Sunday, 24 February 2013

Who's a clever girl then?

My missus, that's who. She made these. We call them rhubarb hot dogs, but I think we need a better name!

It all started with choux pastry. The missus fancied making some to see if it's difficult. Turns out it's not that hard, she even made two different sorts - Raymond Blanc's choux pastry and Paul Hollywood's choux pastry.

Raymond Blanc's was a bit more doughy than Paul Hollywood's choux pastry, which was crisper, lighter and tastier.

With the pastry made and with forced rhubarb in season, and some inspiration from Rachel Khoo, the missus set about making these rhubarb hot dogs - or should we call them choux dogs? Hmm...

The rhubarb bit was easy, the stalks were trimmed to be just a bit shorter than the choux buns, generously sprinkled with golden caster sugar and then roasted in the oven for about 15 minutes at 200c. We left them overnight as Ms Khoo recommends.

The following day the missus made some creme patissiere. Apparently it's quite simple, you'll need:

6 medium egg yolks
100g caster sugar
40g cornstarch
1 vanilla pod
500ml whole milk

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until light and thick then whisk in the cornstarch. Pour the milk into a saucepan, add the seeds and pod of the vanilla and bring to a boil. As soon as it starts boiling take it off the heat and remove the vanilla pod. Slowly add the warm milk to the egg mixture whisking vigorously all the time.

Pour this mixture into a clean pan and place over a medium heat, continuously whisking. The cream will start to thicken. When it does, take it off the heat. Pour it into a tray or shallow dish, spread it evenly and smooth, then cover with cling film to avoid it developing a skin and put it in the fridge to chill for at least 1 hour.

With the choux buns, rhubarb and creme patissiere ready, it's an assembly job. Cut your buns like a hot dog bun and pipe a layer of creme patissiere along the bottom. Put a stem of roasted rhubarb onto this layer and then pipe more creme patissiere along each side of the rhubarb.

They were delicious.


Tuesday, 5 February 2013


I have been thinking about Taste. 

Taste - Taste, gustatory perception, or gustation is one of the five traditional senses. Taste is the sensation produced when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with receptors of taste buds.

Any mention of taste usually refers to 4 basic tastes - sweet, sour, bitter, salt - and the 'newly' discovered 5th taste, umami.

To me this seems like a thoroughly unhelpful over-simplification. I began to consider this after eating some Chinese food. One of the ingredients was sesame oil. I would describe sesame oil as having a nutty taste. I can't see how it could be described in terms of sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Or umami, if we believe the definition of umami as 'meaty/savoury'.

I started looking into the subject. The place to start seemed to the the 'map of the tongue' which most of us might remember from school. The idea being that certain area on the tongue are responsible for noticing certain tastes. This idea has since been shown to be cobblers - I hope it isn't still being taught in schools.

If you take the bother to read that article, or others, (e.g. you'll see that it is now understood that all tastes are experienced by taste buds on the tongue, inner cheeks, soft palate, epiglottis and in the throat.

Then I started reading, and watching more stuff about Taste. This led me to Stuart Firestein. He is the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences and has recorded a number of videos about taste. One such video, particularly useful to me, explains the difference between taste and flavour

Seems I've been confusing, or at least not clearly distinguishing between Taste and Flavour. Flavour is a combination of taste, smell, texture (touch sensation) and other physical features (e.g. temperature). It seems Taste might be a bit of blunt instrument. It's useful to identify basic tastes, which would seem to correspond with food that is good for us (sweet, salty, 'umami') and food which is bad for us (bitter, sour).

But then I found an article which suggests that there might be 20 basic tastes, and that there's certainly strong evidence for fat as a sixth taste. That aside, it seems that of primary importance in Taste and Flavour is the olfactory system - which is how we smell.

When you start looking into how we smell, you come across some fascinating information. Here's another video from Stuart Firestein - The Evolutionary Paradox of our Sense of Smell.

I only really decided to start looking into Taste to see if there was anything out there which to suggest that it is more sophisticated than 4 or 5 basic tastes! I'm beginning to see that its much more sophisticated, and shouldn't really be seen in isolation, at least when it comes to food.

