Friday, 30 November 2007

Braise be!

When people learn of my passion for cooking the inevitable question that follows is "do you have a signature dish?". I always say no, because cooking something new every day doesn't really allow me to do anything more than once. I do have a favorite method of cooking though, and that is slow braising.

Braising brings the best out of less fashionable cuts of meat, the slow cooking process rendering connective tissues to sticky gelatin and hard working muscle fibres to meltingly tender threads. The symbiotic relationship between meat and braising liquid is the key to the end result, with the meat imparting its juices to the liquid and the liquid sharing its flavour with the meat. Of course the most vital ingredient is time. After several hours, not only do you end up with tender meat you could cut with a spoon, but an unctuously reduced sauce to spoon over it. Minimal effort. Maximum flavour.

So many diners think of fillet steak, rack of lamb, or loin of pork as prime cuts and choose them out of habit whenever they are eating out. Of course when cooked rare these cuts can be exremely tender, but the leaness of the meat can leave them lacking flavour and the cooking time has to be very precise. I would urge people to go to the butchers and buy some shin of beef, pork belly, lamb shanks, oxtail, or even brisket. Your wallet will thank you for it too.

For non-cooks, braising is far less demanding than trying to cook something a la minute. It's the perfect dinner party dish requiring minimal preparation and stress with no compromise on flavour or impact. It could be a lamb tagine that you stick in the oven for a couple of hours and then serve at the table, or for something a little more fancy, try braising a rolled pork belly in white wine or cider and cut it into medallions before oven roasting and plating with some aubergine caviar and caramalised apple slices.

The biggest success of this week has been a shin of beef, braised for 3 hours in red wine. The only other ingredients were a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery, tomatoes, herbs and beef stock. It would be a crime to not cook it again so I'm officially naming it my signature dish and next time I will serve it with horseradish pommes puree and wilted greens.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Holidays are coming

Apparently Coca-Cola has revived its "holidays are coming" ad following scores of calls to its customer information centre from people who said it marked the beginning of Christmas. Next Cadburys will be saying that Creme Egg ads mark the beginning of Easter, or DFS ads mark the beginning of bank holidays. Last year McCains Chips had the bright and highly ethical idea of sponsoring Christmas pantos, so this year I'm half expecting to see school nativity plays produced "in partnership" with some insidious brand like Tesco. Three kings of the east come bearing gifts for the baby Jesus: a transformers helmet, a bratz doll, and two packets of self-raising flour (buy one get one free). Sressed-out mums are asked to sew Tesco logos onto the old curtains they're using to make the Kings' robes. Instead of Away in the Manger little children sing the new Spice Girls single as it's written into their multi-million pound contract. In return Tesco provides chipolatas and 100 extra clubcard points for the audience. Every little helps...(Voiceover: Angel Gabriel)

In reality the Coke ad doesn't mark the beginning of Christmas because Christmas clearly begins in mid-October when retailers dismantle their bbq displays and set up their fairy lights and artificial trees. The Coke ad actually heralds the beginning of crap advertising season, where advertisers with small budgets stick their hands in the pockets and roll out their five year old Christmas ad. As far as they are concerned it's the only time of the year to drink strange alcohol, eat chocolate lambs testicles, and smell nice. For the rest of the year you can smell like Reindeer poo for all they care.

Over the next few weeks I'll be taking a look at some of the turkeys gracing our screens but today we should really start with a few words about the ad that "marks the beginning of Christmas".

"Watch out, look around, something's coming, coming to town..."

Yes, and that something is a 5 mile tailback of light pollution. I mean the convoy is so bloody bright it's probably visible from outer space. But hang on, there's still not enough light so the convoy magically switches on more bulbs on trees, on bridges, on houses... A conscientious old duffer up a ladder nearly has a heart attack as he's only just unplugged his own lights out of environmental guilt and then shazam!, his house has the carbon footprint equal to the whole of Burundi.

