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Charlie Bigham’s Ready Meals

Five large boxes of ice-filled ready meals arrive on one of the hottest days of the year – thank goodness for polystyrene and ice packs because even my fridge isn’t big enough to house the contents. Inside are enough Charlie Bigham’s ready-meals to fill eight hungry wannabe food writers who have recently completed a food writing course at Leiths.

I’m not saying we’re experts after a couple of months but we all have one thing very much in common – we love our food and we’re opinionated folk. Between us we’ve eaten in the very expensive, the mediocre and the down right shocking but all in pursuit of one thing – food Valhalla.

Now don’t get me wrong I knew Asgard wasn’t located in the food halls of John Lewis but Charlie Bigham’s range is, along with Waitrose stores and online at Ocado. Having watched the range change packaging and increase in shelve size I was intrigued and cheeky enough to contact the PR, Victoria. I suggested a “Charlie Bigham and Friends” dinner party and to my surprise she agreed. No strings attached, she was keen to hear our feedback and I want you to know dear reader that the free food and goodbye goody bag will not sway this honest appraisal of the food we tried on Tuesday evening.

Charlie has created a new range for the couple in mind – from his website “Emily” and “Peter” are the forty something twosomes he’s aiming his latest range at. They juggle work and kids and spending time together is often the stuff of fantasy. He is encouraging the Waitrose shopper to pack the kids off to bed, switch off the phone and have a wonderful night in over a nice meal. Basically this range is for the cook who likes good fresh food, doesn’t compromise on taste and one which requires very little effort.

My 7pm dinner party ended four hours later so Charlie’s doing something right – none of us have kids, but we all lead incredibly busy lives – we turned our phones off, we ate, we talked and had a bloody good laugh so thank you for bringing us together. Imagine what it will do for the couples with kids out there!

Victoria didn’t let us down – Steak and Ale pies, Shepherds pies, Royal Fish Pies – almost all oven ready to go and then there were the stove top meals Thai Chicken Curry, Breton Chicken and Catalan Chicken. Washed down with a variety of delicious white wines recommended by the local wine merchant but it wasn’t a completely free night – those were paid for.

I’ll give you the précis in the order we ate.

For those of you who have tried Charlie’s range and he’s got an army of fans – it would seem taste is not an issue it’s more demand outweighing supply. But for those foodies amongst you who like to know what they’re getting for their money then this blog is very much aimed at you.

Steak & Ale pies 600g £6.99 serves 2

Charlie says: ‘Tender British steak slow cooked with smooth ale and a shake of Worcester sauce then topped off with our light, flaky puff pastry. Handmade and ready to serve in individual ramekins. Perfect with mashed potato and seasonal veg.’

Everyone was very impressed with the ramekins they come prepared in – more comments initially about those as they were unwrapped from their dual tier packaging. A mini greaseproof ‘shower cap’ protects the thick, egg-glazed and scored, generous puff pastry topping. This removed, these pies sat happily for 20 minutes in a fan assisted oven at 190 degrees. The result was pretty astounding for a shop bought pie and were the winner of the night. After you broke into the crunchy cushion of pastry it revealed large chunks of well trimmed steak (no cutting required here the steak drifted apart when teased) coated in a thick gravy, enough to bathe any Jersey Royals or steamed beans. No overpowering Worcester sauce or Ale come to think of it but very tasty all the same. I actually didn’t bother with vegetables as we had so many courses to get through I don’t think we’d have got past the finishing line. So massive tick on this one Charlie. We even thought you’d give quite a few restaurants a run for their money but I guess that’s what you’re trying to achieve with this range. Worth every penny.

Shepherd’s Pie 600g £5.99 serves 2

Charlie says: ‘A hearty combination of succulent British lamb and tender British beef, slow cooked in a rich red wine gravy and tucked under a crushed potato top.’

