Saturday 28 September 2013

Pub lunches

I don't know if Paul was trying to out-do my mother, or if he just missed having me as a lunching companion, but as soon as I got back from Australia he started taking me out for better-than-average pub lunches. We'd have a rough idea of where we wanted to go for a drive, do a bit of research on local pubs and set off.

Bunnings & Price are a pub chain that is starting to make inroads in the area. We'd been to one of theirs, The Old Orchard, a couple of times, and quite liked it but we'd heard that The Cricketers was better and more consistent. The menu at both is way too long for everything to be freshly made, unless their wastage is obscene, but I think we chose pretty well.
Paul had a steak and ale pie with parsnip mash and "seasonal" vegetables. The broccoli and cabbage did seem to be freshly prepared, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that if you ordered this dish in December or May you'd still get broccoli, carrots and cabbage. But the pie was well-filled and had both top and bottom crusts, so Paul was happy.

It was a Sunday when we visited The Cricketers, so I had a roast. I was very pleased to see crackling - why do so many places serve roast pork without? - and aside from the somewhat overcooked Yorkie it was very good.
The only pudding Paul would agree to share was the sticky toffee. The cake was light and fluffy but the toffee sauce was a bit pale; it gave sweet stickiness without any of the interesting caramelly notes that make sticky toffee worthwhile. There was a baby screaming its lungs out in the front bar, so we didn't linger over dessert, but generally we thought The Cricketers is a valuable addition to the local pub landscape.

A bit further afield from us was The Woolpack, in Stoke Mandeville. Even though we'd seen their website, I think we were both a bit taken aback by how un-pubby the dining room was. It's certainly had the full modern British gastropub makeover, and aside from the spelling mistake on the mirror behind the bar, it looks great.
Like the mirror behind the bar, though, the food could have done with a little more attention to detail. Paul's whitebait was fine, but my beetroot-cured gravadlax left a bit to be desired. The fish itself was excellent, firm and meaty with a delicate cure, but the teacupful of aggressive horseradish and half-jar of vinegary capers did their darnedest to dominate. And pea shoots like that are a bit of a pet hate of mine. I always feel like a cow in a field when I try to chew through them. So while in theory the whole garnish was edible, an awful lot stayed on the plate.
Paul's main, from the specials list, was the best dish of the day. Seabass, with sweet potato wedges, a cucumber and mango salsa and broad beans, not an obvious combination of flavours but very well balanced. Loved that they'd gone to the effort of peeling the inner skin from the broad beans.

My main again could have done with more attention to detail. Spitroast chicken with aioli, Asian slaw and frites.

The chicken itself was lovely. It was perfectly cooked, moist and well-seasoned. The head of sticky, sweet roast garlic and half lemon on the plate were also very welcome. Everything else was misguided.

Why would roast chicken with roasted garlic, aioli and lemon juice also need a pool of over-reduced gravy? Why would delicious skin-on chips need a dusting of some crumby seasoning that made them taste like those nasty frozen oven wedges? And why on earth would you think that a slosh of fish sauce on oxidised vegetables would make an "Asian slaw"?

It's a bit out of our regular stamping grounds, but I would definitely go back to The Woolpack. When it was good it was very good indeed - the less-good bits showed how good the rest was. I also suspect that we may have got them on a day when they were cutting corners a bit, so I would like to give them a second chance.
The Royal Standard of England, on the other hand, is an old favourite that keeps drawing us back because it is genuinely lovely.
We shared a charcuterie platter. It was a little skimpy on the cornichon, but the rillettes, ham and saucisson were all excellent. A charcuterie plate is usually more about careful shopping than good cooking, but it's still a treat when it is done well. With a side salad this would have made a nice lunch for one, but it was also an excellent starter for the two of us.
Unfortunately, we'd forgotten that the portions at the Royal Standard are huge, and a starter was pretty much unnecessary. Paul's melting, slow-cooked Welsh lamb shoulder could have fed both of us amply with an extra vegetable dish.
My chicken & leek pie (called Midsommer Murder Resurrection pie, for reasons that escape me) was also generous and delicious. Really good chips, delicious buttery cabbage. No need to eat another meal that day.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Rump roast - a midweek braai

"Smell my hands", he says. Not usually an auspicious start, but I lean in and sniff. His hands smell deeply of wood-smoke and charcoal. It's a clear, still evening, so we've put a little rolled rump roast of Highland beef into the Weber, and Paul's just put a big handful of woodchips in to give a bit of smoke to the bark.

