So I’ve now started blogging over at my own website. New Cook the Books has just gone live. This time, Simon Hopkinson
Rimmer and his mates #ladsontour
I was at a working lunch recently with a woman from another company, and the conversation, as ever, turned to boys. Specifically our boyfriends.
“I like all his friends, except one,” she said, swigging her Viognier. “I just don’t like the way he talks about women. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a feminist or anything….”
At this point my eyes bled into my slow roast pork and my brain melted in a raging fury (not that I did anything but smile sweetly, obv). How can somebody, in 2013, who has had everyone from Caitlin Moran to Jameela Jamil waving the flag for feminism in their faces, not identify with the cause? “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in equal rights or anything.”
We’ve come a long way since feminism was thought of as a bad thing, surely? Back in 1996, when my first piece of published “journalism” appeared in The Times, my disparaging moue against the sisterhood was evident in my prissy last line.
But that was before feminism had been rebranded and, anyway, the Spice Girls weren’t to happen for another three months. We all know better now, surely, and don’t casually toss gender stereotypes and aspersions around?
Except here, in TV-chef-Simon-Rimmer’s new book, Men Love Pies, Girls Like Hummus.
Hashtag moronic book titles dot co dot uk
At first, I thought the title was a joke, an ironic aside in a post feminist world. But then I remembered that white middle class men don’t get to make ironic asides about traditionally oppressed groups and found that the book was peppered with such gems as:
“This chapter is full of recipes to cook for the ladies in your life, even if that’s your mum and your sister or if you’re a girl too.”
It’s presumably the same sort of tired male banter (“manter”?) that forms the backbone of Sunday Brunch where Rimmer has made his name, but I wouldn’t know as I’ve never watched the show – Sunday mornings are for hangovers and looking balefully at all the dirty wine glasses by the sink and repeats of Friends (I love it when Christina Applegate calls Monica “Crazy Plate Lady” in that Thanksgiving episode) (Of course, when you think about it, Friends is sexist too, as all the women just want clothes and a boyfriend and all the men are commitment phobes who only date hot women…oh God, sexism really is everywhere).
But it’s just so….aged. Since when has gender defined our tastes? Chefs such as Skye Gyngell, Anna Hansen, Angela Hartnett and more recently Florence Knight have all held their own in the kitchen for years, so how can some male cooks think casual sexism is even relevant?
Anyway, to see if there was any truth behind Rimmer’s claim in the book’s title, I invited two girls over, who would hopefully love hummus, as it was the first course.
His version of the fabled hummus, pleaser of women everywhere
Mint and Pine Nut Hummus was so easy to make – I’m sure even the tiny mind of a girl could manage it (joke! I was channelling Rimmer, yeah? Lads!) – just a bit of tahini and chickpea and mint blended up in a liquidiser. But oh God it was delicious. And oddly green.
My hummus. Green = healthy, right?
And Rimmer was right. The girls liked it. And so did the gays. If only we’d had real men there to find out if they liked it too.
Judging by the conversation during the starter, this is what else girls like:
Talking about dating
Showing pictures of boys they’re dating
Sheryl Sandberg (srsly. One of them had Lean In in her bag)
And this is what they don’t like:
Boys they meet on Guardian Soulmates who suggest going to secluded woods for first dates
Boys who don’t pay for any drinks when meeting their girlfriend’s family
When boys Facebook profiles have high security settings
Empty wine glasses.
Rimmer would have killed for this sort of study.
And onto the main course, a pie for the men. Shepherd’s Pie with Cauliflower Cheese Top to be precise.
Confusingly, the girls liked it too. I don’t know what to think about gender differences anymore. But then, how could they not? It was, as the name suggests, a shepherd’s pie on the bottom, all rich lamb stew and buttery mash, with rich, hearty cauliflower cheese on top. May my tastebuds ever encounter something this dreamy again.
And my version. It pains me how good it tasted
Judging by the conversation during the main course, men also love:
Asking girls incredulously about the useless men they’re dating
Talking about people they all know and slagging them off (I refuse to believe this is just a gay thing)
And this is what they don’t like:
Not being offered seconds of pie
Being asked when they’re going to marry each other
Empty wine glasses
Seeing as the book title didn’t specify what the different sexes like for dessert I had to guess. His Raspberry Brownie and Caramelized Banana Eton Mess was apparently created for his 14 year old daughter, for when he “needs to win her round” (women, eh?) and seeing as her and I probably have the same music tastes it felt like a good fit.
Rimmer’s Eton Mess
The brownie bit was divine. Chewy and gooey and full of chocolate. The caramel sauce was a slightly bitter foil and everything else was just dressing. But the quantities, oh the quantities. Rimmer had allocated two bananas per person, two meringue nests per person, a ton of brownie. Even tasting this good, there was so much leftover I could have fed a whole army of adolescent girls.
Yes, it looks gross, but that brownie was incredz
Which is more than can be said for the wine – every drop drained, bottles stacked up in the recycling. Perhaps that could be the name of my first cookery book: Girls and Gays Like Wine. As groundbreaking a title as Rimmer’s.
Cost of ingredients: £39.72 (not including items already in store cupboard)
First course * * * * *
Main course * * * * *
Dessert * * * *
Overall: 9/10 for recipes, 0/10 for concept, execution, and general cunt-facery.
Men Love Pies, Girls Like Hummus (Mitchell Beazley, £16.99) is out now. Original photography by Emma Lee
It’s only bloody Martin Platt off Corrie!
I thought I knew how this would go. I chose The Artist Formerly Known As Martin Platt’s cookbook because I expected it to be lolz. Known for having played a man who was married to Gail, Coronation Street’s Gerbil of Doom, he’s only gone and reinvented himself as a foodie.
And so I imagined that we’d open with this nice little anecdote about Rita:
Barbara Knox (Rita Fairclough) was seated next to me and I asked her what she was eating. She immediately said, “Oxtail soup and chips!” “Together?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said demurely. “Have you never tried soup and chips?” Hmmm. I tried it, but I still prefer my Oxtail soup with a large chunk of brown bread. I do like a woman who knows her own mind though.
And then we’d be filled with wonderment about the story in the intro where Helen Worth, aka The Actual Gail Platt, apparently introduced Martin to Simon Hopkinson, (the foodie’s favourite chef, whose Baked Papardelle with Porcini and Pancetta is legit to die for), and gasp as we remember that Dame Gail is allegedly as posh as Pam St Clement in real life.
