Sunday, 29 November 2009

Larry Lobster bites the dust

One of the huge benefits of living on the coast in a place like Aldeburgh (in fact, the main benefit) is having a fisherman like Dean Fryer on your doorstep selling that day's catch.  Normally, when he catches lobsters in his pots he boils them and sells them pink and ready to devour cold with, say, mayonnaise.  If you catch him early (or phone him the day before) he'll have a lobster live for you which is what you want if you want to grill or fry and benefit from a secret ingredient within. 

To kill Larry humanely you chill him down gradually in the 'fridge (with a damp cloth over him) and then when he's pretty still you put him in the freezer to send him into a coma.  A couple of hours later when he's completely still you can cut him in half. He might wriggle a bit but that's just his overdeveloped nervous system whose sensibility is in inverse proportion to the size of his brain.  It doesn't hurt.

The secret ingredient you don't really notice (or might not eat) if you buy your lobster cooked and which is ignored also by most restaurants who use live lobsters is the tomalley which is the liver (above).  It is absolutely delicious just briefly fried in butter and spread on toast but a top chef like Anton Mosimann will be using it to enrich a complicated sauce to accompany the lobster.  On cooking it goes from a beige colour to green.  It doesn't taste remotely fishy.  It's a kind of foie gras from the sea.  Or for those of you who don't eat foie gras, perhaps it's similar to calf's brains.  I must say I did feel a little like Hannibal Lecter when scooping out the wobbly organ above.

Curiously, even lobster suppliers tend to ignore this delicacy.  Once the tomalley has been removed the lobster is ready to grill.  The inedible "dead men's fingers" or gills can be taken out now though it's probably easier to do this when the lobster is cooked.  Now is the time for the cook to have a break, prewarm the grill, make some toast, open the wine, spread the fried tomalley on the toast and test the wine.  By the time this is done the grill is hot enough to place Larry cut in half under the grill with a knob of butter on each half.  He only needs about 10 minutes when he'll have gone from jet black to a beautiful orangey pink.  He doesn't need seasoning because he's naturally pretty salty.  This gives the chef the time to appreciate the wine and decide whether the temperature is correct and whether the wine needs decanting to aerate it a bit if it's a bit too young.
Larry weighing in at about 1 1/2 pounds was a bit too high for my grill so I ended up frying him.
The tail meat is normally most highly prized by fans but I actually prefer the claw which is juicier and less firm.  But for me the real treat is the shell and crunching on the crunchy bits which have slightly caught under the grill or in the frying pan.  These bits are really sweet and exotic tasting, almost like a piece of pork crackling.  The best bits are the eyes. 
If just boiling a crustacean I prefer crab because I like the brown meat which has more taste and in a crab is more plentiful (and more easily accessible) than the white.  However, a grilled, or fried, lobster (or for that matter, langoustine) is the king and the reaction of dry heat (plus butter) against shell produces an incredible, complex sweetness which begs to be tempered by the very finest white wine.  The usual choice would be Burgundy but why not young, very cold Sauternes (especially if the shellfish is accompanied by a creamy sauce flavoured with saffron)?
 In my case, I couldn't stretch to the finest Burgundy though this Mâcon Cruzilles 1999 dom Guillot Broux did its best to impersonate something grand from the Côte d'Or with its smoky, nutty nose and buttery, rich albeit crisp palate.

A perk for the greedy chef is to mop the pan with a piece of bread.  The combination of caramelised shell juice and brown butter is the stuff made of (sweet) dreams.  Just make sure you use unsalted butter, preferably French.  Salted burns too easily.  And don't throw the empty shell away..... save for stock to make bisque or risotto.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lunch at Hereford Road, Notting Hill

I received an email last week from an outfit called Taste Club of which I was apparently a 'member'.  It invited me to buy a place for a 'Taste Tuesday' lunch, proceeds of which (well, some of the profit I guess) would go to the StreetSmart charity.  The name Taste reminded me offputtingly of a glossy food magazine back in the 1980s featuring elaborate, often foreign recipes but the names Hereford Road and Tom Pemberton leapt out of the email and screamed 21st century back-to-basics, offally good English food.  And the St. John trained chef was going to do a demo for us.  I had to give it a go.

