Thursday, 31 March 2011

Eating out in (and around) Lyme Regis

Tuesday lunch at The George in Chideock:
Pub grub of the very highest order.

Becca and I returned last night from 5 days in Dorset, a short break that constituted our belated Christmas present to each other.  We stayed in Lyme Regis, which is a lovely place, and – not coincidentally – a place in which it is very easy to eat well.  It was, as you might imagine, quite a food-centric trip.  There was some fossil hunting too, of course, Becca being the offspring of one of our nation’s most eminent paleontologists, and Lyme Regis being pretty much where paleontology started, the jewel of the Jurassic Coast and all that (I may have made the “jewel” bit up, but if I have, and the Lyme Regis Tourist Board want to use it, then go ahead, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.  I’d happily  swap the strapline for fish…) but, at the risk of a stern look from Becca, or even her Dad, I’d suggest that the fossil hunting was mainly a pleasant – and, of course, educational – way of filling the hours between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner.

We were booked into Mark Hix’s Oyster & Fish House on our first evening, and were enjoying a restorative drink at the bar following the arduous five and a half hour Friday afternoon/evening slog out of London, down to and along the South Coast, when the man himself showed up, then joined us as we moved from bar to table and put the whole meal on the house, which was more than nice of him.  I’m not sure how journalistic ethics apply to blogs like this one, but I’m pretty sure you can’t legitimately review a restaurant in those circumstances, so I won’t.  I will just say that I can wholeheartedly - and honestly, with no sense of pay back – recommend the HIX IPA, the oysters, served with spicy little cocktail sausages, the fino sherry recommended to go with the oysters, the monkfish cheeks – much meatier than cod cheeks – the squid with pearl barley risotto, the scallops and the Hix Fix jelly (a morello cherry soaked in Somerset eau de vie, in prosecco jelly, with more prosecco poured over the top – the most alcoholic dessert Becca had ever had).  Which I think is everything we had.  Oh and the little amuse bouche of deep fried cuttlefish balls.  And the coffee was good too.  And the wine, a Picpoul, with which you can never go far wrong.  Thank you Mark.  And apologies to the staff, for the ridiculously and inadvertently meagre tip that was our sole contribution for a very fine evening.

We asked Mark for recommendations for other places to eat while in Lyme, and he got the waiter to put a call through to book us a table for the following night at his mate Anthony’s place.  Which again was a kindness, as I got the impression if we’d made the call ourselves we would have been told they were fully booked, which, to be fair, they were.  The only problem was that the next day, we did we knew neither where the restaurant was, nor what it was called.  Becca, to her credit, remembered at least that Mark’s mate’s name was Anthony – I thought it was probably Alastair.   So, after a fruitless hour or two in the afternoon, wandering the streets of Lyme, looking out for a place that might belong to an Anthony, or an Alastair, a small place, with a limited but ever changing menu, I had to return, rather sheepishly, to Hix and ask if they remembered where it was they had booked us into, what it was actually called, which turned out to be the Mill Tea and Dining Room, and how to find it. 

Even once, thanks to the very nice lady at Hix, we’d established all of that, our plan was further complicated by our hooking up with our very good friends Sarah and Jimmy who were in the area house hunting, having made the momentous decision to leave London and move their family down to the West Country where Jimmy has been offered a job teaching Art.  So now, in an ideal world, we wanted to change our late booking for a table for two, in a small restaurant that was already fully booked, into a table for four, at a couple of hours notice.  Here again it probably played in our favour that the booking had come via Mark Hix, and therefore we were mistaken for much more important people than I, at least, actually am.  I like to think though that it was more to do with the kindness, generosity and enthusiasm of Anthony and his partner, whose name I had erroneously convinced myself was actually Cleopatra (having been told it while concentrating hard on memorising the mildly convoluted directions for finding the restaurant), and their informal, slightly ad-hoc way of doing things.

Either way, when we called in at around 7.30 ahead of our booking at 9 to see if it might be possible to add two more people, ‘Cleopatra’ showed me the table they had prepared for Becca and I, which was not actually in the restaurant itself, but through a set of French windows leading into the art gallery next door, and said that if Sarah and Jimmy were happy to join us for drinks there, we could wait for a table for four to become free, which would probably be around 9.30.  When we returned at 9, none of the tables of four in the tiny dining room looked likely to clear any time soon, but a garden table and chairs had been brought into the gallery and set up alongside the previously laid table, and we were more than happy to settle ourselves in there for the duration.  As it turned out it wouldn’t be for the duration, we would decamp from the gallery to the dining room between starters and mains, but that was all part of the evening’s charm.  It was too social – and, I admit, boozy – an evening to do the food justice in anything that tried to pass itself off as a proper restaurant review here, but all the food we were served was genuinely excellent, and the service - from ‘Cleopatra’, who was running the floor on her own, so it was as well that she appeared slightly hyperactive – was both exceptional and exceptionally eccentric (they use the word themselves on their website, so I feel confident of causing no offence.  My apologies if that confidence is misplaced, there is certainly none intended) and indeed entertaining.  I can’t remember the last time dinner at a restaurant was quite so much actual fun.  And, at forty quid a head, with home made sloe gins on the house at the end - to make up for the improvised table arrangements when it had been entirely us putting them to trouble and not at all the other way round – it came to terrific value for money, however you measured it.

So, if you’re going to Lyme Regis for the weekend, I would strongly recommend booking yourself into both Hix Oyster & Fish House and the Mill Tea and Dining Room.  If you can only afford one fancy restaurant meal in the course of that weekend, then, at a pinch, I’d probably say go for Anthony and Eleanor (I looked it up on their website), they probably need your business more.  Sorry Mark.  And sorry Anthony and Eleanor if that last bit sounds in any way patronising.  OK, look, everyone: Just go to Lyme Regis and eat at both their restaurants – that way everybody’s happy…

