Monday, 28 September 2015

Roast pork loin in a balsamic dressing with lentils, crackling and pickled apple salad


Ye-es, one of the least snappiest blog titles. This is a whole dish recipe. Maybe I should split them up later. But they played so well together!

One of the best tasting things I've ever made. Not the pork actually but the pickled apple salad. The dressing was a revelation. 

This was a development exercise, which is what I call 'cooking for friends' now. If you eat for free I get to experiment on you. With development I'm focusing only on flavour. Sod the presentation. That will come, or not. I'm less and less concerned about that anyway.

With this dish I wanted to check three things:

1. The pork recipe, based on a Jamie Oliver dish.
2. That you could cook and keep lentils warm in a rice cooker.
3a. That pickled apples went well with both.
3b. That pickled apples worked at all.

It's odd that you don't see pickled apples much, especially in Britain, with our abundance. They are delicious and easy; pretty much fool proof.

The apples are prepped in exactly the same way as the pears I did last month. Make a sugar syrup 1:1 of sugar and cider vinegar. Use the best you can afford; this liquor will also be used as a dressing. Add whole, peeled, cored apples. Add some aromatics - orange peel, half a lemon, some cloves and a cinnamon stick. Bring gently to the boil and allow to cool. 

I served the apples cut into eighths but they don't look so great and can be squidgy at the edges. I'm going to cut thick rings on my mandolin and put them into the hot syrup instead. With something that thin I won't boil them.

The dressing transforms simple lambs lettuce. It goes brilliantly with roast pork. The sweetness and acidity working well with the deep roast saltiness and umami. 

For the dressing I mixed... Oh Lord, I have no idea of the ratios. This was cooking with friends so I may have been drinking myself - before, during and after. More good extra virgin olive oil than pickling liquor, that's all I can be sure of. Salt and pepper, of course. Nothing else... apart from a dash of this stuff: Manzana Verde, an apple liqueur from Briottet. I've had this bottle for years and it still smells like the just cut skin of a fresh Granny Smith. You probably won't have any. Sorry. I hate recipes that require you to have brought something back from the bloody Kasbah in '62. I don't do it often. Vinegar and liqueurs are my weakness. Don't be tempted to use anything green though that you haven't touched since last Boxing Day, none of your Sourz please.
The pork. Prompted mainly by a desire to use different cuts of pork - I've done a lot of shoulder, leg and belly recently. This recipe features a medium priced loin. The joint pictured (from F. Normans in Oakwood) weighs about 1.7 kilo, cost about £18 and will feed six people. 


Ask your butcher to chine the joint, so it's easier to cut and serve later, and to score the skin (and retain it!), leaving the soft white fat. Preheat the oven to 240°C. Lay the scored skin out flat and rub it dry. Salt it well.


In a deep roasting tray place the loin on a couple of chopped onions, a whole bulb of garlic chopped in two and then roughly hacked and a good handful of rosemary and thyme - lemon thyme if you can get it. Wet the pan with some water (not much) or some Marsala if you have it. Put the tray on the middle rack of your oven. Now place the skin straight onto the bars of a rack and position it so the skin will drip onto the meat.

Cook like this for 20 minutes. Expect some smoke.

After 20 minutes of 240°C

During which, take a whole 250ml bottle of balsamic vinegar and heat it gently in a pan. Obviously you won't want the good stuff - the subtleties will be lost in the oven. 

Lower the oven temp to 160°C and pour the hot balsamic all over the pork. Return to roast. Timings are notoriously difficult with meat and should never be taken as a rule but this is what I did: 40 minutes at 160°C and then another ten at 180°C. Baste every 15 minutes.

Your pork should be around 63°C, no more than 70°C unless you enjoy the texture of your father's flip-flops. Of course, you'll find a range of temps all over the meat. This should be equalised by the resting. Remember the meat's core temp will increase while resting by maybe 3-4°C.

I removed the loin and allowed it to rest, leaving the skin (now transformed into crackling) in to really crisp up. Drain off the cooking liquids and skim (and retain!) the fat - easier if you pop it in the fridge for a while. I usually cover my joints with some tin foil and a bath towel; keeps warm for hours - literally. My fridge is full of beef and pork fats; one of those home-cooked touches that does make a difference.

After 60-70 minutes, it will look like this.




