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A Mid-food Crisis

2012 hasn’t exactly started with a bang, more a damp fizzle. I was overly happy with my efforts for a new year meal. It was okay, some bits very nice but not my best moment as the roast fennel I cooked was tougher than John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. Then there came a few more kitchen upsets, not really disasters, although there were in my eyes.

It just seems everything I cook at the moment is just not turning out that great, timing issues, taste and flavour issues. I just can’t seem to get anything right. It is quite depressing to someone who “thinks” he’s really good in the kitchen and I probably am my worst critic. I have noted that not one word has been uttered to me by anyone eating my food that would make you think there’s anything wrong with it. I know that it just is not quite there at the moment and, to quote a cliché, I’m just not feeling it.

So nearly 3 weeks into 2012 and I have a little crisis, a kitchen meltdown. Pots go flying, so did chicken (see those birds really can fly)and cupboard doors slammed as I have a little tantrum. I’m not really angry, just annoyed. Annoyed that one of the few things I’m actually good at seems to have deserted me, no note, didn’t even see it pack its case. The worrying thing is I don’t know when or if it will come back.

I went on Twitter after my last little moment saying that’s it, it’s over, my love affair with food is finished. It was a bitter lover’s quarrel. Why has she left me? What did I do wrong. I thought about hanging up the apron, blunting the knives and living the rest of my life on shove in the oven food. My wife though, ever patient and understanding, simply went in the kitchen and proceeded to cook up a curry. I was surprised as when she asked what I wanted her to cook for dinner my response was that of a child “Don’t care, do what you want”.

My little rant on Twitter brought about theories of why this has happened and there are two main themes to this. The first is that I turn 40 this year and I am having a mid-life crisis. Pah! I say to that, in fact double pah! I’m not bothered by that, looking forward to it actually. Blooming good reason for a celebration is how I see that.  So what if I turn up to that party in a leather jacket, open shirt, gold medallion, driving a convertible even if it’s not sunny. That’s just my fashion choice at the moment.

The other main theme is that maybe I’ve set my sights in the kitchen a little too high. I have to say, the steaks are high, I can’t reach them *tumbleweed*. Ignoring the bad joke, this actually seems a little sensible. Over the last few months I have tried to do something new nearly every day, rather than learn and perfect then learn something new. I also attempted to write recipes for a local magazine which in hindsight should have been a one off. This suddenly put pressure on me to produce something of my own and something people would like. What happened to cooking for fun?

Just that little bit of pressure put on myself made cooking serious. I was trying to impress. Who I was trying to impress exactly, I’m not sure. Possibly just myself. So I sat for a while, thinking things through, thinking, I know I’ll change my twitter name, shut down the blog and take a break. Then I took a night off cooking and the next night got hungry. I made a very basic meal, it was okay, but then was never going to be special in the first place. I still forgot to put the carrots on though.

 I looked at the kitchenware I received at Christmas, the four recipe books I also received and have not yet used. Then there’s a sample ingredient someone sent me and a pang of guilt hits me as I know they are hoping for feedback from me.

Having had a couple of days to stew things over, I realise I have not fallen out of love with food. I still get hungry and still want to eat great tasting food. Maybe our love affair has burned a little too brightly of late and we just need a break, I was smothering her. I was definitely trying to do too much and have lost my way a little, unsure why I was cooking, what I was trying to get out of it.

So again I say “pah” to this being a mid-life crisis, it is a simple mid-food crisis as I am now calling it. What is the leather jacket and sports care equivalent? I am unsure on that but do think this gold medallion looks very nice on me. There will be a bit of a break though, taking a back seat and letting other people drive for a while. Simon still loves food, he’s just giving her some room.


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This is my latest submission to local Essex Magazine, Inspired.

Pan Fried Sea Bass with pan cooked Veg

After Christmas this is a lighter yet still wintery dish that I think is just perfect for January.

Ingredients – Serves 4:

4 Sea Bass fillets

4 tbsp vegetable oil Dash of white wine vinegar.

2 lemons

Root veg, sweet potatoes, carrots & parsnips.

3 or 4 of each should do depending on size.

Handful of green beans.

One white onion, sliced.

One fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced.

1 red chilli, chopped (or 2 if you like more heat)

Thyme, salt, pepper & fresh chopped parsley.

