Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Steak & Ale Stew with Stilton Dumplings

Not much I can really say about this recipe; the smell of chuck steak and ale, fortified with sweet carrots, onions and a handful of creamy barley, bubbling slowly away at the back of the stove would surely cheer all but the hardest heart in the depths of midwinter.

Of course, you can't have a proper stew without dumplings. Fluffy little orbs of dough poached in the steam of the stew, the bottoms soaking up all the juices, the tops forming the perfect crust. The only meal that was ever guaranteed to unite the whole family when I was growing up was my mum's lamb stew. Lamb neck, barley, carrots and dumplings. Eating it was akin to cuddling under a blanket with your fluffy pyjamas on while hugging a hot water bottle; truly the very best comfort food.

To really guild the lily I have added some crumbled Stilton, still hanging around from Christmas, to the mix. A great combination; the well hung beef perfectly echoes the funky notes of the blue cheese. Even the Ewing - who has previously stated she only likes our friend Stealth's dumpling's, cause of much consternation on my behalf - thoroughly enjoyed these fluffy and cheesy balls of joy. If you don't fancy Stilton then a handful of chopped parsley added to the dough  provides a bright, iron-rich edge. You could also consider adding a handful of chopped walnuts, with or without the cheese, for a lovely nutty crunch.

Of course it's petty hard to mess up a simple casserole, so feel free to modify with your own favourite ingredients. Red wine always makes a good cooking medium, as does beef or vegetable stock. Chunks of parsnip, turnip and/or potatoes can take the place of the barley, and if you're really carb-loading in this snowy weather then serve with extra root veg mashed with plenty of butter and pepper.

Steak & Ale Stew with Stilton Dumplings
serves 6

1kg chuck steak, cubed
2 onions, sliced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks of celery, diced
1 (500ml) bottle of ale or stock
100g pearl barley or soup mix
Seasoned flour, for dusting
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and black pepper

For the dumplings -
175g self raising flour
75g suet (vegetable is fine)
100g Stilton, or other blue cheese, cubed
2tbsp Parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Cold water to bind

Dust the beef lightly in seasoned flour and brown in a hot frying pan.
Slowly sweat the carrots, celery and onion in a casserrole with some light olive oil until softened.
Add the beef, ale, salt, pepper and thyme to the vegetable and bring to a simmer the place in the preheated oven and cook for about and hour and a half.
Add the barley, gently stir and continue cooking until the grains are soft and creamy and the beef is tender.

Meanwhile, make the dumplings. In a bowl mix together the flour, suet, Stilton and parsley.
Make a well in the centre. Add water a little at a time water stirring until the mixture forms a forms a soft dough. Lightly wet your hands and shape the dough into small dumplings.
When the stew is nearly ready add the dumplings, replace the lid and poach for about 20 minutes until the dumplings have risen.
To finish remove the lid and cook for another ten minutes, or until the dumplings are lightly golden.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Ramen Round-Up

Ramen; the next big thing (although it's taken me so long to actually get around and finish this post we've probably all moved on to horse burgers, or something....)

It isn't an exaggeration to say the Japanese are fairly obsessed by bowlfuls of the slippery things. For the uninitiated who haven't yet managed to hang around Tokyo's Shomben Yokocho while slurping soup, or make a visit to the ramen museum in Yokahama, there are, broadly, four types of ramen noodle soup base: Shio (salt), Tonkotsu (pork bone), Shōyu (soy sauce) and, relative newcomer, Miso (fermented soybeans). 

There are countless different permutations of both noodle, toppings and soup available, but the main player shaking up these shores is Tonkotsu; forget your refined French consommes, this bad boy is made by  boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, and which creates a milky and unctuous broth of great depth and piggy flavour. Many restaurants may blend the pork broth with  vegetable or chicken stock, or soy sauce for a lighter finish.

Taking all my new found ramen knowledge - mainly from watching the Ramen Girl and browsing Wikipedia - I set out to trawl London Town, and beyond, to try the finest ramen (or not) available.

