Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A luxurious taste of Christmas

I can hardly believe how quickly the year has flown by – Christmas is upon us yet again. I'm doing some final preparations before this year's gastronomic extravaganza kicks off at the weekend and I've been reminded of some highlights from last year.

My brother celebrated his 40th early in 2010 and a couple of years earlier at The Sampler in Islington I laid my hands on some claret from his birth year. He generously decided to share it with us all at Christmas, bless him. I thought it would be fun to partner it with another claret – a comparatively youthful 1990 (although maturing nicely). A traditional, if rather cerebral choice for the turkey, but absolutely delicious – both freshly structured and beguilingly complex – and an interesting contrast to the fuller, spicier wines we often have at Christmas. Southern Rhône being a particular favourite (which we'll be having this year). The clarets topped the bill after an apéritif of ever-elegant Pol Roger, and a gently aromatic, dry Gewürztraminer from Blanck was perfect with our starter of smoked fish. We concluded with some PX – practically Christmas pudding in a bottle. Heady stuff.

Something that featured in last year's dinner was this magnificent and totally decadent stuffing. It's a recipe by Heston Blumenthal from Waitrose Kitchen magazine that includes chestnuts, cranberries, caraway seeds and brandy, sliced and fried in black butter before serving. This year I'll be preparing it in advance to take to my parents' whose turn it is to host and it'll be enjoyed alongside my (late) great-aunt's lemon and herb stuffing. Even if you're having goose, poulet fermier, a turkey crown or smaller game birds for your festive feast, this will make a memorable 'trimming'. A truly luxurious taste of Christmas.

Cranberry and caraway stuffing
Serves 6
280g unsalted butter
7 slices white bread, crusts removed
50g dried breadcrumbs
1 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, diced
1 tbsp groundnut oil
200g sausagemeat
60g cooked chestnuts, chopped
60g dried cranberries
8 sage leaves, finely chopped
15g parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp caraway seeds
140ml brandy
100ml chicken stock
1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 180°C, Gas Mark 4. Melt 250g butter in a saucepan and heat gently until it goes brown and smells nutty, then strain through a fine sieve. Set aside 175g of the strained butter.

Dice the bread slices and combine with the breadcrumbs in a large bowl.

In a small frying pan, melt 15g butter; add the onion and cook on a low heat until soft. Add the celery and remaining 15g butter and cook for 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture.

In a separate pan over a high heat cook the sausage meat in the groundnut oil until browned, breaking it into evenly sized pieces as you go. Add this to the stuffing with the chestnuts, cranberries, sage, parsley and caraway seeds, then return the pan to the heat. Pour in the brandy and boil vigorously for 1 minute so the alcohol evaporates. Scrape up any bits from the bottom of the pan.

Combine 125g of the brown butter with the chicken stock and mix with the stuffing. Season with salt.

Stir through the beaten egg (the mixture should be very moist) and spread on to a parchment-lined baking tray so that it is 1.5cm deep.

Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, then remove and set aside until ready to serve (this can be made the day before).

Slice the stuffing into rectangles, about 5cm x 7cm. Fry in batches, using 1tbsp of the remaining brown butter for each batch, until golden all over.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Smoked garlic and anchovy butter

Garlic – I love it and can't bear the idea of not having any handy in the kitchen. Not only does it transform dishes, but it's good for you, too, being high in Vitamin C and with properties that may help prevent heart disease and certain forms of cancer. As it's also antibacterial, it's useful for fighting colds so, as winter sets in, a warming bowl of vegetable soup, seasoned with some garlic, ginger and citrus juice will do you more good (and will certainly taste better) than the odd mug of Lemsip (which often makes me feel worse – vile stuff). You could even go the whole hog and have garlic soup.

Recently in Swanage I bought some gorgeous oak smoked garlic from The Purbeck Deli. This mouthwatering shop likes to focus on local produce and the garlic came from the Isle of Wight, which, on a bright day you can see across the water from this magnificent stretch of the Jurassic Coast. Back in London some of it was included (whole cloves with skins on) in a chicken roast, but ideally I wanted to preserve it in some way. It's such a rare treat. I decided that the best way to do this was to make a garlic and anchovy butter which could be tucked away in the freezer for using to dress up steak or vegetables. It's ideal for the busy Christmas period when you might need to conjure up an impromptu supper with friends or want spoil yourself with something a bit special. This 'cheffy' detail – despite being incredibly easy – can put a dish into another league.

In a food processor blitz a pack of unsalted butter with the peeled cloves from a head of smoked garlic. Once smooth and creamy, add two tins of drained anchovies and continue blending. Finally season to taste with lemon juice, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sea sea salt (I use Maldon). Turn out, roll into a log shape and wrap generously with clingfilm. You might need to leave it in the fridge to firm up, supported on each side. Freeze and, when required, unwrap one end and slice with a hot knife (you can warm it up in a jug of boiled water – don't try to use a knife straight from the drawer as it won't pass through the hard, frozen butter). Absolutely delicious.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cap Ferret: oyster heaven

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we spent some of our summer holiday with friends on the Cap Ferret peninsular, an hour's drive from Bordeaux. Attracting well-heeled French holidaymakers with a taste for healthy outdoor pursuits and good living, it is not unlike The Hamptons in the United States: relaxed, understated, but still rather chic and bourgeois. However, it has an distinctive local industry that prevents Cap Ferret from getting too chichi as it becomes increasingly fashionable.

