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.

Salmon and Saag Aloo

Salmon and Saag Aloo

It started with a fish.

I’d been looking for sea bass, but the sea bass were looking a bit fishy. My eye drifted over to the salmon, and I was hooked.IMG_0477

I came up with a plan:
Buy a whole salmon, fillet it myself. Preserve one side with a beetroot-cure and cook the other side for dinner tonight with nothing but a little salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon and maybe a bay leaf in the pan – just crispy skin and the essential flavours of the salmon.

But what did I want to serve it with?

A bowl of hot, buttery, new season potatoes, crushed by a fork and sprinkled with grassy chives and flakes of sea salt? Or a nest of wilted spinach – a bitter, dark-green, iron-y tang against the sweet, rich, blushing pink flesh of the salmon?

The answer obviously was both, but as soon as those two ingredients were in my head, my thoughts went to saag aloo. Melding spinach and potatoes with Indian flavours is the best thing I can think to do with either of those ingredients, let alone both, so I was sure it would be the perfect complement to the salmon.

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And it is.
Against a plainer accompaniment salmon can dominate a plate, but faced with the bold and spicy saag aloo it reveals the more delicate side of its fishy nature. At the last minute, I decided to add a vegetable fritter, which backed up the crispy salmon skin beautifully and brought the whole dish together.

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Salmon and Saag Aloo

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Red and Green Slaw

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Far from the anonymous, bland mess that is your average coleslaw, this slaw tastes as bright and vibrant as it looks. The recipe is based on one by the good people at Pitt Cue, who started out cooking from a smoker in a trailer and now run what’s probably my favourite restaurant in London.

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There’s a lot of different ingredients in this slaw and it’s very easy to leave something out, either through forgetfulness or having run out of supplies. And it’s not going to make it a bad dish, but there’s a big difference between a slaw being genuinely impressive in it’s own right and it being just a nice side order. The capers and the cornichons, for example, give little pops of salty, briney flavour whenever you find one. The coriander seeds crunch explosively with a burst of floral perfume. The orange of the carrots and the green of the coriander leaves set off the colour of the purple cabbage.

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The beating heart of this dish though is the red cabbage, apple and ginger combination. This slaw lives to go with pork, especially the pulled pork from my last blog post (another Pitt Cue inspired recipe).

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Pulled Pork

 

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I am absolutely nuts for pulled pork, but I don’t cook it that often. Mostly this is because the way I do it makes it one of the most impractical things to cook. Not because it’s difficult to do, but more because it’s logistically ridiculous. My method requires:

  • About five kilos of pork
  • About 18 hours of cooking
  • Dragging the barbecue out of the shed
  • Topping up a wood burning fire every 30 minutes
  • Enduring the inevitable rain that is magnetically attracted to barbecues
  • Picking about 4kg of pork off the bones and shredding it by hand
  • Mixing in a vat of bbq sauce (which needs making as well)
  • Half a fridge shelf to store it

And then, since I’ve got a hell of a lot of meat and live on my own:

  • A commitment to eat nothing but pulled pork for a week.

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So, there are a few sensible reasons to make this more of an occasional treat rather than a regular thing. And then there’s the issue of the chorizo madness.

In 2011, I was working at probably the most profitable four-and-a-half square metres of the whole of Borough Market: the barbecue chorizo sandwich stall at Brindisa. And while I loved working in the food mecca of the world’s greatest city, I did not always love working on my own all day for three out of five days of the week. Between the solitude and the monotony of cutting 86,000 odd pieces of chorizo, I may have gone a little bit nuts. I won’t give you all the gory details, but just as an example: once during prep someone asked me for the time and rather than look at my watch I just counted how many boxes of chorizo I had cut (4 1/2 boxes at 9 minutes per box) and correctly told him it was 4:42pm. I was diagnosed by my coworkers with chorizo madness – a disorder caused by working on the barbecue stand too long – shortly after this event.

As you can see, spending a lot of time on my own with a vast amount of spicy, barbecue-cooked pork has not always been a positive thing for my sanity.

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The chorizo stand was also where my love of barbecue started. One of the things I did to distract myself was slow cook joints of meat next to the coals. There’s something insanely great about the smokey flavours that infuse over the long cooking time.

Smoking, for me, is the real barbecue technique. Grilling is fine, but smoking meat just takes it to the next level. Instead of the intense, direct heat from the charcoal, the meat cooks off to the side in the warm smokey air from a scattering of damp wood chips on the coals. It’s more challenging, and requires a maddening amount of patience and more than a little trial and error to get the low, even heat just right. But there’s just nothing quite like it.

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Could I make my method a bit more practical? Possibly. Am I going to? Nope. Aside from the fact that I actually kinda enjoy making things a little bit challenging for myself, pulled pork is already dangerously tasty and a threat to my mental health. Making it easy to cook would give it more power than any dish should wield.

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Sweet Cured, Slow Roast Pork: Tips for Geeks

See the original recipe here

Pork belly curing

The effects of the curing process that I use in this recipe is not easy to understand. In fact it is highly counter-intuitive. The meat ends up MORE moist and tender, even thought the cure draws out water and firms up the meat.

