Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cordon Vert Diploma Finals

Last week was the culmination of my Vegetarian Society Cordon Vert cookery course that I have been doing over the last couple of years. The Diploma Finals consist of two days of cookery exams, firstly you have to cook a three course meal for four people, the second you have to cook a two course lunch for four.

The three course dinner menu is decided by the student, taking into consideration certain skills and techniques learned during the various courses. The menu has to be nutritionally balanced, taste good and look good. It also has to be served on time and the kitchen has to be kept relatively clean and tidy while you're cooking.

The second exam has much the same criteria, save for the various techniques which weren't being tested. Instead, it was the creative side of the repetoire that was under scrutiny as we were given our ingredients only an hour and a half before we started cooking.

I've been practicing and revising my dinner party menu for the last few months on friends and family and I was reasonably happy with it. After initially having timing problems, I'd managed to just about get everything served on time in the last couple of meals I'd done.

After a morning spent making our lunch, it was time to begin the first of the exams. We had some time to check our ingredients and gather equipment and then we were off. Four and a half hours to cook the best three course meal we could.

My menu was Fried Rissotto Balls with Roasted Pepper Sauce followed by Carrot and Chestnut Ravioli with Watercress Cream Sauce. This was accompanied by a Warm Sweet Potato Salad. The dessert was Poached Pears In Red Wine Galette with Iced Ricotta Parfait.

I started by making the parfait, as this had to go into the freezer. Then I worked my way through the rest of the menu, having a few problems with the pasta, but as the serving time of 7.30pm approached, I was pretty much on time.

I plated up my first course and served it to the invited guests, and gave one plate for the tutors, who would be marking the dishes. I then began getting the main course ready to plate. Once I'd served the main course, it was time to do dessert. There wasn't much, if any, time in my schedule to rest. However, the timings that I'd worked out and practiced were pretty much spot on and my dessert was ready and delivered on time. I finished my clearing up and that was it - it was all over. Or at least half of it was.

There were four of us taking the finals, and once we'd all finished clearing up, we sat and had some soup and dips and chatted about our experience. We were all shattered, it had been a really stressful day. The tutors paid us a visit but weren't giving anything away, they just warned us not to have too late a night as we still had the creative exam to do.

The next morning at 9am we were given the list of ingredients that we could use for the creative exam. We then had an hour and a half to work out what we were going to cook. I had taken about half a dozen or so of my favourite cookbooks with me to help me decide what to cook, and after having read through the ingredient list and flicked through the books I decided to do an Indian Thali followed by grilled banana pancakes.

So, at 10.30am we all began the second exam, with two and a half hours to create a two course menu to be served buffet style.

I'd decided to make a creamy coconut pepper and mushroom curry, Bombay potatoes, spinach with chilli and garlic and basmati rice cooked with onions and a selection of spices. This was then to be followed by the aforementioned banana pancakes.

Getting it all ready in the two and a half hours was pretty tough, but I just about managed to do it. I wasn't at all happy with what I'd produced, as I thought much of it was overcooked and didn't taste as good as I'd hoped.

We all served our dishes to the tutors so they could do their marking and we sat down to eat the rest of what we had cooked. I still wasn't that impressed with my morning's work and was worried that I'd thrown my diploma away.

After we'd finished eating, we cleared up and then went to see the tutors to get some feedback and results of the exams.

And the result? I passed! The sense of relief was enormous, I don't think I've ever had quite a stressful couple of days. I'm looking forward to receiving my certificate and detailed feedback on my meals.

And the future? I'm still keen to learn and to do something in catering, so watch this space...

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cordon Vert Fungus Foray

This is a course that I've been trying to get on for a couple of years but it's always been booked up. This year I booked it really early and have been looking forward to it since around May time.

I love mushrooms, so the thought of going out searching, picking and then cooking our finds was quite exciting. And, I'm pleased to say, the weekend did not disappoint.

The weekend was held at the Vegetarian Society's Cordon Vert School in Altrincham, near Manchester. It all started on Friday night with a slide show about the various different types of fungi presented by Dr Patrick Harding, who was to be our guide and expert for the weekend.

Patrick Harding has written a lot of books on plants and fungi as well as regularly presenting lectures and other weekends such as this one across the country.

Patrick is quite a character, reminding me of a cross between Stanley Unwin and Gandalf. He's a great bloke, and regular enthusiastic whoops and cries accompanied the various finds during our forays over the next couple of days which was quite amazing considering he's been doing this for years.

Saturday morning started with a more in depth slide show detailing how to categorise fungi and a look at the kind of stuff we might find. We then went to Dunham Massey, a local National Trust property, where we began our foray.

