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...

Monday 3 November 2014

A guilty weekend away by the English sea, the Masons Arms and a bit with a dog

It was meant to be a week in France; a long drive down the superb west coast in a hired RV. But someone forgot to confirm the RV hire.


So instead it was a long weekend in Devon. We caught the steely end of summer: the air cold but the trees still green. The picture above, looking across the estuary towards Dawlish was taken close to Belinda's mother's in Exmouth. The weather changes every ten minutes.

Any holiday of ours will feature food. Naturally. I tend to plan family breaks around other people's food. We'd planned to drive from Exmouth to spend time with my writer friend Veronica Henry, who had promised to cook something from wild Exmoor - venison or pony, she's not that accurate with a gun.*  

Crossing from south to north Devon around midday meant lunch somewhere in the middle, which is how we came to eat at the Mason's Arms.

Neither of these people is me... or my wife.
At the front it's a traditional, if very well kept pub... but walk through and you find a small dining room (about 20 covers) with a bizarre Italianate fresco on the ceiling. It also has a Michelin star. This is where chef Mark Dodson works. For over a decade Mark was head chef at the Waterside Inn in Bray which must rank then and now as one of the world's finest restaurants - it's held three stars for twenty five years. I was quite excited.

Mark didn't disappoint. I didn't take photos of the food. Not sure why. Maybe I feel it removes me from the experience. Maybe that's too poncy an excuse. Certainly I loathe the battery of aloft smart phones that is now always a barrier between you and the performer at any live event. Maybe I just wanted to eat and relax with Belinda and not play at reviewer.

I did take a shot of the menu though.

Little foodie quiz: what's crepinette?

I had the starter of smoked chicken and butternut squash risotto which was excellent but the unexpected delight was the few tomatoes that came with it. Cherry sized, they had the intensity of sun-dried but without the often off-putting leatheriness. I asked Sarah, co-owner and Maître d' for the recipe and she came back ten minutes later with it typed up. Brilliant! We were the only diners left by that point; I may have spent far too much on a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet and was taking my bloody time over it. But we never felt pressured to leave. In fact, Mark came and chatted to us afterwards, possibly wondering who was asking his staff SO MANY questions.

Here's the recipe. I've not tried it yet but I'm considering giving them a starring role as a starter, alongside some creamy goats and crisp, interesting bread. A posh cheese and tom sandwich.

Mason's Arms Tomatoes
Halve or quarter some good quality tomatoes. On a baking tray, cover with thinly sliced garlic, fresh thyme and olive oil. Cook at 50°C for 2 - 4 hours until dehydrated. Put in a tub with more oil and a small amount (they didn't specify) of fresh garlic and thyme and marinate for a couple of days.

And then it was onto the brutal landscape of North Devon for much wine and a supper of venison stew with potatoes dauphinoise. Now then... supper. I confess I can't say/write 'supper' without wincing. 'Supper' is Elizabeth David and breezy socialites, something in chiffon and gin & it. 'Supper' is what other people had. For me, as a child, supper was something ate in slippers and dressing gown, usually a bowl of cornflakes. I come from the South Wales Valleys and so was a breakfast/dinner/tea boy. Even calling the midday meal 'lunch' seemed unutterably pretentious. I've overcome that inhibition now. But 'supper' makes me shudder still.

But ours was delicious, if very filling. It needed more wine to wash it down. And I may have had a fun argument over the right kind of pastry for our dessert of apple tarte tatin. Veronica prefers a robust pâte sucrée whereas I support the full flaky. Turns out hers is great too. Of course.

And yeah, who's sounding pretentious now?!

Finally, this is Zelda, Veronica's new dog. Belinda and I went for a very long walk on the very long beach (too damn long) with Zelda and Veronica. I took this when we got back. I'm much more dog than cat. I wasn't intending it to be so cute, but so cute it is.


