A bit of holiday cooking (and reading)

Roasted perch and tomatoes served with bread

I do like to read.

So when the opportunity came up to visit my parents, brother, sister, brother in law and niece and nephew at a nice villa in the South of France (Languedoc) the other week I jumped at the chance.
The idea was that while not contributing to the holiday per se, I would cook for everyone, thus saving money overall on the inevitable meals out and takeaways which would have otherwise drained the financial resources.

The problem with reading for me is that, doing what I do, there are really no set hours for work and relaxation as such.
This last year and a half or so, I seem to have been touring rather a lot (Us3, Jim Mullen, Marlena Shaw, Mica Paris, Boy George – each different band presents a different dynamic as to convenient reading opportunities) and although, as you can imagine, there is sometimes a lot of sitting around, I tend not to get through too many books on the road, the main inhibiting factors being (not necessarily in this order):

  • Alcohol – although a couple of drinks sometimes enhance my enjoyment of a book, one too many and I can’t remember what I’ve read when sobered up.
  • Travel –  I can’t read in a car or a minibus, and although it is possible to read on the tourbus, there’s too often distracting activity like DVD watching, animated conversation or the aforementioned  alcohol in commencement at any one time.
  • Noise – A lot of sitting around can occur in soundchecks, but have you ever tried to read with a bass drum or tom tom being played repetitively at high volume through a large PA for the purposes of equalization?
  • Cabin fever – I tend to find it difficult to read for prolonged periods when confined to a small space like a hotel room.
  • Unsettlement – At airports waiting for the gate number to appear, one is always looking up at the screen in the waiting lounge, thus providing an unwelcome break in concentration.
  • Unsocial flight times – A fair amount of flights that we take are often very early in the morning, so while reading on the plane is an option, I’m more likely to want to sleep if possible.

And when at home I equate reading with not doing something constructive (not quite true I know), so I’m much more likely to get to work in the studio or at the piano.
I can get really into reading first thing in the morning (a couple of years ago I got through quite a few Iris Murdoch books just this way), but it does tend blunt my concentration for a couple of hours afterwards, as well as taking up half the day so I rarely do this anymore.

SO when the opportunity came up to go on the holiday, the first thing I did was get the books I wanted to read. Last year I did the same thing, but took the wrong book (I took Crime and Punishment – and while I enjoyed reading the book as a whole, I remember being aware that it didn’t necessarily equate to my idea of relaxing by the pool with a beer)

I took 3 books with me this time:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird – we read this at school I’m sure, but like a lot of things at school, I didn’t invest much attention or effort to it. Reading it again was a much more enjoyable experience.
  • The Life of Pi – couldn’t put this down. Very imaginative, humorous, informative, entertaining, and also lots of references to South Indian food – which is always a good thing.
  • The Poisonwood Bible – Am halfway through this at the moment. Thoroughly engrossing characterizations and fascinating historical perspective.

I also did a lot of cooking. The ingredients and produce available at even the most humble French supermarkets always has me fascinated and brimming with ideas (however, since most of the people I was cooking for were not nearly as wildly liberal or adventurous in taste as myself, I was unable to realize many of these ideas).

But I endeavored to make some nice grub anyhow.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sausage and cheese frittata

When I arrived on the Sunday, we discovered all the supermarkets were closed, so I had to rustle something up from what was in the villa already, and what we could acquire from a local service station shop. There was a box of 6 eggs in the villa along with some herbs, and olive oil, and not much else. The service station sold packs of luncheon meat style sausage, and some nice looking Cantal Juene cheese, which is a young cow’s milk cheese, firm in texture and fruity in flavour. I sliced and fried the sausage, drained the fat from the pan, put the sausage meat in once again and added the beaten eggs with some herbs and black pepper. My intention was to then add the grated cheese on top and brown under the grill to cook the top of the eggs and cheese. But… we then discovered that the grill would only operate with the oven door closed, and I didn’t want to commit the frying pan to this unrelenting heat, so I heated up the oven, then opened it and let the top of the frittata firm up in the residual heat. Not ideal, but did the job OK…. the result being a slightly guey cheese underside to the omelette, which was not at all unpleasant, though a bit messy to cut up…

The next day, we got to the supermarket and stocked up on supplies.

