Monday, 10 April 2017

BBQ Chermoula Marinated Leg of Lamb

Pink lamb with charred crust

Let’s be honest, barbecuing is a bit of a boys’ club. Maybe it’s got something to do with all the fire and all the meat, but barbecues conjure images of big, sweaty men, swigging from beer cans while prodding hot coals. Drawn, blinking, out of their homes by the promise of sausages they come, like hairy moths to a smoking flame.

When I was growing up in the 1980’s, my Mum did the majority of the cooking. This wasn’t down to any adherence to archaic gender roles - she was just better at it than my dad and had more of an active interest. But there was something about a hot summer’s day and a cloudless sky that would interrupt this status quo. On days like these, a man - whose usual culinary forays were rarely more adventurous than heating up a tin of beans - would wield a giant pair of tongs.  And these tongs would turn him into Keith Floyd.

As a child, I thought barbecues were fun, but ultimately just burnt food eaten outdoors, with the soundtrack of occasional yells of “can someone tell me what colour this is, please?” My dad is colour-blind, so the different nuances in hue between a cooked and a raw chicken thigh are largely beyond him. Luckily, he’s improved in the years since and, though he’s still no Gordon Ramsay, he can cook a decent kebab and good banger, and it’s been several years since he last set fire to a tree.

I know that my own childhood experiences don’t necessarily represent society at large (if they did, we would have a lot fewer trees), but I don’t think they are that unusual either. I’m not for an instant saying that men should step away from the barbie, I just wonder why more women don’t roll their sleeves up and get a little closer to the smoke too.

Which is exactly what I did over the weekend. A weekend barbecue, you say? How lovely. How relaxing. Except for the fact that I live in a third floor flat with no garden. But this trifling fact wasn’t enough to stop me. Especially not in weather like this, which cries for meat and something cold and fizzy to wash it down with. I skipped down to Argos for a portable coal barbecue and proceeded to light it on the fire escape: strictly forbidden. This might not be the most suitable of arrangements, but at least it’s tree-free out there. The barbecue itself is, in truth, a bit poxy. The coals were poking through the grill because it was too small to fit them in properly, but it got the job done, even if it wasn’t quite perfectly.

Boned leg of lamb, marinated in chermoula and cooked over hot coals

I butterflied a boned half leg of lamb (this was dinner for two), stabbed it all over and bunged it in an overnight chermoula marinade with the added ingredient of fresh mint. I am a Brit after all, and when my thoughts turn to lamb, mint often follows. The lamb was pink and succulent on the inside with a perfectly charred crust on the outside.

I parboiled some Jersey Royals and plunged them in ice water, before dousing them in oil, salt, pepper and more chopped mint. I threaded them on kebab skewers while the lamb was lying over the coals. I do love a spud, but there’s something extra special about a spud that’s been barbecued, so full of smoky, crispy, moreish goodness.

Barbecued Jersey Royals

I rustled up a simple salad of pea shoots, spring onion and courgette ribbons tossed in a lemon-y dressing to serve alongside it.

Courgette and pea shoot salad

The fear of a twitching-curtained neighbour calling the fire brigade on us was completely worth it. The lamb was so good, I wish I’d cooked a whole leg. So, man, woman or fish, there’s really no excuse not to fire up those coals for this fragrant and spicy delight, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a garden and a full sized barbecue to boot.

Chermoula marinated leg of lamb

½ a leg of lamb, boned and all the sinew trimmed off (you can ask your butcher to do this for you)
1-2 shallots, finely chopped
2-3 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
A finger of ginger, peeled and grated
The zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
A generous scattering of cumin seeds
Salt and pepper
A bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
A bunch of coriander, finely chopped
A bunch of mint, finely chopped
A generous glug of olive oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a dish and add the lamb, rubbing the marinade right into the flesh. Make sure the lamb is well coated on both sides, cover it and pop it in the fridge for at least 4 hours. The marinade is also delicious with chicken or fish. Before cooking the lamb, push a couple of skewers through the meat to stop it curling up on the barbecue and to help conduct the heat in the centre. When you’re ready to cook, place it fat down on the grill for 5 – 8 minutes before turning it. The meat should be slightly charred and brown, but not black. Leave the lamb to cook for a further 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of your meat and how pink you like it. Leave the lamb to rest, tented in foil, while you barbecue your Jersey Royal kebabs, turning them every couple of minutes until temptingly brown.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bonfire Night Sous Vide Supper

 On Bonfire Night weekend, the good people of Great British Chefs set me the challenge to cook an entire dinner party in a SousVide Supreme.  No mean feat, I can tell you. I invited seven hungry diners for a late Sunday lunch to sample the results of this lengthy experiment. I fed fellow food bloggers and writers, Rachel Walker of The Food I Eat, journalist and bon vivant, Dolly Alderton, professional chef extraordinaire Jane Carnall, Catalan cook and Kitchen Cabinet panellist, Rachel McCormack, caterer, author and my Milk & Sugar  partner in crime, Milli Taylor, the hilarious comedian and writer, Chris Neill and his wonderful partner, actor Rory Murphy.

