About the time I cooked on the tellybox

When I was recovering from accident last summer, I watched a lot of daytime TV, among which was a cookery competition called Yes Chef. Each day a number of contestants cooked their signature dish for a professional chef who then set two further challenges, a technical one (which varied from boning a chicken or filleting a fish to making hollandaise) and an invention test: a collection of ingredients for one of the chef’s signature dishes from which the contestants had to create their own dish. Afterwards the chef would cook the dish they had in mind. The winner of the day would then compete with his chef against the other winners/chefs of that week and face Pierre Koffmann in a series of challenges. As the skills (and time) required were within what I considered I should be able to do, I kept an eye on the BBC’s listings for a call for contestants for a new series. This indeed happened, I applied and was chosen to take part.

Here is the episode. Note: This will disappear after it’s taken off iplayer but should stay for about three weeks. Sadly, it is not available outside of the UK as the BBC region-blocks its broadcasts.

The filming took place in early February this year and here is what happened (spoilers, obvs.):

I was picked up from my hotel just before 8 in the morning. The venue was the Cheshire Cookery School which is attached to a kitchen showroom.
I was introduced to the producer, Aaron, and the other contestants for the day, Elisa and Danny who I got on with really well from the start. We all took this as a fun thing to do and we all supported each other.

Then the technical crew set up and our “idents” were filmed, short pieces to the camera introducing ourselves, and talking about our cooking and what we expected of the show (these were somewhat cut in the actual broadcast). For this, each of us was in a different showroom kitchen as the backdrop (so not our actual home kitchens!).
We also were told that the professional chef would be Theo Randall, which made Danny a little bit nervous because he was cooking ravioli from scratch.

Next we were shown into the kitchen we would actually cook in, which I assume is the teaching kitchen. Each at our own workstation with two induction hobs and an oven. We checked our ingredients and equipment while some set pieces were shot.
After that we were introduced to Theo Randall and the group introduction with Sheree Murphy was shot, after which we filed to our workstations. Time was called and cameras started rolling for earnest. We actually only had 45 minutes without interruption.
This was the bit I had been a bit apprehensive about because I generally don’t fancy people looking over my shoulder or watching me when I cook but it was all fine. I just concentrated on the current task, even when they interviewed me while I was cooking. I thought that Theo genuinely liked the idea of my dish (pan-fried fillet of hake with chorizo, mediterranean vegetables and chickpeas).
I’d set my timer for half an hour because I thought the fish would take about 10 minutes which then would give me 5 minutes to finish up and plate but it cooked a little quicker than I thought so I was ready ahead of time. Despite that, I almost screwed up and forgot to add the crispy chorizo at the end but noticed just in time (phew).
Elisa finished her amazing looking dish (hake with a white crabmeat and breadcrumb crust, fennel and brown crabmeat croquetas) on time as well but Danny struggled a little as his pasta water had stopped boiling. The hobs weren’t great and seemed to have either really high or off as settings despite there being a sliding scale from 0 to 14 (who does that? When I started the chorizo off on 6, nothing was happening until a member of the crew suggested to turn it up high).
Another aspect that turned out better than anticipated was that it wasn’t hot. All the lights are LED these days so that was rather pleasant. I didn’t even sweat.
Then we waited in the “holding area” while production shots were made of our dishes and the tasting room was prepared.
We were called one by one to the tasting table and Theo gave us our comments. He complimented the cooking of the fish (came out just as I wanted, moist and flaking) but criticised that the vegetables were too crunchy (this is where I had to disagree because mushy veg aren’t nice). He said it was simple but showed my understanding of flavours and seasoning. I don’t think I could have asked for a better critique.
Here is a screenshot of the finished dish:

I then took my dish to another table with the other contestants who then tasted as well and we all tucked in. Both agreed that vegetables were spot on. So ner, Theo! ;P After this a few pickups were shot of the other contestants looking at me saying Well Done and me Thank you etc. (these felt really awkward and staged and thankfully didn’t make it into the broadcast episode).
This process was repeated for the other two contestants. Elisa’s baked hake was absolutely fantastic, Perfectly cooked, soft fish with a crunchy coating and extra texture from the fennel and samphire and those croquetas were just amazing. Danny’s ravioli could have used another minute in the water but they had held together and the flavours in the filling were excellent. I had some serious competition on my hands.
Oddly, the order in which the dishes had been tasted was reversed in broadcast.

