Monday, 18 February 2013

Crispy and poached oysters with oyster and leek veloute, pickled cucumber and lemon and tarragon oil

Last week I had a few days off work on holiday, but used this time to really relax with no plans to travel anywhere. Instead I just had a lovely enjoyable few days pottering around London and cooking. It was really nice to get out and visit some of the cracking local independent food suppliers that are normally closed when I get my days off on Sundays and Mondays. 

On Tuesday I took the bus down to Victoria Park where I placed an order with brilliant fishmonger Jonathan Norris. He is someone who I have spoken to many times on Twitter, mostly for help about what is in season etc, but it was great to finally pop in and say hello in person. Since I moved to Stoke Newington I haven’t been down to the area too often, but Katie used to live in Victoria Park and I really do love it round there. I’ve many happy memories of ogling at sausage rolls in the window of the Ginger Pig and breakfasting by the lake at the park pavilion. It’s such a foodie hub and you can get nearly anything in that tiny handful of shops. 

On this occasion I had ordered oysters. Now I am the first person to put my hand up and say that I’m not wild about eating raw oysters. It’s not the taste, I’m just not too keen on the texture, and they’re not something that I take that much pleasure from eating. But like I said about bone marrow in the previous blog post, I’m sure that this is a transitional thing and I will end up eventually liking them. But in the meantime, I know that there are other things that you can do with them and I was determined to make something nice. I liked the idea of gently cooking them with a creamy, chowder like soup.

I thought that this would also be a good occasion to have a go at making a veloute. It’s always something that I’ve associated with fine dining and have been nervous to attempt to make this super smooth, decadent soup. For Christmas I was fortunate to be given a number of great cookbooks, including the huge and insanely good Square Cookbook by Philip Howard. I knew that oyster veloutes existed, and when looking through the index for pointers I was pleased to see that there was a recipe for that very thing. I have used the veloute recipe in that book as the base for the one I made here, although Phil used his as part of an amazing starter with eel, salt cod and caviar. I haven’t quite gone that far here, simply deep frying some oysters to contrast the texture and adding some lightly pickled cucumber to give the acidity that is much needed in this creamy dish. 

Freshness is of the utmost importance when it comes to oysters. I would only really eat them on the same day as buying them, and only from a decent fishmonger. This is the joy of getting to know good local food suppliers, as you can learn loads about seasonal food and really trust that the produce that you get is top quality; a far cry from the majority of supermarkets. 

Serves 2 


For the crispy oysters:

2 oysters
1 small handful panko breadcrumbs
1 egg
2 tbsp flour
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying, about 1 litre

For the poached oysters:

4 oysters

For the veloute:

3 medium leeks, finely sliced
1/2 onion, finely sliced
1/2 floury potato such as maris piper, finely sliced
30g butter
500ml water
250ml whole milk
1 large tbsp creme fraiche
8 oysters

For the pickled cucumbers:

1x 3” piece of cucumber
100ml white wine vinegar
3 tsp sugar
5 black peppercorns

For the lemon and tarragon oil:

100ml olive oil
1 small handful tarragon
1 lemon, zest only

For the sauteed leeks:

1/2 a leek, julienned into thin 2” sticks
1 large knob butter
Salt and pepper

Firstly make the lemon and tarragon oil. Put the oil, tarragon and lemon into a small saucepan and gently warm up, but not enough to start frying the flavourings. Turn off the heat, cover the pan with clingfilm and leave to cool down and infuse. Transfer to a squeezy bottle and set aside. This is best done a day in advance to let the flavours mix into the oil. 

To make the veloute, heat the butter in a large saucepan on a medium heat. Add the leeks, onion, potato and seasoning and cook for 6-7 minutes, until softened. Pour in the water, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the milk and creme fraiche and bring back to boil then pour the liquid through a sieve into a bowl. Spoon about a quarter of the leeks, onion and potatoes into a food processor with the strained liquid and blend really well until very smooth. Discard the remaining leeks. Strain again and set aside to cool. This part can be done in advance. 

While the veloute is cooking, make the pickled cucumbers. Peel the piece of cucumber and cut in half, then scrape out the seeds with a spoon and discard. Carefully cut into an even fine dice and put into a small bowl. Pour the white wine vinegar into a small saucepan with the sugar and peppercorns. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Remove the peppercorns and pour over the cucumbers. Mix well with a spoon and set aside to cool. 