Kevin Warren, Managing Director for Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd, said: “Measuring our direct CO2 emissions has been the first step in understanding our carbon footprint and we are excited about the opportunity to go even further through our partnership with the Carbon Trust. With corporate responsibility now integrated into our day to day business operations at every level, we are proud of the progress we have made in the past year and look forward to building on this in 2008.”

I may be stupid, Kevin, but I think there may just be one area where you could build on the successes of 2007 (hint: energy efficient light bulbs). Every little helps...(Voiceover: Father Christmas)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Review: The Venture In, Ombersley

If walls had ears then dining room walls, along with confession booths, would probably have the most diverse and interesting conversations to eavesdrop on.

From the breathless chatter of ladies that lunch to the uncomfortable pauses that punctuate an unsuccessful first date. The gravity of multi-million pound business deals to the inebriated debauchery of late night stag parties. The hiring, the firing, the celebrations, the commiserations. Words ricocheting off the plaster at high volume and tempo, or quietly hovering above plates, heavy with meaning.

All of life is here.

Dining rooms with history, those that have weathered the passage of time or played host to moments of infamy would have the most compelling stories to share. What the News of The World wouldn't pay for a kiss and tell by the walls of the The Ivy. How we would lap up a word-for-word account of the Ramsay v Gill handbag fight in 1998, or the Blair/Brown pact at Granita in 1994.

But walls don't have ears or mouths, and so discretion is assured. It is left to the diner to visualise the events that might have taken place throughout the lifetime of any given restaurant, to picture the bottoms that may have graced its chairs, or to imagine the conversations that may have risen above the chinking of glasses and cutlery.

I'm guessing that a dining room built in the 15th Century would probably have seen and heard more interesting things than Yo Sushi! in Brent Cross. The Venture In is situated in the Worcestershire village of Ombersley, a Medieval hamlet so perfectly English that it could be used as a blueprint for a Hollywood period set. Any minute you expect to see a film crew appear from behind one of its timber beamed buildings and some peasant wench throw a chamber pot of slop from an upstairs window as Brad Pitt (the goody) is chased through town by Alan Rickman (the baddy) on horseback. It's a picture postcard of perfectly preserved buildings and rather fortuitously, four of them happen to be pubs. Except the Venture In isn't really a pub, it's a very accomplished restaurant.

It's a telling sign when a village restaurant offering fine dining is full on a Saturday lunchtime. People will clearly travel to this place and with good reason. The food is simple but gutsy and perfectly executed with a lunchtime menu featuring nearly as many specials as standard dishes. A starter of lambs kidneys with caramalised onion tartlet was rich, sweet and warming on a cold autumn day. Elsewhere around the table, seared home-smoked salmon was cooed over and a roquefort souffle was equally praised. Of the mains, two specials stood out- hake larded with pancetta on a wild mushroom risotto with red wine sauce, and a pot roasted medallion of lamb. The medallion was more like a discus in size and was melt-in-the-mouth tender. The hake, which on paper sounded a tad girly, was anything but. If it was girly then it was Fatima Whitbread girly. It was given a massive slug of manliness by the truffled risotto and a powerful red wine sauce, and ended up doing an emasculating job on my main course, a ribeye of beef with wild mushrooms. I must confess to food envy and it serves me right for playing it safe. Desserts were sweet and crumbly and a fitting end to the meal. At £25 for three courses, it was excellent value for money too.

Looking around the low-ceilinged room it was interesting to think of the generations that might have eaten here over the past 500 years. What was on the menu during the English Civil War? Who huddled around the cosy fire while London burned in 1666? Were any Elizabethan food critics or actresses thrown out by an irate cook? Probably not. What is for sure is that if these walls had ears last weekend, they would have heard eight very satisfied diners full of compliments for a faultless lunch.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Venison Shanks. No Thanks!

Would you like to buy a new TV, Sir? It has a 50 inch flat screen, it's HD ready, and it probably won't fit in your tiny living room but it's so much better than that 2 year old box you've got at the moment. Look at the picture quality - you can literally see every one of Bruce Forsyth's nose hairs. What? Your current telly isn't broken? You don't care about Brucie's nose hairs?

