Thursday 18 December 2014

Masses of meat and brilliant buns - our first and last foray into catering

This is how it all started. This is the bun that I requested, that Richard baked, that Natalie and Danny and many, many others ate. This is one of the hundred buns that Etien stuffed with slow roast pork belly, beef brisket, roast veg, onion fondue and 'kimchee-slaw'.

This was the first time I've tried catering off site - for fifty people. Danny and Natalie are good friends of the restaurant so when they asked me if I fancied doing their office Christmas party... I said the second thing that occurred to me: Yes.

In truth, I don't like catering. No. In truth, I HATE catering. I like control in the kitchen. I want everything where I want it, when I want it, how I want it. Catering introduces many unknowns; catastrophes sit lurking, waiting, smirking at my culinary hauteur. 

And these catastrophes were all lurking on the third floor, up narrow and uneven stairs, in a stairwell that some fiend had equipped with a timer that took you only to the second floor before insisting the rest of your ascent was pitched in darkness. Laughed? No, I didn't much. 

And this was us arriving later than I'd wanted because of standstill traffic in the city (calm down Dad)... and rain... and a truculent, cigar sucking, Rangerover driver who insisted on taking the only TWO unloading bays outside the offices of Huddle Creative - ads, apps, webs and all other things BrickLanery. They said it was the 3rd floor. But at the top, my legs were insisting it was the 33rd floor. It's a good thing I'm so young and lithe with really low blood pressure and a mild, easy-going temperament. (Stop laughing children.)

Huddle weren't quite as ready as I'd hoped. Natalie was also just arriving with the booze after having met the same drivers as me. The creative team had obviously prioritised their award winning work before the festive stuff. Fairy nuff. It's the job that pays for the party after all. I thought I'd allowed for most eventualities but I confess I didn't expect to first, have to build my tables. Actually, Etien and team Huddle assembled the furniture while I parked the car. Have you ever tried parking a car in Brick Lane on a Friday evening, just before Christmas? It's a good thing I wasn't stressed, or in a rush.

Twenty long minutes later...

No. Actually, let's backup a few days. I'm in Holtwhites bakery, talking buns to the estimable Mr Richard 'master baker' Copsey. 

I'd agreed with Danny and Nat that instead of eeny-weeny canapés that take days of prep only to be consumed in an uncaring, microsecond mouthful, I would supply hearty 'sliders': buns filled with slow-roast meats and veg in a semi-buffet style. Mix and match pork, beef and sides. The meat and veg I would make happily but I wasn't keen on baking 150 buns. It probably wasn't even possible in the time with a domestic oven. The solution was obvious: Holtwhites Bakery.

It's a delight to chat with Richard, a man who clearly loves his craft. I suspect we could fill a four-pint evening with talk of lactic acid and grades of low-gluten flour (I will if you will Rich!). He recommended a 70g semi-improved, glazed white bun. Semi-improved means butter,  egg and milk are added to the dough but not in sufficient quantity that it would be brioche like.

Structure and flavour

The bun performed well, maintaining form and substance when assaulted by sauce and chunks of warm meat. You know the way a MacNasty bap will squidge and flop after a few minutes? Yeah, these boys didn't.

I want to take a moment to praise Richard and Kate. I have fairly exacting standards and a tendency to only comment on that which needs improvement. This means I can appear to be, very infrequently, on occasion... let's call it dour. So when I pour praise on people, you can be damn sure I mean it. Holtwhites are brilliant. Their Enfield bakery is as it should be. Sourdough loaves that are chewy but light with a developed crust and deep flavour. Their baguettes are unequalled in the UK and the almond croissants are sublime. Their ambition and quality has been recognised by many. If you live in or near Enfield, please make the trip. Try the bread.

