Wednesday 22 October 2014

Onion Fondue

All you need. And to be honest, it would work without the spring onions and chives.

Increasingly I'm finding that the most appreciated dishes are the simplest. Guests seem to respond to the immediacy of flavour: mushroom and truffle soup, pineapple and lime ice, rhubarb sorbet, salted caramel, pan fried fish, steaks with just a fresh turn of salt and pepper. The one exception that really kiboshes this rule is gravy: as complex as you like. 

I found this recipe for onion fondue in Glynn Purnell's new book. A dish of melting sweet onions, fresh scallions and chopped chives stirred into crème fraîche. As easy to make as it is to eat. I'll post a photo next time I make it, which will be soon.

Initially I intended to serve it with some pan fried cod; a novel variation of the richer, more buttery hollandaise or beurre blanc. But once I tried it I knew I'd struggle to find something it didn't compliment. It's a huge savoury blast but creamy and not too heavy. Onions are the heart of so many dishes and it's nice to give them a starring role.

Onion Fondue - serves four as a side

Take 2 large white onions (the sweeter ones if you can - Sainsbury's do them), slice finely and sauté gently in 50g butter for maybe 20 minutes until soft and yielding. If there's any colour it should be a tinge of gold. We're not fast frying for hamburger bait.

The onions can be removed from the heat and kept until needed.

When ready to eat, warm the onions through and stir in 300g crème fraîche. Add 4 chopped spring onions and a good handful of chopped chives. Serve. All the allium you could want.

You could easily pimp this up with some herbs; tarragon, parsley or sage spring to mind. Perhaps some crispy bacon for those who do, or a few flamed cherry tomatoes. In fact, a scoop of fondue on toast would make a very satisfying, if unbalanced, supper dish.

I like to read around a recipe before recommending one, just to see if there are variations I missed (there always are). I saw an American site - TasteOf that listed a french onion fondue as a 'simple, three ingredient dish'. Good. That's what I was after.

Guess what the three ingredients were?

  • 1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup, undiluted
  • 1 carton French onion dip
  • 8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

  • I mean... right there is everything that's wrong with cooking. It reads like some 1970s  horror story. Add dip and cheese to soup. FFS. Think of the cost for a start and the inevitable salt. And the packaging you'll throw away. It makes me weep.

    Pickled red cabbage

    Actual pickled red cabbage in a lifelike plate scenario.

    I was looking for something vibrant, acid and crunchy to go with my slow braised lamb shanks. I thought this was such an original idea for a contrast veg until... of course... I was researching Hot Pot recipes for the coming Winter season and learned that the AGE OLD, TRADITIONAL accompaniment is... yup. You can never be sure if this is a cheffy complicity or simply that I've seen the combination at some point and forgotten, almost.

    I love pickled veg although my least favourite - ironically - is pickled onion. My father used to make eye watering quantities of these every Christmas and sit crunching them for hours like a happy, herby troll, until he could strip the varnish from doors at ten paces. Mind, this was a man who could happily eat an onion like an apple.

    This recipe is from Glynn Purnell's book: Cracking Yolks and Pig Tales.

    He says this serves four people. I'd say more like twelve, unless the meal you're presenting is simply a large plate of red cabbage.

    It's simple enough but quite a commitment to make. That's a lot of vinegar. There are simpler recipes but this is deep, complex and rewarding.

    Pickled Red Cabbage

    Finely shred a red cabbage (I used a mandolin) and sprinkle with 150g of coarse sea salt in a large non-reactive bowl. Leave for three hours. Rinse off salt.

    Note. I used a mixture of coarse and fine which meant I had to then wash the cabbage many times - like salt cod - to avoid an unbearable salinity. Stick to the coarse!

    Meanwhile... in a large pot, combine 540ml malt vinegar (the real stuff not the look-likey; never use that acetic imposter), 280ml white wine vinegar, 280ml balsamic vinegar, a bottle of punchy red wine and 500g of sugar. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half. At least thirty minutes.

    Your entire house will now be home to vinegar stink... sorry, should have warned you. Press on!

    Meanwhile... grind up 2 star anise, 6 cloves, 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns, 2 tablespoons of pink peppercorns, 2 cinnamon sticks and 2 dried chillies. Add this to the vinegar mix along with 6 bay leaves. Leave to infuse for a few minutes.

    Strain the vinegar mix to remove the large solids and pour onto the rinsed cabbage. Store in the fridge or in kilner jars until needed.

    Tuesday 14 October 2014

    We can't eat: pork, wheat, dairy, potatoes, shellfish, chicken, duck...

