Saturday, 24 December 2011

Buswoman's holiday

I never realised that I would eat quite so much rubbish in the run up to Christmas on this industry. Working eight days in a row before Christmas day alongside buying gifts and getting a house redecorated and ready to host a family Christmas has left me very little time for anything else. Don't get me wrong, I knew I was letting myself in for unsociable hours and work patterns but just thought I would eat amazing food all the time as a balance. Not so. In the run up to Christmas, children are off from school and friends and family celebrate together, so there is an influx of large table bookings, stressed chefs and not enough staff to go round as those from abroad try to visit their families. As a result I quite easily get to the end of a shift and realise all I've eaten all day is a quickly stolen piece of toast. In the week before Christmas my not-at-work meals included:

A takeaway curry
A takeaway pizza
Ikea meatballs
A beef baguette made at work and demolished before I'd got on the bus home
A tin of Heinz spaghetti bolognese and a crunchie bar.

As such, Christmas day will be the first time I've had my five-a-day in a very long time and dinner will be the first meal I've cooked at home from scratch in about a fortnight.

I'm hosting Christmas this year, but won't be changing much about how I do things, because they work. I think Delia, although perhaps somewhat militant, gives a good guide to what needs doing, how and when in 'Delia's Christmas' so this will be to hand to guide me, and I'll relish in making my family into a little team of commis.

We'll start with something I can rustle together with *salvaged* poached salmon from work, perhaps on homemade buckwheat blinis if I have time. Then we'll be having a free-range, organic Copas turkey, slow-roasted overnight (and I know this is not to be advised but am allowing a parental tradition, as long as it's them who get up in the night to baste it) stuffed with homemade chestnut stuffing (still working on the details for this one). Accompanying this will be goose-fat roasted potatoes, braised red cabbage, purple sprouts, buttered chantenay carrots, maple-roasted parsnips and maybe something with leeks.

Dessert will of course be Christmas pudding. I've played around with this over the years, trying Nigella, Delia and a combination of both, and have settled on a minutely-tweaked Delia version, which has been known to convert stoic pudding-haters. I add glacé cherries to the mix because I think they look beautiful and add a missing flavour, and use ginger wine instead of barley wine. I made my pudding two days after stir-up Sunday in November and it has been patiently waiting in the bottom of my wardrobe ever since. Tomorrow it will be steamed for three hours and served with brandy sauce. After being set alight, of course.

Which leaves this evening. I have all my wrapping to do, which at this rate will be done with wallpaper samples and masking tape, and we will sit together and peel vegetables, put the pointless but traditional little crosses in the sprouts, drink too much, hopefully eat some homemade mince pies with some of my many jars of homemade mincemeat and not get much sleep.

I sent a Christmas greeting to a former boss from my office days earlier this week and he wished me all the best, hoping 'it wouldn't be a busman's holiday'. Earlier today, when I told one I the chefs that I was cooking Christmas dinner, he made a similar comment. They're both wrong. Hard weeks and awful home food aside, I made the change to this industry because I love food, and that's a big part of Christmas day. But most importantly, the pleasure gained from cooking and sharing food and time with family, loved ones and friends is something all too rare, and is what I'm looking forward to the most.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, filled with love, happy memories and good times. If good food features too, what could be better?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Complex delights.

Day two was supposed to be about markets but evidently my guide book is out of date so Bastille market was rightly empty. Better luck was had at the Marché St Quéntin but I just ended up feeling despondent at all the things I couldn't buy due to liquid restrictions or plain common sense dictating that cèpes would spoil before I arrived or that taking home a whole rabbit is neither sensible nor, possibly, legal.

', absolutely nothing to declare...'

Instead I settled for a warm rabbit and cèpes pastry (genius) to start my day and a selection of mini Thai dumplings - against my instincts of buying simple honest French food but they were just so damn pretty that I couldn't resist. As lovely as they sounded - beef with clementine, chicken with green tea - their flavour lacked the pow I was expecting. Perhaps best to try the next time I have a potsticker evening at home. The rabbit pastry was delicious however.



Then I learnt the real reason to get up early on holiday. Forget catching bargains, missing the rush, fitting it all in etc, the real reason is to allow food to settle between meals. My next stop was only just an hour later and made use of another tip from Fooding - a 12-table bistro called Métropolitaine near Pont Marie, and, Wow. Bread (and it always makes me smile how much bread one can devour simply by being at a continental table) came in a mini tin bucket and the travel theme perpetuated throughout for good kitsch measure. Starters were 'boardings' and main meals 'Bon voyage', the wine list an itinerary and each table had a ticket stamped on it for good measure. The lunchtime menu was a reasonable €17 without wine, which is priced in a way that Fooding refers to as 'harsh but fair'. The reasons I love food shot through my brain as I tucked into yet MORE mushrooms, this time as the menu's soup with slivered garlic croutons and lamb crackling. Divine. It's texture was just assorted enough to give interest without over-complication and lamb with mushrooms, although a new idea to me, worked incredibly well as the earthy flavours played off each other.
As soon as blogs allow for readers to taste what they see, I'll sort this out for you...

Already feeling full, I battled through with a main course of seabass (fine by Fishfight standards) fillet with a fine crouton atop a swipe of bright broccoli puree, studded with tiny particles of grapefruit. All perfectly cooked, beautifully presented (Foodings comments about Lichtenstein proving accurate) in a lovely atmosphere and making my head swim with ideas. At one point I thought I had found a fishbone but it turned out to be a piece of thyme which for some reason seemed to make the whole experience even better!

Tasted as beautiful as it looks.

I didn't stay for dessert as I had other ideas but did appreciate the cutesy travel sweet-caramel accompanying the bill. I stayed as long as it is decent for a lone female diner to do so before heading to my next station.

After a few hours of wandering through île de St Louis, crossing over to see Notre Dame and join the schoolchildren for a view of the growing nativity scene, stopping in shops that sparked my interest, I came to the Louvre and Tuileries gardens. Gastronomically, this can only mean one thing, and here came a point of skewed balance. I may have chosen to forfeit Versailles this holiday in anticipation of a warmer visit but the weather justified perfectly a visit to Angelina, home of Paris' best hot chocolate. Sitting at my table, I seemed to have gone back in time several centuries albeit accompanied by a large number of Canadian and Japanese tourists. I intend more than ever now to read my copy of 'French Women Don't Get Fat' having enjoyed my unctuous and delicately spiced jug of hot chocolate and almost all of its accompanying sweetened chantilly. Maybe if I was that concerned I would just have had the jug of water it was served with.

Another walk through the gardens and over to the left bank and St Gérmain lead me back to rue de Seine (S&R would wish this to feature daily in any trip to Paris I'm sure) where it felt right to pick up my very own copy of Fooding and ponder on what I would be able to fit in my hand luggage.

Dinner - hotly anticipated and pre-booked from London - was at Les Papilles. Having been here before, I knew that here one can enjoy the 'menu du marché' for €33 and it is pot luck as to what you will be presented with. C and I had a beautiful sweet potato soup, ladled from a seemingly bottomless turrine onto a mixture of olive oil cream, chorizo pieces, sweet potato cubes and crisps, coriander and mini garlic croutons. A touch of theatre at the table is usually a winner in my book.