Again the ramekins were a hit – maybe it’s the gastro-pub look – either way a good looking dish. Ease of cooking for me with guests was a bonus 20 minutes at 190 did the trick and by the time you’ve poured a nice glass of wine and slammed some veg in a steamer dinner is taken care of. Again the gravy was rich but for most was under-seasoned. A good mix of both lamb and beef mince with small cubes of carrot topped off with a very creamy mash. We all agreed on the under-seasoning so this really wasn’t a personal taste issue. Again, worth the money aside of the seasoning issue which is easily solved at home.

Royal Fish pie – 655g – can’t find the price on Ocado but the fish pie is £5.99 – serves 2

Even Charlie’s cashing in on the wedding. His 680g fish pie is now the Royal Fish pie weighing in at a slightly lighter 655g

Charlie says: ‘Delicate haddock and salmon in our traditional handmade parsley sauce with creamy mashed potato and a crunchy Cheddar and breadcrumbs topping. Perfect!’

Again oven dish cooked at 190 for 25 minutes. He reminds the ‘heater-upperer’ to leave it to stand before serving as it will be royally hot – well one would hope so. He claims the ingredients are fit for a princess. Being known to royally kick off if I don’t get my way I consider myself princess-like – lacking the certain required linage! So, Charlie, where were the ‘King’ prawns? Where were the Queen scallops? You could have had a little more fun with the ingredients of this here pie but you didn’t and you disappointed the subjects. That said, a fish pie with 58% fish is pretty generous but haddock, smoked haddock and salmon without a prawn or five left us lacking. Whilst there was no scrimping on the large chunks of salmon and although we could taste the smokiness of the smoked haddock it was a rarity in the two pies cooked to the point where we played ‘whose got the smoked haddock’ (maybe at this point I should have regulated the wine intake but I had to keep a clear head as I was playing with heat and naked flame). A mashed potato top had no solidity and was runny – almost over-creamed creaminess – for some that would be just perfect for us we thought a straw may work better – although the crunchy Cheddar topping was texturally helpful to break up the nursery sloppiness of it all. The spinach was evident and held its own throughout the dish and the sauce was clearly cut by lemon juice – not over-bearing but balanced. The greaseproof base needs much improvement. Cooked and served in a wooden trug-like tray helped to keep it in shape but we all found it incredibly difficult (and far from sexy if you are trying to impress) to get the majority of the pie contents from that paper liner – and believe me it wasn’t coming off without a sticky fight.

Charlie we also thought you could be missing out on an ‘accompaniment’ opportunity – the sides you mention could very easily be next to the meals – taking the thought out of trudging to respective aisles/web pages for vegetables or rice would be an added bonus.

Breton Chicken 600g £5.99 serves 2

Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast in a handmade creamy mornay sauce with cheese, leeks, Lardons, Dijon mustard and fresh parsley. Perfect!’

This was the first of three stove-top meals. Simple enough to prepare. Did what it said on the packaging – from pan to plate in ten minutes. I cooked two packs in a non-stick wok in one go. Immediately I notice the leeks are cut in large diagonal ‘chunks’ – far too big to work well with the size of the well-trimmed chicken and Lardons. After cooking the meat in a tablespoon of oil for roughly 10 minutes I added the two pack sachets of sauce. Mistake. The meat swam in a creamy soup-like sauce most of which wasn’t taken by diners. I boiled Basmati to go with this and the other two stove top dishes and it worked well. Charlie suggests mash or new potatoes as well as the rice but the group totally pooh-poohed the potato idea. As we tried the first mouthful there was a symbiotic pause as we all looked at each other – the overpowering mustardy-ness of the Dijon wiped out any subtlety that a mornay would offer. Could it be that the Mustard-adder on our sauce batch sneezed at the crucial weighing stage? The ingredients suggested just 1% of Dijon in the mix but we failed to agree. That coupled with the leek size split the table. I liked it and would definitely get it again if those veggie sizes were halved. Great portion sizing but too saucy in every sense of the word.

Thai Green Chicken Curry 600g £5.99 serves 2

Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast in a traditional handmade Thai curry sauce with coconut milk, fresh coriander, green chilli, lemongrass and lime leaves. Fantastic!’