Handful of pine nuts. Method:

Take the fish out of the fridge and let it rest so it’s not too chilled, this will stop it curling up when it hits the heat. Slice the fennel and onions as thinly as you can and get them sweating in a pan with a little of the oil, a little salt, the juice of one lemon & a dash of white wine vinegar. Cut the root veg into small pieces and get them in a pan to par boil for about 5 minutes, you don’t want them soft. While these are on, lightly toast the pine nuts. When you start to smell them toasting remove from the heat and leave them on the side.

Add the veg, chopped chilli & thyme to the onions & fennel trying not to stir too often & season. Put the lid on & leave them to cook on a low to medium heat for about five mins, the bottom of the veg should start to caramalise & the steaming will help cook the veg. Stir & leave for another 5 mins. Test some of the veg with a fork & when they feel soft enough add the beans.

In another pan cook the sea bass on a medium heat. Brush oil on the skin of the fish and cook skin side down until crisp. Don’t move the fish too often, let it cook. Once the skin is crispy, turn over and take off the heat, this will finish the cooking process. The fish should only take 5-10 minutes depending how thick they are. Throw the pine nuts and chopped parsley into the veg and stir through. Serve by piling the veg in the middle of the plate and place the fish skin side up on top.

I used the juice from the second lemon & added it to the rest of the oil to make a lemon oil which I drizzled over the finished dish instead of a sauce.

You can see the full magazine here http://tinyurl.com/7xdapa3

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This is a quick update on Project Obsession. As we were in London this weekend and staying in Mayfair, I had to try and add to the Obsession book. I had tweeted Pierre Koffmann before we went and he replied saying to pop in. We did and I was lucky enough to be invited into the kitchens to meet this legend of the kitchen. I was a little embarrassed as we weren’t even eating at Peirre Koffmann’s. We did have a lovely lunch though earlier at the Northbank where the head chef, Peter Woods, had worked with Chef Koffmann in the past.

I think this is the most nervous I have been when meeting any chef. I can’t even remember what I said to Pierre except apologising that I wasn’t eating there and that we would definitely go there in the new year (better tell me wife about that I guess). So here it is, number 12 of 54 signed.

This is a photo of the signed page from Nigel Haworth’s Obsession Cookbook.

To find out how this all started, please read here http://wp.me/pIw7m-5G

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For those that haven’t heard yet, I started writing for a local Essex magazine called Inspired in November. It’s a free monthly, glossy publication filled with inspiring articles on food, fashion and life in general. You can pick it up from Chelmsford Rail Station , Tescos and The Meadows in Chelmsford among other places in Essex so keep an eye out for it. Next edition is out early December and features a special Christmas recipe from me.

Here’s a link to their blog with my first ever published recipe. Hope you enjoy it.

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Duck and cherry, two of my favourite flavours. I love that gamey meat flavour of the cherry and fresh fruity freshness of the duck…… no hold on I think I may have got something mixed up there. I m also a fan of flavoured vinegars but have  found that many cherry vinegars are often lacking or are a bit sharp and, much of the time, too vinegary. Yes I know that sounds a bit odd saying they are a bit vinegary, there are just a lot of flavoured vinegars that really don’t offer more than, well, vinegar.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be talking on the subject of vinegars and dressings and Rupert from Womersley Foods joined in asking if I have tried their vinegars. To my shame I had to admit I hadn’t. Shame because I’ve spoken to Rupert on Twitter for a while now and hadn’t really looked in the products that Womersley do. So when Rupert offered a bottle to try, I jumped at the chance. Well I jumped after deliberating over which flavour to choose. I was allowed any bottle I wanted so I had to choose wisely. I saw the cherry flavour straight away and looking back, I’m not sure why it took me so long to decide.

The package arrived and like an excited child on Christmas morning I tore it open and didn’t wait to taste it, I tipped a bit our dipped my finger in and couldn’t taste a thing. This is no slight to the vinegar, I had a stinking cold and hadn’t been able to taste anything for days. A course of antibiotics later and the taste buds were back. I had another tasting session with a ciabatta loaf and dipping bowls with unrefined olive oil and the vinegar. The vinegar is great, fresh, full of cherry flavour and not the usual harshness of vinegar. You could get away with the vinegar on its own as a dressing as it is that smooth. Also it is the first cherry vinegar I’ve tasted for a while that actually tastes of cherry.

Finally I got to match the vinegar to duck which I had been waiting for during my cold filled weeks. (Please note I did not have man flu, I really was ill). I kept the duck salad very simple as the star here was to be the vinegar. I pan-fried two duck breasts, skin side down until the fat was rendered and the skin was crispy. I then turned the duck breasts over and took off the heat to continue cooking through while I made the salad.