Keep an eye on the crackling: golden brown is good, dark is bad. I discovered that the French, at least my French guest, have no word for crackling. Neither do the Finns. The Spanish do though: chicharrón I know, how very metropolitan am I?



Lentils were cooked in my rice cooker. I've had some recent success with polenta and I wanted to see if pulses worked too. Something I can cook and forget is ideal. On the side I'd prepared a mix of small diced onion, carrot and celery that I'd slow cooked to golden in a pan that I'd rendered off some pancetta. This was heated up at the last minute and mixed with the warm lentils.

To serve: pile lentils and veg mix on the plate. Top with a thick carve of the loin and pour over some of the balsamic roasting juices. It's easier to turn the loin rib side up so you can see the gaps in the bone and cut through those. 

Toss some lambs lettuce in your apple dressing and add a few apple pieces on the side. Top the meat with a couple of pieces of crackling. This is rich, sweet, salty, tasty. A great autumn weekend dinner.

I'll refine this dish over the next few weeks and either do an edit or a new blog.





Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sue & Dan and friends who eat cheese


"Look at him!" Said Dan, folding his arms with contentment and sitting back to admire his friend. I did the same. It was a pleasing sight. It's always gratifying to watch someone do what they do well... and Simon can eat cheese better than most.

Be it Stilton, Tunworth, Dorstone or Cheddar, Simon could underscore them with a bit of cracker and introduce it to the ingestion end of his body; like a great conductor. Each mouthful was a lactose symphony, brought to a rousing rondo. His appetite was un-diary-featable.


It's not surprising. Tunworth has been beating the French at their own game for a while now. Raymond Blanc calls it 'ze best Camembert in ze world' (no, really, he does).




A cheese course is a satisfying way to finish a meal. Mine are all British affairs; I'll give no table room to Brie or Gorgonzola. It doesn't have to be unpasteurised, I'm not that kind of snob, but I do like to represent our caseicultural tradition.


Dan and Sue's second time with us as hosts, the evening was lively but fairly short lived as everyone seemed to have teenage children to collect from all corners of the capital. Still, they packed a lot in. 

I always make the crackers. On this occasion, four types: pain wheat, malted wholemeal, onion and a gluten free buckwheat, which Simon declared to be delicious; tiny baked disc held aloft like an offering to the milk gods. He dismissed all talk of 'cheese sweats', night terrors and gastric issues. Simon's dedication to his delectation was a thing of beauty.

So beguiling was his sense of pleasure that I broke out some of the special stuff, my own tiny block of Devon made, Beenleigh Blue. The rapture almost broke the man. Penicillium_roqueforti has never been better received. 

All the cheeses here can be bought from Holtwhite's Bakery in Enfield. For the Beenleigh Blue you might have to trek to Covent Garden. The crackers are only available with us and are subject to change, on every single occasion.




From Neil's expression I suspect Simon is finishing his nightmarish tale of male grooming and genital mutilation
- it's not mine to tell. Dan is sipping Jack to steady his nerves.
You can see the building sense of trauma on Etien's face though.

Plum / pear frangipane tart... and other more unpleasant memories of Paris


Aged 12 here.
My mother gave me that horror of a haircut.
The teeth are my own, yes,
I'm not breaking them in for a beaver
This is my first ever frangipane fruit tart made. It wasn't bad; a bit uneven and messy. Maybe I should have layered up more plums? But this was, after all, a development tart.

My first frangipane fruit tart eaten was probably in France in 1980 (I was 13) during a horrific exchange. This was the trip where I also first tasted fillet steak, crème fraîche, fromage frais (avec wasps), lapin à la moutarde, pain au chocolate and the first and last time I drank hot chocolate from a bowl the size of my face.

So why horrific? I was paired up with Christophe, a boy who was merciless with insecurity, I suspect because he had none himself. The same age as me but a foot taller, due in no small part to his high protein diet (after six weeks I returned to Wales with trouser legs distant from the floor). His fluffy, but highly strung, mother was married (again) to the head of Rank Xerox in France - a rich man. In their Paris apartment bedroom she had a huge, framed poster of her only child. I should have recognised that as the warning it was.

I had only about four phrases of French (one of those was Je t'aime - unused, sadly) and had never been abroad before; certainly never flown. In fact, I'd not visited a large city, other than a school trip to the Houses of Parliament. 

