Saturday, 29 November 2008
Which put me in quite a good position this week when the Carnaby St shopping precinct ran an evening shopping event, with a free cocktail and 20% off most stuff. In the end I only bought a few fancy soaps as stocking stuffers for various female relations before we decided to take advantage of the discount at Dehesa tapas bar.
We ordered a couple of glasses of manzanilla and a plate of boquerones while we gave more attention to the menu. The boquerones were lovely ( I do like a little pickled fish...) in a tangy but not too harsh vinegar dressing with just the right amount of garlic. As much as a love a plate of olives as a bar snack, I will always turn them back if I have boquerones as an option!
Dehesa really emphasises their charcuterie menu. Which is a crying shame, because my friend's only real character flaw is that she doesn't eat pork. Of any sort. So I had to watch plates of gorgeous jamon, and dishes of crisp pork belly with cannelini beans, and succulent chicken liver spiedini topped with crisp prosciutto go to other diners knowing that I would have to skip those options on this occasion.
Fortunately a focus on the other aspects of the menu proved to be no hardship. We ordered some salt cod croquetas with romesco sauce, some crisp calamari with allioli and some crostini with caponata as a first round.
The croquetas were amazing - hard to believe that something based on mashed potato and deepfried could be so light. The romesco didn't add much. I wanted it to be punchier to add some contrast but, while pleasant, it wasn't punchy. The tiny, crisp baby squid were perfectly fried. Beautifully crisp outside, completely buttery inside, and the allioli was magic with them. Wonderful! The caponata was extremely good. You could taste that each element had been cooked carefully and separately before being combined. It didn't have as much of a sweet element as when I make it, and I think it was better. It was very finely diced, so it sat very nicely on the very thin crostini (which in days gone by could have been called melba toast and no one would have known the difference).
After sitting and savouring that pile, we decided to order a couple more dishes and some more manzanilla.
A selection of Spanish cheeses was good but not great. I loved the cubes of slow- cooked quince as a fun variation on membrillo, and the cheeses were very good, but they tasted like they'd been cut a while back and the walnut bread they were served with wasn't the best accompaniment. We also tried a slow cooked lamb shank with mint & carrot puree. It was lovely - as good as it gets - but somehow the very Australian Sunday-roast flavours of lamb, mint and carrots was jarring against the Spanish and Italian flavours that had gone before.
I justified ordering a dessert because if we'd been at a normal bistro, we'd probably have eaten 3 courses of fairly substantial food. Despite the variety of dishes we really hadn't eaten that much! So we shared a Santiago tart with apricot puree and cardamom icecream. Sublime. Slightly warm almond tart with a filling that wasn't too moist and heavy, or too dry, or too custardy, but just right. A thick but not stodgy puree of slightly tart apricots. The richest and most intensely perfumed of cardamom icecreams. Entirely wonderful!
The 20% off our meal was a welcome bonus, and we skipped the opportunity to shop further in favour of hoarding our remaining cash and going home for another glass of wine.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
Now, I could have pulled some duck confit out of the freezer, grabbed some sausages and made a big cassoulet, but I wanted something a bit less refined. I wanted baked beans.
I read a lot of recipes and realised that pretty much whatever I wanted to put in I could put in, because almost certainly someone's grandmother used to do it that way. So instead of following any particular recipe I made it up as I went along.
My USP for this one is that I used a bottle of stout as the cooking liquid. Most of the recipes I looked at called for brown sugar and/or molasses, but I decided that I wanted the sweetness to come from the stout.
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
500g pinto beans, soaked over night, drained and rinsed
Bacon rinds and bones
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup smoky bbq sauce
1tbs hot English mustard
375ml bottle of stout
Into a cast iron pot, brought to the boil, reduced to a slow simmer, covered and left for 3 hours or so.