The main meal came in an oval brass platter precariously filled with two duck breasts (perfectly pink) balancing on mange tout, carrot batons, caramelised garlic cloves and roasted baby new potatoes all bathing in the most delicious of gravies. We couldn't finish it all. Then came a lovely young goat's cheese with a quenelle of black olive tapanade, sunblush tomato and coarse paprika. Dessert was a pannacotta of caramelised apples and a caramel foam. Les Papilles doubles as a food boutique and we had a fruity and delicate burgundy to accompany our meal chosen for us from the floor-to ceiling wine shelves and at a reasonable price. Sadly no other purchases, this time. Oh to have arrived by Eurostar!

Wonderful soup, beautiful people

Not so ugly duck.

Made me feel all bubbly inside

After breakfast the next morning I was on a mini-mission to buy. Lafayette gourmet was a veritable treasure trove for a luxury picnic lunch. I picked up some Petrossian taramasalata in its bijou tin, a rustic-looking boule from Eric Kayser and a number of brightly coloured sweet-tooth presents from Sadaharu Aoki.

Filled chocolates from Sadaharu Aoki,
winner of the International Excellence Award
2011at Paris' Le Salon du Chocolat
I pondered over buying some Mariage Frères tea but feel this is more justified after an afternoon in the boutique itself and I craved a larger selection. Which I could have found near to rue de Seine but by now I was running out of time. A quick stopover at Da Rosa (banking time here to keep me going until my next trip) produced some foie gras blended with Iberico Bellota ham. Then a cheesy disaster struck - Quatr'hommes was closed! Again! Alas lunch was therefore almost cheeseless but nevertheless a de luxe gastronomical delight. What better way to secure the inevitability of my return sooner rather than later?

Monday, 28 November 2011

Simple Pleasures

I'm in Paris for a few days. I haven't come to admire the Mona Lisa, I probably won't see the Eiffel tower while I'm here. I'm here to absorb, to learn, to take in and to take stock. Weight gain will be an inevitable and happy souvenir.When I asked chef for some tips on places to eat (despite already having a bursting list to amble through - there will be no ticking and minimal itinerising) he told me he couldn't be bothered with all the top restaurants and this struck a harmonious chord. Not to detract from the wonder that is a meal crafted from indescribable genius but don't we all rather crave for our every day lives the simplest of pleasures? Good bread becomes the stuff of legend, four-ingredient plates earn knowing smiles and satisfied nods. Right now, at least, life is simply too complicated on its own for food to also need deciphering and hefty accompanying explanation.

The night of my arrival I enjoyed cheeses and bread with my lovely friends C&F and it was a perfect start. As it happens we had been guided towards our selection - a St Marcellin, a Mourbier, a Bleu de Causse and a liquid-centred goats cheese with 'un goût un peu animale' (never a truer word spoken!) by a lovely man in Fromagerie Quatr'hommes, which happens to be one of the best cheese shops around. I expect nothing less from my friend C.

My first full day was spent ambling from Les Halles to Temple, Le Marais and then Opéra, admiring shops, noting which establishments earned queues and gaining my bearings, with a lovely stopover in a Jewish deli on the way, before cooking a rustic dinner of split pea and smoked sausage. I wish the 'bourgeois' notion apparent in the UK about the wonder of independent food shops was just the norm, as it is here; I would love every street facade to look like this, with butcher, baker, fishmonger and cheese shop living harmoniously side by side, like they used to:

Fishmonger, Butcher, Deli, Cheesemonger, Wine shop and Baker, living in harmony.

A purchase of the newly-published magazine 'Fooding' has been very useful in directing me towards the type of food I'm after: honest, classic, unadulterated. So lunch on day two at Le Coude à Coude was a warm goat's cheese salad followed by duck legs with sautéed potatoes. I was surrounded by regulars pausing for a bite halfway through their work day - a good sign in my book, and this with a good glass of white and an espresso came to €16. The potatoes were delicately scented with garlic, the goats cheese warmed just to a delicate ooze and the coffee had a beautiful crema. What else does one need?

Well, to be honest, the food may have become somewhat more complicated after this point, to a certain extent. Several circles later (orienteering skills having failed me abysmally) and after a few retail distractions, I decided that the likes of Fauchon, Hédiard and Printemps might feed my eyes but little more and I headed for St Gérmain. After making use of a very wise tip to visit Gérard Mulot for after-dinner desserts, I headed to Da Rosa for a snack. Taking a seat outside ('non, je n'attend personne'), I treated myself to a plate of lardo do Colonnata, some sweet garlic and a hot chocolate. The lardo, cured bacon fat with sea salt and herbs, came like thinly slices sheets of silk, ready to melt imperceptibly on warm toast before their inevitable disappearance, and the garlic was so beautifully delicate that I remain easy prey for vampires. Good hot chocolate but after all I will be treating myself to Angelina tomorrow so little can compare.

Returning to chez C&F I was greeted with the wonderful scent of pumpkin, chestnut and bacon soup which we ate with salad and the rest of the animalistic cheese before a veritable dessert-fest: Portuguese tarts from 'Comme à Lisbonne' and my little treat from Mulot: a Troubadour with sablé biscuit base, salted caramel, coffee mousse and chocolate glaze, and two macarons: passion fruit and basil, and salted caramel.

A perfect end to the day. I just hope I can sleep after all the sugar as an early rise awaits so that I can cram in as many markets as possible before a dinner I'm very excited about in the evening. Check back on Wednesday to find out why!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

You have been warmed!

One of my fantastic co-hosts, sparkling.
There's something about Bonfire Night that makes me want to celebrate. I'm a fan of fireworks at the best of times but the 5th November is just beginning to be about when you can no longer resist the chunky knit jumpers calling from their drawer or box in the loft, scarves begin to appear on coat hooks and fingers twitch impatiently on the thermostat as you justify a quick blast of central heating. For me, it's a great excuse to gather my friends around me for warmth of the soul and feed them heartily for warmth of the belly. I always feel fireworks bring optimism, perhaps because we watch them explode in colour and realise that life is short but can be spectacular or perhaps it's just that we take a moment with friends and family to stop and look, and appreciate being outdoors and yet still somehow warm. 

Gatherings at my house always involve exciting food, and always lots of it. This usually means a wealth of different dishes, something for everyone, and lots of washing up the next day. I'm learning these days that it's the simplest things that are the most precious, however, and applied the same strategy to my bonfire night feast. This didn't mean skimping on quality however, and I made sure to go to the experts for each dish. There would be chilli for everyone, jacket potatoes, chocolate brownies and popcorn. And in the process, more time for me to enjoy their company!

My chilli recipe came from Thomasina Miers' 'Mexican Food Made Easy' as I love her passion for depth of flavour and feel that her recipes stretch conventional thinking about typical Mexican ingredients. I started the day before, soaking red kidney beans overnight. Although my recipe stated borlotti beans (I would have thought pinto more authentic), I felt that as I would already be blowing everyone's mind by not using minced beef! I would need to keep some tradition in there somehow. Red kidney beans can be somewhat toxic if not prepared properly and although there are many ways to prepare them from dried, I soaked overnight, rinsed and boiled for an hour. You may choose to bring the dried beans to the boil and then soak overnight, or you may want to add aromatics to the cooking water such as bay leaves, peppercorns or cloves. 

A vegan chilli was also made the night before, or, rather, a mixed vegetable and bean hotpot, with bell peppers, courgette, a tin of mixed beans, mushrooms, onions, garlic and chilli, and a stock of tinned tomatoes, molasses, tomato purée, thyme, paprika, bay leaves and pepper. This came from my recently acquired copy of 'A vegan taste of Mexico' by Linda Majzlik, which I shall be further investigating in future. 

