Sunday, 30 September 2007

Old Lady Food

This week I had the privilege of staying with my Aunty Vera for a couple of days, to celebrate her 86th birthday. Aunty Vera isn't as active as she was (she blames the tablets the doctor gives her, I'd say it has more to do with being 86) but she does rather enjoy a visit and relishes the chance to bring out some of her party-pieces. I felt like I was in a time-warp, or maybe stuck in Australian Women's Weekly Dinner Party Cookbook - it was wonderful!

I don't know how the pundits can claim that Britain doesn't really have a wine culture - it certainly flows wherever my aunts settle. Before getting to Aunty Vera's we'd been to Aunty Phyll's, where one has champagne before lunch and wine (red and white) with lunch. And on arrival at Aunty Vera's the sherry bottle comes out. A decent oloroso too, not your Harvey's Bristol Cream.

The vegetables for dinner were already on the stove when we arrived at 1730 - we didn't eat until 1900. And she still thought the purple sprouting broccoli was underdone.

Dinner was in the dining room, of course. Aunty Vera doesn't like eating in the kitchen, she feels a separate dining room is "more gracious living". We began with prawn cocktail, served as you would hope in a wide goblet on a bed of shredded lettuce. Then chicken breasts stuffed with Paxo sage and onion and wrapped in bacon with the aforementioned vegetables (fantastically crispy roasties and unimaginably soggy carrots). The wine was a Californian rose. And a hostess-trolley arrived with pudding - a choice of oranges in Grand Marnier or tinned pears in lime jelly, both with lashings of double cream. After we washed up, we were offered coffee and liqueurs with petits fours: tiny cups of decaf instant, a choice of Grand Marnier, Advocaat or Creme de Menthe, and slabs of marzipan with crystallised violets on top, in little gold foil cases. Clearly I had enough booze inside me to forgo the need for either a hot water bottle or the hot whisky I was offered to go to bed on.

As we were out for lunch the following day, dinner the second night was a lighter affair. Hot whisky when we got in from outdoors, of course, then more sherry, but just a light 3 courses for dinner. I'd been wondering about the champagne saucers with sugar-frosted rims and pink ribbons tied to the stems that had been on the kitchen counter when we arrived - turns out that was for the starter. Balls of gallia and honeydew melon marinated in Stone's Green Ginger Wine. Then salmon fillets baked in foil and cooled, with lettuce, boiled potatoes, tinned beetroot, sliced tomatoes and mayonnaise. And another bottle of rose. For pudding the hostess trolley again had the oranges and pears, but supplemented with a huge bowl of strawberries, and M&S meringue nests.

The remaining strawbs, oranges and pears made another appearance at breakfast. I've never started a day on oranges in Grand Marnier before, but a gal's gotta do what a gal's gotta do.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

No pictures for this one, I was far too shy!

On Sunday we took my mum to Raymond Blanc's Oxfordshire restaurant Le Manoir. I was in a filthy temper because our inconsiderate neighbours let someone park across our garage - so we couldn't get the car out and had a mad panic to get a minicab; then the driver turned out to be a complete lunatic who swerved all over the road and certainly couldn't interpret the SatNav. When we arrived I was stressed, anxious and not at all the sophisticated elegant creature that would complement Le Manoir's surroundings.

I've never been to a Michelin starred restaurant before. I was a bit apprehensive that it wouldn't be that much better than the usual places we go to. But being shown to a luxurious lounge and handed the menu made those fears subside. The glass of champagne (not sure what their house champagne was, but it was beautifully toasty and yeasty and just what I needed) continued the cure.

I found it slightly odd that we were given 2 rectangular, slate slabs of canapes between the 3 of us - so my mum got hers to herself and my husband and I shared. The spoonful of tuna tartare wrapped in some sort of fishy elastic aspic was good, but the aspic was too strongly flavoured. The parmesan crisp was just astonishing - it tasted like straight, melted parmesan but somehow it had been extruded into a flat ribbon so it looked like a bundle of tagliatelle. The melon and proscuitto skewer was a melon and proscuitto skewer. My husband had something with a little foie gras parfait on the end, and something with a bit of goats cheese mousse, but he was far too engrossed in the winelist to actually tell me what they tasted like and what the other elements were.

