Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Invasion of the Courgettes

Gronda! Gronda!
At present there is a glorious 'climbing' courgette plant sat on my patio, doing exactly what it says on the tin, climbing upwards towards the sun, spilling huge green leaves and popping fragrant yellow flowers of joy. It is quite a sight to behold and now that we have steady supply of lolloping green truncheons, nothing could be better. Cos I do love a courgette. Yet the speed at which the plant is growing is starting to alarm me. We are not talking 'Jack and the Beanstalk' progress here but the way things are going, I'd say that the plant will soon be over-taking the height of our garden fence. "Hooray! More courgettes!" you might cheer but the other thing that is worrying me is that I am sure, nay certain, that the plant is moving about the place. Terracotta pot and all.

Lots of people ascribe to the notion that plants are sentient beings, Prince Charlie boy being one of them, and if this is the case with our courgette plant, if it has become self-aware then fine. I dig that man - pulls on a drag but does not inhale - that's just groovy baby. There is no reason to dismiss that notion that plants are conscious creatures. Just as much there is no reason to dismiss Gwyneth Paltrow for reasoning that water has feelings*. I just hope that it has a soul whose intentions are good because oh Lord, imagine if it ever felt misunderstood? 

Imagine for instance, if the plant started to suffer from delusions of grandeur, knowing the value of the bounty it provides? Imagine if every time I went to pluck a ripe beauty, having to deal with an uppity Prima Donna that roared and shook until you placated it with a bow and a low whispering of "Gronda, Gronda!"**

Imagine during duty of care, when watering and feeding, taking a stinging slap from a spiky branch and all because you got carried away with snipping some of those lovely blooms the day before, have stuffed them with cheese and gently fried for tea. "Stop un-sexing me, you are effectively slashing BOTH sets of my genitals off, you bastard!" would be the unspoken word.

Imagine if this life force was all down to some extra-terrestrial intervention, malevolent and dark. The idea of a 'Day of the Courgette' is quite terrifying if you think about it. But not quite as terrifying as the thought of being beamed up and whisked off for experimentation by a gang of evil, alien squash-related scientists. I really couldn't face the anal probing. Not with them bulbous fingers anyway.

Perhaps the courgette plant isn't moving. Perhaps it's all in my mind. I haven't been getting much sleep lately and as a result, have been mainlining caffeine by injecting espresso into my eyeballs in the morning before going to check on the plant. That might have something to do with it. But today I am going to nip into Wilkinson's to buy some chalk and when I get home, I am going to trace the outline of the pot. Just to make sure that I am imagining things and not going crazy. I shall let you know the outcome.

In the meantime, here is a quick recipe for a courgette, mangetout, lemon and mint salad, very healthy!

*No, actually, there are lots of reasons.
** Only people of a certain age will get the 'Gronda, Gronda!' joke.

Courgette, mangetout, lemon and mint salad - serves 6 

The majority of recipes for courgette call for them to be cooked but I rather like them raw, especially when they've had time to ripen and become slightly creamy. Paired up with some mangetout, also raw, this salad has great texture and smacks of summer with its citrus and mint flavour. For this salad, I used purple mangetout that I got from Wholegood, an organic fruit and vegetable wholesaler that will also supply weekly boxes to your door, and you may want to blanch your mangetout briefly. But I prefer the crunch and I hate to lose the purple with purple veg. You could also add courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and mint, briefly flash-fried in the pan but they don't seem to go down well with the kids

ingredients

2 big, fat, portentous courgettes, sliced into ribbons using a peeler or mandolin (watch those fingers)

250gms mangetout, topped and rinsed

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 large bunch of mint, leaves roughly torn

2 tsps of rapeseed oil (I used Mellow Yellow from Farringtons)

Salt and pepper

Method

Take a bowl and place your courgette ribbons, mangetout and mint and mix thoroughly to combine. Using a small glass or jam jar, pour in the oil and juice and mix to emulsify and then season well. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix and then present on a pretty platter. Scatter over the lemon zest and drizzle some more oil across if necessary. Enjoy in the garden, in the presence of your courgette plant. If you have one.

