Friday, 31 December 2010

Beef and Watercress


Knowing I was going to be working for 11 days straight up to Christmas Day, I decided a fuss-free joint of beef would be vital for a relaxed Christmas dinner.  Finding time to collect the meat was another challenge but I managed to get to the butchers just in time to collect a beautiful Côte de Boeuf.  Cut from a carcass which had been hung for 60 days, it proved the perfect choice.  Seasoned, roasted for 20 minutes in a hot oven, then for an hour and a half at 160C, this 2kg beauty needed only to rest for half an hour covered in foil to be exactly what I had hoped for. 

It's become something of a ritual with us that the following day the cold meat must be served with Gratin Dauphinoise potatoes.  If there is anything left of the joint beyond that then a bit of inventiveness is called for to keep everyone's interest, yet so much food has been consumed that a light touch is needed.  In this case a cold beef salad proved to be a hit.  Watercress has an affinity with beef so the choice of salad leaf was easy.  Creamed Horseradish was to hand, being a must if you have beef on Christmas Day, as were a handful of the tiniest capers, so this was the basis of my dressing.  I offer this now for those of you who are about to start your New Year celebrations.  I think it would work equally well with warm of cold beef.

Dressing for Watercress served with Beef

1 teaspoon horseradish cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice or wine vinegar
5 tablespoons good olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon capers

Mix the first four ingredients to an emulsion, then stir in the capers.  Dress your watercress and serve with thin slices of beef.

Good Eating and Happy New Year

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Macaron Musings

Pierre Hermé's Rose Macarons
and Pietra Macarons
It looks like our Gallic neighbours are determined to wean us off our love for the ubiquitious cupcake by seducing us with the more grown-up macaron.  They could hardly have sent over The Channel two finer examples of the art of macaron making than Parisians Ladurée and, mostly recently, Pierre Hermé. Not satisfied with their iconic status in France, both have now spread their wings to London and are fighting for our attention.  Hermé's credentials for the title of best Pâtissier are impressive, being apprenticed to Gaston Lenôtre at the age of 14 and and having worked for Ladurée before going solo.  For delicacy of macaron, Pierre Hermé wins hands down but flavour combinations are crucial for these featherlight morsels.  Personally I find two flavours irresistible - Salted Caramel and Rose.  Laduree has the edge on flavour in the caramel stakes, I think, but the perfect Rose macaron has to be that made by Pierre Hermé.  Embued with the the subtlest essence of rose petal, it's the one that does it for me.  

Hermé's inventiveness seems unstoppable, constantly coming up with new flavour pairings.  Not all to my taste.  Now, I can get excited by more exotic combinations - Chestnut and Matcha Green Tea for one - but White Truffle & Hazelnut?  It's a step too far for me, Pierre, though I'm told by another macaron lover that I couldn't be more wrong about that one.  As for Quince and Rose, I can see where you're coming from with this as quince is a member of the rose family but I find the flower is entirely overpowered by the fruit.  

If you want to try them for yourself you can find a small Pierre Hermé outlet in Selfridges Food Hall, and a sleek new shop in SW1 where he's had the freedom to recreate the look of his Paris shops.  Ladurée has an outlet in Harrods, but the real character can be found in their tiny but eye-catching gilded shop in Burlington Arcade, with the added benefit of a few tables in the arcade.  

If you want kiddies food, stick to cupcakes and leave the macarons to the grown-ups.

Ladurée, Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, London W1
Pierre Hermé, 13 Lowndes Street, London SW1X

Friday, 24 December 2010

My top 3 books of 2010

Rose Prince
'Kitchenella` is Rose Prince's feminine hero of the kitchen.  The book is a paean to all the women who, day in and day out, practically and unselfishy, cook for their loved ones for little thanks.  With chapter headings such as Quick, Cheap and Filling, Things that please children, and A plate of something special its aim is to encourage, and aid, the nurturing instincts of busy women.  Coming from a family of cooks, Rose Prince has developed into a respected freelance food writer and broadcaster.  She is generous in her credit to those who have influenced her.  It is not just a recipe book but, as she puts it, "... a book of answers and ideas, a conversation between people who share an interest in solving problems."  Pan fried plaice with lettuce hearts and lemon is simplicity itself and totally delicious.

Tender Volume II
Nigel Slater
Part two of food writer Nigel Slater’s “Tender” series of books.  Inspired by his experience of acquiring a garden and the joys of growing, and being inspired by, your own food.  Volume 1 centred around vegetables and has become a much-thumbed addition to my bookcase.  This one covers the subject of fruit.  If you have the first volume you will certainly want to own this well written, handsome and beautifully photographed book.  It’s packed with easy to cook, but never boring, recipes in Slater’s trademark non-lecturing style, which encourages you to think for yourself rather than to slavishly follow a recipe.  How about' Roast duck legs with squash and blackberry and apple sauce', or 'Rhubarb cinnamon polenta cake'?

