Sunday, 21 October 2012

Homemade burger

Following on from my last blog post where I reviewed the brilliant Honest Burgers in Soho, here is how I would make my own burgers at home. 

Although I love to go out to a diner or burger joint, I’m a firm believer that the best burgers are the ones that you make at home. You can tweak the ingredients to make them just how you like them, cook them perfectly for you and serve them with your favourite condiments. I’m not a massive fan of ketchup and sliced tomatoes in mine, and seem to spend half my time pulling or scraping various bits from burgers eaten out, even when I’ve asked for them to be left out. There is nothing worse than a disappointing burger, and making them at home takes all of this stress away. They are so quick and easy too, and if you’ve got the ingredients in the house then you can make them in the time that it would take you to get a takeaway.

As with everything this simple, the ingredients will do the talking so try and use the best quality you can. When buying mince, don’t buy really lean mince, as you still want some fat present which will give more flavour and moisture to the cooked burger. Unlike many other burger recipes, this one has no eggs or breadcrumbs to bind it together. I think that these aren’t all that necessary and often give the burgers quite a hard texture. These burgers are really soft, but they are quite delicate and you need to be careful when shaping and turning! To help this, make sure that the ingredients that go in the burger mixture are chopped really finely. 

I’ve recently read about using brioche and even doughnuts as burger buns, but to be honest I think that the best thing is a simple large soft white bun. Anything too crusty will make it difficult to eat (especially important if eaten in company!), and could cause the burger to fall apart. I think that the sweet contrast in using a brioche has scope though, and I look forward to experimenting with this in the future. 

Try with the beer battered gherkins below as a good alternative to chips.

Makes 2 large burgers


300g steak mince, not too lean
1/2 a medium red onion, finely diced
1 red chilli, finely diced
4 tbsp cheddar, finely grated
3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp english mustard
Salt and pepper

2 large soft white buns, or brioche if preferred

Your choice of additional ingredients to serve. I like my burger with crispy smoked bacon, stilton, finely sliced red onions, gherkins, rocket and mayo.

To make the burgers, gently loosen the mince with your fingers in a large bowl and add the onion, chilli, cheddar, parsley, mustard and a good amount of seasoning. Mix well until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. 

Heat a frying pan on a medium heat. Make a small patty out of a tablespoon of the burger mix and fry for about a minute on each side before trying and tasting for seasoning. Adjust the burger mixture if necessary. 

Split the mixture into two. Taking one half in your hand, bind it together into a ball and knead it quickly between each of your hands. This will help the mixture stick together and make shaping much easier. Carefully shape into a large burger, pressing any cracks together until you have a smooth disc. Set aside and repeat with the other half. These can be kept in the fridge until needed if preparing in advance. 

Put a large frying pan on a medium-high heat. Lightly oil and season both sides of the burger and fry for 3-4 minutes each side for medium, a little less or more if you like it rare or well done. If using cheese, put it onto each burger with a minute or two left of cooking to allow it to melt. 

Prepare the other condiments and additional ingredients while the burgers are cooking. When the burgers are done, transfer the burgers into the buns with the toppings and serve. 

Beer battered gherkins with paprika mayo

Gherkins are a really marmite ingredient, some people like them and others can’t stand them; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is indifferent to them. If you do like them, then these light and crunchy beer-battered gherkins are a great accompaniment to the burgers, or just to have as a snack on their own. 

They’re really easy to make too. The only thing that you need to be careful with is the deep frying. Always use a big pan and fill it no more than half full. If you are making a lot, fry the gherkins in batches to stop the oil temperature dropping and from them all sticking together. 

Serves 2-4 as a snack or side dish.


1 jar of large gherkins, quartered lengthways

For the batter:

100g plain flour
175ml good ale or beer
Salt and pepper

2ltrs vegetable oil for frying

For the mayonnaise:

4tbsp homemade or good quality shop bought mayonnaise
1/2 a garlic clove, very finely chopped
A sprinkle of smoked paprika
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

To make the batter, mix the flour and a good amount of seasoning together in a large bowl. Slowly pour in the ale whilst whisking the mixture well to remove any lumps. Add the ale until the batter is the thickness of double cream. 

Heat up the oil in a large saucepan to 170ºC. When hot, coat the gherkins in the batter and lower them into the oil individually to avoid them sticking together. Fry until light brown and crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from the oil with a slopped spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Season and serve. 