This was probably the biggest miss of the night. Again large chunks of green pepper over-powered what we all thought was a floury tasting coconut-esque sauce. For the spice lovers amongst us they demand a whole-lot-hotter kicking sauce from their TGC but for me who’s not keen on spice it was pleasant enough.

Now, I have forgotten to mention that Mr Bigham does not use a great deal of additives preservatives or thickeners. But when we flipped the packaging and checked the ingredients of the TGCC he uses both Arrowroot and Cornflour.

Now I don’t confess to being Floyd, Hom or Bains in the curry department but we couldn’t fathom out when we’d ever used either or come to think of it needed to thicken the sauce when making this dish – is this a bulk production matter the small kitchen cook knows nothing about? A reduction usually does the thickening job – I even had to double check the BBC Good Food website to confirm and no thickening agent is used in their recipe. Obviously recipes differ but we were trying to fathom out the floury taste.

This time I used one of the two sauces in the packs and this was a much better sauce/meat ratio.

Catalan Chicken 600g £5.99 serves 2

Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast and Spanish chorizo in a handmade tomato sauce with garlic, smoked paprika and fresh rosemary. Wonderful!’

The last, and by no means least, of the dishes we tried was the Catalan Chicken, again two packs cooked at the same time. This dish screams smokiness to the point of serious ear bleed. After the first mouthful we were left with a pungency so strong it masked the other flavours the dish had to offer. The smoked paprika (again a measly 1% according to the ingredients) teamed with the paprika within the sausage was a little too much for the dish to sustain – a faux smoked taste was left lingering way too long. The rice did little to bring the extinguished bonfire taste to a halt and even crusty slivers of a shop-bought ciabatta did little to soak up the just put out taste. Again, the green pepper was cut by the hand of the ham-fisted vegetable prep team. Believe me, there is nothing dainty about trying to chew large pieces of pepper which fight with the teeth of a good knife. Again, I halved the amount of sauce used and it worked better for this dish.

I believe Charlie Bigham has scored on all fronts but with a few recipe tweaks he could make the dishes – certainly those we tried – even better. And, I offer myself at your mercy to spend time in your test kitchen.

Charlie Bighams twosomes available in John Lewis Food Hall, Oxford Street, Waitrose and online via Ocado.

Selected dishes are currently on offer – 2 for £8.00 at the time of writing this – 21 April 2011.

All items we tried can be freezed on day of purchase (some suggested best eaten fresh) but should be eaten within a month.

Some packaging recyclable.

http://bighams.com
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Seville Marmalade

I know I’m not the only one obsessed with Lakeland – I have a very good male friend who spends money there like a child in a sweet shop and I know I’m just the same.  As soon as their catalogue drops on my mat you can rest assured that within half an hour I’m on the website ordering items.  I may have a kitchen full of gadgets but they’re useful ones – I’ve learnt costly lessons over the years – I dread to think about the must have kitchen appliances I’ve bought only to see them in the back of my boot on a Sunday morning going for a song!  So, I don’t have a Maslin pan, or a jam funnel, a jam thermometer or even muslin drainage bags and after this morning – unless you’re making preserves or chutneys on a small scale regularly I don’t think you need them either.

Which brings me nicely on to why I’m writing this blog today.

I’ve always fancied making marmalade and of course it was Radio Four’s Food Programme which got me thinking about it.   I’ve never had a go – not even in Home Economics  – maybe it was all that hot sugar and teenage girls whipping each other with tea towels that put Mrs Anton off.  She found it difficult enough to control the diminishing catering block of cooking chocolate every time our class entered her hallowed pantry, let alone look after 12 girls and a pan full of molten granulated.

Lakeland make it incredibly easy to make marmalade – they sell the prepared oranges £2.25 and 1/2 litre preserving jars £15.99 – everything I discovered this morning you need to make the stuff.  So, I ordered a tin, six ‘Le Parfait’ jars and forgot the wax discs – it would seem there’s no one who makes waxed discs large enough for these jars.   After digging about on various forums it would seem people who have not used discs have been fine with marmalade if the seal is tight on the jar – these are brand new so I am going to give it a go.  But I digress.  I made my marmalade in my slow cooker and I didn’t cook the stuff for hours on end.  Well I haven’t actually got a traditional slow cooker – I’ve got a Tefal Rice Cooker and very good it is too.  This has got to be the simplest recipe ever and the glorious scent that filled the house actually transported me back to Seville when their trees are in full blossom – around Easter time and during Saints Week.