How about a new mobile phone then? This one has an infra-red night vision camera and anti-jelly protection. If you happen to be at a children's party and drop it in some jelly it's completely protected. And it's been designed by Roberto Crivelli in association with Samsing. It's an exclusive, only 4 million units have been made. It says you're stylish. It says you're fashionable. It says you understand the danger of jelly. What's that sir, you just want to call and text? How quaint!

Upgrade! Upgrade! Get the latest model! Your life just isn't good enough until you do. People will laugh at you, call you names, and bully your children if you don't. Upgrade your home, upgrade your face, upgrade your groceries and taste the difference. Upgrade you shanks. Buy venison not lamb. Live like a country gent!

So I did.

And they were rubbish. Like chewing on a Barbour jacket with as much flavour as Harris tweed. No fat= no flavour. They may have been raised on a posh estate but they had no taste. Forget the social climbing and give me lamb shanks any day.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Greedy Piggy

I had plenty of leftover sage from the Gilthead bream dish so last week I went on a hunt for a quality piece of pig. It turned out to be a great opportunity to try out a new butcher, Kim Libretto, whose shop is actually closer to home that my usual butcher, William Rose in East Dulwich.

I don't think Kim knows or cares that much about visual merchandising. Unlike places like Moen & Sons in Clapham or Mckanna Meats on Theobalds Road, Libretto's windows do not set mouths watering or draw passing traffic into the shop with lavish displays of scarlet flesh. In fact you'd probably see more attractive rump on offer in the windows of Amsterdam's red light district. The shop itself has a slightly strange smell, like a larder full of dried herbs, spices, and condiments that haven't been refreshed for twenty years. Behind the counter sit a solitary chicken, a couple of pork tenderloins, a pigeon, and a rack of lamb. It doesn't seem like meat heaven to me.

A few years ago I would pass under the arches of Smithfield Market at 8.45am every morning on the way to the office in Clerkenwell. As I made my way through this theatre of meat, the scent of flesh hung heavily in the air as porters lugged giant carcasses from delivery vans, their white coats stained with blood. Forklift trucks in reverse beeped to announce their movements, with twin prongs wedged firmly under palettes of chickens imported from France and beyond. A pack of Essex boys, their mouths filled with cigarettes and language as colourful as their bloody coats, barked and whistled at the passing secretaries whose killer heels clip-clopped on the cobbles as they tried to maintain their balance and the head on their Starbucks capuccinos. I longed to divert my path and take a sharp right down the narrow aisles of traders, dance through the forests of hanging meat like Rocky Balboa, wield a cleaver and bring it crashing down on a butcher's block. But instead I would continue straight on, head in the clouds past St John restaurant, over Clerkenwell Road and to my cluttered desk for another day of unbridled brandalism.

Libretto's has no such atmosphere but appearances certainly can be deceptive. Slightly nervously I asked Kim for a couple of pork chops on the bone. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a full loin of free-range pork slung over his shoulder which he slammed onto his block. He turned to look at me and with a cheeky glint in the eye he posited a single-worded enquiry. "Greedy?". I answered with two words. "Of course". He proceeded to cut two T-bone chops from the loin the size of which I have never seen before. I wasn't sure I had plates big enough to serve them, or a table strong enough to bear their weight. They were over 400g each.

And the flavour... The pork had been hung for I'm not sure how long and the meat and fat had taken on a rich nuttiness I had never tasted before. Cooked pink, the centre remained juicy and tender. A simple accompaniment of caramalised onions and sage was enough to showcase its quality.

