Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Stevie’s Wonderland: The Dock Kitchen

Dock Kitchen
In the short-lived gasp of thaw between the two recent crippling cold snaps the BSG and I ventured out on our first gourmet foray west-side, just a short skip over the canal in W10.
Not suckers for awards (you wouldn’t have caught me in front of Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday; life’s far too short, and the Oscars, well, I switch off after the red carpet) we were leafing through the OFM awards issue earlier this autumn and were delighted to read about hot young chef Stevie Parle and his restaurant, The Dock Kitchen, situated right above Tom Dixon’s showroom and decked out in tons of the designer’s covetable must-haves. If I can find a handbag big enough I’ll be back and unscrewing one of the copper pendant lamps before you can say ‘Habitat’.
Anyhoo, it was a complete delight, cosy, aglow with candles and packed. I think I may have just mentioned before my inability to come to a decision… Well, here one is somewhat relieved of the burden of choice as they theme the menu around a particular event (Christmas), place (Sri Lanka maybe) or foodstuff (new season olive oil) and turn out simple yet refined dishes extolling the produce rather than looking like something that’d win ladies day at Ascot. Think of what you’d cook for the person you love the most in the hands of an expert, and that’s kind of close to what it’s like.
We started with shaved fennel and pomegranate salad, simply dressed with evergreen olive oil and lemon juice, the pomegranate pips twinkling bauble-like in the glow: a virtuous start to the Dock Kitchen’s take on Christmas feasting. Next up, a chestnut and chorizo soup of the richest brown, exuding aromas of smoke and Spain. Thick, rich and textured, a shallow bowl of this went a long way and definitely it was one for savouring rather than slurping with abandon.
The main event was roast goose with stewed lentils, tomatoes and spring greens. The BSG then dropped the bombshell that he’d never had goose before, so suddenly the stakes were raised. We weren’t disappointed. Beautifully cooked and seasoned, this bird tasted as if it may have even enjoyed the cooking process. Succulent, lightly laced with brandy and resonating with herbs, it had clearly taken a Christmassy, pre-furnace bath and it paired so perfectly with the accompaniments I momentarily wondered whether roast potatoes were indeed necessary on Christmas Day (I know, but I’d been driven to the edge of reason.)
We shared a plate of walnuts and a tranche of buttery yellow Stilton (delicious but unnecessary considering what was to follow). It truly was becoming a dress rehearsal for 25th December – loosen belts time! Panettone bread and butter pudding with custard seemed the only polite way to draw the feast to a close – after all, we did have an impressive walk home...sweet home!
Happy Christmas one and all.
Raymond Briggs Father Christmas 2

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Meat and greet

So that’s it – we’ve done it, and if I ever see another cardboard box it’ll be too soon. The night before we left the well-appointed two bed with leafy views in EC1 for somewhere more westerly we thought we’d nip down to Exmouth Market for a pizza. However, (thanks to Time Out’s pizza issue earlier this year) Santoré was rammed as usual, so we gleefully skipped onwards under the strings of twinkling lights to Medcalf, an steadfast stalwart in our dating life. Whenever there have been plans to make, a small anniversary to celebrate or a treat to be had then it has been the bavette at this erstwhile butcher’s shop - rich, glistening, always beautifully seasoned and accompanied by the crispiest golden hand-cut chips, lamb’s lettuce, buttered spinach and a pot of nostril-tickling horseradish. The staff are fuss-free, the wine list interesting. Never boring, always met with enormous satisfaction, this is a warm, cosy foodie friend we are enormously sad to leave.
The BSG, however, has wasted no time and has already sent me the link to the Chamberlayne, a pub in the new neighbourhood whose focus is entirely on meat, and even better, meat sourced from our old friend Smithfield Market. A little bit of home from home then.
Our eyes are also dazzled by the shiny glass and lights of The Dock Kitchen which we’ve penned in the diary for a pre-Yuletide date. We’ll be just about ok I reckon.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

New York (and no, I haven’t forgotten there’s a Barcelona Part 2).

Pastrami sandwiches, knuckle sandwiches*, cocktails, cupcakes; you name it - the BSG’s maiden sojourn in the Big Apple had it all. And man, did we chomp our way through the city. Forget the excess baggage; I’m certain my own bodyweight must’ve merited more fuel on the return flight.
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After dropping through thick cloud onto the hitherto invisible JFK runway slick from torrential rain, I’d felt relieved to have packed my umbrella but the next morning the city made its entrance under a high blue sky and in dazzling sunlight, which stayed throughout our stay. New York had dressed for the occasion and the BSG had her best side. We spent the days wandering her ordered streets, the concrete seemingly unrolled over the island like a sheet, coating every yard of it save a few green breaks and countless steaming drain covers where the hot realm beneath stole its respite in long sighs. Our moments of recess generally took the form of refreshment; Katz’s Deli was a must and the first mark on our map. I must admit that it was a lot bigger than I’d imagined it, appropriately loud (and that was just the staff behind the counter) and brash; utterly at home in this city, then.
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I had pastrami on rye. I refuse to call it a sandwich because the hand versus cutlery debate didn’t even get a look in. Even the ‘regulars’ employed the metal, like overweight climbers with crampons, to climb this exquisite mountain of warm, spiced beef (and in my case, tomato, Swiss cheese and lettuce; strangely, adding extra, non-meaty ingredients made me feel more virtuous, albeit adding to the workload). Thank goodness we’d covered half the city on foot beforehand; the thing was huge, but my golly it was sublime – I don’t think I uttered an intelligible word over one syllable for the duration. The BSG had the brisket on rye, but no amount of tangy, yellow mustard-aise could make up for his obvious food envy – luckily I needed help. I took a photo, but the perfection didn’t translate and I’m not sure I can find the words either, but you gotta trust me. Iced tea was the perfect choice to wash it all down. Oh, and a plate of crunchy gherkins pickled to varying degrees. Yup, I ♥ NY.
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A lunch at Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles seemed a great lunch spot and didn’t disappoint. My steak tartare, mixed ‘tableside’ was hot and salty and had my first invasion of anchovies in the dish; they were very welcome. The BSG, undeterred by a solid few days of grazing big ordered the choucroute but still couldn’t get over his phobia of that bright, tight-skinned orange US staple, the frank (not Joan Rivers). So no, there were no ‘streetside’ snacks for us, not even so much as a pretzel - no room - and I’m still not sure what a corn dog is.
TBC…
* These were very much on order in the Rangers ice hockey game we saw one night - a game where fighting is positively encouraged and seen as a great skill. Still, preferable to a mouthful of puck I suppose…
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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Barcelona – Part 1

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Homer has a reputation for lofty turns of phrase, and has provided me with the perfect term which aptly encompasses the reason for this prolonged silence, for which I can only apologise. When Lisa tells him that the Chinese words for crisis and opportunity are the same, he proffers Crisitunity.

Unfortunately, Miss Simpson was misinformed; after thirty seconds of delving on the internet – extensive research indeed – it turns out that this is an urban myth. A bit like the one where wiry, adorable, geeky Paul from the Wonder Years became Marilyn Manson and, like that one, I so want it to be true.

You see, my day-job and I have recently parted company due to the godforsaken state of the economy: elements of the critical right there. BUT I have a few things that I have wanted to do for a while and now it seems that the right time has been thrust upon me.
First + second = a crisitunity. *Thanks, Homie* (in a gravelly-Marge-voice*).