Cap Ferret is a thin tongue of land that runs between the Atlantic Ocean curling around, almost embracing, the 37,000-acre Bassin d'Arcachon. This is one of the country's most important oyster farming areas and the primary breeder of oysters that go on to be reared elsewhere in France. Ostreiculture or oyster farming has been present here in various forms since Roman times, and strolling around some of the small towns offers a picturesque glimpse of this industry (along with, of course, the opportunity to taste). The oyster parks and beds – marked by groups of upright stakes that punctuate large parts of the Bassin – date back to the mid 19th century when Napoleon III encouraged organised oyster farming as wild oysters were dying out. The native flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) were gradually replaced by Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea angulata) and, more recently in the 1960s, Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas).

The attractive wooden cabins used by oyster farmers date back to the late 19th century and several incorporate attractive waterside terraces for customers to enjoy local molluscs with crisp, refreshing local wine (usually Entre Deux Mers) for just a few Euros. To the south, beyond the resort town of Arcachon, the spectacular Dune de Pyla will be visible in the distance. Other local seafood is excellent, especially the small, sweet local mussels. Chez Hortense at the southerly tip of Cap Ferret serves enormous portions of moules frites with a meaty sauce enrichened with duck fat; I don't know how their chic regulars remain so trim. (This footage on YouTube is one family's take and shows the glorious location.)

Here are some photographs taken around the villages of Le Canon and L'Herbe (where we had the bargain 15 Euro set lunch at the Hotel de la Plage).

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Sacred Gin: a unique festive treat

It’s amazing what goes on behind closed doors in suburban streets. Crunching through autumn leaves, walking past comfortable Victorian houses, I found it hard to believe I was on my way to meet an award-winning distiller (or, more precisely, micro-distiller) who is based at home in north London.

Until 2008 Ian Hart was a head-hunter in the City whose main client was Lehmann Brothers. We all know what happened next, so, like many people, Hart suddenly found himself with time on his hands and wondering about his career prospects. He had studied natural sciences at Cambridge and, after some initial experimentation with microwave technology, he drew on his love of wine and other alcoholic drinks and started researching the possibilities of distillation.

Hart’s career change has happily coincided with a resurgence of interest in gin and notably London Dry Gin. New small-batch, boutique gins have been emerging such as Sipsmith from Hammersmith and Jensen’s from Bermondsey; premium gins like Hendrick’s, Martin Miller’s and Tanqueray 10 have already helped diversify and broaden the gin market.

In 2009 Ian Hart established the Sacred Spirit Company, named after one of the main botanicals (flavourings) used in his gin – Boswellia Sacra (frankincense). Using his local pub, The Wrestlers on North Hill, as an informal focus group, he developed the gin inspired by a 17th century recipe based on 12 botanicals he hand-distils under vacuum. This allows the distillation process to take place at lower temperatures, retaining the freshness and purity of the aromas.

Gin aficionados and cocktail lovers will be interested in his Open Sauce blending kits (£87.50 for 6 x 20cl bottles at 40 percent ABV) and individually bottled botanical distillates (£28.95 for 70cl; £12.96 for 20cl). My particular favourites are cardamom, mandarin, orris and juniper. I also love the wormwood which is beautifully perfumed and sandalwood-like (if you fancy mixing your own absinthe!) The range also includes vodka and he in the process of being accredited by the Soil Association for full organic status. For me it was like being a kid in a sweetshop, sipping some of the best drinks I’ve ever tasted during my twenty years in the drinks trade. It was like being in the presence of a top perfumier, with a big splash of Heston Blumenthal (and liquid nitrogen) thrown in.

From a standing start and in its first year of trading, Sacred Gin won a leading trade award (Gin Masters 2009: Master Award, 98/100) and is now stocked by Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges and served in some of the country’s most fashionable bars and restaurants (for example Duke’s Hotel in St James’s and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons). Hart has no plans to expand production levels which amount to about 1,500 bottles per month and can be handled comfortably from home. Most of the raw materials are kept in the garden shed and an old wendy house is also used for storage. Inside the house the dining room has been transformed into a lab and, looking around, the battered old reference books and countless bottles reflect the extent of Hart’s passion which is enthusiastically supported by his partner Hilary. His teenage sons who visit regularly have become used to having to turn up the volume on the TV if distillation is in progress.

Serving notes
Sacred Gin has a creamy, mouthfilling texture and delicately perfumed aromas. It isn’t as assertively juniper flavoured as other gins (eg Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Sipsmith and Jensen’s) making it better suited to short drinks and cocktails, rather than mixed into a long drink with tonic, which would overwhelm it. Alternatively, you could blend it to your personal taste with the individual botanicals, creating your own house gin.

