Tuesday, 20 December 2011

candied and vanilla-salted pecans and walnuts

candied pecans 2

I'm surprising myself here. Two blogposts within a fortnight. Good grief.

Anyway. It's THAT time of year again. Time for a bit of ho ho ho and goodwill to all men. Or something.

Over the past few Christmases, I've been ditching the shop-bought snackage and making more and more festive titbits at home. Frankly, they taste so much better, and usually cost a fraction of the price.

These here nuts are now part of our household's newer Christmas traditions. Every year, I try to find a spare few minutes to have some sticky, nutty fun.

candied pecans

Once they're made, I break them up into manageable bite-sized clusters, and bag them up, ready for tucking into stockings for Christmas morning.

candied pecans 3

Like most of the recipes on this blog, these candied nuts are quick and easy to make, and ridiculously tasty. And, happily, they give a yielding, crumbly, not tooth-shattering crunch, so even Granny can have some. It's also a highly adaptable recipe, so you can add whatever you fancy by way of spices and the like. But I have to say, I like them just as they are. The secret, I think, is good vanilla salt - I use Halen Mon's.

To make them, you'll need (adapted slightly from here):

125g pecans or walnuts, or a mixture
115g unrefined caster sugar
0.25 tsp vanilla salt

First, roast the nuts for 5 minutes or so at 180C/350F/Gas 4, until they're just starting to toast. Keep a close eye on them, because you don't want them to start catching. Once they're done, take them out of the oven and set them aside.

In a heavy-based saucepan, melt the sugar over a gentle heat. Once it's turned liquid, throw in the pecans, and stir quickly to ensure the nuts are covered thoroughly.

Tip the nutty-sugary combo out onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Working as quickly as you can, spread the nuts out - I use a couple of forks. While the sugary syrup is still warm, scatter the vanilla salt over.

Leave the nuts to cool. Once they're completely cold, break into bite-sized clusters and keep in an airtight container or bag them up for presents.

* Want savoury snackage for Christmas as well? Some equally simple-to-make and super-tasty cheese biscuits are over on my other blog, here.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Merry mincemeat morsels

mincemeat squares 1

As aged and commensurately cynical as I am, I do love a spot of Christmas. But preferably not starting until about, oh, Christmas Eve.

However, there is one festive frippery I'll happily indulge in before the Christmas holiday period, and that's mince pies. Mmmmm, mince pies. There's something so very right about them at this time of year.

I've never really been one to make my own, not least because when I lived in London, our nearest deli - all of 30 yards down the road - supplied some exceedingly good ones from 1 December through to the end of January. By which time, I was pretty much mince-pied out for another season.

And... *whispers this quietly* .... I was also partial to the odd Crimble Crumble from a well-known takeout store.

But now, living out in the rural wilds of Kent as I have done for the past few months, the above options are, sadly, no longer open to me.

What to do?

Embracing the spirit of self-sufficiency (the damson voddie is rather nice, thank you), I've taken it upon myself this year to make my own mincemeat thingies. And, since tasting the results, I'm confident in declaring that I'll be doing so from hereon in for a very long time to come. They are, if I may say so, rather wonderful. And I can say that, because the recipe's not mine.

Really, they're dead quick and easy to make (oh, and cheap - about £3 max), and a fantastic alternative to mince pies and those Pret versions... They're also utterly addictive, so don't bake them unless you have company.

And, because it's Christmas, they're obviously best served with a glass of something appropriately boozy. Failing that, a good ol' cuppa.

mincemeat squares 2

The recipe is taken from the excellent Joy of Baking, and is very slightly edited/adapted here.

260 g plain flour
20 g corn flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
225 g unsalted butter, room temperature
70 g light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
400 g good quality mincemeat

Preheat oven to 375F/190 C and place the wire oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Grease a 20 cm x 20 cm square baking tin.

In a separate bowl whisk the flour, cornflour, and the salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the butter until smooth (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat until smooth (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated.

Evenly press two-thirds of the shortbread into the bottom of the prepared pan. Then evenly spread the mincemeat over the shortbread base, leaving a 1/4 inch border.

