Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard

The Art of  Cooking with Vegetables
Alain Passard

Some time in the 1990's I was lucky enough to eat at L'Arpege in Paris.  Dish after sublime dish passed from kitchen to table.  I remember every plateful being simple but wonderful with, mercifully, none of the primping and tweaking one might have expected.  But it was the end of the meal which I remember best.  Yes, Passard did make an appearance, in a self-effacing way but what has stayed with me was the way a basket containing a whole tray of exquisite baby madeleines, hot from the oven, was placed before us.  It was a nice touch which left us feeling like we had dined with friends rather than at a Michelin starred restaurant, albeit we had paid for the privilege.

In 2000 Alain Passard, shockingly, removed red meat from his restaurant menu.  A brave move from a man who had worked hard to gain no less than 3 Michelin stars.  I haven't eaten at L'Arpege since the change in focus, but it does still have those 3 stars.  All the vegetables used in the restaurant are grown on Passard's biodynamic farm south-west of Paris.  As I grow biodynamically myself, I probably appreciate his enthusiasm more than most. His passion to unite a love of cooking with that of art took him on a "quest for gastronomic and visual harmony" and The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, is published for the 25th anniversary of L'Arpege.

Vegetarians will love this book for its unusual and interesting pairings.  It's so different, with not a grain of quinoa in sight, that I can see it appealing to the most committed meat eater too.  It takes vegetables seriously and, in 48 seasonal recipes, places them centre stage.  Despite the title, there are a few recipes for fruit too.  Personally, I love the colourful collage representations alongside the recipes but if you prefer to see clearly what you're aiming for you may not share my enthusiasm.  Having been given this book as a present, I opened it a little nervously thinking my cooking couldn't possibly live up to the recipes within.  In fact the recipes are very simple and in the case of the two I've tried so far, you really can't go wrong.  Both were visually impressive and delivered on taste, just as promised, so I'm keen to work my way through the book season by season.   Alain Passard would like his readers to be "a cook and an artist" and with recipes like these, how can we fail.

Published by Frances Lincoln Limited 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Raspberry & Rose Sponge Cake

Slice of Raspberry & Rose
Sponge Cake

I have a thing about roses.  The heady scent of old roses in a garden on a warm summer evening is intoxicating but the sight of them decaying softly through autumn is sadness personified.  Far better to sacrifice a few summer blooms and capture their essence in a jam, jelly, syrup or water to hold on to summer.  Being so highly aromatic, a little goes a long way.

Diana Henry has a recipe for Rose petal jelly in her preserving book Salt Sugar Smoke which urges you to "find roses whose fragrance makes you swoon".  For a jam, I could refer you to Sir Kenelm Digby's (or Digbie) 17th century recipe for a 'Conserve of Red Roses'.  Son of Gunpowder Plotter, Sir Everard, was an 'English courtier, philosopher and diplomat' but this hardly does justice to describing his colourful career.  Amongst his wide-ranging interests was cookery and a book 'The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened' was published by his family in 1669, after his death.  As with most recipes of this time, amounts are somewhat imprecise but I do love the instruction to boil until the petals "be very tender and look pale like linen".  I point you instead to this magical post on the beautiful blog of Emiko Davies where you'll find a much simpler recipe: Rose Petal Jam from a Venetian Monastery.

If you don't have a garden, or can't bear to pluck your roses, there are a few good products available to buy.  In London La Fromagerie stocks a fabulous Romanengo fu Stefano Rose Petal Jam.  If it's a Rose petal syrup you want, Fortnum and Mason keep a luscious version from Forage Fine Foods.  In the range there is a Sweet Rose Dukkah blend of rose petals, spices, nuts and vanilla which is wonderful too.

Raspberry & Rose
Sponge Cake
On a grey, rainy London day, November is trying to edge out October before it has drawn breath. A perfect day to bake a cake, but it's too early to resort to autumnal gingerbread or parkin.  I want to hold on to summer just a little longer.  A bottle of Forage Fine Foods Rose Petal Syrup glows alongside a couple of jars of loose-set Raspberry & Rose conserve, made with what may be the last of my allotment raspberries.  A simple sponge is called for to allow the rose perfume to shine through.

