Saturday 29 June 2013

Francesca's Four

We don't get many bookings of four any more; it's mainly eights and tens. While the larger parties can be very entertaining, these smaller groups allow me to spend a bit more time plating up; working with the presentation; getting it 'just so'. Well, that was the plan.

Tonight, with Francesca, was unusual also, because I served four new dishes. Normally I only include one innovation per evening and even that has me waking early in the morning muttering... 'chicken... must check the...'. Last night I dreamed of raspberries! The difference tonight was all the dishes were prepared on the hob once guests had arrived. There was no slow cooking and therefore no issues of timings. Also, these were all variations on family favourites so I've cooked versions of them many times before.

What was annoying tonight:  I was partially robbed of my sense of taste. Bloody, bloody, bloody hay fever. This could become a real issue. What do pro chefs do? Without smell I'm left only with bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami. You've all done the taste test right? Pinch your nose hard and while holding try and see if you can differentiate between apple and a potato, or tea and coffee. Many people have no idea that most of what we think of as flavour is stuff that happens in your nose. Your tongue really has only the most rudimentary detectors. Taste is in the mouth but flavour is in the nostrils!

I normally serve a mushroom and truffle velouté as an amuse bouche but because Fransceca had plumped for a truffled starter I needed something new. Also, what is essentially posh cream of mushroom soup wasn't what was needed on a warm summer evening. OK, so it was clammy and overcast and not warm at all, but still...

The dreadful spring has blighted our fruit and veg too. Although I hear we're in a for a tremendous strawberry harvest. It's always difficult to buy properly ripe, rich, deep red tomatoes but the simple lack of UK sunshine exacerbates matters.

So I took tomatoes and concentrated the flavour by drying them in the oven. Tomato crisps. You do lose a lot of mass. There are three large tomatoes in the picture below. I served them here with a basil oil dip. They are very delicate but most agreeably flavoursome (...Mr Darcy).

I was hoping the oil would look like an emerald sea, a limpid pool... rather than a village pond. Ho hum.

The starter I had done before, sort of. It was based on a veggie main. Truffled polenta with mushrooms. Here I served it with onion crisps, a port and beef stock reduction and thyme flowers from the garden. I'm not quite sure what this picture reminds me of. I'm not even sure I like it. Maybe it's a wood pile on a massive omelette? Maybe it's too kitsch; you expect Heidi to appear with a hop and a skip and a goat.

How do you make tomato or onion crisps? Same as apple: fine slice the veg and brush with a little oil then bake for two hours (maybe less for the toms) at 80°C.

Who ordered the omelette?
Mains was pan fried sea bass with crash pots, green beans, roast toms and roasting juices. The picture looks a little dry here but it wasn't. In the shop (wonderfully miserable Pat at Green Lanes Fisheries) the bass looked exceptionally fresh: vivid gills, bright, clear eyes and absolutely no smell. I'm not keen on messing around too much with good fish. You really don't need fancy-schmancy sauces and I even think strong flavours like capers or lime detract from the subtlety of the flesh. Yes you need some acidity but that's where the tomatoes come in. Pan fried bass in (lashings of) butter to get that crispy, golden fringe around soft, flaking flesh; there are few things I like more.

Crash potatoes are new pots, Charlottes or something fairly waxy, parboiled and crushed then roasted at 220°C with olive oil, Maldon salt, black pepper and crushed fennel seeds for around half an hour. It's a forgiving dish, another ten minutes just means a crisper finish. The fennel worked well here with the lemon juice and basil oil that I added to the buttery frying pan juices.

I went for a rustic presentation. Sod it. it's honest.

The potatoes are meant to look that like. Honestly, they're delicious.

Dessert was poached peaches with an orange tuile, raspberries in raspberry coulis, little meringues and Chantilly cream. I've been developing this dish over the past few weeks. I love fruity desserts, almost always choosing a lemon tart over chocolate say.

