Foodie Christmas

Christmas is a fantastic time of year for those of a foodie persuasion. When else is it acceptable to spend a kings ransom on organic farm house cheese, crack open the champagne at 9am and eat more food than is remotely sensible. There are chances to show off your baking skills and dedicate entire days to crafting Christmas confections. Here are a few of the highlights of the last few days:

Pork Pie
I’ve really enjoyed cooking my way through Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub food. The Boxing Day cold turkey salad is almost as good as Christmas Day itself and adding an enormous pork pie can only enhance it! The recipe is very traditional, hot-water crust pastry, herbs and spices and piles of pig. I bought some wonderful rare breed pork (shoulder, belly and smoked streaky) from The Ginger Pig, the smokey bacon had a phenomenal aroma. Dicing and mincing the pork took a while, but the result was marvelous. Crumbly rich pastry, chunky pork and a lovely gentle spice.

20131226-174859.jpg

 

20131226-175708.jpg

Christmas Cake
I am yet to find a recipe that can top Peggy Porschen’s. It’s rich, fruity and surprisingly light. I baked mine about two months ago and have been feeding it ever since with a rather nice single malt (from speyside – it’s important to make sure the chef stays well oiled too…) While I didn’t get a chance to really decorate it apart from some gold stars, I haven’t heard any complaints about the flavour! It’s full of fruit and thoroughly delicious.

20131226-175651.jpg

Gin cured salmon
The right starter for Christmas Day is always tricky. Given the deluge of food and rich flavours about to arrive with the main course, it needs to be light, fresh and delicate. Kerridge’s cured salmon is gorgeous, can be prepared well in advance and just needs a few pancakes thrown together while the turkey rests. I ended up with quite a bit left which was lovely on a bagel the morning after.

20131226-175723.jpg

Cheese
For my family, the cheese is almost more important than the cakes. I’m a huge fan of Neal’s Yard Dairy. The staff are friendly and knowledgable and they’re more than happy to let you sample a couple of options to make sure you choose the right one. I went for a real mix, Montgomery Cheddar, Stichelton and Dorstone are old friends. This year’s newcomers are Durrus, a lovely Irish washed rind cheese with a gentle, nutty flavour; and Wigmore, a fantastic sheep’s milk number.

20131226-175715.jpg

Mince Pies
This year the supermarkets have really upped their game. Mincemeat is markedly better across the board, with both Sainsburys and Waitrose producing some excellent products. I had a jar of homemade mincemeat left from last year, it’s matured really well with plenty of plump fruits and a lovely whisky tang. I use a very sweet pastry that’s a bit fiddly to work with, but gives a lovely crumbly texture.

20131226-175659.jpg

Fudge
I love making presents for people, I normally do a big batch of marmalade in January and some jams and chutneys during the year which get tucked away. Just before Christmas I try and make some sweets and I’ve had most success with fudge. This years recipe is much more technical, it’s from a confectionery textbook and the result is lovely. Smooth, creamy and with just the right amount of firmness.

 

20131227-165532.jpg

Advertisements

Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food – Take Two

I’ve already written a glowing review of Tom’s first book here and the accompanying TV series starts on Monday evening at 8:30pm on BBC2. In honour of this (and my sister’s birthday – she’s very very old) I whipped up a few more recipes from “Proper Pub Food”.

Gin-cured salmon with buttermilk pancakes

I’ve been wanting to try curing my own salmon for a while and this was the perfect opportunity. Tom recommends wrapping it all in cling-film but that seemed like a recipe for a rather wet disaster – luckily I have a vacuum packing machine ready to go so I sealed everything in that. The result was gorgeous – a delicate cure with real hints of gin an juniper. Heavenly. The pancakes are really nice – light, fluffy and with a slight lactic tang from the buttermilk. It’s served with a dollop of creme fraiche, maple syrup and a few crushed juniper berries. It would be an amazing breakfast!

20130921-170331.jpg

 

Venison with chocolate red-wine sauce, butternut squash and peppered sprouts
Venison and chocolate is a well trod dish – but the addition of the sweet squash is a revelation. This recipe is quite fiddly – with five separate components that all need to come together at once. Because venison is so prone to over-cooking I took the decision to sous-vide it and giving an amazing texture – really tender and delicate. The puree is great, though you really do need to pass it through a sieve as he suggests to get it smooth enough. The whole dish really sings and the sprouts add a lovely peppery earthy note.

