Monday, 15 September 2014

Seafood risotto for A Thousand Days In Venice

cookthebooks I don't know what to say about this month's Cook the Books book club pick (this month hosted by Debra from Eliot's Eats), Marlena de Blasi's A Thousand Days In Venice. An exuberant American chef with flamboyant taste in textiles falls inexplicably in love with a repressed Italian bank clerk with daddy issues, and through him falls explicably in love with Venice.

For me, de Blasi just couldn't quite convey why she was attracted to her stranger. She herself seems like a glorious broad who I'd love to go drinking with, but he remained a mystery. But then, this is a memoir, not a romance, and other people's relationships are often a bit baffling. I never understand how people who really like food end up with people who don't much care what they eat.

I've never been to Venice, so my impressions of the food are, I suspect, very much clichés - soft shell crab, risi e bisi, linguine vongole; exorbitantly priced Bellinis and carpaccio and tramezzini at Harry's Bar. Paul was very definite though, he wanted me to make a seafood risotto.

I used the prawn shells, with a little lemon, a shallot, a bay leaf and some peppercorns to make a stock for the risotto.
The murky depths of prawn stock
Then I lightly cooked the peeled prawns in butter, with sweated shallots and garlic. I removed the prawns from the pan and proceeded to make a normal risotto bianco. I added arborio rice to the shallot/garlic/butter remaining from cooking the prawns and let it soak a bit before adding quite a lot of vermouth (we tend to use dry vermouth instead of white wine in cooking because we don't feel tempted to drink it), and the hot, strained stock, stirring constantly between additions. When it had almost absorbed the last quantity of stock, I added the prawns back in, and a tub of 50/50 white and brown crab meat.

When it was just done, instead of the normal mantecatura of butter and parmesan, I added a good spoonful of crème fraîche for extra richness and a touch of acidity, and a bag of rocket leaves and garnished it with snipped chives. It wasn't as loose as a traditional Venetian risotto - it didn't flow in waves - and we had it as a meal in a bowl not as a starter. But I still think it was a pretty good representation of Venice.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Merchants Tavern


I like their coasters
My first choice for my birthday dinner was actually Gymkhana - unfortunately all the good press they are getting at the moment meant that I should have tried to book more than a week beforehand. I wanted somewhere with excellent food, with a pleasant buzz that allowed for conversation, comfy seats and that took bookings. I remembered what a lovely dinner we'd had at Merchants Tavern during their soft launch, and the deal was done. And fortunately, since I was meeting Paul after work and we therefore wanted to eat quite early, we were able to get a table.

We started in the bar, which wasn't nearly as busy as it deserved to be on a Friday evening. Paul had a pint of pilsner (easier to say at the beginning of the evening) while I had a fabulously refreshing cocktail called a Patronic - Patron Silver tequila, lime sherbet and Fevertree tonic. We decided they didn't call it a Patronus to avoid having to pay J.K Rowling royalties, but it's a bit of a shame.

The bar snacks sounded really good, but we were bloody, bold and resolute and held off until we got to our table.
Good bread - nice crust, good malty sourdough tang
Choosing starters was easy, so we ordered those immediately but asked for more time to decide on our main courses and wine. Thereby probably calling down the wrath of the kitchen as we fucked up the flow of service, but the floor staff have apparently all graduated with honours from charm school, so we never felt that fury. Not even a twinge of annoyance.
The quail dish I'd ordered last year was too good to pass up, so we shared it. And it was every bit as good. The combination of the meaty quail, mousse-like foie gras, bitter radicchio, nutty hazelnuts and sharp creamy remoulade is sheer perfection.