This sponge cake uses the Genoise method to obtain the lightness I want. There being no raising agent added, the mixture relies on incorporating air for lift.  I always thought it was necessary to beat the eggs and sugar over simmering water until I tried Sally Clarke's method.  She makes Genoise sponges every day for here brilliant shop in Kensington Church Street ringing the changes through the seasons.  So long as you use an electric whisk, and mix for 5-10 minutes, you can achieve the volume without the risk of curdling the eggs over water.  For the filling, raspberry or strawberry jam will work equally well, I think, but a thin layer is enough.  If your jam is not flavoured with rose, add a little extra syrup to the cream so that your jam doesn't over-power the rose.

Raspberry & rose sponge cake
(makes a 24cm cake - halve the quantities for 18cm)

25g melted butter, plus a little extra to butter the tin
100g soft, plain flour plus a little extra for the tin
4 eggs
100g caster sugar
About 2-3 tbsp raspberry & rose jam (or raspberry or strawberry jam)
300ml double cream
1 tbsp rose petal syrup
1 heaped tsp icing sugar
1 tsp Sweet Rose Dukkah (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4.  Brush the cake tin with a little melted butter, line the bottom with baking parchment, brush again with butter and dust the inside of the tin with flour. Beat the eggs with the sugar with an electric mixer for between 5-10 minutes until it's the thickness of shaving foam and the whisk leaves a distinct trail.  Sieve the flour and fold in gently.  Gently mix in the cooled melted butter.  Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and immediately bake it in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden. Remove, cool for a few minutes, then turn onto a cooling rack and remove the baking parchment.

When the cake has cooled completely, slice horizontally with a serrated bread knife.  Spread the jam thinly on the cut sides of both halves of sponge.  Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold in the rose syrup.  Spread the cream on the bottom half of the sponge. Carefully place the top half, jam side down, on the bottom layer, pressing down gently.  Dust with the sifted icing sugar. Scatter with the Sweet Rose Dukkah (if using).

La Fromagerie
Fortnum & Mason
Forage Fine Foods

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Donostia, London W1

Cod cheeks Pil Pil

Cod cheeks don't get better than this.  These little morsels, as desirable as the 'oysters' on a chicken, can be ruined in the wrong hands.  At Donostia in London they certainly know how to bring out the best in this traditional Basque dish in Pil Pil sauce.  Here the gelatinous quality of the cheeks was extracted by cooking in oil and put to luscious use in the sauce infused with just the right amount of guindillas (very small, hot peppers).  The attention to detail is evident from this photograph but you'll have to trust me on the taste and texture.  Let's just say this is a dish to keep all to yourself.

Opened 3 months ago by Nemanja Borjanovic and Melody Adams, owners of Mountain Valley Wines, Donostia (Basque for San Sebastian) was inspired by buying trips to the nregion.  Ex-Barrafina chef, Tomasz Baranski is heading up the kitchen. Barrafina is one of my favourite places so expectations were high on the two visits I made to Donostia before writing this piece.  Sitting at the kitchen bar, the focus and attention to detail is evident but staff are more than happy to talk about the food and drink if you show interest.  This is how I discovered the Angulas stuffed peppers were not to be missed.  Eel leaves me cold but here tiny elvers, shipped across from a trusted Spanish supplier, are stuffed into small red peppers, given a featherlight coating of batter and briefly fried. The matchstick sized Angulas are surprisingly meaty and make for a deliciously satisfying small dish.

