Since before Easter, I’ve been experimenting with the Dukan regime. I’ve lost over 10 kilos / 2 stone, and although it has slowed down it’s still dropping off.

There are several books you can buy – it doesn’t matter which one, really, as they do tend to repeat whole chapters. Or websites – the official ones and ones set up by followers / hangers-on / added value sellers. I’d been unsure about whether to try this diet – as a rule I avoid commercial “diet” advice, there are health risks attached to it, friends who’d tried it said it worked brilliantly but could be very restrictive and boring. What convinced me was doing the true weight calculator on the official website. Instead of the constant “9 and a half stone” target I get from the Wii / bmi based systems, Dukan suggested a working target of about 12 and half stone, which actually felt achievable, and a weight I would be happy at.

It is also clear, as is Lighter Life although few people pay attention, that once the weight is off you need a long consolidation / re-education phase to embed new habits.

You start with an Attack, which can vary from a few days to over a week. Doing the calculator will tell you how long yours should be. Low-fat meat or poultry, skimmed or fat-free dairy, fish and seafood, eggs, tofu, aspartame, odd bits of flavouring (garlic, vinegar, mustard, herbs, spices). That’s it. No fruit, veg, nuts, beans, grains, sugar, fat, salt. Plus a spoonful of oat-bran, and at least 1.5 litres of water (which if you’re used to healthy eating advice, is not actually a lot). You can count tea, coffee and diet soda in the water – anything to keep your kidneys as active as possible. Eat as much as you want, at least 3 meals a day. 20 minutes walking.

At first it sounds horrendous, but to a girl brought up in the calorie-fixated 70s, it’s really liberating. Grilled steak flopping off the sides of the plate? check. A tub of sandwich filling without the tiresome bread or salad? check. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast? check. Starbucks skinny latte with extra shots and sugar-free vanilla syrup? YAY.

I got into the habit of mixing my oatbran with a giant pot of fat-free greek yoghourt and some sweetener. Sometimes cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder, mint. Leave it to soften for about half an hour (or as long as you can keep the cat out of it), and it’s a really filling evening pudding. Or using oat bran and egg to coat chicken or fish to bake.

After your initial Attack, you move to the Cruise phase, where I am supposed to spend about 10 months, and during which you are supposed to lose weight slowly but steadily until you hit target. This alternates days from the Attack model with days where you can add foods from a short list of veg. It’s a very stupid and French-centric list.

For me, that’s been part of the fun. Isolating what is French prejudice and habit, and deciding whether to ignore it or not. Lamb is excluded from the protein list as being too fatty – but how much could you reduce by choosing older meat butchered differently? The text of the books waffles on about the Liver, that French health obsession. And it’s very misogynistic – almost any stage of a woman’s life or fertility cycle causes water retention, apparently. Vegetarians are grudgingly allowed to exist, but vegans can just naff off and die.

Rhubarb and tomatoes are on the approved list of veggies, but not strawberries which are relatively low in carbs. I can understand the logic behind not eating bananas, cherries, grapes etc which are very high in sugar, but allowing onions and red peppers which are around the 5/6% mark and not watery fruit which is about the same seems silly. Especially to someone like me who is far more likely to add a handful of allotment strawberries to a spinach salad than mourn a creamy sweet pastry.

There is also the wide variety of veggies / meat that he hasn’t thought of – goat, for example. Chillies, okra, tomatilloes, jicama, virtually anything “ethnic”. Luckily there are forums where people are discussing these – especially where there are halal / kosher issues with traditional French food. And websites publishing recipes adapted to local tastes and ingredients – I particularly like the ideas on DukanItOut but I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet.

So, verdict so far – successful, not boring, actually quite relaxing. Although there are some downsides – see the next post …

Pinterest – this looks fun

I’ve set up some boards on a system called Pinterest.  It’s like cutting pictures out of papers and magazines, and organising them on your fridge, but it’s based on images across the web. Highly addictive …

If you look at the bottom of the left sidebar of this page, you can see some of my boards and link direct to them. The content will change regularly as I add more STUFF. I’ve used this to replace direct links to suppliers, restaurants, events etc. which I had before.

If you like the look and feel of it, you can request an invite from the site itself  (it may put you on a short waiting list), or you can ask me direct. I’ll need your email address to send you one.

Bloody Courgettes

Yeah yeah yeah, I KNOW. But we only planted a few, although probably a few more than we thought we’d want in case of early death. And the little young ones were delicious, and we treated them with reverential care.

Now? Buggrit millenium hand and shrimp.

It didn’t help that J went away for a couple of weeks, and I Was Not As Assiduous in Allotmenting As I Might Have Been. My Bad. So now we have marrow-sized courgettes, and new ones coming all the time. We’ve had them every day in some form or another, and I’m fishing now for ever more exotic ideas.

Lifesavers have been:

Riverford Organics (who were our veggie box people until we got the allotment, and deserve splendiferous praise) maintain a recipe section on their website which is wonderful for me – it features new recipes for seasonal produce, a “what to do with the last … in the box” feature, and general hints and tips on dealing with fruit and veg. Currently on the stove is their Mexican One-Pot Courgettes, ready to be re-heated tomorrow with some pulled pork and cheese quesadillas. And there’s enough for another go-round later, as part of a Mexican feast along with some pork crackling and guacamole. I’m also thinking of offloading some of their bbq recipes at a birthday party this weekend.

