27 January 2010

Egged On

Regular readers - assuming I have such a thing? - will know I have certain addictions, mostly based around handheld pork products. The king of these - and the best thing about the "proper" food revival that's been going on in pubs across the capital of late - is the "reclaiming" of the Scotch Egg.

Whatever the origins (and I like the Fortnum & Mason story about wrapping an egg in haggis for a wealthy client to eat on long coach journeys), the Scotch Egg is, like all the good "proper" food, a snack for the worker, a joyous little bundle of protein wrapped in a crispy golden shell. There are, of course, some terrible examples out there - we're looking at you, service stations. And you, Tesco - but, happily, several places have elevated matters considerably.

I should perhaps also point out that I'm a purist when it comes to Scotch Eggs. While I can appreciate the exemplary production of the Harwood Arms' venison Scotch Egg, and will cheerfully acknowledge its excellent texture, substance and lack of grease, I have to say it just wasn't as good as a pork one. The use of venison sounds good, and no doubt gets Fulhamites all excited, but it adds nothing, nada, zip. Indeed, if I hadn't known it was venison, I wouldn't have been able to identify the meat at all, which sort of puts this otherwise great snack on a par with something you find in petrol station chiller cabinets. And, before you blame my taste buds, in my defence my two dining companions felt the same way. And before you blame their tastebuds, one of them's a trained chef and very fine food writer, and the other was a restaurateur who's done more for quality British ingredients in London than just about anyone I can think of.

But I digress. Pork, in any of its forms, is where it's at for the Scotch Egg. Give me a good coarse pork mince, shreds of ham hock, chunks of black pudding or, indeed, ground wild boar (currently available at Roast and definitely worth a detour next time you're Borough Market-ing) and there's a chemistry with the eggy centre and crispy outside that just makes me happy.

I was rather excited, therefore, to get the opportunity to make Scotch Eggs with Henry Herbert, the (annoyingly) young chef at The Coach & Horses, and a lovely group of people I rustled up via Qype. After a little chat about the origins of the product - and a possibly-too-late wish from Henry that the Scotch Egg doesn't become his signature dish - Henry ran us through the basics.

The egg is boiled for seven minutes, so that the white cooks but the yolk remains runny. These can then be peeled - carefully - to form the warm, lovely, slightly molten centre of the best examples. He then makes his own pork mince, a combination of the shoulder and the belly, to give flavour and fat content, and to that adds mace, lots of salt and pepper - generous seasoning is, he reckons, the difference between the professional chef and the keen amateur wondering why their creations don't taste as good as restaurant food - English mustard, sage, a pinch of cayenne and some shallots that have been cooked gently in butter.

Then comes the fun bit. Take a lump of the meat mix (approx 50g) and slap it down on a big piece of clingfilm. Flatten it down into a rough circle and place the egg on top. Then, using the clingfilm, mould the meat around the egg, until you've formed a perfectly sealed ovoid.

This is then rolled in flour, dipped into a mix of egg and milk and rolled in very fine - almost sawdust texture - breadcrumbs. This gleefully sticky ball of goodness is then dipped again in the egg and milk, and then rolled in panko, so you end up with something that looks a bit like this.

Although, ideally, slightly rounder and not quite so testicle-y. This is then deep fried in hot oil for a few seconds, to give the outside its hugely appealing colour, and then finished in the oven for a few minutes to cook the mince through. Do a few and this is the sort of beautiful sight you can expect...

This method means that the finished product isn't overly greasy and should leave you making "wibble" noises as you cut through crisp outside and watch hot yolk drip seductively over the pork...

For some other verdicts on the night, have a look here, here and, indeed, here...

23 January 2010

Uptown Top Rankin

What do you think of when you hear "Belfast"? Rather shamefully, my first reaction to hearing I was off to Belfast for a feature was of the "eek" variety, thanks to a childhood where every news bulletin seemed to feature the words "Belfast" and "bomb" in close proximity. Even the knowledge that the city had put that behind it, and that it was a fine, buzzy place couldn't shake that initial feeling. Seriously, John Craven has a lot to answer for...

