29/11/2015

Albert’s Table: a revisit

They say never go back, but when it comes to excellent restaurants I see no reason not to revisit again and again.

Once such place is Albert’s Table, in South Croydon. I was first alerted to them by a Jay Rayner column, so we visited back in September 2011. We’ve been a fair few times since, and at the end of a rainy Saturday in November, we went again. Because we could.

Flower

I know people are rather disparaging about Croydon, but there really is no need. It is multicultural, with good bits and bad bits, just like any other town. South End – or Restaurant Row as it is known – isn’t pretty, and lots of places there have a high turnover, but you know that the ones that manage to stay are very good. They have to be.

Albert’s Table opened in 2008, and they are still going strong. The owner and head chef is Joby Wells, grandson of the restaurant’s namesake. You can have a look at him cooking on their website. The one of him cooking steak just makes me crave some bread to soak up all the buttery juices.

To quote Inside Croydon

“Chef and owner Joby Wells didn’t always want to be a chef. After high school he went to university, graduating in mechanical engineering. It was while studying he worked as a commis chef in the kitchens of the halls of residence, and it was here that he realised what he wanted to do.

He started working in some of the best kitchens that London had to offer, including the Oxo Tower and La Trompette. After seven years in a high-pressure cooking environment, Wells decided that the time was right to strike out on his own.”

I have to say that I am very glad he did.

The cooking celebrates fresh, local British produce, and the menu is seasonal. I like going in to see what’s new on the menu, and find out what vegetable is going to feature this time. You do not expect to get Jerusalem artichokes and salsify in South Croydon, but perhaps we should.

It remains a calm and quiet restaurant. It doesn’t have hushed tones, or a stilted atmosphere, far from it, but it just feels like the town outside has been firmly left behind.

Restaurant

The staff is welcoming, and well trained, but not intrusive. None of this hovering around, asking if you are alright every few minutes. There will be a subtle refilling of your water glass, or a quiet suggestion to maybe try a little butter on the complimentary gougeres (we did) but that’s it. I keep saying that I really need to learn how to make those at home.

Gougeres

 

Fresh bread

There is always indecision about the menu. I used to be able to decide by choosing things that I would never cook at home, but as I have become far more adventurous in my cooking, I have rather been hoist by my own petard. Oh calamity.

Eventually we managed to choose. S chose more quickly than I, so the lovely waitress, Laura, had to come back again, but eventually we got there.

Look at this.

STARTERS

Cornish Lobster & brandy Soufflé (+£5)

Short crust tart of Dorset crab, rouille dressing and fine leaves

Poached wood pigeon with mountain lentils, red wine and shaved chestnuts

Roast onion, Kernel ale & ham hock broth, with a warm grain mustard brioche

Escabeche of Cornish mackerel with beetroot puree, fresh basil and poached quail eggs

Tortellini of truffle potato, and shaved Wiltshire truffle, and Mornay sauce (+£5)

Difficult to choose!

We both decided to try the Lobster Soufflé to start, because we could. Lobster is something I definitely don’t cook at home. On the one hand, someone else can have all the faff, but I also have a contact allergy to fish/crustaceans, so I’ll just give that a miss.

Souffle

The soufflé was so very good. Piping hot, so I let some of the steam out, and with a good crust at the edges. There was a nice contrast between the fluffy and creamy interior, and the crispier outer edges. 

Inside the souffle

Chunks of lobster were all the way through, suspended in the egg mixture. I will admit I do not like things that are too ‘eggy’ but this was just right.

Then came the mains. I had a really hard time choosing from these. I just didn’t want to miss out on anything.

