Monday, 27 April 2015

Surf, turf... a recent, er, birf. And feelings unearfed [sorry].

It's a bit weird now, hosting friends. It's how we started, I know but I have this whole cheffy schtick going - bonhomie, bon viveur, raconteur; generally being nice to people. That isn't going to work with friends is it!?

Sarah and Ted booked. Haven't seen them for ages. They were bringing Jeremy and Michelle who are old friends but moved away recently to have a baby; London property prices forcing the move. We used to host a huge cocktail party every year. Also coming were Deborah and Gary. Debs used to teach my boys in Hazelwood school. These are people who I've doubtless offended but have sprung back; who've been (very) drunk with me; consoled me; shared cares and scares with me.

There is a tension when hosting friends. Things work well in the restaurant with a slight formality and they might be uncomfortable with that. I don't have much time to chat during service. Will they feel I'm being aloof - at least, more aloof than normal? I'm not naturally disposed towards social grace. It's something I've had to learn and still struggle with. It's one of the reasons I don't drink at all during service. I can't afford a loose lip. I don't mean to offend... but that won't mean I don't. With friends, that irreverent, shouty, Welsh, flippant voice is so much the louder.

I think I've enjoyed keeping Mr Bombast in check though. It's good to play a role sometimes - to escape yourself. Who doesn't get fed up of themselves? Perhaps that's what professionalism means? Perhaps I should have realised that some time ago. This blog is always a tussle between inner and outer: the singalong innocence of daytime TV instructions and my own, often boundary pressing, humour. Cath Kidston cooks for Hemingway?

I think though, that a restaurateur (if I may be so bold)  like a doctor or a lawyer, has a certain bond of confidentiality with their guests. What happens in New River Restaurant stays in New River Restaurant. Mostly. I mean, it's been two years now I've not even mentioned the guest who was so drunk she threw up into her chocolate soufflé. 

Enough with the introspection.

Sarah wanted a smoked mackerel paté and then our beef shin. This allowed me to serve some of the sixteenth of a cow I'd bought. English Longhorn beef is prized. The shin had been portioned before delivery so I had to reduce cooking time to three hours. Seemed to work. Certainly my guests enjoyed it. I'm not sure I noticed a great flavour premium (bearing in mind I normally serve Angus anyway) but the texture was excellent. 

Smoked mackerel paté, sweet pickled fennel, focaccia toast and black garlic purée

Smoked mackerel paté is only as good as your smoked mackerel. Make an effort to source whole fish rather than those plastic wrapped fillets. Pat in Green Lanes Fisheries had run out so I made a trip to Purkis in Muswell Hill.

Smoked mackerel are lovely things; the skin is like gold foil. The only downside is the checking, rechecking and the 'bloody, bloody, bloody' final checking for bones. In mackerel some are hairlike; so easy to miss.

I keep my paté simple: two parts mackerel to one part cream cheese, invariably Philadelphia. To this add lemon zest and lemon juice, salt and pepper. Steady with the zest though, you want a citrus note not a lemon and fish paste.

The paté was served with a light salad, sweet pickled fennel, some riddled focaccia toast and finally, that dark smear: black garlic purée. I had a hunch it would work. Made simply, blending the peeled black cloves with rice bran oil for its completely neutral taste, seasoning and a little lemon juice. Belinda loved it. "Wow!" And she's not so easily impressed these days.

Less impressive was my ability to not photograph Michelle, mother of baby. I did try a few times, only to realise she was breastfeeding. A long lens is not necessarily welcome. I'm not so gauche. Not anymore.

Gary and Sarah
Jeremy and Sarah. He doesn't look tired at all does he?
And Eddie. Our youngest ever guest. Ssssh.

Short ribs for Mike's birthday

I haven't been this excited about an ingredient for some time. Short ribs are my new best friend. I'd marry them if it wasn't weird. If you haven't cooked short ribs, if you haven't even heard of them, then read up. They are inexpensive with a rich taste and texture, easy cooking and a joy to plate.

It was laughable really. I only cooked short ribs this Friday because I'd bought one-sixteenth of an English Longhorn steer but the ribs I cooked weren't off that animal. 

Host Mike - brother of Danny, one of our frequent flyers - wanted slow cooked beef for his birthday, a lively party of ten. Flashback to: a few weeks ago and me agreeing to enter a syndicate and buy a whole animal with Peter, a Cambridgeshire farmer and Facebook friend. I told Mike I'd probably serve up some of our much admired beef shin but I couldn't be sure until my bovine fraction arrived.

