Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Great Bank Holiday Foodie Weekender - Part One.

Ah, the end of May Bank Holiday. Unpredictability of weather, combined with wonderful seasonality of ingredients makes for a perfect 72 hours of viable cooking time. And what is better than 72 hours of cooking time? 216 man hours of cooking time!

Straight after work and a rummage through my freezer and cupboards, I headed to Wiltshire with R and S with no set plans other than to cook and eat outside of our usual weekend boundaries, and perhaps to relax a little too. A nice detour into Winchester en route for some local sausage and mash/grey mullet/steak and chips at a trip advisor-recommended pub set the weekend in motion nicely.

We picked some recipes and went in search of provisions. We stopped short of buying an ostrich egg (soft boiled in 25 minutes and makes enough scrambled egg for 24), but did splurge on some edible goldleaf and  fabulous chocolate. Both absolutely essential.

Meal number one: Soft-boiled duck eggs with poached asparagus and jamón ibérico:

Just a little snack, you see, to get us going for what was to come. I have the possibility of a trip to Barcelona soon, where I am assured that jamón ibérico grows on trees; this alone is enough to make me reach for Easyjet before consulting my schedule.

Then we set to work on a highly complex, multi-layered 'Intensément Chocolat' recipe from the Maison Ladurée sucré book.

Layer one: macaron. This is made the same way as a single macaron: sieved ground almonds, icing sugar and cocoa powder, folded into two egg whites whipped until firm. This was then piped onto a circle of greaseproof paper and baked at gas mark two for 25 minutes:

Layer two: mousse. Four egg whites and a pinch of salt were mixed until foamy, sugar added and whipped until firm before the yolks were added and gently mixed in with the hand mixer. A third of this was added to a cooled mixture of melted dark chocolate and butter before the ensemble was added back into the remaining egg white mixture and combined gently. This was chilled for a few hours whilst we worked on..

..Layer three: cake. Two egg whites were whipped with sugar until firm before the yolks were mixed in. To this was added a sieved mixture of flour, cornflour and cocoa powder before this mixture was also piped onto a greaseproof paper circle. This was baked at gas mark 4 for twelve minutes.

A ganache was prepared by heated cream being poured onto chocolate to melt it, before adding butter to smooth the mixture. While this was left to cool, we moved on to assembly time! 

(Clockwise from top left: cocoa syrup, chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, chocolate macaron base, chocolate ganache)

The macaron disc formed the base and on top of this a layer of ganache was spread. This was left to chill for a while while we ate dinner (see below!). Then a layer of mousse was piped onto the surface before the cooled cake layer was added. A cooled boiled cocoa syrup of water, sugar and cocoa powder was drizzled onto the cake layer until absorbed. On top of this was piped a second layer of chocolate mousse. This was chilled in the freezer for half an hour. 

Keeping up?

The whole ensemble so far was coated in a cooled chocolate glaze, made in the same way as the ganache but with milk instead of cream. All we needed to do then was to smooth the surfaces, add some goldleaf as decoration and voilà! 

I can attest to it tasting amazing. For reference, we used Valrhona 68% chocolate, golden granulated sugar and whilst the recipe suggests potato starch we substituted for cornflour.

Dinner this evening was kangaroo. S had looked up recipes online and found a delicious recipe hailing kangaroo as a lean, carbon footprint-friendly meat before realising that said website was Australian. We wanted to do something more special with this exciting meat than simply serving it up as steak and the recipe we opted for served the steak medium rare with beetroot, a shallot and port accompaniment and anchovy butter.  10 peeled shallots were placed in a small saucepan of water and brought to the boil before being drained and some of the water reserved. Once cooled, these were peeled and gently fried in a tablespoon of butter with a teaspoon of sugar and a third of a cup of the reserved cooking water. Once tender, about ten minutes later, the heat was turned up and a third of a cup of port added to reduce. With maybe a little more for luck. R made some lovely potato rösti with charlotte potatoes (specially selected for their waxiness) and just-right tenderstem broccoli, and whipped up the anchovy butter - three anchovies to a tablespoon of softened butter and a few drops of lemon juice. Meanwhile we had boiled two large beetroot which were peeled once tender and chopped.

