Kitchen hell

For those of you who have been asleep for the past week, Gordon Ramsay has taken 10 very minor 'celebrities', and is attempting to run a professional kitchen serving 72 diners for two weeks. Hell's Kitchen is turning out to be unmissable telly. To be honest, it would be equally good if Mr Ramsay was taking 10 random people off the street and teaching them how to cook in two weeks, but I suppose they have to have some 'celebrity' element to pull in the punters. If you've ever wondered what the hell Belinda Carlisle and Matt Goss got up to after the 1980s, now you know.

It's certainly an insight into how life in a professional kitchen works. And it's enough to put you off dreaming of ever opening a restaurant...I think if I ever go down that route, it'll be a cake shop!



When it's sunny outside, I really like the idea of giving it all up, moving to Devon and becoming a chilli farmer. The idea of a polytunnel full of chilli plants is very appealing. Although maybe not Devon...if I could take my polytunnel to France that would be ideal.


Mmmm (2)

Take one girl, ply with good white wine and tartes, and cook in the French sunshine for a week. Result? One happy bunny. (As opposed to the lapin who ended up being cooked with prunes for our Sunday lunch on our last day in France).

Highlights included tasting the fois gras, pate and nems (the Vietnamese version of spring rolls) at the local market, wandering round Leclerc in awe of your standard French supermarket vegetable section (seasonal! local!), and struggling to finish the five course €19 formule at the tiny local restaurant.

They just take their food way more seriously over there than we do over here. Here we're all junked out, worried (with good reason) that our children are becoming obese, obsessed with celebrity diets and Atkins, and spending a fortune on ready meals. Over there, they're proud of their food, and make an effort to shop and cook well - both the raw ingredients and finished products we saw at the local market had an award or medal of some kind, were affordable, and were being bought by local people of all ages and situations. And (being a nosy trolley watcher) in the supermarket, I noticed that not that many people bought ready meals - and there weren't aisles and aisles of them, like at home.

End of rant. But more to follow...especially now that I've read one of the best books of the year about food - Not on the Label, by Felicity Lawrence, an expose of the food production industry in Britain. Go buy. And then never go near a chicken, bagged salad or an industrial loaf of bread ever again.



If you're ever in the vicinity of North Yorkshire and need some proper food, get yourself down to the The Star Inn at Harome, near Helmsley. Lunch today was marvellous - I had (a) new season asparagus wrapped in Yorkshire ham with bubble and squeak with a lightly fried quail's egg (b) chicken livers, with soda bread toast and salad with pickled celery (c) lemon tart with raspberry sauce. The ingredients were fab - fresh, tasty, and where possible local - and nothing was overly fussy or ridiculously overwhelming (I hate generalising, but in Yorkshire in the main the portions are pretty huge, and if you hate wasting food it's often a bit of a guilt trip even considering three courses). Everyone else's food looked rather good too (in fact I sneaked some of Rob's black pudding and fois gras, and a bit of his crab salad starter...). Another triumph for proper English food.

Off to France on Monday, for a week of sunshine, wine, cheese and tarts. It'll be such a hardship. I'll let you know how I cope...


Beach picnic!

In the grand tradition of English picnics, it was freezing cold, grey and overcast, but at least it wasn't raining. In our campaign to eat more food outdoors, our Sunday picnic on the beach at Embleton was perhaps one of the more extreme options. The menu obviously included pies, chips and dips, sandwiches in greaseproof paper and a melon, and possibly less obviously a coconut. Even the sun made an appearance later on (although if there's anyone out there who wants to follow suit and picnic on the Northumberland coast in May I recommend thermal underwear and a parka...)



Dinner at my godfather's last night - and a new cheese eating experience - Doddington cheese, made by Doddington Dairy in Northumberland. It looks like a standard mature cheddar, but has a far more complex taste, probably due to the fact that it's aged on pine shelves for 10-15 months. The guys at the dairy make two others - Cuddy's Cave (more buttery), and Berwick Edge (more like a Gouda). I've now tried all three, but I think I like the Doddington one best (I am a sucker for really strong farmhouse cheddar, after all). It's just great to see that the local produce is doing so well...


Do unto others...

The Ramsay backlash begins....can't wait for next week's instalment!