Cooking everything sous vide is not necessarily the most practical way to cater for 8 people. For starters, the home-use machines are fairly compact, so don’t expect to fit everything in at once. Also, most things need to be cooked at different temperatures, often for several hours at a time, so a fair amount of patience is necessary. Being organised would definitely make life easier and, in an ideal world, it would doubtless be prudent to work out a cooking timetable before heating up your water bath. Needless to say, I wasn’t organised enough to work out a timetable, but even for a last minute Larry like me, it all worked out OK in the end.

As a pre-dinner nibble, I made Spinach, Fennel and Cumin Ricotta Cakes from
 Party-perfect Bites, the excellent new book by my friend and sous vide supper guest, Milli Taylor. I made the Ricotta in the sous vide the day before for this dish, which yielded excellent results. It might be too much of a faff to make it as an everyday staple, but sometimes it’s nice to push the boat out and make an effort.

I wanted to make a do-ahead sous vide starter, as I knew I’d need the machine working to cook other components of the meal while the guests arrived. I decided to make a game terrine after reading that James I couldn’t be contacted with news of the gunpowder plot for several hours because he was busy hunting. I chose guinea fowl (which was popular in 1605 and classed as game in this period), partridge, pheasant and pigeon.

I vacuum sealed the legs with salt, pepper, thyme and garlic to cure and left it overnight, before rinsing off the legs, patting them dry and sealing again with duck fat and cooking sous vide at 75°C for 12 hours. Once the meat was cooled, I flaked it and pressed it into a Serrano ham-lined terrine with the chopped raw breast meat of the birds and layers of leeks softened in butter. I melted some gelatine in reduced chicken stock and poured it over the meat before folding the ham over the top. I vacuum sealed the terrine and cooked it in the sous vide at 65.5°C for 3.5 hours. Once cooked, I left the terrine to cool, before placing it in the fridge to set. This course was my least favourite. The texture of the ham was almost gelatinous after a spell in the water bath and, although attractive on the plate, the cooking process enhanced the gameyness of the meat too much for my personal taste.

I made an alternative dish for pescetarian, Dolly Alderton, of scallops on smoked garlic and pumpkin puree with a few sprigs of watercress. For the pumpkin puree, I vacuum packed the pumpkin, cut into cubes, with salt, pepper and a knob of butter and cooked it sous vide at 85°C for 1 hour. At the same time, I roasted a whole bulb of smoked garlic in the oven. I was nervous of adding the garlic to the bag with the pumpkin after reading that garlic can give food an odd, metallic flavour when cooked sous vide. Once the pumpkin was tender, I transferred it to a pan with the squeezed out roasted garlic cloves and a splash of cream and used a stick blender to puree it. I tasted for seasoning and adjusted and left it in the pan to reheat later. I lined up the scallops in a row and wrapped them in three layers of cling film before cooking them at 60°C for 15 minutes. Once cooked, I seasoned and browned the scallops in a hot buttery pan.

The main meat course was a huge hit with everyone.  I made belly of pork with liquid smoke fondant potatoes, toffee apples, more of the smoked garlic and pumpkin puree, kale and a pork and port gravy.

I cut the boned pork belly into portions and vacuum packed the meat on top of a layer of sliced onions, fresh thyme, salt and pepper and a chicken stock jelly cube (liquid gets sucked out during the vacuum sealing). I cooked the pork at 83°C for 10 hours. Once cooked, I quickly cooled the bag in ice water before pressing the meat between two baking trays with weights on top overnight in the fridge. I used the bones and the scraped out jelly, minus the fat, from the pork belly to make the gravy, which I made in the conventional way in the oven and in a pan as alcohol does not burn off in the sous vide. Once ready to cook, I patted the pork belly dry and placed them in an iron skillet with a few ladles of the gravy and popped them under a hot grill for crackling. The crackling wasn’t quite as crisp as usual, but tasted similar to the skin on a hog roast – no complaints there.