The idea of ordering from a comfy chair and reclining with a drink, and only being led to the dining room when they are almost ready to serve really is the essence of civilisation, I think. The dining room that we were in was quite a contrast to the lounge. I wouldn't say "rustic", because that really is not the word for any aspect of this operation, but certainly "country-style". Naive art pastoral paintings and shelves of preserves (more artlessly arranged than the ones in the produce tent at the Royal Easter Show) line the walls.

If I hadn't been aware of the 5 courses to follow, I would have made an entire meal from the bread. As it was, I settled for one mashed potato sourdough roll. We'd ordered a half bottle of Hugel et Fils riesling to go with the early courses, and it was a good choice, though I say it myself.

As tempting as the Menu Decouverte sounded, my husband isn't much of a dessert fan and really couldn't face up to 4 courses of pudding so we felt that the Les Classiques du Manoir aux Quat'Saisons was a more balanced option.

Firstly, carpaccio and terrine of beetroot. This was such an elegant plate! A tiny triangle of beetroot layers pressed into a terrine, a little curl of pale pink raw beetroot, a pair of baby beet leaves, a smear of horseradish cream and a couple of toasted hazelnuts. It was all so pretty and all very cleanly flavoured, even my non-beetroot-loving husband seemed to enjoy it.

At about this point the shrieking baby in the corner finally penetrated his parents' lack of consideration for fellow diners and was taken out for the first of many soothing walks by his mother, leaving his father and the rest of us to eat in blissful quiet.

Summer vegetable risotto didn't suggest anything exciting to me, but when the dishes were uncovered at the table it both looked and smelled amazing. A scoop of curd cheese was melting into the creaminess and some slivers of black olive provided a sharp counterpoint.

The baby was brought back into the room and again shrieked like an air-raid siren.

Cornish seabass with Orkney scallops and cauliflower puree were dressed at the table with what I think the waiter said was a madeira jus. An unexpected addition but very good. By this time we'd finished the riesling and opened a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion Graves, and the dark jus went very well with the red wine. My only complaint was that the smear of cauliflower puree wasn't quite big enough - it is one of my favourite things with scallops.

The large group at the table next to us asked if they could have their dessert elsewhere so as to be away from the air-raid siren, who was working himself to fever pitch while his parents bounced, cajoled and ultimately ignored.

Our wine came into its own with the squab. Served on a bed of savoy cabbage with a dark sauce and a trail of fat, creamy white beans, it was tender and pink; entirely savoury and delicious. I thought the menu and the waiter said they were Coca beans but since the only references I can find on the net to coca beans involve cash crops in Columbia, I don't think that can be what it was.

The cheese is offered before the dessert, and we asked the waiter to choose us a selection. The Pont l'Eveque really didn't deserve to be called a "very pungent" cheese, but it was delicious. The Roquefort was as delicious as ever. The Brillat-Savarin was unbelievably rich and creamy. The goat cheese wasn't strongly goaty, but was creamy and very pleasant, and the Beaufort was like a very good Emmental, but better. All accompanied by wonderful husky oatcakes and grapes. Totally unnecessary to have the extra course in such a rich meal, but some times indulgence is required.

The pudding course was poached William pears, encased in the most delicate layer of brioche paste, and served with scoops of cinnamon and vanilla icecream. Very clever in the context of the meal - I think a lesser restaurant would have gone for the cheap thrill and produced something chocolatey - the textures and flavours were just what was wanted. With the dessert my mother and I had glasses of muscat de lunel, which was perfect for it. My husband had a sauternes, which I would have thought was too sweet, but he enjoyed it.

Finally we were able to escape the still-screaming baby and returned to the lounge for coffee and petits fours. I was too full to do more than admire most of the beautiful little cakes, but I did have a tiny little lemon macaroon and a square of delectable bitter dark chocolate truffle.

