Monday, 28 April 2008

Pan-fried Chicken Livers with Ras-el-hanout, Ginger Pikelet, and Caramelised Fig

In The Sound of Music, a curtain-clad Julie Andrews surrounded by seven drapery-sporting children burst into song with the words, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." What most people don't know is that she was actually referring to the cooking of offal and that Rodgers and Hammerstein changed their original song for fear of offending any vegetarians. You see Maria von Trapp, being the wise governess that she was, knew that getting children to eat lung, brain, and tripe is not the easiest thing in the world and that you need to introduce them gently to the concept of consuming strange body parts for tea. Yes, some kids are fooled by the sweet in sweetbreads but they soon wise up, unless you roll them in chocolate first (the sweetbreads that is, not the children).

Through the medium of song, the real Maria then went on to educate the children about the nutritious quality of offal from a variety of different animals, starting with the doe, which is a deer, a female deer. In reality this wasn't such a good place to start. Kurt was quite into the idea, but Liesel, she was having none of it. But then 16 is a funny age and I suppose she had her mind on other things.

The best introduction to offal should be something a little less intimidating, something for beginners, after all you wouldn't learn to drive in a Ferrari and you wouldn't learn to ride on Desert Orchid. A more sensible introduction to offal would be chicken livers and from there the road to pressed tongue and pigs brawn would be a far easier one to navigate. Had Maria done this, she would have had worldwide success with the Von Trapp Family Offal Guzzlers, rather than the far more prosaic Von Trapp Family Singers.

One of the events happening in the blogosphere at the moment is an offal competition called Meat & Greet and so I'm submitting this chicken liver recipe as my entry. Chicken livers are highly underrated and only seem to turn up in parfaits and pates when they are far more versatile and easy to use. Here, I've spiced them up with the Moroccan blend Ras-el-hanout, and given them some zing with loads of ginger and some citrus popcorn for added texture.

For the livers

5g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sunflower oil
500g chicken livers, sinew and membrane removed and cut into 3cm pieces
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoon Ras-el-hanout spice mixture
2.5cm ginger, peeled and grated
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon chopped coriander
225g baby leaf spinach

For the ginger pikelets

½ egg beaten
60g self raising flour
75ml milk
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon caster sugar
a pinch of salt
5g butter

For the citrus popcorn

20-30 popcorn kernels
3g butter
5ml sunflower oil
1 ½ teaspoon caster sugar
¼ teaspoon orange zest, finely grated

To serve

2 figs, halved from top to bottom
icing sugar for dusting
4 small coriander leaves

1. To make the citrus popcorn, in a small saucepan heat the oil and butter together. Drop one kernel into the oil and if it starts to sizzle, the oil is ready. Pour in the remaining kernels, sprinkle with sugar and place a lid on the saucepan. Shake the pan vigorously to coat the kernels with oil and sugar. Wait for the popping sound to stop then pour popped corn into a bowl and sprinkle with orange zest. Mix well and reserve.

2. Next prepare the batter for the pikelets. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix the egg and the milk and pour into the centre of the well. Stir to combine and form a smooth batter beating out any lumps with a whisk or wooden spoon.

3. Heat a frying pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles in the pan. Add enough butter to just coat the bottom of the pan. Pour in enough batter to create a pancake around 10cm in diameter. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the pikelets are golden brown on the underside and you start to see bubbles appearing on the top surface of the pikelet. Turn the pikelet over and cook on the other side until brown. Remove the pikelet and depending on the size of your pan, repeat so that you have 4 cooked pikelets. Reserve the pikelets in a folded tea towel to keep warm.

4. Wilt the spinach. Place a knob of butter in a large saucepan on a medium heat. When the butter has melted, put all the spinach in the pan and place a lid on it. After 30 seconds, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon so that the spinach wilts evenly. After 2 minutes when the spinach has wilted, take the pan off the heat, remove any excess liquid, season well and reserve in a warm oven.