I’m not convinced the same results couldn’t have been achieved by slow cooking the pork in a low oven, but you would definitely have needed to cook the pork on the bone (or at least resting on the bones) to create the same succulent results. An unexpected bonus of the sous vide method of cooking, was the natural separation of the fat and pork essence. The fat clung to the textured interior of the vac bag, so that the lean pork jelly could easily be removed.

I made the fondant potatoes by vacuum sealing them with butter, a little chicken stock jelly, salt, pepper and a few splashes of liquid pecan smoke (well, it was Bonfire Night) and cooked them at 85°C for 90 minutes until tender. I cooled the bag in ice water and popped the potatoes in the fridge until ready to be reheated in a hot oven to brown the tops just before serving.

I made the toffee apples by halving and coring unpeeled apples (I used Pink Lady) and vacuum sealing them with light muscovado sugar, salt, pepper, chicken stock jelly, a nob of butter and a teaspoon or 2 of red wine vinegar and cooking in the sous vide at 85°C for 1 hour. When it was time to dish up, I caramelised the cut side of the apples in a hot, buttery pan. The main course was pure autumn on a plate.

For the pescetarian main I vacuum sealed a piece of hake with butter and seasoning and cooked in the water bath for 20 minutes at 56°C before crisping the skin in a hot, buttery pan. I served this with the veggie elements of the pork dish and sous vide samphire (simply vac packed with butter and a grind of black pepper which I cooked at 85°C (at the same time as the toffee apples) for 20 minutes, before quickly reheating in the same bath as the fish before serving.

The pudding was another nod to Guy Fawkes with bonfire toffee, ginger and rum crème caramels cooked using the sous vide as a water bath at 85°C fro 45 minutes. It’s important to wrap the tops of the dariole moulds with cling film before popping them in the sous vide to prevent condensation dripping on top of the custards. Once cooked, I left them to cool and refrigerated them overnight before dunking the bases in hot water, sliding round the sides with a knife and upturning them in bowls. The texture was extraordinary – creamy, smooth and velvety, without the slightest grain. I was so pleased with the results from the controlled temperature in the Sous Vide, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the oven again for baked custards.

All in all, the lunch was a success, but if you want to make your own sous vide supper, be prepared to plan ahead to accommodate the longer cooking times.

* Thank you to my guests for providing many of the photographs from the evening.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Twelfth Night Feast

I have, of late, rather missed the challenge of Alphabet Soup. Especially the cooking and hosting part (the writing is yet to be published on here in the hope of a future book deal). That's not to say I haven't had other challenges to keep me busy in the meantime. I've written two books and am currently writing my third, but there was something really special about those nights. Something electric, which charged those letter-themed evenings with a peculiar air of excitement and silliness, sprinkled with just the slightest touch of fear. Perhaps it was the secrecy of the menus. Perhaps it was the special musical playlists. Perhaps it was all the booze. Whatever it was, I have missed those wonderful nights and felt hungry for a new culinary challenge.

With this in mind, I decided to host a Twelfth Night dinner party, with a 12 course menu based on the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some guests thought it was just a dinner party on the night of epiphany, but those who know me better missed lunch in preparation. Our lovely epiphany diners were Sous Chef founders, Nicola and Nick Carter-Lando, fiction writer, Sophie Ranald, political commentator, Hopi Sen and the marvellous Andrea Binfor.

Initially, my plans included making the correct number of things (mostly birds it seems) to serve each person for each course; so, if seven swans are a-swimming, seven swans they would get on their plates. But, after talking this idea through with the ever rational Richard, and agreeing with him that this course of action would only be sensible if my intention was to kill my guests in a dramatic Mr Creosote fashion, I reluctantly reined it in a bit.

As is my usual wont, I left the food shopping and prep work until the eleventh hour. This, coupled with the fact that Richard ended up working late, all the pre-party tasks of throwing the hoover around, table laying, candle lighting and loo cleaning were still yet to be done at 7.30pm. Luckily, our friends are a lovely bunch, so they kindly offered to pop over the road for a pint while the final prep was done.

After a quick glug of fizz, the guests sat down for the first course: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. This comprised of confit of partridge mixed with spiced pickled pears, stuffed into hollowed out savoury poached pear halves.  These were served on a reduced partridge and beef stock “tree” adorned with leaves plucked from a packet of fresh oregano.

