Saturday, 27 April 2013

Leeks baked in cream and stock

Leeks baked in cream and stock

Recently I posted on pairing Leeks with Gruyere which, for me is a great combination.  I suggested serving up a dish of leeks with a Sauce Mornay - suitably rib-sticking at a time when winter was dragging on. Soon after, unconnectedly, I read someone's remark that such a sauce was an "old lady's cheese sauce".  In my book it is a classic sauce, albeit one which I don't make often.

The purpose of this brief posting is to come good on my promise to make a slightly more Spring-like baked leek dish once the temperature rose a few degrees.  Leeks have been the vegetable of the winter, for me. Although quite stunted, thanks to the unusually long cold spell, they have proved to be particularly sweet and tender this year.  In this crossover period from Winter to Spring produce, they are still very welcome while we wait for outdoor-grown English asparagus, beans and peas.  If you've grown your own leeks don't leave them in the ground for too much longer as British overwintering leeks will soon bolt and develop the hard core which marks the end of their season.

This dish is so simple there is no need to give you a formal recipe.  It's adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters and it does have a sauce - not a classic but it should be.

Leeks baked in cream and stock

Pre-heat oven to 190C (170C fan oven).
Lightly trim the leeks, top and bottom and remove one outer layer.  Slice half way down from the top and wash thoroughly.  Drop the leeks into boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes, drain and lay them in a shallow, buttered oven-proof dish.  Cover with a mixture of 3 parts double cream to 1 part vegetable stock.  Season with salt and pepper and dot with a little unsalted butter.  Bake in the oven, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes.  

A hunk of crusty crusty bread is all this dish needs.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

This is 'My Cup of Tea'

Lime Blossom
My Cup of Tea

I've always enjoyed a nice cup of tea.  My tastes were unsophisticated, mostly involving a tea bag, a mug and a splash of milk.  Sometimes a spoonful of black leaf tea, maybe with a little bergamot, brewed in a pot and taken as it came.  But those ubiquitous cloying 'flavoured' teas and stale tasting herbal infusions have always made me recoil.  I was going to take some persuading that teas and infusions don't have to be like that.   

Then, one day, I noticed a new trader at my weekly shopping haunt.   A trestle table appeared.  A small display of teas and herbs.  I walked on by, several times.  After all, it was just tea.  Over the following weeks the display grew and was so beautifully laid out.  Finally, I could no longer resist taking a look.  Little pots of Green and Black teas and finely rolled Sencha leaves sat alongside dishes of vibrant Lime Blossom and Camomile and hand-tied muslin teabags containing ginger and lemongrass.  A few exquisite little teapots and drinking bowls dressed the table.  So it was that I put myself in the hands of an expert to see if my prejudices could be overcome. 

Orange blossom
at My Cup of Tea

My Cup of Tea is a modern, artisan, tea specialist established in 2008.  The recipes are inspired by tradition and the rich and varied cultures of the world.  The attention to detail is clear, from the quality of the teas, herbs, blossoms and fruits which go into the blends through to the delicate china cups customers taste from.    

Ausra Burg and her team do more than just import teas. They make their own superior quality blends and herbal infusions.  Ingredients are sourced direct from growers who have to meet strict specifications to become My Cup of Tea suppliers.  They work with tea makers of many generations who have direct ties to Estates and share a commitment to quality.  

Rooibos, blackcurrant & blackcurrant leaf
at My Cup of Tea

Ausra picked wild herbs from the fields with her mother, who recorded every detail year by year in her 'Bible' of herbs.  This instilled in her a passion for their benefits.  That 'Bible' now plays a very important part in My Cup of Tea.  For me, this small business stands out from the crowd by sourcing herbs which are grown naturally, specifying when and what parts of the plants are harvested, how they are dried, separated and packaged.  Then there's the hand-cutting and expert blending when they reach My Cup of Tea's Workshop.  The quality of the ingredients on display there is impressive.  The display of covetable thick glass apothecary jars is not just for show but serves to keep the ingredients in optimum conditions.  

The blending process is extensive, starting with a base to which herbs and, sometimes, fruits are added.  In the herbal teas, sometimes several parts of the plant are able to be used, such as the leaf, fruit and stem, each imparting subtly different aromas and taste.  There are no artificial flavourings here, no unnaturally perfumed brews or muddy tasting infusions made from dessicated herbs.  Ausra told me "we refuse to compromise because we believe if we love what we make then our customers will love it too".

Inhale, then try a cup of black tea, subtly flavoured with cassis and vanilla; a delicate White Jasmine green tea, the uppermost tips having been dried scattered with Jasmine flowers; a fragrant, clean tasting Orange Blossom or Lime Blossom tea.  Based on past experience, I almost ignored an infusion containing fruits but by now I was prepared to try anything.  Raspberry leaf and fruit makes use of the leaf, immature fruits and stem, each imparting subtly different flavours, and it was astonishingly good.  Rosehip, apple, hibiscus flowers, natural strawberry and raspberry flavours go into the Wild Berry teabags.     

