Something’s going wrong in the kitchen

I used to love cooking. The ultimate performance act.

Imagine a meal, picture the setting, prep, cook and serve. Sit down at the table, tuck in and cast a quick eye around everyone else sat there with me to see whether the guests are enjoying what they’re eating.

But in recent months, I’ve noticed a few things changing when it comes to me in the kitchen.

First, I’ve become obsessed with timings. Everything has to be piping hot when the food comes to the table. And in order to achieve that, I need to maintain multiple dishes at various different stages in creation whilst at the same time topping up people’s drinks and catching up with the friends I’ve invited to savour these kitchen feats.

Second, the success of the meal is directly proportional to the amount of time I’ve also managed to socialise within those friends congregating in the lounge. In my head, the ultimate host is one who can juggle all sorts of kitchen tasks whilst at the same being calm, collected and relaxed on the sofa prior to the meal. What is the point of inviting friends round to dinner if you spend all the time in the kitchen preparing the meal? You won’t be in the mood to chat after the meal. Surely I should be able to manage both, shouldn’t I?

Don’t for God’s sake think you can socialise with me when I’m in the kitchen, that really isn’t going to work. Because – thirdly – I’ve recently begun noticing how easy it is for me to get distracted by the simplest of questions like, ‘How are you?’

This happened again today when, shortly after the arrival of today’s poor unfortunate souls, the opening welcoming questions led to me forgetting that the pre-heating oven had successfully risen in temperature so much that the grill pan used for last week’s bacon sandwiches had hotted up so much that smoke was billowing out of the oven. This is not what I especially want newly arrived guests to be greeted with prior to dinner.

Sunday lunch. I prefer it when the table is empty.

“Put it out in the garden Jon!” advised my friend urgently. I was already on the case, but felt hugely embarrassed by this schoolboy of errors. Damn the grill pan. Damn the oven. Damn my refusal to check the oven when I turned the damn thing on in the first place.

So now, the pan remains outside. Even now. Perched on an old flower pot, the charred grill pan is a monument to forgetfulness, bad timing and ultimately humiliation. Such things in themselves are not going to bring on the end of the world, but they do chip away at the confidence of the wannabee domestic dinner party host.

Hosting is – as far as I can make out – nothing short of performance. Everything has to be just ‘so’. The table laid, the food piping hot (where directed so in the recipe) and the plate beautifully laid out. This – like a tidy looking kitchen worktop when the food is being served – is what contributes to a the perfect ambience. Anything that happens which isn’t planned or anticipated threatens that very ambience and risks leaving the host wondering why on earth he or she bothered when the guests have kissed, hugged and said goodbye at the end of the event.

Previous events – a handful over Christmas – have seen other minor disappointments in the kitchen in the crucial final stages of meal creation. Bill Grainger’s Butterscotch and Banana Pudding wasn’t the spongy offering it appeared in Rachel Allen’s cookbook; Nigella’s ham cooked in Coke requires full-fat Coca-Cola – Diet Coke won’t do; and yes, steamed vegetables are better than those boiled to a slop, but there’s crunchy and there’s raw and everyone knows that ‘warm raw’ is evidence of a serious mistiming.

These aren’t massive errors in the grand scheme of things. Just the statistical reality of what happens when one follows a series of steps in the creation of multiple dishes. Just like any other project, risk is involved. The more dishes there are, the more risks. Factor in other people (like guests) and then the stakes get higher. And, when you’ve had a run of similar issues occur during a series of meals, you can see I’m sure how the joy of cooking slowly turns into a mildly stressful process.

I don’t remember when I started thinking like this about throwing open the front door and welcoming friends for dinner. Maybe I’ve been watching too many overly-stylised cooking programmes on TV. Maybe there’s too much lifestyle and not enough reality in food presentation on TV. Maybe I’ve gone to too many restaurants where the presentation is top-notch to make me feel despondent when I look at the food on our plates.

Maybe I need to take a break from the kitchen. Retire the ‘cooking for friends’ thing and start with the basics again. Keep mealtimes for the two of us, I think. Keep the aspirations low. Eliminate risk wherever possible. I’d like to feel a bit more confident in the kitchen in future.