Next up, Two Turtle Doves. The closest match I could find for doves (without shooting my own) were pigeons. So, I made individual pigeon hand pies. I had bought a little silicone mould to create two pastry turtle doves on top, but forgot about it until the blasted things had already gone in the oven. The best laid plans and all that... Still, the guests didn't seem to notice.

Post-pie came Three French Hens. I breadcrumbed three chicken wing lollipops each and served them with sauce à la Française, which is a lemon and caper buttery sauce. After watching this video, I decided doing all my own butchering would be a piece of piss. I was wrong. These lollipops (about 30 in total, just to be on the safe side) took me two and a half hours to make and I was almost weeping with boredom by the end. Still, they tasted good and that was the main aim.

There was more butchery still, in the name of Four Calling Birds. My initial plan was to make a four bird roast, but after Richard asked if I'd invited Mr Creosote after all, I thought better of it. Instead, I made ballotines from the leg meat of a duck, a guinea fowl, a chicken and a pheasant. I paired the duck with the guinea fowl and the chicken with the pheasant. After boning all eight legs and discarding the sinew, it was a simple matter of making two stuffings (one with livers and mushrooms and the other with garlic and spinach), leaving them to cool and rolling them up in streaky bacon. I wrapped them tightly in cling film and poached them for twenty minutes, before discarding the cling and roasting for a further 15 - 20 minutes. I served my ballotines with cauliflower puree and a game bird and red wine reduction. This was many people's favourite course of the night, despite the photo being one of the worst.

Next came the most memorable verse of the song: Five Gold Rings. For this, I gave each guest five squid rings in a crisp and golden turmeric and gram flour batter, which I served with saffron aioli.

I left the sixth course to Richard, while I put my feet up and tried to catch up with how drunk the others were. For Six Geese-a-Laying, my idea had been to get in some goose eggs (obvs), but, it turns out you can't get goose eggs for love nor money in early January. Instead, Richard swapped the goose eggs for duck's and scrambled them with white truffle butter and goose rillettes and served them in the washed out hollowed duck eggs.

Seven Swans-a-Swimming were next. I made Parmesan choux swans and filled them with a mixture of seasoned mascarpone, paprika and more Parmesan, before setting them on pea and mint soup for a swim. They were rather larger than I had initially intended, which may, in part, have been responsible for what happened next.

At this point in the evening, Nick (designated driver of the evening and the only sober one at the table) declared that he was too full to carry on. Temporarily deflated, I imagined having to toss the puddings I'd made in the bin with one hand, while grasping a bottle of the ready chilled dessert wine in the other. Thankfully, a better suggestion was made. They all wanted to come back the next evening to finish what they'd started.

I've never before spread a dinner party over two consecutive nights (especially on a Monday and Tuesday), but it was so much fun, I might just start making a habit of it.

Beginning an evening with multiple puddings seemed too deranged to cope with. Besides, I had a fridge-full of semi-butchered game birds to use up, so I decided a game bird stew and mash served with greens would be a welcome beginning to night 2 and, as Richard said, it provided something of a catch-up for the courses of the evening before. I got as far as getting a chopping board out and then decided I'd had enough of butchering birds for one week, so barked instructions at Richard for the stew instead, while I cleaned up from the night before.

Our guests arrived, slightly bruised from the night before, but still eager. Game stew demolished and more corks popped, it was time to get back to the Eight Maids-a-Milking. For this, I had made dainty little eight milk panna cottas topped with milk chocolate soil. The eight milks were Jersey cow's, coconut, buttermilk, rice, soya, almond milk, evaporated and condensed. Everyone agreed it had just the right amount of wobble, moments before it wobbled off my spoon and down my top.

Not one to cry over spilt milk, it was onwards and upwards for Nine Ladies Dancing. Individual Pink Lady Apple Charlottes constructed with homemade Lady Fingers made up the ninth verse. I also chucked in some deliciously fresh-tasting apple liqueur for a little extra sparkle too.

Worried the evening had become too sober and having decided against frogs legs or leaping salmons (who wants their puddings to be suddenly interrupted by either of those? and besides, Richard is allergic to fish), the Ten Lords-a-Leaping came in the shape of a cocktail of the same name. Richard got the shaker out for these whisky based cocktails with added pimento rum liqueur, honey, lime, bitters and nutmeg. They were fragrant with Christmas spice and a welcome hiatus from solid food.

