Can Cook, Must Cook

The food adventures of Franka P, a Trinidadian journalist living in London, UK. I'll write about my forays into all types of food and cooking, particularly Caribbean food. I'll also review books and recipes by the leading food writers and talk about the issues making headlines in the gastronomic world.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

World Cup doubles??

Life's been a blur for the last two weeks, and I've been meaning to find a quiet hour to blog. Fortunately, things calmed down a bit and normal service is now resumed.
Wuk, yuh know work, the day job has been manic.
And much of it has to do with the World Cup as I've been working on programmes about Trinidad and Tobago's historic debut in the World Cup.
I hope to be heading off to Germany on June 14th to see Trinidad play England, and I want to check out two food related things in the short time I'll be there. German food (of course) and Trini food in a German context.
I really looking to see whether we will have our wares on display, I really hoping to see vendors selling doubles and pholourie next to the winergirls and steelband.
After all, the Germans say they want to see what all the nations have to offer. I hear Trinidad and Tobago sending soca artistes, tassa drummers and blue devils but I feel hoping for Sauce doubles might be asking for a bit too much.
If I don't see the Trini food, I looking forward to at least drinking some serious German beer and eating some scrummy, delicious bread.
But first I have to encounter Mr German Embassy, but from all reports they moving smoothly there. EJ and Cherise went to the embassy today and they got through easily.
There were a lot of Trinis in the line there and EJ reported hearing a fella say, "I doh care about the result, as long as dey leh we in de stadium wid we cooler so we could slap down some fours."
That's Trinis for you!

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Curry? I think I'll have a bagel instead!

Last weekend, Bex, Bonnie, Avalon and I went down to Brick Lane in East London to check out the annual Baishaki Mela that's held to celebrate the Bangladeshi New Year.
It's said to be the premier Bengali celebration outside of Bangladesh.
By the time we got there, the main parade was done but there were still people in costumes buzzing around to give us an indication of what we missed.
We walked the length of Brick Lane among the thousands, mainly from the Bangladeshi community, taking in some of the sights and smells of this vibrant part of London, and Bonnie, a Trini-Indian jokingly warned "this is not the crowd to lose me in".
Whenever I go to Brick Lane, I try to have a meal in one of its many curry houses and this time was no different.
Many of Brick Lane's restaurants claim to being 'The Best'. You'll see banners up heralding the accolades bestowed on the restaurant by various London publications.
Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily a true indicator of the standard of the food on offer.
We stood in front of one restaurant with a banner saying something like 'The Guardian's Best Curry House 2006' and contemplated eating there but as it was a lovely mild day, we wanted to dine al fresco so we turned our attention to Preem's, a restaurant across the road, with lots of diners eating outside and of course, a 'Best Curry' banner.
Bex tackles the food at Preem's in Brick LaneAs we took our seats we realised we were a bit close to a dustbin overflowing with discarded paper cups and cans, and people walking past were passing too close to our table.
As soon as a nearby table became free, we moved but this didn't go down with our waiter, a grumpy, crochety old sod who is one of the rudest waiters I've ever come across.
He couldn't, or wouldn't properly advise on different dishes or about how much we should order to share or anything of the sort. I was so dismayed, I told one of his colleagues to warn him about his silly attitude.
The meal didn't have such a bad start with poppadums (fried thin discs of dried peas, sometimes seasoned with spices) and an assortment of dips including mango chutney, as well as vegetable and lamb samosas.
It was the main course that spoilt it for us. I think the worst thing to have is tasteless curry. That should be an oxymoron but it was one that came through on our plates at Preem's on Brick Lane.
Where do I start? The vegetable biryani - usually a mouth watering dish of rice and vegetables infused with a fragrant mixture of spices - tasted like rice cooked with tumeric and a bit of chilli.
I love korma, a mild curry that incorporates yoghurt and coconut cream infused with coriander, cumin, cardamom, and cloves. This time I opted for the lamb korma which tasted like yogurt, curry and a bit of coconut cream but no little or no spice. I was getting really annoyed at how tasteless this meal was. We also had some fish bhindi, fish and okro curry which was like the rest of the meal, pretty unremarkable.
A yummy salt beef bagel like the one I had (Courtesy: Wikipedia)The tastiest bit of the main course was the dish that was supposed to be the blandest! The rice pullao, a plain rice pilaf was just about adequate.
Today, I made a monkfish and vegetable curry that was so much better than the meal we had last week. It was tasty, well spiced and quite enjoyable. I probably should have invited the girls over for lunch.
I did have something nice to eat on Brick Lane that day though. On the way home, we stopped in at one of the traditional beigel (aka bagel) shops for a salt beef with mustard beigel. The bagel was perfect. It reminded me of bread from the small bakeries in Trinidad, where the bread was just as good as homemade. The beef was lean, tender and extremely tasty. The bagel was so perfect in its simplicity, it was a stark contrast to the absolute crud we had earlier.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Yummy chef!

