Tiptree Patisserie

There’s a brand you might be familiar with, even if you haven’t quite appreciated the history behind it. Wilkins and Sons Ltd have been making jams since 1885 in the Essex village of Tiptree, and their distinctive labels are on the shelves of supermarkets across the country. If you haven’t bought them yourself, it’s more than likely that you’ve seen the little mini-jam pots at a hotel breakfast table; last year they sold more than 50 million pots in over 60 countries worldwide. As a proud Essex girl, Tiptree is a brand I have always loved (the Raspberry Seedless jam is my favourite) so when I had the chance to find out a bit more, I jumped at the opportunity.

A mutual friend had put me in touch with Daren McGrath, who is the Managing Director of Tiptree Patisserie, part of the Wilkins and Sons family of companies. He was kind enough to show me around their bakery in Witham, Essex for a look behind the scenes of this local food business, which operates on a global scale.

Many of us know the English fruits and jams that Tiptree are famous for, and as much as possible of the fruit is still grown on their own farm, including of course the very special heritage Little Scarlet strawberry (to find out more about Little Scarlet visit www.tiptree.com). However, given the range of products it can’t all be grown here in the UK. For example, the oranges used in the marmalade come from Seville. I was pleased to learn that Tiptree has their very own ‘man from Del Monté’ (can I say that?!) called Robert, who inspects the crops of known and trusted producers in warmer climes, ensuring only the best are given the Tiptree label.

The company has grown immensely since the 19th century and now boasts a wide range of products in addition to the jams and preserves including condiments, juices, jellies, gin liqueurs, Christmas puddings and even the most delicious fruit smelling candles and diffusers. There are 11 Tiptree tearooms across the country and a growing bakery business which makes a range of bread, cakes, scones, pastries and patisserie for a variety of commercial and private customers.

The patisserie business started to provide cakes for the tearooms but now has a much larger customer base. Sitting down for a chat with Daren before touring the bakery, I was amazed to hear that Tiptree Patisserie products are sold as far field as Singapore and China, providing customers in the Far East with a genuine taste of the English countryside. Daren has personally toured China, giving live cookery demonstrations to thousands of people, educating them on the delights of an English cream tea. He is even a bit of a Chinese social media star!

Daren wouldn’t give away all his secrets but I got a few titbits, such as a spoonful of apricot jam in the Coronation chicken sandwich fillings and carrot cake laced with Tiptree’s finest marmalade. It was fascinating to hear how passionately the Chinese have embraced the concept of the cream tea. Daren admitted to being nervous when he realised the Chinese palate isn’t particularly fond of jam and they don’t really have an equivalent there. But he has obviously worked some magic, as the company is now exporting tens of thousands of scones, clotted cream and jam to China every month.

I then had a tour of the bakery, which I was completely blown away by, but not for the reasons you might think. The bakery operates 24hrs a day, 6 and a half days per week making breads, cakes, scones, biscuits, patisserie and savoury pastries. They make around 900 different products, as well as bespoke cakes for all sorts of occasions. From the spectacular – the largest cake they ever made was a 3 metre high carrot cake in the shape of a life-sized giraffe to celebrate a birthday at Colchester Zoo, which had 4000 portions – to the more prosaic – 14,000 Victoria sponges to a specific height, so they could be stacked on the trolleys they had at the event venue.

The bakery makes products for a wide range of customers from small scale caterers to big hotels and grand functions, but it wasn’t the range of customers that I was so impressed with. It was the fact that every cake, scone, biscuit and bread is made by hand, in small batches, by humans using equipment any of us would recognise. They had the same gingerbread man cutters that I have at home! They bake in batches to a maximum of 40 and yet they offer consistency and quality in everything they produce. Daren knows exactly which baker has made every item that is sent from the bakery. Their name is on the box and everyone working there prides themselves on delivering a quality product for every customer, big or small.

Daren summed up the ethos of the bakery perfectly when he said to me, “There’s cake, and then there’s cake made with love”. At Tiptree we have real passion for what we do. It’s our name on the box.”

There was so much I loved about my visit to Tiptree. Not just meeting Daren, whose enthusiasm and vision for the future of the business was genuinely inspirational. Not just that as the business expands it stays true to its ethos of having staff as part owners of the company, making everything by hand and allowing no additives in anything they make. Not just that the staff there clearly understand that the relationship people have with cake is special; we have cake to celebrate all the special moments in our lives and the staff at Tiptree understand their role in that. And not just that you can now go to a department store in Singapore and have a proper English-made scone with clotted cream and Essex jam, the idea of which makes me immensely happy.

And finally, Tiptree are committed to developing the future of the industry, by training apprentices that are passionate about the business, to ensure that the renowned and trusted Wilkins and Sons Ltd. fruit farmers legacy of making quality products continues for another generation.

Looking to the future, Tiptree sponsors the World Bread awards (worldbreadawards.com) which are always looking for new entrants, particularly younger bakers. So if you have a budding bread-head in your family make sure they get their applications in. Daren and the other judges will be waiting!

Green Street

There’s a place I go to called Green Street.  In the heart of Forest Gate (that’s E7), just down the road from the old West Ham ground at Upton Park, and I’ve been going there ever since I was a little girl. Growing up in Harlow in the 70s and 80s, we didn’t have the luxury of big supermarkets stocking everything we needed from chillies and coriander to black lentils or cumin seeds. So there was a fortnightly trip to Green Street to stock up on all our Asian grocery essentials. And if you need dozens of types of lentil or any spice under the sun, it’s still the place to go.