The first night we had it as was, in a bowl with a bit more bacon and a little grated cheese. Next day it reappeared as breakfast with crisply fried bacon and eggs. The bits of bacon rind had disintegrated into the most unctuous, gelatinous sauce with lots of rich flavour. The meat had fallen off the bones and added delicious little bites to the beans. And there is still a good amount for me to jar for another time. I may never send another penny Mr Heinz's way.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
The cure I used before was fantastic, so I made no changes to that (except I pounded the spices in the mortar and pestle because my darling mini-processor went to appliance heaven during my pinenut macaroon experiment).
What I did differently was smoke it. Paul was given a smoker for Christmas about 7 years ago and has never taken it out of the packaging, so I decided that the time had come.
Turns out that it is a pretty nifty piece of equipment. And it occurs to me that I could use it to make the mother of all fondues...
A pair of spirit burners sit in a rack, with a tray sat over it. Smoking dust (fine wood chips - in this case oak) go into an indentation in the tray, a drip tray covers the dust to avoid flares and then a rack goes over that, the cured, rinsed meat goes on the rack, a lid clips over all and in 2 hours (as my crazy aunt used to say) Bob is your aunty's live-in lover.
This is hot-smoking, so you are heating the meat at the same time. Cold-smoking (like for smoked salmon) is a trickier proposition involving all manner of piping and whatnot. But because the pork-belly is a big, thick piece of meat it certainly wasn't heated to the point of being cooked (if we'd been doing fish fillets they would have been well cooked).
The downside to this method is that it didn't "set" the protein as well as the slow bake in the original recipe did. So it was a real bastard to get the rind off and debone it. And I ended up with very thick, ragged slices instead of tidy little rashers like my previous effort.
Next time I will certainly smoke it again - the flavour penetrated beautifully - but I will debone and remove the rind before it goes into the cure, and probably smoke it for longer.
Stay tuned for the next episode "How I used the bacon"...
Sunday, 23 November 2008
I love the sort of French open-faced apple tart that has a rich shortcrust shell, a smear of apple puree and then slices of apples and an apricot jam glaze, but that sort of thing is a bit involved. It takes lots of bowls, a lot of time and quite a bit of patience. And as I have mentioned before, my pastry isn't my most attractive feature.
So this recipe really is genius. It is almost like an apple toad-in-the-hole (or, more attractively, an apple clafoutis).
An eggy, vanilla-y batter is mixed with sliced apples and baked. Then a frosting of butter, sugar and egg is spread over the hot pie and returned to the oven.
Then you eat it. Warm.
It was good. I used Granny Smiths, but it was amazing how their flavour got swamped by eggyness. I think a sharper apple would be better, but the texture of Bramleys would be wrong. Not sure what the better option would be.
I used muscovado sugar in the frosting, which cooked to a magnificent caramelly glaze - very happy with that.
I think making it again I would probably add a grating of nutmeg to the first batter - it just needed a little something else.
You could serve icecream or custard with it, but I don't think it needs anymore sweetness or egg. All it needs is very cold cream, in the quantity recently referred to on Dexter as "A metric fuck-tonne".
Friday, 21 November 2008
So I adapted Kat & Matt's Buttermilk Biscuits with Cheddar & Green Onions. Some of the adaptations being that I didn't have any buttermilk or green onions!
Cheddar & Leek Biscuits
1 baby leek, finely chopped
1/4 cup grated strong cheddar
2/3 cup wholemeal flour
1tsp baking powder
1/4 cup low fat Greek yoghurt
Combine the leek, cheddar, flour and baking powder in a bowl. Rub in the butter until it forms coarse crumbs, then bind with the yoghurt, mixing very lightly.
Form into 2-4 square-ish biscuits and bake at 220C for 15 minutes.
Serve with hot soup for lunch, or split with bacon, eggs and fried tomatoes for breakfast.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
So I glazed some halved shallots in red wine and beef stock until they were sweet and the sauce was syrupy.
Then I melted some butter in a pot, added sliced baby leeks and whole baby carrots, tossed them in the butter and added washed, shredded baby leaf greens, pepper & grated nutmeg and clapped a lid on them to wilt down.