Our first visit was to Shoryu on Picadilly. I had planned an early lunch stop as we were  in town for steak at Mash later that evening. It also mean we could take advantage of their 50% opening discount. Clearly several others had had the same idea and there was already a queue snaking up the road when we arrived. No matter, we were well wrapped up from the autumn chill and had the sobering entertainment of the Remembrance Day parade passing up Piccadilly to distract us while we waited.

Very soon we made it through the double curtain and were butting up with our neighbours (all of the venues can kindly best be described as 'bijou'). As they were still waiting for their alcohol licence, beers were BYO (from the Japan Centre across the road). I enjoyed a pot of  barley tea, while the Ewing had a matcha green tea.

There were no sides yet available on our visit - they have since added a section to the menu, including fried chicken; sashimi; yuzu wasabi and tomato; and seasoned pollock roe - which was no bad thing thing as the Ewing was already having enough trouble deciding what noodles to order.

I had no such problems, chosing a bowl of the wasabi tonkotsu; This, I must say, was a mini revolution. The broth was good (porky, a little funky) the wasabi provided some poke and there was plenty of fragrant toasted nori, crunchy beansprouts and slippery wood ear mushrooms, but the real winner was the noodles.

This wasn't a Proustian moment (who would want to recall the claggy Super Noodles and the watery disappointment of the favourite pot snacks of my youth), but more the realisation that ramen could be this good. I always find it rather lovely when something quietly exceeds your expectations. Maybe it's because I wasn't expecting to enjoy them so much, maybe they really were an exceptional batch of perfectly cooked noodles, maybe I just have an unsophisticated palate that would be happy to chow down any thing that isn't stuck together and covered in MSG spiked gloop.

Whatever the reason I very much enjoyed my ramen at Shoryu, although I can't attest for those around me who had to bear witness to the napkin stuck in shirt and red-faced slurping as I hoovered up my lunch.

The Ewing chose the Sapporo Miso, a miso broth base topped with bbq pork, beansprouts and corn. This is a traditional Sapporo style soup with a deep, slightly sweet, sesame-scented broth that was very rich and  perfect for the frigid weather outside.

From looking at the website there have been several menu tweaks since our early visit - as well as the selection of sides, each bowl of noodles now comes with nitamago (boiled egg) as standard. There is also a decent list of cocktails (wasabi martini, anyone?), shochu and sake available, and the addition of some new noodle choices; including an intriguing  'Fire and Ice' Salmon Tsukemen with cold noodlesand hot broth.

Shoryu on Urbanspoon

The next stop on the ramen tour was Tonkotsu, a dark little noodle den on Dean Street where you can watch the chefs working their wares in the window. I dragged along my forlorn friend Stealth for lunch, figuring if I was going to dispense some sage relationship advice then I might as well be enjoying a bowlful of noodles while doing so.

As Stealth was off the wagon again, we celebrated with pints of Asahi and bottles of 8 Ball, a bold and hoppy rye IPA from the Beavertown Brewery in Hackney that went rather nicely with all the fat and spice.

To start we tried some decent, if unmemorable, pork gyoza, crisply fried until they stuck together as one, and requiring some deft chopstick action to prise apart. Five is always seems an awkward number for sharing, but Stealth's talkativeness, combined with my nodding sympathetically at the right moments, meant I did rather well when they came to be divided. (I am a caring friend, really.)

My tonkotsu; pork stock, pork belly and thin noodles, was good. The broth may have been even deeper and funkier than Shoyru, but I wasn't quite as impressed by the noodles (maybe I was already becoming blasé to their simple charms). Where they certainly topped my first bowl, however, was with the pork belly, whose magnificent fatty depth and richness stayed in my mind, and on my lips, long after the last few slurps of stock had been dispatched.

The Tokyo Spicy (not really very spicy at all), was sampled by Stealth (they only offer three types of ramen at Tonkotsu, with a veggie option completing the trilogy). Here pulled chilli pork joined medium thick noodles in a clear pork and chicken broth. I found this a little lacklustre after my bowl of artery-clogging magnificence, but it had a lovely clean freshness that probably made it more suitable as a lunchtime repast if you still had to stagger back to the office for the afternoon.