The kangaroo was cooked for three minutes on each side and we added some of the anchovy butter while it was still in the pan before slicing on the diagonal. 

Kangaroo most closely resembles beef, with a wonderfully rich flavour and was nicely tender. We think it would barbecue well as long as it was medium to rare. The anchovy butter complimented it beautifully - we used salted anchovies (and unsalted butter) which served as the only seasoning necessary.

Check back tomorrow to find out what we cooked next! 

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Soul Food

There are times in life when food serves as a comfort. And there are times when friends and family serve as the best comfort around. I count myself extremely lucky to be able to combine the two on a regular basis, whether for comfort or not. But there have been moments such as these recently that I will always look back on with warm smiles as they have truly nourished my soul. This post is dedicated to those friends and relations, who know who they are. Long may we be nourished together!

My first self-nourishing act A.R.C (After River Cottage) came in the form of a birthday cake, straight from my freshly purchased Baking book by Pam 'The Jam' Corbin. Attempts by Olly at Park Farm, coupled with hours of squinting furiously at roadsides had sadly resulted in a distinct lack of crystallised borage flowers to decorate said cake, but no matter, I decided that the flavour of the lemon madeira cake would be the focus.

Armed with my super-duper-smooth-it-to-a-baby's-bottom-zester (perpetual thanks to N), I zested two lemons and creamed the zest with 150g softened butter before beating in 150g golden granulated sugar until light and creamy. 4 eggs were mixed in, one at a time, with a spoonful of the sifted 200g plain flour and 1tsp baking powder between each. The remaining flour was then gently folded in and 2tbsp lemon juice added. The batter was poured into a greased and lined 1 litre loaf tin, its surface smoothed before baking at 180C/gas 4 for 50 mins, or until golden and springy, with a cake tester coming out clean. The cake was left for 10m to cool in its tin before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely. When cool, 150g sifted icing sugar mixed with 1.5 tbsp lemon juice was oozed over the top. Lovely job.

Then it was time to hand over to others to nourish me, or at least to act as facilitators. And, in one word,

Truffle oil.

A delightful Italian taverna near Hampstead Heath taught me that being a boar ain't so bad if that's what you get to smell out. My fettucine dish was a controversial union of hunter and hunted - wild boar ragu with white truffle oil and I reluctantly had to share some, having promised a taste to a friend who swapped for a mouthful of her delicious pear and gorgonzola risotto.

The following day was filled with baking, and, as a consequence of the night before, more truffle oil. With the help of two fellow intrepid foodies, R and S, we recreated ciabatta a la R.C, although our version was perhaps a little dry, but what fun was had reliving Gideon's dough-kneading techniques in the comfort of my own kitchen! Instead of olive, we used white truffle oil which gave the kitchen a wonderfully heady aroma and gave us wide, dreamy grins. Dryer or no, it all went. Fast. It was great to prove to myself that not only had these skills persisted beyond the course, but that I was able to share them with others.

And then it was their turn to share. These friends are macaron aficionados and we (rather, 'I') have been itching for an opportunity to make them together. The basic recipe is fairly standard, with the filling and technique making all the difference. Point one - the eggs must be spankingly fresh and the whites must be totally yolk-free. Ground almonds and icing sugar are carefully forced through a sieve and artfully combined with stiff-peak-whipped egg whites. Colouring can be added at this point to your taste, we went for a sunshine-y yellow.

Because we are mild(!) perfectionists, we piped the mixture into a biscuit cutter to make them perfectly round:

Then came technique point two: to get the most consistent macaron shape, the piped mixture needs to be left to form a 'skin' before it is put in the oven. We left ours in the lounge with a fan circulating air in the room (probably a good idea to dust before you do this, unlike me...). Explaining to the first guest that no, this wasn't anything to do with keeping the house cool, it was purely for the benefit of the macarons was an amusing moment. Half an hour later they were ready to go into the oven at a low temperature so that we could watch with bated breath (and very, very sexy socks)...

