Jamaican lamb curry I made at home with leftover boned leg.
You may have been wondering where I’ve been and why I haven’t been posting for the last three weeks. In all honesty: I’d lost my enthusiasm for food.
Now to somebody like me who absolutely loves food this was something of a tragedy. I’ve actually been feeling kind of depressed because it seemed that everything I was doing was turning out terrible – even simple things were letting me down, like forgetting to put salt into my beer bread so that it looked great and had the right texture but tasted of nothing. I was out of the zone and as a result the weeks had been fairly disastrous, the cherry on top being our cooking for 50 task experience. I started to dread going into the kitchen, terrified that my bad luck would follow me in again and on Friday I found myself wiping away tears of frustration over brandy snaps; that was basically when I realised that I needed a break. But we all have to go through the bad to get to the good, right? So this post is all about the bad – we’ll save the good for the next (I have to give you something to look forward to, right?). Enter the three nightmare weeks…
Spaghetti alla Vongole; Veal with Madeira sauce & potato rosti; my creative lamb dish: tunnel-boned and rolled leg of lamb stuffed with onion, red peppers and toasted pine nuts, served with Spanish tortilla, roasted tomatoes with thyme and a red wine jus; tunnel-boned lamb shoulder “en ballon” stuffed with feta and sundried tomatoes; chocolate cake.
As usual, the most fun I had over the past 3 weeks were with the creative dishes – being given a list of ingredients and told to create a dish from them is something I absolutely love and thrive on (and apparently this is a lot of what we’ll be doing next term, so I’m very excited for it). The hardest thing I’ve had to do this term has been tunnel-boning lamb – good God. Why would you even do that?!
I de-boned meat once before, when I did my previous cooking course when I was a young ‘un, and at the time I swore I would never do it again: imagine my joy when I learned that this week we would be tunnel-boning legs and shoulders of lamb. At one point I was literally kneeling on the floor staring up at the lamb shoulder on my work station, practically elbow deep in the joint, cutting for all I was worth. On the plus side, though it was bloody hard work and took me way longer than anybody else, the bone I finally pulled out of that shoulder in one piece was so clean you could practically have eaten off it and I nearly cried tears of joy (I didn’t, though, I do enough crying at this place as it is). The leftover leg of lamb got turned into Jamaican curry at home (in lieu of goat) and the shoulder, prepared “en ballon” and stuffed with feta and sundried tomato, was eaten very happily at home with TS. Plus I finally made a pan gravy which was, if I do say so myself, bloody delicious.
Chelsea Buns; individual fruit tarts with pate sucree; spatchcocked poussin with Sauce Robert; spiced pork belly with caramelised peanut sauce; beer bread; butchery all-day demonstration; red wine braised short ribs at home (2nd photo styled by TS!).
This term we’ve also had our first all-day cooking and demonstration sessions, which meant two days a week when we were either in an all-day demonstration or an all-day cooking session. The individual fruit tarts were mostly good, the shells could’ve done with a bit more baking before filling, and the Chelsea Buns had a bit too much butter because of a tin prep mistake, but actually, the extra butter was delicious (of course!) and my chef friend whom I brought them to at the end of the day told me that they were the best Chelsea buns he’d ever tasted and asked if I could teach him how to make them!
However, these photos are only the things that turned out well – there was plenty that went wrong that week, including the short-order poached egg where my toast was burned and not buttered, my egg not cooked properly and service six minutes late, and the spatchcocked poussin with Sauce Robert was just not very good (though there is a photo of it up there). On the whole, I did not cook well that week – the simple things went wrong and they were things I should’ve done better but for some reason let slip through the cracks.
The all-day demonstrations were delivered by two fascinating ex-butchers who broke down half a pig, half a lamb and the hind-quarter of a cow for us on the first day, then a variety of birds, various offal and the fore-quarter of a cow for us on the second day. They were, in a word, fantastic. I absolutely loved it, just such a shame that the sessions either preceded or were followed by my own horrible cooking. On the plus side, following their demonstrations I took home an entire side of pork belly (which I gifted to a friend for his birthday), some marrow bones, 2 duck legs and beef short ribs, which TS & I braised for several hours in red wine (we finally ate the ribs around 10pm and they were utterly delicious).
Butterflied sardine with warm Greek salad.
Then, the only thing I photographed last week: a butterflied sardine with warm Greek salad. I’m not a huge fan of oily fish but I have a new found respect for sardines – there are about a million bones in those little buggers that you have to remove and, I admit, ten minutes in to pin-boning one I admitted defeat and gave up. I just couldn’t do it any more – there were too many damn tiny bones. I also wasn’t very happy with the presentation but I went with it – as you can see, by this time I was just far too exhausted with and depressed by everything to worry about it any more.
Then the Cooking for 50. Sigh. The Cooking for 50. So here’s the thing about this: we were so organised. The food photos you see above there? Those were from the run-through we did on the Sunday two weekends before the actual task and it went really well but, of course, there wasn’t the pressure of the actual task. There were little things here and there that went wrong, such as the homemade tortillas drying out too much in the warming oven, plating too much salad on the first 40 plates so that the last few didn’t have any at all, and not having quite enough churros plus a communication misunderstanding that meant that half the tables didn’t get their churros as they should’ve and me having to desperately make and fry some more short order; but, in actuality, the thing that let us down wasn’t so much the food we served, it was the fact that though we were (over)prepared for the actual cooking, we totally neglected to think about the actual service of the food, and that was such a rush it threw everything else off.
It was completely and utterly heartbreaking, especially for somebody who is as much of a perfectionist as I am.
I don’t even want to talk about the response to the food because, in many ways, that was worse than the fact that we hadn’t delivered the way we wanted to and there were all sorts of other factors involved that I won’t discuss, but what I will say is this: we knew we hadn’t done a good job, we were all already feeling miserable, so having to sit through twenty minutes of feedback telling us in great (and somewhat unnecessary) detail what we’d done badly was one of the low-points of anything I’ve ever done in my life thus far and something I hope never to have to repeat. I managed to hold it all in until I got home but as soon as I stepped in the door and saw TS I wept for a solid twenty minutes – I was just so very disappointed.
However, there has to be balance and it so happened that that day the Chef Patron of a well-known top restaurant, ex-Leiths student and personal culinary hero, had been guest demonstrating and over lunch had tried my churros: he loved them and wants the recipe from me (I’ve offered it to him and will potentially be doing a stage with him soon, too). So if I have to take anything away from this experience it is that: I make freakin’ good churros, my culinary hero said so.
The other Cooking for 50 groups had far more success than us, with particular mention to the cheesecake dessert which was utterly delicious (even though I couldn’t finish it – bit too rich for me!). We only have a handful left to go now and I genuinely hope that they turn out well – I wouldn’t wish the crushing disappointment I experienced last week on anybody else!
So these weeks were probably the worst I’ve ever cooked in my life… but I promise the next post has some much happier news in it, plus some photos of exciting things I cooked away from Leiths, so do stick with me because I promise: it gets better.
Until next time, peace and love,