Strawberry Custard Tart

Served as part of my June Supper Club menu, on the 5th and 13th of June.IMG_0652IMG_0831

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This last photo is from Medley Manor Farm, on the inside of a rustic little shack where you weigh and pay for your pick-your-own strawberries. It’s a quote on the topic of strawberries from Reverend John Fuller, circa the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and it reads “Doubtless God could have made a better berry. But doubtless God never did.”

What more can you say?

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Picking your own strawberries is one of the more agreeable ways to spend a sunny afternoon in June. However if you spend as much as a whole afternoon picking, you’re liable to end up with an infeasibly vast amount of strawberries – these are quite literally easy pickings and 15 or 20 minutes is long enough to snag a kilo or so (about 2 large punnets).

There’s not much of a saving in picking strawberries yourself compared to buying at the supermarket. The real benefit is in quality. Strawberries are at their sweetest and most flavoursome when they’re perfectly ripe – but they don’t pack or travel so well at this point because they’re so soft. As such, to look good on a supermarket shelf, strawberries are bred and picked for firmness over flavour. Fresh from the field you can handpick and lovingly transport home only the reddest, ripest, juiciest, most yielding and tender berries, and the few that get bruised on the way home are acceptable jammy casualties for the privilege of what you’re about to eat.

My strawberry custard tart is my attempt to celebrate the berry that God did not trouble Himself to improve upon. I blind bake an almond shortcrust pastry shell – first with beans until it will hold its shape and then open and empty until golden brown, at about 190 C. With the tart shell still in the oven, I pour in hot custard from a jug right up to the brim, and turn the oven right down to 100 C and let the custard slowly cook, without browning the pastry any further, until it sets with only the barest wobble to indicate the creamy unctuousness below its surface. The strawberries, hulled and quartered, are sprinkled with caster sugar and just a few drops of balsamic vinegar to macerate in their own juices for a hour or two until the tart has cooked and cooled down, and then arranged across a slice like a bright red slash with a few leaves of basil or mint from the garden to garnish. I also use this combination of strawberries, basil and balsamic vinegar in one of my favourite ice cream flavours. I make a basil ice cream by infusing the cream with fresh-cut basil for three days. I cut strawberries quite small and drizzle with balsamic and sugar before roasting them gently in the oven to dry out and concentrate the flavour. After churning the basil ice cream until almost completely set, I swirl in way, way too many of the diced strawberries, and reserve in the freezer for a few hours. Sometimes there’s even some left by dinnertime.

Gold Bar

IMG_1568People are surprised to learn that I don’t watch a lot of cooking television these days, but four years ago when I was in Sydney I had a real soft spot for Masterchef Australia. One episode had contestents running around New York to cook three different dishes from three different multi-Michelin starred restaurants. This challenge was the first time I ever heard of Paul Liebrandt or ever saw Gold Bar, and it’s been stuck on my mind ever since.

The recipe was never revealed on the show, not even if you pause the video and advance it frame by frame, but I did find a blog post by a kindred (ie: lunatic) spirit who had tried to recreate the dish from the list of its elements. Gold bar is:

  • A pressee biscuit base layer
  • A layer of salted dulce du leche caramel
  • A layer of chocolate cremeaux
  • A coating of chocolate glacage (aka: chocolate mirror icing)
  • A pair of cocoa dentelles
  • And a few flecks of edible gold leaf

Continue reading “Gold Bar”

March Supper Club

This is an update and review of my March Supper Club, held on the 7th of March.
The next supper club date is Friday the 17th of April (changed from Monday 6th). To attend, please email me at smokeandthyme@gmail.com, letting me know how many guests you’d like to bring, a contact phone number and any special dietary requirements I need to be aware of. The menu changes every month and the price is pay-what-you-want.

Scallops with Bacon and Roasted Cauliflower Puree

Although this dish kicked off the meal, it was actually the last that I decided on. I’d kept the budget well under control for the main and dessert courses, so I had some room to splash out on this one. One of those ingredients that I truly love but can only occasionally afford are scallops.

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Though mild, scallops are often paired with very bold flavours. My former partner Finn had told me years ago about a dish he served with scallops and a cauliflower puree. When I worked at Borough Market, Shellseekers Fishmongers served scallops with bacon and onions in their own shells. After a quick test of roasting up and blending a cauliflower, I knew how I wanted to go – a dollop of spiced cauliflower puree in a scallop shell, a sautéed scallop and a garnish of diced crispy bacon and fresh coriander.

One of my guests suggested adding saffron to this dish. Although I’m not a great fan of saffron myself, I think in this case it would go really well in the roasted cauliflower puree. The other blindingly obvious addition that I can’t believe I forgot was a squeeze of lemon – both the scallop and the cauliflower would have been enhanced by this. Other than that, I think this dish both presents and tastes beautiful, and I’d definitely do it again.