For my beef chilli, which needed to feed about 15, I used 3kg of braising steak as it was going to be cooked slowly. Minced beef simply cannot impart as much flavour, would have risked being dried out in the process and would probably have actually been less economical by weight considering the higher water content of mince. The steak was cut into large chunks and browned in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot before being put aside. Then I fried off two rings of chorizo picante in the oil before setting this aside and adding 9 finely chopped onions, followed by 10 or so finely chopped cloves of garlic and 8 chillis. I used the serrano chillis I had successfully grown from a packet of Wahaca seeds - I take a handful whenever I eat there and should never need to buy chillis again at this rate! I felt that the resulting chilli had the right level of heat for everyone but as the recipe asks for a combination of ancho chillis (dried and so imparting a sweetly smoky flavour) and arbol chillis (9/10 on the heat scale, meaning that scotch bonnets would be a close comparison, although you would need fewer), following the recipe exactly would have resulted in a hotter chilli. Once these had softened I seasoned and added 3tsp cloves, 9 bay leaves, 2 large cinnamon sticks, 6tsp ground cumin, 6tsp ground allspice and 6tsp dried oregano. I mixed up a spice stock with 9tbsps cider vinegar, 6tbsps tomato ketchup (everyone's favourite not-so-secret secret ingredient!) and although the recipe asked for 6tbsps dark brown soft sugar I used molasses to add a depth of flavour perhaps missing through lack of ancho chillies. I added this to the pot along with 6 tins of plum tomatoes and a litre of water before returning the meat to the mix. The pot went, covered, into the oven at 120℃ for about 4 hours before the cooked kidney beans were added. About two hours to go, a shipment of baking potatoes were washed, pricked, rubbed with olive oil and salted before being placed in the bottom of the oven. After its' time in the oven, the chilli still needed to be reduced so I left it bubbling merrily on the hob and filling the air with a hunger-inducing fug while I made brownies until the guests arrived.

Generally speaking, when I am on the lookout for a recipe I hungrily grab a variety of books from the shelf and pore over several recipes at a time. I'm looking for the most convincing selection of ingredients, hopefully with a curve ball or two for good measure, things I wouldn't necessarily have pictured in the list, along with a method that promotes time carefully taken rather than saved, and bonus points are given for impassioned prose about the recipe being passed down generations / a closely guarded secret / the end product never lasting until the next day. 

For these brownies I was won over by Pam 'the jam' Corbin. Her recipe involved whipping 3 eggs and 275g sugar for about 8 minutes until they have quadrupled in volume so I knew it was going to be worth the time investment. 185g melted and cooled good quality dark chocolate and 185g unsalted butter, with 1tsp instant coffee is folded into the beaten egg before folding in 85g sifted plain flour and 40g cocoa powder. 50g each of chopped milk and white chocolate is gently mixed in before the mixture is poured into greased and base-lined tins and baked for about 35 minutes at 180℃. The top should be shiny and solid and there should be no 'wobble' to the mixture. The brownies will continue to cook in their tins whilst they cool and this should result in a beautifully dense and yet gooey texture. 

For nibbles, I made Nigella's Party Popcorn. I'm such a fan of this that the spice mix is always on standby in my cupboard in a used spice jar. Pop 200g popcorn kernels in wok oil (sunflower oil works fine) and melt 50g butter in a separate pan with 2tsp ground cinnamon, 2tsp ground cumin, 2tsp ground paprika, 4tsp table salt and 4tsp caster sugar. Pour the spiced butter over the popcorn and shake in a large paper bag, or, like me, employ a friend to hold the lid on your stockpot and make like the Muppet's Animal. It's incredibly moreish.

By now my house was full of friends ancient and new, merrily catching up and happily helping me add the finishing touches to the food, such as gently shredding the tender meat. The best friends are those who treat your home as their own, and as such, fairy lights appeared all over my garden just in time for an impromptu bonfire and firework display, I never had an empty glass in my hand, bowls of chilli atop perfectly cooked jacket potatoes magically started appearing in everyone's hands and delighted groans could be heard describing the brownies, the apple streusel cake and toffee apple cakes a lovely friend had brought along, and to this day I have no idea who to thank for which part of the hosting was taken off my hands. Letting off some sky lanterns was the icing on the cake, even if it was windy. Apologies to anyone whose garden, or indeed house suffered at our hands, but at least we had fun!

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of any of this food. Whilst I had made ten litres of chilli, which all proclaimed was sure to be far too much, none survived the night. The brownies lasted a day or so, but I couldn't look at them long enough to photograph them without having one. The vegetarian chilli, although a success, was recycled into a piccante pasta sauce of sorts the next night, and what was left of  the popcorn went all over the floor when I got too excited by Dance Star on the Wii. You'll just have to try cooking it all for yourselves, or pop in next bonfire night!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Won't you please, please help me?

This post is more a note to self than anything else, but highlights an important fact of life for anyone embarking on a change of career - there will come times when you need to ask for help, and you should feel comfortable doing so.

Two and a half months in to working in a restaurant, I am beginning to master running the counter by myself. Although not a kitchen, I do have my own mise-en-place of sorts; I set things up as I like them, and know where to find dressings, which fridge holds components for which starter, and strive to keep surfaces free of debris and always ready for an order. Whilst reading 'Kitchen Confidential' I was pleased to note that I had pre-empted a vital survival strategy just by instinct. Anthony Bourdain recalls a head chef who used to press his palm to the workboard of a line cook who was falling behind the incoming orders, show him the varied debris that stuck to it and tell him that the mess represented his mind. Work clean, work effectively.

Sometimes, however, this is not enough. Sunshine on a Saturday means a lot of customers hungry for salads or ice-creams, and, naturally, all will descend at once and order in unison. Within moments there are orders for at least five tables to contend with. Some will be a mixture of hot and cold dishes, and this is a blessing as it buys you a little time to deal with the four salads and two sticky toffee puddings that were ordered by neighbouring tables at the same time. However, just when you feel like you could handle the situation, in walks a wandering shopper, feeling peckish. They need to be talked through the different takeaway options before they stand and ponder - and this is not time to use for prepping one of those four salads, as this customer needs your undivided attention. If you go back to those salads, they will decide what they want just as you spoon the first component on to a plate, and this is not a good strategy. So you wait, and you hear the seconds ticking in your head as you realise that those hot starters will be ready quicker now, and you've not started on the rest of that table's orders as you'd decided to get on with the salads and sticky toffee pudding instead. Naturally they will order a ham baguette as this requires fresh carving (mind you, who wouldn't? That's just what makes it the best option), and then you not only need more time but more space and will need to clean down the board afterwards. In addition, all waiting staff will magically disappear just as the customer needs to pay, and there will probably be problems with their card to contend with. None of this is anyone's fault, of course, just difficult circumstance. But before you know it, you are swimming upstream trying to get orders out before they are asked for by a waitress holding the hot half of that table's order.

It's on busy days like this that having spare salads prepared, and extra quiches and salads brought up from the kitchen chiller in readiness for a deluge of orders is just common sense. It's also on days like this that you need to accept that no amount of politeness is going to get those clean plates brought up by the kitchen porter before your stack runs out. If the counter is becoming demanding, that is what I also need to be.