"This is the smell of my childhood". We drink wine and watch the smoke curl out of the vents and he tells me stories. About his uncle Mees, and the rows and rows of vegetables he grew; how he'd dust the potatoes off and bring them inside just in time to be cooked for dinner. About his labrador Suzie running on the beach and looking like a seal as she swam. About fishing in the brackish water of Stanford, just up the river from Hermanus - spoilt by progress on waterskis now.

After about 35 minutes we brought the meat in to rest and finished the veg - the fondant potatoes sadly represented the whole of this year's crop. A very special dinner.

Monday 23 September 2013

Verjus and grape pie

While I was off swanning about in Australia, the UK was having an amazing summer. Weeks and weeks of hot sunny weather and the occasional cooling shower of rain. As this was the first decent summer since 2006, I was pretty annoyed about missing it.

I did come home to a couple more weeks of good weather, though, and a garden being taken over by triffid-like grapevines. The leaves were too old to harvest for making dolmades, and there were way too many grapes for them all to mature and ripen properly. A bit of thinning was definitely in order.

I had Maggie Beer fairly close to the top of my mind, having had her wonderful ice cream in Australia. Now, she's been championing the revival of verjus for many years, so I thought "The juice of unripe grapes, how hard could it be?" (*spoiler* - not very hard at all). I had a rummage around the internet and found this recipe for DIYing it. Could scarcely be simpler.
 7lbs of grapes is a lot. Our vines could possibly have stretched to that but I was just thinning the fruit - I wanted to leave a goodly amount to ripen. And anyway, I really didn't know what the heck I would do with 6 cups of verjus.
So I used about 1kg. I don't have a food mill, so after washing them I gave the grapes a bit of a pulse in the food processor to break them up, then strained them through a jelly bag. The resulting witch's brew was not attractive.
I let it sit in the fridge over night. Most of the sediment settled on the bottom - which is just how you want it really.
I carefully poured the liquid off into a sterile jar, and there it was. 300ml of beautiful golden verjus. I still didn't know what the heck I was going to do with it.
About 200ml went to deglaze the pan I roasted some duck legs in. It thickened to a light syrupy sauce that was still sharp enough to cut through the rich meat. We had it with sweet potato roesti and some lightly cooked pointed cabbage.
The rest of the jar sat patiently in the fridge.

Then the rest of the grapes on the vine ripened. I was finally in a position to revisit grape pie - a fabulous confection from Heather at Girlichef. Instead of the lemon juice to sharpen up the pie filling, I used some of the verjus. And I substituted pine nuts for almonds because that is what I had to hand.
I used some of my pastry offcuts to make a little vine decoration for the top. I was slightly hampered by a complete brainfart, rendering me utterly unable to remember what vine leaves look like. And also completely unmotivated to step outside the back door and have a look.

Anyway, weirdly inaccurate vine leaves aside, this is a wonderful, wonderful pie.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Chicken and rice - sort of West African style

I had chicken, a craving for the comfort of rice and half a jar of chunky peanut butter. Normally, this would take me in a sort of Thai direction, but I didn't have any coconut milk. And Paul isn't the biggest fan of satay anyway. Then I remembered the delicious peanut chicken served with jollof rice at the Spinach and Aguishi stall on Exmouth Market.

Because it was chicken breasts, I didn't want to stew them, so I decided to make jollof rice, a spinach and peanut stew-cum-sauce and grill the chicken to serve on top. I just went with things that I thought were tasty, so I make no claim to authenticity, but I hope that any West African readers wouldn't turn over their plates in horror.

I made a paste of ginger, garlic, onions and chillies, and sauteed it in a bit of olive oil, then added basmati rice (about 3/4 of a cup - it was what was left in the bag), a can of tomatoes, a vegetable stock cube and some water, covered the pot and stuck it in the oven until it was cooked (rice tender, liquid mostly absorbed), and I was ready for it, checking on it once and adding a bit more water when it looked a bit dry.