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Bone Daddies was our final London ramen stop; we finally managed to get there for lunch on New Year's Eve. Prising the Ewing out of bed (reasonably) early on our day off turned out to be a good call, as we arrived to find no queue outside and managed to bag a table with a little extra leeway for our assorted coats, bags and scarves.

The Ewing's cocktail and my pint of Ashai Super Creamy, the only place this stuff is available in the UK. Yes, even the beer is hip in this place. I'm not sure I really noticed the difference, but a cold, crisp lager, condensation beading the glass, is never going to be a bad thing.

The house made pickle selection made the perfect pre-noodle snack, and were great value at three quid  for the lot. I particularly enjoyed the sweet and sour pop from the mango and the fermented funk of the kimchi.

Their soft shell crab is already becoming the stuff of legend, and based on this example it's not hard to see why.  Crisp and greaseless crustacean with a green chilli ginger dip (which I found a little fierce with the delicate meat). My only complaint would be that, with three pieces per portion, I had to relinquish the extra morsel to the crab loving Ewing.

I think I liked the look of the Bone Daddies tonkotsu the best of all. Generous pieces of pork belly strewn crispy garlic, black garlic oil and a whole Cotswold Legbar egg with a yolk of such fluorescence I almost felt compelled to sample it (in the end the Ewing managed to eat three of the halves, leaving a very lonely piece rolling about on a side plate). Overall it was lovely, although I didn't quite have the epiphany I had experienced with elements of the previous two bowls

The Ewing's T22 with extra fat pipette. I have to confess I don't actually remember trying any of this at all (apart from some stray cock scratchings, which were great). What I can tell you is that was all slurped up without too much trouble. There's even a bit of greenery thrown in, to reinforce the feeling that great bowls of steaming noodles are actually doing your body, and not just your soul, some good. (Conveniently ignoring the the fact it's been doused in a slick of extra fat.)

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

The final 'litmus' ramen was sampled at my local Yo Sushi! Many moons ago, when I was attempting to court the Ewing, we would come here for their cheap sushi Blue Mondays, spending the money we had saved on raw fish on sake. Truth be told, I can't remember much about the food, but I do know it was hard to stay upright on your stool after the second bottle.

When I saw that Yo! was doing their own version of the Chinese/Japanese hybrid - complete with the strapline 'Ramen vs Hunger: Ramen wins! - I thought it would be only fair to try them, hoping it would offer a passable urban alternative to the soups of Central Soho. So, with both Stealth and the Ewing by my side for support, we visited to make our comparisons.

My bowl of pork ramen; I don't really want to dwell on the noodles here too much, other than to say that, in our case, hunger definitely won. The stock was strangely sweet and insipid  the yolk of the egg (hidden behind the spoon) was ringed with grey and rock hard and the huge pile seaweed tasted and smelt like the rotting detritus that washes up on the beach after a storm. As a plus point my pork was vaguely, edible, although the Stealth's star anise beef was like chewing a mouthful of Liquorice Allsort-scented sawdust.

Everything in the bowl was faintly comical in its ineptitude and in-edibility. To be fair they seemed very keen to hear our opinions, and we were asked if everything was OK several times (including at one point when I was trying to discretely spit a mouthful of the green gunge into a napkin.) Of course, being British, we smiled and said yes. Maybe we should have said something, but, honestly it seemed about as pointless as complaining the sun sets in the West. This bowl of ramen was so far removed from the other efforts that it was DOA, and there was nothing the waiters or chefs could have done to salvage things.

Although I wasn't remotely surprised that this effort bore no resemblance to the previous three bowls, I was slightly sad it was so awful. Ten or eleven quid may seem a lot for a bowl of soup, but at least you can appreciate the the time, care, and animals that gave their lives to provide such deep and quivering stock, finished off with delicate and well balanced toppings. These bowls cost a cynical £7/8 each for a watery mulch that was only seasoned by my silent tears as I tried to force it down.