           

 

 

 

 

 

These days I can get all my Indian cooking essentials at the Asian and Oriental supermarket in Harlow (it’s called M18, off Edinburgh Way, tell Shahid I sent you!) but I still love a trip down to Green Street when I need something special. These photos are from Bharat Stores, which is my first stop for any trip to Green Street.

If you’ve never been down there and you have any love of Asian food, culture or fashion, you won’t be disappointed. Another added bonus of visiting from May through July are the stacks of boxed mangoes which can be bought in the greengrocers or just being sold by some guy on the pavement. There’s something about the mango-selling guys, they really are the Del Boys of the street. Lots of banter, lots of chat about how their mangoes are better than the other guy across the road and lots of offers which always tempt me to buy 2 boxes when I really only wanted 1! 

But it’s so worth it. The flavour and melting texture of the Kesar, Chausa, Honey and – the king of all mangoes – the Alphonso, are positively ambrosial.  If you’ve only ever tasted a supermarket, South-American mango, you’ll be amazed at how different the two fruits are. They are smaller and sweeter and not at all stringy or fibrous inside. But watch out for the juice! It’s been said that the best place to eat a mango is in the sea or in the bath, but careful use of a napkin can be just as effective.

       

So a few hours browsing the jewellery, beautiful sarees and shalwar kameez (just looking!) and more importantly cookware and vegetables is always a pleasure and never a chore. Do you have any top tips for Asian groceries? Where to buy them? How to use specialist ingredients in your dishes? Can you find fresh turmeric for sale somewhere near you? If you do, I’d love to hear from you. Contact me on Facebook (Saira Hamilton Chef), Twitter (Saira Hamilton) or by leaving a comment below.

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BBQ weather! The recipe everyone needs…

It’s time for a recipe. I’ve been working on an exciting project with a charity called Find Your Feet which runs a brilliant campaign called ‘Curry for Change’ every year. This encourages anyone who can cook, from top restaurant chefs like Vivek Singh to supper club hosts and food bloggers, to hold events to raise money for people suffering from food poverty in Asia and Africa. Click on the link to find out how you can join in!It’s a great campaign that I have supported in the past and this year I am helping them with a new angle to the campaign which encourages home cooks to host a dinner party at home. This is called ‘Host at Home’ and what with my ambition to get everyone cooking authentic Indian food and curries from scratch, at home, it was a no-brainer for me to offer my services to help them.

So watch this space for my Host-at-Home recipe pack, which will come with full recipes for a 3 course meal and step-by-step instructions on how to deliver a fabulous evening with a minimum of stress and fuss. As I was working on my recipes, I realised that there is one recipe I use probably once a week during the summer that I haven’t shared for quite a while.

Sheek kebabs are traditionally made with minced meat, often mutton but they can be made with beef, lamb, pork, turkey or anything else you like to eat to be honest. If I can’t get mutton, my preference is to use a mixture of lamb and beef mince, as I think you get the depth of flavour from the beef and the nice juiciness that comes from the higher fat content in the lamb.

The recipe is in fact terribly simple. Shove all the ingredients in a bowl together and mix them really, really well. I don’t mean just move them around in a clockwise direction, I mean really get in there and squish it all together so that every mouthful of the finished kebab is soft and yielding, and has a good mix of all the flavours and spices. And then you grill them. Simples!

The mixture can be made well ahead of time (24 hrs in advance if necessary) and stored in the fridge. At the last minute add the lemon, form the kebabs on skewers and the grill on a pre-heated barbecue for 6-8 minutes. Job done! Served with yoghurt raitha and some salad, these kebabs will enliven any BBQ spread. Much more interesting than just the usual burgers and sausages. So give this super-simple and delicious recipe a try and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Recipe: Sheek kebabs

  • 600g minced beef or lamb (or a mixture)
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 red onion finely diced
  • 1½ tbsp garlic paste (crushed or grated fresh garlic is perfect)
  • 1½ tbsp ginger paste (crushed or grated fresh ginger is perfect)
  • 2 green chillies, finely chopped
  • big handful of chopped coriander (or mint and parsley)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 40-50g breadcrumbs*
  • zest and juice of half a lemon

Method

  1. Place the minced meat in a large mixing bowl, and add in all the other ingredients. Mix together really well, with hands is always best! If you can leave the mixture to develop the flavours for an hour or two, the resulting kebabs will be better. If the mix feels too wet, add more breadcrumbs. If it is too dry you may need to add more egg. If you are preparing the mixture in advance, leave out the lemon zest and juice and only add this just before cooking.
  2. Divide the mixture into 16 equal portions, by dividing the mixture in half and then half again until you end up with 16 balls of kebab mix. Take each portion and roll into a long thin sausage shape; the easiest way is to crimp it around a metal or bamboo skewer. Wet your hands between each ball for a smooth finish. Press the mixture together well whilst shaping the kebabs to ensure you have a good texture to the finished product.
  3. Once formed, cover with cling film and allow the kebabs to rest in the fridge until you are ready to cook them (at least 30 minutes). When you are ready to cook, pre-heat your BBQ to a medium-high heat. Carefully place the kebabs onto the BBQ and grill. The kebabs will need to be turned several times, but wait until they have a good caramelised colour on one side before turning to avoid them breaking apart during cooking. They should only take 6-7 minutes, but always check the meat is cooked to your liking before serving. Serve with raitha and lots of salad dressed with lemon juice, oil and a pinch of salt.