Holtwhites baguette, sourdough loaf and almond croissant.
And look, this isn't some staged shot. This was what I bought on my way home.
So the rolls were sorted. Now what to put in them? I wanted to stick to the ethos of the restaurant: slow cooked meats and everyday ingredients done differently. We arrived at the pork belly, one of the most popular roasts I do and a new Brisket dish I'd been developing. A 'lo & slo' as the Americans call it; pastrami style. cooked for TWELVE hours at 140°C. Brisket can be tricky. The lack of fat can result in a very dry meat. Help matters by asking your butcher for the 'point' end of the cut; the fattier part.

I'd also do a roast, glazed veg. Sides would be the new wonder kid of our kitchen: onion fondue, a sort of umami cream. Also a kimchee style coleslaw; Chinese leaf with Korean flavours. We've not served this in the restaurant but it's a family favourite. Etien makes it from a Jamie recipe. How delicious is it? What other dish can you imagine that makes a 14 year old boy sit and eat a whole bowlful of raw cabbage and onion? I've included the recipe below.

I wish I had some photos but the day was intense and I forgot to take my camera to town. Danny took some so I'll hassle him and post them up.

Etien making kimchee-slaw
Etien was in charge of the kimchee cabbage. He is the master slaw-maker in our house and you don't mess with success. He was great all day: mature, responsible, uncomplaining, indispensable, indefatigable - even as the evening lengthened. I was (am) a very proud father. He's pointed out that I hardly ever post photos of him in the blog so I'm correcting that here. 

The sliders were very successful. I don't think Etien or I have been hugged so often by hungry men (Darren especially). Etien had agreed to help out filling the buns but in the end he did it all himself while I ran around chasing ice men and filling drinks. Yes, ice men. On this occasion he didn't bloody cometh. We'd ordered bags off Eskimo Ice who turned up three hours late, without explanation or apology and after increasingly irate calls from me. This absence necessitated a quick Tesco trip for ice. Nothing says PARTY! like warm lager and empty champagne buckets does it? I won't be using Eskimo again.
Tah dah!
But I don't want to end on a negative. The evening certainly didn't. The party people were fulsome with their praise (they may have been drunk also). The hitherto unkown kimchee-slaw had been a hit but it was the pig that had won the prize. People do love soft belly and glassy crackling don't they? I have this image of Huddle creatives (Mike and Nadine) picking over the bones and sticky bits at the bottom of the belly pan in the small hours. Nothing was wasted.

As ever with a New River Restaurant dining experience, there was dancing; which I may have had something to do with.

Porky wonderment

People wondering which exquisite song Darren would dictate next.

Nadine's either dancing or paying homage. You decide.

Then there was just the reloading of the car at 1am - often with helpful commentary from the passing pissed. And of course those stairs! (Even worse on the descent. It's four days later and I still can't feel my legs.) And the unloading at home, in the rain, halfway down the street because some lovely person had parked outside our house. And washing up all the sticky at home. But Etien helped there too. Like I don't say often enough: thanks son.

Spiced brisket slow roast

Preheat the oven to 150°C. There are two parts to the prep: a dry rub which is applied before the meat is browned and a wet daub painted on before the joint is foil wrapped and roast. This serves at least eight people as a main course. Wrapped and refrigerated it will keep for a week. Expect it won't. It will strangely disappear.

Take one 2-3kg joint of 'point end' brisket. Dry it then rub it all over lightly with vegetable oil.

Prepare the dry rub. Mix 4 tablespoons of coriander seeds, crushed in a mortar or under a pan with 2 tablespoons of sea salt, 2 tablespoons of freshly ground black pepper, a tablespoon of smoked paprika, half a tablespoon of cayenne pepper.

Yes, that does sound like a lot of spice. It's very likely you won't see that much ground black pepper ever again.

This stuff
Heat a little oil in a pan. Apply the rub. Get into every nook and cranny. Sear the meat well on all sides. You want brown and crusty. The spice smoke will get into all of your nooks and crannies to. It's a less than delightful experience. But we must make these sacrifices. Allow the meat to cool.

Mix 12 tablespoons of brown sugar with tablespoons yellow US mustard. If you don't have the authentic stuff use a mix of French and English. Cover the meat in the wet mix; a good thick layer.

