Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Torta Got Me Going Again.

A cold and slow start to a week is never the most inspiring. Sat back idling in my chair I let my computer screen darken before drifting off into the sleepy screensaver of yestermeal. My screensaver, which I haven't seen in months, is a compilation of food photos I have taken over the past few years and it's in times like these that I remember why I have this photo album set to screensaver. Pulling me slowly from my desktop-doldrums were images from eating on my travels. One image in particular got me roused, alert and ready to get back to work. It wasn't of a homely meal cooked by my mother nor a perfectly plated course from a Michelin starred restaurant but a photo of a greasy, torta al pastor from the roadside in Merida, Mexico.

My wife and I were living in Merida for a while a few years back and whenever we passed this spot on the way to the city market we always dropped in for some 'dirty tortas' as we affectionately named them. Just two men and two fillings, chicken or pork. With numbers like that there is far less to go wrong and it never did. One of the guys would pull apart some marinated and slow cooked pork shoulder with some tongs before scooping up the meat with his fingers along with plenty of the fatty juices, he would then but the other half of your bread, cut side down, into the fatty juices to soak whilst he used his fingers again to scoop some pickled red onion salsa onto your pork before picking the oily top to your torta and dropping it onto a plastic plate. On the plastic tables were small bowls of possibly the hottest habanero chili salsa known to man for you to add to the torta while swatting the flies away from your sarnie. All this for just 5 pesos each (about 35p). It's little surprise that I used to eat about three each time we stopped by.

Do you have a screen saver for moments in need of inspiration? Is there a food or meal that gets your mouth watering at the mere mention of it?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Brits Abroad for the F-man!

Is it any wonder that we get a reputation for being disrespectful as tourists? Hands up if you have ever felt pig-headedly ignorant when on holiday in a non-English speaking country. Bumbling your way along with your phrase book in a terrible accent only to have the checkout attendant give in and make your holiday easier by helping you out in their more than competent English. Then we have the "Lads-on-tour Summer 2009" to contend with. Mediterranean beach resorts being inundated with plane after plane of excitable holiday-makers drinking until they can't stand up, demanding pie and chips and spreading STDs like two-for-one drinks vouchers in Magaluf.

Then ladies and gentlemen, we have Gordon Ramsay. Someone who is renowned the world over. Someone who, despite his foul language attracts vast audiences across the globe. Perhaps a role model to some and whilst filming a television series abroad some might say an ambassador for our country, what with the words 'British' and 'Chef' being synonymous with his name. I have always admired Gordon Ramsay and his drive. He doesn't tolerate fools and I've always tried not to. He has had a slow decline over the past couple of years and it seemed as though his bubble had burst along with everybody else's. So here we have a new and different approach from a Gordon Ramsay television show. Of course we expect some bad language and plenty of straight to the point attitude but with the finesse and respect of a gorilla, Gordon single handedly confirmed to almost everyone he met on his trip the horror stories they may have heard of the British lout in a curry house. He played up to that brits abroad stereotype we all try to forget about, he didn't even look like he wanted to be there most of the time. I found myself cringing with embarrassment, especially when he called an old Indian man, who clearly didn't understand him properly, a twat. Woah there Gordo! It's not his fault Claridges lost its Michelin star. He doesn't have it.

The title of the show was very misleading, rather than adopting the title of Jamie Oliver's Italian series circa 2005, they could have gone for one of these suggestions. Gordon Gloats in India. Or, Gordon on tour, India 2009? They could have had a t-shirt made up for him.

