We went to see a production of Top Hat last week – the musical based on the 1935 film of the same name (Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, famous tunes by Irving Berlin). But this was no ordinary theatre visit because the venue for this glitzy, humorous song and dance fest was rather special. Hidden away in the grounds of a south Leicestershire country house hotel, the open air Kilworth House Theatre is a magical place to see a show. A gently sloping field equipped with picnic tables leads down to a lake and a small but beautifully formed wood. The theatre itself is situated in a clearing in the woods and, to reach it, you walk through the trees on a board walk strung with lights. What an entrance – quite a sense of, er, … theatre. It is difficult to refrain from sprinkling this post with the adjective “magical” (I’ve already used it once) but it truly is. Someone has obviously waved a magic baguette over Kilworth to create a unique place where the atmosphere is wonderful and the real world is easily forgotten.
When enjoying the show, you are not entirely exposed to the elements as a modern steel structure supports a sail-like tarpaulin roof to keep the worst of the elements off the substantial auditorium and most of(!) the stage. But look to each side of the stage and there are just trees for walls. And enjoy the show you will, because the productions at Kilworth are truly top class – London West End quality in a better setting. We first went four years ago and are kicking ourselves for not getting round to it before. They put on two musicals every summer and, so far, we have seen Anything Goes, Singin’ in the Rain (it rained!), West Side Story, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Kiss Me Kate. I think the Daily Telegraph once described Kilworth as British theatre’s best kept secret. So, I’m spilling the beans.
Our ideal Kilworth House Theatre evening starts with a picnic in the grounds which is quite the done thing. For our visit last Friday, I had it all planned but unfortunately the fickle British weather was against us and we had to abandon those plans. However, let’s pretend we did have our picnic which consisted of the following (sounds a bit posh but would have been dead easy):-
- A salad of lightly smoked salmon fillet, slivers of fresh orange (i.e. segments without the skin) and watercress drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a bit of freshly squeezed orange juice. The salmon is the sort you have to cook (although you can sometimes find ready-cooked), not traditional “raw” smoked salmon.
- Home made potato salad – new potatoes, snipped chives, mayonnaise plus the vital ingredient – Greek yogurt. The Greek yogurt lifts the whole thing from just being potatoes in mayonnaise. Ordinary natural yogurt may do, especially if you are Turkish (I haven’t tried it myself).
- Home-grown cherry tomatoes. One of the few things we grow in our garden with moderate success. I’ll let you off if you buy them.
A zingy Sauvignon Blanc would probably have washed the above down nicely. However, the lack of a picnic did not spoil our evening as the show was fabulous, despite the downpour throughout most of the second half. Thank goodness for that roof – that’s a definite plus over Cornwall’s admittedly more spectacular Minack theatre where you are completely exposed.
The musicals are not the only entertainment put on at Kilworth. In between or usually after the musicals’ run has come to an end in late summer/early autumn, they sometimes have a few one night stands – comedians (e.g. Ken Dodd, Jasper Carrott, Paul Merton) and music acts (e.g. Hollies, Paul Carrack, The Manfreds) and many tribute bands like Talon (the Eagles), Björn Again (ABBA), UK Pink Floyd Experience. In the winter there is also indoor entertainment in the hotel’s Orangery (usually combined with a dinner).
What’s the definition of an optimist? Someone who hopes that The Jam will one day re-form. I know, it’s impossible. However, I did see the unsubtly named “From The Jam” live at Kilworth four years ago. The Jam’s original bassist, Bruce Foxton, former Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki (who has worked with loads of big names in rock) and a bloke doing a passable impersonation of Paul Weller. They were absolutely brilliant. This was an All Mod Cons anniversary tour so they played that classic Jam album from start to finish then just about every other Jam hit you can think of. So, if you are a pining Jam fan, get along to see From The Jam – it’s 90% there.