Chicken casserole cooked in white wine with green peppers, olives and bay

The meal that night was a simple but very tasty rustic chicken casserole cooked in white wine and stock, with sliced green peppers, olives, onions, garlic, bay and herbs. It was served with mash potatoes and steamed green beans:

Chicken casserole served with mash and beans

…and accompanied by bread with oil and balsemic vinegar (a constant companion to food that week):

Bread and oil with balsemic

The next morning I made another frittata, this time with sausage and sliced courgettes.
I put the courgettes on the bottom of the pan and the sausages on top, so it appeared like this in the pan:

Sausage and courgette frittata in the pan...

…and took on this lovely appearance when upended onto a plate:

Sausage and courgette frittata

Now before I go any further, I must admit that I did totally steal the idea for an upended courgette frittata from the wonderful blog “Lou Loves Food”  … which is packed with amazing photos and absorbing writing, and I can highly recommend it…. so thanks Lou.. 😉

That evening I decided on making some Indian food ….. yes I’m aware that may not be the most obvious option in the South of France, but my mind was made up as soon as I saw the beautiful mutton on offer in the supermarket. Mutton is a meat less than commonly available in the UK, and it rewards slow patient cooking with the most succulent and flavoursome dishes.

I bought some chopped shoulder (on the bone) pieces to make a curry with tomato and aubergine, and some ribs to make what is known as a “Bone Pepperwater”. This is a meat variation on the standard pepperwater (rasam) which is a soup consistency dish made with tomatoes, lemon, tamarind and spices.

The only problem with all this is that I was somewhat limited in the choice of spices available in the supermarket. I managed to get fresh garlic and ginger, and eventually found a premixed curry powder (not something I normally like to use) which seemed to have a good balance of coriander, cumin, tumeric, mustard and fenugreek in it.

The aubergine in the curry was cooked separately with onions, ginger and garlic (a trick I recently picked up off my mother) and added during the last 1/2 hour, which helps to preserve not only it’s texture, but flavour as well. The curry itself simmered slowly for 5 hours.

Mutton curry with aubergine and tomatoes

The bone pepperwater was made with some fresh vegetables (carrots and courgetttes), plenty of lemon and also some paprika, which I found in the villa. The mutton ribs do add the most amazing stocky earthy flavour to this dish, it must be said.

Mutton "Bone Pepperwater"

After the curry, I thought it would be a good idea to cook fish the next day both from a time and simplicity point of view.
The fish counter at the “Intermarche” was of course vastly superior to my local supermarket.
I eventually settled for some lovely fresh perch fillets, which I roasted on a bed of cherry tomatoes with balsamic  vinegar, bay and salt.
I gave the tomatoes a start of about 15-20 mins in an 180degC oven, then simply popped the perch fillets on top, cooked for a further 10 mins and it was done:

Perch fillets roasted on a bed of cherry tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and bay..

There was not much need to serve this with anything else but that perennial king of juice mopper-uppers: fresh french bread:

Roasted perch and tomatoes served with bread

The next day was to be barbecue day. However, here I failed in my duty as a blogger and recorder of events since due to the distractions of reading, swimming, table tennis and drinking, I didn’t start the fire in time and so even though I made lots of food, the only picture I managed to take before it went dark was of some balsamic chilli prawns. (I have an iPhone so am unfortunately at the mercy of the light).
Just for the record though, I did also make salmon and courgette kebabs, aubergine and red pepper kebabs, 2 types of sausages and chicken in a Mexican marinade.

Prawns in a balsamic and chilli marinade

One advantage of being in the centre of wine producing country was that there was an abundance of vineyards with completely quaffable red wine on tap at an amazing price. (€1-€1.50 a litre).
Had I the time or opportunity I would have loved to avail myself of some of the delicious looking lambs hearts in the supermarket and braise them in red wine for hours until tender… This meal unfortunately would not have been very popular with the others:

Red wine on tap.....

The final day of cooking was also the least intensive since there was a lot of packing, cleaning of the villa etc to be done before vacating, I opted to cook a simple sausage pasta with a tomato and red wine sauce. Despite appearing fairly ordinary, it was most enjoyable, due to the high quality of the sausagemeat:

Sausage and tomato pasta.....