Arrange a layer of overlapping foil, enough to completely encase the meat. That turkey foil comes in handy here. Wrap the meat tightly and then repeat twice more. You want no gaps that can allow moisture to escape.

Place the brisket on a roasting rack set in a roasting pan and cook for 5 (ish) hours. A knife should pierce the meat with ease. For larger joints I find it easier to leave it cook overnight. Once rewrapped in foil, the meat will stay warm for hours.

Chinese leaf/cabbage

Kimchee slaw

Nothing like creamy European coleslaw, this is sharp, fresh and spicy.

Take a one fresh green chilli, one red chilli, half a Chinese cabbage/leaf (or failing that, a white cabbage), one peeled red onion and a 'small bunch of radishes'. In effect this means one bag of radishes from the supermarket, unless you're lucky enough to grow your own.

Shred all the veg, either with a food processor or with commanding knife skills. Finely grate a thumb size piece of ginger. Add a generous pinch of salt, the juice of two limes and a splash of sesame oil to taste - start with about a teaspoon and add more; it's potent stuff.

Really scrunch or massage ingredients together with your hands to mix well and release juices. Add a handful of chopped coriander. Don't skimp with this.

Such a simple dish delivers masses of complex flavours. The sesame oil is key, adding a smokey note that works so well.

Monday 1 December 2014

Cream of mushroom soup

Doesn't look like much does it? But this has received more positive comments and recipe queries than any other single menu item. This is my winter amuse bouche: cream of mushroom and truffle soup. It's much loved. This is the recipe. But I warn you: it's gonna get ugly.

The soup (you might call it a velouté) is a base of much reduced mushrooms, cream, a small amount of white truffle paste and an even smaller amount of white truffle oil. I don't add any garlic, herbs, wines, vermouth or other aromatics. I wanted the essence of mushroom and truffle and nothing else. Personally, I think this wouldn't work as a starter - it's too intense.

I make up the mushroom base every few weeks and freeze weighed portions in labelled bags; enough for six people, eight, ten etc. The day before, I thaw the portion in the fridge and just before serving add the other ingredients.

This recipe is enough for about 60 amuse bouche servings (50ml). It's not worth making small batches, given the work involved; I'm not even sure if it's practicable either. 

You start with this many mushrooms. I'm only showing them in a pan here so you can see the amount needed. Which mushrooms? You know the nasty, shaggy, dirty, bargain-price punnets in every supermarket? Them. Clean them under running water (honestly, it's fine, they don't absorb any. Ignore the old tales - I've tested it) and trim the shaggy parts, leaving the stems.

Blend/chop/process/pulverise the mushrooms to a rough paste using your kitchen implements of choice. If you're using a blender you may need to add a splash of water.

Now you need to heat the paste over a gentle heat. The object here is not to cook the mushrooms as much as dehydrate them. So heat them slowly and watch them, stirring often. A good science or politics programme on Radio 4 helps (me). A big pan is useful as you can spread the mixture out. You don't want a fried mushroom flavour. That belongs with the toms, bacon and fried slice on a sunday morning. This might take 40 minutes, it might take more. Mushrooms are 90% water and we want to send it all to the sky. Sadly you can't leave it do its thing. This part needs vigilance. The paste will bubble, seethe and blip, much like the Yellowstone mud pots. You'll know it's cooked as things turn quiet because when there's no more water vapourising. Be careful here as this is when the paste could catch. It should look almost entirely dry.

Now you have your mushroom base. Next, blend it again with a little cream. This needs to be passed though a sieve. I use a tamis (drum sieve). It will look like you're about to do a mega-grout on the bathroom.

The result will be a smooth, soft paste like this. No, it's not pretty. I did warn you.

This base can now be portioned up and frozen. For an amuse bouche amount you need only 25g per person.

