Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Chilled Hedgerow Soup



It’s a time of year I associate with Sylvia Plath’s poem Blackberrying. A lament about a summer gone. It’s one of my favourite poems – albeit lacerated with allusions and symbolism that would have given Freud a nervous breakdown.

BLACKBERRYING – Sylvia Plath

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

This is my favourite time of year. The air is clear. The humidity has gone. The warmth of the summer is still floating around. Apples are weighing down branches like Christmas shoppers staggering home with gift. And one of the most hostile bullies in the hedgerow suddenly turns friendly for a few weeks offering inky berries as a peace offering for the bicycle punctures, scratches and bleeding they’ve caused throughout the rest of the year.

Our first forage of the year was on Tooting Common which turned into 5 jars of beautiful Blackberry jam. I’m slapping it all over my toast and will keep a jar back for an Autumn Mess at some point soon.

Our second forage was a more industrious affair. Me, Sarah and my mother in law collected about 4kg of blackberries and a similar amount of elderberries from the winding lanes of deepest darkest Somerset. We came back home blanketed in midge bites, needled by nettles and tortured by thorns. But it was worth it for the amount of inky treasure we brought home.

We found it curious that the best elders grow near telegraph poles. We came up with various explanations about why this was the case. Was it the electromagnetic field of the wires? Was it the Creosote? Was it the extra moisture that drips down the pole? No. It’s because when the hedges are cut the tractors avoid chopping down the telegraph poles and the elder survives. So if you are looking for elder, telegraph poles are your friends.

At our wedding we had a Swedish inspired pre-dessert of chilled fruit soup served in coffee cups. Tom (AKA the Flavoursmith) made it from a range of dark summer fruits including blackberries and blackcurrants. We’ve been keen to make something similar ourselves, but just using the spoils of our hedgerow plunder.










Without really following a recipe we stripped off the elderberries using the tines of a fork, rinsed all the fruit and then added it to a massive cauldron with one litre of water and about a dozen large apples that had fallen off the tree to give it some body. We let it simmer away for a few hours on a low heat until all the berries had given up their juice.



It looked like an experimental Ribena laboratory. And smelled amazingly of autumn. Although elder berries don’t taste that strong, they did give the flavor and extra layer of complexity and an extraordinary colour of pure purple.



We then strained the soup through a large sieve to remove the large pips. And then passed it all through jelly bags which took ages! But it was worth it for the purity of the liquor and the absence of pesky pips.

We then returned the liquid to the cleaned out cauldron and added enough sugar to take the sour edge off and then cooled. It’s a labour of love. But it’s worth it.



Chill and serve in espresso cups. Allow about 100-150ml per person. And if you have any left over it is great as a cordial with fizzy water. Or better still as the base to an ice cream. We've got an enormous vat of it in the freezer which we keep dipping into for midnight snacks.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Sourdough Virginity



I’ve been boring the noble people of Instagram for the last two months with highly sexed up pictures of bread that I’ve reared from hand, fresh out of the oven. The early ones were erratic and rustic, with the occasional scorched bottom and dense crumb. Some have been a funny green colour from courgette juice. And others an alarming shade of maroon from beetroot juice. Slowly but surely these sourdough loaves have improved. The crumb lighter. The crust crisper and chewier. And the most recent loaves have even got smart concentric circles on them from the bannetone which I’ve been misusing for the last month! But they have all been delicious. And even the burnt ones have been tastier than anything you’d normally buy from a shop.

It’s safe to say that I’ve become hooked on baking sourdough bread. It might well be sign of a quarter life crisis. But actually it’s been a very therapeutic experience. Most things in modern life involve instant gratification – photos get instantaneous likes and comments on Instagram; emails get responded to promptly; Snapchat messages only last seconds. Whereas making bread from scratch with a sourdough starter is soulful and takes pretty much a whole day of respect and careful attention. Haste, rush, speed and hurry simply aren’t possible when making bread. Baking is a miraculous balm to modern life’s sting.

It all started with a terrible loaf of bread that I made during a short trip to Whitstable made with fast action yeast and not very much skill. It bubbled away and ossified into a loaf with the texture and density of depleted uranium that had been compressed by the weight of an ice age. An airy, light, bouncy loaf it was not.

Irked and inspired in equal measure I decided to try to make my own starter. It seems like a rite of passage for anyone who is a bit of a food nerd. Dan Lepard has been my wingman ever since. Along with a sprinkling of advice from a Guardian article that suggested using rhubarb as part of the initial mix.

All we did was to mix 100g rye flour with 100g water and about 50g of finely sliced rhubarb from the garden. And then we undertook the very arduous task of leaving it for 5 days in a loosely covered jar. I think we may have stirred it on day 4 when it got a bit moldy. But that was it.

Then on day 6 we simply poured half of the acidic smelling gloop away and added 100g rye flour and 100g of water and left it for 6 hours whilst it doubled in size. And then we made our first loaf very simple loaf using Dan Lepard’s method.  The quantities below are for the first small loaf we made, using half measures from Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye Loaf in the Handmade Loaf, which has become my baking bible. These ratios seem to work for all manner of loaves.

Mix together 125g starter, 250g flour, 150g water and a teaspoon of salt. Leave to autolyse for 10 minutes. Then knead for 20 seconds using sunflower oil to stop it sticking to your hands and work surfaces. Then leave it. Half an hour later knead it again. And then leave it for an hour. Then knead it again and leave it to prove on a baking tray with some oiled clingfirm on top.



Once it has doubled in size sprinkle with flour, shape it, slash the top with a bread knife and bake in a preheated oven with a roasting pan of water in the bottom to generate steam at 200 degrees C for 40 minutes. When golden and with a crisp bottom remove nad allow to cool on a wire wrack. Give into temptation and slice. Smear on butter and marvel at your first loaf. I swear nothing has ever, or will ever taste as good as your first mouthful of your own sourdough loaf.













Since that virgin loaf I’ve advanced the technique. Now the loaf is proved in a banettone (wicker basket), which is my new favourite word. However, only last week did I realise that the muslin cloth it comes with is designed to act as a hat not a lining! Whoops. The bread as a result now has lovely concentric circles of crusty semolina flour as decoration, rather than looking like it’s slept on a rather course pillow.





We’ve also got the hang of preheating the oven enough and even found a slab of marble in the garden that is the perfect size for the oven. It now acts as our baking stone. I’m convinced the people who used to live in our house must have had it cut to size because it fits like Cinderella’s shoe. The marble slab takes longer to heat up, but it is giving the loaves more bounce and a better rise, but without burning the bottom.

We’ve also got more confident at playing around with ingredients. We’ve discovered via some vegetable experimentation that you can substitute the water in a bread recipe for vegetable juice. So we’ve been juicing our glut of beetroot, chard and courgettes as the means of hydration for the bread. You can also add some of the pulp to the dough, balanced out with a bit more flour to get the right moisture ratios. The results of this have been great.





The bread takes on a great colour and flavor in the case of beetroot and really helps to keep the otherwise quite dense rye loaves very moist and lively.  I always like anise flavours with beetroot, so caraway and fennel seeds are a perfect match. It’s great with salted butter on it’s own. Amazing with marmite. And is a revelation with smoked mackerel pate.

The courgette juice and pulp loaves blend in nicely and just give a hint of background sweetness and a very pleasant moistness to the crumb. Mixed through with pumpkin seeds it makes for a fantastic loaf. The colour is less vivid than the beetroot, but it still makes for a fine looking loaf that’s got plenty of character. Subtle.

I’ve also started adding in the salt during the second knead. It seems to be working well. But, it has meant that I’ve made a couple of saltless loaves which have been irritating, but still tasty.


This baking journey has only been going for 2 months. But I’m hooked. And really hope I’m still doing it with the same starter in 2 decades time. I’m determined to make a super light white loaf with enormous holes and to master the dark arts of German pumpernickel with it’s treacle like demeanour. And I’m also keen to perfect some gluten free loaves for my new colleagues at work. If you’ve got any sourdough suggestions to try out, please let me know.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Night Riviera to Cornwall

Sleeper to Cornwall-4

As the Night Riviera pulled out of Paddington our weekend began with a hiss of kissing steel and a clunk of clacking couplings. Our berths were like Japanese boutique hotel rooms – except on a train. They would have been futuristic once – but there’s something even more charming about the way they hark back to another era of long distance train travel. To a life more civilised. 

Our suite had two bunks, a sink, a dinky ladder, air conditioning and wonderfully static sheets that flickered and glowed when you shuffled around in the dark like the Northern Lights. After some free tea and shortbread in the dining cart we turned in for the night and awoke to a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea at Truro at 6.45am.

We had left the gloom and bustle of London behind us and alighted at piratey Penzance, squinting, as we were stunned by the azure brilliance of the iridescent Atlantic. Our 4 mile cycle to Mousehole, through the fishing port of Newlyn followed the coast and filled our lungs with sushi fresh air and our ears with the rhythmic cacophony of seagulls and trawlers. We felt a million miles from Paddington and felt like bottling the air and sounds in one of his marmalade jars.

Sleeper to Cornwall-15

By 8.15 we had been welcomed into the Old Coastguard as if they had just realised we were The Ancient Mariner and ushered our alarmingly Lycra clad bodies into the breakfast room where we feasted on locally smoked kippers, home made yoghurt and Cornish tea. I am sure being able to see the sea makes a kipper taste even better.

Sleeper to Cornwall-10

Sleeper to Cornwall-18

Sleeper to Cornwall-7

With the sun beaming down we set out on a 60 mile cycling loop that tracked west through Lamorna to Lands End before heading onto St. Just and then through the majestic moorlands either side of Zennor. It was like cycling through a Rapha photoshoot – except with more sweat and a much less successful posing. We watched as seagulls remorselessly followed a tractor as it ploughed a field that dropped off into the Atlantic. We waited as a cocky cockerel stopped the traffic as he ambled across the “main” road. We nodded at fellow cyclist. And they nodded back.

We paused at the Gurnard’s Head for a gawp at their lunch menu – and I am still torn between the roast turbot with truffles and the blade of beef with wild mushrooms. But it would have been a bit indulgent considering I’d just had a big breakfast, and that it was only 11am!

At St. Ives we stopped for a pasty and a cup of tea before escaping the tourists and heading through the delightful backroads around St. Erth where we climbed over the central hills where we were confronted by St. Michael’s Mount erupting out of the shimmering bay.  We continued along the coast and back to Mousehole and felt any sense of stress from London flutter away. It’s a spectacular coastline and a privilege to be able to cycling along it.

Sleeper to Cornwall-16

Dinner at the Old Coastguard was just as good as we’d hoped. Given that it is the latest addition to the East Sleep Drink family whose siblings are the Gurnard’s Head and Felin Fach Griffin – we had high hopes. You won’t find many better views than here to accompany a pre-dinner drink and a game of Scrabble. I’m gushing – but it really was magical.

Cowie’s pork belly starter was sticky, soft and unctuously coated with an oriental marinade. And my crab rarebit was gutsy and craby without being prissy. These weren’t mind-blowingly-original dishes, but they were refreshingly un-twee and intelligently crafted. And given how far we were from London they felt spot on.

For fear of food envy we, unusually, both chose their fish stew. It came laced with (possibly Cornish) saffron and a tangy aioli and swimming with ling, cod, squid and mussels – all bound together in a richly seasoned tomato bisque and spiked with fennel. We sent our bowls back so clean that they could probably have been able to bypass the washing up machine.

Cowie’s cheesecake was good without being thrilling – with the indecently juicy figs stealing the show. But my pistachio and yoghurt cake wouldn’t have been out of place at Moro. It’s the kind of pudding that makes you wish you had hollow legs.

We eventually carried our weary limbs to bed for a sleep that seemed to last forever – before returning for a repeat of the previous day’s breakfast – but with less Lyrca! My full Cornish was wonderfully well judged with the star being a nugget of Hog’s Pudding that left you in no doubt that the pig had enjoyed a good life.

We took the cycling a bit easier on the second day with a 40 mile loop – and instead took in the delights of the Logan’s Rock Inn which is famous for its crab sandwiches and also marveled at the waves crashing against Cape Cornwall. If the sun had been out we’d have visited the Menack Theatre, Porthcorno and Senna Cove – but unfortunately we were battling against near gale force winds. Even in these conditions the cycle was spectacular.

We retuned to The Old Coastguard for Cornish scones and lashings of tea as we slumbered on the world’s most comfortable sofa. Eventually it was time to go and we reluctantly bade farewell and paid our very modest bill. They’d looked after us superbly and I can’t recommend The Old Coastguard highly enough. My only suggestion for improvement would be to have a cycle rack. In fact, it could easily become a base for people cycling around Cornwall. All they’d need to do would be to provide some waterproof maps, some suggested routes (with stop offs at the Gurnard’s Head) and maybe team up with a local bike mechanic to offer some basic tools and services.

We meandered back to Penzance to board our sleeper with some provisions from Co-op – to help make the first part of the journey pass by quicker. After a ½ bottle of train wine we were feeling suitably snoozy to sleep through anything that the train tracks could throw at us. We turned into our bunks and awoke in Paddington station at 6.15am with a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea and were allowed to doze on the train until 7am. Given that the train arrived at 5am there’s something quite surreal about being asleep on a stationary train in a major station.


It is without question my favourite weekend break that we’ve been on. The fact that you get three nights away and two full days in Cornwall makes it fell like a holiday rather than just a weekend. And the experience of the sleeper service is so civilised you’ll feel like you were in a Bond film. Add the relaxed and civilised delights of The Old Coastguard into the mix and some epic weather and it gets even better. We’re now sleeper train nerds and are looking forward to an adventure to the Lakes or maybe even all the way up to the nether regions of Scotland.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Truffled tuscan sausages with polenta, braised fennel and gremolata

Truffle Tuscan Sausages

Walking into the Italian deli near my office in King’s Cross is to be transported to the scene in Goodfellas where they are cooking in prison. The store is run by an Italian version of the most charming version of Arkwright from Open All Hours, who has never failed to be a gracious an inspiring host. He will make you enormous sandwiches cut from whole loaves of ciabatta laced with freshly sliced cured meats and cheeses, moistened with a healthy slick of olive oil; or more conventionally he’ll send you packing with genuinely Italian ingredients and delicacies that will stink your office out for the afternoon, before transporting your family to an Italian holiday when you get home from work.

Inspired by a colleague who had come back with a truffled pecorino, I popped in for some KC Continental magia. My head was almost blown off by the smell of truffle as I walked in. But alas the cheese had sold out. But true to form Arkwrightioni sent me packing with some amazing truffled sausages from Tuscany. These puppies positively wreaked of truffle and almost had all the dogs in our office howling like deranged wolves. There’s something deeply primeval about truffles and I couldn’t wait to cook them.

I thought about making an Italian version of toad in the hole with loads of rosemary and a healthy dose of mushrooms, but decided that would be more suitable in autumn. I also dismissed a truffle sausage and bean stew for similar reasons. And sausage and lentil casserole suffered a similar fate. Instead, I opted to combine my amazing truffled sausages with a slick of polenta, a smear of gremolata and some braised fennel.

Ingredients

6 truffled Tuscan sausages from KC Continental Stores
3 bulbs of fennel
2 large onions
300g of frozen peas
2 glasses of white wine
400ml of chicken stock
200g polenta
50g grated parmesan
3 garlic cloves
100g butter
1 pack of parsley
4 sprig of thyme

Method

Make the gremolata by very finely chopping the parsley. Then douse in olive oil and squeeze in a lemon’s juice and add some of it’s finely grated zest. Season aggressively.

Brown the sausages in a casserole dish and set aside.

Then brown the onions and fennel until golden. Then add the garlic. Then add the wine and let the alcohol bubble off.

Then add the sausages and 100ml of chicken stock. Add the thyme. Allow to simmer until the sausages are cooked through.

Meanwhile make the polenta according the packet instrucions. I used chicken stock rather than water which worked well. And then beat in lots of parmesan and butter.

Add the peas to the casserole. Let them cook through. Season everything.

Truffle Tuscan Sausages 2


Then serve with a good dollop of mushroom. And a glass of very cold white wine. We probably should have had a Tuscan white… but instead we had a dry German Riesling which worked very well indeed.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Venison Rydberg


Venison Ryberg-6

Biff Rydberg caught my attention as I was thumbing my way through a Swedish butchery book. Even though there was no photo and all the text was in Swedish there was something interesting about it. From my basic grasp of Swedish I understood it to be a more grown up version of Pytt i Panna – which is minced beef mixed with cubes of sautéed potatoes that is to Sweden what chilli con carne is to Texans.

Intrigued, I dipped into Marcus Samuelson’s Aquavit book and discovered that Biff Rydberg is indeed a Swedish classic. Apparently it was invented in a hotel in Stockholm – much like the Wallenberger. It’s a very simple dish of flash fried cubes of beef fillet accompanied by squares of fried potatoes, onions and an egg yolk. Super straightforward. High quality food, simply cooked. It could barely be more Scandinavian. Check out Nordic Nibbler's stunning blog post about this wonderful Scandi dish.

My first attempt at Biff Rydberg actually featured elk, rather than beef, supplied by a fabulous Swedish intern whose brother was a keen huntsman. I cubed the lean elk and served it with diced sautéed potatoes and an egg yolk. It was a big success but I forgot to photograph it and felt as though the meal had slipped away. At the time I remember thinking that it would have been even better with some more interesting root vegetables and some tarragon to make the egg yolk form a sort of bernaisey sauce as it mixes with the warm meat and hot potatoes.

When I moved back to London I planted a few Jerusalem artichokes in the spring along with some golden and pink stripy beetroot. All summer I wished them along and marveled as the artichokes grew up into the stratosphere. And cursed as the beetroot seemed to laugh at me as they tip-toed their way towards adulthood. They were destined for my alternative take on Biff Rydberg – along with some wild mushrooms, the tops from my beetroot and crucially, some venison.

The venison was wild and I didn’t know what cut it came from. So rather than flash frying it – it seemed more sensible to sear it and then let it braise gently with some rehydrated wild mushrooms, juniper and red wine.

And rather than using boring old potatoes, I gave the starches an upgrade with c combination of cubed celeriac, beetroot and artichokes which balanced the metallic savouriness of the game with some earthy sweetness.

It’s a lot of effort. But as the egg yolk mingles with the gamey meat and sweet, earthy vegetables you’ll hopefully agree it’s worth it. It was so satisfying to put my artichokes and beetroot to good use.

Ingredients

For the braised venison

500g of cubed wild venison
300ml of red wine
Handful of juniper berries
Handful of dried mushrooms – rehydrated in 500ml of hot water
3 sliced onions
1 minced clove of garlic
Dried tarragon
Dusting of plain flour
Salt and pepper

Vegetables

4 beetroot
½ celeriac
4 Jerusalem artichokes
Beetroot tops

Dressing

Fresh tarragon
2 egg yolks
1 lemon

Method

This isn’t a hard dish to cook. The only thing that is tricky is juggling lots of different aspects so that they are all ready at the same time. You need to do the 3 different tasks at the same time.

Dust the venison in flour and season with salt and pepper. Brown the meat in a pan. Remove from the pan. Then sauté the onions. Then deglaze the pan with red win and add the venison and juniper berries having given then a gentle bruising first. Chuck in some dried tarragon and the rehydrated wild mushrooms along with enough liquor to cover the meat. Cook in a low oven until the venison is soft. Set aside and get cracking with the other parts.

Venison Ryberg-1

Venison Ryberg-3

Venison Ryberg-4

Bake the beetroot whole. When they are cooked peel off the skin and then slice into cubes and keep warm. Mine were so small there was no need to cut them.

Cut the celeriac into 2 cm and the Jerusalem arichokes into 4 cm chunks and then parboil in salted water until they are almost tender. Then drain, dry, season and roast in a hot oven for 20 minutes or so until golden.

Steam the beetroot tops (or spinach if using) just before serving.

Separate the venison, mushrooms and onions from the liquor and reduce this to a sticky, syrupy sauce.

Arrange the venison in the centre of the plate with an egg yolk nestling inside its shell. Then add the cubed root vegetables so that they fan out across the plate.  And fit the beetroot tops in where you find space. Adorn then meat with the mushroomy mixture and the now reduced sauce. Then scatter the fresh tarragon over the whole plate along with as much seasoning as you think is required. And finish with a little spritz of lemon juice to help the egg yolk and tarragon to meld.

Venison Ryberg-7

Enjoy with a nice glass of red wine.

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