A couple of minutes a side in a very hot frying pan with a small slick of oil. A seasoning of salt and pepper. And there it was. Perfect, butter-soft, medium-rare steaks. Unbeatable.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
So last Friday's dinner wasn't exactly a personal best, but it did show all the signs that I was a bit over the week.
I had a couple of bags of mussels in garlic butter sauce, just waiting to be plunged into a pot of boiling water to reheat. I had a box of par-cooked oven fries. I had a box of par-cooked roast parsnips.
All I needed was some nice garlicky mayonnaise. And quite frankly making mayonnaise is therapy, not cooking. The clop clop noise that a wooden spoon makes in a bowl of mayonnaise is right up there with dog snores for being a calming influence. Don't look at me like that - dog snores are lovely.
Friday night aioli
2 cloves of garlic
1 egg yolk
1tsp white wine vinegar
100ml mild olive oil
1tbs boiling water
Freshly ground black pepper
Mix the crushed garlic with the eggyolk and vinegar. Very slowly, stirring all the time, drip the oil into the egg mixture. When the oil has all been used and the mayonnaise thickens add a spoonful of boiling water to help stablise it, then season with black pepper.
Makes just enough for 2 greedy people to dunk their chips in.
Monday, 17 November 2008
In our family fondue has always been made with cheddar (apparently due to difficulty accessing gruyere and emmenthal originally, and then out of preference) with fresh rosemary, garlic and white wine.
But the problem is that these days I feel immense reluctance to make a whole meal from bread and melted cheese. I find it a bit indigestible too, even if I have a nice herb tisane afterwards.
My recent success with the pear & camembert salad made me think differently about fondue. Why have it as the main event, when a tiny portion could garnish some steamed vegetables as a sauce?
So white wine ( I used 75ml chardonnay) with 2 cloves of garlic, smashed a bit but not crushed, and a sprinkling of dried rosemary came to the boil in a little saucepan and then sat off the heat for 15 minutes. When the time came to eat, I returned the saucepan to the heat and added 50g grated mature cheddar and stirred until it melted. At this point I should have added a little cornflour slaked with kirsch or wine, but I didn't. But given my time over I would - it binds it and thickens it slightly.
My fondue went over steamed baby cauliflowers, leeks and carrots, with a steak. It was delicious. It filled the kitchen with just the right smell of my childhood, and gave me the flavour I was after and was incidentally fantastic with the vegetables. Cauliflower cheese may never be the same again.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Maggie's distinguished itself from the dozens of other Thai takeaways in the area, not because it was cheaper or prettier, but because it had the occasional different dish on the menu. On principal I used to order from the specials board. And so it was that one day I tried an oxtail tom yum soup and fell in love. Big chunks of succulent oxtail in a firey but balanced hot and sour broth with the inspired touch - wedges of fresh tomato. I'd suck the meat from the knobbly bones, taking bites of the acid-sweet tomato, pouring spoonfuls of the soup over steamed jasmine rice and work myself into a state of food-induced bliss.
I'm a long way from Maggie's now, and I have never seen oxtail tom yum on another menu, so I have had to develop my own (inauthentic) way of doing it.
First, I braise pieces of oxtail in a Chinese red-braising master stock similar to this one of Kylie Kwong's. It takes about 6 hours to get really tender. I lift the meat out (strain the stock and freeze it and reuse it) and when it is cool enough to handle, I pull the sheets of fat off and strip the meat from the bones. Not strictly necessary but I would rather take a bit of trouble at this point and make it easier to eat later! And the fat puts people off oxtail, when it is rich, deliciously flavoured meat.
The following day I make up a pot of tom yum broth (chicken stock, bought tom yum paste, kaffir lime leaves, bruised lemon grass stalks & some coins of ginger), add the oxtail meat, correct the flavour with fish sauce and lime or lemon juice and then pour it over wedges of fresh tomato and some bean shoots (or bag of precut stirfry vegetables). It is spicy, comforting, meaty and very satisfying as a meal in a bowl.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
So when I discovered that this house had 2 very extensive grapevines in the garden, I knew I was going to be feeling the absence of a big fat Greek grandmother.