Along with the bill we were given a card advertising the Christmas celebrations at Le Manoir. I am commencing my campaign ASAP.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Divina Cucina

On Tuesday, I went to one of Judy Witt's classes. What a day, what a woman! We met in her studio overlooking Mercato Centrale at 11am, then it was off to the market. We stopped for coffee and pastries; Judy introduced us to a couple of local specialties (one of which, the aragosto, looks like a little lobster tail and I'd already snaffled a couple for my breakfast the day before) - then into Mercato Centrale.

First stop in was Conti, where they had an amazing array of fresh fruit and veg, along with olive oils and more delicious things than I had imagined. One of their staff took us in hand for a tasting of balsamic vinegars, olive oils etc. Fact for the day, real balsamic vinegar apparently has no vinegar in it. The most amazing flavour was from a piece of pecorino cheese dipped into honey filled with sliced white truffles. More stalls, more tastes, more smells. As we walked, Judy threw out ideas for things that we could make with the ingredients and had her eyes out for a few special ingredients for things that she thought we could make. I was feeling punch-drunk from seeing so much amazing stuff - but fortunately the Italians do have a taste for kitsch so the penis pasta and tacky "birth of Venus" aprons stopped me from actually dying of delight.

Then to the wine shop for a glass of prosecco while Judy discussed with the owner what we should drink with the menu we'd decided. The prosecco was delicious; unfortunately I didn't see what type it was because it was light and dry and lovely and not at all like the horrible syrupy stuff I've often had before.

Back at the studio, Judy's assistant (Sana? I think that was her name and I am so sorry if it is wrong!) had finished the shopping and arranged the amazing still life of the produce. We sat at the table with beautiful cheeses and glasses of wine to talk through the menu and then started cooking.

First, pannacotta. Much, much easier than other recipes I have seen, this was just cream, a little sugar and some leaf gelatine. No vanilla, nothing else, just the pure flavour of really fresh good cream. That went in the fridge while we had lessons in trimming artichokes for fritters, using a mezzaluna to make a Tuscan herb blend and making veal saltimbocca.

I got a bit of a feeling that some of the people (there were 6 in the class) weren't so interested in the hands-on stuff! But I loved it. I've done marinated artichokes before but they didn't go very well because I didn't trim them enough. The saltimbocca was a revelation too - although I did think the wine we deglazed with was too sweet for my taste - it is just a pity that I don't think I will ever find veal that good in the UK. It was milk fed, but not crated, and as delicate as chicken breast, and trimmed so beautifully!

As a starter we made the salad on Judy's blog - called Chicchi, it is a heavenly combination of this amazing black rice, chickpeas, chilli, tomato and garlic, lifted to extraordinary heights by a jar of sliced truffles. Now, I have bought bottled truffles before and they had no flavour at all, so I was a bit sceptical, but the solid punch of pheromones from those sliced truffles made it slightly indecent to eat this salad around strangers. I've spent the morning trying to source the rice - Italian Gourmet have it - and now I have to try and get some good truffles!

Florence

Just back from 5 days in Florence - my first time. What a beautiful city and what beautiful food! Everything so nicely presented. I couldn't find the gelato bar I was told about with 70 flavours, I had to settle for about 12. Lunch one day was just gelato - a scoop of coffee, a scoop of pannacotta and a scoop of coconut. Delicious! And so filling.

I'd been looking forward to the famous bistecca ala fiorentina - a thick t-bone grilled over a wood fire - but when I saw them there was no possible way. On Monday there were 3 people at the table next to us struggling to finish one. And since my mum, who I was travelling with, had her heart set on veal I had to settle for a smaller, but very delicious, steak.

Food highlights - smoked goose carpaccio, pappardelle with wild boar ragu, pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup) and a lovely, lovely day of cooking classes with Judy Witt at Divina Cucina (but that gets a whole post to itself).

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Bento II

I've just finished compiling my bento box for tomorrow. It's not very pretty - I am thinking of going back to the kitchen and doing something cute with carrots to add some colour - but it should be tasty.