That's a whopper!
Purple Mange Tut
A bowl of salad
A platter of salad
Close up

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Polenta Brisket Peperonata


Polenta Brisket Peperonata
I went out for a drink last Friday in Borough Market with one of my oldest and best buddies and needless to say, I got very drunk. I should have had something to eat beforehand, on the advice of my better half who always, always advises me to do so but I never listen. So as usual, I found myself floundering around the streets of SE1 around midnight, arms windmilling, legs moving one step forward, three steps back. A terrible epitome of car crash TV and the bane of A&E's up and down the land. Not that I ended up there mind. I don't ever get that bad. Although it was bad when Mrs FU rang me, asking where I was and I said that I seemed to be in the middle of a very busy road; which I can only presume was London Bridge. When I finally got home, my worried and somewhat angry wife said she could hear screaming horns and screaming apoplexy echoing in the background. One day I will grow up.

But hey, I don't get like that that often and I don't get to see my best mate much these days and it's good to let your hair down once in a while (he says, whistling). And we did have share some very big giggles, so there you go. One topic that came up amongst many was beer. We do like to talk about beer. About it's inherent, sulfurous nature, the way that some particularly 'hoppy' ones can taste like soap and whether we've made the full transition into old CAMRA farts yet, complete with ridiculous t-shirts, socks, sandals and moobs. I brought up Innis & Gunn, brewers of unique, cask flavoured beers based in Edinburgh, Scotchland, as I've been drinking a lot of their stuff lately and we both raised an eyebrow and a wry smile.

"Bloody nice aren't they. Quite.... vanilla-ry"

"Yep, I tried a limited edition one the other day. Very smokey, lovely it was."

"But very strong."

"Yes, very strong. Reminds me of some Belgian beers."

"Jerry loves Innis & Gunn but he always has to have a slice of orange in his pint."

Jerry is a friend of ours. Well, more of a friend of my best mate who knows Jerry from university but I also know him well. I am sure Jerry won't mind me saying this but he is a Tory poster boy on the Alan B'stard scale, notoriously smug and looks like a German. We both pondered whether this preference for a citrus tang came from the proliferation of shite lagers out there that are 'radlerising' themselves up. Or if it came down to the simple fact that Jerry enjoys stuffing his mouth with oranges, like all good Conservative MP's do. Which is a bit harsh on Jerry because he is a decent bloke really with a warm, albeit disillusioned heart. Still it made us larf.

Yeah, I am not too down with the whole adding fruit to my beer these days. I've sunk my fair share of Sol and Coronas with a slice of lime, don't get me wrong; but as I've got older, I prefer drinking it unadulterated. I don't mind using it as an ingredient though, and boom, there is the tenuous link that leads us from a tale of weekend binge drinking to this rather smashing recipe that I came up with for last night's dinner. From the title of this post, you can see that lovely brisket is on the agenda and you might be getting prepared for a 48 hour method of dry curing and marinating but I cheated and bought my brisket already slow cooked from Waitrose.

"E's got a bloody cheek knocking his true blue mate when he's orf shorping in Waitrose, ain't he?" you might well be saying in your head right now but I do like to shop in Waitrose from time to time, especially when I can get my hands on brisket that is half price (I do love a Waitrose red and white sticker me).

So yes, this recipe calls for pre-cooked beef but if you want to try the whole seven day, slow cook in the woods thing, go knock yourself out. The great trick though is to add a bottle of Innis & Gunn to the pot after cooking the joint through, scraping the bottom of your casserole with a wooden spoon to get all that flavour out of the remaining grubbings. If you can get hold of some of the limited addition 'Malt Whiskey Trail' then even better. After reducing by half, the gravy was fantastic. Throw some tangy peperonata and cheesy polenta into the equation and before you know it, you'll have a dish fit for a King.

He says, patting himself on the back.

Polenta, Brisket, Peperonata - serves 4

1 Waitrose Slow Cooked Beef Brisket (750gm)

2 red peppers, 1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and sliced into strips

2 red onions, finely sliced (1 for the brisket, 1 for the peperonata)

2 garlic gloves, crushed

Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped

1 tbs of red wine vinegar

1 bottle of Innis and Gunn beer

Olive oil

1 packet of polenta, (375gms)

250gms of Parmesan cheese, grated

500ml water

Salt and pepper

Method

First, heat your oven to 140C. Then take a casserole pot and scatter the red onion slices on the bottom and place the brisket on top and then drizzle over the accompanying sauce along with a healthy splash of beer. Cover and braise for an hour, according to instructions (I left it in for 2 hour to make sure it was extra flaky).

