as .1% even.  Virgin olive oil ranges from .8% up to 1.5% acidity.
  • Many factors can affect acidity, the weather, the quality of the olives, the pressing at the mill, transport and storage. 
  • Italians and French like peppery, the Germans prefer smooth olive oil. The mass market prefers smooth, soft, non peppery olive oil. Our palettes need educating.
  • There are several PDO's (Protected Denomination of Origin) of Cretan olive oil. We were tasting olive oil from the Peza area, in Archanes, which is very good.
  • Cretan olive oil dates back to the Minoan period, 2, 500 years BC and even earlier, 3,500 BC. The Egyptian pharaohs imported olive oil from Crete.
  • The Greeks consume more olive oil than anybody else in the world. As one Cretan chef said to me "we don't eat olive oil, we drink it".

4. Cretan cheese

cretan cheeses

Cretan cheese has several varieties apart from the excellent chalky feta type which is referred to as white cheese: from Graviera (a kind of gruyere) to Myzithra, a young fresh cheese, or the interesting Xinohondro which isn't a cheese but something like bulgur wheat mixed with yoghurt. A classic dish using xinohondro as a topping is tomato soup, to which it adds body and flavour. (I even saw this being served for breakfast).

5. Beans

favas puree, crete

Gigantes beans, a kind of giant baked bean in tomato sauce is a popular meze in Greece but something typically Cretan is favas purée, split yellow pea hummus. It's made in a similar way, adding olive oil, garlic, salt to cooked and cooled yellow pea puree. You add chopped red or spring onions. Looks rather plain but is a delicious alternative to hummus.

6. Rakomelo

A typically Cretan liqueur using raki and honey. This is a warming drink during colder months and a sweet digestif after dinner. Greek raki is different to Turkish raki, being more like fire water, so the addition of honey is welcome. 

7. Wild Greens

wild greens, crete

Wild greens or 'horta' are heavily used in Cretan cuisine while purslane, also beloved in Georgian food, is an unusual 'herb', actually a succulent, that we tend not to use in the UK even though it grows here. Mix crunchy purslane with yoghurt for an unusual tzaziki dip, adding some lemon juice and salt.

8. Kaltsounia

kaltsounia, cretan pie

You must try these small flat cheese or horta 'pies' with honey, combining sweet and savoury, a very Medieval concept, a spicing that remains in Middle Eastern food.

9. Honey

Crete is famous for its apiculture and honey is used on everything, including savoury dishes, for instance a cheese kaltsounia with honey. In Archanes village, at a wonderful delicatessen/cafe Bakaliko which also gives cooking classes, I had a honey tasting with Meligyris Cretan honey. We tried types of wild thyme honey and woodland honey with sage and with heather. The flavours were strong and fragrant, the wild thyme has anti-bacterial qualities.

10. Bougatsa


I had bougatsa often for breakfast while in Greece: it's a kind of sublime custard-filled cinnamon filo pie. Here is a recipe, I must have a go at this myself. (One morning I also had a kind of gooey creme caramel for breakfast.) The breakfast bar at the Blue Palace hotel where I stayed had specialities from around the world: everything from Scandinavian, to Turkish, German, Greek, American, French, English breakfasts.

My flight and trip was courtesy of #DiscoverGreece on Aegean airways. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Mexican adventures and a recipe for Chipotle en adobo

chipotle en adobo

Chipotle en adobo is one of my go-to ingredients for an authentic Mexican flavour in my cooking. But it's also good for anything else you fancy... in lasagne, on toast, in baked beans, in salsa. I absolutely love Mexican food, I think it is vastly underrated as a cuisine. What we call Mexican is mostly Tex-Mex, heavy and cheesy- in short- enchiladas. Now I love heavy and cheesy as much as the next lady but that's not how they eat in Mexico. Over the last year, I've had a few meals by top Mexican chefs coming over to this country. Selfridges held a Mexican food festival this year 'Year of Mexico' in the food hall. Unfortunately the meal at the Hix restaurant by Benito Molina & Solange Muris was a disappointment, kind of laughable. As I said to the PR, it's no point deconstructing Mexican food when most UK people, including many food critics, don't know what constructed Mexican food tastes like. 
Morel soup, tacos, flan by Mexican chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris at Selfridges
The next posho Mexican I ate was at The Typing Room at Bethnal Green Town Hall in the old Viajante restaurant. This meal was a collaboration between chef Lee Wescott and Mexican chef Guillermo González Beristáin of Pangea.  It started off on a high, with a gorgeous starter of Marmite butter on IPA sourdough but went downhill, ending up as that no-mans land of high cheffery, droplet sauces, needless mucking about with ingredients in the name of innovation and absurdly fiddly plating. Yes it all looked stunningly lovely. So what! I eat with my mouth not my eyes. Is this food for a generation that prefer to instagram their food than eat it? I also felt that there was hardly a trace of Mexico in the meal. Seems like Guillermo was more influenced by Lee than the other way around. 
The Typing Room: mexican pop up with Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain
Finally I had a great meal, expertly balancing old and new cuisine while remaining authentically Mexican, at the Intercontinental Hotel by Chef Ricardo De la Vega of Frida restaurant in Cancun. 
Taste of Frida at the intercontinental hotel London

