18 months ago we planted an asparagus bed at my parents’ house. We spent a full day preparing the soil meticulously to ensure our spidery crowns would have the best chance in life possible. It was the equivalent of sending them off to boarding school and also giving them boaster lessons in French and Spanish. As well as enrolling them in trumpet classes and making them sleep with a paint brush taped to their hand. These asparagus plants wanted for nothing. The only downside is that we will only be able to harvest our first spears in 2012! This will give the crowns enough time to mature and get their strength up so they will continue to be productive for another 20 years. So it’s a price worth paying.
Asparagus is one of my favourite vegetables. But only at the right time of year and when the focus is on the spear and not everything else around them. We’ve had some memorable versions over the last few years. At El Bulli 5 asparagus chunks were served having been cooked for different amounts of time and anointed with different flavourings. Virtually raw asparagus with lemon contrasted perfectly with soft asparagus topped with anchovy butter. At The Hinds Head I had a board of asparagus with hollandaise sauce which I still dream about. It seems then that a fantastic dish of asparagus is likely to linger long in the memory.
All these fond memories derive from the green variety, but I’ve never had white asparagus and wanted to see what the difference was. Whilst stumbling around my new favourite Swedish supermarket, I almost crashed into an iced counter presenting enormous spears of white asparagus. The price tag alone indicated that these were pretty special, so I bought a few spears and rushed home to cook them.
White asparagus is supposed to have a milder flavour than green asparagus and is grown using a process that horticulturalists might call etiolation and everyone else darkness! Essentially by covering the plants in sandy soil and therefore depriving the plants of sunlight the spears turn out white rather than green because of the lack of photosynthesis.
Given their magnificent size and allegedly diluted flavour, I decided to roast them, rather than subject them to boiling water or steam. And for a Swedish touch thought a dill hollandaise would be a good idea…
Ingredients (serves 1)
3 massive white asparagus spears Melted butter Oliver oil Salt Pepper Lemon Dill Egg yolks
Brush the asparagus spears in oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes or until tender. Avoid burning your fingers to the bone like I did, if you possibly can.
In the meantime warm some lemon juice in a glass bowl over a pan of not quite simmering water. Once it has reduced slightly mix in 3 egg yolks. Whisk until frothy. Then add melted butter bit by bit whilst whisking until you are left with a beautiful hollandaise sauce. Once it is the consistency you want chop some dill and add to the sauce which will exude on a alluring perfume that anyone who has been to Scandinavia will instantly recognize.
Serve the spears with a generous dollop of dill hollandaise and tuck in. I found this white asparagus to be more fibrous than the dainty green variety common to late British springtime. But that said the top two thirds of each stem were juicy, sweet and tender with only the base being less than perfect. The dill hollandaise turned out to be a fantastic foil adding a clout of additional taste that the white variety seems to miss out on.
If anyone else has any thoughts on white asparagus as opposed to green, I’d be very interested to hear them – especially if they involved recipes with a Scandinavian slant.
I’ve settled into my flat in Gothenburg and took untold amounts of pleasure in unpacking all my kit that has arrived from the UK. Having lived without books and my kitchen kit for a month or so, the process of arranging my small library and kitchen was particularly satisfying. I now feel settled and ready to embrace everything that Sweden has to offer.
I’ve bought two Swedish cooking books to act as my culinary bibles – The Scandinavian Kitchen which is quite everyday and Aquavit for when you want to experiment.
I set off to the supermarket with the intention of cooking salted duck which I found in the Aquavit book. But when I could only find frozen “Anka” for 11 pounds a breast I decided a change of tack was in order. ICA Focus has a fantastic range of pork and beef. But if you want chicken, lamb or duck you’re in for disappointment. And even more so if you can’t understand the language. It makes it so hard to know what cut of meat you are looking at. Especially when they are butchered slightly differently to in the UK. I’m now determined to learn Swedish from a cooking perspective!