The Penguin Book of Jam, Pickles and Chutneys by David and Rose Mabey. I’ve just nearly had a heart attack looking at where you could get a copy of this online, and you’re looking at a minimum of £40, even on Ebay. I feel I should point out that other books by the same authors are available. Jeez. I had a copy years and years ago, it vanished somewhere, and I found a very battered one for £1.99 in Oxfam last summer. It’s a slim little paperback, but it’s packed with shedloads of information, and excellent recipes. I’ve just potted up their bramble jelly, and used the pulp for a bramble cheese to go with the Wensleydale at Christmas. For courgettes, I’ve started this very evening a thing called “marrow mangoes”. You peel a giant courgette, cut in half lengthways and deseed it. Then you stuff the insides with onions, ginger, spices etc, tie it back together and steep it in vinegar for a week or so. Take it out, cut it open, chop the marrow and bottle it with a hot syrup made with the steeping vinegar. Won’t be able to report on success with this one until Christmas when it will be just ready. I’m also tempted by their marrow and pineapple jam, which looks easy and cheap for something quite unusual.

As usual the Dr Gourmet website has a twist, this time in the form of Zucchini Pizza Crust, which I am saving for the final stretch. Literally a giant disk of grated courgette held together with the minimum of egg and flour, baked until set and crisp and then baked again with pizza toppings.

I’ve started doing a thing I call a Roast Traybake – putting a variety of veg and some small joints of meat (chicken thighs, pork or lamb chops) in a shallow tray, drizzling with oil and appropriate seasonings, and bunging it in at Gas Mark 4 for an hour or so. “Appropriate seasonings” have include a paste of garlic, lemon juice and tarragon (with some chicken); cumin, coriander and oregano with some tomatoes and pork; mustard seeds, fenugreek and ginger with some lamb. Courgettes always feature – in lumps or slices – but we’ve also had peppers, carrots, big runner beans, tomatoes, and onion wedges. Beetroot and turnips will be joining in soon as we start harvesting them.

Hiding shredded or grated courgettes in things is also useful. I don’t bake, usually, but even I am contemplating muffins or cakes based on carrot or beetroot recipes, with added or substituted courgette. Having watched the bread episode of the British Bakeoff, though, I know to make sure it’s well dried before it goes in, or a soggy mess is the most likely result. I’ve been adding them to green salads, sandwiches / wraps, or yoghourt / hummus sort of things for dips and dressings.

John is back from The Allotment with a new batch, and assures me that while the green ones have gone into remission, the yellow ones are coming into their own. Aaaaaargh.

Happy World Book Day

There’s a meme going round about Book Day, and I’ve done it elsewhere for general reading books. It needed tweaking a bit for this, so here goes:

The cookbook I am reading for pleasure: in the downstairs loo are several books about cooking in the tropics, or books that I picked up in Australia last year. Currently I’m enjoying Masterchef The Cookbook (Vol 1).  It features popular recipes by contestants, and some of the dishes the chefs challenged them with.

The cookbook I love most: this is really really difficult. The first Madhur Jaffrey, Nigel Slater? Ones with narrative or without? Something that introduced me to a whole new world, or is the perfect reference for the classics? Aaargh. Then there are the self-published ones from groups of friends, that include recipes I’ve eaten, and the voices that I heard describing them. The Christmas ones that have helped me form my own traditions. In the end, having dweebled all day, I have chosen The Wholefood Book by George Seddon. I was given it for a birthday present at university over 30 years ago, and have constantly been amazed at how every time I revisit it, recipes with modern twists and trends spring out at me.  And the essays are full of advice on using fresh, local produce, reared organically and with respect.  I’m not saying I’d trust all the recipes – it’s not a Jane Grigson or even a Delia – but most are interesting and simple. Deffo one that comes down off the shelf over and over.

The oldest cookbook I have: mmmm, is that oldest in terms of content, or the earliest one that came into my possession? Oldest content is in the Roman Cookery of Apicius, trans/ed by John Edwards. First that I actually bought with my own money may well be Cuisine et Gastronomie de Bretagne, by Louis le Cunff, which I got on a teenage holiday in Brittany. Not sure I’ve ever used either of them to cook from.

The newest cookbook: Again, most modern or the latest that I’ve acquired? Most modern is a tie between Ministry of Food – Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family Today by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, which accompanied the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and Our Family Table by Julie Goodwin. Julie was an Oz Masterchef winner, and I got a signed copy of her book in Melbourne last year. The latest one is also the winner of the next category:

The nearest cookbook: Apricots on the Nile, a Memoir with Recipes, by Colette Rossant. As yet unread. It wasn’t a deliberate purchase, Dad is having a big clearout and I got it in with a load of other books. It’s the nearest because it’s waiting to be catalogued.

Gordon Effing Ramsay

There’s a downside to the Use It or Lose It philosophy.

I’m watching Channel 4’s Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, which has got to the semi-finals stage. Two places I really like, and recommend regularly, and get to when I can, have made it through.

One is The Milestone, Sheffield’s up-and-coming Michelin prospect. The other is Prashad’s, the Gujerati vegetarian restaurant/deli in Bradford. Although I’m proud and pleased for both of them, there have already been some unpleasant changes.

I’ve seen the results of Gordon’s handiwork around here before, when he rebranded the Runaway Girl into Silversmiths. I worked on that street,  and he didn’t tell you anywhere near the real story.

It’s a dead end, behind a student pub, and the car park next to it backs onto the Student’s Union and a Spearmint Rhino. Not exactly where you expect to find fine dining. The main thing he did to the menu was to take away the tapas and bring in that gourmet extravaganza – Pie Nights. And I can still hear the screams of laughter when Sheffielders found out that they could get a pie supper for JUST £8.50.

He talked about chain restaurants in the city centre as being the competition, and not about any other independent restaurants. The area he compared it to was Leopold Square, which is a new development surrounding a boutique hotel – not being rude, but it’s the sort of place secretaries go for lunch, or you get pissed in at happy hour before moving on. It’s already on the bogoff and email vouchers skids.

The real competition was Cubanas, which serves tapas with a Caribbean twist, loud, noisy, full of salsa music, clicking heels, smart wooden floors and loads of yellow glossy paint. Bright and vibrant, and Runaway Girl had already managed to get their chef. Ramsay re-branded Silversmiths to go up against our existing award-winning restaurants run by respected professionals serving locally-sourced, organic food – the Walnut Club, Rafters, Thyme, Milestone, up to The Vicarage which has a Michelin star. However, if you are in the city centre at night to eat, chances are you are out on the razz, or grabbing a bite before or after the theatre, and all the places you’re interested in are right in the city centre, not down a side-street on the way to the station.