All in all an enjoyable chance to read, cook, swim and relax…… now, back to the piano I think….


Prudence Pullao (and dhal)

Prudence Pullao

Yesterday I arrived home from Denmark after playing a Boy George gig at the Esbjerg Rock Festival.
As usual, after a full days travel, which commenced with a (reasonably) early start, following on from the previous days travel – soundcheck – gig – and a couple (ahem) of drinks at the bar  after the show, I was pretty tired and in two minds about whether to cook, or just plump for the takeaway option.

However, a look inside the fridge quickly persuaded me that cooking would be the far more prudent path to take on this occasion, given the fact that I had so much stuff to use up, not least of which was a few pieces of lamb kebab left over from a barbeque a couple of days before. There was also 1/2 a bunch of asparagus and a single carrot. I quickly hatched a plan. Here’s what commenced:


  • about 6 pieces of leftover barbequed lamb,
  • 1 small tin of anchovies,
  • 1 small onion,
  • 1/2 inch pce of ginger,
  • 3 cloves of garlic,
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric,
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala,
  • 1/2 tsp mustard powder
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 carrot,
  • 4 sticks of asparagus,
  • 1 red chilli,
  • 1 tblsp natural yogurt,
  • 1/2 tblsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 1 cup basmati rice (soaked and drained)
  • 2 cups of boiling water


  • Heat some oil in a pan, and mash the anchovies into it until they’re dissolved.
  • Chop and fry the onion, ginger, and garlic.
  • Add the tumeric, garam masala, mustard powder and black pepper, and fry briefly.
  • Add the lamb (sliced thinly) and fry in the spices.
  • Add the chopped carrot, asparagus and chilli, and fry round some more
  • Add the rice and fry for a few moments.
  • Add the yohurt and tomato puree and stir through.
  • Add the boiling water and mint and bring to a simmer.
  • Cook until the rice is done, adding more water if necessary or drying off in a medium oven for 10 mins if needs be.

And that was that. You may notice I used anchovies instead of salt or stock. I tend to do this a lot with lamb, since it’s such a strong flavour, I think chicken stock confuses the issue. But anchovies go very well with it and don’t taste at all fishy in the mix….

Finally, I found a portion of dhal in the freezer, which I’d made some weeks earlier, so just thawed it out slowly in a warm pan.
To serve, I moulded the pullao into a small bowl, and simply upended it into the serving bowl – (hey presto !) and surrounded it with dhal as you can see above.

All in all, preferable to a takeaway, and very welcome after planes, trains and automobiles……

Soups, Stews and Rock’n’Roll

Adventures with a slow cooker on the Boy George tourbus

I'm the one not wearing eyeliner....

Eating well on tour can be a bit of a random affair.

Mealtime arrangements can run the gastronomic gamut from elaborate catering through to a plate of curly sandwiches left too long in the dressing room.
On this particular tour, we were by and large left to fend for ourselves foodwise. While there are sometimes a variety of interesting and quality eating establishments around venues, more often than not one is left to choose between a Wetherspoons pub meal, or some fish and chips. (There’s also pretty much always the “elephants leg”  kebab option, but I personally never go down that route).

Happily though, this particular band includes a number of people who are keen, skilled cooks and interested in the value of a quality meal.. (there’s nothing more depressing than being on the road with a bunch of definite non-foodies who are only too willing to settle for the kebab option).

The kitchen on a tourbus consists of a microwave, a kettle and a toaster, as well as a variety of basic cooking implements like a chopping board, knife etc etc. As you can imagine, it’s very much a “galley kitchen” affair, space obviously being at a premium.

Our guitarist/MD John Themis already has a history of preparing delicious miso soups on buses. He does this by using miso paste and a sachet of Japanese fish stock to make the soup with boiling water. He then makes some noodles in the microwave, and poaches some salmon gently in freshly boiled water in a seperate bowl. These are then added to the soup, together with tofu, chopped spring onions, chillis or chilli oil, sesame oil and some sesame seeds.
I sampled a bowl of this soup one afternoon, and it was outstanding, and considerably more nourishing than a service station sandwich.

