17 July 2014

Waitrose Wine Challenge

A few weeks ago, some very nice people from Waitrose Cellar contacted me. Would I like to try and pair one of their wines with a somewhat more unusual dish? I'm not one to shrink from a challenge - well, unless it involves physical pain. I'm certainly not one to shrink from a challenge when the challenger is offering to send me several bottles of wines to choose my pairing. 

Contrary to evidence / opinion, I'm not a massive drinker these days so decided to leave this one to fate. Other bloggers were, I'm told, being challenged so I said I'd just take whatever bottle was left... which is how I got to try and match something different with a bottle of Moss Wood Amy's Blend 2011, from Australia's Margaret River. 


According to the official tasting notes, “This blend of classic Bordeaux grape varieties [Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot] displays ripe plum and cassis fruit with an enjoyable, long finish. Seldom do wines bestow such luscious, sweet tannins as this delightful red. Try with a roast rib of beef with all the trimmings.”

Elsewhere on the web, it was a similar story. All the tasting notes I found talked of dark fruits - plum, mulberry, blackcurrant – the classically Australian Cabernet Sauvignon hint of menthol and to quaff Amy's Blend with roast meats. 

Two problems there. It's summer and a straightforward, hearty Sunday lunch didn't really appeal. Also - and more importantly - a roast isn't really what you'd call unusual, is it?  I needed to do some lateral thinking but, happily, tangents are one of the things I do best. 

Thinking of Australia, my dad often tells mouth-watering tales of spit roasted lamb and vast feasts put together by my step-sister’s Eastern European in-laws in Adelaide. With the Amy's Blend being an Aussie wine with European influence, I got to thinking of other European influences on that country, and Italian sprang to mind. Lamb and pasta - now there’s a combination on which to build a recipe. But, you know, it's still not that unusual. 

Hitting another tangent, I quickly went from "Australia" to "barbecue". While I'm a little barbecued out at the moment (see next month's delicious as to part of the reason why) I have been salivating recently over Francis Mallman’s excellent Argentine cook book Seven Fires. In there, there’s a glorious recipe of rolled lamb shoulder, stuffed with confit lemon, parsley and rosemary, slow-cooked to melting perfection in a bottle or two of Malbec, and served in a reduction of said cooking wine. I made the dish a few weeks ago and it was good, although I'm in no rush to make confit lemon again. But the fact that it had lemon was a surprise. Lemon with red wine? That's not an obvious pairing to my mind but exactly what I was looking for here and so now I had lamb, pasta and lemon to work with. 

One of my favourite lamb recipes is an old Jamie Oliver one, which is served with fresh mint and chopped capers, instead of mint sauce. The acidity of the capers, the punch of the fresh mint – particularly with the menthol of the Cab Sauv - is a combination that sings alongside the unctuous fatty lumps of lamb. Also, I really like the vinegary hit. In a lot of my cooking recently - probably the barbecue influece - I’ve been playing around with the use of different vinegars to bring out flavours rather than an over reliance of salt and pepper, and I love that little tingle it gives.

And finally, I couldn't help but think that broad beans needed to feature. This is partly because I absolutely adore them, partly because they're bang in season at the point of writing, partly because the dish was crying out for a splash of colour and a little texture, but mostly because we've got hundreds of the things at the allotment. 

Thus was born this pasta dish which is vibrant and light enough to eat in the garden over summer, but hearty enough to run through the colder months too. Most of all though, I think it sets the (delicious) Moss Wood Amy’s Blend off a treat.

Pasta with slow-roast shoulder of lamb ragu, broad beans, mint, capers and lemon

For the shoulder of lamb – best prepared a day or two ahead.

One shoulder of lamb – bone in, bone out, whatever you prefer. As for the size? How many are you feeding? Do you like leftovers? Shredded bits of slow-roasted lamb are one of the best things to have in the freezer at any given moment, as they defrost quickly and are terribly versatile.


Garlic – several bulbs, peeled and cut into decent slivers

Rosemary – several sprigs

Lemon Thyme – might as well get that lemon flavour going now, right?

(I'd also usually add anchovies – say, half a dozen, chopped into 1cm pieces - but forgot to pick them up this time.) 

Method

Pre-heat oven to the highest setting. With a small sharp knife, take out all your frustrations on the fatty side of the lamb shoulder and stab several holes in it, all over (but be careful if you’ve got a bone-in piece because it hurts when you stab in the wrong place). Take your sprigs of rosemary and lemon thyme, your chunks of garlic and your slivers of anchovy (if you've got them) and stuff the holes with all of these / a few / whatever you can fit. Rub a little olive oil all over the lamb, season generously with salt and black pepper. Stick it in a roasting tin – if you’ve still got lemon thyme and rosemary, lay the lamb on more sprigs of these - cover it with tin foil making sure everything is properly sealed, and then put it in the oven. As soon as it goes in, turn the oven down to 170 degrees C / 325 degrees F / gas mark 3 and set the alarm for at least four hours.

