Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year's Feast

A new year's eve feast is a tradition with J and me...with me enjoying a fabulous cook-out while still not having figured out how to turn J's oven on. One year I'll get it right. This year's meal was eastern mediterranean, and many of the dishes came from Silvena Rowe's lovely Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume - definately one of my cookbooks of the year. The book's focus is on Syria and Turkey, and there's one recipe for a nasturtium flower sauce that I can't wait to try once the allotment is in full bloom.
The rest of the meal had a certain Claudia Rodin feel, as I can never resist an excuse to make her tarator sauce.  
First up, we have some little not-so-flat breads, made to a recipe from a recent Sainsbury's Magazine. I've never used a bread mix before, being a baking snob, but what with it being a lazy time of year, I followed instructions and bought a packet of Wright's ciabatta bread mix, adding some fresh thyme to the mixture. Then I packed it up in a lock and lock food box...but by the time my train arrived in Bucks, the proved dough was oozing gently through one of the locks that it had broken in a bid to escape. Quite a riser...and it was quickly knocked back and torn into little pillow shapes. These merrily rose again, and once I'd slapped on some olive oil and za'atar and bunged them in the oven, they emerged, smelling like perfumed cushions. Tasted damn good too. I think I'll be using that bread mix again.
The green salad is watercress, avacado, tomatoes, red onion and parsley with a dressing of pomagranate mollases, lemon juice, sumac and olive oil.  
Next up are kebabs from the Gaziantep region of Turkey - ground pistachios combine with minced lamb and a dreamy spice mix that includes cardomon, cumin, paprika, cloves, coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg. These were a huge hit, with Izzie the lab scoffing a couple too.  Defying authenticity, I added halloumi to the menu because we both love this hot rubbery cheesy hit.  
Giant beans were sneaked onto the menu in honour of our Skiathos holiday. The outrageous purple is beetroot moutabel - a garish but delicious combination of roast beet, tahini, yoghurt and olive oil. The carrot and pink grapefruit salad is my version of the Moroccan carrot and orange classic. And finally we have a cooling salad of cucumber, pistachio, mint, dill, yoghurt and pomagranite seeds. Yum.
As usual, I loved devising it, cooking it and scoffing it. Very few things beat cooking for your best mate then gobbling up the food with beer and good conversation.
Happy 2011 to everyone!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Lunch at Launceston Place

Yesterday @titianred treated me to lunch - and it was the opportunity for us to both sample the delights of Launceston Place. The restaurant first came to my attention when the lovely Steve Groves, sous chef there, won Celebrity Masterchef last year. His food was amazing, and after he won, he chose to stay as he said he was learning so much. And food bloggers have written delighted posts about the place. We spent a very happy morning goggling in the jewellery gallery at the V&A and, appetites aroused, staggered across to leafy Launceston Place, standing quietly in a leafy corner of South Ken. Comfortably seated next to the window, we perused both lunch menus but stuck to budget with the three course £20 lunch. Astonishing value, as it turned out. Before our starters arrived, we were presented with an amuse bouche of yoghurt sorbet and lightly pickled diced cucumber. This boded well, as the icey silkiness disappeared.
Then the bread - a lovely sourdough - and butter arrived. We suspected that the butter-on-a-pebble is a Launceston Place tease to see which customers can perfect butter balancing. Our butter slid from side to side but did stay put.
Was it yoghurt sorbet or ice cream? Not sure, but it was lovely. And soon gone. The starters arrived as soon as we were finished. Henri had gone with a beef, beet and wild garlic rissotto. With a bone that looked just like my father's napkin ring.
Henri was uttering quiet squeaks of joy. I sneaked a mouthful and it was fabulous, with melting marrow and an intense blast of flavour. Henri took a bite of my starter and said, 'That's lovely, but I'm glad I'm having mine,' which is exactly how I felt.
I'd chosen the duck egg on toast with Somerset truffle and boy, was it good. The egg was besides, rather than on, toast, and it was surrounded with shaved truffle and wonderous truffle goo. Not so much a up front whack on the taste buds but more a shimmer round the palate then insinuating itself into the memory and inducing a desire for more. Heavenly. Contender for best plate of food I've had this year.
Henri's main was saltmarsh lamb, herb consomme and pomme purees. I think we'd both expected this to turn up as lamb carved off the bone - but no, it was a lamb turret, crowned with herbal crust. Henri loved it - meltingly tender meat perfectly complemented by the crusty top and herb consomme.
Meanwhile, I was tucking into Cornish mackeral, cured cucumber and pickled onions. Someone spent a very long time pin-boning the fish which was cooked with a fine crisp skin and worked beautifully with the cucumber. The acidity of the onions worked well but I did miss a fruity punch to finish off the dish. But a lovely plate of food. With the main plates whipped away, we were offered a tiny jar of a most luscious lemon possett. We wolfed this down so quickly that there was no time to take a photo.
For pud, we both went with the dark chocolate and  raspberry mousse - a wonderful concoction with shiny raspberry lightness over sugared berries and a dense and serious chocolate base. We were given big spoons but unanimously demanded smaller ones so that we could make the sensation last.  
Reeling with the pleasure of it, we were left giggling when we were presented with plate of two jars - baby madeleines warm from the oven and egg white-lightened cream. Ohmygod. Delicious and almost too much for two full tums. Almost - we did our best to demolish this last delight.
I love this place. The food was gorgeous, the service was superb, and I think it's the first time ever that the bill has arrived exactly when you want it. It's the kind of place that you rave about in the office the next day - which I did.
Thank you Henri for a marvellous lunch, and to Launceston Place for living up to all expectations.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Crab two ways and an allotment harvest