Where else?  Becca and I went for Sunday lunch at the River Cottage Canteen, in nearby Axminster.  Now, regular readers of this blog will now that I have nothing but time for Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and all he stands for.  What you probably don’t know is that Tim Maddams, who appears regularly on River Cottage TV programs and runs the kitchen at the Canteen, was, if only briefly, a colleague of mine at the Rivington; and of all the chefs I ever worked with he was the one I liked, respected, and from whom I learnt, the most.  So it pains me greatly to say that of all the culinary expectations I set off to the West Country with last weekend, Sunday lunch was the one slight disappointment.  It wasn’t that it was bad, just a bit underwhelming.  The razor clams we started with – and I love razor clams – were big and fat and meaty, but, perhaps even partly because of their size, could have done with a bit more piquancy in their dressing, more garlic, maybe a little chilli.  The roast mutton was the big let down though, beautifully tender and full flavoured though it was.  Becca’s portion (and the portions were very generous, I would like to say, in mitigation) was obviously cut from the outside of the joint, and was, arguably, verging on overdone.  Mine, cut from the middle, was rare to the point of scarcely cooked.  And while I like my meat rare, this was just a little bit slippery in texture.  It probably would have been fine had the portions been mixed with each plate carrying the full spectrum from raw to well done, and admittedly we could have arranged this ourselves at the table, but even so, I’m afraid this mutton would have compared poorly with the standard set by Becca’s birthday mutton at St John back in October.  Which is perhaps like disparaging someone’s dancing on the grounds that it’s not as good as Fred Astaire, say, but even so.  Sorry Tim.  Perhaps I should have made more of a point of coming on a day you were actually in the kitchen…

And perhaps we should have gone for Sunday lunch at the George in Chideock, which is just the sort of proper old fashioned pub, with an open fire and everything, that Sundays and lunch were invented for.  And, Tim, if it makes you feel any better, it was thanks to the link on your Facebook page that we found it.  It is a proper old fashioned pub, but it is under the new management of ex River Cottage people, who seem to be doing that thing that should be relatively simple but is so clearly difficult to achieve that it almost never is, of keeping what it is about proper old fashioned pubs that’s really good, and that we all like, while introducing new fangled things like proper, seriously good food.  I guess part of the secret is in keeping that seriously good food very simple and completely unpretentious.  We went there for lunch on Tuesday and ordered the fish of the day, Pollack in a local beer batter, and a venison burger off the daily specials board.  And shared a starter of potted pork and piccalilli.  

Forgive me if I review this meal in reverse: the burger was big, dense and richly meaty, topped with a caramelised red onion and cumin relish, the cumin in which was the element of the unexpected that raised it from being just a really good burger to something really quite special.  It was every bit as good as it looks in the accompanying picture (my picture, that is, not theirs, they may be committed to simplicity and a lack of pretension at The George, but that doesn't quite extend to having pictures on the menu) which, experience has surely taught us since childhood, is something that can almost never be said of a burger.  

The fish was just about perfect too, gleaming white, firm yet softly flaking flesh, that tasted like real fish from the actual sea, inside a light, brightly golden batter that was crisp without being over crunchy and with (for me) just the right amount of melting sogginess on the inside where it met the fish.  Again, every bit as good as it looks.  

But the real star, and the reason I’m saving it till last, was the starter of potted pork.  Which goes straight on to my list (I haven’t determined quite how long a list it is, it’s just a top whatever) of all time best things I’ve ever had in a restaurant.  Slow (and I’m guessing real slow) cooked pork, potted in it’s own fat, served with the best piccalilli I’ve ever tasted with just the right balance of sweetness, vinegar and mustard heat, a handful of cornichons and a couple of slices of good granary toast.  For anyone who likes pork (and regular readers will have guessed by now that both Becca and I like our pork) then this was piggy heaven.  Actually sublime. 

Friday, 25 March 2011

Smoked mackerel, beetroot, bean and potato salad

The Heaven & Earth fishcakes I made the other day left me with half a smoked mackerel to dispose of, which really isn’t a problem, or if it is, it’s a nice problem to have.  And a very easy one to solve.  After all, just put it pretty (i.e skin) side up on a plate with a generous spoonful of punchy horseradish sauce and a slice or two of good, chewy, rustic bread, maybe a little bunch of dressed watercress, and you have a dish that would sit happily on the menu at St John, indeed, quite possibly does as I write.  A filleted half mackerel would work very well as a lunch or light supper for one, or a starter for two just like that, but in order to stretch it out to a full dinner for two, you do probably need to go a little further.

Fillet your mackerel
In that last post, the one about the fishcakes, I also wrote, briefly, about culinary pairings, those things that just go so well together it’s hard to believe they weren’t designed with each other in mind, in that case in the context of black pudding and apple.  Well here’s another such pairing (that was implicitly referred to by joint presence in the ingredients list for the fishcakes, but not drawn attention to): smoked mackerel and horseradish.  And here’s another: beetroot and horseradish.  I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this… that’s right, two other things that go well together?  Try smoked mackerel and beetroot.  I’m sure a boffin could explain why this should be, why two things with a mutual affinity for a third thing, should also have an affinity with each other, but I’m sure it’s not coincidence, and that there are good reasons for it at the level of very basic chemistry.  Beetroot and horseradish, incidentally are two corners of the triangle of another good example of this phenomenon that springs immediately to mind, the third being roast beef.  If you don’t believe me, next time you have some cold roast beef and you’re looking to make a sandwich with it, add a couple of slices of beetroot.  You’ll thank me.

With beetroot, you can of course by the precooked and peeled, plastic wrapped fourpacks from your local supermarket, and these are perfectly good, and easy and still pretty cheap.  But it is much more satisfying, tastier and cheaper to cook your own, and it’s no great effort, although it does take time, and, admittedly, can get messy when it comes to peeling – although less so if you can get hold of some of the yellow or white or even candy-striped varieties of beetroot that are now becoming more widely available in farmer’s markets and, admittedly fancy, food stores.  And don’t worry that there’s anything ‘Frankenstein’ about these fancy new non-red beetroots, they are in fact traditional native varieties that have been driven to near extinction by the overwhelming ubiquity of their pink blooded cousin.  A bit like red squirrels, but less cute.  Not necessarily less tasty, mind, although I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that you eat red squirrels, eat grey ones.  They taste good, like gamier rabbit, and their numbers need controlling, for the sake of the red squirrels and us all.

But back to beetroot: You can simply boil your beets, or roast them, but my preferred method is something between the two: to bake them in a foil covered roasting tray with a little boiling water in the bottom.  Just trim the stalks off the beets (if they’re young, fresh and in good enough condition you can keep the stalks and leaves for the salad) and put them whole, or halved, depending on size, and unpeeled into the roasting tray with a few stalks of thyme or rosemary, or both, a bay leaf or two, a couple of whole, lightly crushed cloves of garlic, a few peppercorns and mustard seeds and pour over enough water fresh from the kettle to fill the bottom of the tray to half an inch (1cm) or so, cover the tray with foil and pinch it tight, then put in the oven at around 180 for about an hour, or until a knife will easily pierce the beets but still feel resistance.  It may take a bit longer, I find the timing quite variable, depending on the size, and I suspect the freshness of the beets.  Once the beets are cooked, they can be easily, if messily peeled, just by scraping with a knife, or even rubbing with your fingers once they have cooled down enough to comfortably handle.  They will keep, in Tupperware in your fridge for a good week or so, so it’s okay that you are unlikely to use a whole bunch in one meal.  Two decent sized beets per person would probably be about right for a main course salad in which they were the main feature; in an example like this one, where they share star billing, one per person should be enough.