Sadly a conflation of Cambridgeshire contingencies meant the meat arrived late on Friday morning. And I had a problem, not with the quality but with the cuts. Bags of brilliant fillet, rump, feather, silverside, brisket, shin, mince... but no single joint large enough for ten. Bugger! Despite having a serious amount of cow, I needed more. Fast. I rang up my butcher in Oakwood. 

"Jim, can you deliver me some shin? I need about three kilos." But Jim had no shin. He'd backed off the stewing steak. "It's the fine weather." He explained. "No one's braising beef." Damn the fickle English climate.

Alternatives? "Brisket?" Nah. I don't trust it. In my experience, brisket is unpredictable. The exact same cooking can result in succulent, slippery chunks... or beige carpet... from a hallway... of a rented flat.

"How about some short rib? You know, Jacob's Ladder?" I said I'd call him back. 

I knew Anthony Demetre respects the short rib so I checked his recipe. It felt familiar. Slow cooking in a delicious braising liquor. A quick internet trawl through the chefs I trust: Jamie, Hugh, Phil Howard encouraged me. Short ribs were much like shin but they held a huge attraction for the home cook in that they are pre-portioned. You buy one per guest, you cook one per guest and you serve one per guest. Big, lubricious joints like shin, chuck or blade can be a pain to portion up but if you pre-portion them you risk over cooking and break-up.

So what is a short rib? You're probably familiar with the fore rib and the rib roast; they're one of the best and most expensive oven joints of beef you can buy. They come from the top of the animal - the big muscle near the backbone. Short ribs are lower down, in location and price; closer to the belly and between ribs 5 and 8. This is an excellent butchery video that explains it all. There are several cuts of short rib but the most common in this country is called, unsurprisingly, English cut, or surprisingly 'Jacob's Ladder'. I can't find the reason for the biblical allusion. Probably just the appearance of the whole joint when held longways.

I was surprised when they arrived, at the size mainly. Short ribs are thick bricks of meat, nicely marbled with fat and with a broad, thin blade of bone running their length.

English cut short ribs of beef
First thing to do is sear them for flavour and colour. Same thing really. I have a magnificent heavy Lodge cast iron pan now that holds heat well. It's hard to get a really hot pan with a domestic hob. Ideally you want a very brief contact with the cooking surface that's hotter than the sun. The object here is to caramelise only the outside while leaving the insides cool and pink. When the recipe tells you to use a smoking hot pan, that's what they mean.

Many of the recipes I found were variations on barbecue beef but as this was my first time I stuck with my shin recipe.

I'd sautéed off a dice of three carrots, two onions, a large leek and three sticks of celery. To that was added a handful of thyme, a few inches of rosemary and three tomatoes. After that I added a bottle of red wine, half of port and reduced the whole by half again. The meat was placed in this and the whole pot was brimmed up with stock.

This is the largest braising pot I have and ten short ribs only just fit. This is one of the reasons I can't cook for more guests. I've been asked so many times to squeeze in a dozen. Sorry. Can't be done.

Bring this back to the boil, lid on and place in a 150°C oven for about three hours. I doubt an extra 30 mins would do any harm. The beef contracts back along the bone, leaving it poking out: a handy serving handle. It's almost the comedy joint: a caveman cutlet.

I took the beef out a good hour before I would serve it. This allowed me to take a small pot of the cooking liquor and reduce to a sticky gravy which only needed a little seasoning and a fruity dab of redcurrant jelly to finish.

The ribs were served with panfried whole leaves of black cabbage (blanch, refresh and store in ice water, then fry in seasoned butter just before serving), beetroot purée and roast red onion. 

After some suggestion of a low carb meal, Mike caved spectacularly (and correctly) and requested roast potatoes too. I think my roasties are among the world's finest; not a claim I'll make easily. I want crunchy exteriors, deep golden, friable edges and fluffy insides. Those meekly tanned, leathery efforts are an insult to their cooks. If I wanted jackets I'd have left the skins on. 