I've been to Mexico myself a few times. The first visit was waaay back as a young woman travelling alone, using a month long plane pass with which I could fly anywhere in America.  I used it to the max: spending nights in airports, flying back and forth to LA and San Francisco just to get free meals. There was one exotic destination included in this pass- Puerto Vallarta- so I flew there.
I chatted to a couple of English nerds at the airport and we decided to share a room. At the beach, I met two Welshmen, also staying at the hotel,  I jumped waves all day in the Pacific, went a deep shade of golden then went out with the four boys on the town. I drank more than I should. One of the English geeks went missing during a night time walk on the beach. I insisted that we look for him, nobody else including his mate gave a toss. I was so glad I persisted, we found him crawling along the sand, sobbing, without his glasses, blind. You know those times when you think, that was a near-miss for tragedy...
One of the Welsh guys asked me to go for a walk on the beach further up. We'd been flirting and I was slightly interested in him. Next thing I knew I was flat on my back on the beach and he was having sex with me. It was very uncomfortable. Who likes sand up their bum? I managed to get him to stop. I pulled up my knickers thinking, hmm was that rape? I blamed myself for getting drunk, maybe giving him the wrong signals, being alone with him. I wasn't traumatised, just embarrassed. He wasn't violent.
I spent an uncomfortable night at the hotel with the English boys, so hot and thirsty, that I eventually got a drink from the tap. The next day I woke up covered in huge blisters, six inches across, all over my body. I could hardly open my eyes my face was so swollen, this was Pacific sunburn. At breakfast the Welsh guy behaved sheepishly. 
On the third day I flew back to San Francisco and checked into a huge dim hotel. I was on the third floor in a double room. There was a shared bathroom and toilet on each floor. That night the stomach cramps started and then the diarrhea. At first I could make it to the toilet outside my room. Then I blocked that and then, humiliatingly, the other toilets on the other floors. It was getting harder to walk, to get up. Eventually I was reduced to shitting in my bed. I've had dysentry in India and giardia in Nepal, but there was nothing like this level of pain and lack of control. It was disgusting and debilitating. I was too embarassed to go down and ask for help. Four days later I emerged from my room, weak and frail. I hobbled to a nearby drugstore and asked for medicine. But without a prescription they would only give me Immodium. I glugged this pink liquid and managed to order a couple of slices of toast at a diner. I'd seen nothing of San Francisco at all, bar the inside of that dark wood panneled hotel. 
I managed to get on the bus to the airport the next day.  On the journey, I felt my stomach squeeze and I sat there, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I soiled my knickers. Despite this , somewhere at the back of my mind however, I felt like a 'real' traveller - vaguely heroic in a Midnight Express way.
My second visit was with my daughter when she was a teen. We travelled all around the country by bus: to Mexico City, to Jalapa, to Xico for a festival, to San Cristobal, to Oaxaca, to the jungle and the pyramids. We visited Frida Kahlo's museum in DF, climbed the monuments, ate vibrant food and didn't get sick once. 
My third visit was a couple of years ago with my sister. We took the train from Chihuahua to the Pacific, through the copper canyon, rattling through tunnels carved out of rock. We got robbed on our first night while asleep at a beach side apartment in Sayulita, a small village near Puerto Vallarta, then had to bribe the police to get a report to claim on insurance. The food in Sayulita was beyond divine, check this recipe I nicked from a streetside stall for ceviche tostadas.  Then I travelled to Mexico City on my own and wrote this post, five great places to eat in Mexico City
I love Mexico, I'd like to live there.
chipotle en adobo recipe

Chipotle en adobo recipe

Make this amazingly easy recipe. You can use dried chillies. Next time I'm going to smoke my own home grown jalapenos and truly make it from scratch. 

Makes about 2 litres.