After a bit of digging it would seem Waitrose and Tesco also sell ready-prepared oranges so keep an eye out there too.  Lakeland is expensive postage-wise if you can’t find a voucher offer or have a store near your home.

Ingredients

1 can of Homecook (or other brand) 850g /1lb 4oz ready prepared Seville oranges

1800g/4lbs granulated sugar

425ml/3/4 pint of water

5 litre capacity saucepan

Wooden spoon

I used 4 1/2 litre Le Parfait jars and they’re filled with no wastage.

Method

Wash the jars in hot soapy water, rinse thoroughly and put into an oven at 140 degrees to dry out.

Put the sugar and oranges in the cooker.  I put mine on ‘steam cooking’ function which got the sugar to boiling point

Put a saucer in your freezer compartment.

Keep the sugar on a rolling boil for twenty minutes stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

Take the jars out of the oven.

Take the saucer out of the freezer.

Drop a little of the sugar and orange mix on the plate – when it congeals the marmalade has reached the setting point.  If it doesn’t, continue boiling and try again in three minute intervals.  The instructions on the side of the can suggested a knob of butter to take down the foam build-up.  I didn’t bother and it didn’t affect anything.

Once you’ve reached the right consistency turn off the heat and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes and ladle into the sterilised jars.  Seal immediately.  If you find waxed discs large enough I’d use them – put shiny side down.

Now I have to wait to taste the fruits of my labour.  I’m off to Lavellis (a brilliant local bakery) to buy some crusty white bread.

http://www.lakeland.co.uk/

 

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Hotel Chocolat Easter Egg

When I was asked to pick an Easter egg from the Hotel Chocolat range to review for the blog it wasn’t that difficult .  I love chocolate, no, I mean REALLY love chocolate and the darker the better.   I plumped for the Purist Extra Thick at £30.00.  One side of the egg is 65% cocoa solids the other is 70% and if that’s not enough there are ten pralines coated in a 65% dark too.

It arrived this morning with the postman – and well worth being woken up for – thank you Steve.   Royal Mail had treated it with the respect it deserved and the packaging was blemish and dent free which lasted all of 90 seconds.  The gift message is a nice touch if you’re sending it to someone through the post and not actually going to the high street.  It was like Christmas morning all over again.  By the time I ripped the cardboard shell away from the box I was into the egg proper.   Protected in a dark square box, patterned to look like a wooden case, it was plain and simple yet elegant with Hotel Chocolat ribbon keeping the lid firmly in place.  Immediately I think they’ve saved the money on packaging and invested it in the contents which pleases me greatly and I wasn’t disappointed.

The first thing that hits me is the tasting menu – heavily scented with smell of the chocolate within.  The tasting notes explaining  the contents and a little bit about the cocoa used is a really nice touch – other chocolate artisans learn well from this.  The egg halves were wrapped in thick silver foil and nestled within each were five handmade – 65% dark, intense pralines, wrapped in tissue paper.

65% dark praline with Piedmont hazelnuts

I bit into a square embossed with the initials H&C and the smooth, thick, hazelnut centre was incredibly rich – exactly what you’d expect from a top notch handmade chocolate.  They’re made with cocoa from Saint Lucia and eating these are about as near as I’m going to get to the island.

To the egg – beginning with the 70% side – labelled clearly to differentiate from the other.  Made from beans from Chuao in Venezuela where they grow Criollo cocoa beans.   These babies are to chocolate as the Arabica bean is to coffee.  Only very few Criollo trees remain so when Hotel Chocolat say on the tasting notes ‘we managed to get hold of some of the most prized cocoa on earth!’ they mean what they say.