Whilst that is cooking, make your peperonata by placing a frying pan on the hob over a medium heat, add a splash of olive oil and once hot, throw in the peppers. Stir through, season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat and then cover with a lid. Leave to gently cook for 15 minutes, stirring halfway through. Then add the second red onion and garlic, stir through, cover and again, leave to gently cook for 20 minutes. Once everything is nice and soft, bring the heat up and add the vinegar and reduce. Stir through the parsley, check for seasoning and cook through for another minute or so and then set aside.

When the beef is ready, take the meat out and pull apart in bowl with forks and keep warm. Strain the remaining liquor into a saucepan with a sieve, pushing down on the onions to release the juice. Deglaze the casserole pot with another splash of beer, scraping around the place and pour into the saucepan. Add the remaining beer and place on the heat and reduce by half.

For the polenta, again cook according to instructions on the packet i.e. bring 500ml of water to the boil, dump the polenta in, stir like crazy for 8 minutes, dump the Parmesan cheese in, stir like crazy again, season and then breathe.

To plate up, take a bowl and add a generous spoonful of polenta and then place some of the ribboned brisket on top and drizzle over a nice ladle of gravy. Finish with a generous helping of peperonata on top of the beef.

Eat.

Pretty peperonata
Ribbons
Food styling advertising beer
Innis & Gunn Beer....................burp

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Red Lion Great Sausage Roll Off 2014


Sausage rolls are steeped in folklore in my family and if you ever have the good fortune to listen to my mother at a party, cornered in the kitchen, late on a Saturday night, after she's had a few Tia Maria's, you'll soon find out why. Because we don't have parties like we used to. Not like back in the good old days, when she used to live above the shops in Eversholt Street in Camden with her grandparents. Gawd blimey, love a duck, wot? Wot the parties that used to go on in that place were legendary! Mythical even. By all accounts Grandad Billy would often get kicked out of the local boozer at 11 o'clock on a Friday night and not happy with his lot, he would corral a bunch of miscreants to come back to the flat to carry on with the celebrating. Twelve nine and four sixpence would be slapped on the bar and the boys would hoist wooden crates onto their shoulders, carrying bottles of mild and waltz off daaan the street singing an ol' ditty like "Oi Sally, How'd You Get Yer Knickers In Twist?"

Grandad Bill would hammer on the door and announce "Alice! We gort guests so we 'ave," and Nanny Alice would stub her woodbine out and leap out of her chair and shout "Oh Bill, you are a bleedin' pain in the backside and no mistake but sod it, come on in boys." Bottles would be popped and more carousing would go on, culminating in a riotous cheer as Grandad Bill would pull the throw orf the ol' johanna and everyone would leap in with a chorus of  "Aunty Mabel On The Table." Spoons would be handed out for percussion, dust would leap into the air from all the dancing and my mum would awake and walk into the room and immediately get half a guinea of threepence coins thrust into her hands. If she was really lucky, she'd get 12 bob note.

Soon enough Grandad Bill would shout something like "Alice, we're 'ungry!" And before you knew it, Alice would be in kitchen, sleeves rolled up, port and lemon on the side, woodbine dangling from 'er lips and out came the flour, water and lard. Working like a demon, she could knock up a ball of pastry in seconds and after quickly dipping into the fridge, a slab of sausage meat would slapped on the side (for they always had sausage meat in the house). With a rolling pin, some deft finger work and a splosh of egg wash, snake-lengths of sausage rolls would start to materialise before being cut and shoved into a hot oven for 25 minutes.

By this stage, the boys would be onto their fifth round of "Ooooh Mrs Pembury, You've Got A Lovely Daughter" and would be getting rather drunk but when Nanny Alice walked into the room, with the smell of roasted unidentifiable pork and crisp, flaky pastry wafting through the air, everyone would stop dead still. And pause. Before leaping upon the tray with gay abandon with many a thank you's and much obliging. Nanny Alice would then take centre stage and give everyone a blast of "No Thank You Mr Tiggywinkle, I've Already Had Me Chips For Tea." To much riotous applause and laughter and smashing of bottles on the ceiling and these sort of parties would often go on until Sunday afternoon; a constant stream of frolics, booze and of course, lots and lots of lovely, laaavely sausage rolls.

You can probably detect that I am taking the michael here and whenever I get to hear that story, I do usually get a thick-ear but the fact remains, that sausage rolls form a cornerstone of my family heritage. And despite the overwrought nostalgia, Nanny Alice must have rubbed off of my mum because she can make a mean sausage roll at a moments notice too.