For the penultimate course, my Eleven Pipers Piping came in the shape of berries poached in pipe tobacco and star anise syrup, served in a chocolate pipe on a Maris Piper potato sponge cake. I made chocolate pipes with tempered chocolate and acetate sheets, poached some berries in a pipe tobacco and star anise syrup and balanced it all on Maris Piper potato sponge cake. It was light and fragrant and, despite the fears of some that the tobacco syrup would make the whole dish taste like an overused ashtray, it received unanimous thumbs up from all.

And, finally, we reached the end of the meal with a cheese course. Twelve Drummers Drumming
came in the guise of a whole 2 kilo Dorset Denhay Drum, served with celery carved into drumsticks, biscuits and chutney and to the soundtrack of our collective dulcet tones singing the full twelve verses with raised glasses.

All in all, my Twelfth Night feast was a total hoot. Until my next food-related challenge, there's a lot of cheese left to get through...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


It can often be tricky to make a do-ahead starter that is elegant, appetising and gluten and dairy free, but I think this Japanese-inspired plateful of goodness makes the perfect kick off to any meal.

With my fairly newfound acceptance of sorbet (I used to proudly describe them as a cold, wet yawn), I thought it was time to move on from citrus and berries and crack on to the savoury. Sweet, fruity sorbets can be refreshing and zingy (especially when pepped up with a slug of booze), but I wanted something that could happily stand up to protein. I’ve already tried my hand at Bloody Mary sorbet to serve with cheese, and I’d definitely recommend you have a go yourselves at that one, but this week I wanted to try something a little bit different.

The whole creation of this dish came about from a pun. We may have been overtired, we may have finished most of a bottle of wine, but the fusion of the words wasabi and sorbet to make “wasorbet” made my boyfriend and I giggle enough to know I had to turn this pun into a reality. And, delightfully silly name aside, who can resist the idea of creating something ice cold that gives off residual heat?

For my savoury wasorbet, I was concerned that using classic sugar stock syrup would make the final result too sweet. Liquid glucose is 20% less sweet than sugar, so I decided to use it as a sugar substitute. It also gives a smoother result, because the process of creating liquid glucose (inverting sugar) breaks down the molecules in a way that means they cannot reform and crystallise. This is great news for ice creams and sorbets, as the goal is to make them as smooth and grain-free as possible, by ensuring no crystals form during the freezing process.

I adore beetroot, and it is incredibly quick and easy to pickle, especially if you don’t faff about trying to carve out perfect circles (like I did). Beetroot is in season right now, and this jewel-bright root makes for a gloriously colourful summer plate, especially against the minty green of the wasorbet. The final component to my dish was seared beef sashimi, which I marinated in ginger, garlic, chilli, spring onions, Tamari (gluten free Japanese soy sauce), mirin and a splash of sesame oil for a few hours, before quickly searing. I love the ferrous tang and silky, yielding flesh of a raw fillet, but make sure you neither cook it, nor serve it, straight from the fridge.

Although expensive, serving beef fillet in paper-thin slices makes it go a long way. I bought a piece of meat that was about two steaks’ thick and it served seven people, with a few cook’s treat offcuts leftover. I passed the marinating liquor through a sieve and reduced it in a saucepan and left it to cool before spooning a little over the sashimi. If raw beef turns you off, you can substitute it for seared marinated tuna or even just smoked salmon, which wouldn’t even require the effort of marinating or searing. Serve with hot sake.


125g liquid glucose
200ml water
1 large cucumber, topped and tailed and cut into chunks (don’t peel it)
½ small clove of garlic, finely chopped - or you can just Microplane it into straight into the food processor (optional)
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp. salt
2 – 3 tsp. wasabi paste (wasabi powder mixed with water)
1 egg white

Measure the liquid glucose straight into a saucepan (if you’re using digital scales) or warm a tablespoon in hot water and measure out 6 and ½ tablespoons into the saucepan – this stuff is too sticky to pour easily from one vessel to another. Pour the water on top and heat gently until melted and smooth. In the meantime, blitz the cucumber in a food processor to a liquid. Add the citrus zest and juice and salt and blitz again. Push the whole lot through a fine meshed sieve and add the liquid to the water and glucose. Discard the contents of the sieve. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the wasabi paste. Taste for heat – you want it to be quite fiery – adding more if you wish. Leave to cool to room temperature. Whisk the egg white until soft peaks form and fold it into the liquid until fully incorporated. Transfer the mixture into an ice cream machine and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve on a shiso leaf (available in Japanese and Asian supermarkets. I bought mine from the Japan Centre) with a few slices of beetroot, which has been pickled for 4 hours in 250ml of rice vinegar, 125g sugar, 250ml water and 30g of salt. Finally, arrange a few thin slices of your room temperature sashimi and drizzle with the reduced marinating juices.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Cooking With Kids

