Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Eggs Benedict: An Alternative to Tinned Peaches

So Christmas is dead and buried for another year. Fitness dvd's from Z-list celebrities are being plugged on our television screens and those gym offers seem to be everywhere. Has everyone forgotten, it's time to overindulge, not just because it's Christmas but because it's so damn cold. It's winter and nature requires us to keep our organs warm with a snuggly layer of fat. When you consider all of your meals over a whole year, do you not think it all kind of balances out? That the summer months when you eat less and usually light, fresh and more swimsuit friendly meals, make up for the gorging that ensues over winter? January's meals reflect what money I have left over from Christmas. Perhaps it is a slimming month after all. My frugal cooking of store cupboard items and potatoes reflecting my thin, light wallet. If we didn't have Gyms would you be likely to start running everyday in the ice, frost and rain? Doubtful. If Coleen Nolan didn't have a fitness dvd would you be naturally inclined to prancing around your living room twice a day with tins of beans for weights? Is there any wonder Coleen needs to dance around her lounge with tinned food after all that crap Iceland party food she's been pimping out since mid November. Eighty-four piece oven party bites for 69p. There's a reason for that.

So I ate and drank too much, Lemuel Benedict is said to have taken a monster hangover to the Waldorf Astoria in 1892 and seeking a cure for his overindulgence ordered, "buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon and a hooker of hollandaise." The dish went down so well that it became a regular fixture on the breakfast and lunch menu with the toast being substituted for English Muffins and the crisp (streaky) bacon being substituted for back bacon. Sounds a bit more fitting for a grand dining room I suppose. A.A. Gill claims that Eggs Benedict is still the best morning-after dish ever invented and I definitely agree with him. After several days of drinking, eating and general kitchen debauchery why not make your first meal this January Eggs Benedict. Rich, runny yolks piercing through the buttery hollandaise and running down over ham or bacon and onto your plate via the side of the toasted muffins, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper to cut through the thickness and hello 2010. Some of you may be counting the calories already and thinking back to that resolution to join the Gym or Coleen Nolan with a can of tinned peaches. I'll be thinking of my slim wallet and what frugal meals await me for the rest of the January. With that in mind, how can you not approach the New Year with a hair of the dog attitude and overindulge some more.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Fire and Knives to your Christmas Cold's

Last few days before Christmas and I'm sure most people are clock-watching and cruising the internet. I, on the other hand am ill. Holed up in the flat with Lemsip, honey, ginger and whisky and desperately trying to shift this cold before it gets a chance to ruin my Christmas dinner and drinking. The closing down of Borders has left me with Simon Hopkinson's Second Helping of Roast Chicken for £1, along with The Guardian book of Drinking for 70p among others. I am camped out on the sofa, not in the Quentin Crisp sense, flicking through books and magazines whilst I slip in and out of conciousness in the hazy stench of illness. Cue sympathy here.
Amongst the books I've been thumbing through all day whilst I wallow in self pity I can't help turning back to something rather special. Fire and Knives Magazine. Fire and Knives is the food quarterly creation from Tim Hayward. If like me you grow tired of food magazines being crammed with recipes but no real content, nothing to make you think, then get yourself a copy of this magazine. No recipes, just original and interesting food writing from opinions and fiction to photography and food history. I have hardly put Fire and Knives issue one down, Tom Parker Bowles' confessions of a cook book obsessive to a warming, cultural piece from Rejina Sabur giving an insight into a community of bengali women who share an allotment at City Farm. This magazine is aimed at those food enthusiasts that border on the obsessive and if you are reading this blog then that should include you. Smile, you're a food geek. Fire and Knives is brilliant, printed on good quality paper, beautifully designed, full of great content, no recipes and stares seductively at you from the shelf. The attention to detail from Mr Hayward is what has crafted this magazine into something that I will treasure and keep neatly on my bookshelf for a long time to come. I wish Fire and Knives every success for the future. We needed this and more importantly, it's getting me through this god awful cold.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Devilled Kidneys

A good butchers is something that should be treasured. I have tested many near to where I live and whether something as trivial as a miserable butcher or as dangerous as 'off' chicken thighs, once bitten, twice shy. No wonder so many people I know favour the plastic packaged meat from the supermarket. I look forward to my visits to Yeates' butchers. I'm always greeted warmly with a bit of banter and the general chit-chat I've come to enjoy. If I don't know what something is, they'll explain it to me, nicely. In another butchers I once asked what a jacob's ladder was, I was looked at like I'd pissed on the butchers dog. Feeling like you've wandered into an elitist club with no invitation is not how a decent butchers should make you feel. I know people that want to frequent a butcher but feel too intimidated to part with their tradition of dropping packets of sausages into the trolley, simply reading the labels and not having to interact with anyone. Which is a shame .

