My first blogiversary
This week, Laissez Fare is one year old. When I first started the blog, I was already certainly a bit of a restaurant geek, but boy has that increased since I entered the world of food blogging and social media (well, twitter mostly). In the last 52 weeks, I have met many new friends, some of which remain virtual, but many of which have evolved into true and enjoyable real-life relationships. I have also broadened and honed my knowledge of food, wine and restaurants over the same period as the discipline of snapping and scribbling about my gustatory journeys has forced me to analyze and discern more about whatever it is I am eating or drinking, and the atmosphere and style in which it is presented.
I suppose my biggest embarrassment in the area of food is that although I perpetually pontificate about food (and occasionally wine), I am scarcely able to cook the most basic and humblest of meals myself. I would be the first to admit that it is a sad state of affairs when a (granted, self-proclaimed) food critic can’t even cook in his or her own right. But luckily my blog has begun to change that as well. ‘Year Two’ will be the year that Laissez learned to cook. So I look forward to keeping you informed about my progress in the kitchen, and any related nightmares.
Before I move on to the main part of this post (which incidentally is partly about me cooking), I would like to thank you for your interest and support over the last year. I hope you continue to find reason to return to my blog and that it keeps evolving into something better with each post. Thus, if you have any suggestions on how it can be improved, I am always open to ideas. I would like to thank Mrs. LF for helping me – indeed, she reads everything I write and contributes her own content on most posts – as without her fine(r) palate and judgement, the insights provided would not be nearly as interesting.
Before this turns into an Oscars acceptance speech, it just occurred to me that I would have never dreamed about sitting down and having lunch with Marco Pierre White a year ago when I was watching him grimace menacingly at a group of celebrities who revered him as a God as they attempted to learn how to cook in a professional atmosphere. But thanks to blogging, these kinds of experiences are happening more and more often. I am continually excited and inspired by learning more about food and wine, and the people who create it (of course, Marco would note that “Mother Nature is the true artist,” his favorite refrain), and I look forward to developing my knowledge, palate and horizons further in the coming year.
As many readers will know, Marco Pierre White was appointed the brand ambassador of Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd, a British farming business specializing in the farming of turkeys, in March of this year. Rightly or wrongly (and most food bloggers would say rightly), Marco has been criticized for ‘selling out’, as since retiring from the professional kitchen 10 years ago he has been using his name to support things which many foodies might deem down-market and even undesirable for a chef of his stature, including Knorr stock cubes and Bernard Matthews itself, which has had a series of high-profile issues in relation to the health of its birds and how humanely they’ve been treated, not to mention the fact that until 2005 they were the makers of Turkey Twizzlers, which were very publicly chastised by Jamie Oliver in his Jamie’s School Dinners television series.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the PR people behind the launch of a new campaign that is being sponsored by Bernard Matthews, in conjunction with Marco Pierre White, which is aimed at getting British people to eat turkey more than once a year at Christmas time. Matter-of-factly called ‘Change Your Meat Not Your Menu’, the campaign is aimed at inspiring all cooks, and in particular mothers, to begin using turkey in their weekly meal plans. They argue that “Turkey is high in protein and a great alternative to other meats. It’s versatile, tasty and perfect for everyday meals, and turkey breast meat is also low in saturated fat.” The campaign is also supported by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a well-known nutritionist, and Rebecca Romera, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing.
They cite a recent survey showing that turkey can easily be substituted in eight of the UK’s favorite meals, and as such have come up with eight recipes for these classic dishes that Moms typically make, with the only difference being that the original meat is substituted with turkey. Thus, using spaghetti bolognese as an example, by simply switching from beef to turkey mince, you could reduce your saturated fat intake by up to two-thirds (11g) per portion. There is a well-researched and detailed saturated fat calculator on the site, as well as recipes focused on ‘slimming’ and ‘leftovers’. But most interestingly, Marco has created four recipes himself, all based on simple ways of preparing turkey steaks and bringing out their natural flavor.
Of course, this is simply a new front in the recently re-branded Bernard Matthews marketing machine, and it is designed to sell more turkey. That said, I have always wondered why British people don’t eat more turkey than they do. Possibly it’s because the one time most people have it each year, it tends to be overcooked and therefore dry and rather lacking in flavor? I really don’t know, and as Marco points out, “Turkey has more flavor and more texture than chicken…and while consumers traditionally roast turkey there are many other ways to prepare this majestically delicious bird.” I remember from growing up in the US that we Americans consume turkey in a multitude of guises. In the States, you can get turkey burgers in most diners and turkey cold cuts are a staple inside deli sandwiches and childrens’ lunchboxes, not to mention its regular appearance in casseroles and, of course, at Thanksgiving.
In any case, I was invited to head down to Marco restaurant inside hallowed grounds of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge complex, to have lunch with the big man and sample the turkey dishes he’d come up with for the campaign.
After being given a tour of the new campaign website and speaking to the experts on hand, we were eventually whisked off to a large round table in the center of the quite swish dining room, and Marco emerged from the kitchen just like he does on television: ridiculously large knife and constant wiping of it (check), slightly menacing blank stare (check), black and white checkered shemagh on top of head (check). After staking out the table of journalists and food writers sat in front of him, Marco’s presenting persona (i.e. the one you see in his TV programs) gradually began to recede into the background and the real Marco stepped forward.
After trotting back into the kitchen to finish preparing the dishes, Marco reappeared baring gifts of an aquidaen nature.
The first dish he brought out was a plate chock full of what he called turkeys on horseback, a throwback to 70’s canapés, except these were made with turkey breast, of course. I have to say they were very delicious, although the turkey flavor was slightly muted by the salty streaky bacon and sweet prune and mango chutney.