While the macarons were cooling, we made a chocolate and coffee paste with melted and rapidly cooled chocolate whipped with a little water.  This sandwiched half of the macarons, and pumpkin jam lovingly gifted from N's trip to Portugal sandwiched the other half. And that was all we needed to do for these beautiful pieces of perfection:

While these sat coaxing us gently from another room, we got on with making lunch. Yes, lunch. Doesn't everyone make ciabatta and macarons before lunch at the weekend?! To accompany the ciabatta I demonstrated my new-found mackerel-prepping skills and these were baked with salsa verde as they had been on the course, and served with a green salad.

You can't have soul food without a little chocolate brownie involvement. Earlier in the week I had spotted a recipe by Gwyneth Paltrow that had to be tried. Amazingly, I had most of the ingredients already, so we got straight to it. 200g flour (spelt was recommended but plain worked fine) was sifted with 100g cocoa powder, 1.5tbsp baking powder and a pinch of salt into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, 125ml vegetable oil, 250ml maple syrup, 125ml rice syrup, 125ml freshly brewed coffee, 125ml milk (soya suggested, we used ordinary skimmed) and 1 tbsp vanilla extract were whisked together. The wet ingredients were mixed into the dry ingredients until just combined and half was poured into a vegetable oil-greased baking dish before sprinkling in 100g plain chocolate chips. We used cocoa nibs to give a bit of extra interest, not to mention antioxidants. The remaining mixture was then poured in, another 100g of chocolate chips added before baking at 180 degrees C for about 30 minutes (the testing stick should come out fudgy!). Highly recommended, unfortunately these did not last long enough for a picture...

The rest of the evening was spent watching 'Julie and Julia' (highly appropriate, no? A wonderful film that I thoroughly enjoyed) and eating personalised pizzas. Not stone baked this time, but there was still chorizo, garlic oil and mozzarella involved, so the smiles were the same.

The next day I went to the Real Food Festival, just to pick up a few things...

Stay tuned, eventually I'l get round to using and writing about some of these, making this a very clever spot-the-ingredient picture. The book has some lovely recipes in it, too, so no doubt these will also be making a guest appearance.

All in all, a wonderfully soulful weekend. Wouldn't you agree?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Meat feat

I didn't want it to be the last day. I would much rather have been told upon arrival "well that was your induction, staff quarters are thataway and welcome to the team!" but no such luck. I even tried suggesting that as we were now by rights practically staff, surely we could at least come to the staff BBQ that weekend? I'm sure they'll let me know about the next one...

This morning's tea accompaniment were amazing, warm, giant, ganache-y bourbon-biscuit style dreams. Olly was evidently and rightfully proud of them as I spotted him posing for a photo for another chef as I arrived. I asked the biscuits to pose for me instead:

When we were told that at some point that day there would be bubbles, we decided to get the day off to the right start and have them right then. And why on earth not? We had lots to celebrate! Our culinary toolboxes were beginning to brim with new and exciting, yet comfortable skills, our confidence was blossoming and there would be meat!

First up, breast of lamb. Whilst quaffing our champagne, Tim explained that lamb breast needs a loving quantity of cooking time due to how much the muscle works, and duly demonstrated why lamb's breast is well worked during pasture:

Thanks for that, Tim.

First things first, on order to debone meat, you need your knife to be sharp. Tim explained that, being creatures with opposing thumbs, we have two options when holding a sharpening steel to sharpen a knife:
a) grip it as you would an umbrella. Slips of the knife with this method may result in severed tendons between thumb and forefinger and therefore considerable reconstructive surgery.
b) 'cup' the handle with all digits on the same side of the grip. Slightly more awkward but only risks a deep cut, and chicks dig scars.

Our knives sharpened, and no blood spilled, we set about copying the demonstration and deboning the lamb.

