Jul 262012

Gubby Plenderleith samples a premier epicurean experience.

It’s amazing how many people think that life as a hard-nosed journo is all glamour and perks.

This hack, however, can tell you that that, most definitely, is not the case.

Until recently, the only ‘extras’ I ever enjoyed were getting home the same day I set off for work.

Imagine my surprise then, when I was summoned to see ‘the big chief’, aka the editor of this electronic rag. 

I say ‘surprise’, but my initial reaction was one of terror and dread – that’s the way most of us newshounds react when summoned to the great man’s lair.

So there I was, quaking in my boots (well, Gucci loafers actually) as I arrived at our esteemed leader’s 5th floor eyrie and reported to Brunhilda, his secretary, executive minder and Amazon queen.

“Sit,” she commanded, pointing to a small waiting area, “and don’t dare move!”

I obliged and, after what seemed like a fortnight’s holiday with the family, she barked,

“That’s him free now” and pointed at the heavily armoured door which led the way to the head honcho’s hideout.

Taking a deep breath, I stood up and made my way, on strangely gelatinous legs, to the entrance to his lordship’s sacred retreat and my unknown fate.  As I approached the portal, it slowly opened to reveal a vast chamber at the end of which sat the nabob of this esteemed organ.

“Come away in, ehmm … Pendledork,” he shouted, “and be quick about it, I don’t have all day!”

I was quick about it and hurried across the deep pile axminster to the majestic desk behind which he loured.  Fixing me with an icy stare, he idly flapped a glossy brochure and growled:

“OK Pittendreich, I need someone to go and check out Pierre Whitting Heston-Balls new eating place but Torquil McCorqudale, my regular critic, is down with a gippy tummy, something about a bad oyster or some such bloody thing.  Anyway – cut to the chase – there’s no-one else so it’s got to be you, God help us!”

 Talk about a bombshell. I was rendered almost speechless and could only croak out a weak:

“Y-yes boss, Mr W sir.  When do you, I mean when would you like … well, you know …”

He appeared to have anticipated my question as he barked:

“As soon as poss, man, which means bloody NOW! 

“Brunhilda’s got travel documents to get you and Mrs Plunderteeth down to Gargunnock – pick them up as you leave.  Now I’ve got work to do so …”

So saying, he dismissed me with a flap of his hand and, as I exited the editorial control centre, his amanuensis handed me a brown envelope as she told me:

“There you go – two Stagecoach tickets to Stirling, where you’ll need to change ‘buses for Gargunnock.  You’ve got a 7.30 reservation at Mr Heston-Balls’ restaurant and, as this is an under-cover job, your booking’s in the name of Smith and you’ll need to pay cash.  Got that? 

You’ve also got a double room booked at Mrs McLaverty’s B&B – we’ve used her before and she demands payment up front.  Make sure you get receipts or your claim for exes won’t be sanctioned.

“That’s it Plenderleith, on your way and don’t let us down or you’ll have me to answer to.  OK?”

I’ll skip the intermediate bits like ‘phoning the good lady wife and pleading with her until she eventually agreed, albeit unwillingly, to accompany me, the deprivations of a Stagecoach ‘bus trip and the, highly-debatable delights of Mrs McLaverty’s doss … er, boutique establishment.  Suffice to say that, suitably dressed – Euphemia wore her new twinset and tweed skirt – we presented ourselves at the gastronomy master’s four star Austerity Canteen a few minutes before 7.30.

  what they’ve achieved has a truly authentic ambience of deprivation and financial hardship

The award winning chef’s latest venture was inspired, I read in the menu, from his deep conviction that we all need to economise if we are to weather the current economic recession.  To that end, the proprietor had brought in his crack team of interior designers to create an ascetic wilderness in what was once the local benefits office and the final result is simply breathtaking.