After four hours, remove from the oven and check how it’s looking. By this point, much of the fat should have melted away and you’ll be able to pull the lamb apart easily with a fork or your fingers. Shred it into reasonable chunks and strands, put a fist sized portion aside per person and freeze the rest.

For the ragu (serves approximately four)

Lemon zest
Four fistfuls of shredded lamb shoulder
One onion
Garlic – one, two, more cloves depending on your taste, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Butter
12 tomatoes (quartered) or 20+ cherry tomatoes (halved). You could use tinned, of course, but I prefer the real thing. 
Broad beans – fresh or from frozen (or, indeed, peas)
Mint – chopped leaves, about 2 tbsp
Parsley – optional, about 1 tbsp if you fancy it though
Capers – chopped, 1-2 tbsp depending on taste
Pasta – I particularly like pappardelle for something like this, lots of surface area and relatively easy to eat in a garden chair using just a fork.
Parmesan Cheese

In a saucepan, heat a little oil and then add the diced onion. Sweat it down for a few minutes – low heat, a pinch of salt, small saucepan lid over the onion works a treat – then add the garlic and your tomatoes. Let the tomatoes warm through so that they start to pop. As the liquid fills the pan, add the meat and warm it all through, stirring occasionally. Salt and pepper to taste.
You can, if you want, grate or peel the tomatoes but I quite like the texture of those little rolls of skin in the finished dish.


If you’re adding broad beans, steam them separately for no more than three minutes or until the outer “jacket” on some start to peel away of their own accord. Pod them straight away – trust me, it’s SO much easier to do this when they’re still warm. Do keep the little outer jackets though: chopped up and sautéed with garlic and butter or added to a curry, they’re absolutely delicious.


While you’re at it, boil the pasta in accordance with the packet instructions. Add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water to the ragu, but drain the rest. Toss with a little butter and salt and pepper.

Add the capers to the ragu so that they warm through. (If you’re using frozen peas, add to the ragu now so that they cook through.)

Yeah, same pic again. But come on, look at it... 
 Toss the cooked, buttered pasta into the ragu and stir so that the strands are well coated. Add the broad beans at this point, the mint (and the parsley, if using). Stir through gently. Serve in bowls, sprinkle with a little lemon zest and some grated parmesan (and more mint and capers to taste) and a generous grind of salt and pepper. Pour large glass of Moss Wood Amy’s Blend. Hope for good weather… 

11 July 2014

Pan Handled



There are perks to doing this blog. Some will argue morality and such like, while I think my stance on such matters is well documented elsewhere here. Basically though, I like the perks. Hell, when one of your hobbies is pretty much the same as what you do for a living, you come to feel you deserve the occasional perk. Saying that, I don't accept most of the invitations I receive but, every now and again, somebody makes you an offer you simply can't refuse.  

A few weeks ago, Le Creuset e mailed me asking if I'd like to test drive one of their new "toughened non-stick" pans. The timing couldn't have been better. We're in the process of replacing a lot of cookware - much of it being wedding presents that thus date back to 1996 and have suffered 18 years of regular use - and, thanks to a moment of abject idiocy from yours truly (alright, yes, another moment of regular abject idiocy), proper non-stick had a lot of appeal. If you've never tried scrubbing a milk pan that's been put back on a hob that's still on, I really wouldn't recommend it. That skin that forms? That looks so delicate? Yeah, that moulds to the crevices of a pan and becomes about as hard to get through as Kevlar. Hell for all I know that could be how they make Kevlar... 

And so, a few days later, a lovely shiny, 20cm saute pan arrived with the instruction to put it through its paces. So I did. I took to the project with rare zeal or, more accurately, the zeal of a man who's generally only allowed down to the allotment to destroy things. Burning stuff? Breaking things? I'm good at those. 

The pan appeared a worthy opponent. It's satisfyingly hefty and as well made as you'd expect from Le Creuset plus the sturdy metal handle means it can be used from hob to oven and grill and back again. 

After treating the inside as per the instructions - a little conditioning with vegetable oil - it was time to attack. In a manner of speaking. At this point, it basically looked like this: spotless, oddly threatening and solid. 