And then I’d make the food, and we’d all be like “well, that was actually quite good and weren’t we wrong to pre-judge him on his former soap status and didn’t we all learn something about popular culture and reinvention and, more importantly, ourselves?”
But no. I learnt nothing about myself, except that I still get embarrassed when serving up dreadful food to people who I’ve invited to dinner. Even after all the practice.
Will was away, and as he’s normally in charge of cocktails I let Martin Platt take control. His recipe for Newkie Brown Punch apparently always got the party started, and how could something which sounded this wrong not be right? Even though, as Joe pointed out, “a Brown Punch doesn’t really sound like something you’d ever want.” The book doesn’t have a picture, so you’ll have to make do with the ingredients list which, frankly, will create a hellish enough mental image anyway.
It was filling, didn’t taste of booze, and each mega-cal mouthful felt like a delivery of diabetes. Mine got compared, variously, to the following:
Starbucks eggnog latte
A bowl of congealed sick
But to give Martin his due, it kind of did get the party started. It was drinkable, a talking point, a mild diversion from the glasses of fizz and entry-level small talk. And, as Lizzy said: “I can’t believe you’re adding a whole can of condensed milk.”
Martin’s Spring Vegetable Soup With Lettuce
We sat down to the starter, Spring Vegetable Soup With Lettuce. “I think this is probably going to be the best course,” I trilled nervously. “You can’t really go wrong with a soup, can you,” said Peter, my friend Joe’s boyfriend, who I had never met before but who I had just forced to drink something that was the colour of Emily Bishop’s hair.
My version. Cute mini Le Creusets, right?
But whilst you can’t go wrong with soup, you can go awry. It was….ok, a fresh and slightly crunchy bowl of vegetables in a slightly creamy liquor. But the addition of the juice of one whole lemon sent it over the edge – what could have been a zingy twist overpowered the soup base with a breathtaking sharpness. Joe left most of his. “I’m always a bit funny with food,” he demurred politely, despite having told me before he had no special dietary requirements. He would be in for a rough ride.
Martin’s Lancastrian Hotpot. Looks delicious. If only.
For bubbling away in the oven was, of course, a Lancashire Hotpot. And, whilst trying to say encouraging things about the starter (“so much of your five a day”) I already knew it wasn’t going to be a rich, thick jus just like Betty RIP used to make. Half an hour earlier Martin’s recipe had made me add yet another 650ml of vegetable stock to an already pale and watery pan, diluting it to be thinner than the current plot about Nigel Havers and Gail Platt. (As if that silver fox would ever go near the copper hamster.) (We love you Audrey! xoxo)
My version. At least it was steaming hot
“I think hotpots are a Lancastrian myth – I’ve never seen one,” Peter said, his family from the North. “Not like this, anyway,” I thought, staring at the limp bowl of soggy potatoes. “Still, at least the meat is quite tender,” I practically sobbed.
We drank more wine. “I’m so sorry about this, I am actually a really good cook,” I found myself bragging sadly, dreading the monstrosity that was coming for dessert.
Martin’s Jam Roly-Poly
It was meant to be the pinnacle of all puddings, a custard-covered comfort to soak up the champagne. Instead it looked like this:
“It’ll probably taste nice,” said Joe, hopefully. The poor boy had barely eaten all night.
“At least your custard looks good,” added Peter, stirring my thick jug of Birds as I almost wiped away a tear.
And it actually wasn’t too bad. There was simply no way the quantities of liquid Martin suggested could have made a pastry that would roly into a poly. So, if you pretended it was just a big rock cake, it almost wasn’t a disappointment, the prestige raspberry jam from Melrose and Morgan almost saving the day.
We drank more, moving onto spirits, filling our empty stomachs with an entire Rovers worth of booze. “Can I get a bit more of that bread?” Peter asked. We all hacked off a chunk.
Then we remembered the leftover Newkie Brown Punch. And this happened:
Cue Coronation St credits. The end.
Cost of ingredients: £42.78 not including items already in storecupboard
Pudding ** (the custard and jam were nice)
Overall 2/10 (for lol factor about the cocktail)
Published by Hodder and Stoughton. Original photography by Amanda Haywood
Joanna Weinberg. The woman whose recipes work.
“He’s going to come a bit later, he didn’t want to be the first one to get there,” my friend explained of her husband on a recent night out. “I suppose I can understand, he doesn’t want to hang out with my friends all night. If it was with his friends, I’d probably show up at last orders.”
“And I’d probably have a massive strop and not show up at all,” I replied.
“They’re so lucky to have us, aren’t they?”
Much as I genuinely love my boyfriend’s friends, many of whom have become friends of my own (hi guyzzzzzz!), it’s always a little bit more effort to drag myself off the sofa, away from Take Me Out, to see his chums rather than my own. (It’s an effort to see my friends, too. I really do love Take Me Out.)
I’ll try everything. “Do you reeeeeeally want to go?” I’ll ask, stretching languidly. “Yes,” he’ll reply. I won’t say anything for a bit.
“I’m not sure that I reeeeeeeally want to,” I’ll eventually say, as if he hasn’t guessed. He’ll look at me sternly. “Philip! We’re going.” I’ll pout. Maybe harrumph a couple of times. But it never works.
And so I go and stand in the corner and feel miserable and drink slowly and check my watch not very surreptitiously and eventually Will will let me go home and he’ll stay out and go to Heaven and roll home at 6 in the morning and I’ll feel smug that I had a good night’s sleep and bang around the kitchen really loudly with no sympathy for his hangover. Again, he really is lucky to have me.
But to try and trick him into thinking that I’m not actually all bad, sometimes I’ll do something so selfless, with so little griping, that it hopefully tips the scales back into my favour. Like cooking a three course meal for six on the Friday night of the first full week back at work after Christmas.
“You really fucking owe me for this,” I hissed, hunched over Tesco Online, nursing the last of the festive port, and none of the leftover Christmas spirit. “All I want to do is crawl into a ball and die and you’re making me cook a whole dinner?”
“Pip, I’m not making you do anything. We can go to the pub if you like.”
“Humph,” I harrumphed. There was no chance of that. One of the guests was Will’s ex girlfriend and her husband (so modern) and the last time we’d been to their house they’d done something amazing with steak and scallops, so I had our honour to protect. Plus I literally love playing the martyr.