Everyone went for a bit because Gordon had been there, and it perked up again for a few weeks when the tv show was on. But it doesn’t open regularly at lunchtime, and local views seem to be that the menu is unoriginal and not high quality. Lots of groups of staff going out for Christmas lunch choose places like Cafe Rouge or Ha-Has over Silversmiths. Their own website doesn’t feature any press reviews later than 2008, that’s not good. If he did such a good job, how come Milestone is in this competition, and Silversmiths isn’t?

We went to Milestone a few times back in the early summer, when it had a fine dining restaurant upstairs and a bistro menu downstairs. Now, post-Ramsay, the top end of the menu has gone, and it has settled into being a two-storey gastropub. Although the menu is still good, the progress towards a Michelin star has been set way back. Ramsay was critical on the first-stage show about the coaching / mentoring that they do in the kitchen, as being distracting, and it would be a real shame if that were to get sideswiped too.

I love Prashad’s food, but I don’t always have the time to stop for a meal when I’m in Bradford. I rely on the deli half of the business – it’s one of the few places I know that does patra, for a start. Or, rather, it was. Last time I popped in, it was to discover the deli vanished, and a poster on the door explaining that due to the Ramsay factor they had closed it to enlarge the restaurant. And expressing a hope that they might be able to open a separate deli nearby in the future.

So although I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone does on the show next week, I really hope they don’t fall for his bullshit. You know your local markets, guys, don’t let him faze you. One of the reasons I love your food is that you both have really strong ethics and ideals, thoughts about what a business should represent to family and community. You already win local and regional awards on a regular basis, and we’re looking forward to how you choose to develop yourselves. But I’d like to be sure that came from your heart, and not Ramsay’s little prejudices.

Mmmmm, Masala Chai …

Mumbai Masala Chai

When we were young, Laura used to call this “rice pudding tea”. You only really found it in the cheaper Indian caffs, or you had to make it yourself. Boiling together water, sugar, milk, tea leaves and spices. Mostly cinnamon and cloves, maybe some powdered ginger for heat, and cardamom pods if you could afford them. Deliciously warming and sweet. I wasn’t a tea-drinker, really, yet I loved it.

Then we finished university, real coffee became easier to get and a bit more affordable, life got in the way. And what with one thing and another, chai became a nostalgic treat. One of the things was diabetes, so it became a bit risky to have in a restaurant with the sugar overload involved.

In the past couple of years, Chai has surfaced into popular cafe culture, although most of it is a cruel parody. Caterers can buy a syrup or powder, which they use in a variety of ways. Starbucks make their own, of course, and I think that might have been the first one I tasted. You can just stir the mix into hot water and add milk, or make it with steamed milk from the coffee machine. Chai Tea Latte has become a standard. One of the problems with it is that the mixes are sugar-based, so you can’t control the level of sweetness – unless, of course, you want to add more. The other easy option for the consumer is to buy spiced Chai tea and make it at home. Twinings do a Chai teabag, which is widely available. Recently I’ve started drinking a tea flavoured just with cardamom, from Ahmad Teas, which I get from my local Persian supermarket.

Once you refine your personal preferences down in terms of spices, some of the commercial ones are like being kicked in the head. The Starbucks one in particular has way too much black pepper in it – John says it reminds him of the coltsfoot cough sweets he used to have as a child.

On our recent trip to Mumbai, I had masala chai regularly. The one in the hotel (in the picture) came in smallish vacuum flasks, was fairly bland, and had the gritty crushed spices lurking in the bottom. You could get chai anywhere, on the street from guys wandering round with flasks, and in cafes. I was surprised by the street vendors and some of the cafes who served it in tiny little paper cups, like you get the mouthwash in at the dentist. Until I tried it and realised it was the chai version of a double shot espresso, with a wham that kept you going through the muggiest monsoon afternoon. Well worth 7 rupees. Most areas of India have their own preferred blends of masala for the chai, some with an aniseedy background from fennel, some more hot with fresh ginger, and it was the regional variations surfacing in the different kitchens. Our hotel chefs had a strong Malay background, and used cloves for the peppery constituent, and a softer hand with the cinnamon.

As we journeyed through airports on our way to Australia, I found a lot of international coffee bars doing the Starbucks thing, and offering a Chai Latte. Most were, well, tolerable, if oversweet. When we got to Port Douglas and went shopping for supplies for the apartment kitchen, I could only get Twinings Australian blend of Chai with Vanilla, which is fine for when you want a vanilla flavoured drink that tastes vaguely of tea, but not otherwise. Bleugh.

Then I realised the Australian shopping mantra: Do Not Buy Things In Supermarkets. We travelled from Port Douglas north onto the area around the Daintree River, where they grow lots of interesting things including sugarcane and tropical fruits and tea. A packet of Daintree Original Chai is coming home with me (I bought it from the Daintree Ice Cream Company shop but I also saw it in the Australian Product Shop at Cairns airport). The sample pot we had was rich but delicate and light, very fresh tasting. The spices are crushed rather than ground, with recognisable pieces of cinnamon and dried ginger. There is a star anise element, which replaces the fennel and gives an almost Chinese overlay.

In the hotel coffee shop in Melbourne this morning I came across Tea Drop Malabar Chai, which was even more fragrant, due to the inclusion of rose petals. That’s a Northern India / Kashmiri / Pakistani element, and I’ve not really come across it before. It was a bit too elegant for a morning wake-up call, but it would be a beautiful after-dinner or late summer afternoon drink. I was particularly pleased that they offered the option of having it as a plain pot of tea with cold milk on the side, or made up with hot milk as a latte. Most places it’s one or the other, and usually the latte. This blend was too delicate to stand up to that, the sweet tones would have predominated and it would have lost its balance.