So Librettos will now become my butcher of choice. The reason there is so little meat on display is that he cuts it all to order. I can't wait to find out what other gems he has hidden in his meat store.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Gilthead bream, red wine risotto, butternut squash puree, and deep fried sage

It was my original plan to cook a different fish every week but the astronomical price of our pescatorial friends is making that increasingly difficult on my tight budget. So far I've managed:

Red Mullet
Sea Bass
Red Snapper
Lemon Sole

I've been trying to find John Dory for the past few weeks but my local fishmonger Moxons in East Dulwich is always out of stock when I pop in. Inevitably I end up leaving with something else and have to replan what I'm going to cook. Last week I left with squid which I really enjoyed cleaning and preparing. I marinated it with ginger, garlic, chilli and lime juice and stir- fried it with bok choi for a great oriental supper. Most recently I opted for Gilthead Bream which I have often seen on restaurant menus but never cooked myself.

Gilthead Bream is so called because of a golden bar across its forehead and is found in the Mediterranean and eastern coastal regions of the North Atlantic. It is also heavily farmed in Greece which supplies 50% of the EU's Sea Bream stocks. In France the fish is known as Dourade. It's probably most comparable to Sea Bass in texture and flavour, although in shape it produces a much rounder, chunkier fillet. Cost is around £9.50 per kilo.

I put together a dish using some left-over butternut squash and just store cupboard ingredients, working as usual to create interesting colours, textures, and flavours. The vibrant orange of the butternut squash, the deep red of the risotto, and the dark green of the fried sage all contrasted with the white flesh of the bream. The crunch of the deep fried squash and crispy sage added texture to the flaky fish. I'm most happy to say that the flavours worked well together and the starring role was left to the fish which wasn't overpowered by anything else on the plate.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

From comfort food to fine dining

The last weekend in October is always a depressing time of the year. I think this year, the clocks shouldn't have gone back. They should have stayed right where they were. After all, the changing clock announces the end of British Summer Time, and this year the British Summer never bothered to show up. It jilted us. No message, no apology. What a rude, ill-mannered season. It wouldn't have happened in the '50s, when seasons were well brought up and knew their place. But these are modern, anti-social times where manners hold little sway. I blame violent video games and rap music.

The cold, dark nights have coincided with a number of evening events for the Chief Taster, so for several nights over the past couple of weeks I've been cooking for one. Whilst I'm still sticking to my plan of cooking something new every night, I've reverted to comfort food to ease myself into autumn. Chicken, Leek and Tarragon Pie, Toad in the Hole, Lamb Tagine, Iranian Potato Cakes stuffed with Spiced Lamb, and Confit de Canard. Although all these dishes have all been delicious, I have to say that cooking for one is far less fun than cooking for others.

By Monday I was itching to spend some serious time in the kitchen and so I decided to ditch comfort food for a few days and go a bit gastro. I'm now beginning to experiment a bit more with the holy trinity of flavour, texture and colour which is something that every trip to Bacchus reinforces in my brain. I put together a challenging menu drawn from a variety of sources:

eared scallops with cauliflower puree, cumin veloute, and ras el hanout caramel

Pigeon with parsnip puree, roasted shallots, and chocolate sauce

Apple crumble

There were a number of techniques and flavour combinations within these dishes that I wanted to try for the first time. In the scallop dish it was making thin, spiced caramel shards and understanding the marriage of this with bitter raw cauliflower and sweet scallops. For the pigeon dish, I've always wanted to try the combination of meat and chocolate. Finally, because I'm not really a pudding person, I must confess that I've never made a humble crumble or a fresh custard before.

The recipe for the scallop dish comes from Le Champignon Sauvage, a two michelin starred restaurant in Cheltenham and it calls for an usual ingredient - Lecithin. I've never heard of Lecithin before but you can get it from health food stores and it acts as an emulsifier to bind aqueous and fat based solutions together. The result? A foam stays foamy for longer. Unfortunately I couldn't find any in time, so the bubbles on the cumin veloute didn't last for long. Next time I will definitely add a couple of grams of Lecithin to stabilise the foam. The ras el hanout caramel was a revelation and I made it 3 times to get the balance between sweetness and spice just right. It adds a fantastic textural dimension to the dish, providing a delicate crunch as the tender scallop meat yields with each bite. I stupidly forgot to add the garnish of apple matchsticks and this would have added a burst of colour to the plate, but nonetheless it tasted fantastic and will definitely feature on my menu again.

