You’ll never find Gary Fenn far from a cookbook, as he's constantly thinking of what to make next. He's passionate about food that's easy to cook and which celebrates the humble simplicity of ingredients. Out of the UK, Gary authors the blog The Big Spud, and has a particular affinity with the recipes of Heston Blumenthal.
We ask Gary about his penchant for potatoes, an exploding chocolate cake, and how to amplify the flavour of food.
Your blog recreates many recipes featured in How To Cook Like Heston. Which was the most challenging for you? And which was the most delicious?
Heston is renowned for time-consuming recipes with dozens of steps, so I’m used to putting aside plenty of time to approach them! In this series, though, the focus is on achievable home-cooked treats, each with the magic Heston touch. If you follow his tips, none of the dishes are that challenging.
A particular recipe that turned my head was his macaroni cheese. Like most people, I’d typically start with a roux, which involves all the bother of a white sauce. Heston’s technique is to dust cheese in cornflour and whisk into boiling stock, a recipe more typical of a fondue. It makes a delicious and velvety sauce with none of the floury taste you sometimes get.
Why do you believe Heston has such wide appeal?
He’s extremely down to earth – he’s not an enormous cartoon character “celebrity chef”, and yet his signature twists capture the imagination. You get lured in by the bizarre snail porridge and egg-and-bacon ice-creams, but, if you tune your brain to his way of thinking, you realise he’s questioning the accepted methods we use to prepare food, mostly to see if they can be improved. That said, having a three Michelin-starred restaurant that’s always in the top five best places to eat in the world doesn’t hurt either.
What are three life-changing cooking tips you’ve learnt from Heston?
Often, you read things in Heston’s recipes and can’t quite believe you didn’t think of them before. The classic one is his promotion of the Harold McGee fact: meat being sealed "to keep the juices in" is false. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. Another is boiling potatoes at a lower temperature than you would usually for mash, so the structure holds better. And his insistence on brining poultry has boosted the flavour of my chicken dishes tenfold.
You’ve said that Heston’s roast chicken recipe is a dish that would convert the non-believers. How so?
Some people scoff when they hear Heston’s name attached to a recipe, thinking he overcomplicates everything for the sake of being controversial. But, when you take something as familiar as roast chicken, and don’t add more ingredients (reduce them, if anything), and change the way you cook the chicken, it changes your view of him. Once you’ve tried brining and slow-roasting chicken, you won’t waste your time cooking it any other way. It’s so moist, so tender and just packed with pure "chicken-ness". It’s foolproof.
Your colleague suggested you start a blog after listening to your many cooking adventures. Do you talk about food any less now that you have a blog?
Unfortunately for him, no! It’s a cycle, writing about it makes you think about it more, hence it gets talked about more! In fact, blogging about food opened a window to all the other food blogs out there, and connecting with those bloggers inspired me further. There’s so many great recipe-led blogs out there with people filling posts with their passion. Friends also know me as "the food guy" and often ask for dinner ideas.
In what ways have your meals improved since you began blogging about them?
I notice smaller things because I’m committing the method to paper. The simple act of writing things down has made me note what worked and what didn’t. Because I can look back at what I was cooking, it also encourages me to repeat dishes that I’d otherwise completely forgotten I cooked! It’s a great way to remember these gems. It’s also really useful when planning your weekly meals to skim back over previous posts and find inspiration when you have recipe-block.
You’re clearly a fan of roast potatoes, as your tagline says. What are your other top three ways to enjoy potatoes?
Three just isn’t enough, but, if you’re forcing me, I love a dauphinois, creamy and rich with pure potato flavour. And layering them in a boulangère, cooked for hours with lamb, brings out their earthiness. But I’m a sucker for chips: beautifully crisp and fluffy inside and sprinkled with salt and vinegar.
You like to modify recipes. Has this ever resulted in a cooking disaster?
I once watched a chef do an interesting take on a stir-fry and I took it in another direction. I ended up with beansprouts and beef in a wok with blackberries. It was just wrong.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I sympathise most with the Italians, taking few ingredients and really celebrating them. Not trying to smother or transform them, but amplify their flavours. Heston essentially takes this idea to its most extreme conclusion by using all the techniques he can think of to really celebrate food.
Please enlighten us about Heston’s exploding chocolate cake. How did it go down with yourself and friends?
You must try the exploding chocolate gateau – a rich chocolate cake with popping candy hidden in the base. I’d prepared this for my sister and her family as a treat. I portioned it out and served it up. It was seconds before my niece shrieked, then my sister joined in. The next five minutes were then spent with everyone holding their mouths open, allowing the crackling sound to echo around the room. It’s utterly silly but gets to one of Heston’s distinguishing characteristics, that food nostalgia is one of the most powerful connections to great experiences. Remind people of something they loved as a child and the food will be truly memorable. Try this cake for yourself, don’t tell your guests the secret, and try to stifle your giggles as they tuck in and whoop with surprise!
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