For the spinach and peanut stew, I cooked a chopped onion until quite translucent, then added frozen chopped spinach, 1/4 cup of peanut butter, a chopped chilli and some water and simmered it until it was saucy, correcting the seasoning with salt and a spoonful of tahini because I felt the peanut flavour needed some boosting. If I'd had some whole peanuts, I would have added them too.

Both the rice and the spinach were quite hot (only one of my frozen Twilight chillies in each dish, but they pack a punch) so I just kept the chicken really simple, sprinkling the skin with salt and pepper. When it was cooked, I gave it a few minutes rest before slicing it into chunks and serving it on top of the rice and spinach.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Hawksmoor Air St

Pretty art deco-style window behind our table
Deciding where to go for my birthday dinner took a lot of consideration - even more so because we had been planning to be in Provence for it, so it had to be both a celebration and a consolation prize. We discussed St John, Quo Vadis, 32 Great Queen St and Le Café Anglais before deciding that this was the moment to try Hawksmoor Air St.

There's nothing quite like a rainy night to make you appreciate a cloak room. I bloody LOVE not having a slimy, wet umbrella under the table, getting tangled in my feet and more often than not forgotten. After checking in said slimy, wet umbrella, we were passed from attractive staff member to attractive staff member until we were finally deposited at an oval table "big enough to hold all the lovely food", as the last attractive staff member said.

I was torn between lobster cocktail and shrimps on toast as a starter. Paul suggested that mother shrimps tell their babies horror stories about my rapacious appetite for potted shrimps, but I am almost certain that isn't true. Anyway, he suggested that we have some caviar to start, which I thought was a very good idea.
Sour cream, blinis and toppings
It's fiendishly expensive of course - as it should be really, since this one is ethical, sustainable and doesn't kill the sturgeon. The small pot was plenty for the two of us, and presented in fine style with warm, fluffy blinis and little mother-of-pearl caviar spoons. This was by far the nicest caviar I have tried (not that I have a great deal of experience with caviar!) - much less salty, and with a lovely crunch. We didn't go properly traditional with it: we skipped the authentic vodka in favour of glasses of Alain Thiénot champagne.
The pictures I took of our main course really failed to do it justice (in fact, looked completely unappetising) so I haven't included one. We shared a beautiful Chateaubriand, cooked to perfection, and served with triple-cooked chips, luscious anchovy hollandaise and salad. I've raved about the English lettuce and herb salad before - it is the best salad in the world - but on this occasion the wonder of the anchovy hollandaise outshone even the salad. It wasn't super fishy, but it had a meaty savouriness that enhanced the delicious medium rare beef. I dipped all my chips in it and would possibly have eaten it off the spoon had I been at home.

We shared a bottle of Château de Rochemorin ‘Hawksmoor Claret’. Paul chose it under the assumption that they probably put extra care into selecting a wine that actually had their name on the label, and that certainly seemed to be the case.

Paul had a glass of 1968 Armagnac to finish - it didn't occur to him that the Darroze assemblage 40 Year old Armagnac would be more appropriate on my 40th birthday... and I had a sticky toffee sundae.

The sundae probably wasn't my best possible choice, given that I have recently decided that I don't particularly like sticky toffee pudding. But the combination of an excellent toffee sauce, ice cream, sliced dates and a chunk of pudding was very good. Charmingly, they had noted my post on their Facebook page that I was coming for a birthday dinner and my dessert came out with suitable decorations. It's nice to know that I can still be utterly delighted by a candle.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

More birthday celebrations - Bar Américain

Part of the plan for my birthday celebrations was to head into London early, have a wander about and then a nice drink before going to dinner. The weather, however, failed to comply. It was drizzly and squally to the point that there was more rain under my umbrella than above it. So much for the carefully-constructed hairdo. And so much for the planned wander about. There was nothing for it but to have two nice drinks before going to dinner.

As we were in Soho, my first thought was Bob Bob Ricard. Alas, they don't open until 6pm.

