Five large boxes of ice-filled ready meals arrive on one of the hottest days of the year – thank goodness for polystyrene and ice packs because even my fridge isn’t big enough to house the contents. Inside are enough Charlie Bigham’s ready-meals to fill eight hungry wannabe food writers who have recently completed a food writing course at Leiths.
I’m not saying we’re experts after a couple of months but we all have one thing very much in common – we love our food and we’re opinionated folk. Between us we’ve eaten in the very expensive, the mediocre and the down right shocking but all in pursuit of one thing – food Valhalla.
Now don’t get me wrong I knew Asgard wasn’t located in the food halls of John Lewis but Charlie Bigham’s range is, along with Waitrose stores and online at Ocado. Having watched the range change packaging and increase in shelve size I was intrigued and cheeky enough to contact the PR, Victoria. I suggested a “Charlie Bigham and Friends” dinner party and to my surprise she agreed. No strings attached, she was keen to hear our feedback and I want you to know dear reader that the free food and goodbye goody bag will not sway this honest appraisal of the food we tried on Tuesday evening.
Charlie has created a new range for the couple in mind – from his website “Emily” and “Peter” are the forty something twosomes he’s aiming his latest range at. They juggle work and kids and spending time together is often the stuff of fantasy. He is encouraging the Waitrose shopper to pack the kids off to bed, switch off the phone and have a wonderful night in over a nice meal. Basically this range is for the cook who likes good fresh food, doesn’t compromise on taste and one which requires very little effort.
My 7pm dinner party ended four hours later so Charlie’s doing something right – none of us have kids, but we all lead incredibly busy lives – we turned our phones off, we ate, we talked and had a bloody good laugh so thank you for bringing us together. Imagine what it will do for the couples with kids out there!
Victoria didn’t let us down – Steak and Ale pies, Shepherds pies, Royal Fish Pies – almost all oven ready to go and then there were the stove top meals Thai Chicken Curry, Breton Chicken and Catalan Chicken. Washed down with a variety of delicious white wines recommended by the local wine merchant but it wasn’t a completely free night – those were paid for.
I’ll give you the précis in the order we ate.
For those of you who have tried Charlie’s range and he’s got an army of fans – it would seem taste is not an issue it’s more demand outweighing supply. But for those foodies amongst you who like to know what they’re getting for their money then this blog is very much aimed at you.
Steak & Ale pies 600g £6.99 serves 2
Charlie says: ‘Tender British steak slow cooked with smooth ale and a shake of Worcester sauce then topped off with our light, flaky puff pastry. Handmade and ready to serve in individual ramekins. Perfect with mashed potato and seasonal veg.’
Everyone was very impressed with the ramekins they come prepared in – more comments initially about those as they were unwrapped from their dual tier packaging. A mini greaseproof ‘shower cap’ protects the thick, egg-glazed and scored, generous puff pastry topping. This removed, these pies sat happily for 20 minutes in a fan assisted oven at 190 degrees. The result was pretty astounding for a shop bought pie and were the winner of the night. After you broke into the crunchy cushion of pastry it revealed large chunks of well trimmed steak (no cutting required here the steak drifted apart when teased) coated in a thick gravy, enough to bathe any Jersey Royals or steamed beans. No overpowering Worcester sauce or Ale come to think of it but very tasty all the same. I actually didn’t bother with vegetables as we had so many courses to get through I don’t think we’d have got past the finishing line. So massive tick on this one Charlie. We even thought you’d give quite a few restaurants a run for their money but I guess that’s what you’re trying to achieve with this range. Worth every penny.
Shepherd’s Pie 600g £5.99 serves 2
Charlie says: ‘A hearty combination of succulent British lamb and tender British beef, slow cooked in a rich red wine gravy and tucked under a crushed potato top.’
Again the ramekins were a hit – maybe it’s the gastro-pub look – either way a good looking dish. Ease of cooking for me with guests was a bonus 20 minutes at 190 did the trick and by the time you’ve poured a nice glass of wine and slammed some veg in a steamer dinner is taken care of. Again the gravy was rich but for most was under-seasoned. A good mix of both lamb and beef mince with small cubes of carrot topped off with a very creamy mash. We all agreed on the under-seasoning so this really wasn’t a personal taste issue. Again, worth the money aside of the seasoning issue which is easily solved at home.
Royal Fish pie – 655g – can’t find the price on Ocado but the fish pie is £5.99 – serves 2
Even Charlie’s cashing in on the wedding. His 680g fish pie is now the Royal Fish pie weighing in at a slightly lighter 655g
Charlie says: ‘Delicate haddock and salmon in our traditional handmade parsley sauce with creamy mashed potato and a crunchy Cheddar and breadcrumbs topping. Perfect!’