With the remaining shortbread dough, using your fingers, crumble it over the top of the mincemeat. Then lightly press the dough into the mincemeat.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Remove from oven, place on a wire rack, and while still hot, cut into 16 squares. Allow to cool completely in pan.

Makes about 16 bars.

My tips:

  • I mixed in the flour using my hands. I simply find it easier to make the dough come together that way.

  • pastry and shortbread bakes better from cold. I therefore put the shortbread base in the freezer for 5 mins (once pressed into the baking tin), and put the remaining crumble mix in the fridge while I was waiting.

  • I found the crumble mix just a little on the claggy side, so I added some icing sugar (about a tablespoon) to the mix to make it lighter and more crumbly.

  • as you can see from the photos, I finished the squares with a light dusting of icing sugar, too. Well, it is Christmas.

  • for my next batch, I'll be substituting some darker sugar and a pinch of cinnamon to the pastry.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Allotment, Dover

Dover. Hmmm. Fair to say that it's probably not the first place that comes to mind for a 'decent weekend nosh' destination. Unless, that is, you happen to remember a Jay Rayner review of a couple of years ago or so, live a short train ride away, and like the idea of a restaurant championing uber-local and seasonal produce. In which case, Dover doesn't seem such a bonkers idea after all. (And, while we're at it, the Michelin-starred Marquis at Alkham is just a short trip out of the centre.)

So, one chilly but cheeringly sunny October afternoon, we rolled up outside the rather splendid Town Hall (worth a visit in itself, honest). And there, across the road, and largely obscured by a million speeding cars, was our modest little venue:

The Allotment 1

If outside was traffic madness, The Allotment's interior was - thankfully - a haven of calm and warmth.

The Allotment interior

And, er, a certain degree of worrying emptiness. Yikes. A glass of Chapel Down's Flint Dry was swiftly ordered - and brought to the table - as a nerve steadier.

Still, everything seemed broadly encouraging. Wonderful decor (tongue and groove panelling everywhere, high ceiling, groovy retro-nod lighting, suitably aged wooden flooring), decent tableware, friendly waiting staff. Menu? Well, ish:

The Allotment menu

It's not that there was anything wrong with it - it just wasn't the kind of menu to get me positively dribbling with excitement. Some might regard that as a good thing, not least of whom my dining companion.

I gave the aforementioned the task of choosing a starter for us to share. The result? 'Vegetable quesilladas.' Right. I won't be making that mistake again.

Or will I? Y'know, they were really rather good. I'm no expert on Mexican food, and I wouldn't mind betting these would have offended the authenticity hunters, but these prim little quesilladas ticked our boxes for kick-off. Beautifully light, gently crisped, filled with spicy (if unspecified) veggie goodness, and accompanied by a convincing guacamole. And, thankfully, not drowned with sour cream. Relief all round.

The Allotment vegetable quesilladas

Onwards, to mains. For no particular reason, it's been a while since I've eaten sea bass, so that was precisely what grabbed my fancy here. With a buerre blanc? Oh go on, then.

The Allotment sea bass

Sea bass? Check. Buerre blanc? Check. Melty mash? Check. But, um, braised red cabbage? I don't know whether the chef was recovering from a big night out, or whether cabbage was all they had to work with that day, but I wasn't wowed by the prospect. Mildly alarmed would be rather nearer the mark.

But, dang it, The Allotment tricked to deceive again. It might not have been the most seamless match ever, but I ate it all, as did The Other Diner, so what does that tell you? Perhaps it says most about the cooking here - it's assured, light of touch, and all about the yum factor. The bass was superbly flavoursome, the buerre blanc spot on, and the mash was a winner for butter lovers everywhere. And that cabbage - whether as a mouthful on its own, or scooped up with the bass and everything else - was actually a pleasure to eat. That'll teach me.

By this time, I'm happy to report, the place was filling up. Some, like us, were late lunchers, but it seems that this is also the local 'go to' place for some serious indulgence of the carbohydrate kind. Generous cakes and tarts with rustic eye appeal occupy the deli-style counter by front door, so perhaps that's no surprise.