I’ll admit that, despite the dominant ‘silver-lining’ genre of discussion, that week - which we’ll call Week R - was fairly shitty (sorry Gran) but, riding on a white charger to my rescue came a weekend in Barcelona with the BSG, booked months beforehand but so perfectly timed. I left my worries behind when Easyjet shut the doors at Gatwick. And then told us that we’d have to wait an hour for a take-off slot. Behind Ryanair. (The BSG did his meditative deep-breathing exercises.)

We touched down in the drizzle. But no matter - two days of eating, drinking and eating and drinking ensued, with a few sights in between. Routes were generally conceived in a join the dots pattern, the dots being the zinc-topped bars where we sought refreshment. Thanks to a finely tuned cultural clock (a very good condensed Rough Guide) we would turn up at each restaurant ten minutes before the rush, but still at a time the late-living Spanish found less funny than the 7pm slots filled by the Americans.

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After throwing our cases at the bed in our hotel room we turned on our heels and made a BSG-line for the Boqueria. It didn’t disappoint these two Barca beginners and we quickly found a table in one of the many establishment around its fringe. At 5 o’clock it was a late lunch, even for the locals, but we happily washed down grilled octopus and prawns a la plancha with frosted bottles of cool cerveza, ignoring the rain.


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Artfully losing ourselves in the Gothic quarter we took in some gargoyles, the other Cathedral and followed our instincts towards the harbour. But by golly sightseeing is thirsty work; now it was time for another drink. Again the guidebook came up trumps and led us to a Xampanyeria (Cava bar) in an old garage in Barceloneta which served, unsurprisingly, cava, by the coupe. They had the BSG at cava, and they had me at coupe.

Can Paixano is a crowded, rowdy, standing-room only joint where you have to holler over the counter for your drinks at the perennially patient and smiling staff. The atmosphere is brilliant and the fizz and delicious hot entrepans and tapas are robust and apt foil to the sheer quantities of booze being quaffed: you have to order food with your drinks. The floor, strewn with discarded sandwich wrappers, testifies to this fact. There being no time for indecision you just choose anything from the huge wooden menu boards and hope for the best. We did and weren’t disappointed with plates of sizzling chorizo and morcilla. It’s as cheap as it is filthy at under a Euro for a glass of the house stuff (not surprisingly it is full of international students.) We’d had such fun that in our two-day stay, we made the trip twice.

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Then it was onwards, through the thunderstorms, to Cal Pep….

Monday, 20 September 2010

Wagyu very much

P1070774 After goodness knows how many roast beefs I’ve had in my life, this one rather spoke for itself.

P1070779 After much deliberation over the menu, we served the roasted meat as simply as possible, accompanied by duck fat roast potatoes, greens and carrots. The word(..) melty punctuated the groans of pleasure and as for the fat - it was so flavoursome even Jack Spratt would’ve converted. And of course, there was that gravy…

We followed this up with a winner of a Mark Hix recipe: autumn fruits macerated in Sloe Gin atop a good blob of rice pudding. After this kind of eating, there was only one strategy: it was to be danced off until dawn.

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The leftovers (we couldn’t believe our luck) were the stuff of dreams. And doorstop sandwiches, Thai noodle soups…

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Friday, 10 September 2010

Nigella’s Moroccan Lamb, Jemima’s way

or Marrakech via Finsbury Park

It’s very seldom that the BSG’s steady hand is jolted by nerves. He started a new job recently with no outward signs of apprehension, save perhaps a few moments of deep thought before choosing his tie on the first day. In the kitchen dealing with food he is the master of calm - unless he’s interfering when someone else is cooking, - namely his Mum, his sister and I - at which time you want to evacuate. Until I got to know this family I’m not sure I knew anyone - save my Mum and her copy of The Cookery Year - who actually dipped into cookbooks very often. I mean, they look lovely and are fun to peruse and pipe-dream your way through but how many recipes from their beautiful pages does the average person actually attempt?

The BSG’s sister, Jemima, treated us to a feast recently. Inspired by three bedside muses from the cookbook pile, Yotam, Nigella and Valentine, she laid on a spread that belied her pitiful nurse’s pay and night-shift induced fatigue. By day - and often by night - she is nothing short of heroic. If ever such care were to be translated into food, it was at this supper.

After a starter of beetroot and goat’s cheese with peppery leaves and mint came the main event: Nigella’s Moroccan leg of lamb with Yotam’s jewelled couscous, re-interpreted by Jemima. The meat was tender and infused with aromatic flavours within and crisp and caramelised on the outside (impossible to resist swiping the charred bits off the carving board with my fingers as I pretended to clear up afterwards). Marinated in a bag in the fridge first for 24 hours, it was as if the animal had grown up in a souk and had been taking on the flavours all its life and Jemima’s addition of a drop or two of rosewater lifted it skywards to sublime. It was a spiced dream of a roast, perhaps the best lamb I’ve eaten anywhere. Moorish indeed.

1 leg of lamb, approx. 2.5kg

2 tbsp ras el hanout spice blend

2 lemons, juice only

2 clove garlic, minced

6 tbsp olive oil

1 bunches coriander, fresh, chopped

Make incisions all over the leg of lamb, and then mix the ras-el-hanout with the lemon juice, oil, minced garlic and coriander.

Using your fingers, push pinches of the mixture into the holes. Rub the remaining aromatic paste over the lamb and then put it into a large freezer bag, squeeze out any air and then tie it up and leave it to marinade in the fridge overnight, or for longer.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6, and take the lamb out of the fridge to come to room temperature.

Put the leg of lamb into a roasting pan, squeezing any marinade out of the bag over the meat. Roast the lamb for about an hour and a half (though J says one hour and twenty mins), by which time it should be aromatically blackened on the outside, and still tender and pink within. Let the lamb rest once it comes out of the oven for at least 15 minutes, though I leave this a good hour after it's come out of the oven.

Mr Ottolengi’s couscous was light and scattered with gems: emerald cucumber ribbons and ruby-like pomegranate seeds amongst other goodies. It was the perfect side dish, though I am sure one that’d be a very good protagonist in the absence of the meat. And don’t get me started on Valentine’s buns! Soaked like bath-sponges (similarity ends there, they were light and perfect) in a of oranges, cardamom and honey; we definitely each had one more than we ought.

With this kind of culinary confidence flowing through the BSG family veins, it’s rather uncharacteristic of him to be so jittery. For the first time ever he is worried that he’s going to mess up, wait for it - roast beef.

But this is not just any old beef. Its Kobe beef (oooooooh) from the very first UK-bred herd of Wagyu cattle. A select group of us are donning our critics’ bibs this weekend to see what all the fuss is about and we’re overexcited to taste this extra marbled brute, which has now been hanging for a good few weeks. Our super friend Tam’s Dad has been dedicated to this project, lovingly farming the herd in Suffolk and we’ve bagged our lucky selves a considerable chunk of the first steer to hit the block (for mates’ rates bien sur). We can’t wait to try it, before the rest of the herd goes to top restaurants all over the UK. Watch this space for pictures and verdict on what promises to be the ultimate roast!

* This recipe inspired me to reach for one of the many Nigella books we have on our shelves, which made me realise that when she is not voluptuously binging on sweet things by the milky light of her fridge in that satin dressing gown she is really a very happy-making cook.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Honey and Lavender Cake

It’s August and the air is full. Of dancing spores and dandelion clocks, of lavender scents brushed from the flowers by bees too busy to stay with their fleeting wanton caresses. The sweet tang of muck spread on nearby fields occasionally reigns. Big Norfolk skies swirl overhead, punctuated by weather-fronts and their breezy boundaries, gigantic sheep-like clouds an endless parade of shapes; summer is busying about with a threat of packing up and shipping out. Like the dog helplessly watching its beloved owner pack for a holiday, I am hoping that there’s been some mistake. Surely it’s not leaving so soon, whatever the Met Office says.

