Saturday, 26 July 2014

Beware - Welshmen dancing.

Gemma (in white, centre). Mark (right) and the co-conspirators
Gemma, Mark's wife, wanted it to be his birthday dinner surprise. The ruse was that she would take him out for the evening with his brother, Lee, who in turn would claim to want to call in on 'old friends'. This would be us, waiting with a preassembled posse of pals and a vast repast of poussin. I could do you a picture of the poussin; I know this is meant to be a food blog but... just use your imagination, or Google it.

And the dancing? That's coming. Don't jump to the end. Look at the pretty picture below first.

I did do a new amuse bouche. A Tom Aikens recipe of red and yellow pepper tuiles. I served these with a goats cheese cream and basil oil. They were meant to be crisp but the heat and humidity quickly foiled that plan. Also foiled was my camera battery. Thus, this was taken on the iPhone. I'll blog the recipe soon.




The evening didn't start well. I managed to bring about the single greatest destructive act in the restaurant when I nudged a table full of flutes. All nine smashed to the floor. Here's a handy tip for clearing up every piece of glass. First use a brush to remove the large shards and then a hoover to pick up the splinters. THEN you need only walk around with bare feet and you'll find that the tiny crystal daggers that earlier avoided all detection now simply stick to your flesh. Clever.

Things improved after that. For a start, Mark was Welsh (he still is). I've lived in London for 26 years now but I find I still warm to that accent. It puts me at ease. Soothing. The comfort of expectations. A lullaby of language (get on with it). There does seem to be a behaviour, a set of expectations and a certain self deprecating humour that the English just don't share. Or maybe it's only the Southern English. Or maybe that's all a nonsense of my prejudice and conformation bias.

I believe this was the first ever restaurant night where we've hosted more men than women. Only 5:4 but notable.

Other good things that happened: Mark was the first male, ever, to start the dancing: a mix of 80s Punk, early Motown and Northern Soul (and AC•DC to finish). Better still, he was the first man (Welsh or otherwise) to solo on the floor. I have the pics to prove it (sorry Mark).

I love dancing myself. I wish I had Mark's joie de vivre (or lack of pride). Yeah, it's all very well saying 'dance like no one's watching' but invariably someone is watching, with a smart phone and a broadband link to SadDad.com. And that's normally said to someone young who can dance with snake hips and slinky shoulders; someone who can move both arms independently and is unselfconscious above the 'gay line'. I'd love to be the middle aged geezer who can suddenly spin off from his Tesco trolley and bust some moves in middle of the home-baking aisle to eventual, tumultuous applause and appreciative nods of inclusion from sexy people.

Sadly, I dance like a snooker ball in a thick sock. My children actually laugh... and make fun the next day while I tend to my hangover.

Anyway. This is Mark, and a bit of Photoshop magic.



Sunday, 20 July 2014

The very long, very hot, July weekend

Storm clouds behind an apple tree on Sunday afternoon.
I'm knackered. I'll keep this short.

Long: Thursday (10 guests), Friday (7), Saturday (8). Hannah, Jane, Sonya. We'll get to them.
Hot: around 30°C. More when stood in front of the hob or oven.


He's called Otto. And we have two of him
Many things to report, none of them important. My IQ is inversely proportional to the temperature. The heat affects ingredients as well as people. My goats cheese soufflés rose well and then sank even weller. Butter was either fridge rock or sun cream. Rhubarb sorbet didn't set. Two birthdays were celebrated. I did a day's storylining on Jekyll & Hyde. I met a French woman with the most unbelievably perfect English accent and a lady from Luxembourg.  A man turned up with a guitar and sang. It was the hottest day of the year. It pissed with rain. Our dishwasher packed up on Thursday night (beyond repair. Bloody marvellous). And the whole kitchen is now fan assisted, not just the ovens. Cracking bargains from CostCo.

And so to the group shots.



Hannah (middle, radiant in pink), or as she's more commonly known, Hannah LYDS, celebrated her birthday.



Jane and James (either end) and friends enjoyed food, much wine and James' repartee.



Sonya (take a guess) also had a birthday. And a dance. And a headache, after some unplanned pillar interfacing during said dancing.

Thankfully there was much overlap of the menus or this run of three might have been close to unmanageable. Everyone had the herb crusted rack of lamb and there were no vegetarians. My lamb is damn fine now. I have it to a 'T'. Hannah told me it was the best she'd ever eaten (and yes, she's had it before). I made a glorious port gravy using over a kilo of roast lamb mince in the stock. Gravies are still my favourite thing to get right. No idea why. It thrills me.

