Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve great balls of fun!

We didn’t have any grand plan for New Year’s Eve party fare, no spectacular feast, no extravagant table décor so in the end we just decided a few platters of picky bits in the middle of the table and then onto the board games.

I’d promised to make some more of those scrumptious diminutive Beef Wellingtons, Beef Booties if you will so set myself to cut the puff pastry into little squares and cube the beef.


Ready rolled puff pastry
Brussels pâté
Beef fillet cut roughly into 2cm cubes
1 lightly beaten egg

I made about 50 with a packet of puff pastry, but I’m not entirely sure how much beef fillet I used but I cut the cubes a little smaller – more like 1cm cubes so each ‘beef bootie’ could be popped into the mouth whole.

- Preheat the oven to 200°c.

- Roll out the puff pastry and cut into 4cm squares. My pastry was pre-rolled but I felt it needed to be a little thinner for these canapés.

- Smear the point of a spoon of pâté in the centre of each square and top with a seasoned beef cube.

- If I’d cut the beef larger as per the recipe I could have folded the pastry over the beef and neatly tuck in the corners like a larger Beef Wellington but on this scale this proved too tricky. Instead I opted to roll each into a beefy ball and line up them all up on a baking sheet.

- Carefully brush each ball with the beaten egg, sprinkle with some handy sesame seeds and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until pleasantly puffed and golden brown.

- Allow to cool slightly, (if permitted by the ravenous diners) and then transfer to a platter (or two) to serve.
As well as the meaty morsels we also whipped up some fluffy potato cakes topped with a dollop of cool crème fraîche and the remaining palest rose tinged salmon. From Waitrose we scored some fat garlicky, cheesy dough balls and an unusual dessert.

Rather fabulously we found these ice cream filled chocolate dessert canapés. Belgium chocolate that splintered delectably in the mouth revealing their icy interiors which certainly didn’t get a chance to melt before they were polished off. And yes that is LLcT's finger again, perhaps if he knew it would be immortalised on the world wide web he wouldn't have bitten his finger nails!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A purple dinner

I’ve been left alone to decorate the table whilst D tends to the incredible roasted shoulder of lamb with smashed veg and greens from Jamie Oliver’s wonderful Jamie at Home book. And to celebrate that we’ve supplemented the purple crockery and platter collection I go slightly purple crazy! The purple hued layered runners are supplemented with the sparkly magenta napkins and purple sparkly napkin rings for the girls and purple not so sparkly with silver stars for the boys. D’s new purple satin handbags and shoe Christmas decorations are removed form the tree and transferred to the table, with the purple shiny ex-Mardi Gras beads, mirrored candles and the metal snowflakes strewn randomly (?) in the gaps in between.

Everyone has got customised cutlery for tonight - D her purple set (of course!), LLcT with iron weapons forged in a volcano fire by Thor, MC with his Christmas Global-esque knife and fork, E(D) with dinky little dusty sized (aka baby’s first) cutlery and me with my ever so elegant new today LLB silverware.

I was determined not to waste the remaining lobster and whipped up the tiniest starters of puff pastry cases stuffed to the brim with creamy lobster and remaining seafood goodies. These I topped with puff pastry initials which I did unfortunately singe a tad. But everything was polished off rather sharpish so I don’t think anyone really minded.

The main event of the evening was the juicy Mr. Knibbs’ lamb, which is slashed, anointed with oil and then slow roasted for four hours on a bed of large sprigs of rosemary and unpeeled garlic cloves. The stunning woolly beast is served with gently sautéed cabbage and potatoes, Swedes and carrots all smashed together. The popular piquant sauce is capers, chicken stock, a large bunch of mint and red vinegar. Jamie is right, the shredded lamb is incredible and melt-in-the mouth and the vegetables aren't too bad either.

A purple-tastic meal indeed!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Steak sandwich at John Lewis

Robert Sayle in Cambridge has been languishing in the ‘wrong’ part of town for too long and we’ve been looking forward to the huge refit and then returning to the city centre. It is back, sadly no longer a Robert but the more common John Lewis, but it certainly it big and sparkly! We escape the raging hordes in the haberdashery department but we did have to venture forth to the rest of the shop and it’s clear that we’re not the only ones who have missed this shop. We make the dreadful mistake of trying some clothes on in the ladies changing room and nearly fainted from the tropical heat. I think we may have spotted the fatal flaw in their new design!