Tomorrow I'll post about the pigeon dish, and just why chocolate and meat is the ideal combination.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Kim, Aggie, Calves Liver

In days of yore, some bearded dude once said that cleanliness is next to Godliness. As a post-yore atheist, that's about as much incentive to lead a tidy life as the promise of a 2 weeks all inclusive holiday to Basra. In any case tidiness just doesn't come naturally to me so it's doubtful that I would ever make it within 50 miles of Godliness, let alone ride pillion with it to the pearly gates of heaven.

I am, by nature, a meticulous planner. Every eventuality must be accounted for, every permutation calculated. I think it comes from being a born worrier. It seems strange then that such a person could lead a life of chronic untidiness.

When I had a desk job, the desk itself was rarely visible to the naked eye. It was typically piled high with reams of paper, cds, pens, diaries, and magazines. Over time the pile would build up to mountainous proportions, swaying as the breeze of the air conditioning passed over its peak like an icy wind swirling through the Himalayas, the sheets of white A4 clinging precariously to each other, an avalanche waiting to happen. Extracting a document was like a game of Jenga, with a tentative pull here and a cautious push there. But the point is that I would always know where the document I needed was. Admittedly it was chaos, but it was organised chaos and I like that a lot.

Around my house it would not require a Native American tracker to tell where I've been. My path is easily identifiable by small piles of ephemera dotted around on sideboards, mantlepieces, and tables. Receipts, train tickets, golf tees, the odd stick of chewing gum, they all regularly congregate idly for short periods of time, like teenagers sitting on low walls in suburban shopping precincts. Occasionally they would be joined by higher status items like housekeys or a mobile phone, or more often than not, an Oyster card. But just like my desk at work, I would know which pile to go to for what I needed. They are like beacons, drawing me to them in times of hurried panic, as I run around shouting, "where are my keys, I need my keys!!!"

My kitchen is no less of a cluttered landscape and no matter how much I try to restore order to the unruly condiments, it always ends up looking like somebody has advertised a party on Facebook and crowds of local undesirables have turned up to trash the place. This is partly due to not having enough cupboard space for all the gadgetry I end up buying in Pages, but also down to a lack of discipline on my part.

A few weeks ago I came across a fantastic blog by a young chef called Aidan Brooks. He's currently working at Commerc 24 in Barcelona and writes some hugely insightful posts on all aspects of food and life in a professional kitchen. I can't quite believe he's only 19. Anyway, of the kitchen at Commerc 24 he writes ,

"The secret of this successful team is focus, precision and speed. There's literally no time to talk. The only time we speak is when we're giving or receiving instructions. The only other words you're likely to hear from Jordi are "rapido rapido rapido!". Every task is completed at breakneck speed, with astounding accuracy and preciseness. You finish one job, it's inspected to ensure perfection, and you're given another task instantly. Every single object - from the immaculately folded cloths to the container of black sesame seeds - sits perfect at its designated spot and at its designated angle of orientation on the section, without question."

Having read this I realised that my lesson for last week would not be learning new technique, it would be learning the art of tidiness. I bought little containers from Muji, usually used for make-up, and filled them with oils and vinegars. I bought a little acrylic shelf to put them on. I removed the majority of clutter from my worktops and reorganised my cupboards. I vowed to keep my work area clean while I prepped my mise, and keep stray bits from falling onto the floor as I chopped.

The first product of this new regime was a classic dish of calves liver, bacon and mash, deglazed with a splash of fig balsamic to cut through the richness of the liver. Hardly any prep involved so fairly easy to keep things tidy for this one. Still it was good to see the floor remain clean and I know the chief taster who also doubles as chief plongeur welcomes that. Unfortunately she may have to suffer the little piles of clutter around the house for a while longer. I need to retain an element of chaos somewhere.