MAIN COURSES

Pheasant; roast breast & cannelloni of leg, with red cabbage, garlic cream, and roast parsnip

Loin of aged Hereford beef, with a little mushroom and tarragon pie, char-grilled leeks and red wine sauce (+£5)
(If you prefer your beef well done, we recommend our eight-hour braise of feather blade)

Roast haunch of Knole Park venison (served pink) with chanterelle mushrooms, root vegetables and crisp suet, venison & chicken liver dumplings
Romney Marsh lamb; Glazed shoulder & roast rack of with fried polenta, Jerusalem artichoke, scorched onion and buttered kale

Atlantic cod, with red wine onions, butter roast salsify and brandade croquette

Fish of the day with mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, parsley, caper & lemon relish and a chilli and anchovy oil

Roasted Jerusalem artichokes, scorched onions & grilled leeks, with hazelnut and caper scones, and red wine

I chose the Hereford beef, and S chose the venison. Then next door’s dinner came to their table, and the lamb looked oh so very good. Yes, I am well aware that these are very definitely first world problems.

It was the mushroom and tarragon pie that swung me, though the Jerusalem artichokes did put up a struggle, winking at me with their windy ways, but the fungi won. It’s something I never have at home due to husband being allergic, so it does tend to call out to me on a menu.

What can I say. Yet again, the meal did not disappoint. If you like your beef well done, the menu politely suggests that you order the eight hour braise of featherblade, and I may well try that next time as I adore blade.

Be warned, the roast beef is rare, but it is expertly cooked. With a lot of aged beef, there can be a very strong back taste, almost liverish, which isn’t to my liking at all but this had none of that. Just a good, strong beef flavour, almost caramelised on the outside, and with a proper texture to it. This was an animal that had done some work in its lifetime.

The chargrilled leeks were beautifully sweet, and tender, and oh, my little pie! Beautifully flaky pastry, with a buttery finish, and savoury mixed mushrooms all bedded down into what tasted like a creamy tarragon sauce at the bottom. Butter, mushrooms, tarragon. You simply cannot go wrong with that.

Beef      

Pie with lid

The venison was similarly excellent. I tasted a small piece, together with some of the light chicken liver dumpling that accompanied it, and both were delicious. The venison had a fresh, delicate taste, not gamey, which I know might disappoint some but for me it was perfect. 

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We always say we might not go for dessert, and then the menu comes round and…well you can guess what happens next.

Dessert, that’s what.

Simon had a Cox’s apple, blackberry and almond slice with vanilla ice-cream

Cox apple and almond slice

and mine consisted of all the dark chocolate in the surrounding area.

It was a hot chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce and frozen hazelnut parfait. It was also a light sink. I appear to have photographed a light absorbing entity on my plate. I really would have like this to have been served in a bowl because I hated to leave any of that sauce behind on a hard to scrape clean plate.

See? Light absorption. I could have eaten that sesame wafer many times over.

Light sink

Gooey and dense

We honestly did not have room for coffee.

It’s such a nice place to go, and forget the world outside for a few hours. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch them getting better, and better.

28/11/2015

Use It Up: Lebanese 7 Spice Shepherd's Pie

My husband has been away since last week and, as is usual when he is away, I bought ALL THE VEGETABLES.

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Cooked vegetables are really not his thing, other than corn, green beans, peas, potatoes and carrots. (He likes raw veggies, and almost all salads.) I, on the other hand, eat pretty much all vegetables, any way I can get them.

He’s back tomorrow evening, and I only have a few supplies left to use up, so tonight I did just that. As a ‘throw it all in’ cook, who doesn’t use recipes, I’ve tried my best to write down what I did!

I had 2 leftover honey roasted cauliflower slices, (photo for size)

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2 small parsnips and a butternut squash that had seen better days. (Which I only realised when I picked it up.) I had 2 sad spring onions, and 2 shallots as well, plus a bunch of parsley.

I’d already got lamb mince defrosted, and I knew that had to be cooked off, so Shepherd’s Pie came to mind. As is usual with me, I decided to spice it up because I was only cooking for me. I knew I  had Medjool dates left from the Mincemeat last week. so off I went. I think you could also do this with a mixture of chopped mushrooms and Quorn, or lentils. Just use a veggie stockpot and maybe up the spices a little.

