Not in my wheelhouse

First thing's first. Doesn't really mean anything, does it? Come to think of it I've also started saying 'it is what it is', and 'that's not in my wheelhouse'. Quite where these phrases have crept into my life I'm not sure. I blame the country music that Ewan plays incessantly. Anyway, here is the thing that is the first thing. Better? Not really.

The garden is alive. Or to clarify, the vegetables in the garden are. Much to my surprise, in addition to the radishes (which I am reliably informed could be grown by literally anyone), beetroots are taking off, as are my baby leeks, carrots, onions, chard and even the beginnings of courgettes. Whether any of these things which actually be edible remains to be seen. But worst case scenario, I’ll just start burying shop bought veg in the garden to make myself feel better.

Now, onto the important stuff. If you've read this blog before you are probably aware that I can go on fairly relentlessly about the difference homemade stock can make. But I'd like to think that the recent blog on the virtues of tinned cherry pie filling show that I'm capable of being a pragmatist.


I thought I would try to construct a list of some of the things that I think it’s worth making from scratch, and some things where the shop bought option seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable alternative. So without further ado…

 

Crumpets and Scones

This is the one that spurred me into writing this piece. I love crumpets. Mostly for their ability to act like a sponge for butter. But I do also enjoy the crumpets themselves. But mostly the butter. Having made crumpets a couple of times myself, they absolutely make my list of not worth making at home. I see no discernible benefit. Whilst not labour intensive, they require a long proving period and then take an age to cook, for something that (inexplicably) still isn't as good as a decent supermarket brand's version. Perhaps I’m just no good at making them. I do like butter though.

Scones on the other hand should always be homemade, as should fairy cakes. Mostly because, unless they’re eaten within about half an hour of coming out of the oven, they simply aren't very good.

 

Sweet chilli sauce and Mayonnaise

Blue dragon sweet chilli sauce. Enough said. I also feel sure I remember seeing an interview with James Martin once where he expressed the same sentiment. Contains about a million ingredients so making at home is just a laborious waste of time.

Mayonnaise on the other hand, make yourself, especially if it's the basis for another sauce like tartare etc. It bears little resemblance to the shop bought variety.

 

Tomato sauce and pasta

It comes down to the fact that tinned pasta sauces are 90% tinned tomatoes. Just buy the tinned tomatoes for a fraction of the price and make your own.

The pasta to have with your sauce is more of a contentious issue though. Both fresh and dried pasta are actually very good products. Making your own isn't necessarily a guarantee of a better product. That being said, making pasta is quite a satisfying thing to do. So we’ll put it in the category of ‘if you have the time’.

This seems as good a place as any to insert puff pastry into the conversation, as I feel it fits into the pasta line of argument quite well. Homemade puff pastry is, I think, undeniably different from the shop bought kind, but is it actually good enough for it to make the 'make it from scratch' list? I think probably not. You can buy very good all-butter puff pastry so, if you have the time, nice to make but not worth it every time.

 

So there we have it. Yet again, I have solved a problem that didn’t exist, and answered a question that no one really asked. You are most welcome. I will now return to what I should actually be doing and prepping for Friday's supper club.

From Still to Bar: Whisky tasting at Shotgun BBQ with the WSET

Sometimes a little self-deception is a harmless thing. After a few mediocre old fashioneds at some cocktail places around London, I thought, “How hard can it be?”. I know a thing or two about whisky, bourbon is a small jump from there, and as far as cocktails go, old fashioneds shouldn’t be too taxing. So after a couple of rather enjoyable weeks, I settled on a recipe I liked and was rather pleased with my efforts in churning out this beverage.

As I said, self-deception isn’t really a problem….until you realise it. Sadly, my personal epiphany came on Monday night at 26 Kingly street, Soho as part of the From Still to Bar series run by the WSET, where I was served an old fashioned that made me realise that my attempts amounted to little more than stirring orange juice into whisky and pouring it into a nice glass.

The blow, although severe, was thankfully lessened by the fact that the drink in question, and the Sazerac that followed were quite excellent.

The evening was put together by the wine and spirit education trust as the final chapter of a three-part series that has run this year, in which a spirit has been put under the spotlight in an attempt to share some knowledge with a wider audience.

Tastefully done, the event consists of the sampling of three very different whiskies. After trying them, and listening to a short speech via an iPod from Will Lowe of the Cambridge Distillery, the bar staff – who deserve a good deal of credit for the quality of the evening’s drinks – will then make each customer a cocktail using whichever of the whiskies they prefer.

What’s on offer feels quite unique, as to taste a spirit in its pure form, identify its characteristics, then to see how they can be modified, adapted or highlighted into a cocktail really makes you think about your choice of spirit in cocktail making, in a way the consumer is perhaps not usually challenged to do.

The tasting is available any time the restaurant is open, but a word of advice would be to head there early and sample what’s on offer in place of pre-dinner drinks whilst sat at the bar, so you can watch the bar staff making your cocktail and pester them as to exactly what they’re doing – they seemed only too happy to oblige.

