MasterChef UK returns to our screens tonight and I for one am jolly pleased at the prospect. I love a spot of MasterChef. Actually it’s more than love. I’m a bit obsessed. A MasterChefaholic if you will.
I’ve been hooked for some time. It’s an affliction that goes back not quite as far as Loyd ‘puttanesca sauce’ Grossman and all that cogitating, but certainly since John and Gregg took over the helm I’ve barely missed an episode. Not just the amateur series either – the Celebrity version, The Professionals (my favourite because those chefs are just so darned clever. And my kids’ favourite too because they like it when Monica does the face. (My 9yo calls Marcus Wareing ‘Marco Swearing’, oblivious to the fact that he is referencing an entirely different chef altogether.)) and even the kids’ version – all series-linked on my TiVo box ready for an evening’s bingeing whenever my husband’s out or a mountain of ironing looms.
But I must confess – and this is where I may lose a few of you – this addiction runs deeper than simply the homegrown show. The real reason my TiVo is at maximum capacity (and why I have failed to finish Anna Karenina despite starting it a year ago) is because I have also become unhealthily fixated on MasterChef series from other English-speaking nations. In recent years I have mindlessly devoured countless hours of MasterChef Australia (epic on all counts – the contestants have to move in with each other for three months FFS), New Zealand (everyone’s always ‘stoked’; lots of lamb backstrap whatever that is), Ireland (dour joyless judges; no discernible craic), South Africa (the least appetising: bobotie, butternut and something called pap) and Canada (can’t remember a thing). I’m currently halfway through the second season of USA which is shouty, brash and arrogant – and that’s just Gordon Ramsay (one of the judges). There are reportedly five more seasons to follow. Suffice it to say, if MasterChef were my chosen specialist subject on Mastermind, I would kick arse. If I’d devoted half as much time to reading as I have to watching strangers sobbing into their soufflés, I could’ve finished the complete works of Tolstoy by now and probably those of Dostoevsky to boot.
What’s the appeal? It actually has little to do with the competition. I don’t really give a monkeys who wins as long as it’s not the one who has behaved like a complete dick throughout (and there’s usually one). No, I like MasterChef for the cooking itself – for the recipe ideas, techniques and tips. It’s thanks to these shows that I know that a strawberry is never welcome on a savoury plate, that you can make a decent flatbread in minutes from flour, plain yogurt and salt, that the crispiest duck skin is achieved when you start the breast off – skin side down – in a cold pan, and, my favourite, that if you want to get soup from pan to bowl with no mess, re-dip the bottom of the soup-filled ladle into the soup and you will have precisely three seconds – ie. ample time – to deposit said soup before it drips all over the side of the bowl, the worktop and your slippers. Try it, it works.
But I suppose if I’m honest, I like to use MasterChef as a benchmark for my own cooking abilities. Some of the time, I look at what the contestants put up and, like my 9yo’s reaction to abstract art at the Tate Modern, sniff ‘I could do that’ smugly at the telly. More often though, I sit watching in total awe of these people who breezily concoct a dish worthy of a Michelin star out of a box of disparate ingredients (using a pastry recipe they have committed to memory) all in the space of about 45 minutes, while casually chatting to Gregg about how they juggle a successful career in marketing with three kids under the age of five. Sometimes when I stand wondering what to cook before a half-empty fridge, I pretend I am facing a mystery box challenge (not remotely sad), but it rarely results in anything more ambitious or inventive than a pasta bake.
I would make the world’s worst MasterChef contestant – not that I would dream of putting myself forward for something that would, for me, doubtless end in public humiliation. Aside from my messiness, a complete inability to cope under pressure and the fact that I can no more dress a plate than I can myself most mornings, I – who am really quite shy in real life – would be a gibbering, bright red, tongue-tied wreck in front of the camera. I’m also an insufferable twonk in the presence of celebrity, no matter how minor. If my hands ever stopped shaking enough to cook through to the critics’ round, so star struck would I become that I would either vomit or throw my dish into the lap of the unsuspecting guest judge – mortifying if that were Jay Rayner, but Charles Campion? He’s surely had it coming.
Pan-seared pork with celeriac puree and hispi cabbage
As if coming clean over my addiction weren’t enough, I also confess that sometimes what keeps me awake at night is not anxiety about terrorism, secondary schools or even whether or not I have remembered to wash all tomorrow’s required PE kit, it’s what I would cook if I were a MasterChef contestant. Pitiful, I know. The fact is that very little of what I cook at home would pass the MasterChef mustard. I don’t really do cheffy, pretty or anything that comes remotely close to the definition of ‘fain daining’ and when I do get a bit grand in the kitchen, it takes me a lot longer than the allotted one hour to get it on a plate. This pork dish, which I had at The Camberwell Arms last week, so good that I had to come home and have a go myself, brings my repertoire of MasterChef-suitable dishes to about three, in that it looks more complex than it is, is ready 30 minutes and is delicious (it also contains puree which from my viewing experience is a surefire winner with MC judges around the world).
I imagine (in my pathetic little mind) that Gregg’s appraisal would be something along the lines of, ‘It ain’t pudding but it’s yum. Where’s me spoon?’ while John, a little more serious, might add, ‘Great balance of flavours and textures. Good on you. But where’s the crackling?’ (Because all MC judges also love a bit of crispy animal skin.) At which point I would either faint or throw up all over the cameraman’s shoes.
For the pork
- 4 pork leg steaks about 220g each (I used ones about 2cm thick) or 1-2 pork tenderloins
- 1 heaped tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp sea salt flakes
For the puree
- 1 celeriac, about 500g when peeled, chopped into 2cm cubes
- 450ml milk – whole or semi-skimmed
- 30g butter
For the cabbage
- 1 hispi (a.k.a. pointed or sweetheart) cabbage finely shredded width-ways (use a mandoline if you have one)
- 50g skinned hazelnuts, toasted in a dry frying pan until golden and roughly chopped
- small knob butter
- 3-4 sage leaves shredded
- salt and pepper
- squeeze of lemon juice
- First make the puree (you can do this in advance and refrigerate until needed). Put the celeriac in a saucepan, cover with the milk and add a pinch of salt and grinding of pepper, bring gently to the boil and simmer for 15-20 mins until the celeriac is soft. When cooked remove celeriac with a slotted spoon into a blender (I used my NutriBullet) with a splash of the cooking liquid and 30g butter. Blitz to a smooth puree adding more of the milk if the puree is too thick (it should be looser than mash but not as runny as custard). Taste and add more salt if necessary.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan). Crush the fennel seeds with the salt in a pestle and mortar. Rub the pork with a little olive oil then rub the crushed fennel into both sides of each steak. Heat a glug of oil in a large frying pan on a high flame and quickly brown the pork steaks on each side. Transfer to the oven and cook for a further 8 mins (or until the internal temperature is 65°C if you have a meat thermometer). Remove and leave to rest while you sauté your cabbage.
- Rinse the shredded cabbage then add to a frying pan in which you have melted a small knob of butter, with half the hazelnuts and half the sage. Sauté for 2-3 minutes until the cabbage has wilted, but retains a bite. Season with salt and pepper and squeeze over some lemon juice (1/4-1/2 a lemon’s worth).
- Plate up like a pro: puree (anything but a smear – too last year), pork (sliced thickly against the grain), heap of cabbage, sprinkle of hazelnuts and sage. Job done. Trophy’s in the bag.