20130921-170337.jpg

Rum and date cake with toffee sauce

I’ve done this before and I did it again because it’s so good. The toffee sauce is just brilliant. I served it with a really special Pedro Ximenez sherry which brings out the rich molasses flavour – a perfect match.

20130921-170344.jpg

Mel’s

I’ve written already about the emergence of brunch as a social event in London. There’s something wonderfully civilised about going to a restaurant with your friends for breakfast – enjoying some good food and a chat and still having the rest of your weekend available. The perfect brunch should combine a varied menu – I’m beginning to come to terms with the fact that not everyone views a full English as a ‘light’ option – with a relaxed environment and a convenient location. Mel’s has all these things.

Situated on Garratt Lane – a stone’s throw from Earlsfield station and a leisurely walk from the shiny new base of Rob’s Food Blog – Mel’s is trendy, relaxed pub that opens it’s doors early for a variety of brunch based delights. The weather was gorgeous so they’re garden seating was much appreciated, there’s even a decent amount of shade for those of us who are prone to burning. They offer the usual range of coffees, juices and cocktails – the orange juice was nicely cold, though a little small, but the coffee was excellent if a little timid – if I’m heading out the door for breakfast I want something strong enough to jump start a hippo.

20130528-161445.jpg

I went for their ‘Young American’ pancake stack – a pile of fluffy thick American pancakes, interspersed with bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and topped with a fried egg. All drenched in maple syrup – obviously. It was heavenly – nicely cooked with good ingredients and the perfect way to start the day. My friends went for their fruit and nut stack and the baked eggs with potato and chorizo given the happy munching that ensued I think they enjoyed it. Service was prompt and the staff were very friendly – for brunch in nice surroundings it’s even reasonably priced.

20130528-161451.jpg

20130528-161456.jpg

On a sunny Saturday morning, there aren’t many places I’d rather be.

Mels Cafe and Bar on Urbanspoon

Kitchen Updates

I haven’t posted my own cooking for a while, but my kitchen’s certainly not been neglected. Over the last few weeks I’ve been hard playing around with all sorts of things.

Deb Perelman’s Granola

No morning is complete without it now – I must be on my fourth or fifth batch. This latest one switches the british version’s golden syrup for the orginal’s maple syrup (and a vast improvement it is too). I also increased the fruit content slightly, adding in morello cherries, sultanas, dried blueberries and dried figs. Bliss.

20130429-082010.jpg

Pigeon and Puy Lentils

I’ve not really played around with lentils much. Pigeon and peas is a classic french combination, but I find the peas too sweet and the texture slightly too smooth. In pursuit of a rich, earthy dish I went with Puy Lentils cooked in some home-made chicken stock and some fantastic bacon. The result was really nice – the asparagus adds some freshness and cooking the lentils carefully gives it the right body. While I did it as a main course I think it would work better as a starter – the perfect build up to a rich beefy main.

20130429-082020.jpg

Blackout Cake

This is probably my favourite chocolate cake, the recipe comes from the ever-reliable Outsider Tart.

20130429-082039.jpg

Simnel Cake

I did this for Easter – it’s a very traditional English cake which you just down see any more. Take a standard fruit (or Dundee) cake, up the spice level and bake it with a layer of marzipan in the middle. Then top with another disc of marizpan, eleven marzipan balls (for the disciples who survived holy week) and cover with an egg white glaze which is then browned under the grill. I think eleven balls is a little mean so opt for the more generous thirteen.

20130429-082100.jpg

Fast Food

I’ve been working pretty hard over the last few weeks which makes cooking in the evening a bit of a chore. I’m also trying to be healthy – honest! With this in mind i’ve started doing a number of really quick mid-week meals. Having some nice home-made tomato sauce in the freezer I cooked off some store-bough fresh pasta, nuked a steak in my griddle pan and had a fantastic, filling plate of food ready in under twenty minutes.

