Friday 29 November 2013

Blogger ennui

I've been cooking and eating some very nice things lately, but I can't be arsed to post about any of them. I shall return when the muse is back on deck.

Friday 22 November 2013

Venison pithiviers and Christmas gift ideas

I thought I'd do a little round-up of Christmas present ideas, in case you are shopping for me. Or for somebody who shares my taste, I guess. And I thought I'd try to publish this early enough for it to be useable for Christmas 2013. Some of these are things I have spotted and thought "Oooh, I'd like that" and some are things that I've thought "Oooh, so-and-so would like that". If you are someone I buy gifts for, please do act surprised if you unwrap something you have seen mentioned here. I haven't mentioned cookbooks at all because a) there are so many on my wishlist that they need a list of their own and b) I have run out of space on the bookshelf.
"And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one's bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. " Reginald on Christmas Presents, H.H Munro 1904

As a present for myself, I recently bought an irresistible nest of 9 snowflake-shaped cookie cutters. They were just so pretty, and the way they move when you rotate the box is kaleidoscopic. I'd imagine that pretty much everything I bake in the next month or so will have some sort of snow motif.

The first item to get an outing are these venison pithiviers, a very simple savoury pie. The traditional French pithivier has a sweet almond filling and a pattern of curved lines as decoration that sort of looks like a sun, so I thought a savoury winter-themed version would be nice. I made a very Christmassy sort of filling of venison studded with cranberries and porcini mushrooms plumped up in whisky, with some pistachios for colour and crunch and mustard and breadcrumbs to lighten and bind. I made four palm-sized pies with the largest of my snowflake cutters, but I think they would be a charming Christmas nibble made bite-sized.

Venison and cranberry pithiviers (makes 4 large, 12 bite-sized)

1tsp butter
1 shallot, finely minced
1tbs pistachios, chopped
1tbs dried cranberries
2tbs dried porcini mushrooms, broken into pieces
2tbs whisky (or brandy or sherry)
2tbs Dijon mustard
200g venison mince
2tbs dried breadcrumbs
salt and pepper
250g butter puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 180C.

Saute the shallot in the butter for a couple of minutes until translucent and allow to cool. Combine the cranberries and porcini mushrooms in a small bowl with the whisky and allow to plump up for 10 minutes. 

Break up the venison mince and combine with the cooled shallot, cranberries and mushrooms, mustard and breadcrumbs, mixing with your hands until thoroughly combined. Add the pistachios (chop them up if you are making bite-sized pies) and season with salt and pepper. Divide the filling mixture into 4 balls.

Roll the pastry out, a bit thicker than you normally would for a pie, and cut out 8 large snowflakes (or circles).

Put 4 snowflakes onto a baking parchment-lined baking tray and top with the balls of filling. Brush the exposed pastry and the venison filling with a bit of beaten egg. For the lids, pick up the remaining snowflakes and carefully stretch the middle bit over your knuckles so that the points of the snowflake aren't distorted but there is a sort of pouch to enclose the filling. It sounds more difficult than it is... but that is why you roll the pastry quite thickly. Place the lid over the filling and press firmly all around it to firstly exclude airbubbles and secondly seal the pastry top to the bottom.

Brush the tops with more beaten egg and, with the point of a knife, gently score through the eggwash in a snowflake pattern, trying not to go all the way through to the filling.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes. We had them with warmed-up leftover red cabbage and steamed tenderstem broccoli.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Animal Vegetable Miracle: pork chops and baked apples for Cook the Books

Back at the end of summer our apple tree and grape vines were bowed down with fruit. It wasn't supermarket-pretty, but it was ours. The thought of coring and slicing so many tiny apples was more than I could bear, so I picked the fruit that I could reach, added some rosemary from the garden and a finely chopped chilli from our supply in the freezer, and made jelly.

Which went very, very wrong. Despite all those lovely pectin-rich apples, it turned to a plasticy toffee before it passed the wrinkle test or read 106C on my thermometer. I think there is something wrong with that thermometer. I haven't been able to bring myself to throw it out though, so the "jelly" has been sitting in the cupboard, waiting for its moment to come...

