WHEN lockdown began all the way back in March (84 years ago), restaurants were in effect, shut down. Tragically, this has been permanent for some. During those early days, just about the only way to get a decent meal on the table was to shop for ingredients yourself and fling yourself at the mercy of sometimes questionable home cooking skills, or order a meal kit in a box from UCOOK or similar.
Even though its business model worked, UCOOK has not been complacent. It has introduced a range of frozen readymade craft meals, boxes of farm produce, and UCOOK For Restaurants.
This initiative is aimed at rescuing the restaurant trade with a campaign that sees the brand teaming up with restaurants and chefs to bring their quintessential flavours into people’s homes. Each week, UCOOK will offer a specific restaurant’s featured dish, and with each dish ordered, a portion of the revenue will go directly to the restaurant.
I’m already a fan of UCOOK, and during lockdown I’ve ordered quite a few meal kits. Every recipe I chose was successful and delicious, so when I was invited to try one of these restaurant boxes, I leapt at the opportunity. The first one was Karen Dudley’s lamb leg from her (now closed) Woodstock restaurant, The Kitchen. Just because it has closed, doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for assistance.
The box of ingredients arrived the day before the scheduled live cook-along on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. These are by no means the only events of this nature, and I’ll have some more stories for you in the coming days (okay, weeks, realistically). I opened the box and read through the recipe card, quickly realising I’d been sent enough ingredients for four portions (which are always generous anyway).
The lamb marinade part said it could be done 24 hours in advance, so I thought okay then, I’ll do that now. And because I’d zested the lemon and chopped some garlic, I went on the make the gremolata as well. And then, since that was to go into the bulgar wheat, I got that done too. As all these things lead to more things, I ended up doing almost all of them the night before.
By the time the live broadcast began, I’d cooked the lamb as well, and all that was left for me was to pour some wine (a rather fabulous 2016 Toffee Chunk Syrah I found in my cellar, and if anyone knows where I can get some more, please let me know) and watch Karen at work in her own kitchen at home (which is as beautiful as you’d expect). She claimed to be nervous but she’s really quite relaxed and chatty, sharing her tips and stories, and showing off cherished cups and plates, in front of the multiple cameras (a very professional set up). Someone off-camera asked her questions, some of which came from the Instagram feed, as those watching interacted with the cook-along. I have no idea how many of them were actually cooking along, or had ordered boxes, but if not, hopefully it could tempt them into trying it for themselves.
“It was thrilling to connect with people in this way!” Karen told me afterwards.
With bulgar wheat literally for days (shared and donated), loaded with baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, peas and gremolata; the delectable free-range and deboned lamb with nice fatty bits, the Pesto Princess chermoula, and yoghurt and toasted pine nut dressing, it was a fabulous meal. I definitely had seconds, perhaps even thirds but there’s no proof of that, you can’t judge me. The difference in appearance between Karen’s dish and mine is on account of the recipe instructions. I’m confident the flavour was on a par.
The second cook-along this week was with Franck Dangereux from The Foodbarn, who demonstrated his duck breast with an organic gooseberry gastrique. On July 14 it’s the turn of Reuben Riffel (artichoke risotto with toasted hazelnuts and mascarpone), and Il Leone’s Daniel Toledo is up on July 21, making Mediterranean pasta with fresh tuna and Kalamata olives.
Joining the live events does give one a rather pleasant sense of involvement, but without the commitment of having to face actual other humans, or the requirement of pants. All the recipes and meal kits are available to order at any time. While it’s nice to watch the chefs in action, there’s no need to be afraid of trying the recipes yourself.
“It’s undeniable that amongst all the chaos caused by Covid-19 and lockdown, hospitality, and particularly restaurants, have been one of the commercial sectors hardest hit,” says UCOOK CEO David Torr. “Sadly, there’s no end in sight to this extended halt on trading, and slowly more and more outlets will cease to exist by the time we reach lockdown level 1.”
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