Monday 26 January 2015


I realised that although you always find turnips in shops, I almost never eat them. Do you? I don't know anyone who does. I barely cook with them save for their inclusion in my winter beef stew, along with swede. And there's another neglected root. I wanted to correct this. Our mantra is all about everyday ingredients after all.

I made a turnip puree, baking one half and poaching the other, before blending with a little cream and butter. The texture is great: silky. The flavour is... turnippy, but only just. Very subtle. I imagine additions like shallots or garlic would overwhelm. What to do? I've looked for recipes but the turnip seems to be a very neglected veg. If you have a killer dish, do let me know.

I've only just found out that turnips and swedes are brassicas. It's a much larger family than I realised. And that name 'swede' means Swede, as in Swedish turnip. The original name for turnip, preserved by the Scots (for swede), is naep. For some reason it attracted the prefix 'tur'. No one seems to know why. Confused yet?

In the U.S., a swede is a rutabaga, which derives from the Swedish term Rotabagge meaning 'ram root'. But in Sweden a swede is known as a Kålrot, the word meaning cabbage root. Kål like kale and Kålrot like German kohlrabi, yet another brassica, the name there means, with exquisite circularity, cabbage-turnip. Rabi deriving from the Latin term for turnip: rapa; itself coming from the original Proto-IndoEuropean word rapom. 

And ALL these vegetables, plus kale, sprouts (yuk), cauliflower (cabbage flower), radishes, mustard greens, pak choi and broccoli all derive from wild mustard. 

Now can someone tell me why turnips in the North of England are called snaggers?

Rhubarb and custard - the importance of vigilance

Brilliant in the raw
Buckle up. This is a long one. A tale of gorgeous stalks and eggy woe.

Could it be more British or more attractive?  The only vegetable we eat with custard. Forced Rhubarb (or woo-barb as we tend to call it in this kitchen), grown only in the Yorkshire triangle, has the same protected name status (PDO) as Champagne, Parma Ham and Stilton. Unfeasibly pink and almost iridescent, Rhubarb, like yellow peppers and star fruit, looks almost manufactured. And in a way it is. It's grown in artificial darkness; harvested by candlelight, to ensure no greening photosynthesis and a sweeter stem. Apparently you can hear it growing.

I've been waiting all winter to produce a dessert to celebrate this only-in-the-UK delicacy. Traditionally served with custard (because even this tender variety needs sugar) these classic flavours were immortalised in my childhood chews. 

The main concern is one of texture. Like the mercurial ripeness of the fruit bowl pear, Rhubarb is not tender... until it suddenly is... and then it falls apart into an unlovely stringy mouthful. You can, of course, pulverise it to make a crumble or a tart but I wanted to maintain its integrity and make a display.

Orange baked rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet with custard tart. The colours are real.

I also knew I didn't want to just coat it in custard; all too soft. I opted for another UK classic: the custard tart. Marcus Wareing's was often praised in reviews so I tried that. And boy, was it hard work. I'm still not happy. The tart I served this weekend (the one above) was my fourth and was certainly delicious but I hope, not my best.

But back to the stiff, pink stuff.

I experimented with traditional poaching and, of course, playing with the new sous vide machine but I didn't get the results I wanted. I came across this Xanthe Clay recipe where he bakes it in a cool oven.

Baked Rhubarb.

Cut the rhubarb into equal lengths. Split any very thick pieces laterally so they all cook evenly. Stack the stems together, dredged with 120g of caster sugar, and bake for 15 minutes in a moderate oven of 140 - 160°C. Remove and allow the rhubarb to soften; perhaps another ten minutes. As it does, it will absorb the sugar and ooze a delicious syrup. So simple.

The one change I made, but it's an important one that I;m rather proud of, was to blitz the sugar with the zest of an orange. A citrus lift to a new flavour level. Just gorgeous. That syrup can be used to dress the dessert and/or stored away to pour on other things.

It's not golden caster, the colour's from the blitzed zest

Rhubarb Sorbet
I've already covered this here but since then I've read that Glynn Purnell poaches his rhubarb in cranberry juice, I presume for the colour. I can't be doing with that. Rhubarb is tart enough already and I want to keep the flavour pure. When I am faced with greenish,outdoor grown stalks, I add some grenadine.