We have just discovered chilli pesto – entirely by accident. Thought we had picked up a jar of the usual red pesto but it turned out to be the chilli variety and it’s rather nice (we got Aldi”s version). I have combined new potatoes and spinach before but thought I would try adding the pesto as well. Give it a whirl and try serving with grilled fish or meat. It’s quick, dead easy and there’s no need for a complicated sauce because the pesto and spinach potatoes do the job for you.
Here’s what you do. I have given a guide to quantities but you decide depending on how many mouths you are feeding:-
- New potatoes – enough for all those mouths. They can be kept whole if small enough or cut to uniformly sized chunks
- Baby spinach, washed. A handful for each person (wash your hands first please). It may look a lot but it does reduce down
- Chilli pesto – a good heaped teaspoonful per person
- Butter – as much or as little as you like (but please have some)
- Black pepper
Boil the new potatoes until tender and while that is going on, chop the spinach. When cooked, drain the potatoes (keep them in the pan, don’t drain using a colander). Don’t worry about draining every last drop of water. Quickly throw in the spinach and butter, put the lid on and leave to steam for a minute or so (that’s why it is not critical to drain every last drop of water). Add the pesto and mix the whole lot so the potatoes are coated. You can do this over a very low light but not for long. Add black pepper if you wish and serve.
OTHER STUFF TO DO WITH SPINACH
A bag of washed baby spinach is a handy thing to have around. We usually have one on the go in the fridge because it’s so versatile. I am however thinking of suing the makers of Popeye because I have eaten quite a bit of the stuff but, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, my arms are still like Olive Oyl’s. Spinach is rich in iron so if you start eating it regularly you can give up the Mackesons stout. Did you know, up until the 1980’s, pregnant and new mothers in the UK were advised to drink stout to boost their iron levels? I remember my mum drinking it after my baby brother was born. That may have been because of the shock though.
Anyway, here are a few things you can do with spinach (baby spinach is best):-
- As a vegetable in its own right. Frankly, not my favourite way of consuming spinach but can be livened up with butter, lemon juice and/or garlic or cream and nutmeg.
- Chop and add it to casseroles (or even gravy!). Can’t really taste it so it’s a good way of getting fresh vegetables into reluctant children or carnivores.
- Finely chop it and add to a cheese sauce to make posh looking pasta dishes
- Add to homemade tomato sauce and make more pasta dishes
- Use as a salad leaf
- Put in your sandwiches, e.g tuna mayonnaise, coronation chicken (not Marmite or jam, that would be weird)
This is another one for people who are lazy, less than competent or lacking confidence in the kitchen – or all three. If you haven’t gathered by now, this is the general theme of my cooking posts. Have you ever tried to roast a joint of beef traditionally only for it to turn out a bit dry and less than tender? One of the reasons may not be your lack of cooking skills but rather the absence of fat from your chosen joint. The only time I have really successfully roasted a joint of beef using the tradition method is when I have had a rib joint with thick veins of fat running through it. The fat provides the moisture and keeps the meat tender. However in this low fat era, that may not suit everyone. Or is fat good for you nowadays, now that sugar is deemed to be the ultimate evil? I’m not sure. I can’t keep up with the experts. Everything in moderation, I say.
So, when you see that tempting ultra-lean topside joint of beef sitting on the butcher’s or supermarket meat counter calling out to your anti-fat sensibilities, how would you cook it? Well, why not try “pot roasting” it? That way you get lovely tender meat, ready made gravy and half of your vegetables in one fell swoop! Here’s how:-
- Get your joint out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you start cooking to let it come to room temperature.
- Season the joint with salt and pepper.
- In a hob- and ovenproof casserole dish heat a small amount of oil of your choosing (olive, rapeseed, sunflower, Castrol GTX, whatever). When the oil is hot, pop the joint in and brown on all sides, including the ends. Ideally, you need some substantial weapons with which to manoeuvre and turn the joint. Don’t use your fingers, you will burn them. You would never catch me doing anything so stupid(!).
