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Chop like a boss

Published on March 9, 2015
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Food writer Laura Tucker is spending this week sharpening her cooking skills at Ashburton Cookery School. Read her daily updates here

Chefs knife on a white background


Laura Tucker Food Magazine

I’ve set myself a goal for the week: meat.

My husband will be forever grateful, having learnt very early on in our relationship that I’m incredibly easy to buy presents for – anything to do with food or travel will keep me sweet and the last couple of Christmases have proved no different, with vouchers for Bertinet Kitchen in Bath and Ashburton Cookery School in Devon.

As an avid (but amateur) cook, I’m always keen for inspiration and to be stretched away from the tried and tested recipes that seem to appear from my repertoire a little too often. So when I was asked if I’d like to be the food team member to go and spend five days at Ashburton on their Intermediate Cookery Course for the magazine, my diary was cleared pretty quickly!

I like to think my basic skills are up to scratch, but I have a feeling those are really about to be put to the test. The programme for the week is intense: sauces, stocks, pastry, bread, meat butchery, fish filleting, creams, custards and chocolate, just for starters. I did the one-day Modern British Cuisine last year at the school and remember feeling pretty overwhelmed (and secretly a bit pleased with myself…) by the volume of food we managed to prepare and cook in such a short space of time.

So, as I get ready for Day One, I’ve set myself a goal for the week: meat. I’ve always been a little scared of meat – never quite sure how to handle, cook or serve it beyond the simplicities of a stew or a roast – so here goes. I’ll be bringing you updates straight from the kitchen every day this week. Wish me luck!

DAY ONE – Chicken Monday

Wow, what a day! After nine hours of chopping, poaching, sweating (onions, not me, yet…), seasoning, boning, frying, peeling, melting, crushing, quenelle-ing and piping, I’m already feeling inspired and excited about getting back into our kitchen at home. And there are four more days to go!

Our tutor Phil is one of those people whose boundless energy and passion for what he does has quickly rubbed off on the six of us in the group. All from different backgrounds with varying levels of experience and knowledge, I think we’ve all managed to pick up some great ideas, tips and new skills already and the endless questions and comments from each of us don’t phase Phil at all, which instantly sets everyone at ease. With so much to get through in a day, the pace is pretty fast but it never feels rushed and there’s always time to go over or practise new things. I secretly thrive under a bit of pressure too, so it works for me.

Although I consider myself to be quite at ease in a kitchen environment, I’ve really noticed today that having to think about how you prepare and cook each element of a dish puts a whole different level of pressure on cooking – I made a couple of real school-girl errors during the course of the day… I won’t embarrass myself by sharing the details with you, but let’s just say that I would definitely advise putting a bowl underneath a sieve before you pass a stock through it… yup, that happened.

You may remember from yesterday’s blog that I set a goal for the week: making friends with meat. Well, today, I most definitely made friends with a chicken and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself about it. Two beautiful breasts, a couple of fillets (ok, one and a half, I had a few knife issues), lovely legs and a couple of wings, and a mound of bountiful off-cuts simmering in the stock pot. Never again will I buy ready-prepared cuts of chicken – it really and truly took no time at all, even for a first-timer with limited knife skills and squeamish tendencies. A first day triumph!

We worked in a mixture of pairs and individually during the day and got to spend time getting to know each other over lunch and supper, which we’ll be eating each day in the school’s lovely garden dining room. The fruits of our labour included lunch of poached salmon with saffron risotto and supper of chicken breast on a bed of ‘Paysanne’ vegetables followed by a chocolate pot with booze-soaked fruit and crushed amaretti biscuits topped off with cream quenelles and chocolate work – my goodness was it delicious. I got a bit over excited with the chocolate piping work and here’s a little ‘ode’ to my lovely colleagues back in the food mag offices. Hope you like it guys!

And so on to the next culinary adventure. Lamb is our focus for the day – admittedly one of my less favoured meats and therefore the one I have least experience with, so I’m excited to get to grips with it.  Easter is coming up, after all, so it only seems appropriate to add it to my repertoire at this time of year at least.

More to come tomorrow…

Food Mag Chocolate Piping Ashburton Cookery School
Ashburton tutor Phil

Our tutor Phil is one of those people whose boundless energy and passion for what he does has quickly rubbed off on the six of us in the group.

chicken breast on a bed of ‘Paysanne’ vegetables Ashburton Cookery School
a chocolate pot with booze-soaked fruit and crushed amaretti biscuits topped off with cream quenelles and chocolate work

DAY TWO – Easter Tuesday

I’m naming the second day of our five-day course at Ashburton Cookery School ‘Easter Tuesday’ because I conquered two of my long time challenges: poached eggs and lamb (get it? Eggs, lamb…).