With that tale in mind then, when I got asked to judge at 'The Red Lion Great Sausage Roll Off' earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. Organised by handsome couple Angus Mckean and Claire Morgan, who together run the award winning Red Lion pub in Barnes (in relative harmony, so long as Angus does everything that Claire says) this competition to find the best sausage roll in the country is only in its infancy but has already made waves amongst the cheffing community.

In the words of Angus, this sausage-and-pastry fest is really "just a healthy night for all those in the trade to let their hair down and have some fun" but there is ambition in the Master Cellarman's twinkly eyes as he would like to attract some heavyweight Michelin starred chefs to the event. The crowd that assembled way back in January was not too shabby though, with culinary luminaries assembling from Nanban, The Bull in Highgate and The Opera Tavern. And my fellow judges were no less impressive either, coming in the voluminous shape of Charles Campion (he that critique food), Hayden Groves (he that is National Chef of the Year 2013) and Lisa Faulkner (she that won Sleb MasterChef and caught Mr Torode's eyeballs). With beer writer Melissa Cole  compèring and taking the hold of the reins with her usual commanding style and good humour, this competition obviously has legs for the future but what actually happened on the night?

Well, after running all the way from Hammersmith tube station and arriving slightly late, pouring with sweat, it was nice to settle in with a cool and refreshing pint of Chiswick ale and to mill about the place; lording it a touch. Call me shameless but I had no qualms at all about talking with some of the chefs before the competition, just to sound out some ideas and whatnot. However, when it soon became evident that no-one was going to hand me a brown paper envelope, I thought "sod the lot of you then" and joined my fellow judges at the top table to stare loftily down at the simmering crowd. Sitting next to Mr Campion was quite a thrill actually and the man is certainly an interesting character; a curious mixture of warmth and bitterness, sardonic even. Hit the right note and you will get on like a house on fire. Hit the wrong one and well, you could hear a gnat fart in the room. But of course that didn't happen because as the evening went on, the braying chefs got louder and louder the more they got pissed.


The sausage roll cookery element consisted of four chefs jumping into the pub kitchen at a time, to weave their magic and then present within 20 minutes or so. We, the judges, then had to selflessly chomp and chew our way through them whilst studiously making tasting notes and conferring with cheeks full. In total, over about 2 and half hours, we sampled SIXTEEN sausage rolls of various quality and stature, and I will not lie, it was a hard job. In fact, it is all a bit of a blur now really and my notes from the evening are now withered somewhat with grease and beer stains but notable sausage rolls for me personally came in the form of a sausage roll packed with offal from chef Phil Harrison. Also a deliciously, crumbly effort from the editor of the Richmond and Twickenham Times reminded me of the good ol' fashioned 'famlee' sausage rolls of yore. That one chef decided to flavour his one with langoustine seemed like blasphemy to me and plus it tasted rather rank, so that was a low point. In general though, all the savoury pastries presented were pretty good.


Of course, we had to all agree on a top three (well a top seven to be precise but let's concentrate on the top three) and after some intense conflab, during which Lisa tried to shoehorn her mate Tim into the top of the chart, it was Hayden who dispensed the pearl of wisdom - "C'mon guys, which of these sausage rolls would you like to eat again?"

And so these were the final three:

Third -  The Running Horse, Mayfair - Wild Rabbit and Chestnut Mushroom sausage roll along side a carrot and thyme puree
Second - The Opera Tavern, Covent Garden - Iberico Pork Sausage Roll
First - Ben's Canteen, Battersea - All Day Breakfast Sausage Roll with Bloody Mary Shot

Judging by the hip-thrusting, bird-flicking, tongue-protruding jubilation of chef Chris Brumsby to the crowd, beating his fellow contemporaries obviously meant a lot to him and deservedly so. The nifty addition of quails egg into his pork mix was definitely inspired and more importantly, it was a tasty twist. It did make me laugh though when I heard that his proud dish was soon dropped from the menu at Ben's Canteen because no punter wants to wait more than 20 minutes for a starter. Hey, you live and learn and he should still be happy that his sausage roll was a champion.



Like I said, this juggernaut of a competition has no intention of stopping as I believe a date of 28th January 2015 has already been set, so will be interesting to see if any 'superstars' take up the challenge, to see if anyone can totally redefine the humble sausage roll. Saying that Angus is more than happy for members of the public to get involved. I wonder if I could get me muvva to enter?