This one is a sort of pan-Asian yum cha box: the top layer is 4 prawn shao mai dumplings (courtesy of M&S) and 4 tiny wee Thai fish cakes (courtesy of my last big trip to Wing Yip) and a little squeezy bottle of dipping sauce. I tend to be a bit cavalier with the dipping sauce. It always contains red vinegar, soy, chilli and sesame oil, but the proportions do vary. This time it's about 1:1 red vinegar and soy, with a good shake of tabasco and a good shake of sesame oil. The bottom layer is 2 tortilla wraps filled with crispy pork (leftover pork roast cut into chips, marinated in soy and shaoxing, dusted with cornflour and shallow-fried), hoi sin sauce, cucumber and spring onion. I would have liked to use mandarin pancakes, but I was reduced to an Uncle Ben's Wrap Kit. I'll zap the top layer and have the bottom layer cold.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Sugar Loaf Inn

Last night some friends were able to get a babysitter for their hurricane, so we went to the Sugar Loaf Inn for dinner. We were 40 minutes late due to a combination of bad planning and a late taxi, but that didn't phase them at all. The main dining room is a dark wood panelled room - very cosy - but we were out in the conservatory, which I think was much nicer for a pleasant autumn evening.

My husband and I have been there several times, so we knew the food was going to be lovely. It's one of the restaurants we have discovered through reviews in the local magazine Optima. We are so lucky to have a decent local mag, even if they do only review places that advertise (but it wouldn't be a local mag if they didn't favour the advertisers).

We ordered champagne and were asked twice what we were celebrating; unfortunate that there is such a strong perception that you can't have champagne just because it is Friday and champagne is delicious. We were sort of celebrating - but it was more about having a nice treat.

I had a charcuterie platter, which was just lovely, with a range of pork loin, chorizo and proscuitto and nicely toasted ciabatta slices, cornichon and olive to accompany. I thought the grain mustard was a slightly odd addition - something fruity would have been better to my mind. I was very tempted by the foie gras parfait, but since I was planning a rich main and hoping to have room for pudding I didn't go there. My husband did, so I got to taste. It was served a bit too cold, so it was a little stiff, but as it melted on the palate the flavour was just wonderful.

For main, I had mussels in a wine and cream sauce with chips. The sauce was so thick and rich - I couldn't figure out if it was just reduced cream or if they'd thickened it with something - that, with all the determination of a sweet tooth, I couldn't fit in pudding, and I couldn't even finish the sauce. I did manage to snaffle some of my friend's crackling, from the Amersham belly pork with smoked black pudding (one of the dishes I have had before, best black pudding ever). A good piece of crackling is a joy forever.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

My first bento

A friend of mine recently had the brilliant inspiration of portion control at lunchtime via a bento box. Such a good idea and it lets me accessorise! So with a visit to JBOX - offbeat source of all things cool and Japanese - I became the possessor of a bento box just yesterday.

I am not a patient woman, but I do get a bit obsessive, so I have been spending a lot of time reading about bento boxes and what goes into them. I don't aspire to ever produce works of art like Cooking Cute does (I will never be making pig-shaped spam nigiri), I just want to make well-balanced lunches that are aesthetically pleasing and tasty. And provide myself with a bit of entertainment.

So for my first bento box, I have gone off-piste with recipes similar to those found in Japanese food, but in this case more French. My foundation of mushroom rice was just intended to be rice cooked with chicken broth and garlic with some mushrooms added - but then I found that the only rice we've got is arborio, so I made it using more of a risotto technique (not French, not Japanese, but the rice will be easier to pick up with chopsticks). I also found that the mushrooms I had in the freezer were a combination of shiitake, nameko and shimeji so I accidentally went more Japanese than I meant to.

For my okazu - the things you have with rice - I made crumbed chicken pieces marinated in lemon and garlic, added some celeriac remoulade, separated the celeriac from the chicken with curls of bresaola and topped it off with a couple of pieces of pickled tangerine which is a beautiful accompaniment to charcuterie. I think the most beautiful thing though is my little squeezy bottle of lemon juice to squirt over the chicken come lunch time.

So there you have it. A fairly classic French hors d'oeuvre with posh chicken nuggets and rice. I am quite proud of that for a first attempt!
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