The pudding menu was equally big on comfort factor - apple crumble, double chocolate mousse, baked blueberry cheesecake, raspberry and almond tart, and meringue with poached plums.

The Other Diner opted for the plums:

The Allotment meringue

And I decided on the tart:

The Allotment raspberry almond tart

If I use the word 'light' again, this time for the tart, you'll probably shoot me, won't you? But it was. And moist. And liberal with both ground almonds and raspberries. Most tarts like this tend to be a tad on the dry or claggy side, but not this one. Not a soggy bottom in sight, either. Pure tart joy. With a dollop of excellent vanilla-flecked ice cream on the side.

The Other Diner's meringue and plums were lapped up, although there was a minor whimper along the lines of more fruit required.

While we nursed our coffees, our bill arrived. £53 for a 2.5 course lunch, with wine and coffee. Not cheap, but not horrifically spenny, either, for food like this - tasty, well cooked and portioned, and served with care and plenty of charm. Whether The Allotment can keep going in a not especially prepossessing part of Dover through this particularly vicious recession remains to be seen. But, based on our visit, I'd certainly say it deserves to do so. So next time you're on your way through Dover, I suggest you do yourself and a little local resto a good turn, and stop a while at The Allotment.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Sportsman, Seasalter

No, this isn't going to be a review of every single thing I ate. If you want a blow-by-blow account, see e.g. the excellent reviews by fellow bloggers EssexEating, CheeseandBiscuits, FoodStories, or HollowLegs, which cover much of the same territory (the tasting menu doesn't change a great deal, it seems).

I'm far too lazy to do all that. So I'm just going to stick up some photos, identify them (as far as my memory serves me), add a few comments as I go along, and then finish off with a few thoughts at the end. OK?

Here goes:

Sportsman exterior

Not going to win awards for stunning exterior facade, but...

Sportsman interior

...inside, it's cosy but airy, comfortable, and relaxed.

Sportsman bread

The breads: sourdough, soda, and focaccia. The dark, treacly soda was particularly amazing, but they were all fantastic. The butter is made on the premises from raw cream.

Sportsman pickled herring

Pickled herring (a sweet cure) on rye, with gooseberry jam. And lighter-than-light pork scratchings. A great way to start.

Sportsman oyster

Poached oyster, with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar. Not mine (after a nasty incident involving oysters a couple of years ago), but The Other Diner's. Reported to be 'delicious'.

Sportsman liver pate

Liver pâté. Probably the lightest, smoothest, and most flavoursome liver pâté I've ever eaten, on the most exquisitely thin Melba toast.

Sportsman beetroot tartlet

Dainty beetroot tartlets. Made with super-delicate, friable pastry and punchy roasted beetroot.

Sportsman beetroot soup

Chilled beetroot soup. I am not the greatest fan of soup, and the idea of this one - prior to its arrival - didn't thrill me. Oh, how I ate my words. The flavours sang as brightly as the colour. My word, it was good. So, so good.

Sportsman slip sole

Slip sole in seaweed butter. It had both of us licking our plates for every last morsel, every last droplet of molten butter. So simple, but utterly stunning.

Sportsman crab risotto

The Other Diner's crab risotto. Made from the brown meat, with the white meat atop. Pronounced 'gorgeous.'

Sportsman salmagundi

My Salmagundi. In times gone by, this was a sort of random leftovers salad mashup. At The Sportsman, it was elevated to the realms of salady godliness. All manner of vegetables were crammed into it, in one form or other - raw, pureed, pickled, blanched... (carrot, aubergine, tomato, cauliflower, cucumber, courgette, broad beans...) And underneath the leafiness was a perfectly poached egg. Joy unconfined.

Sportsman own ham

Courgette 'spaghetti' with parmesan, topped with The Sportsman's home-cured ham. As beautiful as it looked, I wasn't madly wowed by the ham. The courgette creation, however - YES. Made from raw courgettes, it was soft, moist (ooer), melty in the mouth, and with just the right proportion of cheese to make it umami-ly moreish.