Scottish chef Tom LewisI have just seen the tastiest chef in the UK. Scottish chef Tom Lewis has to be the most gorgeous man in food. Ok, he's not Brad Pitt but I wouldn't get worked up about Brad Pitt.
People might talk about the gym-sculted form of Gary Rhodes or Gordon Ramsay's rugged and aggressive charm but Tom Lewis has the most infectious laugh and looks like he could scrum down with the best of them.
Not many people had ever heard of Tom until last month when the list of chefs competing in the Great British Menu was announced. He's up against
Nick Nairn, a noted celebrity chef who just happens to be his really good friend.
I had a look at his menus and recipes in the GBM book and it was obvious that he's a chef who likes to experiment. He's the chef at the
Monachyle Mhor Hotel and in the short time he's been there, he's got a host of awards and from all indications, it seems a Michelin star isn't far away.

Here's what the Times had to say about his cooking and his restaurant.
"Six miles up the Balquhidder valley, past lochs and crags, Highland cattle and Rob Roy’s grave, Monachyle Mhor is the best restaurant for 40 miles. The chef, Tom Lewis, grew up farming this land, and that is reflected in his feel for tremendous produce: local lamb, beef, venison and grouse; vegetables and mushrooms straight off the family farm; and the freshest of seafood from the west coast."
Someone say something about a holiday in Scotland?
Here's one of Tom's recipes from the Great British Menu.

Black Dan's Honey and Toasted Oatmeal Cranachan with strawberries poached in Pernod and cinnamon

3 tbsp oatmeal
150 ml milk
3-4 tbsp good quality runny honey
1 small vanila pod, split lengthways
2 gelatine leaves, soaked in cold water for ten minutes
450 ml double cream

Poached Strawberries
50g strawberries
1 cinnamon stick
2 1/2 tbsp caster sugar
2tbsp Pernod

1. Toast the oatmean in a dry pan for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Set aside
2. Place the milk and the honey in a saucepan and scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod. Add the pod too, then heat until bubbles start appearing around the edge. Do NOT boil. Remove from the heat. Gently squeeze dry the gelatine, add to the hoe milk and stir until completely melted. Stir in the cream. Pass through a sieve into a jug.
3. Divide the toastes oatmeal among four dariole moulds. Slowly pour in the honey cream mixture. Leave to set in the fridge for 4-5 hours.
4. To prepare the strawberries, combine all the ingredients in a heatproof bowl and cover over with cling film. Set over a pan of boiling water and cook for 8-10 minutes. Every now and again, carefully tilt the bowl to swirl the juice over the strawberries. Remove from the hot water and leave to cool.
5. To serve, dip each mould into warm - not hot - water and count to five, then turn out on to a plate. Spoon the poached strawberries around the cranachan.
Serves four

Cranachan is also known as cream crowdie in Scotland, after the local soft cheese - crowdie - which was used instead of cream. The recipe is named after Tom's gardener Black Dan Campbell.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Culture or colour?

I had an interesting e-mail exchange yesterday with Fiona Shoop, the editor of fresh magazine. I sent her an email to say that I appreciated her article on the absence of female chefs.
In my email, I made the point that I believe the issue goes beyond female chefs, because there is also a glaring absence of ethnic minority chefs, male and female.
In response, she said she never thought about food in terms of colour but in terms of culture, and that's why the magazine will continue to highlight many types of food in the coming months including Caribbean cuisine.
While I understood where she was coming from, I think she missed my point.
For me, the issue isn’t simply about getting more chefs of colour in terms of numbers. I think it’s a heritage issue. I feel it's important that the food industry attract chefs from all backgrounds because if not, there’s a distinct possibility of some food cultures becoming novelties in the UK.