After 30 minutes of walking backwards and forward, in a mild state of panic, I selected a rather expensive, but very fine looking chicken breast from the organic section and decided to cure it in brine instead of the duck and to accompany it with a blazing red risotto stained with beetroot and sundried tomato. It was one of those spur of the moment about turns in a supermarket that transforms your mood from being a bit bleak to bouncing down the aisle to the checkout – eager to turn the hob on and get cooking. Ingredients:
For the chicken
1 chicken breast 4 tablespoons of salt 2 tablespoons of sugar Loads of thyme
For the scarlet risotto
1 beetroot Risotto rice 3 sun dried tomatoes Salt and pepper
Make a brine by boiling a pan of water and dissolving the salt and sugar. Once boiled allow to cool and add the thyme. Then submerge your chicken breast and weigh it down with a bowl. Allow to cure for up to 12 hours. The brining process makes the meat very tender and juicy. And means that the skin will crisp up beautifully. It's a technique that pops up repeatedly in Scandinavian cooking.
In the meantime, dice a beetroot and add to a pan full of water. Boil for 20 minutes until tender. Drain the red water into another pan and reserve. This will be your stock.
In a heavy bottomed pan sweat an onion in butter and olive oil. Then add the chopped beetroot and your rice. Allow to crackle in the fact and watch it turn red. Then add the stock bit by bit as normal and enjoy the experience of making one of the scariest looking risottos you can imagine. Cut your sun dried tomatoes into slithers and lob them in to. They will add a nice tartish note to the sweet and earthy rice. Once the stock has absorbed and the rice is cooked beat in a wad of butter and watch it turn glossy like a tin of Dulux paint.
Dry your chicken breast and coat in oil and a squeeze of lemon. Roast for 25 minutes.
Assemble and eat.
The earthy risotto is the perfect foil for the salted chicken which is moist and graced with crispy skin. As a combination it works like a dream and is a great conversation starter because it looks so strange!
We come here not to bury Cassius, but to praise him.
Tragedy has struck. And Cassius is no more. The bitterly cold winter and blanket of snow sapped away his strength and left him in pieces. But rather than be sad and mourn his departure, let’s instead celebrate his incredible life and feast on pictures of the sensational pizzas he blessed with his scorching heat.
Cassius. You were amazing. You set the Summer of 2009 on fire. And we're going to miss you. So much.
Maybe Phoenix might rise from the ashes of his demise?
At this time of year the gnarled and dappled roads of Somerset become a multisensory treat. The shadows become tinged with iridescent blue and speckled with bursts of pristine white. And the air becomes fragrant with the smell of sweet wild garlic. In Cowie’s parents’ garden the apple blossom is readying itself like confetti at a wedding and the leaves all around are fluttering into life. I don’t think there is a time of the year more imbued with positivity.
After harrowing a field and helping with a bonfire I just had to cook “spring”. This is a slightly odd thing to say, but like the psychopath in Perfume, I was overtaken with an urge to capture the essence of spring in Somerset. So I walked into the hedgerow wearing some gloves (I wasn’t naked by the way), carrying a plastic bag and started harvesting nettle tips and wild garlic like a hyperactive tea picker. A few stings later and my carrier bag was overflowing with greenery and dainty, milk white flours.
I didn’t bother with a recipe and just let the bundle of greenery guide me and was rewarded with a vivacious green soup that cost virtually nothing to make but tasted luxuriously of spring itself. Use your judgement with the quantities.
1 carrier bag full of nettles Half a carrier bag of wild garlic leaves and flowers 1 diced potato Knob of butter or olive oil 1 sliced onion Chicken stock Crème fraiche Parmesan Salt and pepper
Wash the nettles and wild garlic thoroughly. You’ll find all sorts of creatures in your soup otherwise! Then sweat your onion and potato in a large cast iron saucepan until the onion is beginning to turn golden and the potato is softening. Then add in your chopped wild garlic leaves. The kitchen will be overwhelmed with the sweet aroma of garlic at this point. Then add your nettles and watch them wilt like grown up spinach. After a minute or two add your stock and simmer for 10 minutes until the leaves have turned soft and the liquid is looking like soylent green.