Maris Piper with shallots, thyme and marrow bone. Ready for the oven

I have a few rules, most of which you'll probably be familiar with. We are a post-Delia nation after all.
  • Use Maris Pipers. These are the least wet spuds available. It's all about the starch. Lots of dry matter gives you a fluffy finish, little dry matter and you have a soapy texture.
  • Make sure the potatoes are evenly sized. Again, it's just obvious: same size = same cooking time
  • Parboil the potatoes. Heston does it almost to destruction but that's a world of pain. I usually stick around 12 minutes.
  • Dry the potatoes after boiling. Space them out on a clean tea towel and allow them to steam themselves dry. You can rough up the surface by gently shuffling them about too.
  • Heat the roast pan on the hob and make sure your oil is very hot. Roll the pots in the oil, covering all sides.
  • Use goose fat. I'm not as fascist about this I once was. I've used sunflower oil with decent results. Personally I think olive oil imparts the wrong flavour.
  • Flavour the oil. Fry up some onion or shallots first and then some thyme. leave the aromatics in. the onion can also be served up. On this occasion I had some chunks of bone marrow so I roasted that too.
  • Turn the potatoes half way through the cooking. 
  • Cook for at least an hour. Ignore recipes that pretend you can do it in less. I don't think the temperature matters as much as the time. I tend to go for 90 minutes at 180°C. Much above 200°C and things can char to bitterness. You can always take them out early. Roast pots will reheat without worry. That length of time means the onions will be almost black and your pots will have a savoury bake to them; a scarf of invisible umami (sorry).

I'm going to be cooking short ribs a lot. I want to do a real 'lo and slo' Texan style dish. Sadly, I don't have access to a cold smoker (I mean the kit, not some bloke standing outside Wetherspoons in January, nib end in crooked fingers). A 24 hour marinade of balsamic vinegar and sweet onion purée followed by an overnight cook; a long kip in a warm duvet. Serve it on a bed of zingy salad and something soft like carrot purée or celeriac.

When Mike arrived with his partner Warren, I was discomfited to hear them discussing their lunch at The Ledbury. There are only nineteen Michelin two star restaurants in the UK and Brett Graham's Kensington establishment is one of them. I've been. It was excellent. That's not intimidating is it? Now I never pretend that I am 'fine dining' but still... I didn't want them wistful at the memory when faced with my domestic output.

They seemed to enjoy it. In fact. both were very generous in their compliments. Not that I trust compliments. You know what the English are like. Mind, Warren is from South Africa. And the plates did come back clean. That's the only praise I believe.

Warren on the left, Danny on the right.


Warren's probably thinking: it's not as good as The Ledbury.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Grand Tour part 2 - Germany and France

Is this a pictorial metaphor or just a picture of weird Alsace sausages? You decide.

Halfway through the journey and things are getting desperate for Etien. His primary consideration now for any venue, be it restaurant, gothic cathedral or vineyard was: "Does it have free wifi?" Such are the trials of the adolescent life. Actually, most camp sites did have wifi, varying wildly in price from free to many Euro per hour.

My inability to find a receptive camp site near Basel meant a detour north in Germany and the Black Forest. Spoiler: it's not black and there's not much forest. There are picturesque hamlets and good roads (barely a clatter). Did I take any photos? No.

The British don't holiday in Germany, doubtless an atavistic aversion which we really should have discarded along with ration books, rickets and racism. I've been many times, a consequence of a best friend (Pete) inseminating a German woman and giving up everything English to go and live in Munich - with her, I should add. Germany is a country of big skies and beautiful, diverse landscapes. Like Britain turned up to 11 but with a much better infrastructure. Bigger mountains, more forest, larger lakes. Go. FFS.

I mean... look at it!
Three countries in as many days coupled with the fatigue of a heavy driving day - we drove through Switzerland in six hours. If you've done it, you'll know I mean through and not across - meant my foreign language mode was a mess. I speak little French and less German and Italian so words were plucked like low hanging fruit from every lexical branch. "Ich möchte faire une reservátion pour una notte, per favoré." Thankfully, as everyone in Northern Europe is a polyglot, they understood and went to with barely a snigger.

The van was working well by now. Patterns of life had been established. We remembered to turn off the gas before leaving. We knew how to stick up the silvered window screens in the evening. How to refill the fresh water and drain the grey. More importantly we knew not to use the van's toilet; there's always an alternative. An early morning scamper to the wash block is far better than sluicing out the 'cassette'.

Our third stopping site of choice - I should have known better, I should have guessed - came from a recommendation off the Caravan Club (UK) website. There's an 'official' CC place in Münsterthal, rated as very good, but the one we headed for was a few miles down the road and said to be 'exceptional'. 

