Wednesday, September 01, 2010

In conversation: Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson

Last night at the Lowry hotel was an unusually rock'n'roll proposition, with Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson (who are friends) on stage to discuss fast food, bone marrow and the democratisation of fine dining. The hook was Bourdain's new book Medium Raw and the event was organised by Manchester Food and Drink Festival. After a long lunch at the Mark Addy with the chefs, festival director Phil Jones was irretrievably drunk, leaving it to compere Mark Garner to keep control.

Bourdain is a brilliant quote machine, and by the time he's finished his UK junket you might have heard his talkytalk more than once, but live, it was good stuff. He describes his transition from grunt cook to the 'celebrity chef author scam business' as both weird and ludicrously fantastic. 'I don't think writing is good for anybody,' he said, dapper in cowboy boots. 'They're nasty, angry people. But I don'tmiss the [kitchen] work.' As the father of a three-year-old, he's had to confront the childish longing for the consistency and security of fast food. 'How do we break their evil grip on our children? A person might suggest that Ronald McDonald has been implicated in the disappearance of a number of small children.'

He also brought news of how New York restaurants are adapting to the challenges of recession. 'Overnight, people lost fortunes, and the cost of ingredients has skyrocketed. That changed the game. Restaurants have become much nicer and cut out all of the bullshit. They have to be pleasant when you call for a table. And it has forced chefs to move in a direction they wanted to move in anyway, cooking more shin and head and less filet mignon. Fine dining should be fun. If you're dressing up for your waiter, something is really wrong.'

Henderson was brought on for the traditional hero-worship from Bourdain, who describes himself as 'still a fanboy' in awe of the chefs he's now mates with. 'You have to understand,' he said, turning earnestly to Fergus, 'the effect of the book [Nose to Tail Eating] on the food world was electric. Rich people are now paying for food that poor people used to have to eat. And you'll never get away from the fucking bone marrow dish. It'll be on your headstone.'

When it came to questions, it was clear how much of an inspiration both Bourdain and Henderson are to the industry -one 'F'n'B guy' in the crowd maintained that there are chefs who read Kitchen Confidential daily, and general warmth for Henderson was maintained even after he explained that dog isn't nice to eat because it congeals really quickly. The reason dog was brought into it? Manners. Bourdain says, 'I'm a good guest. If you offer me something [even a platter of puppy heads] I'm going to be appreciative.'

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Can you smell bacon?

I have a feeling Tim spent most of our visit to the Wirral Food and Drink Festival with one eye on the police on duty, hoping they'd stand next to Shaw Meats so he could do his bacon joke. That didn't happen, but our utility room does smell of bacon, because we've hung a hunk of their Cumbrian pancetta above the washing machine so that the air can get to it. It beats Fairy.

The Wirral fest, held at Claremont Farm, has been going for five years, and it's grown hugely since the first one, where I mumbled my way through a talk about what it's like to be a restaurant critic (answer: fattening). I know the farm well because it's where chef and good egg Brian Mellor has his cookery school, and Andrew Pimbley, the famously fanciable farmer, has kindly contributed to more asparagus features than I care to remember. This year there were two demo stages, a loud folk band and a huge beer tent as well around 100 exhibitors. What was very noticeable was - and this might sound a bit off - the crowd. At a lot of these things there are just hands blindly grabbing the samples and disappearing without so much as a by-your-leave. People are rude, they don't buy much and they don't even seem to particularlylike food. Here, everyone was asking questions, tasting with interest, giving it a bit of the old please and thank you and, crucially, putting their hands in their pockets.

We came away with a haul including but not limited to chicken liver pate from Katie's Proper Pate, some Wirral watercress, lovely organic vine tomatoes, a couple of steak burgers, strawberries, kippers straight from the on-site mini smoker, a great loaf of sourdough from this lot and sweetcorn from the inimitable Vorn the Corn, who laughs fruitily when he hands a cob over to the ladies, growling, "I thought size didn't matter?". And, of course, the pancetta, which you can smell before you see.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Field of dreams

If your dreams involve raspberry sponge with white chocolate icing and pink wafer roses, that is. And whose don't?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Gregg Wallace: what a pudding

Gregg Wallace was to be heard giving Libby Purves plenty of sugary love on Radio 4's Midweek last Wednesday, which coincided with the thump of a new book, Gregg's Favourite Puddings, on the Hale and Hearty doormat. The baldy one is much associated with dessert, and the new collection contains 106 recipes for them, with cheery intros from the man himself.

Judging by the small print, it would be doing Gregg a kindness to describe the recipes as his. Some of the recipes in Gregg's Favourite Puddings have appeared before in other books published by Hamlyn, and since Wallace's other books are about veg and published by Mitchell Beazley (same publishing group, different imprint), I'm thinking he didn't spend hours slaving over rather housewifely recipes for strawberry crumble flan or chocolate roulade. I looked into the author absence issue for Fire & Knives recently, so I know what goes on, and I'm not entirely comfortable with it.