The tuiles are a doddle, not nearly as fiddly as they look (and I do hope they look fiddly). I took some photos to illustrate the recipe. I'll post that when I get back on Monday. I've shut the restaurant this Saturday because I'm going to see one of the finest bands in the world: Sigur Ros playing at the Eden Project.

I want to improve the presentation. I know I said I like 'honest' but desserts are the exception; they should look... a bit... contrived. I want to make a tall, curving tuile that the weight of the peach keeps in place. I'm fairly sure I can achieve that. This classic shape looks too much like a baseball cap. I'm very pleased with the colours though.

The peaches address each other: 'yo blud'.

Maybe not

Sunday 23 June 2013

A good week(end)

Just look at that! Isn't it the prettiest, most perfect plate of food you've ever seen? Unfortunately (for me), it isn't one of mine. This is the Summer Salad currently being served at Arbutus restaurant - the creation of chef-patron Anthony Demetre. I also must flag co-owner Will Smith for his commitment and professionalism. This is a man who knows how to keep his customers coming back again and again. Cheers Will.

Below is the Arbutus pannacotta and strawberry dessert. Both dishes were as delicious as they looked. I didn't even take the photographs though. These are the work of Kerstin Rodgers, the hugely entertaining and fabulously ebullient food blogger and grande dame of the UK's home restaurant movement.

We met for lunch in the week. Finally! She's a very busy woman. This was my fourth attempt to pin her down as she'd kept being flown on food junkets to: Mexico, Denmark and then the Shetland Isles.

Kerstin, Mrs Marmite Lover to her Twitterati, was naturally a wealth of information and hilarious stories of cooking, blogging and uppity celebs. She has 15,000 Twitter followers and her blog receives 100,000 hits a month. Puts my efforts in the shade. But she did point out that the majority of blogs fold after three months so I seem to be past the first hurdle.

So onto the weekend. Two parties of ten. The photo below is of Nicole and her friends and husband who came to celebrate her birthday on Saturday. One of the friendliest, happiest and certainly the loudest (they won't mind me saying) groups I've entertained.

I knew they were determined to enjoy themselves when husband Maurice turned up with a magnum of Champagne, the largest wine box I've ever seen - at least 20 litres of Chinon, some Courvoisier brandy and a mysterious, unlabelled bottle containing what looked like olive oil but was, it transpired, a rural and rather fine 'eau de vie', obtained from a farm on a recent trip in the Loire.

Being largely of Trinidadian heritage, the women asked for (and got) an evening of Soca music. Did they dance? Of course they did.

Dinner was the French gnocchi with lardons and broad beans for starter; mains of lemon and basil barley risotto (featuring my new Basil oil) and dessert of vanilla cheesecake and raspberries. I maintain my cheesecake is a world beater. It's actually an Anthony Demetre recipe.

One of their guests didn't do cheese however, so I improvised a dessert by poaching a peach; serving it with raspberries and crystallised pistachios. This reminded me of a dish I keep planning to do using poached peaches (the M. Roux Snr technique using a rosemary sugar syrup) and an architectural orange tuile. Architectural? Photos soon I hope.

Nicole, Maurice and friends
The chicken and barley they ate. Not nearly as pretty as the pics above. I know. Sigh.

Herb Oils

I used to wonder why restaurants served purees instead of the whole vegetable. Now I know: it's about the flavour concentration. Oven roast a parsnip or a carrot and you remove much of the water content. But a withered vegetable can look a tad unattractive. So you stick it in the blender. Add butter, or cream for texture, salt and pepper and maybe herbs and spices. A touch of coriander with the carrot perhaps. You can also combine flavours. That sweet parsnip gets all windswept and interesting if you add a little bramble apple acidity.

The same is true of herb oils. You take the essence and add it to a neutral oil. Just like when making granita, you first blanch the leaf for ten seconds and then refresh in ice water. Squeeze out the excess and blend. Sieve through double muslin and you have a hugely aromatic, very concentrated and often very vivid oil.