Best not sit on the panel next time on the panel if she does though. I'd never hear the end of it if she lost.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Travesty of Cold Toast


I shouldn't be getting into this. I have lots of other things to do. Other things to write about. Lots of things. I am very busy. Time is money, money is time and all that.

But I just can't let this lie. I discovered something today that is so appalling, I decided that I just had to do something about it. People need to know about this pervading sickness that is threatening to undermine society (or breakfast time at the very least).

So, what's it all about Alfie?

Well, it all started this morning as I mooched around in the kitchen in my underwear, going through the usual rigmarole of getting ready for the day. It's always tough getting going on a Monday, especially if you are trying to shake off the shackles of a mild hangover. I took receivership of a new fridge freezer at the weekend and celebrated by filling the thing with booze and I partied with it until quite late. I was bonding you see.

Anyway, some restorative coffee and toast was in order and I went through my usual process of slapping two slices of Mighty White under the grill; paying close attention with bleary eyes and a slightly aching bent back. It's quite meditative really, stooping and watching bread crisp and brown under the warm glow of a fork-shaped element. Besides, our grill is quite crap, you have to shift the bread around, otherwise you never get an even tan. I then whipped them out, piping hot and slathered some soft butter across with a swish that D'Artagnan would proud of. Using a knife of course, not a sword. I waited a moment or two, watching as the butter melted into the scratched landscape, islands of yellow fat that form cloudy reefs, before slowly sinking away. I then bit into the toast and all was right with the world.

Being the sort of guy who likes to share in his experiences, I then tweeted this -



- thinking that a) my opinion on this was totally right and irrefutable and b) that everyone would be in agreement with this fact, thus vainly stroking my ego and making me feel like a hundred million dollars.

However, it seems that not all people agree with this. It seems that some people prefer to wait for their toast to turn COLD before spreading butter across, citing that they prefer the crunchy texture of barren, stiffened bread. Some people even went so far as to say that they like to BURN their toast, leave it to cool and then they like to spread a blanket of butter and then jam (or Marmite) so that the whole topping coagulates into some marbleized, miasmic mess.

These people are clearly freaks and should not be allowed anywhere near a fork-shaped element (however inefficient). Or a toaster for that matter. That some of these people pertain to be some sort of experts in food (some have written books, some have even been on the TV) is even more galling. Since when has it ever been acceptable to let your toast go cold? Would you call a crouton toast? No. Would you return and eat a slice of charred bread, left and forgotten for 12 hours? No. Would you do the same with crumpets? No no no no no.

B&B's across the land have been getting away with it for years but to find out that people are doing this in the comfort of their own homes is disturbing. This suggestion of cold toast is madness and it needs to stop and it needs to stop NOW. 

So don't do it people......just don't.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook

Spatzle (not mushy peas)
By all accounts I've been pronouncing "spatzle" wrong. Rather than honing in with a guttural "Spats-SALL" like Debbie from Basildon, it should be said in a Sean Connery-esque manner with a  Germanic shush-shush-shush sound, ending in delicate and lilting "-leh". A bit like this in other words. I was told this by none other than Rachel Khoo, Paris based pixie and Queen of the plug-in double electric hob. Which is fine and dandy, I don't mind standing corrected but it can be a tough call when you return home and get accused of being fish paste.

"So, what did you make with Rachel then?"

"Oh, we made some sshhhpppatshzhllleh."

"You what?"

"Ssshhccpppiztieeellehelleee."

"Are you drunk?"


".....No"

"What else did you do?"

"Ah, we also made some sccccchhhhmorgastartartatartaatta.....tatata..."

"You are drunk aren't you, you've been getting drunk with some pretty girl off the telly haven't you."

OK, I might have been a little bit tipsy. And Ms Khoo is attractive yes (although hats off to Rachel for her recent opinion on the cult of 'sexy' regarding food telly). But having attended a cook-a-long on Thursday night, to promote her new show 'Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook' on the Good Food Channel, it was refreshing to pick up some new tips, tricks and some um...proper pronunciation. It was also refreshing to discover that Rachel doesn't always get things right herself. Her demonstration was peppered with a couple of gaffs and ohbuggerIforgot's yet her warm, honest charisma carried her through and you could tell that she had a fierce love of food, tied by a strong heartfelt family connection.

