James Martin takes to the road to explore America through its food
With a new US-road-trip-inspired cookbook published to coincide with his latest TV series, chef James Martin tells Ella Walker about exploring American cuisine
IT MIGHT be two years since he quit Saturday Kitchen, but TV chef James Martin is still faintly defensive of his decision to leave the hit BBC show.
"There was no channel to go to – I didn't jump ship or anything like that, contrary to what people said," he explains. "It was too much. It was just work, work, work, work, and I didn't mind it, but then I wasn't getting any younger. I could do it when I was 30, I'm bloody 45 now."
A work-life balance had been somewhat elusive for the Yorkshireman, who didn't take a holiday from the Saturday Kitchen studio for a decade, spending his weekends wistfully "linking to Rick Stein going out and about".
"I did really get pangs of jealously," he admits – but it's finally his turn to barbecue beside a creek, smoking a cigar as the sun goes down (check out page 144 of his latest cookbook, James Martin's American Adventure, for photographic evidence).
The book and accompanying ITV series sees Martin eating and cooking his way across the US, travelling 13-odd thousand miles in eight weeks, by motorbike.
"A lot of TV land is, you arrive in a car, sit down with a chauffeur and off you go; I didn't want to do that," he says. "None of that bloody stuff – I want whatever fauna there is to hit me in the face and to talk about that when I get there."
When he started the trip, Donald Trump had just got into power and, exploring middle America, says Martin, "you realise why".
"I've never seen anything like it," he recalls of Texas and Louisiana, where he says the mentality is: "'I'm having my gun, I'm having my pick-up, that's what I'm having; don't tell me otherwise'.
"You can walk around a supermarket and buy an M16 machine gun," notes Martin, disbelievingly, "but to them, everybody else has got 'em, [they're thinking], 'I've got to protect my family'. I'm not saying it's normal, far from it, but you can understand it."
Driving along one road in Texas, it became something of a joke among his crew that every three miles there was "a Dunkin' Donuts, a rifle range or a lap-dancing club – for like 100 miles! It was quite surreal".
Focusing on the US through its cuisine, though, rather than purely its culture, gives you a whole new perspective on the place. "Food is a great leveller," says Martin.
Once you've adjusted to the portion sizes ("Everything's big in the States, but you can't tell the Americans – just don't eat it all if you don't want to"), there's so much more to grub in the States than burgers and barbecue (although of course, Martin still tackles both) – even if it's hard to completely disentangle food from politics.
Take 'sea air' strawberries. Riding along the coastal roads of Santa Cruz, Martin spotted Mexican pickers collecting the scarlet fruits. "It was that moment in time Trump was on about Mexicans. I thought, 'Here we go, what's going to happen?' It's a bit like the UK. Brits don't want to pick strawberries, so who else is going to? Someone's got to. It's crazy."
Government rhetoric aside, what makes the strawberries taste so "amazing" was the exceptional environment they grow in. "You get this particular mist, this chill," explains Martin, "and it coats the ground about two miles inland. It's not fog, it's just this real thin, really weird, peculiar layer of dew that hovers."
In Fort Worth, Texas – "It's like Disneyland meets cattle. It's really odd, they do these big longhorn cattle drives and ride up and down the street" – it was the climate he had to contend with while cooking. Martin remembers cracking an egg into a bowl before prepping the rest of his ingredients for a recipe, and when he went back to his egg, "it was cooked, that's how hot it was. That was the only time we've gone, 'No, we can't do this, things are cooking before they're even in the pan'."
Most poignant, though, ended up being a visit to an artichoke farm, where Martin made pasta with artichokes, cavolo nero and Parmesan, a dish his much-loved friend, the late Antonio Carluccio, once cooked for him.
"He showed me how to prep artichokes properly," he remembers. "So I cooked this artichoke dish not knowing what would happen, but I did it in the middle of a field on an artichoke plantation."
The book is dedicated to Carluccio, who Martin says had a "massive" impact on him. "I remember being at award things, and probably the two most uncomfortable people in there were me and him, and we used to pull a chair up outside," he recalls. "It was all going on at one about two years ago; he'd won an award and I'd won an award, but we weren't even in the building, we were outside just chatting.
"Food was our great love. He, like me, didn't like pretentious cooks. He had no time for the stereotypical TV chef – he liked people who were passionate about their jobs. He said, 'If you're put on that step to talk to people and to teach people about food, have respect for it and understand your subject'. I admired that, and I learnt from it, and hopefully I'll learn from it to this day – yes, you can have fun like he did, but don't disrespect the food, because it takes an awful lot of time and hard work to produce."