I would hope though that now, when people mention Belfast, my reaction will be more of positive. Mind you, that's not helped by taxi drivers dropping you off at the charming Crown pointing out the building opposite and describing it as "the world's most bombed hotel". Still, that's not important right now.

The purpose of the trip was to meet Paul Rankin, perhaps Northern Ireland's most famous culinary son. While things haven't been great for Paul of late, that's the same for a lot of people (hell, you should see the state of MY bank account) and, over an excellent couple of pints in The Crown - which is every bit as beautiful as everybody says - it's clear he's not lost any of his passion. And, unlike many other chefs we could all mention, at least if you go to Paul's remaining restaurant Cayenne, the lack of distractions - save for the supermarket bread range - means you've got a very good chance of finding Paul in the kitchen.

Which is exactly where he went post pint, to "sort a bit of lunch" as I believe he put it. While others haven't enjoyed Cayenne (you'll never guess who...), I wonder if the fact that it's now Paul's focus has improved matters? Or whether the menu, which changes every six weeks, has just been tweaked properly a year or so on? Because I had a pretty damn fine lunch.

To qualify that, I would also like to state my position on fusion cuisine, and that is this: it nearly always sucks. I first started dining out on a regular basis in the 80s, when fusion was at its peak. And dear God, I ate some crap in the name of "Pacific Rim". When done well, it's a culinary greatest hits. Done badly, it's inedible in two (or more) languages. Mr Rankin is firmly in the former category. He's also, as proven by the tapenades / dips that accompany the bread, not scared of a bit of authentic Asian spicing.

While it was tempting to go straightforwardly Irish (you can have smoked salmon, followed by daube of beef and a colcannon potato cake, if you're so inclined - well, for the next six weeks anyway), a little hybrid activity allowed the quality local produce to shine. After a few extra tasters - a mussel of melting freshness,

salt beef so tender and innocent I felt slightly perverse taking advantage of it,

and the signature dish of chilli squid -

it was into the meat.

At the waitress' recommendation, after dithering over the salmon and a foie gras option, I went instead for Seared Korean Beef Salad, with kimchee. The description didn't tell the full story: as well as the kimchee, there were hints of other Asian flavours on the plate. It might be deliberate, of course. If I'd known pickled ginger would make an appearance, alongside slices of crispy fried garlic, I'd have chosen the foie gras. And I'd have missed out on something very good, the flavours combining to zingy effect.

Better though was the venison. It's a meat that can take some serious spicing with ease, and the Szechuan peppers that studded this excellent slab of Finnebrogue venison were a fine, tongue-tingling foil to the richness of the flesh and the sweet joys of the poached fruits. It was a very fine dish indeed, and almost didn't need the foie gras flan that also accompanied it... but hey, I like it when more animals have dined for my culinary pleasure. And geese are evil little bastards. The salsify was a nice touch too, which makes that another vegetable I need to have a crack at chez Lambshank...

The meal finished in damn fine fashion too. The (persuasive) waitress took pity on my dithering between cheese and pud, and so brought me a sliver of perfectly ripe Ardrahan, that was as good piece of that superb cheese as I've ever had (and, as a former Neal's Yard Dairy cheesemonger, I've had a LOT). I have to say though that the steamed marmalade pudding, with custard and a spoonful of creme fraiche was even better: warming, sticky and beautifully bitter. That, I reckon, was the reason I dozed so readily on the journey back to North London. And not the Guinness and very large Bushmills that we squeezed in before the taxi, oh no...

18 January 2010

Pushing The Right Buttons

I may have mentioned this once or twice but I hate snow. Yes, there's the initial joy, the involuntary "aww, isn't it all pretty" reaction, but then there's the reality of trying to negotiate your way through it. While I'm an advocate of "there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes" trying to walk up the slight incline between our place and the Tube when neighbours paranoid about being sued haven't even attempted to clear the Olympic quality ice rinks outside their properties is still a pain in the arse.