The Geometry of Pasta
Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy
Although the idea for this book came from graphic designer Caz Hildebrand, owner/chef of London’s Bocca di Lupo restaurant,  Jacob Kenedy, is the writer.  The result is a beautifully stylish, photo-free, tome with Hildebrand’s black and white graphics and Kenedy’s take on classic Italian pasta dishes.  The theme is the science, history and philosophy of pasta.  The book explores the Italian preoccupation, summed up by the book’s full title, “the perfect shape + the perfect sauce = the geometry of pasta”.  Some of the recipes would be difficult to reproduce in a domestic kitchen.  For instance, you may not be able to buy calves or lambs brains for the basic Agnolotti as easily as a professional chef can, but alternatives are given.  Other recipes almost take longer to pronounce than to cook, like 'Garganelli con Prosciutto Cotto, Panna e Piselli'.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas at Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy, Covent Garden
Having shopped at Neal's Yard Dairy for many years, I'm confident this is the place for the best in British and Irish cheeses.  No only do they carefully source and hand-pick the cheeses, but they often buy them young and invest considerable time, effort and expertise in maturing them to the point of perfection before they reach the customer.  If you've ever been in either the Borough or Covent Garden shops in London you'll know you're encouraged to taste before buying.  It's important to them that you have excellent cheeses to unwrap when you get home.  You will also have appreciated the knowledge, and friendliness of the staff.  Well now I can vouch for just how genuine their enthusiasm is.

Each year, in early December, the ranks of cheesemongers begin to swell and reach a peak mid-month.  This is the build-up to Christmas at Neal's Yard Dairy and this year I am part of it.  For the past two weeks I have been on a steep learning curve, immersed in the world of the artisan producer and specialist food retailer.  I've met some of the producers, toured the maturing rooms, unloaded vans, cleaned, displayed, cut, wrapped and sold, and seen just what it takes to get that amazing piece of Stichelton, Montgomery's Cheddar, Lancashire or St James into the hands of the customer.  It's no wonder the cheesemongers want to tell you about the product and advise you how to keep it when you get home.  Every cheese is precious, not just for how much money can be made out of it but for the effort that has gone into selecting the milk, making the cheese, maturing it and offering it to the customer.

We Christmas cheesemongers may only be around for 2-4 weeks, or, as many do, we may decide to stay on, but we all receive the same great education from the permanent staff.  I can't think of anywhere else where you can get such total immersion in artisan food production, retailing, customer relations and how to work as a team.  We expect to be totally exhausted by the time we close the doors on our last customer on Christmas Eve and go for a hard-earned drink at the pub on the corner.  We're sure to be red-knuckled from the constant cleaning regime, stiff-backed from being on our feet all day, and sore-footed from wearing our fetching white wellies.  So, please bear with us if you are in the queue, we really do want to send you home with a great piece of cheese for Christmas.

Here's a recipe for my version of raclette based on the dish you can buy from Bill Oglethorpe's stall, Kappacasein, on Borough Market's Green Market, along with fantastic toasted cheese Poilane sandwiches.  Incidentally, Bill was involved in the development of Ogleshield, hence the name.  It's a peasant dish comprising potatoes, pickles and cheese and, in my opinion, nothing save a grinding of black pepper should be added.

(for 4 people)

1kg (2.2lbs) potatoes (Ratte or Charlottes are good)
400g (14oz) *Ogleshield or Raclette cheese
200g (7oz) cornichon (or mix of cornichon and white pearl onions
Black pepper

Boil the potatoes in their skins in salted water until just cooked, drain and crush lightly.  Assuming you do not have a racette iron, cut the cheese into fairly thin slices and either fry in a non-stick pan until just melted before scraping it onto the potatoes, or place on top of the potatoes and grill until just melted.  Add a good grinding of black pepper and serve hot with the pickles alongside.

* An English washed-rind, unpasteurised cow's milk cheese made by Jamie Montgomery and Wayne Mitchell in Somerset.  Rich, long-lasting, fruity wine-like flavours with a creamy and pliant texture.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

School of Artisan Food

A Coulommier style cheese made on 
the course at School of Artisan Food
Sherwood Forest is best known for the exploits of its favourite son, Robin Hood, rather than a centre for food excellence, but these days it's the place to head to learn about artisan food production.  Bread-making, cheese-making, butchery, charcuterie, brewing and more are on the curriculum, from short day-long courses to a degree.  The School of Artisan Food's one year vocational diploma course covers production, food sciences, and business management along with work placements within the artisan food and drink industries.  Incredibly, given the rise of artisan producers in recent years, there is nowhere else like it in the UK.