I'd been working late the night before and after getting myself up and sorted it was nearly eleven. Too late for breakfast I thought, so I dropped round to see the old boys at my butchers. As I wandered in three of them were lifting piece of cow that was equivalent in size to a Ford Cortina. I'd come a little late for what I wanted but they still had one lamb left to do and I was lucky enough to get that last lambs two Kidneys. It was only me eating and so would suffice for a lazy lunch. £1 - Bargain. After a little chat and a cheerio I sauntered back to the flat picking up some fresh bread along the way. I love all things spicy and wanted to really give these kidneys a kick. The old English, traditional way can be a little too tame for some chili aficionados, resembling less of a devilled kidney and more of an ASBO kidney. It depends how much cayenne you are willing to use. I decided to do each kidney different. One in the more traditional way and the other with smoked paprika, dijon and chili giving it more of a spicy Mexican aura about it.

Devilled kidneys

3tsp plain flour
2tsp cayenne pepper,
1tsp english mustard powder,
good glug of worcester sauce,
a splash of water or stock,
salt and pepper,
knob of butter
vegetable stock

Riñones diablo

1tsp dijon mustard,
1tsp plain flour,
1tsp chili powder,
1tsp smoked paprika,
salt and pepper,
olive oil
vegetable stock

You can get your butcher to trim the suet and gristle from the kidneys but as they were busy I took it on. It really isn't difficult or messy, almost like peeling the shell from a hard boiled egg.
Once the suet is removed, cut the kidneys in half and with a pair of scissors or a small paring knife cut out the gristley white bit in the middle, this is a little fiddly but don't worry about making it look perfect, the kidneys will shrink in size in the pan and seal any accidental slices into the meaty part anyway. You now have four pieces of kidney. For the traditional devilled Kidneys, mix the salt, pepper, flour, cayenne pepper and mustard powder. Melt some butter in a pan over a medium heat and roll the kidneys in the mixture so they are evenly coated and place in the pan. give the pan a good glug of worcester sauce and nice splash of stock. Give the pieces of kidney around two to three minutes each side. The liquid in the pan should be of a light buttery sauce consistency, if it starts to burn and reduce too much simply add more stock and a tiny piece of butter. Once cooked to your liking place the kidneys on your toast and pour the sauce from the pan over the top.

For the Mexican devilled kidneys, or riñones diablo, mix the smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, flour, salt and pepper together to form a dry mix. Turn your kidneys in the mix. Put a drizzle of oil in a hot pan and add your kidneys. Put a heaped teaspoon of dijon mustard in the pan and add a bit of the stock, break down the dijon mustard with the back of a wooden spoon until you form thin sauce in the pan. Keep an eye on the liquid and if it starts to burn or brown too much then just add a little more stock. Again, two to three minutes each side and straight onto some toast with the pan juices pored over the top. This version packs a bit more of a sting with the spices which I love. For two quid, you can't go wrong. So next time you wake up late on a saturday morning, nip down the butchers and get some lambs kidneys and soak up last nights hangover.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Arbutus, Soho

There have been mixed reviews of Arbutus over the past few years, so on a cold mid December afternoon my wife and I went for lunch to make our own minds up. We arrived prompt for two o'clock only to wait nearly ten minutes nestled next to the display cabinet of cheeses. We were brought menus and a carafe of water which was perched precariously in the small space at the end of the bar. Being handed my menu before I've sat down is something I would associate more with a chinese takeaway than an acclaimed restaurant with a michelin star. Once we were seated we were brought the trademark chunk of butter on a slate tile and a selection of fresh bread. From here on in the service was astounding.
The wife ordered the slow cooked rib of beef, potato gnocchi and greens whilst I wanted to taste the dishes I'd read so much about. I ordered the squid and mackerel 'burger' with parsley and razorclams to start and the braised pig's head, potato puree with ravioli of caramelised onions for my main. My starter arrived and lacked a little in presentation seeming rather sloppily plated. The marriage of the squid and mackerel was beautiful, a great combination accentuated by the more robust texture of razor clams. The parsley juice was a little underwhelming and went almost unnoticed, just seemed rather pointless alongside the rest of the dish.

The mains arrived and the first one I tried was the wife's. The beef was tremendously tender and just fell apart when tackled with the side of a fork, leaving pinkish strands of meat collapsing across the plate. Gorgeous. The greens perked up with a healthy hit of parmessan was a lovely contrast alongside the gnocchi and what I think was a salsa verde smeared across the top of the beef. I only tasted a few bites but the wife did say that all together as a dish she felt that the flavours were competing against one another.