 

* if you need to make these gluten-free you can use GF breadcrumbs or gram flour instead

New resolutions

Sometimes you have to stop talking and just get on with it. Silence the internal editor that tells you to wait until your website is finished and you have the perfectly crafted blog post and a photo in all its filtered glory and with no stray shadows or double chins lurking. So from now on dear reader, you are going to get a regular blog from me, hosted on my imperfect website.  I will share with you great recipes, tips and advice on cooking for the season and special occasions and news on what I’m up to and where I’ve been cooking lately.

So first, an update. I have wanted to write and publish a cookbook ever since my MasterChef experience, and I wrote and independently published 3 cookbooks called Kitchen Favourites with Saira: Chilli, Ginger and Garlic in Spring 2016 – which are all still available to buy on Amazon . And now I am delighted to say I have also secured a publisher for a brand new cookbook, different to anything else currently available, on authentic Bangladeshi home-cooking. The book will contain 100 fabulous recipes accompanied by beautiful photographs showcasing the wonderful cuisine that reflects the heritage of my Bengali family. I can’t wait to share it with you. Publication is planned for Spring 2018, so we have a little while to wait!

I had the pleasure of being asked to participate in one of Hari Ghotra’s networking events #HariHosts at the Shard where I was on a great panel of women sharing knowledge about publishing a cookbook. Hari, who runs the UK’s top Indian food website, organises several of these events and had gathered a great panel together. Alongside Suzy Pelta (author of Miracle Mug Cakes and other cheat’s bakes: Ryland, Peters & Small), Xa Shaw Stewart (senior editor at Bloomsbury) and Kirsten Gilmore (chef/patron Mountain Café, Aviemore), the panel was joined by lots of enthusiastic foodies and bloggers all thinking of writing their own cookbooks. It was a wonderful evening, full of positive energy and enthusiasm and it was a privilege to be there. My first time up the Shard, but I hope not the last.

Another exciting announcement to make is a new partnership I have embarked upon with one of my MasterChef buddies Juanita Hennessey, who was a finalist in MasterChef 2016, famous for her strawberry patch dessert. She and I bonded instantly over rum cocktails and Rick Astley at CarFest for BBC’s Children in Need (it’s a long story!) and have been working on a few projects since then. I don’t want to say too much yet but we have already appeared at a few food festivals with our #HamandHen double act and there will be more to come! Come and watch us in action soon – it’s a hoot!

Here we are pictured with Suzy Pelta (ITV1’s Lorraine‘s Cake Club winner) and Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed (winner of MasterChefUK 2017) at a recent Foodies Festival where we had an absolute ball cooking aloo paratha and orange and polenta cake for a packed out crowd in the Stoves Chef’s theatre.

So in these interesting and sometimes turbulent times we live in, I am really looking forward to sharing my cooking adventures with you. So please share and subscribe and I’ll see you soon.

Saira x

Sweet treats in the Shire

This time a year ago we were in North Devon. We stayed in a pretty little village called Chittlehampton near Barnstaple, although Jim insisted on calling it the Shire. I think this was mainly influenced by the fact that the cottage (which he called Bag End) had very small doors and low ceilings which meant that the only place Jim could stand up straight was on the stairs, he had to shower on his knees and bend nearly double to get through the doors. I, on the other hand, found the cottage perfectly proportioned and very cosy with the added bonus that I could reach all the cupboards and fittings very easily.

We had a good time, helped enormously by the fact that the village had a great pub called the Bell Inn, which served good food and had an extensive gin list, including a new one on me, Wicked Wolf of Exmoor, a small batch-made spirit made in the wilds of Exmoor. The village also boasted a post office and shop which sold locally-made cheddar and clotted cream which you had to request from behind the counter and was spooned into a unmarked plastic tub for you to take home with you.

I got baking as soon as we got home. Which of course meant we had to have the following 3 arguments:

  • is it scone rhyming with cone, or scone rhyming with gone?
  • should scones have sultanas in?
  • jam then cream, or cream then jam?

I’m not even going to try and answer the first question as I know it raises considerable agitation with certain people. I heard that the Queen says scone rhyming with ‘gone’, so that is some guidance I guess. I like sultanas but Tommy doesn’t, so we tossed a coin and he won. The Cornish tea has jam and then cream on top (which I prefer, with apologies to my Devonian mother-in-law) and the Devon cream tea should have the cream on first. What a minefield to pick your way across for a tea-time treat. The clotted cream was delicious, which was the main thing.

After a short break, I usually feel energised to get back into the creative side of cooking, so I decided to tackle something I have been meaning to try for ages. Marshmallows. I had bought a sugar thermometer a while ago but it was still in its packet and buried at the back of a drawer. But I found it and got to work.

The ingredients are really quite simple: white sugar, liquid glucose (which you can find in most supermarkets with the baking ingredients), water, gelatine leaves, egg whites and vanilla. The only tricky bit is getting the temperature of the sugar correct, but the thermometer takes all of the guess work out of that. The sugar has to be heated to the hardball stage. When I told Jim I was going to play hardball with the sugar he hurried out of the kitchen in case it turned violent.