The menu is headed up Picoteo £2-3, Pintxo £3-4.50, Cold Plates of fish from £4.80 to hand-carved 3 year old Jamon Iberico at £18.00, and Tapas to encompass the rest with dishes between £3-19.  A Pintxo of Crab on little gem lettuce was a lovely fresh mouthful, served in the Basque way on a soft piece of bread rather than the crisp slice I would have preferred.  Croquetas are flavoursome and pillowy, putting to shame the gooey, floury mess I was presented with in another London tapas bar recently.  Courgette flower stuffed with goats cheese, lightly battered, deep fried and served with orange blossom honey was good.  Lightness is a feature at Donostia, even the Classic Tortilla managed to be airy and almost virtuous.  A serving of two cuts of plump Pluma Iberica on a perfect, crunchy Romesco sauce was juicy, tender and full of flavour, and served only just pink as Pluma ought to be.

Puddings are not an afterthought here.  A Lemon Tart tasted great but though the pastry was clearly very fine, time in a fridge had tragically softened it - the Food Standards Agency strikes again.   It was saved by being given the sugar and blow-torch treatment before serving, creating a wafer thin caramel layer to restore a little crunch.  Purple figs were warmed briefly on the plancha, split and stuffed with caramelised citrus peel and toasted hazelnuts. Served with a kind of liquid marmalade sauce and vanilla cream it was completely delicious.

Given the ownership, you would expect wines to be good and the ones I've tasted so far certainly are.  Rueda is always a lunchtime favourite with me and the Riojas work well.  The "wines of the week" include some real gems.  There are also a couple of Sidras at £1 and £2 for a Basque-country glass.  Both are fresh and lively and, as you'd expect, go really well with the food.

Basque, especially San Sebastian, cuisine relies on the very best basic ingredients, absolute freshness and pure flavours.  For variety of ingredients, this region, wedged between sea and mountains, benefits from a mild, rainy climate.  Partly why, as Paul Richardson points out in A Late Dinner, "... the cuisine of this land has a wider, richer repertoire than that of any other Spanish region (though Catalunya runs close)."  If we see this reflected in the kitchen at Donostia Londoners are in for a treat, and it has certainly started well.

The location could be a problem but I really hope not.  On a quiet street of small shops just north-west of Marble Arch, it's hardly a food hot-spot.  The small, 40 cover, space, is smart with white walls, marble and stainless steel softened by panels of warm, knotted wood.  It can seem a little chilly until the space fills up but with food this good and focused, welcoming staff, I don't think they're going to find it difficult to build up a loyal customer base.  Tomasz's Cod Cheeks Pil Pil dish and those figs alone are well worth crossing London for.

10 Seymour Place
London W1H 7ND

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Tea with Diana Henry

It's not every day you get an invitation to take tea with an author your admire. Well, not in my world anyway.  It was never going to be a cosy one-to-one but it would, I was assured, be a small party.  So it came about that one day last week, together with a handful of fellow bloggers, I was welcomed into the home of food writer Diana Henry to celebrate the launch of her new book Salt Sugar Smoke.

This gathering was the chance to chat in a wonderfully relaxed setting to the highly respected, writer of Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons.  I wondered whether the passionate, scholarly and humorous writer of half a dozen books, leading articles and Telegraph Stella magazine columnist, would live up to expectations.

Despite the fact most of us had never met, a shared interest in food made for easy conversation over Champagne and cordials.  Somehow Diana managed to talk to everyone whilst feeding us all royally on salmon gravlax, cured meat, breads, pickles, chutneys, jams and more.  All this done seemingly effortlessly of course because this spread was what Diana's new book Salt Sugar Smoke is all about.

Everything on the table was home made and, excepting the freshly baked bread, prepared ahead.  Preserving, in all its forms, is the subject of her latest book and here it was gloriously spread out for us.  Diana Henry has said of her love of cooking that it "gives private pleasure and provides pleasure for others" and that sentiment was very evident in the room.

Some of us were known to her, others she had never met, but all were given the warmest of welcomes and treated to the highest of teas.  OK, we were there to be impressed but was Diana Henry all that I had hoped?  She was exactly as she comes across in her writing.  Warm and nurturing and the best person you could want to guide you in the kitchen. As for that new book, you can read my review of Salt Sugar Smoke and decide for yourself if this is a book you want in your kitchen.  I can tell you it's very firmly in mine.