The pig's head was plated much more carefully than the squid and mackerel burger and the combination of flavours was pleasant. In particular the french andouille sausage which was used as the package to contain the caramelised onions. The sausage adds those extra offally tastes that run alongside the pork so well and make this dish shine. If you posses a weak constitution, or have not yet discovered a penchant for offal then you may not appreciate the power of the french andouille sausage, for those of you, be warned. A very lovely dish.

The service, after the initial wait by the cheese, was flawless. The timing of the arrival of dishes, the clearing of the table and the pouring of wine were what you would expect from a restaurant with a michelin star and rightly so. I was told, upon checking by telephone, that the dress code was, "whatever you feel most comfortable in." Exactly what I want to hear in this day and age. I remember having to suit up to eat at Le Bernardin and, whilst I don't mind being respectful and certainly not so when eating at such establishments, I find it much more convenient to be made welcome and relaxed in my usual jeans and t-shirt attire. Not all of us work in the city, donning collar and tie everyday. Arbutus covered this admirably which made for a very relaxed lunch.

It does seem a little cramped inside by loosing just one table and sharing the gained room would do wonders to the place. We both really enjoyed Arbutus and our lunch including a carafe of malbec and 12.5% service charge was just £49.50.
I will go again and I would recommend it to anyone. Not the atmosphere some might have preconceptions of when thinking of michelin starred restaurants. Arbutus has a very relaxed and comfortable air about the place and the menu is reasonably priced too.
The squid and mackerel burger and the braised pig's head are probably considered Anthony Demetre's signature dishes. Could either of them become as revered as Pierre Koffman's pig trotters, Marco Pierre White's taglietelle of oysters or Fergus Henderson's bone marrow and parsley salad? I'm not sure. What do you think?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Chicken Liver Perfect

The temperature has dropped, port has been moved to the front of the supermarket shelves and there are pikeys on the corner flogging trees. Yes, it's almost Christmas and what gets me excited isn't the trash on the TV or scoffing Quality Streets in front of the fire, but all the food I get to eat. I'm going to gorge myself on cheese and crackers, sausage rolls and pates. Mince pies might get a little action but I'm going to hole myself up in my kitchen and consume.
I've been combing through my cookbooks lately. I've been trying to make a note of all the Christmassy food I want to eat. I thought I'd get the ball rolling with some chicken liver parfait. There are many different recipes for it knocking around, from Delia to Jamie and even Nigella, but I have found a favourite in Stephane Reynauds, Rippailles. This classical French cookery encyclopaedia has become more of a coffee table book in our house. Full of mini profiles on producers and quirky illustrations, it is often leafed through for wafts of inspiration or to try and find something new I want to make. Mr Reynauds recipe has hints of juniper berry and port in the mix, I often add one or two extra garlic cloves to it but that depends on how much you like garlic or how strong the garlic you have is. I usually have some fiendishly powerful Spanish garlic which my parents bring back for me. Below is my slightly adapted version. I found the garlic and the juniper berries were lost previously and the bay leaf seems to bring an interesting depth to it. I do tend to go a bit heavy on the port too which is always welcome.

Chicken Liver Parfait with Port and Garlic

2lb chicken livers
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 white onions, finely chopped
4 rashers of streaky bacon
4 juniper berries, crushed
A bay leaf, ripped
A nice glug of port. Around 50ml or so if you need a measurement
300g butter, diced
100g melted butter
A grind or two of black pepper

Soften the garlic and onions, then add the bacon and livers along with the crushed juniper berries and torn bay leaf.
Keep turning the livers so they are seared on all sides, this should take around four minutes.
Find and remove the bay leaf, then tip the contents of the pan into a blender. Deglaze the pan with the port, reduce this for a minute or two until thick and then add this to the blender too. Blend for a few minutes then add the butter; keep blending until it is all smooth with no rogue lumps of butter left.
Pour this into the dish or dishes you want to use, I filled three medium sized tapas dishes, then refrigerate for an hour.

Melt your butter in a a pan over a low heat, leave it to cool.
The parfait won't be runny anymore and when you tip the bowl it shouldn't move at all. Carefully pour over your melted butter and put back in the fridge to set. You've done well, I'd reward myself with the rest of the port if I were you. 'Tis the season and all that.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Basilica, Westbourne.

