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.