For the mayo, spoon the mayo into a bowl and add the garlic, parsley and seasoning. Mix well, then sprinkle the paprika over the top.

Restaurant review: Honest Burgers, Soho

Gourmet fast food has become really trendy over the last couple of years. Barely a week goes by without Twitter buzzing about a new burger, hot dog or fried chicken joint opening in central London. Everyone loves a burger, but the best thing about these new ventures is the care taken in preparation and the sourcing of ingredients. No longer does late night convenience food mean a dirty burger with dodgy mystery ingredients, these places are now using good quality meat, artisan breads and independently brewed booze. Good times all round! 

I don’t venture into central London too often, so it has taken me a little while to get around to seeing what all the fuss has been about. However, I recently was out in the West End to see a show, and thought that it would also be the perfect opportunity to grab a late night bite. Funnily enough, I managed to accidently get my hands on a quick bratwurst before the show had even started! Stumbling past Herman Ze German whilst looking for a quick early pint, I just had to pop in and grab one. It was just amazing. Nothing new or revolutionary about it, but every element was just really well executed. It was great to see that the meat came from master butchers The Ginger Pig too. Bun, sausage, mustard and joy. I feel sorry for Katie though, who had to put up with me raving about how bratwursts were the future of fast food for the following twenty minutes... It was early though, so I was still thinking about how I satisfy my stomach for when the hunger came around later on. I needed recommendations, so it was time to get onto Twitter and find out where the best burger lay.

Show over and there were tens of replies to my tweet, with most of them saying that we just had to visit Honest Burgers. It was as easy as that, and so we set off through Covent Garden and into Soho full of great expectations. The only problem was that it was getting late, and arriving 15 minutes before close, we were painfully aware that we going to be those annoying customers and worried that we would even get fed. These nerves were totally unfounded though, and we were welcomed in by the friendly staff as soon as we opened the door. 

Despite the time, the intimate space was still bustling. The menu was short and the prices reasonable, with a burger and chips coming in at well under a tenner. So refreshing when most other places cram in the add-ons for those wonderful “how did the bill come to that, I’ve been fleeced” moments. The food came quickly and everything was just right. Honest burgers is exactly what they were; perfectly sized, well cooked and more importantly, tasty.   The Ginger Pig must be doing a roaring trade in town, as their beef had also crept into these tender patties. It’s exciting that people are caring more and more about what is behind the burgers, and the quality shines through in the taste. 

My only complaints were slight and mostly down to my own weird ways. I have a slightly unhealthy love of gherkins, and they are an important part of a burger experience for me, so I was disappointed by the lack of pickle presence. I fully accept that this isn’t a feasible gripe though, but my other issue was a little more pressing. You cannot serve up a bucket of unseasoned chips and not have salt on the table. Crunching through well cooked yet bland chips wondering “what if” is the most frustrating thing ever. Step in the great staff again, who happily offered some of their delicious rosemary salt when I brought it up. Burgers eaten and another surprise, we were content and comfortable. Too often you leave a diner stuffed to explode, but it this case they had judged it bang on. 

We left way after the doors shut and didn’t feel pressured one bit. We eat a lot of burgers,, and these were some of the best. It’s brilliant that fast food is no longer a drunken afterthought, and I’m already finding excuses to eat some more.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Croquembouche: my trials and tribulations with choux...

So last weekend it was Katie’s birthday. As I showed you all a couple of weeks ago, I was spoiled rotten when it was my birthday and she baked me the most ridiculously spectacular rainbow layer cake. It was now my turn to come up with something special. Obviously it wasn’t a competition, and anyway, nothing I could do could top what she made, but there was no way that I was going to turn up with a Betty Crocker instant chocolate cake. Not that I have a problem with these; my mum has made me one for every birthday that I can remember and they are always great...

To be honest, I really struggled to make a decision on what I was going to make. I had booked the day before her birthday off work, but as the days got closer I had no clearer idea on this epic baking project that I wanted to plan. On the week of her birthday I had narrowed it down to two things: a selection of miniature cakes, tarts and pastries, or a croquembouche. I really liked the idea of a tiered display of tiny cakes, with eclairs, rhubarb and custard tarts, doughnuts, bitesize sponges and more. But in the end I was ill prepared for such a task, and I’m not sure that I could have pulled it off to the scale that I would have wanted in the time that I had to bake. I may well come back to this idea in the future, but at that point it meant that I was settling for the croqumbouche. 