It is though a good excuse to break out the favourite winter warmer dishes, those bits of comfort eating that just make you feel content and soft and fuzzy. Chez Lambshank, that meant things like jacket spuds - a true taste of childhood - hearty carb-fest risottos and lots of things on toast from slabs of Montgomery's Cheddar (with homemade green tomato chutney) to baked beans, which I tweak with a scattering of dried chilli flakes and a big spoonful of good peanut butter. No, really. It melts through to glorious effect, thickens the sauce and gives it a lovely depth of flavour.

Best of all though - and also a good way of getting through some odd bits of cooking cheese and other savoury leftovers - is that king of winter snackage, Mushrooms on Toast. Take this bad boy, for example.
A fiver's worth of mixed mushrooms from Borough Market. Several cloves of garlic. A couple of shallots. A spoonful of creme fraiche. The finely chopped remains of a lump of ham that had been lurking in the fridge. A generous grating from the knackered lump of Keen's cheddar I'd been saving as cooking cheese. A thick slice of sourdough, more creme fraiche and a scattering of flat leaf parsley. That all added up to two hearty weekend lunches and enough leftovers to keep me happy today. Bliss.

17 January 2010

Norwegian Would...

What food experiences best sum up the UK? What are the classic dishes a visitor really should try?

While I will, no doubt, get some inspiration from Simon Majumdar's next book, the question arose last night while dining with our friends, Jacqui and Terje. Over a great meal - amazing how much fun you can have with an electric raclette and some raw beef - and much talk of other recent food experiences (of course), we got to talking about traditional food. Jacqui's parents had recently visited. While they now live in Mexico after a number of years in Canada, they lived in London for several years before that. They evidently spent much of their recent visit re-experiencing some fondly remembered British foodie pleasures.

They've now returned to warmer climes, and Terje, who's originally from Norway, is keen to complete his British food education - although, it must be said, not quite as keen as Jacqui is to make him do it.
So... what should he try? We've got a few obvious suggestions - good fish and chips, apple crumble, a proper pork pie, Lancashire Hotpot, an Eccles cake - but we're open to ideas. Suggestions anyone?

15 January 2010

The Big D

I quite like Byron hamburgers. And I've got the receipts to prove it. Just after they opened their first branch in 2008, I was a regular visitor to Universal's offices, which are alarmingly close to Byron's High Street Kensington outpost.

Despite my best efforts at willpower, I always seemed to get lunchtime appointments at the offices which meant having to walk past the smell of grilling beef at the point I was getting peckish. Trying to resist was always a struggle and so I succumbed to the relative delights of their burgers on several occasions. Ironically, while I agreed with the consensus that Byron were now probably the best chain burger restaurant in London, the dishes that impressed me most were the vegetarian ones. These were the courgette fries - light, crispy, tasty and, as anyone who's ever grown the irrepressible buggers will know, any inspiration for courgette recipes is always gratefully received - and, on one seasonal occasion, a watercress salad that was one of the best things I ate in 2008. And contrary to general opinion, I also quite liked their bun: it held its shape and soaked up the juices which is, frankly, all I want it to do.

It had been a while since I'd visited Byron. While I was aware the chain had expanded at a reasonable pace, it was usually in postcodes I didn't frequent with any regularity. And, as much as I thought they offered a decent enough product, it wasn't something I was necessarily going to go out of my way to get. I also thought that it was all too easy to rattle up a £20 a head bill without eating an awful lot and there are many places I'd rather spend £20.

Still, the news that they had: a) opened a Soho branch; and b) added a slightly larger pure chuck burger made me think it was time to give them another shot. So I did, with my friend (and new blogger) Jen. The results were, in some instances, pretty much business as usual. Service was friendly and efficient. The menu was admirably brief and to the point. The milkshake was thick and rich and very good indeed. Fries were... middling to average, nothing to write home about, which is pretty much what I remembered (but hey, that was the reason I discovered the watercress and courgettes).

