Monday 29 June 2015

Orange sorbet

There are few things more refreshing. Orange sorbet and I go way back, sort of, in the form of an orange ice lolly at least. When I was ill as a child (rarely - that was my mother's job) an orange ice lolly (never a Mivvi!) was what I hankered after. Something about frozen citrus, the chilled, zesty juiciness, that seemed to perk me up. Doubtless it had a numbing effect on a sore throat. Maybe it balmed a feverish body? I would root around in the Wall's or Lyons Maid chiller, irrespective of the season, looking for something in a sodden paper wrapper, usually frost buried at the bottom. An Orange Maid or a Frutie. Today's choice would be a Calipo. It's still one of my very favourite things.

Sorbet. in theory is the simplest of things - there should be only two ingredients: fruit and sugar - but Sorbets are tricky to get right; harder than ice creams that's for sure. Cold cream will always churn but too little sugar and you get ice not sorbet, too much and you get a tub of slush that will never freeze. Like all great cooking, the secret is down to quality of ingredients and the technical skill of the practitioner. A simple recipe exposes both.

With any sorbet, texture is key. It must be churned like an ice cream (but no dairy of course, hence the distinction. And let's not get into the whole sorbet/sherbet thing here). It must have some density, not too light. We don't want it whipped. But not too much ice either. We're not at home to granita granularity. No, no, no.

I tried several recipes and unusually couldn't find one I liked. The sugar and fruit balance must be right naturally but it should also have an acid tang, a striking pick-me-up zest. Many commercial confections seem to lack this entirely or else it feels synthetic. When I was formulating this recipe I went to some lengths to ensure all the orange oils found in the zest ended up in the sorbet.

Oh, sidebar. You know what really winds me up? OK, too many things to list here but specifically I'm talking about citrus oils here. You order a martini and bartender asks if you want olives or a twist (or both - all kinds of wrong) and then proceeds to pare and twist the lemon zest AWAY from the drink. Gah! The whole point of a twist, the reason it's so called(!) is because you prepare it over the drink, spraying the volatile oils across the surface of the liquid. These oils are the volatile flavour compounds. You can even set them alight. It's a critical component of the cosmopolitan. Actually this isn't that much of a sidebar. With both martini and sorbet you are trying to capture a citric essence. Another comparison is their simplicity. Both martini and sorbet have only two ingredients but their execution will tell you much about the maker. If you want to know how good a cocktail bar is, ask for a martini. If they reach for the vodka, walk out. A martini is gin. It is. there's no point arguing about it. They should ask you how dry. They should chill the glass. Your opinion regarding olives and lemon zest should be sought. 
That's the difference between a great martini and something you'd buy in a Wetherspoon's.

Ah, now this is a sidebar. Did you know the name Wetherspoon was reputedly chosen by founder Tim Martin because it was the surname of a teacher at school who told him he would never amount to anything? Hoo hoo.

Orange Sorbet

Microplane grater:
best for zest
My recipe makes about two litres, mainly because that's the maximum my ice-cream maker will take. Don't attempt this without one. That nonsense about freezing and hand whisking every few hours won't work. For a start, you'll forget and be the disconsolate owner of the world's largest orange ice cube. No machine, just go granita instead.

You'll need about 1800ml of orange juice. The best option here is buying some brilliant, fully ripe oranges and hand juicing them. But this is Britain. Good luck. How many you need obviously depends on the size and juiciness of the fruit, but you're looking at at least 20. You can cheat and go half and half with that freshly squeezed juice in the supermarket. I did. BUT it must be the fresh, expensive stuff with bits in. The not-from-concentrate won't cut it. We won't even mention concentrates. You wouldn't would you? Like milking a plastic cow.

But hang on, before you cut them for juicing...

Spread out 400g of caster sugar on a baking tray or some such. Using a zester or fine grate five large oranges over this sugar. Let the zest fall into the sugar. You will see the sugar change colour to a pale orange. That's fabulous flavour that it is. Use a gentle touch. You don't want the bitter white pith just below.

