Saturday, 28 May 2011

Saffron Risotto with Bacon and Peas

I don't often make risotto and I'm not really sure why; it's easy, cheap, doesn't need too many ingredients, and is a great dump bin for all those half-forgotten remnants at the back of the fridge. I even find all that stirring really quite relaxing.  Best of all the leftovers make a great filling for peppers or courgettes, lovely little cheese stuffed risotto cakes, and, spooned straight from the fridge the next day, a pretty great hangover cure.

This combination came about as I had the last of the wonderful smoked bacon from the Lower Hardres Farm Shop, together with the first of the fresh peas.  I added a pinch of the Ewing's Spanish saffron too, for it's delicate flavour and bright, springlike hue. 

Armed with a bunch of spring onions, found wilting at the back of the salad drawer, stock from a cube and a glass or two of vino blanco, to help sustain me while stirring I headed for the stove. And voila! Dinner in half and hour, and with plenty left over for the morning after...

Saffron Risotto with Bacon and Peas
Serves 4

Small Bunch of Spring Onions, chopped
3/4 Rashers Smoked Bacon, diced
Olive Oil
400g Risotto Rice
1-1.5l Chicken or Vegetable Stock
Pinch of saffron (optional)
Couple of Large Handfuls of Shelled Fresh (or Frozen) Peas
Salt and Pepper
Grated Parmesan to Serve

-Put stock (and saffron if using) in a saucepan and simmer gently on back of hob.
-Heat a good glug of olive oil in a casserole, add bacon and fry gently until starting to brown.
-add spring onions and rice and continue to cook for another couple of minutes.
-Add a ladle of stock to the rice mixture and stir until the stock has evaporated
-Repeat with further ladles of stock until the rice is soft and creamy, with a little bite in the middle (about 20 minutes)
-Add peas and heat through (don't overcook, or they will turn unappetisingly grey instead of a vibrant green)
-Season and serve with plenty of Parmesan and olive oil

Monday, 23 May 2011

Baked Cod with Wild Garlic and Hazlenut Pesto

After spending my previous 30 years on this earth oblivious to the proliferation of wild garlic in our woodlands this spring I have been deluged by the delightful stuff.

My trusty 'Hedgerow Handbook' assured me that ransoms were growing wild all over the place so I decided to go and do bit of foraging for myself.  The first lot I spotted, quite by accident, on a slope leading to the South Bay in Scarborough.  Apparently you can quite often smell them before you see them, but I had to rub a leaf or two to confirm that these were actually the real deal.  As we were there on holiday, and had no way to store them, I sadly had to leave them growing as they were.

Luckily we found our second patch a few days later while on a walk with my Uncle just outside Leeds.  This time we merrily picked away and managed to fill a carrier bag in no time.  As we weren't going home for a few days they were stored in my Aunt's fridge, but were quickly relegated to the shed when the pungent smell became a bit too overwhelming!

After braving the long trip back down the M1, the ransoms slowly stinking out the boot in the spring sunshine, I was very happy to get my bounty home and get cooking.  As the leaves were beginning to show signs of 'fatigue' ( a bit like I was feeling after being stuck at Newport Pagnell Services for a large part of the afternoon) I decided to make some wild garlic butter and some fresh pesto, both of which would preserve the fresh  'zip' of the garlic and could be easily stored for future use.

The pesto was a bit of an experiment.  In the end I just chucked in most of the things found in a classic basil pesto, (minus the garlic) and with hazelnuts, left over from baking some banana bread, instead of pine nuts.  It tasted pretty great, the garlic flavour wasn't too overpowering, and it paired very well with fresh lemon and salty cheese.  This pesto is very versatile and so far we have enjoyed it with pasta, white bean soup and cheese on toast.  It could also be stirred into risottos or stews and used in omelettes or mash.

I had managed to grab a few things on the way home, including some spankingly fresh pieces of sustainable Atlantic cod, and so I decided to rustle up a quick crust that when baked would provide a full flavoured, crunchy counterpoint to the mild-mannered flaky fish underneath.  This topping would also work well with other things; as well as any other white fish try salmon, sardines, chicken or pork.

Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto
(Makes a large jar)

Two or three big handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and picked through
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or other hard, strong cheese
1/2 cup hazelnuts
100/200 ml olive oil (you could use rapeseed or sunflower)
1tsp sugar (optional, add if the pesto seems a little bitter)
Salt to taste

-Whizz the garlic leaves in the processor with the nuts, zest and juice of the lemon.
-Add oil slowly until you get the right consistency and everything is nicely blended.
-Stir in cheese and sugar, season to taste.
-Store in clean, sterilised jars, with a layer of oil poured on top of the mixture to seal the surface.

To make the crust I added a large spoonful of pesto per person to a handful of panko breadcrumbs.  Spread the mixture over the fish and drizzle with a little extra oil.  Bake at 190c for 10/12 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Sir Charles Napier, Chinnor, Oxfordshire

Another cracking spring morning, and the Ewing's birthday to boot.  So what nicer way to celebrate than heading out in to the rolling Oxfordshire countryside for a pint and a pub lunch.

Recommended to us by the Ewing's boss The Charles Napier is only about 20 minutes from our door, but had somehow fallen off my radar.  After tapping the address into the sat nav, and merrily setting off, I soon realised why.  This isn't the sort of place you are likely to randomly stumble upon.  After turning up yet another precipitous and winding track the Ewing nervously remarked that, apart from the lack of snow on the Chiltern Hills in the distance, we could be navigating an alpine pass.  We even encountered a few stray sheep to really set the scene.

After the traumas of getting there in one piece we both needed a stiff drink.  Unfortunately we still had to get back again so instead settled for a pint of, very nicely kept, Wadworth 6x.  The dark and cosy front bar, with its big leather sofas and open fireplace, looked the perfect place to hole up on a cold winter's evening.  As the glorious weather was still holding we decided to sit outside in the vine covered patio area, overlooking the sculpture garden and grounds beyond.

On the way through the dining area I spotted a cloth covered platter, with an great, oozing wedge of cheese peeking out, another promising sign that we were in for a treat.  Looking at the menu further confirmed it; not only did it I want to eat everything, but they were also offering great value two course set menu for just £15.50.

Pick of the bread selection was the warm raisin and walnut roll.  Soft and floury, it went down well with a smear of salted butter and another pint of bitter for me. (The birthday girl, and designated driver for the day, was promised plenty of prosecco on our return) 

Double baked smoked haddock and cheddar souffle came looking simple and unprepossessing.  A cracked yellow dome in a puddle of pale sauce, studded with flakes of fish, parsley and chives.  I've had a few twice cooked souffles before, but none nearly as ethereal as this.  It melted in the mouth, like eating a smokey, cheesy cloud of loveliness.

The Ewing's new season asparagus came with a perfectly poached, crispy hen's egg, with a yolk of the most amazing yellow hue.  The accompanying hollandaise was perfectly light and lemony, and in less polite company, I may well have resorted to drinking it straight from the jug.

We both went with the Bouillabaisse for a main. This was a cracking piece of cooking that managed to look as pretty as a picture, but still packed a Provencal flavour punch. Nicely cooked fillets of red mullet and bream sat a top a bed of new potatoes and samphire, cockles and clams nestling in between.  The best bit was throwing rouille covered croutons into a pool of delicious orange and anise scented broth at the bottom of the dish.

Despite the lightness of touch shown in the previous two courses I was almost defeated by the time they bought us the pudding menu.  Struggling gamely on I ordered scoops of brown bread and peanut butter and banana, rum and raisin ice creams.  A welcoming cold and tasty ending; I particularly enjoyed the contrast from the nuggets of boozy fruit and crunch of the peanuts, although the unannounced (blackcurrant?) element was slightly odd. 

The Ewing indulged her first love by choosing the chocolate tart, served with bitter orange ice cream.  'Delicious!' And 'mmm...' were about the only comments I could elicit from her as she chased the remaining pastry crumbs and blobs of almond puree around the plate.

After lunch we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather by taking a romantic stroll around the gardens. Unfortunately the table next to us had the same idea at the same time, so we spent a few comical laps trying to avoid each other by climbing over styles and cutting through the long grass.  The grounds are quite lovely, complete with a herb garden we saw being plundered by the chef and several benches that looked perfect for a postprandial slump.

As you may already have gathered from the unqualified praise above I found our meal at the Charles Napier to be some of the best judged and skillful cooking I have eaten for a long while.   With food that is fantastic, faultless and a veritable bargain to boot it's well worth braving the wilds of Oxon for.