The backup plan was Bar Américain. I was pretty sure that at 5.00pm on a Friday we'd be able to get a table and have a civilised drink, without being bombarded by hoi polloi and drunken media types. When I've been there before it's been quite busy, but that has been late in the evening. We were given our choice of tables, so we tucked ourselves in a quiet corner.

I had a Spritz Américain - a lovely citrussy bubbly concoction, let down by far too much ice, which kept getting up my nose because I couldn't figure out how to drink it elegantly. Paul had a ZL Cobbler - Grand Marnier, calvados and fruity things, also with way too much ice. We shared some fried mushrooms.

For his second drink, Paul had a Sazerac which contained no ice at all, and was quite hard going. My second drink (again, despite too much ice) was the best of the four, an Old Fashioned. I think the Old Fashioned may become my cocktail of choice if ever I am in an environment where a gin & tonic isn't the answer.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Baci di Ciliegie - cherry ricotta fritters

Yesterday I departed my 30s. I haven't been too stressed from an "Oh my god I'm 40" perspective, but I thoroughly enjoyed my 30s so I am sad to see them go.

To start my birthday, I made these cherry ricotta fritters. It's a half-quantity of Nigella's Baci di Ricotta recipe, made with really lovely buffalo ricotta, and given an extra kick with a handful of cherries, which I put down in booze a month ago. The cherries did make the fritters a weird colour, but they were absolutely delicious and very moreish. The scattering of icing sugar really freaked out my camera though.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Two meals inspired by Jamie Oliver

A couple of weeks ago, I was perusing youtube while I ate my lunch and came across an episode of Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals. To be honest, when that series first aired, I didn't pay very much attention because I like cooking too much and never have the time pressure to produce a meal in only 15 minutes. But the sausage gnocchi and warm bean salad looked really delicious, so I decided to give it a go.

Then of course I realised that if I did both dishes we'd have loads of leftovers, so I decided to split them over two meals.

The sausage gnocchi, even though I reduced the fennel seeds to just less than 1tsp, was way too fennel-y. I think 1/2tsp of toasted and slightly crushed fennel seeds would have been nicer to eat. It was also very soupy. I think if I make this again I won't pre-cook the gnocchi, just let it poach in the sauce. I wasn't timing it, but this can't have taken much more than 15 minutes to make, because Paul was very surprised that tea was ready so soon.
The bean and greens salad was a great accompaniment to a barbecued onglet, although I think I would have preferred it to be just beans or just cabbagey things, rather than the combination. It would also make a nice meal on its own, with some good bread and butter.
These were both good dishes to add to the repertoire. I think this really is Jamie Oliver's strength - he is a very good cookery teacher, and has very good ideas about combining flavours in very approachable ways. If he sticks to that instead of saying ignorant and inflammatory things about poverty, I think it'll be a good thing.

Monday 9 September 2013

Peach, vanilla and chilli jam

I had the notion that I would like the flavours in this jam, but I wasn't willing to commit to a full-sized quantity - so this makes a tiny little batch. The flavours do work very well, so next time I would do it with 1kg of fruit. I'd say that the chilli warmth is subtle, Paul says it is non-existent. There is a little lime for brightness and vanilla beans for more fragrance and a slight crunch. Nothing to overwhelm the beautiful ripe peach flavour.

Peach, vanilla and chilli jam (makes 2 small jars)

400g peaches (I used lovely ripe yellow peaches)
Juice and grated zest of a lime
350g jam sugar
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
1 small red chilli, de-seeded and finely sliced

Blanch the peaches briefly, then peel and slice. If your peaches turn out to be clingstone, just sort of mulch them in your hands to get the flesh off the stones.

Put the peaches, lime zest and juice in a heavy-based saucepan and cook over a gentle heat for 10-15 minutes, until it softens and the juices run. Add the sugar, vanilla and chilli, and stir while the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat. Cook at a galloping boil until it reaches setting point - which is about 105C, but I like to double check with the old saucer-in-the-freezer method.

Allow to settle for 10 minutes then pot into sterilised jars.
The chilli certainly isn't anything that would take this jam into predominantly savoury uses, although I think it could be really delicious paired with goats cheese somehow. The main challenge for us in finding uses for it is that really the only time we eat jam is with scones and Paul has a very firm strawberry-only policy on scones.