Boil some new potatoes (enough for a regular portion per person), and some beans (green, fine, bobby or runners).  For the sake of efficiency I like to steam my beans over the potato pan.  The beans obviously cook quicker so when they are done I take the steamer off the pan and refresh them in cold water (this is to stop them carrying on cooking in their own heat and prevents them going limp and grey.  Proper chefs always say iced water, but they are used to working in professional kitchens with access to unlimited supplies of ice, in a domestic kitchen I think it’s fine just to run the beans under the cold tap then tip them into a bowl of fresh cold water.  Keep your ice for your gin and tonics). 

Meanwhile, cut your peeled beets into asymmetric chunks (or symmetrical if you prefer, who am I to tell you how to cut your beets…), and flake your mackerel fillet.

When the potatoes are cooked and ready to strain, tip the beans into the colander first, then the potatoes, so the beans get re-warmed.  Then tip the potatoes and beans back into the pan and dress with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and the zest and juice of half a lemon.  Then add the beetroot, and the flaked mackerel fillet, and a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce, or, even better, if you have it, grate over some fresh horseradish.  Mix everything loosely together with some salad leaves (precisely which leaves is up to you and the season, but robust peppery flavours like rocket or watercress will always be good).  Aesthetically I think the ideal is for the beetroot to marble everything with beautiful smears of pink, not uniformly coat everything, and it’s worth mentioning that, because aesthetically this can be one of the loveliest dishes to look at, for really very little effort, and without being poncey or having to apply any kind of refined skill.  So why not?  And it tastes damned good too.

A very pretty salad
If you don’t have smoked mackerel, incidentally, or can only get hold of the shrink wrapped supermarket stuff, then beetroot and anchovies is another fine pairing.  You could just substitute a few salted fillets for the mackerel in the salad described above, or mix it up with boiled eggs, or goat’s cheese, or any combination you fancy. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

There will be blood (sausage). 2: 'Heaven & Earth' fishcakes

Call me old fashioned, narrow minded or unadventurous if you will, but as a rule I hate to see the word “fusion” anywhere near a restaurant menu.  And not just because, as far as I can tell, it has now fallen hopelessly out of fashion.  Even in it’s heyday it was generally shorthand for pretentious cooking with too many mismatched flavours, and its appearance usually betrayed the presence of a chef, or restaurateur more concerned with following fashion than expressing themselves, let alone creating something distinctively good in and of itself.  There were, of course, exceptions.  There always are.  Usually you’ll find that the people responsible for something becoming fashionable in the first place tend to be pretty good at it.  In the case of ‘fusion’, by all accounts that was Peter Gordon, of Sugar Club (now defunct), and Providores.  I’ve never eaten at one of his restaurants but I’m told by people whose judgement I trust that his food his very good.  And I’ve eaten at and very much like Caravan on Exmouth Market, which is run, I believe by Peter Gordon protégés, and where I’ve seen him propping up the bar.  And they do ‘fusion’.  But then it makes sense for Peter Gordon (and his protégés): he comes from New Zealand, where of course European and Pacific rim cooking traditions are going to merge. 

Not that it matters any more.  Fusion’s fashion moment has long since past, and there are currently two bandwagons travelling diverging paths: heading in one direction we have the ‘molecular gastronomy’ bandwagon; and in quite another we have the local/seasonal/simplicity bandwagon.  And I think any regular reader of this blog will have no problem guessing which wagon I would be more comfortable travelling on.  Not that it matters – these are fashions, and it remains true: the originators are likely to be doing good and interesting things, many of those following in their footsteps will not be.  For all that what they do is not my kind of thing, I have no doubt that Ferran Adria of El Bulli, and our own Heston Blumenthal, off of the telly, are brilliantly original and inventive chefs, and their scientific approach does in fact enhance our understanding of how cooking works, which is good.  On the other hand I have even less doubt that many of their devotees/imitators are all foam and no substance.  Similarly, while I wholeheartedly believe that Fergus Henderson of St John, and my own former employer, Mark Hix have achieved great and important things in resuscitating British cuisine and altering the way we think about the quality and provenance of produce and our attitudes to meat in particular, I don’t for a minute suppose that everyone who opens a restaurant that ostensibly subscribes to their way of thinking will automatically be plating up great food.  It’s quite possible that it might be really dull.  That said, at least one of the virtues of the Ferguson/Hix philosophy is that it promotes simplicity, while the Adria/Blumenthal model celebrates complexity, and if I have to between two restaurants where I know the chefs to be less talented disciples of either, I know which one I’ll choose, every time.

Anyway, back to fusion:  I may not much care for the word, or what it came to mean on a menu, but on the other hand, I’m all for a bit of good honest mixing and matching.  Or plain old nicking good ideas from cuisines other than your own (or words – like “cuisine”, for instance).  After all, only a fool would, say, disdain olive oil as foreign, and insist that British food can only be cooked in lard.  Or take Heaven & Earth, a sublimely simple dish of black pudding, mashed potatoes and apple that has become something of a signature dish for Mark Hix.  Despite it being German (Himmel und Erde, made, of course, with blutwurst, and hereafter referred to as H&E) and Mark being best known as a champion of British food.  Incidentally, Mark credits his discovery of the dish to my mate Darren – previously mentioned in these pages – who came back from a trip to Germany raving about it, and how, in the original Dusseldorfer version the blut in the wurst was so fresh it would actually bleed into the mash when you cut into it.  Which is, I think, the only reason that readily springs to mind for wanting to go to Dusseldorf.

Of course, there’s nothing ‘fusion’ about Mark’s Heaven and Earth.  He’s just appropriated it wholesale, and translated the name.  It only becomes fusion when you mash it up – quite literally in this case – with something from another culinary tradition.  Like that other and longer standing staple of a Mark Hix menu, the good old British fishcake.  Which is what I did.  So I’m afraid if anyone’s guilty of perpetrating ‘fusion’ here, it’s me.

H&E Fishcakes.