The menu notes further reveal that they had invited some local youths to spend an evening attacking the walls with sharp implements in order to obtain a genuine distressed look.  They also employed a squad of folk scouring the country for anything old and battered that could be used in the eatery – from tables and chairs to cutlery and kitchen equipment that had seen better days.   And what they’ve achieved has a truly authentic ambience of deprivation and financial hardship.

But on to the menu itself which, true to the general theme of this cordon bleu bistro, offered an extremely limited choice, an aspect which went down very well with Mrs P who abhors making decisions.

For starters, my dining partner opted for the Scotch broth, made from an old Scottish recipe consisting of a few chopped vegetables left to marinade overnight in a dram of whisky.  I, on the other hand, went for the old traditional failsafe of a Scotch salad, in this case comprising a lettuce leaf, 2 slices of cucumber, half a tomato and a tablespoon of grated carrot.

Following the appetisers we were both keen to get our teeth, quite literally, into the mains for which my colleague plumped for the mini all day breakfast.  This comprised two chipolata sausages, a couple of quarter rashers of bacon, a brace of fried quails eggs and a button mushroom drizzled with a ketchup jus.

My choice, on the other hand, was the vegetarian dish of le pain grillé avec les pâtés, which was revealed as a piece of toasted bread topped with a scoop of alphabetti spaghetti.  We washed our interesting feast down with a bottle of the house wine, a cheeky little liebfraumilch which, the sommelier told me, could be picked up for just over £3 a bottle in Tesco.

Our main course over we were excitedly anticipating our puddings when our waiter brought us bad news.  It turned out that the container van that delivers the creamed rice to the Stirling Lidl had been involved in a motorway pile up so the only sweet available was fruit salad with lait d’carnation.

My other half asked if the fruit salad was fresh and, after checking with the kitchen staff, our waiter was able to vouchsafe that, not only was it fresh, but the tin hadn’t even been opened yet.

By the time we had greedily devoured our dessert it was still early – barely 8.15 – so we decided to skip coffee and explore the sights of Gargunnock before returning to Mrs McLaverty’s.

As I settled the £236 bill I realised that we had just had an experience denied to so many in these cash-strapped times and, as I said to herself while we strolled through the town:

“I think this is the best fish supper I’ve ever eaten!”

May 242012

By Suzanne Kelly.

Some months back I had a chance to take a full day course at the Nick Nairn Cookery School, but I never got my schedule straightened out in time to sign up.

Instead, I found time for ‘Quick Cook: Classic Crepes’ – a two hour lunchtime course.

I am not the most easily pleased person, but I can truly say this course was everything it should have been – instructive, enjoyable, hands-on, perfectly structured, and the results were delicious.

I already knew how to make crepes decently – so I thought.  Louise’s techniques (different and clearly superior to my usual style) were demonstrated with enthusiasm and clarity.

We were all flipping crepes and turning out beautiful, perfect golden specimens by the time Louise was done with us.  The other students were clearly having fun, and one woman was profusely thanking her friend for taking her there as a gift.  And that was even before we tasted our handiwork.  The immaculate, state-of-the-art cooking area and dining bar were a joy to work and eat in.

The savoury crepe we were making was to be filled with a smoked haddock and cheddar sauce with herbs.  I decided to taste some of the herbs before adding – and I’ve never had better except perhaps from my garden.  Louise explained what to avoid when buying smoked haddock (ie artificially coloured fish which often has other additives) – what we had ingredient-wise was the best you’d be able to get – I wish I could remember where in Scotland the cheddar was from.

As we sat down to eat the crepes we’d created (garnished with rocket), Louise demonstrated how to do Crepe Suzette.  This dish may be retro to some, but I personally love it, and it is apparently gaining in popularity.

There was no time for us to make the dish ourselves – but with the skills we had learned and what was demonstrated, we will all be able to replicate it at home. Suffice it to say that the Crepe Suzette she served the students was better than any I’d ever made, or that I’d ever been served.  (I make my own variation which I call ‘Crepe Suzanne’ with Jack Daniel’s – and I’ll be trying that very soon with my new skills).
I’d learnt a better way to cut and dice, a faster and more successful way to make white sauce, and I’ve taken away a dozen other hints and tips.