Severe weather warnings aside, there are signs of autumn’s impending bounty: bright ornaments sprinkled amongst the foliage in trees and hedges, the flowers fading, making way for the berries. We are just a couple of weeks away from frenzied pilfering sessions – of plums, apples, blackberries and early sloes. But right now, patience must be deployed. Until the hedgerow harvest, why not take inspiration from the bees? The lavender’s in abundance – it seems a shame not to use it. It’s great studded into lamb, rosemary-style.

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I attempted lavender cake once (bastardized from some sponge recipe or other) and it was amazing, even if I do say so myself. It was one of those rare times when improvisation paid off. God knows how. However, I am not a fool – I know this happens only once if you’re lucky, so I nicked a failsafe formula off someone who probably knows a lot better. Inconveniently, it’s written in American, which if you don’t understand you can decipher courtesy of Delia’s conversion table; as everyone knows, you can’t go wrong with Delia.

To decorate, you can really go all Laura Ashley on it. I promise you it won’t taste like pot pourri. if you still don’t believe me, you can just infuse a pot of sugar with a stalk for a few days beforehand, discard it and use the sugar, rather than grinding the flowers themselves.

Serves 6–8

2 stalks lavender flowers (or 2 tbsp  lavender flowers)

½ cup caster sugar

250g unsalted butter, at room temperature

¼ cup honey

3 eggs

1½ cups self-raising flour

¾ cup buttermilk

2 tbsp sifted icing sugar, to serve

lavender flowers (extra), to decorate

thick cream, to serve

1 Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line a 22cm spring-form cake tin with greaseproof paper. Grind lavender flowers and sugar together with a mortar and pestle until finely ground.

2 Using an electric beater, beat lavender sugar, butter and honey until light and creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift flour into mixture. Using a large metal spoon, gently fold flour and buttermilk into mixture. Spoon into prepared baking pan. Smooth top. Bake for 1 hour or until cooked when tested with a skewer.

3 Stand for 5 minutes before releasing clamp and inverting cake onto a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar and sprinkle with flowers (extra) if you wish. Serve with thick cream.

Note: it’s important to use lavender that is home-grown and pest free, not commercially grown lavender that may have been sprayed with chemicals. 

I am challenging the best baker I know, Jemima, to make this (she also happens to be my sister-in-law but these facts are unrelated). Just because. Because of those ethereal Honey Buns (courtesy of Valentine Warner) she treated the BSG and me to the other week, drenched in an orange-y nectar. That was indeed a feast that warrants its own post…

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Friday, 20 August 2010

There’s no place like home

After several blissful years in our crow’s nest overlooking the big ship Sadler’s Wells we are putting it on the market. And what an exercise in set-dressing it is. For three evenings in a row last week we edited our possessions, leaving only the most shiny and sleek objects behind (when it came to the kitchen gadgetry, lined up like a row of X Factor finalists, there was a minute’s silence as we made our selection). They aren’t leaving us forever, just having a sabbatical - well-earned in the case our overworked bread maker - in Ma BSG’s attic. Thank you!

You may well ask why we’re moving from this heavenly spot that is a short stagger from Exmouth Market and culinary shrines that include Moro, Caravan and Medcalf, not to mention the pioneers of the modern gastro pub at The Eagle.

P1070576 Why indeed?

Because we know there’s some ladder we’ve got to climb and talk of ‘when there’s room to plant vegetables’ is taking over. The BSG and I would like a kitchen that we can both cook and sit in – a big ask in London we know, but we’re determined to find it, even at the expense of this plum location.

So, for the next few weeks we are using subtle touches – the flat scrubs up pretty darn well on its own really – to create just the kind of atmosphere that induces love at first sight in the beholder. Think dusty old Neal’s Yard bottles glowing blue on the bathroom windowsill (aspirational – and well past their best before date), the BSG’s recently preserved plums, pears and peaches in chunky Kilner jars residing against the black tiles of the kitchen (rustic) and my recently acquired and ever-so-slightly OCD-driven desire to arrange all our books by colour (stylish, though I had to send my beloved Slash autobiography to the charity shop).

jars 

Recent top tips to seduce the unsuspecting viewer have included coffee beans in a low temperature oven, freshly baked bread and a fridge full of champagne (a chance would be a fine thing). Funny though that nearly all of these suggestions have appealed to senses other than sight. So love at first sniff, perhaps?

Interesting further because the lucky buyer will not get the aforementioned coffee bean included in the purchase price (well, maybe they will, judging by how rarely I find myself cleaning our dear oven), so why do these things matter? Because they are what make a house a home; people want to be presented with the immediate suggestion that they will spend many happy times within these four walls, and you don’t get that from a cold, dark place, scented strongly with week-old bin (thank you, Zara Home with your ‘posh glade’). In that case, I reckon we go the whole hog and roast a chicken - home epitomised - then we can be sure to get some food lovers in to take up the apron. We can’t abide the notion of our old chum the kitchen being neglected.

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Friday, 13 August 2010

Caponata, crackling and cake

 

Since I was very young, the mishmash of late summer vegetables that is ratatouille has been atop my list of food favourites; a cast iron pot of soft yielding courgettes, rags of stewed tomato and slow cooked onion instils a nursery-style comfort. I cannot get enough of it and it screams August.

Until embarrassingly recently I was unacquainted with its sassy Italian cousin, Caponata. A ‘grown-up’ version of the Provençal vegetable stew, it contains the more sophisticated capers and olives which lend a savoury slap round the chops, whilst the vinegar sounds a sharp ring-a-ding on the back of the tongue. It is the perfect summer accompaniment, which last night played best supporting role to a loin of pork slow roasted in fennel, garlic and chilli (for 22, naturally).

Happy Birthday BSG, Happy Birthday blog!

Caponata

I got this recipe from Katie Caldesi, though there are all sorts of variations.

This one serves 4.

4 medium aubergines, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

1 onion, chopped

2 celery sticks, chopped

400g/14oz chopped tomatoes

100g/3½oz green olives, pitted and sliced

3 tbsp capers, drained and chopped

30ml/1fl oz red wine vinegar

1½ tbsp sugar, or to taste

handful flat leaf parsley, chopped

extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Sprinkle the aubergines with salt and leave to drain in a colander for 30 minutes.

Heat some of the olive oil in a saucepan and brown the aubergine on a moderate heat for 10 minutes.

When cooked, set aside and allow to cool, to room temperature.

In a separate saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil and sauté the onion along with the celery and tomatoes, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Add the olives and cook for 20 minutes. Add the cooled aubergine and the capers.

In a separate bowl, mix together the red wine vinegar and sugar. Add this to the pan and cook for 10 minutes. It is ready when the red wine vinegar has been absorbed.

Transfer to a large bowl, add the chopped parsley and mix well.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil to serve. Serve hot or cold.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Secret Garden Party

There is a secret garden in Regent’s Park. You may already know where it is, but if you don’t…well, sorry, but you’ve had a big enough clue already. A very good friend of ours decided to share this secret with us recently and we are enormously grateful that he did. We won’t tell anyone, we promise.

Gardens make me very happy. They are havens from the rest of life and picnics in them are bliss. The discovery of this one was nothing short of magical, its brightly-coloured plants illuminated by the evening rays, as I entered, a good 45 minutes earlier than my dining companions. I’d like to say that my timekeeping was bad but really I think it was sheer excitement that sped me along at such a pace. Beautifully kept lawns, neat borders and gently trickling fountains greeted me, as well as the occasional hidden amorous couple behind the hedges.