You can actually grind up this sugar/zest and sprinkle it on fruit. Bloody delicious. I use just this mix on my baked rhubarb.

This is what a well zested orange looks like. Naked!
Add this sugar/zest combo to 400ml of orange juice in a sauce pan. To this add a whole 140g tube of glucose syrup. You'll find it in the home baking section. This will add some creaminess to the texture. You can make a well textured sorbet using just glucose but the cost would be prohibitive. Slowly bring juice, zest and sugars to a boil to make an orange syrup. Make sure all the caster is dissolved. Strain the syrup through fine sieve and add the rest of the orange juice. This is now ready to churn. Taste it first. You might want to add more glucose to sweeten, or more juice. Chilling deadens the sweetness remember. Chill it in the fridge for an hour at least before adding it to your machine. The faster you can freeze it, the smoother the result. It's why Heston uses super cooled liquid nitrogen. Got any of that? Nope, me neither.

After the sorbet has churned put it in a sealed container and freeze for another hour or two.

If you want more advice, using other fruit, try this article from the incomparable serious Brilliant web site.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Crab on toast

Summer came thundering in with her heavy hands of heat and histamine, some damage to do, These assailants of the senses rob me of both sleep and smell. For weeks now I've woken, fitful and unwelcome, my lungs fizzing, pharynx sobbing, exhausted like I've been, for hours, rolling down a well padded cliff. My nights a slow movement of rasping breath, a noise like an argument in a badgers' sett.

So yeah, I have hayfever. 

Perhaps it was this seasonal fatigue that lulled me to suggest a crab starter. Hey, I love crab: sweet, sea-flavours, achingly better than the rival suitor: cotton-wooly, faintly tasting, lobster; all claw and no bite. But I'd forgotten to check the price.

I do this - forget to think about the money - If you said I was a better cook than I am a businessman I wouldn't disagree with you. Hell, I'd hoike you aloft and toast you in the nearest tavern as a wo/man of singular acuity. When I first started serving food to strangers I offered a cheese course - I still do. But it was only after three occasions I realised I was actually paying guests to eat it. Such are the horns of my current crustaceous conundrum. Fresh white, hand picked crab meat is £55 a kilo. And that's the price I get off my fishmonger - the ever sunny(!) Pat of Green Lanes Fisheries (no website - he's not one for this modern nonsense is Pat.) For comparison, the finest, grass fed, Angus beef fillet I serve is about £40 a kilo.

So yes, I will serve crab but we will have to negotiate. Remind me would you? Please. In my rush to serve nice things, I'm bound to forget.

Gail in red, then Rob and Polly centre.
Curried butternut squash soup
Gail was to miss her niece's wedding (Holly and Rob) so was planning a pre-emptive treat at the restaurant. Crab to start, then our much lauded, lamb chump dish, finishing off with a chocolate marquise served with a cherry chocolate crumble. In between I was also trying a new amuse bouche of curried butternut squash soup and a palette cleansing orange sorbet, my own recipe - very proud of myself. I'll put a link in to the recipe just as soon as I write it... as soon as I work out what I did.

EDIT: this is it.

Orange sorbet

On the phone with Gail, I'd agreed to a rather vague 'crab salad' - there are many options and foils such as asparagus, grapefruit, ginger doings, lemony snatchings... but I soon concluded that I wanted more of a bruschetta thing - a bit of crunch. Put basically: crab on toast. Crab is a delicate beastie and it's too easy to overwhelm it with citrus and other punch packing flavours. No. Keep it simple... and British. Some tomatoes would add body and acidity to the dish to counter the crab's sweetness and the mayo's sticky but without calling too much attention to itself.

Cherry chocolate crumble with chocolate marquise, chocolate nib tuile and caramel mousse

A loaf, wot I baked
But it would have to be thin toast. A thick slice would be too carby and away  necessitate about £100's worth of crab to balance. I made a long flat loaf, half white, half wholemeal (for nutty interest) the day before and left it out. The slight staleness allowed me some very fine slicing. These were rubbed with olive oil then baked for 15 minutes in a 160°C oven.