It's worth saying that, by this point in the course, I had come to realise that confidence is the most important cookery ingredient. In days one and two, I would regularly check whether or not I was doing something right. But by now, I knew that it was more important for me to trust my instincts and skills and give it a go. So far it was only me eating the food I prepared!
I carefully cut along the bone to release it from the meat before cutting the resulting rib rack into three to use as a roasting trivet. The topside if the meat, away from where the bones had been removed, was scored in a cross-cross fashion and generously seasoned. On the other side we spread a mixture (individualised according to our taste) of chopped wild garlic, thyme and lemon zest. This can be freestyled, other good inclusions being rosemary, mint or anchovies. The breast was then tightly rolled and tied at each end. I'd love to say that after two demonstrations from Steve on how to tie a butcher's knot I had it cracked, and I'll probably get my Girl Guide knotting badge revoked for this, but, well, let's just say that some things take practise...

The lamb was lovingly rested on its bony trivet and snuggled with hunks of carrot with a little water before blasting in the oven at 200 degrees C for 20 minutes, after which it was loosely covered and left to it at 140 degrees until lunchtime about 3 hours later.

And now to offal! My relationship with offal is a curious, yet delicate one which has included the following tender moments:
1) Mistaking 'sweetbreads' on a menu for sweet breads.
2) During a year in Lyon, mixing up the names of a traditional Bouchon and a romantic tourist restaurant and being presented at the former with turrine after turrine of pigs feet, tripe, ear and snout. Them walking past the latter, slightly traumatised, to see couples being serenaded on violins by candlelight. While they ate steak.
3) Observing an Italian cookery teacher root around in a bag of chicken livers before we made pate, trying to find treasure and succeeding, holding aloft tiny chicken testicles before throwing them into the mix.

I have had devilled kidneys before and found them really rather tasty so was pleased we'd be making them. We used lamb kidneys that had been soaked in milk for half an hour to remove impurities. These were cut in half cross-sectionally and the white tubules removed carefully. Tim explained that in his early days he was taught that this had to be done with the upmost precision, but then he realised that kidneys spring back into shape when cooked anyway so it doesn't matter. These were liberally seasoned with pepper. Then we chopped half an onion and a rasher of home-cured bacon (more about the ridiculous ease of home-curing later) and fried these gently in vegetable oil in a warmed pan. When softened, these were moved to one side of the pan and off the heat and the kidneys added, cut side down. After two minutes these were flipped over, mixed in with the onions and lardons and a good glug of cider added, before a good glug of cream. The kidneys were left to 'rest' over heat for a couple of minutes before a dollop of English mustard was added. The only thing worse than an overcooked kidney is an undercooked kidney, so we just had enough time to assemble some sourdough toast on a plate, check that we had a homogenous mix of kidneys and sauce and pour a glass of butcher's nip before topping the toast with the kidneys and heading into the sunshine to eat.

Next up, chicken stock! We were given a chicken carcass each and told to hack it to large pieces. Wow, I clearly had some issues to deal with as my partner for the day had taken several large steps away by the time I stopped, breathless and with moistened forehead, jumbo knife still fiercely gripped in hand. The pieces were (calmly!) placed in a large pan with chunks of celery, carrot, a peppercorn and lots of water. This was brought to the boil and attentively simmered for a few hours, skimming as necessary.

Back to offal now for some pate, this time pork liver, which was roughly chopped and mixed with pork mince, sage, port, mace, paprika, salt, pepper and more port. Tim explained that the fear of undercooked pork is now unfounded. It came from a time when pigs were intensively reared, rarely were fields rotated, and parasites were resistant due to over-medicating. He ate raw pork to demonstrate, this blew my mind. However, after our pate mix was put through the mincer and he encouraged us to taste it for seasoning while still raw, I couldn't do it. The mix was put in a jar and sent off for cooking in a Bain Marie.