Otherwise, I fear I’ll risk turning into Jennifer Saunders …

TV: How to Cook Like Heston Renegade Snail Porridge Alchemy Channel 4

How to Cook Like Heston

With four editors Ben Weissbort, Frank Burgess, Rick Moore and Tom Munden, not forgetting a producer/director, an edit producer, a development executive, a series producer, a series director and executive producer (sadly Old Uncle Tom Cobbly was engaged on other projects at the time of production of Heston Blumenthal’s latest cooking vehicle, How to Cook Like Heston), even a second rate idea can be made to look like luxury.

The production companies behind the Channel 4 show (Renegade, Snail Porridge and Alchemy) clearly have a progressive approach to job titling, or they’ve all succeeded in attracted the most talented in TV production. Based on what I saw in episode one, I’m going for the latter. And that – to my mind – effortlessly develops Channel 4’s increasing reputation.

I’ll confess to having a soft spot for Heston.

This largely because I’m nearly distracted by the undeniable sniff of ‘rough trade’ our favourite kitchen solider displays with his rugged looks and nerdy glasses. Darling Heston can (pretty much) do no wrong. Well, except for those Waitrose ads.

The opening episode features a multitude of cow-based products, enough to make a vegetarian foam at the mouth. Shame. Their loss. They made their bed, etc.

Packed full of top tips, Channel 4’s latest food/cooking offering is the stuff production wannabees dream of. And I’ll almost certainly be testing out the bonfire chilli con carne on the weekend guests.

Nice work.

The Miraculous Roast Rib of Beef

Two of the guests at our New Years Day lunch were unaware of the potentially catastrophic problem identified with the rib of beef (pictured above) early on in the cooking process.

“I put the beef in the oven late last night,” said The Chap first thing this morning, “I didn’t want the cats to get at it during the night. Don’t forget to take it out of the bag before you put the oven on.”

I did listen. And I did make a mental note. But somewhere between making the banana and butterscotch pudding mix and the enhanced béchamel sauce for the cauliflower cheese, I turned on the fan oven to pre-heat in haste and then moved on to peeling the carrots and potatoes.

It was a full twenty minutes before reality dawned. After a brief moment of shouting and screaming, I grabbed hold of the nearby oven mitts and retrieved the 4.5kg rib of beef from the oven, desperately hoping I’d  caught the meat in time to be able to remove the now shrivelled plastic bag from the surface of the joint.

I was in luck. But only just. The oven hadn’t been quite so hot as I’d thought making it possible to remove every last bit of plastic. The process was fiddly, but a thorough approach seemed the only way of salvaging the rest of the day. Regular checks on the state of the joint after I’d returned it to the oven confirmed the meat was cooking, not plastic bag burning.

And in case you’re wondering, the beef tasted fantastic.

 

 

 

Mushrooms

We’ve been hosting a grand family get together today. It’s been rather fun.

As well as preparing large amounts of food (an opportunity for me to do something I enjoy), there’s always the almost habitual taking of photographs to fold into the catering process.

Not only is it out about documenting an achievement, it’s also about exploring close up some of the things we all take for granted visually.

My favourite from today’s batch is undoubtedly the onion, garlic and chilli topped mushrooms. I love seeing the detail of the mushroom in the foreground.

Onion, garlic and chilli topped mushrooms

Restaurant: Pearl

20111020-231014.jpg

The ‘restaurant block’ at the MGM Grand houses two must go-to eateries. The first of note is Pearl – a sumptuous combination of beautifully prepared food amid a stylish ambience.

20111020-231947.jpg

We plumped for the set menu. A selection of appetisers (the spare ribs were fantastic), followed by a main of fried rice, tenderloin beef, steamed vegetables and – quite possibly the revelation of the meal – almond crusted lemon chicken. All washed down with a couple of glasses of wine, finished off with a cup of Jasmine tea.

And the view? A group of Desperate Housewives-esque pals sat around a nearby table, all of them glamourously sipping at their martinis.

20111020-231052.jpg