I used a James Martin recipe for my first attempt and it worked really well. The main thing to bear in mind is that it takes quite a while for the sugar syrup to get to the right temperature. I used my digital thermometer as well because I didn’t trust the analogue one, but it worked okay. It is important to be very careful with hot sugar, don’t ever touch it with your fingers and use a good sturdy Pyrex jug to pour it onto the egg whites slowly. This is not a recipe to do with small children I would say. The other thing is that you will have to wash everything in very hot water afterwards as it is the only way to deal with the hardened sugar.

But it really wasn’t difficult and the results were absolutely delicious. Soft, pillowy, melt-in-the-mouth, more a texture than a flavour, and I felt inordinately proud of myself when they were done. If you want to have a go, here is the recipe I used:

Ingredients

450g granulated sugar

1 tbsp liquid glucose

200ml water

2 large free-range egg whites

9 sheets gelatine, soaked in 140ml water

1 tsp vanilla extract

vegetable oil, for greasing

5-6 tbsp icing sugar, for dusting

5-6 tbsp cornflour, for dusting

Method

  1. Soak the gelatine leaves in 140ml cold water in a small bowl.
  2. Place the granulated sugar, glucose and 200ml of water into a heavy-duty saucepan and bring to the boil.
  3. Cook over a medium-high heat until it reaches 127ºC or the hard ball stage on a sugar thermometer. This could take up to 15 minutes.
  4. Place the egg whites into a very clean grease-free bowl and whisk to firm peaks. An electric whisk or stand mixer is best as there is a lot of whisking!
  5. Add the soaked gelatine sheets and water to the hot sugar syrup carefully. Stir through until dissolved, then pour into a heatproof jug.
  6. Continue to whisk the egg whites, then pour the sugar syrup onto the egg whites, whisking all the time until the whites are shiny. Try not to pour the syrup directly onto the whisk attachments but rather down the side of the bowl.
  7. Add the vanilla extract and continue to whisk at a medium-high speed for at least 5 minutes, but it may take up tot 10 minutes. The mixture needs to be thick enough to hold its shape on the whisk.
  8. Lightly oil a shallow 30x20cm baking tray and dust the tray with some icing sugar and cornflour. Spoon the marshmallow mixture into the tray, smoothing the top with a palette knife.
  9. Place in the fridge for at least an hour to set.
  10. Dust some more icing sugar and cornflour over a board or clean work surface, use a palette knife to loosen the edge of the marshmallow, then turn it out onto the dusted work surface.
  11. Cut into squares and roll in the icing sugar and cornflour to coat well and then store in an airtight tin or jar. Serve with chocolate sauce or fruit coulis for a yummy dessert .
N.B. this blog first appeared as a column in Herts & Essex Observer on 25 February 2016

When Harry met Saira

Meeting Harry Lomas MBE during my recent stint as a food judge was definitely one of the highlights of my chef career so far. Harry has been in the industry for over 40 years, he directed food services for the British Army, the 2012 Olympics and has worked in the Royal Household and yet he still has the most incredible passion and drive to achieve excellence and to pass his knowledge and passion on to the next generation of chefs.

When Harry asked me if I would like to come along to The Grove, where he is Executive Head Chef, to run a masterclass about traditional Indian spices and cooking, I was only too happy to do so. The Grove is a luxury hotel, golf and spa resort set in 300 acres of rolling Hertfordshire countryside in Chandlers Cross and only 18 miles from central London, the former home of the Earls of Clarendon and is dubbed London’s Country Estate. The fact that it is luxurious and run by impeccably courteous and groomed staff goes almost without saying. However it was the food and drink operation that Harry runs that I was interested in.

There are 3 restaurants at The Grove, Colette’s is the fine-dining restaurant, and the Head Chef is Russell Bateman, who you may have seen representing the South-East in this year’s Great British Menu. I also recognised the sous-chef Scott Barnard when I popped in to say hi, who was a finalist in 2015’s MasterChef: The Professionals. The Grove is set to get even more TV coverage soon as head pastry chef Reece Collier is leading a team in the next series of Crème de la Crème. The Grove also has a gastro-pub the Stables, and the Glasshouse restaurant both of which run by Andrew Parkinson (previously head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and Brasserie Zédel). So a really stellar line-up in the kitchens at The Grove!

The scale of the operation is genuinely staggering. The hotel has 217 rooms, and lots of large events space meaning it is popular for weddings and corporate conferences. The hotel has around 10,000 plates and 5000 teacups. The kitchens get through 500 eggs and four 55kg sacks of potatoes every day! And we are talking 365 days of the year. They have fresh deliveries every single day of the week. I asked Harry what happened if he was let down by suppliers. “That wouldn’t happen”, he says, steely-eyed. I think the suppliers would know better than to mess Harry about! Harry is also very particular about provenance of his ingredients; all the fish is from sustainable sources and the beef is Aberdeen Angus or Charolais supplied by the Queen’s butcher Donald Russell.

My masterclass was with around 12 chefs in the 170 cover Glasshouse restaurant, demonstrating a lightly spiced sea bass, with new potatoes in pickling spices and a chilli sauce vierge, followed by a chicken bhuna curry and a cauliflower and cabbage bhaji. I was slightly nervy to have all these experienced chefs hanging on my every word as I explained to them that sometimes less is more, and a hint of spice can be just enough to enhance the flavour of an ingredient without masking it. They were also impressed (I like to think!) by the freshness and clean-ness of the flavours, which is how traditional Indian food should be. I left them with lots of notes and ideas for new dishes. Given that the Glasshouse boasts 190 different items on the buffet every day, I think some of my recipes may feature one day.