 

Roast Beef with Blue Cheese Butter and Bone Marrow Mash

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I had bought a piece of beef almost a month ago to experiment with dry-aging. Good beef can be hung for anywhere between three weeks and two months, but it’s an expensive process because it loses weight and requires space and attention. The results however are well worth it.

Silverside isn’t one of my favourite cuts, but I got a bargain on a really well marbled piece. I kept it on a wire rack to help the air circulate and kept an eye on it until I thought it looked ready, which fortunately turned out to be right before the date for this supper club. Cutting off a slice and frying it up, I decided that it was a bit tough to do a steak, but the flavour was really good (a common tradeoff). So I decided to roast the beef and slice it extra thin, letting my knife rather than my guests’ teeth do the work.

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Choosing what to serve with the beef was less about coming up with ideas and more about narrowing them down. Bone marrow mash (from the Pitt Cue cookbook and sold on the name alone), blue cheese butter (a pick from Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection series), caramelised onions (because caramelised onions), and gravy made the final list. The picture in my head of the plate I wanted didn’t have anywhere for veg, but I decided a big bowl of braised cabbage on the table would finish things off nicely.

Verdict: I knew that this one was always going to be a crowd pleaser, but my concern was that it wouldn’t look or be sophisticated enough to fit with the rest of the meal. Turned out I needn’t have worried – this dish looked elegant and the flavours were comforting and traditional but still complex. I liked the table dish of cabbage – it kept the plate presentation delicate while adding to the community feeling of the night. I loved the slick of blue cheese butter on top of the beef, but I think that next time I might mix the blue cheese with the marrow and put those two great flavours right up front, and let the buttery mash stand for itself, or even substitute it for a parsnip dauphinoise or just some more of that fantastic cabbage.

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Mint and Candied Pistachio Ice Cream

When I’m looking for things that will go well together, I often try to find something in common that they share. This can be a flavour, a season, or a location, or in the case of this dessert, a colour. Pistachio and mint are not just green, they are famously green – they’re shades-on-the-Dulux-chart green. And in an ice cream parlour, they’re the green ones. This is what was in my head when I decided to try pairing them. I also decided that, rather than the homogenised and occasionally grainy texture of pistachio ice cream, I would preserve and enhance the crunchiness of the pistachios by coating them in a hard crack sugar syrup, rather like a boiled sweet

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Another thing that mint and pistachio share, at least in my mind, is a Middle Eastern connection. Baklava – the combination of nuts, sugar syrup and filo pastry, accompanies mint tea. Just a couple of weeks ago when I was cooking Paul Liebrandt’s Gold Bar dessert, I was struck by the crossover potential of one of the elements of the dessert – the crepe dentelles. These fine, flaky, brittle sheets are halfway between pastry and sugar work, taste like a super rich and buttery version of an ice cream cone, and a stack of flat squares perched atop a scoop of ice cream reminded me of baklava. The connection was irresistible to me – the dentelle would not overshadow the ice cream that I felt really deserved to be the star of the dish, but would enhance it and tease at the baklava connection that I had already made in my mind.

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After testing this dish out, frankly I just loved it. Elegant, simple, clever, sophisticated yet easy to make, this was probably the dish of the night for me. Immediately my mind was spinning off into other flavours of ice cream with a Middle Eastern theme – orange, cardamom and ginger, lemon, honey and pistachio, pomegranate and rosewater – watch this space.
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Lamb Casserole

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Sometimes a simple thing stays with you. This blog is meant to be for my own ideas, but I can’t talk about my dish without first telling you about a byriani that’s been living in my head for a while now.IMG_0057

It was from a London restaurant called The Dock Kitchen (I don’t review restaurants but I urge you to go there if you get the chance). One of their specialities is a lamb byriani that surprised and amazed me.

It has to be ordered for at least two people, and the price will be more than you’ve ever thought of paying for a bowl of rice and meat. It comes to the table in an earthenware pot that’s been sealed with a dough lid baked golden brown, anointed with rosewater and garnished with a tiny square of gold leaf on it – an extravagant touch that screams “this is valuable!” and does quite a bit to reframe your perception of a dish made from a cheap cut of meat. You also get a small platter of cashew nuts, pomegranate seeds, rose petals, crispy onions and coriander leaves, as well as a copper saucepan of rich, thick sauce. You crack the bread seal with a spoon as if it were a hard boiled egg and serve yourself from the pot of slow cooked lamb nestled within the saffron rice. And beautiful as all of that is, none of that is the reason I can’t forget this dish.