As if to remind me that we were not in the grounds of a country pile but in the middle of grubby, 21st-century London, the idyll was momentarily shattered by the appearance of an almighty rat - but he disappeared as quickly as he’d emerged so I didn’t hold it against him. Nor did I tell anyone about him. Had I done so, the evening might have ended there. Who knows - perhaps he was off for a picnic with his friend the mole*.

Guiding twelve people in to such an unadvertised spot was rather like a mental challenge from the Crystal Maze, so much so that when all twelve were present and correct I briefly considered a career in the army (I’m pretty sure they like navigators there). If only we’d given them all a map to decipher, this enchanted bower would have felt harder-earned. As it was, a mobile phone sufficed. A furious BSG arrived, laden with smoked mackerel pate, sardines and toast, claiming that ‘go diagonal’ hadn’t been the right instruction – it had been more of a 60 degree angle than a 45. Oh well, I never was very good at trigonometry.

Luckily he was appeased by a large slab of terrine on crusty bread made from an authentic French family recipe by an authentic French person, Virginie. However, I fear that her secret recipe will remain so, just like the garden. But sacre bleu it was good: livery richness laced to precision with booze. It vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Other than this, the patchwork of mismatched coloured cloths was spread with countless delights; salads, cheeses, onion tarts, cold meats, bread and dips; a feast that would have made Mr Mole swoon. The BSG and I brought our current favourite munch of the moment, which we have recreated time and time again after being introduced to it at Terroirs. It is a wonderful dish as no cooking whatsoever is required, though it’s probably a good idea to have a mint handy for after.

Anchovies, shallots and unsalted butter on sourdough

Serves 8 for a starter

Anchovy fillets – 2 tins

3 or 4 shallots, very finely sliced

Pale unsalted butter (French is best, though I’m not sure why – it just feels right)

Sourdough bread (failing that, an airy, crusty loaf)

Slice and toast the bread, and cut it into bite-sized morsels. Put all the other ingredients out onto a board or dish, and let everyone help themselves.

Spread the toast with a convincing slab of butter, don’t be shy.

Sprinkle a few translucent shallot pieces onto the butter.

Smear half an anchovy fillet on top with your knife.

Gobble it up.

Assess the flavours, adjust your quantities and make a second attempt. It won’t be long before you have exactly the balance you want.

I promise that you will love this. Like a cold glass of milk with your Marmite on toast, it just works.

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*These two had perhaps the greatest picnic of all:

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. 'What a day I'm having!' he said. 'Let us start at once!'

'Hold hard a minute, then!' said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.

Shove that under your feet,' he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

'What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly;
'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrolls-
cresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater—'

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'

'Do you really think so?' enquired the Rat seriously. 'It's only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!'

From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Friday, 16 July 2010

Packing for the beach: sand-proof picnic

Ah, the seaside. Sweeping views, breezes, sandcastles and picnics. You sit back, the sun on your face and the wind in your hair and let the fresh air permeate. Now time for lunch, you unwrap your carefully made sandwich (make sure it’s yours though, with the special mark you made – you don’t want the dry-looking one), bite into the soft roll and get the unmistakeable grind of sand between your teeth. How the devil did that get in there? Split seconds from cling-film to mouth - unbelievable!

It may be fun for building with and burying people in, but when it comes to food, sand is an evil grain with many cunning plans. If your chosen bite falls to the ground with a thuck, you can forget it; it is irretrievable (except maybe if you’re a dog, but I know some fussy dogs). No, for a worry-free shore-side lunch, you need to come up with food that exposes as little of itself as possible to this elements, but remains as exciting and varied as picnic food can be.

I think we may have found a solution.

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Last Saturday was scorchio, so a secret seven hit our local beach at Brancaster. The unfathomable Brit beach-going rule that ‘the nearer the car park and toilets the better’* meant that we had a huge stretch of it pretty much to ourselves. Not ones to miss a picnic opportunity like this, we took some sandwiches - two, actually. And they were HUGE. We hadn’t so much made these as packed them: two loaf suitcases rammed with flavoursome delights, one all hunter-gatherer and the other perhaps a bit more metrosexual (well, it has more veg in it). Both were free from the mountain of cling-film hell and the guesswork that accompanies so many beach outings. In the battle against the sand invasion, these brutes are all the food you’ll need, I promise. They’re neat, they’re fun to make and a bit like cake, sharing one makes you feel you’re all at a party (there’s also something rather grown-up about bringing a chopping board to a picnic…)

The first, manlier of the two (but refined – like Tom Ford) was the Shooter’s Sandwich, which G had read about courtesy of Tim Hayward on the Guardian food blog earlier this year. Over came the link and down went the gauntlet. This comprised well-seasoned steaks cooked medium-rare, whipped straight out of the hot pan and laid into a hollowed-out long loaf, lined with mustard and/or horseradish and smothered in a savoury, duxelles-type thing. Once the mustard-slathered bread lid is replaced, the whole thing is wrapped in greaseproof paper and string, weighed down with books/saucepans of water/chopping boards and left in a cool place (you’d be amazed how much debate surrounded this particular stage at one in the morning – GCSE Physics, was it? Everyone was an expert.) After an uncomfortable night under the press, the precious package was richly squished with savoury juices and ready to be transported, carved and consumed. Minimum fuss: maximum excitement.

As we did it in a wine-fuelled frenzy in the wee hours I have no photos of the process, but here’s the ‘after’.

Shooters Sandwich

I more than made up for it the next morning when we started on the second sanger, based on a New Orleans invention, the Muffuletta. It is a picnic in a sandwich.

lining

This involved a sundried tomato and olive mush made in the food processor with which we lined our hollow loaf, partnered with liberal glugs of green olive oil.

olives sundried tom mush

Then alternating layers of Parma ham, salami, Taleggio cheese and roasted red peppers were carefully added.

salami

cheese

peppers

If I were to be really picky, it perhaps could have done with some more green in the form of avocados – but these would have quickly turned brown so perhaps courgettes and basil instead – I confess that I am prone to over-packing. Nevertheless, that’s the beauty of it: anything goes. To be honest, it would have benefited from the overnight torture the Shooter’s Sandwich had received, being a bit drier and less yielding (perhaps more olive oil required?) Who knows, but it was delicious, fun to build and sand-free. I am very much looking forward to experimenting with the next one.

Muffuletta

*Two miles of wide, dune-backed beach and the 50 metres around the entrance is a labyrinth of windbreakers, killer stunt-kites** and orange Crocs.

**Having seen it with my own eyes, it is perfectly possible (probable) that such a stunt kite when badly driven is capable of grounding and swallowing a hefty teenage boy – especially when said bad driver is their dad. It is also absolutely hilarious; just ask his mother.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Eggplant Strikes Back

The BSG was attacked by an exploding aubergine recently (thankfully the burn on his face didn't scar though people kept trying to wipe the 'lipstick' off his cheek at a wedding the following day).

The moral of the story is to PRICK THOSE BAD BOYS before oven baking, they are Darth Vader when they're hot.

Here in case you missed it before is a recipe for aubergine dip, shamelessly reproduced.

You need:

1 large or 2 smaller aubergines
Olive oil
Lemon
1 garlic clove (optional, depending on who you’re impressing)
Flat leaf parsley
Fresh red chilli
Salt and pepper
Pitta bread and crudités to serve

Roast the aubergine whole in a hot oven (180 degrees) for 45 minutes or until soft to the touch and the skin has started to wrinkle. Peel away the skin and the stalk and discard. Mash the innards in a bowl with a good glug of olive oil, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, the crushed garlic clove, a small handful of chopped parsley and a teaspoon of finely chopped red chilli (with the white bits removed).