There is so much I could write about our amazing stay at the Grove. The friendliness and professionalism of the staff was impeccable, the food we had at Colette’s was magnificent and the sheer variety and quality of the food available throughout the operation was remarkable. But the Grove is more than a good place to eat and drink, it is an academy for the next generation. On our arrival we were greeted and checked-in by Chris, whom Harry had spotted when he was with his family in the restaurant celebrating his 18th birthday. Spotting something good in the young man, Harry encouraged him to get in touch, and he is now working there under an apprenticeship scheme. Just one more in a long line of Harry’s protégés.

Harry’s ethos is to train the next generation of chefs, which is why he wanted me to go there in the first place. Otherwise, he says, there won’t be a next generation. Unless the chefs of the old school continue to preach the basics of cooking from first principles, i.e. from raw ingredients, the art will soon die away. Harry is also passionate about competition cooking as he says it keeps chefs on top of their game, always learning about new products and new dishes. He also believes it is great for young chefs to have to talk and represent themselves on stand in front of judges, it develops character, self discipline and confidence.

It certainly seems to work, the chefs I met were engaged, bright and curious to know more. I was so pleased to add my little bit of knowledge into the pool to be taken forward. For a truly memorable experience I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a stay at the Grove. And if you see a Lancashire gent in a pristine white chef’s jacket and toque, don’t forget to say hi to Harry.

Find out more about the Grove at www.thegrove.co.uk or on social media
facebook.com/TheGroveHotel/
instagram.com/thegrovehotel/
twitter.com/TheGroveHotel

Cooking it large with the petrolheads at CarFest!

Is it possible to have too much fun whilst you’re working? I think the answer is very nearly after a packed weekend for the Hamiltons at CarFest South for Children in Need this bank holiday weekend. I confess I hadn’t heard about this festival before I was invited to take part, but I soon learned that it was quite a big deal. The brainchild of Chris Evans, CarFest is now in its fifth year. I was told that Chris gave up bread for Lent one year and to distract himself decided to create the best family-friendly festival in the UK. He obviously succeeded as CarFest now takes place over two locations (North and South) every year and is the second quickest selling festival in the UK after Glastonbury. The basic themes are cars (lots of fast, noisy cars), music, child-friendly entertainment and, for the first time this year, food.

My invitation to join a quite frankly stellar line-up, came from my work with the digital TV channel Simply Good Food TV, which is a free to download phone or tablet app full of existing and brand new food programming. Peter Sidwell, who is the driving force behind the app, invited me to join him on the bill for the brand new Food Fair Kitchen Live stage at CarFest South. The entire event is put on to raise money for Children in Need, so it was a very easy (and very quick) decision for me to make.

As well as Peter and myself the other chefs involved were the likes of superstar chefs and foodies Tom Kerridge, James Martin, Angela Hartnett, Olly Smith, and Great British Bake Off winner Jo Wheatley. We were also joined on stage by Rob Buckhaven, wine expert and TV presenter who looked after us all on stage to ensure we got through the demos without any hitches. I had a great time with the backstage crew and meeting Tom Kerridge and James Martin again was a pleasure as it always is. I honestly forget how short I am sometimes until I meet these guys and they all end up having to sort of crouch down to make sure they can get into the photos with me!

As you can imagine the crowds were massive; this is a huge event and the general atmosphere and vibe was incredibly uplifting and positive. There was so much to do and everyone is there to support a wonderful charity, and people seemed genuinely pleased to be there and just to be part of it. I even met up with some Bishop’s Stortford buddies who were there as well as making lots of new friends. The event took place on Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire, which is the vast organic and biodynamic farm belonging to former Formula 1 world champion Jody Sheckter. So the petrol-head theme ran through the entire event and some of the cars on display were really jaw-dropping; my childhood favourite the Lamborghini Countach the highlight for me. Chris Evans was a great host for the whole event, his energy and infectious enthusiasm truly remarkable.

The whole family went down for the festival and we all got right into the spirit of things with festival face-paint, Pudsey ears, wigs on #WigSunday (and Jim looked amazing as a head-banging platinum blonde I must say), a bit of a mosh in the mosh pit and dancing crazily in the middle of a field on my own to some top-notch music from the likes of Will Young, Rick Astley, Ronan Keating, The Feeling, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Status Quo and the Stereophonics whilst enduring constant eye-rolling from my children!

On the work front, I was demo-ing South Indian spiced crab cakes with a pink grapefruit, fennel and chilli salad and served with a chilli grapefruit rum punch. The back stage crew certainly enjoyed it and I even sent a portion to Chris Evans to say thank you for hosting us so hospitably. I’m not sure if he actually ate them, but presumably somebody did and you can’t say I didn’t try!

So a genuinely wonderful weekend, one of the highlights of the year without a doubt. If I had to pick my favourite moment: it would have to be meeting Pudsey – sorry Tom, but he was the real superstar of the show for me!

Olympic standard preparation for a tasty summer menu

Olympic fever has taken hold again; the almost irresistible pull has me hooked on all sorts of sports that I would never usually watch and it has been great fun. Every four years I get drawn in, and though the time difference is playing havoc with my sleep, it is certainly worth it so far and Team GB are making us so proud yet again.

