Asparagus, parma ham and (hard) boiled egg; pears and Poire William

asparagus-and-parma-hamLast night, boutique contract caterers Lexington Catering celebrated being named a Sunday Times top small company to work for 2009 and a Best Company of 2009 by throwing a party on the 33rd floor of Broadgate Tower. After a coupel of hours of champagne, canapes and stunning views of Legoland-London below, guests were sent on their way with a generous handful of Isle of Wight farmer, Ben Brown’s asparagus.

asparagus-cookingTonight, we decided to throw together an asparagus, parma ham, soft boiled egg and parmesan salad, with a hunk of soda farl. Cliched as it may sound, I realised I didn’t know how to boil an egg, at least not a perfectly gooey, soft boiled egg that would ooze over the asparagus like sunshine at dawn. Queue St Delia. Her How to Cook Book One explained that simmering an egg for one minute, then taking it off the heat, covering the pan and leaving for 6 minutes, would guarantee a “soft, fairly liquid yolk and a white that is just set but still quite wobbly”.

Uh-huh.  I followed the saint, but the yolks ended up pretty much hard boiled. Boo. Next time, I think four or five minutes of resting time will suffice. Still, the dish was a tasty treat, and the asparagus discernibly better than the twiggy stalks from the supermarket that we normally endure.

pearsWhile I tried in vain to make a hard-boiled egg look runny for the camera, Susie grabbed our copy of Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Puddings and whipped up sliced pears steeped in Poire William, chilled and sprinkled with toasted almonds – part of our crusade to use up our fruit and veg before it goes off. Delicious.

[This blog was brought to you by Crimewatch with the volume turned down and the faint noise of the water board reparing a pipe outside.]

Alexanders: a clarification

I posted last week about a strange vegetable, known as Alexanders, I had just tasted at the Goring Hotel. The Goring’s chef, Derek Quelch, was kind enough to provide a little detail on them:

Alexanders is actually part of the celery family. It tends to grow in coastal areas from early spring and it is said in some early cookbooks (Mrs Beeton ‘s household management 1907) that it was used instead of celery. It has a very bitter taste that can be counteracted with a little bit of sugar when cooked in butter.

I’ve now come across a comprehensive definition in a learned tome called Traditional Foods of Britain: a Inventory, which runs from Aberdeen Angus cattle to yule spice cake (surely the British Isles must have produced at least one foodstuff beginning with “Z”?) and looks like a prime candidate for a bedside read, if ever I saw one.

It corroborates Derek’s comment, describing Alexanders as a large umbelliferous plant, growing to about 1.5 metres, which looks like celery, has a soft texture when cooked and tastes a little like celery and parsley. Also known as black lovage andhorse parsley, it was brought here by the Romans, and was still being eaten in Italy in Renaissance times.

So now you know.

[This blog was brought to you by the setting sun and a hot cup of coffee.]

How Michelin stardom killed Bernard Loiseau (pt I)

chelminski-the-perfectionistHave you read a book called The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski? It’s about the life of three Michelin-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau, and it’s fascinating.

Loiseau’s life story was defined by his suicide, in 2003. The owner of the Côte d’Or restaurant in Burgundy put a shotgun to his own head, rather than continue to bear the constant pressure of retaining his three Michelin stars. for me, the Perfectionist is at least a hundred pages too long and the prose can be overworked (“the black truffle … does for French cuisine what a Wonder Bra does for an ambitious ingénue …”!) But as an insight into the world of French haute gastronomie in the second half of the twentieth century, and, in particular, Loiseau’s complex world, Chelminski’s book works both as history lesson and cautionary tale.

To tell Loiseau’s story, Chelminski sets the scene by introducing the Godfathers of French cuisine, whose traditions Loiseau would uphold. We hear of Fernand Point, legendary chef-patron of La Pyramide in Vienne, whose “cuisine du moment” – the art of cooking the best produce available at the day’s market – set a template so many French chefs would follow. Chelminski traces the “sophisticated simplicity” of Point’s cooking through the work of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Claude Peyrot and the Troisgros brothers – all of whom worked under him. He goes on to introduce Alexandre Dumaine, whose restaurant Loiseau would one day purchase. (The Perfectionist yields many recipes, though none more extravagant than Dumaine’s oreiller de la Belle Aurore – a pillow-shaped pâté of hare, partidge, chicken, duck, ham, veal, pork, fois gras, truffles and pistachio that took three days to make. Chelminski reports that dinners at Dumaine’s restaurant would close the windows rather than lose any of the dish’s aroma).