There was no one from Taste Club to greet members and I was shown on arrival straight to an extremely comfortable but lonely 4 seater booth.  I hoped that I'd be joined by some greedy and hillarious fellow club members or at least have a waitress (or the promised chef) to chat to but  bonviveur members of any club were perhaps in St. James's, and the waitress and chef were busy.  I thought clubs were supposed to be about conviviality and the sharing of common interests but what members there were (identifiable by the smart blue Taste Club menus on their tables) were too far apart to communicate.  But it is early days for Taste and I hope membership increases and the concept takes off.  

After fiddling with a glass of Laurent Perrier I was summoned to the open kitchen where Tom talked us through the meal we were going to have.  He briefly explained his ethos carried over from being head chef at St. John Bread & Wine of using all the bits of the animal and using sympathetic preparation and cooking techniques appropriate for all these bits.  In his quiet, unassuming way he managed to convey considerable passion and knowledge about the ingredients and their sourcing and careful handling.  He assembled a salad starter for us whilst explaining the brining of lamb's tongues and the blanching and peeling of the "rather membraneous" lamb's sweetbreads.  Whilst he spoke we chomped on sublime little fried crostini of smoked cod's roe which finally gave meaning to the lean and rather fresh, lemony Champagne.  But being 1pm and a restaurant with only two chefs there were other fish to fry and we had to reluctantly leave the kitchen behind and go back to our booths.

The sensational starter of Lamb's Tongues, Sweetbreads, Pearl Barley & Mint was served with plenty of chopped flat leaf parsley and the odd tiny caper in a light oil & lemon dressing.  The tongues which had had 2 weeks in brine were tender and subtle but were outlambed by the caramelised sweetbreads which tasted very lamby (wonder what mutton sweetbreads taste like) and left a pleasant sticky residue on my teeth. The whole dish had character a plenty but was light and balanced and the glass of house white (billed as Sauvignon) was a pleasant enough foil. 

The next dish drew gasps of amazement from around the room as each table received a whole oxtail, enough to feed 3 or 4.  I was not complaining and tucked straight into melting, fibrous, unctuous meat, tender from 6 hours braising in carrot and onion sweet stock.  The carrots had had several hours too and only managed to stay whole as they hadn't been peeled and so the skin held them together.  The jus was redolent of herbs (mainly rosemary) and had a slightly syrupy consistency from the gelatine oozing from the bones.  The buttery rich mash was perfect for soaking up the juices (why wasn't Pierre Koffmann's mash made like this?).

  Evidently, the dish was intended for more than one but I managed to finish it as, like the starter, it was balanced, subtle but flavoursome.  A glass of plummy house red (billed as Côtes du Roussillon) was again a pleasant, innocuous foil letting the dish speak for itself.
Even I needed a bit of a rest after that and this rather odd-looking but refreshing pud turned out to be the best sorbet I have ever had. It was creamy but light, tasting more of oranges than oranges themselves, and was slightly molten like a granita because of a splash of homemade sloe gin (the sloes came from the lamb supplier).  The tuile was buttery but again super light. The preferable order of cheese following pud allowed us port or sherry to finish off the meal.  Cashel Blue went really well with my glass of figgy, treacly Pedro Ximenez which did rather swamp the overly youthful Montgomery Cheddar and something rather mild called Coddlestone, the only false note in an otherwise brilliant lunch.  Oh, and the long flat crostini to go with the cheese were embedded with cumin seeds which underlines this chef's attention to detail. As a postscript,  I think for future Taste Club events the chef should try and come around towards end of service to chat about the food.  One can grill the waiting staff but when the response to each question is "I'll go and ask" you soon feel you're upsetting their service routine.  I didn't ask about the wine because I overheard the neighbouring table being informed that the Côtes du Roussillon was "French" when a query was made.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Roll Mop Herrings

It's the herring season in Aldeburgh at the moment and whilst the 'Silver Darlings' taste great just grilled and eaten with toast and scrambled eggs it's a shame not to buy them in bulk once you've had your fill (5 lb for £5 from Dean Fryer on the beach) and preserve them.  Turning them into rollmops is a cheap, delicious, easy way of doing this.
The fillets need to be brined in  salty water for 3 hours.  Meanwhile, boil up some cider vinegar with bayleaves, allspice berries, finely chopped onion, a tablespoon of sugar, peppercorns and a little orange peel. Allow this to cool then jar up the herring fillets in the pickle. 

