Thursday 28 January 2016

Calçotada at Brindisa Tramontana

January in London is not my favourite. The days are short - despite the solstice being well behind us - it's cold and rainy and there aren't even any twinkling Christmas lights or mulled wine vendors to warm the heart and lift the spirits. Embracing the calçotada, a late-winter celebration of a sort of leek/spring oniony vegetable from Catalonia, makes a lot of sense to me.

Trudging through the rain, trying to keep my umbrella right side up, I did wonder how on earth Brindisa were planning to bring the flavour of a Spanish outdoor feast to a pretty grim Tuesday evening. Heaters, was the answer. Lots of heaters. And beautiful displays of vegetables. So even though we were outside (on a covered terrace) it was warm and bright. As long as you stayed away from the ends where some rain was blowing under the canopy.

I was a skosh early, due to an unsuccessful bra-buying expedition to Oxford Street, and more than ready for a drink. The cava started to flow, which always makes me more cheerful. Not long after the cava started flowing, the food came in a steady torrent. Delicious meaty olives stuffed with orange. Tempura-battered calçots with romesco sauce. Wonderfully light, creamy croquetas at just the right temperature for eating.
While we nibbled, chef Leonardo Rivera came around to explain how the calçots are grown, with soil banked up around them, and then demonstrated the correct way to drink from the porró. There was a little anxiety that the porró is a thing made up by Catalans to humiliate British tourists but we were assured that it's an actual traditional way of drinking.

I was wearing a new top so I declined - even the people who really had a good technique ended up with streams of wine dribbled down their fronts.

The calçots are charred over a fire and then wrapped in newspaper to steam through to complete the cooking. Then everyone gets their own personal bundle. Eating them requires a bit of skill, to strip the charred outer layers off in one swift movement while leaving the inner layers clean and succulent. Then you dabble it in romesco sauce and eat it in a single bite. It's a messy business, but has a fabulous sensuality to it. We did wonder if anyone had thought of doing calçotades as a singles event - it'd beat the heck out of ten pin bowling as a first date.
Stripping the outer layers
Dabbling in romesco
Approved technique for eating
The outer layers of the calçots leave a thick, sticky soot on your hands, so you really need to embrace the grime for that part of the meal. Fortunately we were well-supplied with wet wipes - it took four wipes to be clean enough to get to the loos to wash my hands properly. The bundle of calçots looks huge, but after stripping off the charred bit and only eating the white part, it's actually not an enormous portion and you are left with a big pile of debris. Which is a Good Thing because there was a lot of food still to come.
Then came grilled bread and a plate of meat, to be shared between two. I think even if I hadn't hoovered most of a plate of croquetas I would have struggled to eat my share. It was very, very generous. An artichoke - wonderful dipped leaf by leaf in the fabulously olive-oily allioli that came out with the bread. A tangle of grilled red pepper slices. Half a potato, sprinkled with paprika. Botifarra, chorizo, lamb and presa iberico (a cut from the top of the shoulder). I didn't try the potato but everything else was superb, with the chorizo and botifarra in joint first place in my affections.

And then, of course, pudding. Crema catalana, naturally, given a hint of smokiness with an iron salamander instead of a blowtorch.

Brindisa will be running calçotades through February and March on weekends, pre-booked only (because they have to know how many calçots to import). It's £35 a head, which includes the calçots with romesco, the meat platter, the sides of bread, potato, artichoke and red pepper, the crema catalana and a glass of prosecco. I don't think you'll be able to stop at one glass though.
I attended the calçotada as Brindisa's guest. I was also given a bag of calçots and some of the ingredients for romesco sauce to take home, so I am very much hoping the rain holds off for long enough for me to get outdoors to grill them.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Three ways with cockerel

Last Easter we bought a cockerel for the first time - we had it roasted and did a couple of things with the leftovers and it was delicious. Unfortunately they only seem to be available at Christmas and Easter, so we had a long wait for another.

We had other plans for our big Christmas meal, and a 4kg chook isn't really the most practical thing for a family of two, so I split it into a crown, leg and thigh joints and wings, freezing the pieces separately, along with a bag containing the giblets, back and wingtips, which will eventually become stock.

The first meal we had from it was Simon Hopkinson's recipe for coq au vin. Which was, of course, as a Simon Hopkinson recipe much more involved than you would think a chicken stew needs to be, but the fiddle pays off. It was definitely the nicest coq au vin I've ever made.

A couple of days after that, we had the crown, simply roasted. It was big enough that we only ate one of the breasts (with pigs in blankets, because one of Paul's colleagues was pitying him that he hadn't had any over the Christmas period).

The leftover coq au vin and roast breast meat became a pretty amazing chicken pie, with a bit of proscuitto added for extra oomph.

I kept aside some of the coq au vin gravy to make a dish Hopkinson recommends, of poached eggs in the gravy. Which was nice but not that special and extremely unphotogenic. So let's just finish with a slice of pie.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Quince and lemon tart

My dishwasher was broken for a fortnight - tragedy - which broke my spirit for cooking a bit. We weren't quite reduced to paper plates, but the prospect of having to wash up every utensil by hand really put me off.

Fortunately last Friday the nice man came and fixed it, so I celebrated with some pot-intensive cookery.