After our steamy exertions we rewarded ourselves with a visit to the new and ever so popular restaurant, just nipping in before the rope was draped across the entrance. We were escorted to a lovely little curvy banquette, ideal to stash our shopping booty and survey the sophisticated 70's look - the dark wood tables, the rather fabulous chandelier and the strange Sony blue lights around it. I think that particular shade of blue attracts the males of the species for example, the lights on the PS2 or the same colour emitting from underneath one of those boy-racer souped up (some say pimped) cars.

Turning away from the incongruous lights we consulted the menu and plumped for a pair of sandwiches, salt beef for D and a juicy steak in slightly over-toasted sandwich. All washed down with a nice glass of full-bodied red, not a bad way to wrap a day of hectic sale shopping. But they really need to sort out those changing rooms!

Friday, December 28, 2007

2nd annual Cambridge seafood festival

I read once that it was important to have your own personal traditional events. Not just the ones that many share like Christmas and New Year but an occasion that was more unique. The article suggested an annual meal to celebrate the birth of a favourite icon or hero or to recreate some seminal moment in your family life. It went on to advocate that this would be a festivity that would hopefully cherished by your children and they would go onto commemorate also.

Last year D and I went on some sort of trolley dash in Marks & Spencer’s and ended with rather a lot of fishy delights and when undecided what to conjure up for tonight’s meal opted to repeat the idea. It seems a tad ostentatious to call it a “seafood festival” as really this should conjure up more hunter-gatherer antics than placing a few well chosen items into a shopping basket. But sometimes I think judicious shopping is almost as talented as good cooking! Well that’s my excuse anyway!

We weren’t quite as indulgent as last year, this time we went for a lobster Rockefeller, crab pâté, more Coquilles St Jacques, marinated salmon on skewers, the palest smoked salmon on blinis topped with roe and M&S’s new offering the queen scallops, chorizo on potato rounds and toasted sour dough bread. And even the table décor was a little more under-the-sea coloured with the new turquoise linen!

I do think this is worthy of an annual celebration. Lobster tail anyone?

The second Christmas

After a tortuous journey from Manchester to Cambridge due to our wonderful British holiday rail arrangements I have finally arrived – possibly with the world’s heaviest suitcase. At least I didn’t have to decamp into a coach or some other dreadful mode of transport but instead had to take a more convoluted route than the already slightly diverted route I'd planned. However, fortunately D and MC were happy to pick me up from Kettering instead. A place I don’t know the whereabouts of, but was convinced was immortalised in the “John Kettering is a weatherman” song until D pointed out I was thinking about John Kettley!

D had prepared for my arrival with a hearty Jamie fish pie. And as I don’t really get the point of prawns, D has had marked the crustacean-free portion with a chive ‘J’. I know I’m very much in the minority here; the world seems to get terribly excited about prawns but I can really take them or leave them. So I feel it is considerate to leave them to those who would truly appreciate them more.

We had a starter of our old favourite M&S's Coquilles St Jacques and mini toad in the holes. There was a certain eagerness to eat this meal as the remaining Christmas presents were to be handed out, divested of their shiny wrappings and oohed and aahed over as soon as the meal was cleared away. Happy second Christmas!

Nigella for breakfast

I have always been a huge fan of Nigella, her attitude to food and life seem to be very healthy and she brings a voluptuous vivacity to TV cookery shows. Though I do have some niggles about the latest show, there does seem to be a little too much of an entirely manufactured idyllic working mother lifestyle. Now I can’t claim to be a mother but I seem to have plenty of that work stuff and clearly I must be doing wrong as I would be sauntering around whisking aromatic chocolate croissants out of the oven for an impromptu breakfast every day. However undoubtedly her express culinary expertise helped me out considerably when I needed to produce a speedy supper for the strangely B’s (MC and E(D) are included in this collective despite them not being strictly B’s) and hopefully just about serve all the courses before MC was asleep! But I am still a little dubious about her new show, perhaps next time she’ll take a leaf out of the latest Jamie Oliver Kitchen show and concentrate on the fine cooking and less of the artificial made-for-TV way of life, I am sure Nigella has an extremely covetable existence but we don’t need to be reminded how much our real life differs from hers.

One idea that did catch my eye on her show what her potato cakes, and she used that stalwart of the store cupboard from my childhood – Smash. Though I have to admit it looked different from the last time I experienced those curious little moon rocks of dried potato, lumps that were often tricky to get out of the resultant mash potato. But when Nigella used it she poured it in a thin stream so clearly the consistency has altered in the several decades that have passed since I last experienced it.