Here's another view of this event from the excellent blog My Custard Pie with a Diana Henry recipe for Purple pickled eggs

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry

Salt Sugar Smoke
by Diana Henry

I've dabbled a little in preserving food over the years but until I got my hands on an allotment it was a spasmodic activity.  If you have a kitchen garden or allotment you'll know it's sometimes necessary to either give produce away or deal with a glut.  Diana Henry's latest book Salt Sugar Smoke is just what I need, but you don't have to grow your own food to find this book invaluable. It's perfect too for anyone who has just a small amount of food to preserve. Diana teaches the "know-how" of preserving nature's abundance, however small an amount you may have.  No backyard smokery, professional brining vat or other expensive equipment is required.  A kindly guiding hand takes you gently through enticing recipes that really work.  This is the perfect book for anyone who wants to learn about all aspects of preserving.

Despite childhood memories of her mother's kitchen in Northern Ireland, surrounded by an extended family of home bakers and jam-makers, Diana Henry always felt preserving was for the "experts".  So whilst this book was inspired by childhood, it was informed by her reading choices, travels and a life lived in multi-cultural London.  Three years of constant learning and experimenting has gone into Salt Sugar Smoke.  The narrative style is warm and engaging, with fascinating nuggets of information on the origins of methods and recipes, and how the writer came by them.

Purple fig & pomegranate jam
prepared from Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke
The opening chapter is on Jam and, given the British love of the preserve, is surprising short, though far from boring.  It starts with "the essentials" and "the process" covering how certain fruits behave, how to sterilise and how to get a 'set'.  Not that Diana, unlike many jam makers, gets hung up on 'set' jams.  She's an advocate of 'less is more' when it comes to sugar content.  Soft-set and "nearly" jams are celebrated and encouraged.  Flavour combinations are inventive, such as decadent Purple fig and pomegranate and Melon, lime and ginger, and aim to inspire.

Jellies, Curds & Fruit Cheeses include a smokey Quince and star anise jelly and a tart Passion fruit curd.  Next come chapters on  Sauces, Pastes, Mustards and Vinegars; Under Oil; and Smoking using a kitchen wok or stove-top smoker.  Recipes include Hot-smoked mackerel with Spanish flavours and Smoked maple and bourbon chicken.  An introduction to the "sinful pleasures" of Cordials, Alcohols, Fruits and Spoon Sweets is irresistible.  Diana wrties, "There is nothing here that is remotely necessary", though Plum and almond hooch and the Middle Eastern cordial Quince sharbat sound pretty necessary to me.  Salted, Cured and Potted is a good introduction to the different methods with recipes ranging from Streaky bacon to Sweet tea-brined chicken.  Chutneys, Relishes and Pickles is the longest chapter reflecting the British taste for sweet-sour.  I love the quote included from the American-Iranian poet Arash Saedinia who wrote of jars of vegetables "gossiping in vinegar".  Amongst many good recipes is Moldavian pepper relish and a must-try Indian pickle Pumpkin Achar.

There is brief essential information on the science of preserving, guidance on keeping times, including a reminder to use common sense "if it smells or looks off, it probably is ...".   There's also a useful suppliers list at the end of the book.

I tried a couple of recipes before writing this review and can't praise the Purple fig and pomegranate jam enough.  It's fragrance redolent of the Middle East, it tastes just as you imagine it will.  A couple of jars glow like rubies on my kitchen worktop as I write.  They won't sit there for long.  I also made the Carrot and coriander relish which will go well with cold meats, I think.  Both recipes worked like a dream, leaving me feeling much more confident, and with a huge sense of satisfaction.

The only danger with this latest of Diana Henry's books is that I'll be delving into the delicious prose when I should be preserving and, as Diana says,  "capturing and holding onto the season".

Book courtesy of Octopus Publishing Group