Sportsman turbot

The King of Fish - braised turbot with sea beet from the shoreline 'out the back', baby sage leaves, and smoked roe velouté. Turbot is a rare treat at the best of times, and on the odd occasion I've eaten it previously, I've sometimes been left a little disappointed. Not here. It was every bit as wonderful as it should have been. Stephen Harris really, really knows how to cook fish.

Sportsman lamb mint sauce

Breadcrumbed and fried lamb breast with the ultimate mint sauce. Comfort food of the highest order. With a mint sauce far, far removed from any mint sauce you can find elsewhere on this planet. Scrummy.

Sportsman lamb

Roast lamb from the farm across the road. It doesn't get any fresher or any more locally sourced than this. Tender and tasty. The only meat dish on the menu. And, strangely, perhaps the least compelling. But still, by anyone's standards, very good indeed.

Sportsman cherry lolly

Cherry ice lolly with Madeira cake milk. Exactly what it says on the tin. Take Madeira cake, soak it in milk for a wee while. Strain off milk. Eat with luscious cherry lolly. Run out of superlatives. The fruitiest fruity lolly I've ever had the pleasure of eating. I have no idea how many cherries went into it. Possibly an entire orchard. Even the Other Diner, who professes not to like cherries, was groaning with ecstasy.

Sportsman stawberry cream cheese ice cream

Cream cheese ice cream 'with strawberry'. And crunchy meringue crumbled over. The strawberry element was somewhere between a soup and a light jam. It captured all the essence of strawberry, and without any undue sweetness. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Sportsman petits fours

And just when you think it's all over, the 'petits' (!) fours arrive... My. God. Assorted indulgences - chocolate mousse with salted caramel, jasmine tea junket with rosehip syrup, shortbread, truffle, summer fruit tartlets. Note to self: wear elasticated-waist slacks next time.

Sportsman fruit tartlet

A close-up of that tartlet. Isn't it pretty?

Sportsman Seasalter

THE END. The fresh air outside. Which you will need. Not that you'll be able to walk.

The overall verdict? Probably the finest meal I've eaten on these shores. I went with unfeasibly high expectations and they were blown out of the water. It was stupendously good, and words can't express just how fantastic all the flavours were - a real all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the ingredients. Here, I felt, was a chef who cares about his food in a way quite unlike any other whose food I've eaten, and who absolutely revels in it, too. It wasn't poncified food, it was extraordinarily joyous food, and the wonderful thing is that you can taste every single ounce of that delight. I will dream about it for a very, very long time.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

new beginnings, and the Fairy Hobmother


*taps microphone*

Anyone still there?

If so, you have the patience of a saint, and your reward is a nice, big piece of chocolate cake.

I've been busy, a bit unwell, and generally all over the place of late, so blogging hasn't been high on my list of priorities, as you've most probably noticed. Maybe.

Anyway, I thought I'd break my deafening silence to let you know about two things. One - is that I haven't been entirely idle all this time. Not quite. In yet another burst of wine-fuelled insanity, I've started another blog, over here: http://www.akentishkitchen.co.uk/ (Twitter ID @akentishkitchen). *End of shameless plug*

Two - you might have seen, around and about the blogosphere, that the Fairy Hobmother (aka Appliances Online, who sell cookers and other white goods) has been dishing out surprise kitchen appliance gifts to unsuspecting bloggers. Well, I'm happy to say that the Hobmother - actually called Dave, but we'll overlook that for the moment - would like to pay a similar visit to one super-lucky person who comments on this post.

So what are you waiting for? Get commenting. I don't mind what you say, but if you'd give me some feedback on the new blog, then so much the better. And please keep it clean. The Fairy Hobmother certainly won't visit you otherwise.

Good luck. Over and out.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Scandilicious: a review

Cookbooks, eh? There are seemingly more of them being published by the day than you can shake a wooden spoon at. Whoever said print media was dead?

For any aspiring author, however, this means that it’s harder than ever to get your book noticed. To make any headway, you need to bring something fresh to the mix.

Scandilicious cover

The author of Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking, Signe Johansen, has done just that, and has written the book that everyone is currently clamouring to buy. Why? Quite simply because she’s articulate, informed, sparky, humorous, endearingly self-effacing, and – hoorah! – she writes fantastically attractive and accessible recipes. Put those ingredients together for a cookbook, and you have everything you need and more for a bestseller. Saltyard Books (an offshoot of Hodder and Stoughton) must be hugging themselves – a new publishing and meeja star is theirs.

Thanks largely to Noma, and other, now highly acclaimed Scandi chefs, Scandinavian food is of course no longer a suspiciously fishy novelty in the UK. In London, eateries such as Texture, Madsen, and the Scandinavian Kitchen, have also been doing their bit to further the cause of Nordic cooking.

But in my view, there’s been no cookbook to date that reflects the best of all that Scandinavia has to offer. Maybe it’s just me, but those that have gone before have come across a tad austere, a little too ‘clean living’ and hair-shirted for me to truly warm to them.

And therein lies a clue to the critical factors responsible for the success of Scandilicious. It’s warm, engaging, generous, and indulgent. It’s packed with recipes for food that you really, really want to eat. (Examples? To list but a scant handful: banana, coconut and chocolate milkshake; cinnamon and chestnut bread; Jarlsberg and fennel muffins; blackberry, almond, and cardamom cake; Daim cake; lemony choux buns; anchovy and potato gratin; Bergen fish chowder; evening pancakes; Norwegian cheesecake with tipsy strawberries.... need I go on?)

Scandilicious Janssons

Scandilicious is big on home-style Scandi cooking, as influenced by Signe’s childhood and lessons learned at both her grandmothers' apron strings. In short, it appeals to the big-kid-who-likes-licking-the-bowl in all of us. (And yes, there is an entire slaver-inducing chapter on 'Afternoon Cake'.) Unreserved gluttonous enjoyment and comfort therefore abound: cream, cheese, chocolate, alcohol - they're all here in gleeful dollops (to the extent that Signe's Scandi version of macaroni cheese should probably come with a health warning), along with a great deal else.

Scandilicious berries

But there is far more to Signe than home cooking – not least a Leith’s diploma, a stint at the Fat Duck, and significant contributions to other recipe books, to mention just a few strings to her rather full bow. An enviably impressive skills set underpins her recipes, not to mention rigorous attention to detail and a real desire to bring the joy and diversity of Scandinavian food (if you think it's all meatballs, berries, and gravlaks - think again) to the UK public. You won’t find flights of fancy here – just straightforward, reliable formulas, together with a wealth of genuinely explanatory hints and tips, for stupendously delicious nosh. And that’s precisely what makes it such a cracking cookbook.

Scandilicious poached egg salad

Thankfully, Saltyard Books have given this publication the red-carpet treatment it warrants. It’s beautifully produced, and replete with sumptuous photographs throughout. It’s the kind of book that would look great on a coffee table – but frankly, that would be a travesty (unless, of course, you buy two copies – one for looking gorgeous in your living room, and one for the kitchen). This is a recipe book you’ll love to use daily, from breakfast through to supper, and through all the seasons.

Scandilicious sorbet

There is so much more I could say, but I realise I’m in danger of gushing, so just get the book and see for yourself. If you regret your purchase, I’ll eat my herring.

I understand that Scandilicious Book 2 is already in the pipeline. Watch this space for much, much more to come. For in Signe Johansen, Saltyard Books have found a brilliant original and authentic voice, and Scandinavian food has found itself a dynamic and impassioned ambassador. And, most importantly, cooks everywhere have found a new friend.

With thanks to Saltyard Books for a review copy of Scandilicious.

Monday, 9 May 2011

tongue and groovy: ox tongue fritters and green sauce

ox tongue 1

So there I was at the weekend, getting my ducks/photos in a row, ready to write this post on ox tongue and green sauce.

And then I sit down to read the paper, and see that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has stolen my thunder and written about the VERY SAME THING in the Guardian. I mean - how very dare he? I shall be having a word with his people, never fear.