Not only did I nail my first poached egg after a short tuition from Phil, but it’s now sitting in a nice little plastic tub in the vast walk-in fridge ready to be finished off as part of our lunch menu for the next day. Who knew? Poached eggs part-cooked then finished off in a couple of minutes to order! A true revelation I can tell you, however one that now means I probably can’t get away with expecting my husband to make breakfast at the weekends…

Lamb has never been my favourite meat. I’m not really sure why, possibly something to do with an unfortunate childhood experience when one of our semi-pet Black Welsh Mountain sheep was killed by a roaming dog… Or it could simply be a lack of knowing what to do with it. Either way, I was anxious about facing up to my lamb-fear but ready to take it on and conquer.

During our half-hour of theory first thing in the morning, we were talked through the different cuts of lamb and straight away I began feeling more confident – it’s amazing how just understanding where the meat you’re going to be eating has come from helps make sense of the best ways to prepare it. So, presented with a beautiful Best End (more commonly known as a Rack), locally sourced for Ashburton, I got stuck in with French trimming (which basically means to make something look prettier) ready for cooking. Success! We cooked this with creamy and garlicky Dauphinoise potatoes, green vegetables, a fricassee of wild mushrooms including Trompettes, Girolles, Hedgehog (yes, really), Chestnut, Chanterelles and Pied Bleus and the most delicious Madeira sauce that we all agreed was the making of the plate. Rich, silky (oh hello, ‘monte au beurre’ – another reason to love butter) and full of incredible flavours from shallots, Madeira and chicken stock.

Sounds like a lot, right? That’s nothing! Lunch was a fresh, vibrant take on a classic Vichyssoise soup (a leek and potato soup, traditionally served cold. By the way, did you know that the green part of a leek is called the ‘flag’? No, me neither) with jewel-like flecks of fresh chives and a selection of bread rolls. We made a rich tomato sauce to be used later in the week and an almond and hazelnut praline which we sprinkled over a light Grand Marnier-laced Sabayon with fresh fruit. You won’t be surprised to hear that there was mass excitement among the group when the blow torches came out to add an extra dimension to the pudding. It’s no myth, they are just as exciting in real life as they look on TV.

So with Easter well and truly in the bag, I’m excited about what Day Three has to offer, especially as the second of our two teaching chefs, Ross, will be taking over for a couple of days and will no doubt be arriving with yet more exciting ideas and techniques to share with us.

Also, I’ve been drooling about the third day’s coconut sorbet ever since we arrived on Monday – I’m already envisaging having our entire freezer at home full of this to see us through the summer months. More tomorrow…

Food magazine writer Laura Tucker faces up to her fear of lamb at Ashburton Cookery School
Spring lamb Ashburton Cookery School

I was anxious about facing up to my lamb-fear but ready to take it on and conquer.

Bread Ashburton Cookery School

DAY THREE – ‘Give us a tuile’

I’m not even sure where to begin! Day Three was so packed full of incredible things and it flew by in what felt like less time than it takes to burn a tuile (more on that later) – I am so impressed with how much we’re all learning and making, all testament to the way Ashburton structures it’s classes and teaching techniques. Focused, yet flexible and fun.

In fact, so packed was our day that I’ve decided to dedicate most of this post to sharing some of the tips we picked up from chef Ross. Some are things you may already know or have your own methods for, but many of them refreshed my skills and knowledge, so I thought you might like to know them too.

But before I get into that, I have to tell you about what we prepared, cooked and ate, and I must start with the eagerly anticipated sorbet. For the five (maybe four) minutes it took to eat it, I was momentarily transported to somewhere warm, tropical and idyllic by the smooth, creamy, perfectly balanced sweet and sour coconut and lemon grass. Amazing.

Special mention must go to our tuile-making session (the inspiration for today’s title). A bending, moulding, manipulating frenzy ensued with an array of elaborate and creative delicately crispy sweet biscuits made. Well, a few. There were a lot that burnt, broke, were dropped or eaten well before time. It was a lot of fun.