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After eating too many stewed dishes where the meat was either undercooked and chewy, or was tender but had lost all its flavour to the sauce, I’d all but given up on casseroles with long cooking times. I thought the tradeoff was inevitable for these cuts – “Cheap for a reason” I’d told myself, and if I wanted better I’d just have to pay more. My first bite of this byriani did not merely prove me wrong, it completely blew my mind. Each piece of lamb was so tender you could have cut it with a spoon, but the flavour was still there in the meat itself.

It’s the simple things.

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Once I knew that the tradeoff was not inevitable, I was determined not to resign myself to it, and I slow cooked lamb over and over until I figured out how to get it right. This recipe is not a re-creation of The Dock Kitchen’s byriani, but it is heavily inspired by my memory of it.
Continue reading “Lamb Casserole”

Pickles

Pickles both JarsI’ve missed a couple of posts in the last few weeks, and I want to apologise for that. Truth is, the season’s been getting me down. Short, dark, cold, wet days stretching endlessly before me have bummed me out and put me off even cooking, let alone writing about it.

It was in this state of mind that my thoughts turned to alchemy. By which I mean pickling. Which are one and the same thing, as I will explain.

It’s not merely that both the shared paraphernalia of bottles, jars, flames, potions, acids, powders and so on. The two most sought-after goals of the alchemists were to transform base metals into gold, and to create an elixir of everlasting life. On both counts they were legendarily fruitless. But picklers can create a liquor that will preserve a vegetable for long after it’s lifetime should have expired.

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Saving food through the bleak winter times used to be an important and challenging endeavour. For months and months, what little that grew was insufficient to maintain life. Food had to be diligently dried, cured, confited, smoked, fermented, frozen, potted or pickled as a matter of survival. In modern times the imperative for this kind of preservation have largely passed. But the sweetened sharpness of the vinegary pickling liqueur doesn’t merely preserve – it improves and enhances as well.

And so the second goal of the alchemists is achieved, when we turn a humble cucumber (a gourd of base and common flavour) into a repository of gustatory sunlight merely shaped like a vegetable. The difference between picking and alchemy? Success.

Pickles plated closeup

It’s these simple delights that keep you going through a depressing season. Pickling used to be a life-or-death matter for surviving winter. But this winter, it’s been preserving me as well.

Pickled Cucumber and Radishes

  • ~300g of cucumbers and radishes (or onions, celeriac, cauliflower, cabbage etc).
  • 300g Vinegar
  • 200g Water
  • 100g Sugar
  • 3g (1/2 tsp) Salt
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • A few sprigs of dill

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Slice vegetables as per your preference and reserve in sealable containers.
Combine vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and spices in a small non-reactive saucepan. Bring to the boil and immediately remove from the heat and allow to cool, whisking briefly to ensure all the sugar has dissolved. Once cool, pour over vegetables, add herbs and keep in the fridge. The pickles will get better as they steep for several days, and should last months in the fridge.

Serve with chicken liver pate, with cheese and crusty bread, or with meaty sandwich.

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Tips for Geeks

Will be going up in a separate post tomorrow – I’m playing around with the format of these posts just a little.

Un-Roast Chicken

Sliced breast and ballotine

There’s no meal more perfect than a classic roast chicken for Sunday lunch with blah blah tradition family gravy blah.

The legal requirement of anyone writing about roast chicken to recollect food memories and discurse on the essence of tradition and family dinners. It is left to authorial prerogative to decide whether it was a mother or a grandmother accountable for roasting the bird, and we get to select your own unique method for getting the impeccably crispy skin or the most succulent meat – popular choices include basting and an internally applied lemon.
The cold hard truth is that the Arcadian ideal of roast chicken lingers large in the memory but lacks a little in reality.

Chicken jointed

Lets break it down.

Chicken, like every other animal, has a number of different cuts that are all cooked best in completely different ways. The largest cuts of chicken are the breast, which is a lean, tender cut that doesn’t need a lot of cooking, and the legs, which are tougher, fattier, and are best cooked for longer at a low temperature. This means that by the time the legs of your chicken have completed roasting, the breast is dry and overdone.

“Dry and overdone” is what everyone has been drilled to learn is the minimum standard that poultry should be cooked to, but this conventional wisdom is safe to discard. On health grounds, there is no scientific justification to treat poultry differently from any other meat. Perfectly cooked chicken (with an internal temperature around the 60-65C mark) should be illegal only because it is so delicious.

Breast vac packed

To get roast chicken right, some traditional methods are going to be replaced by modern technique and technology. The bird isn’t going to make it to the table in one piece – we’ll be disassembling it. And technically speaking, we’re not going to be “roasting” anything, but rather cooking it sous vide in a temperature controlled water bath. But if that mythic memory of the perfect roast chicken can ever be truly replicated, this is the closest I’ve come to it.

We’re keeping the stuffing though. Some traditions are sacred.