120g of small dried Morito chipotles
3 dried anchos
8 tasty tomatoes, chopped
2 onions, chopped
1 tsp of sea salt
50ml olive oil
1 cinnamon stick
2 or 3 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp epazote (Mexican oregano)
1 tsp all spice, ground
1/2 tsp clove, ground
4 cloves garlic, minced
200ml pineapple vinegar or any fruity vinegar
Lots of salt. I put like 3 tbsp. 

Cover all the dried chillies with boiling water and leave to simmer for about fifteen minutes until the chillies are plump.
Then scoop out the anchos (it's obvious which ones they are as they are much  bigger) and leave the chipotles to cool in their liquid. Remove the stalks and seeds from the anchos. When the chipotles are cool enough to handle, I removed the stalks. Keep the liquid, you are going to use that.
I then put the anchos, the tomatoes, onions, salt in another pan and cooked them on a low heat for ten minutes or so.
Remove from the heat and tip the ancho tomato mixture in a Vitamix  or food processor or powerful blender and whizz it for about a minute. Use a little of the chipotle liquid if you need it.
Using a large saucepan add the olive oil, cinnamon stick, spices, garlic, fry on a low heat for a few minutes then add the ancho/tomato mixture, the vinegar and finally the chipotles and their liquid. Add salt to taste. You will need a good deal of salt. I find salt counteracts chilli also. Simmer for fifteen minutes or until the sauce thickens a bit. It's done. 
You want lots of the sauce which is great for drizzling. The chipotles themselves are not very strong especially after rehydrating and cooking. This is a mild but aromatic chilli sauce. Enjoy.
chipotle en adobo sauce

Friday, 16 October 2015

BBC's The Restaurant

In 2009, I applied for BBC's programme The Restaurant. This is the story of how it went.

I fill out the form in about two minutes. What are you prepared to do to win? the form says.
Nothing, I retort. It's that kind of thinking that got us all into this mess in the first place.
I put my sister down as my front of house because there has to be two of you.
I get a reply asking if we'd like to come to the audition.

Sunday: I turn up in a short flowery dress with bare legs. It's sunny. I'm tired because I've been cooking the night before. Food will not be provided, they said about the audition. So I bring a basket with leftovers... pizza baked in the Aga, a wild garlic flower and mache salad, a little bottle of dijon mustard dressing, half a bottle of white wine and a teensy handbag size bottle of creme de cassis. 
My sister is waiting for me in the lobby. She is wearing a bright coloured dress with roses and skulls. She looks great, all tits and smiles. 
She says, "Your legs need shaving. I've got a razor, we could do it in the loos".
There are many other London people waiting. Most are very dressed up. Some have young children with them. We get our passes and we go upstairs. 
In the lift one of the men has orange foundation on his face. My sister and I look at each other. "Is he one of the presenters or one of the contestants?" 
Sitting in a large room, we open the picnic basket and start to snack. The others look at us strangely, then start to smile. One Italian-looking guy with a handle bar moustache and pecs encased in a fitted black shirt smiles. He's obviously the chef. I can always tell who the chef is in the couples.
We are called into an interview with Melissa and Monica, two women in their late twenties, early thirties. I ask if they know about The Underground Restaurant. They say 'um er no'. But they clearly do. Then one of them fesses up "yes that's why you are here". 
They start to ask my sister about the Underground Restaurant. I answer their questions. I find it odd, that they are addressing these questions to her not me.
What do you think about each other? they ask my sister and I.
I say: "My sister is quick tempered, stubborn, a creative thinker, funny, a lateral thinker". In fact I could sum her up by saying she's left handed.
My sister launches in: "She's....obsessional...focussed. She's funny."
They nod to this. 
We are sent out back to the main room again. We think we are going home. Some people are taken downstairs. We await our turn. But we are not taken downstairs. We are taken to a circular corridor. There are some familiar faces which I characterise in my mind as:

Posh n beck
Cheeky chappie
Lesbian Argentinian couple

Then in another corridor:

Mum and son team.
Stroppy presenter girl.

We do a filmed interview.
I show blue curacao 'caviar' and wild garlic pesto that I made for my recent supper club.
We are the last. We go home.
I feel rather confident.

Monday: Audition at Southall. We cook an omelette, mine turns out well.  Then we wait to go to another room facing the two producers.There is a large sack and we are asked to pick an item from it and then talk about it non stop for one minute. I get a riding hat. I talk about riding. I know little about riding. My sister tells me I did ok.

