Friday 31 October 2014

Halloween 2014

We don't really celebrate Halloween, or Samhain, but there are some traditions and archetypes that we think are important. Marking the coming winter, celebrating light in darkness, observing the passing of the summer.

This year I have carved my traditional cat pumpkin, we feasted on winter squash filled with pancetta, porcini, garlic, gruyere, white wine and cream, and in a bit we shall have a dessert of pear, quince and apple tart, with a glass of mead. We might raise a glass to our ancestors and be thankful for the bounty of the year.
This tart did not work out how I intended - but it'll still taste good!
Happy Halloween!
Sun salutation

Thursday 30 October 2014

Two one-pot dishes with Kikkoman soy sauce

Cure for the salmon
Kikkoman, the soy sauce people, are running a blogger recipe competition (which closes tomorrow - I'm scraping in under the wire). The fun twist that captured my imagination, was that the recipes had to be one-pot dishes that were not Oriental in flavour.

Using soy as a seasoning in Western-style dishes isn't exactly a new idea - M.F.K Fisher was advocating using it as a steak marinade in the 1950s, and in French Provincial Cooking Elizabeth David records a sauce for lobster containing "10-12 drops Chinese soy sauce" dating back to the 1870s. Yet somehow as soon as I hear "Kikkoman" my mind leaps to Asian dishes and flavours. Getting myself out of that mind-set was quite a challenge!

I ended up coming up with two different dishes, a light but satisfying fish supper that involves hardly any effort, just a bit of preparation the night before, and a rich, comforting mutton hotpot for weekends when you can stick something in the oven and ignore it for hours.

Soy-cured salmon with lentils and basil gremolata (serves 2)

2 skin-on salmon fillets
50ml Kikkoman soy sauce
1tbs muscovado sugar
1tbs olive oil
1 shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 400g can Puy lentils, drained and rinsed
200g baby plum tomatoes, halved
1tbs Kikkoman soy sauce, extra
Juice of an orange
80g baby spinach leaves, washed
50g blanched almonds
Grated zest of 1 orange
large handful basil leaves
1 clove garlic, extra

The night before, combine the Kikkoman soy sauce and sugar in a small ramekin, then smear it over the flesh of the salmon fillets. Put the salmon in a plastic box and pour the remaining soy cure around it. Cover and refrigerate over night.

Preheat oven to 200C.

In a shallow, ovenproof pan, saute the shallot and garlic in the olive oil until soft, then add the drained lentils and tomatoes, and season with the extra soy sauce and orange juice. Add the spinach leaves, washed and with the water still clinging to it (to create steam).

Remove the salmon fillets from the cure and pat dry with kitchen paper - the soy mixture will have penetrated the flesh and drawn out some of the liquid, making it a bit firmer.

Place the salmon on top of the spinach leaves and bake in the oven for 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked and the spinach wilted down.
Basil gremolata
While the fish is cooking, make the gremolata by chopping together the almonds, orange zest, basil and raw garlic.

When the salmon is cooked, lift the fillets onto your serving plates. Stir half the gremolata through the lentil and spinach mixture, then use the rest as a garnish.
Kikkoman soy-cured salmon with lentils and basil gremolata

Mutton hotpot (serves 4-6)

125ml red wine
75ml Kikkoman soy sauce
125ml water or light chicken stock (unsalted)
1tsp sugar
8 mutton chops
200g cubed lean mutton leg
1 tsp plain flour
2 small onions
2 fat cloves of garlic
2 carrots
3 parsnips
3 sticks of celery
4 Maris Piper potatoes
Thyme, bayleaves, freshly ground black pepper

In a small saucepan, combine the wine, Kikkoman soy sauce, water or stock and sugar. Boil rapidly to reduce by half. Allow to cool while preparing the rest of the dish.

Preheat oven to 170C.

Stand the mutton chops (trimmed if they are very fatty) in the middle of a large casserole dish.

Dredge the cubed mutton in flour, seasoned with freshly ground black pepper.