The dishes that we made were of course using recipes from the forthcoming series and both worked well. To start Rachel showed us how to elevate the workhorse onion by making it the star of the aforementioned spatzle. I think I cooked my little sparrows a bit too much though. Instead of presenting a plate of herby, fluffy dumplings of joy, my attempt looked like a bowl of mushy peas. Delicious mushy peas mind.

And it was great to encounter smörgåstårta for the first time. Originating from Sweden and described as a 'sandwich-cake', a slightly bizarre idea in itself, this dish was a very pleasant surprise when it came to eating. I do love a sandwich but I wasn't sure where this concoction of layered bread, whipped cream, horseradish. lightly cured salmon, beetroot and cucumber balls was going to take us.

However, it tasted very good and was very light and very fresh. Not an entirely useful description I know. It was a cake that wasn't quite a cake, in a sort of cakey, bready kind of way. With crisp balls. Is that better? Well when we all sat at the table together afterwards, I could have eaten my effort in one fell swoop but mindful of still loaded plates, curiously pushed to the side, I left some of mine too. If I had guts'd it all down, everyone would have known there was a token man in the room.

The whole shebang was filmed throughout and during the meal, we were invited to ask Rachel some hard hitting questions, so do have a goosy-gander at the video below. I am sure you will agree that my line of interrogation has me singled out as a future Michael Parkinson. Or possibly another chatty man.


Not wanting to take anything away from Rachel, the one thing that particularly thrilled me when visiting Cactus Kitchens was discovering that this Tardis-like venue houses the set of Saturday Kitchen. You know, that telly show that goes on at the weekend with James "I'm from Yorkshire" Martin presenting, with mostly male chefs and bewildered guests plugging their book/album/new range of y-fronts. It was a hell of lot smaller than I expected it to be and I did wonder how they fitted all those poor home economists in. You know, the ones that do all the real work. On my way out, I took a moment to pause, look around and wonder in awe and then hastily scribbled a tender love note for James and stuck it under the counter with some chewing gum. I hope he found it yesterday

Anyway, back to the magnificent Rachel Khoo and her new show, which airs tomorrow on Monday on the Good Food Channel at 9PM. I shall be keeping my eyes peeled as she takes in some of her go-to foodie spots in London and explores some of her favourite European cities and towns. Although if Rachel hits Dalston and if I spot one beard, I may very well throw a brick at the screen. I had enough of those blokes on the recent Big Allotment Challenge.

Bloody beards on my telly.....*tuts*

Rachel Khoo shows the Food Urchin how to count using fingers
Apparently my 'prep' was very organised and very 'Swedish' according to Rachel  *punches air and shouts "BORK BORK BORK"*
Rachel explaining the brining ingredients for the cure. Salt, sugar and um some peppercorns......I think.
My smörgåstårta (Rene Redzepi would be proud)
Plonker holding his smörgåstårta
A plethora of smörgåstårta's for Rachel to choose from.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad


This post first appeared on the Great Britsh Chefs blog.


Over the last few days, in a small dark corner of my kitchen, a bucket has been sitting innocuously on the side; the contents of which have been pleasantly bubbling and fizzing away to themselves. And every time I have gone to check on it, by way a lifting an old tea towel and poking my nose over the rim, I’ve walked away veritably bubbling and fizzing myself. For this year I am making elderflower champagne for the first time and the whole process has been pretty exciting. Call me a lush but the prospect of making something even mildly alcoholic always puts me in a spin. Knowing that in just over a week’s time, I will be able to pop a cork and send torrents of effervescent, sparkling wine tumbling downwards into flutes, cups and mugs is even more thrilling.

I say pop a cork, I mean unscrew a cap. We’ve been saving up plastic lemonade bottles to decant the fizz into for fear of stories of exploding glass. By all accounts, elderflower shampoo is volatile stuff.


But yes, the Elder trees are bursting again once more with flowers which is always exciting in itself. Some people turn their noses up at the thought of elderflower as an ingredient, citing the Tom cat smell that can linger in the kitchen. However, I love cooking with it and I am always on the lookout for different ways to use elderflower, especially beyond the usual sweet approach with sorbets and ice creams and panna cottas.


One recipe I came across recently was by food writer and chef Rosie Sykes, which couples elderflower with chicken. Found in her book The Kitchen Revolution (co-authored with Polly Russell and Zoe Heron) she shows how to create a light, fragrant meal using heads of elderflower and jointed chicken to be served with rich potatoes and cabbage. So I took the basic idea of poaching fowl in a flowery broth and came up with a recipe of my own. The simple yet very delicious ‘Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad’.