    I always look forward to Danny and Natalie's bookings; funny, lively and well natured. They're normally pretty relaxed about menu choices but on this occasion a combination of religious prohibition, medical condition and general not-likingness meant there were over 20 items of forbidden food. I'll give you it in full; my longest list ever. 
    Pork, wheat, dairy, potatoes, shellfish, chicken, game, duck, oats, barley, aubergines, cauliflower, parsnips, green beans, kidney beans, oregano, basil, apricots, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries (in fact, any berries).
    I'm often asked if I can 'deal with' vegetarians or a lactose or gluten free diet. The answer is, emphatically, yes.

    It doesn't really matter what my guests can't eat; it's what you can. The can't/won't eats will always be smaller than the can/wills. We discuss the menus together in the week weaving their likes and dislikes with my experience and abilities to create something desirable. So long as the guests' individual can't eat/won't eats don't overlap too much, I can always forge a culinary path. The only time I've turned someone down was a party of ten where nine were enthusiastic meat eaters, keen on the pork belly... and one was a gluten free vegan. There wasn't much overlap in desire there.

    I'd even say that it's good to be tested as a cook sometimes. I'm forced to reframe my menus - never a bad idea. In fact, it was searching for dessert ideas for a particularly picky pair of friends that resulted in rhubarb sorbet, now a New River Restaurant standard.

    In this case I served: goats cheese and fig salad, roast topside of beef with roast onion polenta and dessert of chocolate soufflés... with some slight further modifications. See... how very conventional. I might normally have served potatoes or Yorkshires with the beef but the crispy fried polenta was a perfect accompaniment.

    The diary problem was circumvented by using goats butter and milk throughout the meal. Many people who are lactose intolerant can happily take goats milk. In fact it may be that  the issue is not with lactose at all, but instead with the major protein of cows milk: alpha S1 casein. Goat milk (and human milk - but no one offered) lack this protein.

    Salad of glazed figs, goats cheese, walnuts, watercress, rocket and micro fennel.

    Roast beef topside. I'd call that a perfect medium pink.
    That salad is my prettiest starter yet. I did stump up for a delivery of some micro fennel and parsley and some borage flowers but it's these little intense additions that make a difference. I also bought a block of rich, glossy fig jelly and made a glaze with some fig vinegar. I added toasted walnuts for crunch and watercress & rocket leaves for peppery leafiness. The dressing was yet another occasion when I reach for the L'Olivier fruit vinegars, mixed with walnut oil and a dab of clementine like Yuzu juice (available in Waitrose).

    And all would have been well...  had I not discovered, as guests arrived, that one also didn't eat goats cheese or figs and another didn't do chocolate... Yup.

    But as is often the case, the impromptu dish is a good one. I made a heritage tomato and basil salad starter for Karen - including a new dressing that I've been asked to detail - and a bowl of rhubarb sorbet with strawberry sauce for Daniel's dessert. It does help that I keep these things in my house, but that's a consequence of running a supper club.

    I've written more about the beef... and beef timings in another blog. Honestly, too many roasting recipes are out of date. It's been decades since we stopped serving hunks of tasteless hessian. No one asks me for well done meat.

    It was a great night with much laughter and not a little amateur dramatics (Jason knows what I mean). I sat down with the group at the end and drank maybe more Jack Daniels than I should have (I had a magic glass apparently). Bizarrely, I forgot to do the group shot. Mind, as this is Dan and Nat's fifth time with us, I'd have struggled to find an original pose.

    Here's a composite of the evening instead.

    Certain members of the party wanted me to title this blog 'Jews who Booze'. I declined.
    In a Norf Lahndahn accent, all three words in that sentence rhyme; the diphthongs sing-singing along.

    And here's that tomato salad dressing recipe for Karen: 
    In tablespoons: two of L'Olivier Tomato and basil vinegar. Half of their red pepper version. Three of extra virgin olive oil. A dab of balsamic. Less of lemon juice. Lots of maldon salt and black pepper. A pinch of smoked salt - but not the Maldon Smoked, as that's rubbish.
    You can buy most of these ingredients from the Upton Smokery.

    Roast beef - rest, don't rust

    Meat rusts fast. The process of red to pink to brown to bleugh is the gradual oxidation of the iron rich haemoglobin in the meat. The trick to perfection is to rest, not rust.

    What? Read on.

    Twenty minutes per pound plus twenty minutes, at about 200°C. Yeah? Sounds about right? We've all been told this?

    It's utter guff. Try and expunge it. There are French people pointing and laughing at us. Ignore them. Try and remember that fifteen minutes per pound is a much better bet. Or, seeing as we've been metric for forty years (those pesky French again): 33 mins per kilo.

    The joint of topside above weighed in at exactly three kilos (6.6 pounds) so convention would have me roast it for 152 minutes; two and a half hours, at between 180°C and 200°C (350-400°F). This is what I actually did.