Sunday: We do our licensing exam so that we can serve alcohol if we get onto The Restaurant. I'm hungover. I'm not taking anything in. We sit on the table with two guys from the army. They are funny and bright. I can't hear the lesson so I move to the front.
We do a practice i get 38 out of 40. So not so bad.

Monday: First appointment at the BBC is with the attractive lawyer. He says that Michelle and Russell, last year's winners, are terribly passive.
"I had to put a rocket up their arse", he admits. "You two ask questions. That's good. Right now you are not in a good position to negotiate but later maybe you can be. The prize is a 10% non directorial holding in a restaurant with Raymond Blanc. You will work for him for a year for 20k." 
Not exactly 'winning a restaurant' is it?

Then the Medical with the BBC doctor. He is wearing face make up and mascara. He looks like he's popped down from Holby City to administer to us. 
Next we are going to see the Psychologist. Going into the test we pass the army guys in the lift. They look a bit shaken my sister says. The psychologist is a horrible man who cross-examines me as if I were in court for a crime. He manages to filet and carve me up within seconds. It is an unpleasant experience even for me; I'm used to therapy, know the language. But I'm not used to rapid fire questions from a therapist. I try to defend myself. I said:
"I've had my bad times but who hasn't? I'm not 22."
"I've met people of 60 who haven't been through shit." He said. "And that's my job not yours to establish what is normal."
He asks if I'd had an abortion, I say yes, twice. He asks if I'd ever hit anyone. I say yes, once in Africa when a girl I was travelling with crashed the car in Kruger Park while my kid was in the back. We couldn't get out because of the lions and had to wait for a ranger. I was very angry and she wasn't apologetic so I hit her. At the time I felt that was justified but now, saying it in the cold light of day in a BBC shrinks office, I feel like the most depraved unstable person on earth.
Afterwards I go to Westfield, the nearby shopping centre, and cry. My sister finds me sobbing in one of the white plastic modern chairs. I'm driven back to times when the world seemed dark. When I was alone, beaten up in the street, head-butted by a boyfriend in front of my daughter. 
I go home and go to bed. I ask my neighbour for a joint, a rare thing. Feel gutted in the truest sense. Sleep. 

Tues: Melissa the BBC producer calls:
We love you, she says. We just need your medical records. 
Why you are worried I might run amok with a carving knife? She 'laughed'. 
I'm very unhappy about this but I go to the doctor and ask for the consent form. I explain to the receptionist what they want.
"That's very intrusive", she says. "Everybody has been through the sort of stuff you've been through."
Later that day I meet a well-known figure in the food world. He thinks the prize is shit too. He worked for a famous chef for seven years as his patissier. He worked so hard he had to go to hospital for dehydration and malnutrition. Malnutrition at a three star Michelin restaurant? He says that Gordon Ramsay used to buy the desserts for his restaurant from him but denied it. He also says that Tana Ramsay's dad owns 35% of the Ramsay restaurants.
I say "Who gives a fuck what Tana Ramsay cooks?"
Him: "I hate it when wives jump on the bandwagon".
Wed: The shrink, Stephen F, calls. He wants to do an online questionnaire. It's full of questions like: "When I feel down I drink a lot. True or False." Or "Sometimes I feel really really happy and excited for no reason. True or False."
So the first one is asking if I'm an alcoholic and the second if I am bi-polar. I'm neither. I've had depression in the past but that's it. 
I talk to my agent. She is in two minds as to whether I should do it too. 
By the evening I feel tired. My heart hurts. The shrink has taken me back once again to a bad place. Starting to feel angry about being put through this.
I tell my teen. She's in therapy right now. She looks like she wants to cry. 
I look at Youtube clips of the programme. First time I've watched it. It looks terrible. 
Cold feet.
Thurs: go to see my shrink, the one I am currently seeing. Have misgivings all night. My shrink says that the Beeb shrink was abusive. My shrink virtually never offers an opinion so this is meaningful. Yes. 
Have lunch with mum and Joy. Joy said the happiest days of her life were at Le Manoir, learning cookery. She shows me photos of the amazing but very traditional dishes that they created. The cookery school was in the kitchen at first. Now it's in an adjunct building. A runner up from Masterchef was there as well as Nick the drummer from Pink Floyd. Some of the dishes the students made went out to diners, some were eaten by staff. Monsieur Blanc is courteous, never shouts. Everybody respects him. People address him with their arms by their sides. 
Joy says that he would appreciate passion for food. That she didn't like the show. The couples were set impossible tasks. They were given characters, the bad one, the good one, the cheery one, the gay ones, the ethnics. She said that last year's winners, Russell and Michelle, were her favourites. They seemed united. 
My sister and I are not united. My sister wants to take over. She has 'ideas'. Trouble is her ideas on decoration are generally awful. She has little taste. There will be conflict and Joy said it will show. On my own I have a chance, with my sister, I don't. My sister doesn't actually want a restaurant.
Joy tells me to always look for the catch in every task. There would always be a catch. 
My mum then recounts a divine meal in Clerkenwell. A Michelin star restaurant. At one point two large burly guys entered, they were scruffy and crumpled. One of them in particular was huge, maybe 6 foot 3 or 6. He has a menacing presence. They walked straight into the kitchen. My mum tugged my dad and said, I think there's going to be a fight. Then the largest man came out and opened a bottle of champagne. There wasn't going to be a fight, they were expected at the restaurant. Somebody on a nearby table whispered "That's Marco Pierre White"
Mum says MPW's cooking was noticeably better, more refined, than anything she'd had before.
Apparently they only speak French in MPW's kitchen. In Raymond Blanc's kitchen they speak English, but there are many French people working there.
Joy says don't let them know you speak French, it might be an advantage. You might find things out. 
Thursday evening: Melissa the producer calls:
"Unofficially you are through".
Saturday morning: My sister rings up and says they've told her it isn't official. We may not be through.
Monday: Amanda, the serious faced exec producer rings with sad voice and says
"I'm afraid you are not through. You are not even a reserve. You didn't fit in with the line-up".