The great folks at Great British Chefs (who I regularly write for) have recently launched a Cooking With Kids campaign. They have created a fabulous collection of recipes to tempt your charming children into cooking and eating a balanced and exciting diet. Dishes include aubergine parmigiana, bacon stuffed spuds and baked cod in tomato sauce. As well as catering to the tastes of the under 10s, these recipes sound more than a little appealing to this almost-33 year old too.

Recently, Great British Chefs conducted a survey with over 1300 parents on how children are cooking. They've agreed to give my readers a sneak peak at some of the highlights of their survey results with a fun infographic. So here it is!

The full results will be published over on the GBC site tomorrow afternoon, but these preview results certainly make for interesting reading - especially that shocking 7% statistic about how much influence we've taken from our Dads in the kitchen. Tsk tsk. Let's hope the next generation of British adults will have more kitchen-based memories to share with their fathers.

I must admit, my Dad rarely entered the kitchen other than to slice another lemon wedge for a gin and tonic or raid the back of the cupboards hunting down crisps. He made a mean fry up though and always wielded the pan on Pancake Day and you couldn't keep him away from the barbecue on a hot, sunny day, however much you tried. I was definitely more influenced by my mum, who was pretty adventurous and bold compared to most of my friends' parents.

As kids, my sisters and I always ate the same food as our parents; there were no cheap sausage and chip dinners for us, while the grown-ups had chicken jalfrezi and pilau rice. My mum always cooked from scratch and never made a big deal out of it, so I naturally assumed the same attitude to food as I grew up.

I loved cooking so much as a child, that I was making chocolate profiteroles for my parents' dinner parties when I was 7 or 8 and getting out the silverware and posh napkins for elaborate breakfasts for the whole family at weekends. I might have made a terrible mess and I might have turned out the odd inedible dinner (carrots and minced beef in a whole bottle of soy sauce being one such example), but I knew how to knock up a salad dressing, whip up a Victoria sponge, stuff a tomato and cook a Sunday roast before I left primary school. And what's more, I loved it. It really stood me in good stead for my future. Building on those early days in the kitchen, I'm proud to say, I now know my artichokes from my elbow.

Cooking with kids is not only fun for you and them, it helps set them up for a lifetime of good food. What greater gift is there to give them?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Café de Mort

Photo from

Nobody likes to think about death. Let alone our own. But you know what they say about death and taxes…

I went to Café de Mort and I survived. Organised by Remember A Charity, this two day pop-up restaurant was figure-headed by (an absent) Gregg Wallace and developed by food writer Matt Day and chef Errol Defoe. The potentially deadly menu aimed to make diners consider the fragile transience of life. What better way to ponder the legacy you’d like to leave after you’ve died, than while sitting down to eat what could very well be your last meal. Once you’ve looked after your loved ones, please think about leaving a gift to your favourite charity in your Will. I was a guest of Dogs Trust, so for all you dog lovers out there, you can still help out our furry friends even after you’ve kicked the bucket. 

Photo from

Already feeling on death’s door with a bad cold coupled with a hangover, I trudged over to The Crypt at St Andrew’s in Holborn Circus, ready to face my mortality in meal form. I knew the venue well, having acted in a play called Warcrime down in the crypt a few years ago. They’ve poshed the place up since then – the floor is now even and it doesn’t feel quite as damp as it once did. 

When Michael Billington came to review us, he was keen to meet the final remaining unburied body (still unidentified after the enforced excavation of the crypt after the ceiling collapsed), wrapped in blue plastic, who lived just round the corner from our underground dressing room. And I’m delighted to report (sort of) that “Bob” was still there (or so we were told, I didn’t visit him this time round), adding an extra deathly atmosphere to the night’s proceedings. 

The Crypt really is a dramatically macabre venue, perfect for a night promising the deadliest feast known to man. We kicked off the evening with a nod from a serious-looking St John’s ambulance man, before signing a waiver in case any of us died. Then, I was led, in the gloomy half-light, towards a glass of Absinthe and Champagne, to get the juices flowing for what was to come. 