You could use any smoked fish for this dish, but I think the strong flavour and robust, almost meaty texture of mackerel – its paradoxical earthiness - will not only stand up best, but be most suited to its name.  Smoked eel, if you could get it (and ethically, I shouldn’t recommend that you try) might be an interesting alternative though.  If you do use mackerel, and your fishmonger can supply them, I would urge you to get a whole smoked mackerel, rather than the vacuum packed fillets you can get at the supermarket.  It’s a bit more work filleting it yourself (but not much, you can just pull it apart with your fingers), but the reward in terms of richness, sweetness and depth of flavour is more than worth it.  Besides which, they are just such beautiful things.

You need to prepare the mash and fry up the sausage and apple in advance to allow everything to cool before you mix it together.  In fact everything up to the final frying can be done well in advance, so it’s nice and easy if you’ve got friends coming round.

Serve with salad or greens on the side - try chard or spinach, wilted with mushrooms and garlic; or broadbeans with red onion and red pepper gently stewed in a light stock.

As usual these quantities are for 2, as a main course – or they’ll do for 4 as a substantial starter

Diced and lightly fried black pudding and apple
400 g mashed potato
2 teaspoons horseradish sauce (or fresh grated horseradish if you can get it)
1 fillet smoked mackerel
60g black pudding (diced, approx 1cm)
1or 2 apples depending on size (peeled, cored and diced, same size or a bit smaller than the BP)

Lightly fry the diced black pudding – so it’s just blackened, not dried out, then drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool.  Do the same to the diced apple in the same pan, just till lightly coloured, you don’t want the apple turning to mush.

Flake the mackerel fillet.

When the mash, black pudding and apple are cooled, just mix everything together in a large bowl, divide into 2 evenly sized balls, shape into thick patties, lightly dust with flour and fry in a lightly oiled pan till golden brown.   Don’t get the pan too hot or they’ll be burning on the outside before heating through.  Depending on the size of your pans and whether you’re serving the fishcakes as starters or mains you might want to make a larger number of smaller patties and cook them in batches.

Black pudding and apple

The combination of black pudding and apple, as in H&E is, of course, one of those natural pairings - strawberries and cream, ham and mustard, liver and onions, pork and, er, apple… - that could almost lead you to believe in some culinary equivalent of Intelligent Design.  Two things just so good together it’s hard to believe that there was no conscious mechanism involved in making them that way.  Well, frankly, there wasn’t.  Just be glad that chance worked out the way it did, and take advantage.  For instance, if you’re roasting pork, throw some apple wedges and slices of black pudding into the roasting tray alongside the meat, to serve up as an accompaniment just as you would stuffing with chicken.  
Roast tenderloin with roast apple & black pudding
Or, at its most simple, just fry up a few slices of black pudding and wedges of apple and place them on toasted or lightly fried baguettes.  These will serve as canapés, appetisers or a light snacky lunch.  Or cube the bread and make croutons and toss the lot together with some leaves to make a salad for a starter or lunch.  Which, come to think of it, reminds me of another culinary crime I must hold my hands up to having commited against poor old H&E: Not only have I subjected it to fusion, I have deconstructed it.  It was one of my first big catering jobs, and it was in a castle in Germany - an actual schloss - and I created a starter salad out of the component parts of H&E, dicing and sautéing the blutwurst, apple and potato.  I was a little nervous, both as an English cook in Germany messing about with a German classic dish, and in serving blood sausage to a party of thirty odd, given how squeamish people can be.  I needn’t have worried: they loved it, and scoffed it all, every last scrap.  Even those people who had claimed to be vegetarian and had originally been served a version without the blutwurst were digging in for seconds from the bowl with it.  I guess the German definition of vegetarian is subtly different from ours: if it’s made from blood, apparently, it’s okay.  I like their style.

Black pudding and apple crostini

Friday, 18 March 2011

There will be blood (sausage). 1

Morcilla, boudin noir, blutwurst, black pudding, call it what you will, it’s sausage made of blood and I love it.  The bloodier the better, as far as I’m concerned.  I used to think, by the way, that black pudding was a silly thing to call it, it not being a pudding and all, but I have to say I’ve become almost as fond of it as a name as I am of the thing it describes.  For it’s mild idiosyncracy, which seems somehow wholly appropriately British; for it’s capacity to both mislead and encourage small children into trying it; and for it’s perverse accuracy: a good black pudding should be soft and crumbly and really quite sweet.  Just like a proper pudding should.  In fact, with its high oatmeal content, traditional British black pudding is pretty close to being a pig’s blood flapjack, and although that may not exactly make it a pudding, it’s pretty close to being cake.  Which seems close enough.

And come to think of it, the Italians do make a pudding out of pig’s blood, although I haven’t come across it in sausage form.  It’s called sanguinaccio, and it’s essentially a sweet paste of dark chocolate and blood.  I had it once at Bocca di Lupo in Soho, and, once you’ve got over its powerful resemblance to an admittedly very grown up form of Nutella, it’s fantastically good.  In a slightly sinful, even sinister sort of a way.  And I couldn’t eat much of it, I have to say, no matter how good – it really is about the richest substance I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

For the purposes of this blog post I’ll be sticking to the more regular kinds of blood sausage, be they from Spain (or Garcia’s on the Portobello Road in this instance) or Bury.  The first, most obvious, and maybe still the best way to enjoy it is as a component of a traditional fry up, of course.  And I’m not going to patronise anyone by telling them how to do that.  But probably a lot of us Brits tend to think that weekend breakfasts are where uses for black pudding start and end, and that’s such a waste of an ingredient.

Think in terms of Spanish morcilla, rather than homely old black pudding, and not only does the thing itself suddenly seem fancier (in the same way that appending the word Toulouse to a sausage, or calling it a ‘salsiccia’ makes it seem so much more respectable, glamorous even, than a domestic banger) but more ways of making use of it suddenly become apparent.  Not least in its suddenly obvious pairing with chorizo.  And it’s still cheap, even more so because, thanks to its density and depth of flavour, a little goes a long way (which is, if anything, even more true of the admittedly rather less cheap chorizo).  And it doesn’t require lengthy cooking either, so it’s ideal for making a quick, easy and cheap midweek supper in the form of a generally Iberian style stew, that will look, feel and taste much fancier and labour intensive than it actually is.