Potato cakes with smoked salmon
by Nigella Lawson - from Nigella Express
Makes 30
Prep: less than 30 mins Cooking: less than 10 mins

For the potato cakes
3 free-range eggs
125ml/4½fl oz whole milk
2 spring onions, finely sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
60g/2¼oz instant mashed potato mix
40g/1½oz plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp lemon juice
For the topping
300g/10½oz smoked salmon
small bunch fresh dill

1. In a jug, whisk the eggs, milk, finely sliced spring onions and olive oil together.
2. Stir in the instant mashed potato mix, plain flour, baking powder and the lemon juice.
3. Heat a flat griddle and drop tablespoon-sized dollops of the mixture onto the hot griddle.
4. Cook for about 30 seconds a side, or until golden-brown and firm enough at the sides to flip.
5. Once you have made the pancakes, and they've cooled a little, tear off strips of smoked salmon and arrange the small slices on each pancake.
6. Decorate each salmon-topped pancake with a tiny feather of dill.

I decided to finish my fluffy little puffed potato pancakes with generous dollops of pesto crème fraîche underneath the smoked salmon. Though one thing I forgot to take into account that Nigella’s recipes generally always feed a large hungry village so even scaling down the recipe meant that we were rather potato pancaked out very quickly. Maybe next time I'll use the same quantities but for a larger and perhaps hungrier crowd!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A big wheel and a deconstructed brulée

Harvey Nichols Second Floor restaurant seemed the ideal place to view the post Christmas Manchester streets below. When they called me to confirm the reservation at lunchtime it sounds like a wild party was taking place and I could barely hear them. But tonight it seems we are the only people in Manchester, the city is deserted and so is the restaurant. But that’s okay; we have all the attentive staff to ourselves.

The place is decorated with a slight festive nod with fairy lights adorning the windows framing the view of the lit big wheel slowly turning in Exchange Square. The waiter whisks over the Champagne trolley with that expression of “Which Champagne would you like?” rather than “Would you like some Champagne?” We have the obligatory Kir Imperial and peruse the menu.

I choose one of my favourites the Seared foie gras, creamed parsnips & apple foam and was not let down. I do so adore the sweet yielding texture of the foie gras and the creamy streak of parsnips.

M feels that she has done scallops recently so plumps for the Game terrine, mulled pear chutney & cinnamon brioche which comes on an immaculately dotted with chutney dressing plate.

M continuing her usual fishy theme opts for the Fillet of Shetland organic cod, wilted spinach & brown shrimp butter and she seems very happy with her whiter than white chunky flakes and little shrimps.

I continue my meaty theme with the Breast of Goosnargh duck, leg confit, braised red cabbage with prune & bacon rolls accompanied by the most robust Gratin Dauphinoise I’ve ever had. The duck was the perfect combination of juicy and meatiness as really only a duck can be, the confited leg was melt in the mouth and the dense gratin Dauphinoise was tasty though not the unctuous creamy concoction I would normally go for.

I loved the idea of the Hot chocolate fondant with snowball ice cream, I briefly convinced myself that the ice cream would look like a snowball or made from some snow shipped in a ice box from somewhere. And then I realised that we are talking about that 70’s throwback drink of Advocaat. Never one to excite my taste buds so after some gentle persuasion I have my snowball flavoured ice cream substituted for a greener mint choc chip snowball sandwiched between two crumbly snowflake-shaped sable biscuits. I could see that mint chocolate chip ice cream was the finishing touch to another dessert but they seemed a little perturbed by my wish, what would they do if there was a run on the other pudding? Fortunately as we’ve only been joined by another pair of diners, they realised that the likelihood of such a disaster was somewhat remote!

And very important, the chocolate fondant centre did flow out in a rich river of loveliness.

When M selected the Milk chocolate crème brulée with clementine jelly & crème fraîche sorbet I am sure she didn’t imagine the sculptural creation that was placed before her. Here is a crème brulée deconstructed and shot through a prism. The milk chocolate part is a spiral of the thinnest chocolate with the crème fraîche sorbet nestling inside all perched precariously on a jewel bright clementine jelly bed. The brulée top of is an explosion of crunchy caramel leaping out of the custard mountain. All very stunning and I assured rather fabulous to eat also.

We’ve had an elegant evening in a quiet and pretty restaurant even if a tad too dark for our tastes. We have also managed some essential sale shopping before our delicious meal so are surrounded by some intriguing shopping bags. Finally we feel we should hit the mean and chilly streets below to start our journey home, it’s probably too late for a big wheel ride so we plump for a taxi instead. Three sparkly forks for Harvey Nichols Second Floor, another one to revisit on a future trip.


One of us was delighted that there was leftover mashed potato and Brussels sprouts from Christmas Day because then a fat bubble and squeak could be made and then pan-fried alongside a sunny-yolked egg. One of us didn’t really fancy the mash and sprouts the first time round. Hmmm!