Sir Charles Napier on Urbanspoon

Friday, 13 May 2011

Dishoom Chowpatty Beach, South Bank

Chaijitos and calamari down at Bombay-on-Thames.

Dishoom, the old Bombay style cafe in Covent Garden, has hit the beach with this new pop-up project down on London's South Bank. Based on the shacks lining the eponymous Chowpatty Beach they have created a striking space, with its electric colours and bright canopy, that stands out against the brutalist concrete of Queen Elizabeth Hall.  

After hearing on the tweet vine that they were 'quietly' opening on Monday, four days before their official launch, I pusuaded the Ewing to sack off work early hit the town.  Arriving at about half four we were greeted by a sea of eager waitstaff, resplendeant in their neon t-shirts, who told us that that they had only been open for a couple of hours before our arrival.  Despite their lack of practice, service was fast and friendly and there was a lively buzz about the place.

A cold Kingfisher, Thums Up Cola and a Chaijito.  I wanted to try one of the famed Gola Ices, but they were off the menu, so I settled for a refreshing beer and the famous Indian carbonated beverage Thums Up. This was reminiscent of the cola made in my cousin's Soda Stream back in the 80's, in a good way.  The Ewing's chaijito was quite delicious, chai infused rum and fresh mint leaves, pepped up with the addition of cracked coriander seeds.

We also decided to share a few snacks.  The naan rolls still weren't ready but we were able to order beach snacks and meals.  These are ordered and paid for at the bar and then collected at the kitchen window.   Everything is finished to order, but luckily we seemed to be the only ones eating, so the wait time was short. After collecting our haul we moved to the seating areas outside to enjoy some late afternoon sunshine. 

 As we were tucking in one of the guys involved in the project came out to see if we were enjoying the food, and give us a bit of background on the build.  Based on the concept of 'jugaad' (literally work around) many of the materials used are reclaimed or recycled.  These include the benches outside, made from Scottish railway sleepers,  a canopy made from carrier bags and a wall comprised of rolled newspapers.  The Ewing was particularly interested in the packing crates used in the frontage, I think she might have her eye on reclaiming them herself when they close at the end of the summer...

The food was good.  Calamari was crisp and greaseless with a nice, sweet aftertaste that played off well against the zing of lime and chilli.  By the time I had taken a few snaps of the rest of the food the Ewing had polished most of these off, a testament to its tastiness.

Vada Pau is the very popular street eat, not featured on their original menu, featuring a potato cake served in a toasted bun.  Potentially this could have been a carb overload, but the filling was pillowy light and nicely spiced. As the roll was also soft I found that the textures were quite similar, and personally would have liked a little crunch or chew in there somewhere.

The Pau Bhaji is a traditional Chowpatty Beach snack of mashed vegetables served with buttered bread.  I really enjoyed the creamy, spicy earthiness of the curry, livened up nicely with a sprinkling of fresh coriander and onions.  The dish also packed a good chilli punch, that I welcomed but the Ewing found a little too feisty.

Dishoom Chowpatty Beach Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

J Baker's Bistro Moderne, York

After a happy week spent paddling on the beach and eating cockles on the pier we decided to break up the journey back home by stopping off for lunch and a stroll around York Minster.  And what better place to chose after a traditional diet of fish'n'chips, fry ups and John Smiths bitter, than the slightly outre J Bakers Bistro Moderne.

Five years ago Jeff Baker decided to make a move from the Michelin-starred Pool Court in Leeds to try and make a splash here in York. A bold statement in a traditional town that seems more accustomed to olde worlde teashops and taverns than 'unusual carrots' and mock risotto. Set at the top of the cobbled Fossgate J Baker's looks simple and unassuming from the outside, all dark wood and low lighting within. There is even a chocolate tasting lounge upstairs where you can relax with chocolate treats, beers and cocktails.  Luckily the Ewing didn't have time to explore or I'd probably still be waiting for her now.

The concept of J Baker's is based on the trendy 'small plates' dining, with a small selection of main courses for those who don't want to share.  They also offer a three or five course 'grazing' option (seven course at night) a changing tasting menu, depending on what's in season.  It's an great looking menu, with some unusual touches, and I hoped it would taste as exciting as it looked.  Although tempted by the tasting option I already had my eye on the puddings.  So, not wanting to miss out on anything, we ordered four small plates to share.