Nevertheless, we had friends staying, I had a new baking book, and the rest was inevitable. After a just-serviceable foray into 'his' take on the famous Portuguese custard tarts, I was looking for something more reliable from the book. On page 44, of the New York cheesecake, Gregg observes "I just can't help myself. Every time I see one I think of tall buildings and hum Gershwin." I couldn't help myself either. It's a simple recipe which uses a kilo of cream cheese and plenty of sour cream, but which is, unsettlingly, stabilised with flour. I expected its presence to be horribly obvious, but what we got was a decent texture and rich-but-clean, slightly lemony flavour. Without the involvement of a bain marie the cheesecake developed a deep three-crevasse split which looked like a T and gave Tim the right to demand the first slice. He needn't have rushed in: since the recipe serves 10, we'll be singing Gershwin every time we open the fridge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Also...cakes again

It will not come as a surprise that I have been making more cakes. My friend's daughter Nancy is being christened at the weekend and the little lady and her mum Liz came round to pick their favourites from trial batches of lemon, raspberry and white chocolate, coconut and vanilla cupcakes to be served at the do. The recipes are all from the Primrose Bakery cookbook and, mercifully, they all work. Raspberry and white chocolate, with a spoonful of jam slipped into the cake under icing that's a cross between vanilla buttercream and white chocolate ganache, won the day. The ones in the picture look at bit playschool, but once I've applied 25 pairs of icing feet, some pink wafer roses and pearly pink sugar spheres to Saturday's lot, they're going to be pretty impressive.

The tapas revolution

The north west is in the grip of a hosepipe ban, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been pissing it down. Spaniards Omar Allibhoy and Danni Sancho (Omar is head chef at El Pirata De Tapas in Westbourne Grove, Danni an ex-colleague and friend) got the soggy end of the stick last week as their 'tapas revolution', in which they travel a T drawn on the UK map cooking tapas for anyone who asks, began.

They're travelling on motorbikes (one of which has now been stolen) but it had been so wet in Liverpool that they had had to join their camera crew in their motor home. They were soaking wet, already heartily sick of camping, and late. Nevertheless, they manfully cooked a tapas feast in our kitchen, dispensing chorizo tips to our guests Bryony and Ric, and by proxy the camera, along the way. And that was before they'd put their tent up.

I had elected to stay out of shot, so I had to wait until filming had finished to try the sangria, melon with ham, potatoes with alioi and white asparagus, garlicky fried mushrooms and pinxitos of bread topped with Manchego and Murcia al Vino from Delifonseca, membrillo and walnuts. But I did get a sneaky mouthful of Omar's quick Spanish fry-up, featuring chorizo, prawns and a slightly agitated egg, and decided we'll be replicating it at our brunchy leisure, although sadly we'll have to do the washing up rather than leaving it to a couple of visiting Spaniards.

Before the boys arrived I was sceptical about a tapas revolution and suspected whole thing might be more to do with Omar's Che-like looks than a need to educate the eating public. It's not as if tapas is unknown; most people even realise that what La Tasca does isn't it. But Omar and Danni came to us fresh from cooking outside Anfield, where a succession of the mad and foolish had refused their food. One woman explained that she went to Spain every year, but preferred to eat egg and chips while in residence. Perhaps those who lurk around the Kop in the middle of a workday aren't the best sample, but at the risk of sounding like Rick Stein just after he's checked out of a chain hotel in Woking, what is wrong with people?

NB: Will the revolution be televised? Potentially. They just have to sell the finished travelogue to a broadcaster.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Post 82: In which my patience wears thin

I have had it up to here - here, I tell you - with the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook. The recipes are rubbish. It formed part of my Christmas cookbook haul because I find that there's something seductive about American-style baking (except the recipes that start with a box of 'yellow cake mix'), and the black bottom cupcakes, with spoonfuls of vanilla cheesecake filling baked into chocolate sponge, looked irresistible. We're a long way from the Hummingbird shops, so it's a case of BIY: bake it yourself.

If only it was that simple. I got a bit bored of the baby biscuits and have been making cupcakes for the new mums in our group. Just because something is deeply unfashionable does not mean it is unpopular. I've followed Hummingbird recipes for Nutella cupcakes, plain chocolate ones, the black bottoms and the marshmallow variant in the picture. It's vanilla sponge with a dollop of molten marshmallow in the middle and pink ones folded into the icing on top. The white things are a pair of baby feet rendered in icing. Tim says it looks like a baby has been lost in an avalanche, which is apparently 'not a bad thing.' I hope he never takes Frank snowboarding.