In light of my bug-eyed bumpkin-ness, Christophe thought it would be hilarious to abandon me on the deuxième étage of the Eiffel Tower; he and his (blameless) friend pointing and laughing at my face, hollowed out of fear, as I finally wobbled my way off the metal stairs, resigned to having to live under a Seine bridge and forage for food - the prospect of actually speaking to someone, in French, in France, made me crease up like the slippery intestines of an Andouillette.

This was a crash course in cuisine too and not one I relished - having been raised on (over) roast dinners, egg and chips and a special tea (the meal not the drink - breakfast, dinner, tea) which my mother called, without embarrassment, cheese on a plate. A description of crushing accuracy.

This was a crash and a clash. My family was broke, his was monied. In addition to the Paris pad they also had a 'farm house' in Normandy at which we weekended. They had two cars and ate out in restaurants at least three times a week - which was about twice more than I ever had. I still remember their acute embarrassment as a waiter returned my steak to the kitchen a second time - it was still pink. I do remember learning one new word: le briquette!

But I also remember, with deep glee, the glisten of French patisserie in a boulevard window; the impossibility of combination of such angles, sugar, cream and colour. Before France, my most exotic pastry was probably a Clarke's pie ('ark, ark' the lark - one for the Welsh there). Crisp, buttery pastry, soft fruit with a sweet and tart glaze and that lush almond filling.

Anyway, wow, that was a hell of a diversion. Some memories genuinely recovered for the first time in three decades. I won't tell you about the second bicycle with the perished brake blocks (hilarious), the dinner wasps or Christophe prostrate with brutal, rubbery laughter at managing to finally push me out of the dinghy and into the duckpond. No. Let's return to London and the safety of my kitchen.


Here served with creme fraiche ice cream and crystallised almonds
These are traditional French affairs: glazed fruit, set in frangipane in a sweet pastry case. Guests, Sue and Dan, had expressed dessert interest in some poached pears and I wanted to spend more time with plums. So I made two tarts.

Frangipane, an almond butter-cream baked to moorish moistness, has a history fraught with counter claim and culinary apocrypha. Its name means (maybe) to break the bread or (perhaps) coagulated milk. There were several historical, real figures of note, named Frangipane but they may be irrelevant. The first mention I can find is in Varenne’s 17th Century, The French Cook but I suspect this is another example of French appropriation (like creme brûlée). I think the Itialians have this one.

My tarts are from a mix of recipes (a meta-tart anyone?) but I should acknowledge Sonya Kidney for the pastry and Angela Hartnett for the filling.

So the case and filling can be topped with any soft (usually stone) fruit. Plums and apricots can go straight on. Firmer fare like apples and pears need poaching first. I'll show both below.





Fruit frangipane tart
Makes one 27cm tart.

Actually the pastry here is enough for two cases. Freeze the other half. And then throw it away when you happen across it in a year's time while looking for some frozen vodka.

Don't worry too much about tin size and shapes. The instructions below will work, so long as you're not silly.


Sweet short pastry

In a bowl mix, cream together 280g unsalted butter with 110g caster sugar. When light and fluffy, add 400g plain flour with 2 tsp baking powder and a pinch of table salt. Mix. Add 1 egg and 50ml water

Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for a while until cold enough to roll out without sticking. Turn your pastry often, dusting it lightly with flour. I like mine thinner than a pound coin, especially as thin one puffs slightly. This isn't a badly behaved pastry. It will roll easily (unless it's a heatwave) and presses into tins without breaking or stretching. If you are struggling, roll it out on baking paper and return it to the fridge for ten minutes to make it more manageable.

Press pastry into tin corners. Line the pastry with baking paper (scrunch it first for a better fit) and fill with baking beans/coin/rice, or as I now do, another tin. leave some overhang or else your pastry will recede down the sides of the tin, never to be seen again.

A good overhang
Bake blind at 170°C for about 15-20 minutes until the case is coloured. It'll start to smell like pastry too. Trim the pastry now with a sharp knife. return to the oven for another 10 minutes until it's a light golden brown and crisp. The timings and temperatures are less important than the end result. If you think it needs longer, put it back in.

Trimmed and baked for a second time. Note the colour.

Frangipane filling

Cream together 125g softened butter with 125g caster sugar until lightly coloured and creamy. Add 125g ground almonds and a tablespoon of plain flour. Beat in two eggs. The mix should be light and fluffy. Don't worry that it's grainy.


I pipe in the mix, mainly because I am scared of using utensils around such a friable, delicate case. It looks like mushrooms!