Fortunately, the wonders of the internet have provided me with the next best thing to my own yiayia - Peter Minakis. I knew Peter the Greek wouldn't steer me wrong in my search for a way to preserve the vineleaves that were threatening to take over the entire garden. And he didn't - not only did he give his method for bottling the vineleaves in brine, but he also steered me straight to this very easy method of freezing them.
So there I was. A thick cigar of vineleaves in the freezer, a cold and rainy Sunday and no inclination to leave the house. Some further ferreting in the back of the freezer produced a tray of Welsh lamb mince and a tub of homemade chicken stock flavoured with saffron.
I read a bunch of different recipes before coming up with my own version.
Dolmades (made 7 fat main-course ones, would have been about 16-20 little ones for mezze)
1 bundle thawed vineleaves (about 14 leaves)
2tbs olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1tsp dried wild oregano
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
500g lamb mince
1/4 cup rice (raw)
Grated zest of a lemon
salt & pepper
400ml chicken stock
a slosh more olive oil
juice of a lemon
juice of another lemon
Saute the onion & garlic in the olive oil until translucent. Add the pinenuts, oregano and cinnamon & cook for another minute or so, then allow to cool. Mix the lamb mince with the rice and add the onion mixture with the grated lemon zest and a good seasoning of salt & pepper. Stuff the vineleaves (I used 2 overlapping for each parcel, because they were a main course), tucking the ends in and place them in a heavy-based saucepan. Any leftover mixture can be squashed into little meatballs and tucked around the dolmades. Cover with the chicken stock, a little more olive oil and the juice of a lemon, then simmer gently (lid on) for about 45 minutes.
At the end of the cooking time, take a spoonful of the liquid out of the pan and whisk it into the egg and juice of another lemon, before pouring it back into the saucepan and allowing it to stand for a few minutes to thicken.
Serve the dolmades with the egg & lemon sauce poured over. I served mine with some broad beans bottled in olive oil (Spanish) and some more of my fungi sott'olio (Italian). It tasted wonderful but it was a symphony of shades of olive. Maybe I did learn a few things about cooking from my grandmother.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
In fact, the reviews had sounded so good that I had suggested it to friends of ours when they were looking for somewhere nice to go earlier this year. They loved it, and have been back since, so it was the natural choice when the four of us were trying to choose somewhere really nice for a pre-silly season dinner.
We started - as all my favourite meals do - with champagne. First time in ages I have seen champagne saucers, instead of flutes! It was Waris et Filles, which isn't a house I am familiar with, but I did like that there is a daughter going into the wine business, after seeing so many "et fils" names. It wasn't as dry as I usually like, but it was very nice. Paul decided that he felt like beer, and had the very pleasant Chalky's Bite - named for Rick Stein's late lamented dog and flavoured with wild fennel.
I had a really difficult time choosing a starter - so many tasty options! But because I have the sense of humour of a 12 year old boy, I eventually chose the skate knobs deep-fried with caper mayonnaise. The word "knob" makes me giggle. These were very soft chunks of white fish - the cheeks, apparently - crumbed and fried to a perfect crunchy outside. The caper mayonnaise was a bit much; delicious, but it needed a bit more sharpness to cut through the richness of the mayonnaise. The gherkins are in a tartare sauce for a reason!
Paul had oysters - it is an oyster house - from the seasonal list and he was a bit disappointed. The 3 Maldon rock oysters were OK - maybe 6.5/10 - but the 3 (quite expensive) Colchester oysters were so awful he says he won't eat oysters for months. We'll see how firm his resolve is when we are at the Sydney Fish Market in about 6 weeks...
On the other hand, our friends were very happy with their starters.
A dish of Norfolk wild mushrooms with scallions was fantastic. A cute little ceramic hotpot was unlidded to reveal a big pile of steaming mushrooms in a range of shapes and sizes, with lengths of scallions throughout. It looked sort of Chinese-y, but the flavours were very European and autumnal. Very successful!
