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!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Great Bank Holiday Foodie Weekender - Part Two.

Apologies for the delay in scheduling, hope you all had something to eat while you were waiting!

Day two rolled around and nothing gets the day going better than a classic with a twist. I haven't had maple syrup with my bacon since I was about ten years old, and I didn't like it. R and S have spent time in the States, and I have spent time in France, and we all now understand that the world of sucrée salée is a beautiful one, so it was time to give it another go. (Incidentally, I have a post on the way about 'first times' - keep your eyes open for this one!)

Needless to say, it was that good that we ate it too fast for pictures. Make sure you the pancakes are nice and thick, American style, that the bacon is British and welfare assured with a minimal water content, fried until crispy, and get the best quality maple syrup that you can afford. And then be generous with it.

Bellies full, we set off into the New Forest in search of a farm shop. We headed to Setley Ridge, a farm shop and vineyard in Brockenhurst, and saw lots of mini horses on the way. R and S have eaten horse so I didn't over-emphasise the fact that the French get their supplies from the New Forest... Once at the shop, we had a browse, a taste of the local wine and got supplies for the evening. On the way back we stopped for a proper cream tea, that is to say, in the words of N, 'a fat sandwich' - the order must be scone, (butter if available), jam and then clotted cream. With a pot of tea. We also had a savoury scone for good measure.

Dinner that evening was a mélange of meats: duck breast and venison, served on a potato rösti with asparagus (can you spot the leftovers? They were still prepared with love!) with port and shallots and five-spice peaches. Yes, we all imitated Michael McIntyre. The peaches were a Gordon Ramsay touch and brought the ensemble together. We drank local ginger wine which complemented the warmth and fruit of the peaches very well.

To round off the meal we enjoyed some local cheeses:

We had a New Forest blue and a Red Devil (which was really hot!) with fig crackers and a spiced carrot and pumpkin chutney. There was definitely coriander seed in the chutney, and I suspect star anise; it might be a nice one to try to make.

To cleanse the palate, we had made some raspberry sorbet. This is shockingly easy to make, dear reader, especially if, like me, you shamefully harboured an ice cream maker in a dusty cupboard at home blissfully unaware of the lack of effort needed to put it to use. Keep it in the freezer, and you're always ready to go!

Heat some frozen raspberries on the hob until they begin to break down and then lightly crush them. Strain this thoroughly through a sieve until you have extracted as much of the juice as possible. Add in a little sugar - about a quarter of the weight of fruit you have used - and any other flavouring you might want to try. I will add some freshly chopped mint next time, R and S often use rosewater. This mixture is then poured into an already-churning ice-cream maker and in no time, you have lovely sorbet!

And then, to end the evening we drank port and had yet more of yesterday's Intensément. Well, they both needed using up, so it was only right! We tasted some Original Beans chocolate as well, see S and R's blog for the tasting notes.

Breakfast the next morning was also designed to set us up for the day. We had venison, redcurrant and port sausages (which were just the right side of robust for breakfast) and served these up with oven-baked portobello mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, scrambled eggs and toasted bloomer bread. I would like to take this opportunity to heartily endorse adding jersey cream to your scrambled egg mixture. It worked.

The weekend ended on, yes you've guessed it, more chocolate cake. Too right!