Local stockists include Theatre of Wine on Fortess Road, The Sampler on Upper Street, Wine of Course on Archway Road, Village Food and Wine in Highgate High Street and North Hill Food and Wine. As well as the aforementioned Fortnum’s and Selfridges, Sacred spirits are also available at Milroy’s in Greek Street, Gerry’s in Old Compton Street who also stock the company’s vermouths (the Spiced English Vermouth is remarkable – and great added to the gin for a wintery Negroni). As well as Hart’s local, The Wrestlers, several pubs around Highgate now serve it including The Rose and Crown, The Flask and St John’s.

Sacred London Dry Gin (70cl) RRP £29

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Canelés: chic and versatile

In the summer while we were on holiday in Cap Ferret we were able to enjoy some of our favourite local delicacies: canelés. I vividly recall being introduced to them a few years ago when visiting the region. At the time it struck me that if Yorkshire pudding and crème anglaise (or a smart home-made, vanilla-flecked custard) got together they would produce this rather elegant, glamorous offspring. Since then I've wanted to try making them. This summer, while staying in our friends' house again and consulting one of their cookery books, I had the chance. My friend Christine loves canelés, but tends to make a savoury version with cheese and chorizo. I needed to tackle the classic sweet version first.

The recipe looked straightforward. In a large pan heat a litre of milk with 200g caster sugar, 3 sachets of vanilla sugar, 100g butter and 5cl rum until the sugar has dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the flour. This was a bit scary as it looked quite lumpy – I've since seen other recipes which suggest sieving or blending the batter at this stage.

Add four eggs, one at a time, thoroughly beating them into the batter until you have what the recipe describes as a pâte lisse (smooth paste). (I must say this stage was hard work and I ended up with a very achy arm!) This may also be the time to leave the batter overnight or for longer to settle as suggested in many other recipes.

Generously butter the canelé moulds and pour in the batter, but be careful not to overfill. However, buttering the moulds may not be necessary with modern silicone moulds. Some recipes suggest using beeswax instead of or combined with butter to help create the glossy, hard, caramelised exterior, and advocate using traditional copper moulds.

Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C/Gas Mark 6 for 40 minutes. (Mine needed another 10 to 15 minutes and probably could have done with longer. Other recipes suggest starting off at a very high temperature such as 230°C for the first 15 minutes to boost the caramelisation and reducing the temperature for the rest of the cooking. It's also worth being aware of how they rise dramatically and then sink back down again. Don't worry: they're meant to be quite dense and chewy.)

For a first attempt, my results weren't too bad. They lacked the even dark, glossy sheen of the professional examples, but had a good rich vanilla flavour and seductive texture, although they could have done with more of a rum kick. Nevertheless, they were delicious with coffee and made an easily assembled chic dessert, especially when served with seasonal fruit and a glass of Sauternes or Monbazillac.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Spiced apple chutney

You might have a great pile of apples and are wondering what to do with them. Well, you could do a lot worse than stockpile some jars of this delicious spiced chutney. Home-made chutney is a great staple for the larder and is more useful than you might think. This spiced apple chutney goes brilliantly with sharp, mature cheddar and other hard cheeses. It's also a bold accompaniment to coarse, rustic pâté, sausage and mash, hearty pies. Alternatively, try stirring it into casseroles for a bit of extra oomph. This recipe is based on one that appears in Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess.

Spiced apple chutney (this quantity makes about a litre)
500g apples
1 medium onion
2 bird's-eye chillies
250g brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground allspice (or a mixture of nutmeg and cinnamon)
1 teaspoon ground cloves
half a teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 heaped tablespoon chopped or grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
350ml cider vinegar

Peel and roughly chop the apples – you might need to pick them over first to remove any badly bruised flesh (ours came from my parents' garden in Hertfordshire). Chop the onion. Seed the chillies and chop finely. Put all the ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil.

Cook over a medium heat for 40 minutes or so, until the mixture thickens. Spoon into sterilised jars. Try to wait a few weeks before using as it needs time to mellow, otherwise, it will taste too acidic and vinegary.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Guilty pleasures: Butterkist Toffee Popcorn

I was at the cinema earlier this week and one of my friends had bought some Butterkist Toffee Popcorn. God it was good. I can't remember the last time I had it, but crunching through the toffee coating into the soft mallowy popcorn instantly reminded what a fabulously guilty pleasure it is. I know that popcorn has come back into vogue. I've had some rather smart smoky bacon popcorn at Texture restaurant and there are lots more examples of 'gourmet' popcorn, but, I have to say, good old Butterkist takes some beating (although this fancier – salted caramel version from Joe & Seph's at Selfridges looks tempting, too). Empty calories don't get much naughtier than this.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

French food markets: Cap Ferret

I'm easily pleased on holiday. Point me in the direction of a food market and I'll happily amuse myself strolling around gazing, salivating and taking photographs. This summer we spent part of our holiday with friends in Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast in France where we enjoyed plenty of mouthwatering seasonal produce and local delicacies.