Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cooking with Ken Hom

Ken Hom with his dan dan noodles
One minute you're on the phone to Ken Hom, the next minute he's telling you, very politely, that you are in danger of overcooking your noodles. I interviewed the master of Chinese cookery for Metro recently, and I also interviewed the queen of Cactus TV, Amanda Ross, about Cactus Kitchens, the cookery school above the studios where Saturday Kitchen is filmed.

Coincidentally, when Amanda kindly offered me a place on their first Saturday Kitchen Experience class, it was the one Ken was teaching. He's only in the country twice a year, so it's a rare old business to be able to meet him. He's a practised anecdote-teller and, like all celebrities who have polite public personas, he threw in a few swears to let us know that he's human. As he talked he cooked dan dan noodles, made with ginger, garlic, spring onions, chilli and sesame paste, and garnished with deep-fried pork mince (absolutely delicious, as you might expect) and toasted, ground lip-tingling Sichuan pepper. Then we had a go, while he circulated, offering advice, tasting things and drinking wine.

I'm a bit of a cookery school obsessive thanks to three months at Ballymaloe, and Cactus Kitchens is pretty smart. It's part of a tasteful church conversion and the stations are well appointed, with sharp Michel Roux Jr Global knives (he's an investor and runs classes) and lots of kit, including induction hobs.Trying to find the right bits and pieces quickly in an unfamiliar setup made me sympathise, briefly, with MasterChef contestants who find themselves in a strange kitchen without the comfort of their own wooden spoons. It is, though, very easy to get used to kitchen luxury.

Some people will be here just to be in the same room as the chefs, but some will want to learn the more technical aspects of a dish. With this in mind, no matter how much it makes the lovely room look like Darlington Tech, they need to put a mirror (or, more likely here, a monitor) above the teacher's station so you can see what's going on in the pans.

When all the dan dans were done, we ate them, and then went downstairs for a sip'n'sign before Ken went off. He's a lovely bloke and he had plenty of time for everyone - it's all about access here, and you certainly get that. After that, it was the omelette challenge, where pairs of students emulate the show's eggy cook-off on the real set, with the real pans. I thought I wouldn't be competitive: I was. I didn't win, but I think I'm more bothered about overcooking my noodles in front of Ken.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Luck Lust Liquor & Burn

Sticky pork buns - excellent pic, no?
Frank loves liquor, so when fashionable cocktail establishment Socio Rehab reopened as Luck Lust Liquor & Burn last week, he insisted on conducting a lunchy fly-past. It's a dirty food job from the people behind Almost Famous, with overtones of the Food Network's evening programming. Anything Guy Fieri would get stuck in his moustache - mac and cheese, chilli, cheesesteak and a £30 'huge man vs burrito' challenge - is here, with pulled pork and bacon-topped burgers from Almost Famous.

The fit-out is nicely done, tongue-in-cheek Americana that reminded us of Red's True Barbecue in Leeds and plenty more besides. It's freezing cold - there are places in Manchester that no amount of CaliMex sun-soaked Golden State blather can reach unless you turn the heating on. We huddled round our blue cheese dip with bacon and a bucket of barbecue Popchips, then Frank's quesadilla, Deb's ragingly spicy lettuce cups filled with chicken, peanuts and pineapple and mango salsa, grilled halloumi with roasted tomato ketchup (not really a cockle-warmer, that one) and yum yum sticky pork buns. Probably the best bit, the 'buns' were slices of lovely light brioche topped with clumps of pulled pork, 'Hawaiian' barbecue sauce and more pineapple and mango salsa. Deb didn't think they were too sweet or too lumpen, but I did.

Pudding, a salted caramel brownie that turned out to be an Oreo brownie, had an air of Momofuku Milk Bar about it, with a liberal layer of multicoloured confetti crumb between the chew-crunch of the brownie and a ball of really good malted vanilla ice cream. Less chocolate, more biscuit, it would have gone well  - granny alert - with a cup of Lancashire tea.

We got pretty much what we expected at Liquor & Burn; dirty food which, transplanted to the land that inspired it, would occupy the middle of the highway. What surprised me was the service. On Twitter, they create a certain mood (sample Tweet: "MEEEEOOOWWWW FUCK YEAH"), which doesn't necessarily suggest warmth and kindness, but they were professional, knowledgeable, and nice. Nothing helps an Alabama bone suckin slammer burrito go down like a bit of old-fashioned well-mannered waitering.