Having missed the last few rounds of Cook the Books, the foodblogger bookclub hosted by Rachel, Deb, Heather and Simona, I was determined to participate this time around. Unfortunately, the fact that it was Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle put me off a bit. The only one of her other books that I have read is The Poisonwood Bible. It is brilliantly written, absolutely gripping and quite harrowing. Not a book that would lead you to believe that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle would be a fun time. Which is unfortunate, because Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is indeed a fun time.

Barbara Kingsolver's account of her family's year of choosing local produce reads like The Omnivore's Dilemma-lite. Fewer facts and figures, much more humour and some nice-sounding recipes. I loved the idea of locking your house so people couldn't leave courgettes in your kitchen while you were off dumping courgettes on other neighbours.

The fact that I was reading this book in November was a bit of a problem. As Kingsolver says "Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August". Aside from my caramelised jelly and a couple of pots of jam, I hadn't done anything towards preserving foods for the cold months this year. I was thrown on the mercy of the internet to find some local food suppliers and see what was actually available around here.

The first promising lead I had was a farm a couple of miles away that rears water buffalo for meat and milk. I've made queso oaxaca before, using a mozzarella recipe, so the account of making fresh mozzarella was quite familiar to me. I thought buying some raw buffalo milk and making a pizza with homemade mozzarella was a good idea. Unfortunately it turns out that the farm with the buffalo hasn't updated their website in three years and they no longer sell dairy products.

Then I found Hazeldene Farm, a farm specialising in rearing rare breed animals using organic farming principles. Just 12 miles away, through some particularly pretty countryside. We hopped in the car.
It was everything you would want an English farm to be. There was an exceedingly elderly labrador in the barnyard, a moth-eaten and cranky-looking cat keeping an eye on the bales of hay and chickens strutting about the place.
In the farm shop itself a butcher was trimming up some pieces of meat, from a whole carcase, using a knife and hacksaw. Very traditional. Paul's dad always used to get very stroppy about butchers who used band-saws, because you end up with splinters of bone pushed into the meat.
We bought a shoulder of Oxford Down lamb and some pork chops and sausages from the British Lop pigs. It was very reasonably priced. We scooted home and ate some of the sausages for lunch, while we considered what to do with the rest of our booty.

The lamb shoulder became a delicious, melting lamb boulangere. Even though the recipe came from Tom Kerridge, whose pub The Hand and Flowers is less than 25 miles from us, we didn't really feel that it said enough about local produce to count for this exercise.
We set off again, on a day with rather different weather, 11 miles in another direction to Home Cottage Farm, which "sells apples until the crop is sold out (usually December)".
We bought Spartans, Bramleys, Lane's Prince Alberts and some fresh apple juice. Paul's planning to make me a pie from the Lane's Prince Alberts, which is a local cultivar, and I think the Spartans will become dinky wee toffee apples. But the Bramleys were destined to take pride of place with our local pork chops.

I cored the apples and scored the skin around their equator, then stuffed them with some of the remaining sausage meat. I also peeled some onions, scooped out their middles and stuffed them as well. This was a meal where I got to use both my melon baller and my apple corer. Almost unheard of. The apples and onions baked in the oven for about half an hour before I added the pork chops.

I followed Jamie Oliver's pork chop recipe, adding a sliced clove of garlic to the meat when it went into the oven.

I chopped the reserved onion scoopings and browned them in a pan with a little oil, then added shredded red cabbage, some of the apple juice and a spoonful of my caramelised garden jelly. I covered it and let it simmer away quietly until everything else was cooked. It was our part of Britain on a plate.


Friday 15 November 2013

Berry custard tart

I had half a carton of cream in the fridge, which was past it's use-by date, but still smelt absolutely fine. I also had the elderly remnant of a packet of fruits of the forest occupying valuable real estate in the freezer. There was a sheet of shortcrust pastry next to the fruits of the forest. I was in the middle of a nutmeg obsession which was screaming CUSTARD TART in my head. My purpose was clear.

With the ingredients to hand it wasn't going to be a luxurious, double-cream-and-eggyolk tart of extraordinary velvety depth. It was going to be a more austere animal with a firmer custard given body with whole eggs. I also wasn't going to faff about cooking the custard before pouring it into the pastry. It was going to have to look after itself.

