Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Restaurant review: Feast, Islington

This blog entry is more like Sam Eats Food, and a pop-up review instead of an actual restaurant. But a very interesting experience it was. 

I always get a bit lost in Islington. It’s too easy to think of the largely middle of the road restaurants that squash between the estate agents and overpriced miscellany shops of Upper Street and feel uninspired. But if you take a walk into the network of streets around Barnsbury and Canonbury there are some little gems to be found. The most recent discovery was this weekend, when I was guided down a quiet dark backroad into a fairly demolished shell of a building. I had forgotten all about Feast since I bought the tickets, and with some busy weeks at work the event crept up quickly. I didn’t really know what to expect, but for some reason I had an underwhelming image of a large village hall with a couple of scattered stalls, and perhaps a tombola in the corner...

As usual I was proved very wrong indeed. Situated in the old Royal Mail building which is currently being shelled and developed, it reminded me why I love London for the little tucked away events that make you feel a million miles away from the daily hubbub and congestion. The first thing I noticed were the globes that illuminated the girders and crumbling bricks amidst the rising steam and bustle of the busy bar, performing band and rows of delicious looking food. So far, so good, and after a ten hour day without a scrap to eat, my stomach was groaning in sweet relief.

As with my earlier expectations, I also had a few concerns about pop-up events such as these. Sometimes events like this are overwhelmed in ‘trendiness’, and I was worried that my lack of facial piercing and wonky haircut would make me stand out like a sore thumb. I was also worried about the vast array of food choice. To put it bluntly, I am crap at making food decisions, and I always seem to choose the wrong thing to eat. And at normal inflated market prices, this means that there is no way back. The sight of a row of portaloos with random puddles surrounding them also stirred up those old festival memories. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish the times that I have had at Glastonbury, but the cuisine is never something I want to go back to. 

Basically, all of these thoughts just went to prove my old short mindedness, and how I should really get out more. After quickly buying a bottle of the lovely Camden Hells from the efficient and quick bar, I was soon pottering around marvelling at the sheer variety of great looking food. There really was something for all moods, from comforting burgers and pastries to refreshing cerviche (from, naturally, Cerviche), dumplings and oysters. Initially I was looking forward to getting chops around a fish dog from the Hix stall, but this seemed like far too safe a choice considering what else was being cooked up. The best thing was the prices, which were refreshingly affordable. Most of the food sold was under £5, so I was really going to have a good taste of what was on offer. The proportion of stalls to customers was also well managed, and there was very little wait whether waiting at the bar or for food. Some stalls were far more popular than others though, and it must have been so painful sitting on a quiet stall whilst everyone piled in next door. 

When I finally made my choices, the food in general was great. As soon as I approached The Modern Pantry’s stall, a plate of steaming pork loin with miso mash was thrust into my hand. And it was delicious. I expected the flavours to be strong and overpowering, but found a delicate and superbly balanced dish instead. That, and the truly wonderful salt caramel and tamarind truffle that I had from the same stall later on certainly provided the most interesting food of the evening. I must make a trip to their restaurant soon for more.

After another beer and a natter I was ready to sample some more, and this time I couldn’t help but go for something a little more familiar. I first encountered Yum Buns at Broadway Market a couple of years ago and have wanted another ever since. They are quite simply just the thing that you want on a cold day after a drink or two. A beautifully light steamed bun is filled with dirty tender pork belly and refreshing spring onions and cucumber before finishing with hoisin and hot sauce. A simple yet classic combination, and much lighter than it all sounds. And at £2.50 each they were a bargain. 

There was only one choice for Katie, and she bolted straight for Anna Maes. As a self confessed mac and cheese connoisseur her standards were high, and unfortunately on this occasion she was left slightly disappointed. Although it tasted good, her timing was rubbish and she was given the last scrapings of a batch before a fresh and creamy one was started. As a result her mac was dry and crusty, and she was left with a feeling of what could have been. There were pieces of genius amongst the crunchy pasta however, such as the basil pesto which gave a lovely herby kick to each mouthful. Had she caught it right then I think it could have been a winner. Her second choice proved better with a Big Dog from the guys at Big Apple Hot Dog. This had all the best bits of a late night dog, but through it all you could really taste the quality of the meat and bread. At last a triumph. 

A few bites of potentially the best meringues I have ever tasted from the Meringue Girls rounded off a brilliant evening, where all of my dodgy preconceptions were flattened. If Feast have more events lined up in the future then I would urge you to rush to it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Octopus with courgette, prawn, clams and a tomato consomme

I love it when I finally get round to cooking something that I’ve had on my mind for ages. Ever since watching Raymond Blanc create his ‘tomato essence’ during the Kitchen Secrets series, I’ve had it down on my ‘to do’ list but have never got round to it. This recipe involves loads of long winded processes and planning, but this weekend I got my act together and it was well worth it.

I have followed similar stages to Raymond in making it, but have tweaked the ingredients slightly. I thought that oregano would add a nice citrus element that would give the basil and tomatoes a more rounded flavour. Although the consomme is quite intense on it’s own and would make a lovely elegant starter (or even be great in a cocktail or bloody mary), I wanted to use it as part of a bigger dish. Enter another ingredient that I had been wanting to use: octopus. I recently spotted some Cornish octopus at my local fishmonger, and that was too good an opportunity to miss. It was time to tell if the dish that I had in my head would come together into something good. 

I have had octopus a couple of times before in Spanish restaurants to mixed results. Most of the times it has been beautiful and tender, like a meatier version of squid. However, on one time it was awfully tough and quite unpleasant, so even though I wanted to cook it, I knew that I had to approach it with care. After doing some research, it appeared that freezing the octopus for 48 hours was recommended before some long slow cooking and a final flash fry. Flavour-wise, octopus is again similar to squid in being subtle and almost tasteless, and it needs something adding to it. I thought that the tomatoes, basil and shellfish would go perfectly with this to create a dish that was light and not too overpowering.

Although this meal took a lot of time to prepare, most of the steps were really simple and didn’t feel like the massive slog that I expected it to be. The main thing is patience, especially with the consomme where I had to resist the urge to squeeze the bag of muslin. In order for the liquid to be a pure, clear colour, it must gently drip out without being forced.   It might seem like a lot of tomatoes to waste just to collect the liquid, but don’t throw them away - they can easily be turned into the base for a sauce or stew on another occasion. 

The other parts of the dish are all quite simple, and can easily be prepared whilst the octopus is poaching. The only difficult thing is right at the end when a lot of pans are used to cook everything before serving. But it was worth it in the end, and unlike many recipe combinations that I dream up in my head, the finished dish worked really well. 

Serves 2 


For the consomme:

1.2kg cherry tomatoes
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced
1 shallot, sliced
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
1/2 bunch basil, leaves torn roughly
10 sprigs oregano, leaves picked
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
Large pinch of salt 
2 tbsp caster sugar

For the octopus:

2 medium octopuses, around 300g after being cleaned
1 fennel bult, chopped roughly
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, chopped roughly
1 carrot, chopped roughly
3 sprigs thyme
1 lemon, zest only
Salt and pepper

For the marinate:

3 tbsp olive oil
2 sprigs thyme, leaves picked
1 lemon, juice only
1/2 red chilli, sliced roughly

For the chilli oil:

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 red chillies, finely sliced
4 strips lemon zest
Shells from the prawns, roasted

3 large prawns, shells kept for the chilli oil
1 courgette
200g clams

To finish:

Salad fennel, basil and oregano leaves

Prepare the octopus and tomato consomme a couple of days in advance of serving. 

Gut and clean the octopus, wrap in cling film and freeze for 48 hours. This will help to tenderise the octopus which can sometimes be tough.

For the tomato consomme, halve the cherry tomatoes and put in a large bowl with the fennel, shallot, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, bay, salt and sugar. Stir well to combine, seal with cling film and put in the fridge for about 6 hours. 

When the marinating time is up, remove the tomatoes from the fridge. Using a food processor, pulse the tomatoes in batches until they are roughly chopped. Wrap the mixture with 2 layers of muslin and carefully hang above a large bowl overnight. Let the juices gently drip from the muslin bag without moving or squeezing; you want the consomme to be clear and not cloudy. When all of the liquid has been collected, set aside and chill until needed. 

On the day of cooking, again the octopus needs to be thawed out and put on first. Put the fennel, shallot, carrot, garlic, bay, lemon zest and pepper into a saucepan and cover with a good amount of water. Bring to a simmer then add the octopus and continue to simmer for between 1-2 hours, or until very tender. While the octopus is cooking make the marinate by combining the oil, lemon juice, chilli, thyme and seasoning. When the octopus is ready, remove from the saucepan (keeping about 250ml of the liquid), cut each tentacle away and the body into pieces and add to the marinate. 

While the octopus is cooking prepare the rest of the ingredients. Peel the prawns, reserving the shells, and cut into 1cm pieces. Set aside until needed. Heat the oven to 200ºC, and when hot, roast the shells for a couple of minutes until lightly coloured.