Answers on a postcard please. Or email.
As we drove past the 'very good' site I tensed up. To this casual observer it looked like something normally run by the UNHCR. Belinda blanched. Etien asked if they had free wifi. Our camp was better. Much better. There was some shrubbery at least and the occasional tree. There was also a bakery that took orders for the morning. The Germans seem to insist on the freshest bread, daily. Mothers (it was mainly women) with bags of twenty rolls. I got there too late, about 8.30am and the cupboard was bare, apart from this gorgeous sweet, nutty thing. No idea of the name. Fabian (by text) thought it looked like a large intestine. The shower block was superb and they had a proper, sit down restaurant where ladies in full Oktoberfest dress administered to our needs. We didn't use it.

No. Instead, leaving Etien in the van, so onerous were his Facebook duties (it wasn't free but it was cheap enough), we took another spotless train to Freiburg. I'd been using the Michelin Route app which is full of recommended places to eat. I don't use it any more.

Frieburg is a smashing little town. It has a university which invariably ensures the lights don't dim at 9pm (unlike most caravan parks). I wanted something with local cooking so we headed for a well established hotel next to the cathedral. The trouble with established 'local cuisine' is it can often mean 'lazy cooking'. But also I don't want some Young Turk's fusion either. Sushi Flammekueche? Nein danke. I want traditional dishes presented with love. I didn't get it.

Traditional of what though? This is Alsace, an area that's been tossed between Germany and France several times over the past few centuries. The upside is it's beautiful, the downside: the food. Prepare yourself for a few pars of major whinge. 

I was disappointed by the food from the area. Frankly Alsace I think you can do better. You are France (now) after all. The general philosophy seems to be: how can we combine masses of cheese, pork and cream and then serve huge portions of it? Veg? What? Oh, bung some green salad or sauerkraut on the side. Quantity not quality. Such a change from the precision and passion of Italy. The picture below is an example. This is a fàmmeküeche, flàmmaküacha, flammekuechle, flammkuchen or tarte flambée. It's a staple, like pizza or a pasty. And that's the starter portion I was served in Strasbourg.

Sadly the hotel food was mediocre; completely lacking in confidence and ambition. I had a plate of bread and paté that would be easily usurped by service station fare. Service was lacking too. We'd both finished our starter before the wine arrived. And this was after much eyebrow raising, pointed smiling and pulling the stilted hand gestures of men modelling underwear in Grattons. "Look Jeff. Is that the chap with our trousers?" Mains: some kind of venison stew. Belinda had veal with Spaetzle - a noodle like dish. We left without ordering dessert. Always a bad sign.

In Strasbourg I booked dinner in l'Ancienne Douane, an 'established and much loved' restaurant with a terrance on a canal. Both views, service and food met the general pattern.

Fantastic site. Less fantastic food.
Belinda's 'ham hock'. A whole one of course. With... er... spuds that also feature pork.
Etien's steak-frite came with a flaccid field of beans and a side serving of SnapChat, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Yes, it was free.

My local delicacy. Half a pig - belly, cheek, various sausage, with spuds and a mountain of sauerkraut.
Parsley clearly counts as veg.
For some reason, this came with ketchup.

I think the worst dish was Belinda's starter. She wanted something light, seeing the passing plates. The menu listed 'crudités' and just to be sure it was translated in English as 'raw vegetables. What she got was four different types of sauerkraut, piled high. It made us laugh at least.

To make my point about excess look at the drink on the left. That's what passes as a 'cappuccino'. Whipped cream! You can't drink the coffee of course. You first have to eat the cream, by which time, the coffee's cold. Can you imagine the barista reaction?

We spent only one night in the Black Forest. Next stop was a camp on the German side of the Rhine  the border with France. A ten minute tram ride took us into the heart of Strasbourg and a different country. I think the place has a PR issue, what with it being a site of the European Parliament  but it's a gorgeous and ancient city, with an oddly Flemish feel, run through with canals, much like Brugges. The Gothic cathedral is astonishing.

One question though. When is Europe open? As tourists you doubtless have fallen foul to the extended lunch or the siesta. You pitch up wanting a pint of milk to discover the town in lock down for the afternoon. Fair enough. I'm all for a long lunch. But Strasbourg is a major, modern conurbation and even here there were large shops closed for a midday meal and then well into the afternoon. There seems to be no time when everything is accessible at once. Maybe we are a nation of shopkeepers?