- Turn off the heat and add warm/hot beef stock or a combination of stock and red wine until the level of liquid comes at least halfway up the joint (you can be quite generous with the wine if you wish!).
- Chuck in some big chunks of carrot. You choose how many – think about how many people you are going to feed. No namby pamby thin slices, this is going in the oven for a quite a while so you don’t want them to disintegrate.
- Put on the casserole’s tight fitting lid and put in the oven, pre-heated to 140/150C (fan). I guess 160-ish C for a conventional oven. Did I mention the casserole dish needs a tight fitting lid? If in doubt, see Tips and Variations below.
- The last joint I pot roasted was about 1kg and I left it in the oven for between 2 to 2.5 hours. I did turn it over about half way through just so both sides get a good soak. Obviously for a bigger joint, leave it in a bit longer! If in doubt, slice a little bit off the edge and have a taste. You are allowed to do this, it’s a perk of being the chef.
- If you want a hotter oven for your roast potatoes, just take the casserole out of the oven when you think its done and keep the lid on while you cook your roasties.
- Just before you are ready to serve, take the beef out of the casserole, put on a warm plate and cover with foil.
- Now thicken the gravy. With the casserole on the hob, mix some cornflour with a bit of cold water and add to the gravy. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time and simmer for a couple of minutes (that gets rid of any powdery taste from the cornflour).
That looks like a lot of steps, but really it is dead easy! Brown the meat, add liquid and carrots, put in oven, go for a walk/a drive in Austin-Healey Sprite/mow the lawn/hide in shed, thicken, serve.
You might be thinking what’s the difference between this and a beef casserole cooked in stock or wine? Good question but it definitely is different and more like proper roast beef.
TIPS AND VARIATIONS:
- If you don’t have a casserole dish that is hob- and oven proof, then brown the meat in a pan and transfer to a casserole.
- If your casserole does not have a tight fitting lid or if it has a vent in the lid, cover the casserole with foil and then put the lid on.
- Stock from a cube is fine. In my opinion, made up weaker rather than stronger.
- One day I may try using a bit of beer (bitter/ale, not lager) instead of wine. If you do that before me, please let me know what it is like.
- I mentioned that this method gives you half your veg (assuming you want more than just carrots with your roast dinner). However, you could add some frozen peas just before you bring the gravy back to the boil or add tinned beans such as borlotti or cannellini beans when simmering. Strangely, I have never done this myself and am now wondering why not.
- Depending on the size of your casserole dish, you may end up with a lot of gravy. This is a good thing. Freeze the leftovers for when you next have bangers and mash.
I once deep-fried my right hand. I mentioned this in my first ever cooking post, a now legendary thesis on couscous viewed by tens of people. Since then, I have been asked what on earth was I trying to do. Was I attempting to push the boundaries of cuisine to encompass the truly weird and wonderful, 30 years before Heston Blumenthal had been invented? No, of course not. It was simple stupidity. I was in my last year at school and had yet to take my A-levels so I was officially unintelligent.
One Friday evening I was left to my own devices to cook my dinner. My device of choice was an electric deep fat fryer which I realise now had a serious design defect. As I remember it, there was no handle or other obvious means of lifting the lid. So, having let my chips (or “fries” for my international audience) fry for several minutes, I then wanted to see if they were ready to eat. The fryer had an internal wire basket which you could raise and lower and that basket (unlike the lid) had its own detachable handle. Holding this handle in my left hand, I used one end to poke the fryer’s lid half open. With my right hand I operated the mechanism to raise the internal basket and then put my hand in to grab a chip to taste. I know, I know, this was not the cleverest thing to do. And to think of the millions of pounds the British taxpayer had spent on my education up to that point. Whilst my right hand was under the half raised lid and whilst I was focusing on retrieving a chip to sample, my left hand was not really concentrating on its lid lifting responsibilities. The end of the makeshift lid prop slipped from the edge of the lid whose rather hot underside fell onto my right hand. “Ooh ow!” I said. Or words to the effect. Of course my natural instinct was to withdraw my trapped hand PDQ but the fryer was not going to let its prey go that easily. Result: the fryer and its boiling contents rushed rapidly towards the edge of the kitchen counter. I now had a split second to make a decision. Continue to withdraw my hand and allow the fryer to crash to the floor and spew its scalding, oily contents everywhere? Or keep my hand in the jaws of Hell and use a combination of my body and my left hand to check the teetering fryer’s descent and shovel the whole thing back on to the counter?