I like Westbourne a lot. That may be a slightly biased view of the area seeing as I live there, but I think it has everything you need and is still in close vicinity to Bournemouth, without being too busy. I like to use my local, independent business' because without them there wouldn't be that charming character Westbourne owns. One thing had been troubling me lately though. The arrival of the new Pizza Express may have given a new lease of life and a fresh lick of paint to the empty old bank by the zebra crossing, but I notice that while the pizza chain's latest outpost is full every night, some of the local restaurants sit very quiet and empty. This year when we had a long overdue get together with friends, the wife and I had made a point of going to one of the indpendents in town and chose Basilica. Walking past that morning we noticed the second letter 'i' from their sign had fallen off and watched as two men struggled with a ladder and some brown parcel tape. Yes you heard correctly, they had decided that rather than have their sign spelt wrong they would sooner have fat, brown tape plastered over their very smart looking sign. Had they not thought of clear sellotape? Surely a tube of superglue wasn't too much of an ask. I know times are hard but this is the christmas season, the time for restaurants and the catering industry to stuff their stockings with cash, or was that the gentlemen's clubs? Perhaps they didn't get the memo.
We had to pre order our meals the day before, and before you ask, no this wasn't a get together on the scale of a Liverpool Victoria christmas party. No, there were just seven of us. Starter and Main.
I had bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for an appetiser, it was gorgeous, followed by the fish special which was pan-fried fillets of sea bass and squid rings on spinach mash with a tomato, wine and caper sauce. It was really well presented and the flavours were perfectly balanced. The fish was soft and tender with the skin slightly crispy. The wife had Byrek which was like a filo pastry pie containing goats cheese, leek, spinach and pine nuts which was as delicious as it sounds. I don't think anybody was disappointed with the quality of the food, but there was a query on the quantity of a certain dish. A friend who ordered a £7.50 starter of prawns was agog upon delivery of only two, very normal looking prawns with a smattering of salad leaves. Well the money they saved on the superglue for the sign obviously wasn't going towards respectable sized portions. After eating our main courses and a bit of chatting it was time for desserts. The wife noticed on the way in that the restaurant had big chocolate brownies in a glass fronted chiller cabinet. When the dessert menu arrived the brownies were not featured and so she went upstairs to ask the lady behind the counter if she could have one. Certainly is what you would usually be told. which one in particular do you like the look of, perhaps. Not, "Erm... well I don't know if you can. I suppose if thats what you REALLY want." My wife doesn't stutter. She doesn't trail off mid sentence staring into oblivion. Of course it is what she wanted, that's why she had walked up the stairs and asked you for it. What part of, Please may I have one of those Brownies for dessert, could possibly have made you think that she wanted something different. Begrudgingly she handed one over as if it were her child into the custody of the taliban.
As I mentioned before the food was really good and service for the most part was pleasant. The prawns, or lack of, were a let down. They did not drop the charge for that starter, nor reduce the price of it. In fact upon leaving, I had one foot out the door when a waiter came running up to me and said, "You pre-ordered right. Well you knew how much the prawn starter was then." Yes but did we know it would be only two sorry little stripped prawns with some baby spinach? They must either be struggling or just trying to cash in, but either way at this time of year and in these economic times keeping customers happy would go a long way. It was just a shame that by eating a brownie, the wife completely ruined the feng shui of their chiller cabinet.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Who Killed Donald Duck?

My dad invited me shooting with him last weekend along with my brother and an old family friend. It was over a farm in Pulham which is right in the middle of rural Dorset. We didn't see much all morning, a few pheasants had escaped us and I saw a field mouse but that was about it. I could have bagged old mousey but there wouldn't have been enough for a sandwich. So I let him live. We stopped back at the Land Rover for a cup of coffee and something to eat before doing one last circuit of the bottom two fields. It had been raining severely during the previous week and on the uneven land large puddles of water had collected that were the size of ponds. We turned the last corner and leaving one of the aforementioned pond-puddles were two ducks. We got them both and I was quite impressed with myself killing it clean and not having to finish it off. However Mr. Ducky had quite a bit of momentum going and as he fell, still moving forwards, he landed on the far side of an unpassable river. The other side of the river is someone else's land and hearing the shots the Game Keeper quickly turned up and stood there smiling. He was pleasant enough but his presence was more of a warning so as not to attempt to cross the the deep old river, even if I could. He looked down at my duck and walked off. Bet he went back and fetched it. Feeling guilty of taking the duck down but not making use of it, I moped back to find the others. They were staring up at the top of a ten foot high blackthorn bush with a dead duck neatly nested on top. I was not having that one escape us too, so with my brother leaning, back against the sharp wall of thorns, I climbed up his knee, onto his folded arms and stood on his shoulders outstretching myself across the top of the spiky Blackthorn bush. The tips of my fingers were still about twelve inches from the bird and in a last minute death or glory effort, I jumped from Anthony’s shoulders springing myself up and out onto the plateau of the top of the hedge. My hands firmly around the bird I could only roll and slide down the side of the bush until my feet were guided to the floor by my brother. I felt a little better now that we weren't about to waste two ducks.

