Sunday, December 21, 2008
But my musings were reignited by a terribly kind offer from those lovely people at Abel & Cole to trial one of their legendary vegetable boxes. And on investigating their site and chatting to one of their helpful customer service reps I was given lots of handy suggestions as to where my proposed parcel could lurk in lieu of a handy shed before being lugged to my kitchen. So after informing them that tomatoes mustn’t darken my box, I stood by to give it a go. I knew that Thursday was my delivery day but I wasn’t sure if we’d established which Thursday it would arrive. On returning home I glanced at the couple of sites we’d pondered but there was no box however clearly it had gone into some sort of stealth mode and I didn’t see it until Saturday morning when coincidentally I was on my way to the shops to get some food for my proposed French feast. How I didn’t spot it with one of the bin lids resting jauntily over half of it was a mystery. Perhaps I thought it was rubbish waiting to be collected but there it was lying in wait and eager to be turned into something wonderful.
On revealing the fruit and vegetables therein I was certainly impressed by the bounty. I had a bunch of bananas that MC immediately squirreled away for future snacking knowing that bananas are just yellow tomatoes to me. The mangoes immediately settled what I could make as a light salad tomorrow after the rich excesses of my French feast and the tangerines would add to the festive supplies. The plump firm leeks were immediately pounced on to make a sweet leeks and cider-doused creamy sauce for my Normandy mussel dish; D had designs on the beetroot for their Sunday lunch and I never struggle to find a use for potatoes and even onions, as long as they are finely sliced. The cabbage could accompany the final rashers of smoky bacon or of course, there’s always colcannon. But the earthy mushrooms lurking in their paper bag caught my eye and gave me an idea for properly christening my first vegetable box.
It is Sunday brunch time and there are some leftovers from the lavish French feasting last night and surprisingly some of Harvey Nichol’s finest truffled Brie survived and has been carefully wrapped in waxed paper, perhaps it would like to join forces with my mushrooms and make a heady, highfaluting mushrooms on toast.
Whilst the sliced mushrooms sautéed in some butter and a soupçon of oil, the slice of bread received a slight toasting. The mushrooms are now all lightly bronzed and receive a good few grinds of nutmeg and a little lug of double cream to moisten them. The creamy elixir is tipped onto the slice of toast and topped with a few thick slivers of the truffled Brie and the merest sprinkling of thyme leaves from my sadly very reluctant, shy thyme plant. With a final burnish under the grill to melt the cheese slightly and the fancy-pants mushrooms on toast is ready for its close-up. And as I suspected, it tasted exceedingly good!
Let’s hope I get a chance to do the rest of the box justice before heading off for the Christmas holidays. I regrettably cannot avail myself easily of D and MC’s marvellously abundant allotment so the next best thing will have to a locally sourced, organic vegetable box scheme delivery to my door.
I already have the wonderful “Cooking Outside the Box - the Abel & Cole cookbook” from when it was released a couple of years ago so it’s only seems right and proper that I complement it with the Abel & Cole box, especially now I know that they are experts at dealing with the likelihood of their customers not being around to receive their parcel problem. I guess many of us will be reviewing our dining habits in the inevitable parsimonious months ahead so being creative with spanking fresh vegetables could definitely be a positive and healthy step. Now I know how my box might be camouflaged I wouldn't fail to spot it again.
I think for those of us who aren't vegetable-dodgers (you know who you are) 2009 will have to be the year of embracing the box, I for one am looking forward to it.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
I can’t believe it – next week and Christmas will be a pile of torn paper, ribbon and wondering what to do with that leftover turkey, a handful of sprouts and a roastie or two. I’m pretty much on top of the Christmas presents; though I’ve managed to lose one though which is both odd and massively annoying as now I really need to replace it. And of course it would be one that I had delivered from a specialist site! But the cards, I haven’t even started yet, hmm perhaps a tad late again.
This month’s blog party seemed a little like last month with the festive theme but this time with the traditional twist. What are our little family foodie peccadilloes that pepper these holiday feasts? Well as usual a host of varied ideas flooded my brain, some I managed to pull off in time and the others may sadly have to be confined to the food bin. And generally this just means I was too ambitious which exactly coincided with me being just too busy.