Now you can drizzle it on meat or fish, or veg. Hell, it's oil. You know what to do with oil right? Here I use it to brighten up my barley risotto.

Monday 17 June 2013

Pots en Pap

This is one of my oldest recipies. I took it from the Greens' Cookery book at least twenty years ago but it still seems to surprise people.

You know how irritating it is when the host says, of something that clearly required weeks of work, 'oh, it's really simple'? Well, these are. Even if you can't boil an egg - you can make these. Not that I'm encouraging you to cook if you can't manage an egg. Certainly, you shouldn't be handling knives. And if you can't boil an egg, what on earth will you eat with these potatoes? It'll be a terrible waste. You do need to know how to fold paper though.

I don't have a picture of the potatoes but they are simple to prepare. These are great for large (tardy) parties because 5 mins of extra cooking only improves the flavour. I tend to remove the pots after 30 mins and then do the final 15 mins when everyone's assembled and behaving themselves. Again, this will serve six people.

So... oven to 220°C. Take a half kilo of small potatoes - Jersey Royals would be dandyplace them on a length of baking paper/parchment; at least two feet. Oil the spuds well, and season with salt and pepper. Add one garlic glove per person and your herbs of choice. Woody ones seem to work best but then, so does tarragon. Make a bag of the paper, overlapping the edges and twisting the final corner. The bag needs to be sealed.

Cook the pots on a baking tray for 40 mins at 220°C. If you're cooking something else, like meat, that's fine just cook for ten minutes more. This is a forgiving dish. In any case itthe timing will be slightly more or less depending of the size of your veg and your taste. You can test the pots through the bag. When you press one, it should just squish.

Open the bags at the table. This is great foodie theatre. It smells wonderful too. They will be crispy in part and chewy as they are part steamed, part roasted.

You might want to squeeze the cooled garlic cloves onto bread too. It's quite mild as it's been baked whole and not finely chopped.

Pork and potatoes... and party people

Lots of people came to eat and drink and dance and sing this weekend. We did Thurs-Fri-Sat; by very special request. There were birthdays, engagements and fathers' day celebrations.

A big thank you to my son Fabian who worked on Saturday, the night of his 17th birthday.

I didn't ask them to pose. Clearly all my guests are naturally photogenic.

This is David and Theresa and family (from The Only Place for Pictures in Palmers Green). They're eating my chicken with cream and sherry casserole with braised baby gem and pots en pap (potatoes cooked in a paper bag).

Sam and Gill have a special reason to be smiling... but it's not mine to divulge.
Chicken and sherry casserole with braised little gem

That's the pots en pap in the foreground, next to Rob's elbow. Theresa *may* be posing a little here. 

Becs dancing (with her brother Sam).
One of the things we served this weekend was slow roast pork belly (again with potatoes en papillote). I was asked for the pork recipe. I'm very pleased with the dish because it is my own*. The asterix is there because, in cooking, nothing is *new*. We all build on the experience of others.

Pork belly with savoy cabbage, rosemary gravy and parsnip & apple purée.

Slow roast pork belly - serves about ten.

Buy a 3kg pork belly. This will necessitate a trip to your local butchers, hopefully not for the first time. Don't bother with the supermarket; you'll be needing a butcher not just someone who unwraps meat. Hey, while you're there, see if they have any beef shin, or ham hock. Maybe some oxtail and marrow bones for stock? They're not in this recipe but you'll thank me when you get home. If you're used to those prissy little plastic supermarket packs, the size may shock you. Worry not. We can do this. Ask the butcher to leave the belly on the bones (ribs) but maybe loosen them a little.Preheat the oven to 230°C.