You can mix this up and bulk it out with really whatever you have to hand: potatoes, beans, chickpeas, a combination thereof; throw in peppers, mushrooms, cabbage.  It’s all good, and all easy.  I feel silly even setting down a recipe, but here’s a broad outline:

Cut your black pudding/morcilla and your chorizo (spicy or sweet, or both, why not?) into good thick slices and briefly fry (first the chorizo, then add the morcilla).  Add garlic, a little fresh chilli (modify the amount according to preference and whether and how hot your spicy chorizo might be), onions, also sliced thickly, and peppers if you’re using them.  Once the onions (and peppers) are starting to soften add cherry tomatoes (or you can use tinned, but if so, be sparing, and add later, at the beans/potato stage), halved and mushrooms and fry a bit more (till the tomato skins are shrivelling) then add beans, chickpeas and/or potatoes (I’d tend to use new potatoes which will keep their structure, and to speed things along I will generally par boil them and add them at this point along with a ladle or two of their cooking water.  You might want to add a touch of paprika at this point, but there will probably be enough oozing out of the chorizo.  Add some stock, probably chicken but it’s not critical, or use cider instead.  Cover the pan and cook it all together for about 20 minutes to half an hour, or until the potatoes are done.  If you want to add cabbage, do it towards the end, just at the point when you judge the potatoes need just a few minutes more, throw the coarsely shredded cabbage in and recover the pan.  Serve in a bowl with some good bread on the side.

Or leave the potatoes out of the stew, and serve them on the side, plain boiled or, my preference, sautéed.  The stew in this case will cook even quicker.

Another great natural pairing for back pudding, as well as chorizo (and you can combine them all) is squid.  Again it may help to think morcilla here.  I have in the past stuffed squid tubes with a combination of diced black pudding, chorizo, bacon, prawns, pine nuts and the squid’s own tentacles and my god it was delicious, but also a contender, along with sanguinaccio for richest thing ever in my mouth.  Almost too much so.  Do try it, but I’d recommend using only baby squid – anything more, even an adolescent squid, is running the risk of being too much of a very good thing…

Or you can just avoid all the fiddliness of stuffing and do as I’ve done here: effectively a stir fry of squid and black pudding with sweet peppers.  First I cut a medium sized squid (one with a tube approximately 6-8” long) per head into good sized chunks and marinade in garlic, chilli, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Then I start frying with some shredded bacon, then the squid, adding the sliced black pudding when the squid has just started turning opaque and curling.  Then I throw in thickly sliced onion and peppers and fry together till they’re nicely softened.  Add a splash of white wine to liberate any tasty bits that have got stuck to the base of the pan and incorporate them into just a trickle of sauce, stir it all together, and serve with boiled or sautéed potatoes.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Parma wrapped seabass, and memories of Andalucia (good and bad...)

After a recent catering job I found myself in possession of a large quantity of tatty, fatty scraps of parma ham, that had simply not been presentable enough for a lunch platter I would have felt right about charging for.  Messy they may have looked, and extremely fiddly they may have been to separate one scrap from another, but tasty they most definitely were: ragged little ribbons of sweet melty fat and soft pink meat.  They were never going to look pretty on a plate, but they were ideal for stirring through pasta, or for wrapping around some fish – maybe a monkfish’s tail, or a whole trout.

Looking down at Trevelez, and up at the snowy peaks
 of the Sierra Nevada
Trout wrapped in ham is a classic, in Spain and elsewhere.  It’s a particular speciality of Trevelez, a village high in the Andalucian Alpujarras (the highest settlement in mainland Spain, apparently) that Becca and I visited in Spring last year.  Trevelez existed originally solely for the purpose of curing hams in its dry mountain air, now of course it exists also for selling not just ham, but a great deal of ham related tat to the tourists attracted by the ham.  It is a town composed almost entirely of secaderos, the sheds in which the pigs legs are hung to dry cure, most of which have restaurants attached to them now, many of which have their own trout tanks, fed by the crystalline mountain streams fed by the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada.  These are not restaurants where you spend a great deal of time hmming and hahhing over the menu.  A plate of jamon de Trevelez to start and la trucha to follow, por favor.  The ham, and the trout, were, needless to say almost murderously good.  Well worth the trip, let alone the bill, which was meager even at what were presumably tourist prices.  It was basic cooking though - the patatas pobres that came with the trout appeared to be a working model of a proposal for the disposal of the EU olive oil lake, although tasty nonetheless.  Which was more than could be said for the local wine, which I would strongly advise against, should you ever visit Trevelez, which I would otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.  We should have taken heed of the warning of our waiter who looked frankly skeptical when we asked for a carafe of it to go with our meal, and explained as best he could -given that he spoke no English (the vast majority of the tourists coming to Trevelez appeared to be Germans) and our Spanish is embarrassingly close to non existent (particularly shameful in my case given how much I love their food…) – that the local wine was neither red, nor white, to which we replied, more or less, “Si, es rosado, no?”  To which he gave a non committal shrug and a look which said “if you insist,” before heading off looking far from convinced.  When he returned and placed an earthenware jug on the table, it became apparent that when he said its contents would be neither red wine nor white wine, what he’d actually meant was that it wouldn’t exactly be wine at all.  The contents of the jug being a completely opaque pinkish brown liquid.  With a liberal sprinkling of dead flies floating on its surface.  At least he took it back without a quibble, or even a moment’s hesitation, just a shrug and a look, which while basically identical to those he’d given us earlier were now clearly intended as “I told you so”.

That’s a digression, I was telling you about my scrappy bits of ham, that came from Waitrose, and my intention to wrap them round a couple of trout for dinner for me and Becca at home.  Except by the time I got up to my regular fishmonger, where the trout (farmed in Norfolk) is normally plump, bright eyed and plentiful (and often the fallback choice), they had none.  Just as was the case with mackerel one time I told you about before, which is unfair to my fishmonger, and gives quite the wrong impression that they never have what I want, which is not the case at all, it just weirdly happens to be the times I end up writing it up.  Actually, a fishmonger who never runs out of anything is to be viewed with suspicion, so perhaps it’s to The Fishery’s credit that (very) occasionally they don’t even have staples like mackerel or trout on their slab.  I like to think so, and to be fair, I had left it late in the day.  Anyway, as on the previously blogged occasion, I returned home with a couple of seabass.

I started by marinating the fish in a herb and olive oil rub, which is entirely optional and something I probably wouldn’t have done with trout (the fish itself being that much oiler).  I used my pestle and mortar to crush together peppercorns, sea salt, parsley and a little sage which I then incorporated into a runny paste with olive oil and rubbed over the slashed flanks of the fish and into their cavities, which I also lined with slices of lemon.  Then I wrapped the fish in the slices of ham, tucking it into the cavity as best I could.  Some recipes suggest pinning the ham and the fish together with cocktail sticks, but that always seems unnecessarily fiddly to me, and the fattier (i.e. better) your strips of ham, the less necessary it seems.

