Sunday 31 May 2015

The (NCT) human pyramid. And a little pancetta.

Some groups arrive... eat... drink... enjoy themselves... maybe a little shimmy... and exit with me pondering what can be the focus of that night's blog. With other groups the focus is rather more obvious. We've often had dancing but never before have I witnessed gymnastics.

Lizzy, Nikki, Kate, Roxanne, Monika and Anthea.
They look so... demure here.

But this is a supper club blog so let's throw some food in first. The starter was my French gnocchi with broad beans and pancetta. The pancetta was from F. Norman Butchers in Oakwood and wow, what a smoky delight it was. I've declared in the past my opinion of unsmoked bacon so I won't bore you again. Suffice to say that if you support the unsmoked bacon market you are Satan's spawn, so stop it. Unsmoked bacon is an offence to nature.

Wonderful smoked pancetta cut into lardons.

And in their starring role with French gnocchi and broad beans... and a leaf of home grown red veined sorrel.
Yes you Jon!
So, back to the gymnastics. Nikki had booked in a group of six, all of whom were NCT attendees two years ago.

Certainly some alcohol was drunk but that itself doesn't explain what came to follow. Roxanne for some reason felt it was essential that the dinner guest create a post prandial human pyramid. Luckily seven months pregnant Kate had left by this stage. There was an issue though. If I was pulled in to be the sixth member of the pyramid who was left to take the photo? Luckily, this weekend my old college friend Jon was visiting from Dublin. He was persuaded to be the centre. In rugby terms he would have been the prop.

The irony was only a few hours earlier, Monika had told me she wasn't sure about dancing as she hadn't broken that mould with the group yet. Come midnight and that mould lay in tiny shards in my back room.

You'll notice who gets top billing here.

Mammaaaa... I just killed a man... put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Passionfruit soufflé

Passion Fruit or alien eggs? Who can tell?

I love the flavour and aroma of passion fruit. I hate the look; not the outside, that's unremarkable, no, it's the whole alien egg cluster once cut open <shudders>. Once the seeds are removed you're left with something resembling an albino testicle. Just me? Maybe.

(If this autocorrect changes soufflé to shuffle one more bloody time...)

I was after a passion fruit soufflé recipe and found this one in the excellent Great British Chefs site. I was suspicious at first: where's the flour, the egg yolks, the usual custard base? But it works - light, almost fluffy and nicely scented. It works, with one caveat, it needs a sauce; something to add a little richness and tartness.

Passion Fruit Soufflé with Passion Fruit Sauce.

Serves 6.

This soufflé is basically a meringue. Add egg white to a fruit/sugar base. The recipe commits that cardinal cheffy sin of making up a tonne of something - the fruit base - when you only require a tiny amount. I've changed that here. The original also calls for 30 passion fruit. I used 12 and then made up the difference with this from Funkin. Many chefs use commercial fruit purées  It's impossible sometimes (most times) to get decent passion fruit. British supermarkets are seemingly determined to sell flavourless fruit at vast cost. The Funkin range is brilliant: ripe fruit squeezed and pasteurised, sometimes with a little sugar added. The pouches keep for ages until opened. I use the passion fruit, raspberry and especially the cherry. Stay away from the lemon and lime though. Citrus juices are nasty once pasteurised. You may as well swig Jif.

Oh, you'll need a sugar thermometer.

As we're whisking egg whites, you might want to check our my visual guide. Now you can see what 'over worked' means.

First prepare your ramekins. melt some butter and roll it around each ramekin. Place in the fridge for five minutes and then roll some caster sugar around in each. You want a light dusting. If you don't chill the melted butter slightly you'll get a sugary sludge. Put your ramekins back in the fridge.

Squeeze out the pulp from six passion fruit. Blend or food process for a few seconds to break up the seeds and strain through a sieve. You can leave the seeds whole if you like your soufflés crunchy. I don't.

Add 50g caster sugar to 30g water and a teaspoon of glucose syrup and bring to the boil slowly. Slowly because you don't want the water evaporating before the sugar's dissolved. Once everything's clear and liquid increase the heat and bring the mixture to the 'soft ball' stage - 112°C. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes.

Stir in the passion fruit juice and again bring back up to 112°C. Allow to cool a little while you whisk up six egg whites to soft peaks.

Pour the sugar mix into the egg whites and whisk in until incorporated.

Fill the ramekins to the brim with the mixture, ensuring no big air cavities. Level with a knife. Wipe all around with a damp cloth to ensure you serve nice, shiny white ramekins and not something that looks like it's been rolling around in the garden.

Bake at... now the original recipe rather cunningly does't give a temperature, so I had to experiment. I've found 210°C to give the best results. Any cooler and the mix doesn't rise fast enough before it cooks. So, yeah, 210°C for seven minutes. And with this recipe it has to be seven minutes, a few seconds longer and you're serving delicious, if overcooked, omelette.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve immediately. I ask my guests to make a hole in the top and then I walk around, pouring the sauce straight in.