Cut the onions, carrots, parsnips and celery into chunky dice. Slice the garlic thinly and combine the vegetables and garlic with the cubed mutton. Pack the vegetables and mutton around the chops, distributing the pieces evenly. Sprinkle with some thyme leaves.

Cut the potatoes into thick slices and put them in an overlapping ring around the chops. Pour the reduced wine and Kikkoman soy sauce evenly over the potatoes, ensuring they all get a bit. Tuck a couple of bay leaves into the chops. Season generously with freshly ground black pepper.

Cover the casserole tightly and bake for 3 hours, until the meat is meltingly tender. A little mustard is nice on the side.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Date Night Friday: Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Paul occasionally gets bees in his bonnet. He will desperately crave a food and eat versions of it at every opportunity until finally he has one that meets his mental image of it and then he can move on to something else. He's been ordering big portions of fish in restaurants for over a year because nothing is quite what he had in mind. For the last couple of months he's been wanting "A really big steak", so I've been buying him various steaks, none of which have quite satisfied. So on Friday he took matters into his own hands and announced that Date Night was going to be at Hawksmoor Seven Dials.

We had a wander about the less-crowded bits of Covent Garden - which is looking much more attractive these days, with some really up-market shopping - and then sat at the bar for a drink. Paul's co-workers had all buggered off at 4pm, so he'd had a chance to do some uninterrupted work and scrutinise the drinks menu. It's unusual for him to choose a cocktail, but something about the vaulted ceilings, exposed brickwork and brass lamps give the bar a speakeasy vibe, which cries out for a mixed drink. He had the Hawksmoor Collins - Beefeater 24 gin, Campari, orange bitters and lemon, lengthened with soda.  I had a Shipwreck sour - Shipwreck cider brandy, cognac, ginger wine and lemon. Neither drink put up a fight, and I think I could have quite happily propped up the bar and had several more drinks and some snacks, but our table beckoned.

I toyed with the idea of having a couple of starters, but as the aim was for Paul to get the big steak of his dreams, we shared a 1kg prime rib, with side orders of beef dripping fries, salad and roasted mushrooms.
The steak was absolute perfection. Beautifully cooked, beautifully rested, and carved into nice big chunks. I think Paul's eyes actually rolled back in his head as the really big steak itch was scratched. The fries were perfectly fine, but an error of judgement: we were caught by the lure of beef dripping and didn't notice on the menu that these were going to be fries, not chips. Next time we'll have to remember to order the triple cooked chips instead. The salad was, of course, the salad of English lettuce and herbs which I maintain is the best green salad in the world.

We both ordered glasses of whiskey to finish on - Paul had bourbon, I had rye. Which led to the only glitch in (the charming, accomplished, attentive) service for the evening, as Paul's drink was delivered to the next table. We were able to retrieve it with no harm done. The smooth, caramelly whiskies were just the thing with the justifiably-famous salted caramel rolos. And actually, I wonder if whiskey isn't under-appreciated as a drink match for chocolate?

Edited to add: Paul was very disappointed that I didn't mention the wine. It was lovely. In my old age I am developing more of a taste for the French wines, and I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Stax Diner brunch

Another dance rehearsal, another excuse for a bite to eat in central London. This time we thought a quick brunchy bite was in order (as theoretically I was on my way to a workshop, however a combination of lateness and eggs made me miss it).

My initial thought had been The Diner - I haven't heard much about it but I know they do all-day breakfast - but the queue out the door was off-putting. Getting out of the very crowded main bit of Carnaby Street seemed desirable, so we ducked into Kingly Court and up to Stax Diner.

Of course, I'd been to Stax during the soft launch, but I'd either forgotten or never knew that they have a weekend brunch menu.

I ordered poached eggs with hollandaise, and a side of the house cured beef bacon. Sharon had Half and Half - a short stack of buttermilk pancakes and a poached egg with hollandaise. As she realised after she'd ordered that she was going to Milli's afternoon tea supper club later on, that was possibly a bigger meal than she really wanted...