The recipes don't work. There are notes intended to make sure you're using the right size cases, but the cupcake batches make six, not the advertised 12, and take twice as long again as in the recipe to bake. They go stale quickly and develop sticky tops if they're not iced. The icing quantities make far too much for one batch. The peanut butter cookie recipe, although delicious, produced 36 rather than 24 biscuits, and that's not allowing for the dough I may have nibbled during the process. It's almost as bad as the first Ottolenghi book, but without the sumac and the misplaced admiration for what is basically contemporary rice salad.

I know from my work with the Guild of Food Writers that it's not a great time for the people who write the books. Budgets often don't allow for proper recipe testing and things are scaled down without much care. Books are riddled with mistakes. I'm more and more convinced that the best recipe sources, apart from people you know, are Olive, Good Food and Good Housekeeping magazines. They have the facilities to test things properly, often several times, and they would never offer a recipe that calls for 250g of peanut butter when any fule knos that standard jars hold 227g. Yes, Tarek Malouf and the Hummingbird Bakers, I'm looking at you.

Monday, June 07, 2010


MasterChef: The Professionals has won a Bafta. John Torode, never deemed quite professional enough to join in, must be seething. But on to more pressing matters. Who in their right mind would bake a British strawberry? Orlando Murrin, the former editor of BBC Good Food and himself once a MasterChef semi-finalist, is who. It turns out I would too.

I got home from the shops yesterday with a punnet of strawberries (only one of which had grown a fluffy beard to conceal a huge, sinister cavity) and an urge to bake. A giant strawberry shortcake wasn't quite right because there are only two of us on solids at H'n'H Towers and we wouldn't have eaten it before the cream made everything soggy. The normal plan - leafing through the 23 baking books stacked in the kitchen - didn't yield anything promising. So I turned to the interwebs, and specifically Orlando Murrin's strawberry and cinnamon torte.

The idea of putting strawberries with cinnamon, let alone blasting away their freshness in the oven, sounds, as we used to say at school, absolutely hanging. In fact, it works really well here, and the cake is a piece of the proverbial. You whizz ground almonds, butter, eggs, flour and sugar in the food processor with a teaspoon of cinnamon, spread half in a cake tin (the mixture looks a bit scanty, but there's just enough), add sliced strawberries and cover with the other half. An hour later, you've got an extraordinarily light cake with an appealing rubbly top and a jammy seam in the middle.

Eaten with a whipped-together combination of double cream and Greek yoghurt, using a cake fork, it feels thrillingly European, like The Wolseley did before it boarded the hell-bound handcart. It is - and stop me if this sounds a bit 50 ways with mince - pretty versatile; you could stick any fruit in the middle, except bananas. Bananas are strictly for putting in the bin.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Showing a bit of leg

Baby Frank doesn't mean to be demanding, but his needs are such that it's a very long time since we've been able to commit our culinary misdeeds to blogpaper. 

We've done the crimes (Dan Lepard's whoopie pies, a black tie dinner halfway up a mountain, fun with Heston'n'Delia and much, much more) but appear to have lost the time down the back of the nappy drawer. 

Anyway, I can just about remember the last proper roast we had in our old house (we've moved a couple of streets over, but we're keeping it Hale) and it was a corker. 

Despite a lack of sunlight in the old yard, Mum has very kindly persisted in potting up herbs for us, and the ones which have survived made their way into the classic buttery Ballymaloe herb stuffing which, although supposed to be for turkey, works wonders on supermarket pork (don't shoot me, it's outdoor reared). 

Tim cut slits into a bit of boned leg, applied plenty of the stuffing (herbs, white breadcrumbs and onions fried in lots of butter), rolled it up, trussed with string and bunged it in the oven. 

A couple of hours later, we enjoyed it between the piercing cries of the new and totally fabulous junior Bowden. 

Mind you, we should have taken the string off first.

Monday, April 26, 2010

'Happy birthday from the team'

I received a birthday greeting from The Hale Grill – the nearest outpost of the Blackhouse steak and seafood mini-chain – this morning. Checking back I see it landed in my inbox at 10.01am.

This was unusual for two reasons: 1) I'm not easily given to surrendering personal data, however benign the harvesting, and 2) it's not my birthday. 'Did you really think we'd forget?' asks the first line of the e-mail, to which I can only respond: 'I don't know, but you did – my birthday was nearly three weeks ago.'

Which presents me with a quandary. I'm more than happy to offer a home to a medium-rare sirloin; in fact, I remember joining the Blackhouse 'e-mail club' with the specific intention of receiving offers like this ('Since it's your birthday, we want you to enjoy a complimentary main course when you bring a friend to dine with us!'). But, of course, it's not my birthday.

For once, the small print offers a get-out. The voucher is valid until May 26, making my precise birth date irrelevant. Which, I guess, is how it should be: after all, what's a few weeks between friends?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sleeping baby, sneaky biscuits

If there's one thing I've learned during the four weeks of Franklin's life so far, it's that if fate offers you a spare half hour of silence, you've got to take it. So, while he was asleep today, his little arms curling like a drowsy octopus at a disco, I made some biscuits.