Fill the case with soft stone fruit, cut on an angle and layered up. I've used plums here. the more you overlap your fruit the more fruit you will taste. It's up to you. You might have to make a few tarts before finding your preferred balance. What a bind that'll be. Good thing you have that frozen pastry mix (it's underneath the vodka).

This is actually only a 7" tart. I was experimenting.

For apples, pears or quinces you'll need to poach them first. This is done in a 1:1 mix of sugar and water, brought to the boil with some aromatics added. try star anise, cloves, orange rind and cinnamon first. Stick in half a lemon too. Make a round 'cartouche' of baking paper and place on top of the fruit. Weigh this down with a small plate or saucer. This ensures the fruit are submerged and don't brown and oxidise.

Pears can be poached whole for about ten minutes. Many recipes, Hartnett included, suggest twenty minutes but mine would have been mush by then. Remember the fruit is to be baked in the tart later. When done and cooled, core and halve your fruit.

Now the bake. This was an area of maddening diversity. Some recipes calling for 20 minutes at 170°C and some asking for over an hour and 200°C. I went cooler and longer. Around 55 minutes at 180°C. Look for a firming and browning of the frangipane. It will rise up and infill the fruit.

You could eat it as it is. It will be delicious. But better to glaze it. I made mine with some pear poaching liquor reduced down with a little vanilla paste and some arrowroot but you could also make a simple paste with apricot jam or marmalade, let down with a teaspoon or two of boiling water. A glaze makes everything look more mouth watering and maintains moisture within the fruit.

Some recipes suggest you grill or blow torch the top for a caramelised edge. While this is doubtless delicious I think the caramel sometimes interferes with the fruit flavour, especially something as delicate as a pear. Tread lightly.

Plum
Pear


Monday, 21 September 2015

Once more around the pig. Pork party pieces - belly and shoulder.





This pig piece has been pulled (if you'll pardon the pun), purloined, pinched, plundered and plucked from previous porky parables. It's a porcine palimpsest, if I may be so pretentious.

Do I win the alliteration prize?

But with temperatures falling and parties approaching (stop it!) I did think this was a good time to revisit the best of the slow cooked pork dishes. The other reason (ahem) is that I've been invited to do a cooking demo, my first public outing, at the Enfield Food Festival and I've discussed both belly and shoulder with Emma, one of the organisers.

Belly has a rep for being fatty and it indisputably is. So unless you like your adipose tissue (I really don't) it needs long slow cooking to melt the fat and lubricate the meat.

Shoulder is another very economical joint. Usually roasted larger than the belly cuts. Bigger is better. What are you doing on Boxing day?

Pork is actually the most eaten meat in the world. Yes, Google-pedants, more so than goat! True more people may eat goat but more pork is eaten. That's clear isn't it? Look, I'm not casting asparagus at anyone but a clue may be in the phrase 'to pork-out'?


A real crowd pleaser

Slow roast pork belly 

Serves about ten.
Buy a 3kg pork belly. This will necessitate a trip to your local butchers, hopefully not for the first time. Don't bother with the supermarket; you'll be needing a butcher not just someone who unwraps meat. Hey, while you're there, see if they have any beef shin, or ham hock. Maybe some oxtail and marrow bones for stock? They're not in this recipe but you'll thank me when you get home. If you're used to those prissy little plastic supermarket packs, the size may shock you. Worry not. We can do this. Ask the butcher to leave the belly on the bones (ribs) but maybe loosen them a little.Preheat the oven to maximum or 240°C. Don't go higher than this, as something: fat, veg, your actual oven, will start to smoke and taint the meat (and your house) with an acrid smell.


One tip with crackling: have your butcher score the skin into squares rather the the more traditional diagonals. It makes it much easier to portion up your meat when you cut into existing grooves rather than across the glass like crackling.

You could also ask your butcher to remove the rib bones if there are any but I like to leave them on. They pull away effortlessly at the end anyway and they make fine eating.


You need a baking tray large enough to lay out the belly but that will also fit in your oven. If your skin is not scored you might find it a struggle to do it yourself. Pig skin seems designed to blunt steel! One solution, is to first fill your roasting tray with boiling water to a depth of a centimetre. Remove the belly from the rack, place it SKIN SIDE DOWN in the water and boil for 15 mins.This will soften the skin without cooking the meat. Remove the belly from the tray and place skin side up on a clean J–cloth or towel. You should now be able to score the skin finely. You'll still need a sharp knife.