Custard Tart

So to the tart. Such a simple thing: egg yolks whipped with sugar and cream, baked in a sweet pastry case. So why did it cause me so many problems?


Which means vigilance in the kitchen.

And a recipe that just can't be correct.

Much like the rhubarb, custard tart is all about the moment. The French use the term 'à point': at the point of perfection, be it fish or steak or custard. When a ten seconds more or less would result in a worse outcome.

This is the Wareing tart recipe. I don't use his pastry, I used my normal Roux pâte sucrée.

Sweet Pastry
This makes enough for two 8" tarts. I thought I would rather than risk disaster with one. By hand or by processor blend 250g plain flour, 100g icing sugar, sifted and pinch of salt with 100g butter, cubed until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Gradually mix in 2 eggs, beaten. When the mix comes together, gather into a ball and knead a few times until it is smooth. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for two hours. if you don't relax the dough your pastry will shrink. You don't want this. Pâte sucrée is usually easy to work but it helps a lot if it's chilled.

Marcus adds the zest of a lemon to his. I added the seeds of one vanilla pod.

Once relaxed, split the dough and roll out half to the thickness of a pound coin, until it's a few inches bigger than your tin. I do this on a piece of floured baking paper as it makes it much easier to transfer to the tin and manipulate. Now drape the pastry over the tin and gently ease it up to allow it to drop to the bottom of the tin. Don't squidge it in, it will thin and tear. Carefully push the pastry into the corners and leave a good overhang. Repair any holes with additional pastry. Place the tin in the fridge for another half hour.

I bought two new tins as my old 8" were nasty, thin affairs. While browsing I saw this new idea, full of holes to ensure a crisper base. Does it work. Yes. I thought I'd taken a pic of the cases but I'm buggered if I can find it. Here's the new, naked tins instead.

Line the cold pastry with greaseproof paper or foil and bake blind with beans or rice for... well, now there's the issue. How long?

Marcus says 10 minutes at 170°C. This cannot be right. He asks for golden but after ten minutes the tart is the colour (and probably the texture) of a pallid Goth, just emerged from a curtain drawn week of truculent introspection and Nine Inch Nails. It's TOO PALE Marcus. Worse, there's no snap  This is all sog. This is especially true when you consider the subsequent filling is only baked at 130°C. No colour there. When you look at pictures of the end result, the Wareing pud is a deep biscuit brown. I'd recommend baking blind for 15 minutes at 180°C and the returning the shell for another 10 minutes. Obviously I'm wary of over-ruling multi Michelin starred Marcus but I can only think this is a transcription error. That or chef has deliberately kiboshed the recipe! He's quite the competive soul apparently.

Whatever you do, I find it easier to trim the pastry overhang after the blind bake while things are still pliable. Just run your sharpest knife around the top of the tin.

Custard Filling
Bring 500ml of whipping cream to the boil. Beat (don't whisk) 9 egg yolks with 75g caster sugar until pale. Pour the hot cream onto the egg mix, beating as you do. Mix well. Pass through a fine sieve into a jug.

Place the tart case on a baking tray in the oven. Fill with the mix. Pop any big bubbles on the surface.

Bake for 30 - 40 mins at 130°C until just set. And right there, between 30 and 40 is a world of anguish. For my first tart, I checked at 30 and found a golden pond. I removed it at 40 when it was still wobbling. But it never set. I had to spoon out a top layer of liquid. This filling seems to set from the bottom up. Why would that be?

My second tart domed for some reason and then the filling seemed to collapse. This is a known problem with custard tarts. Well, known now! It doesn't look bad in this photo but that's only half its original height. I removed it after 42 minutes and it set, but slightly too hard.

Tart number two. Edible fail.
Tarts three and four didn't dome and seemed well behaved but after 40 minutes still seemed very liquid. I timed another five minutes and they'd set - too much. All or nothing! By 'too much', I don't mean rubbery but they lacked that essential judder. There was a tad too much granularity  My children call me too fussy but I know what I'm after and this wasn't quite it. I think I will have to check every minute after 38.

Tart number four.

Not done yet.
I was still very pleased with the final combination of tart, baked rhubarb and a spoonful of sorbet on a bed of crystallised pecans. I got back only empty plates and it ate well, as chefs say. Begging the question: what else would you do with it?