We got home and I set about plucking and drawing the bird. I took the breasts out skin-on and singed the remaining fine feathers on the hob before marinating the breasts in soy sauce, orange juice, sugar and chinese five spice over night. The following evening I explained to the wife that we were going to have stir fry with the duck. "That's fine but just don't remind me you shot it," was the response I got as she swiftly left the kitchen. I sliced the breasts into finger sized pieces and threw them in the wok with shallots, peppers, leek, chilli and a tiny bit of fresh ginger. A bit more five spice, a teaspoon of oyster sauce and It was cooked as quickly as it was shot, though we'll forget the long winded retrieving of old Donald. Turns out it was a little too strong for the wife and I admit it was quite rich and very gamey, but seeing I was getting her share of the meat, I didn't try to persuade her to try some more and quickly stole the chunks of duck from her bowl. I like to tell myself that the neighboring game keeper went back and picked up the other duck that I shot and ate it. Perhaps in a sandwich with plum sauce, spring onion and cucumber. I'm sure of it.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Eating Beijing

While reading Anthony Bourdain's The Nasty Bits, I was intrigued by the piece written on China. Although just a brief chapter in the book, Bourdain tells of a small restaurant called Li Qun's which is hidden away in a hutong in central Beijing. My wife and I had been planning on checking out the city for a while and with the added enthusiasm of my taste buds we booked a week out and jetted off to the far side of Asia. I'd had visions of small kitchens on every alleyway, each cooking up different and individual dishes passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately almost all the eateries I found in the hutongs just sold pork stuffed dumplings of varying quality. The Donghuamen night market was like a theme park and although I succumbed to the intrigue of silk worm cocoons, scorpions and snake among other things, the honest truth is that they all taste incredibly similar due to the very dirty oil everything is cooked in that has been reused for days. The snake had a texture similar to a rare steak and was very tender and moist, probably the best of the street food I tried, shortly followed by the sea urchins whose gooey, orange insides engulfed my mouth with a clean, refreshing ocean flavour. On Wangfujing snack street I tried the deep fried baby seahorse I'd often heard about, let me warn you now, this is absolutely not worth eating at all. I bit down on the cute little ocean critter and almost shattered my teeth.
It was solid, but I had committed now and so had to finish it, I wasn't going to loose face in front of all these Chinese vendors. I battled on through the ordeal best I could, managing to grind its body down to a powder between my teeth before it formed a paste in my mouth which tasted slightly of seawater with an aftertaste of the aforementioned dirty cooking oil. I found a lot of the restaurants in Beijing to be flat and dull with menus the size of encyclopedias and all looking the same. The obligatory cream walls, red lanterns and an abundance of waiting staff.

In Eat My Globe, Simon Majumdar warns that the sound of China is a man spitting. This prepared me a little although I didn't expect it from women. Perhaps that's just the English prude in me but I disinfected my shoes when I got home all the same. Mr Majumdar had also written of an underground food hall he had found beneath a shopping mall called Gourmet Street. When I found the sign above a set of stairs my heart rate quickened and I ran off ahead to see what was below. Gourmet Street was a fantastic place to escape the drab restaurants on the high streets but amidst all the food stands offering dishes from every region of China, I still felt that I was in a fast food market and in all honesty it is just that, but I wasn't here for silver service I was here to eat and so I got on with the job in hand. Forget the snack streets and the dirty oil, put a little effort into finding some of these underground food halls and try a little of everything, the dishes are small and cheap so you can work your way around China in the confines of a basement beneath a mall.

One evening we took the subway (20p a journey) to Ghost Street, a street around a mile long which has thousands upon thousands of red lanterns strewn across the road. There literally must be a restaurant for every lantern, with staff outside each one touting for your business, at one point even pulling me by my arm to try and force me in. I was looking for one dish in particular though, the hotpot, and after about forty minutes we found somewhere. I took a sichuan hotpot and ordered some cuttlefish and fish balls with a Yangjin beer and some erguotou. For those of you who don't know, the hotpot arrives at your table, a pot of spiced bubbling oil and stock. You then order your food which comes raw which you drop your into the boiling broth cooking pieces of food to your liking right at the table. The cuttlefish, although difficult to pick up with chopsticks, was gorgeous. Like a very silky and tender squid with no chewiness. I was sold. We were brought a complimentary dish of dry, spicy cooked prawns which you eat with the shell on. This may sound a bit weird but somehow the way they cook them makes the shells extremely brittle and you don't even notice the texture alongside flakes of chilli and sichuan pepper. The meal was amazing and although the wife found a cooked maggot in her noodles, I ensured her that it was cooked and therefore any harmful bacteria would probably have been killed during the cooking process. She still didn't look too happy about it and after the obligatory photo of said maggot she drank her water and we left. It turns out that by pure coincidence, sitting the other side of the room was an American photographer that I have been in contact with for some time. Oliver had been living in Beijing for six months and it turns out my gut instinct to eat here was a good one as he and his Beijinger girlfriend frequented the place saying it is one of the best in the city. Another great find, perhaps Beijing wasn't as dire on the food front as I had first found. You certainly have to put a bit of effort in to eat well in the city though.

