Jam making with Vivien Lloyd

Blackcurrant and chilli jam bubbling in pan, jam making with Vivien Lloyd

I’ve had a lot of jam in my life, as I’m sure more people have. On toast, on crumpets, in porridge, in doughnuts, with scones, with tea – the options are really endless. And I can happily extol the virtues of a good jam too – setness, colour, flavour, texture etc.

But the making of jams was always so mysterious to me. I never really took the time to figure it out or read into it. I go to Fortnum & Mason‘s Marmalade Breakfast and always marvel at the results. It involved fruit, sugar, heat and then it just magically comes together into a set form. And it always tastes good. Then again, they are always award winning preserves.

Empty jars ready for jam, jam making with Vivien Lloyd

I guess what I was really scared of about the whole jam making process was how it would keep. How can the preserves last for six months or more in storage without, well, preservatives? Why wouldn’t it go mouldy or get contaminated with some toxin producing virus and give me food poisoning several months down the line?

Mostly, I guess jam making never happened for me because there are so many wonderful jams out there that I can happily eat without ever worry about “all the hard stuff”.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always wanted to make jam. When I made strawberry jam for the first time at Leiths I was so amazed that my jam set, albeit more firmly than I liked, that I had to poke it several times just to make sure. There was this amazing sense of achievement like when you make cakes for the first time and they rise and are soft and moist.

Vivien Lloyd talking about jam making

I was really excited, therefore, to have been invited to a jam-making demonstration with award-winning preserves expert and WI judge Vivien Lloyd to celebrate the re-release of her book, First Preserves, on iBooks. The new format contains some new recipes, videos and other interactive features. Luckily for me, I had the expert in front of me to ask as many questions as I wanted.

Apparently making jams with preserving sugar (the kind with added pectin) is frowned upon by serious jam makers as it makes your jam look and taste artificial. And cane sugar is better than granulated sugar in terms of the flavour. Then there’s more than one way to test for setness of the jam. But most importantly for me, she talked about how best to ensure that your jam is going to be safe to eat six months down the line!

Am I more inclined to make jams now? Yes definitely with the help of her book, which goes into much more detail about all sorts of jam and preserves. I might wait until the raspberry season though – apparently it’s the easiest jam to make without adding pectin unlike its berry counterpart the strawberry which is the hardest.

And the jam she made at the demonstration? It was a blackcurrant and chilli jam – firm set and deliciously fruity with just a hint of chilli. The recipe can be found here.

Sushi making masterclass at Ichi Sushi and Sashimi Bar

Table decoration, sushi making at Ichi Sushi and Sashimi Bar

When it comes to Japanese food, I automatically think of my friend Luiz Hara (The London Foodie). Endlessly enthusiastic and keenly knowledgeable, he’s currently studying at Le Cordon Bleu and runs a series of Japanese Supper Clubs from his Islington home. The lesser known facts in my small pockets of insight into Japanese food have all come from Luiz, who is as generous with his knowledge as he is in spirit. And of course food.

Our recent Japanese escapade involved previewing the new sushi masterclass at Ichi, a sushi and sashimi bar within Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel, and learning about different sakes from Tom Harrow (WineChap) who had helped to select the sakes on the menu.

Ichi is launching sushi making masterclasses, starting this Saturday (3rd March), which takes place the first Saturday of every month from 12 noon to 2pm. The idea is that guests would watch head chef Sadayuki Okamoto, who has worked at the likes of The Savoy and The Ivy Club, demonstrate a selection of signature dishes from the menu before attempting to do so themselves. Then of course, there’s a lunch with sake.

I’ve made sushi a few times before so was curious to see if I could pick up some new tricks and I wasn’t disappointed. We were taught to make different kinds of maki rolls (Hosomaki, Temaki, Uramaki) and nigiri, most of which I had made before, but it seems that having experience doesn’t help here. Chef  Okamoto moved at such speed that at times it was difficult to see what he was doing – one minute there were ingredients, the next perfectly formed sushi. Luckily there were chefs on hand when it came to our turn to make the sushi.