So what's next? Guest appearances on the television show Benidorm? I'm starting to see Mr. Ramsay stretched and sun burnt on a sun lounger next to Johnny Vegas quite well now.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Face Off: Part 2

On Saturday afternoon I had myself a hogshead lunch. Not at the pub around the corner which shares the same name but a meal consisting of the cuts I butchered earlier. I decided to slow roast one of the jowls rubbed with crushed fennel seeds, salt and pepper. I laid the jowl on a roasting rack over a tray of water and covered the lot with tin foil and roasted/steamed the jowl at gas mark 3 for around four and a half hours.
I carefully removed the sinew from the two plump cheeks and seasoned before searing in a pan with some finely chopped shallots and garlic, once coloured I poured over the stock I had made from the skull which had been simmering in a pan, a few sprigs of thyme and braised for three hours on the lowest possible flame. After an hour I dropped in some skinned tomatoes that were roughly chopped and they slowly melted into the broth. The torchon style sausage I made from the rolled pig's forehead had been in the fridge two days and I guessed the flavour of the lemon zest should have been absorbed by now. I sliced it ever so thinly on a chopping board and poured myself a glass of Malbec to begin the tasting.
I won't lie to you, it was quite unpleasant largely due to the lemon zest, I went a bit overboard with the quantity and it had a very sharp lemon overtone, the pig forehead sausage thing tasted nice when you hit the meat but the fat took up so much of it and was so dense and chewy that after a few slices I decided I'd package it up and just continue with extra wine instead.
I placed the pigs cheeks in a large terracotta dish and poured over the thick, reduced broth. This was amazing, the cheeks kept their shape but collapsed under the mildest of interrogations with a fork. The thick, saucy broth was incredible. So rich and full of deep and savoury pork flavours. The cheeks disappeared all too quickly, well there were only two, and I mopped the dish clean with some bread. Over in minutes but was in my mind all weekend. It was worth all the effort and time just for these two.

The fat from inside the jowl was like soft butter and was melting in front of my eyes over the strands of juicy pork. I should probably have spent more time shaving the beast though as the crackling at one end was spoilt a little by the area of stubble which was as coarse as a wire brush. On the whole a slightly deeper flavour to pork belly but probably less meat. I devoured the whole jowl to myself where as I can usually share a good sized portion of belly pork. There did seem to be a higher fat content and not the chewy type, we're talking the soft oozy type that you could spread on toast. All in all, with a good helping of Coleman's mustard it was a sterling pig feast. The other jowl is curing for a week on the top shelf of my fridge in salt, sugar, pepper and thyme before I hang it for three weeks in m attempt to have me some Guanciale which is similar to pancetta. How this will turn out only time will tell as I battle against mould and potential food poisoning.

You may be wondering what became of the snout and the pigs ears. I had planned to have pea and pig's ear soup with the grilled snout on the side the next day. On Sunday morning when I unwrapped them from the tin foil the smell and appearance of them both made it clear they had been left too long.(since Thursday)
The snout had gone all slimy and smelt terrible whilst the ears had turned very dark and smelt equally as bad. I hadn't completely done what I set out to do but I thought I had a bloody good run at it. Only wasting the snout and ears was no major loss and I can always go and buy just the ears one day this week. But there's just one thing I can't stop thinking about. I just want a bag full of pig cheeks now.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Face Off: Part 1

I've been intrigued by the pigs head for a while. After watching Tim Hayward's video piece for the Guardian back in August last year I've been fascinated and waiting for the opportune moment to have a go. There's a problem in this adventure though. My wife has absolutely no inclination to try or be around the decapitated head of a pig. This posed a slight problem. I had originally planned to braise then roast the whole head, I would need someone to share it with as the whole point of this exercise is to use a part of the pig that would otherwise be wasted. If I was to only pick at some of it then have to "feed the rest to the birds," then that would defy the whole point and I would be back where I started. After scouring the various forums and discussion websites online I decided I had procrastinated long enough and went down to see my friends at my local butchers. I took home a fresh pigs head, the tongue had been removed, for just £3. I cleared the kitchen table, un-bagged the beasts head, poured myself a cup of coffee and stared at it resembling a twisted Smith and Jones sketch, while I pondered on what potential meals this face will provide. First, of course, the swine needed to be clean shaven, I took a plastic lady-shave razor out of the bathroom and set about shaving the coarse ginger hair away from my new friend. The eyebrows and corner of the eyes in particular were incredibly dense and stubborn to remove. Following the shave I rinsed the head thoroughly in the sink, my piggy now looking much more fresh faced and ready for the larger task at hand, the de-boning. Starting in the middle of its bottom jaw, I cut from the neck up to where its front teeth are. Working close to the bone in small, neat cuts with the tip of a knife, I slowly brought away the jowl.

