Tuesday 31 March 2015

Pickled fennel

Pickled fennel dressed with a little chopped coriander

"That's odd" Said a guest. "I don't normally like pickle and I I don't like fennel but I love this pickled fennel."

That's one of the - I was going to write 'advantages' but it's not really. Let's go with 'features' - that's one of the features of the supper club meal: 'I'd never normally have ordered that but...' People try things. That slight formality and maybe host pressure means things pass from fork to mouth for the first time in decades - often since the youthful aversion was formed.

I've had a diner compliment me on the sweet potato mash he'd just finished. "Thanks, but that's roast carrot purée." I replied. "It can't be." He said, "I hate carrots."

One man looked almost forlorn after a plate of haddock was eaten. Why? "I've avoided fish for thirty years but that was delicious. What a bloody waste."

I think the greatest success has been my (well, Tom Kitchin's) cauliflower purée; dozens have been won over. Including me!

My Anova sous vide stick
I've been wanting to use my newish sous vide machine to make quick pickles. The vacuum process draws the pickling liquor (usually vinegar but also lemon juice here) into the food, resulting in an almost instant effect. I chose fennel to go with one of our classic split menus: fish and baby chicken. Poussin and poisson! Fennel works well with both. I serve them with roast veg and a rich hollandaise so the dish does need some astringency.

It would also be a great foil to slow roast pork and crackling. Which is why I'm making more for this weekend. I'm doing a 24 hour roast pork shoulder for a group of ten.

If you don't have a sous vide machine - and, I know, you probably don't. Add the bag of fennel to a pot of boiling water and leave to cool, then refrigerate for at least 24 hours. The results won't be as crisp but they'll still be good.

Sous vide is the gentle poaching of food in a temperature controlled water bath, often in vacuum sealed bags.

Pickled Fennel

Set your sous vide machine to 82°C.

Trim the bottoms and  any tough stalks off two fennel bulbs. Cut or mandolin the bulbs into slices of about 5mm.

To make the pickling liquor: add 30g of caster sugar to 250ml white wine or cider vinegar along with the juice and zest of one lemon. Add a good pinch of sea salt and a few white peppercorns. You can add whatever aromatic you like of course: pink peppercorns, crushed coriander seeds, bayleaves maybe.

Add the sliced fennel and the liquor to a sous vide bag, vacuum and seal. Or place in a ziplock sandwich bag and immerse in water to force out the air before sealing.

Cook for 30 minutes. Place bag in an ice bath to fast chill and afterwards transfer to a sealed container. This will keep in the fridge until... well, until you throw it out. Don't you think 'best before' dates on pickles are absurd? It reminds me of the Alan Coren joke - I think of Volvic water: filtered for a million years, best before next Wednesday.

    Monday 23 March 2015

    A fraught Friday

    The fun side of the room before the egg based horror
    My fault. Mich booked quite late in the week - a surprise for Mahan, his wife. I was manic with a draft one deadline and didn't really have time to properly prep some new dishes. 

    And then I did four of them, four new dishes in a row, for nine people.


    The birthday girl
    Luckily, Mich and Mahan are friends, and their guests were also our friends - one of them was Belinda (who married me some time ago), who informs me that my mood was not communicated from kitchen to dining area. Also, more importantly, the food was well received. The plates all came back clean. That's the only praise I believe anyway.

    It wasn't that I hadn't made the dishes before, it was that I hadn't done them in that sequence. This might sound like a minor objection but success in the kitchen is all about flow. Timings and sequencing need to be known and practised. The elements of one dish all need to come together while the elements of the next are cooking. Obviously you prep as much as you can -  blanching veg, pureeing, reducing stocks and spirits, blind baking tart cases. Things that aren't especially onerous but take time. Mind, you have to be careful not to over-prep. Salads must be dressed just before service - few like a limp leaf.

    But flow is also about sequencing. Is it even possible? If I have three dishes that need oven roasting at very different temps but need to appear at the same time, I am forced to rethink. Similarly too many things on the hob can be problematic. You don't want deep red port reduction splashing in your glossy white cauliflower puree or have to lean over fat popping lardons to stir a sauce (I have the scars to show).