In the meantime, dear reader, I decided to persist. I did so, not least because HFW missed a trick.

And that trick is to fritter away your tongue. Well, not yours, but the ox's, obviously. Frittering it makes it much more fun to eat and, I'll suggest, more darn tasty and more suitable for summer, too. It's also a cunning way of disguising tongue if you're planning on serving it up to those who, shall we say, might be a little squeamish about all things offal. Prepare it like this, and you'll never hear a negative squeak of disgust or dissent.*

Here's how, in short. First, buy a salted ox tongue from your butcher. It should look like the photo above. You might want to leave it to rinse in cold water for a while before you get properly started - or, if you've got a nice butcher, s/he might have done that for you.

Then, cover the tongue with water (you'll need a BIG pan), bring it to the boil, bubble it away for a couple of hours with a few tasty bits and pieces, such as these:

ox tongue 2

But unlike me, try not to forget the head of garlic.

It's done when you can pierce the meat readily with a knife. It won't look any prettier than it did before you cooked it, but at least it's edible now.

Remove it from the pan, and leave for a couple of minutes while it cools a little.

ox tongue 3

While it's still warm, peel away the skin from the tongue. Yes, I know - yeeeeeeeeeuch - but it's got to be done. And it's much easier to do while the tongue's warm. So just get on with it.

Once you've taken off the skin, it's ready to serve. For fritters, cut the tongue into slices of about 3 or 4mm. Dip each slice in beaten egg, and then in white breadcrumbs seasoned with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and Halen Mon's rather wonderful celery salt. Shallow fry in hot oil - turning once - for as long as it takes for the crumbs on each side to turn golden brown.

Serve with a really punchy green sauce. You may as well use HFW's recipe. Grrrr. Not that I'm bitter or anything. Really, I'm not. Make it as the man says (or as Fergus Henderson says, if you've got Nose to Tail), and don't stint on the parsley, anchovies or capers.

ox tongue 4

Tuck in, and don't stop until you've licked every morsel from your plate.

*Well, it's worth a try, anyway. Worked for me ;-)

Monday, 2 May 2011

A Royal Wedding, a village, and a party with a potent (Courvoisier) punch

Take one memorable Royal Wedding. Add a village in deepest Kent, a generous offer from the nice people at Courvoisier, and a gathering of folk quick to recognise a chance for a party when they see one.

Place all ingredients in a good-sized village hall. Mix well. Stand back, and let the fun commence...

the goodies arrive...

Royal Wedding party 2

... along with the top-secret recipe...

Royal Wedding party 1

dress code...

Royal Wedding party 3

the hall gets a makeover...

Royal Wedding party 4

... and the newly-weds put in a guest appearance. Honest.

Royal Wedding party 5

the stage is set...

Royal Wedding party 6

... while, backstage, things are looking promising...

Royal Wedding party 7

... and there's time for a couple of trial cups...

Royal Wedding party 8

... which seem to go down pretty well...

Royal Wedding party 9

... and why stop at a cup or two when you can have an entire bottle?

Royal Wedding party 10

thankfully, a dashing manservant is on hand to make sure the punch is shared around...

Royal Wedding party 11

the village hall quickly starts filling up...

Royal Wedding party 12

... and our immaculate MC announces the arrival of....

Royal Wedding party 13

... YES! The fish and chip van! Cue frenzied queueing!

Royal Wedding party 14

... and tough decisions. Ketchup, tartare sauce, or both?

Royal Wedding party 15

'Can I nick your chips?'

Royal Wedding party 16

No time to digest, as the disco cranks up...

Royal Wedding party 19

... Camilla puts in an appearance...

Royal Wedding party 20

... and there's yet another chance for an all-important photoshoot...

Royal Wedding party 21

... or a spot of dodgy Dad* dancing... (*not mine)

Royal Wedding party 22

... before, all too soon, the night comes to a glorious, riotous end, marked by that well-known hymn to sobriety, YMCA.

Royal Wedding party 23

And I'm pleased to say that there are rumours that we'll be doing it all over again soon. Diamond Jubilee, anyone? BRING IT ON.