Rather than being any biscuits, these are baby biscuits. I've been getting together with a few other mums from antenatal classes and have recently noticed, through my fug of tiredness, that when your baby is born, the other women give you stuff. It's a proper thing: I've received very welcome little parcels contining scratch mitts, bibs, socks, a babygro and matching comedy hat, not to mention - a definite vote-winner, this - bath oil and Mini Eggs. So now I must reciprocate, and I will be giving baby biscuits.

The Americans call babygros onesies, but they shall be forgiven because they also make something called a Cookie Cutter Texture Set: Baby Onesie. This little miracle has been imported from the US of A by my local cake shop and is a rare find that includes a babygro-shaped cookie cutter and three thin plastic 'texture mats' which produce babygro patterns when you roll icing over them. Using a reliable sugar cookie recipe from Peggy Porschen and a few windows of baby sleep-based opportunity, I now have gifts to take to the next coffee morning.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Giant prawn

Last November Hale and Hearty bumped into Jamie Oliver on holiday. If we'd known about this at the time, we'd have had a word. Full story here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My kind of food book

This stood out among the stacks of hardbacks currently dominating the front room (see Wednesday's post). If you can't read the small type in the photo, it's 'a guide to the edible plants of Britain'. I didn't need to do much actual foraging to get my hands on it; it arrived via DHL this morning. But I picked it up at three and have barely set it down since.

True, it's too heavy for a day out in the backpack – and in any case, the black and white pics aren't the greatest aid to identification. But there's plenty to admire about Miles Irving's book.

It's crisply ordered, by subdivisions of the plant kingdom (so no longer must enthusiasts of the dicotyledon plough aimlessly through a text in pursuit of their quarry). The practicalities you need – where to forage and when, and advice on those plants that might, in fact, kill you – are well presented. The trivia is fascinating. And, every few pages, a chef pitches in with a relevant recipe.

But what I like about it most is its inclusivity. I'm surrounded by glossy titles as I write this; as you'd expect, there are a fair few on the Hale and Hearty bookshelves, too. But there are only four or five cookbooks I use regularly. They don't tend to demand one-off, hard-to-find fresh ingredients that have no second life in the store cupboard, and (a pet hate, this) the methods don't require me to have the product of another recipe – for, say, a complex mussaman curry paste – in reserve. But finding and picking wild plants? Anyone can do it.

And they do. In his foreword, Mark Hix recalls going out to pick blackberries for his grandmother's pies. We all have memories like that. One of mine is eating beech nuts on country walks with my dad; one day I'll do the same with baby Frank. Irving's guide applies this sentiment to the broadest canvas. It's inspirational, rather than wishy-washy aspirational. The Ebury Press RRP is £30, but needless to say it's discounted here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Feed me now

The parlour chez Hale and Hearty is a little cluttered right now, and it's not entirely due to the recent arrival of baby Frank. Emma is coordinating this year's Guild Of Food Writers awards, which means she receives a copy of the relevant materials for every entry – including the submissions for the three best book categories.

It's a weighty survey of the good, the bad and – despite the best efforts of the airbrushers – the ugly of culinary publishing from 2009. And, two days after the first courier arrived, it's taking over the floor. Frank's carry cot is in danger of being walled in.

That's not to say he wouldn't appreciate the sentiment behind some of the titles in his infant eyeline – not least the latest from perma-grinning Aussie Bill Granger, five down from the top. I guess sometimes we can all get on board with that one. Me? I've got an eye on Laura Mason's Good Old-Fashioned Roasts. Even Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights can't compete with that.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Abode with me, and other stories

The baby is due on Sunday, so I've been doing my own personal variant on nesting. This involves waddling about doing all the food-based activities I can, just in case the little fella doesn't like going to restaurants.

Yesterday began with a vigorous judging session for the Northern Hospitality Awards, in the company of guidemeister Peter Harden, chef John Benson-Smith and Peter Banks, the MD at Rudding Park. There tends to be something refreshingly no-nonsense about panels that comprise chefs as well as industry observers, and we exchanged a few low-level profanities as we worked our way through a huge pile of entrants for our allocated award. I emitted a swear when Mr H aired his theory about cooking in the east of the country being far superior to cooking in the west, but I quite enjoyed his unique calling card - he gives copies of Harden's away instead of business cards - and his use of the term 'old cove'.