But how could anyone resist a bit of bubble? Personally I think it looks very fine indeed!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Party on - party off!

Plan A was to have the usual family party, have everyone round, whip up an extraordinary array of canapés, M favouring small food rather than meal-sized portions and then having a main meat feature with a cornucopia of vegetable accompaniments (bearing in mind the various familial vegetables proclivities). But it was decided this year to go to Plan B instead; I would contribute a few delights to the Boxing Day meal and travel to them instead of the usual vice versa. My intention was to make the Beef Wellington canapés that were consumed so incredibly speedily at my last ‘at home’. And then at M’s behest I would make Jamie Oliver picnic loaf, the one that looks like a giant lumpy doughnut or a bread snake that has swallowed a line of hard-boiled eggs. I thought that it was rather more picnic than Boxing Day buffet but she wanted to taste it for herself. For the finale I thought I would reprieve my favourite ever Chocolate Mousse recipe from Joël Robuchon, definitely a crowd pleaser.

Sadly however, a sudden dash to hospital meant that we moved swiftly to Plan C, no family get together and taking it in turns to visit the hospital instead. Fortunately Uncle D came back from hospital after a few days but has since made a couple more visits and I honestly can’t believe it for the food even if they do favour steamed puddings for dessert.

But Plan C did mean that we had a few unexpected items burning a hole in the fridge and the first priority was to ensure that fine beast of beef fillet found a new home. And one nestling alongside a mound of fabulously fluffy mash potatoes seemed ideal.

We started the meal with a new appetiser from Waitrose/Ocado, a pork and apricot concoction in a non-edible wooden boat. It was okay but my Beef Wellingtons would have been much tastier. I didn't make a dessert because we had a couple of sweet goodies at hand but this is definitely make this.

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse
Serves 6-8 ~ from Joël Robuchon - Cuisine Actuelle

140g bittersweet chocolate preferably Valrhona, finely grated or chopped 30g unsalted butter, softened 4 large eggs, separated 1 level tablespoon vanilla sugar 50ml double cream, chilled
6tbsp icing sugar

- Melt the chocolate in an uncovered double boiler over gently simmering water.
- Add butter and stir frequently removing from heat before the chocolate pieces are melted, the residual heat will continue to melt it.
- Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool.
- With an electric mixer beat the egg yolks and vanilla sugar until thick and lemon coloured.
- Whisk this into the cooled chocolate mixture until thoroughly blended.
- Whip the cream until stiff, with a rubber spatula, fold the whipped cream into the mousse mixture until thoroughly blended.
Set aside.
- With an electric mixture, combine the egg whites and icing sugar and whisk until stiff but not dry.
- Whisk 1/3 in to the chocolate mixture and combine thoroughly.
- With a rubber spatula gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
Do this slowly until no streaks of white remain.
- Transfer to a 2pint/1.1 litre serving bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

This mousse recipe is sublime and continues to showcase Joël Robuchon’s genius; the touch of whipped cream elevates it beyond your usual chocolate mousse recipe.
The only challenge is that I normally halve this recipe when I’m pleasing a smaller crowd and whipping 25ml double cream is quite tricky with a conventional mixture, fortunately now my beloved Bamix can help me out with this task.

And the special M request:

Rolled bread of Parma ham, nice cheese, egg and basil
Jamie Oliver from Happy Days with Naked Chef

Bread dough made with 1kg strong bread flour
10 slices of Parma ham
8 large organic eggs, boiled for 8 minutes and shelled
400g cheese (a mixture of Cheddar, Fontina, Parmesan or any other cheesy leftovers, grated
2 handfuls fresh basil
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

- Allow your bread dough to have its first prove and then dusting the dough with flour as you shape it into a long rectangle about 1 cm thick - this should end up being about 1m long and about 18-20 cm wide - Along the middle of the bread, lay out your Parma ham, eggs, cheese and basil. - Drizzle with extra Virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. - Pull the dough over the filling so it forms what looks like a cannelloni shape. - Then what you need to do is bring one end round to the other so they join up. - Pinch and pat the two ends together firmly to form a doughnut shaped loaf. - Transfer to a flour-dusted baking tin, allow to prove for 15 minutes, dust with flour and place in a preheated oven at 180o C for 35 minutes until golden.
- Allow to cool and slice when you’re ready to serve, if you’re lucky it will still be warm in the middle.