Passionfruit Sauce.

Remove the pulp from three passion fruit - no need to pulverise the seeds here - and mix with a table spoon of sugar syrup (1:1 water and sugar brought to the boil) and a couple of tablespoons of lemon curd. Mine was home made but there's plenty of decent shop bought. Lemon curd is mainly egg yolk and I think this soufflé needs that richness added. Taste and adjust. You want a fairly tart sauce to contrast with the sugar pillow.

Wild garlic gathering (not)

Allium triquetrum 

Oh hell. I've been calling this wild garlic all week. It's not. It's wild onion, sometimes called three cornered leek due to the triangular stem. Allium triquetrum - to clear up any confusion. It's delicious - a mild, sweet spring onion with a small allium bulb root and delicate, edible white flowers.

I'm going to have to break the news to Emma. I rang her up in her capacity as The Food Gatherer. If anyone could find it, she would. Emma also wrote about it and featured a picture of a fat man chewing the cud. She knew (she thought) of a tennis club in the wilds of Winchmore Hill where wild garlic grew in abundance.

I had some in Arbutus, my favourite London restaurant a few weeks ago which is why I knew they were in season (April and May). Then a guest talked about them so I knew I had to embark on a little allium gathering. You can purée the whole thing of course, which I will do, or pestle into a pesto. Here I wanted to use them to garnish my rather splendid new dish of lamb chump.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Lamb Chump... and a bag of beans.

This is the best meal I've ever cooked. Obviously I hope it's not the best one I will ever cook. The irony is: I don't even like lamb.  Let's do the restaurant description:
Oven roast lamb chump with roasting juices and an onion crumb, served with minted pea purée and sweet pickled red cabbage and garnished with wild garlic.
Lamb chump
I'd not even heard of lamb chump until Susan, who dined with us on Saturday, mentioned it. Rather embarrassed at my ignorance, I knew that a quick chat with Jim at F. Norman butchers in Oakwood was needed. Lamb chump is basically rump steak but is often sold as chops. It comes from the back, next to the more expensive loin and rack. It prepares as a strange looking triangular joint, two to an animal with a thin coating of top fat that crisps nicely in a hot pan. The meat is beautifully tender and flavoursome when pink. There's a good chunk of meat here with no bone or sinew to spoil the eating.

The shape of the joint presents some issues. the three corners will cook quickly. I decided to cook several joints (two will feed three people) and serve them sliced, ensuring everyone has some of the more tender central steaks. The joints were fat scored and seasoned simply.

This is where a cast iron skillet comes into its own. The pan will retain its heat and sear the meat quickly. You want a short time in the pan to avoid cooking the interior. I was looking for  a delicious, dark caramelisation of fat and flesh.

Well seared lamb chumps in my cast iron skillet, ready for the oven
My skillet was so hot that when I pressed the joints in, fat side down, the fat atomised immediately and caught alight. Phwoosh. Careful there. It's a little like what happens when I flame tomatoes, although there it's steam creating a hot fat aerosol that ignites. I seared all sides, removed the joints and deglazed the pan with lamb stock. At this point the meat can be put aside until guests arrive.

Flaming tomatoes. Ow.
The final stage is to place the joints back in the skillet or a small heavy, roasting dish and place in a 220°C oven for ten minutes. Time will vary slightly with the number of joints you cook. Maybe twelve minutes for six or more joints. The chumps should still feel springy when you take them out. Now remove the joints to a chopping board and rest for at least 15 minutes. Don't be tempted to cut them, or god forbid, serve them straight away. They need to relax (such a strange term for burnt meat) and retain their juices.

Anyway, you now must turn back to the skillet. Deglaze using more lamb stock, scraping away at all the tasty sticky bits. I throw in some tomatoes at this point for some body and acidity. Bring to the boil with any meat trimming you might have and allow to reduce, then season with salt and pepper. You can serve this but I chose to add a few extra flavourings: some reduced port and a splash of l'Olivier cassis vinegar. How much? Who knows, it's all to taste.

Sticky and delicious
I realised this was going to be good when Etien, no fan of lamb, nibbled on a cut off corner. The quality pierced even his adolescent sang-froid. "Oh my God, try this." It was very fine. My guests agreed. Several declared it the best lamb they'd ever had. This is a dish I'm confident I will serve again and again.

Friday - Katie and George

Their first time with us, Katie booked a surprise for her husband's birthday. And I mean a real surprise. The friends arrived first and hid in our garden. Meanwhile, Katie - who'd dropped off the alcohol earlier - told George she fancied a walk in the park. I've no idea what he thought walking into my house. He did look befuddled until the friends launched themselves from the garden.

