Friday 29 February 2008

Sicilian Wine Dinner

Last night, the Rose and Crown ran another of their wine dinners. Unfortunately, I have another cold. Fortunately I am not as congested as I was at the French wine dinner so I was able to enjoy it, even if I missed a lot of the subtleties.

We went to an Italian wine dinner in September, which featured a delicious Sicilian fiano, so we were sort of hoping it'd be back on the menu. It wasn't. But we began with a viognier from the same label, MandraRossa, which was very pleasant, if underchilled. That was served with caponata and grilled bread, which I thought was quite a brave choice - I wouldn't have thought something sweet and sour like caponata would have worked with wine, but it was pretty good. When I make caponata it is usually pretty similar to this recipe, but I usually add some toasted pinenuts to it. Fabulous with BBQd lamb chops or a steak. The one at the pub was diced quite small, for convenient eating as a bruschetta topping, and had some flaked almonds in it, which didn't add heaps of flavour or texture, but were a pretty good idea anyway.

The next wine could also have done with some solid chilling; a white blend called La Segreta Bianco, it went very well with the fish course. Actually, I thought having a seafood platter as the fish course was quite brave too, since so many people seem to be funny about shellfish. It was very nice though, a little swordfish involtini, a couple of mussels gratin, and a couple of spicy prawns sharing the involtini's skewer. The prawns should have been decent-sized king prawns - while they were sweet and tender, at a little less than an inch long, they just looked a bit miserly on the plate.

A pleasant, fruity red wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, came with the chicken cacciatore. The chicken was lovely - nice big chunks on the bone, they'd obviously been very well browned before the liquid was added, so they were extremely tender but didn't have the flabby texture that boiled chicken skin gets. The sauce was also very good. Not as thick and tomatoey as some, it was clear and well-flavoured and soaked into the accompanying macaroni very nicely.

The pudding wine was a really lovely Moscato (which should have been colder... I think the pub lacks icebuckets). The pudding was described as "Sugared fruit tart and blancmange", which wasn't particularly accurate. It was sort of like a thin mince pie, with quite a fresh-tasting (very appley) fruit mince filling, with "blancmange" on the side. Now, as I know it, blancmange is a cornflour-thickened milk pudding that sets firm enough to turn out of a mould. It seems there is also a famous Sicilian (which would fit) version called biancomangiare which sounds much nicer, being based on almond milk (a vegan pudding - always useful to have up your sleeve). But this wasn't that either. It was sort of a custard, quite lemony, but obviously thickened to a pouring consistency with ground almonds, so it had a slightly gritty, lumpy texture. It was delicious, but not really what I mean by blancmange. If I didn't trust the chef, I would suspect that he was making the biancomangiare and made the schoolboy error of not reading the recipe through the whole way and missed the step of running the almond milk through the cheesecloth...

Saturday 23 February 2008

St Clement's Cream

We're having dinner with friends tonight, so I offered to bring pudding. I like making desserts, but with just 2 of us (one of whom hasn't got much of a sweet tooth) I can hardly ever justify it at home. Some months ago I saw this article in the paper and squirreled the St Clement's Cream recipe away for future reference. It sounded light, fruity and not too sweet - just perfect for the non-sweet tooth. As I've mentioned previously, one of the most successful meals I have ever cooked had Butter'd Orange with a bottle of sauternes for pudding and I thought this would have the same sort of effect. I'm confident enough as a cook - and confident enough in Simon Hopkinson's reputation as a cook and writer - to experiment on friends with new recipes. And anyway, the point of friends is that they will forgive you if you make something disasterous.

It might be a bit early to say for sure, but I think this St Clement's Cream may actually be the best dessert in history. My bowl-licking suggests that the flavour is very well balanced between sharp and sweet, with the flavour carried luxuriously in the cream. The way it set (I used wine glasses to show off the layer of jelly) is very pleasing, like one of my best Lemon Posset efforts. Then the unsweetened layer of jelly has added colour and extra zing. I am quite excited.

I've been trying to decide if it needs something else. A little crisp biscuit as a contrast in texture, or something. Or would that be gilding the lily? I had thought that something like these Marmalade Buttons from Dan Lepard would be perfect (and start using up some of my massive marmalade backlog) but I haven't got any ground rice or semolina in and I'm not entirely sure I could be bothered. Maybe M&S will have some fancy wafers, or I might just let the sheer beauty of the cream shine on its own.

