25 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Into the Biosphere

By guest blogger TRACEY

There was a 100% attendance for our special cooking sessions at the Biospheric Project on the evenings of Monday 15 and Tuesday 16 July, but considering the amazing menu, knowledgeable cooking leaders, relaxed environment and the engaging surroundings plus the fact that the event was being run as part of the Manchester International Festival... is it any wonder! 

The sessions took place in a - until recently - derelict mill on the banks of the River Irwell in Salford. The mill is confidently striding its way to becoming a thriving agricultural space which houses innovative sustainable food systems, and the backdrop to our sessions was an aquaponics system, an emerging agroforest and a number of polytunnels set on the rooftop garden to grow leaf crops. Our dinner guests were fortunate to be cooking and dining in the hub of this part-farm, part-laboratory and part-research centre, inspiring them to create some truly visionary and flavoursome delights. 

On Monday, Cracking Cook Kim Irwin guided the participants through each step to create a wild shiitake mushroom risotto with a Parmesan crisp and micro herb salad, using mushrooms foraged in Chorlton the previous evening and herbs grown by the Biospheric Project. The air filled with pungent woody odours as we roughly chopped the mushrooms, which were then set aside to soften in boiling water while the group set to creating a homemade stock and chopping and slicing onions and garlic. Both were sautéed in olive oil and a bay leaf added to the pot then rice and wine was stirred in, and the risotto started to take shape and the sounds of hunger rumbled through the room! A delegated stirrer was appointed within each team of four and they took on the responsibility of ensuring the risotto did not dry out by continuously adding stock a bit at a time - they didn't want it to be too wet, either, so a balancing act ensued! Once content with the balance of moisture and the density of the rice, the mushrooms were drained and mixed in with the rice along with a sprinkle of tarragon, a dollop of cream and a squeeze of lemon juice. The dish looked amazing, especially when served with the Parmesan crisp and fresh micro salad. Kim then delighted the participants with dessert: a delicious fresh layered pudding using hazelnuts, which were soaked in rose water then crushed, and layered with yoghurt and fresh strawberries in an upcycled jar delicately decorated with beautiful yellow, white and blue flowers. The guys were then treated to a visit of the roof garden, then left fully satiated and satisfied - so much so that some had already enlisted for the following night's session!

On Tuesday, sustainable food advocate Jules Bagnoli led an action-packed and informative session, sharing information about the different greens that were going to be used in the main course, such as sorrel, purslane and borage. The participants were making an extensive menu of Salford snail porridge, rainbow trout stuffed with sustainably farmed nettle and served with wild garlic pesto and herb tempura fritters, and a deliciously light and refreshing zingy lemon posset. The participants began by making a stock using onions, garlic and some of the leaves from the previous evening’s ingredients. Once the stock was ready, oats were added to a pan and a delicious savoury porridge formed. The snails were washed, boiled, drained then fried in garlic butter. It was unfortunate that the supply of snails had been affected by the heatwave, but what Jules had managed to find were pleasing to the eye. While the porridge simmered, we made dessert: lemon juice, cream and sugar were whipped up and poured into cappuccino cups then chilled alongside some freshly hulled berries treated to a sprinkling of shredded angelica. So with pudding done and the starter simmering, attention was turned to the main. The trout had been gutted, topped and tailed, so the guests stuffed a fish each with herbs, butter and seasoning then wrapped it in buttered greaseproof paper to bake in the oven. The pace upped when it was time to start bringing each course together, but each dish looked incredibly appetising, and enticed everyone to new flavours, in particular the red amaranth cress. 

Two great sessions, so a huge thank you to Kim and Jules for sharing their inspiring information and some fabulous cooking tips! There are loads of photographs from the two evenings on the Cracking Good Food Facebook page: click here to be redirected.

GUEST BLOG: Flipping great!

By guest blogger TRACEY

Due to the blazing heat last Wednesday, we ran a ‘relaxed’ demo for residents of Contour Homes, who were attending a drop-in session at the Naz Community Centre, Salford, to gain information about benefit changes. There was a leisurely flow of people eager to try - and try out how to make! - our delicious healthy and cost-effective gram flour savoury pancakes. Everyone was amazed at how simple the batter was to make (just add water!), although Cracking Cook Rob (pictured left in the bottom photo) wanted to tickle their taste buds further by adding a fresh garlic paste to it. Once fried and tossed, the pancakes then blanketed the fresh vegetables Rob and I had collected from Fareshare over at Smithfield Market earlier in the day. We'd picked up cauliflower, cabbage, mushrooms and carrots for the savoury pancake filling and accompanying slaw, along with melons and grapes for afters - all of which had been discarded by supermarket sorters and deemed unsuitable for sale due to the irregular shape, size or colour. Our ‘diners’ were amazed at what was being thrown away and incredibly grateful that we had sourced the food so they could enjoy these wonderful pancakes followed by a fresh fruit salad with a lovely dollop of fresh yoghurt to cool us all down!