All the above ingredients can be added to personal taste, but the whole process is best done whilst the aubergine is still warm and straight from the oven – it seems to absorb the flavours better. I suppose you could do it all in a food processor, but mashing it all and stirring is rather fun (plus you can eat it). Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with warm toasted pitta bread fragments (give them a couple of goes in the toaster – monitored of course - so that they are crunchy and strong enough to take a good dollop of dip).

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Scott’s, 00…

The doorman took my coat whilst another whisked me through them with a smile and without a whisper. I entered the busy room redolent with lunchtime chatter, as if carried on an invisible current. Gliding alongside the handsome Maître d’ I was escorted to my seat, where the man was already waiting. Through ribbons of pale cigarette smoke* his eyes flashed azure and a smile flickered at the corner of his mouth as he rose to greet me:

“The name’s Bond, James…”

IMG00176-20100619-1405

Ok, so I didn’t really have a date with 007. I was lunching at Scott’s with my friend Simon, who certainly shares Bond’s predilections for the finer things in life, sartorial and other, but without the licence-to-kill.

So he says.

The restaurant has moved from its original site frequented by Bond creator Ian Fleming and where, according to the author, Bond would sit at a table by the window ‘to watch the pretty girls go by’ (another thing he and my lunch companion have in common.) The 21st century version is still patronised by the beautiful, here they were, tanned and fragrant and mingling with the chinoed regulars on this Saturday lunchtime; we were joined by one of them: Lucy, our Miss Moneypenny – she stopped the room as she entered, smoky eyes seemingly feet ahead of the rest of her. We were all dressed up to the nines (perhaps even the tens) for a wedding that afternoon. Sadly, the BSG was on a mission elsewhere so couldn’t make it a foursome, but you know how he is with shellfish.

Champagne seemed the most appropriate way to commence proceedings. I looked on covetously as my companions slurped down (with panache bien sûr) half a dozen oysters, glistening on their shells. So much of the glamour in bi-valve consumption is about the ceremony and Scott’s really does it the best, from the Tabasco to the platters to the muslin-wrapped lemon halves: this is tabletop theatre at its silver-plated best. Pair this with discreet and expert service and you really start to feel like a VIP…

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To chase these we shared starters of monkfish cheeks braised with broad beans and bacon and devilled mackerel with parsley salad. The heat and apparent frugality of the latter dish provided the perfect arch-rival to the rich savouriness of the first. Chop-slappingly good, all of it – though watch the dress!

For our main course, I was immediately seduced by the poached River Tweed sea trout with garden vegetable broth, which both looked and tasted as beautiful as it read, the rosy flesh dancing over a light soup of perfectly cooked vegetables, as green as weed waving in a clear chalk stream. Accompanied by a wobbly yellow hollandaise and new potatoes bathed in butter and mint the fish was almost as elegant as the day’s bride would prove to be and an ode to simplicity.

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Typically, Simon went for a dish which, bar the caviar I think, was the most expensive dish on the menu: the Lobster Thermidor. I didn’t mind, he was paying. I had always been doubtful about the thermidor thing, supposing that the best thing you can do with lobster is very little. Once I had tasted it I understood: it was a lesson in rich decadence – completely delicious and comforting in its silkiness. I left it at one bite so that my day would continue usefully. I’ll slip into something more comfortable before I order one of those (think elasticated waist).

Moneypenny had the dressed crab - or rather undressed, not a shell in sight. But very stylish nonetheless - rather like a Bond girl waiting between the sheets.

Hum, perhaps it’s a bit much? I’ll leave the 007isms for now.

We left Scott’s a bit fuller than we’d arrived, certainly happier, and one of us considerably poorer (thank you!). But for a one-off special occasion with close friends this was absolutely sparkling and it set us up nicely for what was to be a very stylish wedding indeed.

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*No, nobody was flouting the ban - cigarette smoke just makes it all a bit more spy-like…

Disclaimer: You may observe a rather hurried quality to this week’s pics (the pic of the sea trout you see above does a great disservice to the gorgeous bride – it really did look lovely, promise!) I was undercover.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Elderflower cordial

Norfolk’s elderflower bushes put up their parasols last weekend - they arrived about 3 weeks late this year, but better late than never: they were gigantic, frothy flying saucers, their champagne notes effervescent in the air. The BSG had been so keen to get cutting and steeping on our previous visit that the kitchen cupboard was already stocked with citric acid, which had been easily procured from the chemist’s. Armed with a pilfered wire supermarket basket – how embarrassing - we perused the green aisles, selecting only the most pristine, untainted chandeliers.

Elderflower cordial – makes one and a half litres

  • 20 heads of elderflower
  • 1.8kg caster sugar
  • 1.2 litres water, boiled
  • 2 unwaxed lemons*
  • 75g citric acid
Method

1. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl, covering with freshly boiled water and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.

2. Gently shake the elderflower heads to evict stubborn residents, and then place into the bowl.

3. Pare the zest of the lemons off in wide strips and toss into the bowl with the elderflowers. Slice the lemons, discard the ends, and add the slices to the bowl, then stir in the citric acid. Cover with a cloth and then leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

4. Remove the larger contents and then strain through a muslin cloth or very fine sieve and bottle. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks after opening.

As well as being a refreshing summer drink mixed with still or sparking water it’s a wonderful infusion for pannacotta, fool, yoghurt and ice-cream.

If I could find a gooseberry, they go very well together too – but I can’t. They’re selling them in Morrison’s in High Wycombe apparently, so says my first class girl on the ground.

elderflowers

*it may well yield unmentionably disgusting results, but I am going to try adding cucumbers in like the lemons, in homage to the ‘grown-up’ soft drink of the eighties, Aqua Libra. I loved it. But I was clearly in the minority.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The long pepper and shortbread of it

The other week we found ourselves in a garden so rambling and beautiful that even the next-door neighbour’s roses wanted in. With heavy heads they craned over the dividing wall, chaotic with their strong, sweet scents, dropping petals in their eagerness to spot the wild strawberries running rampage over the flagstones. Looking over the other way, I was mystified as to their covetousness, for not one in this little ladder of blossoming walled gardens would have looked out of place at the Chelsea Flower Show. Our friend Libby, the proud co-owner of this enchanted glade, told us that the neighbour’s rabbit would often be sighted munching its merry way through any of them (I don’t blame him, what a feast - but beware the foxes!) The warm, crepuscular air was loaded with heavy fragrance and the promise of thunder, so we settled on drinks al fresco and supper surveying the foliage from the safety of the kitchen, suspended over the garden in our glassy Juliet balcony. I’m pretty sure we were in a food stylist’s dream.

Libby's Ottolenghi feast

This hunch was reinforced when we were confronted with an Ottolenghi-inspired spread, of chargrilled ribbons of courgette; scorched blackened peppers; couscous jewelled with cranberries and herbs; a fresh, cooling yoghurt dip and barbequed butterflied leg of lamb, smothered in chermoula. From this blousy garden in N1 my palate chartered a magic carpet to the souks of Northern Africa. And it didn’t stop there.

Libby bestowed upon us the secret of the Spicery, a genius enterprise that sends monthly parcels of spice blends and associated recipes for a subscription. An ace present for any foodie I reckon. This was the inspiration behind the long pepper and bourbon vanilla shortbread that accompanied our berries and whipped elderflower cream. The biscuits were light and buttery giving way to prickles of sweet long pepper heat; afterwards not a crumb remained.