Lamb served medium pink with a crust of breadcrumbs, parmesan, mint, coriander, parsley and basil.
Turns out that 30°C is too hot to make soufflés and sorbet. My soufflé roux was too slick. I should have chilled it but it didn't occur to me. Some post hoc Googling reveals this to be an old trick. It meant the soufflés rose wonderfully, more than tripling in height, only to sink faster than the price of Rolf Harris' paintings. Chocolate truffles succumbed too. Even at 10.30pm and straight out of the fridge, they maintained their dignity for no more than ten minutes.

Sorbet just wouldn't set. Even with the freezer on super setting all my efforts were rewarded with a chewy, chilly sludge. I offered up raspberry and rose as a replacement. I'll do this again as rhubarb seems to be entirely green now. Rhubarb doesn't really have season so I'm not sure why this is. Were it a vibrant green I'd be happy but the sorbet once churned is more like the colour of discarded chewing gum. Raspberry comes out a very satisfying scarlet.

The upside of the heat was long, sultry sessions on the decking after dinner.

Rock and Roll (from Tommy)

Sex!
Was it something James said?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vinegar porn

Complete coincidence that there were apples in the background but they work rather well I think.
I make a special trip to big Waitrose (the East Finchley branch, as Ming asked) for one main reason: a few bottles of L'Olivier fruit vinegar. I'd only ever seen the red pepper and the raspberry before. The red pepper variety is the base of a glaze that I use so often to coat roast vegetables and as an essential zizz in tomato sauce. The raspberry adds a fruity depth to a vinaigrette  I've even drunk the raspberry vinegar with vodka, sugar syrup and lime juice. THAT's how good it is. Don't mistake them for the pretty bottles of insipid sour that sit in some slick cardboard packaging at the back of your least used kitchen cabinet; probably a 'gift' at Christmas from someone who either doesn't care or doesn't really love you, or both. These are fruit vinegars of depth and character.


Soft focus vinegar porn
Anyway, imagine my dismay when I was told Waitrose no longer stocked the red pepper variety. A quick Google revealed a whole range: fig, tomato, grapefruit... none of which was available in the UK. You know that feeling when you find EXACTLY the scroggit you've been looking for only to the see the '$' next to it. Damn! But then I saw the Upton Smokery website and a screenful of exquisite, acetic temptation. New varieties! I ordered the Red Pepper, Grapefruit, Fig, Tomato and the Tomato and Basil. would have bought the whole range but I can neither afford it nor need it. The cassis would be great with duck, if I ever cooked it. Passion fruit sounds wonderful too, if only I could think of a recipe.

The first use will be on Friday. I'm serving goats cheese soufflés and normally I accompany this with a roast onion confit but the host has a mortal dread of everything allium so it will be a rocket and walnut salad with a walnut and grapefruit dressing.


They arrived today with a hand written note from Chris at Upton. The Tomato has been discontinued so he'd included two of the Tomato & Basil; hoped that was OK and to compensate had added three varieties of their own smoked sea salt. Normally  smoked salt is a waste of shelf space, like someone walking a box of Maldon past a bonfire,  but their stuff smell like a night in an arsonist's sleeping bag (in a good way). I'll be trying it on my tomato crisps this week. I think this will be a regular in my kitchen. And I hope this is the start of something significant with Upton Smokery.

This is my recipe for the glaze. I say recipe but I add stuff in rough ratios until I like the flavour.

New River Restaurant House Glaze.
In a glass, mix a tablespoon of oil with one of red pepper vinegar. Add a half tablespoon of (ideally) sugar syrup or failing that, castor sugar. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. Fish out any pips if using lemon. Whisk with a fork. Taste and adjust. Add a knife tip of smoked paprika, less of cayenne, a good pinch of sea salt, black pepper and at least a half teaspoon of ground coriander. Taste again. Add more of everything probably, until something tingles. The flavour should be intense. Remember that this will be spread thin. Toss in some chopped herbs, maybe chives, lemon thyme, coriander leaf. Pour over roast veg.

This works very well with butternut squash that's been cubed and roasted at 180°C for about 25 mins. Check after 20. Depends how small your cubes are. Add some roast peppers too.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Manjit said 'my dancing days are behind me'. Four hours later...