This mightn't be the case at the moment for the Asian community, but that food sector is facing a threat that can be averted if more young people got involved.
For years, the South Asian community depended heavily on chefs from places like India and Bangladesh to fill the lead roles in their restaurants.
They’ve been able to do this for years because the immigration laws in the UK currently allow for people with unique skills - like chefs - to work here without a problem.
But that’s about to change with the introduction of a new points-based system for workers from outside of the European Union in 2007.
The system favours doctors, engineers and financial experts. It’s similar to the system used in Australia and the government thinks it’s much fairer than the present system.
However, ex-Europe Minister Keith Vaz has reservations about the scheme because he doesn't think it would address skill shortages in certain areas, like the numbers of chefs needed in south Asian restaurants.
He said that while there were 10,000 south Asian restaurants in the UK, contributing £3.2bn to the British economy, there were 20,000 vacancies.
Essentially, what it means is that under the system suggested by the government, it will be easier for a Pole or a Greek, for example to find work in an Asian restaurant than an Asian.
I can see where Vaz is coming from but it's a fact that unemployment is high in the British Asian community so couldn't some of these vacancies can be filled if these unemployed youths knew that cooking was an option.
But who would be their role models? There are very few Asian chefs who are as well known in the mainstream as their British counterparts.
You'd think things would be different especially since curry is said to be Britain's favourite food. In 2005, Amaya was voted London's top restaurant and there are several top class Asian restaurants around the nation including Madhu's, The Cinnamon Club and Benares in London, Aagrah in Yorkshire, Kiplings in Bradford and Curry Fever in Leicester.
Atul Kochhar, chef-owner at Benares was the first Indian to win a Michelin star, but he's not on on tv alot. So I'm really glad he's one of the 14 chefs competing in the Great British Menu for a chance to cook for the Queen's 80th birthday. It would be a major coup if he beats Gary Rhodes, the bookies favourite and one of this country's best known chefs.
If the tv commissioners were willing to take a chance on Jamie Oliver who turned out to be a whopping success, why can't they do the same with an Asian or Afro-Caribbean chef?
I don't have the fear for the future of Asian cuisine in the UK that I do for Caribbean cuisine. I fear if there are no young hotshots to champion our food and no chefs to inspire the youth, then our cuisine will remain at the level of the takeaway in the UK.

Simple Indian by Atul Kochhar and David Loftus (Photographer) - Quadrille Publishing
Indian Essence: The Fresh Tastes of India's New Cuisine by Atul Kochhar - Quadrille Publishing

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Needed: More female chefs!

Angela HartnettEver noticed that the people who hand down the great traditions of cooking are usually our mothers and grandmothers yet the world of food dominated by men?
It's something that crosses my mind pretty often. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about it this week because I've been following the Great British Menu, a competition among 14 of the UK's top chefs to decide who will cook for the Queen's 80th birthday party in June. Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett is the only woman among the group of 14.
Angela runs the show at London's esteemed Connaught Rooms and is a protege of the one and only Gordon Ramsay. It must be said at this point that Angela started her cooking career in the Caribbean at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados. So we could claim her as one of our own, kinda.