Aside from it being Katie’s birthday, I had wanted to attempt a croquembouche for years. I first saw one being made on a Raymond Blanc programme, where as usual he made it look ridiculously easy. Despite this, the sheer scale of constructing one was obvious and I was under no illusion that it would be a difficult thing to pull off. 

The main thing that was going to make the whole thing difficult was the fact that I had never made choux pastry before. I’ve always loved watching it being made, and the way that it seems to burst out of the saucepan when the flour is added. There is a lot that can go wrong though, as I found out on my first attempt. A combination of lack of heat and too much egg left me with less of a pastry batter and more of a runny sludge that was certainly not suitable for the piping bag. I hate messing things up when cooking, and with the limited time I had before Katie returned from work, I was a little bit panicky that Betty might be sneaking back into the kitchen. However, after a bit of patience (and a trip to the shop for more ingredients), my second attempt was much better. A little sneak in the oven half way through cooking confirmed that they had risen and were looking good. That was a relief, because with the scale of the batches that I was making it could have started to get expensive! 

Luckily, everything else went smoothly; I didn’t manage to scramble my creme patissiere, and the choux buns and caramel held firm after the tower was constructed and turned over. That was the biggest relief of all, and when food stands nearly two feet off the table then it’s damn exciting.

Technically all of the different elements of a croquembouche are fairly straightforward. It’s just the industrial amounts that you have to make, with over 100 choux balls, nearly two litres of creme patissiere and caramel made from a kilo of sugar. It’s well worth it though. To make the construction easier, I made a cone with craft paper that I then lined with baking parchment. I then built the tower upside down before turning once the caramel had set hard. Although Raymond makes his freestyle, I bow to his talent and then hide behind my paper cone. I think that my efforts would have resulted in a random ruin of choux on the plate. And table. And floor. 


For the choux pastry:

I used Delia’s choux recipe for my croquembouche, but increased the batch size for the amount that I needed. If you have a small oven, make the pastry in two batches, making the second batch whilst the first are cooking.

240g 00 flour
600ml cold water
4 tsp caster sugar
200g butter, cubed
8 eggs, beaten

For the creme patissiere:

21 egg yolks
225g caster sugar
75g plain flour
100g ground almonds
12 tsp cornflour
1.5 litres whole milk
2 vanilla pods

For the caramel:

1kg caster sugar

Start by making the choux pastry. Preheat the oven to 190ºC (fan) and grease 3 baking trays before lining with greaseproof paper. Put the water and butter into a medium to large saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring the butter so that it melts. As soon as the liquid reaches boiling point, turn the heat to medium/low and quickly pour in all of the flour whilst beating hard with a spatula. The mixture should transform quickly into a thick paste, and keep beating until it leaves the sides clean. Take the pan off the heat and add the eggs in 5 or 6 stages, stirring well in between until well incorporated before adding the next bit. The paste should still be thick and smooth, if it is runny then you will have to start again like I did on my first attempt. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and pipe small, teaspoon-sized amounts onto the baking sheets. Put into the oven for 10 minutes before turning up the temperature to 210ºC and baking for another 15 minutes. When the choux buns are crispy and golden brown, remove from the oven and prick the base of each one with a skewer to allow the steam to escape. Place on a rack and allow to cool.

Next make the creme patissiere. Put the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl and whisk until the mix lightens in colour and they are well combined. Add the flour, almond flour and cornflour and whisk again so that everything is incorporated. Set aside. Put the milk in a large saucepan, scrape the vanilla pods into it and bring to the boil. Once at boiling point, turn the heat off and cool for a few minutes. Slowly pour the hot milk into the bowl with the egg mixture whilst whisking until combined, then tip the whole lot back into the saucepan. Turn the heat onto low, and whisk continuously until the mixture is very thick but not scrambled. It will take a little while to start thickening, but have patience as it will in the end. Once the creme patissiere is really thick, pour it into a bowl, sprinkle with icing sugar and allow to cool. 

When the creme patissiere has cooled down, spoon it into a piping bag and you are now ready to fill the choux buns. Poke the nozzle into each pastry ball and gently squeeze the creme patissiere into it until they are full. You will know when they are full when they are heavier and the filling starts to burst out of the hole. Repeat until all are filled. 