Berry custard tart (makes 6-8 slices)

1 sheet frozen butter shortcrust pastry, thawed
Leftover double cream, made up to 300ml with milk
3 whole eggs
100g caster sugar
Frozen fruits of the forest - however much is left in the packet
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 180C. Line a pie plate with the pastry and blind bake for 15 minutes. Remove the baking beans and bake for another 10 minutes. Allow to cool.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy, then thoroughly whisk in the milk and cream mixture. Allow to stand for 10 minutes so the air-bubbles rise to the surface, then gently skim off any froth with a spoon. Pour the custard into the cooled pastry shell, sprinkle the berries evenly over the surface and top with grated nutmeg. Bake for about 35 minutes or until golden brown but still wobbly. Cool for at least an hour before eating.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Peking Duck at Yming Soho

Not last weekend but the one before we joined friends at Dumplings Legend to celebrate Ellen's birthday. I've been trying to get Paul into London for soup dumplings for about two years now and he's been a bit ornery so this is the first time I have succeeded. It was lovely - good food, excellent company and the usual patchy service - and apparently he got a taste for it, because I got an email a few days later from a friend informing me that Paul and her husband had agreed that we would go to Chinatown for dinner on Saturday.

Penny has a lot of contacts in the Soho restaurant business, and she recommended YMing, on Greek St. I perused the menu online (so irritating when restaurants have a website that doesn't have one, or has a "sample seasonal menu" that hasn't been updated in more than a year) and noticed that they do Peking duck, if you order in advance. As I hadn't had Peking duck since we moved to this country (you don't see it that often on menus, too labour-intensive I guess) and one of my most memorable food experiences involved it, I was pretty keen to give it a go.

At some restaurants when you order Peking duck you just get one course, the duck with pancakes. Sometimes you get the pancakes plus a course of sang choy bow or stirfried duck and beanshoots. Sometimes you get a third course of the duck bones made into a broth. As the menu didn't give any hints, we asked our waiter what else we needed to order. He said that it was going to be the three course full catastrophe, so recommended that we order some starters, then have the duck, then see how we fared.

So we did. He raised his eyebrows politely and queried our decision to have three starters with the same deep-fried spicy salt coating, but they were all delicious and I have no regrets. And of course, we were drinking a deliciously fruity Hugel et fils Gewurztraminer from the not-particularly-cheap wine list which was just the thing with deep fried salty snacks.
The soft shell crab was superb. Utterly greaseless and properly soft-shelled, not with the little bits that get stuck in your teeth that you often encounter. It was quite a small portion to share between four, and if we hadn't had so much other food coming I would have wanted another plate.
Scallops Delight was one of the more expensive starters, at £11, but we decided to order it anyway. Four huge scallops filled with a prawn paste, then deep-fried. Hot as hell inside, so there was much sucking of cooling air around the mouthfuls, but really delicious. I would be faintly surprised if they were genuinely scallops though - the texture and flavour were about right but they were so big!
I also insisted on the aubergine chips, which turned out to be much more French fry-sized than the robust chippy-sized chips I've usually had. Which meant more spicy salt per bite. No bad thing. Although it did mean that we pretty quickly needed to order another bottle of wine.
Yes, those are morello cherries
Then the duck happened. Perfectly lacquered skin, as crisp as toffee. Moist, richly flavoured meat. The finest pancakes I have ever tried, thin enough to read a newspaper through. Hoi sin sauce, cucumber and spring onion shards. A reverent silence fell as we rolled pancake after pancake.
The next duck course was the broth. Light and very clean tasting, full of chunks of the carcass with quite generous amounts of meat still waiting to be sucked off the bones, big crunchy wombok leaves and wedges of fresh tomato. It really was the perfect interlude between courses, almost serving the role of the palate-cleansing sorbet. But much less likely to totally numb the palate and ruin the wine (the second bottle of which had gone the way of the first).
I forgot until the very last minute to take a picture
While we sipped the broth we decided that we were very nearly full, so we only needed some rice and one other dish with our final course of duck and bean shoots.
We settled for the classic prawn and cashew nuts as our final dish. It was as good a rendition as I have ever had, with big meaty deveined prawns, loads of cashews and not too much gloopy cornflour thickened sauce.