And having a Japanophile in the room certainly raised the stakes a little. We were able to learn much more about where the chef has worked, where the ingredients of the restaurant were sourced from and also current food trends in Japan. Taking a blowtorch to my sushi was definitely unexpected. It’s that age old adage – the more questions you asked, the more you got out of it.

Of course the best thing about making food is eating it and there is a small feast to indulge in afterwards. As well as the sushi we’ve made, we also had a selection of hot and cold dishes as well as a fine flight of sakes. Tom Harrow taught through the different sake styles and we tried a few both chilled and warmed, a great insight into how the complexity of the sake changes with temperature.

Curiously, what seemed like a rather eventful evening actually only lasted a couple of hours. I suppose that’s Japanese efficiency for you. But it did give Luiz and I the opportunity to catch up on our respective culinary journeys over a glass of wine, or three.

Spatchcocking, it’s not that hard

spatchcocking a poussin

A little while ago I attended Luiz Hara‘s London Cooking Club where a group of keen foodies gathered to feast on a themed tasting menu. Held once a month or so at his lovely home in Islington, Luiz has been running the Cooking Club for some time. The theme on this occasion was Nduja, the softly spicy spreadable sausage from Calabria.

Though ready to eat, Nduja also lends itself well to cooking so the idea was to explore a few recipes using Nduja as an ingredient. I was tasked with preparing Niahm Shield of Eat Like A Girl‘s Pimp My Peri Peri Poussin.

Owing to a rather hectic schedule, I had to squeeze in the prep into two days – making the marinade in one and doing the marinating in the other. The realisation the night before that I would have to get up extra early on a Sunday to spatchcock six poussins, to allow sufficient time for marination, was rather daunting. And having never spatchcocked anything before, this seemed like a particularly taxing job after an evening of natural wines at Terroirs.

As it turned out, spatchcocking is not that hard. You do however, need some strength and a good pair of kitchen scissors. And, of course, you need to be very comfortable handling a carcass.

Starting with the poussin breasts down, cut closely along either side of its spinal column to remove it and open the carcass up. Then the easiest thing to do is to flip the bird over and press down gently on the breast bone to flatten it. And this is pretty much it.

For this recipe though, I decided to remove the breast bone and ribs too so it can be divided up easily into tasting portions after cooking. Turning the poussin back again, you should be able to see the breast bone much more clearly on the inside. Then, either with a knife or your hands, just trace along the breast bone to remove it. Make sure to take out the wishbone too – you will need to carve it out of the flesh.

The six poussins took me about an hour which allowed plenty of time for the marinade to work. And after struggling through London transport, I made it to Luiz’s home where we had a wonderful meal. The bonus was perhaps the poussin bones I saved for stock. It made a wonderfully concentrated liquor later on – though there were more sediments than chicken, it was much more flavourful.

Fish in a Day cookery course by Food Safari

Ann Colquhoun picking up crab at Fish in a Day, Food Safari

Fish in a Day is the first of Food Safari‘s “field to fork” experiences to arrive in London via Suffolk. Founded in 2009 by Polly Robinson, Food Safari takes people who love food to visit producers and learn more about the ingredients that they cook with. The London version, run in conjunction with Culinary Anthropologist and author of Eat Slow Britain, Anna Colquhoun, works in much the same way except the producers are brought to the course.

The class has four key aspects:  introductions to producers, preparation of ingredients, cooking the dishes and sampling the results.

Sustainability is a big part of this course. All the fish and seafood, with the exception of the live Cornish crabs, were sourced from the Suffolk-based Maximus Sustainable Fish. Robinson and Colquhoun enthusiastically discuss how best to sustainably select and cook your fish over fresh coffee and biscuits before moving on to the practical aspect.

