Greenmarket tasting menu

IMG_9364UPDATE: View the full menu with photos here

Announcing a new upcoming event from Smoke and Thyme: The Greenmarket Tasting Menu. A seven course tasting menu based around local & seasonal fruit and vegetables. Over 90% of the produce for this night is grown within a day’s walk of where it’s being served, selected at its peak and cooked in the way that shows it off at its absolute best.

In a world where supermarkets can ship your asparagus from Peru and your strawberries from Spain, there’s no need to follow the seasons anymore. But constant availability comes at the cost of losing touch with what grows close to us and when it’s at its best. A sad result of the loss of quality that comes from picking produce for its ability to travel instead of for its taste, is that too often, vegetables get treated just as a supporting player on a plate where meat or fish is the star.

IMG_9352This tasting menu is completely suitable for vegetarians, and includes vegan alternatives for any dish that isn’t vegan already. You may have read my blog post about why I love cooking for vegetarians, and this night has definitely been inspired by the fantastic experiences I’ve had developing meat-free dishes for my supper clubs. It’s not just for vegetarians though – it’s for anyone who wants to celebrate the fact that during the summer and autumn, we have loads of amazing produce grown in allotments, gardens and farms all within a handful of miles of Oxford. 

I’m planning to run several dates with this menu throughout June and July. Click here to view available dates, or sign up for the mailing list to be the first to know about all new events. 

Buttermilk Onion Rings

Onion RingsSoaking in buttermilk makes these onion rings meltingly tender, and the polenta gives them a nice crunch.

I’ve also found that replacing the plain flour with gram flour is a pretty cheap and easy way to win you the love and adoration of gluten-free friends and family, without making the onion rings any less delicious.

What you need

  • About 1 large onion per 2 people
  • 300ml buttermilk
  • About 150g of plain flour or gram flour
  • 1 tsp polenta
  • Generous pinch of salt and pepper
  • Cayenne powder to taste (optional)

Continue reading “Buttermilk Onion Rings”

Smoky red pepper & sweetcorn soup

Roasted pepper and smoked sweetcorn soup

At my supper clubs, I always offer alternatives for people with dietary requirements, but I don’t want anyone looking across the table and seeing something they wish they could have had. So for any alternative dish on my menu, my rule is that it has to be fundamentally similar to (and as good as) the dish that it’s based on. It’s a rule that can sometimes be trying, but occasionally it pays dividends. This soup is one of those dividends.

I’d just been dazzled by a smoky bacon and sweetcorn veloute at the Oxford Kitchen and I was looking to steal the idea for an upcoming supper club. However, for a vegetarian guest I also needed a meat-free alternative. I remembered the blackened skins of my wood-oven-roasted red peppers and thought, with their smokiness, they might make a passable substitute for the bacon. But I was wrong. They were miles better.

In the end, I didn’t bother serving or even making the bacon version, but this smoky red pepper and sweetcorn soup has appeared on more than one supper club menu, and frequently gets cited as people’s favourite dish of the night. It’s my favourite too, because it reminds me of the incredible opportunity that can exist within the challenge of having to come up with alternatives.

 

Recipe

  • 4 to 6 red peppers
  • 2 heads of corn on the cob
  • Salt, white pepper and lemon juice to taste
  • Smoked paprika and/or cayenne (optional)

Blacken the peppers over a direct heat on a barbecue, directly over a gas flame or under the grill. Keep turning them until the skin blisters and is black and burnt all over.

Take the peppers off and allow to cool. When they cold enough to handle, peel off the burnt skin. Trim the tops off the peppers and scoop out the seedy core.

Toast the sweetcorn well all over. Cut the kernels from the cob and blend kernels and peppers with 1 to 2 cups of water.

Parse through a fine sieve and discard the pulp.

Season with salt, white pepper and lemon juice to taste. Add cayenne if you like it spicier or smoked paprika if you like it smokier. Serve hot as an amuse bouche or a stunning starter, or chilled with a dash of vodka as a souped-up Bloody Mary.

Strawberry Custard Tart

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

IMG_0638 IMG_1595

IMG_0815IMG_0790IMG_0796

IMG_0799

IMG_0795

IMG_0791 IMG_0672 IMG_0878IMG_0836IMG_0398IMG_0807    IMG_0797 IMG_0800IMG_0798    IMG_0810 IMG_0868      IMAG0434

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?

——–

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.

Red and Green Slaw

IMG_0393

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.

IMG_0380

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.

IMG_0384

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).

Continue reading “Red and Green Slaw”

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.

IMG_9683

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

IMG_9692

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.

Ploughman's lunch

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.

How I Learned to Love Cooking for Vegetarians

I’d like to break from my usual format and take a moment to talk about every chef’s least favourite species: vegetarians. I think most chefs I know would rather eat a vegetarian than cook for one. Only the well-done steak eater inspires more contempt.

This has to stop. IMG_9364 Firstly, I feel it’s important to mention that I am not a vegetarian. I eat meat or fish almost every day. I adore bacon fat and chicken stock and sirloin steak. And until about 10 months ago, I did not give a damn about vegetarians or vegetarian food. But now I spend more time thinking about the vegetarian options for my menus than almost anything else.