Then, in case they call off the Amazing Graze offer between now and June and mindful of the fact that the Chester hotel opens soon, it was straight to Abode for the twelve quid lunch, beloved of anyone who has a pulse, a palate and pockets with averagely deep bottoms. The things we expected to be good - the excellent bread basket, the food generally and the fish in particular - still are. Chef Ian Matfin is very good at what he does, and the slow-poached salmon with watercress puree and chopped duck egg was really lovely, a sophisticated but not clever-clever take on an egg and cress sandwich - and I say that as someone who hates an egg and cress sandwich almost as much as she hates a banana. Mum's guinea fowl dish was pretty strong too, as was a simple boudin of chicken served with a herb puree and a couple of wild mushrooms.

But. I don't mind the restaurant being in the basement, I don't mind the crappy, cheap looking logo that cunningly combines an M with an @ symbol (Michael Caines at Abode, innit?), but I do mind the service. For a team that have been in place long enough for me to recognise most of them, they're still, with one or two exceptions, incredibly stilted and cackhanded and seem hidebound by procedure ("two for lunch and you haven't booked? Let me check with chef despite the fact that the restaurant is almost empty") while not able to follow basic bits of it, like having someone at the desk. Grrr.

A few hours' break and it was on to Dilli. I have always held its Ayurvedic principles, or perhaps the way various PRs have gone on about them, against it, but I bloody love its potato cakes, with their herby green insides and swirly dressings of tamarind, chilli and yoghurt. We also had an extraordinarily light spinach curry, some seafood in a rich, yellow coconutty sauce, and a classy variation on a lamb bhuna. You can see the kitchen from a few of the seats, and I began to feel that with naan like theirs, I could happily go into labour without another dinner. Then I remembered that there are a few other places I want to get done before Sunday, baby permitting. Watch this space for either outcome, kids.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Glamour Puds

I must admit that despite a deep interest in puds and a shallower interest in glamour, Glamour Puds had passed me by until this afternoon. The first series of pastry chef Eric Lanlard's Channel 4 cake show is stripped across this week at 2.55pm, with the second one scheduled to start on Monday. It has thoroughly daytime production values but has brought him a modicum of attention, and in an interview in today's Times he ponders the British fondness for style over substance in the celebration cake stakes.

Lanlard is, of course, a major proponent of that style, filling bespoke celebrity orders as well as selling handmade cakes to less well-known Londoners. His trademark dessert tower, beloved of brides who wish to give their guests a nice pudding rather than a finger of fruity misery, is much copied. He's got chops when it comes to sugarwork as well, although that's much less fashionable than whipping out a sheet of cocoa butter transfers.

The show I caught while on sofa duty, dedicated to wedding cakes, exposed the difficulties of demonstrating a real skill on telly without turning your audience off. Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets has solved the problem by getting RB to call for his assistant whenever anything too involved or unsexy is required: whole chunks of the recipes are missed out, and we're directed online to finish the job. It's shameless, but then we don't expect RB to toil over stock or parfait or rouille in real life, anyway.

Lanlard's approach is slightly different and, due to the constraints of the format, a bit half-arsed. He'll show you how much hoo-ha is involved in certain aspects of preparation – before you get past first base on his mini lemon cheesecakes, you'll need moulds and acetate strips, and he's at least honest about the fact that stacked cakes require dowelling rods for structural support, and for that, of course, you also need a hacksaw – but then goes all coy about how to make decorative white chocolate fans. There's vague talk about equipment being readily available, but no advice about how, if you're going to stick marzipan to a cake with apricot jam, you need to sieve it first.

The C4 food website doesn't really succeed in filling in the gaps, so the blushing bride seeking inspiration for her wedding cake is in receipt of some seriously mixed messages. Is the dream pearl-encrusted cake achieveable? Yes, but probably only by Eric.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Welcome to Burritoville

Actually, no. Manchester is about as far from being a hotbed of quality burritos as it's possible to be, but we're making progress. At the hairdresser's the other day (a while ago, in fact – thanks for keeping us offline for seven days, BT) there was an upset in the usual information exchange. Normally, the lady who cuts my hair tells me how she's getting on with her new boobs (she's disappointed by her recent augmentation because they don't look fake enough) and I recommend restaurants she might like to take them out to. Everyone's happy.

This time, she had a suggestion for me: Pancho's Burritos. It's a little stall that has recently opened in the food bit of the Arndale market, our own North West nod towards the food-cart culture that's supplying the hungry of other cities with spicy street snacks galore. The hairdressers of the Northern Quarter prefer it to Barburrito, and I've got a lot of time for the lunch preferences of people who are on their feet all day.

Pancho, if it was he, made me a stormingly large foil-wrapped pork burrito stuffed with everything and a little bit of spicy sauce. I should have asked him to hold the iceberg lettuce – that cold, crisp, throat-grabbing watery greenness reminds me of bad packed-lunch sandwiches and misery – but otherwise it was a decent effort, hot and fresh, and far preferable to those Ditsch soft pretzels you see people clutching as they wander around the Arndale.