Last week I was so taken with Jason Atherton's Maze Cookbook that I bought it, having glimpsed a couple of fantastic crab recipes. As I have the lovely @titianred staying (which involves much boozy putting the world to rights and listening to Leonard Cohen), I had the perfect opportunity to put crab to pan. The first recipe was for crab chowder, involving the underrated brown crab meat. The lovely guys at Seafood and Eat it sell the most wonderful crabmeat and once again provided the protein.
First there's a serious stock to put together: leek, shallot, carrot and garlic are sweated in rapeseed oil (Jason specifies onion and olive oil but hey, I go with what I have). Then when the veg are wilted and golden, it's in with the spice mixture - star anice, lemongrass, parsley and basil stalks, coriander seed and peppercorns.
And I popped in a couple of sprigs of Thai basil from the garden.
Then I added a good squirt of tomato puree and a glass of white wine. The scent was beginning to get really very good.
Next in is a good jug of homemade chicken stock and the mixture bubbles gently for 20 minutes. Strain the stock through a seive, pressing the veggies and spices down to extract all the flavour and then the soup goes back on the heat for the addition of the brown crab meat and double cream, and a final adjustment of salt.
Oh boy. This is an amazingly good recipe. I added a spoonful of white crab meat at the bottom of the bowl before laddeling in the soup. Crab heaven and a noble end for a fine crustacean. We slurped it down.
The second crab dish was a crab toastie - good, but not quite reaching the heights of the chowder. Mix white crab meat with mayo, cream cheese, a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of cayenne. Jason's recipe tells you to bake in an oven at gas mark 3 for 10 minutes, but I wasn't quite convinced, so I toasted the bread on one side then pile the crab mixture on the white side and grilled it till bubbling. A good dish but not as good as the soup. But a pretty good supper.
Meanwhile, down on the allotment, life has sprung back into the veg now that we've had some rain. The runner beans - Painted Lady - are going great guns.
I'm so proud of my squash - they're ripening nicely in shades of orange and yellow and green. And we even have a volunteer squash that's sprouted out of the second compost bay.
And after a couple of months of sulking in the heat, the courgette plants have sprung into action, providing the most delicious fruit. I've never loved courgettes until this year.
There are toms and garlic - and a couple of ears of corn from my lovely lottie neighbour Mark. An autumn of mellow fruitfulness.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Mexican porky goodness

The Mexican theme continues...Neil and I have begun a quest to lunch at every Mexican place within striking distance. A couple of weeks ago we ate at Taqueria - and a fabulous lunch it was. Annoyingly, they wouldn't let me take photos. I was mildly cross at the start of the meal and even crosser by the end, because the food was so good. I kicked off with Callos al mojo de ajo - garlicky scallops with chipotle and avacado mash - which was seriously good. But Neil had hit the jackpot with his choice of Cochinita pibil - slow-cooked pork with achiote and citrus juice and pickled pink onions. One bite and I was having one of those 'ohmygodwhatisTHAT??' moments when your palate lands on something new and heavenly and tantalising. After scanning the menu again, I guessed it was the achiote seeds that were the key ingrediant. Luckily the people who run Taqueria also run the Cool Chile Company, and the restuarant sells ingrediants. So I headed back to work with a tin of the special seeds.
Rick Bayless has become my authority on serious Mexican nosh, and he didn't let me down with a recipe for pibil that called for quite a lot of work for a fine reward. There's one version of his recipe here, although it's a bit different from the one I used from his book Mexican Kitchen. First, take your spices. That's the achiote seeds, brick red and just as hard, black pepper, allspice and oregano, and whizz them to a powder. Smash some garlic with salt and add...then add some cider vinegar to create a paste.
Then add orange and lime juice to the paste, and insert your pork shoulder joint to marinate for at least four hours.
Then it's into the oven at around gas mark 3 for several hours - it's the tenderness that's part of the dish. Then you can get on with the pink pickled onions.
Simply steep sliced red onion in boiling water for a minute, then add a spice mix of black pepper, cumin and oregano to the drained onions and add garlic and cider vinegar. Stow in the fridge while the scent of achiote fills the house. Three hours later and the pork is ready.
The joint will now be falling apart, which is fine, because you're after that north American pulled meat thing. Gently shred the pork and reserve the achiote liquid from the bottom of the pan.
Then you can compose your meal. I put some of the pork into a warmed tortilla, poured over some of the basting juice and topped with the day-glo onion. Sides were refried beans with sour cream, grated Manchego and tomatilla salso, together with some un-Mexican but delicious runner beans from my allotment. A feast! This pork is so good.
So thank you Rick and thank you Tanqueria - and I hope you'll let me take photos next time.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Viva Mexico