What you don't want to happen is what happened to me two weeks ago. Our first sunny day in weeks and the end of the school holidays meant a lot of customers, and a lot of salads. I felt prepared, having backed up all of the deli options, and had even overpowered the schizophrenic toaster through a busy breakfast, with a distinct absence of the burnt toast haze that had plagued Nick Clegg's visit the week before. What I didn't reckon on was all the orders being for the counter, more awkwardly-timed baguettes than was fair, and running out of absolutely all of my prepped salads just in time for one of the directors to walk in. And all while starving and parched as I had neither had breakfast before I started my shift nor taken the opportunity to stop for ten minutes before the rush, and now couldn't seem to track down the goat's cheese, let alone a glass of water.

Should this happen again, I will do what happened next a lot earlier. If the orders were all for the counter, that therefore means that the kitchen is quiet, and two staff there against one here is not doing anyone any favours. So the manager asked one of them to come up, and this was a revelation. Suddenly salads started to reappear and surfaces became visible again, and I could even find and grab a gulp of that water.

I wasn't alone in my struggle, at least. On lovely days like this the bar also gets slammed with cold drink orders, and it's at its busiest when a customer like this walks in:

As I left work that day I told the manager that I don't know what I could have done differently that day to counteract the mania of all of those orders at once, but I do know now. Asking for help is not an admission of defeat, it's acknowledgement of a situation that needs additional control to stop it from causing damage. Next time there are more orders than I can handle, I'll know to order help.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Catch it, cook it, eat it!*

A trip to Cornwall gives me the opportunity to deviate from my musings on life in a proper eating establishment (not for long, fear not!) and to spend some time exploring regional foods. For what else is there to do on a late Summer holiday in Britain other than to shelter from the persistent rain and eat?

Holidaying near Padstow (or as N, and, it appears, many others, affectionately refer to it, Padstein) means fish is on the menu, lovingly snuggled between opportunities for a good Cornish pasty and a proper cream tea.

Firstly, those pasties. According to the lovely mother and daughter working at Polzeath Bee shop, a proper cornish pasty was a game of two halves, with a savoury filling on one side of beef, (NOT mince, shun proprieters who try to pass off anything other than big hearty chunks of tender steak with its accompanying peppery and rich gravy in your pasty) swede and potato, and a fruity filling on the other as dessert. They were early packed lunches for the miners. Naturally, a stay in Cornwall means you have to sample as many of these as possible (I'm writing this on the journey home and am pleased to report that the car is full of the heady aroma of the best pasties in the area, from Malcolm Barnecutt the baker, and there are another 8 handmade and frozen in a triple-wrapped and double-coat insulated bundle behind my head somewhere). I have taken the modern interpretation of the miner's packed lunch to be the surfer's reward, a hot pasty gobbled furiously after an hour and a half of being slapped in the face by 40 knot winds, alternately drowning in a wave, snorting seawater and having better (aka 'competent') surfers land on your head when you inadvertently bellysurf through their legs. Incidentally, I actually believe this takes considerable skill, but appreciate I may be alone in this. The enjoyment of food is inextricably tied into the circumstances in which it is enjoyed, and for me, a good pasty will now always remind me of cold water dribbling down my back and a salty tang on my lips from dunking too often in the sea. Look for handcrimping, and expect a reasonable price for proper steak and a nice peppery kick and you'll be alright.

As for cream teas, well, I could dedicate an entire post to these on their own. I appreciate that whilst a scone is a beautiful thing, it can cause tremendous upset as lifelong friends and passionate lovers wrangle over The Right Way To Prepare A Scone. N is the fiercest advocate of the art of Sconking and patented the term 'Fat Sandwich'. We Sconk with a homemade, warm scone (the texture should be somewhere along the lines of a good soda bread, not too crumbly as it needs to support the toppings, and not so dense that it adheres to the roof of one's mouth), either fruit or plain depending on your own taste, or lavender if you can. Whilst cheddar and marmite scones are a beautiful thing, they're not made for proper sconking so we will leave that to one side for the moment. Cut the scone in half (I hear that not everyone does this, which I find a shocking waste of topping opportunity) and add a reasonable layer of butter. This upsets many but I am a firm believer that a whisper of salt on the palate enhances sweet flavours, and besides, my blog, my rules. Then add your jam. A nice thick layer that threatens to escape if you don't demolish your scone quickly enough. And it must be strawberry, preferably home made - my last Sconking episode was not two hours ago and involved local honey-infused homemade strawberry jam and was delicious. I put my jam on first as a) I consider the clotted cream to be the crowning glory and b) I don't want anything turning pink, preferring to keep a bold white/red contrast.

Atop your jam goes the clotted cream. Clotted cream is made by heating full-fat cow's milk in steam or a waterbath and allowing it to cool in shallow pans, when clots of cream rise to the surface. It has the consistency of a thick unset custard, should have a delicate yellowy crust and be cold to contrast against the warm scone. The fact that many think aerosol cream will do makes me very, very sad. Eat quickly, with inappropriate groans, and a pot of proper tea such as Earl Grey on the side.

A seaside stay would not be complete without fish, and I'm glad to report that even my fish-fearing younger brother's conversion has begun. Dinner at The Seafood Restaurant in Padstein involved an enormous hot seafood platter, a seemingly bottomless turrine of bouillabaisse, a japanese take on hand-picked crab, juicy fat scallops and a variety of freshly caught and responsibly sourced fish. Confusingly, one of these was Brill, listed as one to avoid according to the Fish Fight, but having seen this appear on the menu in a number of local restaurants and enquiring after its provenance, I enjoyed it with a clear conscience. As I believe that if you can eat something, you should know where it came from and how, we decided to go fishing for our supper on our last day.

Fishing trips are not hard to find by the sea, and are an inexpensive way to have fun finding out where your dinner came from, as well as providing healthy competition with your holidaymates and a great sense of achievement and pride in your food. And it turns out that mackerel are easy to catch by the dozen, particularly for first-timers like myself who managed to catch three at once!

They don't need bait and aren't particularly fussy about the depth of the water. As oily fish, you can smell their oils as they leave the water, but as with anything fresh from the sea, this is not a strongly 'fishy' smell, which is instead an indicator that the fish is not at its best. My early post on fish describes how to prepare the fillets, and whilst this should perhaps be done indoors, mackerel can easily be cooked on a campstove on the beach. Mackerel's meatiness can handle stronger flavours and is wonderful fried. Try adding some roughly-chopped garlic cloves and torn bay leaves to shimmering-hot olive oil before adding mackerel fillets, skin-side down, on top. Wait for the fillets to become nearly entirely white before turning them over to finish on the flesh side for one minute, remove and drizzle with a squeeze of lemon and serve with new potatoes or hunks of bread and a simply-dressed tomato salad. Your nouveau-caveman meal will taste all the better for knowing that you caught the fish yourself.

*Note to readers: whilst I appreciate that it is not possible to 'catch' a scone, or a cornish pasty, the message is the same: know where your food is from and eat local, and it will taste better, I promise.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


I learnt an interesting lesson last week: I am scared of the simple things. Ask me to make caviar using molecular spherification and I'll see it as an adventure. One evening last week whilst working at the restaurant, however, I was asked to do something that stressed me out considerably for the best part of the next hour.

"Sarah, could you make me about half a litre of mash?"

So incongruous a request, so casually asked. So fraught with complication. So not the done thing to ask for extensive instructions.