And now, as promised, a few words about curing. The bacon we'd used for the devilled kidneys had been home-cured, something River Cottage had fought for the permission to do for the Canteen around restrictive food hygiene standards. Curing one's own is easy. A good piece of belly pork needs to be buried in a 50/50 mix of fine salt and brown sugar, to which can be added juniper berries, bay leaves, mustard and coriander seeds and black peppercorns. After four days in the fridge the belly is becoming bacon. Drain the water and hang the meat somewhere dry, this can even be outside, but needs to have ventilation. After a week the meat is drycure bacon, after two it's pancetta and after 6-8 its more like prosciutto and needs very fine cutting. Without adequate ventilation the meat will develop a bloom - this is a acidophelis, not a problem and is shared by salami. If the meat takes on a yellow hue this can be cleaned off with vinegar. Smoked bacon is made by hot smoking after curing and rinsing rinse and takes 10-12 minutes. Hot smoking of meat was duly demonstrated by Tim, who hot smoked a pork tenderloin joint using the same method as day three's mackerel, but for a little longer. It was amazing, deliciously moist, tender and raucously smoky.

For lunch today we would be having chicken broth and had to decide in pairs how we wanted this flavoured. My partner and I decided on coriander, ginger and lemongrass, and we strained what was probably enough for three or four bowls of hot chicken stock into a clean pan and added our herbs. Eyes bigger than belly results in a precarious walk to the table with an overfull bowl of hot soup, by the way. But it was worth it:


Within moments the soup had magically disappeared so we went in to carve ourselves some of our lamb. While we were carving away, Olly appeared brandishing a platter of delicious accompaniments:

That boiled eggs, asparagus (otherwise known as 'gold'), purple sprouting broccoli, caramelised shallots and seasonal leaves. And look how good it looked on my plate:

Dessert was also lovely, if slightly uncomfortable by this point due to the sheer volume of food not only today but over the past four days. The creme brulees (which I have completely omitted to write about making on day two, such has been the whirlwind of dishes made and devoured during the course) had been bruleed just right for the perfect tap, tap, crack moment, and was served with rhubarb that had been poached with star anise. Incidentally, River Cottage is probably the only place in the world where you could spot a lonely star anise lying in the gravel on the way up the driveway and not blink about it.

After a leisurely lunch in glorious sunshine, we clubbed together to buy all the team a drink and they came to join us. Steve gave a lovely speech about how much the team appreciate imparting knowledge to a willing team and how we should all enjoy heading out into the world with our new skills, and to carry on learning and enjoying. Which I fully intend to do.

There are so many other things I could write about, like the geese who took their daily afternoon constitutional just before our lunch, Olly's hunt for edible flower options for my forthcoming birthday cake mission, the bee that stung me in the head on my last walk to the carpark and my ensuing drive home with a mini iceberg held to my head with my hoodie, but I guess you would have to have been there. I'm certainly very glad and thankful that I was.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about how much I loved the course and want to continue to enjoy finding out more about my culinary journey. I also hope you feel inspired to go and eat, explore and enjoy. Have fun!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A few fish dishes

Day three: fish. Hotly anticipated by the majority of the group, coincidentally (and, as we would discover, irrationally) feared by most.

Today we were to be taken through our paces by Tim Maddams (affectionately jibed by Steve Lamb as 'Tim off 'telleh!' in a Yorkshire accent for an undisclosed reason), he of the bad-boy-burners familiar to many from Hugh's Fish Fight. Tim is Head Chef at the River Cottage canteen and deli in Axminster and therefore had to go and do his proper job after mucking about with us lot each day, but this had no detrimental effect whatsoever on his fantastic sense of humour and infectious passion for good food, lovingly handled and with respectful provenance.

First up, Mackerel. All hail the underrated Omega 3 king of bycatch! Did you know that when they are spawning, shoals of mackerel can actually be spotted by the oily film they leave on the water's surface? Or that to get the same omega 3 hit from, say, haddock, you'd need to eat a LOT of it's liver? Tim explained that fresh fish should smell of the sea, that a decapitated fish is likely not to be the freshest on display as they eyes give their age away, and that a fish fillet is likely to be even older, so, by buying a prepared fillet, you are likely to be paying a premium for the oldest fish on sale.