Once you are happy that the vegetation is cooked remove from the heat and blend to a smooth, green consistency. Allow to cool for a bit then pass it through a grinder in order to take away any graininess. If you haven’t got one don’t worry, this step is not strictly necessary, but does improve the texture.
When you are ready to serve simply reheat, season aggressively with both salt and pepper. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche, a dusting of Parmesan cheese and most importantly a scattering of wild garlic flowers which add a gentle garlic burst to this soulful bowlful of spring.
It’s one of my favourite soups and is well worth every single sting! Some warm bread, slathered in cold, salty butter would top this off a treat. As would a crouton anointed with early season goats cheese. Robert McIntosh (Thirst for Wine and Wine Conversation) suggests washing this down with "something like a Vinho Verde or a spritely Chenin Blanc."
Nuzzling up to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and basking in over 300 days of sunshine a year, Boulder is a city that’s easy to become very fond of. If LA is a city defined by the glitz of Hollywood and veneer of celebrity and New York is all about the dark arts of money; then think of Boulder through the lens of brands like Patagonia, Trek, Whole Foods and by second hand bookstores, independent coffee shops and stores selling acres of beads. It’s an antidote to mainstream America where the people are thin, broad minded and the streets are cleaner than Mr Muscle’s whistles. You’re as likely to see a deer or a mountain lion on the streets as an item of stray litter.
Thanks to the volcanic eruption in Iceland we stayed in Boulder for 12 days rather than the planned 7, which gave us ample opportunity to become familiar with most of the city’s restaurants. Here are my highlights from dining in Boulder:
The Kitchen was our saviour. It was opened 6 years ago by Hugo Matheson who used to cook at the River Café before moving to the States. The food is as simple as you’d expect given this foundation and impeccably sourced, whilst the atmosphere balances a feeling of home comfort with the bustle and metropolitan style you expect from a restaurant. The menu is cleverly divided into a range of smaller dishes and then some larger plates so you are at liberty to construct a meal to suit your appetite. One of their defining selling points happens on Mondays where you can join in with a family meal where you don’t know what’s coming and just tuck in with those around you.
Of the smaller dishes mushrooms on toast were tremendous – the smokiness of the toasted sourdough made the shrooms taste even more of themselves and the dusting of thyme was well judged. Tomato bisque was as thick and bold as an Arsenal centre half from yesteryear. Beets with goats cheese were sweet and earthy with a tang from the cheese that brought the dish together. Pork terrine was just as good but we could have done with more of their excellent toast. They were so good that we often opted to have two of these smaller plates rather than indulge in a traditional main course.
Main courses were just as impressive. A simple orecciette a la Bolognese was as comforting as a mystery tax rebate and a duck salad was a welcome spa of healthiness in an otherwise calorie heavy trip. Plump wood fired mussels with chorizo were first class and made me wonder why people so often just stick to garlic and white wine and how the mussels had made it unscathed to the centre of a continent. Other main courses such as hanger steaks, rumps of lamb and tranches of trout looked fantastic as they shimmied past.
Indulgence beat restraint on more than one occasion when it came to desert. Their chocolate pudding was so gungy and decadently chocolatey that I had it again a few days later. And their home made chocolate bars with differing degrees of cocoa content should be missed either, although they could have been a grain more saline.
The Kitchen’s other great bonus is their mind boggling selection of beers which run to a whole side of A4 and are best enjoyed in the busy bar Upstairs. You can choose from Japanese beer made from toasted rice to myriad local brews. But rather than just dive in and pluck one out of thin air, you’d be best served by asking for some advice from the incredibly efficient staff who are more than happy for you to try a bit before you order – so long as they are on draft. This beer centric approach is pretty common in Boulder where there are scores of interesting breweries all encouraging you to drink a proper beer not a Bud Light.
The Kitchen is an impressively realised restaurant which balances informality with quality and a set of values that are very appealing. It must have been well ahead of its time when it opened six years ago.
This is downtown Boulder’s most popular upscale French brasserie where people come to indulge and impress. The menu is extensive but well executed. There’s nothing unfamiliar except for a few fun twists and you could happily eat everything on it.