That's Manjit in the middle, life and soul. Mind, she had a fair bit of competition.

An unusual weekend. Two groups of mums all originating their friendships in Woodberry Nursery school, Winchmore Hill. Was there a completive spirit as to who could make the biggest evening? Possibly.

Food wise there was nothing new to report, so I won't. I have just spent £60 on L'Olivier fruit vinegars though so will soon be prancing around here like an excited puppy. Fruit vinegar of this quality is at the heart of my dressings and glazes. It's an easy way to present something unusual. I served roast peppers, squash and courgette with my sweet, sour and smokey glaze this week. I've even drunk them with vodka and lime juice. More on this in the week.

Friday night, hosted by Helen (left) and sometimes Amy (right).
They'd all just jumped in the air (well, where else?) so Amy's a bit blurred. There's a clearer photo of her further down.
I'm making no jokes about people being a bit 'blurred' later.
Hosts Helen and Debs.
Saturday, hosted by Debs (right). These look like the more sober group here. 
Just shows how deceptive appearances can be.
I do like people to have a bit of a bop after dinner. Certainly it's not obligatory but If you can throw some shapes (sorry) in a stranger's house, it indicates a certain level of relaxation; that inhibitions have been at least parked.

I noted that as Friday evening progressed, after initially being quite reticent, Manjit grew more sure of her preferences. At one point, telling me to 'take off that crap' - the music her friends had just selected. I found it hard to deny her.

Saturday's night's guests took a little longer to take to the dance floor (the back lounge with the rug rolled up) but lacked no gusto once established. I think the early work was done by Cindy (below). She's South African and knew and liked my favourite new band Die Antwoord from Cape Town. I think they are spectacularly creative and original.



And here's that clearer photo of Amy I mentioned. She looks a little startled here though. Maybe it's due to Kirsten's nun impression. Best not to ask too many questions.






Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Merchant House's stuffed courgettes


Someone on on the LYDS list asked me if I'd read Shaun Hill's book: The Merchant House. I hadn't. I have now and I wish I remembered who it was that recommended it. If you're reading this - shout out.

[EDIT: I've just learned that it was Samantha Hill. 'Any relation?' I asked, only half seriously. But yes, she's Shaun's daughter-in-law.]

I confess I'd not heard about Shaun Hill but the blurb excited me: a hugely experienced chef who decided to do something different and convert his Ludlow home into a restaurant staffed only by himself in the kitchen, his wife out the front and one waiter. Not only did he succeed in creating a much-in-demand restaurant, he was soon Michelin starred. One man, cooking on his own, in a kitchen smaller than mine, wins a star. It demonstrates what's possible!

What made the book so attractive was knowing that all the recipes had to be achievable by one person, albeit one vastly more accomplished and skilled than me, in a small space, in limited time. No brigade here, pushing all manner of food beauties to the pass, to be assembled by a head chef. It helps also that he writes so well... and with great humour. He has a healthy disdain for cheffy puffery, focussing on a limited menu of simple, delicious dishes. Which, obviously, is an aim I share in my own limited endeavours.

Shaun left the Merchant House in 2008 to go and run the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. I've been there once (sadly post Franco) but now plan to go again.

Groups this weekend were my mate Sarah-Lou on Friday with her sizzle of Ealing mums. SL had meant to be one of my first diners in the third week, way back in 2012 but had been laid waste by leurgey en route. She's a TV writer, like me. Well, not like me. She's much busier and well liked.


Friday. Sarah Lou is at 3 o'clock. I thought this would be an interesting variation (I needed step ladders) but didn't consider than most of the shot would be table. I have just re-oiled it though. Not that you care.
 Saturday saw Jenny P (left) with her family; including a daughter visiting from Honk Konk. 


Both groups had given me an open spot for the starter so I thought I'd try one of Shaun's and settled on his Sicilian Stuffed Courgette. Why? The flavours seemed similar to the caponata that I've made many times; an unusual combination of everyday ingredients: olives, capers, oranges, breadcrumbs, onions and currants. A store-cupboard dish almost.

One caveat: no idea why he calls these 'stuffed'. The mix is piled on top and baked. 

I served them with Shaun's tomato and ginger sauce, which should maybe be better termed as ginger and tomato. (Just checked. It is. Oops.) This isn't an easy dish to make look like the sexy thing. This was my attempt.