To make the soup take some base and defrost. Heat some double cream in a pan and add the base. How much cream is up to you. I mx maybe 1/3 cream to 2/3 base. Don't boil the mix - it spatters everywhere and can burn easily on the sides of the pan. Focus on the texture now: something like single cream is the aim. Sometimes I add a little milk to thin it. To the cream base, stir in some porcini and truffle paste. There are many varieties and even when only 5% truffle they all share an eye-wateringly expensive price tag. Sadly there's not much opportunity for bulk purchase either. This won't keep for long once opened, even in the fridge. You don't need much. for eight people, a couple of plump teaspoons is plenty.

Now the seasoning. This is critical. For salt I tend to use both salt and light soy sauce, this adds colour too - a slight but very welcome shift from grey to, well, mushroom. Not too much soy, maybe a tablespoon for eight people. Just a twist of black pepper for interest. Keep the flavours pure. 

Finally, JUST BEFORE you serve, stir in a little white truffle oil (eyes watering once more). Again a teaspoon is probably sufficient; it's heady stuff.

I serve mine in simple shot glasses, eaten with tiny spoons (a lovely Christmas gift from my son Fabian). I used to garnish with a little parsley leaf or chopped chives but no longer. Keep it simple.

Monday 17 November 2014

We need to talk about Kevin...

...Said Kevin's wife, Sue. And talk they did. Luckily, he is a much loved man.


This was Kevin's 50th birthday and a... what's the word... a precious evening it was; a joy to listen to the speeches from his eight friends, even if they did leave skeptical me feeling emotional and not a little inadequate. Maybe that's why I enjoyed Jeremy's contribution the most as he started with : I am a deeply flawed man...' Yup. Me too.

This was New River Restaurant at its best. Food in an informal setting; an intimate space that groups make their own. Hearty, delicious food (they told me), much laughter and dancing to music of choice. We (OK, Etien) even put a sparkler in Kevin's sticky toffee pud.

It was a meal of restaurant regular favourites. A starter of stuffed courgette and a split mains with four having roast poussin and six salmon en papillote. This is a great mix because the sides accompany both equally well. I served fennel crash pots, orange caramelised chicory, a lemon verbena hollandaise and onion fondue, which is rapidly becoming our most asked after recipe.

So it seems that I've never detailed crash pots or my quick hollandaise sauce. This will soon be corrected. I'll post links when I do.

Friday 14 November 2014

Elsa's midweek birthday and beef Wellington... and a confession

Elsa (left) with girlfriends and daughter.
You wouldn't have thought they'd have the energy to dance after a meal of Beef Wellington and sticky toffee pudding.
Elsa was the third person to ask that week. "Do you do beef Wellington?" Thing is, I didn't but I was beginning to think I should. Is that the confession. No? That would be dull.

When I started the restaurant it was as a fund raising exercise. To that end, and because I thought I was filling a market gap, I mainly offered slow cooked foods: cheap and often overlooked cuts - shins, shanks, cheeks and bellies - that deliver flavour through time and endeavour. I deliberately avoided the choice fillets and breasts. Partly this was about my own costs as I obviously can't offer a dish I haven't cooked and tried myself, but partly it was a principle; it's easy to take the MasterChef route and pan fry the flashy, expensive stuff but I wanted to do 'everyday ingredients differently'.

But Elsa was celebrating her birthday and (as she insisted) beef Wellington is a good dish to have in your repertoire - It's regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the king of English meat dishes - and I have been looking for a new beef offering. It's also nearly Christmas. Maybe more people would want to splash out on this poshest of pasties.

So I agreed. 

And splash out you have to. Be ready to empty the pool. The dish uses a centre cut fillet of beef, the most expensive part of the cow. This is where those delicious nuggets of fillet steak, medallions and mignons come from. And if you want your animal to be of good provenance and high welfare... be ready to part with at least £40 a kilo.

This is Mk 1 Wellington that I served to my family for Sunday dinner. There's too much pancake here and too thick a mushroom layer; I reduced both for Elsa's party.