What I love about the Olympics is how sportspeople from a wide variety of backgrounds have their chance in the limelight for a few days every four years. But what really fascinates me is the back story. It’s the certain knowledge that, aside from a few high-profile names, the vast majority of Olympians spend nearly every day of the year training, without the adulation of the crowds or the world’s media; getting up early, travelling to meets in the back of beyond with little prospect of prize money or recognition. It’s the single-mindedness and dedication that I admire so much.

The level of preparation that goes into that one race, one shot, one routine or one dive is off the scale. And people who haven’t done it can never really understand. It’s not dissimilar for a chef. It is the same formula which states that the level of preparation you put in is directly proportional to the success of the finished product. Which you always hope will be a triumph, of course!

August is generally a quiet month for me by choice, but this year I made an exception to cater a lavish party to celebrate the 60th birthday of our dear family friend Fiona Foley-Croft. 4 courses for 30 guests with the added complication that I was also a guest at the party. So more than ever the preparation was crucial as I would be handing over to another chef to finish the dishes and ensure everything was served as perfectly as I would want it to be.

For me it comes down to lists. I have always been a bit of a list queen: a daily to-do list, shopping lists, packing lists for holidays and the like. My sister Molly has always teased me about my list addiction and so it seems I have now found the perfect career to satisfy my predilection for itemising. Because when it comes to cooking there are always lots of lists. And the most important of all is the prep list.

In restaurants this is sometimes called the MEP or ‘mise-en-place’ list and it deals every little thing that has to happen ensure the food is cooked and gets to the table on time. It does not say for example, “cook dhal” or “roast lamb”. Each dish is broken down into its component parts, so it would say, “wash lentils; slice onions, garlic, chillies; boil lentils and add spices; fry onions and garlic; garnish and serve”.

For a chance to re-create a simplified version of the birthday dinner I created for Fiona, featuring a 3-hour Scotch Bonnet roast lamb shoulder, tandoori tiger prawns, baba ghanoush, salads, raitha and naan bread finished with a delicious Eastern Mess dessert, simply follow the steps below.

24 hrs before the event

  1. Make lamb marinade
  2. Marinade lamb shoulder
  3. Defrost tiger prawns in the fridge (if necessary)

4 hrs before service

  1. BBQ / slow-roast lamb shoulder (3 hrs minimum)
  2. Clean and prepare prawns if necessary
  3. Marinade prawns in tandoori style marinade (turmeric, chilli powder, paprika, ginger paste, lemon juice, salt and natural yoghurt). Cover and leave in fridge until required.
  4. Roast aubergines for baba ghanoush – 1 hour at 190ºC.
  5. Make rosewater berry sauce for Eastern Mess (berries, icing sugar cornflour, rosewater) and pass through a sieve to remove seeds. Store in a squeezy bottle or pouring jug and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. Chop or break up meringues for Mess and keep in a food bag until required.
  7. Whip Chantilly cream for Mess. Decant into piping bag or a bowl, cover and place in fridge until required.
  8. Wash, prep and slice berries – cover and leave at room temperature.

2 hrs before service

  1. Remove aubergine flesh from skins, roughly chop and add to a bowl. Finely dice red onion, garlic, chilli, and chop fresh coriander. Season with sea salt and freshly squeezed lemon to make baba ghanoush. Cover with cling film and chill.
  2. Whiz 1 bunch coriander, 1 peeled garlic clove, 1 hot green chilli, pinch of sea salt, 1 tsp sugar in a blender. Add natural yoghurt to make raitha. Pour into serving bowl, cover with cling film and chill in fridge.

1 hour before service

  1. Prep items for green salad (iceberg lettuce, cucumber, celery, spring onions) and arrange in a service bowl.
  2. Finely slice red onion and add to sliced tomatoes and washed rocket leaves. Dress with sea salt, lemon juice and cold-pressed rapeseed or olive oil.
  3. Remove lamb shoulders from BBQ / oven and wrap tightly in foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes.

When guests arrive

  1. BBQ / pan fry prawns, depending on size around 2 minutes each side
  2. Pull lamb from bone and arrange on a platter
  3. Heat naan breads in oven for 5 minutes
  4. Construct Eastern Mess (meringue, berries, Chantilly cream, berry sauce and garnish)
  5. Pour glass of wine for self and enjoy the party!

In a tribute to all our Olympians, my Eastern Mess recipe is given below. This is a recipe I have lovingly borrowed from my favourite Persian chef, Sabrina Ghayour, from her debut cookbook Persiana, published by Mitchell Beazley. I garnished them with golden sugar nibs to add the appropriate level of bling befitting an Olympic week. These are available from Waitrose – Cook’s Ingredients Bronze Sugar Nibs – but I think they look more like gold! I hope you enjoy the rest of the Games and that my recipes can help you plan a hassle-free summer menu to enjoy with friends and family.