I didn't get a picture of the cassoulet, because it wasn't that pretty (but it was delicious and used an awful lot of pots). But I did get a picture of the quince and lemon tart. Which proves that the fan in my oven doesn't do a lot to cook evenly.

Anyway, I poached peeled, cored and quartered quinces in a basic sugar syrup until they were tender and a lovely dark amber colour. Then I arranged them on a slick of quince paste on a puff pastry case, and poured over a lemony custard. The custard was 2 whole eggs and a yolk, 2 tablespoons of sugar, the rind and juice of a lemon and 150ml of whole milk. Baked until the custard was almost set, then pulled out, drizzled the poking-out bits of quince with a little of the syrup they were poached in, and then back in the oven for a final few minutes to set as a glaze.

It's very good warm with a slosh of cold double cream.

Thursday 14 January 2016

Eating your colours - vegetable plate

No idea where "eat your colo(u)rs" first came from, and I don't care enough to do the research, but as I understand it, it means that if you eat lots of different coloured vegetables, you'll get the maximum range of micronutrients. I'd planned a mostly vegetable dinner but it was only when I started cooking that I realised none of my veg were their usual colour. My kale was purple, tomatoes golden and beetroot candy-striped. Delicious and very pretty, so it has to be good for you.

The best thing, apparently, for the candy striped beetroot is to have it raw and sliced horizontally. But it was too cold for a cold salad, so I cooked them, which turned them a wonderful sunset ombré with paler stripes, cut them into wedges, dressed them with a bit of honey and white balsamic and topped them with grilled goats cheese. It reminds me of rhubarb and custard. Which is something else I must make soon...

The tomatoes were dressed with harissa and saffron and then roasted, a la Diana Henry's recipe.

And I braised the kale with garlic and stock, then added some canned cannelini beans, smoked anchovies and finished it with a good spritz of lemon juice.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Start as you mean to continue - The Hourglass

Yesterday I had my first meal outside my home of the new year. And I have to say it set a pretty high standard for restaurants for the rest of 2016.

I was expecting pretty good things. After all, Fay Maschler rated The Hourglass in South Kensington as one of her favourite restaurants of 2015. Of course, being so convenient to the museums and because Fay said such good things I wasn't expecting to be able to get a table, and indeed the online booking said there were none. But tweeting them got me a booking (and there were several free tables so maybe the online system isn't working?).

After a fantastic couple of hours at the V&A (The Fabric of India, closing this weekend, is amazing if you are remotely interested in textiles, and Bejewelled Treasures, for all the magpies) I was well and truly ready for food.

It's one of those menus where you could close your eyes and point and be completely happy with your choices, but I went for fish and chips. Which wasn't perfect. The batter was a bit thick and hard, and the fish inside a bit overdone. But the chips were so delicious (I know some people get arsey when the chips are too big, and one of these was about 1/4 of a large spud) and the tartare sauce so perfect I didn't mind.

Sharon's venison suet pie with red cabbage sent her off into plans for learning to make suet pies and bringing her husband next time they are in the area (which is pretty often; they are very good about galleries and museums). It definitely had a lovely savoury aroma, but it wasn't really the sort of dish I could ask for a taste of without making a hell of a mess with the gravy.

I'd valiantly passed by the crab on toast (one of my favourite things) on the starters menu to save myself for pudding. We both had the buttermilk pudding with butterscotch pear (Sharon's very sound reasoning was that she was too full for sticky toffee and she likes her own apple crumble), although the salted caramel chocolate almost won me over. I do love it when there is a small, sweet option. The buttermilk pudding was a very good choice though. Really light, wonderfully tangy with a proper wobble. And I always love a poached pear.

It was a very good start to a year of eating out and very much to be recommended if, like me, you tend to feel a bit overwhelmed by the prosperity of South Kensington and just want nice friendly people to bring you nice food at a fair price.

Sunday 3 January 2016

New Year's Eve Trifle

Happy New Year! Hope 2016 is kind to you. So far I am not loving this year, I have to say. The weather has been unrelenting bollocks and the dishwasher is broken, so I don't even want to entertain myself with elaborate cooking.

But we saw out the old year in fine style, so I am still optimistic.

Instead of our long-established habit of staying at home for New Year's Eve and cooking something nice, we went out and cooked something nice. We took an impressive piece of beef (3 rib standing rib roast) over to friends and Paul stood out in the wind and rain (under a canopy, fortunately) and barbecued it while I drank champagne and ate Spanish ham indoors.
Building up the lairs, as Mary Berry would say
My contribution was a trifle. It was pretty much a large version of the individual ones I made for us for Christmas, although I did tweak it a little.

Trifle sponges, split and spread with home made calamondin and Cointreau marmalade, squidged in the bottom of the bowl and sprinkled with Cointreau. Fresh orange, and fresh orange and Cointreau jelly. Vanilla custard swirled with lemon curd. Then a generous layer of lemon syllabub. Decorated with delightful tackiness with orange and lemon jelly slices and pink and yellow sugar pearls.

It was fab. Not too sweet, beautifully boozy and a good way to round off the evening. Unfortunately, being out of the habit of late nights we faded at this point and were home before midnight, watching fireworks through the bedroom curtains.


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