My eggs were lovely - beautifully runny yolks and no stinting on the well-seasoned hollandaise. The muffin was a bit on the heavy and chewy side so the lavish application of the sauce was very welcome. There were both the classic and jalapeno Tabasco sauces on the table, too, which was a nice touch. The beef bacon was sweet, sticky and beefy, but not quite as crisp as I like bacon to be. Didn't stop me from eating it all though!

The time I absolutely needed to leave Oxford Circus station in order to get to the workshop on time came and went as I finished my orange juice. A queue was forming outside Stax, so we paid up (£12ish each) and vacated the table.

Sharon headed off to her afternoon tea; I wandered about Soho before meeting a friend at the National Portrait Gallery. It's not often that I feel like I've really made the most of London, so this was a really successful day out.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Chai Masala Babka for a very multicultural Diwali

This week, Paul's office has been awash with treats, as his colleagues have brought in mithai as part of their Diwali celebrations. Well, as you know, I'm not one to hesitate to adopt someone else's cultural practices, especially when they involve nice food and goodwill to others. The world news is increasingly grim so anything that celebrates "the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair" seems like a festival worth keeping to me, so I thought I should reciprocate and send something in to work with him.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Maya, in Sydney, I know there is no shame in buying your sweets, but I wanted to make something. And as much as I'd like to try making my own burfi or halwa, I was a bit hesitant to put my first attempt up for scrutiny by people who know what is what (we've got a tub of chicken curry from one of Paul's colleagues in the fridge for our tea tonight, it smells so amazing - this guy knows good food!).

But I am pretty confident with enriched breads. So. A nice Jewish babka, but instead of the chocolate or cinnamon filling, I used lovely Asian flavours - jaggery, chai masala and coconut cream.
Dough smeared with filling
I followed this method and recipe, substituting Australian 250ml cup measures throughout, because I couldn't be arsed doing a proper conversion. My substituted ingredients list is below. And my kitchen was so cold yesterday that I didn't need to do the rise in the fridge, I just gave it 3 hours at ambient temperature and it could have gone longer.

Chai Masala Babka ingredients (adapted from the Brown Eyed Baker)

For the Filling

1 cup palm sugar, grated
2 tbs strong white flour
2 teaspoons chai masala
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons creamed coconut, melted and cooled
1 egg white

For the Dough:

½ cup milk, heated in the microwave for 30 seconds with a teabag in it, then allowed to infuse 10 minutes
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups strong white flour
¼ cup caster sugar
1½ teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and softened

For the Egg Wash:

1 eggwhite, lightly beaten

For the Chai Masala:

8 black peppercorns
Seeds from 20 cardamom pods
1/8 of a nutmeg
Pinch fennel seeds
2" piece of cinnamon
2" piece of fresh ginger, grated

To make the chai masala, grind together the dry spices, then add the grated ginger. I grated the jaggery first, which gummed up the grater quite a bit because it's very fudgey, and then grated the ginger so the ginger juice collected the rest of the jaggery goo.

I iced the baked and cooled babka with a simple water icing, flavoured with a little rosewater and vanilla. I haven't had detailed feedback yet, but I'm told the locusts descended and left not a crumb behind. Happy Diwali!

Wednesday 22 October 2014

The road to hell is paved with... salmon tartare

Several of my pals in the blogosphere take part in an event called I ♥ Cooking Clubs, where they cook their way through a different cookbook writer's output for six months or so. It's been going for ages, but I've never really felt drawn to participate before. But now, they have announced that their featured writer for this Autumn/Winter is Diana Henry. As my love for her is well-documented, I just had to get involved.

So the theme for last week was Icy Cold - which played beautifully into my hands as I had the end of a side of salmon left over from some other dishes. Just perfect for a salmon tartare with rye crisps. I thought I'd be able to sneak it under the wire as a light lunch on Sunday, and post about it on Sunday evening. Unfortunately last week it was me who was Icy Cold and Thoroughly Stuffed Up, so on Sunday I found myself being fed a lamb kebab for lunch, having no power to actually make a decision or do any cooking.