Most people I know will have made mashed potato at some point in their lives, and hopefully enjoyed it. Heck, I've been wooed with Parmesan-infused mash in my day, and it wasn't even intended for me (should have taken note at the time, probably). It's comforting, satisfying and can be downright sexy in my opinion. But here I was being casually asked the heavily loaded request to make it for paying customers.

This was a tense situation for many reasons. Be warned, this blog may contain neuroses. Or be nuts.

1. Choice of potato.
Potatoes don't just come in different shapes and sizes, there are many different types. Should I go for a floury type such as a Maris Piper or those in that bag marked for chipping? For chips should be fluffy inside, yes? Like mash? But mash should be buttery at the same time, unlike chips.

2. Peeling.
Peelers and I have not seen eye to eye since New Year's Eve 2007 when I managed to dispense with part of the tip of a little finger. Whilst peeling spuds, incidentally. I could write a thesis on Things That Mark You As A Novice In A Professional Kitchen and the speed at which you peel vegetables would definitely feature. Thus, I am losing on two counts here.

3. Cooking.
I remain sure that I read something somewhere sometime by St Jamie about there being no benefit in bringing vegetables to the boil in water, and that this in fact destroys a lot of their nutrients quicker. So, while I slowly and tentatively peeled, a pot of water was heating on the hob. "What's that pot of water doing on the stove?" asked Head Chef. "Potatoes should be put into cold water and brought to the boil."
That answers that question for future reference then.
That sorted, there still remains issues over the size of the chunks put into the water - some of those potatoes started off pretty small as it was - and the issue of water saltiness. And once all of that's been worked out, how long do you cook them for? I've had potatoes boil to mush under my watchful eye before... Should I time it? But it's just potatoes!! Surely I should just know? Should I skim the starchy scum off the top as it boils or should I have rinsed this off before cooking anyway?

4. Mashing apparatus.
Most households own a masher for the purposes of mashing. This is clearly not an option here, unless its huge. My Grandad uses an electric hand whisk for his mash, which creates light, fluffy mash (and he gives me the whisk heads to lick clean if I'm lucky), but going on the amount of whipping of cream I've had to do by hand so far, this is also not an option. Could it be I need to use a potato ricer? I've used one for making gnocchi at home but it's very time consuming and messy. "Aha!" I thought whilst peeling (yes, still peeling), "A passoire!" this is a rotary mangle-like contraption that purées vegetables to a silky smoothness. He who wooed with Parmesan Mash always wanted one, never got one (only wooed with Parmesan mash the once, you see). I spotted a huge version in the corner of the kitchen. Bingo. However, I have never used one, am not sure how to use one, and don't know if it's called anything other than a passoire in this country as we always came closest to a purchase in France. Should the potato be passed through once or twice? At what point should I add things like butter and cream?

5. Additions.
Which brings me onto the issue of additions. Butter, obviously. Lunch at Dinner (read the post here) involved divine mash that was basically 50:50 potato to butter. Good mash should be decadent. But cream as well as butter? Or milk? And how much? Having got this far, asking for guidance seemed acceptable, under the guise of "knowing how I like my mash but not knowing how it is expected to be sold in this particular establishment". I was advised that, for that amount of potato, about 200ml of double cream should be used and reduced by about half, half a pack of butter added and this added to the puréed potato. With salt to taste.

So there we go. I blundered through it ok, in spite of all the questions in my head, and felt a proud wave of satisfaction once the panic had subsided. Whether or not it was deemed fit for service I do not know, but it doesn't matter.

I made mash!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Quiches and quenelles

I have now had my new 'job' for a month. I say 'job' because gone are the days when I got up at the same time every weekday, took the same train with the same people to a world of acronyms and meetings and in their place is world of fridges, tips and plates, my most commonly-used acronym is E4 and I've learnt to shout 'service!'

Actually, I've learnt a lot more than that. More of this later, first I thought I'd bust some myths. These may not be things you've ever wondered but I know I did, hence why I'm sharing:

1. Waiting staff work very hard. Not that I've tried yet. They break 16,000 steps in an easy shift, and a good one can spot an incorrectly plated dish, tell you who ordered what and how long ago, and manage to smile and make conversation with customers at the same time.

2. Tipping in cash is better. Most restaurants will divide tips between staff based on the number of hours they've worked, but credit card tips go through payroll and are therefore taxed. Either way, most staff are reliant on them to some extent.

3. The knives you use for cooking at home are probably rubbish. If, like me, you get by with a serrated set from somewhere like Argos, stop now. Go and buy yourself at least one chef's knife and probably a sharpening stone or steel; you can read about sharpening knives in an earlier post here or watch a video here. It will cut through a tomato, steak or cheese much more easily.

My two roles are very different. At the all-day café I work on the cold counter. Here I am plating soups to salads to sticky toffee pudding. Presentation and portion sizes are important but I am not involved in the preparation of what goes onto the plate. The pace varies wildly from dead (time for cleaning) to frantic, with simultaneous orders for crayfish baguettes and knickerbocker glories, with a takeaway customer standing in front if you and rightfully expecting prompt attention and service for their takeaway  slice of quiche and salad. This is when the counter begins to resemble Hiroshima. If you come to the café and spot these symptoms, try not to order one of these dishes from me and expect to remain friends. Every day at the café is different and I enjoy conquering busy times and getting home at 1am footsore but with a bag of leftovers and a pocketful of tips for the holiday jar. However, I sense that what I can learn without moving from this role is limited.

My other role is in the kitchen at a restaurant, as yet somewhat more undefined but I am biding my time in the hope of greater trust in my capabilities, a greater proportion of my week spent there and a continuing opportunity to learn. Here I help with the preparation of pantry items and with plating amuse-bouches and starters as part of a tasting menu. My favourite moment so far was being asked "Do you know how to quenelle?" and being able to answer "Yes!"

Quenelling is the formation of a neat oval of foodstuff by transferring it back and forth between two spoons. (This video shows the technique quickly and quite well, although I agree with the comments that the finished article isn't very attractive!) I have now quenelled red onion chutney (tricky) to whipped cream (use a single warm spoon and be quick so as not to melt the cream) to hundreds of mini meringues (wet the spoons between each one). It maketh the difference between a dinnerplate and a visual feast.

This has been a valuable lesson. "Customers eat with their eyes", the café manager said to me, and this filters through into the preparation of the elements of a dish. Learn that white wine vinegar with a little sugar makes a quick pickling liquor, and how to use a mandolin, and suddenly you can dress a corner of a plate with a tasty and colourful base contrast for one of the star attractions for your meal. The simplest recipes can turn out the most spectacular results; learn how to scrape a vanilla pod and cook up a custard and a world of creme brûlées and ice creams opens.

There have been other lessons I've not enjoyed learning quite as much. But they will stick with me, just the same!

  • When you see a nail brush, buy one. You will never find one when you truly need it... 
  • Preparing scallops means their smell will follow you around for days. Even if you have managed to buy a nail brush. Not good by the next day if you had found yourself going for 'one' post-work drink... Consider gloves!
  • Double cream is much easier to whip by hand if you halve the quantities.
  • Asking questions can be advantageous, and may ultimately save you both time and tomatoes.
I've become rapidly aware that professional kitchens trump the majority of home kitchens in terms of the equipment available and ingredients to hand, so will try to keep things simple in this regard. So I thought I'd share a nice easy one for now: vanilla ice cream. (n.b if you happen to have a Pacojet lying around at home this will make this easy, but to own an ice-cream maker is fairly common these days so that will suffice. If not, freeze slowly and churn at intervals to prevent ice crystals forming).

