Serving up some help in the kitchen

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We’ve all been warned ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, but in my case, there couldn’t be enough.

The task was to try to glean some culinary skills that would do justice to a ‘Masterchef’ contestant, if not a professional kitchen ... and I needed all the help I could get.

An avid viewer of all TV food programmes, I hang on to every word of advice from Michel Roux Jnr, James Martin, Gordon Ramsay et al, and as for Jamie Oliver, well his ‘Thirty Minute Cookbook’ has become my bible. Granted it takes a bit, well rather a lot longer than half an hour to complete the finished recipe, but I get there and the result looks the part, and more importantly, tastes not bad, even if I do say so myself.

But BBC ‘Masterchef’ just leaves me with a terrible feeling of inadequacy. Where do all these people learn these skills? They seem to come in off the street and rustle up the most amazing dishes.

Under the watchful and often critical eye of judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode they face really stiff challenges, whether it is working in professional kitchens, feeding large numbers or providing creative dishes for top chefs and food critics. I’m in awe of their skill and, if the truth be told, just a little jealous of their experience.

On the back of the horsemeat scandal and not knowing what was in ready meals, I announced at work that I wasn’t buying microwave meals, instead trying to cook everything from scratch. However, I also said that I wanted to brush up on my basic kitchen skills.

And what better place to go for some advice than Forth Valley College, where they turn out some highly-trained students who go on to work around the country, everywhere from canteens to award-winning restaurants.

Last year, the catering department moved from Falkirk into a new home at the Stirling campus where the facilities are as good as you would find in any top-class eatery.

Fresh from their success in the ScotHot competition at Glasgow’s SECC, the top event for the hospitality, catering and tourism industry, the students were keen to show off their skills.

The FVC Future Talent Team had to devise a three course pre-theatre menu for 40 people. Made up of students from a range of courses, on the day they had five in the kitchen, one as kitchen porter and five front of house.

This week, under the watchful eye of chief lecturer George Scott, the five in the training kitchen helped me recreate their fabulous main course – pan fried smoked haddock, truffle mash, Scotch egg, cullen skink and baby veg.

Suitably garbed in chef whites, I was let loose in the gleaming kitchen and first up was making the mash. Now you might think there’s not a lot that can go wrong with mash but Kyle Martin (19), of Bo’ness, showed me how to put it through a sieve until there wasn’t a lump left.

Back in the saucepan with some truffle oil and generous portion of butter added, it was all mixed in. Then it was time for a little seasoning and the first part of the dish was put to the side to be heated up just before plating.

Thankfully Duncan Dewar (35), of Tillicoultry had prepared the baby veg before I arrived, carefully scraping the tiny carrots and trimming the leeks. These were then lightly poached in a nage – a light stock, before being plunged in ice cold water to again be reheated at the final moment.

I was quickly learning that preparation is the key to a successful dish.

Next it was the Scotch egg and forget any thoughts of those hearty sausagemeat offerings, this was a delicate quail’s egg which was wrapped in a soft mixture made of the haddock trimmings ... except the wrapping bit was a lot more tricky than it looked.

Christopher Strassheim (18), of Denny, made it look so easy but I was left trying to gently ease the mixture round the egg – without bursting the yolk – then tossing it in flour, egg and crumbs.

While his was a lovely little sphere, my effort was more of an ungainly rugby ball shape. But then Chris, who is studying for an HNC in professional cooker, won a silver medal at ScotHoc in the open class meat dish for his menu of loin of lamb, hot smoked leek mousse, black pudding puree and beetroot pickled onions – all cooked and served up in just 40 minutes.

You would almost have thought these chefs in training had selected their menu with all my favourite things but cauliflower cheese will never be the same again after tasting the puree made with help from Craig Manson (23), of Tillicoultry. Flavoured with smoked Applewood cheese, it was delicious.

Craig was also busy making the cullen skink sauce, again from haddock trimmings, and once reduced it was blitzed before lashings of double cream were added.

Now I love fish but rarely cook it because I tend to dry it out, but according to Craig the secret is timing. Five minutes skin side down in a pan then flipped over and butter added for a perfect fillet.

Next it was time to plate up and Ian Balderston (20), of Linlithgow, showed me how to make all the perfectly cooked food look even more enticing.

A hive of activity saw all the food quickly warmed through, the Scotch eggs cooked then it was time for us to put the cauliflower puree on the plate, topped by spinach and baby veg, then a quenelle of mashed potato finished off with the fish, a halved Scotch egg and the sauce drizzled round the plate.

It’s those final minutes where the pressure is really on but I must admit that I was pleased with my efforts. However, that was only producing one plate, don’t know how I would cope with lots of hungry diners. Think I’ll leave that to the experts.