I'll report back on tart five, hopefully with a decent shot of the whole dessert. Of course, four yolky tarts down, I find myself with 36 egg whites. So first I have some meringues to make... and maybe a friand.

What to do with egg white

After a week of custard tart I am inundated with egg white. Obviously, the go to recipe is meringue. The general rule is: 50g of caster sugar per egg white. Bake on something non-stick for 25 minutes at 120°C, more if you want all crunch and no chew. I used four egg whites and added two tablespoons of Valrhona cocoa powder to make chocolate meringues. Stick two together with some ganache for the lightest after dinner chocolate bite.

Or you could make Friands. Read that again. You probably saw friends. No. Friands: small French almond sponge cakes. I say French but they seem to be most popular in Australia, almost their national cake. They are also known as Financiers in France, where they are shaped like gold bars. You can add interest and moisture by baking some fruit in with the mix. I usually plump for blueberries, straight from the freezer but raspberries are excellent too.

Blueberry Friands

Melt 100g of unsalted butter in a small pan. Once melted, continue to heat until the butter turns a golden brown. Cool the pan, to prevent the butter from burning, by placing it in cold water. This is beurre noisette and it adds a wonderful flavour. It also smells fantastic. Allow the butter to cool.

Whisk three large egg whites to the soft peak stage. 

Sift 25g plain flour with 125g icing sugar and 85g ground almonds. Into this finely grate the zest of one lemon. Grate it over the flour so you catch the citrus oils. 

Fold this into the egg whites, making as few folds as possible. Keep the mixture aerated. Gently stir in the butter. 

You should now have a light, floppy batter. Divide this up into eight well buttered moulds. Moulds? I have a friand tin but you can use a cupcake or mini-muffin tin. Just keep an eye on the timing. You might need a minute more or less, depending on the size. 

push some fruit into the top of each cake. Only three or four blueberries, maybe two raspberries. Any more and the cakes will fall apart. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 180°C until just golden and gently firm to the touch. Leave to cool before turning them out. These are delicate creatures. Best eaten when just warm.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Sous vide salmon and the seven Cypriots

The Anova sous vide system

Yes, I do love my alliteration but shush, I'm going to gush like a convert.

In the beginning, I really didn't understand the fuss about sous vide. It seemed an unnecessary complication: sealing food in bags in a vacuum and then plunging them in water. Why was this suddenly necessary? The term is French for 'under vacuum' but It's basically 1970s boil in the bag isn't it? Yes. It is, with one difference: there's no boiling. But in that difference is the world. Unlike a simmering pot of 100°C water, a sous vide bath can be held at any temperature which means fish, meat and fruit can be poached to perfection... and no further. Sous vide-ing is very forgiving to the sloppy cook. Because the core temperature of the foodstuff cannot rise it cannot spoil. Because it's cooked in a sealed bag, it cannot dry out. For a restaurant, or indeed, a supper club it answers several problems.

It also presents many new possibilities. Added aromatics in a vacuum bag take on new dimensions. Meat can be gently cooked in individual packets and then flash roasted when needed. Combining liquids and food in a vacuum forces the liquid into the food. This means you can marinate in minutes or pickle in a trifle. Talking of trifles... custards and other egg based sauces can be held warm for hours whereas they would before split. 

I didn't think I'd ever acquire a sous vide machine for reasons of expense and bulk; in addition to the water bath, you also need a vacuum machine. I don't have the room to store two large boxes. But then on Kickstarter I saw the Anova solution. A well priced, hand blender sized stick that you could clamp to any pot. An article in the brilliant alerted me to the Foodsaver V2860, a domestic vacuum system originally intended to prepare foods for home freezing. Under £120 and it swivels upright for storage. I bought both.

The Anova is a brilliant idea. It feels solid and over engineered; made from high grade stainless steel and plastics. One of those early machines that people will still be praising in a decade. It also features Bluetooth and will link to an iPhone app (of course!) so I'll be alerted when my food is done.