I couldn’t resist ordering lobster mac and cheese which read like a car crash but tasted amazing. God knows why I ordered shell fish in the middle of Colorado, or why I thought it was a bright idea to have some macaroni cheese in a French restaurant. But it worked. The lobster was juicy, soft and full of flavour. And the cheesey pasta was laced with truffle. I smiled as I indulged in such a basic dish that had been elevated to luxury status in a very American way. My only regret is that the whole dish couldn’t have been less colourful. Beige, yellow and vanilla are not a great trio! Fillet of beef with a red wine reduction and mashed potato and wild mushrooms was a big hit. As was hanger steak. And I was thrilled by the idea of the goats cheese profiterole that bobbed up and down on top of my tomato soup.
It’s a lively restaurant with a few fun surprises tucked up its sleeve that makes it stand out as being more than just any old brasserie.
Jax is Boulder’s leading sea food restaurant that does a fine line in oysters from both the East and West coast as well as lobster, king crab and all the other luxury fish you’d expect if it was on the coast. I don’t know quite how they manage to source such a great range of fresh seafood, but it must be the sort of logistical nightmare that would give Freddie Kruger a hard night’s sleep.
One night I sat at the bar drinking a glass of white burgundy and slurped my chicken and crawfish gumbo with glee. It was thick, spicy and comforting. The lobster BLT that followed wasn’t quite as memorable, but it’s the sort of thing I find very hard not to order. Sadly the lobster lost the battle to the bread and bacon which makes me even more determined to try a lobster roll as soon as possible. Bantering with the bartender and trying to swat of a cougar or two made the whole experience even more fun.
On another evening we enjoyed mussels with a green thai broth that could have been a lot more bold and some calamari that passed muster. Halibut with a prawn and cream sauce sounded delicious but was sadly cooked for a fraction too long, but would have been a hit if it hadn’t. It was a shame to mistreat a piece of fish (even slightly) after going to such an effort to get it to Colorado.
When I return to Boulder I’m looking forward to guzzling oysters and gnawing at king crab claws at the bar with a glass of cold white wine in my hand. I think it’s best to stick to the simple things here which let the seafood shine. Their PR blurb says come to Jax and get hooked. I think I might well be.
Thankfully Salt is much more palatable than the undertakers it once was. Especially if you’re the kind of person who spots something on the menu called Give Peas a Chance and finds their heart murmuring in excitement. It turned out to be an emerald gem consisting of (deep breath) sweet pea ravioli, wood roasted hazel dell king oyster mushroom, glazed carrots, fava beans,asparagus, sugar snap peas, dried tomatoes and lemon beurre blanc. For a pea and a pun lover it was a pure delight. Rare rump of lamb from the grill with Moroccan spicing was excellent but ironically could have benefited from better seasoning. It’s a fun restaurant. But sadly they are incapable of making a good gin and tonic at the bar.
The Trident Café is joined at the hip to the Trident Bookstore which is a browser’s paradise selling a range of interesting second hand books. Meanwhile the café serves what many locals regard as the best coffee in town and a range of teas that would warm the heart of any Brit in need of a cuppa. Both the Ceylon and Assam were so good that I have decided to transition away from tea bags and into leaves fulltime. Free wifi brings crowds of students and writers. As well as a few characters who hold court like Vladamir in Waiting for Godot wearing weight lifting gloves and pontificating on the fauna of Mongolia to anyone with the misfortune to be in earshot.
The volcano turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It gave us the chance to really get to know Boulder and explore the mountains when otherwise we'd only have been there for a week. I'm looking forward to losing some weight and returning for round two.
PS Look out for Shreddie Kruger's breakfast posts from Boulder on London Review of Breakfasts. A little birdie tells me he's been quite busy.
PPS Sorry for the lack of photographs and thanks to everyone I've borrowed from.
We still love to go on trips around the UK, staying in BnBs or camping in search of a good meal or two - hence, Around Britain with a Paunch. Quite often the trips have been prompted by Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook. Here's where we've been to: