Tuesday, 29 January 2008

the joy of... fish

A few days ago, I responded to the siren call of Joanna’s Food, in which Joanna invited emails from anyone wanting her duplicate copy of Jane Grigson’s Fish Book.

Being the type who can’t resist a challenge (and yes, that’s a trait has got me into more scrapes than I care to recall), and as someone who adores all things fish, I promptly sent off my email. And so it’s come to pass that I’m now the proud owner of said book.


Here it is...

Jane Grigson fish book

So? It’s just another cookbook, I hear you say.

Ah, but, you see, that's just where you're wrong.

What’s so special about it? Well, until her death in 1990, Jane Grigson was one of the UK’s finest food writers. And not just a writer, either, but also an extraordinary font of culinary wisdom and expertise, not to mention a dry humourist to boot. Such an enviable combination of talents makes this book (and her others) an inimitable and irresistible read. Take this extract, for example, on eels:

‘I love eel... It is delicate, but rich; it falls neatly from the bone; grilled to golden brown and flecked with dark crustiness from a charcoal fire, it makes the best of all picnic food; stewed in red wine, cushioned with onions and mushrooms, bordered with triangles of fried bread, it is the meal for cold nights in autumn; smoked and cut into elegant fillets, it starts a wedding feast or a Christmas Eve dinner with style and confidence. Its skin is so tough that it was used to join the two parts of a flail together... or to make a whip for a boy’s top, or to bind the elastic to his catapult...’

Fantastic, isn’t it?

No, it doesn’t have glossy pictures. Or any pictures, come to that. But trust me, it really doesn’t matter.

I’m so looking forward to having a quiet moment in which to have a proper read of it – and, of course, to trying some of the recipes (monkfish fritters with skordalia, anyone? scallops with white wine and Jerusalem artichokes? chilled gumbo bisque?). And when I do – try the recipes, that is – you can be sure I’ll be blogging about it...

Thanks again, Joanna!

Friday, 25 January 2008

rains means beans / 'My legume love affair'

Well, I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in jolly old London we’ve had a pretty miserable start, weather-wise, to 2008.

Day after day after day after day of the wet stuff and lots of grey cloudy skies... It’s not good for the soul, that’s for sure.

Still, there are some upsides... One, it makes me riffle through the recipe books for some cheery, comforting, spirit-lifting nosh ideas. Obviously, I really don’t like spending my time doing that. ;)

Two, after said riffling, we then get to eat some joyous, cuddle-you-from-the-inside kind of food.

Nigel Slater is probably one of the most prodigious creators of just this type of recipe – almost every dish he comes up with seems to be a culinary equivalent of a warm embrace.

This particular bean and bacon gratin from ‘our Nige’ is at the gastronomic bear-hug end of the spectrum, with a big kiss thrown in – rich, creamy, starchy, cheesy, filling, and very, very more-ish indeed. I’ve tweaked it a bit with a bit of wine to cut through the richness, and then some double cream to, er, add the richness back in again (actually, to make prevent the sauce from getting a bit dry).

Oh, and because this is a legume recipe, it’s also my entry to the appropriately named ‘My legume love affair’ challenge hosted by the lovely Well Seasoned Cook.

Here it is...

1 large onion
2 tbsp olive oil
some thyme sprigs
smoked bacon (six chopped rashers) or equivalent quantity pancetta cubes
2 x 400g cans haricot beans (cannellini, flageolet, or possibly black-eyed beans would also work)
200g crème fraîche
3 tbsp freshly grated parmesan

Optional extras: a glug of white wine, and a glug of double cream

1. Set the oven to 200C/gas mark 6
2. Peel onion, halve it then cut into thick slices.
3. Pour olive oil into deepish non-stick frying pan (I used a Le Creuset pot)
4. Cook onions till golden and soft, and then add leaves from the thyme sprigs and stir in
5. Put the bacon or pancetta into the pan and stir occasionally until ‘fragrant’ (it’s all lovely and fragrant by this stage, so I’m not sure that this is Nigel’s most helpful instruction ever) but not browned. (And then add in your glug of wine at this stage, if you’re using it, and bubble off the alcohol.)
6. Drain beans, and rinse in a sieve under cold tap.
7. Tip the beans into the onions and bacon, then add the crème fraîche (and double cream, if using) and stir it all till it’s bubbling gently.
8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Put in a baking dish, grate cheese over the top, then bake for 30 minutes until the top browns, crisps a little, and bubbles around the edges.

This is so filling that you won’t actually need anything with it. But what’s need got to do with it? We’re talking about having hugs here, not air kisses. If you want something, I suggest a simple green leaf salad and a fresh baguette to mop up the delicious, creamy cheesey sauce.

bean and bacon gratin 1

bean and bacon gratin 2

Oh, and enjoy, obviously...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

‘In the Bag’ January 2008: the pear, nut, and lemon challenge...

Over at A Slice of Cherry Pie, Julia (along with a couple of others) has been running the ‘In the Bag’ challenge for a little while now.

This, though, is my first attempt, because I’ve only been aware of ITB since November and because I’ve only been food blogging since, er, earlier this month, actually. I’m a bit of a slow learner, you see.

Anyway, The Challenge... First dilemma – what to make? There are so many classic combinations involving pears and nuts that I found it (a) really difficult to decide what to do (I’m a Libran – what do you expect?), and (b) really difficult to come up with something even the slightest bit different from the norm. No, nobody was asking me to be particularly inventive – but, hey, where’s the challenge otherwise?

But I got there. Yes indeedy. Not entirely original, as you’ll see, but at least I got there. And it worked. And it was edible. In fact it was so edible that I’ll be making some more again very soon so as to avoid a domestic mutiny. So, here you have it – one challenge recipe, in the bag.

Pear and Hazelnut Brioche Toasts (serves 2) (an adaptation of this recipe)

4 slices brioche
½ cup icing sugar
2 tbsps softened unsalted butter
¾ cup hazelnuts, roasted and skinned
½ tsp vanilla extract (NOT essence!)
1 chilled large egg
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1. Take 4 slices of brioche, and toast each slice gently on each side, until just starting to brown – but no more. Set aside.
2. Put the oven on to warm, to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
3. Finely grind about three quarters of the hazelnuts (pretty much to a paste), and roughly grind the remaining nuts for decoration.
3. Beat icing sugar together with butter until light and fluffy, about 3 mins. Add ½ tsp of vanilla extract, and the finely ground roasted hazelnuts, and beat for another minute.
4. Beat in the egg until combined with the hazelnut mixture.
5. Peel and core the pears, and slice them to whatever thickness you like. Personally, I like ‘em chunky. Brush with lemon juice to prevent them discolouring.
6. Spread the nut mixture on the toasts, and then arrange the pear slices to suit.

pear and brioche toasts 1

7. Bake in the oven for about 25 mins, until the nut mixture has set and browned.
8. Remove from oven. Brush again with lemon juice if you like, and dust with icing sugar and roughly ground hazelnuts. Serve with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream and serve and eat straightaway!

pear and brioche toasts 2

pear and brioche toasts 3

pear and brioche toasts 4

Sunday, 20 January 2008

northbank restaurant, London - a review

northbank signage

So, a couple of near-rave reviews in the press, and a pretty nifty location. Frankly, that’s enough to get me interested in any new restaurant.

And so it was that, together with a couple of others, I pitched up with keen expectation on Saturday to the Northbank restaurant on – you guessed it – the North bank of the Thames. It really does have a prime spot to die for if you’re a restaurant owner. It’s right by the Millenium Bridge - just across the water from the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, and that sacred foodie mecca, Borough Market.

A good location, however, does not a great restaurant make. Could it live up to its setting and the hype? Weee-eeeelllll.... Here’s how it went – judge for yourself.

We arrived at 1.30pm, and ordered after about 10 minutes. So far, so good. My two fellow diners both opted for starters, whereas I (having already eyed up the desserts) chose to wait for my main course.

Some 45 minutes later, the starters arrived. Now, tell me if I’m being picky here – but I’m not altogether sure how a bowl of steamed mussels with cider and bacon and a plate of devilled kidneys take 45 minutes to cook. Were they worth the wait? Well, the mussels were pronounced to be ‘fine’, and the kidneys ‘nice, but very spicy’. A lukewarm start, then.

Our mains arrived a further half an hour later. That’s right. Another half an hour. So from arriving to getting my food, I waited an hour and a half. Wah! My blood sugar level had almost dropped off the edge of the scale, and my mood perhaps wasn’t the sunniest it’s ever been. Even a nice view over the river couldn’t distract me any longer from my howling hunger.

northbank view from inside

Still, my food – pan-fried sea bream with sauteed squid on a bed of braised fennel, with a side order of pommes purée – finally arrived just in time to save the day. The bream was cooked perfectly - crispy-skinned, moist, and very flavoursome. The fennel was softened and delicious. The squid, too, was fine (there's that word again), although appeared more as an afterthought than an integral part of the dish. The potatoes were just the right consistency and deliciously buttery – only modest concern for my waistline prevented me from licking the bowl clean.

northbank pan-fried brill on braised fennel

My companions’ dishes of roasted cod on lentils and lamb stew with dumplings respectively got the thumbs up, with the lamb getting an especially enthusiastic ‘very good’. Certainly the speed at which it disappeared seemed to testify to its success.

We had to wait for what felt like another age to order our puddings, although once we'd done so, they didn’t take too long in coming. We sampled two – a custard and date tart, and a sticky toffee pudding. Duty called, you see.

northbank custard and date tart

The tart was a qualified success – a layer of glazed yellow custard atop a bed of pulverised dates, all contained within a case of shortcrust pastry. The fillings ‘worked’, but the pastry less so. It tasted a bit tired, and certainly could have been shorter. It might arguably have been better as a pate sucrée. The toffee pudding was good, and pretty much as these things should be – rich, but not heavy, and rather more-ish.

Overall, then, good without being particularly stunning. The waiting undoubtedly took the shine off the experience, as did the service, which was rather nervy and lacked polish. The wines (from a very impressive list) passed the taste test with no problem, but were under-chilled.

Total bill, £102 for the three of us. That’s for 2 starters, 3 mains (+ 1 side of potatoes), 2 desserts, 2 bottles of water, 2 glasses of wine (we were, regrettably, all recovering from various ailments), and 2 coffees. Not bad for London, but it didn't exactly scream ‘great value’ at me.

Personally, I wouldn’t rush to go back – not at the weekend, anyway. It felt like we had a front of house B-team, and possibly a similar situation in the kitchen, too. Maybe the weekdays are different – I’d expect it to be filled with City types at lunchtimes, and for the service to be distinctly slicker and quicker. If it isn’t, I can't see Northbank surviving.

The food is good, and there’s no doubt that it’s competently cooked – but all of us agreed that, based on this visit at least, it lacked real ‘wow’. It certainly didn’t match the reviews in the press.

It is a great venue, though – so if you’re looking for somewhere by the river to pass the time over a glass of vino in the summer, this could well be the place. There’s a bar menu, too – well priced, with most dishes at the £6.50/£7.50 mark – so that might just be worth a try.

You never know, you might even see me there... or not.

Northbank on Urbanspoon

Friday, 18 January 2008

Friday afternoon - cake time...

Well, it is, isn't it? The end of a hard week, and all that.

Yep, I reckon we all deserve 'a little something'. Or may be even something a bit bigger than a 'little' something.

Here's what I fancy. A nice big, fat piece of carrot cake with cream cheese topping. Oh yes.

carrot cake2

Care to join me?

Thursday, 17 January 2008

another colourful vegetable - purple sprouting broccoli

So, what can I follow beetroot with?

Got it. Purple sprouting broccoli (or PSB, as it will now be known, because I really can’t be bothered to type the full name each time).

This is another of those vegetables that I’ve grown to love in recent times. I love the taste of it, and I particularly love its versatility.

I also find its character rather amusing. You get these lovely purple florets surrounded by lots of lush greeny-purply leafage. And then you put it in boiling water. And weird things happen. It goes bright green!

I’d love to know what evolutionary quirk happened to bring that about... But I digress.

Anyway, I usually have PSB with pasta, quite simply, so as not to mess with its delicate taste – I’ll share those recipes sometime soon. But last night, I hankered after a soup. I very rarely fancy soup, so I thought I’d live dangerously and go with it.

Consulting with my good friend, Google, I found this Georgio Locatelli recipe on the web. I liked the idea of cooking the PSB very minimally so as to keep its vibrant green colour – rather than simmering it endlessly, as so many soup recipes seem to require – to within an inch of its life. Here, you blanch the PSB separately, and then purée it and add it back into the base vegetables just before serving. A great idea.

So, unusually for me (I have a pathological resistance to doing what I’m told), I followed the recipe almost to the letter. The only thing I didn't do was put it all through a sieve. Life's too short, frankly.

The result was a deliciously subtle, but distinctly flavoured and very pretty soup...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

beating the drum about beets

Ever since we started having an organic vegetable box delivered about 18 months or so ago, I’ve become a complete convert to eating seasonal food wherever possible. I don’t think I was doing too badly in the first place, but I’ll put my hands up now and readily admit that the veg box has made me redouble my efforts. And not just with vegetables, either – all food produce, from fruit through meat to fish, tastes so much better (and costs less, let’s not forget!) when in season.

But enough of the lecture. One of the many things I’ve learned over these past few months is that I like beetroot. OK, well, not just ‘like’, but really, really like. I used to be completely indifferent to it, associating it only with the pickled stuff you get out of a jar and throw into a salad from time to time. Blame the seventies. I do.

But faced with real, whole, uncooked beetroot early on in our organic veggie foray, I had to reassess. I had to cook the things, for starters. And I’d never cooked beetroot before. Oh, the shame!

And so, over the past few months, I’ve tried several different recipes in my attempt to get to grips with this wonderful deep red bulb. Each of them has been a winner. Not so much down to my cooking, I’m sure, as a result simply of using a delicious vegetable in ways that make the most of its unique flavour. I’ve therefore concluded that pickling the life and taste out of it, old-stylee, amounts to cruelty to beetroot. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, please take note - once you’re done with the chicken campaign, please think about beets.

Anyway, beetroot is in season at the moment, and this is one of my favourite recipes – roasted beetroot salad with goat cheese and walnuts. Quick, simple, and utterly delicious.

Actually, it's not so much a recipe as a throw-it-all-together kind of thing. I simply roast the beets whole at about 180C for as long as it takes for them to go tender (which depends on their size - allow about 1hr 30mins). I put them on foil, on a bed of rock salt (to help concentrate the flavour) and with some thyme stalks thrown in for good measure. And then I seal the foil to make a parcel.

Once they're done, peel and slice them. Then slice your favourite goat cheese (the log-shaped ones covered with ash work best - Neal's Yard let me down on this occasion!), and arrange the beet and cheese on a plate. Then lightly toast some walnuts in a pan. Finally, make a dressing. Here I used one part olive oil, one part groundnut oil, plus Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and seasoning to taste. Dress whatever salad leaves you want, and pile them into the centre of the plate. Scatter the walnuts on top, and drizzle the outside of the plate with olive oil.

And that really is all there is to it.