Sous Vide means I can serve fish in bulk. I love pan fried fish but get distracted for half a minute and those delicate, translucent flakes become bouncing rubber nuggets. 'Don't get distracted!' You shout at your screen. Try this scenario:

"Jason can we just... [inaudible]?
"Sure. Just a moment. [Calls] Etien!"
But Etien is in the hall where an angsty adolescent assignation has demanded his attentions; an affair of such animus and intensity it will require 2000 restorative, thumb-numbing Snapchats in the next thirty seconds.*
Back in the kitchen... "Jason [laughter] it's ok, [inaudible]." I turn  to find a helpful guest with an empty water jug struggling to make sense of our tap.
"Pull it towards you and away for cold... yes, towards you but to the left..."
And blam! There it is. You're plating up school erasers with that lemon verbena beurre blanc.

*I'm required to point out this only happened once and no fish was damaged on that occasion.

Bobbi in the middle

Bobbi's party were my first. This group were all Greek Cypriot and all related, which is about normal for Palmers Green, as we benefit from a very large Cypriot community. Bobbi's party was ebullient, animated, sometimes even combative (with each other not me); quick to challenge but just as quick to laugh, often at themselves. Someone asked me who did the washing up (my sons and I do) and I found myself embroiled in a hilarious discussion about domestic chores. Accusations of 'dishwasher OCD' and details of something called a 'sock wash' filled the hours. 

An unlovely picture of lovely fish.

I did my salmon and caponata starter. I sealed the fillets together with a pat of butter on each. 20 minutes at 50°C. I cut open the bag, dried the fillets and crisped up the skin in a hot pan - a matter of seconds - and plated up. Each piece was identical. I retrospect I should have turned the filets just to glaze the tops too. But the taste and texture were superb.

This is just the start of my sous vide affair. There are soft eggs to investigate, sauces and poaching of food in stock or cream. Sous vide is a new way of cooking - like braising, grilling or roasting, each require experience and application to learn the foibles and nuances. More so with sous vide as every degree counts apparently. There is a difference between eggs done at 74 and 75°C. Chicken cooked long and slow is a revelation and impossible cooked any other way. The next step for me will be the slow cooked meats, moving from braised to water bath. Apparently pork belly is unbelievably tender done this way. It takes 16 hours(!) but is worth the effort.

Monday 5 January 2015

Reverse sear: a better and easier way to roast beef

Forerib cooked by the reverse sear method.
Notice the cutting board: no leaking juices. With this method, the juices stay in the meat.
This was a 4kg joint - our 2014 Christmas meal - that took 9 hours at 60°C and then 10 minutes at 260°C.

I and most other people who eat at the restaurant like their beef roasted to a medium rare: pink but not 'bloody' (it's not blood but that's for another post). I used to follow the old, tested method: sear the meat in a hot pan and then transfer to a hot oven to roast. No longer. And I urge you to change. Your family and friends will love you for it. You will love the fact that you never again overcook the Sunday joint.

That's not a bad looking piece of beef above BUT I wanted medium pink and at least a third is a well done grey. There is a way to cook meat that ensures all the meat done the same. It's called the reverse sear method.

If you think about how we cook meat, it hasn't really changed since we discovered fire. We place flesh close to heat. Nothing wrong with this, the result can be a delicious brown joint with a flavoursome, charred crust and melting meat. The major issue with fire was temperature. There was just one: burny hot. The only way of controlling the temperature was to put some distance between foodstuff and fire. Leave it too close to the fire, or for too long and voila: briquette.

What's happened in the intervening years between Prometheus and me is the development of temperature control. The internal of medium roast beef should only be about 55 - 60°C so why put it in a 180°C oven? Why not use the lower temperature technologies? The answer is: tradition and time. Let's take these in order.

Tradition. It's how we've always done it! Cooking is prone to the this-is-how-granny-did-it syndrome. There are many, many kitchen myths still knocking about, despite the best efforts of Harold McGee and more recently Heston Blumenthal. Of course few want to take the time and expense to experiment - people cook to eat - so bad and/or unnecessary practices are perpetuated. McGee's book was one of the first to challenge kitchen lore and he found many of the orthodoxies wanting.