My good intentions having come to nothing, the salmon tartare was my lunch on Monday, and I am letting it stand as this week's Pot Luck theme. It's delicious. It's not scary raw fish. It's light and fresh and very quick to put together. Mine was not entirely as it should have been because the supermarket let me down on dill, and I couldn't find the capers. I substituted a pinch of crushed fennel seeds to add the missing aniseed note from the dill, and doubled up on the pickled cucumbers.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Mamta's Lucknowi Biryani for National Curry Week

Turns out it is National Curry Week. I was unaware of this, and actually unaware that curry was particularly in need of promoting in this country. Although based on the quality of many of our local curry houses, maybe there is a need for awareness of what constitutes a good curry?

As it happens, though, on Sunday night we had a biryani, which, for the purposes of this post, I will consider a curry.

It was one of Paul's requests, but unfortunately he didn't like it very much. I used Kavey's mum's recipe for Lucknowi biryani, reducing the quantity of rice to 300g to fit Paul's aim for more meat and less rice. It still made four generous portions! With the fresh mint and coriander, the hint of rosewater and the pieces of lemon (I used a small lime) it ends up smelling quite unlike any other curry I have made - much more like a North African dish. I thought it was lovely. I think Paul had in mind your regular curry house "biryani" of mutton curry stirred through rice. Oh well. I enjoyed not having to fight him for the leftovers.

Monday 13 October 2014

Meat Free Monday: eggs baked with cream and asparagus

This simple but rich and gorgeous dish is just a take on oeufs en cocotte, born out of the need to use up a bit of double cream and the existence of British autumn asparagus.

The asparagus spears were very skinny, so I washed them, cut them into 1" pieces and microwaved them with a small nut of butter and the water still clinging to them for a minute. Then I broke on two eggs and the cream - a bit more cream than I'd thought was left, actually, about 1/4 cup. Then I baked it until the eggs looked set. By which time, of course, they were a bit overdone. But delicious.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Picture, Great Portland Street (back so soon!?)

Just in case you were wondering, the food at Picture is still really good even if you have to pay for it yourself.

My regular dance partner and I happened to be in the neighbourhood at noon today and decided to take advantage of the Saturday light lunch deal, of two savoury plates and a dessert for £16.50.

We both started with gin and tonic. Mine was a fairly standard one, done well, with Sipsmith gin and Fevertree tonic. Sharon's was a prettier and more seasonal affair made with damson gin and garnished with blackberries.
Damson gin & tonic
As much as I'd enjoyed some of the dishes I'd tried the last time I was at Picture, I decided to order entirely differently this time. But as I'd thoroughly recommended the broccoli with goats curd, and the beef, Sharon had those.

I started with ravioli of greens and ricotta. Three ravioli, served on a smear of chestnut puree and topped with tiny little tender brussels sprouts and some sprout tops. I swear this would turn around the most ardent sprout hater, and would, in fact, make a brilliant main course for a vegetarian Christmas. Buttery, herbal, with superbly silky pasta, I would happily have eaten it twice.

For my second savoury dish, I had wild boar sausage with braised celery, apple and hazelnuts. I wasn't sure how sausage would work as a small plate, but I needn't have worried - it was one generously sized sausage cut into chunks. The flavours were superb, but the apple chunks were served chilled and I thought they should possibly have been warm.
For dessert I chose a blueberry and almond tart, which was absolutely gorgeous. Incredibly thin, crisp sweet pastry, with a slick of blueberry jam, a frangipane and fresh blueberries, it was served slightly warm and topped with some of the best frozen yoghurt I've ever had. I like fro yo to be very yoghurty, and this was - light, tart and velvety. Just lovely.

So, the two dishes and dessert, with more of their lovely sourdough and whipped butter, made a satisfying but not bloating lunch. With a gin and tonic a piece, a (very good) coffee and service charge, it came to £30 each. Slightly more than I had planned for a quick bite, but definitely worth it.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Picture, Great Portland Street

I've made a new friend this year. It's quite exciting really, because the difficulty of making new friends in your 30s and 40s is conventional wisdom. Anyway, she's recently moved to the UK and posted in one of the dance groups on Facebook that she wanted someone to jam with and I had the time to do it. Of course, we've ended up spending much more time gossiping and drinking coffee than actually dancing, but never mind.