We were shown how to open up the fish starting at it's *ahem* 'vent' and clean out the cavity before removing the head whilst retaining as much flesh as possible by keeping the fishy 'shoulders'. A quick demo of cutting down the spine to the tail (but not all the way down so as to create two fillets, natch), removing the central and belly bones and creating a v-shaped trough by cutting out some cavity bones and it was our turn!

Blood and guts everywhere, basically. Mostly belonging to fish. But I got there in the end!

Ta daa!

Then we lovingly filled the mackerel's cavity with our salsa verde, tied it delicately twice and it was ready to take home for dinner!

Tim was to demonstrate a number of times his confidence in the quality of freshly obtained food, and number one came now. He demonstrated hot smoking of mackerel fillets on a griddle in a tin box containing oak chips (fruit tree wood also imparts a nice flavour, apparently, pine, not so much!) over a gas flame (or barbecue preferably unless your kitchen is also River Cottage classroom-sized) for 7 minutes. That's 7 minutes. Hugh goes for 10 and this is a fishbone of contention as Tim reckons this dries the fillets too much. The delicately smoked and still warmed fillets were delicious and moist, a million miles away from the vacuum-packed plastic packets we've all bought before.

Tim also presented us with mackerel sashimi dotted with English mustard and it made me very happy to think that something so humble as a mackerel could be so versatile and yet somehow exotic. Like me on a Friday night.

Before we knew it, it was time for a fisherman's nip cookalong and today's 'snack' would be mussels. Key learning? Open mussels don't have to close when you tap them for them to be ok to eat. They can just stir grumpily and that is still fine. So we chopped garlic, onion and chilli, cooked it off, turned up the heat, threw in our mussels, waited a few painstaking moments before adding a Floyd-worthy glug of white wine and minutes later we were greedily picking, slurping and grinning while we wiped juice from our chins and eyed up another hunk of Olly's chorizo focaccia.

Before we knew it, it was back to work.

Black bream is a somewhat menacing-looking fish with spines that once numbed Tim's hands for a whole day due to their alien bacteria and scales the size of contact lenses. Quite handy to be able to extract a few of these from one's hair on the commute home to secure a quiet carriage, apparently...

Now, either Tim forgot that the next bit usually happens outside, or he was just feeling mischievous. We were shown how to trim the perilous spine and use a chefs knife to deftly swipe the scales from the bream before slashing the sides and inserting some herbs ready for cooking in yesterday's pizza oven. Tim wanted us to eat the whole fish, bones n' all, to learn how to navigate our way around it.

Scales everywhere. Hair, handbag, eyes...

But good fun though.

Then we moved onto squid. Now, I am proud to say that I have had squid in more ways than calimari-ed, less so that my role in the prep of such dishes has been strictly commis.

Squid are fascinating creatures and we were taken through what was basically an anatomy lesson while Tim painstakingly score the flesh and explained the origin of his perfectionist neuroses before we were sent to deconstruct and score our own squid ready for a hot griddle pan at home. Now I know that a squid has a beak and a quill. Handy for a pub quiz, one day!

To round off our day Tim carried out two demonstrations - one to fillet a flat fish, megrim sole, and another of a round fish, gurnard. Poor, misunderstood megrim. We don't eat it a lot here as it looks a bit special, but they love it in France! I shall keep my eyes open for it's poor little squished face and give it a chance when I see one. As should you!

That done, it was time to eat the fish of our labour. We watched hungrily as the bream was roasted in the brick oven and they were a delight with salad and amazing pork-fat roasted potatoes. Just look:

And then there was this cake. Let me tell you, it's not often that I buy a cookbook on the merits of one single recipe but this was no ordinary cake. Keep your eyes peeled on my blog as I will be making this amazing honey cake for a get together this weekend and will share more about it!

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank a number of my wonderful classmates who let me take their squid and mackerel home and eat them because they had no way of cooking where they stayed. Amy and Harry and I found them delicious, and even their dog Barney, normally a grumpy teenager anyway, was especially miserable to not be allowed any. Thank you!