We also shared a charcuterie platter. The one on the left is Jesus, a mild, very porky sausage, with coppa on the right. Can't remember what the one in the middle was - it started with B. It was good though, with that strong mushroomy aroma of fermented cured meat.
Eventually we made decisions about the main courses. I had a dish very similar to the one Paul had last time, although his was brill and mine was monkfish. Beautifully cooked fish, ever so slightly resistant to the fork but perfectly tender in the mouth, with occasional shreds of lemon zest perking up the creamy beans.
Paul chose venison, which came with a wedge of baked celeriac, red cabbage, a pear that tasted like it had been slowly roasted in red wine and spices, and a silken sheet of lardo. Absolutely wonderful. Every element was perfectly matched to every other element; just an autumnal plateful of exquisitely-judged cooking.
Venison, celeriac, pear and lardo
Instead of ordering side dishes, which sounded fine if not enormously interesting, we shared the vegetarian main course. Described as "miso glazed aubergine, black cabbage, sesame and barley", I was very keen to see how a not-Japanese restaurant approached nasu dengaku. Again, it was a lovely bit of cooking. Perfectly silky but not at all oily aubergine (steamed maybe?) with a light miso dressing, not the thick glaze of a dengaku sauce. Bitter, iron-rich black cabbage, which is, I assume, what they are calling cavolo nero to get it past people like me who reckon not to like it, but found it delicious here. Nutty, tender barley. Another very autumnal dish, very different from the Japanese way but equally good. Not to mention what a treat it is to see a vegetarian option that isn't a risotto or a pasta.
Aubergine, black cabbage, barley
Unusually, it was a chocolate dessert that called the loudest to me. Actually I would have gone for the blackberry posset left to myself, but the chocolate dessert was the one we could agree on to share. A sublimely soft, velvety dark chocolate tart, with the lightest honeycomb on top and salted almond ice cream. I think salted almond should be the Next Big Thing after salted caramel.

On the dessert and fortified wine list, was something that neither of us recognised, so Paul ordered it out of curiosity. It turned out to be Barolo Chinato, which is widely considered to be one of the better matches for chocolate. So, purely by accident, we ended up looking properly knowledgeable. It was an extremely good match (I had an oloroso, which wasn't quite sweet enough for the dessert) with a touch of the bitter herbal quality that Campari has.
While we waited (a bit too long, they'd become really busy and there was a lapse in communication) for the bill, we were given warm lime madeleines. Not a bad way to celebrate a birthday at all.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A mezze platter

After the bread at Ember Yard almost left me weeping at its beauty, Paul challenged me to up my game with mine. But actually, I really like my normal flatbread, so my big lesson from that meal was a reminder of how much I love a meal of snacky nibbly things. Yum cha, tapas, meze or zakuski, I just love a spread of highly-flavoured bites.

Of course, the style of flatbreads I like to make do lend themselves to being dunked in Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style dips, so my platter drifted sort of Greece-wards and around North Africa. The breads, sprinkled with dukkah. Some home made taramasalata (with no added food colouring, so it was a delicate coral pink). Some Greek-style yoghurt, flavoured with garlic, parsley and dill. Figs, cherry tomatoes and some spicy little lamb merguez sausages. A thick omelette of courgettes, feta and herbs.
Choosing something thematically appropriate to drink with it was a bit of a challenge. We did discover that Marks & Spencer are stocking some Greek wines and had quite a pleasant white, the name of which I failed to write down. What I wanted, though, was something a bit more fragrant and evocative. While not being in any way ouzo. I settled on rose lemonade, spiked with Hendricks gin. Hendricks has rose among its botanicals, so it works well. Iced mint tea would be good too, if you didn't want booze.

One of the things I like the most about this way of eating, is that the leftovers are a pleasure to find in the fridge (although actually, the taramasalata is now an exercise in whether it freezes - it was a very large quantity). You can add more bits to feed more people - some olives, some dolmades or other stuffed vegetables, maybe some lamb kebabs or pickles. Flexible and lovely.
Courgette, Herb and Feta Omelette (serves... many?)

1tbs pinenuts
1tbs butter
1 shallot, finely sliced
2 large courgettes, coarsely grated, excess moisture squeezed out
5 eggs
handful parsley, finely chopped
handful dill, finely chopped
bundle of chives, finely snipped
black pepper
nutmeg
200g feta

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Toast the pinenuts and reserve.

Melt the butter in a flame-proof shallow casserole (or skillet with oven-proof handle) and gently soften the shallot and courgettes in it.

Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, stir in the herbs and season with black pepper and nutmeg. While the pan is still on the heat, pour the eggs gently over the courgettes. Crumble the feta on top and sprinkle over the reserved pinenuts.

Place the dish in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until set, puffy and golden. Serve just-warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Bobotie fit for a President.

When Paul came home and saw this he was slightly overcome. Not by its beauty, because pretty it is not, but by one of the smells of his childhood.

I based this bobotie on the recipe given by Hilton Little at the Club des chefs des chefs event a couple of months ago, although I did make a few changes. I suspect he'd cut down the recipe from a much larger quantity and a couple of the proportions went a bit wrong.