To make your caramel, tip the sugar into a medium saucepan and turn onto a medium-low heat. As the sugar starts to heat up, swirl the pan gently until all the sugar is melted. Once the caramel has a dark golden colour you are ready to start constructing the tower. Place one of the choux balls at the bottom of the cone, then very carefully dip one side of the next ball into the caramel and join it to the first. Repeat this process, working your way around the side of the cone until all of the choux balls have been used and the bottom of the tower will be even when turned over. Work quickly and carefully when building the croquembouche, and make sure that you don’t push down so hard that the filling escapes. 

Once you have finished constructing, allow 5 minutes for the caramel to completely set. Put a board or plate on the base of the tower and in one movement tip it over. Carefully unwrap the cone and baking paper from around the edges. 

The basic croquembouche is now complete, and it is now up to you how to decorate it. Due to time constraints I simply added some almonds that had been dipped in the caramel and then spun some of the caramel around the edge. You can take this further by adding praline shapes, fondant icing, fireworks etc etc etc!  Savour the moment when it is complete, as as soon as the first choux ball has been ripped from the top it will never look the same!

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Roasted pigeon with confit leg, Jerusalem artichoke puree, fondant potato and chanterelles

Talking about food with other food enthusiasts is always a real pleasure, and there is always something to be learned from finding out what they are cooking and eating. Last weekend I was back at Borough Market, this time accompanied by an old friend and very able cook who I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was brilliant to just walk round the various stalls looking eagerly at the masses of jaw dropping produce. We discussed how we would tackle the scallops the size of a fist, or rabbits still hanging in their skin, and my mind was buzzing with new ideas for the future.

The main reason for going back to the market was to pick up the ingredients for this recipe. I had been meaning to cook pigeon for ages, and somehow every time managed to make something else instead, but now the game season is back in flow it seemed like the perfect time. You can buy just about any ingredient you can think of at Borough, and in no time at all I had picked up a few fine pigeons. And at nine pounds for four birds, what a bargain they were. Although I was only cooking this recipe for two, I wanted the sauce to accompany the dish to be full of flavour and decided to use the carcass of one additional bird for an added boost. The remaining pigeon is sitting happily in my freezer until I fancy a quick pigeon salad or a game pie comes calling.

Borough is also one of the best places to buy decent mushrooms. Although I have excellent fruit and veg shops near to my home in north London, all anywhere seem to sell are the same old chestnut, button or portobello mushrooms, perhaps with a few shabby oysters or shitake thrown in. The main fruit and veg stall at Borough has a huge variety, and I had to stop myself from buying too many for other dishes that instantly popped into my head. I wanted some lovely chanterelles, and walked away happy with a bag full of the beautiful delicate golden yellow mushrooms. I had a day or so before I planned to cook this meal, and I just couldn’t wait to get cracking!

Pigeon is a bit of a marmite ingredient for many people. I think that it often conjures images of scabby London pigeons with gnarled feet pecking on rubbish, when game pigeons are the total opposite. They need to be tasted to be truly appreciated, with a strong iron flavour and wonderfully tender meat. They need to be cooked rare or slowly braised though, anything in between will be like chewing cardboard. Now that autumn is upon us, the flavour of pigeon combined with root veg, salty ham and peas is so comforting. 

This recipe is long and cooking it will take a little while but it really is worth it. The finished meal is great to look at and full of flavour. The confit legs and use of an additional carcass is optional, but will make the end result that little bit better if you have the time. The most stressful time when cooking this meal is at the end, when you have loads of pans cooking simultaneously. The key is to just remember that most things are being cooked gently, and will not be ruined if ignored for a few seconds. After a bit of practice it is easy. 


Serves 2

2 pigeons, crowns separated, legs kept for confit and rest of carcass kept for the sauce
Optional: 1 additional pigeon carcass

For the sauce:

1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, left whole but crushed slightly
10 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
50ml brandy
500ml good chicken stock
1 knob of butter
4 tbsp frozen peas, defrosted
Salt and pepper

For the pigeon leg confit:

2 pigeon legs
800ml duck or goose fat, or enough to cover everything well
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
5 sprigs thyme

For the Jerusalem artichoke puree:

500g jerusalem artichokes, peeled and chopped into 1in pieces
3 tbsp double cream
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, stalks discarded
Salt and pepper

For the fondant potatoes:

2 large king edward potatoes 
10 sprigs thyme
200ml chicken stock
1 knob of butter

For the chanterelles:

2 slices parma ham
200g chanterelle mushrooms, brushed clean
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 a shallot, finely chopped
3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 large knob of butter
Salt and pepper

For the savoy cabbage:

3 large savoy cabbage leaves, finely shredded
1/2 a shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 anchovy fillet, finely shopped
1 large knob of butter
50ml chicken stock
Salt and pepper

Firstly make the confit pigeon legs. Tie the legs with string to keep the flesh together while they cook. Melt the duck fat in a small saucepan with the thyme and garlic, then add the legs, topping up with more fat if they are not submerged. Heat up to 90ºC and keep at a constant temperature for 2 hours. Keep submerged in the fat and allow to cool. This process can be done a couple of days in advance.

To make the sauce to go with the dish, heat up a little oil in a large frying pan or skillet until hot. Sear the parts of the pigeon carcass that have been removed from the crown, along with the additional pigeon carcass if using, until they are a dark brown colour. Turn the heat down to a medium heat and add the shallot, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, and cook for another couple of minutes until well coloured. Pour in the brandy and set alight to burn away the alcohol. Once the flames have gone out, reduce slightly then pour in the hot chicken stock. Season, combine, and allow to reduce right down until only about 150ml of liquid is left. Strain and set aside to finish off while the pigeon is cooking. 

For the puree, put the pieces of jerusalem artichoke into a small saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to the boil and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes. When cooked, drain and tip into a food processor with the cream, thyme and seasoning. Blitz until smooth before tasting and adjusting. Put back into the saucepan and cover with cling film until needed.

To make the parma ham baskets, preheat the oven to 200ºC. Line the bottom of two slots of a muffin tray with discs of greaseproof paper. Arrange the parma ham around the bottom and sides of the tray to form a cup shape. Put another disc of greaseproof paper at the bottom of the ham cup and stack another muffin tray on top of the one with the ham. This will make the cups keep their shape. Put in the hot oven for 8 minutes, before removing the top muffin tray and top piece of greaseproof paper. Put the uncovered tray back in the oven for another 2-3 minutes, or until the ham is crisp. Allow to cool in the trays and set aside. 

Turn the oven down to 180ºC

For the fondant potatoes, peel the potatoes and cut the edges so that you are left with a thick cross-section. Using a pastry cutter, push through the potatoes to create 2 cylinders. Put a non-stick frying pan onto a high heat and add 2 tbsp of the fat from the confit saucepan. When hot, add a knob of butter and the thyme, and fry the potatoes on each flat side until they are nicely browned and crispy. Place the potatoes into a small, high sided oven dish and add the cooking liquid and thyme. Season well. Top up with hot stock until half way up the potatoes. Put into the oven for 25 minutes, or until a knife is easily inserted into the side. Try and time the cooking of the potatoes to go with the cooking of the pigeon (including the resting time).

To cook the pigeon, heat a frying pan to a high heat with a little olive oil. When hot, sear the pigeon crowns for about a minute on each breast or until they are browned. Transfer to an oven dish, add the confit legs and put into the oven for 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for another five minutes before carving the breasts. 

While the pigeon is cooking, cook the savoy cabbage. Melt the butter in a frying pan on a medium heat and add the shallot, garlic and anchovy. Cook for about 2 minutes until softened, then add the savoy cabbage and the chicken stock. Stir to combine and cook for another 2 minutes, or until al dente. Taste and season.

At the same time, cook the mushrooms. Add the butter to the frying pan used to sear the pigeon and melt on a medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot and cook for a minute or so to to soften. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until buttery and tender, another couple of minutes. Taste and season. 

Also at the same time, slowly heat up the artichoke puree and finish the pigeon sauce. Gently heat up the sauce in a small saucepan, and when warm add the butter and stir well, until melted and combined. Taste, season and add more butter if needed. Add the peas two minutes before serving and stir occasionally.

A couple of minutes before serving, put the muffin tray with the parma ham cups back into the oven to heat back up. Be careful not to leave them in there for too long. 

To plate up, place the fondant potato on the plate, and put the confit leg on top. Place the ham cup next to the potato, and fill with the chanterelles. Spoon a good amount of the puree onto the plate next to them, and top with some of the savoy cabbage. Arrange the pigeon breasts on top of this. Spoon a little sauce carefully onto the pigeon/puree/cabbage, and then drizzle around the plate. Serve with a nice glass of red wine.