The courgettes were a disappointment though. They were still tasty and decent inspiration for the inevitable zucchini mountain we'll have this summer, but they were slightly thicker cut than before and a bit greasier.

The Big D was nicely beefy, with a satisfying texture, and cooked perfectly rare (as the nigh salacious photo above shows). It was certainly an improvement on my memories of the standard issue burger but - and I'll probably get kicked out of Bloggers Club for saying this and/or hauled across a flame grill - at the end of the day, it was just a burger. A pretty decent burger, to be sure, but no better or worse than several I've had in London. And at £21 for, effectively, one main, a half share in two sides, a milkshake and a coffee? Hmm. I'm really not sure that represents great value - particularly when you think of it as almost a week of goat Moolis. The Goat Mooli is a great sandwich. The Big D... well, I think I know what the "D" stands for anyway.

11 January 2010

Hole Food

What is about the crumpet that's so blooming appealing? Aside from the comedy name, there's just something about those squidgy little carby things that screams "winter Sunday". Seriously, is there a more appealing foodie mental image than butter melting over a freshly toasted crumpet? Go on. Think about that for a second. You know you want to...

Nice huh? It might be the nostalgia thing but I think the appeal goes deeper than that. The crunchy outside, the spongy inner mass, the way the butter (and cheese / syrup / honey / marmalade / peanut butter etc.,) oozes through its porous flesh... Christ, I'd better stop this before I find myself attracting traffic from some rather more, ahem, adult sites.
One question that had never crossed my mind though was: what the hell IS a crumpet anyway? I'd eat them 'til the cows come home (ooh, crumpet eating competition, who's in?) but had never once stopped to think how you made them. That was until a recent Guardian Weekend supplement when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got all teatimey on our collective arses.
And so, armed with whisk and pan, and with the absolute encouragement of yours truly, resident baker Mrs L whisked up a batch of the batter. The answer to the "what the hell IS a crumpet anyway?" question, incidentally, is basically sort of a pancake, only with a water and milk mix, a complete lack of eggs and the addition of yeast and bicarbonate of soda which, presumably, is what causes the necessary bubbling to give the crumpet its lovely texture and butter-absorbing holes.

After a couple of practice crumpets got slightly overdone (but still eaten, obviously), the perfect pan temperature was found and the results were one of those simple pleasures that: a) had me giggling as butter dripped down my front; and b) didn't make it out of the kitchen before being consumed. The pattern was basically cook, butter, scoff, repeat. It was, frankly, a bloody good day.

4 January 2010

The Remains of the Day

You know what? We've got pretty damn good at Christmas.

It's not that we're miserable and anti-social and stuff, but Mrs L and I do like spending "The Big Day" on our own, at home. It's lovely being with the family and we thoroughly enjoy doing that between Christmas and the New Year but Christmas Day for us is about the simple pleasures. And about spreading the eating across a decent period of time. Seriously, my family thought I disliked Christmas Pudding for years. I don't, I adore the stuff, but within a few minutes of finishing the largest roast meal of the year? It's the last thing I want to see.

So, Christmas chez Lambshank is a gentle affair. We'll have a good bottle of Champagne with breakfast. We'll open our presents. We'll make the relevant phone calls to friends and family. We'll have a starter about 1pm and open a good bottle of something. We'll have the main meal around 5ish and finish the good bottle of something and open a second good bottle of something. Most years we don't even make it to something sweet and, instead, just hit some Neal's Yard Dairy and Mons cheeses in front of the telly around 8pm. Probably with the remains of bottle two and/or some good port. It's bliss.

And 2009 was the best ever and, thanks in no small part to Richard Corrigan, the easiest too. We usually prep the veg the day before anyway, and par-boil what we can. This time we did the same for the turkey too. As well as producing the most beautiful moist meat, it left us with three litres of rather good chicken stock, now bolstered by turkey juices, tarragon, onion and butter. It also meant cooking Christmas Lunch on the day itself took about an hour which meant I got to see The Gruffalo. Which was lovely.