Colquhoun explains and demonstrates everything before you begin and there’s a lot to learn. Everyone get hands-on experience in how to fillet and skin round and flat fish, prepare squid, pick crabs, and sort mussels. The most tasking part is perhaps the fish. When it comes down to it though, all you need is a sturdy but flexible fillet knife to follow the skeleton of the fish, producing two fillets from round fish and four from flat. Mackerel, sea bass and lemon sole are used for practice and the fruits of your labour are then used as ingredients for cooking.

Bouillabaisse at Fish in a Day, Food Safari

Working in small groups, we were assigned recipes for bouillabaisse, grilled squid and lemon sole goujons to make from scratch. Alongside the mains, you also learn some classic seafood accompaniments including aioli and charmoula.

After finishing six fish and seafood dishes, it’s a relief to be able to finally sit down and enjoy your efforts with a well deserved glass of wine or two.

The amount of hands-on experience gained from a Fish in a Day course makes it quite an intensive course but it is not only educational in the culinary sense – it will leave you more culturally and environmentally aware. The course is great for team building but perfect if you want to brush up on some fish and seafood skills, learn to make classic recipes and accompaniments and have some fun along the way.

*Fish in a Day is held at Anna Colquhoun’s teaching kitchen in Islington and costs £170 per person. The next dates are 24th and 25th March 2012, 3rd and 4th November 2012. To find out more, visit www.foodsafari.co.uk

Maldon Oysters and a shucking good time at Patara

Maldon oysters at Patara, Greek Street

In this 25th year of my life, I seem to have slipped more oysters than any other. They’ve come from as far as Japan and as close as, well, down the road from where I sat sampling them. And while it has been an experience navigating the subtle shapes, tastes, scents and textures, I’ve never had an opportunity to shuck an oyster myself.

But with the start of the native oyster season came a most irresistible invitation – an evening of champagne and oysters to celebrate these delicate little molluscs.

Richard Emans demonstrating oyster shucking at Patara, Greek Street

The event was held at Patara, a Thai restaurant who are putting Maldon oysters on the menu across all their venues for the next two months. Richard Emans, the director of Maldon Oyster Company, was on hand to demonstrate the art of shucking an oyster while we supped on finely chilled champagne and attempted to garner some skills.

It seems that with all the fancy shucking equipment out there, all you really need is a tea towel and a good shucking knife. And the right technique of course.

So to shuck an oyster, start at its hinge. Brace your oyster in the tea towel, flat side up and revealing only the hinge, to protect your hands from potential slipping of the knife. Tackle the crevice in the hinge with your shucking knife at 90º. You want to prise it open with gentle annoyance rather than brute force. Of course that is not to say that some strength is not required too. After all, my first oyster proved to be rather stubborn.

When you do breach its shell, the shucking knife slips subtly inside and you will need to run it along the top shell at 15º. This removes the flesh from the “lid” and allows the two shells to be separated.

The last thing to do is to run along the edges of the flesh and gently flip it in its “cup”, taking care not to lose any of the liquid, so it presents beautifully.

Oysters shucked by Qin Xie at Patara, Greek Street

After the demonstration, it was time for the oyster shucking competition. Teamed up with Luiz Hara of thelondonfoodie, we were given two oysters each to practice our technique before being let loose on a pair of sixes per team.

As I struggled through the four oysters I managed to release from captivity, Luiz breezed through the other eight. But unfortunately it wasn’t to the speed of the team placed just across from us, who were indisputably the fastest. Luckily for us, the competition was judged on presentation as well as speed and we knew a thing or two about showing off our wares. Thus coming second on speed wasn’t too detrimental to our efforts.

In the end it came to a harmonious draw. The winning team each slinked off into the night with a proud box of huîtres under arm and a Patara cookbook to remember the evening – but not before being sumptuously fed on oysters and fine Thai cuisine, accompanied by more champagne and wine.

Maldon oysters are available at Patara until the end of November. Visit www.pataralondon.com for more information.

(First seen on Foodepedia)