George and Katie at the head of the table

Saturday - Susan and Stephen

Another birthday for another husband. Self declared foodies, Susan was very specific in her menu requirements - I'm glad she was. This is often how I discover new ideas. On this occasion: lamb chump, wild garlic and passionfruit soufflés. I'll cover these last two items in other blogs.

Saturday evening turned somewhat horizontal after dinner. Susan, suffering some post hip-op pain needed to sit flat and, at first, plonked herself down on the hard floor in the lounge. I wasn't having that so I offered use of our 'fat-boy' bean bag. Joints were eased. Her friends joined her in the lounge and took their wine Roman style. Some may even have had a restorative, post-prandial nap.

Like I say: we're not a restaurant.

Susan taking it easy on the 'Fat-boy'

Monday 18 May 2015

Baked Alaska, two times

"It's his favourite dessert." Said Lara, of Stephen, her husband and Saturday's birthday celebrant. I said no at first, thinking how on earth do I plate up that, but then scolded myself for being so defeatist and texted her back, agreeing to it: New River Restaurant's first baked Alaska.

It was only when I was recipe sourcing that I realised there's no such thing as baked Alaska; certainly nothing as defined as, say, a lemon tart or a chocolate cake. The BA is an umbrella term for ice cream (or sorbet) coated in meringue (French or Italian), usually on a base of cake (not always) with fruit (rarely), and baked (or not) briefly to caramelise.

There are literally thousands of combinations covering confections of coffee, caramel and chocolate to (what I grew up thinking was a real Alaska) vanilla sponge, jam and ice cream. I decided to create my own.

After some weekday trials I realised that BA suffered the fate of most desserts of US origin: being far too sweet. The American desserts seem to have no upper sugar or fat limit - other than the diabetic death of the eater. More is more. Think of banoffee pie, a Brown Betty or key lime. The Iowa State Fair once served a whole stick of butter, dipped in a cinnamon honey batter and deep-fried... and THEN coated in a sugary glaze. I kid you not.

Test number one: no chocolate chips and too-sweet jam.
I wanted to introduce some tartness as a foil to the ice cream and marshmallowy meringue. I wanted a dessert I could finish without an accompanying insulin shot. I also decided to go with a showstopper rather than individual BAs. The ratios are wrong with the small versions; it's a surface area thing: too much meringue

I decided on a Genoise because of its structure, melting ice cream would not turn it into a mass of sog. Valrhona dark chocolate chips would add textural interest and bursts of bitterness. It's the same recipe I used for my espresso sponge but baked in a 23cm round tin. This one suffered a slight accident on the way out of the tin.

On top of this: a tart raspberry compote. One punnet of raspberries boiled down with some caster sugar and then roughly blended with another two punnets of fruit. Apart from the tartness this introduced some much needed vibrancy and colour. A problem with vanilla is is can look a little, well, vanilla.

Ice Cream
On this would go crème fraîche ice cream, less sweet than traditional custard base and slightly tart. On this occasion, I added vanilla seeds instead of lemon juice as I normally would when I serve it with my little apple sponges. I churned the ice cream and then set it in a dome shamed bowl. A quick sit in hot water and it's ready to be slid on top of the rest. That's not a spider on the cake by the way, it's dark chocolate dust.


The whole would be topped in Italian meringue. This is different to French that you may be more familiar with. Italian meringue has a creamier texture than French, needs no further cooking and is stable for hours. French will dissolve back to egg and sugar after ten minutes or so. Italian meringue is made by adding a 120°C sugar syrup to whisked egg whites and continuing to whisk. Here I took six egg whites and added a syrup made from: 6 tablespoons of water, 360g caster sugar and three teaspoons of glucose syrup which helps prevent sugar crystallisation. Bring the egg white mix to soft peaks and then dribble in the hot syrup. And yes, this means knowing how long the whites will take and the syrup to heat. Experience is all here. You then continue to whisk until the meringue cools to room temperature. Without a mixer you'll need biceps of Thor (or perhaps Ganesh - ha). I used a tip from the always brilliant website and rubbed a slice of lemon around the bowl first. The acidity helps stabilise the egg whites while you whisk.

I piped on the meringue and used a blow torch to colour. Hold the flame at right angles to the BA to just catch the ridges. I'm very pleased with the presentation. I was worried that this wouldn't feed ten people. Boy, was I wrong. This does twelve - easy.

Friday night - Mitch and Mahan

I think Mahan is praying: no more baked Alaska please!

Saturday night: Lara and Stephen

Stephen and Lara's second time with us. They asked for the smoked haddock gratin to kick off. I served it with a small salad of lambs lettuce and some confit tomatoes rather than poached egg - too much for a starter.

Lara's saying: sorry, can you hear me? Am I speaking too quietly?