That name - Wellington... there's no evidence that it was made for or even eaten by Arthur himself. In fact the dish may not have been invented in time for his Dukeship, dukedom, whatever. The earliest attested date cited by the Oxford Dictionary is 1939, in a New York restaurant guide. As with so many dishes, the history is as much a creation as the food itself.

Historic it may not be, delicious and rich it certainly is. Almost a meal in itself. The fillet is seared, coated in a paste of chopped mushrooms (duxelles), wrapped with something to keep in the meat juices - crepes, spinach or thin ham and finally encrusted in pastry. 

As this was my first time I decided to keep it classic. I used a recipe from Michel Roux Jnr. I'm a big fan of the Roux family and trust their recipes. The trouble with the classics is everyone wants to present their 'twist'. Perhaps it is wonderful (Gordon) with black pudding purée but I need a benchmark first. I was also going to serve it traditionally, with a port gravy, green beans and creamy potatoes dauphinoise.

This isn't a difficult dish. It has a bit of a rep I know but I expect much of that is the sheer cost. No one wants to waste a £55 fillet. It does have a fairly high faff factor. Let's take them in order.

This Wellington was enough to feed eight people.


The main event. Don't skimp, there's no point. This is a celebration dish. It should be luxurious and expensive. If you want cheap meat in pastry, Ginsters or Greggs will oblige - I know, I eat enough of the bloody things. I used a 1.2 kilo (after trimming) Aberdeen Angus beef, as ever, from Julian at Wades Hill Butchers.

Beef Wellington - NUDE!

One of the benefits of the fillet is that there's very little waste. You buy a kilo, you eat a kilo. But check it over. Remove fat or membranes and thumb into the meat to find and remove any sinew or gristle. Remember the beef is barely cooked if you serve it medium rare (AS YOU SHOULD) so there's no heat for this stuff to hide behind.

Searing the beef is really important. Note I said searing not sealing. You cannot seal meat with heat. Colour = flavour. Coat the beef in salt and black pepper. Don't just sprinkle a bit on the top. Press the seasoning in on every face. Sear the beef in a smoking hot pan with a neutral oil. Rice bran oil is good here because it has a very high smoking point. You're looking for deep, crusty brown tones. I went back over the joint with a blow-torch, just to be sure.

I brushed the fillet with English mustard, a Gordon Ramsey favourite, then wrapped it tightly in clingfilm and refrigerated. This helps to form a more cylindrical shape.


Next are the crepes, we can call them pancakes if you like, designed to be a barrier between juicy meat and crispy pastry. I decided to make my own crepes. Duh! Despite Michel advocating shop-bought. Crepes aren't hard and I added a good sprinkle of fresh thyme into mine.

Crepes. Shame you can't see the fresh thyme.
There's a deal of discussion on-line about the best wrap for the beef with many going for pancetta or even bacon. I think this is a mistake. If I pay for beef fillet, I want to taste beef fillet. These other meats are highly flavoured and will interfere. No porkiness here thanks. Crepes are traditional but I think even with ultra thin ones, they add too much sog. I did read about using filo pastry and I think I'll try that next time. It's crisp and impermeable.

My family Wellington was made with my usual two egg batter mix but I only used one egg for the restaurant meal; thinner batter meant lighter pancakes. These were well seasoned and I added a good handful of fresh thyme. Keep the pancakes layered with greaseproof paper if not using immediately.

Still can't see the thyme.
I overlaid three trimmed pancakes onto clingfilm and spread these with a thin layer of the mushroom duxelles...


A word I've never heard used before or since, duxelles is chopped or minced mushrooms. They have a word for every culinary eventuality those French. Here I added two chopped shallots. It's important to fry the mushroom mix without oil until it is fairly dry as that moisture (mushrooms are 90% water) will turn to steam and blow out of your delicate pastry case.

I used a punnet of chestnut mushrooms and two long shallots that had been sweated off in butter. I added a smidgen of double cream, just enough to make a paste, and a teaspoon of the truffle paste I use for my amuse bouche velouté.

