IN the food business, influence counts for an awful lot. Most chefs, when prompted, will gladly reel off a list of their influences, many with great pride.
And for good reason, because, no matter how well one can cook or how intuitively one throws the pots and pans around, our greatest lessons are provided by watching or reading the work of others. These influences don’t necessarily have to be serious chefs, of course.
My personal list of culinary influences stretches right back to my grandma Jackson who I don’t think ever had a Michelin rating. Yet her jam tarts were so good I can taste and smell them as I type. My dad was another early influence, encouraging me to stand on a stool and help with Sunday lunch.
Somewhere deep down inside, as I stood there, face prickling with steam, wooden spoon in hand, a little light went on, and a vague course was set. I watched Yorkshire TV’s Dorothy Sleightholme voraciously. I devoured the Reader’s Digest ‘Cookery Year’ book, which is still a reference I consult occasionally. An amazing book, which fired the imagination. I still love buying and reading cookbooks. At the moment I’m recommending a superb book, The Flavour Thesaurus, by Niki Segnit. It’s a superb, anthological reference book of foods and the flavours they work with. It’s full of fascinating, often strange flavour combinations that make one want to start cooking immediately. I’d advise anyone who likes messing about in the kitchen rather than slavishly following recipes to pick up a copy.
Over the years, my love for cooking went from helping mum and dad at dinner parties to hosting my own – during my Greenhead College years I held many successful soirées – and this continued at university where my ability to cook made our house a frequent destination for course mates tired of toast and Pot Noodles.
I began to enjoy trips to the fishmongers, the butchers and the wine merchant more and more until, one day just before graduation, I decided I might like to turn pro, and become a ‘proper’ chef. I bought the book, Leith’s Guide To Setting Up And Running A Restaurant, and I soon signed up at their school for a year’s diploma course.
I worked in a few places around London, followed by a stint at the amazing Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, where Franco Taruschio taught me vast amounts about the Italian way of cooking. Whenever I make risotto, he’s standing at my shoulder, telling me to stir harder and add more butter!
And I was thinking about all this as we sat watching the TV the other day.
We’ve taken to recording the re-runs of Pie In The Sky, the delightful gentle mid-90s drama about the rotund policeman-cum-chef Henry Crabbe. I used to love the show, as it was around this time that my culinary hunger was at its most fervent and great modern British cuisine was in its infancy. Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein, Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little were spearheading a movement towards fresh, home-grown produce used in classic British dishes. I was transported by the new wave of modern cookery, unashamed of bringing back the lost classics like syllabub and steak and kidney pudding.
One dish featured on Pie was the 1970s dinner-party classic, brown bread ice-cream, an absolute treasure, and I decided to give it a go this week. We’ll pair this with a little compote of maincrop rhubarb, lifted with a hint of lemon and a little warmth from fresh ginger. A lovely spring pud. Aprons on!
For the Parfait
1 pint double cream
6 fresh, free-range egg yolks
100g unrefined golden caster sugar
150g fresh brown bread crumbs
80g unrefined demerara sugar
Pinch of Maldon salt
For the Rhubarb
1 kg maincrop rhubarb
250 unrefined golden caster sugar
A small piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
A suitable freezable container for the parfait
First, make the compote. Cut the rhubarb into 3cm/1in lengths and mix with the sugar, a good splash of lemon juice and the grated ginger. Leave to macerate for a couple of hours. Heat the oven to 170°C/Gas 3. Lay the rhubarb in a single layer in a suitable baking tray (careful that it’s stainless steel, glass or ceramic – aluminium will react and make the rhubarb taste terrible), sprinkle with a little water, then cover loosely with foil and bake for 20 minutes or until a knife just goes through the rhubarb. Remove from oven and leave until cool before uncovering. It will become fully cooked.
Now for the parfait. Set the oven to 200°C/gas 6. Mix the breadcrumbs with the demerara sugar, and spread out on a baking tray. Bake for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the breadcrumbs are a deep golden colour and the sugar has melted around them. Be careful it doesn’t catch around the edges. Packing the mix deeply in a small tray works best. Allow the finished crunchy crumbs to cool completely.
Whisk the egg yolks and caster sugar until very pale and fluffy, holding a ribbon shape when lifted. In a separate bowl, whip the cream to a medium peak. Fold the two mixtures together very gently and fold in the crumbs and a pinch of salt. Don’t over-fold, as the breadcrumbs will knock the air out and you’ll have a very hard parfait.
Tip the mixture into a suitable container and freeze for 24 hours before serving.
Serve in large scoops with a good dollop of the fresh rhubarb compote.