Now let me explain something (sorry if the suspense is killing you …). I am not one of life’s heroes. In fact, I am made of 70% afraidium and 30% lily liver. Once, on a business trip to China, I saw a table showing the Western calendar year of my birth to be the year of the dragon. Pretty cool, I thought. Until I realised my birthday (being in January) is just before the Chinese New Year, so I was actually born in the previous Chinese year: the year of the rabbit. How very fitting. I never got into fights at school because I always ran away like a frightened bunny at the first hint of trouble.
So the decision was obvious, wasn’t it? Yes, I gallantly rescued the fryer from its fall, leaving my hand inside and prolonging the agony. WHAT?! WHY???! Well, let me take you into the mind of an eighteen year old male for a moment. A grim prospect I know, but focus on the matter at hand and don’t look in any dark places. You see, the notion of cleaning up a kitchen floor awash with cooking oil and half cooked chips is something that the teenage male of the species just could not countenance. In fact, cleaning anything (including himself) is abhorrent to a young male of that age. These instincts were easily strong enough to overcome the instincts of a raging coward.
Finally, I extricated my wilting and somewhat scarlet hand from the infernal machine. That night in the pub, I ordered a pint of bitter to hold in my left hand and a pint of iced water to hold my right hand. Fortunately, not too much damage was done. I think the basket of chips saved me from the worst that the hot oil could do. You will be pleased to hear that a few months later I passed my A-levels and I have never deep-fried either of my hands since. Just goes to show what a good education can do for you. (I frequently try to cook my hands by other methods but I will leave those tales for another day.)
A SIMPLE DIP
Having read the above, you may think that the simple dip mentioned in the title is me. That would be understandable but no, I’m going to leave you with the simplest idea for an absolutely moreish dip which is a little bit different. Thanks to my sister for this treat. Making it is not only easy but it is absolutely pain free. Get a small tub of soft cream cheese like Philadelphia or a supermarket equivalent. The low fat versions do the job. Turn it out onto a small plate and pour over some sweet chilli dipping sauce. That’s it! If you are out to impress anyone and convince them you are truly exotic, sprinkle over some chopped coriander leaves (over the dip, not yourself although I suppose it depends on how exotic you want to appear). Fresh coriander leaves are called cilantro in the US; travel, like A-levels, is an education but much more fun.
Whether con cilantro or sin cilantro, simply dig in with your favourite dipping implement (now, now, titter ye not). My dipworthy snack product of choice would be a humble wholewheat breadstick. Mix up the sweet chilli sauce with the cheese as you go and you will find it delicious, creamy and cool. In fact, if you have recently scalded your hand it would probably make a delightfully soothing salve…..
A return to hope cuisine this week and a dish born out of circumstances and scratching round in the cupboard/fridge/freezer for ingredients. A few weeks ago, we had just returned from a long weekend away and the only fresh food we had was a pack of turkey steaks, a solitary carrot, a lonely onion and some new potatoes. I also had a jar of posh dried wild mushrooms given to me as a birthday present that I had been longing to try. A much better present than socks which tend to be rather chewy unless stewed for a very long time. Foraging around a bit, I managed to find a few more things to throw in, so it was fingers crossed and hope for the best. Not sure what this dish is called as you may have guessed from the title. Thought about “turkey cassoulet” after the traditional French dish with beans but, nah, this is not really a cassoulet. If you don’t have exactly the same ingredients, don’t worry – there are all sorts of variations you could try (see below).