My take on Shaun Hill's Sicilian stuffed courgette with ginger, garlic and tomato sauce.
Shaun Hill's Stuffed Courgette with Tomato and Ginger Sauce. This is enough for a main meal, especially if you add some chargrilled chicken, polenta or pork.

Serves 4.
Fry one finely chopped red onion in a good glug of olive oil until starting to colour. Add 90g of fresh breadcrumbs and fry until just golden. You might want to add more olive oil if it's all looking too dry. Season with salt and pepper. Now add 12 green olives, chopped (I mixed black and green), one tablespoon of small capers and two tablespoons each of pine nuts, currants and chopped parsley. (And bloody hell, why are pine nuts so expensive!? Anyone know where I can source good quality one cheaply that doesn't involve buying a skipful?)  Add the juice of a freshly squeezed orange (perhaps a touch of zest too), taste and season and set aside.

Why do recipes say 'freshly squeezed'? When did you last 'squeeze and leave'? Mind, the word 'fresh' is so misused on packaging; seeming only to reassure us that the foodstuff isn't actually off.

Anyway, boil four courgettes for two minutes and then refresh in ice water. Along with the mix, these can be kept until needed. Or thrown out... if you've changed your mind about the whole courgette thing and just fancy munching on the mix. I wouldn't advise this though.

Halve the courgettes, oil and season. Here I added a step and griddled my cut courgettes to give deep, dark grill lines. Pile the mix on top, brush with more oil and bake for 20 minutes at 200°C.

Shaun Hill's Fresh Ginger, Garlic and Tomato Sauce.
Skin (plunge into waters, boiling then cold) four good red, ripe tomatoes, quarter and deseed. Then chop small. Peel and finely chop a four inch knob of ginger, two shallots and two garlic cloves and a small red chilli (I omitted this). Sweat the above in a glug of oil, cooking gently for a couple of minutes. Add the diced tomato and a tablespoon of passata (God knows what you do with the rest. A Bloody Mary maybe?). Heat through. Season.

Just before serving, warm the sauce and beat in 25g of butter along with a couple of tablespoons of herbs. Shaun specified coriander and chives, I used coriander and dill, mainly because I don't believe anything less than a kilo of chives adds any flavour to a dish. Maybe chives were different once? Maybe they tasted of something?

The dish was well received  By this I mean clean plates and not just warm words. Even a couple of the men who confessed to pre meal concerns were won over.

And bugger! I've just realised, as my iPhone pinged the final result, that I've missed this year's Wimblybum men's final.

And look, I didn't even mention Jekyll & Hyde.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

This blog is late but I don't care.

Where I was.
I'd had it all planned. This was going to be called Red Bavarois and Berries Not but then I was waylaid by work, writing work. I was whisked away to Wotton House (above) to help plot a new series of Jekyll & Hyde with (showrunner) Charlie Higson. This is why I don't care. I am very excited about the new work. It's such fun to be on a show at the start, helping to create a world and people it with characters who may become national icons; family friends. It means this blog might suffer though. When I sit down to write, the series will come first.

My apologies to the two groups who came last weekend. I'm normally very prompt in posting the group shots but my head has been full of magic and menace.


These are Friday's vegetarian guests, corralled by Nita (tallest at the back).

Saturday's pack of carnivores. Friends of Nasli (next to the brown pillar).
I was going to give you the recipe for the new starter, a bavarois of roasted red pepper. It's based on the pea one, substituting roasted red peppers and tomatoes for the legume content. But I kinda winged the creation so I have no definite amounts. I'll do it again some time and write it up. I served it with croutons of black olive bread and a salad of bitter frisee and baby sorrel in a lemon vinaigrette. Oh, and as I was in Borough Market, I couldn't resist buying some bright orange edible nasturtium flowers. I've come to my senses now though. here's a bad picture of the meal.



And the berries? I've been cooking much with strawberries (pate sablée) and raspberries (Pavlova) recently so I was reading about them. I came across an article about the divergence in the scientific and the popular understanding of what is a berry. Normally this kind of schism is only of interest to the pub bore or the quizmaster... so here goes:

Berries are rounded fruit containing seeds. So strawberries and raspberries are not berries at all. They are aggregate fruit. Things that are berries include watermelons and bananas. Also, if a fruit is red it means it isn't pollinated by insects, who see far more of the blue and ultra violet spectrum of light. Red fruit are eaten by birds who then spread the seeds in their droppings. Red pepper bavarois is eaten by neither.