Chicken cacciatore, the love of bringing people together, Food for Life

Chicken cacciatore, the love of bringing people together, Food for Life

It's now 8 months since I moved away from the corporate 9-6 world. I ‘d planned, of course, to write a regular blog about my ongoing progress on the path to sustainable self-employment; but I’m afraid I’ve failed miserably at that. Indeed, over the past few months, I’ve learnt to set myself more manageable goals to avoid the inevitable frustration when failing to achieve an unrealistic target.  In reality, writing a blog each week, or even each month, hasn’t been something I’ve felt able to do.  If the truth be told, I’ve not been clear enough about what I wanted until fairly recently so putting pen to paper and expressing coherent thoughts wasn’t an option.  For sure, some kind of diary might have helped the process, but it probably wouldn’t have made for a particularly interesting read!

So here I am on 9th July 2019 (my birthday, coincidentally) apparently with something to say!  I actually feel nervous about sharing what food and cooking means to me.  It’s somehow scary to tell the outside world which bits of it I love, and the bits I’m no longer afraid to walk away from. The good news is that I’m much clearer about what I want, but I’ve had to work really hard to understand that. I’ve come to realise that I’ve spent a huge amount of my working life doing what I feel I SHOULD be doing, not necessarily what I WANT to be doing.

For a long time, I’ve had this bizarre notion of there being a right and a wrong path, as if the correct path has been written out, almost predetermined for me.; if I take the wrong turn, it’ll all end in disaster but if I take the right turn, then life will be pan out perfectly.  And this has been massively stifling because it prevents me from being assertive. Historically, I’ve halfheartedly taken paths instead of decisively turning right or left. And I’ve often taken the path that offers the middle ground for fear of choosing the ‘wrong’ one.  And in doing so, I’ve not only diluted a lot of my activities, but also compromised my identity.

Over he past 8 months I’ve learnt what it is about food and cooking that I love; after years of contemplating restaurant kitchens and constantly feeling regret for not having worked in kitchens from the offset, I’ve finally become comfortable with the decision not to be a traditional line chef.  I love doing my supper clubs, catering for the occasional wedding or birthday party, cooking for friends, writing recipes, creating menus and teaching cookery; all the actively creative and social, communicative parts of food and cooking.  But I’d be useless at the operational bits; the management, the process, the staffing, the business, the responsibility of it all…. There’s so much more to being a restaurant chef than cooking; hats off to line chefs, it’s a very very hard thing to do.

I’ve also realised it’s possible to work on several quite different activities simultaneously that tick different boxes and I’m developing a portfolio of activities that balance out to make me, on the whole, much more satisfied and happier than I was before. In a nutshell, I’m managing to strike a balance between a mix of creative and more practical outlets for my passion that keep me both interested and also financially viable (well, nearly!).  

I’m also become conscious that it’s the social aspect that’s at the heart of what I love about food and cooking. When I run a supper club or teach a cookery lesson, or talk to people who interact with my recipe posts or teach kids how to cook, it’s the sense of bringing people together through food that I love.  I’m enjoying being at the heart of a community in Bowes Park in North London, recognising people in the street who I’ve cooked for at one of my events and seeing their face light up when they talk about the food on the night.

Bringing communities together through food is a key component of another area of work I’ve recently become involved with.  I’ve been speaking to a school for students with special needs in Waltham Forest with a view to helping them improve their school meals.  I was both incredibly humbled and in awe of the work that goes on at William Morris school. The head teacher, Maria Pla, and her team do an amazing job of working with students with a vast array of special needs from acute behavioural problems to incredibly challenging medical conditions.

On the school meals front, it’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the recipes that the kitchen is working with right now, but more a question of making the food suit the needs of the students better.  As you can imagine, the range of needs is extremely wide, and whilst those different needs are addressed in the educational support the students receive, Maria realised that there are no provisions or guidelines set out to equally address those needs at lunchtime with the school meals served.  

So, I’ve been discussing ways that we could improve the proposition to ensure each and every student has access to good quality food cooked from scratch that suits their own specific needs.  I’ve been looking at the type of food served, the way it’s presented, the way it’s served and also the way the students can ‘be’ during lunchtimes. Sharing a meal together is such an important part of developing social skills; it’s vitally important to make mealtimes a positive experience in schools and I’m excited to be part of this project.

Whilst researching food in Education, I chanced upon a Twitter post highlighting one particular school’s outstanding efforts to place food at the centre of their curriculum. The school goes to great lengths to educate their students in not only where good food comes from with visits to farms, but also in how to physically grow their own food thanks to vegetables beds on school grounds.  Students are also encouraged to actively become involved in the preparation of school meals. 

Not surprisingly, the school is a beacon Soil Association Food For Life school. FFL believes in making healthy, tasty and sustainable meals the norm for all to enjoy, focusing on schools, nurseries, hospitals and care homes.  And I recently met with Ian Nutt, associate Director of the Soil Association Food For Life, to see if there was any way I could become involved.  Meeting Ian was a meeting of the minds and our joint passion for food lead to discussing the art of carving jamón iberico (one of my obscure talents learnt during a 2 week stint in Guijuelo, near Salamanca in Spain), food in schools and also the FFL’s brilliant Food for Life Get Togethersinitiative which brings people of all ages together through food.  I hope to be working with them in some way in the future. Watch this space for future collaborative projects!

And on that note I shall leave you with a lovely summery chicken cacciatore recipe that’s taken from my book.  It’s a great recipe to share, so get a rabble around and cook this one up for your own get together!

Chicken cacciatore

The key to this dish is to use bright red ripe cherry tomatoes that will make the sauce incredibly fruity. For a dish with relatively few ingredients, this one really packs a punch of flavour.

Serves 4

  • 8 chicken thighs (about 1kg), skin on
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 250ml white wine
  • 900g cherry tomatoes, halved

To serve:

  • Torn fresh basil leaves

Season the chicken thighs with salt and black pepper. Heat the oil in a wide pan that has a lid and will fit the chicken thighs in one layer, then add the chicken thighs, skin-side down, along with the garlic cloves and bay leaves. Cook on a moderate heat for 5–7 minutes until the chicken skin is golden and crispy, then turn over and seal the second side for a minute or so. Transfer to a plate. You may need to fry the chicken in batches.

Remove the garlic cloves from the pan and set aside for later. Tip the onion into the pan that was used to fry the chicken and cook it for 7–10 minutes on a moderate heat until soft. Add the wine, increase the heat and boil to reduce by about a half, then add the halved tomatoes. At this point squish out the garlic from their skins and plop them into the pan. The garlic should be soft and pulpy so it will break down into the sauce as it cooks. Season with salt and black pepper and allow the tomatoes to cook for about 15 minutes on a moderate heat until they have turned pulpy and started to thicken a little.

Add the chicken pieces to the tomatoes, pushing them down into the sauce. Cook on a moderate heat for another 30 minutes until the chicken is ready and the sauce has become rich, thick and fruity with reduced tomato juices. During cooking, give the pan regular shakes and scrapes to ensure nothing is sticking to the bottom. Also, it’s a good idea to turn the chicken thighs over halfway through to make sure they cook evenly.

Serve sprinkled with some torn basil leaves.

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