The recipe does mention the optional additions of sun dried tomatoes and olives but as they are optional I have opted to leave them out. My paternal grandmother wasn’t a fan of tomatoes and pretty much everyone on her side of the family share this distaste. Some have tempered the hatred and allowed tomato ketchup or tomato sauce on a pizza to creep into their lives others have banished all traces of the dreaded red stuff from their lives (I think you can guess which camp I fall into!) So you can’t blame me really, it’s in my genes!
If Plan A had occurred, I think the tomato-dodgers would have outnumbered the tomato worshippers so I would have been vindicated. I will find some reason to make this for M, I can vouch for the fact that it makes a tasty brunch on subsequent days so it won't be wasted.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Three bird roast

So yesterday I picked up from the local butchers their three bird roast offering – a brace of pheasants on top of a fat turkey breast all contained inside a duck. Not exactly the perfect Christmas lunch for two people but it was a particular request of M and fortunately, she just adores cold cooked meat. Whereas I prefer revitalising the vegetables for another meal – but each to their own!
I roasted the bird trio according to the instructions, it was easy to carve due to lack of bones but very quickly looked like a poultry car-crash as it fell apart at each slice. And Mark Hix was probably right; it was a bit dryer than a single bird might have been. When James Martin was talking about his local butcher’s version of the three-bird roast he mentioned the layers of sausage meat and stuffing and I think ours might have lacked that extra lubrication.

To accompany our plump three bird roast I somehow managed to prepare enough vegetables, ummm maybe for a small village. Well it is Christmas! M wanted sage and onion stuffing so I made little bacon boats in the mini muffin tin and stuffed them with the stuffing. I wanted mash potatoes, M roast potatoes and sorry I did rather let them brown a little too much. M didn’t really want any vegetables probably, whereas I wanted creamy cauliflower and broccoli gratin and glistening Brussels sprouts. Hence the rather groaning plate! Well, I think they'll be plenty of leftovers, hmmm possibly enough for another village.

Christmas en cocotte

I’d promised a Christmas day breakfast of my 2007 favourite - oeuf en cocotte. And as smoked salmon seems to be a classic Christmas day ritual, the surprise under the soft egg and cream blanket was an easy choice. And in deference to M’s feeling about too many vegetables, it was shrubbery free! The little ramekins that M has stockpiled into the great formerly crab gratin ceramic dish mountain seemed a little too shallow and slight for my needs so I opted for the quirkily shaped Jamie Oliver party dishes that are not only capacious but happily oven proof. And it was very good!