Once cooled I spread a thin layer of home-made crab paste, a mix of butter with white and brown crab meat. This was topped with a lemon verbena mayonnaise and finally the delicacy itself: pinkish strands of crab.

The toasts were served with some heritage toms, tossed in a tomato vinegar glaze; some Greek basil and a selection of salad leaves from my garden.

Crab toasts, close up

Thursday 25 June 2015

Curried butternut squash soup

Curried butternut squash soup - with a splash of red pepper vinegar

I've eschewed spices since the start; not because I dislike them, no, no, no, but because if that's the food you want there are many other cooks far more informed and accomplished than me. I am having a bit of a love affair with freshly ground coriander I confess but I didn't grow up with a sense of spice. I barely grew up. I wouldn't know where to start with your asafoetida. Spice is a world apart; too complex a palette for me to approach. I feel like a child slapping painty hands onto paper while sitting next to the brushstroke brilliance of Monet.

But this recipe uses curry powder. Yeah, I said it. CURRY POWDER. And yes, I am protesting too much. My inner hoity-toity does get a bit up itself when a recipe calls for that. It's like saying 'now add ketchup' but chefs often use it (and ketchup), even the many starred dandies. By all means roast and grind your own exquisite mix. I'll even take some off your hands if you have spare.

A Vitamix all of my own
I'm always looking for interesting amuse bouche ideas and this is where I will be pressing the squash into action, right at the front of the meal. A small, intense, smooth mouthfeel of flavour. Yielding about two litres, this recipe will amuse many bouches but will also feed eight people properly. I was about to make a serving suggestion - the usual crusty bread blah blur blum - but it's soup. You know how to eat soup yeah? This recipe is based on Marcello Tully's. It is very straightforward and cheap to make. You will need a blender though. Ah, now. Did I mention I got myself one of these? An Ebay bag, selling in Winchmore Hill. One of those putrchases you wish you made decade ago instead of faffing around with cheap shit. It's a Vitamix 5200, a design that's remained unchanged since the 50s. And yes, expensive but very worth it. Its output isn't measured in watts but in horsepower. This baby will blend bones!

Dice two white onions and gently sweat in a large pan for five minutes. When soft, add a level tablespoon of curry powder and two teaspoons of turmeric. Fry for another five minutes.

Peel, deseed and dice one large squash, about a kilo, and add to the pan. Cover this with water, about one and a half litres. Bring to the boil then leave to blip for 45 minutes. Leave the pan uncovered to allow the water to reduce. You're looking for this: very soft squash. Allow to cool.

Chunky before the blend
Pour the whole lot into a blender. You may need to do this in batches. Blend until very smooth. Strain through a sieve. Stir in 450ml of double cream and season with salt, white pepper and sugar to taste. You could even consider a dusting of garam masala.

Jason goes all Jackson P

Tuesday 16 June 2015

A wedding reception... at New River Restaurant... for how many?

Hassan and Tevec (left) and family.
I know. Who'd have thought? Well, Tevec did. She Facebooked me after some hearty LYDS recommendations and asked nicely. She was marrying Hassan. None of the other restaurants they'd looked at really worked for them. On a Monday? Afternoon? Split menu - chicken and fish? For eleven? We don't do eleven. Oh... alright. I'd squeezed eleven around a table once before; it wasn't that awful.

And then on Saturday, the weekend before, a call... Tevec's sister had arrived from New York unannounced and unexpected. Surprise! Could she possibly be squeezed in too? Which of the stone hearted among you would have said no? Hang on what? "You're a vegetarian  A fish eating vegetarian?" No. A three way split menu then.

It was while they were all eating the starter that (I think) Hassan's father said "their first meal as husband and wife." And I realised why I'd said yes. I'm such a wuss.