The recipe's in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "Fish" tome.  He says the jars need to be sterilised but if you're eating the fish within days this is not essential.

The vinegar solution seems to dissolve the pinbones which saves a lot on labour trying to pick them out.  Curious because the pinbones when eating kippers are so much more noticeable... and irritating.
  The fish is a bit of a challenge for wine except maybe a young Sauvignon.  An alternative could be some kind of schnapps or aquavit. The problem is the vinegar. 
Or perhaps no booze is needed at all.  The fish is really soft and the onions crunchy and aromatic.  Bread is the thing or maybe a few waxy potatoes cooked in their skins.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Foie Gras for Impecunious Piscivores

When you buy, or catch, a herring you get a lot more than just a couple of fillets.
You get a load of roe (from the female) and millet (from the male).
Both are excellent to eat.  The roe's firm and grainy, the milt really soft and creamy.
Spot the sperm.
The best way to cook these is to dust them in seasoned flour and fry them for 5 minutes being careful not to let them catch and then squeezing some lemon onto them and finally adding a sprinkling of chopped flatleaf parsley.  Serve them on buttered sourdough toast.

The roe has slightly more flavour though is not remotely fishy.  The milt (above) is reminiscent of fresh foie gras straight out of the frying pan (foie gras poêlé) but without the guilt feeling.  Actually, it has less taste than foie gras but the same molten, slippery unctuosity; perhaps it's more like calf's brains.

Talking of guilt, perhaps one should worry about eating thousands of eggs and thousands of sperms.  But, at least these little fish lived in the wild off the coast at Aldeburgh until they were caught.  And Hugh Fearnley-
Whittingstall eats them so it must be ok.

One thing though; out of 6 randomly chosen fish, 5 were blokes.  It must be quite competitive out there in the North Sea.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Poached Eggs on Toast - à la Bourguignonne

For those of you who missed breakfast this morning how about these eggs for brunch? Oeufs en Meurette is not a dish you're likely to come across in a greasy spoon or even the the most Francophile of gingham cloth-bedecked bistrots but it makes for the perfect (late) breakfast. Instead of poaching eggs in boring old water they simmer away in the winiest of bourguignonne sauces, redolent of smokey bacon (lardons fumés) and enriched with a little beurre manié (butter mixed with a little flour). A sprinkling of chopped parsley is traditional at the end (good for vitamin C - who needs orange juice?) and then the whole thing gets plopped onto toast, preferably thickly sliced sourdough (pain au levain).

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Wine Gang Wine Fair at Vinopolis

For those of you in or near London there is a wine fair on at Vinopolis next to Borough Market today. I have just seen the line up of wines on show in the 50 page brochure and there is a huge choice of carefully chosen wines from leading merchants and retailers. The fair is organised by wine blogger Thirstforwine and the Wine Gang whose members are leading wine journalists. Come and join us:

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Food is the Star: choucroute garnie

Sometimes, well, often actually, you don't need to concern yourself too much with what drink you have with your food. A guide is to drink what the locals drink. In wine and beer producing Alsace white wine made from Riesling, or lager beer, are traditional with the local choucroute. But acidulated fermented cabbage was never going to be a great friend to anything subtle and refined. The refreshing thirstquenching and digestive properties of the liquid are all so here an ordinary Riesling and a very ordinary (yes Dutch, wrong country) lager went down a treat with a family Sunday lunch in Dijon of choucroute, saucisse de Morteau, various bits of brined tender pork including shin and knuckle, and dense, waxy, perfectly cooked and carefully peeled potatoes. Add Image Though hailing from cabbage-producing Alsace it is a favourite dish all over France though it does have a distant German cousin by the name of sauerkraut.