ETA: Yup - Best Pudding Ever. Didn't end up serving it with anything because the local shops didn't have anything appropriate or the ingredients for me to make anything. But the contrast between the sharp, unsweetened jelly and the smooth, zingy cream was just perfect. It had sat out of the fridge for a couple of hours before we ate, but it hadn't suffered at all for it.

Sunday 17 February 2008

The politics of chicken

There has been so much in the press recently about chicken - Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall has wept, Jamie Oliver has argued with the supermarkets, Delia Smith has said the poor need battery chickens. I'm not going to recap. I am not going to point out that other intensively-reared animals have it just as bad. What I am going to say is that I think a country has its priorities wrong when minimum wage means you can only afford to eat meat raised in cruelty. At the moment, eating free-range, organic chicken regularly is indeed a middle-class luxury, but it shouldn't be that way. If society has a genuine interest in the welfare of animals, then it should back it up. I haven't actually thought through the mechanism of avoiding inflation, if wages were increased to the point where high-welfare chicken becomes affordable, but it must be possible.

Meanwhile, being comfortably middle-class, we would eat a roast free-range organic chicken about once a fortnight. A smallish chicken feeds two of us with leftovers and it really is just about the easiest meal in the world. We've pared back a lot of the trimmings - no roast potatoes, no bread sauce, no stuffing, usually only a couple of vegetables - and now with about 10 minutes effort and 1 hour cooking, we get a lovely meal. I've tried a lot of different bastes and flavoured butters and things put under the skin (most successful on the occasion when I made an apple aioli that was too garlicky to eat as a sauce), but most usually we do it like this:

Remove the elastic bands holding it trussed (cooks faster), put a couple of peeled cloves of garlic in the cavity, squeeze the juice of a lemon all over the skin and put the juiced half in the cavity (the heat of the oven releases a lot more juice), season liberally with salt and pepper, and scatter a few more cloves of peeled garlic around the bird, then roast in a hot oven for an hour. When it comes out, it rests on our nice wooden carving board and I use a fork to crush the roast garlic into the juices in the pan over a low heat and reduce it to a light gravy, pouring in more juices as the collect on the carving board. Delicious! Sometimes we'll pile veg around the bird, but that isn't really as good because the skin doesn't crisp as nicely with all the steam from the veg. So when I do it tonight, the veg (aubergine, pepper, marrow, onion, cherry tomatoes) will go in a separate tin in the top oven while the chicken goes in the fan-forced bottom oven. Couldn't be simpler, and there is so little washing up.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Sausage and Peppers

When people discuss the best food movies of all time, the same names come up time and again: Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman. And nothing at all wrong with any of those. But they are not my choice. For me, the best food film ever made is Dinner Rush. It really staggers me that Bob Giraldi could go from making films for Pat Benatar and Michael Jackson, construct this work of near perfection, and then fade back into making films for Pat Benatar, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. The story is good, the performances are great and the cinematography - especially in the blackout scene where the kitchen is lit by the gas flames from the stoves - is brilliant. But the absolutely best bit is when the soux chef, Duncan, comes in to cook a simple dish of sausage and peppers for Louis Cropa (played by Danny Aiello) - the owner and current chef's father.

Now, we'd eaten many a sausage before seeing this movie, and had done a fair bit of experimenting with them in cooking. But Dinner Rush had a big impact on the way we do them. If you google "sausage and peppers" you will find countless recipes for similar dishes. It is clearly a staple of Italian American cooking - but for an Australian and a South African there was a degree of novelty.

The method we've pretty much settled on is this:
Heat a heavy-based saute pan and add quite a lot of good olive oil. Cut fresh Italian sausage (the sort flavoured with fennel and chilli) into large chunks and throw them into the hot oil. While they are browning really well, add an onion, peeled and sliced, and let it take a bit of colour. Add peppers, cut into 8ths (we usually do it with red peppers, but if we can get one of those "traffic light" packs, use that) and saute until it all begins to soften. Add quite a lot of sliced garlic. Sometimes we add a little balsamic at this stage, but most usually we go nuts with dried oregano and marjoram. Then add either a tin of chopped tomatoes, or a good slosh of passata, and simmer until thick. We'll either eat it just like this, or use it as a sauce for pasta. We think it is better if you add the drained pasta to the pan and toss it around for a few minutes, so the juices all soak in.

Monday 11 February 2008

Gilpin Lodge III

Sunday was our actual anniversary, so at breakfast I treated myself with strawberry sorbet topped with champagne. It was just wonderful, so I think that will feature every time I entertain in the morning from now on. A very good eggs Florentine and more of the wonderful coffee sent us out into the day.