Inspired by Libby’s exciting addition to this teatime favourite, I have decided to experiment over the next few weeks, boring whoever’s coming round with shortbread chapter and verse. Rosewater, spices, lavender, tea - I’ll try them all in the mix. But I might cheat on the blending part with our new food processor. Three days and counting….

*like pepper but hotter, native to Indonesia

 

Shortbread (makes 20-24 fingers)

125g/4oz butter

55g/2oz caster sugar

180g/6oz plain flour

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5.

Beat the butter and the sugar together until pale and creamy.

Stir in the flour to get a smooth mixture. Add spices, scents, zests – whatever takes your fancy. Turn on to a work surface and gently roll out to 1cm thick.

Cut into rounds or fingers, place onto a baking tray and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes. Avoid using your hands too much at this stage as they will melt the butter and make the mixture greasier.

Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Set aside to cool on a wire rack.

Sprinkle with caster sugar and serve. Would go very well with homemade elderflower ice-cream.

Elderflowers

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A long, hot bath

Earlier this year, the tellyfood void left after Masterchef (annoying voiceover; brilliant amateur cooks) was seamlessly filled with Great British Menu and thus disaster was averted: we could spend our weeknights drooling at the tv once more. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the water bath is taking over where the oven - a perfectly acceptable tool, in my book - once sufficed. The chefs on GBM were vac-packing to their hearts’ content, anything from delicate pink trout to steak, and plopping it into the water. Steak? Call me backward but I’m rather partial to a caramelised hunk of meat, unevenly blackened and sitting in its pan juices. Nowadays, all it seems to need is a hot swim in a plastic suit after a quick burst in a pan to give said colour.

Is this faking it? Weren’t these cumbersome things once blue, bubbling and sold in Boots around Mother’s Day?

I am sure that the argument for these pieces of equipment in busy kitchens is that they maintain a constant reliable temperature and ensure uniformity of cooking at any speed. But I also thought that the reason we go and pay top price for their food is because this particular handful of people had learnt how to master a stove-top better than the rest of us. The Romantic cook in me also feels that this failsafe piece of - well, let’s face it - lab apparatus (pass the Bunsen burner someone) lacks the element of risk and uncertainty that accompanies most cooking techniques, unless you’re silly enough to stick your hand in it I suppose. Even I can run a bath - where’s the skill?

Will the fiery oven mouth go unfed in top kitchens of the future I wonder, putting an end to those meaty aromas that light the tastebud touchpaper? I sincerely hope not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the well-assigned bain-marie for a wobbly crème brulee and suchlike, but if I wanted my steak poached, I would most certainly ask for it. And finally, if the water bath is to become the norm, why on earth don’t they sell them in John Lewis yet and where, pray tell, am I going to put my vacuum packer?

Rant over. I’m off for a soak.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Omelette overcome

The other day, the flat deserted, I deliriously reached the summit of my culinary Everest and there planted a flag, having wrangled heroically up its treacherous north face. I made an omelette.

A quick lunch or supper dish which Mum used to make (for four ravenous children) with great dexterity, often throwing in tomatoes, cheese and ham on demand, the omelette is something I’ve shied away from, passing over it in cookbooks ever since my early throwing-food-around-the-kitchen days when I tried a bit too hard and it never came off. This time, the key to my success was complete relaxation, a boxful of eggs and knowing that I could just chuck it in the bin if it all went wrong, never to recount it to anyone.

Not only did it resemble an omelette, it actually tasted rather good – I had even managed to sling in some grated Beaufort cheese at the right moment. Okay, so it was never going to win the Saturday Kitchen Omelette Challenge, but in front of an audience of one sliced beef tomato and a little gem I whooped with joy. The BSG was out so of course I had to take a picture as evidence - life’s milestones can’t go unrecorded, can they?

For this easily-placated cook, cutting through it with a fork to find it perfectly rolled and baveuse (a showy French word for slobber-y) within deserved another yelp. So starts my omelette career in earnest – I shall no longer fear this delicate enigma.

my omelette As I am a complete newcomer to the omelette field and a firm believer that everyone should do this their own way, I’m not going to attempt to give you some sort of failsafe recipe - Delia can do that - but just in case you’re interested, this is what I did…

You need:

Time and space

No Back Seat Gourmand

2 or more eggs, beaten (plus a drop of water for luck?)

Lots of back-up eggs

A good knob of butter

The perfect omelette frying pan – not too big nor too small
Anything your heart desires to fill the omelette: ham, cheese, mushrooms, fish, tomatoes...

Beat eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper (some people add a drop of water but I can’t tell you why). Heat butter in the frying pan, swilling around until it’s melted and starting to fizz.  Pour the beaten egg mixture into the hot, buttery pan, swirling it out as if making a pancake, drawing some edges in once they cook and frill, and swirl again to cover the gaps with more egg. Do this a couple of times – you will see when it’s ready, there’ll only be a bit of runny egg mixture left on the surface.
Throw in your extras.
Tip your pan and fold one side of the omelette into the middle, then repeat. Get a plate and slide the omelette out of the pan so it folds again. Do all the above whilst praying silently to the Egg Gods.
Take a picture of it..
Eat.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Pork tenderloin with sage and pancetta

Our first weekend back on home soil (hovering over it actually) as Mr and Mrs BSG was spent mostly apart. Man do stag – wife play house.

Well…not exactly. This particular one spent a blissful Saturday evening folded with friends in a squishy chesterfield, sipping expertly-crafted cocktails in Mark’s Bar at HIX, the next day dawning on a happy Campari headache.

To welcome back the BSG from rather a damp couple of days under a beer-bong I decided to bestow upon him a big, loving plate of food (I don’t mean to mis-ape Gregg the Egg here), inspired by our very local and most favoured old-school gastropub: The Eagle. Whatever you eat there, the flavours are bold and gutsy, and you leave as if you have had a ginormous hug from your most bearlike friend. Armed with half-memories and taste snippets from past dining experiences there, I decided upon roast pork tenderloin with sweet red peppers roasted with capers and sherry vinegar, on wet polenta drizzled with greenest olive oil and the rich piggy juices. Just right with a glass of Fino (water for him).

Pork tenderloin is such a precious yet good value cut of meat, but I must confess to being rather new to it. I had gone a whole childhood without seeing it in its comic entirety - it does look rather rude if you are juvenile, which I am. As its name suggests it is also wonderfully yielding, not to mention versatile, lending itself to so many flavours. (It is also lean, if you’re into that.)Try tenderloin slathered in all manner of rubs for the barbeque.

As is always the case this time of year, I am desperately seeking gooseberries, not only because I love them, but because I’m sure their twang would go brilliantly with something like this.

Here is but one of many delectable guises:

Pork tenderloin wrapped in sage and pancetta

(Serves 4)

One pork tenderloin

Pancetta slices

Sage leaves

Lemon

Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Lay the pancetta slices out so that they overlap at the edges and place fresh sage leaves at random intervals. Season the pork with pepper, place it onto the edge of the pancetta rectangle and carefully roll. The pancetta should stick to itself but you can always secure with string or cocktail sticks to make sure. Trivet the meat on a few lemon slices on a baking tray and roast for 25 minutes or so, letting it rest for five minutes. Serve sliced and bathed in its rich, lemon-scented juices.

Pancetta sage

Friday, 28 May 2010

Bistrot Bruno Loubet or The Last Date

bread brief cameo

For the BSG and me, seminal moments and special occasions are unquestionably commemorated with food. Our first date - back in 2005 - was on an internet meal-deal at Sugar Hut near Fulham Broadway. It wasn’t awful, especially if you like crispy-fried-sweet battered things with neon dipping sauces and feel like more of that for afters. Since 2005, things have gone uphill (and - largely - further east); our dining excursions and dates carry more purpose: there is always somewhere exciting atop our must-visit list.

Our last date before I became Mrs BSG was no exception; where better to go for this landmark scoff than Bruno Loubet’s new gaffe at the Zetter. His hugely successful comeback had been sparklingly Corened, Gilled, Twittered and blogged about, so we had to pay a visit, it being mere minutes away from our front door.

We arrived in timely fashion for our table which, due to a disastrous hiccup with the online booking system(read human error) I had booked for seven o’clock. Seven? Anywhere else in London and the place might have been full of pre-theatre deals and dribbling toddlers hurling plastic at the echoing walls, but to our relief we arrived to find the place three-quarters full with a fairly normal-looking bunch of diners already enjoying themselves. In the high-glassed modern shell of the Zetter hotel, the Bistrot awaited us, unprepossessing and rustic, flooded with the green sunshine and good humour of early summer.

There had to be champagne, and anywhere that serves it in coupes is my kinda place. Makes me think of Frank, Bing, Gene and Grace. There has, in the past, been some disdain for these BSG-side due to the fact that the bubbles have a better chance of escape, but just this once I spied a flicker of High Society in his eyes: he was enjoying it, further buoyed by the introduction of a warm loaf baked in a small terracotta pot with pale French butter. Its stay on the table was very brief – and another gratuitous pluck at our happy strings.

salad lyonnais

In this sunny corner of Paris (in Clerkenwell) the BSG tucked into a starter of snails and meatballs: a classic dish with a mushroom concoction apparently inspired by the chef’s mum. I’d never before tried snails out of their ubiquitous garlic/butter guise, but these were fine specimens, standing up to the meatballs, in deep red orbit of a magnificently rich mushroomy star. Merci, Maman Loubet. I had the revised Lyonnais salad, predominantly salty and crisp, from the crunchy crumbed fingers of unidentified pork bits to the electric frisée leaves, brittle bacon shards and crackly rind. Like a firework display of porkiness, it all exploded around a perfect soft-poached egg, reclining gracefully like a delicate debutante on leaves of soft emerald mache. I must admit that, usually, if somebody tells me I’m to eat ‘other’ parts of an animal I’m a bit of a wimp so the crispy sticks, two meaty golden dance partners for the yolk were the perfect disguise. Wherever the meat came from, I loved every bite.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, my confit of lamb shoulder arrived. The dark, sticky golfball of meat on a white bean and preserved lemon puree with green harissa - which I thought at first to be a little on the mean side - turned out to punch way above its weight in the flavour sense, the richness of the meat perfectly cut by the souk-inspired notes. My mouth was on the Marrakesh Express and not wanting to get off. It was all I could do to stop myself leaping over the pass and taking Monsieur Loubet in my arms – I could tell that the BSG felt the same: his daube of beef was so soft it needed to be eaten with a spoon, and as far as I remember he didn’t once proffer the mousseline potatoes…

lamb confit

Pudding was superfluous and sublime, a dusty bitter chocolate tart with salted caramel and butter ice-cream just to threaten the arteries and a rice-pudding pannacotta with marmalade. The wedding diet had the night off.

Waddling happy and satisfied through the fading violet evening, the BSG and I smiled to ourselves that we were now in on this particular food secret, plotting as to which of our friends we most wanted to divulge it.

Mr and Mrs BSG will be back. You bet, Loubet.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Kitsch hen tips

Unusually, for a being with such confident knife skills, there is one kitchen instrument that strikes terror in the heart of BSG - not to mention that of his intrepid sidekick, moi: the Japanese mandolin. Far from it being a sweet-sounding instrument that might be played at a tea ceremony, it is one rather of death to the fingertips. Not only does it sound like some kind of venomous snake, it is deadly sharp and even has a part called the ‘blade mouth’ – if there ever was a scarier piece of cuisine kit I’ve yet to meet it; at least a meat cleaver states its intention from the off.

So, one fine day, a borage-flower blue dome of spring sky hanging overhead, peaceful and unbroken by even a scratch of aeroplane vapour, I decided to face the fear. We were making celeriac remoulade, which is not only one of my favourite things but I also happened to be making it with the best people imaginable: this was my hen do and, even better, not a fluffy handcuff in sight. In his light and airy establishment, succinctly named The Kitchen, Thierry Laborde, our host and teacher (and self-confessed king of the risotto) was giving us a master class on the canapé. What a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.

IMG00131-20100425-1625

There it was, the table top guillotine, its blade glinting in the sun, flashing its razor-sharp smile, daring me to use it.

“Don’t press too ‘ard”, warned Thierry.

There was no danger of that. Even as I moved the considerable piece of celeriac in downward motions, it was clear that the mandolin was a beast that needed an authoritative grip. That was not mine. Quaking with fear, I quickly switched to the far more time-consuming practice of thinly slicing and julienning the warty root with my trusty knife – very satisfying, but rather one to try if you had all afternoon; a grater did the lion’s share of the job, though produced a rather less crunchy end product. I could hear my cooking companion, Zo, sigh with relief as I put the thing down: this was a party after all, there was champagne* to be had and I was probably supposed to be smiling – the mandolin had required complete concentration and I’d probably have ended up in A&E. Thankfully, no harm was done to any digits, and I’m pretty sure there’s an attachment on our wish-list food processor that does away with any need for a second encounter…

Atop our perfect - even if we do say so ourselves - celeriac nest in its very neat pastry case (no, we didn’t have that much time on our hands – these were premade), we sat half a perfectly hard-boiled quail’s egg and a tiny leaf of parsley. Not quite the toasted pitta and dip you barely have time to throw in a bowl after a day at the office but very dainty nonetheless. It was all starting to feel rather Good Housekeeping; that is, until Thierry instructed us on making our fishcakes by rolling them into little balls between our hands when the champagne kicked in and the double entendres really took off.

They must get it all the time…

By the time we got to crab and granny smith apple (delicious!) quenelles on melba-toast boats the class had stormed the lesson and I think the maestro was already daydreaming up his next risotto. If this had been a beauty contest, I’m not sure my offerings would have passed, but they tasted great.

Celeriac remoulade

To make this, all you need to do is grate or finely chop the celeriac into strips (about a quarter would serve two easily as a salad.)

Mix in a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and some Dijon mustard (wholegrain is delicious) and a good twist of salt and pepper.

Et voila!

If you want to top with a quail’s egg, a la Thierry, here’s a top tip for peeling the little varmints:

After cooling in cold water, leave the cooked eggs in malt vinegar for a few hours – the vinegar is too mild to taint the flavour and the shells will soften and peel off easily. Magic.

*The Kitchen are licensed – bliss!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Macaroni cheese please

There are plenty of things in life that one doesn’t need but that one wants, a case in point being the yoghurt maker that the BSG has added to our wedding list…I think our kitchen is one white good short of a showroom already (I’m also rather excited at this extension of his repertoire.) Other objects are completely necessary but equally unexciting, such as the ironing board on the very same list. Then there are the things that there is no need or desire for, things that are destined to be clutter, items found throughout mail-order catalogues and languishing among the badly-cut final pages of weekend newspaper supplements.

The appendix, of which I am now a proud ex-owner, seems to be the body’s version of aforementioned clutter. Apart from its great propensity to rupture at any given point, rendering its holder very unwell or worse, its function is long extinct along with our grass-chomping days: an evolutionary hangover, as my friend Caz puts it. As it turns out, they are as ugly as they are useless, so I am glad I never got to meet mine.

Hospital fare is not much to write home or anywhere else about, so I didn’t (odd, in an institution so geared towards mending, that nutrition is not given more thought). Suffice it to say that powdered mashed potato and beige plastic have their special place in the world.

The first night there, not knowing quite what the problem was, I was lulled into peaceful sanctuary in my cubicle, shrouded by a light green curtain, floating, like the Water-Rat in his boat beneath a weeping willow (or perhaps that was the Morphine). By night number two I was fully aware that hospitals, like aeroplanes, are places in which you barely snatch at sleep, aware of continuous ambient noise and fighting a losing battle to get comfortable. Once you’ve had the required procedure, its high time to ditch the IV and surgery socks, and hot foot it out of there. For 3 days I was foiled in my attempts at meeting release requirements – quite enough time to work up a healthy appetite.

The BSG, as well as dodging hostile scrums of agency nurses on the ward in order to keep me company, welcomed me home with the most comforting, unctuous, loving supper I could have ever dreamed of. It took me back to nursery days of scrapes, hugs, teatimes and stories. I’m not sure if it’s the macaroni, a building stuff of childhood classrooms, glued to paper, sprayed gold and strung onto necklaces as much as it was eaten, or the cheese, the lovely, warm, oozy cheese that makes this dish so, so right. And there have to be tomatoes on the golden crusty top. And plenty of ketchup alongside.I am definitely on the mend.

Macaroni Cheese

Serves 4 (no harm in making too much though)

110g macaroni

20g butter

20g plain flour

pinch of cayenne pepper

half teaspoon of mustard powder

425 ml milk

170g strong cheddar

20g parmesan

3 rashers of unsmoked bacon, diced

half an onion, diced

1 large sliced or a handful of halved cherry tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling water (so it stays moving and doesn’t stick) until just tender

Melt the butter in a pan, add the flour, cayenne pepper and mustard powder. Stir and cook the roux for a minute or so, before adding the milk, stirring all the time until boiling. Then simmer for a couple of minutes, it should thicken, but stir out the lumps. Stir in the cheese, keeping a bit for the top.

Fry the bacon bits and sweat the onion in a pan.

Add the macaroni to the cheese, the bacon and onion and mix well. Season to taste and put into a shallow, ovenproof dish, topping with the rest of the cheese and the sliced tomatoes.

Bake in an oven (about 180 degrees) for 25 minutes or until golden and bubbling on top.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Wilkommens and wursts

On the website it says that the food is the main draw at the Tiroler Hut, suggesting a veritable showcase of the best of Austrian fare. I’ll not be knocking the food AA Gill-style, but I would beg to differ – we all know why we’re here and the nosh ain’t it. For the best Austrian fare in the big smoke, I have heard that Kipferl does a mean bratwurst, and that Kurz & Lang is the only Austrian deli in London. If they are as much fun as the Tiroler Hut this city will be an ever-so-slightly happier place.

snow disco

So, recently, a large bundle of us hit the ‘Hut’. This kitsch, faux chalet-cum-basement is nestled into a mountainside in West London (ok, not quite a mountain – does the barely distinguishable undulation that is Notting Hill count?) Inside, you are greeted by the owner Joseph and his family-based team, clad in lederhosen and dirndls, barely showing the strain of chafing aforementioned leather shorts, bearing trays heaving with gargantuan steins of beer, bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Schnapps. You and they are complicit in one fact, knowing looks are exchanged: it is the party, the virtual après-ski that is the main event here, their chief draw and the main breadwinner - the food is surely secondary. The food is a punctuation mark, a driver’s airbag keeping this friendly establishment just this side of being a messy drinking hole, sponging up the alcohol intake of its clientele.

More bread, madam?

avocado vinaigrette

Anyhoo, this said, the menu is not too bad in places but it is a bit of a crevasse field, if we are going to continue with alpine analogies. We lost G at the first turn, at Champignons Tiroler Hut; just because the description says they’re served warm doesn’t mean they’ve been cooked, apparently. My avocado vinaigrette consisted of a whole pear, sliced and splayed roadkill-fashion on an iceberg lettuce, grey and bruised rather like it had been up and down a mountain or two (getting warm in someone’s backpack) before reaching my plate. Serves me right for ordering it suppose – there’s always a touch of Fawlty Towers about it.

Meat, however, is something they do really rather well: the Mir ist alles Wurst on PJ’s plate were salty and delicious – sizzling bits of sausages and gherkins – the thinking person’s approach to a starter and luckily for me, a pickle-fiend, he was happy for me to assist. You can, however, have too much of a good thing and to finish his main course would have required an appetite generated by several hard days on the slopes – a handbag-sized entrecote piled high with crisp golden onions was lowered into position before him. PJ put his head down and set to work, very quietly – this was going to take all his time and attention.

Mixed wurst 

Further down the table, through the towers of beer I saw that the BSG and James, his companion in most manly ‘eat-offs’, had chosen the platter of ‘lots of meat, etc…’to share between them. I am not even sure if the word ‘etc’ bothered either, let alone what it referred to but it certainly hadn’t appealed to me, displaying a distinct lack of knowledge – or interest – on the part of the kitchen as to what they included. However, it didn’t touch the sides or cause any problems.

I confess to being a creature of habit in this place (yes, we’ve really been here more than once) and am awfully fond of the crisp, salty schnitzel. It appeared that this particular night so was everyone else as ours has been cut in half, presumably to ensure they stretched as far as possible, an odd approach which made us feel more than a bit affronted, especially as they’d only done this to the girls - presumably because ladies eat less. El wrongo.

blue slopes

Our trip to the real mountains in Austria seems a long time ago now, but it was nice for us all to get together again – though this time we did refrain from dancing to EuroPop in ski-boots on the tables (it’s just what they do in St Anton – it’s almost rude not to…) The same hospitable display was extended to us everywhere we visited during our week there. Unlike ski-resort restaurants in France and Switzerland, those in Austria have successfully retained their culinary and cultural identity. Of course, on every menu there’s the ubiquitous spag bol but this is barely visible amongst offerings of wurst, pretzels, sauerkraut, schnitzel, spätzle and strudel – comforting and perfect for refuelling after a morning of more strenuous exercise than is taken the rest of the year. These dishes are delicious; little wonder the Austrians have safeguarded them against the invasion of the chip.

Speaking of delicious, our blue-eyed chalet man-host Ed was an absolute dab hand in the tiny kitchen he had at his disposal – we are just sorry we’d had to stop and sample the Austrian-style après ski on the way home each afternoon; I’m not sure we took full advantage of the tea and cake window. Every night he would turn out a few courses to a large, slightly-too-merry group all too fond of dancing on the furniture. Sorry Ed, we do remember your broccoli and bacon soup (strangely good), your amazing roast pork and the raspberry clafoutis amongst all the other lovely things you produced for us. Most of all, we remember swimming in those eyes…

mountains

Back in London, the views in this subterranean chalet are not quite as spectacular - unless you like a badly-painted alpine idyll behind a red gingham curtain - and we’d gladly have had the EuroPop (sadly the cowbell cabaret didn’t happen this visit as Joseph was absent, but Ricardo the singer was there) but my goodness we all had fun. Come to think of it, thank goodness there were no glazed windows; they would have shattered on the final, wobbly high-note of Ricardo’s rendition of ‘Delilah’. PJ, still soldiering away at the paving stone of meat before him, would have barely noticed.