As delighted as I was to see glazed toffee apples and bananas on the menu, there was no way any of us could approach dessert. Our waiter brought us glasses of chilled lychee wine, which he assured us we'd like because it had similar flavours to the Gewurztraminer we'd been drinking, plus it was good for us. He wasn't wrong.

The food, drinks and service charge came to £166 between the four of us. Bloody good value, I thought. Similar pricing to our local Chinese but food of a much higher standard. It will not be our only visit.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Pizza nostalgia and disappointment

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I shared a house in Erskineville with three other women. It wasn't a particularly satisfactory living arrangement, and after that I ended up living in a one-bedroom flat I struggled to afford while swearing that I would never again live with another human being.

It wasn't all bad of course. I am still on good terms with two of the other women. I also developed a taste for the Inner West lifestyle and picked up some very good ideas about food. Making a fragrant Thai tom yum soup with slowly cooked oxtail. Beer-battered chips. A delicious take on a mojito involving three forms of mint.

Recently, I've been thinking fondly of the Aegean pizza that we used to get at Pizza Picasso. It was memorable for being a seafood-topped pizza that was actually nice, but the thing that really made it stand out were the slivers of lemon baked onto the top.

I see from the Pizza Picasso menu that the Aegean is still there, but that my memory of it was quite inaccurate. I have a very clear recollection of it being a pizza bianco, with prawns, feta and the lemon - no tomato base or sun-dried capsicum.

I'd bought a new product to try, some frozen balls of pizza dough, so I thought I would make the Aegean pizza as I remembered it. As the dough balls thawed, I was a bit apprehensive, because they had a thick, dry layer around the outside that cracked quite badly and made it difficult to roll out. But I followed the instructions and thought it didn't look too bad when shaped.

I drizzled the base with olive oil and scattered over some chopped garlic. Then I distributed raw peeled prawns, (too much) crumbled feta and thin slices of lemon cut into quarters. Halved cherry tomatoes, a sprinkle of dried oregano and a splash more olive oil and into the oven it went.

The result was... not good. The pizza base adhered to the tray like superglue. There was no possible way I could get it off the (old, reliable, never-done-this-before) pizza tray. We ended up scraping the topping off and eating it with a few rescued fragments of the crust. The next pizza did exactly the same thing. The trays had to soak over night for me to scrape the failed bases off.

The topping was delicious, exactly as I remembered it. Using raw prawns and cooking the pizza for a short time at a high temperature keeps them plump and sweet, the sharp bites of lemon and acid sweetness of the tomatoes cuts through the salty creaminess of the feta. It is a lovely, lovely combination. I will have to make it again soon using my own pizza dough, it's too good to wait another 10 years.
Don't let the good looks deceive you, this pizza was a failure

Friday 8 November 2013

Beefeater Cocktails

Last month I was invited to attend a Beefeater gin cocktail-making masterclass as part of London Cocktail Week. Unfortunately I had a prior engagement (which did not involve booze and definitely didn't involve turning up late and drunk) and couldn't make it.
Pretty people making pretty drinks
To really rub in just how much fun they all had, I was sent some pictures of their jolly japes. It was held at Graphic Bar, so to add insult to injury I know exactly how good the snacks were (very - especially if those were the polenta chips they do).

Then, to soothe the sting a bit, I was sent a bottle of Beefeater London Dry gin and a copy of some of the cocktail recipes they made, so I could have a bit of a play with them at home.
My taste in cocktails tends towards the tangy and tart. I've even gone off Schweppes tonic water because I find it too sweet (the Fevertree Naturally Light tonic is so much nicer, and has fewer calories). Of course, the slightly savoury aromatics in gin do lend themselves to lighter, fresher sorts of drinks, so I was delighted by the recipes that were included. I have heard of gin and milk as a combination, but that really is too disgusting to contemplate.

I didn't have any peach liqueur, and inexplicably the local Costcutter doesn't stock it, so the Peach Collins was out of the running. That still left me with two cocktails that I had the ingredients for and that I wanted to taste.

I filled the ice trays, cleaned off the cocktail shaker and martini glasses (Paul didn't even know we had a cocktail shaker, so you can tell how rarely I use it) and settled down to wait for cocktail hour.