Continue reading “Un-Roast Chicken”

Onglet Steak with Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Stilton, Walnuts and Onion Marmalade

Steak skillet quarter moonThis dish is my hero. Packed with potent flavours. Delivery like a punch in the mouth. A veteran of the Sun and 13 Cantons pop-up, the strong performance of this steak dish saved us from ruin by being a lion for our sales targets.

Anyone who doesn’t think veg can be macho hasn’t met purple sprouting broccoli. A vegetable so tough its outdoor season starts in January. My outdoor season doesn’t start til late March, and that’s with a coat on. Broccoli goes so well with beef because it shares in bloody steak’s bitter-iron taste.

My steak cut of choice is onglet. It’s from a muscle involved in breathing, so it works hard all day, building character with every breath the cow takes. It can be tough, but it also has a tender side waiting to be brought out. Cooked medium rare or less and sliced against the grain it will melt in your mouth. Best of all, as a lesser known cut, it’s half the price of sirloin.

My true blue love is creamy Gorgonzola, but I’m cheating on it here for crumbly Stilton, the romantic hero of this piece. It melts in the arms of the broccoli, but stays full bodied and bold throughout the dish.

In fact, this dish isn’t just one hero – it’s a team of heroic ingredients, and combined they are more powerful than they ever were alone.

Onglet with PSB, Stilton, walnuts and onion marmalade

Serves 2-4

Steak dish angle close up

 

Continue reading “Onglet Steak with Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Stilton, Walnuts and Onion Marmalade”

Leek and Wild Mushroom Fricassee

Leek and wild mushroom fricassee

Folklore says that stepping inside a fairy ring, a ring of wild mushrooms, leaves one in thrall to the illusions of the the fairies who built it. Now I might not be superstitious, and I certainly don’t think that the fantastic flavour of this dish is just an illusion, but if garnishing my plate with a ring of wild mushrooms might give me a helping hand from the supernatural, I’m not about to pass up the chance.

This is a dish that, appropriately enough, has mushroomed into my life – coming out of nowhere and rapidly expanding in size and scope until I ended up cooking it for thirty two people on Thursday, in two separate gigs. In this great but slightly busy past week that I’ve had, I’ve cooked and tweaked this fricassee at least eight times, so I reckon I’ve got it down.

“Fricassee” isn’t the most familiar of culinary terms, but it’s an elemental preparation in classic French cuisine. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child describes it as midway between a sauté and a stew. A stew starts with liquid from the beginning, a sauté cooks “dry” – with fat or oil only. A fricassee starts off pan frying in the same way as a sauté, but then adds a liquid to continue cooking as a stew does.

As I mentioned in my previous post, leeks are in season right now, and this is probably my favourite way to prepare them. Leeks can be a stringy mass if underdone, or a sulky mush if they’re overcooked, but fricasseeing allows for a lot of control and a wide margin for error.

Because it’s creamy, delicate and saucy (yet substantial), when I’m not just eating it on its own I like to pair leek fricassee with white meats and white wines. It goes exceptionally well with slow roast pork belly, and at my pop-up we served it with a stuffed chicken ballotine. It also makes an exquisite pasta sauce, especially if you add a fried handful of lardons and use the rendered bacon fat to sauté the mushrooms.

Fricassee close up

Leek and Wild Mushroom Fricassee

Serves 3-4 Continue reading “Leek and Wild Mushroom Fricassee”

Crispy Leek and Celeriac fritters (and tips for deep frying)

Towering

Quick message: I’m looking for some volunteers to try next week’s dishes. Get in touch if you’re free in Oxford on Saturday November 2nd.

I love this dish because it’s a simple preparation can be deployed against almost anything lurking in the veg drawer. Previously, this was a courgette and onion fritter dish. And that was adapted from a spring onion bhaji recipe. I’ve done it with carrots, with parsnips, I’ve used the batter to coat slices of aubergine, and to bind little balls of cauliflower and sweetcorn. This time of year, leeks and celeriac are at their best, and they go really nicely together.

The vegetables are pretty interchangeable though – its the batter which is the key. It takes all of about five minutes to make, binds the vegetables together, protects them against the heat of the deep fryer and turns golden brown and crispy in the process.

Deep frying gets a bad rep for being unhealthy, inconvenient, or even dangerous to do. Because of this, its a method that most people don’t do that often, so they don’t feel confident that they know what they’re doing, they don’t get right every time, and therefore tend not to bother with. But deep frying is not to be ignored as a technique – its just too damn tasty. So I’m going to take some time in the Tips for Geeks section to talk about how to do it right.

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Crispy Leek and Celeriac Fritters

Serves 4-8

It almost seems absurd to give quantities for this recipe, as I always just make it by eye. However… Continue reading “Crispy Leek and Celeriac fritters (and tips for deep frying)”