If trying this at home be aware of the cheek bone as this is a little fiddly and you don't want to damage the lovely cheek meat. Just take your time and keep your eye on what is going on and the definition of the skull. Once over the tricky cheek work your way down and underneath the upper lip and stop about 3cm away from the snout. The eye area can also be a bit difficult but don't worry if you cut through the skin here too much as there is little between the skin and the bone here anyway. Once you can see half of the face de-boned it's time to turn it over and repeat on the other side. Eventually you should be left to separate just the area between the eyes and down the nose which is relatively simple and then chop off the snout. So I was left with a scary looking skull, eyes looking at me and once turned over an equally as scary mask. Bookmark this for next Halloween and freak out the kids.
I put the skull in the oven to roast, then put it in a pan with some onions, carrot and garlic and water for stock. Only half the head would fit so I made sure the back half was submerged where I guess there must be more flavour.

I cut away the snout and ears and wrapped them in foil and popped them in the fridge to tackle another day. Fergus Henderson's Pea and pigs ear soup might get tried in the next few days. I separated the two jowls and carefully removed the round cheeks. The two muscles alongside the snout were also removed. The thin, fatty skin from beneath the forehead area was dropped into my simmering stock for good measure and I was left with a small piece of forehead. I went out on a limb here and heavily seasoned it with salt, pepper and lemon zest before rolling it tightly in muslin, tied with string and poached it in simmering water for about half an hour. I let it chill and have left it in the fridge for a few days in the hope that It should be nice sliced thinly with some bread and salad.

My dad has agreed to come over in the next few days to help me polish off one of the jowls and the pigs ears while I plan to make Guanciale from the opposing jowel and I am yet to decide with what to do with those gorgeous cheeks. I had the whole kitchen sorted and disposed of the skull before my wife returned and I had the richest pork stock I've ever made. Perhaps I'll braise the cheeks in some. When I was questioned as to why on earth you would choose to eat the pigs head I thought for a moment and then gave my answer. To quote the great man himself, Fergus Henderson, "it's only polite."

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A New Pet: My Sourdough Starter

I have a new friend, a pet. Something that is going to require feeding and loving. Ten days ago I created my sourdough starter. I sought a little advice on recipes to use and after much deliberation, and a little guidance from Food Urchin, I settled on one. I had been warned about the foul smell starters can emit and to protect my nose from the stench, made sure I had a large tupperware box complete with lid at the ready. By keeping it in this box I have not only protected myself from such an assault on the nostrils but also from the potential battering I may have received from my wife had I saturated the flat in the odour I smelt today. After ten days sat sealed and hidden away on a shelf I thought it high time I knew what all the fuss was about. It has what can only be described as a combination of bile, urine and human vomit with a faint hint of grape to the nose. A full bodied sludge that is living. I Feel a little like Dr. Frankenstein, what kind of monster have I created? I start feeding it next week but for now it has its lid back on and is safely nestled on the shelf. I'm already feeling quite paternal over my new pet. What with the responsibility of feeding it, keeping it the right temperature and the added reminder that I will have to stick with my commitment of making my own sourdough from now on. I've settled on the name Clarence. At least he won't mess on the carpet...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Virtual Farmers Market: A Nail In The Coffin

About once or twice a week I walk down the road to my local grocers. I roam his shop fondling and smelling the fruit and veg I am about to buy for the week. I can spend ages in there chatting to the owner about where the veg has come from and sometimes bend his ear on ways to prepare them. I am particularly fond of the Romsey plum tomatoes when available along with his large selection of squashes. I then wander a little further into a local deli where I pick up some cheeses, perhaps some Snowdonia Black Thunder and usually a hunk of Chevre Log. They also sell the most amazing Somerset butter which almost always finds it's way into my fridge. For meat I go a little further out the way, up to a butchers where the banter always flows and the old boys are happy to talk to me about the different grades of beef they have in the store room, I've often been in there to be shown the sides of cows hanging and learnt exactly where the each cut comes from. After a little bit of schooling and some generous portions I carry my shopping home. Fresh air, exercise and helping keep local business' alive.