You need a baking tray large enough to lay out the belly but that will also fit in your oven. Put this on the hob. Fill with boiling water to a depth of a centimetre. Place the belly SKIN SIDE DOWN in the water and boil for 15 mins.This will soften the skin without cooking the meat. Remove the belly from the tray and place skin side up on a clean J–cloth or towel. You should now be able to score the skin finely. You'll still need a sharp knife. Dry the skin off completely. Now rub in some neutral tasting oil - grapeseed or groundnut is good. Grind just less than a tablespoon of fennel seeds with the same amount of sea salt and rub this into the skin. You can rub in other stuff too: sugar, honey, allspice, cinnamon but I prefer to let the pork sing solo.

Tip the water out of the baking tray and replace the belly on a rack in the tray. The rack is important. Cook in the very hot oven for 15-20 mins until the skin starts to blister. While that's happening, cut up four carrots, two sticks of celery, two leeks and two onions. The exact amounts really aren't critical. 

What's a good fistful of rosemary? This is.
Now turn the oven down to 160°C. Place the veg under the pork (it's on a rack, remember?). Pour in at least 200ml of white wine, vermouth, apple juice, stock or water or a combo of any of these. Take a care though as this will be the basis of your gravy. To the now wet veg add a good fistful of rosemary. And I really mean a good fistful.

Roast this (uncovered) for at least three hours. It could be four or even five - in which case, drop the oven down to 150°C. The meat won't really suffer because there's so much moisture in the fat. Top up the tray liquid if it starts drying out - and it will. Don't let the veg burn or your gravy will be acrid.

The meat will be very tender, the fat should have rendered off into the veg below and the skin should now be glassy and delicious.

Remove the meat and allow to rest while you sieve the veg and pork juices into a pan. Season the gravy, thicken it if you like (with cornflour or beurre manis). I whisk in some ice cold, cubed butter right just before serving - if you do this, the gravy shouldn't be boiling. You'll also probably want to sweeten the gravy too. A pinch of sugar is an obvious choice, but you could use redcurrant jelly or honey or even something like these. I use a home-made rosemary jam... but I would.

I serve the pork with parsnip and apple puree, some sort of cabbage (green or red) and some pots en pap. This is not one to dish up at the table. The crackling needs some serious endeavour and this can look ugly. Hide your industry in the kitchen.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Six very bloody, talented people... and a piece of pork.

A strange confluence of my passions when I end up cooking for a group of bloody 'creatives'. One writes for 'Stenders, one's won awards (actually, probably more than one), one's been body slammed by B.A. Baracus (true)... yadda, yadda. Not that I'm jealous of their youth and potential. I have no idea what they're all laughing at. Maybe someone said something funny? Maybe that thing was the word 'penis'? Who knows? It certainly wouldn't be me because I'm a writer so I'm much cleverererer than that. I'm sorry this photo doesn't have Tess looking into the camera but TBH it was a struggle to find one where she didn't have a drink to her lips.

And if you're thinking that the piece of pork was the one behind the camera... No, it's this fine sample of belly with the crispiest piece of crackling ever recorded in the UK. I'm very proud of it. I will probably give you the recipe after this long weekend of cooking has concluded. Trouble is, I didn't serve it to the gang above. 

No, their main course was salmon, served with roast toms, deep fried courgette, carrot, croutons and tarragon oil. Many thanks to Ms T. Booth of South London for the snap. I think fish, toms and croutons are a combo I will return to again.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Bhavna, Nita... and an accident

Great to welcome back (the VERY pregnant) Bhavna on Friday and Nita on Saturday. Largely vegetarian affairs. I served a starter of baked beetroot with curd cheese, pea shoots and some wonderful cucumber pickle from my good friend @rich_graham at the Preservation Collection. I also garnished with some delicate edible kale flowers from my garden.

Main courses were both based on my barley lemon risotto, with some having pan fried sea bass, some char grilled chicken and some fennel fritters.