Even as Point’s disciples were graduating to owning their own restaurants, France was entering the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of economic development from the sixties to the nineties, when an emergent nouveau riche with money to burn and cars to drive shared their wealth around the great provincial restaurants. This happy period was well underway when Bernard Loiseau was apprenticed to work at the Troisgros brothers’ restaurant in Roanne, in 1968. Three months later, the brothers had won their third star, and Bernard had identified his life’s purpose: to do the same. At this point, Chelminski makes an detour to the city of Clermont-Ferrand, where André Michelin, son of a family of runner ball-makers, patented the idea of a tire and inner tube for car wheels in 1891. Having helped mobilise the French, in 1900 he published a guide that would help them find hotels and meals on their travels. (We learn that these guides were given out free to motorists until 1919, when André saw one being used to prop up a wobbly table in a garage.) In 1933, stars were introduced to rate restaurants and they quickly became the yardstick of high cuisine – so much so, that chef, Marc Meneau referred to his demotion from three to two stars in 1999 as a “bereavement”.

Loiseau comes acros as hard-working, loyal, good-natured, generous and entertaining. His apprenticeship with the Troisgros brothers is worth a read – all carrying coal, peeling and turning potatoes, scaling and gutting fish, tending the stocks, killing and skinning frogs, plucking ortolans … Despite setbacks, he qualifies as a certified cook in 1971, and is soon working under Claude Verger in Paris. Chelminski is interesting on Verger, who was untrained but had a clear vision of how food should be prepared. Verger questioned the complication of French cooking with its overworked sauces and favoured “top-quality ingredients treated quickly, lightly and at the last minute”. He shared this philosophy with his friend, Michel Guérard, whose Parisian restaurant, the Pot au Feu, he admired greatly.

To illustrate Guérard’s ability to transform unremarkable ingredients into memorable dishes, Chelminski details his ailerons de volaille aux concombres – chicken wings with the central bone removed to form a sort of lollipop effect, served with cucumbers tossed in butter with shallots, diced mushrooms, herbs, tomatoes, white wine and cream. Later in the book, Chelminski extensively covers Guérard’s development of cuisine minceur, with which he sought to produce dishes at once tasty and healthy by swapping vegetable-based sauces for butter and cream.

Loiseau’s quest for Michelin recognition began in earnest when he arrived at the Côte D’Or restaurant, in the mid-Seventies. It’s fascinating to track his development of a cooking style he thought would achieve the regularity, quality and personality required by inspectors. This style called for a perfectionism that would come to haunt him, as the commercial burden of his restaurant came to hinge increasingly around winning stars. At this stage, Loiseau’s menu was fairly derivative – I was fascinated to read the section where the author traces Bernard’s dishes to their origins. So, we learn that his mussel soup with saffron owed much to Paul Bocuse, that his tea-infused prunes were inspired by Alain Senderens, that his salade Côte d’Or was lifted from Michel Guérard, and that his salmon in sorrel sauce had the Troisgros brothers’ imprint all over it. Slowly, le style Loiseau emerges, first in dishes like turbot slices with sautéed cepe mushrooms, and bavaroise of artichokes with a puree of fresh tomatoes; then in his reinvention of the humble nettle soup with snails and in what is perhaps his signature dish, pike perch with beef marrow in a red wine sauce.

Despite his growing culinary confidence, Loiseau is depicted as suffering from deep-rooted insecurities, as a man whose need to be adored by his public was as overwhelming as his desire for three stars. As his development of the restaurant incurs mounting debts, and his work schedule becomes ever more gruelling, so the circumstances of his death become more understandable.

How Fergus Henderson messed with the vernacular of cookbooks

fergus-hendersonTurning through Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson of St John Restaurant is a revelation, from both a culinary and a linguistic viewpoint. Not having a snout, ear or brain to hand, I haven’t as yet tried any of his fascinating recipes (bear with me, I shall.) But if they taste anywhere near as good as they read – sparse, dry, unfussy, expressive of hearty dining – they’ll be fantastic. Here are ten great one-liners and turns of phrase from the book. Some sound like centuries-old adages.

  • Once you have your clear broth, reheat, meanwhile placing the garlic leaves in the bottom of the soup bowl or bowls. Pour the hot soup over these, give them a few moments to get to know each other, then eat.
  • Finish off with a healthy topping of parsley, dropped in the dumper-truck style (rather than sprinkled) onto the floating toast. Now eat.
  • One whole fresh chilli (optional, but a good addition as if kept whole it will give a subliminal warmth, a mysterious wayhey).
  • Now remove the collar from its winey bath, and dry thoroughly with a clean tea towel.
  • Serve with swede mash (if possible made with goose or duck fat). The pink ham and the orange swede look like a sunset on a plate.
  • Visually, as well as gastronomically, there is a great serenity to a plate of tripe and onions.
  • You have got the gamey meat, the soothing, nutty chickpea, and the stimulating gnya of the spring onions.
  • There is nothing finer, after having a good stock up your sleeve, than having a reserve of chutney.
  • Eat with Mayonnaise that is not too stiff, as this does not make a friendly partner for your crab.
  • Splash and rub your rabbit with oil, season enthusiastically, then surround with dried fennel twigs from end to end and tummy to back (so it starts to look like a scene from the Whicker Man).
  • I believe it is important to have the parsley sauce in a jug so the eaters can express themselves with their pouring.