Green tea and sake Martini. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

We sat round black tablecloth-covered tables, sipping the next potentially lethal drink of the evening: sake and green tea Martini. These sounded fairly tame to me, but apparently the Polyphenols found in green tea may cause liver and kidney damage. The Martinis tasted strangely bitter and musty. More exciting was the first course: Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Yes, that’s right, I ate puffer fish and I survived! The gastronomic equivalent to Russian roulette, fugu contains lethal levels of Tetrodotoxin, and, if not prepared expertly, can result in painful and certain death. 

Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

The taste of the fish itself isn’t particularly extraordinary. In fact, it just tastes like very slightly rubbery textured and delicate flavoured white fish. The dish was prettily presented with what tasted and looked like delicious seaweed flavoured Quavers

I respected the fact that we were thrown right into the deep end with the deadliest dish as the first course. Facing fugu led us all to ponder the precariousness of our own mortality, which was exactly what the evening aimed to do. 

Bloody Hell Mary. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up, we were presented with Bloody Hell Mary cocktails, containing Poitin - aka Irish moonshine. It was outlawed in 1661 due to its adverse health effects, which included blindness, but they stopped worrying about that by the mid 1990s and it was made legal again in ‘97. I can’t say I enjoyed this strangely tangy drink, but the curried ackee patties with ghost chilli washed the bloody awful taste of the Bloody Hell Marys away. Officially the world’s hottest chilli, the Ghost chilli is currently being developed into a self-defence weapon. 

Curries ackee pattie with ghost chilli. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

I was expecting my mind to be well and truly blown, but I was surprised when I found the heat fairly mild. Sitting opposite another diner who was mopping his sweaty brow and knocking back as much water as he could reach, I wondered if I might, in actual fact, be some kind of hardcore chilli ninja, deserving of some kind of red hot medal. There’s no doubt I was finding the whole transience of life stuff quite exhilarating. Either that or the Poitin had kicked in.

Kluwak nut pasta with false morels. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up came a bowl of what looked like a hearty bovine broth with bits in it, but in actual fact, was kluwak nut pasta with false morels. It turns out this earthy soup potentially contained lethal doses of Hydrogen Cyanide.  To wash down the tasty soup, we were each handed a Champagne flute with a liquid that looked like old-fashioned lemonade with backwash in it. Turns out it was a snake wine cocktail and, by God, it was rancid. It was like a glass of Sarson’s with the added sour twang of a fungal foot infection. I tried to get used it, tried to drain the glass, but I think I’d rather have taken a fanging from the snake who’d drowned in it. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
They brought round the bottle of neat snake wine next, to see who was brave enough to take a tipple. I couldn’t say no, when else would I get the chance to drink from a bottle containing a steeped venomous snake clutching a scorpion in its jaws? I knocked it back in one and, for a moment, desperately scanned the room in search of the St John’s Ambulance man. It felt almost like a sting, an allergic reaction. My tongue felt pinched and my mouth tingled unpleasantly, before the effects of the venom subsided and left behind the aftertaste of oily fish. Drinking snake wine is like someone snapping an elastic band on your tongue before slapping you round the face with a mackerel. I’m glad I’ve tried it, if only so that I know never to try it again. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The first of two puddings came in the shape of enormous macaroons with unpasteurised bitter almond cream and elderberry coulis. Although each bitter almond contains between 4 and 9mg of Hydrogen Cyanide, after the snake wine I knew nothing short of a live cobra picking its teeth with the rib of a clown could scare me. Light, creamy and sweet, this pud was the perfect antidote to the fishy snake drink and could only worry a pregnant woman due to the unpasteurised milk. We washed it down with a glass of equally unfrightening Amaretto, which can apparently induce symptoms of Cyanide poisoning. Whatevs.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
For the final course of the night, we ate peanut, cacao and nutmeg sweetmeats, which was billed as “a most tempting trio of potential toxins – Aflatoxin, Theobromine and Myristicin” which can cause vomiting, wild hallucinations and even death. For a moment I thought I could see Gregg Wallace in the distance, but it must have been a wild hallucination brought on by the pudding, or possibly the 84.5% proof rum I’d just necked. They’d swirled it about with cream and nutmeg so that it tasted like really boozy custard, and I do really love custard. And booze.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The evening was a blast - the gothic atmosphere, the nervous and giggly camaraderie it induced between diners, “Bob” in the other room and the possibility of someone carking it at any moment. Alright, so the sense of danger wasn’t genuinely palpable, but it did bring home the message of the night clearly and in a fun and original way. It was a meal I won’t quickly forget, not least because the snake wine was still repeating on me for several days afterwards. But you don’t need to drink snake wine to remember a charity in your Will. Go on, do something nice from the grave.