Why ‘Cecil’? Well, I sort of like to think of this is as a spin on a chicken Caesar salad really, given that I have thrown some croutons and some romaine lettuce into the mix. But with the introduction of elderflower as a principle ingredient, I felt that a name like ‘Cecil’ was more suitably British. Not that that makes any sense, the Elder tree grows all over the globe. Oh whatever, it sounds better than a chicken ‘Colin’ salad.

I have tried this recipe out a few times now and have altered the quantities of elderflower each time and as a preference, I like to go for 4 heads of elderflower but you can always up or lower the amounts according to your own taste.

Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad – serves four

1 whole chicken, jointed
4 large heads of elderflower, shaken gently to remove any bugs (do not wash), plus one extra head for a scattering of flowers at the end
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 glass of white wine
500ml of chicken stock
Scant squeeze of some lemon juice
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Handful of croutons (shop bought or homemade)
Large selection of salad leaves, washed and sliced (romaine is obviously a good choice but I’ve got loads of different types of lettuce growing at home and have used them for this dish. Little Gem, plain green lettuce and lollo rosso are all good)

Method

Take a large flat saucepan and place on a medium heat, add a splash of olive oil and then add the onion, celery and leek and sauté until soft. Then add the garlic and bay and stir through for another five minutes or so.

Whilst the vegetables are softening, season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and then fry off in another pan quickly to brown the skin and meat.


When the vegetables and herbs are soft and begin to caramelise, add the white wine and reduce right down. Then place the chicken pieces on top and nestle the elderflower in amongst them. Finally pour the chicken stock in and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cover and leave to gently poach and simmer for half an hour or until the chicken is cooked through.

Once cooked, remove the chicken pieces and set to one side to cool. Take the elderflower and bay leaf out of the cooking liquor and blitz the sauce in a food processor or blender. Take a clean saucepan and using a sieve to strain, pour the liquor in. Place the saucepan back onto the heat and reduce by two-thirds or until the sauce has the consistency of cream. Season to taste and stir in that scant squeeze of lemon juice. Don’t use too much otherwise it will overpower the flavour of the elderflower. Leave to cool.

When ready to eat, shred the chicken and place into a bowl, along with the croutons and salad leaves. Drizzle in a good share of the elderflower sauce, about three tablespoons and mix together thoroughly. Serve into four deep bowls and finish off with an extra drizzle of sauce in each one, followed a scattering of parsley and remaining elderflowers over the top.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Wine Urchin #4 - Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club


Mail order wine clubs in my honest opinion are notoriously bad ideas. I say this speaking from experience as I belonged to one in the past. Way back when, I used to have the Sunday Times delivered so that I might feel all grown up and sophisticated and middle clarse at the weekends and it would take me practically the whole week to wade through the bloody thing. But one day, enamored by the sound of rather a good deal, 12 bottles of wine for £1.09, or something like that, I decided to join the Sunday Times Wine Club.

The phone call was made whilst I was sat perched on the throne (because that's where the stack of Sunday Times papers were kept) and the operator gleefully took my debit card details, asking at the time whether I was in a tunnel because it sounded all 'echoe-y' in the background and within a day or two, a heavy box of clinking wine was delivered. All for the price of £3.62, or something like that.

Now, there is nothing more joyous than receiving a box of clinking wine for the first time. I think I ran straight away into the kitchen and ripped the cardboard asunder with my bare hands. I sort of recall chucking the flimsy folder and 'literature' that lay on top over my shoulder but I definitely remember staring down at 12 glorious circles, all different colours, all housed in cardboard squares. Because seeing that gave me the goosebumps. Yes, I remember that.

"We have a box of wine!!" I shouted up towards the stairs and immediately a flurry of footsteps came tumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen.

"Really? How much did this wine cost us?" cooed my wife, suspiciously.

"Oh I don't know. £6.45? Or something like that."

We then commenced to pull out all the bottles out, to marvel and squint at, perusing all the pretty labels and to ponder what the 'Mer-lot' might taste like and then made the momentous decision to open one straight away to try a glass. Which was a silly idea because really we should have been getting ready for work. It tasted lovely. Tasting of red wine, with those lovely red wine flavours that you associate with most red wines.