We'd decided that we wanted to get to the coast, so we chose a point due West and set off. Landing in Barrow-in-Furness, which looked horrible and industrial, so we chose again. On the road to Ravenglass, we decided to stop for tea at Muncaster Castle. How beautiful! I wouldn't bother paying to go into the castle again, but I would be very keen to go back later in the year when all the rhododendrons were out. Amazingly, there were a few out already, so you just got a taste of what it must look like in about May. Having no self-control at all, instead of having a cup of tea and a scone, we were won over by bacon and cheese Aberdeen Angus beefburgers. Brilliant - the "barbecue sauce" on the side was the most wonderful thick, spiced relish - really tasty burgers.

Back at the hotel, we had a bottle of Tattinger sent up to our room and watched the news. How very sad to see the Camden markets burn - I can't believe they will ever recapture the character they had.

In the lounge I continued with champagne - I decided it was a bad plan to mix my drinks - while my husband decided to be daring and have Lagavulin instead of Talisker. The canapes were similar to the first night - cheesy polenta squares, and a very good smoked salmon mousse.

The wheels fell off the service a bit. We were led to our table before we'd ordered, and the waitress who showed us to the table felt herself inadequate to taking the order, so there was a minor delay. Probably a good thing given the size of the burgers at lunch...

We began with Morteaux sausage wrapped in puff pastry with apple chutney. I've googled, and as far as I can tell Morteaux sausage is very groovy in gastro-pubs and restaurants with pretention to excellence but hard to find otherwise. It isn't mentioned in Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, but the American Airlines website (?!) says it is traditional in Lyon. Makes a bloody good sausage roll.

We both chose big, gutsy, red meat dishes, so it was much easier than the night before to choose the wine - a Warwick Trilogy from Cape Town. It's a classic claret blend - cab sav, cabernet franc and merlot - but much heavier and juicier than the French do it. It was very nice, and hard to believe it had only had 2 years in the bottle.

My husband had squab with choucroute and wild mushrooms - the squab was lovely. Really well rested and perfectly tender. I had Jerusalem artichoke soup with autumn truffles. I was very pleased to see that they didn't take the easy way out - the truffle flavour was just in the shavings of truffle on the surface, hadn't been taken the whole way through with heavy-handed application of truffle oil.

For main, my husband had roasted loin of local venison with curly kale, chestnut foam and swede fondant. Surprisingly, he said the foam was really good, but he felt the chef should be banned from the demi-glace pot, because all of the sauces had the same texture. I had best end of Herdwick lamb with fondant potato, confit vegetables, shallot puree and rosemary jus. The Herdwick sheep is a weird looking beast for those of us who are used to cute, rotund Suffolks but the hard life on the Cumbrian hills makes for some delicious meat.

The pre-dessert wasn't very successful - Consomme of winter fruits with Stilton biscuits sounded promising but the consomme was too sweet and the garnish of pineapple salpicon wasn't really seasonal.

I decided that I had to take advantage of the kitchen's expertise with a souffle and have the prune and armagnac with its own icecream. Again it was of extraordinary lightness, but the chocolate that the dish was brushed with got in the way of the flavour somehow, instead of melding unctuously with the prunes the way it usually does. The icecream was magnificent, and I would happily have foregone the souffle for a couple more scoops of that.

My husband came out of left-field and ordered a dessert. I almost died of shock. He had Szechuan pepper rum baba with roasted pineapple and buttermilk icecream. Unfortunately the bite he gave me had the only peppercorn in it - so I got a wonderful explosion of flavours and he just got sweet, plain syrup. He said the pineapple could have been turnip for all he knew - it clearly wasn't ripe enough. I thought it was a very nice dessert. He would have been happier with a glass of armagnac.

Gilpin Lodge II

After a ruddy awful night's sleep (lovely comfy bed, new silk nightie, FAR too hot) we staggered downstairs to breakfast, where I regretted that I had not brushed my hair. A cafetiere of the best coffee I've ever had in a hotel made me feel a bit better, and then a compote of winter fruits (or, in fact, plumped up dried apricots, figs and prunes) with lovely thick yoghurt improved things further. A main course of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (a 2 course breakfast! Oh my!) made me want to crawl back into bed to sleep it all off, but we had work to do.

First, a fruitless expedition into Bowness to buy a frock since I was desperately underdressed in the restaurant (I think that they should clarify on the website that "casual but smart" means no jeans). Then we hired a boat at Esthwaite Water Trout Fishery for my husband to have a bit of a throw. He's fished there many times with no success but it is just so stunning that we keep going back. If I am to be bored by fishing it is going to be with a book in my hand and a lovely view.