5. While the spinach is wilting sprinkle the fig halves with icing sugar and place under the grill to caramelise for 1 minute.

6. Place a large knob of butter in a frying pan with a little oil over a medium heat. When the butter has melted and is starting to foam, add the ginger and Ras-el-hanout and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken livers and stir to coat with the ginger and spice mixture. Cook for 1 minute so they are lightly brown but still pink in the middle. Remove from the pan. Add half the tomatoes and return the livers to the pan and cook for a further 1 minute until the livers are firm but not hard to the touch. Take the pan off the heat, add the remaining tomatoes and the chopped coriander. Season with salt and pepper and leave in the pan while you assemble the dish

7. To assemble the dish, place a pikelet in the middle of each plate. Place a bed of spinach on the pikelet leaving a large well in the centre. Place the livers onto the pikelet in the centre of the well. Garnish with a few small coriander leaves, 3 pieces of citrus popcorn, and half a caramelised fig.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Experimental Kitchen

Via the Guardian books blog, I recently came across a site called which is trying to compile a definitive list of the world's favourite books based on the submission of its readers' top fives. I assume it is still in its infancy given that My Take by that literary giant Gary Barlow is currently at number 13 ahead of the likes of Jane Eyre (51), War and Peace (65), and The Chronicles of Narnia (390).

Sadly, I haven't read Gary Barlow's autobiography so I shouldn't really comment on its position in the list. It may be really good. He did write A Million Love Songs, after all. What I really want to know is where is my first choice, my favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

I may have spent four years at university studying high brow works of literature but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will always be my favorite book in the world. Willie Wonka is my hero, an eccentric, creative genius who believes that eating is not just about taste, it's about theatre and experience. Lickable wallpaper, fizzy-lifting drink, three-course meal gum: such wonderful, innovative concepts that had me salivating over my copy and that would have modern Health and Safety inspectors dribbling over their clipboards. As the great Gene Wilder sang in the original film version of the book:

There is no
Life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be

Heston Blumenthal has often been called a real life Willy Wonka and it's not surprising that the next launch from The Fat Duck will be an online sweet shop. The look of wonder on the faces of Richard E Grant and Terry Wogan at Heston's Perfect Christmas Dinner reminded me of the wide-eyed children as they enter Wonka's factory and frolic around his edible landscape taking bites out of toadstools and plucking sugary flowers. Detractors call it gimmickery. I call it pure imagination.

Is this kind of inventiveness possible in the domestic kitchen? During my time at Bacchus I was shown a technique called spherification that allows you to turn liquid preparations into spherical "ravioli" or even create your own "caviar" in all sorts of flavours. I was sufficiently enthralled by the idea to request a Texturas mini starter kit for my birthday, and last week it arrived along with an ISI cream whipper for making espumas and delicate foams. I'm sure as the postman arrived I could hear some chanting in the air...

Oompa loompa doompatee doo
I've got a lovely present for you
Ooopa loompa doompatee dee
It's a reverse spherification kit from the guys at El Bulli!

or maybe I was just hearing things again. Either way, my kitchen is turning into a lab and I can see numerous weekends ahead mixing gels and powders in an effort to produce perfect spheres of fruit puree that explode in the mouth on biting. Well I might as well plan some activities for another rainy British summer!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Review: Tragabuches, Ronda

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! We're at Tragabuches, the modernist Andalusian restaurant named after a famous bull fighter, situated just a hundred metres from the bull ring in Ronda. Whisper whisper! Unlike how I imagine a bullfight, It's really quiet in here. No roaring crowds, no oles, no fanfare of trumpets. We've done the quintessential Brits abroad thing and booked a table for dinner at 8.30pm. Except we're in Spain, and no one really eats that early over here. Consequently we're alone, apart from the three waiters in attendance.

"I hope it fills up", she whispers.

"I'm sure it will. We're just early", I whisper.

"Why are we whispering?" she whispers.

"I have no idea. Ridiculous isn't it? Let's mutter instead", I mutter in reply.