We also, of course, over-estimated the amount of vegetables required but that was mostly deliberate. Plus It was a hell of a plateful: turkey, glorious golden roast potatoes, some excellent fondant potatoes (because: a) decadence IS two types of potato; and b) we had three litres of excellent stock to recycle), roasted carrots, carrot and swede mash, roasted parsnips, sausage meat, stuffing, Giggly Pigs in smokey blankets, leeks (freshly picked THAT morning off the allotment) and brussels, fried up with bacon and chestnuts.

Unsurprisingly, we didn't clear our plates but that was part of the cunning plan, because Christmas Leftover Soup is possibly the best meal of the year. As much as I love Christmas lunch and, even more so, Boxing Day's coldcuts, mash, mayo and pickle spectacular, Leftover Soup ROCKS.

The recipe? Really? Exactly what you'd expect. The stock went into a saucepan, along with the cold veg, bits of sausage, stuffing etc. As it starts to bubble, the whole lot, plus a handful of ham that we needed to finish off, got blended to within an inch of its life. It then went back in the pan where the remains of some double cream got added. It then appeared on the table, alongside a perfectly golden piece of Welsh Rarebit (to clear - what else?! - some leftover cheese).

If only one or two other lunches this year leaves me feeling that warm and fuzzy, 2010 will have been an absolute winner.

3 January 2010

Vive Le Resolution

So that was 2009. I don't know about you but I wasn't that sad to see the arse-end of 2009 and watch it disappear over the horizon.

It's not been a terrible year by any stretch but it's all just a been... frustrating. Talking to Mrs L and friends and family, it's felt like the whole world has reached a crossroads and is making some tough decisions about which way is forward. It's also been a year when a lot of big companies who really should know better have become much, much slower to pay. I can't grumble in terms of overall income but cashflow? Blimey, that's been painful.

I also can't moan about the opportunities. This time last year, my experience as a travel writer was one trip to Kentucky for a magazine that slipped onto a back burner somewhere before my feature could be published. I'm now flicking through my photos from the last 12 months and remembering great times (and meals) inTurkey, Dubai, Paris (twice), Las Vegas, Copenhagen, Cyprus, Ireland, throughout Scotland (twice) and a slightly hazy recollection of a Grand Siecle and Alexandre-fuelled dinner at Laurent-Perrier's chateau. To grouse after a year like that would be somewhat mealy-mouthed, really, by anyone's standards.

But here we are, on the leading edge of a whole new calendar year. The worldwide financial situation is sure to pack a few surprises yet but, as it currently stands and as the cliche has it, 2010 is ripe with potential. However, while I'm eagerly anticipating lots of good things on plates this year, opportunity isn't necessarily one of them. Life is the one thing you have to go and grab by the dangly bits so, as an extra incentive to get up off my (actually much reduced) laurels, I thought I'd stick a few of my goals and plans down here. That way, there's no escaping, right?

1) Lose another 30lbs Speaks for itself really, and feels very achievable (cheers Giles). I'm about 20lbs down on Jan 1 2009 anyway, so I know I can do it.

2) Post more While writing for fun is completely different from writing for a living, there are days when I just can't face the blog, even when there's something really juicy to detail. That will change. And to ensure it does...

3) Pick a cookbook and go through it, recipe by recipe Yes, I know it's been done and the whole Julie & Julia thing was tremendous fun but: a) I'm not looking for a book deal; and b) I look nothing like Amy Adams. I just want to educate myself a little and I thought this might be a fun challenge as well as a good way of boosting my skills. I'm already generally capable around a stove but I'm in the mood to up my game, and to master some slightly more complex processes.

And this, you see, is where it all gets interactive. What book do I choose? I've already had a very good suggestion from Tim Hayward to hit Len Deighton's Action Cook Book and there's a copy winging its way from Amazon as I type. Any other ideas, chaps?