You don't have to take my word for it.  Go into the *My Cup of Tea Workshop on Saturdays and see and taste for yourself. Ausra and Emiko will even help you put together your own personal blend.  I came away with a bag of Green Rooibos with blackcurrant leaf and fruit.  Yes, me, the "teabag in a cup" tea maker.  Well, not any more .  A mug of black tea with a splash of milk will always go with a bacon sandwich, for me, but a visit to My Cup of Tea's Workshop has changed my tea drinking habits for ever.

My Cup of Tea
96 Druid Street
London  SE1 2HQ

* UPDATE AUGUST 2014 - The Saturday Workshop is no longer open as My Cup of Tea has now opened its flagship store in the Ham Yard Hotel courtyard in Soho open 7 days a week.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Leeks with Gruyere Cheese - Perfect Combinations

Leeks au Gratin

I know we're all waiting impatiently for the asparagus to arrive but clearly, given this long winter, it's going to be late this year.  There are a few English spears around and if you want something tasteless and expensive then you can have it.  Personally I'll bide my time and wait another 3-4 weeks.  In the meantime, I've been making the most of leeks. The French refer to leeks as "poor man's asparagus" (a term we use in the UK for the coastal Samphire), and value them at least as much as we do.  

A member of the allium family, leeks add a more subtle, less pungent note to dishes than onions or garlic.  They have an  affinity with butter, cheese, potatoes and bacon.  They also go with fish and are used in dishes such as bouillabaisse.  Sliced thinly and deep fried they make a lovely crispy foil for soft scallops.  I like them finely sliced with mussels instead of shallots in Moules Marinière.  Leeks can also carry off starring roles.  Their sweet, slippery softness is perfect in soups such as Vichyssoise; a dish of Leeks Gribiche makes a perfect, healthy lunch; match leeks with pastry and cream for a less virtuous but wholly delicious Flamiche.  

Growing slowly through the winter, leeks are smaller than normal this year but have been tasting fantastic over the past couple of weeks.  Soon after the warm weather eventually arrives they will start to develop a hard core and their time will be over.  Many recipes direct you to discard the green tops.  I urge you to use all but the tough topmost parts, unless it would spoil the recipe.  Green is good and you can always add it to soups or stocks.

Leeks au Gratin
straight from the oven
Today, with skies leaden and Spring a promise away, I offer you a simple dish of Leeks in a sauce Mornay (a simple Bechamel with added cheese).  The French would call it Leeks au Gratin and as we adopted their sauces Bechamel and Mornay, so shall I.  A buttered dish of leeks topped with a cheese sauce and baked until it's nicely browned and the smell of molten gruyere cheese drives you to distraction.  I could have topped the dish with breadcrumbs but personally I prefer to mop up the sauce with crusty bread.  If I want to make the dish more substantial I wrap the leeks in slices of cooked ham. 

This is a great bad-weather dish.  Next week, when we're on a promise of warmer weather, I will bake my leeks with stock and cream for a lighter dish.  Whilst the leeks are as good as this I really can wait for that asparagus.

Leeks au Gratin
(serves 4)

8 medium or 12 small leeks
50g unsalted butter + a little extra to butter the baking dish
50g plain flour
500ml milk
150g grated gruyere
Salt & pepper
Pinch or two of cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 200C (Fan 180C).
Lightly trim the leeks, top and bottom and remove one outer layer.  Slice half way down from the top and wash thoroughly.  Drop the leeks into boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes, drain and lay them in a shallow, buttered oven-proof dish.
Melt the butter in a small heavy-based pan.  On a gentle heat, add the flour and stir for 3 minutes to cook off.  Pour in the milk all at once and whisk well.  Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce has thickened - about 7-8 minutes.  Take off the heat and add half the grated gruyere.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Pour the sauce over the leeks and scatter the remaining gruyere and the cayenne pepper on top.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until bubbling and lightly browned.

When I haven't been able to harvest from my allotment, I've been buying organic leeks in London from Kent grower Chegworth Valley Farm.  Although better known for their excellent fruit juices, their fruit and vegetables are very good quality and value.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey, London

Wild Mushroom Tart
at 40 Maltby Street

The dish pictured above wouldn't be out of place in a top restaurant. However, I ate it in an unpretentious wine bar resounding to the rumbling of trains overhead.  Menus are chalked on boards.  Paper napkins come from a dispenser. Perching stools line the bar and bare tables on a painted concrete floor.  The railway arch is given character by an original unframed Harry Darby artwork or two.  Hardly star-making surroundings.  Just a place where all the attention is on the food and wine - and there just happens to be a Michelin-starred chef in the kitchen.

Chef Steve Williams has a CV which includes The Square, The Ledbury, and The Anchor and Hope and earned his star at The Harwood Arms in 2011, making it the first Michelin starred pub in London. Leaving in 2012 to travel and cook, Williams spent a few months contentedly foraging and cooking at Harry Lester's Auberge du Chassignolle, deep in the Auvergne.  Happily for me, he's now back in London cooking at my favourite bar, 40 Maltby Street, making customers very happy.