After another setup break (for us), it was time for the technical challenge. Theo Randall demonstrated Linguini Carbonara with Asparagus (no pancetta). This seemed simple enough but I was a little apprehensive because for some reason I had never made Carbonara before. It went reasonably well, though, despite another technical mishap when my hob misbehaved again after I had turned it down. I was happy with how it tasted and the cooking of both the pasta and the asparagus but I think it should have been a little looser.

Another setup change, back to the tasting room where we presented our dishes at the same time and they were judged directly against each other. Theo said it was really hard to find actual fault in any of them but mentioned that there were subtle differences in seasoning and flavour balance (we’d been given no measurements, just used our own judgement).

After the deliberation break, we were called back into the kitchen for the first elimination. It was me but I consider it a perfectly fair assessment. My signature dish was the most simple and I think the others’ carbonaras were better, too, especially Elisa’s.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to stay and watch the third stage. Too hectic, apparently.
Having now seen the episode I think I could have done a decent job of the final challenge and would most likely have pan-fried the sea bass as well. Probably not enough to win against Elisa, though. That aside, it was a good thing I didn’t get through because I came down with a nasty cold the next day so that would have been nasty.

I really enjoyed the day. It was a lot less stressful than I had anticipated not least because everyone from the director, Sheree Murphy, Theo Randall, to the engineers and camera people and assistants were so nice. The atmosphere was professional but relaxed at the same time, a really good environment to do this in.

Finally, a few screenshots for posterity:
chop_big
plating_big
dish_big

Lunch at Osteria Waggon and Horses, Milton

Osteria Waggon & Horses in Milton has been on my list for a while since various friends gave rave reviews but despite being deceptively close to where I live it’s just a little far to walk and there is no bus back from Milton after dinner would be finished so the only time I can get there and back easily is Saturday lunchtime when I’m usually out shopping or do other things. I finally managed to get the timing right and visited last Saturday and really regretted not having done this earlier.
The former pub was stripped down to a very simple and clean style with well spaced tables in the dining area and a small bar area. The menu consists of a blackboard of aperitivi, small plates of meat, fish, veg, salad, charcuterie and everything else they can think of on the day, a bit like Spanish tapas. I think there were at least 10 different ones on the board when I was there. Two make about a starter portion. The printed menu has starters, pasta, mains and desserts, all rather more varied than what you usually find at Italian places. There is also a set lunch option on weekdays and a “Taste” menu on weekends.

Aperitivi and bread selection
Squid ink bread

I chose two aperitivi, ox tongue with salsa verde on the left and salted sardines on the right, with their bread selection. The bread was warm and delicious (the black blob was made with squid ink, the standout one was the foccaccia), the ox tongue tender and rich nicely complemented by the fresh salsa verde. The salted sardines were small, more like anchovies, the tapenade was not too strong in olive flavour (proper olives, too, not those dyed ones you often get) and the lemon jelly cut through the richness.

Jerusalem artichoke risotto

My main was a superb vegetarian risotto with jerusalem artichokes, pesto, beetroot and parmesan crisps. Perfect consistency, rice al dente (which might not be to everyone’s taste) and a great balance of flavours and textures. This was a joy to eat, easily among the best risotti I’ve had anywhere.