20130429-082130.jpg

Chocolate Cookies

I had some industrial quantities of chocolate that needed using up, so what better way than cookies? This is the chewy recipe from ‘The New Best Recipe’ – an American Encyclopaedia of food. I went with four different kinds of chocolate (100% powder, 70% dark, 40% milk and white). Heavenly.

20130429-082015.jpg

 

Speedy Lunch

In need of some inspiration on the bank holiday weekend I popped down to the Tachbrook Street market and bought lunch. I pan-fried the mackrel, blow-torched the baby-gems and grilled the tomatoes before dropping it all on top of some lovely fresh sourdough with a squeeze of lime. Lunch in under fifteen minutes – delicious!
20130504-192947.jpg

Pizza
I’m still working on my perfect pizza – this is the latest incarnation. The base is good – crispy and it puffs nicely. The only downside is that the dough structure is quite dense and I didn’t get enough char on the bottom. Ah well, I’ll just have to try again, what a shame!
20130504-192744.jpg

The Hand and Flowers

The world of haute cuisine is unashamedly stuffy. Sommeliers prowl among linen clad tables clutching wine lists thicker than dictionaries. Immaculately coiffured waiters glide serenely through extravagantly decorated rooms, explaining in hushed, reverential tones the provenance of course sixteen of the tasting menu. This is the world of the michelin star and the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, culinary landmarks. So you can imagine the stir when a little pub in Marlow was handed two stars, easily ranking it among the top twenty eating experiences in the UK.

20130430-203952.jpg

Set in a quiet little riverside village, around an hour outside London on the train, The Hand and Flowers is a shining example of all that’s wonderful with British food. Over the last eight years Tom Kerridge has honed and refined his vision of the perfect pub. There’s a bar with a great selection of real ales, the dining room is small, initimate and relaxed; and there’s ample parking with a lovely garden. That’s where the similarities with your local stop. Reservations are like hens teeth, for weekends and evenings they’re booked out six months in advance. The waiting staff are friendly and wonderfully efficient. The menu ranges from traditional pub fare (fish and chips) to the exotically gastronomic (whole baby truffle encroute – with foie gras). The wine list is a connoisseurs dream – several keenly priced bottles are available and the selection of ‘natural’ and biodynamic wines is second to none.

20130430-203959.jpg

On a beautifully sunny April afternoon I made the trek out from London for a luxuriously late lunch. A gentle stroll through the picturesque village from the station was a great way to start the meal. We were greeted warmly and shown to our table in the centre of the small but perfectly formed dining room – it really does look like a normal, if rather nice, pub. The menu proved a real challenge though – I could have happily picked five or six starters and at least four mains. After much deliberation I went for the Duck and Foie Gras Parfait, followed by the Lamb Bun. My dining companion opted for the Blowtorched Scallops and the Venison.

While we waited, a lovely selection of breads was brought out with a funky vinewood butter bowl and knife. A lovely cone of whitebait also helped ease our hunger pangs.

20130430-204418.jpg

Parfait of Duck and Foie Gras with Orange Chutney and Toasted Brioche.
The quenelle was beautifully executed – I snagged a small sample of the chilled parfait with the fork and was instantly rendered speechless. It was incredibly smooth and rich with a gorgeous ducky tang. Adding it to the brioche gave some lovely textural contrast and the sweet, fluffy bread worked really well with the rich parfait. The final flourish was the orange chutney – sticky, spicy and full of citrus flavours. Duck and orange is by no means inventive, but it works for a reason and i’ve never enjoyed the combination more. To create a dish where each element is executed perfectly is one thing – to make them all sing in unison is quite another.

20130430-204423.jpg

20130430-204428.jpg

Blowtorched Scottish Scallop with Warm Roast Chicken Bouillon,
Morels, Nasturtium and Apple.
This dish appeared on Masterchef: The Professionals and is deceptively clever. Cooking the scallops with a blowtorch helps prevent overcooking them while adding the lovely flavour of caramelised scallop. The warm chicken bouillon relies on a modern hydrocolloid to create a thick, warm gel. The flavours are matched and layered with real precision.