    If there is an issue, how do I rescue the dish? Which elements can be happily reheated or roasted and which need a restart (sob)? Some things can sit happily, blipping away, others - like fish or steaks - need constant vigilance. It's why I don't do either in any number if I can help it. It means I can't do anything else for the duration.

    Another factor is contingency. Do you risk making exactly the amount needed? It's why a baker's dozen is 13. I usually make an additional soufflé - invariably there's a waiter to eat it. Similarly with any just risen pudding or something fragile (sugar work, tuiles) or liable to stick to its (bloody, bloody) tin: baked fondants, steamed puddings, large single ravioli, etc. With poached eggs you definitely want spares.

    The new dishes were:
    an amuse bouche of pea soup with a bacon cream;
    starters of mushrooms on toast with sous vide poached eggs;
    mains of caponata with sous vide halibut;
    dessert of lemon curd profiteroles with a spiced cherry sauce.

    I'll eventually recipe them all up and post links.

    That is a glorious colour. All it takes is to blanch the peas before you blend them.
    Pea soup with crushed peas and a bacon cream.
    Did you spot my first mistake? Two sous vide elements and only one sous vide machine. Fish cooks at 45 degrees but I do my eggs at 75. The fish takes 40 mins, which would overlap with the eggs. That problem wasn't difficult to solve. The joy of sous vide is that the temps are so low, food doesn't tend to overcook once removed. I took the fish out just before the eggs were needed and 'refreshed' them in the 75 degree water. As they are vacuum sealed in thick plastic, they cool down slowly anyway. And you can always, like a pot roast, stick them inside a insulating blanket.

    See, this definitely needs some work before I can call it a purée
    Mushrooms are easy enough, thick cut, dry fried in a heavy skillet - although they can't hang around as they quickly go flaccid and ooze. I served mine with a splash of sherry, although I now think a white port would be better, butter, touch of garlic and some truffle paste.

    No it wasn't the fish that floundered me, it was the eggs. Ten soft eggs was always going to be a challenge but I'd practised the technique in the week. Boil a room temp egg for ten minutes at 75°C. Place the eggs back in the box, blunt end up, crack the top of the egg and peel off some of the shell. Then invert the egg over the dish and the thing just slides out in one wonderful, slick movement. Of course, I didn't praises doing ten in a row.

    One I'd prepared earlier. This is a perfect ten minute egg... that I had for breakfast.
    Popped them in the water, started prepping the mushrooms... realised that I hadn't put on the timer. Now, timings with eggs - as I'm sure you know - is critical and I didn't know if I'd forgotten the timer four minutes ago or two, or six. The only solution was to take them out with a guess and hope for the best. Well, my guess wasn't good enough. Too early! The whites where still liquid. The only solution was new eggs, ten of them. This was when I realised too late that my plating was wrong too. If you plop a soft egg on slippery mushrooms, they plop off, and sometimes split. Next time, I'll make a 'well' for them to sit in.

    The finished dish

    Mains was ok but the halibut needed VERY careful handling. 

    And then profiteroles. Ah the tales we will tell our grandchildren. "Grandpa, were you there when Jason mixed stiff cream with a firm (and delicious) home-made lemon curd that inexplicably resulted in a bowlful of (delicious, I say again) sloppy stuff?" Yeah, I was there. I had to pipe the stuff vertically so it didn't pour out of the bag while Etien had to snatch and build, snatch and build. It was rough.

    Building blocks. No trauma here.

    Lemon curd profiteroles with cherries before and after saucing
    The phrase you're probably dragging up now is: in the grand scheme of things... And yeah, globally, it's no biggie. melting icecaps, ISIS incursions, Syrian bombing, a Russian megalomaniac - these are all possibly worse than a slightly underdone egg on a plate of English mushrooms. But, oh, you weren't there man, you weren't there.

    And my friends call me a perfectionist. Tsk.