Finally I come to my most memorable meals of the week, both at Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. As I mentioned before this was part of the enthusiasm for our visit. After feeling very lost wandering through the hutongs south of Tiananmen we spotted a duck painted on the grey wall of an alleyway, the tell tale sign we were near. We followed the painted ducks that led us to a small door with Li Qun written above it in red. Upon entering you walk past the wood oven where all the ducks are cooked, the smell instantly wetting my appetite. The atmosphere in this place was phenomenal and filled me with so much excitement. Having spent all week in the shiny false plasticness of Beijing, with government owned and provided eateries I finally felt like we had found something that wasn't tarnished by the red flag. We were seated next to a mother and daughter in the courtyard that has an old glass roof over it like a Victorian greenhouse. I ordered the Roast Duck, the reason for such a pilgrimage and had the chilli duck wings, duck livers and duck feet for appetisers. Let me start with the ducks feet, had I known they were cold and raw, only being marinated in a vat of horseradish then perhaps I would have been better prepared for the assault on my senses that followed. I had thought they were going to be hot and by the time I popped the first deboned and de-cartilaged duck foot into my mouth it was too late. My nose felt like it was going to explode from the horseradish and the texture of the feet were, lets say, new to me. The heels of the feet crunch which is a bit off putting but once you get used to it they aren't all that bad, but I wouldn't order them again. It was time for the duck. They bring the roasted bird to your table side and show you it whole with its fatty skin all shiny and amber. Once given the nod your server slices your duck up in a very precise way leaving nothing but the head and carcass, all within about a minute. I suppose they get plenty of practice. Peking duck in Peking, if i'm going to taste the best roast duck surely it has to be here? In my mind, any food you eat with your fingers is always going to be good and rolling one of these pancakes packed with slow cooked duck straight from the ancient wood ovens, was perfection of the dish. I loved it and have not since had duck pancakes that come close to Li Qun's. Obviously it's not just the duck that made it taste so good, the surroundings, company and service all play their part equally too. I will warn you though that if you have a bit of an upset stomach, that through the twisted corridors the only toilet has a great big mesh over it with a sign that reads in english, "NO SHIT." So make sure you go before, or take plenty of Imodium. We came here twice during our stay as it was so good. Quanjude is another favourite in the city but as it has several sites and is completely government owned, I favoured Li Qun for round two rather than risk being let down by Quanjude, after all I already knew how much I loved Li Qun's. It's hidden away, a bit shabby and understated. A place you go informally with family, friends or on your own. Dare I say, it has that authentic chinese feel that I was craving for. Bourdain had my attention with some wistful writing but Li Qun had my heart with two roast ducks and some nosebleed-inducing ducks feet.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Kitchen Clutter?

What clutters your kitchen? My wife would probably say the ever growing collection of whiskeys, gins, rums and vodkas that engulf the area next to the fridge. Is it your electric whisk, a pressure cooker, Or the colossal bread maker that always seems to be in the way? Are they cluttering your kitchen, or have you grown lazy? If you can't bring yourself to throw it out or give it away then the answer is probably yes, you have grown lazy. Or preoccupied with more pressing matters perhaps. You feel guilty every time you look at it don't you? At the back of many kitchen cupboards across the country, behind the empty jam jars and sauce bottles, there can sometimes be found a pasta machine. I remember pondering on whether or not to buy one and the main argument I wrestled with was that the novelty might wear off. I'd read of people buying them on a whim after watching a Jamie Oliver episode only to run the rollers through once or twice before ebaying it away or banishing it to the cupboard under the stairs. When a friend of mine moved out from home, he turned his mother away when she offered him her pasta machine. I can understand people being put off with the added work compared to turning out a bag of dried fussili into a pan, but making your own pasta isn't necessarily an alternative to packet pasta, it's alternative to cooking altogether. Sometimes I want to be lost in the kitchen for hours on end, making meals and sauces and jams. I enjoy my time in the kitchen, it's therapeutic and a chance for me to zone-out and forget. Too often its all over and done with so quickly. Preparing a meal that is. Sometimes you want to spend more time in the kitchen, be guilted into making meringues with your electric whisk, use your bread maker or prepare some fresh pasta. Sometimes I like to work my way through bottles of whiskeys and rums. In fact only too often. Some people may think it's all too much effort but I smile every time I pull my pasta machine down from the shelf. I find such appliances to give me inspiration, add a new dimension to my capabilities with food. Kitchen clutter? I say versatility.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Seven Fish, Ringwood