The other recipes in this menu are available to view at smallaubergine.com For more of my recipes check out Kitchen Favourites with Saira: Chilli; Ginger and Garlic. Available to buy via amazon.co.uk

Eastern mess serves 8

Ingredients

  • 600 g mixed berries (e.g.: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • 4 tbsp icing sugar
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2 tsp rosewater
  • 600ml double cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 8 meringues (home-made or shop-bought)
  • Choose from crunchy sugar nibs; toasted almonds, pistachio kernels or toasted oats for garnish

Method

  1. First make the rosewater berry sauce. Take 250g of the mixed berries and place into a small saucepan with 2 tbsp of the icing sugar and 2 tsp cornflour. Heat gently with some water, no more than 50 ml. You can use frozen berries for the sauce, but leave out the water. Gently simmer the berries for 15 minutes until they are completely soft. Taste the sauce and add more icing sugar if you like it sweeter.
  2. Pass the sauce through a sieve until you have a smooth sauce and set aside to cool. Once cooled, add 1 tsp of rosewater and taste. Only add the second teaspoon if you like the favour and want to make it stronger.
  3. Whip the double cream with the remaining 2 tbsp icing sugar and vanilla extract until holding its shape in soft peaks.
  4. Prepare the remaining berries and get ready to construct the dessert. Use a pretty glass bowl or glasses for maximum effect.
  5. Break or chop the meringues into bite-sized pieces. Start with meringue in the bottom of the glass, then add the fresh berries, whipped cream on top and a good drizzle of the rosewater berry sauce. Top the desserts with something crunchy, gold sugar nibs are a particular favourite for me, but you can use toasted nuts or oats or even crystallised rose petals if you can find them.

Velkommen til Norge

We’ve just come back from Norway. We went to visit our friends Inger-Anne, Jan-Erik, Astrid and Ingeborg who live in Oslo. When we lived in Cairo, my daughter Lily and Astrid were great friends and when planning a surprise trip for Lily to celebrate the end of her exams, it seemed the obvious choice. I have visited Norway many years ago with my parents but that was a long time ago and I only had vague memories of the place.

So we were delighted to arrive in Oslo to be met with glorious sunshine. We managed to get ourselves on a train to Skøyen where our friends lived. Norway is one of those countries where everyone seems to speak perfect English which makes life very easy for British travellers. It was incredibly easy to find our way around; the signs were in English and the dual-language announcements on the train meant there was no excuse to miss our stop.

We arrived on a stunningly beautiful day and it seemed that every stunningly beautiful Oslo resident was out in the city’s green spaces or waterfront areas sunbathing, eating, drinking and generally having a whale of a time. Our hosts prepared us a lovely buffet lunch and then offered to take us out on their little boat for a quick water-tour of Oslo followed by coffee and cake at their little cabin on an island called Lindøya. It was a fairly easy decision!

The little cabin turned out to be a picture-perfect wooden house with a large garden and a gorgeous sea view, 2 bedrooms, small kitchen, lounge complete with woodburner, shower room and a technological marvel known as an electric toilet. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by a toilet. The coffee was top notch (as it always is in Norway I was to discover – no instant coffee granules in sight) and the cake was a pavlova covered with piles of fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Lindøya was originally an escape for the workers in 1920s Oslo who would row over to the island and spend the summer in tents to escape the poor air quality of their industrial working conditions. Eventually the city council allowed them to build wooden cabins on their plots and the structures have remained pretty much unchanged since that time. There are no cars or bicycles allowed on the island, cabins are not allowed to be expanded or changed outside the original footprints and many of the owners are now third generation family members of the original owners. It was truly a magical day topped off with a fantastic supper on the way home at a restaurant only accessible from the water where I had a local ‘fiskesuppe’ or fish soup with crusty white bread and a very cold glass of wine. Heaven.

Another Norwegian speciality and a recipe I wanted to share with you is for ‘sour milk waffles’. It doesn’t sound too appealing but the sour milk is actually buttermilk whIch lends a great flavour and fluffy texture to the waffle and these are such a traditionally Norwegian thing to eat I had to share it with you.

The other traditional Norwegian dishes I was looking at were lutefisk – which is white fish, often cod, which is dried and brined and then soaked in lye, which gives it a gelatinous texture. Or maybe hvalbiff which was on the menu at the restaurant we ate in, which was whale meat served with boat potatoes and steamed vegetables.

So I thought the waffles would be best! The waffle mix smells lovely even before you cook it. Inger-Anne says for her it is the smell of childhood as they used to have these waffles all the time for any school events, festivals or perhaps at as a teatime treat at home. Every Norwegian household has a waffle iron but these could be made in a frying pan so don’t let that stop you. Serve these waffles with butter, strawberry or raspberry jam and sour cream. Or to be really traditional you could try them with a bit of brunost – which is Norwegian brown cheese and is completely delicious. Made with cows or goats milk, it is a soft-set cheese sold in a block with the same sort of texture as Port Salut. It taste a lot better than it sounds, which a delicate and slightly caramel-sweet flavour. If you come to Norway you must try it!

Served with coffee and always eaten with fingers, never a knife and fork, sharing and eating waffles is a big part of Norwegian food culture and one I was very happy to partake in. Have a go yourself for a brunch or teatime treat.

Norwegian waffles 

Ingredients

100g butter

4 eggs

200g granulated sugar

1 litre buttermilk

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

500g plain flour

Method

Melt the butter the set aside for 5 minutes to cool down slightly

Place the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk lightly by hand until well combined together but not fluffy. Inger-Anne told me not to use a mixer for this. For waffles you must do it by hand.

Add in the buttermilk, bicarbonate of soda and the melted butter and whisk to combine.

Then add in the flour in stages, approximately a third at a time and whisk again to combine so it is fully incorporated without any lumps. You then must leave the mix aside for 30 minutes to develop before starting to cook it.