Lebanese 7 Spice Shepherd's Pie

2 small parsnips, peeled

1/2 medium butternut squash, cubed and roasted off (the solid end)

2 ‘steaks’ of cauliflower, previously roasted in honey until soft

25g flat leaf parsley

500g lamb mince (the pack that didn’t go into the Mediaeval Mincemeat)

2 shallots, diced

2 spring onions, chopped

5 Medjool dates, de-stoned and chopped into small pieces

1 handful of frozen petit pois

2 tsp Lebanese 7 spice powder (or any Middle Eastern spice blend)

1 beef stock pot (or just use a beef bouillon cube)

1/3 cup apricot brandy (also left from the mincemeat)

1/4 cup red wine (left over from a Bolognese sauce a while back)

Grated anari cheese or parmesan

Peel the parsnips, and slice into coins. Cook in a microwave jug, just covered with water, until tender. (3 minutes in our microwave) DON’T THROW AWAY THE WATER.

Tip the mince into a large but shallow dry pan, and cook over a fairly high heat so that you get a good browned crust on it. If you use a wide pan, it helps that to happen, and it doesn't stew in its own juices.

Once the meat is browned all over, pop that in another bowl, and cook off the shallots and spring onions in the meat juices. (I also added in a little more olive oil as not a lot of fat had come out of the lamb.)

Once the onions are soft, add the meat back in, along with the chopped dates and 1/2 tsp garlic granules.

Pour in the wine and the brandy, then add the stock pot.

Add the parsnip water in to dissolve the stock pot.

Tip in the handful of frozen peas and simmer on a low heat while you make the mash.

Pop all the cooked vegetables in a food processor, and blend until creamy, adding olive oil if it’s too thick.

Grate in some nutmeg (just a few grates), add in half the parsley and pulse to mix. Taste the veggies, and add salt if you think it needs it.

Check the meat, if there’s too much liquid, cook it for a little longer. You want it to be thick.

Add the rest of the chopped parsley to the meat mixture, and turn off the heat. Stir to mix.

Tip the meat into an ovenproof dish

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and spoon the mash all over the top, smoothing out with a fork, then sprinkle with grated cheese.

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Stand the dish on a baking tray in case of spillages, and then pop it in the oven at 170C for about 30 minutes. It will bubble up around the edges, which is why it’s on a baking tray.

It is quite rich, and deeply savoury. The anari cheese doesn’t melt, but parmesan may well do.

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The vegetable mix makes for a very good mash, that’s not heavy or cloying. I shall do that again with leftovers!

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This would feed 3 people, or me for an entire weekend. 

23/11/2015

Sprouts Are Not Just For Christmas Salad

I love sprouts. There. I said it.

It’s true though, I really do! I used to hate them as a child, and would try to hide them under leftover mash, but then as I got older, and my tastebuds changed, I got to liking them, and then to loving them.

Poor, maligned creatures they are, left on the side, pushed away, invited to Christmas dinner every year but then cast out into the cold of the rubbish bin and discarded. It shouldn’t have to be this way. I’m sure it’s because people have only eaten them when they have been boiled to death, turned into small, soggy globules of waterlogged green, where all taste has long since leached into the water. No amount of butter can revive something like that. It’s too far gone, and should be given a decent burial in the compost heap.

To prevent such tragedy, the spout needs to be treated nicely. It’s a delicate vegetable, that doesn’t need cooking from November to December. A light steam, then a dressing of butter, lemon and thyme, or cut in half, sautéed gently in butter and bacon until they just start to turn soft.

Today I wanted an even lighter way of eating them, and I love getting more greens into my dinners.

Sprouts Are Not Just For Christmas Salad

3 rashers smoked bacon (I had chestnut wood smoked, which struck me as vaguely Christmassy)

2 spring onions, finely chopped

10 sprouts, outer leaves taken off, and finely sliced

1 large portobello mushroom, thinly sliced

4 tbs garlic oil

2 tbs white wine vinegar

1/2 tsp dried tarragon

I started off by cutting the mushroom crosswise into thin slices, then popped the slices into a bowl with some garlic oil, white wine vinegar and 1/2 a tsp of dried tarragon. I gave it a mix to coat all the slices with the dressing, and then left it to sit.