It wasn't long before a shout went up and we had discovered our first fungus, a blusher. Patrick showed us how to identify it and quizzed us as to which group of fungi it fitted into. After the initial find, things were a bit sparse for the first hour or so with just the odd patch of sulpher tuft and a few 'little brown jobs' as Patrick dismissively called them.

Just as we were about to take a break for a picnic lunch things started getting interesting with hen of the woods, a parasol and a host of ink caps. No too much edible stuff yet, but it was interesting to see the diversity of different species.

The afternoon proved to be really good and we collected a host of fungi, both edible and not including some bay boletes, beefsteak and a single cep. Some of the fungi such as the amethyst deceivers and some of the waxtops were amazing colours.

Around 3pm we made our way back to the Cordon Vert school and, once there, Patrick challenged us to categorise all our finds. We didn't do too bad, only a handful of them were wrong. Patrick calculated that we had collected 62 different species during the day. I never realised that there were so many!

Before the evening meal we had a slide show about edible funghi and, after dinner, we had a presentation about the folklore of fungus, including some interesting theories about the origin of Santa Claus.

On Sunday morning we went for an hour and a half's foray over the local golf course. We returned with another dozen new species, including a couple that Patrick hadn't seen before and took with him to check.

After we returned it was time to cook some recipes using the edible fungi that we had found. Some of them, such as the beefsteak are a bit of an aquired taste but others were very nice.

The weekend was great fun and very, very interesting. I'm interested to get out and see what fungi the local woods and paths have to offer. Whether I'll be brave enough to eat anything I find, I don't know. If you see Patrick Harding doing any presentations around your way, I urge you to go and see him - you won't regret it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Chutney Mary, London

Chutney Mary
535 Kings Road,
Chelsea, London SW10 0SZ

Chutney Mary is an Indian restaurant that is part of the same chain that comprises Veeraswamy, Amaya and the Masala Zone restaurants.

Chutney Mary is on the Kings Road, Chelsea about a 10 minute walk or so from Fulham Broadway tube. The restaurant itself is in the basement of the building, but although it isn't brightly lit, it doesn't feel enclosed at all.

There were nine of us at the meal, a mixture of veggies and non-veggies.

The menu has plenty of choices for those of us who don't eat meat and it isn't your normal "korma, madras, vindaloo" Indian restaurant menu either as you'll see.

Before the starters were delivered we were treated to an amuse bouche of tomato soup. This was served in a small cup and saucer and was very nice.

For the first course, I had something that was labeled as three vegetarian kebabs. When it turned up it was three patties, one of pea and fig, one of sago and one comprising of spiced yam. They were presented nicely on a lotus leaf and accompanied by an avocado cream and a fruit chutney. They were all really nice, especially the yam one. I wasn't too keen on the avocado, but then I'm not a huge fan of guacamole either. One of the most popular starters on our table was the potato basket which was a 'basket' made of fried potatoes that was filled with various street foods and yoghurts. For a starter it looked very big and quite filling. Judging by the empty plates, it was very tasty too.

The main course choice for vegetarians at Chutney Mary is pretty good with two platters comprising various vegetable delights. We had a mixture of the two delivered to our table so I'll endeavour to remember the various dishes that they comprised.

I had the Punjab Vegetable Platter which had a selection of black lentil dhal, aloo gobi, spinach and cheese, okra, tomato and waterchestnut curry and spicy rice. This was served in small dishes on a great moon shaped tray that fitted perfectly around the plate. To accompany this I had a cheese and chilli naan.

The dhal was spicy and incredibly creamy, possibly one of the nicest I have ever had. I'm not a big okra lover, usually finding it stringy and/or slimy. But this okra had none of that, it was tender and very nice. I tried a couple of the options that were on the Vegetarian Platter, the other veggie dish on the main menu. These were tandoori broccoli, which was just-cooked and really crunchy laced with a spicy sauce. I also tries some peppers stuffed with smoked aubergine. The aubergine had a superb smokey flavour - it was gorgeous.

The dessert menu had what was described as a Garam Masala and Cardamom Brulee, so the choice was made for me. The brulee was served in the middle of a large plate, without a ramekin, topped with coconut ice cream and mint leaves. This was the first time I had ever had a brulee that wasn't in a dish of some sort. The texture of the brulee was just about perfect, firm and silky. I couldn't taste any garam masala, but the cardamom flavour was definitely there, but not overwhelming. On Gaz's Brulee scale this was a good eight and a half.

The service was great, there was always someone there when you needed them, and despite our awkward and disorganised ordering, the dishes were always correct and delivered to the right people. The waitress was also more than happy to take a photo of the group. It was a birthday celebration for a couple of the group and the restaurant supplied a cake and candles to celebrate.

A service charge was added to the bill, I'm not sure if this is standard for every one or whether it was because we were a large group and they happily split the bill over several credit cards.

A great night out and highly recommended if you fancy an Indian meal with a difference.