So what did I manage to pull off in the nick of time? Breakfast is a crucial meal on Christmas day. Our family tradition is to start passing round the parcels and opening them one by one at the stroke of midnight and this has been known to take a while so breakfast becomes a moveable feast. And what would this possible late breakfast/ brunch consist of? If we’re feeling deeply ‘family favourite’ it would probably be bacon sarnies all round though ideally in a well buttered oven-bottom (now you’re talking!) but smoke salmon lends itself so well to Christmas lunch but as we don’t normally have a prequel to the main event the smoked salmon started appearing earlier in the day. So that’s exactly what my first canapés were about – tasty bacon sandwiches and spoons of smoked salmon laced scramble eggs. And a small pause of appreciation for my wonderful diddy silver cake stand. Though ‘cake stand’ is perhaps too large a concept so instead I’ll call it a ‘tiny tiered podium for petit fours’. And it’s that time of year so the seasonal sequins are out again.
And for the homage to many a past Christmas extravaganza the next nibble is beef wrapped in a
And for the drink, amongst the inevitable sweet
The bites that missed the deadline are definitely memories from Christmases gone by. Firstly it would have to be sprouts! The seasonal emergence of sprouts seems to fill many diners with dread but I love them. It is true that many a crime has been committed in the name of sprouts; they are either cooked within an inch of their lives or left a little bitter from lack of cooking. I liked them lightly steamed or boiled and then sautéed in a little butter and then served with bacon lardons and if feeling so very classic Christmas table some chestnuts. Though I’ll never forget the first time I took on the epic Christmas meal preparation for a group of friends. It was probably the first time I’d tackled it but promised a table groaning with everyone’s favourite typical festive fare before we all headed off back to our families for Christmas. WJ and I set off to buy the necessary ingredients, we had no idea how much to buy of everything so grabbed a Family Circle magazine which I remembered flicking through stacks of as a child. It seemed we were in safe hands; we followed the shopping list to the letter including buying chestnuts for roasting. I can’t quite recall how many of us were eventually settled around the table, I think maybe five or possibly six but the big surprise was how much food we actually purchased. Everything was stacked away in their capacious kitchen and then WJ and headed off for some fabulous media party (WJ’s eminent connections I hasten to add, not mine). Due to a mix-up with door keys and some other WJ drama (there was also something) I didn’t finally return to this big house in Shepherd’s Bush until the early morning and be unable to get into the bedrooms thought I’d while away the time until everyone else surfaced prepping the vegetables. And what a mountain there was! I fashioned some tea towel apron over my little black velvet party dress and started the peeling and criss-cross cutting of all the sprouts – well I was following the doctrines of the terribly conventional Family Circle. When I was relieved of my KP duties after a couple of hours I have prepped an allotment worth of vegetable and also popped the scored chestnuts under the grill for roasting. I was sent to bathe and change into something less backless and whilst I surrounded myself in restorative bubbles I ran through the final plan and countdown in the Family Circle magazine. This is when I realised the classic mistake, in all our planning and slavishly following the campaign plan in the magazine, we hadn’t even checked the quantity of guests that this menu was for – so imagine my horror when I realised it was twelve! That immediately explained why they were just so much vegetables to be prepped. Before I even had time to ponder this error I could hear screaming from the kitchen downstairs and ran dripping in to the kitchen to see what drama was unfolding. And I was greeted with WJ and her housemates cowering underneath the kitchen table whilst shards of red-hot chestnut pieces whizzed around the kitchen. I’m not entirely sure if I hadn’t scored them enough or just they’d been left ‘roasting’ too long but they certainly took on a dangerous turn. I think the resultant meal went down rather well but we had about three times more food than required and the explosive chestnuts that were supposed to accompany the sprouts became legendary.
The sprouts I had grown up with were far less perilous; the original D had always insisted that his renowned gravy demanded the water from the boiled sprouts, some beef dripping or lard, corn flour and gravy browning but rather curiously never juices from the roasting meat. And as no Sunday lunch was complete with this much-loved gravy (well at least by the original D as no-one else was that enamoured) so sprouts always featured.
The other canapé I’d planned was involving some ubiquitous Paxo stuffing, I’ve made much more elaborate stuffing with all manner of sausage meats, herbs and fruits but the one M amongst others always hanker for is good old Paxo sage and onion. So curtailing both my desire (according to D) to find the most complicated method to make anything and my abhorrence of strange packets of dehydrated sawdust I have abandoned thoughts of anything more sophisticated. However unfortunately due to a houseful of people and my inability to slip some sort of sprout or Paxo canapé into the French feast I’d planned they will have to remain on the drawing board.
So I hope you are all a little more organised than me, the tree is groaning with shiny intriguing parcels and those cards were written and send a couple of weeks ago.
Festive felicitations to you all! And all those who got their acts together earlier – what did they bring to the party?