So how can I make use of tastes and flavours to make my food better? Actually, before I get there, it's worth directing to you to yet another video. I'll be honest, it's worth watching them all. This one explains what happens in the body and brain when you smell something. The surprising information here is that higher-brain functioning of smell happens quickly, with smell messages passing through only 2 synapses before being processed. It seems our bodies have developed in a way which places a very high priority on identifying smells.

Having looked at the senses involved with Taste I think I'm still a long way from understanding how to combine tastes and flavours to produce tasty food. More research needed, and that will involve trying to learn more about Niki Segnit and The Flavour Thesaurus.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Duck with lentils and cranberries

I've been having a break from blogging, largely because I've not been cooking anything out of the ordinary recently. And, as an amateur, I was beginning to wonder whether anyone trusts recipes from people who aren't well known chefs. I know I don't always trust them.

Having said that, sometimes I want to cook something that I've thought of without referring to a set recipe. I like the creative process of thinking about a dish and how I could make it work. When I'm in that mood I'll Google the combinations I'm thinking off to see if they've been done before, just to confirm I'm not going to cook something stupid.

So yesterday I ended up googling lentils with cranberries. We had some mini duck fillets in the freezer and some lentils in the cupboard and I wanted to combine the two. Turns out lentils with cranberries isn't ground-breaking so I felt confident enough to give it a crack.

The basic idea was to cook some lentils with some dried cranberries, and to serve the little duck fillets on top. But I was worried about that being a bit dry and needed a sauce to bring it all together. Luckily we had some brandy left over from when the missus made mince pies and Christmas puds!

This cooks enough for two and is ready in about half an hour, including prep:

160g Puy Lentils
half a finely chopped carrot
a finely chopped large shallot or small onion
celery salt
cranberry sauce
duck fillets / duck breasts
a good slug of brandy
olive oil
2 tablespoons of dried cranberries, chopped
dried thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Start with the lentils as everything else can be done whilst they're cooking. Soften the carrot and shallot in a mixture of butter and olive oil. We've started cooking a lot more with butter, what a difference it makes to the taste of food! Add the dried thyme and bay leaves. After they've had about 5-6 minutes add the dried cranberries and continue to soften for 3-4 minutes. Then add the lentils and follow the pack instructions for cooking them.

When your lentils are about 5 minutes away from being ready, get a frying pan hot and fry the mini duck fillets in butter and olive oil. Cook them over a high heat so they get a little bit crispy but stay moist in the middle. If you're using duck breast just slice it thinly and fry.

When the duck is cooked, remove from the pan and drain on kitchen towel. If your lentils are cooked take them off the heat, check for seasoning and put them to one side.

Now you can make the sauce. De-glaze the frying pan with a good slug of brandy. Before all the brandy evaporates add some water. Then add the cranberry sauce, about a dessert-spoonful. Stir to get a smooth sauce, add more water if you need to. You're not after a lot of sauce, just a fine jus that'll keep the duck and lentil dish from being too dry. Season to taste.

When the sauce is ready, serve. Put the duck on top of the lentils and spoon over the brandy and cranberry sauce.

This dish started as something I reckoned would be ok, and turned out to be quite delicious. Even worth blogging about! We'll be cooking it again.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The simple things

Sometimes it's the simple things in life which give us our greatest pleasure.

Take eggs and bread. I've been converted to Burford Browns as I've never had a better tasting egg. The yolk is so rich, creamy and satisfying. It is perfect for poaching and superb when scrambled.

And then there's bread. We're lucky that there's been a revival of proper bread and that sourdough is so available.

There's a great edition of the Food Programme on Radio 4 all about sourdough. It really is worth a listen, as Sheila Dillon takes a couple of different sourdough starters into a lab for testing, to see what's going on with the bacteria. She finds out that there is a real difference between starters that can have a pronounced effect on the taste.

We've tried a few different sourdoughs. The Polish Bread Bakery in Avonmouth makes a sourdough that is light, slightly acidic and quite creamy. It makes a great slice of toast.

