Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting festive

It is two nights before Christmas and all through the house, a foodie was stirring, in the mood for some curing - some salmon curing that is.

Back from an early trip to Borough market and bolstered by coffee and a fresh Chelsea bun, I’m ready for some cooking in readiness for some Christmas feasting.

The menu has been planned and re-planned. This is the first blog for the appertivo.

Having originally planned to do just beetroot cured salmon and homemade blinis, I felt the need for a contingency plan. Beetroot! Well beetroot can sometimes be a little too beetroot. Having never tried curing before and with the vodka experiment looking all a little dubious, I wanted the safety need of a second option.

So after scouring the internet, I came across this recipe, which I modified. This is the easier of the two, in terms of mess but the smell was heavenly.

Sugar-cured salmon with orange and star anise
250 gram piece of salmon filler, skin on but bones removed (brought from the wonderful Borough market at 08.00 am this morning)
50 g rock salt
50 g sugar
1 star anise, rough crushed
½ orange, zested
1.5 tbsp of vodka

Combine the salt, sugar, star anise and orange zest. The orange zest makes the mixture incredibly moist and combined with the star anise, the smell is wonderful.

Lay the salmon on a plate skin-side down. Spread the mixture over the salmon flesh and sprinkle over the vodka.

Wrap in clingfilm, then put a board on top and weigh it down. I used the jar of vodka that I have been infusing with pear, plum, of which today I added pomegranate.

Leave for 24 hours, but every few hours tip off any liquid that collects.

Beet-root cured salmon
Hold your breath and dive right it. I love beetroot but it is not to everyone's taste. The colour is fantastic; although the puree as described, it is less than appealing– like a large tongue.

Anyway, here’s the recipe. It’s from BBC food and I am citing the original recipe rather than the modifications I made to suit the 200g piece of fish I used.

It has more salt and sugar than the previous recipe, of which I can only guess why. The proof of course will be in the tasting and that will come on Christmas day.

500 - 700g of salmon
8 beetroot
500 g of course sea salt
750g sugar
50ml honey
1 tbs of fennel seeds

Puree the beetroot and add to the combined sugar, salt and ground fennel seeds. Add the honey. Spread generously over the salmon - this is not hard as you can see from the picture below. It is a rich, intense marinate. Cover the salmon with cling wrap. Place in the fridge, weighed under a chopping board with something heavy of top. It stays there for at least 24 hours.

So now, it's time to make your blinis. All I can say is that they are so so easy.

Buckwheat blinis

Ingredients are as follows: 70g buckwheat; the same amount again of plain flour; 1/3 tablespoon of baking powder; 175ml of warm milk (it needs to be warm to dissolve the yeast); 1 egg separate (you will whisk the egg white and add later); 125g butter; 1/3 tbsp of dried yeast.

Begin by combining all the dry ingredients, remember to do the normal sifting of flours. Mix the dried yeast with the warmed milk. Separate your eggs and add the yolk to the dry mixture and combine all. Whisk your egg white until they form peaks and then fold in gently. Don't sidestep this part of the recipe that I'm always tempted to do, as the egg whites make the blinis light.

With the 125 g of butter, clarify it by gently melting in a pan over a low heat. Pour off the yellow liquid. What's left, you need to disguard. Heat the clarified butter and drop in dessertspoons of batter. Turn when the blini starts to bubble.

The result is home-cured salmon with blinis.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some winter nostaglia

I make no pretence or claim to be a baker.

Cakes, muffins, scones, have never been a part of my repertoire. If anything, if I was to describe my culinary preferences, I’d say that I was more of your slow cook style of girl.

For me, the longer it cooks the better. Heaven is a seven-hour lamb studded with anchovies and garlic. My favourite thing is my Le Creuset; positioned on my stove-top ever at the ready.

I’m surprised really by my lack of sweet prowess, as I’m more likely to default to a sweet fix than a savoury one. Perhaps my lack of achievement is hereditary, borne out of by a complete lack of necessity.

My mother is a fabulous cook of that 1950s generation of housewife: the first of the mix master set, the original domestic goddess. Hers was the era when efficiency met domestic science and the brand name ruled in the kitchen for the first time.