The first project was a gentle one as, actually it was time for breakfast, so let's see how it would fare as a cooking utensil. Not so surprisingly, it worked superbly, conducting heat evenly and quickly, and crisping bacon up a treat. I left it  to cool - as per the instructions - dumped it in the sink, gave it a wipe around and, in the space of about five seconds it went from crusted with fat to, basically, looking like this: 

Next up was barbecue sauce. Molasses. Fried things. Sugar. That'll show it who's boss. We'll come to that particular sauce in a future post. With the liquid decanted, the pan was a mess of melted syrupy things... and some five seconds later, it looked like this: 

You can probably tell where this is going. As with the Swiss Diamond post of last year it's clear that non-stick surfaces have come a long way since the days of scientists with big foreheads. They're now pretty much the culinary equivalent of Tonka Toys

For another imminent post - a look at Sharon Salloum's Syrian cookbook Almond Bar - I had my first attempt at making falafel. While this made for a very appealing Instagram moment


it was damned near inedible, hence this first attempt was followed 24 hours by my second attempt, but that's not important right now. What is important is that for this recipe, the Le Creuset became a deep fat frier... 


And then, a few seconds later, oil decanted out and after a few seconds in hot soapy water, it looked like this. 



For the final test - and for yet another imminent blogpost about online beer retailers Honest Brew and, particularly, their milk stout Cool For Cats - I decided to glaze a ham. The recipe I tend to fall back on these days is one from Waitrose's Christmas magazine last year and involves lots stout and various other things in the cooking stock, and a glaze of all sorts of sticky things. Last year, when I didn't have all the ingredients for the glaze, I improvised with some date syrup from one of our local Middle Eastern supermarkets and it was a revelation, so that - plus a little sugar, grain mustard and other odds and ends - are what got slathered over this piece of meat every eight minutes or so for about half an hour. 

There will be more on this shortly but for now, let's look at the vessel. Within minutes, the base was covered in thick, bubbling, sugary tar, the sort of thing that, yes, sure, will dissolve over time, but usually requires a bit of chiselling, a lot of patience and a whole load of piping hot water. 


After it had cooled, the Le Creuset was run under the tap... and, basically, the entire set, formerly sticky mess, mostly lifted clean out. The one bit that stuck required an extra couple of seconds of attention before - shall we do this once more? - the pan looked like this: 

The pan currently retails for around £57. Is that a lot? I don't know. I've not kept up with the saucepan price index in the last two decades. However, in these four "experiments", I'd estimate the total washing up time of the pan has been maybe a minute, while our previous pan would have taken about 40 minutes (and would probably still be soaking in bicarb and vinegar). I don't know what you charge as an hourly rate, dear reader, but I suspect, over the course of its life, this pan is going to pay for itself many times over. It's a fine piece of kit. I imagine it'd also make a highly effective weapon a la many cartoons in the 1970s but I'm in no rush to find out. 

28 May 2014

Bowled Over



Another day, another supposed catch-up... and another couple of hours spent skimming through photos when I should really have been working. Whoops. 

During the Boston trip last year - as in the last post - I popped down to DC for a few days for another feature. As I'd discovered the year before, DC is far easier to negotiate via internal flights than international ones. People take the mickey out of Luton and Gatwick being classified as "London" airports but hell, at least you can get sensibly priced public transport into "proper" London. Dulles is bloody miles and an expensive cab ride from the city.

Anyway, that's not important right now. What is more important is that the food in DC is some of the best I've found in the US. Over the last few years, more and more people have moved back into the city and that's inspired an impressive renaissance in the restaurant scene. One of these days I might write a post on some of the newer places I visited (including Kapnos, possibly the best laid out restaurant I've ever seen). I might write something on the brilliant Burger Tap & Shake (two visits to DC, four visits to BTS should tell you something). But, with thoughts of Charlie's still on my mind, it's one of DC's more vintage / legendary spots that's prompted this post - and, happily, unlike Charlie's, it's unlikely to close anytime soon. 



Ben's Chilli Bowl is a DC fixture. The counter, booths and stalls date from opening day in 1958 and the chilli is still made to founder Ben Ali's recipe. It's a fantastic example of a place that doesn't do anything spectacularly clever but does what it does brilliantly. Bill Cosby has been a fan for years and his favourite - the original chilli half smoke - carries his name and was the "must have" dish recommended by the customers either side of me. For a long time, Cosby was the only name on the restaurant's "List of Who Eats Free", a piece of A4 taped to the wall. In 2008 though, he was joined by President Obama and his family. It's a policy reflected in the rather brilliant mural outside. 




It was, inevitably, bloody marvellous. The chilli is rich, with a little bite and the sausage - half pork, half beef - had a textbook snap and a hint of smoke. The plan had been couple of bites, move on - and, contrary to appearances, I'm actually pretty disciplined on these various food research  trips. The reality was I inhaled the thing and walked the two miles or so back to my hotel to try and justify it.