Yesterday we did a tour of the Victoria Market, and there was a tea specialist shop in with the delis. I might go back tomorrow and see what I can find … and if anyone has suggestions of blends I should look out for in the next week, please let me know!

Dinner at the Press Club, Melbourne, August 2010

This is just a note of what we had, not a full review. I’m not claiming I’ve got everything, as I am re-creating this from memory – we had the Experience rather than take notes as we went along. We sat at the Chef’s Table, which is a set of bar stools alongside the dessert prep area, with a view through to the front kitchen and the pass. We went for the tasting menu with the wine selection to go with it. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU INTEND TO EAT THIS – THE SURPRISE PRESENTATION OF EACH COURSE IS PART OF THE FUN.

As follows:

Ellada “Snacks” – that’s a bowl of olives in oil, with black coarse salt and bread for dipping, followed by a skewer lollipop of seafood (mussel, anchovies, maybe a bit of squid?) with a pistachio praline crumb, and a little glass pot with a savoury custard layer, topped with set consomme, crisp fried sweetbreads, and a herb foam.
Cyclades “Kapnos” – matched with Weingut Max Ferd Richter ‘Estate’ Riesling 2008, Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany – a salad plate with fennel puree, ouzo pickled fresh onion and orange glaze finished with smoked octopus, served from a glass dome over a tiny grill with charred fennel underneath, still smoking.
Ionian “Garides” – matched with R. Lopez de Heredia ‘Viňa Gravonia’ Crianza Viura 1999, La Rioja, Spain – a white Rioja with sherry-like qualities, with a dish of Iberian ham topped with a hot prawn, and a cube of ham consomme, with just a dab of pureed raisin with rum.
Thessalia “Lagos” – matched with Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, France – hot boned rolled and pressed chicken slices, topped with a carrot and pumpkin seed salad and a sauce of avgolemono soup.
Peloponesso “Psari” – matched with Eastern Peake Pinot Noir 2000, Ballarat, Vic – a crisp-skinned portion of barramundi, with a black rice underneath, a white onion puree, and a dressing of rice foam and chicken jus.
(We got a little “extra” course here, for putting up with being sat on top of the chefs, a Greek rice-shaped pasta in a rich rich chicken jus topped with shavings of fresh Tasmanian truffles and a French Pinot Noir, which was one of the seasonal specials.)
Makedonia “Arni” – matched with Nittnaus ‘Kalk und Schiefer’ Blaufrankish 2007, Burgenland, Austria – the lamb. A sous-vide chunk of melting meat, with a little roast loin on the side. mashed potato, shredded beetroot, a smear of skordalia and a black fermented garlic clove.
Crete “Refreshing” – digestive – a lime vanilla jelly disc, topped with a yoghourt sorbet, a spoonful of crushed frozen citrus segments, and a dash of sherbet powder.
Cyprus “Aphrodite” – matched with Samos ‘Vin Doux’ 2007 Moschato ASPRO, Samos, Hellenic Republic – the signature dessert, which we had watched being made all night – a composed platter of a white chocolate mousse with a raspberry filling, raspberry terrine, rosewater jelly, various bits of fruits, chocolate “soil” – like a crushed dark chocolate biscuit – topped with a sugared rose petal and finished with a spritz of rosewater in the air.
And coffee, much needed … we sat down at 7 and left at nearly 10:30. With the food and the wine, it cost nearly $500 for two people (around £300) which puts it up there with the Barrier Reef trip as a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do.

Masterchef Rules the Waves Part 2

We are in the eye of the storm. Masterchef Australia Season 2 finished over the weekend, Masterchef USA starts tonight. Time for the world to take a little breather.

Masterchef Australia Season 1 was the first of the new breed of Masterchef International. The UK version was popular enough to move from BBC2 to BBC1. The finale in Oz last Sunday evening? attracted anywhere from 20 to 25% of the population. The biggest non-sporting event in Australian TV history, it even forced the main election debate to be re-scheduled. Time to look at why it’s so successful, and wonder why we don’t have it here (yet).

The format

The show runs over a 3-month period, roughly. 84 episodes, 6 nights a week. After initial application (8000 for this season), there are auditions. The first season opened with a few programmes dedicated to these, X-Factor style. Entrants get a portable cook-station, time and space to prep some “food from the heart”, then a couple of minutes to wheel in and present to the judges. You can put up a totally prepared meal, or finish in front of them if you want. If it looks edible they’ll taste it and chat to you. Winners get the first Masterchef Apron and advance to the next stage in the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney. Just like X-Factor, you get to see losers as well as winners. The guy who travelled for days out of the bush to audition and said his favourite meat was roadkill. The suburban mums with the Sunday roast.

The Apron-Holders  move to the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney for the real competition. And I do mean move. Not content with having stolen the X-Factor format, we now add some Big Brother. They’ve tried a couple of different ways of whittling them down, but from the first few programmes we end up with the Top 24. These get the second Masterchef Apron, the one with your name on. And you give up your life for 3 months. Moving into the Masterchef House, a massive modern building overlooking the water, with a huge kitchen and dining area. Limited internet, phone and mail, little or no contact with family and friends. They never seem to go out. They cook together, eat together, read cookery books, swap recipes and techniques. The criteria for applying for Season 3 says that you must commit to being available:  excluding auditions,  between approximately November 2010 & July 2011 for approximately 28 weeks with a couple of productions breaks including Christmas & New Year.

6 days out of 7, black cars come and whisk them off to cook, taste, watch, learn and occasionally shop. If you believe that it all happens in RealTime (TM), the schedule is as follows:

Sunday night is the Mystery Box challenge. Limited ingredients, here, make something, chop chop. The winner gets an advantage, picking the main ingredient everyone has to use for the themed Invention Test which follows on immediately. (For example, an Indian themed dish, and the choice is goat, chicken, or pulses.)