Saturday was baking day. I used to watch from the sidelines, curious but banned to the perimeter, so that I wouldn’t get in the way. I looked on amazed at her deft hand and her ability to coax and conjure eggs, milk and flour into lightweight concoctions to be decorated with jam and sugar icing. (There was no need to learn how to cook as she was so good at baking.)

So the fact that I find myself posed over a mixing bowl with a spatula in hand, though sans apron, is somewhat surprising. I’d like to think that it’s the Christmas spirit that has inspired my current gesture of cookery – the mini-Christmas muffin.

After two days of picture-perfect snow, one can’t help but think it’s all starting to look, smell and feel a lot like Christmas. And if Christmas inspires anything in me, it’s nostalgia.

My all time favourite (and I mean favourite) winter treat is mince pies. It’s the aroma of clove, ginger, cinnamon, candied fruit and over-generous dustings of icing sugar that I love.

Today most people just buy jars of it. (Mine was purchased yesterday at my local deli – Robertson’s finest classic mince meat (a most curious name when you think about it.)

I know that it doesn’t taste the same as the good stuff – that heady mix of dried fruits, alcohol, peel and spice that was left to ferment in the run up to the Christmas by everyone’s elderly aunt. The apparatus of course was always the large china mixing bowl and the slightly discoloured dampened tea towel.

Anyway, so two days of snow and here I am in the kitchen waiting patiently for my mini-muffins to cook. Having peered into the oven, there’s not so mini anymore. I added an extra tablespoon of mincemeat to the mixture and I think that they are now weighed down by too much nostalgia.
But the smell of the kitchen is as it as it should be: warm and peppered with the smells of flour and egg, dark chocolate and mincemeat.

The perfect treat on a cold Sunday just before Christmas.

Christmas mini-muffins (courtesy of BBC Food)
200 grams of self-raising flour (sifted)
100g golden caster sugar ( I just used normal)
100 ml sunflower oil
75ml milk
1 large free range egg
1 heaped tablespoon of high quality mincemeat (not sure what makes high quality but Robertson has a royal warranty, so presumeably it hits the mark)
50 grams of dark chocolate

Now before we go any further I need to say the recipe recommends that the mixture is divided in half and combined with 50 grams of dried cranberries and 50g of white chocolate. I decided to devote all my mixture to mincemeat and dark chocolate.

While pausing, I should also add that I got a little confused with my measurements and while I added two extra heaped tablespoons of mincemeat, I forgot to add more chocolate. (I've just tasted one from the over and it tasted pretty good to me.

So you pre-heat the oven to 190C. While the oven is heating, mix together the flour and sugar.

I did this by hand - there is no need to put out the KitchenAid.
Now we have a KitchenAid in our house - it belongs to my co-conspirator. He is the baker. He highly recommended that I hand mix these ingredients. I suspect he did this because (1) it is more than possible to and (2) he likes to keep me away from his cherry-red anniversary KitchenAid.

Having mixed the flour and sugar, in a separate bowl, whisk the oil, egg and milk and then slowly add to the dry ingredients.

Combine, so you get a mixture that is the equivalent of a batter. Then add your mincemeat and chocolate, which you have chopped. Mix everything together and place in mini-muffing cases.

Now according to the BBC, I should have used a mini-muffin tray and I would have except that I don't have one. Our kitchen can barely cope with the Le Creuset and tagine on the stove and the KitchenAid. So, I just used a normal muffin tray.

The result is muffins that will never ever look like the beautiful miniture pudding-like muffins on the website. Instead, they look like something a Christmas grinch would have made - neither muffin nor Christmas canape!

They do taste delicious, and once I make the icing, I think they'll serve the purpose of achiving some winter cheer.

Pear infused vodka

You’ll find one in every in-flight magazine: the 24 hours in ... (insert a city) travel article. It's compulsory reading somewhere between the boredom of overhead safety procedures and the snack service.

For even the most independent traveller, there is something slightly glamorous about this promise of the 24-hour experience. You arrive relaxed and eager, armed with insider knowledge, confident of where to go, and what to see.

So hopefully, you can empathise and forgive me for my lapse in judgement. My ticket said departure time Saturday at 9.10 and returning at 5.15 pm the following day. Destination: Vienna.

What followed was less than the promised 24-hour travel article experience. Now I do not want to dwell on the details and it was still a wonderful experience. But letters have been written, another trip planned and a national airline has been added to the blacklist!

The highlight of this shortened trip was the outstanding, sublime and trully extraordinary Christmas vodka served at Restaurant Zum Kuckuck.

The beauty of this apertif, blushed pink with pear and plum, and served at the start of our meal was inspiring. One bottle of vodka later, the experiment begins:

Pear infused vodka

Take 750 mL vodka; Six Bartlett pears, cut into eight slices and four plums, cut into quarters.
Place fruit in container and add the vodka.

Now from there, you are subject to the various laws of fruit infusion and alcohol.

Somewhere, there must be a definite guide. I haven't found it - a little like the promise of the 24-hours travel experience; however, this is what I have learnt:

  • You use a large glass container with an airtight lid for your infusion.
  • The infusion is only as good as the vodka - so as in most things in life, buy the best one you can.
  • As the fruit absorbs the vodka, you 750 ml bottle will reduce to three cups.
  • To chill or not to chill: some articles say a dark cardboard; other says the fridge for faster results. I want to have mine on Christmas day, so it's in the fridge.
  • To make citrus vodkas use the peel of the fruit. Do not infuse too long as the vodka will become bitter.
  • Continually taste the infusion

Infusion analysis:

  • End of day one: Clear liquid. No discolouration of fruit.
  • Day three: Beginnings of colouration. Blush hue. Fruit has began to discolour. Feeling optimistic.
  • Day five: Taste test. Despite the promise of colour which is now very blush, there is no hint of fruit in the taste. Do I add more fruit? The fruit has started to disintegrate. On Monday it will be one week since this process began. Might need to consult further.
  • Day twelve: Remain highly suspicious of the outcome. The fruit is now very brown and there have been no further changes to the colour or the taste of the vodka. Christmas is in three days. Consult my beloved co-conspirator. He suggests raspberries. As we are off to Borough market tomorrow for provisions we agree to look for some .
  • Day thirteen: Back from market. Have added pomegrantite seeds. Such a magnificent colour. Also decide to add some sugar - just a dessert spoon to try and improve the taste.
  • Day fourteen: The first thing I do when I wake up is check the vodka. An almost miraculous change in colour. Taste has also improved. I remain suspect but we'll see.

Christmas day: Serve vodka in frozen glasses with homemade cured salmon. A big hit!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where the wild things are ...

It’s autumn in London.

The deciduous trees are on the verge of shedding all their leaves but not without a last flash of riotous colour. Golden yellows, burnt crisp oranges and red, the colour of an old Shiraz are everywhere. This is the residue of seasonal colour before descending into the bareness of winter.

The days are shortening. It’s November. Some days the sun is defiant, resisting the call of winter; other days, it appears to have just given up.

With such seasonal thoughts, my mind has thinking of wild things.

At our local farmers market, there has much to choose from – pheasant, mallard, guinea fowl as well as the last of the berries, new cabbages and broccoli, marrows and gourds.

Everything needed for an autumnal feast.

Roast Mallard with blackberries and seasonal vegetables
(Adapted from a recipe from Mark Hix)

One mallard
1 small onion
1 carrot
2 sticks of celery stalks
A few springs of thyme
A little butter
1 glass of red wine
½ teaspoon of redcurrant jelly
500ml chicken stock
½ punnet of blackberries
1 golden gourd
1 bunch of purple broccoli

Preheat oven to 230C. Rub the mallard with butter and season. Place in roasting tray with onion, carrot and celery diced beneath with thyme. Cook for 30 minutes and then remove bird from tray and let it stand.

To make gravy, add ½ of a tablespoon to the roast dish. Add wine and jelly, and then gradually the stock for 10 minutes. Using a sieve, strain the gravy and then add blackberries, returning the gravy to the heat to thicken.