INGREDIENTS (for 4):
- 375g turkey steak, cut into chunks;
- A good handful of dried, wild mushrooms, reconstituted as per their instructions (keep the water you soak them in!);
- One medium red onion, chopped;
- One or two garlic cloves, chopped or crushed;
- 3 or 4 red wine ice cubes(!!! See Tips and Variations) or a good glug of red wine straight from the bottle;
- Tin of borlotti beans;
- Diced carrots, already steamed or boiled;
- One or two teaspoons of cornflour.
In a large frying pan, gently fry the onion, mushrooms and garlic in a little olive oil until the onion is soft, then tip into a bowl to set aside. Whack the heat up a little bit and brown the turkey, adding a bit more oil if necessary. Once the turkey is browned, add back the onion and garlic then pour in the water from the mushrooms and the red wine/ice cubes. Simmer this lot gently for 10-15 minutes or until the turkey is cooked through which will depend on the size of your chunks. Then add the beans and carrots and heat these through. You may need to add a little bit more water (or stock). I didn’t have the dish swimming in liquid but did add a bit of cornflour mixed with water to thicken it slightly. Add salt and pepper as you wish.
I served this with new potatoes with lots of butter and black pepper.
TIPS AND VARIATIONS:
- Wine ice cubes. If you ever have any wine left over that would otherwise be thrown away (this may be an alien concept to some), pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze. Then you can add a touch of sophistication to those midweek meals when opening a whole bottle may be a bit too extravagant.
- If we had had white wine cubes in the freezer I might have used those instead of red.
- I used borlotti beans but other beans such as cannellini or aduki would be fine. Or even a tin of lentils. Baked beans would be too weird(!).
- Beans and lentils are great for making meat go further and making you feel that your meal is that little bit healthier (and cheaper)! If your kids have an issue with vegetables, try adding green lentils to mince – you can hardly tell that they are there (the lentils that is, not the kids).
- If you don’t have dried mushrooms, use fresh or no mushrooms at all! Who cares?You won’t have the water from re-hydrating the dried mushrooms so use a bit of chicken or vegetable stock instead. Cubes are fine – no stock snobbery here, although I now prefer those jelly-like blobs rather than the dry crumbly cubes. Stock from blobs/cubes can be a bit over-powering so I often make it up a bit weaker than recommended on the packet depending on what I am making (subtle versus hearty).
- Add the cornflour (mixed with a bit of water) a bit at a time until you have the consistency you want. Keep stirring as you go otherwise you get lumps!
- Chicken or Quorn would be obvious alternatives to turkey. Maybe left over roast gammon?
- If you add salt, it really should be flakes of sea salt. You won’t be able to taste the difference between this and normal table salt, but you will feel like a chef off the telly as you casually dip your fingers into a handily placed salt pig and sprinkle those flakes of saltiness over your dish. Hold your hand higher than it really needs to be for the full TV chef effect and don’t forget that little swirling motion (with your hand).
- A bit of chopped, fresh parsley might have been a nice finishing touch but we didn’t have any.
Ever wondered why Coronation Chicken is called Coronation Chicken? Because it was made in 1953. All of it. Every portion of this creamy, lightly curried cold buffet treat that you have ever had was made over sixty years ago. That’s why it’s gone yellow. Yes, this heavenly chicken dish was created for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. The Queen wanted a special dish that could be enjoyed at the coronation luncheon alongside the usual cold cuts (haslet, spam, tongue etc) and washed down with a specially-commissioned ginger beer. What’s more, the Queen wanted this dish to be a gift to the nation in order to lift spirits in those austere, post-war times when food rationing was still in force.