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat

Well actually Christmas is here and this year is going to be a particularly foodie celebration even if goose isn’t going to feature. Not that most Christmases are not steeped in food lore, you can barely turn on a television without someone imparting their recipe for ‘the’ most perfect roast potatoes (parboiling in their skins, peeling, chuffing up the edges and cooking in goose fat if you ask me) but this year we seem to be determined to add an extra dose of gastronomic delights to the festivities.
Firstly M expressed a strong desire quite a while ago to experience a three-bird roast crowning our Christmas day table. Much research on the web netted the thought that maybe one of these huge beasts would be a little elaborate for “dinner à deux” so we settled on lamb with a herb and mustard crust instead (though that's a long story in itself). But then it’s as if suddenly everywhere I looked someone was talking about cooking a bird within a bird within a bird.
I believe in the US they are often referred to as Turkducken (which is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey) which as helpful as the name is (exactly what it says on the tin) I’m not a fan of the term itself. To me it sounds too processed as if the whole thing comes in a colossal can whose lid is peeled back by a giant key. But there again I haven't tasted it so that could be my name prejudice kicking in.
Three bird or four bird roast also explains what’s coming but without the added knowledge of what birds are roasting. Traditionally such a feast was for the affluent Tudor table and often the whole shebang was baked in an enormous pie as they didn’t have the benefit of our modern ovens. A couple of years ago Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall put together a ten bird extravaganza for his River Cottage Medieval Christmas banquet and it did look very intriguing albeit quite a challenge. Though frankly only really useful if you’re plan to feed a small village, there’s only so much cold meat one can take.
I’d always been fascinated by the whole prospect, I know the fabulous Nicky of Nicky and Regis fame runs a Christmas course (or certainly used to) at their wonderful Normandy manor house Le Manoir de L'Aufragere near Fourmetot where the plan is for each of the guests to de-bone the various birds, stuff them all inside one another and then transport them back to the UK in a cool box for the Christmas table. I’ve yet to indulge in this but having incredibly fond memories of Nicky and Regis, their beautiful home and fabulous hospitality, their black-headed sheep, Josephine the donkey, Catso the cat and all the little chickens that follow Regis so devotedly I can imagine I will be drawn back again some time.
But after dismissing the idea of my own three-bird roast for a while suddenly I am tasting them, seeing them and reading about at every turn. James Martin cooked a “Yorkshire Pot”, his local butcher’s version of the multi-bird roast, on his new UKFood TV show and also on Saturday kitchen a couple of weeks ago. Every self respecting on-line butcher is offering up their version and just for the sake of experimentation a Devon farmer has produced a 4 stone 48 bird roast which feeds 125 no less! Hmmm maybe a tad ambitious for me!
I found a recipe for a smaller version that would feed two which had a spatchcocked pheasant, a male duck breast and a spatchcocked pigeon but struggled to find a butcher that would tackle the fiddly tunnel boning and M’s local butcher seemed less than keen but could do me a turkey breast topped with a brace of pheasants all contained inside a duck. So after some consideration this was duly ordered.
Since then I discover that Marks & Spencer have their own version looking all bronzed and glistening in their Christmas magazine and, despite it being so obvious, I never checked Waitrose as they are also offering a huge four bird roast or a much more petit three game bird roast. At the Harvey Nichols event last week (still to be blogged) they were offering slices of their intepretation and said that they would have been happy to prepare my pheasant/duck breast/ pigeon combo if I’d wanted to but it was too late by then.
Mark Hix at his latest Divertimenti evening (also still to be blogged) casts doubts on such a multi-bird not being dry so he advocates cooking a whole plethora of game birds individually as he did last year and piling them up on the table much like D and MC are planning for their Christmas lunch with B and C this year. That idea was inspired by Jamie Oliver new 'At home with...' book.
So it seems that the fashionable Christmas table will be strewn by a variety of feathered friends this year and you’ll have to watch this space to see how our three bird roast eventually turns out.
Though our Christmas this year not only features this three-bird roast (or sometimes referred to as Royal Roast) but three fine meals at some Manchester restaurants (yet more blogging!) and a few culinary requests I've had for the family meal, unfortunately not taking places at ours for the first time this year.
I hope whatever feast you decide to prepare that your Christmas table is groaning and you have a fabulous one. Persoally I think it is the perfect excuse to break out all the sparkle – though frankly I never really need an excuse!
Happy Christmas one and all.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Eating French at the Midland in Manchester

The Midland Hotel is the sort of place I would have liked to have been taken to by my godfather for my first grown-up afternoon tea probably to celebrate a special birthday. I would have been picked up from school by his peak-capped driver in a highly polished silver shadow, all glossy walnut and deep leather seats. We would have glided to a halt at the main entrance and the white-gloved doorman would have tipped his hat and led us through to the octagonal palm court. There we would have been relieved of our astrakhan collared cashmere coat and school trench-coat respectively and settled down to a fine afternoon tea. Amongst the gently tinkling sound of silver tea pots filling china teacups we would have sat at our starched linen clad table and daintily nibbled crust-less cucumber sandwiches and plump scones smothered in jewel bright strawberry jam. My godfather would have handed me my birthday present, maybe a pale blue gift bag stuffed with clouds of tissue paper and containing a pale blue beribboned box containing an elegant silver Tiffany pedant – possibly a starfish.

An idyllic picture and possibly one born of too many Agatha Christie reruns or Rosamund Pilcher novels. I certainly never went to a school that would have had a regulation trench-coat; I never had a godfather that would whisk me off to afternoon tea or lavish me with Tiffany trinkets. I am fairly sure my godparents (not that I could even name them) were on different continents by the time I was past the stage of puréed food so the Midland was somewhat out of the question.

But fortunately on this nippy Christmas Eve we have managed to secure a late cancellation to their French Restaurant. I had tried previously to get a reservation but they are rather sought after so if was fortunate that a random call a few hours ago struck gold. We are here early as the whole of Manchester seems to be already shut, so we avail ourselves of their comfy sofas and start with a cup of tea before hitting the Kir Imperials. Well that was our plan but my explanation as to perfect Kir Imperial got somewhat misinterpreted so we were shaken up French Martinis instead. We were bought the menu whilst sipping our martinis and waiting for the art nouveau doors to the restaurant to open. I had been taken when reading about their tasting menu that they was a little savoury course of Welsh Rarebit before the dessert but being Christmas Eve they weren’t doing the lengthy tasting menu and it was à la carte only. But I still thought I should try their rarebit and they were happy to oblige my curious request.

Our little amuse bouche was a delicate creamy white onion soup topped with a little basil oil whilst the waiter sliced our chosen loaf off a large trolley. As the bread we’d had at Choice was a little stale, this seemed a good idea but possibly rather a palaver for a couple of slices of fresh bread.