For vegetables, cut the gourd into crescent pieces and roast. Once removed from oven, mix through a dessert spoon of honey. As for broccoli, blanche in boiling salted water for two minutes, before cooking in olive oil favoured with garlic. The broccoli will fade into a soft lavender colour.

Serve mallard with blackberry gravy and seasonal vegetables, decorated with left over blackberries.

Turn the heater on and enjoy the beginning of the winter season.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Four years in London

Four years of eating, traveling, of being a slow eater. So looking back, here are some of my favourite moments, in no particular order:

  • Discovering the joys of open-air dining in the Gaudi Park in Barcelona with Luke. First stop, the market; second stop, art. Classical guitar could be heard in the distance as we sat enraptured and amazed that we had fallen in love. Perfect.

  • My three-hour lunch with Angelo, the mysterious Italian, at the Slow Food Osteria Da Mario near the central market in Florence.

  • On the Isle of Skye, driving with my parents down sheep tracks to find one of the world's most remote restaurants. What followed at the Three Chimneys, the food, atmosphere and location, is one of my most memorable three-hour lunches.

  • Cooking English sausages from Parson's Nose, my then local butcher, for three starved Aussies - Warren, Eli and Jamie.

  • Misbehaving and badly with my friend of a lifetime, Warren, at the Loos Bar in Vienna.

  • Going native at a local Parisian market with Al and Luke and cooking a wonderful dinner of heritage carrots, caramelised endive and what has since been dubbed, the yellow chicken- stuffed with fresh herbs and day old croissant.

  • Celebrating something - I can't remember what, at the Ritz with Luke and drinking Ritz 100s, watching as the gold leaf floated to the top of the glass as it dissolved in the champagne.

  • Being introduced to Bob Bob, that's Bob Bob Ricard, by our friend Alana and sampling some of the best kedgeree, I have ever tasted. All on an ordinary London Saturday.

  • Eating oysters with HJ and Luke in NoHo, San Francisco. We'll have another dozen please!
To celebrate four years , I purchased this at auction at one of my favourite places in London- Criterion auction house. There's no signature and no date, so I can only guess when it was painted. In all likelihood, it could be the Queen's coronation. The auction house told me that the painting is circa 1950s.

Here's a close up - it's London in summer. Just like today. (if you click on the picture you can see the detail.)

A man of the sea

Château Richeux is home to Le Coquillage, one of several restaurants run by local Breton and celebrity chef, Oliver Roellinger.

Most famous for the now closed La Maison du Bricourt, for which he won and then returned not one, not two but three Michelin stars expressing his need to have a simpler life.

Roellinger has a formidable reputation. There are very few chefs who have made the front pages of Le Figaro for handing back the coveted Michelin. (Le Coquillage has just been awarded its first star this year.)

So it was with great expectation and excitement that we arrived at Le Coquillage. With views across to Mont St-Michel, this is a restaurant that plays to its reputation.

The drive offers sweeping views of the sea, which on this Saturday evening at the start of summer is hauntingly barren at low tide. The cypress trees bend and stretch in the wind. There is no hint of summer, only the movements of the seasons across sea and land.

This is a fitting picture for a man who says that “the sea has given me everything” from the earliest of his childhood memories in Sant-Malo to the desire to travel. His blends of spices for which he is famous are inspired by his journeys to Madagascar, Vietnam, and the West Indies.

But tonight is about Brittany and a menu dedicated to the sea.

First to the table is bread: the quotidian of life. Served with spiced butter of cayenne pepper, the bread is favoured with seaweed. The taste of the bitter sourdough with what could only be described as the tartness of the seaweed is both distinctive and delicious. Made on onsite and available for purchase, the bread is cooked in an oven designed by the famous Lionel Poilâne.

If our bread introduces a note of the sea, our appetizer offers its riches with smoked mackerel accompanied by crisp breads served with a smoked salmon mousse and transparent radish wafers. Poetically represented on slate and washed rocks, each mouthful is delicate, of outstanding quality, exquisite in favouring.

Our appetites now whetted, our selection begins with a dish of tomatoes, artichokes and marjoram with grilled sardine. Clams cooked with garlic and parsley bretonne method is also ordered.