What changed? Basically, someone asked me what vegetarian options we were planning to serve at our pop-up restaurant. Before I could answer, another vegetarian piped up about the time she went to a really top notch restaurant and got served a stuffed pepper, again. Which caused the first to start telling me how sick she was of having to eat goats cheese tart or mushroom bloody risotto every time. At which point I crossed “goats cheese tart” “mushroom risotto” and “some sort of stuffed pepper” off my list of vegetarian food ideas. Which didn’t leave me with much of anything to answer that question with. IMG_9352 I went away and I talked to and cooked for vegetarians and came up with new ideas. I tried to learn what vegetarians actually like to eat. Frustratingly, it turned out they all like seem to like different things – almost as if they’re a group of individuals who enjoy creativity and imagination in their food and have a range of tastes and preferences instead of being one homogeneous group. Overwhelmingly though, I heard about disappointment with the standard of vegetarian food they get when they go out, and the impression that chefs and restaurants don’t really care about doing right by them.

It became clear to me that I was going to need to work a lot harder on this branch of my cooking. At least as hard as I was working on everything else. I decided that my vegetarian dishes wouldn’t be coming with a side of apologies, that they would be striving for quality and originality and inspiration just like anything else. I decided that, if I wouldn’t want eat it, if I wouldn’t be proud to serve it, if it’s not just as good as any other dish it sits alongside, it’s not going on the menu. IMG_9355 Sometimes, I find this a pain, because it’s complicated and it’s difficult, and because I really want to get it right. But in the last ten months I’ve reframed it from the pain of something that’s a nuisance to the pain of something that’s a challenge.

Every chef I know will pride himself on his ability to whip up something extraordinary under challenging conditions. The electricity went out in the kitchen. A table of fifteen just arrived and they want one of everything on the menu. No one prepped any chips this morning. The kitchen porter AND the commis chef didn’t turn up for work today. Everyone came back to my place after the pub and they’re all hungry and I’ve got nothing in the cupboard but a can of chickpeas. Each of these scenarios is the start of a story that ends with the chef who’s telling it making the. best. damn. thing you’ve ever tasted and guess who’s God’s gift to cooking. But I’ve never heard a story that began with “three vegetarians walked into a gastropub” and doesn’t end up with everyone feeling disappointed. IMG_9360 A brief manifesto then: You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to please everyone. But if you are a chef who doesn’t care about your ability to cook vegetarian food that’s as good or better than any other dish that you cook… then you do not have my respect as a chef.

Ratatouille

Ratatouille cooked dishThe most powerful thing a dish can do is to take you back in time.

The ratatouille in the Pixar film of the same name transports a jaded restaurant critic back to his mother’s kitchen when he was a boy. Like Proust’s madelaines, this simple peasant dish turns out to have its hooks in a very personal past.

The version of the ratatouille in the movie was developed by Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry. In turn, his dish is based on the ratatouille confit byaldi created by Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, which broke with the old traditions and has been broken from again since. The name comes from an old Turkish dish of stuffed aubergine called “Imam bayaldi” – because when he tasted the dish “the Imam fainted”.

The history this dish has in both haute cuisine and peasant fare, in great and unknown chefs, and in movie-makers, restaurant critics and holy men – all of whom have found something special in the dish or in something like it – leads me to feel a really special connection to its past when I make it.

But the first time I tasted confit byaldi, I had the opposite of a Proustian reaction. It did not stir up old memories, because this was like no ratatouille I had ever tasted before. So for me, this dish isn’t just a time machine; it’s also a rocket ship – it takes me to a place that’s out of this world.

Ratatouille plated above

Ratatouille Confit Byaldi

(converted from The French Laundry cookbook)

  • ~ 45ml neutral oil (eg: sunflower or vegetable)
  • 2 medium sized onions, finely sliced
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper (or a mix of both), cored, seeded and finely sliced
  • Bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley and a bay leaf, tied in a bundle)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 2tsp (10ml) olive oil
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, very finely chopped

Also: sliced (ideally on a mandolin) into rounds ~2mm thick:

  • 1 whole courgette
  • 1 whole aubergine
  • 3 medium/large tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 135C/ Gas mark 1

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Remove the bouquet garni and spread the mixture in an even layer in a 12″ round ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid.

Arrange the sliced vegetables over the onions and peppers, beginning at the outside of the pan and working towards the centre, alternating and overlapping them (as in the photo)

Ratatouille raw window

Mix the garlic, oil, thyme and some salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over the vegetables. Cover with a lid and bake for 2 1/2 hours.

Remove the lid and check the vegetables (the aubergine will take the longest to cook). They should have softened and be cooked or almost cooked. Return to the oven without the lid for 30 minutes more.

Ratatouille plated 30deg

Tips for Geeks

I haven’t made many changes from the recipe given in The French Laundry Cookbook – just converted the quantities to what worked for me. The only major change is that, as well as the aubergine, courgette and tomato, Thomas Keller’s recipe also has sliced yellow squash, which adds another contrasting colour to the sliced vegetables. I wasn’t able to find any yellow squash. If you can, include it. If not, it will still be delicious.

The presentation of this ratatouille is markedly improved if the slices of vegetables are all around the same size. Usually, this will mean buying the slenderest aubergines and the thickest courgettes available. If there is still too much difference in size, you can cut rounds out of the larger slices with a cookie cutter.

Ratatouille raw top

Tomatoes are hard to cut thinly, even on the mandolin. It helps if they’re firm fleshed, and if your blade is sharp and you slice confidently. You’ll still probably end up with a lot of irregular offcuts.

Fiddly, meticulous preparation like arranging loads of overlapping slices is exactly the kind of thing I love. If you’re not a fan, don’t be put off – it looks like it should take forever, but it’s really not that bad.

Like most braises, it will improve in the fridge overnight, so you can make it the day before anyway.

My recommendation for serving this ratatouille: either with gnocchi or crusty bread. It’s also a great to accompany roast chicken.

Ratatouille cooked corner