20130430-204433.jpg

Essex Lamb “Bun” with Sweetbreads and Salsa Verde
This is another of Kerridge’s signature dishes – a beautifully presented bread/pastry sphere encases a protective caul-fat layer, cabbage, slow cooked lamb and sweetbreads and a final nugget of lamb in the centre. It’s a wonderful dish, I love the combination of sweetbreads with two different types of lamb and the salsa verde adds a really nice citrus note with just a delicate mustard hit.

20130430-204449.jpg

20130430-204454.jpg

Loin of Cotswold Venison, King Oyster Mushroom “Farci”, Blowtorched Gem Lettuce and Salt Baked Beetroot
The venison was immaculately cooked, the mushroom provided a lovely earthy note, the lettuce brought a smokey sweetness and the beetroot was sweetly divine. Venison is a great ingredient that doesn’t need embellishment – but if you’re going to do it, this is how. Every element helped support and show a different aspect of the flavour. Magic.

20130430-204459.jpg

Hand and Flower Chips
Presented in a little copper pan – these are among the finest chips I have ever snaffled. Cylindrical, freakishly crispy and well seasoned.

20130430-204504.jpg

I was initially concerned that we hadn’t ordered enough sides – but by the time we were done we were surprisingly full! With a dessert menu that tempting though – pudding was always going to happen.

Hand & Flowers Chocolate and Ale Cake with Salted Caramel and Muscovado Ice Cream
The immaculate cube of cake (with a lovely powdered coat) masks a salted caramel centre. The muscovado ice cream is inspired and adds a lovely nutty note. The dish was served with a small glass of strong beer which really helped bring out the flavours of the chocolate. It’s a cunning idea and one i’ll definitely be trying in future!

20130430-204523.jpg

Banana Soufflé with Gingerbread Custard and Yoghurt Ice Cream
This souffle is nothing if not impressive – a towering edifice to culinary skill. They’ve managed to endow it with a deep banana flavour which marries well with the cinnamon spice of the custard. The texture is almost ethereal, but backed up by a lovely crunchy crumble on the top. Magnificent.

20130430-204517.jpg

Conclusion
The Hand and Flowers is a fantastic experience – I adore restaurants that take an idea and polish it to perfection and this is the prime example. There is a daunting array of culinary skill on display and real care and thought taken with each element. They haven’t strayed from the pub format and the really relaxed, friendly environment and staff make it thoroughly enjoyable. The menu is reasonably priced for the ingredients and quality while the set menu represents incredible value – it’s the cheapest michelin starred food in Britain. My only criticism would be that it’s too far away and far too popular. Go – you won’t regret it.

Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon

Bam-bou

Perched on the corner of Rathbone Place and Percy Street, Bam-bou serves Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai fusion in a converted London town house. The succession of rooms across several floors creates great spaces for group dining and they have a number of set banquet menus to choose from. I’m always slightly nervous about restaurants that blend very different asian styles – instead of capturing the best of both you often end up with a strangely spiced melange – but having heard glowing reviews from several trusted sources I was looking forward to giving it a go!

20130426-084235.jpg

The menu we went for was:

Giant Crackers with Bam-Bou Chilli Jam
Nice crackers, but after A. Wong I question if they’re really giant. The jam was lovely, sticky with just the right amount of bite.

20130426-084243.jpg

Roast Red pepper and Mango Salad
This was probably the stand out dish for me. Sweet, delicious, light, tropical and just hot enough. Balancing this kind of combination is very difficult and they got it right on the mark.

20130426-084249.jpg

Asian crab Cakes with Cucumber Relish
Lovely meaty crab cakes with a firm texture. The lightly pickled cucumber went well and cut through the richness nicely.

20130426-084307.jpg

Crispy Prawn Roll with Nouc Cham
The rolls were just ‘good’. Crispy, but a little light on the title ingredient, however the sauce really made it – intriguing and exotic. Yum.

20130426-084302.jpg

Grilled Pork Salad with Peanuts and Garlic
I approve of any salad which shoe-horns in some animal. The textural contrast is really the crux of the dish and it works, lots of crisp and crunch. I’d have like to have seen them extend it the other way – some pillowy dumpling pieces would have made it incredible.