Again oven dish cooked at 190 for 25 minutes. He reminds the ‘heater-upperer’ to leave it to stand before serving as it will be royally hot – well one would hope so. He claims the ingredients are fit for a princess. Being known to royally kick off if I don’t get my way I consider myself princess-like – lacking the certain required linage! So, Charlie, where were the ‘King’ prawns? Where were the Queen scallops? You could have had a little more fun with the ingredients of this here pie but you didn’t and you disappointed the subjects. That said, a fish pie with 58% fish is pretty generous but haddock, smoked haddock and salmon without a prawn or five left us lacking. Whilst there was no scrimping on the large chunks of salmon and although we could taste the smokiness of the smoked haddock it was a rarity in the two pies cooked to the point where we played ‘whose got the smoked haddock’ (maybe at this point I should have regulated the wine intake but I had to keep a clear head as I was playing with heat and naked flame). A mashed potato top had no solidity and was runny – almost over-creamed creaminess – for some that would be just perfect for us we thought a straw may work better – although the crunchy Cheddar topping was texturally helpful to break up the nursery sloppiness of it all. The spinach was evident and held its own throughout the dish and the sauce was clearly cut by lemon juice – not over-bearing but balanced. The greaseproof base needs much improvement. Cooked and served in a wooden trug-like tray helped to keep it in shape but we all found it incredibly difficult (and far from sexy if you are trying to impress) to get the majority of the pie contents from that paper liner – and believe me it wasn’t coming off without a sticky fight.
Charlie we also thought you could be missing out on an ‘accompaniment’ opportunity – the sides you mention could very easily be next to the meals – taking the thought out of trudging to respective aisles/web pages for vegetables or rice would be an added bonus.
Breton Chicken 600g £5.99 serves 2
Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast in a handmade creamy mornay sauce with cheese, leeks, Lardons, Dijon mustard and fresh parsley. Perfect!’
This was the first of three stove-top meals. Simple enough to prepare. Did what it said on the packaging – from pan to plate in ten minutes. I cooked two packs in a non-stick wok in one go. Immediately I notice the leeks are cut in large diagonal ‘chunks’ – far too big to work well with the size of the well-trimmed chicken and Lardons. After cooking the meat in a tablespoon of oil for roughly 10 minutes I added the two pack sachets of sauce. Mistake. The meat swam in a creamy soup-like sauce most of which wasn’t taken by diners. I boiled Basmati to go with this and the other two stove top dishes and it worked well. Charlie suggests mash or new potatoes as well as the rice but the group totally pooh-poohed the potato idea. As we tried the first mouthful there was a symbiotic pause as we all looked at each other – the overpowering mustardy-ness of the Dijon wiped out any subtlety that a mornay would offer. Could it be that the Mustard-adder on our sauce batch sneezed at the crucial weighing stage? The ingredients suggested just 1% of Dijon in the mix but we failed to agree. That coupled with the leek size split the table. I liked it and would definitely get it again if those veggie sizes were halved. Great portion sizing but too saucy in every sense of the word.
Thai Green Chicken Curry 600g £5.99 serves 2
Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast in a traditional handmade Thai curry sauce with coconut milk, fresh coriander, green chilli, lemongrass and lime leaves. Fantastic!’
This was probably the biggest miss of the night. Again large chunks of green pepper over-powered what we all thought was a floury tasting coconut-esque sauce. For the spice lovers amongst us they demand a whole-lot-hotter kicking sauce from their TGC but for me who’s not keen on spice it was pleasant enough.
Now, I have forgotten to mention that Mr Bigham does not use a great deal of additives preservatives or thickeners. But when we flipped the packaging and checked the ingredients of the TGCC he uses both Arrowroot and Cornflour.
Now I don’t confess to being Floyd, Hom or Bains in the curry department but we couldn’t fathom out when we’d ever used either or come to think of it needed to thicken the sauce when making this dish – is this a bulk production matter the small kitchen cook knows nothing about? A reduction usually does the thickening job – I even had to double check the BBC Good Food website to confirm and no thickening agent is used in their recipe. Obviously recipes differ but we were trying to fathom out the floury taste.
This time I used one of the two sauces in the packs and this was a much better sauce/meat ratio.
Catalan Chicken 600g £5.99 serves 2
Charlie says: ‘Fresh chicken breast and Spanish chorizo in a handmade tomato sauce with garlic, smoked paprika and fresh rosemary. Wonderful!’
The last, and by no means least, of the dishes we tried was the Catalan Chicken, again two packs cooked at the same time. This dish screams smokiness to the point of serious ear bleed. After the first mouthful we were left with a pungency so strong it masked the other flavours the dish had to offer. The smoked paprika (again a measly 1% according to the ingredients) teamed with the paprika within the sausage was a little too much for the dish to sustain – a faux smoked taste was left lingering way too long. The rice did little to bring the extinguished bonfire taste to a halt and even crusty slivers of a shop-bought ciabatta did little to soak up the just put out taste. Again, the green pepper was cut by the hand of the ham-fisted vegetable prep team. Believe me, there is nothing dainty about trying to chew large pieces of pepper which fight with the teeth of a good knife. Again, I halved the amount of sauce used and it worked better for this dish.
I believe Charlie Bigham has scored on all fronts but with a few recipe tweaks he could make the dishes – certainly those we tried – even better. And, I offer myself at your mercy to spend time in your test kitchen.
Charlie Bighams twosomes available in John Lewis Food Hall, Oxford Street, Waitrose and online via Ocado.
Selected dishes are currently on offer – 2 for £8.00 at the time of writing this – 21 April 2011.
All items we tried can be freezed on day of purchase (some suggested best eaten fresh) but should be eaten within a month.
Some packaging recyclable.