    Remove the joint from the fridge an hour before cooking. 
    Season the whole joint with salt and pepper. 
    Dust the fat with 50/50 mix of mustard powder and flour. 
     Place in a solid baking tin on a bed of red onion slices. 
    Cook for 20 minutes at 240°C - to crisp the fat and brown the meat. 
    Remove to baste, leaving the oven door open... and reducing the temp to 180°C. 
    Roast at the lower temperature for just 103 minutes, basting every 20 minutes. 
    Remove meat and rest for an HOUR, under three layers of foil. 

    Why 103? Because I was doing a final baste and I probed the meat. It was done.

    123 minutes in total. Two hours. So that's twenty minutes and then just fifteen per pound. I would call that meat pictured medium. Would you call it rare? Delia does... as do the BBC.

    I often have a problem with recipe timings. You wonder if it's a typo, bad research, tending to caution or simply indifference. Overdone meat especially desert dry chicken, soufflés that would be unrisen, (un)roast veg that would challenge even a master masticator.

    Worse is the instruction: 'cook until done'. My boys hate me saying that. You can press the meat, raw meat feels like your hand, which is fine for steaks and burgers but you can't get inside a four rib, forerib of Angus beef... and nor should you. And what is 'done' anyway?

    The only certain way to determine 'doneness' is to use a probe to read the internal temperature of the meat. These are very cheap now. However, there's also much disagreement over what temperature means rare, medium, medium-rare etc. To worsen matters, the OFFICIAL guidelines state even higher temperatures, preferring caution over cooking. They recommend ALL beef be cooked to 63°C. Someone's having a giggle! Safe to say that most restaurants do not serve meat at government guidelines.
    This is my probe. Get your own.

    This Aberdeen Angus site declares a medium joint to be 71°C while this American site says 60-63°C. They can't both be right. I side low. This is a good and comprehensive guide. Sadly it's in Fahrenheit and I don't deal with bushels, pecks and barleycorns no more thanks. Thank God for Siri.

    Always check your timings - OK, so you can't assume they're wrong -  but treat them as just a guide not as holy writ. Remember that the temperature of the meat as it's presented to the oven is a major consideration. It'll clearly take much longer to raise the internal temperature if it starts out at a fridgey 4°C. Most importantly, you must also factor in resting times.

    Oh Lord, get me and my 'must'. I didn't mean to sound so earnest and foodie but you'd think something as commonplace as roast meat prep would have more agreement by now.

    Take your meat out when it's 5°C less than you want on the dinner table. The meat will continue to cook, meaning the interior temperature will rise while it's resting... and rest it must. Unrested meat is not as succulent as the juice (it's not blood) will leak out when cut. A joint like this needs a minimum of thirty minutes. A large joint or a big bird can sit happily under layers of foil for up to an hour. 

    Increasingly I think the answer is to sear the exterior, in a pan or a hot oven and then slowly cook the joint as a very low oven - maybe only 60°C. The other way, almost the reverse, is to 'sous vide' the joint, bagged up in a water bath and then sear the meat when desired. Yeah... I may have news about that soon. With sous vide, there's no need to rest the meat and you can serve it when you want it.

    Finally, I know my family struggle to gift me at Christmas. So... I'll just park this here.

    Wednesday 8 October 2014

    Lisa & Earlton, salsa and The League

    'We all met through salsa.' Said Lisa, meaning the dance not the tomato condiment. She was once an instructor.

    Above is Lisa and Earlton. I normally start with a group shot but this says far more about the evening. They both managed to foot fault my extensive collection of music. I can't remember the track we settled on. Well, I settled, they got up and danced. And yes, I wish this was a better quality shot but even with a fast lens the light was far too low and they moved way too quickly (and well). I'm happy to go with a more 'impressionistic' picture.

    Earlton's promised to return with a 'League meeting'; a group of male friends. If it happens it would be our first all male dinner. What is it with men and dining? Why are only curries allowed? Bizarre.

    Monday 6 October 2014

    Penny celebrates with a fore rib of Angus beef... while I cry in the kitchen.

    Penny's standing in the middle (purple cardi). Her four daughters on the left.
    Penny wanted beef for her birthday; a premium cut. We decided on a four forerib of Angus beef, supplied as ever by Julian at Wades Hill Butchery. It's a joint I've cooked several times before, most recently for Belinda's 50th birthday. Experience of the cut is key here; you don't want to be experimenting with a joint of beef when it leaves you with little change out of £80. But let's discuss that later.

    So why did I cry in the kitchen (nearly but not really)? It was my first ever dessert disaster. Blimey. But - as the disgraced politician says - I'm sure you wouldn't want to intrude on private grief would you? 