The base for The School of Artisan Food is the beautiful former fire stables on the extensive Welbeck Estate near Worksop in North Nottinghamshire.  The founding principles of this not-for-profit centre of excellence are based on a belief that communities are forged around food.  Learning where it comes from and how to make it well is vital to our culture.  Artisan is the term used to describe foods produced by non-industrialised methods.  Many have been passed down from one generation to the next but the skills can be, and are being, lost.  A school like this is long overdue.

Being passionate about British cheeses myself, and noticing that the Dairy teachers included long-term employees of the excellent Neal's Yard Dairy, I signed up for a 2-day Introduction to Cheesemaking.  Arriving on a crisp Saturday morning and sweeping up the drive, past a stunning stone Dutch-Gabled property, was a great scene-setter for the lovely converted stable where I was to study.  Lectures were almostly entirely hands-on, with wellies, aprons and hairnets de-rigeur (all provided).  Teachers Val Bines and Julie Cheyney both have years of experience in cheesemaking and delivered a packed 2-day course with enthusiasm and humour.  A dozen students of all ages and varying reasons for being there were completely immersed in the process.  I learnt so much in such a short time - from the importance of milk quality, starters and rennets, making lactic cheese, soft-cheeses and cheddaring through to the moulding of the cheeses.  I even took my own away to tend in a damp garage - which is where my lack of experience showed!  Well, the course was "An Introduction ......" and maturing is another matter for another day.  If it was easy we would all be doing it.

Never mind the Robin Hood trail, I've got my eye on an ice-cream making course to be run by Kitty Travers of La Grotta Ices.  Having enjoyed Kitty's sensational 'raspberry and peach leaf' and 'blackcurrant with blackcurrant leaf'  ice-creams, served from her motorised scooter-van, in London, I can't wait to learn what other flavour combinations she has up her sleeve.  Oh my goodness, I've just seen she is going to be outside Monmouth Coffee on Maltby Street this Saturday 9-2 (see my posting the Bermondsey Trail), and she'll have 'Treacle and Vanilla Honeycomb'!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Honey Madeleines

Honey Madeleines

I've been obsessed with madeleines ever since a visit to a particular Parisian restaurant around 10 years ago.  It was a special occasion which demanded a pretty swanky restaurant, and Alain Passard's L'Arpege fitted the bill perfectly.  I remember each course being more delicious than the last and, having finally reached coffee and petit four, feeling very content with our prix-fixe lunch.  More coffee was poured and a small warm white linen bundle appeared on the table.  Unfolding the package revealed a dozen, fresh from the oven, perfect petites madeleines.  In a 3 star restaurant this humble little sponge cake from the Lorraine region was the last thing I was expecting but these were no ordinary madeleines.   As I remember it they were flavoured only by their basic ingredients but were delicious, buttery morsels.  I can't claim to have experienced a Proustian moment, but it was a revelatory one.

Writing this posting made me curious to find out what Alain Passard is up to now.  L'Arpege still has its 3 stars.  These days Passard is more inspired by vegetables than meat and cooks with produce from his own bio-dynamic kitchen garden in the grounds of a Chateau near Le Mans.  I remember the meal being expensive but boy am I glad I went when I did.  Prices are now stratospheric but, if you can afford it, he still has those 3 stars and the reviews are good. 

Never having been served better madelaines in the 10 years since, I've concluded my recipe, adapted from one in "The Roux Brothers on Patisserie", is the best so far - no doubt helped by the fact I can eat them fresh from the oven.  Madeleines certainly benefit from being eaten straight away, or certainly within a couple of hours of baking, whilst there is still an outer crispness.  The fact the mixture needs to rest before going into the scalloped tins, and that they take only 5 minutes for small or 10 for large cakes, make them ideal for last minute baking anyway.

Honey Madeleines for tea

Honey Madeleines
(You need a scalloped madeleine tray - makes 12 large or 36 small bite sized)

2 medium eggs
2oz (50g) caster sugar
1½ oz (40g) light muscovado sugar
Pinch of salt
3oz (75g) plain flour
1 level tsp baking powder
3oz (75g) melted butter, cooled
1 generous tbsp clear honey (preferably Acacia)

Butter the tin(s) and dust with flour, tapping off any excess.   
Whisk eggs, both sugars and salt until pale in colour.  Sift flour and baking powder and fold gently into the mixture (don't overmix).  Spoon in the honey and pour in the cooled melted butter and mix lightly.  You should have a fairly stiff batter.  Cover the bowl and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.  Pre-heat oven to 220oC/425oF/gas 8. 
Spoon the mixture into the trays, filling almost to the top.  Bake for 5 minutes for bite-sized and 9 minutes for full sized madeleines - do not overcook them!  Turn them out immediately and serve.