I made a quick red onion salad by peeling, halving & slicing one large red onion, added some chopped cucumber , quartered cherry tomatoes and a few sliced spring onions. I made a dressing using half and half of the vinegar and unrefined olive oil and a pinch of salt. That’s all you need for the dressing as there is so much flavour and sweetness in the cherry vinegar. I put half of the dressing in with the red onion salad and mixed this to coat.

To serve I made a bed of peppery salad, rocket, watercress & baby spinach and piled the onions salad on top. The duck, now nicely rested, was sliced and placed on top. The remaining dressing was then drizzled over to flavour the duck breast and drip through the salad. Cherry and duck is always a winner and maybe a little bit predictable, but when it tastes this good, who cares.

Womersley Foods to a whole range of vinegars and dressing and you can find out more on their website www.womersleyfoods.co.uk

You can also follow them on Twitter @WomersleyFoods

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Where do I start with a book like Madame Punier’s Fish Cookery Book? When offered a copy of one of two books, I went for this as I don’t cook a lot of fish and I want to. I love fish, fish loves me, fish and me fairly fully agree…. hold on I’ve gone all Scrooge the Musical (listen to the I Like Life song and you’ll get what I mean). I was also interested in the book as it’s from Quadrille Publishing’s Classic Voices in Food series. Dare I put another Scrooge link into the spirit of Christmas past there? Oh dear, I just did.

The book, first published in 1938, is presented in hard back and old school, as I call it. Old style type face, silver edged pages, it even smells old. I’ve had great amusement from it with some of the language, forgetting before “text speak” that we did communicate with proper grammar and words. It’s the kind of cook book I like because it doesn’t just list recipes, it teaches as well. You have your conversion chart, tips on buying fish, basic rule on cooking fish and then your recipes from everything for the sauces to accompany the fish to soups, hors d’oeuvres and the main courses.

There’s even a section on turtle (must see if they have any down the market next time).  Add to that some notes at the end about wine and fish, which for some reason I read in an Olly Smith-esque voice, there’s not much more I could take in, being a novice. I note on the back there is a quote from Rick Stein that says it was very influential in his early days of fish cookery. Do you know what, that quote alone almost sells it to me anyway.

Now I know you’re sat there, possibly stood, or doing whatever you’re doing while reading this and you’re thinking, “So Simon, what have you cooked from the book so far?” Okay, well, you see it’s like this………my Wife doesn’t eat a lot of fish so I’ve not had much chance to experiment but don’t worry the time is coming. I’m doing a meal for some friend soon and the fish course will be courtesy of this book. I just have to decide on a recipe. You can be sure I will let you know how it goes.

I have a lot of modern cookbooks at home from some of the best chefs in the world and this book is taking pride of place (or should that be plaice?) with them. Books are special, care for them, make them part of your home. So if you’re a fish fan, a keen cook or just a book lover, this would be a great addition to your collection.

Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book is available from Quadrille Publishing

ISBN No: 978-1-84400-958-9

Also available in the series

Modern Cookery for Private Families – Elizabeth Acton

Simple French Cooking for English Homes – X. Marcel Boulestin

The Gentle Art of Cookery – Mrs C F Leyel & Miss Olga Harley


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It’s a Friday, 9am. I’m stuck somewhere just outside of Stratford, been there for 20 minutes, should have been in London 15 minutes ago. I start to panic, I have a big day ahead, I can’t be late. If you get an invite from a chef of the stature of Jeff Galvin, you don’t refuse it and you certainly don’t want to be late. Just as I’m about to dial the restaurant to advise I may be late, the train starts trundling forward and shortly arrives in Stratford. Okay I’ll wait, I think to myself and sure enough ten minutes later we’re in Liverpool Street. I breathe a sigh of relief and make the short walk to Spitalfields.

As I walk over, my heart is pounding, I feel both nervous and excited. I actually asked Jeff Galvin for a day in the kitchen last year at the Hix Obsession event and didn’t really expect it to happen. You know, I’d been drinking, Mark Hix had been handing out martinis to his guest chefs and I thought that would be the last I’d hear of it. However, after being given Jeff’s email by Restaurant manager Alex, I (some weeks later) pluck the courage to ask again (no drink inside me this time).  The replay came and after a few exchanges, the date was set, I then had a month and a half to wait until the day and I feel I may have annoyed a few people with my excitement. And so I find myself outside the restaurant, a deep breath and I walk in.