To make the waffles, thoroughly pre-heat the waffle maker and brush with oil or cooking spray. If you don’t have a waffle iron these can of course be made in a frying pan like American pancakes or drop scones – you will miss out of the pretty pattern but the flavour will still be the same.

Cook them for around 2 minutes on each side over a medium-high heat. Once both sides are golden brown you can take them out and rest on a wire rack briefly before serving warm and eating with butter, jam and sour cream.

Super summer salads

I have been thinking a lot about my forthcoming holiday lately and thinking I should probably go on a bit of a health kick in advance of the excesses that will no doubt ensue when I am surrounded by the culinary delights that Provence has to offer. In theory it should be easier to eat healthily during the summer months, but in practice I find this is rarely true.

But there is no doubt that the availability of fresh produce and the warmer temperatures make a good environment for some lighter meals, so I wanted to focus on a healthy theme for this blog. I had the perfect excuse to get creative with salads over the weekend as I was invited to a BBQ hosted by one of our neighbours for the residents of ‘our road’. We have these neighbourly events fairly regularly and it is great to get to know some of our neighbours a bit better. Some people (yes, I mean you Jim) will maintain that BBQs are all about the meat, but I would have to disagree. The meat for me is merely an excuse, a foil if you will, for the vast array of salads which I feel should be present at this sort of al-fresco dining event.

There always has to be a green salad of mixed leaves; this is the staple salad of any BBQ spread. My top tip for lettuce is to always serve it dry, if it is wet then the dressing will never cling to the leaves. If you don’t have a salad spinner to dry your lettuce after washing, I would recommend investing in one. I always make a tomato salad separately because I love the juicy sweetness of tomatoes in the height of their season and they don’t always stand up well when mixed with other crunchy vegetables. My salad is adapted from a Ree Drummond recipe (my favourite cowgirl cook) in which the tomatoes are marinated for an hour or two at room temperature with very finely sliced spring onions and lots of fresh basil and/or parsley in a dressing made from extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, light brown sugar and seasoning.

This is an amazing combination and the dressing is particularly good for being mopped up with crusty white bread at the end of the meal. My top tip for tomatoes is never to store them in the fridge. They taste so much better at room temperature; their natural sweetness will come through much more. Try mixing up the types of tomatoes in your salad; different colours and sizes or even heritage tomatoes if you can find them, make the visual impact much greater and the flavours better too.

Another beautiful salad is one that my Canadian friend Christine makes. She tells me it is originally a recipe by Rick Stein from one of his European odysseys, but I’ve always considered it to be hers! This salad combines canteloupe melon, cucumber, tomato, crumbly goats cheese and fresh mint leaves and is finished with a dressing made from olive oil, red wine vinegar, caster sugar and salt and pepper. The combination of sweet melon and salty goats cheese, seasoned with lots of freshly ground black pepper is a complete revelation and delicious on its own for a light lunch.

And the third salad I made uses one of my favourite summer ingredients, peaches. For me peaches and nectarines, which work equally well in this salad, are the taste of summer. They remind me of European holidays as a child, where I was amazed by the intense flavour and juiciness of these stone fruits when eaten in Greece or Spain on a hot sunny day. Although the flavours of peaches bought in this country is not always so good, in this recipe they are grilled and peeled which increases the intensity of the flavour. Mixed with rocket, feta cheese and crispy prosciutto or Parma ham in a balsamic vinaigrette this was the biggest hit with my neighbours on the day!

So here are the recipes – I hope you enjoy making them too.

Marinated tomato salad

6-8 ripe tomatoes, sliced

4 spring onions

150ml extra virgin olive oil

60ml balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp light brown sugar

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

handful fresh chopped basil and/or parsley, finely chopped

Method:

  1. Cut the tomatoes and arrange in a shallow bowl. Slice the spring onions very finely and scatter on top.
  2. In a screw top jar, add all the dressing ingredients and shake together until well combined.
  3. Pour the dressing over the tomatoes and leave to marinate for 1-2 hours at room temperature before enjoying.

Melon & goat’s cheese salad

1/2 canteloupe melon

1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced

2 vine tomatoes, de-seeded and sliced into wedges

150g crumbly goat’s cheese

12-14 mint leaves, roughly torn

60ml virgin olive oil

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp caster sugar

salt & pepper

Method:

  1. Slice the melon, cucumber and tomatoes and arrange on a serving platter.
  2. Crumble the goat’s cheese on top then scatter over the torn mint leaves.
  3. Whisk together the dressing ingredients until well combined then drizzle all over the salad.
  4. Season with some more freshly ground black pepper then enjoy.

 

Rocket, peach and feta salad

200g feta cheese, cut into cubes

6 slices prosciutto / Parma ham

100g rocket leaves

4 peaches or nectarines

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt & pepper

Method:

  1. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and season well with salt & pepper.
  2. Grill the prosciutto under a hot grill until crisp and remove to a plate to cool.
  3. Cut the peaches into quarters and remove the stones, then place under the hot grill, skin-side up for 3-4 minutes until the skins blacken.
  4. Take the peaches out and remove the skins with a paring knife. They should come off very easily.
  5. In a serving bowl, place the rocket leaves and toss with half of the dressing.
  6. Arrange the peach slices, scatter over the feta cheese and then chop the crispy ham into thin slices and scatter over the top.
  7. Drizzle with the remaining dressing and serve.