There's a wonderful, erudite website called Serious Eats that regularly test cooking methods and presumptions. These are the people who poach eggs in one degree increments and discern two different types of egg white. They have my heart! You might think little of this level of food pedantry but their major concern is with the eating of it. They love simple food and their results speak for themselves.
Time. Yes, hands up, this way takes longer, perhaps two or three times as much. But oven time doesn't really matter does it? When do you ever do a rush roast? And the major problem with the sear/hot roast method is that timing becomes critical. Five minutes too many and you have overdone meat. Most joints aren't perfectly cylindrical or symmetrical so in a hot oven the thinner end will cook faster. A high temp also means the meat contracts fast and forces out moisture. Who wants dry meat?
Actually, my mother wanted dry meat. She would sometimes send an 'underdone' steak or a piece of lamb back TWICE to the kitchen where the chef would presumably wipe the tears from their eyes as they watched a piece of animal transform to ash, no doubt wondering why anyone would worry about the quality of the meat if they only wanted to burn it. My father would have eaten it raw. I know you think I'm exaggerating but I remember pan fried burgers where I had to cut the grey meat out of a deep charcoal embrace. My mother crunched through the lot telling me how much she liked 'burnt bits'. 
Also, searing meat is a right faff. It's tricky to get a high enough heat and wrestling with a large piece of meat in hot oil is never a good idea. You should see my scarred arms! 

With reverse sear, you cook the meat in a very cool oven. And I mean COOL; so low you can happily handle the baking tray with naked hands. Then take it out and rest it. Then replace in a ferociously hot oven for ten minutes to brown and crisp the outside. The major advantage with this is it's pretty much impossible to overcook your expensive joint. If the oven is 60°C, the meat can get no hotter. You can leave it in for an extra hour without an issue. No rushing back to save the dinner - even the Christmas turkey! This method applies to all. 
The one piece of kit you will need is a meat/temperature probe. But these are inexpensive and readily available.

I took this 1.3kg piece of topside (from F. Normans in Oakwood, N. London) and roasted it for 3 hours at 55°C. My Neff oven is fairly new and capable of very accurate setting. Yours may not be, so just use an oven thermometer. There's much debate about meat temperatures - if you're so inclined to look - with most tending too high in my opinion. This is my own table for beef.
Rare: 50°C
Medium Rare: 55°C
Medium: 60° 
Well Done: 70°C 
As my mother liked it: 95°C

EDIT: there was a lot of interest in this post over Christmas 2015. I received much positive feedback too. One thing that was sorely lacking though was a chart of roasting times. These will vary as much due to the shape of the meat as well as the efficiency of your oven.  This is why I've put two columns for the shape of the joint: basically cylindrical (like a topside or fillet) and essentially square (like a forerib) If in doubt, add half an hour. The actual temperature of the oven doesn't seem to matter much. I suppose it's only a few degrees difference isn't it.

Cooking times for different weights and shapes of beef.

Af the end of the roast the meat looked like this. Not especially attractive - a little flabby because the fat hasn't been rendered. The meat doesn't have to rest for long because it's been slow cooked. Ten minutes is enough. Now, whack your oven to maximum, probably 260 - 280°C (obviously don't use any pyrolytic cleaning settings!) and return the meat for 5-10 minutes. It's already dry so it takes much less time to sear.

This is the result. Perfectly pink throughout with a deep seared crust. Almost impossible to get wrong and no nagging, roasting worries. Why wouldn't you do it?

This beef fillet was cooked to 55°C and then blasted at 230. Looks good doesn't it?

Further recipes and reading: Roast Potatoes.   Beef Rib.  Yorkshire Puddings.

Crash Pots

A long time family favourite these are easier and usually tastier than roast potatoes. Not pretty but very delicious. They seem to have originated in Australia where they are served with garlic, herbs and sometimes cheese. Ours are even simpler using just salt, pepper and (but most importantly) crushed fennel seeds. You can obviously add any flavouring before, during or after the roasting. They are epic with pork or chicken - if you'll forgive the Oliverism.

Boil a kilo of small, waxy potatoes for about 8-10 minutes, until they yield to a sharp knife point. 

Meanwhile, crush a handful (ah, such precision) of fennel seeds with half the amount of sea salt. Don't try too hard: you want a very coarse mix.

Drain the pots and put in a large, shallow roasting tray. Gently crush each potato with the back of a fork. Gently crush? Is that a thing? You want to break the skins at least. The more dry flesh on display, the crispier the end result. Drizzle (sorry) with olive oil, sprinkle with the salt/fennel ensuring each spud has a splash of oil and a dusting of salt. Finish with a good grind of black pepper.

Roast for 20-40 minutes. The temp can be between 180°C to 220°C. If you take them out and reheat for ten minutes just before needed they will crisp back up... which is handy.