Friday, 28 August 2015

Restaurant review: Sabel Feasts, Clapton

Custard tart. Two words which so perfectly sum up the new wave of ingredient-led yet wholesome food that has emerged out of new openings of late. Home cooking, but done better. Plates of food minus smears and quenelles, in relaxed environments minus stiff waiting staff, quaveringly-poised behind your chair whenever they predict that you might require the toilet. Places like Lyles in Shoreditch and Primeur in Highbury have nailed it, somewhere you could take the parents for a celebration meal, or just as easily pop in for a glass of wine and snack. And championed in the middle of all this is the humble custard tart, that familiar staple, elevated with a bit of careful, clever cooking into something dominating column inches and Instagram likes. 

And this is what my eyes quickly focussed on upon first glance of the Sabel pop-up menu. A dreamy list of rissoles (a word that I can only associate with childhood dinners when it was clear that what my mum meant was ‘meatballs’), slow cooked meat, and the current dairy darling, ticklemore cheese. All so refreshing; there were no games in this menu. On second thoughts this wave might not be so modern, and perhaps this is just the norm of what the St John revolutionised all those years ago. But whatever the case, I just wanted to eat it all. And there was a custard tart.
And what a space for it. The Lower Clapton Road is now on the fringes of the relative wild west it used to be, and in that damned name of ‘gentrification’, there are now some rather interesting ventures cropping up. And I would certainly not have imagined for one second that that beautifully restored first floor of the Palm 2 building would exist, all wooden floors, fans of flowers and glorious evening light pouring though large industrial windows. At the end was a shiny fitted professional kitchen, chefs basking in that false pre-service window of ease. Although technically a pop-up, this was certainly no flapping amateur pulling questionable casseroles out of the oven and charging £35 for the pleasure. Sabel meant business. 

But the good nature of the conventional pop-up were carefully maintained. The host and the chef were lovers soon to be wed. The waiters were roped in friends and family, all gunning for the cause and effortlessly friendly. There was a charm similar to childhood stories read from Happy Families books. And the 60-odd covers, about twice that of many permanent openings, were kept compact on trestle tables and everyone encouraged to interweave.
Then there was the food, and this is what mostly set it apart from anything else sharing the pop-up label. Casual, homely food is one thing. Homemade food covers for sloppiness and execution, “here’s something I just rustled up”. Or at the other end of the scale, a load of sterile, disjointed restaurant dishes that feel lonely in such surroundings. But all of the food at Sabel was made and presented with a clever cunning, banquet style food that still wowed and wowed course after course. Early highlights included whipped brown butter on good sourdough and a clever take on a tomato salad; crunchy with seeds with tangy hits of that crumbled ticklemore. And to round off the starters was a platter of beautifully plump and sweet queenie scallops, perfectly accompanied with vibrant pureed avocado and gazpacho dressing. 

The starters were a strong indication of what was to come, and the main certainly didn’t disappoint. China dishes piled high with smoked wheat (a total revelation), peas and lettuce were topped with meltingly flavourful chunks of lamb neck. A few bits of slow cooked meat on a risotto-style base, something simple in theory that could feasibly appear on any home-cooked menu. But this was seriously accomplished cooking, with each ingredient maximised and balanced in total harmony with the next.
As well as the quality, the amounts of food on offer were nailed. As one of the younger children of a large family, there is always a slight panic when sharing food is laid out on a big table that you’re going to receive your fair share. But there was just enough of everything, even allowing for that extra spoon or two of that bit that you particularly liked. Which was all of it. 

And then there was the custard tart. By this point we had been truly bowled over, and were drunk in praise of everything. Had an unboxed supermarket tart been plonked onto the middle of the table, we would have probably fought with excuses as to why this was the right thing. But of course this wasn’t the case, and perhaps this was the course that stole the show. Firm-set but smooth and light as you like, the accompanying berries almost weren’t needed. We had two slices each.
All good meals have you infectiously analysing each bit as soon as it’s over. And as we spilled out onto the Lower Clapton Road, we couldn’t help reliving that smoked wheat, that tomato salad or indeed that custard tart. I can’t tell you how much I recommend Sabel Feasts. For pure enjoyment, quality food and value they would run most restaurants for their money. Which for a pop-up is simply mindblowing.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Cured seatrout with lemon puree, peas, baby courgettes and mint

When at the fishmongers, it is always best to try and buy something as big as possible. Not only does this dodge the ethical issue of eating unsustainable, baby fish, but often it will result in a better finished dish. This is particularly the case with whole fish such as sole, turbot, bass, bream and salmon. A larger fish will yield a thicker fillet, which will cook more evenly and be much more succulent and satisfying to eat than little bits and pieces scraped from the bones. 