Perhaps even better than the pork juices dribbling down my arm is the other stuff Pancho's sells. They've got a brilliant selection of all things spicy, including alternative brands of smoked paprika (it transpires that La Chinata, pictured above, is not the only fruit), chipotles in adobo, tomatillos, green sauce, red sauce and loads of different dried chillies, plus corn tortillas and masa.

A few years ago, as a test for a Mexican cookbook I'd been sent, I struggled to get any of this stuff in Manchester, and the big spicy dinner we held was lacking as a result. I think I ended up buying bits and bobs in America and concealing them in my luggage, in case another Mexican cookbook landed on the doorstep. I will fear leaky bottles of hot sauce no longer. Pancho's is here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Expressing disappointment

This is not just any tagliolini fungi. It's Francesco Mazzei's tagliolini fungi for Pizza Express. I've got a lot of time for Mazzei and his Liverpool Street restaurant, L'Anima. Just after it opened I went with my friend Suz and, although we stuck out like sore and slightly shabby thumbs among the cityish clientele, we were treated with exceedingly good grace. Apart from one oversalted pasta dish, the meal was brilliant, and the chef-patron subsequently proved to be a generous interviewee at the last minute, when he could – and many would – have just told me to bugger off.

Mazzei follows Theo Randall into the guest chef slot at Pizza Express, and at the beginning of February his dishes were launched at a party at the chain's Soho restaurant. Unable to waddle that far, I tried his pasta dish – there are also pizzas and starters – at Pizza Express in Hale over the weekend. Away from the bright lights of Greek Street, it wasn't, frankly, that hot.

There was a decent quota of chunky mushrooms and the promised whiff of truffle, but the portion was exceedingly mean for £9.45, and it had been flashed under the grill, leaving some strands in an advanced state of burny mortis, crisp, black and crunchy. I understand that the launch went well enough, but there are 372 restaurants in the PE chain; the dishes will have been designed for easy and effective roll-out, and if Mazzei was hoping to show off his wares further afield, he's been let down by the fellas in the stripy tops.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Ice, ice baby

I didn't sleep much last night. It's the excitement. Sometime today, the delivery men from Currys (who, if they are anything like their in-store counterparts, will be nice but stink of fags) are coming. They will bring with them my ticket to culinary freedom. I cannot wait.

I've long been equipped with pestle and mortar, good knives and the best plug-in items that messrs Kenwood and Magimix can provide. But, since leaving home for Manchester in the late nineties, I have never had access to a proper freezer. Those crappy ice-making drawers at the top of normal fridges have been my lot in life; the one we have now is capable of keeping a tub of Cherry Garcia frozen yoghurt solid for about 36 hours, which creates occasional, intense bouts of ice cream frenzy, followed by long fallow periods.

The decidedly mid-range fridge freezer we chose at the weekend is ostensibly because of the baby. I'll be able to freeze little cubes of carrot puree, refrigerate his milk, and get to things without bending down because, well, I can't. There's also a theory that women should spend their maternity leave cooking, labelling and freezing big batches of nutritious meals for the weeks after birth, because otherwise they will end up living on Cheestrings and their beloveds will leave them.

That's all very well, but at the moment I can only see frozen fun and frolics. An ice-frosted bottle of gin with ice cubes rattling alongside. Chicken bones frozen until there's enough to make stock, rather than chucked heartlessly away. Blackberries picked down near the Priory. Blobs of biscuit dough ready to bake at will. Orange sorbet frozen in the hollowed-out shells for when my sister comes round and we remember holidays in France. Ice cream that can be eaten, rather than drunk, after two days at Hale and Hearty towers! Excuse me. I've just got to look out of the window and see if the men from Currys are coming.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ken Hom's hot wok

In Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, she describes taking a whirlwind, whiskey-fuelled tour of Flushing's Chinese restaurants with Ken Hom. Before reading it, I thought of him mainly in connection with the garlicky pages of our copy of Foolproof Chinese Cookery (the spicy chicken with peanuts is a favourite, although it demands a lot of chopping). Afterwards, I realised how much he knows, how long he's been at it, and that he shares the excitement about finding the good stuff that's common to most food people.

I was surprised to see him on the list of guest chefs for this year's Obsession festival at Northcote – the restaurant he consults for is in Bangkok and he lives between there and France, neither of which is handy for the Ribble Valley. Apparently, Atul Kochar was instrumental in setting up last night's event, and on screens in the dining room we watched Hom, 60, darting about the Northcote kitchen with a glass of white in his hand, tasting, plating and overseeing the service of his five-course menu.