But seeing as it was the first week back and I was battling with a crushing depression bigger than the hole left behind by the Christmas tree, I went for a book I kind of knew would work. “Where’s the fun in that?” I hear you cry. “We love it most when you serve up raw potato!” But January is not a time for uncooked tubers, and boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends are not the sort to whom you should be serving them.
And so I chose Cooking For Real Life by Joanna Weinberg. Disclaimer – I know Joanna. She is lovely, and has written recipes for me at both Sunday Times Style and Red, and they have always been easy, delicious and included unexpected twists of flavour. And she’s polite, oh how polite! One August I descended on her home and dressed it for Christmas and made her light a Christmas pudding constantly for two days and she never complained once. I kind of love her a bit. (That was for a shoot, by the way. Not some weird hostage situation.)
The only problem with her recipes? So simple were they that I barely got a chance to have a stress at Will whilst cooking them.
Joanna’s Parma ham with elderflower poached rhubarb and burrata
Take the starter – Parma ham with elderflower poached rhubarb and burrata. I poached the rhubarb the night before with some elderflower cordial, and as the guests were arriving I simply drizzled it over the ham and cheese. If it hadn’t been so delicious I’d have almost felt cheated.
And mine. Weird yellowy-ness not present at time of photo. I blame January light
The Spiced butterflied leg of lamb with cucumber raita nearly denied me the chance to hiss too, but luckily I found the opportunity. “Do you want to check the meat?” Will asked as I was clearing the plates. “Sure,” I smiled sweetly, keen to make it clear to Will’s ex girlfriend that we had the perfect relationship.
Top: Joanna’s lamb, followed by her salad
(At this point, it might be wise to point out that they dated for about two months nearly a decade ago, and she’s been married for five or six years, and neither of them have ever given me any cause to think there is anything other then friendship between them. BUT STILL.)
My version. The pitta bits were Joanna’s idea. Guess what? They totally worked.
“I don’t know if it’s done, you check if it’s done, meat is your job,” I snarled into his ear by the oven. “Well, has it been in as long as the recipe said?” he asked “Isn’t that the rule?” It had been, and it was, to perfection; Joanna’s Courgette, fresh pea and ricotta salad making a light, zingy, welcomingly Spring-like accompaniment to the spices of the meat.
Then finally came the Eastern Trifle, which again I’d made quietly and unfussily the day before. “You seem very calm, and everything tastes wonderful,” Will’s ex girlfriend said as I spooned dessert out unceremoniously into the bowls. “Oh, well, the recipes were really good, which helps,” I smiled. She’s so sweet. – he really does have good taste in partners.
And the trifle didn’t disappoint. It was like a regular one, only with the base soaked in Earl Grey and some orange blossom water adding a touch of exoticism. Everyone liked it, even if it did look like a grey mess by the time it made it to table.
The guests left early – it is January, after all, and whilst no one was on a detox, people still had vague resolutions to somehow be better about their drinking. “Thanks so much for cooking for my friends,” Will said, loading the dishwasher.
“They’re my friends too,” I replied, full of goodwill to all men. “And it totally wasn’t a bother.” See? He really is lucky to have me.
Cost of ingredients: £42.68 (not including items already in store cupboard)
Starter * * * * *
Main course * * * * *
Dessert * * * *
Overall 10/10 and not just because I know the author. It is sublime.
Cooking for Real Life by Joanna Weinberg (Bloomsbury, £25) Original photography by Jill Mead.
They make their own wacky fun over at Leon
The restaurant chain Leon has a very idealised view of what friends and family are like. According to their latest cookbook – which is called Friends and Family, and is all about friends and family, and what you might cook for your friends and family if your life was a bit more curated and your family didn’t only eat things that have been boiled or baked until very soggy and/or grey all the way through because that’s what they’ve always done and that’s how your Dad likes his veg and aren’t steamers just a bit too modern? – friends and family are a rag tag bunch who, as photo-documented here, take long walks together and go rock pooling and sometimes ride donkeys on beaches in assorted vintage swimwear. The last time my friends went to Brighton one of them threw up after too many cans of Red Stripe, but it’s nice to believe that we could have gone shrimp catching. Next time, must remember the nets.
Generally, my friends are a collection of people who are very nice but mainly just meet up because it’s more fun than drinking alone, so it’s very hard not to buy into Leon’s seductive and alternative world view.
But then everything about Leon is designed to reel you in. Hey, their special brand of almost non-branded branding says, we’re young and cool and hip and healthy and if you eat our always slightly unsatisfying wraps and salads then you, too, can be young and cool and hip and healthy, and hey, there’s definitely room for you in the Leon Family, because we’re all really just friends and family aren’t we, so come in and relax and take one of the comfy chairs and let us nourish you and make you feel better about the world and maybe you won’t notice as you hand over at least a fiver for a few lentils that you definitely could have made yourself but don’t worry about that because look, isn’t this all lovely? It may have all been dreamt up in a marketing room filled with whiteboards, but it was probably a really lovely marketing room, with those nice Balhsen biscuits and sparkling Hildon water, and everyone would have loosened their Gieves and Hawkes tie at least half an inch.
And who am I not to wish my life was a bit more like Leon’s? I was having a group of friends over who are notorious for their heavy drinking and coarse language. I wrote about the last time I cooked for them, and the conversation was mega-NSFW. So perhaps bit of Leon’s magic might rub off on us and we might instead don vague approximations of some sort of theme costume and all stand around looking awkward, like the Leon lot do here:
But what to cook? The book isn’t conveniently split into categories such as Starters, Mains and Desserts because that wouldn’t be kooky enough. Instead they’re broken down to fit how Leon live their lives, in chapters such as “Weekend Blow-Outs” and “After Lights Out” and “A Walk in the Park”, which includes Chicken and Tarragon Casserole and Joyce-Ann’s Jamaican Curried Lamb Shanks. Neither of which I’ve ever eaten before, on, or after a walk in the park, but that’s because my life doesn’t live up to the Leon dream.
Their Mackerel Skies Salad
After flicking back and forth about million times through every page, and cursing whoever edited the book for this infernal ordering of recipes, I settled on a Mackerel Skies Salad from the Speedy Lunches chapter as my starter. “We’ve included it as a lunch, but Kay often serves it as starter,” the book chirrups. I don’t know who Kay is. Prolly one of my would-be friends and family were I in the fictional world of Leon.