Now you have scored skin, dry it off completely using kitchen roll or a clean tea towel or a new J-cloth. Now rub in some neutral tasting oil - grapeseed or groundnut is good. Grind just less than a tablespoon of fennel seeds with the same amount of sea salt and rub this into the skin. You can rub in other stuff too: sugar, honey, allspice, cinnamon but I prefer to let the pork sing solo.

There's no secret to good crackling although it's obviously harder to crisp up something damp. I think the biggest factor (surprise!) is the quality of the animal. A happy pig will have the right layer of fat under the skin.


Yes. You do. Right now. Unless you're a vegetarian. In which case, click the little X top left. There's nothing for you here.

Tip the water out of the baking tray and replace the belly on a rack in the tray. The rack is important. Cook in the very hot oven for 15-20 mins until the skin starts to blister. While that's happening, cut up four carrots, two sticks of celery, two leeks and two onions and two green apples. The exact amounts really aren't critical. 


What's a good fistful of rosemary? This is.
Now turn the oven down to 150°C. Use the fan setting if you have it - helps the crackling. Place the veg under the pork (it's on a rack, remember?). Pour in at least 200ml of white wine, vermouth, apple juicestock or water or a combo of any of these. Take a care though as this will be the basis of your gravy. To the now wet veg add a good fistful of rosemary. And I really mean a good fistful.

Roast this (uncovered) for at least three hours. It could be four,  five or six - in which case, drop the oven down to 140°C. The meat won't really suffer because there's so much moisture in the fat. Top up the tray liquid if it starts drying out - and it will. Don't let the veg burn or your gravy will be acrid.

The meat will be very tender, the fat should have rendered off into the veg below and the skin should now be glassy and delicious.


If (after the shorter timings) the crackling isn't to your liking, remove the meat from the tray and bake it at the hottest setting again for 10-15 minutes directly on the oven rack. It should puff and crisp up. To avoid setting off your smoke alarms, put some foil in another shelf under the pork to catch drips.

Remove the meat and allow to rest while you sieve the veg and pork juices into a pan. Season the gravy, thicken it if you like (with cornflour or beurre manis). I whisk in some ice cold, cubed butter just before serving - if you do this, the gravy shouldn't be boiling. You'll also probably want to sweeten the gravy too. A pinch of sugar is an obvious choice, but you could use redcurrant jelly or honey or even something like these. I use a home-made rosemary jam... but I would.

I serve the pork with parsnip and apple puree, some sort of cabbage (green or red) and some pots en pap. This is not one to dish up at the table. The crackling needs some serious endeavour and this can look ugly. Hide your industry in the kitchen.



Served here with port gravy, butter fried kale and apple & parsnip purée


Pork Shoulder.

For six people order a two kilo joint.
For ten, you'll want three or four kilos which will keep you in sandwiches for the week also.
Anything above five kilos you need to be throwing open your home to neighbours and not needing your oven overnight.

Same instructions really as the belly really. With anything over four kilos I'd recommend an overnight roast. Very low and slow. A small joint can be roasted without covering, a large needs a lid to retain moisture. If you don't have a lidded pot big enough, make a triple layer foil tent over a roasting dish or deep tray. There will be much liquid at the end of the cooking process  You can always remove and crisp the crackling separately when needed, as I'm doing in the picture below.


I'd just cut under the crackling to remove it. It didn't slide off. I like to strip away some of the soft white fat too.

Friends had asked me to do a large shoulder joint for their dad's 80th birthday. I thought I'd best check my timings beforehand. So I ordered a shoulder of orchard fed pig from Jim in F. Norman, on the parade in Oakwood. Belinda picked it up for me on Friday afternoon. I was expecting, indeed my recipe stated, a 3-5 pound joint, about two kilos. Some miscommunication had occurred however - my fault - and what arrived weighed thirteen pounds plus; basically a stone of pork. "We'll need to get some friends around."


Before

After
We invited a dozen people, friends, exes, liggers and a few social climbers we just can't shake off. We expected half to already have plans; the way middle class people always do. (I don't. I never have plans.) But none did. Coupled with kids and family, my weekend was fast turning into a pulled pork party. And yeah, double entendres on a postcard please.