Fruity? Yes. Full-bodied? Yes. Bursting with profound and harmonious undercurrents of farmyard tillage? Absa-frigging-lutely. The words just came tumbling out. From where, I do not know. We skipped off to the train station very happy (and also very late for work) with a buzz of excitement still flowing through our veins and I announced to my wife through chattering stained teeth that we should have some friends over for the weekend. To share in all the glorious wine that had been graced upon us. All for £12.34, or something like that.

The 'boys', as they are known, came over. I cooked something poncy like asparagus and radicchio risotto, a bare morsel of a plate (barely enough to soak up any booze) and we got smashed. Totally smashed. The bottles just kept getting pulled out of the fridge and out of the cupboard without much care or attention, I am ashamed to say. We were just caught by the moment, an act of spontaneity and laughter brought on by the splurging and sloshing into tumblers. The 'boys', mindful of their pink pound, were delighted that apparently I only paid £27.17 for the wine (or something like that) and were adamant that they were going to join the club too. 

Before long we sunk 9 or so bottles and everything came to a grinding halt when I fell face down, fast asleep into a bowl of tiramisu bought in from Londis. Which was lucky because someone suggested playing 'Dance of the Seven Sheets' (a variation of the one with the veils, using toilet paper and a lighter instead) or otherwise things would have really got out of hand.

Anyway, and to cut a long story short, the 2 remaining bottles were squandered later in the week, probably mid-week, with ne'er a nod to provenance or style. It was just great that we had wine in the house. Lovely, delicious, alcoholic, winey wine. And thereafter, every month, we would receive another box and something similar in our approach to drinking the box would happen. Like every time. We drank it like demons but we never really 'appreciated' it.

Things came to head though when I did a bit of scrutinizing of our bank statements and discovered that the wine club we belonged to was charging us somewhere in the region of £120.00 a pop. Every month! What cads! Bar stewards even! I thought the wine was free or cheap or something like £39.99 at the very least. So for the sake of our finances and for the sake of our livers, I cancelled the poxy direct debit, got us booked into rehab and have never looked back. Nor have I ever been taken with the notion of wine clubs since. Because like I said, they really are bad ideas.

It was with some trepidation then that I accepted the chance to sample a box of wine from Berry Bros and Rudd, ancient merchants and purveyors of wine by appointment to Queen Liz. Knowing me and my wife's previous conviction for this sort of thing, it could have led to disaster. But we have grown up now and I am glad to report that we treated the wines with a lot more maturity and consideration. Well, a lot more than we might have done 14 years ago. 

The Bourne case represents the beginning of the rung for the Berry Bros wine club, being the most economical and is full of delicious everyday drinking wine. "Showcasing typical examples of different grapes and styles, the Bourne selection is an enjoyable way to develop your wine knowledge or simply to ensure you always have a stock of excellent bottles in your wine rack, ready to be opened any night of the week." Or so the blurb says. 

Coming with a very snazzy box folder full of information and guidance to tasting, the box contained 6 pairs of wine which we managed to quaff over an amazing 6 weeks. The reds featured a raspberry kissed Dolcetto from Italy, a plum ruby Carmenère from Chile and a gutsy blend from Côtes du Rhône that went brilliantly with a plate of bangers and mash. But it was the whites that impressed us the most. The 2012 St Véran, Domaine des Gerbeau was cracking, full of juicy fruit with a touch of acidity and restored a lot faith in Chardonnay. The classic dry white from the Yalumba Winery in the Barossa Valley, saaff Aw-straalia also danced merrily on the tongue, flitting between grassy notes and tropical fruit.

The big hit of the box however was the unpronounceable Cserszegi Fűszeres from the Frittmann brothers in Kunság, Hungary. I have only just started trying wines from this country, Tokaji being a recent and wonderful discovery and this slightly odd, crisp white really pumped my nads (as quoted by John Bender in The Breakfast Club). I say odd because it really was unlike any wine I've tried before. Bitter yet sweet in a dessert wine sorta stylee, it was still very punchy and refreshing. With spice on the nose. Gorgeous in fact and we had a big ol' row over who should get the last drop. In the end, I played the more gentlemanly and refined card by letting my wife have it, which shows at least that one of us has moved on. Cow.

So given past history and torrid associations with wine clubs, would I give Berry Bros a whirl and sign up? Yes I think I would. I might still splutter a bit at having the wallet hit for 120 sovs every two months (so £60 a month basically) but that is much better than the scheme I was on before. And  considering that we are able to spread things out these days, drinking wise, it would be nice to start building a collection. How mature would that be?

And then come Christmas, we could get well and truly ars*holed.