19 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Getting out in the garden

By guest blogger SIOBHAN KELLY

I can't think of a more idyllic place to hold an outdoor communal cooking session than Hulme Community Garden Centre. What a delight to be in such beautiful surroundings in the Manchester summer sunshine, with plants all around bursting with flowers and vegetables, colour and fragrances, and with a multitude of special spaces and benches tucked away down pathways and under arches - it's just a stunning space, a stone's throw from Manchester City Centre.

Wednesday 17 July was a training day for Food Futures, a Growing Manchester Networking Event, and Cracking Good Food ran a session in the late afternoon sunshine. Tables were set up outside so the participants could prepare sit together in a sociable, friendly environment and discuss food issues while preparing the ingredients for courgette bhajis, stir-fried beet tops and seasonal greens with a yoghurt and tahini dip. The table was laden with fresh, locally sourced produce, rich in colour, flavour and aroma, with the addition of fresh garlic from the Community Gardens themselves.

The courgettes for the bhajis were grated, and such a wonderful green juice was squeezed out of them - a health drink right there, full of goodness. The batter was made from gram flour and water whisked together, then spices, garlic, red onion, herbs, salt and the grated courgettes were stirred in, ready for cooking in a wok of oil. Beetroot tops and stalks and rainbow chard were shredded and mixed with sliced red onions, garlic, sesame seeds, vegetable oil and a splash of soy sauce to make the stir-fry. The yoghurt and tahini dip (which can also be used as a salad dressing) was made from plain greek yoghurt, tahini, freshly squeezed lemon juice, crushed garlic, olive oil and sea salt.

All tasted delicious and the different dishes complemented each other well for a healthy, fresh, flavour-filled, colourful feast.

We'll be posting some photos from this event on our Facebook page very soon.

If you'd like to discuss requirements for your organisation, please visit our website for more details on bespoke sessions.

18 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Pre-wedding album

By guest blogger TRACEY

We ran a delightful session at Chorlton High with an equally delightful group of hens, who were celebrating the impending nuptials of Gemma. The group arrived all keyed up as the bride-to-be had no idea why she was back at school! The session got underway and Cracking Cook Kim guided them through the steps of making Chelsea buns and focaccia. A sweet dough of bread flour, sugar, yeast, milk, butter and egg was mixed together then left to prove while the ladies got on with making the focaccia. A production line of fine onion slicing ensued, with salt sprinkled on to draw out the moisture. Meanwhile, the focaccia dough came together using flour, yeast, fine salt and olive oil and once the sun-dried tomatoes and chopped olives were added, the dough looked incredibly authentic. 

We were short on time, so were unable to let the dough prove for the recommended 1½ hours, but this didn’t appear to affect the end result once it was rolled, stretched and placed onto the baking tray. The ladies seemed to enjoy poking the dough to create a hollow for a sprig of rosemary. The red onion slices were sprinkled over the dough along with coarse sea salt. Then everyone's attention was turned to the Chelsea bun dough as it was time to roll it and start sprinkling in the lovely fillings we associate with Chelsea buns; dried fruit, orange rind, mixed spice, brown sugar and cinnamon. It was great to see the process of how to bring these quintessential 18th-century English buns to life and even better to see that all the hens were delighted with their batch of buns and beautifully baked focaccia. The ladies left equipped with freshly self-baked delights to enjoy at their picnic in the park… hope they had fun!

There's a pre-wedding album on our Facebook page!

And if you fancy booking a bespoke session with one of our Cracking Cooks to celebrate a special occasion or maybe even as a team-building event, visit our website.

16 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Stew and strawberries

By guest blogger TRACEY

There was genuine disappointment this week at Barlow Hall Primary School as the course of four cooking sessions came to an end. The ladies wanted this session to go out on a high, so eagerly set to prepping the vegetables and beef for a ‘mid-summer’s stew’. Many were surprised with the choice of vegetables, as they compared their standard choice of potatoes, carrots and swede to Kim’s ease of throwing in vegetables that some people don’t necessarily associate with a stew: red onion, beetroot, leek and peppers. 

Kim explained the financial benefits of using vegetables which are in season and she illustrated how versatile the veg mix is: at each stage of the cooking process, she described what you could do to make alternative dishes using the same basic ingredients, for example adding more water to make a soup, or combining with pasta and cheese to make a pasta bake, or putting in pulses for a tasty vegetable chilli. On this occasion, we were using diced beef to keep costs down and, as time was of the essence, make sure the beef would cook and become fairly succulent, which the first choice of lamb on the bone wouldn't in the length of the session. Crushed chilli and smoky paprika were sprinkled into the pot, along with aromatic thyme, rosemary and bay leaves, filling the room with enticing aromas and whetting everyone's appetites.

