Crabcakes and Asparagus Ice Cream

Crabcakes

This is an update and review of a dish from my April Supper Club, held on the 17th. The next supper club date is Saturday the 9th of May. 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.
Lemongrass, coconut, coriander, green chilli. Fish sauce, ginger, soy. My Thai soup with mussels demanded a perfectly smooth sauce, which meant sieving out a heartbreaking amount of immensely flavoursome but slightly stringy pulp from my green curry sauce. Not until after I’d thrown the first batch of it away did I get the tip from a friend that this lumpy by-catch could be mixed with mashed potato and cooked crab for a fantastic green curry crabcake.

With cauliflower still in season and my previous pairing of it with seafood  in mind, I wanted to test out a non-potato binding for another type of crabcake. Adding cayenne and paprika and sumac gave the mixture a dark, red-brownish colour, and unable to pick a favourite between the green Thai or the red cauliflower crabcakes, I decided the colour contrast would justify putting both on the plate.

Asparagus ice cream

As with so many weird food trends, the blame for savoury ice cream lies with Heston Blumenthal and his infamous bacon and egg flavour frozen treat. Much as I adore Heston’s cuisine however, challenging my diners’ preconceptions isn’t usually my main goal. I was concerned that asparagus ice cream in a starter would be too much like a gimmick – like I’m trying to make a point of doing something wacky. So I was delighted when my guests recognised it for being just a really nice (if slightly unusual) combination of flavours, textures and temperatures.

The cream melting over the deep-fried crabcakes is like any cream sauce on seafood, except for being cold, which cuts through the spiciness of the crabcakes. Asparagus, especially when paired with salty samphire, is perfect with crustaceans or anything else from the sea. Sadly at this point we run into my mistake – not nearly enough asparagus flavour to the ice cream. So pungent when boiled or steamed, asparagus’ water-soluble flavour molecules are not taken up so well by fats and oils, and the cold seems to lock them away as well. The temperature and textural contrast of the ice cream worked great, but against the bold, spicy flavours of the crabcakes the asparagus flavour was much too mild.

Verdict

Ultimately, though I liked the taste of the spiced cauliflower crabcakes, I found it too hard to explain what they’re all about to want to serve them again. The thing I liked best was that they provided an alternative to the stodgy, flavour-absorbing mashed potato of a typical fishcake. The Thai green curry ones on the other hand were both delicious and well defined. My next experiment will be to use the same flavours but with a crab risotto (instead of mashed potato) to bind them, and a tempura batter rather than breadcrumbs. The asparagus ice cream will be back, bigger and stronger, and other savoury ices may make their way onto my non-dessert courses in the future.

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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Chicken Liver Pate

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There’s no accounting for taste. This goes double for delicacies. Don’t get me wrong – I like truffles, caviar and champagne just fine, but there’s no rational basis for the  abnormally high desirability that drives fish eggs, fungus and fizzy wine to their infamous price tags.
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For example, if you’d told me after the first time I’d tried them that chicken livers were an expensive delicacy, I’d easily believe it. And I could construct an explanation that makes sense: the quality most prized in meat seems to be tenderness – cuts like fillet steak and lamb cutlets run much dearer than brisket or shoulder. But in them, tenderness comes at the expense of flavour. Chicken livers, like most types of offal in fact, are both exceptionally tender and have a bold, distinctive flavour of their own. Plus you only get one liver, maybe a couple of ounces, per chicken. So if they taste amazing AND they’re limited availability – it makes perfect sense that they would be a rare delicacy with a price to match. I mean, if you had to pick one word to describe chicken liver pate, it would be “rich”.

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But no. Chicken livers are one of the cheapest cuts you can buy. And I don’t understand why. Are they difficult to prepare, or do they take a long time to cook? No, you can fry them and have them on toast with a sherry cream sauce inside of ten minutes – easier than a steak. Is it hard to turn them into something that both looks elegant and tastes luxurious? Nope – the pate recipe here is beautiful and almost dangerously simple. Are they slimy and disgusting to handle when raw? Well, yes, but that hasn’t stopped oysters from entering the echelon of extravagance, they have to be EATEN while they’re slimy, disgusting and raw.

Are chicken livers totally capable of being something completely decadent, a cut fit for a king at a price suitable for a pauper? Yes. I don’t know why they aren’t a delicacy. But I’m taking advantage.

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Beetroot-Cured Salmon

Salmon beetroot and orange zest cure

I never believed in love at first sight until this recipe. Call me shallow if you like, but I fell for the colours in this fish even before I had my first bite.

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Of course, colour is much more than just skin deep in this dish. I’m not just talking about how the beetroot cure seeping slowly into the flesh of the salmon leaves every opalescent slice with a crimson aura that fades into the salmon pink like a sunset over the sea. No – almost every ingredient in that we add to this salmon is marked by its relationship to a colour. The beetroot, infamous for its vibrant stain, is matched with zest of an orange – the fruit that takes such bold pride in its hue that they named the shade after it. The cure -BROWN sugar, BLACK peppercorns. (The dill, fresh and bright and grass-green though it may be, may be the exception that proves the rule). All of which makes pairing this salmon with inky caviar or slices of forest-green avocado almost irresistibly beautiful, combining the taste and appearance of a rainbow to the very idea of one.

Salmon beetroot and orange zest cure box

But there’s wisdom behind this beauty as well. The classic pairing of smoke and cured salmon is adored for its peaty darkness –  the earthy, fruity flavour of the beetroot combines to similar effect. The orange provides the indispensable citric squeeze for the salmon. Orange and beetroot also play surprisingly well off each other. There’s a famous dish-come-playful study in colour by Heston Blumenthal. He serves “Beetroot and Orange Jelly” with the mischievous recommendation to “eat the orange one first”. The orange one, of course, tastes of beetroot and the beetroot-red one tastes of oranges.

Salmon plated

This beetroot-cured salmon does not aim to confuse though, only to delight. A riot of colour both on the plate and behind the scenes. The first bite is with the eyes, but a whole feast that lies beyond that. It’s something special, any way that you slice it.

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