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.