Et made his kimchi coleslaw, although not nearly enough (my fault). I severely underestimated how much people would like it. Bread from Holtwhites of course. Sadly not my custom semi-brioche buns, these were simple floury, quotidian baps but still excellent of course. I also made some hummus/hummous/hoummmous and flamed a few plum tomatoes.


Pulled pork. And this is after everyone had eaten.
The massive locusts are in fact pieces of fat crackling. Slightly over done.
This is what happens when I drink and drive an oven.
But it wasn't going to be eaten that night. A stone of shoulder needs a low and slow approach. Initially 90°C and then 120°C to crisp the skin - sixteen hours in total. It starts off as a roast but covered, in a large Dutch oven it soon becomes a braise as the tin fills with juices and fats. By Saturday evening it really was falling off the bones. I simply lifted them out, along with any large chunks of fat - not an onerous task. I also sliced the skin off to crisp properly in a 240°C fan oven. I shredded the meat into the copious roasting juices and then stirred in some barbecue sauce. Etien took exception to this. Next time he wants a simple fennel seed and salt roast.
With pickled fennel, black cabbage,
apple gravy and cauliflower pure
Yes, next time. But when time? Not soon. There's a lot of meat on a large shoulder. After fifteen people ate their fill we still had half left. There then followed a week of porky wonder. Porky sandwiches, porky salad, porky pizza topping, filled porky pitta pockets, porky pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce. Ten days on and there's still a fistful lurking in Tupperware. I fear that'll be binned.

Altogether that one £35 joint served up at least 35 meals and that's not even including those who had seconds at the original evening. Seems like a good deal. Mind, I have no idea what sixteen hours of oven costs.

Now read about pork loin. The pic below is dressed with garlic and balsamic. I often serve it with lentils and a winter salad of pickled apple.





Sweet & sour red cabbage
Good things to serve with pork include: 

Pickled fennel
Kimchee coleslaw (scroll to the bottom)
Sweet and sour red cabbage
Fennel 'crash' potatoes
Crushed peas and broad beans
Cauliflower purée
Bramley and parsnip purée - just discovered I've never written this up. Will do soon.


Etien's kimchee coleslaw












Creatives, crackers and close up magic.

Kalia, Paul, Wayne, Emma, Rachel, Neil, Elena, Tara and Georgia.
'Amazing local people.'

Friday was among my most favourite evenings so far. organised by the irrepressible, inimitable Emma Rigby of LYDS fame. She billed it as 'a dinner with amazing local people' - a pushing together of local and artistically inclined individuals whom Emma thought would benefit from each other's company. And she was right. I think Emma's an inspiration; a real force of nature. She thinks, she does. I wish I had her... I nearly said swagger, but I think I mean optimism and an essential, charming tenacity.

The guests made rugs, ran theatres, wrote scripts (not me), produced short films and documentaries... you get the picture? I don't think the others will mind me singling out Wayne Fox - a close up magician. He amazed and delighted us all with some of his tricks after dinner. Etien dabbles in card tricks and has a collection of 'Bikes' - the playing cards of choice for working magicians. He loaned his to Wayne. How good is Wayne? You probably know of the Magic Circle. Did you know there's an INNER Magic Circle? It's an invitation only gig, with never more than 300 members world wide. Wayne is one. You've maybe seen Dynamo or Troy on the telly? Wayne designs tricks for them. Some are so unique he patents them. That's how good he is. Etien still has the 50p coin that seemed to bend as he was holding it. There was a good half hour of people shrieking and 'no way'ing. 
'How do you do that!?' 
'With style and panache I hope.' Retorts Wayne.
He and me are talking about somehow organising a few combined dinner and conjuring dates together. Although we'll need a proper title. I'll let you know.

usually my parties all arrive knowing each other, very often it's a family celebration or a reunion of friends. This was different. All the guests took time to tell their personal story; their experiences and skills. It was a very different evening and very rewarding. The food felt like the least important element although some of the guests were very complimentary about my braised beef rib. This was a: more than the sum of the parts. It felt like the start of something... of many things. I hope it's the first of many.










Saturday was a smaller affair - Joanna's first time with us. Six always seems disproportionately easier than eight. It's Etien's favourite number, and not just because he has to wash the wine and water glasses.

Anyway, I took them all, the lame, the sick, the weary! Some drank, some ate, some crashed on the sofa after a hard week.