Next, non-suet dumplings were deftly formed using flour, margarine, water and salt, and were treated to a scattering of finely chopped rosemary before each ball was swiftly lowered into the pan, allowing just enough time for everyone to savour the beautiful smell of the stew.

Then came the part everyone had been eagerly anticipating, the non-bake fruity cheesecake. The team patiently awaited Kim’s instructions of folding in the icing sugar with the Greek yogurt and soft cheese. The fresh strawberries were sprinkled with sugar and chilled in the fridge, and the digestives were quickly crumbled in the food processor. The three parts came together to make a deliciously refreshing and light dessert - what a treat!

A BIG thank you to all at Barlow Hall Primary School, as they made us feel so welcome and both Kim and I had so much fun. We are extremely delighted to be invited back to run another set of four cookery classes in September and we will also be working alongside two of the ladies who just completed the course, so they will be sharing their newfound knowledge and skills and will help to deliver the sessions to a new group of participants. Roll on autumn!

There are more photos from this session on our Facebook page.

4 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Let them eat fishcakes!

By guest blogger TRACEY

It was really thrilling at Barlow Hall Primary School yesterday to see how the combined smell of the herbs, vegetables and fresh fish we were working with alerted the senses - even the earthy smell of the potatoes and freshly laid eggs seemed to whet the appetites of participants at our third session, school staff and people passing by, who asked us to put any leftovers to one side!

Kim introduced the menu - fishcakes with salsa verde and soft poached eggs - and talked about the ingredients as the group peeled potatoes and finely chopped mint, parsley and basil for the salsa verde. Some said that they weren’t familiar with the herb mix and would never have tried to make a salsa in this way , especially when the gherkins, capers and olives needed slicing and were added to the bowl. Their reaction on seeing the different hues of green was worth bottling and the keenness to try the mix was music to our ears, even convincing a reluctant few to join in the sampling!

Kim demonstrated a fuel-saving tip by steaming the fish in a colander over the potatoes. The fish cooked very quickly and was removed to cool down, while the potatoes were left to boil, then returned to the heat once the water was drained in order to dry them as much as possible. Once cooled, the salmon, haddock and coley were skinned and flaked, then the potatoes were mashed, and both were combined, along with chopped parsley leaves, lemon zest, egg and a little flour to soak up any water and to aid binding. Kim shared tips on how to vary the dish with peas, sweetcorn or grated carrot, and to shape the mix into animals, flowers or stars in order to entice children to eat fish.

While the fishcakes were cooking, it was time to poach the eggs, but not before we heard the many different ways and tips the participants have been taught to do so. Kim demonstrated a simple no-swirl, no-vinegar method: simply use fresh eggs and crack them into boiled water for three minutes with the lid on. Kim poached 10 eggs in two batches using this method... we were all impressed.

So many tips were shared during the session, for example: fish pie mixes are great value for money and are excellent for making fish kebabs; add chilli, coriander and lime for a Thai-inspired fishcake; never cook parsley stalks, but do use coriander stalks; many fresh herbs can be frozen... But for me, the best part of the session was the silence when we sat to eat together and the only thing I heard was: "Is there any more?" So apologies to all those staff who missed out! A fabulous session – thanks all. See you next week for the last session.

You can see more photos from this session on the Cracking Good Food Facebook page.

3 July 2013

GUEST BLOG: Our daily bread

By guest blogger EMMA SMAIL

A brilliant group of budding bakers basked in Rob’s bread knowledge on Saturday for the second of our new all-day Our Daily Bread sessions. A basic bread dough started things off to introduce the core breadmaking skills and a selection of flours was available for the cooks to create a ‘cocktail’ from strong white, wholemeal, spelt, miller's magic and bio-organic bread flours so everyone could put their own personal preference onto their loaf.

Sour dough and rye bread loaves were also made by everyone and the group was split into two to make either bagels or focaccia depending on their preference. Sundried tomatoes and olives were chopped up to mix into the focaccia dough with chopped red onion sprinkled on top while the bagel group were surprised to see how much their dough swelled up when placed in boiling water for just 20 seconds before being baked in the oven. By the end of the session the room was filled with the sweet smell of so many bread varieties that, despite having enjoyed a lunch of some beautiful pizza and salad prepared by the cracking good volunteers, everyone’s mouths were watering and the cooks were keen to get stuck into their fresh loaves.

Rob had bought with him a sourdough starter that was shared out among the group, so when that is ready in a few days' time the cooks can try yet another bread variety. And hopefully, after perfecting these baking skills, the cooks can be inspired by Rob’s passion for bread to try more and more.

Another great day at Chorlton High. Thanks to all the cooks for their hard work and enthusiasm.

There are more photographs from this session on the Cracking Good Food Facebook page - click here to be redirected and be sure to like some!

We're back with bread in the autumn - 21 September, 19 October and 23 November. Check out our website for full details and how to book.