So we turn to our menus and mutter some more. Tragabuches has two dining rooms and we're in the rear one, the room with the wall of plate glass that has a magnificent view onto some parked cars, a tree stump covered in graffiti and, in the distance, the beginnings of a nice, rosy sunset. All of the tables for two are angled to give the diners a view out of the window and we have a prime spot close to the glass. Unfortunately for the table behind us, their view will be of the back of my head rather than the graffitied tree stump. If I were them, I'd complain.

I'm actually pretty glad we reserved a table for 8.30pm because if we'd started the 12 course taster menu at 10.30pm it would have been getting light by the time we'd finished. What a lot of food there was, but how good it was too. Two amuses, four tapas, two starters, two mains, and two desserts. Each.

The food is modern Andalusian, but not really knowing much about classic Andalusian cuisine and not being able to translate the menu, I couldn't tell you the roots of the dishes. What I can tell you is that this food is not for the lactose intolerant. After the first five plates I was seriously impressed, even to the point of thinking that this could be the finest meal I'd ever eaten. An ajoblanco with mackerel and caviar was a light and milky garlic soup with tiny rafts of smoked fish. A rich, creamy potato puree hid some unidentifiable but tasty poultry parts in a rich stock. They were slightly flabby so I suggested that it might be chicken skin, at which point Emilie nearly gagged and put down her spoon. More soup came in the way of a spring vegetable bouillon with tiny pea pods and lime zest and then followed the obligatory egg cooked at low temperature which is fast becoming as much a staple of avant-garde restaurants as lamb shanks were in gastropubs a while back. Here it was served in another Andalusian soup accompanied by mini towers of Iberian pork belly and chick peas. So far, so sublime.

The menu stuttered as we moved on to the fish main course which was hake in another milky soup flavoured with seaweed. Perfectly cooked fish to be sure, but the seaweed milk just didn't seem to hit the heights of the previous dishes. The meat main course was a supremely tender shoulder of milk-fed lamb with a milk foam and milk skin and again, it was cooked to unctuous perfection but crying out for a rich, meaty sauce to bathe the meat. I think only the milky bar kid would disagree, and possibly the odd nappy-wearing, dummy-sucking gourmand.

The menu returned to form as we moved on to dessert. A milkshake (yes!) ice cream with pistachio crumbs was far more interesting than a pistachio ice cream could ever be, and a moist chocolate cake with chocolate sorbet and passionfruit was the perfect ending to a meal that had more twists and turns that the winding mountain roads that lead to the village of Ronda itself.

It was definitely a memorable meal, for its inventiveness as much as its milkiness, and amazingly out of 12 dishes there was only one that Mrs Withchild couldn't eat. I'm glad that the chef didn't follow the maitre d's suggestion and "cook the low temperature egg a bit more" but instead gave her an entirely different dish from the menu, a lovely green asparagus and baby octopus risotto. At 200 euros without wine though, it was pretty pricey given the poor exchange rate but for a birthday meal it was definitely worth the splurge.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Holiday Eating

They sit there silently looking out onto Leicester Square. He wears a plaid shirt tucked into beige chinos. She’s dressed in a black slogan-bearing T-shirt, her curly hair falling over her slumping shoulders. They both look miserable. In a neighbouring booth a mother and father from Corpus Christi, Texas, try and control their squirming kids as they stand on the red velvet banquettes and peer over towards the next table. It’s empty. Nothing to see here apart from cutlery, placemats and glasses filled with green paper napkins. Enter a moustachioed father clutching a guidebook, his digital camera swinging like a pendulum around his neck making the Big Ben on his T-shirt look like a large grandfather clock. Apparently “He Loves London”, but for how much longer is questionable. He beckons his family inside and they wait to be seated by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. In broken English he asks the Polish waitress for a table and in so doing ensures his family will leave London maintaining their belief that food in the UK is rubbish. This is the West End, home of glamour, movie premieres, and gigantic energy consuming Coca-Cola signage and sadly, like so many other visitors to this great city, they’ve gone and “done an Angus.”

