A Quick Summer Traybake

Those working weekday dinners are such a bind. The clock's ticking from the moment you get in the door to the second that food hits the plate. You want something that's nutritious, tasty and above all quick. Is it any surprise that, as the hardest-working nation in Europe, we've fallen back on ready meals, pasta or pizza? When you've done a full day's work, gathering up the energy to sort out dinner is tough.

But there are ways and means. Although I'm the first to admit that I sometimes fall back on rigatoni with sauce from a bottle, there are other alternatives for that dull Wednesday evening when the tempation is high to roll past M&S or the chippy. How about this summer traybake–really easy and full of the flavours of this golden season?

As you walk in the door, get the oven on and preheating to 200C, and put a pan of water on to boil. I have been known to do this before I take my jacket and shoes off. Now you may kiss the partner and tickle the cat.

Once the water's bubbling, throw in some salt, then a handful per person of new potatoes. They'll need ten minutes to parboil. Now grab a sturdy roasting tray. Chuck in some chicken thighs or breasts, cut into slightly bigger than bitesize pieces, a thickly sliced red onion, and cherry tomatoes. Leave them whole. If you don't have cherries, normal size ons are fine, but quarter them.

Once the spuds have had their ten minutes, drain them and throw 'em in with the rest of the meat and veg. Mix everything up and give it a generous seasoning and a good glug of olive or rapeseed oil. Fresh herbs would be nice here too: robust thyme or fragrant rosemary. Oregano works as well.

Then just pop the whole lot into your hot oven, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Time for a beer, perhaps.

After twenty minutes, check the tray, and give everything a stir around. The potatoes should be golden at the edges, the onion soft, the chicken a bit sticky. If it's all looking a bit pale, just give it another ten minutes. Bear in mind that the spuds won't go as crispy as roasties, but they will go fudgy and soft. Half an hour in total is all this dish'll need at absolute maximum.

Once time's up, just mix everything up a bit, squirt over a little lemon juice, sprinkle on some parsley and serve. Looks good, eh?

Now, this dish is really tweakable. You could use little pork chops or thick fish fillets to replace the chicken (if you're using fish, no more than twenty minutes in the oven). If you're feeling bold a whole fish would work beautifully. You could add mushrooms, peppers, some whole garlic cloves, maybe parsnips or steamed sweet potatoes as the weather cools. Have a play, put in the flavours that you love and make it your own.

That's better than an M&S curry, isn't it?




Chef: satisfying the hunger for a good food movie

The problem with food movies is that they are fundamentally incapable of expressing the two most important things about their subject: smell and taste. Don't mention Smell-O-Vision. A scratch and sniff card can no more evoke a beautifully cooked plateful of food than a kazoo can accurately reproduce Beethoven's Ninth. The end results are the same: faintly amusing but not the experience you want.

That's probably why there have been so few films explicitly about the subject. And of course, they can't just be about food–as much as I enjoy the M&S adverts, I couldn't sit through 90 minutes of them. All the good food movies deal with those aspects of the human condition that we most readily connect with food: love, sex and family. Look at Babette's Feast, where a woman expresses gratitude for the community that has taken her in by cooking them an extraordinary banquet. Or Big Night, a film that tracks the struggle for supremacy between two feuding brothers, which culminates in a remarkable wordless climax where they cook breakfast together. Tampopo contains one of the sexiest scenes featuring an egg yolk that you'll ever see.

Jon Favreau, he of Iron Man and presidential speech-writing fame, has taken a risk with Chef, his latest movie. Food films don't do well at the box office, for the reasons I've mentioned above. But Chef is first and foremost a film about the sacrifices that a really good cook will make to get to the top, and what happens when he's forced to reinvent himself–a process that reconnects him with the things he holds dearest.

OK, Cliffe Notes (and note that from this point, a SPOILER ALERT is in operation). Favreau plays Carl Casper, a top chef who feels as if he's stuck in a rut. It's a feeling that's starting to come out in his cooking. He's filling the house every night, and his boss is happy. But the reviews are stinkers, and Casper is starting to lose his way. After a cake-crushing meltdown in front of his food critic nemesis, Casper buys a ratty old food truck, and goes back to basics, cooking and selling the food he loved back in the day. With his estranged son and buddy line chef in tow, Casper sets off on a road trip that takes in some of America's culinary hotspots, and finds the flavour in life again.

