Sunday, 23 January 2011

Kitchen Conquests: When Gary Rhodes Was Cool

Gary Rhodes' Open Rhodes Around Britain was one of the first cookbooks I owned as an adult.

Before you start sniggering, I was in my mid-teens and Gary Rhodes was one of the few TV chef megastars around at the time. This was all before he appeared in a much later series of Hell's Kitchen (after Gordon Ramsay got bored with it) and went from general nice guy to trying-too-hard pantomime villain.

There are those we love for being a bit too vicious in their professional kitchens and those we love for being the kind of people we wish we could ring up of an evening when our bechamel has split and we're not sure how to fix it. Gary crossed the line and I'm pretty sure that's why the British public voted him out of Strictly Come Dancing so early on. OK, he was a terrible dancer, but still, it didn't help. 

Is this the first time I've mentioned Strictly on this blog? That must be something of a record.
I've never lasted that long before.

Getting back to the book before I start running off on a Strictly tangent, as well as it being my first grown-up cookbook, it also provided the recipe for the very first meal I made where I genuinely thought 'Wow! I actually made that.' It was a meal of Caramelised Pork Fillets and I served it with rice flavoured with onions, peas and if I remember correctly a large slick of melted butter. Some things never change. 

My cookbook collection grew and I used the gentle sweet-and-sour sauce from that book less and less. A couple of weeks ago I had a hunger for pork ribs. Sticky, sweet, house-brick coloured, Chinese pork ribs where you don't care how much of a mess your fingers get into and the meat falls off the bone with nothing but the touch of your lips. I stuck two large packs into my Sainsburys grocery order and a few days later I went about trying to recreate the ribs my local Chinese take-away pump out at £5 a punnet. 

It suddenly struck me that I hadn't considered how I was going to do this. I needed a sauce recipe and I needed it fast. Kerching! I ran my finger along what is gradually becoming a library of cookbooks and pulled out my discoloured copy of Open Rhodes Around Britain.  Phew! I was set. 

The recipe, which can be applied to any cut of pork, involves coating the ribs in brown sugar, salt, pepper and oil and searing them in a wide pan over a high heat. This begins the caramelisation process and gets some colour into the meat. The ribs are then set aside while the sauce is made. I decided to update the recipe a little. It was a bit mid-90s for my liking. I added more sugar, salt, pepper and a touch of oil to the pan and waited until the sugar was just below boiling. I then threw in some red wine vinegar, tomato puree and chicken stock. Once it was combined it was just a case of adding butter, Worcestershire sauce, a few shakes of Tabasco and tinkering with the sweetness and sourness until it was perfectly balanced. At the very last minute I chucked in some Chinese Five-Spice, which really gave it the authentic flavour I was aiming for. Chinese Five-Spice isn't in the original recipe, although I suspect it wasn't a supermarket staple at the time. 

All I had to do then was assemble the ribs in a tray, coat them in the sauce, cover with foil for the initial cooking and hope for the best. This was the glorious result: 

Knowing how sticky and fatty the ribs would be I wanted to serve them with something fresh, so I  stir-fried some vegetables quickly and placed them at the side. I wish you could smell this through the screen. It was absolute heaven. I should point out that this was just my first portion. 

Finding Open Rhodes reminded me of the Walnut and Maple Syrup biscuits I used to bake from it. Baking is my cooking Achilles heel but these biscuits are very easy. It's just a standard biscuit mixture of caster sugar, butter, eggs and plain flour with a good glug of maple syrup and some chopped walnuts at the very end. The maple flavour only comes through as a hint and obviously adds sweetness. I gave in to the urge to up the maple syrup content and as a result ended up with a stickier dough than planned. It made it slightly trickier to handle, but what's a few sticky fingers when there's syrup at stake?

I realised after making the dough that I was out of greaseproof paper and my Teflon sheet was long gone, so I resorted to a tray of flour. Considering how sticky the syrup had made the dough, this was no bad thing. Oh and I promise they were all different sizes for a reason. It had been years since I'd made them and I wanted to know what the perfect thickness would be.

There's nothing like the smell of baking on a cold Wednesday night to make home feel even cosier. I may try them again with pecans. I'm guessing pecans were a bit of a luxury when Gary wrote this book. Thanks, Gaz. Even if you can't dance and you're a bit surly-faced at times, you're still a good egg really.  

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