I started with fat cushions of Tortellini of Woodland Mushrooms, Local Corn Fed Chicken, Black Truffles which was as fabulous as it sounds. The rich Autumnal woodiness of the mushrooms, the soft chicken and that heady truffle, not a bad start at all!

M’s appetiser was the artistic and vibrant Oak Smoked Salmon “3 ways” and she wasn’t disappointed in fact knowing her love of both small portions and seafood, it was the perfect starter.

Then to continue the fishy theme M tucked into the Cornish Seabass, Crab Tortellini, Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Shellfish Foam which was another beautiful looking dish. The sea foam in particular gave it that very en vogue modern twist. And I was on hand to help with the odd pert Chantenay carrot.

In the mean time I was enjoying my Cutlet, Saddle, Rillette of Cumbrian Lamb, Buttered Leeks and Fondant Potatoes. A local lamb feast! The lamb was perfectly pink and beautifully cooked, the potato tower soft and buttery.

I probably missed a trick opting for the Welsh Rarebit in favour of the dessert menu. I could have had a Raspberry Soufflé or a Vanilla Brulée with homemade Garibaldi’s or indeed the delicious Tasting of Chocolate that M chose. Oh such dessert envy I suffered. There was chocolate mousse piled high with fruit, an oozing chocolate fondant and a slab of chocolate parfait and a delicate chocolaty wafer construction. What was I thinking of.

My Welsh Rarebit was a teensy bit flabby as it can often be. I should have stuck to the sweeter options.

But if I had a lack of “a sweet finale” regret it was immediately sated by the wonderful sculptural petite fours silver tree adorned with various chocolates. We couldn’t do them justice but I really had to admire the special stand, there is a piece of table adornment I don’t have in my collection, oh woe is me!

The French at the Midland was a last minute restaurant substitution but went to the top of the table, a fine three forks for them. And just the perfect way to spend the night before Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lamb surprise!

The surprise was that I thought I’d removed the Christmas Day lamb from the Ocado delivery as we’d had a change of plan and gone for a three-bird roast instead, however clearly altering the Ocado delivery late at night when you’re distracted should come with a health warning as I didn’t do it so well and the original lamb turned up with the rest of the festive food – whoops!

But it’s hardly going to go to waste when it’s this good so it gets anointed with a little English mustard and a herby crust made from a couple of slices of white bread, a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme and all whizzed up in the Bamix chopper. The herby crumb is pressed into the mustard and then browned in the pan before being slammed into the oven. Oh and those aromas!

One of my favourite accompaniments to lamb is a good old gratin Dauphinois, so I speed things up by parboiling the thinly v-sliced potatoes in the garlicky cream on the hob before layering a buttered dish with the aromatic slices. It’s finished off in the oven and as we have French trimmed rack of lamb today, they don’t take too much cooking the gratin can bake at the same time. And the resultant hearty yet elegant dish is finished off with some well-dressed greenery.

And for a special starter Waitrose/Ocado are selling rather delectable seafood spoons with edible spoons – great no washing up, and also rather tasty!

Okay maybe the lamb was a mistake, but a very delicious mistake in the end!

Nice new black plates as well M!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What a Choice!

When selecting some fabulous Manchester restaurants to delight us over the Christmas period several things had to be considered. We wanted new places to experience, though old favourites wouldn’t have been amiss but weren’t available anyway, and that was the main thing, whether they were available. Many restaurants were either totally closed or more often closed for a private party. I went through an extraordinary list of bookings before this award winning one struck gold. And what an intriguing place Choice was – firstly our black cab driver just couldn’t find it but after a mixture of logic and luck we found this jolly little restaurant next to the canal.

I noticed that the waiter didn’t write down our order, I don’t why this annoyed me. Maybe I considered he was showing off that he had a better memory than I did or he just didn’t have a pen to hand. I did feel slightly vindicated when he had to pop back to confirm some of our order details. Ha!

There was a whole menu of Lakeland breads so I chose the selection we would most favour, but it seemed you just got whatever came to hand first so I guess that was one thing the waiter didn’t even have to remember, no wonder he looked slightly perplexed when I plumped for pesto bread etcetera. Though unfortunately I have to say the rolls we received were a little solid and past their best.

For my starter I chose Cream of Cauliflower Soup – finished with Crumbled Lancashire Cheese and Chive Oil. I make a lot of cauliflower soup at home so it seemed slightly odd to eat it in a restaurant but when in Lancashire

I liked the texture of the cauliflower soup and the Lancashire cheese was a nice touch but it was a hefty portion, I was slightly concerned that I would struggle come dessert time.