By this time I was quite full already but I couldn’t pass on dessert:

Gianduja semifreddo, black sesame ice cream

This seemed to be the lightest option (with the exception of the gelato selection), a gianduja semifreddo (the chocolate glazed log), black sesame ice cream, truffles and chocolate soil. The gianduja was rich but not too sweet, helped by the dark chocolate glaze. The ice cream was rather remarkable, too, first time I had one based on black sesame. The truffles were excellent, too.

The experience was rounded up by friendly and helpful service. Osteria might be a little more expensive than other neighbourhood Italians but the extra cost is entirely justified by the quality of the offerings and I can only recommend it.
Next time I want to go with a few friends and go through the whole aperitivi menu.

[Cooking] Duckmas

It was my first Christmas not only in Cambridge (I usually visit my parents in Germany) but also in my new flat which has a proper kitchen. So I decided to treat three of my friends to a hearty lunch. I ordered a duck from Radmore Farm who have a small but fine shop in Chesterton Road and instead of roasting it (I don’t trust my oven which is overheating and inconsistent) I jointed it. Out of the legs and the meaty parts of the wings I made confit (using leftover salmon cure with added garlic, crushed peppercorns and thyme), the breasts I pan-fried and finished in the oven and out of the carcass, wing tips and giblets I made stock.
I had two bags of giblets so I made a little snack of flash-fried hearts.

Duck hearts

From the various trimmings and bits of meat scraped off the carcass I made a burger:

Duck burger

The livers I turned into parfait (half a shallot, one glove of garlic finely chopped, sweated off in clarified butter, added the livers until cooked dark pink, then pulsed with salt, pepper and a glug of cream in the food processor). Served on crispbread, this was the starter at Boxing Day, together with the cured salmon:

Nibbles: whisky cured salmon and duck liver parfait

I clarified the stock, kept one half for cooking the lentils and the other half I reduced down with some red wine to make a sauce. The final dish consisted of picked leg and wing meat, sliced breast, lentils and broccoli:

Duck: pan roasted breast, confit leg, lentils broccoli

[Cooking] Whisky cured salmon.

My latest fishbox included a beautiful fillet of salmon which I decided to cure.
Method:
Rub the fillet with whisky (something peaty and smoky is ideal, I used Jura).
Make a mix of equal quantities of salt and light brown sugar (enough to generously coat both sides of the fillet) and add some lightly crushed dried rosemary.
On a large piece of aluminium foil in two layers, spread a layer of the cure, set the fillet on top, skin side down, then spread the rest of the mix over the top and dribble some more whisky over the top.
Wrap the fillet tightly in the foil and leave in the fridge at least over night, longer if the fillet is really thick. The one I had was just about 1cm so over night was plenty.
To serve, wash the cure off the fillet and pat dry, then slice finely at a very flat angle. A fish knife with a flexible blade is ideal for this. You can wrap the salmon in clingfilm and it’ll keep for a few days in the fridge.
Serve on melba toast, crackers or crispbread. Add a little light horseradish or mustard cream if you fancy it but with mine, that wasn’t necessary.
Sliced, mine looked like this;

Whisky cured salmon

[Cooking] Sunday lunch: pheasant with cauliflower puree and mushroom sauce

I walked past Mill Road Butchers on Friday and decided to pop in to see what they had. The pheasants looked good so I picked up one for the Sunday.
As pheasant is notoriously dry I decided to cook it in parts. On Saturday I took off the legs and put them in brine (Water, salt, thyme, rosemary, smashed garlic. black peppercorns and allspice berries) to sit in the fridge over night. I also took off the breasts and chopped the carcass into chunks. The breasts went back into the fridge, the carcass with some chunks of onion and root veg into a hot oven until nicely browned, deglazed the roasting dish with a generous glug of port, filled up with water and let boil for a while to get all the bits off the bottom, then transferred the lot plus a good handful of dried mushrooms into a saucepan and simmered for a couple of hours, then passed the stock through a fine sieve, retaining the mushrooms and let it cool before moving it to the fridge.