Jeff isn’t in yet and I’m introduced to the Soux Chef. I’m given a uniform, change and enter the kitchen. I feel like people will see me shaking, I’m so nervous. I’m introduced to everyone in turn and guess what, I cannot remember any names. I am the worst with names at the best times, when I’m nervous, forget it. This is no slight on the guys, I really am terrible at remembering names and I had 9 to remember to their one. First thing I do remember though is being surprised at how small the kitchen is. Nine chefs, really? In there? It obviously works and they all have their stations, they know their borders and if you wanted to get poetic I guess you would say they dance around each other as they work. But these are chefs, real men, no dancing, more just getting on with it.

You may feel I am jumping around a bit, I am, it is hard to tell you about this day without reverting to being an excited little boy. The whole time I was there I couldn’t help but think, “this is a Michelin Star kitchen, what the hell are they doing letting me in here?” Well, I’ll tell you what they let me do, no cooking for a start, but would you really expect that? I started by quartering some globe artichokes (already trimmed), scooping out the “hairy shit” as it was described to me.  Maybe now’s a good time to note there were no women in the kitchen. I was then asked to butter some rings. I would say I buttered some chef’s rings but that sounds even worse.

There was plenty of leek chopping and then we left the kitchen while the floors were cleaned. We had soup, bread and returned to the kitchen. Service was getting close, I move over to help with the starters, quartering some button balsamic onions. The two chefs on this section were constantly talking to me, showing me the various starters and teaching me a few tips, like cutting the edges of the foie gras before cooking it to make it look nicer.

Over to the pass next just before service to fill and cut a delicate pasta. This is where I realised more than any point how much I was shaking, still shaking after nearly 3 hours with these guys. We are still finishing off the pasta as the blind goes up and I can see customers being seated. I was out there once, I think to myself and that does nothing for my nerves. I remember how good the food was and am pretty glad I’m not cooking.

We finish the pasta off and clear the pass. Jeff approaches and says they would like me to plate up the cod dish. Trying to appear confident, I say no problem, I can do that. Not so much butterflies in my stomach as a heard of rhinos having a rave. I’m shown the dish once and expected next time to plate up. Piece of cake, honest. So who reading this believed that last bit? I probably plated up that dish at least five times slower than I was shown. It did improve though, after a couple of tips and hints about how much sauce to put on (I was a bit stingy at first).

After quite a few of these, handing the orders to the chef and expertly toasting some brioche (oh yes, if you need brioche toasting, I’m your man), I moved over to the pastry section. I am shown how to plate up the chocolate fondant dessert and now have new found skills at putting doyleys and a small jug of coulis on a plate, oh yes I do. I enjoyed this part as I got to try some of the ice cream, brilliant banana ice cream and a milk ice cream. Really should have stolen the tubs.

Service is coming to an end and my wife is in the bar quaffing champagne waiting for me. My experience is over, I go to change, getting out of the way so the chefs can concentrate on prepping for the evening. Another thing that makes you realise how hard these guys work. Next time you go for a meal just remember that. I have a chat with Jeff, gaining more advice and tips and getting a bit of a potted Galvin history which is leaving me waiting for the book with baited breath (am I allowed to mention the book?). Finally dressed as a customer again I head to the bar for a beer with my wife.

I have to say I was knackered, my feet were pounding and I truly do not know how these guys (and girls) do this every day. I helped run a bar for two years and had forgotten how hard the shifts are but that is nothing compared to serving at this level. So much work goes into providing your meal, the pressure of providing that quality in every dish is immense.

So, what did I learn? I guess the main thing I learnt is that I know nothing. Okay, I can cook a bit, I have a basic knowledge of flavours, but really, truly, I know nothing about being a chef, I know nothing about food, not in comparison to these guys. For all of you, who like me, cook a lot at home and eat in fine dining restaurants, you are nowhere near being a chef. I guess now you’ll be asking, “So Simon, do you still want to be a Chef?” Well, that question is yet to be answered by me and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.

Before I leave you though, I have to thank a few people for this amazing day. First, Olly Smith, yes the wine man off the telly. It was Olly that recommended Cafe a Vin and introduced me to the wonderful world of Galvin restaurants. Next is Sara Galvin, wife of Chris Galvin and hostess of Galvin La Chapelle. Sara advised asking Jeff face to face. Finally thank you to Jeff and the team for allowing me into your domain and putting up with this intruder. I hope I wasn’t in the way too much and really cannot thank you enough.

Please visit http://www.galvinrestaurants.com for more information on Galvin La Chapelle and the other wonderful Galvin restaurants.  

With thanks to @Julia_GalvinRes for the photo.

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