Highlights were Vietnamese rice paper-wrapped spring rolls, served with crisp iceberg lettuce and leaves of basil, coriander and mint to form a fresh outer layer, and a poky dipping sauce with lots of lime. I don't generally see a recipe for a simple square of pale steamed fish and think 'yum', so the steamed turbot with ginger and spring onions and a soy and sesame dressing was an unusual treat, and pud – warm slices of perfect mango with basil leaves and vanilla ice cream – was great too. This being Northcote, the whole lot was bookended with excellent warm bread, a cheese course and coffee with tiny, very loveable Eccles cakes, and served with warm professionalism and humour.

The company was great, too; a communal table included Sam Allardyce and his wife (he likes elvers, she finds octopus freaky), Angela Hartnett (hates Tesco, loves Steven Gerrard), William Hunter (grows an awful lot of carrots) and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines. A Czech child refugee and one of Winton's children, she's past 80, full of life and devoted to helping young Czechs who work in hospitality find their feet over here. She's also better with a knife and fork than chopsticks, which made me feel a lot better about my own ineptitude.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Get Fraiche

Last night, a bit of Wirral glamour came to Manchester in the shape of Marc Wilkinson and a selection of culinary toys including a smoke gun. It was the first Harvey Nichols guest-cheffery occasion that I can remember, and like a small-town theatre in summer, the bar and brasserie had gone dark in order to focus the collective mind on the matter in hand: 40 Mancunian covers, keen to taste Marc's food without trekking to Oxton for it.

As I breakfast contemplatively on the herby caramelised pecans boxed up for the ladies to take away after dinner, I can report that all went well. There was a jovial, slightly excitable atmosphere – by its nature, it's not often that the HN dining room is full of customers whose main interest is in the food – and Gemma Perry, Marc's right-hand girl, ran an unflustered service.

For £90 with plenty of matching wine (£65 for me, the poor non-boozer), we had a dinner that I'd rank, if I was the Hornby sort, somewhere in Per Se's slipstream but far above our recent sortie to Mr Underhill's in Ludlow, which has held a star for years, and probably over Purnell's, Juniper old and new and Simpsons as well. Highlights included the novelty of a dish of smoking olives with a plume that rose when the lid was lifted ("They taste," said Tim, "like they've just come out of a house fire"), and an extraordinarily tender loin of rabbit swapped in for the foie gras course in case baby H'n'H, now 34 weeks and kicking like a mentalist, was adversely affected by all that vitamin A. There was also a revelatory pairing of sweetly seared scallop – not pictured, that's another one of his scallop dishes – and fresh, clean pineapple puree.

Wilkinson does like to fiddle, but he gets the balance right, and the processes he puts ingredients through serve to clarify the flavours: my melon and almond soup came with little barrels of melon stuck with slivered almonds, like tiny fruit and nut angels, and the almonds themselves were ridiculously...almondy. The verjus drizzlings with a piece of seared sea bass and aubergine yoghurt shook the whole thing awake, although I will admit that I thought it was tamarind for a while, and I hadn't even had a drink.

Things slowed down marginally towards the end, and I decided that I would willingly have sacrificed one of the dessert courses in order to leave while I was still awake. Then Tim asked me whether I would have missed the chilled, fizzy grapes, the lemongrass pannacotta with the sour cherry foam, or the deconstructed Sachertorte with the shot glass of apricot sorbet and warm, mouth-filling chocolate moussey stuff. I didn't have an answer for that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Heart of darkness

I'm working on a story about making home-made sweets as a Valentine's gift. It's not Treadstone, or even Sugarhorse, but yesterday I decided to do a spot of deep background research and make some chocolate-covered honeycomb, aka cinder toffee, aka Crunchie.

One of my interviewees for the piece is Chantelle Nicholson, sous chef at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and co-author of Nutmeg & Custard, Wareing's rather lovely book. There's a whole chapter dedicated to home-made sweets and, before I start blithely advising readers to create one of the most dangerous situations known to the home cook (all it takes is someone to come along and stick their finger in that tempting molten sugar), I wanted to walk a mile in the sweetmaker's shoes (which are, sadly, usually dirty Crocs).

Nicholson had told me that the honeycomb was a piece of the proverbial, and she was almost right. You add three tablespoons of honey and one of golden syrup to 150g of sugar, stir until the crystals dissolve, and add two teaspoons of bicarb. Then it explodes into sweet, amber-coloured foam, which you steer into the waiting lined tray. 15 minutes and a dip in chocolate later, you've got that Friday feeling.

Except. As you can see from the picture, in which my first attempt looks considerably darker than the second, I burnt it. It started boiling before the sugar had dissolved, and by the time I got it out of the hot pan, it was smoking. You can see the dark seam of burniness running through the middle, and although the texture is great, Tim rightly observed that it tastes of petrol. It's not the love token I was aiming for.

It had also filled the house with the smell of burnt honey. In my excitement about finding a purpose for some of the stash kindly sent by a man from Rowse last year after we discussed the plight of the honey bee, I had forgotten that we both hate the actual taste. It's all floral and pervasive, and brings to mind a 23-year-old with a beret and a book sweetening her tea in an ostentatious manner here.