Vanilla Ice Cream (makes approx 1l, reduce quantities according to your requirements!)
750g cream
250g milk
480g egg yolk
240g sugar (vanilla sugar is best if you have some)
3-4 vanilla pods
(n.b Professional kitchens use weight instead of volume which saves a lot of time. 1g is roughly equivalent to 1ml. Egg yolk is used from a carton in this context, this recipe calls for the yolks from about 2 dozen eggs, which would enable you to subsequently quenelle lots of meringues!!) 

Scrape the seeds from the inside of the vanilla pods and whisk briefly into the milk and cream to incorporate. Carefully bring the milk, cream and spent vanilla pods to a a simmering boil without it catching on the bottom of your pan. Meanwhile, whisk the sugar and egg yolks together until pale in colour. 
Whisk 2/3 of the hot milk and cream mixture into the egg yolk mixture and then return this to the pan and cook slowly on a low heat, stirring gently until the mixture thickens. At this point strain the mixture into a tub and discard the vanilla pods (straining will also remove any lumps should any of your custard happen to have caught on the base of the pan). Allow to cool before freezing.

This method can also be used to make custard for crème brûlée, the quantities change however, no milk this time but for every litre of cream use 200g caster sugar and about 2 dozen egg yolks, with 2 vanilla pods. Instead of freezing, cook on a low temperature, about 100℃ for approximately 30 minutes. 

Eggs are so clever, in my opinion. And once you've conquered custard, so are you.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Leap of Faith

It may have become apparent by now, but I'm a lover of food. Ever since I was dextrous enough to slap my hands on a table, food has been something that excites me, that I want to learn about and that I want to share. My heart aches for those who have a difficult relationship with food, either through lack of it, fear of it, or through regarding it with insufficient understanding or respect, and I really believe in its power to heal, restore and transcend, if treated properly.

I have not, however, always had my current thirst for knowledge of it. I've never been a fussy eater, but like so many others, needed encouragement to push my own boundaries, both in terms of what I eat and what I cook. I have been shaped by many people in this regard. My grandmother, proprieter of 'Nan's Cafe' made me 'Uppity Cakes' because I wanted to know what they tasted like when she read me a bedtime story about them, and spotted my blossoming interest and allowed it to fire her own. My mother let me be free in the kitchen as soon as I could read 'Topsy and Tim's chocolate cook book' and is the first to pick up on comments I make on a recipe or food writer that interests me and run with it. My first love brought his gap-year restaurant job home, kindled my love of fish and recipe books, and taught me that I, too, could cook if I wanted to.

This hasn't been reflected in my choice of career, however, largely because I had no idea how to make it do so. I still don't have the long-term answer for this, but I am about to bring it a little closer. I've felt unfulfilled at work for some time now, the silver lining being the free time it allows me to cook, bake, research recipes and share food with friends. Being good at something does not guarantee enjoyment, I have learnt, and I have a GCSE in German to prove it!

Recently an opportunity to leave my job became clear and I decided to resign and give myself the push I needed to start acting on what I enjoy. Immediately, I found a position that matched my passion with my skills, and won an interview, only to find my lack of kitchen experience weakened my prospects. Undeterred, and with no other employment in sight, I handed in my notice and set about formulating a plan. If kitchen experience was what I needed, it is what I would get.

I've always been a believer that the best way to learn is to do, and that by showing someone how to do something new, two people stand to benefit. I considered my kitchen experience options and started making calls. Some nerve-wracking conversations, meetings, favours, discussions and meals (of course) later, I landed myself a combination job offer. I would split my time between an all-day seasonality-centric cafe and a modern european brasserie, both within half an hour from home, working a variety of shifts across all aspects of the business. I continue to feel very lucky for such an opportunity, and for the understanding of key people about where I'm coming from, and the fact that not even I know where I'm going to.

Having just reached the end of my first week, I am pleased to share that my decision seems to be going well! I've completed my first double shift, soon to become a foundation of my week, learnt about the opacity of chef's whites, washed, peeled, chopped, plated up and garnished everything from artichokes to tuna tartare. I have no scars yet but have been known to carry an unwipeable grin and effervescent conversation, two things that have been lesser-spotted for a while.

And so for the time being, this blog is going to recount my journey. I was asked this week if there was anything I particularly wanted to learn and I replied "Everything!!", so I will try to share my lessons with you. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Let them eat cake

I make no apology for saying that when I make a cake for someone's birthday, it's a 75% selfish act. Yes, it's time consuming, yes, I could be out, or doing laundry instead and yes it turns my kitchen into a bombsite (I have yet to work out how not to carpet all surfaces in icing sugar when making buttercream or frosting with a bowl and an electric whisk instead of an as-yet-still-coveted Kitchenaid), but I find it therapeutic and very rewarding. Not to mention an excellent outlet for creativity as long as you're adventurous enough.

My cake-making is still in it's infancy but I'm proud of what I can do and it excites me to think of all the possibilities out there still to be discovered.

For now, I'll share with you what has so far proved a reliable formula so you can give it a go and see how easy - and enjoyable - it can be.

I use Nigella Lawson's 'Buttermilk Birthday Cake' recipe from my well-thumbed copy of 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' because, just like she says, it holds it's shape well, can support weight admirably and, most importantly, tastes delicious. I combine her recipe with Lorraine Pascale's (of Ella's bakehouse and 'Baking Made Easy' fame) technique of smoothing cake surfaces before icing and the result is fantastic.

So I thought I'd share how I do this with you by using my most recent cake as an example.

My cousin, who nobody can quite get their head around having turned 40, least if all himself, likes his music. A LOT. To say that he has more records than he has probably had hot dinners is, well, probably just accurate, actually. His house moves are a total nightmare. So I hear. I've always managed to escape them, unintentionally but fortuitously. So, before I was asked, I knew I wanted to make his cake, and I knew it was going to be a turntable. A big one. The quantities below are a tripled-version of Nigella's recipe, but doubling would be enough if you didn't want some cheeky leftovers.

Firstly, have your butter warming up to room temperature and line your tins. I used a 30cm round tin, an 18cm sandwich tin and a silicone muffin tray. Grease the tins with butter using some kitchen roll before lining with baking parchment. First cut a strip long enough to wrap around the tin with a little spare, as wide as the tin is deep plus 4cm. Fold the bottom 1cm of the length of the strip and then cut at 2cm intervals from the bottom edge to the fold. This will help it to curve smoothly around the inside of the tin. Cut a disc of parchment the same size as the bottom of the tin and sit this on top of the side strip's flaps.

Preheat the oven to 180℃. Using an electric hand mixer, briefly whip 375g room-temperature butter before adding in 600g caster sugar and creaming together. I tried using vanilla sugar, made at home with spent vanilla pods in a sugar jar, once, but found this made the cake overly sweet, not a good plan when you have buttercream and icing to add later. The sugar and butter mixture is ready when the two have come together and appear to have increased somewhat in volume due to the air. Add 9 eggs, one at a time, mixing each in well for about 30 seconds.

