|Hands on in|
It's a cold, damp evening in early March and the lights are burning late at Leila's shop and cafe in Spitalfields. Inside, a long table is spread with a still life of ingredients: vegetables, wild mushrooms, pulses, grains, herbs and spices, sausages and saffron. People arrive in ones and twos, muffled against the chill and bearing strangely bulky shoulder bags. An easy camaraderie quickly develops, fuelled by a glass of wine and a shared passion. Later the cafe windows will become opaque with steam, causing passers-by to peer in curiously.
Aprons are donned and a dozen enthusiastic cooks surround the large kitchen table and immediately we are hands-on prepping ingredients for the dishes we will help to cook. We are the lucky few to attend this oversubscribed lesson on Mediterranean Pulses and Grains with chef Dave Cook (ex-Moro and Bocca di Lupo and currently cooking at 40 Maltby Street, Leila's and Towpath Cafe).
Over the next few hours we learn about buying, preparing, cooking and serving various beans, chickpeas, lentils, barley, farro and fava beans. We make soups and stews, dips and salads, a perfectly herbed and spiced falafel and a moreish dish of fried chickpeas and cauliflower tossed in coriander and cumin. It's almost enough to turn a carnivore vegetarian, but then comes Lentil, chorizo and piquillo pepper stew followed by Lamb and barley broth. We share knowledge and experience and we taste as we work. Rather than meagre sprigs, we learn to use handfuls of fresh herbs which make the dishes zing.
Ten dishes and four hours later the mystery of the bulky bags is revealed to be a myriad of containers. What we didn't manage to eat is borne off to feed countless others. Not only do we come away with ten good, healthy, tasty recipes but we have asked all those questions you want answered when cooking new recipes. Best of all, the whole group has had a hand in making every single dish in a relaxed, yet learning environment. With Dave's capable and good humoured assistant, Stasia, keeping everything on track, we go off into the night, notes, aprons and food bagged, with a lot more knowledge of those nutritious ingredients.
Dave doesn't do many of these classes and word of mouth is enough to fill them. If you ask at Leila's or 40 Maltby Street, maybe he'll be persuaded to do more. With a warm and engaging personality and a wealth of experience cooking in his native Australia - notably Pier restaurant in Sydney and MG Garage restaurant before coming to the UK - he's a natural teacher. As long as there's room for me around the table, I'd love to see you there.
Here is my interpretation of the chickpea and cauliflower dish we made, which is a great appetiser. The texture of the fried chickpeas is rather like a savoury popcorn - but much nicer. The recipe is very easy. Taking the time to toast and grind whole spices instead of buying powdered is well worthwhile.
Fried Spiced Chickpeas and Cauliflower
About 200g dried chickpeas, pre-soaked, cooked and well drained
Rapeseed oil (or your preference) for frying
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted lightly and ground to a powder
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted lightly and ground to a powder
A large handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped
Cut the cauliflower into small florets. Deep fry the chickpeas and cauliflower separately until both are golden and crispy before draining on kitchen towel. Rapeseed oil is healthy and good for frying as it takes a higher temperature than many other oils (UK grown cold-presssed is the only one I would use). Immediately mix the freshly fried peas and florets with the seasoning. Add the coriander leaves and serve.
Dave Cook also holds classes at Mersea Island Cookery School You can find a profile of him here.