Julienne the leeks for the garnish and fry gently for 10 minutes in the butter and a little seasoning until softened. Keep warm and set aside.

Heat the frying oil up in a heavy medium saucepan to 170ºC. 

Slowly reheat the veloute up to just below boiling. 

Fill a small saucepan with salty water and bring to the boil.

To make the crispy oysters, set up two small plates and a bowl. Beat the egg into the bowl and put the panko and flour respectively on the other two plates. Season each part. Open two of the oysters, keeping them as intact as possible and draining the liquid. Gently roll the oysters in the flour, then dip into the egg before moving to the breadcrumb plate and covering. 

Open the 8 oysters for the veloute and put into the food processor.

Open the 4 remaining oysters for poaching. 

When the oil is hot, water boiling and veloute up to temperature it is time to finish the dish. Put the 4 oysters into the boiling water, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for two minutes. At the same time, lower the coated oysters into the hot oil and deep fry, turning occasionally until golden brown, about a minute. While this is happening, tip the veloute into the food processor over the oysters and blend really well until combined and frothy. Taste and season if needed. 

To plate up, make a little mound out of the cooked leeks and place in the middle of the bowls. Pour some of the veloute in and position the poached oysters in the ‘moat’. Spoon a little of the pickled cucumber around each side and put the crispy oysters on top of the leeks. Drizzle a bit of the lemon and tarragon oil around the bowl and serve quickly. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Restaurant review: Hawksmoor, Spitalfields

Last weekend saw mine and Katie’s third anniversary, and to celebrate we decided to book a table at Hawksmoor. This turned out to be quite a tricky process; did we want to go for breakfast, dinner or Sunday roast options, and which of the group’s four venues was it to be? I have only every heard glowing reports about anything Hawksmoor related, and it all looked so good! In the end we went for dinner at Spitalfields, as it was open on a Saturday night and the small, intimate nature of it looked perfect for a date night. The booking was made way back in November, and every day since I have been counting down with heightening anticipation. We so rarely go out for poshy dinners, so to say that I was excited is an understatement.

As well as the excitement was a slight sense of apprehension. Everyone that I had spoken to about Hawksmoor had raved about the place, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I mean, their meat is sourced from the excellent Ginger Pig and I imagined would be cooked to perfection, but surely a steak is a steak right? I like to think that I can cook a steak quite well, and I travelled to the restaurant on Saturday a touch cynical that I was about to pay quite a considerable amount of money for something not far off a home cooked meal. I had also looked at the menu in advance, where a lot of the meat is listed in the dreaded price per weight system. I generally have quite big issues with this, and find that it places the diner in that awkward situation whereby they order something and then panic that they will have to sell their child in order to pay the unknown bill. Unfortunately (or perhaps not) I’m not in that exclusive crowd who can rock up at these kind of places and not bat an eyelid at how much is being spent.

But as usual, and thankfully, shortly after arriving all of my cynicism fell flat on it’s arse. In fact it started the second we walked through the door. Just like the glorious smell of baking that you get when entering a bakery, my nostrils were invaded by the aroma of chargrilled beef; the sort that has you salivating, and looking around nervously wondering when they will deliver the food that you just HAVE to eat. This combined with the bustling atmosphere and casual furnishings acted as a total leveler. Often these places have an image of soulless pretension, and it certainly wasn’t the case here. 

One thing soon became apparent; Hawksmoor is no place for the indecisive. Once sat down you are given some pretty heavy literature on wine, cocktails and meat to mull over, and everything looks amazing. After much deliberation we went for Hawksmoor Collins cocktails to start, which were a delicious and refreshing way to begin proceedings. We were then given free champagne due to it being our anniversary, offered by our waiter after he enquired if we were celebrating anything. There’s nothing like free champagne to make an occasion feel special, and needless to say we were suitably boozed by the time the food came along. 

