When Walid from TrustedPlaces asked Sara and I if we would like to participate in a fun Cook-A-Thon that would bring together bloggers (food and others), TrustedPlaces members, food photographers, everyday cooks, chefs, food journalists and media personalities we were thrilled. The event, organised by TrustedPlaces and Annie of Going Underground, would be similar to MasterChef and teams would compete to create a 3 course meal to be judged by a panel of expert judges. Eek! We were even more delighted when we found out that we would be teamed together. We know each other through our blogs and met last year on the Gastro Tour of Borough Market also organised by TrustedPlaces.
Having signed-up for the cooking-fest the next step was to decide what to cook. The rules were simple: cook a three course meal for four people in two and a half hours. We would have one and a half hour’s use of the cooker and at least one of the dishes had to be cold and uncooked. Being in different countries it was somewhat tricky to get together before hand to decide on our menu, but that was fine; we’re bloggers, we’re used to conversing over the internet (we don’t get out much). And so started a chain of emails to come up with our menu.
Sara and I were clear from the outset that we wanted to use good quality, seasonal produce, as we do as much as possible in our every day cooking in our homes across the water from each other. We knew we would have access to a farmers market on the day of the event so that criteria would be easy enough to meet. As we started to discuss ideas for dishes over email the concept of an Italian/English fusion started to form. We wanted to keep the dishes simple and true to our similar styles of home cooking. It didn’t take us long to come up with menu, which we named ‘England meets Italy’:
Other than working out our timings and the ingredients we would need all that was left was to wait for the big day. I was looking forward to seeing Sara again, and to cooking with a fellow food blogger, which I’d never had the opportunity to do before. Sara was also looking forward to the event, which she was flying in from Italy especially for. Here’s her diary of the lead up:
I leave Italy on a rainy friday evening, with pine-nuts and capers in my suitcase: I’m still wondering how it passed through security!
While I was packing, my husband looked at my little bag of Italian goodies, probably thinking I’m really going nuts! But he’s used to it! I’m a food nut, junkie, addicted, whatever: I LOVE food!
And when Walid, a few months ago, asked me if I would be interested in participating in a cook-a-thon in London, together with other foodies, well, I was more then happy! I was ecstatic!
And when he told me my team mate would be Julia, from A Slice of Cherry Pie, by then I was completely in heaven!!!
Back to the airport, our plane is, of course, delayed. So I go through the program once again, feeling more and more excited! I think about my italian friends asking me “Ma scusa, vai fino a Londra per una gara di cucina?” (“Sorry Sara, are you really planning to go to London just for a cooking competition?”). It came natural to me answering, “well, yes, I’m going as far as London, but I could go as far as Australia, just for the sake of food and fun!”
In the weeks before Julia and I went through daily mails, exchanging how to work out our menu, what and where to shop, what and when to cook everything. And excitement was already rising! We were going to cook in an unknown kitchen, surrounded by unknown appliances, together with other 20 (mostly unknown) people! And we were going to cook a 3 course meal for 4 people together, which we had never done before!
On the plane I go through our workflow once again, estimating time for every passage. We both knew we would have to work hard at the start and at the end, but in the middle we would have time to look around, chat, have fun!
We land in a grey but not so cold London, we take the train to the city and we begin to think where we are going to eat tonight.
Despite all is said in the world about food in England, there is thousand and thousand of choice! For Friday night we chose a Thai restaurant, near Victoria and near our hotel: convenient and extremely good! And our food adventure begins!
In the days leading up to the event I started to worry a little: this was a Masterchef-style cook-off with some very talented cooks; was our menu too simple, how would it turn out on the day when we hadn’t even practiced? It seems I wasn’t the only one worrying, as Sara’s diary shows:
On Saturday we wonder around shopping, we go to the British museum and at night we try to meet my friends Maz and Nicole, fellow contestants in Sunday’s NomNomNom. But they are stuck home trying the menu! And then I panicked! Julia and I didn’t even think about it! We chose dishes we are familiar with, mixing Italian and English ingredients, dishes that can be cooked in less then 2 hours, dishes that we know turn out well…but we didn’t try them! And the day after, on Sunday, when the competition began, it turn out that almost everybody tried their menu! Oh my gosh! Were we too sure of ourselves? Or had we simply planned a menu that was too simple?
Well, there was nothing else for it now; we would just have to go with it and hope we could pull it off. Time for wooden spoons at dawn!
Sara and I met early outside Cookery School where the event was being held and headed off early to the farmers market and Waitrose, armed with shopping lists and Onya shopping bags that we had been kindly given. I’ve been carrying mine around on my key ring ever since and it’s been coming in very handy for shopping, cutting out the need for plastic bags.
The farmers market had a fabulous selection of produce, as you can see from the pictures below:
After the market we headed over to Waitrose to get some final ingredients and who should we meet but a fellow team member, the lovely Nicole from the IT Girls, who blatantly admitted spying on us! Shocking underhand tactics! I present to you photographic evidence below:
Having been coerced into talking about our menu we quickly decided to scarper and head back to Cookery School, where we were greeted with wine and goodies freshly baked by the fantastic staff at the school.
Meeting all the other teams was lovely – it was so nice to meet people who all shared the same passion for good food – but it did nothing for our worries; everyone seemed so organised and their menus sounded fantastic. Never mind, we were here to meet great people and have lots of fun, and that’s just what we did!