    Saturday went swimmingly, of course. Not a single issue. Different menu, well rehearsed with an additional cheese course too.  Here's Joe and Christine. His 60th. 

    If you're wondering, this is the message Mahan left on the website:

    "Thanks so much for another brilliant night. Food was outstanding - always exceeds expectations."

    Wednesday 18 March 2015

    Fire, flood and the feeding of the fifty

    Our most perilous weekend. Well... despite the biblical allusions we suffered no epic catastrophes. The fire was just an 'en papillote' bag ablaze;  the flood was in the sink and soon sorted out by some serious rodding. 

    I'm working on an NBC show at the moment and have some insane deadlines so I'll come back and insert more words. But in the meantime there's a group of people waiting to see some photos.


    Happy Birthday Frank.

    Sunday 8 March 2015

    Plum crumble and Marc's 50th

    Poaching stone fruit

    “Are cherries nice?” Asks Etien, my 14-year-old son and supper club staffer. He says this while standing in front of a punnet of cherries that he was stoning; half done, the berries lay groaning in front of him, disgorged, slowly tumbling down the carmine mound. “Are cherries nice?” He repeats. I glare at his question, hoping my incredulity would self-weaponise into a deadly, dad-ly death ray.

    “Why don’t you try one?” He looks at me pityingly; that brand of effortless, sneering disdain only youth can conjure. I thought he was about to launch into a new meme - whatever/YOLO/your Mum/can you even lift/yoowanschom? (If this last sentence means nothing to you - rejoice! You’re a better parent than me.) But no, the world spun backwards on its axis for a heartbeat and he popped one in his mouth.

    I waited. He chews and puckers.

    “Hmmm. Alright.” But that would never be enough. “Not much flavour.”

    And there he was correct.

    I’ve just noticed that I’ve unwittingly used the ‘Thought for the Day’ intro structure. Use some anecdote, witty or profound… or neither… and then do a handbrake turn into your god of choice. “So after visiting the donkey sanctuary on that damp Sunday, I remembered what Jeeeeezus said…" I suppose if I have any faith (I don’t) it’s in the restorative, palliative and collectivist qualities of food shared.

    Back to the bland cherries. They can be can't they; a little flavourless? It's why I poach them in a spiced syrup to which I've added a dash of creme de cerise, a good quality French cherry liqueur. I spice the syrup with orange peel, black peppercorns, star anise, cloves and cinnamon first - it keeps for months in the fridge. The colour from the cherries stain it a luscious deep pink. I cook the cherries for maybe two minutes, then a handful of blueberries. Finally the plums for no more than two minutes. Plums are brilliant - in colour and floral flavour. Whatever plum duff is, I should make it. 

    Lift out the cooked fruit, dressing with a little of the poaching syrup, sprinkle with the crumble - in fact the biscuit base from my cheesecake (this time made with a little less salt). Pile it all around a good squidge of sweetened, vanilla mascarpone.

    Marc's centre in black. Mind, so is everyone else.
    The occasion was Marc's 50th. His second time with us, but his wife Nili's fourth I think. He'd ordered a beef wellington but I'm used to them now so no fuss. It's actually a quick dish to prepare. One change this time. I added some home-made babaganoush to the mushroom duxelle (as you do). I thought the smokey element would work. I think it did.

    Making beef wellington isn't hard; cutting it into good looking, even portions however... I've tried serrated knives, boning knives, cook's knives. Sheesh. Maybe I need thicker pastry? Currently, slicing is a two man job and there still needs to be a little panic of pastry restoration work between each.

    Etien helping me... my way.
    Etien helping me... his way.
    Drinks and nibbles in the lounge

    Simon enjoying beef wellington and port gravy with potato dauphinoise and green beans
    Starter had to be light so I did a lambs lettuce salad of goats cheese, fig and walnuts dressed with fig vinegar and sesame oil. The figs were just right, soft and jammy.

    Tonight, not for the first time, I noticed the intrusion of something called a 'selfie stick. It won't be the last time I'm certain.