Thursday, 15 October 2015

How to use squash and pumpkins plus Munchkin Pumpkin Blue Cheese Soufflé recipe

Munchkin Pumpkin blue cheese soufflé pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

When I spoke to my mum about this piece she said 'I never use squash or pumpkins, aren't they a bit like marrow?' Which just goes to show that the whole idea of using squash and pumpkins in recipes are a fairly recent import from the USA. 

Pumpkins don't have a reputation for good eating here because shops tend to stock primarily the large classic orange ones, the Jack O'lanterns. These are only good for carving as their flesh tends to be stringy and watery. But nowadays, there is an abundance of sweet, dense-fleshed, tasty squash around.

Top tips for squash and pumpkins:

  • Use every part of the pumpkin. 
  • You can save the seeds and roast them. Just brush/scrape off most of the flesh, give them a quick wash and roast with a little salt and olive or pumpkin seed oil. 
  • I use pumpkin seeds in bread or scattered over salads. 
  • The skins or shells are effective as bowls for soup or as below, for a soufflé. 
  • The flowers can be used for a Mexican squash flower soup. 
  • Squash is also a brilliant carbohydrate filler for those who are gluten free.
  • For the best tasting winter squash, experiment with some of the other cultivars available.

Interesting squashes/pumpkins you should try:

  • Butternut squash. I love it roasted and tossed into salads or served with couscous, a few pomegranate seeds and parsley. The 'coquina' variety is nicely sweet.
  • Spaghetti squash. Once baked, the centre can be forked into spaghetti-like strands. You can treat it like courgetti, a gluten-free replacement for pasta and the latest trend for fashionable 'clean' eaters. Or add lashings of salty butter and parmesan, as I do.
  • Tromboncini. Trombone-shaped Italian squash. When young, slice up and use like courgette; when older, use like squash.
  • Gem squash. Wonderfully sweet: stuff and bake.
  • Acorn squash. Another small squash. Can be pureed into soup or stuffed.
  • Onion squash. Small, baked, mixed with cheese. This is great on toast.
  • Kabocha squash. Popular in Japan. Perfect simply roasted with soy sauce, ginger, sesame seeds and served with sushi rice.
  • Hokkaido. Teardrop-shaped, deep red/orange squash. Use in a tart, a soup or simply roasted.
  • Delicata squash. Italian from Lombardy. Difficult to find in the UK but it's easier to chop up than other squashes and the skin is edible so no peeling required. Roast with a little salt.
  • Crown Prince. Large blue/grey skinned squash with sweet orange flesh inside.
  • Harlequin. Pointy decorative squash is also good to eat.
  • Turban squash. Spectacular - looks just like a Turkish hat.

One of my favourites is the munchkin pumpkin, the size of a cricket ball, available at most large supermarkets around this time of year. Their flesh is reminiscent of chestnuts.