Yo Sushi on Urbanspoon

So, what can we surmise? I really like the noodles at Shoryu, the pork belly at Tonkotsu and the cock scratchings at Bone Daddies, and would prefer to feast on the congealed remnants of a Bombay Bad Boy than anything ramen-based originating in Yo Sushi's kitchens.

Overall, I was surprised by the subtle variations with each bowl of tonkotsu I tried, and also by how much I enjoyed eating them all. A visit to any of the first three restaurants would result in deep soup satisfaction for small amounts of cash. And as for the efforts of the fourth, to me it felt  more like an impasta*. 

(*Apologies, there are no excuses for that last 'joke', terrible noodles or not.) 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

2012: The Best of the Rest

So, Twenty Twelve was a bit of a cracker. You can read about the two most exciting parts here, but there was also the excitement of two honeymoons; the Olympics and Paralympics (where we Brits decided it was ok to cry and be gratuitously nice to each other); various get-togethers with family and friends (including an 80th birthday and a  New Year spent with some of my oldest and dearest pals); and, of course, plenty of eating and drinking along the way.

As has become the yearly tradition on the blog at around this time, here's some of the random food, drink and other miscellany that I haven't got around to writing about somewhere else but seemed too delicious not to remember. (Less a conventional 'best of', more a reminder of good time past, and why these trousers feel so tight....)

The turn of the year saw a trip to Stoke Newington, to finally meet my cousin Seth and catch up with his Mum and Dad. After a lovely lunch of bread, cheese and salad from the local farmers market we walked amongst the sheep's heads of Ridley Road before calling into Tugra, on the Stoke Newington Road for baklava. It was so good we had to walk back and pick up another box to take home with us. Not the best pre-wedding diet, but certainly the tastiest.

Paris was all about steakspastriesfoie gras and trotters. Oh, and a little romance, of course. I also can't omit to mention the fabulous cheese; not only did we bring our Neals Yard leftovers from the wedding (we had travelled straight from the reception), but we also had the most fantastic choice of French specimens at every shop and restaurant we visited. My favourite - well, certainly the most welcome - were a chestnut leaf and raffia wrapped Banon, and a little ash dusted pyramid of chevre we bought on our last morning. This, along with a bottle of vin rouge and some Poilaine raisin bread, provided the most perfect train picnic when we were delayed due to snow on the journey home. (I'm not sure our fellow passengers quite relished the pungent fromage as much as we did.)

March saw a visit to my Nan in Norfolk, with a stop off in Cambridge along the way. As well as eating  Fitzbillies buns for breakfast we also made a trip to the Cambridge Chop House. This was a great little place, with some stunning views of King's College from the ground floor dining room (there's also a large subterranean space), as well as some great, gravity dispensed local beers. 

The real star of the show, though is the meat. Specialising in good old 'British' grub, there is a focus on steak and game. We shared a pheasant wellington with red cabbage to start, followed by a whopper of a beef chop that made me feel a bit like Fred Flintstone, and some exemplary venison for the Ewing.

Considering our location there could be only one choice for pudding; Cambridge Burnt Cream with shortbread biscuits and a glass of something sticky. Those with a sweet tooth may also be tempted with the rest of their desert  their selection, including crumble, trifle and home-made arctic roll.

The Cambridge Chop House on Urbanspoon

While writing up our cross-country American adventures, our stop in Chicago seemed to get rather  forgotton. Here were a few of the (many) best bits:

We headed to Carson's in River North for the Ewing's birthday. Serendipitously Carson's has been around since 1977, exactly as long as the Ewing (sorry, Darling), and they both seem to be wearing pretty well. Carson's specialises in baby back ribs, as well as serving brisket, pork chops and chicken, smoked low and slow in a hickory wood-burning pit. As it says on the menu - 'no boiling, no marinade, no rubs or tenderisers, no liquid smoke, NOT 'fall-off-the-bone'. Real, authentic slow-cooked barbecue'.