Now, I don't want to come over all Stepford wife, but I have to say Paul was very impressed by being greeted with a martini glassful of cheer when he came home from work. I maintained my feminist integrity by wearing yoga pants and not brushing my hair.

The first drink we tried was the White Lady - Beefeater Dry, cointreau, lemon juice and an eggwhite. Paul was very sceptical about the eggwhite, despite my protests that all of the sours have that to give the froth on top and a creamy texture. Fortunately, when he tried it he liked it! Very strong but really good, with a nice depth of citrus from the cointreau and lemon juice.
White Lady - all but one of the bulbs in the kitchen blew and we didn't have a spare
The following night (these cocktails are too strong to have more than one of an evening, although that may be a sign I am getting old) we tried the Breakfast Martini. This was supposed to be made with Beefeater 24, which has a blend of teas, grapefruit and liquorice added to the botanicals to give more fragrance, but I made it with the Beefeater Dry. Like the White Lady, it had gin, cointreau and lemon juice, but instead of the eggwhite it was shaken with some fine-shred Seville orange marmalade. This was absolutely lovely. The burnt-orange flavour of the marmalade made the citrus aromas of the gin sing, while the extra sweetness rounded out some of the more aggressive alcohol flavours. I don't think the Breakfast Martini will replace the Bloody Mary as my breakfast booze of choice, but it is a very nice pre-dinner drink.
Breakfast martini

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Onglet Wellington

I don't like to play favourites with food. There are so many very delicious things to eat in the world that it seems a shame to single out one or two dishes. I do go through periods of obsession, though, where everything I cook has nutmeg, or prawns, or pomegranate in it, and there are some dishes that I am delighted to eat more often than others.

Beef Wellington is one of the ones that I am delighted to eat quite often. Unfortunately, the recipe usually calls for an astonishingly expensive piece of beef, which means we really can't afford to eat it quite as often as I would like to. I've now worked out a way of making it a more regular treat.

Onglet is our usual cut of steak. It's inexpensive, delicious and, when cooked with a bit of care, as tender as you like. I couldn't see why it wouldn't work in a Wellington.
I seared the steaks for about a minute a side, then let them cool completely. They were the same weight, about 150g each, but one was long and thin and the other short and squat, so I cut a slice off the long one to even them up a bit. I made a duxelles from onions, mushrooms and garlic, flavoured with some tarragon, vermouth and a spoonful of minced truffles. I poured all the juices from the cooled steaks into it as well.

When the duxelles had also cooled, I spread it onto a sheet of puff pastry, topped it with the meat, rolled it up and gave it a good glazing of egg.
Then it waited obediently until I was ready to bake it. Half an hour in a 180C oven had it beautifully cooked. So beautifully cooked, in fact, that we didn't get a picture of the final plated portion. The flavour was just right, and the texture didn't suffer at all from being made with the cheaper cut of meat. Fillet at £37.25 a kilo or onglet at £12.45 a kilo? I will still use fillet for special occasions, but the onglet does make it an affordable option.

Monday 4 November 2013

Meat Free Monday - Cheese & cider pumpkin fondue

This seasonal symphony of melted cheese and booze is this recipe from the Metro. But I decided that it was a good way to use up the scooped-out pumpkin flesh from my Halloween cat pumpkin. After all, those pumpkins are grown for size, regular shape and large seed cavity, not for delectable flesh, so the culinary uses need to involve lots of other strong flavours. This combination of cheese, cider, porcini mushrooms and calvados certainly fit the bill.

I finely chopped my leftover pumpkin and roasted it until tender, then divided it between two deep oven-proof dishes. Then I topped it with the fondue mixture. It's worth seeking out a really dry cider for this, because the pumpkin doesn't really need too much extra sweetness. I used real garlic, not granules, and a very strong Somerset cheddar. And, because I am incapable of making anything vegetable-and-cheesy without it, I added a grating of nutmeg on top.

We ate it with slices of crusty chickpea cob dunked in it and glasses of red wine. Warming right to our toes.
Yes, I watched the Great British Bake-off masterclass, why do you ask?
I'm going to link this up to Heather and Joanne's 12 Weeks Of Winter Squash event, where the mighty squash is being properly celebrated.


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