And mine. A lot less red. I don’t why.
It was essentially a coleslaw with no mayo, and a dash of dressing and mackerel flaked over the top. It was easy, tasty, and with a bit of a tang from the orange juice in the sauce.
“You’d pay about £4.50 for this in Leon,” I said happily, as if that was a benchmark of quality.
“I wouldn’t,” replied one of my guests.
Their Storecupboard Daube
For the main course, I’d found a recipe called Storecupboard Daube hidden away in the famed “A Walk in the Park” section. By this point, we’d drunk more than three bottles of fizz between the five of us, talked about special mouth guard masks you can get to make giving head more hygienic, and bitched sourly about a mackerel salad which was actually fairly good - about as close to a walk in the park as we were ever going to get.
The book claims that the recipe was “born from Kay’s storecupboard, the fridge and the little patch of herbs on the roof.” I wish Kay really was my friend, maybe I, too, would have herbs on my roof. And no cock talk at the table.
I’d prepared the meat and vegetables calmly two nights earlier, so all I had to do was bring everything to the boil and pop it into the oven. But reader, here I struggled. The rules of this blog state I have to follow everything exactly, to not deviate from any ingredient or instruction. The book told me to pop the daube in the oven for about two hours, but at no point had it told me to heat the oven to a given temperature. Yes, the Leon book was telling me to put it in a cold oven for two hours and then serve it up. And ps what the eff is a daube?
And mine. Heated. Against the rules. But delicious.
I just couldn’t do it. Kay wouldn’t have done it, I reasoned. And I wanted to be more like Kay, whoever she may have been. I set the oven to 180 and was able to serve the most wonderful, thick, glorious stew I’ve ever made, the brandy and anchovies in the sauce adding a hearty richness to the final taste. All five of us had seconds. Thanks, Kay.
Their Spiced Cranberry and Apple Crumble
Finally, nestling in the chapter called Christmas and Boxing Day, I found a Spiced Cranberry and Apple Crumble, one of the very few sweets in the book that wasn’t a cake. Again, I made the crumble in advance, adding all the zest and spices, and then only had to layer the apples and cranberries on the night. It was easy, tasty, unremarkable.
“Considering I don’t like cooked apple, it’s actually not too bad,” said one of the guests, picking around all the apple-y bits, before getting stuck back into the Prosecco, putting another empty into recycling. Ah, my friends. They may not be as wholesome as Leon claims their’s are, but they’re a whole lot more fun.
Cost of ingredients: £28.62 (not including items already in store cupboard)
Starter * * *
Main * * * * * so, so good
Pudding * * fine, but not wonderful. A bit like a high street chain of healthy fast food restaurants.
Leon Family and Friends (Conran Octopus) is out now. All original photography by Georgia Glynn Smith.
The eponymous French and Grace, just casually mixing up some flavours in some cute garden somewhere.You literally couldn’t get more current.
There has never been a better time to be a binge eater in Britain. On practically every street corner is a boutique baker selling designer doughnuts, or organic artisan hawking their high class hamburgers. “I’m just queuing for the latest must-have marshmallow,” people merrily tweet, congratulating themselves on snaffling out the latest fashionable foodie secret, the post-recessionary equivalent of a Mulberry bag.
As a result of our newfound culinary obsession, overeating has become a national sport. It’s ok to indulge in 133% of your recommended daily allowance of calories if it comes in the form of the Mac and Cheese from Spuntino (yes, it really is that bad for you). It’s fine to eat an entire loaf in one sitting if you bought it from St John and Instagrammed the process at least seven times, including a graphic aerial shot of the butter and jam you got to go with it from Melrose and Morgan.
There’s definitely a new air of snobbery and one-upmanship. “Oh, you mean you’ve not tried Heston’s meat fruit/Bea of Bloomsbury’s Eggs Benedict/that random thing I saw in ES magazine and haven’t tried myself but read enough about to try and blag my way through?” is usually accompanied with a stare as withering as a week old vine tomato from Whole Foods. Extra points are awarded for the effort it takes to track something down - tiny companies selling small amounts of produce in undesirable parts of the country are particularly well-respected.
French and Grace are profiteers of this new dawn of discovery, when foraging means a trek to Brixton Village to feast on their wares. The pair are getting write ups everywhere from ES (of course) to Saturday Times Mag, who are all lauding them for their skills at combining flavours to create something truly amazing, and for turning their tiny supper club (so now!) into a tiny cafe in South London (even more now!). I’m trying to get them do an exclusive feature for a publication I work for, but they’re loathe to tie themselves down for, as they told me when I popped into their gaff for dinner and the chance to try and persuade them into it, “there’s a lot of buzz about us at the moment.” It’s true, there is.
And quite simply it’s because their recipes work. “You don’t look very stressed,” my friend Rachel said when she arrived, clutching an aging sausage dog called Nellie who looked at me with disdain. And unusually for me, I wasn’t – the dessert had taken seconds to make that afternoon, the main not much longer, and the starter could be whipped up in moments once everyone had turned up and been given some booze.
Their version of Cucumber and Carrot Salad with Sesame and Chilli
Of course, that doesn’t mean my boyfriend got off totally without being hissed at. “Peeling these carrots is making me want to die,” I whispered violently at him whilst making the starter. The guests were drinking Sipsmith’s Summer Cups (ten foodie points to me for that one) and talking about how strangers in the street will try and pet the sausage dog but Nellie will just bite their hands, and I had just peeled four carrots to ribbons, with two more to go, as well as two cucumbers. “What are we having?” asked Kat, another guest, stepping into the kitchen. I just about managed to stop myself from replying: “A meltdown.”
And mine. If I had a Magimix peeler I would deffo make it again
But it tasted incredible. “Delicately balanced,” said Rachel’s boyfriend Jim thoughtfully, helping himself to a bit more of the dressing. The mint and coriander, mixed with the sesame oil and soy sauce, gave the vegetables a bit of bite, a slightly acidic edge. It was divine.
Their Creamy Chicken, Leeks and Tarragon with Crunchy New Potatoes
The Creamy Chicken, Leeks and Tarragon with Crunchy New Potatoes was less successful – but only structurally. “The potatoes are nice, but not very crunchy,” commented Kat’s boyfriend James. “And the casserole’s liquid is very thin,” said Rachel.