Now let me turn your attention to a new website. This week saw the launch of the worlds first virtual farmers market. Essentially an online, mail order deli with a 3D interactive market simulator. Why does everything have to go online. I'm sure most food lovers relish the occasion of going to a farmers market once in a while or taking a trip to their local deli. This website has saddened me greatly. What's next? will we even go to restaurants or just plug in a taste adaptor via USB whilst twittering our opinions? How long before we don't leave the house, are we destined for a virtual life similar to the Matrix, plugged into our computers, working from home and online mail order. It's scary to think of how quickly social networking has pushed us into a new era where no matter how idyllic a lifestyle these back to basics TV shows may portray, the chances are, your watching it online whilst you have another tab open shopping for those cute wellies the presenter is wearing or googling where to buy a bundt tin similar to that one Nigella has in her staged kitchen.
Websites like this are contributing to the death of the grocer, the deli shop and one day the butchers. No more cheeky banter by the till or a little discount for being a regular. Those days could be on the way out. So if you don't already, find a good grocers, butchers and deli. If they don't stock something you want, ask them to get it in. You should find little if any difference in your shopping budget by frequenting independent shops such as these. In fact my meat is almost always cheaper than supermarkets and not only local and free-range but tastier. Don't fall into the trap of gnawing on the edge of your keyboard. You're supposed to love food, so be more hands on about it, and I don't mean the keyboard and mouse. Get outside and buy something the old fashioned way. Virtual Farmers Market has a £35 minimum order, I know the deli doesn't...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Print Room, Bournemouth

In 1987 the Daily Echo produced its first completely computer designed and written newspaper, thus beginning the slow redundancy of machines and space in the printing halls of the newspaper's building on Richmond Hill. In 2007 a £2million renovation saw the empty hall transform into the French, brasserie style restaurant that is The Print Room. My birthday is approaching and my Dad took me out to lunch to celebrate. The booths that break up the vast space offer a very private setting for your meal which is brilliant when you want to catch up and have a chat without straining to hear or having to whisper. Due to the high ceiling and booth layout the Print Room takes on a hum of activity. The muffled sound of conversation, knife against crockery and the chink of glasses all blend into the constant murmur that creates a relaxed atmosphere to the grand old room.

Dad chose the wine; we had a 2007 Malbec which was exceptionally plummy and full bodied. We shared the chicken liver and foie gras mouse with black truffle butter and a carpaccio of Cornish beef with parmesan cream. The foie and chicken liver mousse was smooth and strong picked up by the truffle butter which I didn't want to end. The beef was so tender and there seemed to be quite a lot of the cream but the slight salty bite from the parmesan complimented the meat beautifully.

For main, we ordered the pork belly with pumpkin puree and parsnip and the roasted loin of venison with confit of lamb, potato gratin and red cabbage which sounds like a lot to take in from just one plate. The venison was perfectly seasoned and cooked, bright pink centre but still warm, something which few restaurants manage to do well, the lamb confit was full of such deep and intense flavours that neither one of us spoke whilst we polished it off and continued to devour the venison and potato gratin. Pork belly, another meat that can so often under whelm was spot on, not one tiny bit of chewy fat throughout the meat. Soft, juicy and collapsed under little pressure from the side of a fork. Before we finished off our second glass of Malbec I managed to eat more than my share of the pork, potato and red cabbage.

It has been a long long time since I went for lunch just me and my dad and to have the more intimate confines of a booth whilst still feeling very much part of the room we talked long into the afternoon and running over our car park time. I walked back to the car for a lift to mine and Dad handed me a carrier bag. "One more present," he said holding it out for me to take. In it was a fresh pigeon he had shot that morning (in his garden that backs onto the forest before you ask, don't worry, no city pigeon here)He'd got it especially for me as he knows it's my favourite. So from one fantastic meal to the beginnings of another. Great day and I think The Print Room could be one of the most underrated restaurants on the south coast. Definitely deserves more attention, so check it out.