Have two bowls at the ready: one with 750g plain flour, 4.5 tsp baking powder, 1.5tsp bicarbonate of soda and a good pinch of salt sifted together, the other with a mixture of 600ml buttermilk (you will find that shops sell this in 284ml pots; it can be topped up with milk) and 4.5tsp vanilla extract - the best you can justify buying. Next, alternate mixing in at moderate speed a few good tablespoons of each in turn. This makes A LOT of batter:

Pour the batter into the largest prepared tin. It is safer to bake these one after the other as the oven shouldn't be opened until at least 75% of the way through cooking, and if your kitchen is a relatively serene environment the batter in the other tins won't suffer for it while it waits.  For deeper tins, start by cooking for 30m before checking to see if the cake springs back when lightly pressed and a cocktail stick comes out clean. It is likely to need longer, in which case cover the top with two sheets of parchment to prevent burning. My largest cake needed about 45m.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and leave for 10-20m before turning onto a rack to cool, and leave the parchment intact as this helps keep the cake just moist enough. Smaller cakes will need 30m plus.

This is where the fun starts! While the cakes are in the oven, you can whip up the buttercream. Briefly whisk 300g room temperature butter to increase its surface area before whisking in a couple of tablespoons of 700g sifted icing sugar at a time. You will make a mess. Whisking through a hole in cling-film over the bowl could work, but is fiddly, and the cleanup operation doesn't take long. Each addition of sugar should be fully incorporated before the next. Once all the sugar has been blended in, add 2 tablespoons of milk (ideally whole, why skimp on the calories at this point?) and 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla essence. This is the point at which, should you be using the buttercream as standalone frosting, you could add food colouring, pastels working best. We're not using it for this, however.  If there are any particularly mutant-like lumps topping your cakes, these can be carefully carved off to create a flat surface. Then, using a pallet knife, cover the cake surfaces in buttercream like a master plasterer to smooth any dips, dents or bumps before chilling for half an hour. Repeat this so that you have 'plastered' two layers, the smoothness of the second being more important than the first. This will help the rolled icing to adhere to the cake and ensure a smooth finish, as well as adding a different texture to the finished mouthful.

Next it's time to cover your cakes. I bought a kilo of white icing and 300g of black from Hobbycraft, along with edible spray pearlescent icing, a small pack of orange icing, a pot of black food colouring paste and some cheap kids paintbrushes.  Stick the largest cake to a cakeboard, off centre in my case to allow for the 'headphones' later, using a blob of buttercream before kneading the white icing to soften. Dust a smooth work surface and a good rolling pin with a decent amount of icing sugar before rolling out your white icing into a round about twice the diameter of your cake and about 3mm thick. Use the rolling pin to lift the icing onto the cake and use the flat surfaces of your hands to smooth the icing onto the cake. You will need to carefully trim back the excess icing closely to the base of the cake. I used a thin 'rope' of black icing around the bottom perimeter - this handily disguises any uneven edges. You may additionally find it useful to dust your hands with icing sugar when smoothing the icing surfaces.  Reserving a ping-pong sized ball of kneaded black icing, create grey icing by kneading together the remaining black with white. Stick the next cake layer onto the centre of the base cake with buttercream and then protect the base cake with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole cut in it to fit over the second cake. This will stop you getting any grey smudged on your white base cake. Cover the second layer as before with the grey icing and then spray with the pearlescent icing, allowing to dry before removing the greaseproof and wrapping the base circumference with a black rope of icing.

You may want to cut out shapes from your leftover grey icing and spray these too, as I did with (40!) stars. I stick shapes onto my cakes with a blob of liquid glycerine, which can easily be bought from a supermarket, as this is clear and does not allow the shapes to slide.

Next for the record. I rolled out a disc of black icing as thinly as I could, whilst using as little icing sugar dusting as possible in order to keep the colour pure. This was cut slightly smaller in diameter than the top layer cake, and stuck to the top cake with glycerine. I used a clean comb to create the grooves, and painted the disc with glycerine to make it shiny.

To finish the record, I rolled an orange icing 'label', stuck this on as before and wrote on this using a fine paintbrush with the black gel food colouring. A silver candle provided the spindle. To make the arm, I wrapped a bendy straw in black icing and stuck this in a pillar of icing to the side of the top layer cake. The muffin-shaped cakes, with their lumpy tops, were perfect for headphones. I wrapped these in black icing, used a copper wire as the headband and a strawberry lace as the lead. And voilà! One turntable cake!

Check out my links on the left for details of Hobbycraft stores, for the spray icing as well as lots of other exciting supplies for whatever cake YOU decide to create!

I'd like to think that my cakes go down well, they certainly seem to!




Sunday, 19 June 2011

foodgasms (n. pl)

Let's take a detour. This blog may be called 'Sarah Serves' but this will not mean that it is restricted to tales of my culinary adventures. At times I will also share my views on those who Serve Sarah. And a few weeks ago, it was Heston Blumenthal, via the brilliance of his right-hand man at Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, Executive Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts.

Devotion to the cause, plus a nifty app, meant that S bagged a table for 6 as soon as round two of reservations opened and after a leave request, a painstaking wait and a guestlist shuffle, The Day arrived.

For those not in the know, Heston, of Bray's Fat Duck fame, rather enjoyed exploring what and how the British used to eat centuries ago, firstly through recreating dishes as per historical cookery books and then adding a modern twist to them, and this is the premise upon which Dinner is based. As such, the menu has dates and a bibliography.

The restaurant is within the Mandarin Oriental hotel and we rather enjoyed taking a pre-Dinner cocktail in the bar, which is suggestively decorated with beautiful back-lit liqueur bottles projecting their colours through opaque white walls like the ghosts of tipples future. The airy restaurant itself is shaped to allow a greater sense of intimacy than space between tables allows by breaking it into smaller sections, with a glass-walled kitchen so you can catch the magic on action. Including the spit-roasted pineapple (more on this later!)

We'd managed to secure ourselves a table overlooking Hyde Park, from which we could watch the Boris bikes and horses go by - if we could take our eyes off our plates for long enough. We got straight to the business of choosing dishes, with a desperation to try as many if each others' as possible. Nothing brings out the primeval pseudo-altruism more than a great meal, and it was clear that we would all feign charity with our own dishes because we simply HAD to try everyone else's.

Our beautiful-eyed cockney waiter talked us through some of the technicalities of the menu and we set about our battle plan with the zeal of oil prospectors. I assumed I'd have the meat fruit but did a deal with S, R and M, to secure a taste of it as well as Salamugundy (R's choice; as a medievalist by profession she was determined to restrict her meal to a set date period) and lemon salad in exchange for some of my marrowbone. Not my actual own personal marrowbone, you understand, although in retrospect, I possibly would.

Roast Marrowbone

Meat Fruit

  Roast Marrowbone (c.1720)           Meat Fruit (c.1500)                Salamugundy (c.1720)

The Marrowbone salad was surprisingly light and subtly complimented with parsley and anchovy. I am usually wary of anchovies, finding the often limp fishiness atop a pizza to be a world away from the lipsmackingly melted saltiness in a lamb joint, but here it worked. The meat fruit was smoother than I had imagined, having seen it born on Heston's Dinners and remembering it more as rillettes, and was like the most sublime foie gras in it's butteriness, the mandarin jelly coating adding the perfect amount of intrigue. Salamugundy involved chicken oysters, the revered mouthful of dark meat from the back of the chicken ( ) which Louis XIV would insist on being the only part he ate. I now see why.