As he took a few questions from around the table, Marco visibly became animated and very passionate, not only about turkey, but also about food and cooking in general. A light had been switched on (which shone through his eyes), and it was suddenly clear for anyone in doubt that we were in the presence of a true master. A simple question about which herbs and spices would go well with turkey (a few of his answers were sage and thyme for more a more traditional spin, or ginger and coriander if you wanted to open the route to Asia) led to discussions of all kinds of food-related topics.
Subjects discussed included how to perfectly poach an egg, and why it sometimes goes all wrong at home (the main points were that you need a very deep pot and should use vinegar); why people have different palates (in his opinion, the palate is formed through childhood flavor experiences, hence this is why he believes that British people from his generation have quite simple tastes); and more technical discussions, such as the perfect temperature to cook turkey steaks (he said it depended on the oven, but cooking it slowly in the mid-60’s [centigrade] with some kind of crust on top would help to keep it moist). Some of the things that stuck in my head were hearing him talk about how he is “more interested in the technical side of gastronomy” (indeed, he seemed to have an almost Blumenthal-like approach to solving problems such as retaining moisture in meat) and that “it’s all about the ingredients, not just making it look pretty.”
Along these lines, the simple recipes he has constructed are designed to show off the turkey to the best effect and to complement and lift it, rather than cover its inherently robust flavor. It was clear that getting back in the kitchen to invent new dishes (even if they all focus on turkey) had re-energized the man and he practically danced back to the kitchen to bring out the next dish.
Soon, Marco brought out a very large turkey steak topped with a thin walnut crust. Besides walnuts, the crust included Gruyere, breadcrumbs a bit of butter. It was amazing how he had managed to preserve the moistness of the turkey (one of the key functions of the topping), and the cheesy and nutty flavors indeed complemented the lovely natural flavor of the turkey.
Genuinely excited that the table had liked this first turkey steak dish, Marco dashed back to the kitchen to fetch some more grub. Next up was a reinvention of another classic, and a favorite comfort food of mine, Welsh Rarebit. The catch here was that instead of a base of toasted bread, a large turkey steak was used. As with the last dish, he sliced up the large turkey breast with that mahoosive chef’s knife and used the knife to deliver a small piece of the turkey onto everyone’s plate (no, we weren’t scared one bit). He was patient and the consummate host as he got our feedback (everyone loved it) and discussed the topic of turkey further.
After the rarebit, a similar dish of turkey napolitana (which had a crust of tomato purée, mozzarella, chopped black olives and basil leaves) was served in the same edgy manner, and while good, it wasn’t as tasty as the rarebit was to my own palate.
Last up in the turkey breast parade was one topped with sage and onion stuffing, which did remind me of a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal – more familiar but still ever so moist and flavorful.
After what we thought was the last dish, Marco brought out a magnificent, glistening specimen. If someone wouldn’t have told us what meat it was, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was something else (pork, maybe), but it was indeed a turkey joint, with the bone left in. He had been slow-roasting it and it had the most amazing golden glazing on the outside. He had cleverly stuffed it just under the skin with a simple concoction of sage and onion, and he carved it into individual portions and served it to us himself. This was a real honor, and I couldn’t believe how it tasted…almost like a well-roasted lamb, it was moist and had bags of flavor. My mother does a very nice roasted turkey, but it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to this (sorry Mom). Marco had also prepared his own gravy, which he kept jokingly calling “Bernard Matthews’ World Famous Gravy” as there was a company representative present at the table, which was spot on as well. No, it’s not for sale (yet).
Well, after being saturated with meat that was low in saturated fat, I was completely full. Luckily, I happened to be sitting next to Marco, and we had a short and highly enjoyable conversation about – big surprise – food. After discovering I hailed from the Pacific Northwest, he got very excited and proceeded to tell me about a supperclub he had gone to in Seattle, Washington which he was completely enamoured with, as the farmer who reared the meat they were eating was present at the dinner and introduced the dishes that included his meat himself. In general, he has quite a cynical view of the current state of food in the UK (“…it’s all about celebrity chefs here”), whereas he has found that in the US “…people are generally more passionate about the food itself.”
After wrapping up our little conversation, I headed for the hills (well, the West End) and decided that my next task would be to try and recreate one of his turkey recipes at home later that week. After all, they were intended to be simple and easily replicable by the amateur home cook, so I figured if I could make it taste good, anyone could!
The next weekend, I decided I would try the Turkey Welsh Rarebit recipe (as Mrs. LF and I both like Welsh Rarebit on toast) and we headed to the supermarket in search of some turkey breast steaks. I couldn’t find any Bernard Matthews ones (Oliver Thring had kindly reminded me that I should try to use their turkey to make it more ‘authentic’), so I bought the only ones on hand, which happened to be organic and free range, so probably all the better.
Back home, I went through the recipe and gave Mrs. LF strict instructions not to interfere, although she did pace about the kitchen to make sure I didn’t do anything totally stupid. I thought I did pretty well overall, except for getting a bit too uptight about ensuring the uncooked crusts were perfectly moulded and covered the turkey breasts evenly and completely (I am still way too anal in the kitchen, and Mrs. LF can’t stand it!). I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, as of course I wanted them to look just like the beautiful picture on the recipe card!
Well, it didn’t look quite like the image on the card, but I think they turned out quite nicely (no?). Mrs. LF also taught me how to prepare a good vinaigrette for our accompanying salad (see, I really am an amateur).
I am pleased to say that they tasted d*mn good! While they weren’t quite as moist as Marco’s breasts (ah-hem…), the flavor was just about the same and, most importantly, Mrs. LF was really impressed.
So there you go, a relatively healthy, easy and quick recipe for your weekday dinner!
And thank you for bearing with me on my first paltry poultry post.
*Note: many thanks to the team at Clarion for organizing the event*