Don’t bother trying to get on the next crepe course – it’s already sold out.  But whatever your level of cooking or your specific culinary interest, there is a course for you.  I’ll be on the next full day Nick Nairn course I can get on.

Eleven out of ten.  This is a win for Aberdeen, and I wish the school every success.

May 032012

How would you like to save £430 every year? That’s the question asked by Zero Waste Scotland’s ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign.  With thanks to Mark Beresford.

£430 is the average value of food wasted per year by people in Scotland.

On 16th May Aberdeen Forward will be hosting an event called  “Love Food” in association with Pampered Chef, which aims to help you save money with tips and advice, fancy recipes for your leftovers, and the chance to get involved with an interactive cooking demo.

Ruth Morris (an independent Pampered Chef Consultant) will be hosting a fun, interactive cooking show that will provide attendees with the opportunity to try innovative multifunctional kitchen tools while learning to prepare impressive recipes quickly.

In addition, our own Gillian Marr will be on hand to provide helpful tips and advice along the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ theme, including how to shop smart to save money, making clever use of leftovers and how to make your food last longer.

Following the interactive demonstration, you’ll be able to enjoy the tasty results and be given the opportunity to purchase Pampered Chef products which you have tried out on the day. These are all highly popular and high quality kitchen tools which come in a wide variety to meet every price level.

The event is totally free to attend with no obligation to pay for anything, and will be held on:

16th May, 7pm-9pm at Aberdeen Forward’s Sustainable Communities Centre at 2 Poynernook Road, Aberdeen.

Anyone who would like to attend should simply call Aberdeen Forward on 01224 560 360 to book a place.

Apr 192012

Are you confused about which butter/margarine type spreads are healthy? Even if you aren’t then you probably should be! Craig Adams enlightens Voice readers.

Most people think they understand the difference between saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat, yet there are two key pieces of information relating to these that the food industry has deliberately occluded.

Firstly in terms of health, monounsaturated is best, then polyunsaturated, then saturated right?

Not quite – not all saturated fat is bad. Some saturated fats are among the healthiest fats of all. Furthermore, fat can turn into something chemically nasty when you heat it, and saturated fat is more resistant to this change than the other types of fat.

Unless you restrict frying to low temperatures, it’s actually safer to fry food in a saturated fat such as butter or lard. Unfortunately, telling people that would not help increase the sales of cooking oil.

Secondly you may have observed that saturated fats are a solid grease, whereas unsaturated fats are oil? This is not mere coincidence, in fact it’s pretty much their defining trait. In order for an oil type unsaturated fat to become a spread, it somehow needs to be solidified. The reason that saturated fats are solid is because they are more saturated with hydrogen.

The process that makes a fat more solid is called hydrogenation, but it could just as easily be termed saturation… So in other words, to make an unsaturated fat more solid you saturate it, hence the issue with spreads.

Unfortunately because the public have been told that “saturated = bad” they’re probably going to look at the label, see how much saturated fat something contains, and judge it accordingly. Therefore the manufacturers tried to hydrogenate as little as possible, just enough to make it appear solid in the tub.

That’s why most of these spreads liquify almost on leaving the fridge; you’d be as well pouring oil on your toast! This is also where it turns nasty, because this “partial hydrogenation” has put the fat into an in-between state known as trans fatty acid, and trans fatty acid is very bad for you, much worse than saturated fat. Trans fatty acid kills.

Most products these days are labelled “Trans Fat Free!”… but that doesn’t mean they actually contain zero trans fatty acid. Oh no, no, no.

The politicians have allowed the manufacturers to label something “trans fat free” and even “zero trans fat”, provided it contains less than half a gram of trans fatty acid per serving.
That may not sound like much, but it’s 25% of the allegedly safe limit.

