Pat Whelan Food Column - From street food to gourmet status

I came across The Bowler at an event in the UK earlier this year. He’s part of the street food movement that’s been growing over the past few years. He makes gourmet meatballs using meat, fish and vegetables and serving them all from an eye catching grass covered van, affectionately known as the ‘lawn ranger’.

I came across The Bowler at an event in the UK earlier this year. He’s part of the street food movement that’s been growing over the past few years. He makes gourmet meatballs using meat, fish and vegetables and serving them all from an eye catching grass covered van, affectionately known as the ‘lawn ranger’.

It is a sight to behold, never fails to raise a smile and the meat balls are stunning. I’m a particular fan as The Bowler (real name Jez Felwick) learned to cook at Ballymaloe and I love that Irish connection.

This elevation of street food to gourmet status is something of a revolution and one that could only have been born due to recession and the existence of a burgeoning social media phenomenon.

AN INEXPENSIVE ROUTE TO MARKET

The recession was a main driving factor because for many young and enthusiastic chefs it was an inexpensive route to market; no need for restaurant buildings, kitchens, contents and staff.

It also afforded the cook the ability to go where the people were, rather than waiting for people to come to their fixed addresses. Also with lower overheads than a traditional restaurant you could offer great food at really good prices.

Because of this major shift in thinking, the most exciting new food in the UK is being served from stands and out of vehicles on kerbsides and at festivals.

We have great street food here in Ireland too, although it is more confined to festivals and food fairs rather than being commonplace in every town. You will always find interesting food stands at farmers’ markets and this is where the UK street food movement started. Any good farmers market usually has a soup stand to feed both the shoppers and the other stall holders and, if you’re lucky, you could come across a stand where the common sandwich is being taken to new and imaginative heights.

What I particularly like are the stands that sell products ready to eat there and then, along with an opportunity to take some uncooked home to have later. From sausages and rare meats, trestle tables groaning under the weight of various breads and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and ground beans, farmers markets are great places to stroll around. I love eating my fill of an early weekend morning and then arriving home with a bag load of booty to enjoy later.

In case you’re thinking of taking to the road it has to be said that it isn’t all a bowl of cherries and the street food business has its drawbacks. It’s essential that you like early mornings as you’ll see a lot of them in the preparation of any food van. It’s a round the clock job feeding hungry concert goers and families at packed food markets. There are things to overcome like dying generators, not being able to hook up to power, having enough water and a plethora of other little niggles that could ruin a day’s trading.

long mornings, long days and long nights

There can be long mornings, long days and long nights of physical work involved but those that succeed tend to embrace the community and lifestyle.

But I started this talking about The Bowler and his balls and that’s where I want to finish. Meatballs, and the variety of ways to create them, are a great dish for all the family. You can make them ahead of time, most will freeze well, and the variety of sauces and accompaniments are vast.

The other night I made a Bowler’s meatball recipe; Lamb Rosemary and Garlic Meatballs with red wine gravy, served on mashed potato stuffed Yorkshire puddings with honey roasted vegetables. It was great and we all agreed that traditional beef meatballs on the same bed of Yorkshires with traditional meat gravy would also work well, so that’s on the list for this week.

Every nation has a version of meatballs and a sauce to go with them so there’s plenty to explore.

I discovered the main difference between my balls and the expert Bowler’s was the way we cooked them. Like the bowler I always used breadcrumbs and eggs in my recipes. I too was happy to mix meats together such as pork and beef or chicken and prawns and experiment with spices, herbs and condiments in the mix. However when it came to cooking meatballs, I would usually fry them and finish them off in the hot sauce.

The Bowler, more often than not, tends to bake his balls. This was mainly to give him more control when cooking on the road but I have found that it is indeed a better way to cook them. Now I usually bake them for about 20 minutes (the size will dictate a longer or shorter time) and then finish them off in the pan if I wish to crisp up the outside.

iT HAS REVOLUTIONISED

MY BALL SKILLS

This baking business has revolutionised my ball skills. They don’t need as much careful attention as when I used to fry them and there no pan splatters. Meatballs are tremendous value when you are feeding a family and they work with everything from creamy mash or rosti to spaghetti and even coleslaw. You can skewer them over a bed of roasted vegetables or make mini balls and pop them on cocktail sticks for perfect canapés and there’s a vast array of sauces to go with them. Meatballs, you can’t beat them for an ideal family meal.