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I diced the bacon into small pieces, and put it to cook in a deep pan with a little olive oil.

Then I got to work slicing the sprouts on the side of the cheese grater, but decided I liked my knuckles too much, so resorted to a very sharp knife instead and cut the sprouts in half lengthways, then across into thin slices.

Meanwhile the bacon had started to crisp and let out its fat, so I threw in the chopped spring onions, and mixed them in well with the bacon.

Once the sprouts were all sliced, I popped them in the pan, and cooked them quite fast, using two spoons to toss them around and coat them with the oil. (Thank you La Nigella for that tip)

Once the sprouts had started to soften, I tipped the whole lot into my 70stastic leaf serving dish (yes, it is that old) put the mushrooms on top and then poured the rest of their dressing into the hot sprout shreds.

This dish is best eaten while it’s still warm, it’s really not as good cold.

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Give it a go. No sprout should be alone at Christmas.

22/11/2015

Seasonal Salad

I do love a good salad. Not the old British version that was a strip of lettuce, a tomato, a few slices of cucumber and some salad cream – though there is a place for that, and I love salad cream – but a full on, flavour packing plate of different flavours and textures.

I like making paintings on a plate, and finding colours to contrast with the base of rice, or grains or pulses but, most of all, I like eating them.

With the sudden downturn in the temperature this week, my seasonal tastes turned to clementines, and dates. Dates I had in abundance, dye to making Mediaeval Mincemeat earlier in the day, during which activity one of the old time inhabitants of my kitchen became a mincemeat casualty. The spoon has been with me since we bought our first flat in 1992.

The patterned spoon on the left will now become my mincemeat spoon.

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Clementines I definitely had as I had bought some last week, and they were looking at me like I’d abandoned them. (I had.) Time to do something with them.

I thought I had pearl barley, but I think I’ve buried it somewhere in the depth of the cupboard. Cous cous just wasn’t right, and so I found some farro instead. It doesn’t take long at all to cook.

50g quick cook farro

1 litre water

1 tin of Merchant Gourmet puy lentils, drained and rinsed

2 clementines, peeled and segmented

4 Medjool dates

Juice of 1/2 an orange

2 tsp tahini

olive oil

salt

2 tsp honey

Anari cheese (the hard variety) or gran padano/parmesan

Bring the water to the boil, tip in the farro, and simmer it for 10-12 minutes until it’s tender.

Drain it well, season to your taste with salt, and mix with a little olive oil to coat.

Mix in the drained lentils

Chop each date into 3, and cut each clementine segment in half. Mix with the warm farro.

Mix the juice of half an orange with 2 teaspoons of tahini (the light coloured one), and a good squirt of runny honey, then pour over the warm lentils.

Grate the cheese over the top, and add a drizzle of fruity olive oil.

Eat while still gently warm.

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15/11/2015

Chocolate Chip Buckwheat Cookies

Ever since I read about triple chocolate buckwheat cookies in Simply Nigella, I knew I had to try baking some. It’s like an itch in my brain that won’t go away until I give in and buy the ingredients.

I reread the recipe yesterday, and realised that the inspiration for Nigella’s recipe was from London Bakes. *waves at Kathryn*

Nigella’s recipe sounds lovely but, well, I couldn’t be faffed with different bowls, and melting chocolate. I wanted quick and easy. Off to London Bakes I went, and got the original recipe.

Here are the (slightly tweaked, of course) results.

115g cold butter, cubed

150g soft muscovado sugar (I prefer less sweet cookies)

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

180g buckwheat flour

1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1/2 teaspoon salt (plus extra to sprinkle on top if you're so inclined)

150g dark chocolate (70%), chopped (I only had 100g, so made the weight up with cinnamon baking chips)

Beat the cold butter and sugar until light and fluffy. This takes about 5 minutes and do use a handheld electric whisk if you can. It takes a while to get the butter to soften enough to take up the sugar. (I’m sure soft butter would be okay too, to cream with the sugar if you do not have an electric whisk.)

Add the egg and vanilla and whisk until everything is mixed in, and smooth.