They also had the beef rib; without doubt one of my best and most popular mains now. I was very pleased with that night's gravy - it's still one of the most complicated things I make. Gravy takes many processes and many ingredients. Every mix is slightly different. This was the first time I'd added a little of my smoked water to the braising liquid. It worked well - the otherwise abrasive taste mellowed by long cooking, like dripping distilled alcohol through maple ricks to create smooth, amber bourbon. 

Jo also asked for a cheese course, served in the English manner, after the dessert. In keeping with my home-made philosophy, I always make my own crackers. Partly because I like the uniqueness - you can only eat them here and now - and I'm hardly going to throw a pile of Ritz and Jacob's at you. And partly for design. Most crackers are too thick. I've said this before but I like the phrase: crackers should be a cheese delivery system. What's the point of spending a lot of money on wonderful British cheeses like Tunworth and Cashel Blue and then filling your mouth with biscuit. I want wafer thin and fairly neutral. Guests always seem surprised by the fact that I've made my own. More than suppose, it's maybe incredulity too. Why would you bother. But In truth these are so simple. Crackers are flour, about 100g - you can vary infinitely, wheat, rye, buckwheat, malted, spelt - with salt, a dab of oil and enough water to make a paste. Beat. Knead smooth and roll as thin as you can. I sometimes use a pasta roller. You can now add sea salt, fennel seeds, rosemary, grated parmesan etc but I usually don't. Prick all over with a fork to stop them puffing up like blowfish - or not, try it. Cut shapes and bake for 10-14 minutes at 200°C. Pale straw or golden brown, up to you. Crackers are literally the easiest things you can bake.






Monday, 14 September 2015

Better brioche, a birthday and a departure.


My best ever brioche. I'm actually happy with this...
It was only after I'd served dessert that I realised it was our third birthday. It was Chris' too - not his third, he's slightly older. Like us though, not a round number, nothing to get excited about. Bizarre isn't it that we celebrate the turn of the second digit, as if it's meaningful. Perhaps in another galaxy they have parties at prime numbers? That would be better surely - with a little aim-for cluster at the end of life: 67, 71, 73, 79, 83?

Maths and baking! I know how to pull a crowd.

Chris and Pat are good family friends; happy to combine a robust discussion with a red wine - my sort of evening. As was this. I didn't realise, until they arrived, that their party was mainly people we know well. So it was a double celebration.

I was happy too that I had, finally, produced a brioche that I could be fully proud of. The difference was made with two simple changes. I have to lay the blame for some of my earlier failure with Michel Roux Snr. I've always followed his pastry and dough recipes; they are generally excellent, but his brioche clearly requests the use of plain flour. Many other authorities call for the same too; almost all the American sites. After chatting to Richard of Holtwhite's Bakery in Enfield, I discovered they used a high gluten bread flour. (BTW guys, I love the new website.). Richard's Brioche is superb; a fabulous buttery taste with a soft, airy structure and crisp crust. How is it that shop brought brioche has such a soft, pale crust? Must research that and come back with an edit.

Also, Richard advised me to leave the second prove until the dough felt soft and a indentation sprung back slowly. This can take many hours. My advice, don't fret and make it the day before you plan to eat it. This bread takes at least 18 hours.

Anyway, I tried the Holtwhite method and wow, what a difference. The gluten gives a much better structure; that soft, tearable sponge I sought. 

Chris fourth from left, next to Pat. John on his knees... again.
That's the birthday and the bread dealt with. What about this departure?

I know I look like a fat pirate but I am a man who is quick to tear and I've been walking round, hiding a wet face all week. 

I believe that we know little of love until we have children. That romantic stuff is like a pane of poor glass through which we view the real thing. Parents know how birth of your first expands your emotional bandwidth with a speed that almost tears reality wide open. Suddenly the world becomes both more beautiful and more brutal; the heights of love matched only by a commensurate depth of darkness; an abyss that thankfully, very, very few of us ever get to peer into. The need to hold tight slowly replaced by the responsibility to release. At some point, you have to let them go.

Fabian is leaving this week for the University of Cumbria. The supper club was started initially to raise funds for him to leave us, briefly, for Borneo, but now we say goodbye for four long years.

I've taken it... no, no... I'm taking it much harder than I thought. In truth, I'm in bits. So, Fabian, my son, my first born and my first love. Goodbye. Be safe. We'll miss you.


Fabian - picking elderflowers with me last spring.