Of course, buying large fish is often expensive and impractical if you’re not feeding many. But there are a few ways around this problem. Many types of fish when handled correctly will freeze in individual fillet portions really well, creating a few easy dinners in the month to come. Alternatively, you can try curing or preserving the remaining fish. I’ve been particularly enjoying this in the last few months, and see it as an opportunity to create something completely different out of what would be leftovers. It takes minutes of effort and once cured will keep in the fridge for a good few days. Most fresh fish can be prepared in this way; this year alone I’ve had great results with gurnard, brill, salmon and mackerel.
To turn my cured fish into a finished dish, I always consider the final balance of flavour. Oiliness, saltiness, sweetness, sharpness and texture all needs to be judged properly to get the best out of the fish. For this recipe, I’ve used some of the wonderful sweet summer peas and baby courgettes that are right in season at the moment. It really is worth making the effort to shell each little pea properly, as this will remove any bitterness. To counter the sweetness, I’ve made a punchy lemon puree. This stuff is strong, and you certainly don’t need much of it on the finished plate.
As with the last recipe, the seatrout season has now finished (boo!). But good quality salmon will work perfectly in its place, as would a firm white fish such as monkfish, john dory or brill. Just increase or shorten the curing time depending on the thickness and density of the fillet.
Serves 2
For the cured seatrout:
1 thick top end of a seatrout fillet, about 400g, pin-boned 
150g sugar 
150g salt 
A few sprigs of mint 
A few sprigs of tarragon 
1 lemon, zest only
For the lemon puree:
2 Sicilian lemons, peeled 
130g caster sugar 
½ a lemon, juice only 
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the vegetables:
2 large handfuls of fresh British peas 
3 baby courgettes
To finish:
Extra virgin olive oil 
A few sprigs of mint 
A handful of peashoots

First get the seatrout on to cure. Put the sugar and salt in a food processor with the tarragon, mint and lemon zest and blend well until everything is finely chopped. Tip half of it into a dish large enough to snugly fit the seatrout in. Pop the fish on top, then cover with the remaining half of the cure mixture, making sure all sides are covered. Seal the top with clingfilm and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, until the seatrout has firmed up. Rinse the fish well and pat dry with kitchen roll. Remove the skin, then carefully slice into thin ‘D’ cuts. 

While the fish is curing, make the lemon puree. Put the lemons into a saucepan and cover with water. Sprinkle in about 10g of sugar and bring to the boil. Drain the water away, then repeat this process another 7 times, until the lemons are very soft. Transfer the lemons to a food processor and blend into a puree with the lemon juice, some salt and pepper and a teaspoon of the caster sugar. With the motor still running, drizzle in the olive oil until emulsified. Have a taste and adjust if needed, you want it to be quite sharp. Pass through a fine sieve and pour into a plastic bottle. Set aside for plating.
Fill up a saucepan and bring to the boil. While you’re waiting for the water to heat up, pod the peas. Add a little salt to the water and blanche the peas for two minutes, then refresh in a big bowl of cold water. Drain well, then squeeze the shells away from the sweet inner-peas. Dress the peas with a good glug of olive oil and a pinch of seasoning. Trim the baby courgettes and slice into thin rounds, then add to the peas. 

To plate up, arrange some slices of the seatrout onto each plate. Dot a little of the lemon puree around the plate, and scatter over the peas and courgette. Finish with some peashoots, mint leaves and a final drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Pan-fried and hot smoked wild seatrout with date, braised chicory, rocket and white balsamic

After Katie and I got married back in June, we spent the following week driving around the west coast of Scotland, meandering through mountain ranges and hopping on and off ferries as we explored Skye, Lewis and Harris. We got lucky on the wedding day itself, with glorious sunshine that burned the back of my neck and had all of the children cartwheeling in the fields. We royally paid for it on our honeymoon though, and bore the true reality of a Scottish summer. Horizontal rain was frequent, and night temperatures had me reaching out for an extra blanket. But we were full of dizzy adrenaline-fuelled happiness and nothing could have dampened our spirits. 

