Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Judging the Curry Chef of the Year .. .Heaven !

Several months ago I got a phone call from Anna Murby from Rachel Mallows asking if I should like to be one of the judges at the Northamptonshire Food and Drink Curry Chef of the a Year Award. These awards have been devised by Northamptonshire Enterprise Ltd and are aimed at celebrating all that is great about Northamptonshire’s produce and drink.

Now whereas most young people choose their universities based on academic performance, and the syllabus, I chose to go to University in Leicester because it is one of the best curry capitals in England. I am the original curry monster, so this was my idea of heaven. I accepted the invitation before Anna had finished her sentence.

This morning four curry chefs from across Northamptonshire, who had been selected from the many entrants, were invited to cook a curry meal for two people with a main course, a vegetarian dish, an accompaniment, and one complementary dessert. There was no restriction on the type of curry so I was anticipating a wide selection.

I was particularly excited to be seeing one of the other judges Richard Curtis, my lecturer from many years ago as the venue for the Curry cook off was my training ground Northampton College. The first week I spent at catering college was spent in the same room the competition was being held in. I had memories of the hours and hours I considered a waste of time, as I had stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables into matchstick size batons. Now I know and appreciate the relatively average knife skills I now have, when I watch other people using a knife. His standards were legend even then.

Even as I arrived the atmosphere was electric. With a Northamptonshire Television camera Crew and the other judges arriving, the contestants were already standing by their stations arranging pots of fresh herbs and exotic spices.

Initially all four contestants looked a little nervous. It was understandable, after all what could be more nerve wracking that having someone with a clip board and a set of criteria to judge your cooking on? After just a few minutes nerves seemed to dissipate as they set to. Within a short time the air was filled with layers of spice, fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, pepper, saffron chilli, all overlaid with sizzling onion and roasting meat. The rooms hummed along, with the judges examining, the camera crew filming and the chefs creating their master pieces. We were looking at range of things, not just the taste, including hygiene, skills, presentation, innovation and organisation.

By the time the clock stopped all the chefs had completed the task. The food was brought into a private room to be tasted. There was not a dish there that I wouldn’t have been delighted to have eaten out in a restarant. The spice blends were wonderful, the presentation was stunning and the various textures were delightful. There was a good mix of Indian, Bengal, Nepalese and Vietnamese curries. I had been initially worried that despite my many years of eating curries, I would find it difficult to differentiate the various flavours, especially when being presented with so much choice. Not so. The dished were all so individual there was no problem in discerning between them at all. I felt very privileged to be judging alongside a delightful chap, Ian Kellan, from British Pepper and Spice and as we compared notes we seemed to have exactly the same taste.

In the end someone has to win. It was really one of the most honestly judged events. I could not image how it could be any fairer. We were all given the opportunity to give our scores and it was totally impartial. The results stay secret until the announcement at the awards dinner in October, but I can tell you now that the winner was ......

Isn’t suspense delicious?

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Things don't always go according to plan

Disciplining my child for shoplifting from Waterstones this week was not what I had in mind when I took some biscuit samples in. More about that later ...

As I took some shots with my new camera whilst my daughter delighted in dragging her fingers through the pools of icing sugar that were splotted across the work surface. Not the healthiest breakfast, but it was her birthday and what could be a more fun start to the day? It is hard work with them all being off school. I don’t like to plonk them in front of the television. They are all going to be creative. My son has decided he wants to be a photographer when he grows up. He has my old canon point and shoot he is taking his own shots of everything he eats. Daughter number one is trying to cook up her own creations using marmite, cocoa powder and rice crispies and my youngest, age 3, finds any opportunity to make her way upstairs to find my makeup, returning to the kitchen, looking like a drag queen in my YSL lippie and Chanel eye shadow. - They are driving me mad!

Thursday I took the Lavender shortbread to Waterstones in Market Harborough. I think they went down really well, certainly the staff seemed to enjoy them! It was all going according to plan .. the manageress was lovely and helped the children to choose two books each.

I think it does them good to have their noses in a book rather than the television. Of course they wanted almost every book on the shelf.. but we settled for two on the basis that we would come back for more in a week.