It meant that when I received an invitation to join a group of bloggers at Picture, on Great Portland St, a five minute walk from her house, on a day that we'd planned a jam, there was no earthly reason to turn it down. Serendipity!
Photo courtesy of Picture restaurant
Of course, with the gossiping and drinking coffee, I ended up having to rush that five minute walk, so I arrived a bit warm and out of breath, making the welcoming glass of prosecco with elderflower very refreshing. And I don't even like elderflower.
We were experiencing Picture's six-course tasting menu, which comes in at an exceptionally reasonable £35. Manager Tom and chefs Alan and Colin had previously worked together at the highly regarded Arbutus group of restaurants (I've only been to Le Deux Salons, but one day I will get to the others!) so I was reasonably confident that we were in good hands. The excellent sourdough bread with whipped butter confirmed that belief.
The first course was a squash veloute. I was disproportionately thrilled by this, because one of the (few) laments I have about living in the UK is that people here don't really seem to understand the winter squash family. It isn't a staple the way it is in Australia. Fortunately there was a fellow Antipodean at my end of the table, Emma from Adventures of a London Kiwi, who agreed with me that butternut or pumpkin soup is one of life's great pleasures and a winter essential. The veloute was very good, with a nice bite of cumin, if not the most exciting bowl of soup I've drunk.
Grilled tenderstem broccoli, with fresh goats curd was better, although I could have done without the broccoli and just smeared the goats curd on some more of the lovely bread. Not that there was anything wrong with the broccoli, I just really like goats curd, especially with good bread.
Picture used with permission of Kavita of Kavey Eats
Pork cheek was up next. With celery, celeriac and hazelnuts. I don't know if it is because of the current ubiquity of pulled pork, or I am at an age where I appreciate having all my own teeth, but I am getting a bit tired of spoon-soft meat. I like to chew! So this was a bit of a disappointment because the meat was as tender and sticky as can be. If "melt-in-the-mouth" is your measure of success, this was a winner. It was quite a large portion for a tasting menu too, and I honestly don't think I could have eaten more of it - particularly knowing there were still three courses to come.

The fish course was my dish of the day. Perfectly cooked sea bream with chard and a scattering of lentils: it was beautifully fresh and deliciously seasoned. I'd been a bit confused by the menu moving from veg to pork to fish, but it was a very intelligent decision - the pork was so rich that to go from that straight to the beef wouldn't have shown either of them to advantage. As it was, the bream was almost a palate cleanser.

28 day aged beef with kale, sweet potato and salsify was quite heavily smoked, to the point where it almost tasted like bacon, but the meat had a lovely (chewable) texture. I always like eating salsify when other people prepare it too. The sweet potato and kale made it all taste very autumnal, which seemed a little incongruous two weeks ago when the weather was lovely and warm, but now seems like just the right thing.
The photos haven't done it justice, but the crockery at Picture is beautiful. The only bum note was the dessert plate - a brown plate just doesn't show a lovely chocolate mousse to its best advantage. And it was a lovely chocolate mousse, if a little sweeter than I usually like it. That extra sweetness did the blackberries a bit of a disservice, making them taste a little sharp by comparison. The peanut cream also didn't entirely float my boat - taken in a bite with the mousse and a bit of blackberry, it was a balanced mouthful, but by itself it was a bit flat. Of course, I was very full by this stage of the evening, so being pickier than I would otherwise have been.

So, overall verdict? A fantastic neighbourhood restaurant, which I would happily frequent even if I had to pay for it myself. I will have to maintain my new friendship in order to provide opportunities to do just that. Maybe on a Monday night, when they offer free corkage for BYO? With any luck, our husbands will even get along.

 Many thanks to Picture restaurant and Sarah and Jenny at Salt PR for a lovely evening.


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