* Huge thanks to Urvashi Roe for allowing me to her amazing photos from the night. Visit her brilliant blog here

Monday, 18 February 2013

"Roobarb" and Custard (RIP Richard Briers)

Vanilla rhubarb with custard panna cotta

Have you ever played that game where you have to pick a collection of famous people you'd like to invite over for Sunday lunch? It's usually the game you find yourself playing at a party which wound down an hour ago, but there's still 45 minutes before your cab's arriving. It's the kind of game that reignites the fun into a tired evening, without being in the least bit taxing. It's entirely uncompetitive, but everyone really wants to get it right. 

What I like best is that it genuinely celebrates people and the reasons we adore them. Humour, intelligence and talent win over money and power every time. I've never come across a player who would choose a Kardashion sister over Judi Dench, or Donald Trump over Spike Milligan. For my table, I sometimes include Christopher Biggins, but never leave out Richard Briers.

Rhubarb and custard panna cotta

Richard Briers died today at the age of 79. Best known to most as Tom from The Good Life, he was first known to me as the voice behind my favourite childhood programme, Roobarb and Custard.

Richard Briers

Although Roobarb and Custard was a 1970s show, it was still regularly on the telly when I was a child in the 80s and still holds up today. My nephews (aged 6 and 9) love it and I'm looking forward to my one year old niece being old enough to be converted, so I can have an excuse to giggle through the series all over again. It really is that good. In fact, the title music has been my ringtone for as long as I can remember.

So, here's my little tribute to the very wonderful, funny and talented, Richard Briers: a lovely pudding of rhubarb and custard for a much loved actor.

Rhubarb and custard pannacotta with ginger crumble

"Roobarb" and Custard

This is a light and refreshing take on the classic British combination of forced rhubarb and custard. I've made a custard panna cotta - which essentially means that I've set it with gelatine instead of baking it - and served it with rhubarb which I cooked with vanilla and sugar in the sous vide. You can just as easily bake it, but if there's any excuse to play with my new toy, I'll take it. I made my custard with single cream, but you can use double cream if you're after something richer or whole milk for something less so. But please don't do anything as perverse as trying this with skimmed. If you're unfortunate enough to have skimmed milk in your fridge, my advice would be to simply pour it down the sink. It will be better for everyone that way. 

If you are as much of a custard lover as me, you'll find other delicious custardy recipes over on Domestic Sluttery. Their Just Desserts club is all about custard this month, so do check them out.

Serves 6


150g forced rhubarb - the pinker the better
35g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
35g water or the same weight in ice cubes if sous vide-ing

Vacuum pack all the ingredients in a single layer (it's best to use two bags) and drop them into the water bath at 61°C for 45 minutes. Fish out the bags and plunge them into ice water and then into the fridge until you want it.

Alternatively you can bake the rhubarb with the water and sugar at 180°C for about half an hour or until soft, but not squidgy. Leave to cool.

Custard Panna cotta

4 large egg yolks
100g caster sugar or, better still, vanilla caster sugar
350ml single cream
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
3 leaves of gelatine, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes

Place the cream/milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and gently bring to the boil. In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until pale and creamy and pop a sieve over the bowl ready. Once the cream has come to the boil, pour it through the sieve over the eggs to strain off the vanilla pod and any woody bits that have come off it in the cream. Whisk it all together and pour back into the saucepan. Place the saucepan over a gentle heat and whisk constantly until the custard thickens enough so that it can coat the back of a spoon and if you draw a line through the custard with your finger, the line remains. Transfer to a jug. Squeeze any excess water out of the gelatine and whisk into the hot custard until it has completely melted.

I poured my custard into oiled ring moulds with their bases covered tightly with cling film to set, but you can use ramekins or just set it in glasses. Whatever your chosen vessels, once cool, pop them into the fridge for at least 6 hours - overnight is easiest.

If using ring moulds, remove the cling film before placing one on a serving plate and blasting round the edges with a blowtorch to make sliding off the mould easy. A hairdryer will do the same job, or you can simply run a knife round the inside edge. For ramekins, dunk them quickly in boiling water to release and upturn on to a plate.

I served mine with a scattering of cold ginger-spiced crumble topping, cooked simply spread on a baking tray for ten minutes at 180°C before cooling. 

Rhubarb and custard panna cotta with ginger crumble