About half way through the tour, we decided to buy a slow cooker in order to open up our options for cooking on the road. John managed to pick one up on offer at £30, so it wasn’t exactly a major investment.
The cooker’s maiden voyage was a wholesome Irish stew made by John.
Stopping at a limited Spar supermarket, John nevertheless managed to pick up all the ingredients necessary for this dish. I got back on the bus after a morning stroll around Eastbourne, to find Kevan the bassist and Bob the merchandise chap excitedly clamouring around the kitchen where John was a whirlwind of activity stacking the cooker with carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, chopped beef and some skillfully rolled meatballs, together with some mixed herbs and freshly ground black pepper.

Irish stew being assembled

He then made up some makeshift dumplings. Unfortunately we didn’t have any plain flour, so pure suet and water was used, and the dumplings were rolled small and compact, in anticipation of their richness.

A cooking liquor was then assembled with a beef stock cube and some HP sauce dissolved into some boiling water and added to the dish, which was then covered, and left to cook on the medium setting.

John rolling his dumplings for the Irish Stew..

After about 3 hours (after soundcheck in fact) John did a check for seasoning, added some salt, and replaced the lid. Since a slow cooker can lose a considerable amount of valuable heat, when the lid is removed, we had to place a “DO NOT OPEN” sign on the lid, to stop hungry musicians and crew lifting the lid and having a sniff.
After the gig, we exited the venue and got on the bus, where a delicious aroma was now pervading the air. (In fact, 2 of George’s die hard fans Kerstin and Sibylle who were standing outside the bus, commented that they could smell the food from there!)
The Irish stew had now been on for more than 7 hours, and it was looking and smelling amazing. A true one-pot dinner, John was able to serve it in bowls, with nothing more than a bit of French bread on the side. After a week or so of eating out, the experience of some home cooking was incredibly comforting.

John and Kevan ready to dish out the Irish stew..

The next day (Sunday) we arrived in Lincoln early in the morning following an overnight drive.

After the success of the Irish stew, I was thoroughly inspired to try and cook a chicken curry for after the show that night.
The first step was to purchase the necessary ingredients. As it was a Sunday, my only hope was to find a large supermarket (there was another small Spar shop near the theatre, but they didn’t have half the stuff I required). I managed to locate a Tesco which was a good 15-20 walk away, so I set off on my quest, and eventually arrived back at the bus with some chicken, onions, chillis, spices, microwavable steamed rice, chappatis and ready cooked poppadums.
The first problem to solve was how to fry the spices with the onions. To achieve this I chopped the onions in batches and “fried” them in a bowl with some sunflower oil in the microwave on the high setting for about 3 minutes to soften them up. Then, for each batch I added roughly 2 tsps ground coriander, 1 tsp cumin and 1/2 tsp tumeric, and “fried” them again in the microwave for 2-3 mins, again on high.
All the onions (1 bag) yielded 4 batches. With the last batch I added 2 good tsps each of ginger and garlic paste, as well as the spices (fresh ginger and garlic would have been an option, but would have required more chopping and made me late for soundcheck).
I then layered the ingredients in the slow cooker: 1 batch of onions, some chicken, some chopped red chillis and some diced potatoes. I continued layering up in this order until the cooker was full (luckily it was just about large enough to hold all the ingredients.)
I made the sauce by dissolving some creamed coconut and tomato puree into some chicken stock made from a stock cube, and poured this into the slow cooker until the meat was pretty much covered. I then put the lid on, propped up the “DO NOT OPEN” sign, and went to soundcheck.
Again, after souncheck, I tested and adjusted for seasoning, adding just a little salt.

After the gig, the smell on the bus was most inviting, and anticipation was high. 5-10 mins before serving up I added a whole packet of chopped green coriander, replaced the lid and let it cook in a bit. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the curry in the cooker before we started serving, but remembered to do so when we were halfway down:

The curry, halfway through serving

I was a initially little nervous the curry wouldn’t live up to expectations, but luckily those fears seem to have proved unfounded. With John’s help I dished up several servings in a production line fashion. We had the sachets of rice in the microwave (which only took 2 mins), and a toaster warming up the chappatis. Each serving was then garnished with fresh green coriander, chopped fresh red chillis and a poppadum.