When the light started to go, we headed back to Gilpin Lodge to dress for dinner. I put lipgloss on.

The previous night I'd seen a couple served with "bellini's" which were completely clear. I decided to have a go with one for my pre-dinner drink and it was lovely. The peach flavour must have been from a peach schnapps or similar liqueur, because it was very strong and more alcoholic than your average glass of bubbly. Paul succeeded in getting his Talisker served with 1 cube of ice. The canapes were tiny chicken samosas with raita, more olives and a lovely gazpacho with basil oil.

Our introductory taste at the dinner table was a pumpkin veloute with roasted pumpkin seeds. The soup was perfectly smooth and creamy and so on, but it had really lost the pumpkin character and natural velvetiness that makes it such a winner. The pumpkin seeds were wonderful though, and provided a much-needed textural contrast.

The restaurant has a pretty wide selection of half-bottles of wine - a good thing, because there was no way we were going to be able to share a bottle. My husband had chablis with his red mullet with peppers, courgettes, goats' cheese tortellini and red wine jus. I ordered some Chorey-les-Baume to go with my hare faggot wrapped in Savoy cabbage with beetroot puree and baby turnips, but I got to do an interesting comparison when the 1/3 bottle of zinfandel that we'd left the night before was brought out.

The faggot was very good - rich and livery, with the mineral flavour of the Savoy cabbage wrapping really cutting through nicely. I couldn't say which wine was better with it, they were equally good but very different, but as a wine I preferred the Chorey-les-Baumes.

We've got a really good Italian restaurant just near us, and we nearly always order the sole meuniere. So seeing a main course of poached and roasted lemon sole with confit shallots, capers, flat-leaf parsley and roast chicken jus, my husband decided he had to see how a properly posh place does sole. And he announced that poaching and then roasting and adding a sticky jus was a waste of a good fish. He even went so far as to say it lost the soul of sole, but I wish he hadn't.

I was tempted by the pot-roasted pig's head, because I just couldn't imagine how they would present it, but I went for an easy option and chose assiette of veal with wild mushrooms and Madeira sauce. The 3 cuts were poached fillet, slow-cooked shoulder and tongue. I've never had tongue before, but it was delicious. The meat was served with some of the most magnificent mash, quite heavily infused with rosemary. It was interesting having the mash provide seasoning to the dish, instead of being a bland, filling cop-out. I did think that having 3 cuts all cooked quite slowly with moisture didn't really show the versatility or different characters of the meat very well. I think a little piece of saltimbocca or a grilled cutlet would have been a better option than poached fillet.

The pre-dessert was lemon cream with a compote of forced rhubarb, which was gorgeous. The delicate, pale pink rhubarb was hidden under a blanket of cream speckled with candied lemon zest. I suspect there may have been some limoncello in there too.

I still had quite a lot of my red wines left, so I decided to have the cheese platter. There were 7 cheeses, which I think is too many. Bigger portions of 4 would have been less confusing to the palate. None of them really floated my boat. Even the Stichelton, which was the it cheese at Christmas, wasn't what I want in a stilton-style cheese.

Gilpin Lodge

It was our anniversary this weekend, and we decided to have a FTE (f*** the expense) weekend up in the Lake District. We got a booking at Gilpin Lodge - a country house hotel and restaurant near Lake Windermere. We didn't really want to eat at the same place every night, but for some reason Dinner, Bed & Breakfast came in £200 cheaper than B&B for 2 nights and DB&B for 1 night.
Gilpin Lodge has just lost a Michelin star, but we still had high hopes for excellent meals based on the sample menus on their website.

On arrival we had a bottle of Taltarni brut & tache bubbles brought to the room. One of my friends once pronounced it "the perfect brunch bubbly" but I see no reason to limit it like that. It is fine at any hour of the day! Much drier than many pink champagnes and sparkling wines, it was very nice to relax with after a long drive, but we probably didn't think our timing through properly - I was half cut and the bottle was still half full at the time we had said we'd go to the lounge for pre-dinner drinks.

In the lounge I ordered a glass of sherry - I was offered dry, medium or sweet, and I asked for medium because I always worry that I will be given a bone-dry fino, which I really don't like. As it happens I was brought something slightly drier than Harveys Bristol cream, so I should probably have just had a G&T. My husband asked for a glass of Talisker with 1 icecube. It came well and truly "on the rocks" so he had to drink fast before it was too diluted but it had just the right aroma of smoke and cold weather that he'd been hoping for as soon as we got out of the car and smelled the coal fires.