Munchkin Pumpkin Blue Cheese Soufflé recipe

Munchkin Pumpkin blue cheese soufflé pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

Serves 4

This recipe makes a lovely starter for a dinner party or an adult dish for Halloween parties. I've noticed that children like them too - there is something of the fairy tale about a pumpkin.
4 munchkin pumpkins
Olive oil
Sea salt
2 eggs, separated
50g blue cheese (I used Shropshire Blue), crumbled finely
50ml double cream
5 or 6 sage leaves, torn up finely
Slug of flavoured oil such as walnut, pumpkin or truffle oil
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200cº.
Cut off the top section of the pumpkins, making a little ‘hat’. 
Brush olive oil all over the pumpkins and sprinkle good sea salt over them.
Place on a baking tray and roast the pumpkins for 10 minutes or so until the flesh is soft.
For the last 5 minutes put the ‘lid’ into the oven too.
Make the soufflé mixture by whisking the egg yolks with the blue cheese. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until fluffy and rigid.
Add the cream and sage leaves to the yolk mixture, stirring, then carefully fold in the egg whites.
Remove the pumpkins from the oven, use a sharp sided spoon to hollow out the centre, removing the seeds. Add a little flavoured oil and salt into the hollowed out centre of the munchkin pumpkins, then spoon in the soufflé mixture.
Replace the pumpkins into the oven and bake for 5 to 10 minutes or until the soufflé has risen.
Serve immediately with the cute little lid propped next to the baby pumpkin. Dress with black pepper.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Salted caramel apple crepe recipe (gluten free)

Salted caramel apple crepe recipe (gluten free)

Salted caramel apple crepe recipe (gluten free)

Makes four depending on the size of your pan.

This recipe was inspired by this summer's visit to L'ile de Ré near La Rochelle in France. For years I've been buying their squidgy tan coloured squares of salted caramels sold in bags, which uses the famous fleur de sel from the island. But every time I indulge myself with a chewy sweet I end up spending a few hundred pounds at the dentist: my sweet tooth is an expensive habit, every bag of sweets ends up costing me about £300! (The packet of lemon bonbons I had in Dublin ended up like this.)
But all the ingredients in this recipe are favourites in the North of France: the salted caramel (which will not pull out your fillings), the buckwheat, a gluten-free flour used in savoury crepes from up the coast in Brittany, and lastly apples, famous in Normandy when used in their excellent cider.  This is a gorgeous brunch or dessert recipe, a bit naughty while being healthy.

For the salted caramel:
125ml of cold water
330g caster sugar
250ml double cream
big pinch of good quality sea salt

For the apples: 
2 apples, cored and thinly sliced
50g salted Butter
2 - 3 tbsp Brown sugar
Cognac (optional)

For the crepes:
110g Buckwheat flour
1 egg plus 1 yolk
275ml of single cream or milk 
15g of butter, melted
a pinch of sea salt
1 tsp of Xanthan gum

A small bowl of melted butter for cooking the pancakes.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium sized saucepan and heat gently under the sugar has dissolved. turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil without stirring but giving the pan the occasional swirl until it turns a caramel colour. This takes around 15 to 20 minutes.Brush down the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent crystallisation or keep the lid on which will make condensation run down the sides.
Once the caramel has reached the desired shade of brown carefully whisk in the cream.
Then add the salt to taste. You can pour this into jars when it has cooled and keep in the fridge for at least two weeks.

Core the apples then slice them very finely. Using a medium pan over a medium heat fry the apple slices gently in the butter and brown sugar. When slightly golden, set them aside.
(You could add a little cognac to them if you want).

Combine the flour, egg, yolk, cream/milk, butter, salt and Xanthan gum. (Xanthan gum add stretchiness to the pancake batter, which is useful when you don't have gluten which acts as a glue for baking and batters). Stir around until well mixed but don't overheat as it will make the batter rubbery.
Heat up a flat frying pan or even better, a crepiere, a kind of flat cast iron pan that I bought in France. Dip a bit of kitchen towel in some melted butter and wipe the surface of the pan with that.
Add a ladle of the batter to the pan and tip the pan until it spreads in a thin layer all over.
The first pancake will probably be rubbish. Keep going though.
Once the crepe has set and started to cook, you can flip it over but if it's thin enough don't bother, it'll cook through. Add 2 or 3 apple slices in the middle then fold over the sides, add some more apple slices on top. 
Put it on a plate and drizzle the crepe with the salted caramel you made earlier.
Repeat until all the batter is used.You'll get about four or five out of it so double the recipe if you want more.

Coming soon: my trip to Greece.
Secret Garden Club date on 29th of November, grow your own curry.