Ewing managed to get her chocolate fix by ordering a Meantime Brewery Chocolate Stout, while I chose the local Black Sheep Ale.  While we supped our beers they bought a small wooden board, holding a brown paper bag and a ceramic spoon filled with mustard mayo, to the table.  On tearing the bag open a cloud of steam revealed some cute as a button new potatoes simply boiled in their skins.  It was the perfect snack; the potatoes were well seasoned,  sweet and fluffy and, dipped into the tangy mayo, they didn't hang around for long.

Thoughtfully the kitchen had divided our plates up into individual portions.  I don't know if this is standard practice, but it was a nice touch that avoided any spoon wars and made things much easier to eat.  The first dish was Celery Root Whip, a coffee cup of light as air foam with an nutty, cheesy flavour. It came with some strange, Quaver like crisps, which provided a nice texture contrast when used to scoop up the mixture.  There was also a small baby gem and pickled mushroom salad on the side to help cut through the richness.

The hand pulled bread with smoked roe and giant green olives was next.  The bread was warm and light as a feather, with a lovely chewy crust, and was soon greedily dunked in the smoked roe dip. A few celery pieces added brightness and crunch, and the olives added a salty flavour kick, although they were decidedly miniature in stature.

The Whitby crab 50/50 was the strangest dish of the afternoon.  Served again divided in two portions  each cup contained a sort of savoury trifle.  Starting with a topping of curried granola we moved into layers of semi frozen apple puree, iceberg lettuce and crab all on a bed of apple jelly.  Although not completely unpleasant it was, perhaps, an element too far for me.  The jelly and puree had a great, clean apple flavour and the contrasts of different textures and temperatures worked nicely, but overall the experience was a bit too much like finding fish in your pudding.

The Crunchy Black Pudding Pie was in fact more of a black pudding wonton.  The the smooth, spiced filling was delicious and contrasted nicely contrasted with the crunch of the outside.  The richness of the pie was cut through with some well judged accompaniments of grain mustard, a gorgeous rhubarb puree, pickled red cabbage and a salad of beets and onion.  A very pretty plate with some big flavours.

As it was the last day of our holiday, and I was having trouble deciding, we chose three puddings between us.  Unusually the Ewing passed up the chocolate options and picked 'Lemon Tops', based on the Northern ice cream and lemon sorbet confection. It featured a enthral poached meringue with curd ice cream in a pool of lemon thyme custard.  This was a lovely, light finale, complimented by a zesty citrus jelly, and some black sesame caramel for crunch

The rhubarb and custard with sarparilla caramel, gariguette strawberries and vanilla marrow.  I'm still not sure what vanilla marrow actually is, and I didn't notice its presence on the plate, but everything else was spot on.  The custard was perfect nursery food, with a lovely bitter caramel that resembled a creme brulee without the crunch.  The advertised sarsparilla was very subtle but the strawberries had a wonderful summery aroma and great flavour.  There was also a good rhubarb sorbet and a strawberry puree with chocolate nibs.  Delicious.

The Peanut Butter Cheesecake.  On an ordinary day the third pudding may have been a step too far, even for me. But when this arrived it was very hard not to lick the slate clean.  The cheesecake element was inverted, served in a coffee cup with the crunchy peanut crumbs on top.  This was a very rich pud, but had enough lightness of texture to stop it becoming too claggy and cloying.  The banana jelly was wonderful; not ordinarily a big jelly fan, this tasted a little like bubble gum and was lovely when eaten with he passionfruit ice cream.  A quirky and yummy pudding.

J Bakers was a fabulous experience.  Service was friendly and charming and I was particularly impressed by the kitchen dividing our choices into separate portions.  The menu also offers incredible value.  The celery root whip was four pounds, making each of our individual servings a just a couple of quid.  Amazing for such well judged and delicious food. The style may not be to everyone's taste; there are lots of slates and swirls and unusual flavour combinations, but at the heart of all the invention is some superbly cooked and interesting food that eats as well as it looks. 

It may be a cliché to say so but every high street should have somewhere like Baker's.  There may also be unwanted consequences, as Jay Rayner wrote in his Observer review :  'If there were more places like this in Britain's towns and cities, there would be a skip in my step and a song on my lips and a killer scar on my chest from where they'd gone in to perform the heart bypass on account of my overindulgent eating habits.'  So, although still ruing the fact they don't yet have an outpost in the Home Counties, we happily paid the, very modest, bill and ambled off to York Minster in the beautiful spring sunshine.