There were four medical professionals in Bhavna's group and this chimed quite nicely with the news I received last week that I'm back as part of the Casualty team. I heard a few horrific stories from Ashok concerning his rotations in A&E.

Bhavna's husband, Umesh (sp?) is a photographer so he took this while trying to educate me on f-stops and ISOs. The light was VERY low. Bhavna (on the right) might not look pregnant here but I had towels and hot water on standby. No idea why. No one uses hot water during childbirth do they?

I would have loved to have taken some pictures of Nita's charming and wonderfully entertaining five-some but then, on Saturday afternoon, this happened...

It might not look like much but boy... it did smart somewhat
Ironically, it was when I was cooking for my own family not for the restaurant. I grasped a metal handle that I hadn't realised was over an adjacent flame. I heard my own fingers sear. I then did a little dance and entertained some Anglo-Saxon epithets before my wife plunged my hand into some iced water. And that's how I was for the rest of the evening: one handed and wincing. Luckily I'd done most of the restaurant prep by then but I had to direct my sons to chop and add while I did the tasting with one hand, Huge kudos to them; they were brilliant.

One more thing. Sorry Farah... this is the best I could do.

Barley risotto

Barley 'risotto' with lemon and herbs. peas and broad beans, served with chargrilled chicken and courgette.

A very British grain. We use it to make bitter. In fact, beer *may* simply be a corruption of the Old English world for barley: 'bære' which itself can be traced back to Proto Indo European - the ancient language spoken by the people of Anatolia, about 15,000 years ago who went on to occupy Europe, Iran and Northern India. I love etymology.

Of course, I didn't make beer this weekend, I made barley risotto. This is a nonsensical term because, as I'm sure you know, risotto is derived from Italian 'Ris' meaning rice (duh!). I could call it a 'pottage' but that would't be strictly correct either. Most people know what I mean when I call it a risotto whereas pottage could be confued with poultice and we'd all start rubbing it into peasants' buboes or something.


Some barley, in case you were wondering
Barley risotto with lemon and mixed herbs - feeds at least six
The real benefit of barley is it is far more forgiving than a rice risotto. No need to add careful ladles of stock and stand stirring for an hour. It will also reheat without any mushiness. In fact, I think it's better after twenty fours hours. 

Take some chicken or vegetable stock. (Don't use a stock cube! Make your own. This dish is basically grain and stock so guess how it'll taste if the stock is made from concentrated pellets of industrially derived chemicals and salt?) I was mainly feeding vegetarians this weekend so I plumped for the latter. You'll need around three litres for this recipe.

Finely chop three echalion shallots and sweat in butter over a gentle heat for ten minutes or so. You want softness but no colour. You can use onions instead but shallots are sweeter. Add 500g of barley and gently fry for a few minutes. Deglaze the pan with a big glass of fruity white wine. Reduce to almost nothing. Add a litre of the warm stock. Simmer very gently. When that stock is absorbed add another litre... and more if needed (probably). This will all take the best part of 50 minutes. Don't be scared of adding more liquid. How bite-y you want your grains is up to you - cook for another ten minutes if you like them softer - no one will arrest you. The dish should be wet but not like a stew.

Into the grains I now add about 50g of butter, the same of grated parmesan and a fistful of chopped mixed herbs (mint, lemon thyme, parsley were mine). Now add 200g each of blanched (dunked in boiling water for 90 seconds - then refreshed in ice water) broad beans and peas. Stir through to warm the beans and peas. Just before serving, add the zest of half a lemon and the juice of a whole lemon* (I hate using this direction because lemons vary so much. You'll get double the juice from one to another and some are much more sour than others). I also added a drizzle of pomegranate molasses but that was probably because I went a bit pomegranate-molasses-mad this weekend. Taste and season for salt and acidity. 

I serve this in bowls with pan fried bass, chicken or fennel fritters, garnished with fennel fronds and a little tarragon oil. I also add flamed baby toms for acidity and colour. Heat up a little olive oil until smoking then pile in some tomato halves, splash them around until the oil vapours catch alight. Toss the toms in the flaming oil until they are just singed. It looks dramatic but there's not enough oil to be a problem (FLWs).

What it said above

Thursday 6 June 2013


We have tonnes of the stuff in the garden so I've gathered up a bushel and made mint granita. I'm not sure how to serve it so I present both my ideas below, along with the granita recipe. It's very simple and can be made, like all granites, without an ice-cream maker. This is a wonderfully fragrant and fresh summer ice that I will probably use as a palate cleanser following a main course. If you use your garden mint it's a spectacularly cheap dessert element. The mint will regrow in no time anyway. It's almost a weed.

This is the granita on a pineapple crisp 'spoon' that I've developed. You obviously can eat the whole thing. The spoon is made by drying thin slices of sugar-syrup coated pineapple (two hours at 80°C) and folding into shape while the slices are still warm and pliable. Fussy but not at all difficult. Looks cool I think. This is the natural colour by the way, I've added nothing. Looks a little like Kryptonite doesn't it?

Or this would be the more traditional way. A shot glass with a single candied mint leaf (rub egg white into leaves and coat with powered sugar. Leave to dry in a very cool oven). I'm thinking I need to make prettier mint leaves now. 

Mint Granita Recipe. Take 250g of mint leaves. This is a lot. It's this much:

Kind of half-a-bucket-full. Discard any thick stalks. Blanch the leaves, in batches, for ten seconds. No more or you will start to cook them. Plunge the mint into iced water to refresh and prevent further cooking. This will fix the fabulous green colour. After a few minutes, remove the leaves, squeezing out the excess water and dry on kitchen towel (or a normal towel for that matter). The scene now resemebles seaweed after a hefty storm and you'll be thinking: where's all my mint gone? Worry not, it's only the water you've removed.

Blend the leaves with 500g of water and 100g of sugar. Blend for 3 minutes. Really blend! You might have to do this in stints (lovely word) to prevent motor meltdown. Even my robust KitchenAid started to complain.

Sieve the mix through double muslin into a metal container, pref one with a lid. Freeze the mix, whisking every 45 mins or so until the granita begins to crystallise. If you used a lidded container  you can just shake it for a few seconds.

Actually, you can simply freeze it and then scrape the ice block with a fork but this results in much finer ice that melts very quickly. I think it's worth making the effort.

But Lex, you said that was all it the past! No Lex. Noooooo!

Monday 3 June 2013

Beatifying the Baking Tray

Yeah, yeah, so there's nothing wrong with bigging up a nice bit of dinner... but a whole post praising a piece of pressed steel; macarizing a metal tray?! C'mon!

Well, let me convince you.

I took this picture!
These have just arrived from Nisbets. Aren't they beautiful?  I've been using four of their little brothers for years. They cost £15 each. You can buy something similar in Tesco or Morrisons for a couple of quid so why would you cough up the extra?

BECAUSE: these babies are hard anodised, heavy and thick. The coating won't peel off in six months. It's there for life. They don't buckle or warp. You can use them on the stove top. In the oven they won't suddenly get all annoyed and angular - tipping your goose fat into one corner. This means your carrots, tomatoes or potatoes won't be half confit and half dry-roasted. It means all your veg willl cook at the same speed and in the same manner. Tuiles and escoffier paste will stay circular. Macaroons (macarons for the fastidious) will have no argument (they will, they always will. I'm just kidding myself here). And I'll still be using these in twenty years time. I bet you I will.

OK, in the grand scheme of things a flat baking tray doesn't really feature. In the world of austerity and terror and heartache having two dozen equally bronzed roast potatoes won't add up to a hill of beans (sorry!). But we don't live in the grand scheme do we? We are more concerned with the little pleasures, the tiny triumphs; the daily bread. And if it's bread you're making - these are just the ticket. Ha.