To my mind, “doing an Angus” is a term that doesn’t just apply to an ill-informed trip to the dodgy Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain in London, it covers any badly researched restaurant hunt that ends up in a tourist trap, anywhere in the world. We’ve all “done an Angus” or “gone Garfunkling” at some point in our lives but thankfully in this age of virtual reviews and with websites like Tripadvisor, Egullet and, we are better equipped to avoid the paths that others have trodden and find authentic local food that hasn’t been portrayed with sunbleached photos at the entrance to the restaurant. No longer do we have to amble aimlessly around unfamiliar streets wondering who does the best paella or pad thai. We can continue on our path past hawkers calling us in for “best souvlaki for beautiful lady” safe in the knowledge that just around the corner is a lovely taverna, frequented by locals offering great food at non-rip off prices. Knowledge is power but ignorance can be upsetting, to our stomachs but also to the enjoyment of our trips abroad because to gastro-tourists, every meal is an opportunity to try something new, inspiring and hopefully memorable (for good reasons).

Sometimes it's impossible to research every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days is a lot of eating. I guess that's why we once ended up in a restaurant in Beijing that served "Terrified Fish Heads". I'm still not quite sure what terrified them but I was sufficiently frightened not to order them. What are your worst restaurant experiences abroad?

During the past week travelling through Andalucia, our hit rate was a fairly poor 50%. That’s 50% good meals to 50% bad. Thankfully the good was very good, ranging from the ethereal modernist cooking at the Michelin-starred Tragabuches in Ronda to the unpretentious local Freiduria cafĂ© Flores in Cadiz which at lunchtime was crammed with local Gaditans snacking on fried seafood, pictured above. Tapas at El Gallo Azul in Jerez was also a cut above what you’d find in the UK. Our first taste of top notch Spanish cuisine was certainly inspiring enough for us to want to explore more, and a trip to the culinary mecca of San Sebastian is now close to the top of our "places to stuff ourselves" list.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Bacchanalian Work Experience

The relationship between pain and pleasure is a complex one. Freud defined the pleasure-pain principle as driving satisfaction of basic needs, that man instinctively seeks to avoid pain and discomfort in favour of pleasure and gratification. However it doesn't take an algolagnic to realise that a little bit of pain can also lead to a lot of pleasure.

For the past two days, I've been working 12 hour shifts at Hoxton's Bacchus Restaurant. That's 11 hours 50 minutes on my feet and a 10 minute sit down for a bit of sustenance before service. Physically it's been painful, but each night as I've wandered homewards past the Shoreditch bars filled with clubbers on artificial highs, all I've felt is a natural euphoria brought on by the adrenaline of plating up hundreds of dishes for the diners at the restaurant.

Bacchus is my favorite restaurant in London, the only place I go back to time and time again to sample a menu that changes monthly but always sparkles with originality and excitement. Since it opened a few years ago, the modernist cooking at Bacchus has impressed some of the most respected critics in the country including AA Gill, Jay Rayner, Tracey Macleod and Charles Campion and drawn comparisons with other beacons of "molecular gastronomy" such as The Fat Duck, L'Enclume, and Anthony's in Leeds. To be fair, it has also left the likes of Fay Maschler and Matthew Norman confused. The Chef Patron Nuno Mendes has worked for Ferran Adria at El Bulli and the legendary Jean Georges Vongerichten in New York so it's not surprising that I jumped at his offer to spend a few days in the kitchen when we chatted after I'd had dinner at his restaurant a few weeks ago.