Our theory session in the morning was pork-based – anatomy and cuts with appropriate cooking methods. Putting theory to practise later, our pork tenderloin ‘en papillote’ with fennel, apple, cider and thyme served with apple mash, carrots and celeriac was blissful.

Remember the poached egg revelation yesterday? Well, the said eggs were quickly heated in boiling water and perched atop lightly smoked haddock on a bed of nutmeggy wilted spinach with melted cheese and curry oil. Oh, and I forgot to mention that we knocked up a quick sourdough overnight which we used to mop up the eggy, curry, cheesy deliciousness.

Right, onto the tips and knowledge refreshers – here are just a few we’ve picked up over the last few days:

  1. Cheese soaked in milk. Ever wanted to melt hard cheese on top of something (in our case, haddock) without it running everywhere? Immerse it in a bowl of milk, cover, and put it in the fridge for a couple of hours before you need it.
  2. Two tips in one, you lucky people. Firstly, scrunching greaseproof paper up in a ball then smoothing out before you use it to line something (a tart tin, for example) makes it much easier to handle. Secondly, hold a small piece of greaseproof directly onto the grater before you zest a lemon – all the bits collect on the paper rather than awkwardly down the inside of your grater.
  3. Boiling veg. Any veg that grows underground (spuds, carrots, etc.) should be brought to the boil in cold water. Any that grow above the ground (broccoli, peas etc.) should be put into the water once it’s boiled.
  4. You can get fresh yeast for baking from your local baker or supermarket. (And usually it’s free…)
  5. Chef Ross’s inside tip for plating pretty is to draw a picture of how you’d like your plate to look before you start.
  6. Braising, stewing and pot-roasting. It’s good to be reminded of the subtle differences: braising means pouring liquid in to half way up the meat and covering with a lid; stewing means fully immersing the meat in liquid and covering with a lid; pot-roasting is basically braising in the oven but without covering, so the top roasts.
  7. My favourite thing about this week so far was a conversation about making our own dry-cured bacon at home. With a few very simple steps taken over the course of around 10 days, it’ll be good to go. Pop in and ask your local butcher to help – job done! What could be better than a weekend bacon bap that’s completely home-made? Not much, as far as I’m concerned.

So, more than half-way through a fantastic week week and next up is beef, pasta, savoury tarts and crème brulee. (Note to self: next time I go on a residential cookery course, bring my running shoes…) More tomorrow!

Poached egg Ashburton Cookery School
pork tenderloin ‘en papillote' Ashburton Cookery School

For the five (maybe four) minutes it took to eat it, I was momentarily transported to somewhere warm, tropical and idyllic.

Coconut lemongrass sorbet

DAY FOUR – Throwback Thursday

My fourth day at Ashburton has thrown up a lot of lovely memories that have been filed away in the back of my mind.

I grew up in a family of good food lovers and learnt much of what I know today from my parents, both amazing cooks. We spent a lot of time as children in France thanks to the link with my Father’s French side of the family, and I’m sure many of my influences have come from the culture and food there.

Our Thursday, lunch was a staple favourite of mine: a light tart of ham hock and cheddar with some lovely mixed leaves. My Mum is an incredible cook generally and her tarts are always really wonderful. Not a soggy bottom in sight and the fillings always light and flavoursome, so I thought of her as we prepared ours. We ate them just warm with a few leaves tossed in a lovely mustardy vinaigrette and the combination of this and the tart took me straight back to summer lunches outside in our family gardens. Just perfect.