Monday, and the worst three performers from yesterday face an elimination challenge. Black aprons are worn today, and someone goes home. It could be a taste test (identify the x-number of ingredients in this stew), a cooking challenge (follow this recipe as exactly as possible, taste and recreate this dish without a recipe), a skills test (put together a plateau de fruits de mer). They get more imaginative as the competition goes on.

Tuesday, the best performer gets to abandon the Apron and don full chef’s whites. They go head to head with a top restaurant chef, to recreate their signature dish, or something difficult from their menu. If the competitor wins a blind judging, they get an immunity pin which saves them from one elimination.

Wednesday, and the remaining competitors are divided into Blue and Red teams, with yet another Apron to wear. Off they toddle to do battle. The challenges are similar to the UK ones – bake a tea for the WI-equivalent, cater a child’s birthday party, cook in the field for the army. The winning team gets a spiffy lunch and a private workshop in a fab restaurant. The losing team put on the Black Aprons of Doom and go forward to Thursday.

Thursday is another elimination challenge, made all the more vicious as some of the best competitors could have been pushed into it by one bad performer. Someone goes home.

Friday is the relaxation at the end of the week. Two of the three judges are professional chefs, and they put on a Masterclass in the kitchen. What would we have done with the Mystery Box? How would we have tackled that challenge? One of you tried to make this, here’s the classic way to do it. Sometimes a couple of competitors go off for a private masterclass with another chef, based on interests or weaknesses identified during the week.

Saturday is Day Off, and get ready to start again.

There is one programme down the line where they allow eliminated competitors to come back and fight each other – the top three get to re-enter the competition and try for a place in the Top 10.

The final week aims to get down to 2 competitors for a Grand Finale Head-to-Head.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Season 1 is currently being shown on the Good Food cable channel in the UK. Season 2 episodes can be viewed online through Channel 10, but only if you’re in Australia or can convince them that your computer is. Otherwise your options are limited to being illicit.

The people

The advantage to this format over the traditional UK one is that you see all the competitors, almost every day. There are little voice-overs by them, mini-interviews. During elimination challenges, they wait eagerly in the house to see who comes back and who has gone. They build relationships with each other (and Twitter followers create a few fantasy / slash ones as well). Viewers develop favourites, and ones they wish would crash and burn. It’s much more emotional.

The official website promotes this, with a Big Brother style banner of competitor portraits. They each have their own page, with a Q&A section and a fan forum. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next season – in this one some creative editing made two of the competitors look more than somewhat evil. One of them attracted a Hate Page on Facebook, with death threats. It was all very unpleasant, and the official PR commenters tried to back-pedal on it.

It makes the competition itself more engrossing. Oh no, a dessert challenge, my favourite doesn’t do desserts! Oooh look, canapes, my favourite is a brilliant presentation artist! What’s the betting that Jimmy makes a curry, Adam does something Japanese, Callum screws up the timing, Fiona makes a little cake? Claire will cry, Aaron will prance about making bizarre finger gestures, and Alvin will giggle like an insane chipmunk and say something witty.

It extends to the judges, too. In the first season, there were three judges and an MC / Hostess / GlamourPuss / Voiceover person. The two professional chef  judges were George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan. Added to the mix was Melbourne-based food critic, Matt Preston. In the second season, we lost the GlamourPuss as the judges became more comfortable in their roles, and really started to let loose with their own personalities. George is small and bouncy, a sort of Greek Tigger. He looks like he belongs in the Guns of Navarone, and eats like a starving wolf. Chilli brings him out in a sweat, but he doesn’t mind if the dish tastes good. Gary is a bit more laid-back, and takes the lead role as the Host. He’s from the UK, and proud of it, bringing his Mum to one of the Masterclasses to demo a Yorkshire Pudding. If he likes your food, his whole face beams in satisfaction and his eyes twinkle. Matt? what can you say about Matt? he’s a big lad, and flamboyant with it. Crocodile high-heeled boots, always wears a silk cravat, horrific taste in pastel trousers. Knows his stuff. Again, an ex-Brit, he started off in Oz writing about Australian soaps for British trashy TV magazines. Masterchef has really kicked him into the public eye, and he’s become quite the TV personality.

They build relationships with all the contestants, have their obvious favourites and protegees, but don’t let that get in the way. They are supportive during the challenges, especially during emo crises. There is so much joy in what they do, and when someone succeeds they are the first with the hugs and the high-fives. But if you screw up they’ll make sure you know.

They are as much mentor as judge.

Then there are the Guests. The show attracts an incredibly high calibre of guest chefs and food writers, and for some bizarre reason a food stylist. Names that UK readers should recognise include Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Michel Roux Senior, Heston Blumenthal, and Martin Blunos. Some of these come as judges, some to teach, some to challenge. The most feared is Adriano Zumbo, whose patisserie creations are fiendishly difficult. The hot sugar in the croquembouche challenge in Season 1 destroyed several fingertips, and in Season 2 he gave them not just a tower of marons, but also the V8 – 8 layers of vanilla textures. Some of these are semi-official Friends of the Masterchef Kitchen. They turned up in a gang for the winner announcement in the Grand Finale, cherry-pick promising competitors as interns / apprentices, chipped in regular judgely appearances when Gary fell over in the car park and ripped his leg. Most of them have had some sort of pro relationship with at least one of the judges, but they’re also in it for themselves.

Because of the Money

There’s one good reason why we’re unlikely to get this format of Masterchef in the UK. The dosh. Masterchef Australia is on commercial TV – Channel 10, produced for them by Fremantle Media who specialise in reality TV. Masterchef USA will be on Fox, enough said.