Lobos in Soho

What is the most misunderstood animal? If nature programmes are anything to go by, I am reliably informed that it is the wolf. Victimised and scandalised, it turned up late on the day jobs were handed out and got “moon howler/sheep harasser”, narrowly missing out on “man’s best friend” to a rag tag bunch of drooling dogs.

Like its namesake, Lobos Soho has the potential to be overlooked. Arriving at Frith Street it is a slightly worrisome sign that the queue I have to push through to get inside is actually for Hoppers, which is next door. Neither is it immediately clear that whilst this is a tapas bar, the restaurant’s primary focus is on its meat. But don’t be fooled. The thing worth talking about here is undoubtedly the meat.

I tend to stay away from a lot of pork on menus in London unless it’s been slow cooked. Even from the highest quality animals, it is a desperately unforgiving meat that goes from raw and chewy to dry and stringy in the blink of an eye.

The Iberico is a whole other story. Like listening to Born to Run on Vinyl, putting on a tailor made suit or watching Avatar in HD, Iberico is the upgrade you wondered how you’d ever done without. So if you are not averse to the possibilities of pork that has been little more than lightly seared and seasoned, then read on.

The Iberico Pork Selection arrives piled with Loin, Presa and Secreto, each with their own unique texture and flavour. Almost entirely raw, the loin’s appearance is so striking that it has you wondering if you’ve accidentally been brought the tuna carpaccio. I glance at my companion and tell him I’m not sure we’ll get through the whole plate. One bite in we realise it’s a non-issue. It is all exemplary.

This is not to say that there aren’t other high points along the way. A Grilled Octopus Leg is gelatinous and rich, falling just the right side of fishy, with mouthfuls alternating between hits of squid and crab, the whole thing lifted by small pieces of fried chorizo. And Croqueta with sweet red pepper are a great balance between fatty and meaty. 

If there is a criticism of Lobos it would have to be the various potato elements dotted about the dishes. The fried ones are nearly all overly greasy and the potato puree that comes with Mushrooms and Fried Quails Egg is somewhat gluey and under seasoned. Mostly they’re simply superfluous. This is tapas: if you want a potato dish you’ll order one, no need for the token gesture of putting one on my meat platter. Just serve the lip-puckeringly flavoursome and piquant garlic salsa verde-style sauce that accompanies the plates instead, as a foil to cut through all the pork’s quite marvellous natural fattiness.

These are just about the only negatives, though. You could eat here well without drinks for £30 a head; but for only a little more, try the wonderful Manzanilla sherry to start with some thinly sliced Iberico ham and salted almonds.

The Chef's Table

I have come to the conclusion that the notion of ‘bingewatching’ a television show can’t be considered the be all and end all as a way of measuring how much you truly enjoy a program.

For whilst I may have watched breaking bad with the kind of fervour and relentlessness somewhat akin to the characters in the show searching for their next hit, the way I watch the Netflix series ‘The Chef’s Table’ is rather different.

From the outset, I won’t try and deny that the program is rather pretentious and takes itself very seriously, but in all honesty, I don’t especially care. I think it is the best ‘food’ program on TV today, constantly engaging, thought provoking, filled with food-porn and from a chef’s perspective, incredibly inspiration provoking.

So with series 2 having been up for a while and only 6 episodes a series, you’d think that I would have breezed through them by now. Whereas actually I’m only halfway through the second season, and I think I have realised why.

When I watched the first season a little over a year ago, the program provided me with an enormous burst of creative energy at a time when it was seriously lacking. Virtually every dish on my recent and current supper club menus was conceived in the few week’s following my finishing watching the program.

The program managed to temporarily dredge up obsessive tendencies, amplified by the fact that I was living by myself at the time, so there was no one to stop me wandering aimlessly around the flat in the middle of the night muttering about ingredients and food combinations to myself, and wondering if there was a 24 hour tesco nearby where I could get some leeks to try out a new idea at 2am.

And so,  being so aware of the creative urge that the last season gave me, I am probably foolishly on some level trying to extend that, as if last time was anything to go by, there’s a limited window for which it can continue to provide the same kind of inspiration once I've watched it. And creativity is not an easy thing to come by. Sadly, turning it on and off isn’t really on option. Sometimes, all you can do is immerse yourself and hope for the best

And sure, I could just watch it again, and no doubt I will, but finding it fascinating and enjoyable on a re-watch is not the same as the light bulb moment you’re hoping for the first time you watch or read or visit something you’ve been anticipating.

So as I slowly move through the last few episodes I have decided that a couple of new cookbooks (or perhaps more appropriately tomes) ought to help in prolonging the creative streak. After all, the cooking is the easy part; it’s the figuring out what to cook that’s challenging.

If you’d like to see, and more importantly taste, some of what my creative ramblings have come up with, I have two supper clubs coming up in South London on the 24th and 25th June. Priced at £29 , it promises to be a great couple of nights, and it would be great to see you down there.  BUY TICKETS HERE

N.B The supper club on the 24th has now sold out, but there are still seats available for the 25th.