When it came to the food, we decided to skip the starters and go for it with the mains. My worries about pricing awkwardness was also alleviated as a chalkboard displayed the weights of the available cuts, so it was easy to calculate and I could relax. Before our visit we decided that we would try one of the famous big sharing joints, and in the end settled for a 900g bone-in rib. T-bone, porterhouse and chateaubriand are also offered, but I think that the rib holds more fat, and more flavour than the fillet type cuts so is my favourite. The sauces and accompaniments also sounded pretty special, so anchovy hollandaise for me, bearnaise for Katie, chips, greens and grilled bone marrow were also winging their way to us. 

Our table was a total mountain of food by the time it came along, and the centerpiece was a skillet filled with glorious charred beef. We asked for our meat to be cooked medium-rare, and I must say that when we first saw it we both were concerned that it was quite underdone. This wasn’t an issue, we both love our meat rare, and when we had our first bite the meat, and our concerns literally melted away. This steak truly lived up to it’s reputation and is honestly the best steak I’ve ever had. The sheer charcoal barbecue flavour was incredible, I almost wanted to wrap some up in tissue to keep with me at all times so that I could always be reminded of the taste. Absolute brilliance. 

The bits on the side perfectly complimented the main event. Both sauces were smooth and tangy and the chips had had as much care in preparation as the meat. The interaction in serving and sharing the food on the table also helped in making the meal that bit more memorable. The only unfortunate revelation of the evening was my discovery that bone marrow isn’t really my cup of tea. I hadn’t tried it before and thought that if I would have it anywhere it would be here. When it came to the table it looked spectacular, huge bones sawn open full of golden caramelised marrow. I didn’t not like it exactly, I just didn’t find the jelly/fatty texture that pleasurable. I’m glad that I ordered it though, and the fact that I didn’t massively enjoy it was at no way the fault of Hawksmoor. I’ve a sly feeling that it may be a slow burner, and that I will end up liking it in the future, so I’ll definitely order it again. I’ve heard that the bone marrow and salsa verde served at the St John is terrific....

We were stuffed and very satisfied after the main, and only had room for some salted caramel ‘rolos’ and aperitifs, which were yet again sublime. 

As with any meal out, especially at this level, the experience and service are so important in making it memorable. The food can be amazing, but if there service is rude or non-existent then that’s what is mostly remembered. But on Saturday the service really made the meal. From minute one we were made so welcome by our waiter, who had the skill to be attentive without crowding. He also made great and honest wine recommendations, choosing a very reasonable bottle, and even offered to take the bone marrow off the bill when I joked that I hadn’t really enjoyed them (which of course I refused). It was the kind of service that all front of house should take note of, and the sort that leaves diners wanting to throw money at them.

We left overjoyed and with a paunch, and already planning how we can justify another visit.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Ballotine of quail with bacon infused polenta, crispy kale and girolles

Well this monday lunch was a bit of a challenge. When I started this blog it was just to write about the everyday things that I cooked, but it seems like I have unleashed an absolute monster. Now I find large chunks of my days off taken with making extravagant lunches, and the days in between mulling over what to do the next time. It’s funny to see how things have changed, but I do really enjoy it and I am definitely a better and more imaginative cook as a result of having to motivate myself every week. Having a weekly blog to write means that I have a deadline and drives away any laziness!

It also means that I have to try and vary things as much as possible. Pasta and fish are probably the foods that I love the most, but what would be the fun in writing about them every single week... Frankly, I dread to think how boring it would be to read too! 

I thought it was about time that I returned to poultry, probably the thing I cook the least outside of very simple day to day cooking. If I'm planning a special dinner then something like chicken is often one of the last things that I think of. So this week I have made a quail dish. Quail is something that I’ve never really cooked with before, but I had an idea in my head for a recipe using quail with polenta, mushrooms and kale so thought that it would be worth an experiment.

Boning a whole bird to use as a ballotine was something that I was worried about the most. I don’t think that my knife skills are too bad, but I’d never tried doing anything like this before. After doing a bit of research and watching some videos on youtube, when it came to it the process wasn’t too bad. Somehow I managed to bone the tiny quail without any ruptures on my first go, I just took my time and was very careful. I feel like this is a bit of a personal achievement; my dad often bones a whole duck for Christmas dinner and it’s always so impressive, now I feel like I can talk to him about how he does it.

Kale and girolles are bang in season and are great things to be eating at the moment. They’re so delicious fried quickly with a bit of butter or in hearty soups. 