To make the chilli oil, pour the extra virgin olive oil into a small saucepan and add the roasted shells, sliced chillies and lemon zest. Gently heat the oil on a low heat for about 5 minutes, without letting it get too hot. You just want to warm the ingredients up enough to infuse the oil without cooking them. Turn the heat off then allow the oil to cool down in the pan. Strain into a bowl and set aside. 

Using a mellon baller, cut out circles of the courgette leaving the skin still on one side. If you don’t have a mellon baller then cut the courgette into 1/2” pieces. 

When the octopus is cooked and marinating, get everything ready to finish up.  

Put three quarters of the finished consomme into a small saucepan and bring up to just before simmering. 

Heat up a saucepan to a medium temperature and add the remaining quarter of the consomme. When the liquid is hot, add the courgette pieces and cook for a couple of minutes. Tip in the prepared prawns and continue to poach gently for another two minutes, until the prawns are cooked and the courgettes still have a little bit of bite. 

At the same time as the courgettes are cooking, put another saucepan on to a medium - high heat. When hot add the reserved octopus stock and bring to the boil. Add the clams and cover the pan, giving it a little shake. Keep covered for about two minutes, or until the clams open. Season with a little salt and pepper.

Finally, finish cooking the octopus by heating a non-stick frying pan on a high heat. When hot, add the octopus pieces and a little of the marinating juices and fry quickly for a minute on each side. Season well.

To plate up, arrange the octopus in the centre of a shallow bowl. Surround with the cooked courgettes, prawn pieces and clams, and drizzle with a little of the chilli oil. Top with some of the salad fennel, basil and oregano leaves, then carefully pour in some of the warm consomme. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Seared scallops with stuffed chicken wings, girolles and oyster beurre blanc

Another Monday, and another day off to make myself a nice lunch. This is starting to get into a bit of a routine, but one that I am certainly enjoying so far. Although I am often busy doing various bits and pieces, it’s really nice to have a couple of hours to be creative make something (hopefully) good to eat. The joy of this is also that I can cook whatever I want; I don’t have to cater for anyone else’s taste and I can experiment without the pressure of anything going wrong. It’s very relaxing too, I just put on the Saturday Kitchen that I invariably missed over the weekend in the background and get going. 

The only slightly weird thing about the Monday lunch routine comes with the eating. Although I really enjoy cooking everything on my own, I find sitting down to a meal such a sociable experience, and it’s almost an anticlimax to eat on my own. This is the funny thing about having days off in the week; Katie and most of my friends are at work, so often I end up pottering around by myself. For the most part I really enjoy this, I like how chilled out it can be, but it did get me thinking that there must be a load of others in the same boat. I’m tempted to look into creating some sort of Monday lunch supperclub, which would make these days off more sociable and open the opportunity to meet other likeminded foodies. I think it would also be a lot of fun, sitting with a load of strangers with a glass of wine and some good food on a random lunchtime. There are some slight practical problems with doing this though, such as the feeble amount of space available in my flat and kitchen, and working out the time that I would take to organise it to a high standard. But perhaps with a bit of thought and planning I can make something happen. We shall see!

Anyway, back to the recipe. I have wanted to include a scallop recipe in this blog for ages but have been very indecisive about which one. Scallops really are a fantastic and luxury ingredient and I relish every opportunity that I get to cook and eat them. They go well with a wide range of flavours, from grilled on the barbecue with garlic butter to the classic combo of peas and black pudding. For this recipe I wanted to do something slightly different, and have paired the scallops with chicken wings and in-season girolle mushrooms. 

Fish with chicken and mushrooms might sound like a slightly strange mixture, but it really does work. I first had the scallop and mushroom combination at the excellent Trangallan at Newington Green, and have wanted to have a go at it myself ever since. The stuffed chicken and crispy bacon that I have used add a lovely salty seasoning to the scallops, whilst the flavour of the mushrooms gives a mellow backnote. I really want the flavour of the scallops to be the main event of this dish, as it should be, and the other ingredients give a subtle support. The sauce brings everything together with the creamy butter and the tangy oysters. 

Chicken wings are often forgotten, and are dirt cheap. The butcher gave me the ones used in this recipe for free! But they are perfect for this recipe. Boning them is a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it it is easy to create perfect little pouches. The parts of the wing that you don’t use can be used when making the beurre blanc to add extra flavour, so nothing is wasted. 