Sunday 2 November 2014

Home made scotch eggs

looks good doesn't it?
The  term home-made  has a reputation it doesn't really deserve. The inference is that it'll be better than shop-bought. (When applied to food at least - home made ejector seat anyone? Home made dentist's drill? Headache - try some of this paracetamol I've just whipped up?) Sadly this is not always the case. Home-made spans quite a range. We've all inwardly shrieked at the baking of proud but unskilled friends, while we snarfed down some collection of over cooked crumbs or deflated cake. Then again, there are those wonderful people who can summon magic things from the oven or barbecue. Theirs is a home that has made good things. My neighbour Ken makes the BEST beef teriyaki. I can't better it. I've not even tried. I like that it's a bit of a thrill when he turns up in the few sweaty, summer weeks clutching his Tupperware tower of marination and expectation.

BUT, as with Ken's teriyaki, the difference between a home-made and supermarket scotch egg is marked. For a start, as in the pictures, your yolk can be soft. There are few things nicer than a runny egg. I may have mentioned in other posts, my death row meal would be foie gras with brioche toast and onion marmalade (or pan fried muscat grapes if the prison canteen was on good form) but dippy eggs and chips comes a very close second. 

Supermarket offerings tend to be overcooked with a dry, friable yolk and dull, rubbery white within a damp flannel of tasteless, under seasoned meat. The food equivalent of a weekend in Margate! (and yes, I've been. Although the Lifeboat pub is wonderful, and I did have the best B&B breakfast ever there. We were there to try the acclaimed Indian cooking of the Ambrette restaurant. They didn't disappoint.) Home made scotch eggs taste of egg and seasoned pork and not of that fried coating of golden grit that you know has never seen bread. Here I am dissing the supermarket egg but you just know I happily, hypocritically, scoff them down. The home made egg is also properly crisp and crunchy; the shell cracking to reveal delicious, lubricious pork... all yielding to a soft eggy interior. I adore them. There is a massive thrill (I don't have many thrills in my life. Can you tell?) to cutting open an egg to find a soft yolk.

There's been a lot of interest in these reinvented pub snacks recently, appearing even on the menu of the Michelin starred restaurants. They have nothing to do with Scotland so hence no capital 's'; the scotch, as with butterscotch, meaning something only as vague as 'cooked'. Related to scorched maybe? Maybe not? Either way, Fortum & Masons are adamant that they invented the meaty morsel in 1738 (I promised myself I wouldn't use morsel but here we are, only three pars in and I've let everyone down.) F&M seem to have all the evidence to support their claim too.

I'd like to say they're not a faff but they are of course. However, if you make one you can make twelve. They will all be eaten. Fast.

Six Scotch Eggs

Boil six eggs for five minutes and then put them in ice water to stop the yolk overcooking. Leave in the water for twenty minutes to firm up.

Meanwhile, mix 750g sausage meat with 50g French mustard (or a blend of French and English if you want some heat), 10g of sea salt, black pepper and a handful of finely chopped mixed fresh herbs. I do mean a handful too. Chives for sure. Maybe parsley, oregano? Chervil if you're lucky enough to find it.

Divide your meaty mix into six piles and roll between two sheets of clingfilm to about 1cm thickness. Remove the top layer of cling film.

Carefully shell the eggs. This isn't that tricky. Just bear in mind they are only part cooked so peel rather than press. Dry the eggs with kitchen roll. This makes them much easier to handle and coat.

Put the egg in the middle of the meat patty and roll it up and around. This is where the cling film helps. Again, this isn't as fiddly as it sounds. 

Dip the eggs in seasoned flour, then beaten egg wash and finally breadcrumbs. Massive faff factor warning. This is one of those three bowl conveyor systems where It helps to have a son to help you (Thanks Fabe) to avoid massive, claggy finger syndrome. This is what you end up with.

An unborn scotch egg. Almost looks cute doesn't it? Fluffy.
Fry the eggs in deep oil at 180°C. It does need to be the right temp so use a sugar thermometer or drop in a test piece of bread - it should take a minute to turn golden brown. Deep fry the eggs for 6-7 minutes. You'll probably have to do this in batches to avoid lowering the oil temperature too much.

Was it worth the faff? My family thought so. In the end, home-made means you have to make it at home. Oh, unless you have a gastropub close by because they always sell this kind of thing. But a gastropub in Palmers Green? I wish. No really, I do wish.