On Sunday morning I patted the brined legs dry with kitchen paper, added them and the aromatics from the brine to a saucepan with barely simmering duck fat, waited until it was back to a simmer and then transferred the pan, covered in foil, to a low oven (just under 100 degrees on my dial, I checked every now and then that it stayed at a simmer). After about two hours they were done, nice and soft to the touch. I took them out and fried them skin side down in a hot pan until crispy (a few minutes). Then removed them and kept them warm while frying the breasts in lots of butter on a medium heat until nice and pink in the middle.

Then I checked the seasoning and served the lot, for I am greedy and was on my own, with crushed potatoes, steamed curly kale, cauliflower puree (see below) and a sauce made by reducing the stock with the mushrooms.

The cauliflower puree I started the day before by chopping the head into chunks, tossing them with olive oil, smoked paprika, cinnamon, sumac, salt and pepper and roasting them in a medium hot oven until soft and caramelised. On the Sunday, I reheated the chunks, added some stock and pureed them in the food processor, adding a little bit of whole milk for consistency. This was the element that brought everything together and I only made it because I had a cauliflower I needed to use up. I originally wanted to make soup but then had the idea to make a puree. The spicing worked really well.

[Cooking] Braised lamb neck, sweet potato mash, curly kale

I love cheaper cuts that need a bit of love and attention so when the Art of Meat had lamb neck, I picked up a few chunks.
I dusted them with seasoned flour (salt, pepper, smoked paprika), seared them in rapeseed oil in a hot casserole until brown all over, took them out and in the same pan fried chunks of onion, leek, carrot and garlic until softened slightly, put the meat back in, about half a litre of red wine and chicken stock each to just cover,added a sprig each of rosemary and thyme, put a lid on, let it come to a simmer and transferred to a 100 degree oven for about 3 hours. I took out the meat to rest, strained the liquid, took half of it and reduced it until it was thickened a bit and shiny. Adjusted the seasoning with salt, pepper, smoked paprika, ras el hanout and sumac. Meanwhile, in the rest of the stock, I cooked the sweet potatoes until tender and mashed them with milk, butter and seasoning.
Finally, I picked the meat off the bones, removing excess fat and gristle, warmed it through in the sauce and served on top of the sweet potato mash and some steamed and buttered kale.
Plated it looked like this

Braised lamb neck, sweet potato mash, curly kale
This also freezes well and is even better the second time round, like many stews and braises

[Cooking] Twice cooked pork belly, apple & rhubarb sauce, asparagus, Jersey Royals

With a rolled pork belly taking up space in my fridge and no freezer, I had to deal with it rather quickly so on Friday evening, I rubbed with a mix of salt, black pepper and hot smoked paprika, set it in a roasting tin with a generoius amount of cider in the bottom, covered it in foil and slow roasted it (about half an hour on high to get it up to temperature, then two hours at around 180 and another two hours at low), checking every hour or so that it didn’t run dry. I let it cool, transferred the liquid into a mug, wrapped the meat in foil and stored both in the fridge overnight.
The next day, I took off the skin, flattened it out and put it in the oven at its lowest setting to dry out, turning up the heat to maximum about half an hour for dinner to let it crisp up.
About an hour before serving, I cut two generous slices off the roll and let them come to room temperature. I took off the fat that had settled on top of the mug with the roasting juices, and fried the slices in that fat over medium heat until nicely brown on both sides.
During the afternoon I had made an apple and rhubarb sauce (inspired by the one that was served with the ears at Pig Shop) by stewing apple and rhubarb chunks in cider and then blitzing.
I served the meat wtih the sauce, a glug of the reheated roasting juices, Jersey Royals and asparagus fried in the meat pan (yes, I know no shame) with two slivers of crackling on top. The meat was very tender, the crackling crunchy and everything else worked very well together, too. I was very happy with it all, especially as I went simply by instinct with no recipe.

Twice cooked pork belly, apple & rhubarb sauce

I had another two meals from it and had thinly sliced leftovers in a bun for lunch today.