Back to Zonzos in Sandyford, in the Friday night spirit of "to hell with cooking after a week at work". This time, we had the Spumatini to start (now I could be spelling that completely wrong, so apologies to any of you who speak Italian), which turned out to be fennel bread with black olive pesto, caponerata (capers, tomatoes, vegetables) and chick pea paste. Followed by baby spinach, ricotta and roasted pepper salad....mmmmmm. And after two glasses of wine, I'm suitably happy. Apologies for the bad grammar, spelling, and general drunken behaviour....


If it's Wednesday, it must be curry

Goan prawn curry, to be precise. Now I can't claim any credit for this at all - it was all Rob's work. With a bit of help from Madhur Jaffrey, and a bit of improvisation (including using up the cold potatoes in the fridge) he cooked up a storm. I've not really been a great fan of tamarind before now, but I'm willing to give it a second chance after this.

The campaign to reduce salt in processed food continues. How about a campaign to encourage people to cook more, and stop relying on overprocessed foods and ready meals? (ok, I admit I've just eaten a Tunnocks tea cake. But in my defence (a) I did cook chicken wraps with spicy vegetable and chickpea sauce from scratch for tea (b) it's late and I've got no chocolate left in the cupboard and (c) it was a traumatic episode of ER....)


Ramsay part II

Gordon's back, this time in Ambleside. More swearing, more cleaning, fewer plastic boxes and simpler food (hands up anyone who thinks taleggio and pomegranate risotto is a good idea?). This time, they actually take notice of what he says, sort of. It's a miracle!


You'll never look at a lettuce the same way again...

Trust me - one read of this article about bagged salad, and you'll be (a) frantically washing every salad vegetable in the fridge and (b) going straight to the garden centre to buy some seeds to grow your own. My spinach is coming along very nicely thank you.


Finally, some homemade pasta!

After over a year in this house, I finally got out the pasta maker that we were given for our wedding and started putting it to good use. I'd forgotten (a) how heavy it was and (b) how easy it was to use (especially after my course with Rosemary Shrager) and within no time I'd turned out some marvellously thin sheets of pasta, to make Sardinian culurzones filled with roasted squash and rosemary. There's still some refining to do - I couldn't get any proper 00 pasta flour, so I had to make the dough with strong bread flour (not ideal), and my shaping of the culurzones left a lot to be desired but it wasn't a bad start for a non-Sardinian.

More outdoor food at the Newcastle Green Festival yesterday - in fact some of the best chocolate and orange cake I've ever tasted, baked with only organic ingredients. All the food at the festival was vegetarian, and mostly organic, and for festival food wasn't extortionately expensive either - around £3 for a spicy beanburger, and £1 for a slice of cake. Nice to see the customers not being exploited for once.


Why does food taste better in the open air?

(Or as the Italians put it so much better, al fresco). Maybe it's something to do with the enhanced taste or smell or something, but it sure makes a huge difference. Breakfast this morning in the sunshine in my back yard was so much better than normal because (a) it was sunny (b) I was outside and (c) it wasn't the usual wolfing down of a bowl of cereal in front of the tv news in five minutes that it normally is. (And I know I could get up half an hour earlier to sit and savour my cereal in comfort, but somehow the extra half hour snuggled under the duvet is far more appealing.)

But back to the food al fresco business. Yesterday was Friday, after a hard week at work. It was grey, dull, windy and cold (standard North of England spring evening, really) and we wanted something quick to eat, on the way to the flicks to see Kill Bill Vol 2. So we ended up at Bill's Fish Bar in Cullercoats, for fish and chips, mushy peas (for me) and curry sauce (for Rob). It's possibly the best fish and chips takeaway place in the Newcastle area (although you have to go to the Waterford Arms at Seaton Sluice if you want the best pub fish and chips). We had beautiful fresh fish, covered in a light batter, that just pulled apart in huge flakes, and proper fish and chip shop chips, doused in malt vinegar and salt. The only way to eat fish and chips is outdoors, or in your car overlooking the sea, with the windows gradually steaming up and obscuring the view. And with one of those strange little wooden fork/spoon devices, of course. Somehow, if you took fish and chips home and ate them it would feel sordid, greasy and horrible, but out there in the open air under lowering skies it feels like possibly the best meal in the world.