The cost of staging it must be phenomenal. 3 professional judges, plus the guests, 2 of the judges pretty much full time for 3 months. The kitchen set, which is a permanent huge barn with a restaurant dining room, mobile kitchen workstations, coffee lounge, library, viewing balcony. Blast chillers, freezers, ovens, enough small appliances for 24 people to use whatever they want. A pantry full of food, and cash to spend on ingredients where the challenge involves shopping. The house, the cars, feeding them outside competition time and providing the ingredients for them to cook and experiment in the house. Away matches – Season 2 featured some time in Melbourne, and a trip to London and Paris. Suites at top hotels, air travel, taxis. For the London / Paris adventure, each competitor got an Amex card, which came in handy for buying truffles with.

The prize is no cheapie, either. $100,000 to start your foodie career, a guaranteed cookbook deal, and a massive PR machine. The winner from last year came back as a guest judge this year, and has popped up on TV all over the place. Even coming second – if you really deserved to get that far, you’re rewarded. Last year’s second got their own TV show almost instantly, this year’s has a paid placement in one of George’s restaurants, and received similar offers from many of the guest chefs in the show.

But if you can deliver a regular viewing figure of 10% of the population, 6 nights a week, you’re going to get sponsors coming out of your ears. And it’s not just advertising during the breaks. Coles, the supermarket chain, is a major partner. (Other partners are available, and are listed on the programme’s website.)

Imagine if Masterchef UK teamed up with Waitrose, or M&S, or Sainsburys. Supermarket provides all the ingredients, laid out in the “pantry” which looks more like a mini-store. All labelled brands – any tin that’s opened, packaging that’s ripped apart – yours. Any time the contestants shop in a supermarket, it is clearly you. You get to produce regular recipe cards, with the latest from competitors and guest chefs, tailored for your ingredients. You create a Masterchef area in the store, which features the ingredients for the recipes from the Masterclass, and anything else you can think of. You get advance warning on specialist ingredients so you don’t run out (remember Delia and the Cranberry Shortage?). As well as being plastered all over the show credits, ads, promotions, website, magazine, whatever, you also have the right to use the show logo on your own promotional material. So you can have a Masterchef area on your website, cross-referencing recipes and ingredients. Your tame chef, in this case Curtis Stone, appears regularly on the programme (admittedly in a fairly minor role).

This is SO not going to happen if Masterchef remains on the BBC. And that’s not even looking at the Telstra hubs they have to use as phones and recipe readers, the Langham hotels they stay in, the Campbells Real Stock that they all use.

And you can’t do it on the cheap, either.

When It Goes Horribly Wrong

That would be the New Zealand version. Oh dearie dearie me. Completely Made of Fail. And they’re planning a second series, which is just embarrassing. There was a Top 12, with one evicted per week – although a couple of them came back in later. The show was limited to eviction challenges and masterclasses, so it became all about the evictions and not about learning or developing. The masterclasses were basically beginner cookery shows by judge Ross Burden. (UK viewers may remember him – he was a model who entered the UK Masterchef in the early 90s, got as far as the final, and then went on to be a regular on Ready Steady Cook for several years.)

The judges were vile. With the focus on evictions rather than winners, they were keen to find fault rather than praise. Ross Burden took the Gary role, bonhomie, host, full of hail fellow well met. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk in a relaxed manner, and it sounded as if he were reading from an autocue, badly. The other pro chef was Simon Gault, who seems to be more of an Executive Chef Consultant than a hands-on foodie. According to his website, he’s “busy developing an amazing range of food products and will be kicking off with chicken, beef and vegetable stock, as well as several flavours of meat seasonings.” Yuck. Like George, he is short, plump and energetic – unfortunately he is also rude, snobbish, elitist and not at all sexy.

The food critic role went to Ray McVinnie, who is a food writer, editor and, yet again that dreaded word, stylist. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, let alone his own website, but you can get an idea at Cuisine magazine, where he is the food editor. Again, nasty nasty nasty. Whiny, face all screwed up like a bad smell, aggressively picky.

They were all about smarming over the pro guests, frightening the contestants with how important the pros were, and how tough this challenge was going to be. Twinkles of glee only really surfaced when they got rid of somebody else.

The prizes were a bit stupid too – including a car, a load of household kitchen appliances, glassware, a cuddly toy. All aimed at someone who was going to go on being a domestic cook, not launch into a foodie career.

I appreciate that NZ is not as food-centric as Oz has become, but this was awful.

Where Now?

Tonight we get Gordon Ramsay as the central host for the US version. It’ll premiere after his Hell’s Kitchen, which is fairly popular. Like the NZ one, it’s only going out one night a week. I haven’t seen the Norwegian version, which was on TV3 this spring, but if your Norwegian is up to it, it is available online. Promos for the French version are around, and their Twitter PR has been having weekly competitions. Rumours abound for other national versions, with claims of over 100 in the pipeline.

The Australian one is clearly the paradigm, and I’d like to see it take the plunge and develop even further. Why not a Big Brother Little Brother add-on? Not live webcams in the house or anything tacky like that, but filming them cooking, teaching each other, experimenting. Working on recipes together. Take them out on escorted restaurant trips to learn the art of criticism.Teach them how to actually write a recipe that others can follow.

My main bugbear? You have to be an Ozzie citizen or resident to apply for Season 3. Boo.

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Masterchef Rules The Waves Part One

I’ve been putting off this post, and now Celebrity Masterchef starts tonight. So not late, but timely …

It also got very long – Part One will look at the UK, and Part Two will explore Masterchef International – a whole different beast.