A serving of tourbus chicken curry

There was enough for 12 servings all together, and more than enough chappatis and poppadums. So Bob the merchandise chap was suitably relieved when he arrived on the bus, as he’s always last back because of the nature of his job.
Although most of us ate on the night, George and Jon the backing vocalist requested that we save their shares for the next day, due to not wanting to eat too late at night. So in fact, they would have sampled the best of it because it would have been marinating for a good 16 hours before they had their share. Curries are always better the next day…

Below is a photo of Bob’s share with extra chillies:

Bob's share served up with red chillies in background

….and this was Bob’s reaction:

The next day we were travelling all day from Lincoln down to Swansea, so it was an ideal opportunity for John to once again knock up one of his delicious miso soups, but this time he made a large portion, big enough to feed the whole band, and just left it in the slow cooker on the low setting, so it would be warm all day for people to help themselves as and when they wished.

He assembled it using the ingredients and method previously mentioned, but with the addition of poached eggs, which made it an even more inviting and balanced meal. After some discussion of how to best poach eggs on a tourbus, Kevan’s method of breaking the egg into a cup, with one teaspoon of water, and microwaving for 1 min was decided upon, and it proved to work a treat, as you can see in the photo below.

Johns miso soup made and kept warm in the slow cooker

The final day of the tour was a drive from Swansea to Cheltenham, and was the day when Kevan had promised us his signature dish of slow cooked beef in guinness casserole. Since we were setting off in the morning, and there was predictably a paucity of food outlets near the hotel, Kev took the precaution of purchasing all his ingredients the evening before from a large supermarket located conveniently next to the theatre.

Kev’s plan for the next day was to rise early and do his preparation on the bus before we departed, rather than trying to cook on a moving vehicle. He was prevented from doing this however, by the minor setback of a bottle of sunflower oil that had fallen over and voided most of it’s contents onto the imitation wood floor of the bus kitchen, rendering the area a veritable oily ice rink. By the time we had placated the obviously not to pleased bus driver and persuaded the nice houseekeeping staff at the hotel to come out and aid in cleaning the area for us (most of which was done by John), it was time to leave.
Not to be deterred, Kevan soldiered on bravely with chopping onions and carrots, while being periodically tossed back and forth by the moving bus. He even managed to trim the beef of most of it’s fat, not the easiest job while the bus was negotiating the roundabouts and corners of downtown Swansea…
Eventually, he got the dish in the slow cooker. It consisted of beef, onions, carrots, peas, some good quality beef stock liquid, lots of black pepper, and of course guiness (2 cans sufficed I think). He thickened the sauce with plain flour mixed with a little water, which he added after a couple of hours. John also rolled some dumplings later on (this time with the correct 2:1 flour:suet correlation) and threw them in.
After the gig, the stew smelled delicious as we boarded the bus. Predictably, is tasted every bit as good as it smelled as Kevan served it out – tender beef in a rich peppery guinness sauce with sweet carrots and peas, accompanied by creamy microwaveable mashed potatoes, and provided a fitting finale to a triumphant few days of experimenting with the possibilities of real home cooking for musicians on the road….
Below is a photo of casserole in the slow cooker:

The casserole ready to be served

..and one of the dish served out:

The beef in guinness casserole served up with creamy mash

…and Bob’s enthusiastic reaction upon tasting his share…..


Nice, cheap Parisienne bistro….

I’ve played 4 times at the New Morning club in Paris over the last 4 or 5 years, and the last 3 times have gone to this bistro round the corner.

I was there a couple of weeks ago with the great Marlena Shaw (here’s a clip of the gig), so I decided to do a quick post about it in case any other musos reading this were playing at the New Morning.

It’s open early (ie. before dinner) and it’s cheap, so perfect for hungry musicians on tour. More importantly, the food is very simple, unpretencious, and very good indeed.

Couple of photos below are a breaded chicken escalope and a ham and cheese omelette.

It’s the Le Duc D’Enghien Brasserie on the corner of Rue d’hauteville and Rue d’engien. Turn left out of New Morning, walk up to the next crossroads, turn left and the place is 200 yards or so on left.