Attention to detail - an inscribed egg half

I loved the thickness of the chocolate and the finish – you could see exactly where the final pour was left to set and clearly underlying the attention to detail the egg has undergone.  I bit straight into the tip and have to admit to tasting just two of the suggested flavours – caramel and malt – but for the more discerned palate the notes say you can expect roasted nuts, cream and raisins.

After a break, a clearing of the palate and a deep breath I opened up the 65% side.  This cocoa is from the Rabot Estate in Saint Lucia.  They’ve rated it as their best cuvee yet from the Estate and the beans benefit from a lower temperature roasting – avoiding the midday sun whilst they dry.  Now I really did taste the red fruit flavour notes and was left with a hint of citrus and spices.  The oaked wine, however, passed me by.  This was my favourite and I was left with its sweet, richness for a long time after I’d swallowed.

This Easter Egg is a real indulgence – it’s aimed at someone who knows their chocolate and at £30 I think that’s exactly who will be receiving it.  If you like chocolate with more sugar or fat avoid this – it’s not going to be your thing.  Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  You get what you pay for and personally I’d rather be bought just one of these than any number of thinner skinned, less satisfying, imitations.

I was also heartened to read about Hotel Chocolat’s Engaged Ethics Cocoa Programme and how they’re doing their bit for the cocoa farmer – they guarantee a fair price for the crop, they get paid on time and that their future is secure.

As if you need anymore encouragement to treat yourself – honestly – don’t wait for Easter.

Thank you too to Hotel Chocolat for sending it just before I embark on the give-up-chocolate-for-Lent diet – like that’s going to work!

The Purist Extra Thick Egg £30

Hotel Chocolat

 http://www.hotelchocolat.co.uk


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Kate Miller-Heidke: Comedienne

It’s a bloody cold night and I’m not in the mood to coat-up and leave the house to to see Ben Folds’ support at the 02 Hammersmith but I’ve got a ticket and I said I would.

I’m glad I did. Winding through the barrier system I get inside and couldn’t have timed my arrival better. I take my place on the sloped incline and instantly a man and a woman walk onto a stage full of instruments. Kate Miller-Heidke is an Australian. She comes on, opens her mouth, and gets massive support from what would seem a crowd who already know her – but we are in West London and it is a second home to many antipodeans. I don’t but am greeted with a slight blonde – pretty in pink – who has a voice which would smash glass. Her guitar accompaniment is, in fact, it turns out – after I whip through the press release – her husband Keir Nuttall – and from what I’ve seen on You Tube she’s without a full band – I would never have known – the acoustic guitar, keyboard, tambourine, and shaker work very well and with that one very wide vocal range I’m not left wanting.

Politics in Space was first up – a take on the sixties and how we should “all get over it” as it happened fifty years ago. Her vocal range borders on the operatic here and she breaks into a style that is demure then angsty – bizarrely it all comes together. After reading her bio, it becomes clear why this is – she’s had operatic training and loves musical theatre.

But it’s not all giggles. There are serious and very emotive moments.

Caught in The Crowd is her tale of a lingering childhood regret – no ironic twist here – a simple story about her time at school with an underlying anti-bullying message.

Between songs she speaks anecdotally about her music and tells us how the Chinese government ‘censored’ her choice of song when she was invited to sing at the opening of the Australia Pavilion – she chose something very risque – they heard it – she was asked to change it and of course, she obliged.

A tragic tale of unrequited love Dreams (I Love You) transported (certainly me) to a Parisian speakeasy. There were plenty of operatic vocals here with a note which lasted for what seemed minutes but in reality it was more like thirty seconds, so where she found the breath for the throaty ‘I love you’ immediately afterwards sums up that training.

Can’t Shake It probably was one of the funniest of the set – tackling her inability to dance and again a song which resonated with the crowd – ‘somebody called the nurse thought I was having a fit. I execute the moonwalk like I stepped in shit’

It’s her wit and sense of fun that keeps the crowd enthralled – of the five hundred on the floor I’m taking a wild punt that they’ve not come to watch musical theatre but someone singing about an ex who suddenly got in touch via a popular social networking site. The tale of a former love who treated her badly, and who left her broken hearted, suddenly wants to be friends with her on Facebook and her response is “are you fxxxxxx kidding me?”