And mine. Halve the liquid amounts, or serve with a straw
“You should have just fricasseed that shit right up,” added Jim as we licked our plates clean – depressingly literally in the case of my boyfriend. With a litre of chicken stock, large glass of wine and 150ml of double cream there was enough left in the pot to make a pleasingly hearty soup the next day – but not the thick bubbly gloop depicted in the book.
Their Mascarpone Cheesecake with Nutmeg and Maple Syrup Caramel. Doesn’t the thought of those flavours make your mouth water?
Dessert was equally structurally unsound – there was no way the specified 75g of butter could have held that much biscuit base together – but again the flavours were bang on. Maple syrup sauce over a vaguely tangy filling? The precursor to double strength vodka lemonades (made with Truffle Vodka, obvy) doesn’t get much better than this.
Yeah, well, it all goes down the same way
As the conversation turned to skullfucking (don’t ask) and the nude pics of Lorraine Kelly that litter the internet (don’t Google them, I beg you) the sheen of rustic sophistication lent by the recipes crumbled faster than the cheesecake’s base, but we finished the evening feeling smug that we’d eaten the creations of two of the new stars of the foodie world. And let’s face it, other than the enchanting sensation of devouring delicious dinners, that smugness is what the new foodie obsession is really all about.
Cost of ingredients: £27.63 (not including items already in store cupboard)
Starter * * * * *
Main * * * * A bit of flour would have thickened it up a treat
Dessert * * * * Just a touch more butter and the base would have been perfect
Kitchen and Co by French and Grace (£16.99, Kyle Books). Original photography by Laura Edwards
“I’m never fucking doing Cook the Books again,” I shouted at my boyfriend, before storming into the bedroom. “I’ve had e-fucking-nough,” I added, yanking off my tie and throwing it on the floor for effect. It was the night before I was due to be cooking from Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, a paean to plants and produce from asparagus to zucchini. I’d chosen the book because it seemed gentle, calming, easy, and began with the following inscription:
Thank you so much for picking up this book and reading it. I have many cookbooks and not one person has thanked me for buying, reading or using them – so thank you. I hope that as you read it, you will be inspired by the same love of good food that inspires my every day.
As sweet as puppies, lambs, and that moment in Top Model when Tyra tells the contestant she’s just booted off that they just have to believe in themselves and they’ll be able to smize their way to the top or whatever, how could anyone’s heart not be melted by that? It’s printed on gorgeous paper stock, full of sun-drenched photographs, and has a dedication which includes the author’s dog. This was meant to be a sure fire success.
It had started easily enough. I’d ordered the ingredients off Tesco.com and was at my Book Group the night before delivery and eventual cooking. We had all been tasked with reading Fifty Shades of Grey, so obviously had to get wasted to get past the horror of 500 pages of Anastasia Steele and her incapacity to do anything without biting her lip. “Can I borrow your computer to change something on my Tesco order? I’ve just remembered I need to add washing powder and it’ll be too close to the delivery time to add it when I get home,” I asked the host, flipping between the sordidness of Christian’s Red Room of Pain and the banality of domestic life as casually and unskillfully as EL James does all the way through the novel. “No,” everyone cried, as dominating as our fictional hero. “You can’t do something so dull in the middle of Book Group – Book Group is for talking about boys and booze and, in this case, sado masochism.”
By the time I got home, it was too late to amend the order, but I logged on blearily, just in case. “Fucking hell,” I hissed at my poor boyfriend, who was quietly watching television. “I’ve only gone and set it to the wrong address, to be delivered to that place I organised the hen party at two years ago. Fuck! And now I’m going to have to actually go to the shops myself tomorrow, and traipse all the way up the aisles, and carry all these shitty vegetables home, and then cook them, and fucking entertain people, whilst you do nothing to help.” And then for emphasis, the line so angstily dramatic, so over the top, so pointless, that it had Fifty Shades written all over it: “I’m never fucking doing Cook the Books again.”
I’d calmed down once my hangover had cleared and the guests arrived the next night. I’d forgone trekking to the big supermarket and bought everything from the Tesco Metro on the corner. I’d had to compromise a couple of times, which was technically against the rules, but it’s not like I’d signed a contract with Christian Grey and anyone was going to insert beads in me for going against my own dogma.
Our guests seemed disappointed. “Have you had your drunken meltdown yet?” Camilla asked, almost the second she was through the door. “I’ve read the blog, I know there’s always at least one.” “Well, Will’s still at work, and I’ve been by myself all afternoon, so there’s been no one to shout at,” I admitted. “Strops are no fun if there’s no one there to indulge them.”
Mr Wilkinson’s Salad of Cauliflower, Smoked Salmon and Strawberry
Three drinks down and the Salad of Cauliflower, Smoked Salmon and Strawberry was a hit. It had literally involved nothing more than chopping a couple of vegetables, sticking them in a big bowl, and letting a slosh of lemon juice do the talking.
My version. Tesco Metro didn’t have pea shoots either
“The only thing I would say,” said Andy thoughtfully, “is that perhaps the recipe should have included shallots instead of onions. It would have been sweeter, less overpowering.” Seeing as each dish is technically an experiment for a blog I’ve got used to swallowing as much carefully judged criticism as I do Riesling, but this one particularly stung. I didn’t have the guts to admit that the recipe had actually called for shallots, and my local Tesco had been out of them. “Yeah, I’ll bear that in mind,” I mumbled, topping up my glass.
Mr Wilkinson’s Smoked Baked Garlic With A Simple Good Old Roast Chook
The local shop had let me down on the main course, too. Smoked Baked Garlic With A Simple Good Old Roast Chook had seemed easy enough, and when I couldn’t find Smoking Chips in my “convenience” outlet I thought I could fudge it somehow and that you, the reader, would never find out. (Soz and all, but I tried two places and could still taste last night’s Prosecco on the back of my furry tongue, there was no way I was hiking into town.) Back at home I realised the smoking chips were the main ingredient – used to give the garlic a delicious, well, smokiness, and make it the star turn of the dish. Unsurprisingly, in a book about veg, the chicken was just dressing, cooked as simply as banging it in the oven with a little oil. “Fuck,” I didn’t bother screaming allowed, as there was no one around to hear it, and just reached for Maria Elia’s Full of Flavour off the shelf. Her Slow Roast Paprika chicken, which had been so ace in my first ever Cook the Books, would come to the rescue once again.