Having been fairly involved in service at The Palmerston running desserts and side orders I wasn't sure how hands on I would be allowed to get at Bacchus given the complexity of the dishes on a menu which includes Red Mullet and Liquorice Toast with Courgette Flowers, Crab, Blood Orange and Saffron. Happily though, within minutes of arriving I was stuffing courgette flowers with crab, assembling the starter of Sashimi of Halibut, Foie Gras and Strawberry, and de-shelling langoustines and scallops all under the watchful eye of the fantastically energetic Melbournian chef Scott who explained everything to me in detail and corrected me with helpful tips throughout my time in the kitchen. I got to see some of the more unusual methods in use at Bacchus such as gastrovac and sous-vide cooking at low temperatures, and spherification using the Texturas products which Trig has written a lot about on his blog.

When it came to service on Friday night things went crazy. The kitchen flew into action to prepare the hundreds of dishes required to serve the five and seven course tasting menus and I was there in the midst of it all helping to plate the halibut sashimi, adding swooshes of puree and dots of red wine reduction. I brandished a gas gun to flash over parmesan toasts for the Onion and Oyster Old But New, and ran back to the prep kitchen to open fresh oysters when supplies ran low. The normally stubborn molluscs must have sensed the urgency as I managed to open four in under a minute, much faster than the earlier the same afternoon. The air was filled with shouts of "hot pan!", "more peas!" and "I need more plates!" as Nuno called the orders from the pass. It was tense, frenetic and exhilirating. Four hours later it was over. Like a sleepy mid-western town following a tornado, calm reigned again. After cleaning down the shift was over and as I raced to catch the last train out of London Bridge I realised that despite being on my feet for 10 hours, I wasn't tired. I was buzzing. I was also smiling.

We had a ton of prep to do for Saturday night so I went in earlier to get started. I spent a good couple of hours shelling individual peas which must rank as the most boring job in the world but also got to make the shallot crisp garnishes, roll and cut out puff pastry shapes, and make chocolate truffles for the petits fours. Then when service came, Spanish Sous Chef Jordi asked me to take sole responsibility for the dessert section, plating and serving to order Sesame and White Chocolate Mousse with Mango Puree, Passion Fruit Gel, Ginger Ice Cream, Pumpkin and Black Sesame Crumbs as well as the petits fours plates containing Crema Catalana Shots, Passionfruit Sponges, Olive Financiers, and Porcini Truffles.

Alone in the back kitchen I wait patiently like a nervous private in the trenches about to go over the top, shelling more peas and watching the front line fly into action as the first courses are called. Four halibut on table 15, another two on 16, three on 24. On they battle through the red mullet, the oysters and onion, the pork collar, the umami special, the sous-vide venison and then bam! incoming, the first order for chocolate hits and I'm pulled into the melee. More dessert orders fly in, punctuated with petits fours plates and the assembly line goes into overdrive. Into the fridge for the mousses, the freezer for the ice cream and the mise tray for a line of passionfruit gel, a squirt of mango puree and a spoonful of pumpkin crumbs. Then an order for 12 desserts and 4 petits fours hits simultaneously, things get a bit stressful and I'm wishing that I'm the multi-limbed Hindu God Shiva with hands full of chocolate, crumbs, and Crema Catalana. As the night continues I feel completely in control. Everything is going according to plan and whenever Jordi and Nuno pop in to see how I'm doing they see a guy enjoying his work. It's been a blast and though I'm nearly fainting with hunger I feel no tiredness at all. At 11.30pm the last orders for petits fours goes out and the battle is over and won.

My two days at Bacchus have been amazing. The chefs have really impressed me with their patient tutoring of a novice like myself and entrusting me with the pastry section on Saturday night. Nuno came up to me at various points throughout my stay to ask if I was ok, if I was enjoying it and learning new stuff and he genuinely seemed to care that the experience would be useful to me. At both The Palmerston and Bacchus the common perception of Head Chefs as ranting meglomaniacs was challenged and instead I saw controlled, efficient, patient dedication to getting the most out of each brigade. I absolutely loved the adrenaline rush of service but longed for the stamina of an 18 year old again. In a week's time I will be 35. In five months' time I will be a father. Do those 12 hour high energy marathons represent a realistic future for me? I guess only time will tell.

To see Nuno's take on a traditional Christmas dinner, click here