The Ewing and I both ordered the half rack of ribs, served with coleslaw and a choice of side; in our case their famous potatoes au gratin (spuds sliced and served with vast amounts of cheddar and cream). Ribs were good; smoky, sweet, a little chewy. The potatoes took years from my life but I like to think I added a couple of months back by eating all my veg in the form of the tangy coleslaw. They also have a surprisingly decent beer menu; my pint of Three Floyd's Alpha King went down very nicely. 

Carson's on Urbanspoon

The infamous Chicago style dog 'dragged through the garden'. Chi Town weiners come served on a poppy seed bun and traditionally garnished with a luminous green relish, ball park mustard, sport peppers celery salt and a wedge of fresh tomato. Absolutely no ketchup allowed. We washed these down with Old Style beer, while watching the Cubs loose at Wrigley field on a Saturday afternoon. The quintessential American experience.

The first memorable breakfast in this round up was at Chicago's Lou Mitchell's; a classic diner, found at the start of Route 66, that's been serving breakfasts to the masses for over 85 years and where baskets of warm donut holes and packets of Milk Duds are still handed out to the lines of patrons eagerly waiting to get inside and enjoy the vast array of pastries, cakes, eggs and cereals.

On our early morning visit we enjoyed endless cups of coffee and a great, old fashioned, fresh fruit salad, followed by malted pecan waffles and ethereal banana pancakes served with crispy bacon and jugs of maple syrup. Just the sustenance we needed before our 52 hour train trip all the way to San Francisco.

Lou Mitchell's on Urbanspoon

The second breakfast; a perfect British fry up. We enjoyed this at Greendale's Farm Shop and Cafe in Devon, and it proved just the ticket after four days of partying hard down in Exeter. While it was a shame they had run out of hogs pudding (a West Country speciality), I still enjoyed some of the best black pudding I have eaten. Never was a plate of food and pot of tea so warmly welcomed. (If you were wondering, the Ewing ate her breakfast plus my unwanted fried eggs on two rounds of toast. An impressive effort.)

No summer would be complete without one of the Ewing's celebrated swiss rolls. This year her fluffy whisked sponge had been stuffed with lemon curd and home made limoncello-spiked cream, before being rolled up and finished with a crunchy sugar coating. Boozy, rich and sticky and too good not to have a second slice.

The world's greatest cake-maker being introduced to Mary Berry. Joking aside, this exciting meeting came about as the Ewing was helping to coordinate a local library volunteer event and the lovely Mary came to give a talk and present the awards. Although she seemed immune to the charms of all the baked goods on offer (I suppose there is too much of a good thing), I did feel rather proud as Ewing's victoria sponge was the first cake to be polished off.

While I blogged about the pasta on our tour of Tuscany, Marche, Umbria and San Marino there was plenty more to write home about in this charming corner of Italy. 

Contender for the one of the best things I ate this year was this rather modest looking scoop of pistachio gelato from Cafe Italia in Cagli. The kindly chap serving us pointed out the flavours that had been freshly churned that morning (all ably translated by our friend, Marinella) before we sat and ate our ice creams and drank our espresso in the shade of the town square. Maybe it was the heat, maybe we were soaking up the Italian gioia di vivere, but never has the simple trinity of frozen milk, sugar and nuts tasted so good.

Another speciality of the Umbria/Marche region is the the black truffle. During our trip we enjoyed them with shaved on pasta and beef carpaccio; studded through cheese and salami; and infused in wild honey. I was in my element when we found this shop selling local treats in the charming town of Gubbio, and I still have a jar of gloriously funky truffle paste, ready to slather over crostini or roast chicken, waiting in the cupboard.

During our trip we made the drive over to Fano; firstly to ogle the impossibly bronzed and beautiful Italian holiday makers, slowly baking in huge rows all across the beach; and secondly to sample the Brodetto di Fanese, the local interpretation of an Adriatic fish stew. Our waiter did patiently explain everything that was in it, including monkfish, mussels and mullet, but while the finer points have been lost to the midst of Frascati and too much sun, I do still remember was how good it tasted. There can be little more pleasing than sitting eating the day's catch as the fishermen were still mooring their boats metres in front of us.