I was somewhat smug to have found and bought new reading books and a whole host of creative activities for the children to do. My children are going to be so much better for my efforts. ... As we walked back to the car, loaded with new paints, activity kits, jigsaws and packs of felt tips I suddenly noticed that one of my brood carrying three books. Not two. then it dawned on me .. My darling better child had stolen a book !

It was 5.25pm. I marched them back to the shop and made them return the book with an apology, and a good dose of humiliation ! It was really embarrassing!

When I got back to the car, which was in a private car park, at 5.32pm I discovered the car was locked in. A great big padlock and 8 foot gates separated us from the car. Boy was I mad. Had my little one not been stealing books then we would have been back in time. Said child got a second dressing down. I contemplated leaving the children on the pavement, climbing over and breaking the car out. ..... I pictured the scene and the inevitable police conversation, considering that I would no doubt be arrested .. and decided perhaps it was best just to call the police and see if they could help instead. As I phoned the station, another lady stood next to me, her car was behind the gates too. There was steam was coming out of my ears as I was explaining to an utterly disinterested police woman that there was no sign to say the gates were to be locked. As I was talking, the lady next to me took a closer look at the padlock ....and found it was not closed. Allehluia!

Was there a lesson to be learned here? Yes. Let the children watch TV.

Monday, 19 July 2010

How to treat your booksellers

Over the past week or so it occurred to me that whilst I am developing a recipe and having to make it over and over to get something right I often end up with a stack of yummies left over. Now I am not one to let things go to waste and whilst in Waterstones in Midsummer Place in Milton Keynes a few weeks ago it also crossed my mind that perhaps the very people who will sell my book in May next year might like to try some of the food. I do love book sellers. They are a wonderful resource, and over the coming months I think they may well come to be fond of me too, as I rock up like little Red Riding Hood with baskets full of goodies that have to be eaten!

So far in the past two weeks I have delivered a Chocolate and Lavender Cream cake to Northampton Waterstones and a Double Chocolate Meringue Sandwich cake to the large Midsummer store in Milton Keynes. Tomorrow I need to buy some food and will go shopping as it is set to rain in the afternoon. I have a photo shoot in the morning with Bunny and being as I intend to be in Market Harborough anyway I shall drop in to the book shop and leave some Lavender Shortbread before I head off to food shop. The real question is can I make it out without buying another recipe book?

Today I made a tonne of shortbread. It is Lavender Shortbread. Buttery, firm crunch with a melt in the mouth texture and a dusting of lavender sugar. I also have been taking photo’s with my new camera. I have bought a Nikon D3000 and a really super duper macro lens. It was quite a cost and to funds the lens I had to sell some bits. Firstly I went to a we buy gold shop and sold some old 1990’s gold hooped earrings. I found myself feeling like a dodgy dealer selling my loot!

Nevertheless, that got me £80. Then I said a heartbreaking goodbye to a camera and some lenses I have had for over 12 years and I learnt to take pictures on. My old Cannon AE1 has hopefully gone to another student somewhere. Still I played for an hour this afternoon with my new camera and finally my confidence is returning. I think the pictures look as good as the food, and I’ve forgotten all about my old camera already.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

No Pain - No Gain

This week the children broke up from school. My relatively ordered house is in utter chaos, and for finally for the first time in months I managed a trip to the beauticians. She is a new beautician for me and somehow she persuaded me, for the first time in my life, to try something new and wax something other than my eyebrows. The pain. Yes, the results ... but oh the pain!

I'm now working on the lavender chapter, and yesterday had a brillent afternoon talking picnic's with the wonderful John Griff on BBC Radio Northampton. For just one week afterwards you can listen to the show by clicking here. Starts at 12 and a half minutes in.

Wednesday I sent in my first chapter of the book for approval. I stayed up late and got up early to put all the recipes into one document and pace out all the lines double spaced. With this first chapter the publishing team will put together the style of the book. Boy can I tell you I was nervous. I suppose like anything you have put your heart into you want people to love it like you do.

It didn’t get approval though. To my utter horror the photographs that I choose were not the style that my publishers wanted. As I read the email that came back saying this, I felt a cold harsh grip of dread. Call me it said. I was 13 again standing outside the headmistresses office waiting for something I didn’t want to hear.

For a good hour after the call, explaining that the style of photo’s missed the mark, I ranted internally. After all I thought the photos were perfect. What did anyone else know? I called my mum. Who is an expert in all things, and even more so as I get older. I expect her to stick up for me and say no darling, the photo’s are wonderful. Stick to your guns. I was wrong. She told me she hated the style and really thought I could do much better.

At lunchtime I was still feeling like I had failed my A levels when Kellie, one of the photographers from the Chronicle and Echo came to take some shots for Saturdays paper. Chocolate Cake with lavender Cream. This divine combination of moist rich dark chocolate smothered in aromatic whipped cream and scented with the aroma of indigo lavender flowers did cheer me up. Kellie took a quick look at the rejected photo’s and explained that whist yes, they were beautiful that they were not putting the food centre stage. As the penny dropped I realised that whilst I loved the photos that were rejected they because they were over styled and needed to be more food focused.

At this point panic set in. The elderflowers are over. There are virtually non left. I rounded up the children, jumped in the car and drove around the countryside looking for elderflowers still white enough to photograph. Eight miles later I found some over a disused railway bridge at the end of Merry Tom Lane, and despite telling the children that they are not to climb over high up things, I did. I climbed over a fence, fell into a ditch and was wearing impractical maxi skirt and sandals. I got stung by nettles. I must have looked like a crazy woman. However, I did manage to secure 3 pure white heads of Elderflowers. Perhaps the only ones left in Northamptonshire. They were mine.

I raced home before they could wilt in the heat. Fortunately I was prepped and had taken vanilla sponge out of the freezer, and had butter icing still in the fridge. I set to and for the next hour I ignored the children, who ran riot. I re-snapped the shots and emailed them over to the publishers. Had I understood what they wanted?

My husband Alastair arrived home to find me waiting for the phone call and the house was in utter disarray. Kindly, he took the children straight out for a walk whilst I talked through the required style with those who do know what they are doing.

Style accepted ; relief swept over me. They were right. This photo style is really much much better. But the pain .. oh the pain. Lesson learned. I know now that I must focus on the food, not the props.

We had take- out for supper.

oh and my mum called me last night, to say that she loves the new photos.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Made of Macaroons

This post is short. Today my sister is getting married and I am the Maid of Honour. How strange it seems that my sister, whom is seems to me, has hardly just learned to ride her bicycle, is getting married. She’s 27 and has been riding for over twenty years.
I often call my eldest daughter Fleur, they are very similar. So similar that I occasionaly get their names mixed up. Sometimes I mistakenly snap Fleur’s name, using that irritated tone you use when exasperated with the antics of a seven year old. She gets very indignant about it.

I have got the cocktail glassed ready. I am hoping to get a few shot’s for the cocktail recipe section at the wedding. The Photographer Louise has agreed that I can use the pictures. I found these gorgeous glasses at a car boot sale in Holcot at the weekend. The man who sold them to me said they were his late mothers. As he wrapped them carefully in bubble wrap he was clearly remembering them being used. His eyes filled with tears. I told him what I had planned for these long blue ornate glasses that had seen happy moments. His eyes still had tears in them, but he was smiling when I left, saying that his mother would have absolutely loved that this was the fate for them. He said he will look out for them in the book.

I have little time left to post now, my hair is to be done at 7.45am and I am still not dressed, and the children still not dressed or packed. However, I must add here that this week I have gained about 4 pounds. I kid you not. The Elderflower and Lime macaroons were impossible to get right. I have cracked them. This time they have not flopped and are not so sweet as to make your teeth hurt. The good thing about getting things wrong is that you can advise against the same mistakes to your reader. I expect that my readers will have no trouble at all getting these macaroons perfect first time. I hope they appreciate the pounds of effort I have put in!
Must dash.
Maid of honour signing out.