It was a friend of ours birthday last Friday. A group of us were going to go out for a meal and the birthday girl had chosen the Seven Fish in Ringwood. We arrived in the pouring rain at around quarter to eight and although a little early our party of twelve was seated immediately. I made a run for the toilets only to be greeted by naughty framed photos on the wall next to the urinals. I was on the left and had the very french looking moulin-rougesque photo taken through a keyhole of a lady in lingerie perched on the edge of her bed. This took me by surprise considering it didn't go with any theme of the restaurant and definately not with the clean minimalist surroundings of the dining room. Did I mention it came as a pleasant surprise? Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it to show you because as you can imagine, excusing yourself from the table and wandering in to the toilet with a big SLR camera tends to attract the wrong kind of attention and wanting to avoid any potential lawsuits I resisted the urge and decided to order my food.
I chose a starter of smoked sea bass fillets with a chorizo salsa. Once ordered I did start to wonder whether the saltiness and strength of the chorizo might overpower the fish. I had nothing to worry about though because the dish was really well balanced, the paprika in the chorizo complimented the smokiness of the sea bass flawlessly and at only £7.50 I think this was the best value item on the menu.
For my main course I had ordered the scallops with braised fennel and marmalade sauce and my wife, who had skipped on the starter to save room for the all important dessert, had the poached smoked haddock with peas, mash, spinach and wholegrain mustard sauce. My scallops were really plump and pan fried perfectly, incredibly soft and delicate and not at all rubbery as can sometimes be the case. The fennel lacked that certain aniseed kick and could have done with a little more salt. As a main course I think it needed something to complete the dish, definitely more fennel and maybe some other vegetables?

The wife's meal came a little late, she has that annoying habit of ordering better than me, or maybe thats just me being fickle but I usually find myself eating my meal while staring longingly at her plate until she lets me have some. Not much of a wholegrain sauce but the potatoes were smooth and buttery and the fish tender and moist.

Afterwards I ordered a coffee and a cognac while the wife ordered a chocolate brownie with toffee ice cream and white chocolate shavings, the brownie was unbelievably light and not at all stodgyl. The ice cream melted down the side of the warm brownie and swirled into the rich, thick dark chocolate sauce. It was like a Mills and Boon for the chocoholic. The birthday girl had Eton Mess and as I am, by my own admission a pudding thief, I had to try it. They know how to do good desserts at the Seven Fish, is that because they're open for coffee all day and most of their daytime customers are old ladies having tea and something sweet? I don't know, but they also know how to prepare seafood, just need to work on the accompaniments. The service was a little slow and impersonnal, our table sat filled with empty plates from our starters for a good fifteen to twenty minutes. A few things came late, but not substantially and as we were a table of twelve I thought the kitchen did well. Shame the waiting staff were slow.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Baking Bread

I think baking bread is quite daunting at first glance and I've been meaning to make my own bread for ages now and as I've had a few days off this week I thought I'd step to it. Although it takes a few hours to do, keeps for only a few days and is probably no cheaper than buying a loaf from the shop, I think it is worth baking your own loaf just for the smell it fills your house with. This wasn't my first attempt, but the less said about my first loaf the better, if you imagine something that has all the characteristics of a brick, and could possibly be confiscated as a weapon and your somewhere near. Needless to say it has been nearly a year since that fateful day. So I found a recipe that looked gentle to the novice baker and set about the kitchen. The recipe was a Nigel Slater one that had been bastardised into american weights and measures, the whole cup system is too vague if you ask me, I much prefer grams or pounds. It came together as expected and once the ingredients resembled a sticky dough I tipped it out onto my side and worked the dough until springy, which took a while. Can Bakers get RSI?
I set it in a bowl with a tea towel on top in a warm place to rise for an hour.
When I took the dough out to 'knock-down' and knead again it felt amazing, really fun to push and fold, and if I'm honest I felt like a proper baker boy, "what this? Oh just knocking up some bread, you know."
After letting it rise again for forty five minutes I did start to think it was looking quite big. This is probably the point where I should have decided to split it into two smaller loaves or even three.
I tucked it into a nice long bloomer shape and floured it slightly before sliding my creation into the oven. Now I'm a bit of a nerd in the kitchen and often watch through the glass what's happening step by step in the oven to help learn and avoid problems in the future. "I've created a monster!" It wouldn't stop growing, I thought it was in danger or rising so much that it might touch the roof of the oven and wedge itself in there. Fortunately my bread considered its options and decided to take its chances at freedom rather than be confined to a life in the dark chamber of my oven. I set Frankensteins monster on a wire rack to cool and even though it was enormous and would probably be considered morbidly obese by his peers, I loved him anyway. The bread actually looked really good and as mentioned before, the smell my flat was now filled with was better than any incence you can buy.
Note to self: fresh bread incence, possible business idea, or the ramblings of an idiot?
Once Big Steve had cooled down, as I was now affectionately calling him, I cut into him and smeared some butter over a slice. The bread was good but slightly stodgy, It definitely wasn't as light and fluffy as I would have liked but as a second attempt I was quite pleased with myself. The behemoth bread wasn't actually that big once you cut a few slices off and was really a blessing in disguise. The slices were so big I made a massive sandwich with some extra mature cheddar, some free range, aged iberico chorizo and Tracklements Chilli Jam.