The tomatoes are of a sunny disposition – saturated, intense in their heritage colours of blush pink, golden yellow and field green. The plate decorated with flowers of marjoram is the perfect homage to the garden from which these fruits came.

The clams are fresh and succulent, remarkably distinct in their favour despite the rich intensity of the garlic and parsley. The only note of disappointment is the squid fritters with fleur de sel and tomato chutneys that was also ordered. Whilst perfectly cooked, this almost conventional dish fails to compare to others.

From a menu of pigeon cooked on wood fire with buckwheat and one of the unique spice mixture of Epices-roellinger (wind power) and lobster grilled cancale-style, it is the sole that wins out.

Four orders are placed and it is clear from the first mouthful that we have been rewarded in our unanimous choice. The delicate sole separates easily from bone, its fine fillets, so perfectly cooked. The butter is delicately favoured – nutty with the zest of lemon. The mash is presented as a trio - classic, then favoured with seaweed and finally with candied lemon. Each one compliments the next. Perfect flavoured - surprising and unexpected.

The cheese cart we leave to others but watch with interest the use of oils and spices to compliment the local Brittany and Normandy cheeses. Instead we select from the dessert cart – the memory of which demands a second pause of appreciation.

Imagine delicate meringues, fresh nougat studded with almonds, a raspberry sorbet. A flirtatious mille fleur and a densely rich and very inviting chocolate tart.

Where to begin? With chocolate mousse tart, a broche style pastry filled with pistachio mousse and the nougat.

It is easy to understand why Parisians drive the distances to come to Le Coquillage to eat from this table of this man of the sea.

At each course, you taste the freshness of each season with local ingredients. Oliver Roellinger’s note that his menu is dedicated to the local suppliers and producers is an appropriate one, for the experience of this bistro is one that celebrates Brittany. I for one cannot wait to go back.

Things to do in Brittany
Mont Saint-Michel: This rocky islet is home to the famous abbey that sits on the border between Normandy and Brittany. According to Catholic lore, the Archangel Saint Michael instructed the bishop of Avranches, Saint Aubert, to build a monastery. From the year 1000 on, and for six centuries thereafter, the Dukes of Normandy and pilgrims have financed the construction of additional structures. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Thalassotherapy: Famous for its sea water therapies, Brittany offers the perfect retreat and therapy for rheumatism, arthritis, stress, weight loss, physical therapy. This is an opportunity to book a day spa, get covered in mud and sea algae, and recharge.

Saint-Malo: Take the boat from the medieval town of Dinan to Saint-Malo. Walk along the fortress and out to the sea pool and harbour. Sample the local moules et frittes – the muscles are much smaller than those found in the Pacific and are delicious.

Dinan: This is the town where I tasted my first true Breton buckwheat galettes: ham, cheese and caramelised onion served with a local cider. Always look out for the label crêperies gourmandes. Standards are strictly monitored by the Crêperie Gourmande committee.
A quaint medieval town with lots of winding streets and boutiques, some touristy, others not. Indulge in some additional striped behaviour with a pullover from St James.

Market: At the local market of Dinard, you’ll find the perfect baguette, slice of Brittany butter, striped shirt and shopping basket. Select from the best in season – from summer strawberries and white asparagus through to heritage tomatoes. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Special thanks to my friend Maya for inviting me to her family home in St Briac. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been in the world.

Dedicated to Gerard McLennan, another man who loved the sea.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I want to live in a kitchen

Well actually, I want to live in the kitchen at Leila’s café in Shoreditch near Columbia Road market.

With its open workspace, industrial cabinetry and perfect Melbourne-style coffee, it would be my ideal place to cook and eat, entertain and live.

The kitchen would house every kitchen appliance, gadget and importantly magazine and cookbook, I own and desire to own. The wooden ranks would hold plates old and new, glassware, platters and bowls.

The benches would be my library and display area from a book of M.K.Fisher’s letters to framed menus that I have collected (or should I say liberated) from restaurants and cafes where I have eaten. Overhead would be the crowning glory of pots and pans, large cooking instruments.

From the kitchen and simply divided by a wooden bar, I could look upon the living area with a large table for entertaining.

A perfect world.