I think the pick of the starters was the heritage pumpkin, goat's curd and pickled walnut salad.
A pile of mixed leaves sat atop a thick slice of pumpkin - which I think had been roasted whole and then sliced and basted in a sweetish soy dressing. A quenelle of really fresh gorgeous goat's curd, slices of pickled walnut and a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds completed the dish.
I'm not the hugest fan of pickled walnuts. If I have one a year I am happy (particularly if that one comes alongside the Great Queen St beef burger on dripping toast...) but the flavours of the sweet dense pumpkin and fresh, milky curd went so well with the sharp pickle that I saw them in a whole new way.
As a main course, Norm and I had amazing Orkney lamb chump chops. I honestly never thought I would see the day when one single lamb chop was a meal! Normally when Paul barbecues them I eat about 4 (and only stop so that there will be leftovers for eating cold). But this lamb chop was something else again. Unfortunately the picture was horrible, so you won't get to see it! But it was easily the size of my hand and about an inch thick. It was served on a bed of perfectly caramelly roasted shallots and cloves of garlic, and it was just the right shade of pink in the middle.
Paul chose wild rabbit braised in cider. He quizzed the (very sweet) French waiter about the rabbit, to make sure that it hadn't been hanging until its head fell off. The waiter thought that was very funny and reassured him that it would be young and tender. And it was. There was a lot of cinnamon and sweet spicing in it; I thought it was delicious, almost like a tagine, but Paul thought it was a bit too sweet for his palate. He didn't have much luck last night!
Penny went for posh nursery food with pollock fish fingers and mushy peas. And when she asked for brown vinegar they brought it to her without raising an eyebrow, which is nice.
As side dishes we ordered some chips (very good), bubble & squeak (delicious) and fried green tomatoes. The tomatoes were battered and deepfried, and I think they should have been cut thicker - as it was there was a hard deep-fried carapace with the tiniest sliver of tomato in the middle.
Typically, only Penny and I braved pudding. As she's a Northern girl, and we are just past Guy Fawkes night, she couldn't go past the parkin with caramel sauce. This was undoubtedly the lightest, fluffiest parkin that has ever been seen - a spiced sponge pudding really.
I had a pear poached in perry, served with clotted cream. It was lovely! The pear must have been perfect to begin with, because it was perfectly tender right through to the core, with no mushy bits. And clotted cream is always good.
The wine list let them down a bit. There were very few bottles for less than £50 and a lot for extremely silly amounts of money, so we ended up having pleasant but average wines that really didn't do justice to the food.
The atmosphere was really good. Lots of white tiles - which apparently were traditional in old London chop houses - make it quite light, and complement the high ceilings. Impressively the acoustics are excellent, so there is a nice buzz but you can't hear what the people at the next table are saying and you can hear what the people at your table are saying. Quite a feat to create a place where you could have a romantic dinner without it being all hushed tones and plate scrapings, but at the same time you could have a fun dinner with a group.
All in all? It was good. Not brilliant, but certainly good enough to recommend and go back to.
Friday, 7 November 2008
Every Monday she features a different foody - so keep checking back to see who else she's shining a light on.
Thursday, 6 November 2008
The first book off the ranks is La Cucina by Lily Prior. Murder, magic realism, quite a lot of sex and fantastic food in a Sicilian setting. A lot of the dishes that Rosa makes are rather more involved than was feasible for me. And the gorgeous, deeply flavoured sun-dried tomato paste that she and L'Inglese concoct so painstakingly requires rather more sunshine than you get in Hertfordshire in November.
I was particularly moved by the passage where Rosa transforms her grief over Bartolomeo into a houseful of food. She recounts all the different preserves and dishes which inspired me to have a go at preserving mushrooms - fungi sott'olio. I mostly followed this recipe but I used cultivated chestnut mushrooms and a handful of dried wild mushrooms instead of fresh wild mushrooms (which are a bit out of my price range). They only got a week to stand before I served them as part of a La Cucina-inspired Sicilian antipasto.