I was over the moon with my bread. I am going to keep experimenting with different flours and flour mixes and try to work the dough that little bit more. If I had eight kids the loaf would have been ample, but as it is just the two of us I will have to reduce the quantities, or start thrusting loaves of bread on my parents every time I see them.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Gun, Docklands

I've been crazy busy this last week and after working nights in Cardiff for a few days fitting carpet tiles in a call center, I came home and drove my wife and sister up to The O2 arena for them to go see Beyonce. Rather than pay £25 for the parking and have nothing to do but pay for overpriced coffees and internet I opted for a drive through the tunnel and into Canary Wharf and to a pub overlooking the Thames called The Gun. The Pub has been there for nearly 250 years and was a local meeting place for Lord Nelson before he died at the battle of Trafalgar. I managed to park right outside on the cobbled streets and for free too, I grabbed my rucksack with my computer hoping to do some work over a pint. The Gun is a very masculine old pub and I don't mean I had to step over fighting men on the way to the toilet but that it just has a rugged and warm feel to the place despite the high winds and chill of Autumn. I got a pint of Pride in and took a table bar-side right next to the log fire. Sadly the internet wasn't working and after lots of attempts the manager came over and told me that she uses a mac too and that she can never seem to get online using the pubs router, was a shame but I was impressed that the manager herself had come by to tell the scruffy, bearded twentysomething in a t-shirt that she apologised for the inconvenience. I wasn't planning on having anything to eat but the menu was stooped in game. I was still full from my lamb and roast potato lunch round mums but I knew I could fit in a cheeky salad, especially if it involved pigeon. I also noted the footnote to the menu which said all game may contain shot, which In my mind only added to the romanticism of this old rugged pub by the docks. I settled for the 'Salad of warm pigeon, spiced pear, parsnip crisps and hazelnuts,'
I asked for it bar-side and the waiter came and laid out my cutlery and brought me a selection of warm breads. My salad arrived and sat on the plate very well. The pigeon breasts were cooked perfectly, just seared but still warm to the middle, It came in a hazelnut oil and red onion dressing and the slices of poached spiced pear complimented the depth of the pigeon successfully. For my salad and a pint of London Pride the bill was only £10.20 plus tip, not even half the price for the O2 car parking. I left and tried to make my way to St. John Bread and Wine for a drink and maybe a starter or something small to eat, however forgetting it was Sunday and St. John having more traditional opening hours it was twenty past ten by the time I arrived and was closing. Next time I guess. After a little cruise around the city I doubled back to the O2 and sat down by the water to read and have some coffee before I drove home with two very excitable girls.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Back from Cornwall

Just got back from a four day trip to Cornwall. Five of us rented out a beach house in Gwithian which is a little place by the beach near St.Ives. We had a really cool wooden house to stay in with an unusually well equipped kitchen. The surf is pretty good at Godrevy, just two hundred yards from the beach house, but due to mother nature and her anger at me for not recycling my Orange Juice carton the week before, it was washed out. We went in on our first day anyway and fought against the strong currents and the whitewash but after getting bored and trying to make my board do flips with my hands, the wind caught it and I got smacked in the face by the rail of my board and my eyes rolled back in my head. Time to get out and get some food in me.
I went armed to the hilt with a box full of store cupboard essentials and a more than a few bottles of wine. Between us we had bought a barrel of Ringwood Brewery's "Huffkin" Autumn Ale, anyone who hasn't tried it yet should put it on their;
"list of things to try before I'm too pissed to notice what I'm drinking." It's definately in my top three real ales.
We didn't eat out and I cooked a mean fish pie one night. One of the best things was climbing all over the rocks and looking in the rockpools when the tide was out, mainly looking for razor clams but sadly to no avail. However on two occasions we came home with a bucket full of fresh cornish mussels and once home, while the others had an afternoon siesta, I simmered them in a simple garlic, butter and white wine sauce, then sat at the Kitchen island with a deep bowl full of the mussels and picked at them while finishing off a nice bottle of white. Banging way to spend an afternoon.
Even though we only went surfing once whilst we were there and the fact the weather and waves suddenly turned the day we left, I wasn't bothered. I was just happy to have had some time to relax and cook a bit. I drank far too much and didn't get to read as muc as I wanted but it was a wicked holiday and can't wait to go back and look for more mussels in the rocks.