20130426-084257.jpg

Wok Fried Mushrooms with Broccoli, Sesame and Ginger
While the broccoli made up the bulk of the dish, the star was certainly the mushrooms. Rich, meaty and full of umami.

20130426-084331.jpg

Yellow Duck Curry with Pumpkin
A really lovely dish with a strong Thai influence – lots of coconut and lemongrass.

20130426-084314.jpg

Steamed Sea Bass with Edamame Salad and Ginger Dressing
At the bottom of a mound of oriental veg is some really well cooked fish – the seabass is a perfect vehicle for the aromatic flavours, they just need to tweak the presentation to show it off!

Stir Fried Prawns with chili and Tomato
A classic combination of flavours. Like the last prawn dish – this was really good, just a little light on the prawns!

20130426-084324.jpg

Served with:
Steamed Fragrant Rice
Bam-Bou Noodles with beansprouts and Ginger – A bit of a non-event, compared to the quality of the other dishes – this was a bit ‘meh’. Noodles should have body, the beansprouts should have a bite, it’s not rocket science!
Work-fried Bok Choi with green Chilli and Tamari – The bak choi were small and tender, the seasoning was quite conservative which befits a side, but they could have pushed it a little further.

Oriental Fruit Plate – An exotic mix of fruit, hard to muck up.

Kumquat Brulee – I’m a sucker for anything vaguely citrusy and this was essentially marmelade brulee – what’s not to like!? The crust was thin and crisp while the custard was almost a panna cotta in texture. All it needed was a wildly inauthentic shot of Gran Marnier.

20130426-084336.jpg

Service was polite and friendly and they were perfectly happy for us to move at our own pace through the courses. They have a nicely varied wine list and were happy to cater for our group’s varied dietary requirements.

Fusion cusine is very difficult to pull off but they produced a great meal with lovely variation, from the sweet and light to the rich and dark – if you’ve got a group of friends who are looking for a funmeal somewhere a little different then this is a great shout!

Bam-Bou on Urbanspoon

Bubbledogs

Bubbledogs enjoyed one of the hottest restaurant openings of recent times. It’s spent the last few months floating around the top of the ‘talk of the town’ ratings and has generated a phenomenal buzz. When I turned up on a Tuesday evening, the substantial (90 minute) queue was testament to their success – but is there any fire beneath all the smoke?

20130424-172234.jpg

Bubbledogs is on Charlotte Street, near Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. The restaurant is small, seating around 40 people. The decor is fun with sausage dog cartoons and a ‘warehouse crossed with a ski chalet’ feel.

Their concept is very simple – gourmet hot dogs and unusual, small producer, champagne. Hot dogs are available in a range of styles, and in beef or pork. There are only three sides and no desserts. Five or six champagnes are available by the glass and many more by the bottle.

I sampled the Buffalo Dog and the Fourth of July. The bun is wonderfully soft and the sausage nicely spiced if rather thin – I’d have preferred a bit more meat! The toppings were generous and really tasty, the flavour combinations working well with some great textural contrast. I particularly liked the blue cheese – it’s great with the sausage and something I fully intend to borrow. The sweet potato fries were delicious with a really nice crunch. I wasn’t impressed with the Potato Tots – they were just a bit bland.

20130424-172240.jpg

The champagne was the real star. I sampled four glasses, all delicious and very different. They ranged from light and fruity to rich and mineraly. In terms of how they work with the hot dogs, I liked it from a ‘child’s fizzy drink’ perspective, it felt like a grown up take on lemonade at a barbecue. Given the level of spice in the food I’m not sure it gives the subtle flavours of the fizz a chance to shine, but it’s a really fun match nonetheless.

20130424-172245.jpg

The service was faultless. The hostess on the door was great while we were queueing. Later on, inside, she recognised us as people who’d been waiting a while and took the time to talk to us.

I had a really great time – I’m not sure how long the concept will last, but I like restaurants that focus on one thing and do it well. They’ll face some real challenge when Five Guys finally open in London, but for now they’re pretty unique. I’d like to see more sides, more dips and bigger sausages. They are also very very busy – more locations would help ease the pressure and make getting a table easier. But if you can get there at at time when there isn’t a queue? It’s the perfect ‘fast food’.

Bubbledogs on Urbanspoon