Twenty-odd years ago, when I first started watching Masterchef, it was nice. In every sense of the word.  Middle-class people cooked middle-class three-course dinner-party meals, which were tasted and discussed in a judgely huddle by permanent host Loyd Grossman (TM), along with a showbiz celebrity and a guest chef or food writer. Winners went through to the next round, which was exactly the same. Except the chefs got more famous as time went on. It was broadcast weekly in a comfy Sunday tea-time slot on BBC1, and at the end there was a cookbook of the best recipes. People were fans of this competitor or that, and there were a few scandals along the way. You could cook whatever you wanted – there was a vague nominal budget – within a time limit, bringing a few pre-prepared ingredients and/or pieces of kit. There were jams, herbs from the garden, and marinaded meats, and, oh, the horror, one contestant brought her trusty microwave. Eventually it spawned a Junior version, and a career for Mr Grossman (TM) in cook-in sauces. And died a nice discreet middle-class death around the turn of the century.

I suspect it introduced a lot of viewers to new foods and techniques. It was fun to watch a competition that featured skills I knew about, and also to hear a professional chef critique dishes. That was new. But ultimately it was by and for people who shopped at Waitrose, and all too twee for words.

Boom, and 5 years later we get Masterchef GOES LARGE, which is pretty much the format we know now in the UK. It’s dropped the GOES LARGE bit, as people have started to realised Mr Grossman (TM) isn’t hosting a nice little studio show anymore. The judges are John Torode (transplanted Ozzie mid-level restaurant owner / TV chef) and Gregg Wallace (former greengrocer and restaurant supplier). Torode wears casual clothes and often neglects to shave – he promotes classic knowledge and technique. Wallace, despite running a multi-£million business and owning a new restaurant for his cronies to party in, is presented as the down-to-earth East End Barrow Boy who knows his veg and loves his puddings. He’ll forgive a lot in technique if you’ve put enough chocolate in it. He’s also perceived a lot as the Nice Cop to Torode’s Nasty, and he does tend to act as a bit of a Yes Man. India Fisher provides a voice-over narration – a lot of which seems to be pre-recorded and comes out at every episode. “The contestants have spent hours on their feet in the professional kitchen …”

Although the show doesn’t have the class limitations of the original, it can be stunningly and mindlessly racist and sexist. Torode in particular assumes that anyone with an “ethnic” background will be expert in a related branch of cookery, will be tempted to put “too many spices” in their food, and won’t be able to compete in more classical European challenges. If people DO put in “too many spices”, he’s amazed at how lovely and subtle it tastes. They’re obviously trying not to stir offense (to the extent of referring to a pediatrician throughout as a “child doctor” just in case some idiot got it wrong), but they still refer to women as Mother-of-(number), as if identity rested in fertility.

On the positive side, there is now an element of development and mentoring for the competitors. Many are aiming at taking up a foodie career, as chefs, suppliers, writers. Some are already dipping their toes in the water – vide Alex Rushmer, whose blog Just Cook It already had a good reputation. As you progress in the show, you spend more time in a variety of professional situations, and are expected to learn from all of them.

How it Works

Go Large started as an early evening show on BBC2. One competition a day Monday to Thursday, with the daily winners battling it out on Friday. After 6 weeks, the weekly winners go on to the semi-finals and then the finals, usually over 2 more weeks.

With the change from the dinner party format, contestants get more of an opportunity to showcase their knowledge of ingredients and techniques. Although there is a chance for them to produce their own menus, they have to win that chance. First is the ingredients challenge (or the Mystery Box), where they have a bench full of food and just under an hour to turn it into a plate of food. Starter, main, dessert – whatever. There will usually be some meat, fish, herbs, fresh fruit and veg, dairy, tinned things like coconut milk. Often there are two or even three clear recognised matches – mackerel and gooseberries, arborio rice and parmesan, oranges and plain chocolate – which should give even a panicking chef a good nudge towards a staple dish. It’s a tougher round than you might think, and three of the original six competitors are knocked out at this stage.

The remaining three go on to the pressure test. This is usually a lunchtime service stint at a reasonably well-known real restaurant, with each competitor being given a regular menu dish to prepare to order. Some cope, some don’t, and for many it’s their first taste of life in a pro kitchen. There’s a chance here to learn an amazing amount – not just about the logistics of restaurant ordering and service, but about mise en place and preparation, pro equipment, presentation, timing.

Returning from that, they get to cook their own food for the judges, two courses in one hour. The judges may take the performance in the pro kitchen into account, but in reality the winner is decided on this meal.

For the further stages, different challenges are introduced. We’ve had Ingredients Knowledge – name these beans / nuts / spices / herbs / vegetables etc.,  varied Pressure Tests – cater lunch from a location van for a film crew, cook a field kitchen lunch for half the army and regimental dinner for the officers in the evening, prepare a gourmet dinner for a VIP group and serve it on site at a medieval castle or similar. One particularly nasty one emerged this year, the Choice Test. You get to cook one of two dishes in a very short timeframe (usually about 15 minutes).  Ingredients and kit provided, but no recipe. Really simple things, but incredibly easy to get wrong. There was a huge row on Twitter one night – one of the choices was mussels in white wine sauce, which Torode later insisted had been Moules Mariniere. There was cream out on the bench for the other dish, and several contestants used it. Not in Moules Mariniere, officially, at least according to Torode, but no harm in putting it in mussels in white wine sauce. He got quite snitty.

As they go through the stages, contestants are given more opportunities for working one on one with pro chefs, as they are sent to restaurants chosen with them in mind. Technical discipline, presentation, ingredient knowledge. If you use too many ingredients, you’ll be sent to a chef who only uses three or four but chooses and combines them with skill and expertise. If you clomp stuff on a plate, you’ll go somewhere elegant, or Japanese, where you’ll have to place each tiny flower with tweezers. You’ll be expected to bring techniques and knowledge back to the Masterchef kitchen, and incorporate them in your next cook-off.  Judges will expect to see you progress and improve.

Where’s it Going?

The new format was very popular, which resulted in a typical fwit decision by the BBC – to move it from 6:30 on BBC2 to evening prime-time on BBC1. This immediately put it into competition with strong commercial programming, in danger of being moved around for special events and sport, and subject to stronger marketing. Instead of a pleasant after-work half-hour, it became a whole evening commitment.