Friday, December 19, 2008
And knowing HT I suspected that the way to satiate his carnivorous heart was a meat-based present. I had already procured a couple of packets of beef jerky from the inimitable Duane Reade in New York. DD and I had actually done the obligatory DR run on returning to our hotels after our wonderful meal at Union Square Café (sadly still not written up, though I certainly haven't forgotten that meal!) So it's well past midnight and we're in our finery, I'm carrying a little beaded Chanel evening bag, fully bejewelled etcetera and we're wandering the aisles of this neon drenched pharmacy cum general store filling our basket with the most eclectic purchases (black safety pins - what a good idea!, the obligatory beef jerky, vivid post-it notes, DD's beloved body washes, intriguing potions not available over the counter in neither Sydney nor London and the usual stash of Advil for P and T leading a sun kissed but gel-capped deprived life in Spain). Our mode of dress did seem somewhat incongruous but some time after returning I finally caught the Sex in the City film and was amused to see Carrie and Miranda shopping in Duane Reade looking rather fabulous. So maybe that's how it's done in New York.
One thing that New York is certainly awash with is fine steak houses whereas London doesn't have the same reputation. We have the various Gaucho Grills which I'd always been a fan of until my last two visits at one of the newer ones near London Bridge where we had shoddy service and for the first time I was distinctly unimpressed by the steak and then had to wait for the so-called accompanying vegetables to materialise. You can't knock the excellent meat at Smiths of Smithfield and I'm sure Mark Hix would do us proud at Hix's Oyster and Chophouse but I wanted the sort of steakhouse that you find in New York.
So what did I do - booked a table for us at Goodman, which is the first UK outpost of a Russian steakhouse chain. And even though I was intrigued by the thought of Russian beef and reservations evaporated when I heard they had their own meat drying room. Mmmm they take their meat very seriously at Goodman. The place is all very masculine with chocolate (or should I say rich gravy) coloured leather clad booths and dark wood tables and the largest steak knives ever. Do Russian oligarchs have particularly large hands? I'm not sure a vegetarian would be entirely happy here, it's all rather beefy and some of the diners looked like they're draped in the pelts of previous dinners. Well it can get very chilly in Moscow!
Our pretty Polish waitress brings us her show-and-tell tray (a little in the style of Gaucho) to explain the provenance and cut of this evenings beasts. We are offered amongst others a New York strip steak, the neat Australian fillet mignon (for ladies), the more marbled American rib-eye steak and the British rib - 800g of pure meaty goodness sliced off the bone for two to share. Or in the case of our resident solid little carnivore a light snack for one. But before we start on the main feature we have to select a few meaty starters.
E (D) goes sensibly for the organic salmon carpaccio with tomato seeds but D, HT and I dive straight in to the meat and whilst HT tucks into the selection of cured meats with spicy mustard D and I opt to split the Goodman beef tartare with avocado and herbs followed by the beef carpaccio, micro-cress, shave parmesan and aged balsamic. I don’t generally go for the avocado but I am partial to a little beef tartare and the key word there is ‘little’.
Every time I have ordered beef tartare in a restaurant I have found it so filling I haven’t been able to do it justice so it’s a perfect sharing platter. And D and I both have already set this precedence in Lille’s Brasserie André with their signature dish of steak tartare and despite several attempts we’ve never been able to finish a portion by ourselves. And in spite of not being a fan of the particular texture of avocado - it was a fine tartare and the carpaccio was not too shabby either.
It is worth pointing out that if you are of the vegetarian persuasion you can still enjoy a meat-free starter at Goodman. As you could have fire roasted aubergine, oven dried tomatoes and feta cheese or velouté of Jerusalem artichoke with white truffle oil. We were very happy with our distinctly non-vegetarian starters however and are looking forward to the main meat banquet.
To herald the imminent arrival of our meaty comestibles the largest steak knives ever are delivered. Clearly nothing is to impede our devouring of their fine meat.
HT isn’t disappointed and I am just able to very quickly ‘pap’ his 800g of grass-fed 28 day dry aged (on site) Rib on the Bone (British) for he starts dispatching it. It may have been a dish designed for two but someone’s been deprived of beef for a while is sure making up for it.
D has opted for the rib-eye steak whereas E(D) and I plumped for the fillet mignons. I choose to anoint my steal with some classic Béarnaise sauce - delicious!
The accompaniment has to be the hand-cut chips which come highly recommended by our waitress. And for the requisite greenness we have some creamed spinach. The steak is just fabulous, melt in the mouth, cuts like butter with our weapons and very fine indeed – this was a good choice, a Goodman choice.
As soon as we start the chips arrive we realise these are award winning chips and our virtuous thought of sharing one portion between the four of us is blown away immediately and we have to order a top up.