Some specify a smooth paste but I agree with Michel Roux (like we chat all the time) in, advocating a textured mix. Some also add black pudding, chicken livers, various patés or even fois gras (I wish!) but I'm keeping it simple.

The cooled beef is wrapped in the duxelles coated pancakes. Again use clingfilm to roll the pancakes onto the meat and then secure them. Twist the ends of the clingfilm to make a tight cylinder and refrigerate again. The package must be cool before you encase with pastry.

Puff Pastry

And here comes the confession. I didn't make my own. I've had a go at puff before and it is a tedious thing, rolling and turning and folding. All in, it takes about two an a half hours. You do get a better rise from home-made but I bought some good, all butter blocks. I read that even Michelin starred restaurants buy in PP which helps me deal with the shame. But if you want to make your own, this recipe is excellent.

Sadly, the egg wash makes it look rather slimy. 

You'll need a sheet about 3mm thick (pound coin) from a 400g block. I used more for a leaf motif decoration.

Using more cling film, roll out the pastry until it's slightly wider than the meat and pancake parcel. egg wash the pastry liberally, this helps to glue the overhang in place, and place the meat at one end. Using the clingfilm, roll the meat up in the pastry (like a huge saus' roll) and cut off with only a slight overlap. Egg wash the seam and press together, thinning the pastry so you don't get a thick ridge. Ensure the meat parcel is tightly wrapped, big air pockets could blow out the pastry.

Now fold over the ends like a parcel, again with the egg wash. You can decorate the pastry with traditional scoring or with pastry cut outs. The scoring also allows the case to expand rather than split, as you can see below. I made pastry leaves. No idea why. None of this has anything to do with trees. Cover the outside pastry with an egg wash for a golden finish.

A pair of Wellingtons. The big beef and the little veg.

The Bake

The trickiest part of the Wellington is the bake. Without any means of testing the meat you have to trust the recipe. And you can't trust recipes because there are too many variables. Once you cut into it, you can't return it to the oven. OK, you can, but I can't in the restaurant. The ends, of course, will be more cooked than the middle. This gives you some serving flexibility; medium rare middle with medium ends. 

In other recipes that call for a 700-800g joint, the timings given were 30 minutes. Michel Roux's instruction for a 1kg piece was for 25 minutes at 180°C and a resting of 10 minutes. Mine being slightly larger at 1.2kg, I opted for 30 minutes... and reader, it was room temperature in the middle. The beef in a Wellington was always meant to be served rare but I swear you could still have milked that middle bit. I was lucky not to have served that to paying guests. 

For Elsa and Simon's party I increased the time to 38 minutes with an even longer resting time. This was much better - tender and pink. But you could even opt for 42 minutes if you like your meat medium rather than medium rare. A food probe should be showing the centre of the joint to be around the 48°C mark and the ends upwards of 50°C.

It was delicious. I was very pleased to see that both roasts came out without any leakage, meaning all the juices were either in the meat or the encasing crepe. Either way, no loss of flavour. The meat was wonderfully tender too.

Vegetable Wellington

One of the group that night was vegetarian (he still is I believe), so made an individual Wellington for him, replacing the meat with roasted celeriac, carrot and a little shallot. I thought these would pair well with the mushroom. He said it was delicious. 

The rest of the meal was a starter of roast beetroot, asparagus and goats cheese. Served for the first time with a dressing of lime and mint. Dessert was the winter favourite: STP. Sticky toffee pudding. Made not with suet but flour, dates and walnuts and baked not steamed but served sticky with toffee sauce and mascarpone.

I didn't think there'd be much inclination to dance after that much food but I was wrong.

Elsa texted me yesterday to say it was one of the best birthdays she'd ever had, which swells me with pride. And thank you Elsa for giving me the push I needed.

And if anyone else fancies a Christmas Wellington. Beef or vegetable? Or venison? Or rabbit loin...