Then it was simply a case of frying the fish in a good hot pan for about 3 minutes on the first side and a couple on the second, then popping the pan into the oven at about 180 for just about 10 minutes to finish off.  Dead simple, served with sautéed potatoes and a salad on the side.  And I have to say the sea bass worked just as well, as the trout, although distinctly different.  The saltiness of the ham, and the way it sealed the flesh of the fish created an effect really quite similar to that classic way of cooking sea bass, baking it in a crust of salt.

And if you can’t lay your hands on a jug of opaque, brown wine, with flies, then don’t worry, a glass of something crisp and fresh and white would go just as well, or even better.  Or, I might suggest, a bone dry sherry, a pale fino, or perhaps best of all a manzanilla with its hint of a sea-salty tang

Monday, 14 March 2011

My sherry amor

1 oloroso, 1 PX, 1 manzanilla...
This week’s Observer carried two articles that appear regularly, approximately annually, and have done for most of my adult life.  The first is the in depth Woody Allen interview/profile that promises his soon to be released film marks a long awaited return to form from the once great filmmaker, the second is the standard sherry piece  (hereafter referred to as the SSP) that, presumably, every newspaper’s wine writer is contractually obliged to file once a year.  The SSP reports, sadly, that sherry’s fortunes have been in decline for decades, but announces, gladly, that someone is now doing something to turn around public perceptions and promises that, at last, sherry is just about to have its moment in the spotlight.  Neither promise, of course, ever comes true:  Woody Allen, face it, is never going to make another Bananas, let alone an Annie Hall;  and sherry has yet to have its fashion moment – otherwise, obviously, the standard sherry piece would, at the very least, have to have its introductory paragraph, the one about the decades of unbroken decline, substantially rewritten.

While it is sad that Woody Allen’s films are now embarrassingly bad, the continuing decline of the sherry industry is a cause of greater and longer lasting concern.  After all, we still have, and always will, not just Annie Hall, but all of Woody’s early funny ones, and the later gloomy ones for that matter.  And it seems, that Woody has banked enough money, credibility and goodwill in the past to carry on making a film a year in perpetuity, no matter how cringe-inducingly poor they are, or how few people go to see them.  On the other hand, if the market for sherry continues to decline (by 40% over the past twenty years, according to the latest SSP) then sooner or later the sherry makers are going to go bust, and then we simply won’t have any of their wonderful wine any more.  Which would be a travesty.  After all, unlike Woody and his films, it’s not as if they just don’t make sherry like they used to.  They still do, it just seems that fewer and fewer people care, and those that do are, literally, dying.  Of old age, I hasten to add, not from drinking sherry – 40% of sherry drinkers (again according to the latest SSP) are now over 65.  Actually I have to say I’m suspicious of the quoted stats in this version of the SSP: the industry has been in unending crisis for 40 years; sales have fallen by 40%; 40% of sherry drinkers are old.  Not everything, statistically, can be 40, can it?  It looks suspiciously like either the Observer’s David Williams has a faulty number pad on his keyboard or he’s just cutting and pasting ‘40’ whenever a stat is required – which would bring a whole new definition to the term ‘lazy journalism’.

Anyway, I love sherry, and would be heartbroken if it either ceased to exist entirely, or, more likely and in a way even worse, became so rare and expensive that it might as well not exist for the vast majority of us – It would, as I say, break my heart if I could never again enjoy a glass of ice cold manzanilla in a cool, tiled Andalucian room, with a bowl of salted almonds, some olives, and a bunch of old men watching motorcycle racing on the TV above the bar; to know, simultaneously that the likes of Paris Hilton or Roman Abramovich could, still, drink manzanilla, fino, Oloroso or PX, on their yachts, would be an extra, unbearable, twist of a blunt and rusted knife in that broken heart.  So I would urge everyone reading this to do their bit to support a struggling industry and go out and buy a bottle of sherry, or two (there are at least half a dozen distinctive basic types, and I would urge you to try them all eventually), right now.  Yes, I mean NOW.  Don’t even bother reading the rest of this article, it’ll still be here when you get back.  Like the early films of Woody Allen, but unlike the sherry if we’re not careful.

And if you say ‘but I don’t like sherry’ I shall resist the urge to say ‘shame on you’, because: a.) it’s personal taste; b.) I know a lot of people do have bad sherry memories, mainly linked to Christmas and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, which I can see would put you off; and, c.) I recognise that sherry has an image problem (not unrelated to b.), although the persistence of that problem is slightly mystifying, in that sherry manages to still be tainted by maiden aunt associations at a time when the very notion of a maiden aunt has, surely, long since been consigned to history.  I will, again, though urge you to try it.  Start with a manzanilla, well chilled, as an aperitif.  And if you get the chance to do the Andalucian bar thing, with the salted almonds and the olives – with or without the old men and the motorcycle racing – then I can’t recommend that highly enough.  That would count, in my mind at least, as one of the very rare examples in life of a repeatable moment being reliably sublime.  And if you experience that, and still don’t get it, then we will, regrettably, just have to agree to differ on the matter of sherry.  You should know, though, that I don’t think we could ever truly be friends…

I like to think that I do my bit to support the sherry industry (apart that is, from writing this, with it’s global readership of literally tens…).  I currently have three bottles of different types of sherry in my house (a manzanilla, an oloroso and a PX) plus a bottle of sherry vinegar – that was actually more expensive than either of the bottles of drinking sherry that I paid for myself (the PX was a birthday gift from my friends Sarah and Jimmy – Sarah having undergone something of a sherry epiphany at Moro for Jimmy’s birthday just the week before mine, which, entirely coincidentally, Becca and I also celebrated at Moro.  Thank you Sarah and Jimmy.  Thank you Becca.). And that is another thing about sherry, and another reason the Paris Hilton/Roman Abramovich scenario described above would be so particularly excruciating – right now sherry provides ridiculously good value by fine wine standards.  You really can get something properly, seriously, good from Jerez, for the same price, or less, as something really very bog standard from any other great wine producing region you care to name.  And I am talking about under a tenner here, not thirty quid a bottle sort of money.  I am, after all, going to cook with this wine, as well as drink it…