When we clean our plates our waitress kindly offers to escort us downstairs to view their aging room. Here we can see the next few week’s dinners maturing and reaching their optimum meatiness. We tear ourselves away quickly in case HT finds a knife and fork and barricades himself in – definitely his idea of a sweet shop!
For dessert they had me at warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream so I didn’t bother looking at the rest of the menu. It transpired that I could have indulged in baked vanilla cheesecake, glazed vanilla crème brulée, iced peanut parfait or caramelised apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. If MC had been dining with us he could have enjoyed a selection of artisan cheeses from the board.
Goodman is given a resounding seal of approval by everyone - they certainly know their meat and deserve their three steak forks. It would have been the perfect evening if London transport hadn’t so systematically disappointed us at every turn; the gloss of our fabulous feast was slightly diminished by the tortuous two hour journey home. Well at least thanks to Goodman we weren’t the tiniest bit hungry!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Monday, December 08, 2008
Maze is probably the most casual of the Gordon Ramsay’s stable, Narrow and the other pubs notwithstanding (though I haven’t been to Boxwood yet) so gone were the acres of white linen and sparkling crystal replaced with more contemporary dark wood and American styling. Though we do have the quirky French touch of knife rests, well actually our entire place setting rests. I guess these are often deployed to eke out the cutlery and not to get the dirty knife on the lace and linen in between courses. Though I suspect we will have new cutlery for each course. Sadly for me and seemingly in the mode of so many wonderful restaurants nowadays, there is nowhere near enough light. I know I shouldn’t complain but I want my photographs to look as delicious as the food - not murky, grainy and entirely lacking the wow factor I’d like. Contrast the immaculate sculptural marinated beetroot dish at the top of this post captured by a professional photographer and flooded with some genuine light with my sad sepia rather flat lurking-in-the-shadows version above. Thank goodness it tasted like it does in the expert’s image not like it does in mine!
So whilst sipping the now completely obligatory Kir Imperial, E and I had a quick glance at the menus and immediately plump for the seven course Chef’s Menu. We also decide to split the alternative options between us so we can experience the entire wonderful menu.
Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing
Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur
Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinegar
Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable
Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint
Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s head, quince confiture, parsnips
Roasted rack of lamb, winter vegetable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie
Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut
Floating island, ‘pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet
Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité
We asked the sommelier for some advice for a red and white wine to accompany the Chef’s Menu and she was probably the only mild disappointment of the night as she didn’t instil us with confidence that she really knew what she was doing. It felt like she had a price in mine as by incredible fluke every bottle she recommended was that precise amount but the style of the wine we wanted didn’t really enter into it. Anyway we picked a couple of our own and they seemed to do the trick very nicely.
Our first taste is the truly scrumptious (despite my unassuming photo) Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche. The bowl of frothy pumpkin soup is delivered with a little nodule of duck goodness with more duck lurking in the foamy depths. The waiter drizzles the enticing black truffle syrup into our bowl and we tuck in and it is a revelation. In fact when we’ve scraped our little bowls clean we’d quite happily polish off another bowl or six, it is that fabulous!
Next we come down to earth with the pretty Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing. Not that it isn’t delicate, tasty, a pleasing bite of the slivers of beetroot Carpaccio wrapped round the softest of creamy ricotta and beautiful to look at also but it can’t quite equal the heady heights of the soup!
After our two little amuse gueules we take different directions. And wait for this, drum roll…gasp of breath…without being strong armed into the decision I chose the Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur and yes, I am completely aware what the ‘T’ in BLT stands for. This was my rationale; as much as I detest tomatoes in any shape or form I have a scale of degrees of tomato-ey evilness. At joint top are raw fleshy lumps of flaccid tomato (sometimes dressed up by calling it ‘concasse’) and thick, gloopy and frankly plain nasty tomato sauce. Tomato ketchup is very close behind; it’s no coincidence that sometimes it’s smeared on amateur dramatists to designate some dreadful catastrophic accident. At the ever so slightly less heinous end of the tomato scale are sun-dried tomatoes (in very small doses) and tomato essence. Obviously they still have the tomato taste that I really can’t get my head around (and yes, I’ve tried!) but the texture is not so abhorrent to me. So having watched Jason construct his witty Michelin take on sandwiches on the Great British Menu I knew that tomato pulp has been dripped through muslin over a period of hours leaving a pale liquid behind which then has gelatine added to make the bottom tomato jelly layer of the dish. The jelly is topped with bacon and onion cream with in turn is crowned with the most delicate of deep fried onion rings and miniature bacon lardons. As the martini glass is delivered to me the waiter floods it with an extremely verdant lettuce soup and instructs me to eat by spooning through the three BLT layers. I am probably more tentative about delving too deeply into the scary jelly layer but the lettuce and bacon are strong anyway. Actually I could have never guessed than mere lettuce could be so powerful. I didn’t really get hit round the head with tomato and I really loved the bacon-y cream and feisty lettuce soup.