My bastardised version of Maria Elia’s Slow Roast Paprika Chicken. Bloody hell, it’s a good recipe
Much as Mr Wilkinson’s book is a lovely feast for the eyes and soul, the very essence of its being means that it doesn’t do desserts. I still had some rhubarb in the freezer so I made that into a fool, thinking that at least I’d have reviewed two of Wilkinson’s recipes and been able to pass judgement.
My made-up rhubarb fool - the weird brown bits on the top are crystallised ginger. They were good.
We drank through the disappointment of not having done a proper three course Cook the Books. At one point the Port came out, and I declared the book a success anyway. “We’ve had a lovely evening, and it contains lots of lovely pictures – what more does any book need?” I cried. Had Anastacia Steele been at the table, she’d have definitely rolled her eyes.
Cost of ingredients: £28.76 (not including items already in store cupboard, or not bought because Tesco Metro didn’t stock them)
First course: * * * * * I have to give it the benefit of the doubt, seeing as I didn’t use shallots and it still tasted all fresh and summery
Main course: * * * * * Maria’s chicken came through for me once again. I’m sure Matt Wilkinson’s would have done the same. He thanks the reader for buying the book. Who cares if the recipes actually work?
Pudding: * * * * * My own-recipe rhubarb fool was a triumph, thanks for asking. I can just about remember it through the Port…
Overall: 8/10 The paper feels divine Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson (£20, Murdoch). Original photography by Jacqui Melville
That’s a whole lotta Gok
Gok Wan is somewhat of an easy target. With all his hair flicking and shrieking of “you can do it, babes,” and grabbing of middle aged women’s breasts and forcing of housewives to get their thread veins lasered off, throwing casual insults his way is easier than taking your bra off and walking down a makeshift runway in a shopping centre outside Hull. For starters, he calls his fans Gokettes, and pictures of them in his glasses on his website form part of a Gokette’s Gallery. You’d think this blog post would write itself.
But I take people on face value, and having never seen more than ten minutes of How To Look Good Naked - and his new cookery show having not aired at time of writing - I have to judge ol’Gockles on the three times I’ve met him. I use the word “met” as casually as you might idly pick up a pair of his Specsavers specs, glance at their lilac frames in your hand and cast them aside, for on none of these three occasions would I have even registered on his consciousness.
The first was in Bristol, in 2006. I was on the cider boat with some friends, and after three pints of 7% Festival Proof Scrumpy the subject turned to one Mr Wan, who had recently become a TV phenomenon. “I can’t stand him,” I sneered, despite having never seen the show, though to be fair after that much Scrumpy I’d have held the same opinion of my own grandmother. Moments later, walking out into the sunshine, we were confronted with Gok standing on a street corner, looking long and lean and louche. “Hi,” I simpered, hoping he’d not been on the boat and heard my drunken diatribe. He beamed beatifically back. And that was the first time we “met”.
Then a few months ago at the Soho Hotel he held the door open for me with the sort of passive aggressiveness I thought only I was capable of. “Come on then,” he said meanly, tutting and sneering as I sheepishly held him up by walking through the doorway, past his angrily tapping foot, delaying him by a whole second and a half.
But only a couple of weeks later he flirted with me in the queue at Sainsbury’s. I got ID’d for wine (Best. Day. Ever) and he jokingly suggested he hoped he’d get the same treatment, and I made some remark about how hey, if they were asking me my age they clearly needed to visit his line of glasses in Specsavers, and he said that not at all, I looked very young, and we both laughed and smiled, and was that a frisson that passed between us? and all the time I was thinking about how he had been so rude when he’d held the door for me that other time and that all this charm was too little too late, but ooh, perhaps he was actually quite nice, and that well, I just didn’t know where I stood on whether I liked Gok or not.
But fortunately he has conclusively provided me with a concrete way to judge him – yes he’s got his own cookbook, entirely based on the Chinese food his dad, Poppa Wan, served in the family restaurant Gok worked in throughout his teenage years. “At last,” I cried, as it landed on my desk. “I’ll finally know whether I should flirt back next time I bump into him at the supermarket.” But just like my previous ”meetings” with the man, the results don’t determine a thing.
Gok’s Sesame Prawn Balls with Stir-Fried Cucumbers
Sesame prawn toasts are one of my favourite things in the world. They’re greasy and toasty and salty and surely make up at least half the wine glass full of fat that I once read in Metro is in every Chinese takeaway, but Gok’s version does away with the bread base and adds some stir fried cucumbers. It is also totally impossible.
Not pictured: the stir fried cucumbers, which by this stage I couldn’t be bothered with, or indeed any actual prawn balls
I followed the recipe to the letter. I chopped the prawns and water chestnuts finely, stuck them in a bowl with the sesame oil and mixed it all together. On Gok’s command I went to take an eighth of the mixture to form into a ball to roll in the sesame seeds…and it fell apart in my hands. “For Gok’s Sake!” I screamed. “This is the worst moment of my life!” My guests, over from Canada and expecting some top quality cuisine, rushed to help. “But there’s no binding agent,” they agreed. “There is no way this recipe could ever work.” I forwent the cucumber, cursing the name of Gok, and fried the prawn mixture as one. We ate it with a spoon, off one plate. Worst appetiser since the raw potato.
Gok’s Hot and Sour Soup
However, his Hot and Sour Soup was incredible. “Opposites attract!” begins his intro about why the two flavours work together, also neatly explaining why we would never get beyond the flirting-in-Sainsbury’s stage. With our glasses, love of scarves, and self esteem issues, The Gokster and I are as one. I might marry him for this soup, however.
My version. Tasted as proportionately unlike vomit as it looked similar
Rich and dark, full of mushroomy goodness and tangier than Haribo, we all four licked our bowls clean. “And he doesn’t really even like mushrooms,” said my female guest about her boyfriend, staring at his empty bowl.
His Braised Aubergine with Pork
And then his Braised Aubergine with Pork fell somewhere in the middle. Served with his aromatic Wok Fried Beans it had an earthy flavour that came from the soy sauce and anchovies, but there wasn’t enough sauce – it lacked the oomph you’d expect from a man who talks to women about their breasts all day. “Yeah, this is fine,” everyone agreed, damning with faint praise.