And cooking with sherry is another way in which I like to think I’m doing my bit.  And I love to cook things in sherry.  Apart from anything else it gives me an excuse to drink sherry while I’m cooking, which otherwise does feel just a little bit excessively indulgent.  Even by my standards.  I’ve already described recipes for pigs cheeks in sherry, and lamb’s hearts.  Here’s one for chicken.  Like the recently posted recipe for chicken cooked in cider, which, in terms of technique, is essentially the same, although thoroughly different in flavour, you can joint a whole chicken for this one, or sneakily use those supermarket packs of chicken thighs which are actually ideal and cost about the same.  I shouldn’t really approve, I know, but hey, this is the world we live in…

Chicken in sherry

For two: 
4 chicken thighs
1 really big onion, or two averagely small ones (you want plenty of onion in this dish), peeled and sliced into wedges
A couple of cloves of garlic, and a bit of fresh chilli
Thyme, salt, pepper (lemon zest – optional)
A glass or two of sherry (about 150-200ml)

plenty of onions, a bit of garlic and chilli...
I start by taking a clove of garlic and about a centimetre’s worth of fresh chilli, and crushing them to a paste in my garlic crusher then rubbing that paste into the chicken pieces with plenty of salt and pepper, a sprinkling of thyme leaves and some olive oil.  I might just grate a bit of lemon zest over the chicken as well, just to brighten the flavour.  Then I brown the chicken in a shallow, oven proof, lidded pot, throw in the onion, and another garlic clove and another cm or so of fresh chilli, both finely sliced.  Cook till the onion's just starting to soften, but not colour, then pour over the sherry and cover.  Bring the sherry to the boil, back it off to a gentle simmer, then transfer to the oven at about 180, for about half an hour (by all means go lower and slower if you like, that’ll be good, if not even better, but this is something I tend to throw together as a quick supper.  Also, if you’re doing the roast potatoes below in the oven at the same time it’ll need to be at least 180).

lemon roasted new potatoes

When it comes out of the oven, just check that the chicken is cooked through, and if you need to, add an extra splash of sherry for extra sauce.

I’ll generally serve this with lemon roasted new potatoes – the fresh zestiness of new potatoes and lemon just seem to go.  I boil the potatoes for ten minutes or so in their skins, either whole or sliced in half lengthways, depending on size.  Once I’ve strained them off, I grate the zest of a lemon over them, then squeeze the juice of half of it into the pan, add salt, pepper, some fresh thyme leaves and a little olive oil, shake it all together and tip into a hot roasting tray with a bit more olive oil and the other half of the lemon, sliced lengthways into four.  Again, about half an hour at 180 should be good, but you might want to whack the temperature right up for just 5-10 minutes at the end, once you’ve taken out the chicken, just to ensure a beautiful golden hue to your potato skins.

Smoke salted roast almonds

If you do want to recreate the ice cold manzanilla and salted almonds experience in your own home, it’s even more satisfying, obviously, if you’ve salted and roasted the almonds yourself.  I use a mix of sea salt and paprika, you could use just salt, or just paprika for that matter.  And to get an interesting smokiness, I use Maldon smoked sea salt, although you could go with smoked paprika instead, use hot or sweet paprika, whatever you fancy really.  Whatever mix of salt and spice you use the trick is to add it to the nuts in a polythene bag, with just enough olive oil to help it bind.  Don’t over spice the nuts, about two teaspoons of salt and one of paprika would be my starting point for a 300g bag of nuts, but feel free to add more if you don’t feel they are sufficiently coated.  The most important thing I have found is making sure they are not too heavily coated in oil, or you never get them roasted to the right light crunchiness.  Once your nuts are coated to your satisfaction spread them out evenly across a roasting tray, ensuring they are in a single layer.  As for how hot to roast them, and for how long, I couldn’t precisely say, as I normally put them in alongside something else I’m cooking already, so it depends on how hot the oven needs to be for that. What I would say is not too hot, and not too long.  About 150 for about 15 minutes would probably be just about spot on. My best advice would be to keep an eye on them, and take them out just before you think they are going to be perfectly done, as they will continue to bake themselves once you’ve removed them from the oven and they’ll end up over toasted if you leave them in till they look just right.  Spread them on kitchen paper to cool, covered with another layer of kitchen paper, to absorb any excess oil.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Love is… lamb’s hearts, pigeon breasts and oysters

Becca and I were away for the 14th of February, with family and family friends, so we postponed Valentine’s day until we could do the whole romantic diner a deux thing at home.  Which, by the way, is where Valentine’s night dinners belong.  At home.  Why anyone ever even considers eating out on the 14th itself is entirely beyond me.  For a start, by the time you get round to it, you have almost certainly left it too late to book a table at any of the restaurants you actually want to eat at, and end up somewhere you otherwise wouldn’t countenance – for what will probably turn out to be very good reasons.  For a finish, even if you do manage to bag a table at that place you’ve always dreamed of eating at but somehow never have, you’ve only gone and done it on the single worst night of the year to eat there.  Not least because it’s the worst night of the year to work there.  Seriously.  Flat out worst.  Why would you want to celebrate your love by paying over the odds for a limited – sorry, ‘special’ – menu, served to you by people who are not only rushed off their feet, but actively hate you.

What do you mean?  Of course they hate you.  Not only are you contributing to their busiest, most thankless night of the year (other nights, round Christmas, say, may be busier than Valentine’s in terms of total covers, but because those covers, on Valentine’s, are all divided into tables of two, the work involved in servicing them is far greater, and at Christmas, season of goodwill to all men including waitresses, the tips are way, way better than the night when everyone is at least pretending to only have eyes, or thoughts, for the person directly across the table from them), but you are simultaneously either keeping them apart from their loved one on this special night, or reminding them that they are single, loveless and alone.  They hate you.  Even if only for that one night.

None of which, of course would have prevented Becca and I eating out on February the 24th, which was when we finally got round to it, but even so.  There are other reasons to keep it at home.  After all, if all goes well, and the romance works its magic, why would you want to be out, in a public place?  A hotel restaurant, maybe, where you could, literally, get a room, but then you are seriously talking about paying for your love.  And while there are those for whom a credit card is, among other things, a sex aid, and the strength of a relationship is measurable by the length of the statement, the rest of us prefer to believe that such people fail to understand the true nature of romance, and will never find true love, let alone live happily ever after.  Which, without wishing to come across as a cheapskate, is another very good reason for keeping it at home.  Keeping the cost down, that is, not running the risk of finding oneself inadvertently a loveless billionaire (which of course you may well want to do, whichever way you are reading the phrase ‘finding oneself”…).