If there was a tear in my eye, it was probably only relief that we'd fed everyone with no incidents. The week previously I managed to spill a litre of chicken stock all down me, Etien and the kitchen floor as I elbowed a jug off the fridge shelf. This happened just as I'd cut the lamb for serving. It is by far the most stressful thing I have endured during service: being faced with both fast cooling food and a flooding, foot sliding floor. Not to mention the waste of recently reduced and clarified chicken stock. Yup, here come the tears again.

Oh listen to me. I always start this determined to sound like Hemingway and within two paragraphs I have all the gravitas of a Daily Mail editorial. I'll be using double slammers next. (Never!!)

Back in Palmers Green and a dozen guests presented all kinds of new challenges:

Seating. Twelve diners (and a non-eating, two year old daughter) meant two tables, something we've attempted only once before. Garden furniture would have to be de-spidered and pressed into use once more. Still, lay on layers of starched white linen and it looks nice enough.

Plating up. A dozen guests also meant serving trouble. We don't have enough kitchen space to plate up twelve. I decided on three rapid shifts of four. The main protein being plated and guests adding sides. The plates had to be warm to ensure hot food but I didn't want anyone losing their fingerprints. I couldn't have too many people bumping around a central serving point. A dropped plate would mean a permanently lost dinner. There's no spares and no second chances in a supper club.
Roast poussin: little chicken

Menu. Certainly nothing I'd not done before. I wanted no surprises. I suggested the poussin/poisson combo with various aniseed/fennel accompaniments that work equally well with fish and chicken. What's handy also is the fish, which only needs 12 minutes in a 230°C oven, can be cooked while the poussins rest (essential for juiciness) so it's fairly easy to time. Deliver the fish first and follow with the poultry. 

Schedule. I'd have to build in much more time. The more the people, the longer they take (and the less they eat, bizarrely). I hoped we could do a champagne reception on the decking while I served... I'm trying desperately not to say 'nibbles, such an effete word... bread, cheese thins, shallot rings, tomato crisps and the glorious and much loved New River Restaurant nuts. I'd wait for acquaintances to be made and ices broken before starters were served. 

Something to eat with Champagne.

Strawberries are optional
Yeah, and the space had to look... better. This would be in the day. Damn, this in June. We might even have sunlight - just the thing for backlighting cobwebs and window crud. Fabian - grab a cloth!

Dessert was Hassan's thing apparently. I used to think of this as the simplest course but no longer. Many people don't eat dessert, some ask for bowls of berries or to skip it entirely (in that case, sweeter teeth prevailed). I have been asked for a dessert that contained no sugar at all. Er... Mind, my friend Bee was once asked to bake a selection of cakes containing no gluten, sugar or dairy. And she did it. 

To cater for the diverse dessert tastes of a dozen people, I went for a mix and match approach, you know, like in Pizza Hut. A simple, plated core of chocolate marquise with a chocolate tuile on a sablĂ© biscuit to which guests added some or all of the following: apple crisps, mixed berries in a clove sauce, chantilly cream, butterscotch mousse and crystallised walnuts. This approach was well received and well eaten. 

I'm often mistrustful of people who speak of a sense of honour at their inclusion. Often it's mere self aggrandising puffery. But I did feel honoured to be asked to offer up my home here. We all want our food and hospitality to be well received and remembered. On this occasion at least, I know they will never forget it.

So would I do it again? Yes... with all the caveats of experience. I don't think I sat down for 12 hours but I have this sense of pride that I can't quite quell. It was wonderful. I have co-opted the happiness of others. But look, twelve is the maximum  For ever. No more. Call me. We can work something out.

A more solemn moment, which is why I didn't lean in and move that balloon.

So that's all the photos that I can claim are food related, the rest are a family thing and include dangerous levels of cuteness and 'hallmark moments'. The rest of the world may wish to look away now.

I tried to warn you.

Also food related. That's a parmesan thin.

The cake. Not one of mine. It looked better before small, inquisitive, unattended (two minutes!) fingers found it.