Part of the objective for our honeymoon was exploring the food that that part of the country had to offer. It seemed as though you couldn’t talk to anyone about the islands without hearing a story about a £5 lobster, a ginormous black pudding or the best fish supper in the land. We hit jackpot on our first night, when we decided to treat ourselves with a stay at The Three Chimneys on Skye. The whole experience was sensational, and I can honestly say that the meal that we had there was the best food that I have ever eaten. Everything was so delicately and fantastically judged, and each dish was crammed full of produce grown, caught or reared a matter of miles away. I wish that I could visit again for more crab and apple parfait, Cullen skink and marmalade soufflĂ©. All in an environment where you could walk out the door and be blasted with fresh sea air.
Obviously that meal was going to be hard to top, but the rest of the holiday was still scattered with truly memorable eating experiences. From wonderful steaming hot fish and chips overlooking Portree harbour, to frying thick wedges of steak on a campfire, whilst sea otters played yards away in the estuary. We even managed to find a remote roadside honesty box on bleak and barren Harris crammed full of the most delicious frangipane tarts. So although we’re still searching for that bargain lobster or bucketful of langoustines, I think we managed ok.
And these happy recaps lead me onto this recipe. I wanted to take inspiration from our travels, and incorporate a very Scottish ingredient into this blog. While we were away in late June, sea trout were bang in season, flooding the rivers on their journey back from the oceans. When I returned back to work I had access to some fantastic wild fish from Montrose, and having never cooked one before I jumped at the chance.
Obviously I’m a little late with this post and the season for seatrout is sadly over for another year. But now with wild salmon season in full swing, they would make a perfect substitute.
Serves 2
For the pan-fried seatrout: 

2 fillets of wild seatrout from a 2kg fish, trimmed and pin-boned
For the date puree:
1 handful of dates, stoned 
1 lemon, juice only 
1 tbsp caster sugar 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
2-3 tbsp boiling water
For the hot-smoked seatrout: 

2 thin slices of seatrout, approx. 70g each 
1 tbsp honey 
1 bunch of thyme 
1 handful of rice 
2 tbsp of caster sugar
For the braised chicory:
3-4 heads of chicory, leaves sliced lengthways 
2 tbsp caster sugar 
2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar 
1 garlic clove, finely chopped 
3 tbsp olive oil
For the dressing:
1 tbsp white balsamic vinegar 
1 tsp Dijon mustard 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
A squeeze of lemon juice
To finish:
2 tbsp pine nuts 
1 handful rocket leaves

Start by hot-smoking the seatrout. Mix the honey with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Pour onto a plate and use to coat the seatrout slices all over. Line a heavy baking tray with foil and line the bottom with the sugar, rice and thyme sprigs. Place a rack above so that it sits an inch or two above. Seal the top with a large sheet of foil. Set onto a medium-high heat, and when it starts smoking, place the seatrout onto the rack. Replace the foil and allow to smoke for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Transfer to a plate and set aside. 

For the date puree, pop the dates into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 10-15 minutes to soften, then transfer to a small food processor with the lemon juice, caster sugar and some salt and pepper. Blend well, and with the motor still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Thin out with a little more boiling water if needed. Transfer into a plastic bottle.
Set a large frying pan onto a medium heat. Add a good glug of olive oil, then tip in the chicory, sugar and garlic. Allow to fry and lightly caramelise for a couple of minutes, then drizzle over the balsamic vinegar. Turn the heat down and gently cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the chicory has softened and the vinegar has reduced. Season well and stir in another tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. 

While the chicory is braising, make the dressing. Pour the vinegar and lemon juice into a small bowl and stir in the mustard and a bit of seasoning. Slowly incorporate the oil with a whisk until well emulsified. Taste and add more seasoning, lemon or vinegar if necessary.
Finally pan-fry the seatrout fillets. Heat a non-stick frying pan up to a medium-high temperature and add a good glug of oil. Season the fillets well and cook skin-side down for 3-4 minutes. Use a spoon to baste the tops of the fillets well with the hot oil. Turn the fillets over and take the pan off the heat; the residual heat will finish the cooking.
To plate up, spoon some of the braised chicory onto each plate and add a piece of the hot-smoked fish to one side. Dot on a few blobs of the date puree. Position a pan-fried fillet on top, and scatter around some of the rocket leaves and pine nuts. Finish with a good amount of the dressing.