For the next lot I subbed in all golden syrup for the honey, used caster sugar to encourage melting and boiled it briefly. The result wasn't as spectacular – the burnt stuff had formed a much more voluminous foam, presumably because the base liquid was thinner and lighter to start with – but as you can see (it's on top of the stack), it looks like proper honeycomb. Sweet.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gordon's prawns

Gordon Ramsay's F Word? These days, that would be frequently – as in 'frequently on telly, with diminishing returns'. He's back on Channel 4 tonight with Gordon's Great Escape, a culinary jaunt around India that at least promises to be more about food than celebrity fluff. Never mind the annus horribilis or that lost Michelin star: we'll tune in to see him make 'real deal versions of Britain's favourite dishes', if only to shake the taste of BBC 2's own Monday night offering, the tin-scraping Delia Through The Decades.

Hale and Hearty didn't get a preview copy of Ramsay's show, but we have cooked the Bengali prawn curry recipe he supposedly picked up on his travels. It's pretty good, too, from the rather austere, blend-your-own aromatic paste that only reveals its full character in the final minutes on the hob, to the relative luxury of marinated king prawns (I can't imagine Ramsay commanding his brigade to 'bulk it out with a bag of cheap tiddlers', but that's exactly what we did).

Is it authentic? It certainly has the subtlety– and seafood bias – you might expect from Bengali cooking. Resist the temptation to ramp up the seasoning and you'll have a healthy, warming bowlful with enough well-delineated flavours to make it interesting, if not particularly fun; you suspect most consumers of those aforementioned favourite dishes would demand something richer next to it on the curry-house table. As an appetiser for the show, though, it bodes well.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Spangle dangle: stars in the north

The Michelin results have been 'leaked' once more, and it's a case of something and nothing for the mighty north. Some things remain, comfortingly, the same: Fraiche has kept its star, Anthony's lack of Michelin status continues as a source of ire, Birmingham stays high-profile and ex-Alty man Paul Kitching has picked up a plaque for his Edinburgh restaurant, 21212. Northcote is still the most convenient option for the man standing in the middle of Manchester, thinking "where can I get me some star-studded snacks?".

Of course, the London news, especially the loss of a oner for Ramsay at Claridge's and the new three for Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, is big. But what strikes me is the lack of interest in the only 'rising two star' award in the UK, given to Simon Radley, the funny-looking fella on the right of our picture, who's been cooking at the Chester Grosvenor since I was a bairn.

'Rising' awards are difficult. They mean that the chef is tipped for the stars proper next year, but they're pretty unpopular among the recipients, hard to explain in print, and perhaps suggest that Michelin haven't got the prairie oysters to just sod it and give them the stars. Nevertheless, Simon Radley's new status is pretty interesting. I've been a couple of times and liked it, but I'm curious to know, after all this time, what he's done this year that he didn't do last. I think more of my fellow foodlers would also be curious, if only they knew or cared where nobbins it is.

The other award-winning place now on the H'n'H list is The Alderley Restaurant at the Alderley Edge Hotel. Footballers love it, we liked it when we went a few years ago at the height of the asparagus season, and now the AA has declared its affection: it was one of 12 places given three AA rosettes in this year's round. Caterer rightly describes this as shifting it into the big league, and it's pootling distance from Hale, so I'll be looking out my snootiest facial expression for a trip to the Edge.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I am the egg man: chocolate fondant

Last night I made a batch of chocolate fondant (or 'the perfect chocolate fondant', to use the headline in Olive). I did so wearing this rather fetching new apron. It's illustrated with cartoon eggs, which chimes nicely with the pivotal role played by our ovoid friends in this classic dessert. That's me, buttering the moulds.

The recipe came from jowly restaurateur and Civilian Masterchef judge John Torode, and is on the long list of indulgent treats favoured by his televisual partner in crime, Gregg Wallace (who appears to believe it should be pronounced, loudly, 'fondont'). It's also regularly attempted by contestants, with wildly mixed results: the eggy mix must be prepared and cooked with precision if you are to avoid either raw flavours or a bone-dry core.

I've never made it before, and don't know how closely this recipe follows classic iterations. One Torodian touch is the addition of white chocolate for texture (we used Milkybar Buttons instead of the suggested Green & Black's). He also recommends metal pudding moulds (for improved heat conduction). Purists will tell you hand-beating achieves better results, but trust me: you'll need an electric whisk for the all-important mixing of eggs and sugar over a pan of simmering water.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Snow cake

Last year Hale and Hearty considered the purpose of a plastic cake decoration styled as a naked female torso. A solution has now presented itself.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Baking in a winter wonderland

Cranberry and orange cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. The recipe is from a pre-Christmas acquisition, the Primrose Bakery cookbook. Happy new year!