While we explored the menu, we were brought canapes - little crisp cubes of tender cheesy polenta, with a little mustard mayonnaise, some marinated olives and shotglasses of a crab cocktail, disconcertingly topped with whipped cream. The canapes were a very good size, not too big or too numerous.

At just the right time we were led to our table.

Our waiter won't win any awards for charm or affability, unlike the rest of the staff at Gilpin Lodge, but he was efficient enough as he offered bread and brought little shot glasses of celeriac veloute with truffle. I'm not - I am truly not - a butter snob, but I do feel that if you are going to serve unsalted butter with bread, it needs to be one of the European-style ones with a strong lactic character. The celeriac veloute was very good. It still tasted of celeriac and the truffles added very good things to it. I think next time I am planning to make the truffled rice salad, I will save a few truffles and add them to a celeriac mash the next night.

As a first course, I had ravioli of lobster with wilted spinach and a lemongrass and lobster veloute. The single, fat raviolo was wonderfully light, but the mousseline didn't taste distinctively of lobster, just generically seafood-y. And I couldn't find any lemongrass flavour in the veloute. Oh look, there it is, in my husband's sausage of river pike with watercress and freshwater crayfish. I think someone got confused by the saucepans and switched the pale coral sauces on our dishes. The pike sausage - a take on the Lyonnaise pike quenelle with crayfish sauce - was gorgeous; more of the divinely ethereal mousseline, with chunks of crayfish through it.

For main we had roasted Goosnargh duck coated in honey and cracked black pepper with red cabbage, baby turnips and cassis sauce for two people. Only the breasts were served carved thickly from the carcass, so I was sort of expecting to see something with a duck jus or duck stock turn up on the menu later, but there was nothing obvious. The waste in a kitchen at this level must be astonishing. The duck was very good, perfectly pink and tender, but I do love the contrast of a crisp skin with tender duck meat and the honey coating lost that contrast. The duck was just perfect with the zinfandel we'd ordered, although the wine was too heavy and almost syrupy to have alone once we'd finished eating.

A pre-dessert of passionfruit jelly with cardamom and gin was magnificent: couldn't taste any cardamom or gin, but the passionfruit was so powerful any more delicate flavours didn't stand a chance. The jelly could possibly have been less firmly set, if I must quibble.

On our wedding day, I had ordered a passionfruit souffle for pudding - only to be told that the oven was broken and I couldn't have it. Two years later - almost to the day - I got my passionfruit souffle. And no offence to the Bayswater Brasserie where we had dinner after our wedding, but I am convinced that they couldn't have produced a souffle of such perfection. So light, so strongly perfumed with passionfruit, so perfect with the glass of Hungarian tokaji I had with it. The chocolate icecream that was served with it was exquisite, but I really don't think chocolate goes very well with passionfruit. We eavesdropped on the couple next to us, who asked how to achieve such a perfect souffle, and they were told that the key is to brush the ramekin with melted chocolate, and to use upwards strokes of the brush. That way the mixture climbs the ramekin. Amazing, but I will leave that sort of thing to the experts, I think.

Saturday 2 February 2008

Really big steak

Yesterday afternoon I received an email from my husband telling me that he bought steak and a bottle of bubbles for our Friday night supper. Since he has spent quite a bit of time bonding with our butcher, I know that whatever he comes home with is going to be absolutely delicious. I just wasn't expecting the steak to be quite so large. Reminiscent of the Flintstone's brontosaurus rib, our rib steak (for 2 people, mind) clocked in at 2kgs of magnificent, dark-red, dry-hung beef.

If it was a little warmer, we'd have barbecued it. A piece of meat like that cries out for a nice, slow charcoal fire, with the lid on to catch the smokey goodness. But it is February and snow has been forecast (optimistically, I must say) so we decided to roast it - much too thick to fry or grill. In the past I have had reasonable success with Patricia Wells' method of cooking a thick steak on a bed of salt, but we don't have a big bag of rocksalt in the house at the moment, so it just went into a 220C oven, sprinkled with salt, pepper and a couple of crushed juniper berries for 35 minutes. It came out rare, tender and juicy, with a lovely belt of crisp brown fat. Carved into thick pieces and served with a pile of roast mediterranean veg it was quite perfect. And there is enough left over for about 4 doorstop sandwiches - especially if I can find that piece of horseradish that I tucked into the freezer!


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