Add all of the dry ingredients and beat until just combined, no more than that.

At this point I put the dough bowl in the fridge, as it was quite late at night, and the dough is rather sticky.

Sunday morning rolled around.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F and line a baking tray with non-stick baking parchment, or silicone liner.

Roll into balls (I basically just squidged the cookie dough into round shapes) and place on the baking tray. Space well apart, as they spread.

Bake for 8 - 10 minutes until the cookies are just golden around the edges. Allow to cool on the baking tray for 10 - 15 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish the job.

London Bakes: “Any extra dough can be popped in the freezer and baked from frozen - just add a couple of minutes to the cooking time.”

They are crisp around the edges, and soft in the middle at 10 minutes’ baking. There is a slightly different mouthfeel – perhaps akin to rice flour – but they are very tasty indeed.

Dough

Spaced

Proto Cookie

Spreading

Baked

Gratuitous Close Up

13/11/2015

Hope and Forever Greenwood

Most of you will have noticed the BBC series called Sweets Made Simple, with the lovely animations and scrumptiously naughty sugar mice. 

It had the same aura of The Great British Bake Off, the scent of an era that we wish had happened, with flowery tea towels, and clipped vowels, when received pronunciation was the norm. Simpler days, like the summers that were always long and hot when you were a child, and the rain that pattered only at night. It's mostly an imagined era, though you do get people that can remember when the apron with pockets was queen of the kitchen regalia, along with pale yellow fittings, and twin tub top loading washing machines. 

A time when we all made sweets with Grandma (I know we all didn't), and didn't get fillings (oh yes we did) and life was full of sunshine. 

When Kitty Hope and Mark Greenwood burst onto our screens with the beautiful kitchen, and their sauciness (Cherry Chapel Hatpegs? Matron.) and the sheer ease with which they reintroduced the sweet making skills of the past, it was like a waft of the good old days had come in through the open window. The Bisto Kids, but made of sugar and vanilla and all things good.

Gentle, and smiling - much like the Nigel Slater show about childhood biscuits - with oh such deliciousness bubbling away in a saucepan, or setting in clouds of snowy icing sugar.

Turkish Delight reminiscent of Narnia, where a lot of us longed to be, for a while. Marshmallows tempting in their rounded whiteness, plumped out with raspberry jewels. English Almond Butter Toffee, with golden layers of crunch, and buttery smoothness surrounding the whole.

How could we fail to love them? 

Hope and Greenwood

Everything old fashioned and good shone through. People were enthralled.

Their shop in Covent Garden because a haven for grown ups escaping the stresses of work in their lunch hours, to pore over jars and jars of old time confections, and sneak a few Toffee Kisses or Aniseed Balls here and there. Their Peanut Butter Truffles became knows as Emergency Chocolates at work, because people didn’t just want them, they said they needed them.

Coconut Ice, and proper fudge, all were accessible, and made people happy. The books came out and people made pan after pan of fudges, and candies. No longer scared to work with sugar, because Kitty and Mark had taken that mystique away.

I remember reading Kitty’s blog, way back when, and roaring with laughter at how she wrote about their adventures. To have them actually ON MY TELEVISION SCREEN was the proverbial fondant on the fairycake.

I wanted to walk along the beach with them, and eat caramels by the sea. I watched them time and again when I was feeling low, because they made me smile so much. I’d even try chillies with white chocolate because they made them look so good.

Then the series ended.

They were still all over Twitter, having terribly good fun and jolly times. They were – are are -  brilliant social media-ites, caring, and engaging, making us feel that we mattered to them. Mark’s moustache became more waxed, Kitty’s shoes were still fabulous.

A few months ago, I saw that the shop had closed.

With a sinking feeling I tweeted at Kitty and she confirmed that yes, it had closed, but never say never.

Then came An Announcement.

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Mark: “We can keep our names but not as a confectionery business.”

We don’t know what happened, exactly, or why. But what we DO know, is that Hope & Greenwood THE BRAND is not, and never will be, anything without the original and best Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood.