To accompany the homage to an American sandwich I had a ‘soldier’ of the archetypal French sandwich a croque monsieur. The croque monsieur was soft and unusually made from brioche so I really only got a tiniest hint of the ham and cheese amongst all that buttery fluffy brioche.
E had the Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinegar. I got to taste a little quail, the unctuous foie gras with the fruity sauce and it was also delicious and very accomplished.
For the fish course I’d chosen the Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint, as the sauce diable sounded a little alarming. I am also not so crazy about pimento (yes, I am constantly told I am a nightmare) but E seemed to be much keener about the pepper family than I and after enjoying his Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable polished off the purée. The roasted hake is perfect though, firm and flavoursome and really almost everything is improved by wrapping it in Parma ham or bacon, so full points there!
I think we both fancy the pork but I have had first dibs on all the other courses and lamb sounds pretty fine also so it’s the Roasted rack of lamb, winter vegetable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie for me whilst E has the Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s head, quince confiture, parsnips. My lamb is succulent and tasty with the sweet and fruity additions of parsnips and quince.
And if that isn’t enough I have a diminutive little shepherd’s pie as a side dish. It is all just excellent and even though I struggle to finish all the shepherd’s pie E helps me and also declares it to be comfort food at its finest.
I’m just getting to the stage when I feel pleasantly full but we’ve closed the savoury door and have the sweet stuff coming and I’m pretty sure I can cope with that.
Firstly we have a wonderful palate cleanser of Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut. It has that pert sharp taste of crunchy apples with the fabulous accoutrement of a flawless dinky doughnut. The whole thing is a miniature orchard feast with the cider, cinnamon and apple.
I’ve opted for the girlier of the two desserts which is the Floating island, ‘pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet. It is light, downy and hugely refreshing – definitely a pink and girlie way to end a meal. E had another one of Maze’s signature dishes Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité. Jason is a fan of contrasting salt and sugar hence the unusual combination of olive and caramel.
The final flourish is the petits fours, we have lollipops, rosewater jelly, dark chocolate cubes, white chocolate covered pistachios and raspberries. The lollipops are iced pineapple chunks smothered in very far from the Girl Guide campfire marshmallow, deliciously singed around the edges and perfectly gooey in the middle. Almost makes you want to tell a ghost story!
It seems that E just like another E – Edmund who succumbs to enchanted rose-flavoured sweets courtesy of the White Witch of Narnia is an aficionado of Turkish Delight, and seems pretty delighted with Jason’s interpretation of his favourite. The other chocolates have a wonderful intense flavour as well; we are being truly spoilt for sure! The couple on the next table don’t seem to have room for their tiny chocolates so we kindly assist them!
Jason Atherton is a seriously talented chef; I know he has the accolade of the first British chef to hang out with Ferran Adrià of the best restaurant in the world fame El Bulli and has also worked for Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, his fellow finalist on the Great British Menu Stephen Terry and then Gordon Ramsay in Dubai. When Jason opened Maze to great acclaim in 2005 the idea was to serve a menu of small tapas-style dishes of contemporary French food with an Asian twist and all the menus seem to follow that premise. When interviewed about his tasting dishes, Jason said 'You've got more chances to express yourself and it's much more creative.' It’s a pleasurable surprise to see this alchemist in the restaurant tonight, often when you see a chef on television you might think that he’s hung up his chef whites in favour of a media career. But Jason has been slaving over a hot chopping board this service and is now doing the rounds chatting to some of the diners. I guess being part of the Ramsay clan you are used to having Gordon’s name above the door and not having your own and deserved name in lights and is possibly the reason Marcus Wareing made a bid for freedom earlier this year. But despite Jason’s many awards and accolades I hope he gets even more. Michelin do so love their classic old-school style of restaurant but I think he definitely deserves another star.
I’ll give Jason Atherton at Maze three forks, the diamond fork (it’s about time it was awarded to another restaurant) but I still think that someone should give that man another star – we've had a superb evening and his food is truly amazing!
And thanks to E for helping me tick another one off my restaurants of my heart’s desire list and your ever so handy torch incorporated in your Swiss Army watch that gave a glimmer of light to the shadowy table. I went for miniscule diamonds in my watch but then I’m not a bloke and just not as practical, and that just shows how wrong I am! Imagine if I needed to remove a stone from a horse's hoof, what would I have done?