Now that I'm working over in west London, one of my favourite lunch haunts is Wahaca, the Mexican canteena founded by the lovely Tommi Miers, winner of Masterchef a couple of years back. I knew nothing about real Mexican food (except that I love what Wahaca serve up), so I snapped up Tommi's book when it came out, and I'm now suffering from a severe refried beans addiction. Can't stop making them, can't stop eating them.
Refried beans are actually well cooked beans. Speckled pinto beans are an option, but I adore black turtle beans. I tip the dried beans into a big bowl and cover them with just-boiled water for a couple of hours. Then they go into a saucepan with a halved onion, a couple of bay leaves, four cloves of garlic, a handful of thyme and, if you can get it, some epazote, a Mexican herb that loves beans. After a couple of hours, the beans are soft and starting to shed their skins. At this point, I turn off the heat and add a tablespoonful of salt.
Another way to go is to buy the excellent Cool Chile Company's Black Bean kit, which I tracked down at their Borough market stall, or you can order it online. Cool Chile have epazote and chile de arbol in their kit, and also include the brick-coloured smoked paprika, which has become an essential ingrediant for my refrieds.
Once your beans are soft, it's time to fry some chopped onion and garlic in lard (yes, lard - first time I've bought it in ages), then add the beans and the paprika. Tommi recommends using a stick blender but I go with the more primative potato masher to get the beans into a delicious mashed mush.
Now you're ready to assemble the beans for eating - often in warmed corn tortillas but in this dressed-down version, with crumbled Lancashire cheese, chipoltle salsa, chopped coriander and sour cream.
It looks murky. It tastes delicious. Your refried beans will last for five days in the fridge - perfect for a working week of quick and tasty suppers.
At the front of June, when it was cold and utterly unsummery, I cooked up Tommi's unMexican but delicious chile with meat. Except I used stewing steak from Muck and Magic rather than the larger cut that Tommi recommends. The spice and herb mix is the key here: cumin, allspice, cinnamon, bay and oregano combine with my idiosyncratic addition of a deseeded ancho chile, together with cider vinegar, ketchup and brown sugar to make a stunning sauce for the meat. It went into the oven for a long, slow cook, then I left it for overnight so that the meat was incredibly tender.
Wonderful. Now, where are tonight's refried beans?

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Summer lunch at the Sportsman

Sometimes familiarity breeds content: a late spring lunch at the Sportsman at Seasalter with Sarah and Ian on a hot windless day was pure pleasure. Thanks to the new high-speed train, we'd arrived early, so we got a drink and sauntered out into the garden to soak up the sun and exchange news. The lovely waiting staff showed us where our table was, but asked if we'd like to relocate to the conservatory? Yes please.
The flowers on the table sum up one of the many things I love about the Sportman - these aren't hot house specimens, they're wild and local and look beautiful: celandine, yarrow, grasses and one of the many umbelifera whose name I don't know.
The Sportsman's bread and butter (both made on the premisis, along with the salt) is a vital start to any meal. This time we got the usual fantastic foccacia and a moreish soda bread. Ian kicked off with the pickled herring and cabbage salad, chosen because it reminded him of childhood days in Denmark. This revelation led to the inevitable Swedish chef impersonations.
Ian loved it, and he kindly gave me a forkful: I thought it was marvellous. The fish was sweetly cured, accompanied by a very finely shredded cabbage, again lightly cured. I'm having this next time.
Sarah was getting started on her slip sole with smoked salt: a divine little fish, she said.
I couldn't resist the chilled asparagas soup. It came with a tiny little tart filled with cream cheese and shredded sorrel. The flavour of the soup was sooo asparagasy - pure green heaven. Word cam from the kitchen that it wasn't a veggie stock, but the liquid base was milk. Hmmm - one to try and recreate at home.
Sarah had gone her usual route of two starters rather than starter then main. She said her mushroom tart was the most unusual she'd ever had. The mushroom base was toped with a cheesey custard, with swoosh of spinach puree at the side. She loved it and said the pastry was to die for - buttery and melt in the mouth.
Ian and I had both chosen the roast chicken with truffle cream sauce. It came with a further helping of asparagas and a roastie. This was as good as I remembered - moist tender chicken topped with crisp skin. Ian called it a 'juicy happy chicken'. For a moment we lapsed into the silence that good food gives.
Ian and I plumped for the same dessert: warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel and milk sorbet. The sorbet sank gently through the silky soft mousse, and a diving motion with the spoon reunited the two elements. I think this is the best pud I've had at the Sportsman - or at least up there with the creme brulee. Sarah, meanwhile, was polishing off her cheese cream ice cream, strawberry puree, meringue and shortbread crumbs with squeaks of delight.
This was a lovely, lovely meal - local seasonal food cooked with care and imagination, and served with thoughtful attention. Which is why we keep going back, and have yet to be disappointed.
Slightly stuffed and full of good cheer, we had a salty stagger through Whitstable, soaking up the sun and ending a fine Kent adventure.