M desired the “Scallops – Our signature pan fried hand caught King Scallops on a Cheshire Cheese Scone with Saffron Sauce and Chive Oil” which I suspected due to a love of scallops and cheese scones. Certainly it seemed an intriguing proposition. The saffron sauce and chive oil was a very striking pond around the tower of cheese scone and scallops. I had a bite of the cheese scone and thought it was a little dense, I am not sure entirely that it went with the sweet, plump scallops. I think the flavour of scallops is so delicate that I worry sometimes what it accompanied by. But never one to shy away from an M&S cheese scone, it was definitely intriguing and as Choice’s signature dish, clearly it was a popular choice. I have to admit that the jury was still out for me though M seemed delighted with it herself.

There were plenty of interesting choice for the main course but I fancied the Lamb Rump – Borrowdale Valley Herdwick Rump of Lamb on Colcannon Potato with Smoked Garlic Jus. The lamb was pink, succulent and flavoursome and the colcannon and garlicky jus went with it very well. I would have liked something green to accompany it but there's always a chance M will donate some of hers!

M was clearly feeling much more experimental than me tonight and chose the curious sounding main course of Duck – Peppered Duck Breast on a warm salad of Broccoli, Spring Onions and Sesame Seeds topped with cool Chilli and Honey Ice Cream. This was indeed a curio, the cool chilli ice cream certainly had a kick, not one I was totally crazy about but then I have never been a big fan of too much heat with my food. I know the fashionable taste seems to be for many foods to have a certain eye watering, lip numbing quality but it’s not really me. Though I am more of a fan of horseradish than I ever used to be so maybe it is something I can learn to enjoy. M however, seemed rather taken by her fusion duck though and that is more important than my slight misgivings.

By donating and leaving some of her unnecessary broccoli, M had left space for one of her favourites - Sticky Toffee Pudding – Homemade Sticky Toffee Pudding with hot Toffee Syrup and Vanilla Ice Cream. Whereas I was suffering from perhaps my soup being a little too plentiful I opted just for a little vanilla ice cream to round the meal off.

Choice was certainly a remarkable evening, M stretched the boundaries in her culinary experience whereas I definitely opted for the safer options of old favourites but we had a lovely two fork meal. We made our way outside back to the rather close canal just as the pianist (of indeterminate gender) started tinkling away at the piano. Choice was a good choice!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A desert of desserts

As sickness prevented me from mingling with the regulars at last month’s fusion blog party I was determined to do better this time. Stephanie had set the theme as desserts as I immediately conjured up plans of dinky little lemon meringues pies, miniature custards tarts and a soupçon of mousse and I even went as far as sourcing some teeny muffin baking trays and canapé moulds. But no, yet again the dreaded lurgy struck and this month again I’ve been fighting the urge to actually become a full-time professional cougher and to cap it all then there was a small flood in my bathroom to finish the month off. The flood waters have subsided and been reduced to a persistent drip (thanks to MC for invaluable advice about isolating errant radiators – I’m sure hitting the valve repeatedly with a pair of pliers was the winning trick!) and I am determined to force my befuddled brain to record a few offering in the dessert line. My ambitious plans being unavoidably scaled back I resorted to curer of all maladies – chocolate.
So here I am puffing and panting through the door after the party has already started bearing my seasonally festive chocolate titbits scattered on silver star-shaped plates (actually candle plates than have been reengineered) but hopefully some will still be able to make some room for chocolate.
The first are tiny melting middle puddings courtesy of those clever folks at M&S, they actually work very well as canapés though the molten centres means they’re a tad hot so handle with care everyone. When I saw these mini yule logs I thought they also make an attractive nibble. Little did I know how much they’d resist slicing into coin sized nuggets? Every attempt to finely slice them resulted in a shattering of the chocolate coating and covering everything in chocolaty shards. In the end I realised I was being too hesitant and my annoyance meant that I sliced the remaining couple with more haste and to my surprise I seemed to have snuck up on the chocolate outer jacket before it realised my cunning plan. And no self respectively chocolate themed dessert party could pass without a chocolate martini. When I received the fabulous plump goodie bag from the Hotel Chocolat evening of indulgence there were some enticing jars of liquid chocolate and when I consulted their delicious site for inspiration I discovered a recipe for chocolate martini – perfect!
So festive felicitations to you all! I hope that Father Christmas will note whether you’ve been naughty or nice and treat you accordingly. I am kind of hoping for a new respiratory system, I think I’ve battered my current one in the last few weeks, but failing that perhaps a little something scrummy from Nigella’s Liquorice range!