I first saw her on tv a few years back in the first edition of Hell's Kitchen and although was really damn tough on those competitors, she was the coolest one in that highly-charged environment.
I had the pleasure of meeting Angela last year at the Good Food Show in London and I found her really cool and down to earth. In fact, she was so cool that she said I was guaranteed to get a table at her restaurant if when I was making reservations, I mentioned that I was the lady from Trinidad she spoke with at the Good Food Show.
At the show, she spoke about her experiences in the kitchen and how she dealt with the competition among the men at the restaurants she's worked at.
She's always been very upfront about the tough conditions facing chefs and in one interview gave young people this warning; "unless you love the job and you like cooking, the last thing that you’re going to do is work 18 hours a day just to produce food. You’ve got to want to do it otherwise there is no point in becoming a chef."
So if a woman has children or an impatient partner, she's not likely to last very long. If she's thin-skinned and can't deal with a certain amount of industrial language then she's definitely not going to make it.
In the Great British Menu, Angela is up against a younger chef who is not just hell bent on beating a Michelin-starred rival, but a woman at that. So when he comes with any macho bullshit, she lets him have it - it's great television.
I really hope that Angela wins this round of the competition eventually becomes the chef who'll cook for the Queen. Even if she doesn't win, I hope her mere presence in the programme is enough to inspire young women to take up the challenge to become chefs.
As if by coincidence, the latest edition of Fresh Magazine (June 2006) has a very good article about the absence of female chefs in the industry and it makes for pretty sad reading.
Fiona Shoop, a trained chef wrote the article and she said she was so fed up of the sexism, she chose to concentrate on journalism "where you can write your way into a job - whatever your gender".
She pointed out that there were probably four or five female chefs who are widely known across the UK: Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith, Lesley Waters and Angela.

And unless you're a real foodie, you won't know Sophie Grigson, Mary Berry or Ursula Ferrigno who are all extremely good chefs and even better writers.
I believe the situation is the same all over the world. I know of very few top female chefs in the Caribbean. They're in the kitchens but they aren't in the frontline.
Someone who bucks the trend is my good mate Debbie Sardinha-Metivier, the first woman to become an executive chef at a Hilton in the Americas. It'll take a few more Debbies to rise to the challenge if the situation is going to change. I live in hope.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Foie gras - the controversy!

I came across an interesting site the other day, the Culinary Podcast Network. It's an American-based site that highlights food podcasts from a group of "passionate gastronomes". Some of the podcasters are professional chefs and others are just total foodies.
There's some damn good stuff on the site, and the first thing that caught my attention was a debate about
foie gras prompted by the recent banning of the delicacy in Chicago.
For those who don't know what foie gras is, it's the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been overfed. Foie gras is extremely delicious but like other delicacies it's outrageously expensive.
It's actually the process of fattening the ducks that upsets people. A tube is inserted down the bird's throat three times a day and the animal is force fed lots of pellets.
I've seen this process on television and while I felt it looked uncomfortable for the ducks, the animals didn't seem to be in pain.
I concluded that in the grand scheme of things, it was more important to be concerned about issues like the declining fish stocks caused by overfishing than by the discomfort of a small percentage of ducks.
Animal rights activists have been trying to get foie gras outlawed for years but it's still one of the most sought after delicacies. Maybe the Chicago ruling might give new impetus to their cause.
The Culinary Roundtable podcast featured people with range of divergent views like Jennifer Iannolo of
Food Philosophy who believes legislation like the Chicago ruling is giving the government the right to say what people could eat.
On the other hand, Steve Wasser of
Gastrologica presented an emotive argument about the cruelty of the process and compared it to slavery while Chef Tom Beckman of the CHIC Podcast pointed out that chicken production could be just as inhumane, so why isn't anyone talking about outlawing chicken.
I think there might be some real gems there on that site, I'm looking forward to listening to Jennifer Iannolo talk about cooking and feminism. From what I've read, it seems her controversial views have elicited a torrent of comments.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Why markets are really important

Provisions at Shepherds Bush MarketIf you love markets, you probably understand how important the market is in the life of a town or city, both economically and socially.
This week, The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 does a timely and interesting exploration of the importance of the market as it relates to British life.
Borough Market is 250 years old and is one of the most popular in the capital but how are markets in other parts of the UK doing, especially in the face of the powerful supermarket chains?
I felt that so many of the issues in this programme are also applicable to the Caribbean, where it seems that we're losing touch with the food we're eating.

Sheila Dillon went to Bradford Market, where the city's council is revitalising the market and the vendors are reaping the rewards.
I listened to this programme twice, because the role of markets is one link in the chain of issues considered by food lovers today - seasonality and locality.
The programme also underlines the role of markets have in social interaction and for helping people to appreciate where their food comes from. If you go to the supermarket you can get the variety, but the shop attendant doesn't have a clue about what you'll be eating except that it comes from the distribution centre in Milton Keynes!
Check out
The Food Programme, it's a great listen.

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