We finished with a Moretta, a type of  cafe corretto, or 'corrected' coffee which the local fisherman would use to fortify themselves on cold mornings. Consisting of a sweetened ristretto fortified with brandy, rum, aniseed liquer and a twist lemon peel, which makes you wonder how they landed any fish at all. Bloody good, though.

Another Marche speciality is agnello scottadito or finger burning lamb chops. Cooked on an open fire, they're so named as they're so tasty people can't wait for them to cool down before tucking in. They featured on the menu at Ristaronte Maria - a gem of a place up in the mountains, where we stopped for our last lunch - alongside these tiny mutton kebabs with bitter wild greens. Served pink, they were impossibly tender and full-flavoured, with just the right charred fat to meat ratio and a sprinkling of salt and lemon. Simple perfection.

And to finish our trip, a glass of icy cold campari and soda enjoyed on our terrace, complete with stunning views out across the Appenine Mountains. Salute!

In October we took a trip to Wales, via the West Country, and ate lots of ice cream on the way. 

First up the 'ice cream from an Airstream', made by Harriet's Jolly Nice and served at Westonbirt Arboretum. We picked a  double scoop of Westonbirt Damson and Herefordshire Victoria Plum, seen here teetering precariously atop its cone. To be honest, I'm not really sure which was which, but both were lovely. The top scoop was light and refreshing, more like a sorbet than an ice cream, while the bottom scoop was rich and almost cream cheese-like in flavour.

Wales has a, rather surprisingly, strong ice cream heritage thanks to the influx of Italian immigrants that moved to the area from as early as the 18 century who soon began opening cafes, ice cream parlours and fish and chip shops. Two of the best known purveyors of frozen deserts in South Wales are Verdi's and Joe's, both of whom have branches in the Mumbles. 

Our first port of call was Verdi's, where I chose a  DIY sundae consisting of scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate fudge sauce, mini marshmallows and a sugar wafer. While this was good (smother anything in marshmallow and chocolate and it would be hard to refuse), the coffee and stunning views were better.

A brisk walk along the Mumbles seafront and we were ready for our second ice cream of the afternoon. While the surrounding may not be as aesthetically pleasing (the outdoor table we sat at faced on to the Mumbles Road) the place was packed with pensioners and school kids all happily tucking in to cones and coffee.

I was tempted by another marshmallow and chocolate sundae, to compare with Verdi's effort earlier, but in the end I couldn't turn down a scoop of the intriguing-sounding Welsh cake. This was right up there with Cafe Italia as my scoop of the year. A rich, spicy nutmeg and cinnamon ice, studded with juicy raisins. A scoop or two of this on a warm Welsh cake would be a very fine thing indeed.

Or final stop was Shepherd's in Hay on Wye. A beautiful, old fashioned parlour that specialises in, as you may have gleaned from the name, sheep's milk ice creams. After dutifully eating our pannini and soup, alongside a couple of well made macchiatos, we made sure to leave enough room to sample a scoop or two. 

As it was the day before my birthday, I decided to celebrate with a slice of their homemade ice cream cake; stripy layers of hazelnut, chocolate and vanilla ice cream on a sponge base, all doused in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Worth getting another year older for. The Ewing's choice was slightly more refined; two scoops of sheep's milk ice in the intriguing, and delicious, blackcurrant and liquorice, and amaretti and marsala flavours.

What better way to end the year with yet more cake. This time it was Dorset apple, one of my favourites.  The first slice was eaten on Weymouth Harbour; a well deserved breakfast after missing our original hotel breakfast as the Ewing was 'struggling' somewhat after the merriment of the night before. Clotted cream crowned the weekend's excesses.

The second slice was eagerly consumed after a very wet and windy Boxing Day family walk on Burton Bradstock Beach (just down from the more famous Chesil, scene of some very tedious, but not yet forgotten, pebble measuring on my school geography field trip). This time there wasn't a tape measure in sight, just a slice of this, rich with fruit and spice and with a crunchy sugar crumble topping, and a cup of hot tea. 

After all the year's far-flung excesses it's cheering to remember that sometimes the simple things in life are still the best.