Dad was a wonderful cook too, and today when we set about making the pasta for our tortelli starters I was suddenly transported back to being at our dining table with him when I was a child – sheets and sheets of pasta hanging from suspended broom handles, chair backs and any other free and suitable hanging surface. It also reminded me of Dad’s regular trips to London when he would bring back exciting cardboard boxes filled with incredible freshly made ravioli from ‘I Camisa’ – an amazing Italian deli on Old Compton Street which is still there today. So with memories of these parcels of delight, I set about making our tortelli. Blimey, they’re tricky little blighters! But, after much rolling, filling and shaping the end result was delicious and really surprisingly successful. Soft little parcels filled with goat’s cheese and red pepper with a zesty green pesto. There may be a rush on granite work-surfaces in our course members’ home towns – they’re amazing for working with pastry or dough and we’ve all fallen in love with the ones in Ashburton’s kitchens.
Our fillet steak main course evoked slightly different memories. You may remember at the beginning of this week I mentioned my hope to “make friends” with meat. From an early age I was incredibly fussy about meat, so much so that I remember a letter Dad sent me some time in my early twenties when I was mulling over a job change, in which he basically encouraged me that I could be good at many things, but ‘perhaps not chief taster in a steak and kidney pie factory’. Says it all, really. So, while my taste for meat has definitely matured over the years, I’ve still been very wary about preparing and cooking it. The fillet steak we were given today needed little doing to it – seared in a little oil and salt then into the oven for a few minutes before eating with a café de paris butter, crispy, chunky chips and stuffed mushrooms. Amazing. Literally melted in the mouth and so incredibly easy to cook! I’ve felt my confidence with meat improving by the day – a massive winner for me and all thanks to Phil and Ross at Ashburton.
Our dessert prep for the day was crème brulee. One of my all-time favourites, and I was excited about getting the blow torches out again. Which reminded me of an amusing family lunch party, many years ago, when an elderly relative leant towards me and said ‘Do be careful dear, there’s broken glass in the pudding’. It was hard caramel poured over floating islands’ (iles flottantes) that Dad had made. So simple, so delicious, so easy to make. Yum.
My culinary walk down memory lane during the day took me somewhat by surprise, but reminded me why eating is about so much more than sustenance –  it’s about bringing people together, sharing experiences and stories, and above all enjoying wonderful food prepared and made with love. The team at Ashburton definitely foster that belief which shows in their approach to teaching.

I’m really sad that there’s only one day left but I’m itching to get home and start practising everything we’ve learnt (I’m sure my husband and friends are pretty keen for me to get home, too. Apron at the ready…). So more tomorrow from our final day…

Ashburton Cookery School
Ashburton Cookery School

Which reminded me of a family lunch party, many years ago, when an elderly relative leant towards me and said “do be careful dear, there’s broken glass in the pudding”..

DAY FIVE – The Last Supper

Our final day was fish day. I anticipated not enjoying gutting a fish very much, and it turns out I was right. I did it though (wearing blue catering gloves…) and managed to fairly successfully fillet a plaice and a mackerel without too much trouble. I’m glad I learnt how to do it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be leaving the gutting to the husband in the future. It’s just not my thing.

After our filleting session we put together two beautifully simple and fresh dishes. The first was plaice fillets stuffed with red peppers served with a vibrant saffron sauce and plump scallops. This is my kind of food and it was just lovely. Another of my favourites, fried mackerel was next, with a cannelloni and tomato stew, crispy belly pork and salsa verde with a light, crispy shard of perfect crackling sitting on the top. Just delicious, and other than the belly pork and tomato sauce which had been slow cooked the day before, this dish took a matter of minutes to put together. A massive winner.

Our final pudding of the week was one of my all time favourites. A zingy, creamy, perfectly smooth lemon tart. I can actually feel a drool coming on as I write about it. There’s nothing better than a good lemon tart, as far as I’m concerned. And this was a really good one.

My week has been absolutely fantastic. I have learnt an incredible amount, my confidence has grown and together our group cooked some wonderful food. And so the remainder of this blog has to be some thankyous – to our tutors Phil and Ross. Knowledgeable, patient, great fun and above all passionate about what they do, couldn’t have asked for better people to guide us through the week.

AJ, Mark and Ellen who worked tirelessly cleaning up after us, making sure there was always coffee and tea on hand and that we had everything we needed – always with smiles on their faces.

Jane, Tom and Lindsey in the office who helped me with IT problems and various other bits and pieces throughout the week, and for whom nothing was too much trouble.

Those of us staying at Ashburton were given delicious breakfast every morning by John and Sarah. We got a bit cocky after our poached egg masterclass on day three, but John’s eggs were perfection so our judgement was short lived!

To Darren and Anicca for opening the doors to us – hopefully this blog has given our readers an insight into your wonderful school!

And finally, to my wonderful course buddies Anne, Bobbie, Carl, Nick and Sue. Such characters, such lovely people and we shared some hilarious moments during the course of the week and learnt lots from each other along the way – I hope you all achieve your foodie dreams and that your time at Ashburton helps you on your journeys.

Trimming plaice fish ashburton cookery school
plaice fillets stuffed with red peppers served with saffron sauce and scallops

My time here has been an absolute revelation. I have learnt an incredible amount, my confidence has grown and together our group cooked some really wonderful food.

A zingy, creamy, perfectly smooth lemon tart.