As her set came to an end there were rapturous whoops of cheers and as Ben Folds band tuned up Kate was on the Merch desk signing her new album Curiouser (sic) – the £15 price tag didn’t put punters off either – there was a steady stream who were willing to pay for the CD and her signature – who said buying music was over?

Kate Miller-Heidke at the 02 Hammersmith, Sunday 20 February 2011.

If you fancy seeing Kate she’s back in London on 24 March playing the Water Rats, Grays Inn Road.

http://www.katemillerheidke.com/


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Breast Milk Ice Cream

What do you get when you put Madagascan vanilla pods, lemon juice, milk and cream, egg yolks and golden caster sugar together?  Usually pretty good ice cream – but then what is the result when you add human breast milk?  Well, nothing much more – but it’s sure to split the room like a beginner’s Hollandaise.

The world’s first breast milk ice cream has been developed by the “Icecreamists” – you could call them the Sid and Nancy of the ice cream world – and at the helm is founder, Matt O’Connor.

Icecreamists, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden

They’ve opened a new ice cream parlour in Covent Garden and one of the flavours he developed – and one which has generated a mass of publicity and visitors is “Baby Gaga” .  He calls it “a wonderful celebration of motherhood” – but priced at an icy £14.95 – will it go down well?  “Its “pure, organic, free range and totally natural”. So what’s not to like?

Well this is the bit that people just can’t seem to get their head around.  “Baby Gaga” is made with a milk pump-expressed on the premises by over-producing lactacting women who get paid £15 for every ten ounces. It takes eighteen ounces to make one batch and each serving is 200mls.  All the ice cream served in the shop is made on the premises every day.

“Baby Gaga” comes on a silver tray in a Martini glass, and is surrounded by two rusk, Bonjela gel and a shot of Calpol.  The ice cream has a Jelly Baby garnish. Initially I think this is all to take the taste away but it’s an unnecessary and expensive gimmick.

The ice cream is dense and creamy but far too sweet for me.  I have never tried human breast milk in its natural form but some say it’s oily with a bitter after-taste – that could explain the sugar.   It looks as if customers aren’t put off by the price tag or the sweetness either. When I arrive to take some photographs it’s all gone.

Interestingly enough a mother was offering her milk whilst I was there so I’m sure there will be a fresh batch on the way soon. By the way all donors are screened to the same standards as those donating blood.

Of course Matt’s not the first to experiment with breast milk – a New York chef made eight different kinds of cheese last year after his wife began freezing her excess milk.  From Ricotta to a cheese with a cheddar-type texture and quality.  The Health Department prevented him from selling it to his customers.

Matt’s really passionate about what he’s doing and his philosophy “is to push the boundaries of what ice cream’s all about”.  Isn’t it about time ice cream got a makeover -and with flavours like chilli and lemongrass to quote just one of the dozen they’re making – it looks like it is.

So, if you’re looking for something different in the frozen desert department, you’ll definitely get it there.  They’re also experimenting with cocktails – some I’m told take up to 15 minutes to make and involve quite a bit of theatre – the words blow and torch were mentioned – and priced between £10 and £15 it sounds like you’ll be paying for the whole experience.

Knickerbocker Glory Hole anyone?

£14.95 is the most you’ll pay for ice cream but if you’ve not got the budget or time to eat in, you can also takeaway – cups are £5.90 and cones too at £3.95 – no pun intended – I promise.

Since writing this post, the Icecreamists have had the ice cream removed by Westminster Council officers to make sure it was “fit for human consumption”.

And Matt’s been told to change the name of the desert to something which is not aurally, visually or conceptually similar to Lady Gaga’ or court action will be taken.  The poker face singer is claiming it’s ‘detrimental’ to her image as it is ‘deliberately provocative and, to many people, nausea-inducing’.

I’ll keep you posted about the outcome of both.

The Icecreamists, 15 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2E 7NG
10am to midnight, 7 days a week.

 

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