Monday, 14 January 2008

beauty from the beast

Let’s be honest here - monkfish are not the most attractive of creatures. They won’t be winning any fish beauty contests any time soon. Or ever, come to that.

In fact, so monstrously hideous are they to look at that, when I worked in St Andrews some years ago, one of the two fishmongers in the town used to deliberately line up 2 or 3 particularly huge and revolting-looking specimens in the front of his shop window to give passing kids and the faint-hearted something to point and squeal at.

But, as we know, true beauty often lies beneath the surface. It’s a phrase that might almost have been invented especially for the poor old monkfish.

What was the deal when God was handing out the blessings, I wonder? Were monkfish last in the queue for beauty? Did He have pangs of guilt and think that he’d better make it up to them by making them taste good?

Yes, ok, so maybe my understanding of divine creation is a little, erm, wayward. The important point is that monkfish may be ugly, but when fresh and in season, they taste absolutely heavenly.

Well, it’s monkfish season right now, so it was off to Borough Market to find a nice, big juicy tail for supper.

I had a recipe in mind. A Gordon Ramsay recipe from his book, Secrets, to be precise, involving monkfish, parma ham, savoy cabbage, carrots, celeriac, and double cream. And nothing else (apart from good old salt and pepper). I could print the recipe here, but it’d be a breach of copyright, and Gordon’s bigger and louder than me and has rather more in the way of fighting funds than I do. So I won’t, if you don’t mind.

Suffice to say that the recipe worked a treat, and the fish was stunning – moist, firm, and full of flavour. The creamed vegetables were an unexpected revelation, too, in that the cream neither swamped them, nor made the dish too heavy or rich.

A monkfish marvel, no less!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

How it all started...

House-hunting is so much easier when you’re 4 years old. You’re very focused at that age, and aren’t burdened by such torments as whether the roof needs replacing or whether additional central heating needs installing.

So when my parents had to take me house-hunting with them when I was just that age, it was probably no surprise that, when we found a house with one of its bedrooms furnished with bunk beds and a garden boasting a slide, I decided right there that this particular house had to be The One.

Sadly, my parents weren’t so easily persuadable. Happily, though, my father decided that, since it was gone midday and we were all feeling the effects of a morning’s trailing around, it was time to break for lunch.

Since we were miles away from home, this meant eating out. In a restaurant. A big deal in the early seventies, and an even bigger deal for me. This was something else. I had a chair – not a high chair – of my own, and the waiter gave me my very own menu! No, of course, I couldn’t read it, but the important thing was that I was being treated like the grown-ups in the place. Heh.

I don’t recall placing my order, but before long, a plate of long string turned up with a pile of reddy-brown gloop at its centre. Hmmm. Not sure. Not sure at all about this.

No doubt sensing a moment for the family album, my father summoned the waiter. “Excuse me – would you be so kind as to show my daughter how to eat her spaghetti?”

The waiter, seemingly also in on an adult plot of which I had woefully little comprehension, replied with a beaming smile, “Certainly, sir”. Deftly grabbing a piece of cutlery, he then plunged it into the midst of the string and gloop, made some rapid twirly movements, and somehow emerged from it all triumphantly waving a forkful of the stuff in front of my nose.

“OK, bella? Ready? Open wide!” I did as commanded.

Ooomph. In it went. Followed shortly by a small problem.

I couldn’t chew. The waiter, generous man, had put so much spaghetti in my mouth that I was completely stymied. My dad, helpfully, roared with laughter from across the other side of the table. My mum couldn’t speak for the giggles.

Still, I persevered. Oh yes. Not that I had a great deal of choice in the matter. It was either chew, or face an ignominious death from suffocation by spaghetti.

No, I chewed. And chewed and chewed and chewed, and swallowed. And then it hit me. It was yummy. It was very yummy and I wanted more of it. And in that instant I decided. One, that I would marry an Italian waiter. And two, that food was a Very Good Thing Indeed.