Sara and I got off to a good start, working very well together. We chopped and stirred, rolled and baked, while chatting to the other contestants and taking photographs. We soon realised that we would have a lot of time in the middle when there would be nothing to do but there would be a mad rash at the end as many of the elements of our dishes had to be done at the last minute – poaching the salmon, cooking the asparagus, dressing the salad. The challenge was going to be the hob and oven space as we were sharing two hobs and one oven with four other teams. Sure enough it all went crazy in the last 45 minutes of so, slap stick comedy style, as we danced around each other while keeping an eye on the ticking clock. With just seconds to spare we finished the dishes and plated up. Phew!
All that cooking made us hungry and finally we could sit down to try all the fantastic food that had been cooked, while the judges made their decision. During the dinner Walid and Annie said a few words and special guest Jo Hemmings had a little chat with us about food and sex (Did you know that cooks make the best lovers?). We also heard from Action Against Hunger the very good cause the event was raising money for.
Finally the judges were ready to announce the winner and a hush descended upon the room. And the winner was…‘England meets Italy’! Wow. Let me tell you Sara and I were stunned; we genuinely hadn’t thought we stood a chance.
Sara’s fabulous pastry on the crostata was the star of the show and soon everyone was asking for the recipe. Not one to deny you I give it to you here, along with the others we made (all recipes serve 4):
Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella and Watercress Salad
A couple of handfuls of red and yellow cherry tomatoes
4 vines of cherry tomatoes
2 balls of buffalo mozzarella
2 handfuls of watercress
2 handfuls of rocket
A few shavings of parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of white balsamic vinegar
1. Put some watercress and rocket on each plate.
2. Halve the loose tomatoes and add them to the salad leaves
3. Top each salad with slices of mozzarella, cherry tomatoes on the vine and some parmesan shavings.
4. Mix the olive oil and vinegar and drizzle over the salads.
Poached Salmon with Asparagus and Caponata
Caponata is a typical Sicilian sweet and sour dish that can be eaten hot or cold, alone or as a side, at noon or at dinner, perfect for every occasion! We chose it to complement incredibly flavoursome poached organic salmon and seasonal asparagus.
4 organic salmon fillets
16 asparagus spears
For the Caponata:
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cans of tomatoes
3-4 tablespoons vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and pepper
1. Dice the aubergines and finely chop the onion.
2. Slowly fry the onion in the oil until softened then add the aubergines and slowly fry them too.
3. Add the tomatoes and a few tablespoons of water and cook slowly.
4. After 45 minutes, add sugar and vinegar, stir, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally.
5. After a further 30 minutes add the olives and capers.
6. Check if the aubergines are cooked enough, then add pine-nuts and salt and pepper if needed.
7. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, deep enough to cover the salmon fillets. Once boiling add the salmon, turn off the heat and leave to poach for 10 minutes, until cooked through.
8. Boil the asparagus for 3-6 minutes, depending on thickness.
9. Serve the salmon and asparagus on top of the caponata.
Crostata with English Berries
Crostata is a typical Italian dessert, fairly simple and very widespread. Basically is a crust of pasta frolla (sweetened short crust pastry made with eggs) filled with different filling, such as marmalade or jam (crostata alla marmellata), in which marmalade or jam are cooked together with the crust, or thick custard and fruits (crostata alla frutta). For the NomNomNom we choose to fill it with a thick custard made with organic milk, free range eggs, organic flour and sugar topped with fresh and delicious English berries: blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
For the crust, to cover a 24 cm round cake mould, and some biscuits with the remaining pastry:
300 g flour
150 g unsalted butter, room temperature
100 g sugar
2 egg yolks
For the custard:
500 ml whole milk
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoon sugar
70 g flour
1. Pre-heat the oven at 180°C.
2. Dice the butter and lightly mix it with the rest of the ingredients. Work it as fast as you can, trying to obtain a perfectly combined ball of pastry. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. To make the custard warm the milk in the microwave oven.
4. Meanwhile, in a sauce pan, mix together egg yolks, sugar and flour. Slowly pour the milk in the egg mixture and put it on medium heat. And now the trick: attach and hand mixer to the nearest plug and begin to blend the custard while cooking. Continue cooking until it thickens: it must have the consistency of a very thick yogurt. Once thickened transfer it to a bowl, cover with plastic, trying to touch the entire surface of the cream, and refrigerate until completely cooled.
5. When the pastry has rested enough, roll it in a thin layer and cover a buttered cake mould.
6. Fork the surface of the pastry, cover with parchment and cover it with ceramic balls or rice or dry beans and cook for 20-25 minutes. Remove the parchment and continue cooking the cake for another 10-15 minutes, or until golden. Let it cool on a rack.
7. When both the cake and the custard are perfecly cool, assemble the cake. Cover the cake base with the custard and cover the custard with mixed red and black berries.
After dinner we had a raffle in aid of Action Against Hunger and then it was off to Soho for the after dinner party hosted by Courvoisier and SpinVox for some delicious brandy cocktails to round off a fabulous day.
Special thanks to Walid and Annie for organising such a fantastic event.
But that’s not all! The next stage in the event is a competition for the best on-line record of the day, so the teams have been writing, editing and posting. You can view all the entries, including this one at www.webjam.com/nom_nom_nom/participants. Enjoy the entries and don’t forget to vote for your favourite (which of course will be Team 3: England Meets Italy!). While you’re there you can enter into a charity raffle to raise money for Action Against Hunger to help save lives by combating world hunger.