Serves 2


For the quail: 

2 quails
2-3 chicken livers, sinew removed
1 bulb garlic
50g spinach leaves
1 tsp thyme leaves
5 thyme sprigs
1 knob butter
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

For the polenta:

50g quick cook polenta
400ml whole milk
1 shallot, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 rashers streaky bacon, cut into small pieces
5 sprigs of thyme
Salt and pepper

For the kale:

1 large handful kale leaves, shredded
1 large knob of butter
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the mushrooms:

15-20 girolles, brushed clean
1 garlic clove
1 knob of butter
Salt and pepper

For the sauce:

The quail carcasses
500ml good chicken stock
1 large glass dry white wine
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
5 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 knobs of butter
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180ºC Fan. 

Start by preparing the quail. Break up the bulb of garlic but leave the skins on the cloves. Put into a small oven dish with the thyme sprigs, seasoning and a little olive oil. Mix well, cover with foil and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cloves are soft and tender. Peel the garlic while still hot and mash up with a fork to a rough puree. Set aside to cool down. 

Heat up a medium saucepan to a medium heat and add the knob of butter. When melted drop in the spinach and seasoning, and cook for a couple of minutes until wilted down and tender. Allow to cool then squeeze out the moisture. 

While the garlic is cooking and the spinach is cooling down prepare the quail itself. Holding the quail breast side down on a chopping board, make an incision down the length of the bird. Very carefully follow the contours of one side of the carcass with the point of the knife, making sure that you don’t break the skin. This is quite tricky without practice so worth taking time over. Repeat on the other side until you are left with a clean carcass and one boneless piece of meat. Keep the bones for the sauce.

Lay the boned quail skin-side down on a board lined with cling film. Lay some of the cooked spinach leaves on top, then spread on some of the roasted garlic. Cut the chicken livers into long strips and arrange down the centre. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and season well. Try not to over-fill, as this will make it likely to fall apart later on. Taking one end of the cling film, carefully roll the quail so that the filling is completely encased by the skin, then seal the cling film around the ballotine and tighten the ends. This package needs to be sealed enough to keep out any water when they are poached later. 

Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to the boil. When hot, drop in the quail packages and cook for 3 minutes before removing. Allow to cool in the cling film. This will help the quail stay in a sausage shape for the rest of the cooking process. You can secure the ballotines with string if they need it once unwrapped.  

To make the sauce, heat a large frying pan on a medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When hot, add the quail bones and cook until well browned on all sides. Add the shallot, garlic, thyme and bay and fry for another couple of minutes until softened. Pour in the white wine and reduce by half, then top up with the stock. Season well. Reduce right down until only about 150ml remains and the sauce has thickened a little. Strain into a small saucepan and allow to cool to finish later. 

Preheat the oven to 200ºC.

While the oven is heating up make the polenta. Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the bacon, garlic, thyme, shallot and seasoning and simmer for a few minutes until the bacon is cooked. Turn off the heat, cover the pan with cling film and allow to infuse for about 20 minutes. 

Once the milk has infused, strain the milk - discarding the flavourings - and pour back into the pan. Bring to the boil. When hot, tip in the polenta and stir well for a couple of minutes until the polenta has expanded and is a wet, spoonable consistency. Taste, season and keep warm while you finish the dish.

Heat a medium frying pan with a large knob of butter and a tablespoon of oil to a medium-high heat. When frothing place the unwrapped and secured quail ballotines and fry for a couple of minutes each side until the skin is golden. Basting with the butter continuously will help achieve this. Remove from the pan, place on a lined baking tray and put in the oven for 6-8 minutes, until a skewer poked into the middle comes out hot. 

While the quail is cooking, reheat the quail frying pan and a separate medium pan on a medium heat, with a knob of butter in each. Add the garlic and girolles to the quail pan with some seasoning and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the kale to the other pan with seasoning and 1 tbsp of water and again cook for 2-3 minutes until slightly crispy.  

Heat up the sauce, then add the butter and whisk well to emulsify. Taste and season if needed. 

Reheat the polenta and adjust the seasoning. 

To serve, spoon some of the polenta into the middle of the plate and top with some of the kale. Slice each ballotine into three pieces and arrange on top of the kale, then place some of the girolles round the sides. Pour over some of the sauce and serve.