Bobotie (serves 4)

Slosh of olive oil
2 medium onions, very finely diced
500g beef or lamb mince (Hilton's recipe says beef, Paul says he remembers lamb or mutton)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
250ml whole milk
2 slices white bread (I used some stale sourdough, cut into cubes)
1tsp apricot jam (apricot is traditional, I didn't have any so used homemade peach, vanilla and chilli)
1tbs hot chutney (has to be Mrs Balls)
1-2tbs curry powder (I used a hot one, but it doesn't end up particularly spicy)
1tsp salt
1/2tsp ground black pepper
284ml buttermilk (that's how big the tubs we buy are - if your tubs are 250ml or 300ml I can't imagine that it would be a problem)
2 large eggs
bayleaves

Preheat oven to 180C

Soak the bread in the milk in a shallow dish.

Brown the onions in the oil in a large saute pan. Add the mince and garlic and brown the beef well, breaking up the clumps.

Squeeze the excess milk from the bread, reserve the milk and add the bread to the meat. Mix in the jam, chutney and curry powder. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the meat mixture into a 9x9" casserole dish.

Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs and the reserved milk from soaking the bread. Pour half of the mixture over the meat and ripple it through the meat mixture with a knife, so it soaks in.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, then remove from the oven, pour the rest of the egg mixture on top and garnish with bayleaves. Return it to the oven for another 20-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Serve hot.

The traditional accompaniments are yellow pilau rice, and old-school curry garnishes like bananas rolled in coconut, cucumber raita and tomato and onion katchumber. We had it with roast butternut and some buttered runner beans.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Plum, ginger and hazelnut tart with a nutella crust

The other day, I was over at a temporarily-housebound friend's house, when one of her neighbours popped by with a huge bag of plums from their tree. When I left, some of the plums came with me.

I thought I'd do a crumble, but Paul demanded a tart. Specifically, a custard tart.

I'd planned to use the very simple melted crust recipe from Elly's apricot and almond custard tart, but when I got the ingredients out, realised that I had no wholemeal or spelt flour and not enough butter. I had a bit of a ferret in the cupboard and decided to use plain white flour and make up the amount of butter with nutella. As the butter was being melted, I didn't need to worry about the nutella being too soft for a normal shortcrust.

I blind-baked the crust and sprinkled it with a layer of chopped hazelnuts, then arranged the halved, stoned plums on top. Some were quite firm and slightly unripe, some were explosively ripe and juicy, but they all went in together.

Then I beat together two enormous eggs (those chickens must have been walking like John Wayne for the rest of the day) with about 120ml single cream, a couple of spoonsful of caster sugar, a grating of nutmeg, a small slosh of cider brandy and a good teaspoonful of freshly grated ginger (which was Paul's suggestion).

After I poured the custard over the plums, I sprinkled the surface with another couple of spoonsful of sugar. I find that because of the tanin in plum skins, they tend to cook more tart than you expect from eating them raw, so I put more sugar in cooked plum desserts than I do for other stone fruits.

Baked at 180C for about half an hour, then allowed to sit for 10 minutes to set a little more before slicing. The nutella enhanced the hazelnut flavour and gave a subtle milk chocolate hint, while the pastry was nice and short. It's useful to know that it works! I'd imagine that nut butters would be an equally useful substitution - which could be very helpful if there is a vegan around (although obviously an egg custard filling wouldn't be a good idea for them). The fresh ginger was absolutely beautiful with the plums, and the rich custard meant we didn't need any other toppings. Didn't need it, but I had a scoop of ice cream, and Paul had a slosh more cream.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Cod & scallops with tomato basil salsa

This isn't a recipe so much as an idea. I had scallops, but there weren't really enough of them to make a main course. But I also had a couple of cod loins, so I decided to bring them together with a sort of sauce vierge type thing, which headed off into being more of a salsa.

I seasoned diced red and yellow cherry tomatoes and seasoned them with crushed garlic, salt and a splash of olive oil and white wine vinegar, then added quite a lot of finely torn basil, and a few chopped black olives. I let that sit while I cooked the fish.

The cod loins just went into a hot pan with a splash of oil. I seasoned them with a little salt and pepper, and when I turned them over I threw the scallops into the pan. By the time the fish was done, the scallops were too.