Strasbourg Cathederal


See. Looks like Brugges.

I did have one good meal in Strasbourg: a warm salad of goats cheese, sat outside Café Broglie, a quintessential French bistro. I love how they transform a quick beer into a languorous lunch with just the flick of a well starched tablecloth, cruet and a basket of bread.

Before the salad arrived

Onwards and southwards. My mate Jacob, he of vinegar fame, had implored us to visit the walled village of Riquewihr. Pronounced Reek-uh-veer, with an initial rolled 'R', as Gallic as Gauloise and a shoulder shrug. I'm so glad we did. Riquewihr is stunning: a medieval town that looks largely as it did in the 16th century, set in vine striped, green volcanic hills. There was an almost empty campsite half a mile from the town centre, where the wifi roamed free. We had kept the best till last.

Volcanic? The view from the camp site. A hamlet close to Riquewihr.

True it is a tourist draw but this was April so there were no crowds. You're met at the approach road by an undistinguished Hotel d'Ville but once through the arch you are into what feels like a film set. But this is no Disney fluff, this is a working town that is very much a centre of wine production and sales. Hugel, a hugely respected company, is here for a start - with a tasting room. There are also artisan shops selling locally made cheeses, charcuterie and confectionary.

The High Street

Vins Fins Hugel. Salon de Dégustation.

Cheese shop
Munster cheeses
Blueberry, paprika and chestnut sausage. Bought by Etien.
Never been to a 'nougaterie' before.
Starters at D'Brendel Stub.
Vegetarians look away now.
Claire in the camp reception recommended D'Brendel Stub. Funny name, great place. Although the waiter seemed initially frosty ("Reservation?" He asked, while we stared at a completely empty restaurant, on a Monday night. In fairness it did fill out later)  this was our best meal of the holiday. It's open on a Monday but closed Tuesday and Wednesday. I don't know why. I asked the now thawed waiter to surprise me with a bottle of something local (to drink, you understand), to accompany our foie gras - served with a balsamic reduction, muscat jelly and pickled apple. 

After he'd checked his hair, he brought us a Domaine Weinbach Reisling. Alsatian wine has had something of a bad rap: sweet and insipid, like much mediocre German fare in the 70s. But this was epic: structured, balanced with butter and grapefruit (enough!). We hadn't yet gone mental with alcohol and the van had many cupboards crying out to be filled.

Horribly overexposed. Sorry. I was experimenting with manual mode on the camera.
The front room of Maison Domaine Weinbach

Next day I called the vineyard, hoping for a bargain, and was told to 'call in'. They were only 3km away. I expected customer parking, a vineyard 'experience' and perhaps a gift shop  Nope. This was very much on the balsamic model. We were met by Mme Collette Catherine, whose family owns the vineyard. The vines but not her family, go back to 890. Yup, just three digits. Madame (I believe the term is 'fragrant') sat us in a front room, just off the family lounge and produced some bottles of Grand Cru. Did we want a spittoon? No. Happy to swallow, like peasants. We made our choices and chatted, politely at first, she sat smiling with effortless poise. She had learned English while staying with an Indian family in Enfield. She knew our area. We talked of curries and her love then instilled of dhal and flat breads while small tractors drove past the French doors; their form distorting in the uneven wave of the glass lites. It was a moment. We left with 15 bottles: the riesling, gewurztraminer and the pinot gris. packed while we waited in their bottling facility.

On the return journey to the campsite, this being our last day, we stopped at a supermarket: the largest I've even seen; twice the size of Enfield's CostCo. The kind of place you go for bread, milk, bacon and a canoe... and a tractor. We did the English thing: the big Supermarché shop: wine, beer, cheese and beer. And wine.
I've never seen so much fromage. A double sided aisle and a separate fromagerie. We filled up. Belinda sadly choosing the washed rind, cows milk stuff that smells like something died in a warm, damp cupboard a long time ago. Even tripped bagged, this produced howls from Etien and me every time the fridge was opened. Taste is mainly in the nose remember so I can only imagine there are chemicals that she can't smell and we can. Boy, could we.

Beaucoup de fromage
This now needs an end par; a rounding off. Something pithy, drawing strands together; sagacious reflections; words warm, wise and witty about travels across Europe. Nah. Buggered if I can now. I'll sleep on it. Something that's actually quite hard to do in a camper van. I was exhausted when I got home.