Of course, it’s always cheaper to eat at home than to eat out, particularly on a night you would be paying a premium for the privilege of being hated, but even more so if you and your loved one can find the romance in offal and vermin.  Or lamb’s hearts and pigeon, to be precise.  In which case you can return home from a friendly butchers with the feature items of your special meal, and paper change from a tenner, just about.  (You could, of course try and catch your own pigeon, and then it’d be even cheaper…)

Lamb’s hearts is something of Valentine’s tradition in this house – and a fairly obvious reference to (or parody of, perhaps) romantic symbolism, although one, I have to admit, that only works so long as the object of your affections isn’t too literal minded: ‘So you’re offering me the heart of a cute little baa lamb.  Cut into tiny pieces and flash fried.  As a token of your love.  Yeah, thanks… ‘ Fortunately Becca is neither so literal minded, nor too sentimental about cute little baa lambs.  Or if she is she’s just too damn polite to mention it.  Previously I’ve fried the hearts and served them as a main course salad, but this year that was precisely my plan for the pigeon breasts, so I needed to do something different.  Cooking them up with onions in sherry, seemed right: light and simple but sweet and a little bit luxurious.

Light and simple is a key element in a Valentine’s meal, I think.  You’re not looking for big, heavy, comfort eating, no matter how much you both may like it.  And you don’t want to be doing anything too fiddly or labour intensive.  The last thing you want to be doing is working up a sweat, juggling pans over a hot stove and clock watching while your beloved twiddles their thumbs and gets prematurely, solitarily, hammered on pink fizz.  So a collection of dishes that can be mainly prepared in advance then quickly and easily thrown together at the last minute is what you’re after.  On this occasion I cooked up the lamb’s hearts and onion in sherry, marinated the pigeon breasts, washed and spun dry the salad leaves and peeled, diced and par boiled the potatoes ready for sautéing, all before Becca got home from work.  And laid the table with flowers and candles and all that romantic crap.  So when it came to time to eat I just had to fry up the pigeon breasts and the potatoes, make a dressing for the salad, and throw it all together on the plates while reheating the lamb’s hearts.  The hardest part was shucking the six oysters we had for starters.

Lamb’s hearts and onion in sherry
2 lamb’s hearts
1 small onion
garlic, a little fresh red chilli (optional), a few sage leaves, thyme salt & pepper
A glass or two of sherry.  I used Oloroso, but fino or manzanilla would be fine.  Or marsala, or Madeira for that matter…

First trim the hearts of all their white bits of fat, gristle and membrane, slice them in two longitudinally, then slice each half into pieces cross ways.  Put them in a non metallic dish or bowl, season with salt and pepper, add the sage leaves, a pinch of thyme leaves, cover with sherry and a splash of olive oil, and leave to marinate for an hour or two, if you have the time.  Peel and slice the onion into fine wedges, and finely slice a clove of garlic and just a little bit of fresh red chilli (you want a hint of warmth, not direct chilli heat, by all means leave it out if you prefer).  Remove the lamb’s hearts from the marinade, and fry swiftly in a hot pan until just colouring , then add the onion garlic and chilli, with maybe a little extra olive oil if the pan looks dry.  Cook until the onion is softening, then pour over the remaining marinade, and add an extra splash of sherry if necessary, but you don’t want the pan swimming.  Simmer hard for just a few minutes for the sauce to reduce and thicken just a little.  You don’t want to cook it too long or the hearts will go rubbery (they’re one of those things that need to be cooked either hot and quick, or low and slow).

Pigeon Breast salad
2 pigeons (or just their breasts)
Mixed salad leaves (I had radicchio, for the pretty colour, chicory and rocket)
A glass of red wine
Salt, pepper, thyme leaves, juniper berries
Sherry (or red wine) vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, for the dressing

Remove the breasts from the pigeons, it’s easy with a small sharp knife, although apparently real men do this with their thumbs…  Skin the breasts, put them in a non metallic dish or bowl, season with salt and pepper and a pinch of thyme leaves, pour over the wine and a splash of olive oil, and throw in half a dozen or so juniper berries (gently crush the berries between thumb and forefinger before adding them, to better release their flavour) and leave to marinade for an hour or two.  As with the lamb’s hearts, if you don’t have the time, or the juniper berries, the marinating can be skipped, but it is going to taste better if you can do it.

When you’re ready to eat, put the washed and dried salad leaves in a bowl, remove the pigeon breasts from their marinade and fry in a good hot pan, for no more than a couple of minutes a side - you want them nice and pink.  Remove the pigeon breasts from the pan, but leave it on the heat.  Make the salad dressing with the pan juices, while the pigeon breasts rest.  Deglaze the pan with the leftover marinade and a splash of sherry vinegar, then turn off the heat, and stir in a tablespoon or two’s worth of extra virgin olive oil.  Strain through a sieve or tea strainer, check the seasoning, balance the oil/vinegar and pour over the salad leaves in the bowl.  It’s common with a salad like this to serve the pigeon breasts sliced (as I have done recently with veal goose skirt and feather steak), and perhaps mixed with the salad leaves, but I actually prefer to serve them whole and on the side.  Either way is good, whatever works for you, aesthetically.  I guess if I was serving this as a starter, I’d probably allow just one breast per person, and slice it.

Our starter, for this meal, as I’ve said, was oysters.  Bit of a Valentine’s cliché, I know.  But why not?  Just served up with wedges of lemon, a bottle of Tabasco and an espresso cup of shallot vinegar (except I didn’t have a shallot so I finely diced about 1/8 of a red onion instead, and covered it with sherry vinegar).  Damn I love oysters, and at a fiver for six from our excellent local  (Stoke Newington) fish monger, they’re an affordable luxury I don’t really know why we don’t have more often.

Oh, and I nearly forgot dessert.  Both in writing it up, and in making the meal.  You may have noticed from this blog I’m not really much of a dessert person.  So I’m afraid to say, as something of an afterthought, while I was putting together the rest of the meal, I peeled and thickly sliced a couple of oranges and put them in a bowl to soak in cointreau in the fridge, and made up a couple of very large and very sweet espressos and poured them into a shallow Tupperware container and whacked that into the freezer.  By the time we’d finished the rest of the meal, that had frozen just about sufficiently to make a couple of coffee granitas served up in espresso cups alongside a bowl of cointreau orange.  A sprig of mint on the oranges would have been enough to make it look almost intentional…