    The keen eyed among you will have noticed there are eleven people here. This is only the second time I've had more than ten guests and there are always issues - Someone has to sit on a garden chair for a start - but Penny had five close friends, a partner and four children and I wasn't going to insist she leave one off the list. It meant that two of her girls had to sit in the space of one but we muddled through.

    Four rather camera shy Abba lovers.
    Ah yes, young people. "If there's some modern music you fancy we'll put it on." I said, thinking they would ask me to play some Rhianna. But these were people born with no knowledge of vinyl, cassettes or CDs - human beings who can barely conceive of a world pre iPhone - so they had no fear of my elaborate AppleTV wifi streaming set up. Before I knew what was happening I'd ceded musical control and Abba was playing rather more often than I'd anticipated, or desired.

    That's the last time that happens!

    Where's the beef? Oh, right there.

    Anyway, back to the beef. That's the joint above, all 5.5 kilos of aged Angus beef - about 12 lbs, for those of you who can remember vinyl. Fabulous meat (that's my favourite word in a Welsh accent by the way. 'It was fab'lus boys, fab'lus').

    Recipes for roasting a rib of beef vary wildly in their approaches and cooking times. Some would have me incinerate it for four hours at 180°C, whereas Jamie Oliver is happy with just one, which would be still mooing. The problem of one joint for nine people (there were two vegetarians and no matter how much I entreated them, they didn't want the meat) is of course some like their beef with no pink, others like it walked quickly past a cool oven. My mother opted for briquette brown. I went for a medium pink. Meat probes are your friend here. There's no other way, apart from experience of knowing what the insides are like. You don't want to be hacking this open like a tendentious breast of cheap chicken.

    There's an essential dichotomy when roasting any meat. Meat is better textured at low temp. However, taste needs high. Chefs find many ways to combine the two, everything from a blast of a hot oven to (expensive) sous vide water bathing followed by a blow torch.

    When you oven roast a large joint you also have to factor in resting time. Meat must be rested. Even that tendentious breast benefits. Current thinking is moving towards a resting time almost as long as a cooking time. I say 'current thinking' but I found one recipe from the 1960s that instructs you to cook the beef for 30 minutes at 240°C and then turn off the oven and leave the meat for another few hours. Certainly an energy efficient option. Some chefs, like Heston Blumenthal, sear the meat in a pan and then roast for 6+ hours at a very low temperature - maybe only 60°C. That's something I need to try. 

    I'm also not keen on pan searing meat. It seems like lost gravy flavour to me. Surely a hit of very hot air to brown and crisp is better? Keeping any sticky bits in the roasting pan seems sensible.

    In the end, I roasted mine for 30 minutes at 240°C and then (allowing 26 minutes per kilo) two hours and twenty odd minutes at 160°C. Lost of recipes tell you it should be 40 minutes per kilo for medium. Ignore them. Really. IGNORE THEM. I have no idea what that figure is based on but it's utter bobbins. Even 26 minutes is playing it safe. It won't be rare.

    The meat was covered with double foil and a blanket for around an hour.

    I didn't know I was going to have to rest it for so long and with hindsight would have taken it out after maybe two hours. Meat really does keep cooking long after withdrawal from the heat. I imagine its the outer layers cooking the inner.

    Rather unforgivably, I forgot to take a pic of the finished joint. I even employed a Frenchman to come and cut it (thanks Philippe). Here's some onions instead.

    What? Dessert disaster? Do we have time? OK. Bugger.

    I've made chocolate soufflés successfully many times. Not on this occasion. I do think it was partly numbers. I needed to whisk 450g of egg white. That's around fourteen eggs. My mixer just can't deal with that volume. I should have done this in two batches but, nervous of egg deflation, I did it in one.

    Why was this such a mistake?

    Soufflés consist of a thick flavoured base folded into meringue. The meringue needs to be slack enough to fold through without breaking down. Too stiff egg whites and you have to basically beat it in, losing essential structure. With egg white overflowing my bowl I couldn't really see the structure. Excuse, excuse, yadda yadda. Bad chef blames his tools... literally! I'll know for next time.

    And so it came to pass: instead of a satisfying, quivering vertical rise, these babies domed and flowed like awful lava. My guests were brilliant though and no one complained (I would have). The one saving grace is that soufflés taste great even if structurally knackered, it helps if they're served with vanilla mascarpone and salted caramel sauce. But then, anything is helped with a serving of salted caramel sauce. That's how to get people eating insects!

    As they used to say on Blue Peter, after Shep had eaten Tracey Island... this is how it should have looked.

    On the plus side, a guest did tell me the gravy (red wine, beef stock, roasting and resting juices, port and Marmite) was the best she'd ever tasted.