:: James Martin's American Adventure by James Martin, photography by Peter Cassidy, is published by Quadrille, priced £25. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.
PASTA WITH ARTICHOKES, CAVOLO NERO AND PARMESAN
4tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 Meyer lemon or an unwaxed lemon, juiced
8 small artichokes
1tbsp sea salt
500g fresh ziti pasta or dried penne pasta
225g butter, chopped
100g fresh peas
100g cavolo nero, shredded
Small handful of basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g Parmesan cheese
Pour the olive oil into a large bowl and stir in the garlic and lemon juice. Prepare the artichokes by cutting the top off each one, about halfway through the middle, then trim the stalk at the base. Take off all the leaves and use a spoon to scrape out the choke (the furry bit). Discard the leaves and the hairy choke. Use a vegetable peeler to strip away the tough outer peel of each artichoke heart. Cut each into quarters lengthways and add to the olive oil mixture. Stir together.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil, and stir in the salt and pasta. Stir the pasta through the water to loosen the pieces. Cook for two minutes, then drain into a bowl, reserving 120ml of the pasta water. If using dried pasta, cook following the timings on the pack.
Pour the artichoke and olive oil mixture into the hot pan with the reserved water and the butter and place over a low heat. Heat gently until the butter has melted, then simmer for five minutes.
Add the warm pasta to the pan with the peas and cavolo nero. Shred the basil leaves into the pan, season and grate over the Parmesan. Stir everything together then spoon into warm bowls and serve.
3 medium eggs
2tbsp caster (superfine) sugar
3 thick slices of brioche, cut from a loaf
5 bananas, peeled
4tbsp dark brown sugar
1/4tsp ground cinnamon
2tbsp banana liqueur
300ml double (heavy) cream, whipped and chilled
3 scoops vanilla ice cream
Put the eggs, caster (superfine) sugar and milk into a bowl and whisk together. Place a large frying pan over a low to medium heat and add two tablespoons of butter. Dip the brioche into the egg mixture, and once the butter has melted, place the brioche into the hot pan. Cook for one minute on each side until golden brown. Transfer the pieces to a warm plate.
Wipe the pan clean, then return it to the heat and add the remaining butter. Once the butter has melted, add the bananas, keeping them whole. Cook until golden brown on one side, sprinkle with half the brown sugar, then flip the bananas over.
Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top, add the cinnamon then pour in the banana liqueur and rum. Flame to burn off the alcohol. Simmer for a couple of minutes until the butter and sugar turns into a sauce, then stir in the pecans.
Spoon the bananas and the sauce all over the brioche, then top with the whipped cream and ice cream. Serve.
CRAB AND CORN SOUP WITH FRITTERS
For the soup:
1/2 white onion, finely diced
1 green pepper, finely diced
2 celery sticks, finely diced
1tbsp plain flour
6tbsp white wine
500ml hot chicken stock
100ml double cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 corn on the cob, kernels removed
200g white crab meat
5cm piece fresh root ginger, peeled and finely diced
1 lime, juiced
For the fritters:
200g plain flour
1tbsp baking powder
2 medium eggs
1 corn on the cob, kernels removed
100g white crab meat
2tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Edible flowers and spring onion tops, thinly sliced
Good-flavoured olive oil
To make the soup, put the butter into a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Once the butter has melted and is foaming, stir in the onion, pepper and celery. Lower the heat slightly and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally and not letting the vegetables colour, then stir in the flour. Cook for a few more minutes to cook out the flour.
Next, pour the wine into the pan, bring to a bubble, then stir in the stock. Turn up the heat slightly so that the liquid comes to the boil, then add the cream. Season, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook gently for five minutes.
Meanwhile, make the fritters. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and eggs. Slowly add the milk and keep stirring so that the mixture forms a thick batter. It should be dropping consistency - to check, lift the spoon up and allow a dollop of the mixture to drop back into the mix. It should fall after a slight pause. Add the corn kernels, crab meat and parsley, season with salt and pepper and fold everything together.
Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat, add a tablespoon of butter and once the butter has melted and is foaming, place three large spoonfuls of the batter into the pan, well-spaced apart. Cook for one to two minutes until golden brown, then flip over and cook for a further one to two minutes. Lift onto a plate and repeat three more times until all the batter has been used up and you've made 12 fritters.
Stir the soup to check the consistency (it should be fairly thick), then stir in the corn, crab, ginger, lime juice and taste to check the seasoning. Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle over the edible flowers and spring onion tops. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with the fritters.