Since so many processed food now contain, ahem, “zero trans fat” there’s a high chance that you are unwittingly consuming way more than the 2g a day than may or may not be safe. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush, trans fatty acid is not safe.

Now here’s the ironic part. If you take an unsaturated fat, and you fully hydrogenate it, turning it into a saturated fat, there will be no trans fatty acid left in there. It will really contain zero trans fat, and actually be trans fat free. Although the now solid end result will be loaded with saturated fat, it’s not actually the bad kind of saturated fat, it’s just stearic acid, and your body will easily convert this back into a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. No harm done whatsoever. It’s safe, and may even be healthy despite the saturated fat content.

Here is how to read the labels. Avoid anything that contains any: “trans fat”, “trans fatty acid”, “partially hydrogenated”, and plain old “hydrogenated” (because that is just marketing code for partially hydrogenated).

Anything containing “fully hydrogenated” is perfectly OK. The important part is “fully hydrogenated”. Now although a fully hydrogenated product will undoubtedly contain more saturated fat, this is a harmless type of saturated fat, so don’t be put off by it.

So just to clarify that last part: “fully hydrogenated” is safe whereas just plain old “hydrogenated” is a cunning marketing ploy, which really means “partially hydrogenated”, which is in turn just code for “trans fatty acid” – which kills.

100% fully hydrogenated products, although perfectly healthy, are extremely rare. This because the consumer is put off by the high saturated fat content.

Instead the manufacturer tends to thin out the hydrogenated fat with an unsaturated oil (yet more irony), in order to reduce the saturated fat content. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided you refrain from heating the end result.

Also on the perfectly OK list is anything containing un-hydrogenated oil. In other words oil that has been left alone. There are some ‘oils’ such as coconut oil and palm oil, which are already high in saturated fat, and fairly solid at room temperature, that don’t require any hydrogenation.

This is why there are more and more products using palm oil. Palm oil is fine, although not as healthy as coconut oil, and in its refined (as opposed to virgin) state it’s not particularly good for you, but it’s way better than a trans fatty acid. The main problem with palm oil is that people are tearing down rain forests to plant palm trees.

So what about butter? Well butter is a naturally occurring almost entirely saturated fat. It does contain some naturally occurring trans fatty acid, but this is thought to be of a harmless nature (a hypothesis that has not yet been scientifically verified).

The saturated fat in butter is not all the good type, but it’s not all the bad type either, and at least butter is a natural unprocessed food. There are some spreadable butters now that have been blended with oils thereby reducing the overall saturated fat profile. Butter may not be a health food, but it certainly won’t kill you either. It’s certainly among the best of a bad bunch.

There is one saturated fat product that is believed to be healthy – coconut oil. This only contains the good saturated fat, is natural, and usually unprocessed (but check the label). Coconut oil is the safest fat you can use for any sort of frying. It may however impart a slight coconut taste to the food, and it’s quite expensive.

On the plus side it possesses both antibacterial and antiviral properties, promotes weight loss, and can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all but a superfood. There even exists coco-butter, which can be used as a (slightly coconutty) substitute for butter and other spreads.

So to summarise:

  • BAD = trans fat, trans fatty acid, partially hydrogenated, hydrogenated.
  • OK = fully hydrogenated or un-hydrogenated.
  • Butter is possibly healthier than most spreads, and safer for frying than cooking oil.
  • Coconut oil is a healthy solid fat, and the safest thing to fry with. It’s actually very good for you, as are coconut milk and coconut cream.

As an aside, the most nutritious oils, or unsaturated fats, are hemp oil, closely followed by flaxseed oil, so use these for salad dressings. Both of these oils should be stored refrigerated at all times, and it’s doubtful that you’ll find any refrigerated oil in a supermarket, so best use a health food shop.

And lastly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating avocados. They are high in healthy fats, very good for you, and even aid weight loss.