The Queen’s head chef at Windsor Castle, Barry du Brûlecoq, was tasked with creating the centre piece dish for the big day. Combining cold chicken, mayonnaise and spices from the former empire, Monsieur du Brûlecoq’s creation was inspired. Heaven on a plate, in a jacket potato or in a humble sandwich (or on the end of a finger straight from the tub in the fridge – but don’t tell the wife). However, this was to be a one-off. The Queen’s gift came in the form of a super-industrial quantity manufactured over a period of five months in conditions of great secrecy. After that the recipe was destroyed. The new dish, named Coronation Chicken by Monsieur du Brûlecoq, was a great hit at the formal luncheon which was attended by dignitaries and members of royal families from all over the world. The Jamaican ambassador was heard to pronounce “Man, that was sick”. Well ahead of his time. After the big day, Coronation Chicken was released for sale to a public eager to know what it was like to eat like royalty. It was a roaring success and has never looked back.
So, if the nation’s entire stock of Coronation Chicken was made in one large batch, where has it been stored all these years? Well, virtually in plain sight in one of Britain’s notable sporting landmarks. Did you know that the famous Gasholder No. 1 next to the Oval cricket ground in London is a Grade II listed building? Why? Because it is architecturally interesting? Really?? Of course not. It is because it holds the dwindling stash of the nation’s favourite cold chicken dish. The four gasholders next to the Oval were considered the perfect storage facility back in 1953 due to the fact that a gasholder physically reduces in height as its contents diminish (less air = fresher Coronation Chicken). Now three of the Oval gasholders are empty and Gasholder No. 1 will soon be giving up the last of its golden treasure. For proof, see the photos below. Black and white photo (1953): full. Colour (2012): almost empty.
In addition to the Oval gasholders, there was one other store. The Queen used to have her own stash in a brick-lined vault under Windsor Castle. However, after the devastating fire of 1992, she became the proud owner of a large amount of chicken tikka (the brick-lined vault proving to be an ideal tandoor when heated by the fire). Now Her Majesty and Prince Phillip regularly enjoy Chicken Tikka Masala and a pint of Cobra lager on a Saturday evening while watching Britain’s Got Talent.
So for how long will we be able to enjoy Coronation Chicken? Depressingly, experts reckon it will run out in 2018 at four o’clock. I know this will come as a shock to many of you. But don’t panic! Keep calm and make Taj Mahal Chicken instead. This is a recipe I got from my sister-in-law several years ago and I reckon it goes one better than Coronation Chicken. The addition of red wine is a sophisticated touch for these post-rationing times. So, Coronation Chicken is (almost) dead – Long Live Taj Mahal Chicken.
Here’s the recipe set out in a sensible fashion without too much puerile intervention from me. This makes quite a large quantity but maybe you could store the leftovers in an old gas bottle…
TAJ MAHAL CHICKEN
1 tablespoon oil; 1 medium onion; 3 teaspoons curry powder; 1 teaspoon curry paste; 100ml red wine; juice of half a lemon; 2.5 level tablespoons apricot jam; roughly 300ml / half a pint of mayonnaise; 1 large COOKED and COOLED chicken (about 2kg / 4lbs)
Heat the oil in a small frying pan, add onion and fry gently until tender. Add curry powder and paste and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in the wine, lemon juice and jam and cook over a brisk heat for about 3 minutes until they have reduced a bit. Leave this mixture to cool thoroughly.
Remove the meat from the chicken and cut or pull/tear (depending on your aesthetic preferences!) into chunks. Again, you choose what size chunks, there’s no law about this.
Now the original recipe says stir the curry mixture into the mayonnaise before adding the chicken. However, I found it is more sensible to add the mayonnaise to the chicken first. That way you can choose the overall mayonnaisy(?) consistency you want and you may avoid wasting some mayonnaise. Then stir in the curry mixture thoroughly. You can do this bit by bit until you have the strength of curry flavour you want. If you’re tasting as you go along, remember to use a clean finger each time. If you run out of fingers, then remove a shoe and sock. However, if it comes to that, may I suggest you’re being a bit cautious in the amount of mixture you’re adding each time.
There, all done. If you make this for a posh do (e.g. coronation, royal wedding), you could garnish with a sprinkling of paprika, lightly toasted almonds and/or some freshly chopped coriander.