Some salami (store-bought, Calabrian with a lovely strong fennel aroma); some caponata, seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, white wine vinegar and capers; a bottle of fiano, which you would think would be overwhelmed by the vinegary flavours of the other dishes but stands up to it well, and some fried cacciocavallo cheese on rustic bread. The cheese, fried with garlic and oregano and sprinkled with a little white wine vinegar before scooping onto the bread, was delicious.
As a dessert, I made some pinenut and chocolate macaroons, taking some of the characteristic flavours of Sicilian food and turning them into a delicious, chewy biscuit. I started from this recipe but used 20g of chopped 70% chocolate instead of the cocoa, and 100g of demerera sugar instead of the caster sugar, and 1 whole egg.
Note well - do NOT attempt to get them off the baking sheet until they are completely cooled or you will end up with the crumbled mess on the left. Still - it was useful as a cook's perk. I intended to serve these with a bottle of aleatico - red Italian dessert wine - but they were so good with a cup of tea that we didn't get that far.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Last weekend I saw this fab-looking recipe for BlackPepper Tofu in the Guardian. It sounded fragrant and delicious, and a bit unusual due to the use of the butter in the sauce. My theory is that it is the Indian influence in Malay cooking that would inspire that. But of course I couldn't help myself and made a few little changes (one being that I can't believe 150g butter is right!)...
Green peppercorn tofu (serves 2)
400g deep fried tofu cubes
5 golden shallots, peeled and finely diced
1 tbs crushed red chillies
8 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbs grated ginger
3 tbs crushed green peppercorns
A good slosh of soy sauce
1 tbs muscovado sugar
1 x 400g bag stirfry vegetable mix
Melt the butter, add the shallots, chillies, garlic and ginger, and sauté for about 15 minutes on low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the contents of the pan are shiny and totally soft. While you wait, crush the peppercorns, using a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder to a rough paste.
When the shallots are soft, add the soy sauce and the sugar, stir, then stir in the crushed pepper. Warm the tofu in the sauce for about a minute, then add the strifry vegetables and cook for a few more minutes or until the tofu and vegetables are hot through and thoroughly coated with sauce. Serve hot with steamed rice, if desired.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
We settled on the Bricklayers Arms. We've often been to this pub, but have previously sat in the beer garden, watching the kitchen staff feed carrots to the horses who live in the paddock at the back and listening to the bumblebees in the hawthorn hedge. It's really, really nice.
I was a bit sceptical about eating indoors - previously when I have walked through the dining room on my way to the loo the atmosphere has been akin to God's waiting room. But the food is fabulous, so I was prepared to set aside my prejudices.
And rightly so. As soon as we walked through the door we saw gorgeous little individual cream and green pumpkins on most people's plates and we were quite determined that whatever was in those pumpkins was going to be our lunch. It turned out to be a daily special of butternut squash and pumpkin soup. Velvety, not too creamy, but absolutely delicious.
They serve really good bread at the Bricklayers - thickly cut slabs of wholemeal or white sourdough, with cute little white china dishes of French butter. It was just the perfect thing with the soup, but I had another course coming and didn't want to overeat myself.
Paul ordered local wood pigeon breasts with field mushrooms in balsamic reduction. The pigeon was beautiful - tender, dark, rich meat, perfectly complemented by the mushrooms and rich sauce. He had some dauphinois potatoes with it and it is not often you see him eat potatoes so happily!
I'd been craving a burger, and while a local pork & sage burger with applewood smoked cheese wasn't at all what I had in mind, it certainly satisfied the craving. The burger was flecked with quite large pieces of fresh sage - absolutely delicious - and the smoked cheese was just the thing. In a perfect world there would have been a couple of slices of onion on the burger as well, but you can't have everything. The chips served with it were hand cut and very nicely browned, but unfortunately the salad hadn't been properly washed and was a bit gritty. Maybe someone was too busy feeding carrots to the horses to care about the finer details?