It’s also spawned more versions. Now we’ve got Masterchef: The Professionals and Celebrity Masterchef. Professional is wonderful. Torode’s place is taken by Michel Roux Jr, with the initial tests being handled by his amazing dominatrix sous-chef. Competitors are already working in the industry, and Roux expects a certain standard from them which SO OFTEN isn’t there. He also insists on a classical French approach as the basis for everything in the known universe, and heaven help you if you think differently. It has a much greater car-crash TV quotient than the regular show.

Celebrity is a bit of fun, with mostly G-list celebrities. Rumour has it that the new Celebrity season, which starts tonight, is incorporating elements from the International version, including The Pantry store of ingredients.

Some of the competitors in Celebrity end up taking it quite seriously. Nadia Sawalha, who won a few years ago, has since written cookery books, presented foodie TV shows, and is a co-presenter with John Torode on the new Junior Masterchef.

That, I was very impressed with. It went out on CBeebies as a kids’ show. Torode shows them how to prepare a dish which they then do themselves – summer pudding, for example. Then they get to show off their own menu. The finalists were stunning – confident, enthusiastic, excellent palates and skills. Contestants were in general articulate about why this was important to them. Family traditions, good health, relaxation. One was quite clear that with her dyslexia she wasn’t good at reading and writing, but she knew damn well that she could do this. All very empowering. Although the presenters could be a tad patronising in spots, and seemed quite shocked when a child proved itself perfectly capable of filleting a fish.

Relationship Management

With the move to a higher profile came a more sophisticated marketing approach. The programme has its own BBC website. During the last series run, there was a magazine, but that doesn’t seem to have lasted. The whole concept is promoted heavily by the BBC Good Food brand. The finalists from the last series, along with the Junior finalists, take part in Masterchef Live at the BBC Good Food Shows, appear on daytime cooking shows, feature in magazines.

The format doesn’t lend itself easily to developing a fan base for each individual contestant. Once they’ve got through their initial week, you might not see them again for up to a month. The website doesn’t give details on each of them a la Big Brother. They do try to get viewers interested – one of the rounds is a Passion Test which is an interview format around What Food Means To You. And there are the obligatory at home / work introductory film segments. Some contestant personalities stand out right from the start. This year there were several, including Stacie Stewart, with her wonderful beehive hair and scooter – helped by her passionate down-to-earth approach to good old British food.

Some you just want to smack – if this is your dream and passion, and always has been, why didn’t you go to catering college? Why aren’t you working nights in a pro kitchen, even if that means washing up or delivering takeaways? Why haven’t you heard of this chef, or that technique? Don’t you watch foodie telly, or read magazines, or blogs?

It really all kicks in for the final few weeks. The same contestants over and over in different situations, revealing hidden talents and stress points. Making them work as teams and showing more of their characters. Local radio and TV stations pick up on regional heroes, interview and promote them.

This year several of the contestants, including the three finalists, made an appearance on Twitter. Information on the contest itself is embargoed, of course, but they were out there building networks, starting businesses, having fun.

The Twitter bit

This is where the most recent series really started to get interesting. Torode isn’t on Twitter, but Gregg Wallace (puddingface) is. There is an official masterchef tweet, which was very proactive. Each programme got some advance tweeting, there were Mystery Box challenges for readers (what would you do with x, y, and z?), and prompts to discuss the results after the show.  Not that tweeting viewers needed it. The #masterchef hashtag got a real pounding, with people arguing about ingredients, techniques, contestants, the presenters, the guest chefs, restaurants – everything, in fact.

Twitter represents the kind of promotion that the BBC can’t control. There is a spoof Gregg. And then there’s the Masterchef Reject, from Janie Spanner who hosts her own version of Masterchef, complete with pressure tests and celebrity guests. The trendy dish this year, that everyone seemed to want to cook, was scallops with black pudding. Cries of derision greeted its third or fourth appearance, mounting rapidly to screams of anguish as it came out over and over again. Traditionally on Masterchef Chocolate Fondants Do Not Work, so attempts at that were also shouted down. Towards the end of the competition, tweeters were playing Masterchef Bingo, spotting repeating ingredients (sea bass, rack of lamb, chorizo), host phrases (it doesn’t get any tougher than this, plate of food, earthy) with a cry of  SCALLOPS announcing a winning line. There was constant discussion of competitor favourites – some of which degenerated into personal abuse. Not as bad as the Australian one, which featured Facebook Hate Pages and death threats.

I’ll talk about the Australian version later, which has become the template for a spreading international trend. If you watch tonight’s Celebrity programme and tweet using the #masterchef hashtag, you may well find yourself caught up in some of it, as it is Finals Week down under. It’s so popular, that they have rescheduled the live main national election debate so that it doesn’t clash with the Masterchef Final. Loyd Grossman (TM) could never have made it up.

I’m using brandy and crushed green peppercorns, but we’ve also had pernod and dried tarragon, prunes and calvados, or any plumped-up dried fruit left over after making flavoured vodkas

Gujerati Snacks

From Prashad's in Bradford, we had samosas, some kind of battered fried sandwich with a garlicky pureed veg filling, round dumplings filled with spiced mashed potato. Dhokla, patra, snacks. I made a lassi with fresh coriander, garlic, fresh green chilli and a pinch of salt. Fresh baby tomato, and a little raita sauce.

I also made a quick trashy hot chaat:

1 tin new potatoes, drained and cut into small lumps
1 tin pinto beans, or chickpeas, drained
2 cloves garlic, chopped

Sprinkle with powdered hing and fenugreek.
After about 5 minutes add half a tin of chopped tomatoes, cook til thickened.
Stir well and add 2 handfuls Bombay Mix or your favourite Indian crispy snack.
Heat through, take off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons natural yoghourt.
Put in serving dish and top with dollop of tamarind sauce.

Served with warm rotis.

With a selection of sweets to finish, I am absolutely podged.

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