It was their love, and joy, and brilliance that made the books and the blog and the series what it was. (Not to mention a very, very fine producer in Melanie Jappy.)

I believe they still own the rights to the books, so get buying you lot!

Beware the H&G brand in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. It is NOT theirs any more. The packaging is wrong, the letters off kilter.

The rumour I heard is that the Monty Bojangles people bought them out, and then sacked them. Well if that was you, then shame on you for what you have done.

The outpouring of real grief on Twitter has been astounding. That Company may as well have just sold the Queen, or turned Nelson’s Column into a Poundland, or called Mary Berry names.

Kitty and Mark fully engaged with us, their fans and supporters, and the silence from the new people is utterly deafening in its coldness. Trying to shill the public that K&M are still Hope & Greenwood the brand.

Well I tell you, New Owners, you may be the man in black with the pointy moustache and the top hat, who has tied Our Heroes to the railway lines, but they will escape, and they will thwart you.

They will come back bigger, and better, and DAMMMIT MAN TWICE AS JOLLY AS BEFORE.

Because they have what you do not have. Passion, and heart, and us.

And unsuitable shoes.

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01/11/2015

Melitzanasalata and last minute mash.

You know that thing where you’re out shopping, and you get all excited and inspired by ingredients, buy them, bring them home, then…forget them?

Well, I always do that with aubergines, and tinned beans.

Beans are great, I eat them a lot, so long as I don’t put the tins away in the cupboard. *rolls eyes*

I love eating aubergines. But I always seem to forget about them once I’ve bought them, or mealtimes just end up being something that doesn’t go with aubergine and a few days later I find what essentially looks like  a large prune, sitting in the corner of the kitchen asking for a dignified and quick end.

Oops. I’m sorry aubergines. It honestly isn’t you. It’s me. I promise.

In a conscious effort to stop the same thing happening yet again, and to avoid being dubbed the nightshade killer, I viciously stuck my one aubergine onto a gas flame.

It wobbled around a bit, and refused to sit still.

Remembering that I had a gas diffuser in the cupboard (it’s easier to balance the Moka coffee pot on) I saw no reason not to use that as a roasting platform. The aubergine was a lot more comfortable, and I popped on some cloves of garlic and a shallot too, just for the hell of it.

I scorched them for about half an hour, so that all sides of the aubergine had some smokey skin, then roasted everything in the oven for a bit too, as the aubergine was being shockingly badly behaved and refusing to soften, but I showed it who was boss.

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Once the aubergine had cooled down enough to handle, I scraped all of the soft flesh out into a bowl, and mashed it together with the soft pulp of the garlic and the shallot.

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I had to add in some olive oil to thin the aubergine out a bit, then popped in a tablespoon of tahini, a squeeze of runny honey to balance the bitter hint of the tahini, and then a squeeze of lemon.

Perfect. Not at all pretty, but very tasty indeed. It became one side to go with a goose fat roast chicken a la Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III.

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The other side was where the tinned beans got their outing. Everyone else was having mashed potato, and I wanted some form of mash to go with the chicken juices, but not potato.

Borlotti beans it was.

1 400g tin borlotti beans

1 tbs extra virgin olive oil

1-2 tbs almond butter*

1/4 tsp smoked garlic granules (use garlic salt if you cannot get the smoked one)

Drain the beans, then put them into a bowl and smoosh them with your hands. It’s way easier than using a potato masher, and you don’t want a smooth puree.

Once it’s mostly smooth, but with some bits of beans, get the excess of your hands – yep, sticky! – and them stir in the oil, almond butter and garlic salt.

That’s it!

I did the goose fat chicken, and it was lovely. Stayed nice and moist (ha, yes, I said moist) though the skin didn’t turn as golden as it does with butter.

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Again with the not pretty, but oh my goodness this mash is gorgeous. It would be fabulous as a layer in a sandwich, maybe with roast peppers.

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*I make my own as it’s cheaper (roasted almonds with the skins on, whizzed in the food processor for about 10 minutes, with added olive oil to make a paste.) but you can buy it ready done.