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
- Make lamb marinade
- Marinade lamb shoulder
- Defrost tiger prawns in the fridge (if necessary)
4 hrs before service
- BBQ / slow-roast lamb shoulder (3 hrs minimum)
- Clean and prepare prawns if necessary
- 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.
- Roast aubergines for baba ghanoush – 1 hour at 190ºC.
- 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.
- Chop or break up meringues for Mess and keep in a food bag until required.
- Whip Chantilly cream for Mess. Decant into piping bag or a bowl, cover and place in fridge until required.
- Wash, prep and slice berries – cover and leave at room temperature.
2 hrs before service
- 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.
- 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
- Prep items for green salad (iceberg lettuce, cucumber, celery, spring onions) and arrange in a service bowl.
- 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.
- Remove lamb shoulders from BBQ / oven and wrap tightly in foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
When guests arrive
- BBQ / pan fry prawns, depending on size around 2 minutes each side
- Pull lamb from bone and arrange on a platter
- Heat naan breads in oven for 5 minutes
- Construct Eastern Mess (meringue, berries, Chantilly cream, berry sauce and garnish)
- 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.
Eastern mess serves 8
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Whip the double cream with the remaining 2 tbsp icing sugar and vanilla extract until holding its shape in soft peaks.
- Prepare the remaining berries and get ready to construct the dessert. Use a pretty glass bowl or glasses for maximum effect.
- 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.