So, it's a bit on the nose from an elevator pitch. But Chef works, for me, because it's good on the details. Favreau spent months in restaurant kitchens, working his way up from herb-chopping to line work. The restaurant scenes feel authentic and sharply observed, down to the way Casper cleans down his station att the end of a shift. Favreau enlisted the help of food truck maestro Roy Choi and Texas barbecue pit king Aaron Franklin to give his film some old-school patina. That's Choi's Cubano that everyone's talking about, and Mitchell serves fall-apart pork shoulder just like the one in the movie every day.

The clever thing about Chef is the way it dials into modern trends in food fandom. Food trucks and real-deal meat-smoking are obsessions with many foodies. Favreau also nails the importance of social networking to the scene: Instagram and Twitter are the way a lot of people initially hear about the hot places to eat, whether that be a Michelin-starred joint or a high-sider on a street corner pushing out the greatest food you can get on a paper plate. Let's also note here that Casper's meltdown is sparked off by a food blogger, not a traditional critic.

Chef is a deeply sensual, warm and funny film, with a great soundtrack of classic Cuban cuts, reggae and blues and solid performances from Favreau and his supporting cast. John Leguziamo buzzes and pops as Casper's line chef buddy, and Emjay Anthony, playing his son, is sweet and charming. I thought it was a shame that Scarlett Johannsen and Dustin Hoffman seem to disappear once Casper gets his food truck (which is a lust object in and of itself: that chrome! that griddle!) and that we didn't see more of Carl's life pre-restaurant in Miami. Where does that love of Cuban food come from? Maybe a director's cut is in the offing. Anyway, I wanted to see more, which has to be a good thing.

With the long-mooted adaptation of chef Anthony Bourdain's autobiographical/crime novel Bone In The Throat finally looking like it's going in front of cameras, there's a chance we could be seeing more interesting movies set in the world of food. On the evidence of Chef, I'd be happy to see more. The film has the highest of accolades from me–TLC and I left the cinema absolutely starving hungry.



Rob’s Dirty Rice

There's nothing wrong with plain, simple white rice. It's calming, pure, and my accompaniment of choice to most meals. As a counterpoint to spicy flavours, you can't go wrong. In some cuisines, it serves as a mop-cum-utensil for sopping up a gravy-thick stew.

But the joy of rice comes around when you start adding stuff to it. Risotto. Paella. Fried rice. Biryani. And the Deep South way: dirty rice. Now, my way with dirty rice is completely inauthentic. Regular members of The Readership will be aware that I have a tendency to read through the traditional method, and then merrily go my own way. But know this: my dirty rice is damn tasty and even… a little bit healthy.

Start, of course, with the star of the dish. For this, basmati or sticky rice won't give as good a result as plain ole long-grain. Cook it first, using whatever method suits, and let it cool slightly. My rice cooker, as ever, does sterling service here, and I'm sometimes frugal and forward thinking enough to throw a couple of corn cobs in the steaming basket to cook over the rice. Saves time, effort, energy etc.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a big, deep, frying pan, and when hot, add two teaspoons each of cumin and sweet paprika. If you're feeling frisky, throw a little chili powder in there too. Let that bubble for a minute or so. Now for some veg. Traditionally you'd add the cajun trinity of onion, celery and green pepper. I used a big spring onion and half a red pepper. I was feeling lazy, had a scallion to use up and there wasn't a green pepper in the house. I am unrepentent.

Aaaanyways. Give the veg a couple of minutes to soften, then add a handful of frozen peas, and a few pucks of frozen spinach. This stuff is genius. It softens quickly in a hot pan, adding a shock of greenery and all the benefits of a leafy green, without needing to cook down huge bags of the stuff. A cheeky way of getting some goodness into any stew or ragu.

Now, bear in mind you've just thrown frozen stuff into a hot environment. That means the temperature in the pan will drop, but you'll also add a little moisture, which will create a kinda-sorta sauce to coat the rice. Season, then simmer until the spinach has broken apart and the peas have gone bright green.

Now throw in a handful of raw prawns, and the rice. Stir through, and cook until the prawns have gone pink. A couple of minutes, which should be enough time to heat the rice through. Once all is steamy and sizzly, throw over a handful of chopped parsley, pile onto plates and dig in.

Remarkably, I was organised enough to take a pic of the food. Doesn't happen often...


Needless to say, this is astonishingly versatile. Great with grilled chicken or fish, as part of a barbeque, or alongside a spicy stew. You can zazz it up with some cooked chicken, chorizo or sausage, maybe sweetcorn. As a weekday lifesaver, I think this is an essential part of the repertoire.

Oh, and I found myself humming this while I was at the stove. Dirty rice, I want you, dirty rice I need you, oh-whoa…



Bespoke wordsmithery for all ages, tastes and budgets. Est. 1966. No refunds. Owned and operated by Rob Wickings.


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