And mine. Roughly as appetising as it looked
Of course, Gok being a former fatty there were no desserts in this book. We served ice cream and more booze instead, just like we were in a real Chinese restaurant. And that’s the problem with Gok’s endeavours. Flicking through it now, staring at recipes for Crispy Duck Plum pancakes and egg fried rice, I just want to order straight in from Deliverance, rather than make any of these things myself. It’s better than your average celeb-turned-cook cookbook, but he should have had the foresight to see that in an era where everyone’s a foodie, we really do need more than that. Perhaps he should have gone to Specsavers.
Cost of ingredients £27.35 (not including items already in store cupboard)
Appetiser * Shanghai Surprise, and not in a good way
Starter * * * * *
Main * *
Overall 5/10 It looks nice, and most of the recipes pretty much work…
Gok Cooks Chinese (Penguin, £20) Original Photography by Jemma Watts
I spent longer making the bloody pudding than either of these two spent in jail
I know a lot about life in prison. Not only have I had a cocktail in the Courthouse Kempinski Hotel – which used to actually be a jail, folks, so how’s that for journalistic research? – but I also watched all eight series of the surely-almost-wholly-factual prison-set drama Bad Girls. I know that prison guards are called screws and – according to Bad Girls lore – will fake their own pregnancies and miscarriages if it means keeping their job as chief of staff. From the same source I know that murderous bisexual prostitutes are just misunderstood sweethearts who had a tough childhood, and that you can have a same-sex affair with the Wing Governor in the library if you take an adult literacy course as a façade.
I also know that, apart from anything you’ve managed to smuggle in via your lady parts, all you really have in prison is time. Buckets of it. Gallons. Entire oceans stretching forward for as long as your character keeps getting re-commissioned by the series editors. Which can be the only excuse Martha Stewart has for coming up with the excruciatingly time-consuming recipes in her latest opus Martha Stewart’s Pies and Tarts.
Her time in the slammer is well documented – in fact it’s all she’s really known for in the UK; famous for being the Queen of Daytime TV who painted herself as the original Bree Van Der Kamp and then got put away for fraud. Presumably anyone who can outdo Ricki Lake in the ratings can also rise up the ranks to being Top Dog of their wing pretty quickly, so once she’d done that she must have used her endless days to devise these endless recipes.
I started out cheerily enough. “It’ll all be nice and carby,” I thought, flicking through the entirely pastry-based book. I’d invited two colleagues over – both beauty editors, both of whom seem to be able to deal with the mountain of cupcakes they get sent daily by PRs without gaining an ounce. If anyone could cope with Stewart’s stodge it would be them. Starting at 2pm I thought I’d be finished by 4 and have enough time to use some of the products my guests had given me over the years to make myself look fresh for their arrival.
Dead on the dot of 7pm, my first guest showed up, whilst I was still in a pastry-based panic, a flurry of flour, a full on Martha Meltdown. I’d stopped at 6pm for two minutes to pour myself a large glass of white port, desperately needing a break from all the kneading, but other than that I’d been working solidly for five long, painful hours.
The other guests arrived, and I got my boyfriend to make us all cocktails whilst I carried on with the starter. I necked my Cosmompolitans gratefully and with speed – I could see why housewives turned to the bottle as my day had been harder than any I’ve ever spent in the office.
It wasn’t that the recipes were difficult, exactly – nothing I had to do was out of the realms of possibility. It’s just that every stage had a gazillion steps, and every step involved some kind of slow drawn out process. Each dish became like a torture, a punishment that presumably Martha inflicted on her cellmates if they dared to question her authority.
And to add insult to injury, by the time it came to the eating I’d had so much medicinal booze I can barely remember how the meal turned out. I do recall thinking it was all fine, but probably wasn’t worth even half the amount of time spent on them. I also remember someone hooking the TV up to Youtube and us all screaming drunkenly for video requests, the five of us singing along happily – or more appropriately merrily – to this. I vaguely remember having a massive strop at my boyfriend when the guests had gone home and I was doing yet more washing up, about how I felt like nothing more than a scullery maid, and you know what, I just couldn’t wash another fucking thing, before slamming the bedroom door. And I have very strong recollections of being sick the next morning, my body fighting to deal as much with Martha’s carbs as with the amount of vodka I’d poured into it.
Martha’s Leek and Olive Tart
But the food? Here’s what I can recall.
The Leek and Olive tart was, erm, nice? It was the only recipe which didn’t call for me to make the pastry from scratch, which means it was my favourite by far, but I think the flavours lacked a little punch.
My version. Looks a lot more exciting than it tasted
The parmesan crisp around the side was a good touch, but I had to drizzle it in balsamic glaze before my champagne-soaked tongue even recognised there was any food in my mouth.
Her Mini Chicken Potpies with Herb Dough
By the time I’d got to the end of the zillion-stepped recipe for the Mini Chicken Potpies with Herb Dough I was also at the end of my tether – and didn’t bother with the herb garnish that you can see in the official picture. I think the result was….nice?
And mine. Roasted vegetables: Stylist’s own
The filling was really good as heated up leftovers the next day when I could finally manage food – a buttery mix of leek and chicken and mushroom and thyme and all my favourite things – but the recipe had required that I boiled the chicken for an hour, left it to cool, stripped the meat from the bones, sweated the vegetables, made the pastry, left the pastry to sit for an hour, and so on and so on until the only solution was another glass of white port. And I think shop bought pastry would have tasted better.
The life sentence that is Martha’s Butterscotch Praline Cream Pie
As for the Butterscotch Praline Cream Pie, I just checked with my boyfriend and he said “I seem to remember it was alright, but a bit too nutty, and a bit too creamy.” For a dessert that took longer than I’d have got for manslaughter, I’d hope for a little more. I have a vague memory of being disappointed that the butterscotch tasted a bit too authentic, and not enough like Butterscotch Angel Delight – now that would have been a speedier and more satisfying dessert – and also of throwing the unserved half down the waste disposal in a pique of rage once the guests had gone home, but those are all the details I can give you.
I’m amazed I could still take a photo at this point
The short end of this long tale is that Martha’s recipes are her way of inflicting imprisonment on all of us – enslaving us in the kitchen for hours at a time. I’d rather have done Community Service.