A quick note on using microherbs and shoots. I think they can really be a bit faddy and are often overused (I am guilty of this myself!), but I really think that there is a place for them with a bit of thought. They do really pretty up a dish, which in this case would otherwise be a very brown plate of food. Taste is important too though, and they must add something in their own right. The salad fennel gives a slight aniseed taste, which adds another flavour dimension to the scallops and chicken. The broccoli shoots are lovely and peppery and can be used as an alternative to rocket or watercress. 

Serves 2


6 large scallops, coral removed and kept for the sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 large knob of butter
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the wings:

4 chicken wings
1 large handful fresh girolle mushrooms, brushed clean
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 sprig of thyme, leaves picked
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
40g butter
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the beurre blanc:

2 oysters
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 shallot, finely chopped
225g butter
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

For the girolles:

12-15 girolles, left whole
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
20g butter
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice

2 rashers smoked streaky bacon

1 small handful salad fennel leaves
1 small handful broccoli shoots
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Start by making the mushroom stuffing for the chicken wings. Chop half of the girolles for the stuffing finely (making sure that you have kept 12-15 of the prettier ones for the garnish later), and cut the other half a little coarser, which will add texture. Heat a frying pan on a medium heat and add 20g of the butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When hot, add the shallots, thyme and garlic and cook until soft. Add the girolles, squeeze over the lemon juice and sprinkle over some seasoning. Cook until the moisture has evaporated, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool down. 

While the musrooms are cooling, prepare the wings. You only want the large plump middle section of the wing, so cut the pointed end and the segment that joins to the body away and reserve for the sauce. Working carefully from one end, use a sharp knife and your fingers to ease the flesh away from around the two bones, leaving the skin intact. When you get to the bottom, you should be able to easily twist the bones away and be left with a boneless pocket. When the mushroom stuffing mixture is cool, stuff each wing with about a teaspoon; enough to plump up and fill the wing, but not so much that it’s bursting out. Compact the stuffing to get as much in as possible. 

When the wings are stuffed, wrap clingfilm around each one - sealing the hole over the stuffing tightly. Carefully make sure that the clingfilm is watertight around each one, so that no water can get in when they poach. 

Fill a small saucepan with water and bring to the boil. When the water is up to temperature, drop the wrapped wings in and poach for 3 minutes. Remove the wings from  the liquid and allow to cool without unwrapping. 

Heat the oven up to 200ºC (fan). Put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto a baking sheet and add the streaky bacon. When the oven is hot, cook the bacon for around 10-14 minutes, or until crispy. Remove from the oven and drain.

While the bacon is cooking, make the beurre blanc. Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and return to the fridge to keep cold. Put the white wine, vinegar, shallot, scallop corals and leftover ends from the chicken wings into a small saucepan. Shuck the oysters and add to the saucepan with the liquid, then heat up the contents to a medium - high heat. The liquid will start to bubble away and reduce, and allow the liquid to evaporate until only 2 tablespoons are left. Strain the mixture, give the pan a quick clean and return the liquid to the saucepan. Lower the heat to low and start adding the cold butter, one cube at a time, whisking continuously. Only add another knob of butter when the last one has dissolved. When only 3 or 4 knobs of butter are left, remove the pan from the heat and continue to add the butter until the mixture is smooth. Taste and add lemon and seasoning to taste; the sauce might not need any salt as the oysters will already add this. Stir through the parsley and set aside. As the sauce cools it will thicken. I like it slightly thick so I can spoon it onto the plate, but you can carefully reheat it to loosen it up a bit. 

Put two non-stick frying pans onto a medium-high heat. Unwrap the cooled chicken wings, pat dry with kitchen paper and season. When the pans are hot, add some oil to one of them and fry the wings on the skin side for 2 minutes. Add 20g of butter and turn the wings over, then use a spoon to baste them with the foaming butter until they are a golden brown colour. Remove from the heat, drain and keep warm. Give that pan a quick clean and return to the heat.

In one of the pans cook the girolles. Add a little oil and a knob of butter to the pan and add the whole, cleaned mushrooms, the garlic and the lemon juice. Cook for 2-3 minutes until slightly softened, then season and remove the pan from the heat. Keep warm in the pan until ready to plate up.

As the girolles are cooking, sear the scallops. Pour a little oil into the other pan, and when hot, add the seasoned scallops. Cook for about a minute before turning over and adding the butter and frying for another minute, basting with the juices all the time. Squeeze over the lemon and remove from the heat.

Dress the fennel leaves and broccoli shoots with the lemon and oil in a small bowl.

To plate up, spoon some of the beurre blanc across the plate and top with the scallops. Arrange the chicken wings and girolles around the scallops and top with a scattering of the dressed leaves. Serve straight away.