We had them on a bed of mixed peas, sugar snaps and edamame, with the oily, garlicky tomato salsa providing the dressing for all of it. It was on the table in less than 15 minutes, and tasted wonderful.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ember Yard - a set menu done right

Just the words "set menu" are enough to send chills up my spine. Too many meals where normally good restaurants send out lukewarm tomato soup or over-chilled pâté followed by woolly salmon or woody chicken, I suppose. But on Saturday we celebrated a friend's Big Birthday with a dinner at Ember Yard, which was so good I may have to change my mind about set menus. Or whinge twice as loud the next time I have one that doesn't match up...

I was having a lovely time, so I didn't get pictures of everything and the pictures I did get are not my finest work. And I didn't manage to taste everything; there was just so much!
I didn't get any pictures of the starters, I was too busy eating them. The grilled flatbread with honey, thyme and smoked butter was so warm and comfortingly pillowy I was tempted to curl up on it for a nap. Our lovely waitress informed me that the bread is baked daily for them, and then they grill and top it for each order. My lovely husband informed me that I need to up my flatbread game to compete.

The seafood and vegetable tapas came out next. As a person who sees little point in kohlrabi I was impressed by how delicious it was in the tomato salad.
Smoke flavours were quite prominent through the meal - so it's a good thing I like smoked food. The apple-smoked bream carpaccio had a lovely, delicate sweet-smoked flavour and slightly chewy texture. I can see shavings of bottarga in the picture, but I couldn't identify it as a flavour at the time.
 The arancini were apparently made of smoked ricotta, but the main flavour was the sweet piquillo pepper. They had the perfect soft but not mushy texture in the middle, surrounded by the crisp shell. My palate may have been dulled by too much (very good, no idea what it was) white wine, because I also couldn't taste any fennel in the aioli on top.
I adore a stuffed and fried courgette flower, and these were particularly good. Paul was less delighted with them because of the drizzle of honey, which he thinks doesn't go with cheese. He is wrong, it does, so remind me not to waste any of my precious jar of truffle honey on him.
This buttermilk fried squid with squid ink alioli was the best fried squid I have had in ages. Years probably. It set Paul reminiscing about the deeply crisp fried squid legs we used to get at Toriciya in Sydney, which have always been our benchmark. I don't know what the difference between aioli, as served with the arancini, and alioli, as here, is, but this was a beautifully black, salty, garlicky sauce.
The next wave of dishes were the meaty ones. Quite clever really; there was enough of the starters and cheaper bits for everyone to fill up on, and then slightly smaller portions of the more expensive meat dishes. At the same time it never felt remotely mean or stingy: there was plenty to go around, particularly since the birthday girl doesn't eat pork. I loved the ibérico pork fat chips - I didn't notice any chorizo ketchup (which sounds like an amazing idea and I must figure out how to make some) but they were topped with what amounted to crushed pork scratchings. Divine.
It's pretty common for some cuts of Ibérico pork to be served a bit pink, and it was the perfect treatment for the grilled presa (a cut from the shoulder at the head of the loin). The whipped jamón butter was divine with it - I couldn't help thinking how good it would be on toast, but better not think about how calorific it is.
Chargrilled beef underblade with cauliflower purée was similarly pink, delicious, and calorific. I can see dollops of jamón vinaigrette across the dish, but I don't remember tasting them. I think I'll have to go back and try it again.
The desserts came out in yet smaller portions, but again there was plenty to go around. If you were one of those people who likes their own plate of food you might have been a bit thrown, but generally it worked well with people passing the dishes around for a taste.
The strawberry sorbet that came with the lemon and buttermilk cake was absolutely sublime, but I didn't taste the cake itself. I had definitely passed the point where I could manage cake.
I loved the white chocolate mousse with pickled nectarines, but completely failed to get a picture of it, while somehow managing to record 16 minutes of video of the inside of my handbag. The chocolate and turrón cake was also a bit cake-y for me at that stage of the evening. Very chocolatey, with a texture similar to a good brownie.
My favourite dessert of the evening was the muscovado panna cotta with thyme shortbread and milk sorbet. A thinnish layer of the caramelly, brown sugar panna cotta, topped with just the right amount of crumbled shortbread and a beautifully light sorbet. The perfect way to end an extremely good meal, and definitely one to try to replicate myself.

There was, apparently, birthday cake to follow, but we had to scuttle for the last train home. And with the best will in the world I don't think I could have fit in another bite.

ETA I found out today that the head chef at Ember Yard is called Jacques Fourie. He is no relation, unto the third generation, so this is honestly as unbiased as a lot of lovely alcohol can make me.

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