[This post was brought to you by a grapefruit candle and the occasional glance at an LS Lowry harbour scene.]

Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri Lamb Stew – complete

kashmiri-lamb-stewSusie wants the leftovers for her lunch tomorrow. That’s her way of saying “that was bloody lovely” – which it was, if I do say so myself. The yoghurt cooked away to nothing but a sort of cheese-y paste on the meat, which itself melted on the tongue. Thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the radish raita recipe in this weekend’s Guardian.

[This blog was brought to you by Steve Marriott playing Watcha Gonna Do About It and a glass of Crianza.]

Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew – and a trip back to school

michael-coaker-classSusie’s at work again. I’m therefore taking the opportunity to dig out Madhur jaffrey’s Indian Cookery and cook an Indian dinner again, while she battles through the crowds of grown men running around London dressed as rhinos, bananas and deep-sea divers to get home. Sometimes I don’t get her determination to drive to work in King’s Cross when she has a Sunday shift. She points out that the trains run up into Victoria less frequently than the rest of the week; but surely that’s just a matter of checking the timetable online? Hey ho, it’s her business; all I’m saying is, I wouldn’t fancy driving across London twice on the day of the London Marathon.

I’m doing Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew. It’s got no onions in it, which will please Susie. Interestingly, there’s also no cumin, coriander or turmeric – this hinges around cloves, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, dried ginger and ground fennel seeds, all of which is bound together with most of a pint of natural yoghurt. (Not to self: what is asafetida and where can I buy it? Wikipedia lists devil’s dung, stinking gum among its nicknames …)

While I was stirring the meat and reducing the yoghurt, I was thinking about a fantastic, life-affirming trip I took to a school in Northolt on Friday morning. I was invited along by Michael Coaker (formerly Executuve chef at the Intercontinental, Park Lane and now a senior lecturer at Thames Valley University) to watch him deliver a Chefs Adopt a School session to some teens with learning difficulties. The charitable project was set up by a cheffing organisation called the Academy of Culinary Arts to introduce kids to the pleasures of eating real, nutritious food. Chefs including the likes of Brian Turner and the Roux family teach kids basic lessons about the food we eat and the sensations they experience when they taste (bitter, sweet …) before teaching them a simple recipe to try themselves.

In Northolt, the kids were spellbound by Michael’s lesson from the second they arrived in the classroom. He had them smelling Coriander, basil and parsley, and forking the flesh from pomegranetes, before showing them how to make tomato, mozzarella and pesto puff pastry tarts and cheese straws (above). And then they were off: flour was sprinkled, pastry rolled, shapes cut and cheese and tomato sliced. I guess what the kids were doing was the same as what I’m doing with this blog: rolling their sleeves up, having some fun, becoming more comfortable around ingredients and learning along the way. If the challenge of twisting raw pastry into spirals had the kids in hysterics, the moment when their tarts came out of the oven and were plated up had them beaming like Cheshire cats. The whole session was fantastic. I wish I could add some photos I took of the class, but I haven’t got clearance from the teacher yet.

When I got home, I spent a few minutes leafing through a book of recipes by Alain Ducasse. I must admit, his endless lists of foie gras, truffle and caviar left me a little cold after having seen how much pleasure had been achieved with a few tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella and a wodge of puff pastry.

[I wrote this post listening to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and watching the helipcopters over the London Marathon]

A Susie masterclass (II): salmon en croute

parcel-cutThe banana bread turned out to be just a prelude. Next came a salmon en croute to use up the pastry I had left over from my recent tarte tatin. Here’s a thing: if I wanted to make salmon en croute, I’d have half of our cook books out on the worktop, and I’d be agonising over the hair’s-breadth differences between the various recipes I came across. (On the other hand, I guess that’s why I started this blog in the first place, so I shouldn’t beat myself up.) 

Susie cut to the chase, wopping the puff pastry out onto a dusting of flour, rolling it out to the size of a Sunday magazine, building up a level of spinach, then seasoning with nutmeg, lemon zest, salt and pepper and finishing with a drizzle of lemon olive oil. On went two salmon steaks we had in the freezer, then the whole lot was parcelled up and fancified with a nifty bit of latticing.

Susie thought it needed more salt, but I thought the dish was a triumph. What I learned, was that sometimes you can worry too much about slavishly following recipes. If you have a vision for a dish, you probably won’t go far wrong …

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