I did use one jar in a luscious Peach Melba inspired trifle. Paul's family always has trifle at Christmas, but I see it as a year-round treat, ringing the changes with seasonal fruits.

I put a layer of savoiardi biscuits in the bottom of my trifle dish, and gave them a sprinkling of Chambord, then spread the peach jam over them. Next was a good layer of beautiful British raspberries - have to take advantage of them while they are around - which I arranged fairly carefully around the edges so  it'd look pretty. Then a layer of custard. I will never make as good a custard as Waitrose, sadly.
That all went into the fridge over night to allow the biscuits to absorb the juices and swell and become tender and cakey.

For the garnish, I roasted some hazelnuts, then made a light caramel and poured a little pool over each nut. As soon as it was cool enough to handle, I rolled the caramel around each one, to give a thick toffee coating.
Unfortunately, at this point I discovered a hole in my education. Somehow, I have lived in the UK for seven years and never been told that you can't whip single cream. I had assumed that single cream was what in Australia is called "cream". But it is not. So I had a bowl of cream that refused to mount and nothing to top the trifle with.

So on our way over to dinner, we stopped in at the supermarket and bought a can of squirty cream. Not ideal but there you go. At least it wasn't "lite" squirty cream.
The cream from those aerosol cans isn't very stable, so just at serving time I squirted on a good thick layer (mostly air - this is actually much less cream than I would have used had it been proper whipped cream) and garnished it with my toffeed hazelnuts and some freeze-dried raspberries.

It was a wonderful dessert. The perfect combination of flavours and textures, not too sweet and not too filling at the end of a large meal.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Pepper Pig Torta

I've posted before on what a brilliant sandwich the torta is. So when I bought some of Turner and George's (formerly known as East London Steak Co - I'm not being unfaithful, they changed their name!) Pepper Pigs, it was with the torta firmly in mind.

Unfortunately, Paul & I both need to lose a bit of weight, so we cut out a few elements, although I do appreciate that a sausage and guacamole sandwich is not obvious diet food. So my refried beans were not made with lashings of lard, just a small splash of olive oil, and very little added salt. The split buns were just toasted, not fried in the fat from the sausages. And instead of smearing the toasted bread with chipotle mayo, I added a bit of Gran Luchito chilli paste to the guacamole. The sausages themselves had so much flavour that I honestly didn't miss the mayo and lard.
Pepper Pig Torta - I assume someone at T&G has a sense of humour and a toddler!

Sunday 1 September 2013

Hummus platter

We've had really brilliant barbecue weather for the last couple of weeks (longer, really, but Paul faithfully didn't barbecue while I was away). Long, sunny evenings with hardly a breath of wind. Perfect. So the question arises, "what will we barbecue tonight?". The answer on this occasion was some lamb steak, and we did flatbreads in a pan on the fire.

But I didn't want the meat to be the main event. I wanted it to almost be a condiment, while bringing the "side dishes" - the vegetables - to centre stage. The previous night we'd done some pizzas, and after they were cooked the coals still had some oomph, so Paul said "Got anything else you want to stick on?". As it happened, I had a bag of little aubergines that I'd wanted to do something with. So they went on until the skins were charred and the flesh had collapsed.

I scraped the aubergine flesh out of the skins, and chopped it fairly finely. I mixed it with some spring onions, coriander and tomato, and gave it a bit of a sweet/sour zing with some mulberry molasses.

I made some pretty basic hummus bi tahini (chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, cumin and salt - let down with a little hot water to the right scooping consistency).

I made a salad of cucumber and artichoke hearts and dressed it with garlic, lemon juice and the finely diced skin of a preserved lemon.

I piled it all on a platter, garnished the hummus with olive oil and a sprinkle of cayenne and we dug into it together.
The following day, I had the joy of leftovers for an early but substantial lunch. One of the flatbreads, dotted with a little butter and reheated in the oven, and a scoop of the hummus. I topped the hummus with some chopped coriander, tomatoes and olives, and had some beautiful still-warm hard-boiled eggs on the side.


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