Cost of ingredients £29.02 (not including items already in store cupboard)
Starter * * Nice but dull
Main * * * It just took sooooo long to make
Dessert * Am now craving Angel Delight
Overall 3/10 Life’s too short to make your own pastry, as Delia might have said.
Martha Stewart’s Pies and Tarts £16.99, Clarkson Potter. Original photos by Johnny Miller
Pot. So 90s.
I love the 1990s revival so much more than I loved the actual 1990s. Back then I sat in my room listening to Tori Amos albums over and over, marking passages in Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson about the beauty of true love, and getting frustrated about the episode of My So Called Life where Angela had a meltdown because she had one spot on her otherwise perfect visage. One spot. One tiny, almost beautiful spot. I should have been so lucky to have had only the one spot.
So with all these big 90s names making a comeback – Damien Hirst, Clare Danes, Faye Tozer – it’s nice to be able to actually enjoy them from my now relatively outward-looking maturity, rather than to be letting them pass me by as I sat at home making necklaces out of self-consciously kooky plastic beads I’d bought in Brighton, wailing along to The Cranberries.
And my favourite 90s star to have suddenly popped up is Lorraine Pascale. True, no one had actually heard of her back then – the internet had hardly been invented so how did anyone really know about anything – but she walked in a couple of Versace shows, shot a couple of fashion campaigns, and was probably once ignoring the canapés at the same party as Cindy Crawford, so all her press cuttings happily refer to her as a former supermodel and it’s convenient to pretend that that is what she is.
For on TV she’s natural, charming, unpretentious, un-smug about her perfect kitchen, perfect cooking, perfect life. You want to eat her food, be her friend, have her lovely smooth skin (some personal aspects of the 90s really will haunt me forever). She cooks easy food that looks almost as scrummy as her, serving it up at the end of each episode to a couple of pals, a less raucous and more current version of Jamie O.
But I interviewed her once on the phone. It was the day after the airing of the first episode of her second series, the viewing figures were in and she’d had something like 5m of us glued to her brand of easy domesticity. “I just can’t believe that many people are watching me,” she said timidly, overwhelmed by the sudden attention, as if she’d not covered billboards just a few years ago (which, actually, she might not have done. Who knows?) “I don’t really have friends over for dinner,” she then went on to add, shattering the carefully curated image of her show. But I loved her all the same. Anyone who adds gorgonzola and breadcrumbs to pasta and calls it “Glam Mac and Cheese” is alright in my book.
And as I knew I’d be cooking for four on the morning after two consecutive nights of larging it (as they said in the 90s), I needed recipes to be as simple as possible. With her second book entitled Home Cooking Made Easy, I trusted she’d be my saviour.
And she was, disappointingly. I know this blog is much more interesting when the recipes all fuck up like here and here, but Lorraine was as good as her word – this book was, well, home cooking made easy.
The most painful part of the process was when my alarm went off at 7.45am. We had been at Attitude Magazine’s 18th birthday the night before – it had been free booze from 7pm and one of the last things I remember is an unapologetic Harry Derbridge from TOWIE spilling a drink all down my boyfriend’s arm. Totally non-sober myself, Will had to forcibly prevent me from marching up to him to, in my words at the time, “fucking sort him out.” Will really is the yin to my yang.
Anyway, the pork had to go in the oven where it sat for six hours, leaving me time to make the starter, pudding, complain about feeling queasy and generally blame my hangover on my boyfriend, whose only crime was to ask innocently from the sofa if I needed any help.
Lorraine’s Herby Scotch Eggs
The Herby Scotch Eggs were vaguely fiddly, yet not remotely difficult. Hard boiled eggs covered in sausage meat, rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for my American readers (howdy) Luscious Lorraine (as no one is calling her)’s idea was to splat the sausage meat on some cling film (that’s Saran Wrap, y’all), stick the egg in the middle and bunch up the cling film to encase the egg in meat. Much tastier than they sound.
My version. On a hangover, you can’t really expect more
And it almost worked, too – only two of the four split open in the oven, and by the time we ate them, having smelt the pork wafting gently out of the oven for six long hours, it wouldn’t have mattered what they’d looked like.
LP’s Really Slow-Roast Pork With Crispy, Crispy Crackling and Garlic Roast Vegetables
As for the Really Slow-Roast Pork With Crispy, Crispy Crackling and Garlic Roast Vegetables, it was incredible, a piggy triumph, a silk purse out of a sow’s shoulder. “Pip, come and look at this,” Will said seriously from where I’d made him carve. “The meat is literally just falling apart.”
And mine. Phwoar
It tasted as succulent as it looked, and the addition of pears to the roast vegetables were a genius twist on apple sauce. Serving it up with Lorraine’s Red Cabbage with Pears and Garlic (a pair of pears, if you will), the lesbians we’d had over for lunch were suitably impressed. “It tastes like it has been sent from heaven,” said one, as if she knew anything about porking (boom boom). The crackling was as crispy as the double-use of the word in the title implied - so crunchy LP named it twice - and its fennel seed topping was deliciously bittersweet.
Lorraine’s Frozen Raspberry Ripple Parfait ‘Ice Cream’
Finally, after we’d lain in a meat stupor for an hour or so, rubbing our satisfied tummies for long enough to have massaged some room into them, I brought the Frozen Raspberry Ripple Parfait ‘Ice Cream’ from the freezer where it had nestled all day. My last memory of it has been cursing the tediosity (fuck you, you annoying squiggly red line,that should sooooo be a word) of pushing the raspberries through a sieve to make a puree, and the noise of the electric beaters hitting the exact same frequency as the wine-related roar in my brain as they whipped the cream and egg whites, but the drama was all forgotten as we gorged on this vaguely adult take on a childhood classic, as smooth and sweet as Lorraine herself.
My chopping board may not be as aspirational, but not bad, right?
So go on, follow another 90s trend and actually buy this book, as opposed to just googling for the free recipes online because you’ve gone all modern and stuff. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
Cost of ingredients: £32.34 (not counting items already in store cupboard)
Starter * * * (but it tasted a lot better than it looked)
Main * * * * * (I can eat this every day, yes?)
Pudding * * * * * (Ditto)
Overall: 10/10 Please marry me, Lorraine
Home Cooking Made Easy by Lorraine Pascale is published by HarperCollins (£20). Original photography by Myles New