The reason for this is that as the chloride ions from the salt penetrate the meat, it causes a change to the proteins in the meat that bind the water to the flesh more tightly, and resists the shrinking of muscle fibres that would force water out when cooking. For more information on this, see Modernist Cuisine, vol 3, p154
In theory, brining meat in a solution of salt and sugar should be even more moist than the dry-rub curing I use in this recipe, as the dry rub draws water out by osmosis, whereas the brine would not. However, I cannot support this theory – testing out two pieces of pork cut from the same belly, one dry cured similarly to above and one brined, I found the dry cure tastier and more succulent.
The role of sugar in the cure to balance the taste of the salt. Much as with the brining issue, I can find no support in books I read for a cure with as high a ratio of sugar to salt as I use here (2 parts sugar to 1 part salt). Modernist Cuisine, for instance, has their SWEET dry rub at a 1:2 ratio – twice as much salt as sugar, 4 times as salty as my cure. That’s the ratio I use for my SALTY cure (when I make bacon, for instance). As I say, I cannot account for the dramatic divergence between my use of sugar and what is used by apparently everyone else – I can only assure you that it’s not a typo: twice as much sugar as salt is my recipe, and I have tested a range of cures to find the best one for this purpose.

Pork belly (raw)

Although I call it “slow roast”, the proper term for this dish would be “pot-roast” or “braised”. Although it’s simple to put meat, liquid and possibly some vegetables in a pot, put a lid on it, and leave it alone for a few hours, from a scientific point of view, a pot-roast is remarkably complex. It uses convention, conduction, radiation, as well as both wet and dry heat.

The liquid keeps the meat and the air around the meat moist.  It also (and more importantly) it keeps the food from scorching by quenching any hot spots that occur on the base of the pot. This does not require a lot of liquid, and it’s better not to use more than required – if you use too much, the meat will boil rather than braise, and will lose it’s flavour into the liquid. Some flavour does of course go into the liquid, making it into a sauce that you can serve with the meat or reserve for use in another dish.

Covering the pot with a tight-fitting lid has a number of effects. Radiant heat from the lid causes the meat to brown (Malliard reactions), which creates great flavour. The lid also stops those flavours from escaping into the air. And by trapping the moisture in the pot, the meat cooks more quickly (because moist air conducts head better than dry air – “it’s not the heat it’s the humidity”) and dries out less because evaporation is reduced by the air already being full of moisture. For these reasons, if you don’t have a lid and have to resort to a foil cover, try to get the tightest fit you can with it.

Roasting juices

Skimming a sauce is to remove the oil/fat from the water-based portion of the sauce. Because oil and water don’t mix and the latter is more dense, the oil will “float” on top of the water, if you leave the sauce to settle for a minute. You can “skim” this off with a spoon by dipping it carefully into the oily layer and scooping it out one spoonful at a time (if you do so, you may find it easier to use a less wide container for the liquid as this will increase the depth of the oil layer).
However, a much easier and more effective way is to put the sauce in a pint glass or a pyrex measuring jug and put it in the fridge (glass will allow you to see the two layers clearly). As it cools to fridge temperature, the fat in the sauce will set solid at the top and can be scooped out. If there is enough gelatin in the water-based layer, it may also set solid.

I recommend not using the skin of the pork for this recipe. It’s not really possible to get a satisfying crackling to come up, so the skin will either be rubbery and flacid or hard and leathery. You can ask your butcher to remove it, or you can take it off yourself with a sharp knife while raw, which is not very hard but does requires some patience. This allows you to use the skin for another recipe (like pork rinds, or to enrich a stock/stew). Alternatively, if you’re short on time and did not have the butcher remove it, you can cook the pork up to right before the glazing stage, and remove the skin easily from the tender meat at this point.

Sweet cured pork belly cut

Pork belly often comes with the belly ribs in. If you wish, you can bone out the ribs/have your butcher do it for you. Then you have a rack of ribs which you can cook any way you like. Personally though, I tend to leave the ribs in when I cook the pork, and cut them off at the end of the cooking time (the meat is very tender so this is easy). The ribs are a chefs treat – ugly, but delicious. There is a certain amount of cartilage to watch out for though, which you CAN eat, but it has an al dente kind of mouthfeel that I personally find quite unpleasant.

As with most pork recipes, if you like fennel or aniseed-y flavours, add some fennel seeds or star anise to the rub or to the glaze. Please don’t make me eat it though – I can’t stand the taste of aniseed.

Sweet Cured, Slow Roast Pork

Pork belly sliced closeup

As we’re now into the second week of January, I guessing that it’s safe to assume that everyone has abandoned all resolutions of eating better and getting healthy, correct? Excellent, because I’m here to talk to you about pork belly. Anyone still labouring under delusions of virtue, don’t worry, this post will still be here when you rejoin us.

Pork belly unglazed pot roast

For those still with me, here’s why I think that this is an entirely appropriate time of year to be eating sticky, unctuous, sweet cured pork belly: In almost all cultures, the darkest part of winter is marked by some sort of festival that revolves around a meat-laden feast. A big practical reason for this is that, historically, surplus livestock needed to be slaughtered while they were still fat from the autumn harvest in order to save having to feed them with the dwindling winter stores. And when you’ve got a whole pig or a whole cow that needs eating, might as well invite the neighbours round to give you a hand and make a party out of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that shortly after all the good food is eaten and gone comes the date for making resolutions to eat less.

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If it’s to last more than a couple of weeks, the meat would have needed cured to keep it edible. And my god is it edible – the curing process draws out water and concentrates the porky flavour. This is what makes bacon a sacrament rather than just mere food. What once was done out of necessity, now is done for flavour.

The striations of fat in the pork belly gives it a self-basting quality that makes it my favourite cut not just of pork but possibly of any animal at all. And this is the best way I know to cook it – supercharged with the flavours from the cure, honey glazed and slow cooked to create a sweet, sticky, meltingly tender slab of meat. Continue reading “Sweet Cured, Slow Roast Pork”

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

 

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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”