                                 Lemon Salad (c.1730)                         Roast Scallops (c.1820)

The lemon salad made me mourn the fact that goats curd cannot be bought within 500 yards of
my kitchen.  I missed out on trying the scallops, and need to overcome my unreasonable grudge about this, having not shared any of my dish with J in return.

Main courses followed a similar sharing pattern. Most ordered the powdered duck or the spiced pigeon, and M ordered the roast quail.

Powdered Duck
Powdered Duck (c.1670)

Spiced Pigeon
Spiced Pigeon (c.1780)  

Roast Quail
Roast Quail (c.1590)

Powdered duck is most closely related to a confit, with the addition of a protective salt shroud - the powder - which keeps the flesh moist and tender during it's six-hour cooking. The rich gravy helped this further. Fennel - which I really should cook with more - is not an accompaniment I would usually place with duck, nor one I would smoke, but it both took on the duck juices and leant a vibrancy to the meatiness of the dish. The puréed potato was a star in itself, a beauty that must easily have been 50/50 butter to potato, and that avoided being greasy but not having my greasy fingers swipe the bowl clean. See, primeval, like I said.

The quail was accompanied by smoked parsnip, creating a harmonious rich, sucré salé mouthful. The pigeon was beautifully tender and delicately, yet sweetly spiced, served with artichokes artfully arranged as camouflaged bones.

And then dessert. I may have surprised myself by not having the meat fruit, but I sure as hell was having the tipsy cake. This is where the famed spit-roasted pineapples mentioned earlier come into play. Tipsy cake is a brioche pudding, steeped in a sweet, buttery light rum liqueur to create a rich, custardy puddle at the bottom of its individual casserole and served with pineapple. The pineapples are roasted for 2-3 hours, depending on size, and the dessert must be ordered at the beginning of the meal. This is because it takes 30 minutes to cook, and requires 'basting' with liqueur every three minutes throughout this time.

Wow. My tipsy cake was luxurious, and yet light, the pineapple lending citrus freshness despite their caramelised syrup.

Chocolate Bar (c.1730)
I'm normally a stickler for a chocolate dessert but had no interest whatsoever in the 'Chocolate Bar' on offer this time, leaving it to J to enjoy, as much as the passion fruit and ginger ice cream intrigued me. Today, I was all about the fruit.

Summer Tart (c.1720)

I also tried R's summer tart with camomile and a biscuit ice cream, bang on trend with edible flowers and satisfying in its lightness.

Chocolate Wine (c.1710)

M enjoyed the chocolate wine, the two warm ingredients of dark chocolate and red wine having been merged through centrifugal force, and the accompanying Millionaire Tart would have taken a minimum of 5 hours to put together by R's reckoning based on Heston's 'In Search of Perfection' recipe.
Malted Barley Ice Cream (c.1830)

S decided to treat himself to a rather regal glass of dessert wine to accompany his malted barley and salted caramel ice cream, and having been allowed a sip I can attest to it's being worth it for a special occasion.

Still with me? We've not finished! Our beautiful-eyed cockney waiter brought us an earl grey ganache in a tiny teacup with a caraway biscuit. It was rather dribbly and therefore difficult to eat but no less delicious for it, it's bergamot notes singing through. E in particular enjoyed getting messy with this one.

I enjoyed an espresso with mine, but there was also some white tip tea and a 1970 Puerh on the table.

Dinner done, and at a price not at all unreasonable for such an experience, we went for a wander in the nearby rose garden in Hyde Park as a perfect finish to a wonderful few hours. Senses overwhelmed, I sat in the glorious sunshine people watching, and contemplating how lucky I am to have a table of appreciative gourmets in my close circle until sunset, when I headed home with a wide grin.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A first time for everything

Trying something for the first time is often a daunting prospect, but usually one worth considering. You never forget your first time, so they say, and life is all about making memories. When it comes to food, there is so little to lose: you either like it, or you don't; either it works, or you'll need to try it again; at any rate, the worst result is you go hungry and the best is a fantastic success to brog about. 'Brog' is a new term I'm trying out for 'brag through the medium of blog', by the way.

Recently, I've experienced both. Although it was a deliciously moist affair that tasted divine, my attempt at Pam 'The Jam's honey and almond cake sank in the middle and so wasn't one for photographing. Fear not, intrepid followers, for I shall venture again soon and share further findings! I just need to buy a new electric hand whisk first in case this was a beating-by-hand issue, although that didn't cause problems with the lemon madeira cake so we could be in the realms of dodgy oven temperature. I will let you know.

I have been waiting for an opportunity to pay Ottolenghi a visit for some time now, and a very gracious friend helped me take that step. I didn't realise until later that he was using me as collateral for carrot cake due to a serious addiction but hey, he needed help and I was in the right place at the right time.
I didn't think a place that basically served salads could be worth writing home about. But, Mum and Dad, weather is lovely, and Ottolenghi is splendid. I won't write too much as it's been reviewed to pieces, so just go. Preferably at lunchtime. Try anything that has aubergine in it. Have the carrot cake. I promised the addict I'd try to recreate it and I have a suspicion that coconut makes an appearance. Perhaps as a soaking liqueur for the sultanas, perhaps to grease the baking tin. I also have a feeling there is some angel-cakery going on in order to make that crusty outer surface. All suggestions welcome.

And you know that famous saying, you never forget your first okonomi-yaki? Well, it's true. N has spent months in Japan, knows her stuff, and took me to Abeno as a special treat a few weeks ago, so I thought I'd share it with you.  For those not in the know, okonomi-yaki is basically a type of pancake. The tables at Abeno have a hotplate in the middle: you order your 'pancake' and it is made in front of you. We kicked off proceedings with gyoza....

I enjoy making these at home; they're a bit fiddly but this makes them therapeutic and so worth it; Ken Hom has a good recipe here:

After our gyoza, we had tonpei-yaki:




This is 'organic fried pork in an egg envelope' but we were most excited by its 'squirt of lemon'. The sauces are traditional - Japanese mayonnaise, Okonomi-yaki sauce and tomato ketchup. 

By now I was wishing that all tables had a hot plate in the middle. Think of the possibilities! Although this would not be ideal for romanic dinners and could lead to blistered elbows. You have been warned.

We decided to push the boat out with our main course and have noodles atop one of the pancakes. We ordered two - the Inaka mix, with pork, Konnyaku and corn, and the Spicy Naniwa, with pork and kimchi, to which we added noodles. The omelette ingredients are mixed in front of you before being poured into a perfect round to cook on the hotplate before flipping:




The good thing about places like Abeno is that there is no risk of table-turning. It's a very sociable way of eating as you need to be patient whilst your food cooks and you can share the anticipation and fascination involved. It's also made to look impossibly easy but I know I wouldn't want to try flipping one of these bad boys any time soon! 

The finished, flipped article, once cooked through, was decorated with the obligatory sauces as well as bonito flakes and powdered seaweed. It was very filling, especially due to the time taken to eat it with chopsticks!

As for dessert, I have been discussing with friends cooking and baking with matcha. I shall be buying and using some soon, due in no small part to my dessert at Abeno: a Matcha hot cake with maple syrup, anko (adzuki beans) and shiratama (sweet rice dumplings), served with matcha ice cream. Don't be fooled by the slightly suspect appearance, it was delicious:

I hope that has encouraged you to go and try something for the first time today, whether eating or cooking, or just something new. My next post will also recount tales of an exciting first, so stay tuned!