It's almost 2 years since I first wrote about 40 Maltby Street.  Back then it was simply a Friday night dinner venue which served to showcase Gergovie Wines, albeit with a great chef, Dave Cook, in the small kitchen off the bar.  It's grown up a bit since then and, I have to say, has matured nicely.  Any place that has managed to attract people at least once a week - I promise you I'm not the only one - for 2 years is certainly deserving of a second review in my book.

Pollack at 40 Maltby Street
40 Maltby Street is co-owned by Raef Hodgson and Harry Lester.  Back at its birth, a run of trestle tables was set up to accommodate around 40 people. Dishes were served in en famille fashion and were based around, say, a whole lamb or two and whatever else was in season.  It was a good formula, albeit one where you had to be open to trying something you might not have been offered before - lamb's pluck is not for everyone!

Roast Pork at 40 Maltby Street
Things moved on and now you can eat at 40 Maltby Street Wednesday to Saturday (see below).  This has allowed them to have a far broader menu.  Dave Cook returned to his native Australia last Summer, making way for Steve Williams. He has gradually changed the menu to his own style and dishes are a broad mix to complement the wines. Working alongside him is Kit Hodgson who specialises in pastry and serves up unmissable pies and puddings.

Apart from being sure the food will be seasonal and impeccably sourced, you can never predict what dishes will be chalked on the blackboard.  Possibly a broth; maybe chicken with wild garlic; or lamb with barley and greens; sometimes a Venison or Mock Squab pie or an Onion tart with Lancashire cheese.  Often there's a roast and, maybe, a salt-baked fish.   There could be Egg mayonnaise,  Leek and mussel gratin, Brandade in crispy potato skins, Croquettes, Mushroom tart or Anchovies, kohlrabi and mint.  There are always British cheeses, terrines or a plate of charcuterie, and almost always a baked ham on the counter.  Last Saturday a simple-looking dish of broccoli, soft-boiled egg and hollandaise sauce with toasted almonds was made outstanding by the use of brown butter and sweet-sour Moscatel vinegar.  Pearly flakes of perfectly cooked pollock came with buttery, soft leeks dressed with bacon and chervil, the necessary crunch provided by roast potato.

Seasonal puddings could be Prune and Lemon or, maybe, Damson soufflé, Apple pie fritters, Eve's Pudding, Steamed Treacle sponge with custard, Frangipane tarts, Lemon Posset.  I could go on, but I'll spare you the torture.  I'm shocked to find I have no recent photos of the puddings.  Clearly I just couldn't wait to tuck in.  There's usually a number of meat and fish-free dishes.  Everything is made in the small open kitchen with skill, passion and generosity.

Menu at 40 Maltby Street
If you can resist the food, you can just pop in for a glass of wine.  40 Maltby Street is one of a small number of bars and restaurants in London who are introducing a new generation of natural winemakers from the South-East France/ Northern Italy/Slovenia/Spain wine-growing areas.  Employing ethical methods of growing, some organically or biodynamically, with little intervention in the development of the wine, produces interesting and surprising results.  The yield from these growers is small, hence the labels on offer at 40 Maltby Street are ever-changing as they find more good, artisan winemakers.  Some can be challenging but I can honestly say there has only been one glass I really didn't enjoy at all.  There are always a few bottles open for drinking by the glass and a wider range to enjoy by the bottle. You can also buy to take away.  My favourites have to be Tete de Bulle from the Auvergne, anything from Italian winemaker Davide Spillare, a glass of Rosso die Muni from the Veneto and Pacina Rosa from Tuscany.  Mark-ups are transparent and remarkably low.

40 Maltby Street draws a diverse crowd from off-duty chefs, through arts and media folk to local residents.  Housed in a railway arch beneath the London Bridge to Dover line, it is about a 10-minute walk east of London Bridge Station.  It's a wine bar with food so don't expect fancy service, though it is always professional.  What you will get is a warm welcome, great wines and food worthy of a Michelin star, all in simple surroundings.  It makes me very happy every week.

40 Maltby Street
London SE1 3PA
Open: Wednesday and Thursday 5.30-10pm
Friday  12.30-2pm and 5.30-10pm
Saturday 11am-5pm
(No resercvations)

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Monocle Cafe, London - Food Find

Although it officially launches on 15 April, The Monocle Cafe in Marylebone opened its doors today. This is the second Cafe from Monocle, the first one opened in Tokyo 18 months ago.  Small but perfectly formed, the design and execution is just what you'd expect from Monocle.  Beautiful use of wood, great lighting and a cosy lounge at the back.  There's Monocle 24 TV playing and copies of Monocle magazine to browse.  Decor  is completed by original artwork from Virge Brûlé.  A downstairs room, set up for use as either extra cafe seating or a room for hire, is furnished with vintage Ercol.  Come summer, the few tables outside will be favourites on this street with its eclectic mix of independent shops.  Pastries and buns are being supplied by Swedish bakery Fabrique.  Allpress coffee  was expertly made and cakes by the impressive Masayuki Hara of Lanka were delicious and, of course, service was attentive. 

The Monocle Cafe
18 Chiltern Street
London  W1U 7QA