Mark's Bread in Southville make a range of sourdoughs, but I'm in danger of becoming addicted to his seven seed sourdough. The slow prove and the mix of seeds produces a heady scent and has a rich, nutty almost raisin-like flavour. It is magnificent.

So tonight's tea was simple. Scrambled eggs (Burfords) on a slice of sourdough toast with lots of salt and pepper. It was bloody lovely.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Atomic Burger

We ate at Atomic Burger on Friday. It's the second time we've been. I think it's pretty close to the perfect sort of place for a Friday night.

They have really gone to town with the decor. I have to remind myself that Star Wars wallpaper wouldn't look quite as good in my flat! That, and the missus wouldn't go for it anyway. She definitely wouldn't go for the large USS Enterprise mobiles and a scalectrix on the ceiling! Shame.

All that decor sets the tone for Atomic Burger, which continues with a US themed menu. The choice of burgers is really extensive and should offer something for everyone. If not Atomic Burger are happy for you to do swapsies on your toppings so you can tailor something more to your taste.

The first time we went, 3-4 weeks ago, we were hankering for big juicy burgers. The place was crammed so we ended up sitting on stools at a bench in the window being served by the owners. We couldn't have been looked after better. I went for Smokey & The Bandit, like my old Old Orleans favourite from years ago, the Sloppy Joe. Proper dirty amounts of BBQ sauce, cheese and Cajun spices. Spot on. The missus went for the Johnny Cash, overflowing with re-fried beans, hot sauce, American cheese and jalapenos. Close to perfection.

It was never going to be a long time between visits, and we ended up going again on Friday.

We booked this time to make sure we got a proper table. And it's just as well we did 'cos they were fully booked - again.

I'd been looking at the online menu all week trying to decide what I wanted, my eye kept being drawn to the Dirty Dog. A US style hot dog covered in beef chilli, cheese and fried onions.  I did consider going for a burger, but stuck to my guns. I'm glad I did, the dog delivered. The beef chilli on it was one of the best chillis I've tasted. This time the missus went for Cheech & Chong - a burger covered in beef chilli, nachos and cheese. Another hit.

The staff were really attentive and service was quick without us feeling rushed. We were going to linger over a pudding but the brownie I fancied had nuts in and had to be avoided, so instead we both had a coffee. The coffee was very nearly the tastiest thing we had in there! Apparently it's a bottomless coffee, that could be an expensive promise to keep with coffee that tasty.

Atomic Burger don't claim to make the best burgers in Bristol, but they're aren't many better.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Glorious Oyster

This time last week we were starting our holiday. Bags packed, tickets checked and passports ready we were getting very excited about our trip to Sicily.

We thought we'd start things off with a nice little foodie treat, oysters and Champagne.

We hadn't really been into oysters all that much before we went to the Streat Food Collective event at Arnos Vale Cemetery. However, the highlights of that event for us were the BBQ & Jerk stall and the oysters from The Glorious Oyster.

The missus really went for the oysters and came up with the idea of starting our holiday with oysters and champagne, and luckily The Glorious Oyster deliver oysters! So we ordered 12 and a shucking knife. Is there a cooler kind of knife than a shucking knife?

Up until this point I had never shucked oysters. I've seen it on tele a couple of times and thought I'd be able to give it a go, but I was some way short of confident. But that's where the magic of oysters delivered by The Glorious Oyster really comes into its own.

Lyndsay delivers the oysters personally, and luckily for me she popped in to give me a shucking demonstration. I'm so glad she did, getting into an oyster must rank as one of the most dangerous bits of food preparation. I could just see myself at A&E with a shucking knife in my arm without the proper guidance, which goes something like firm hold, flat side up, knife into hinge, wriggle, twist, pop!

We chose to make our own dressings, which may have been a small mistake as Lyndsay's dressings are great, but we did have a sample sachet of Chipotle Tabasco which went really well. Sweet, smokey heat was a great match for the oysters, which were themselves succulent, creamy and delicious. I've never had oysters so good before, and when they are this good it's easy to see what all the fuss is about. Especially when accompanied by a nice glass of fizz.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Confit Duck Hash

This has been the last meal made with the confit duck we bought. I really can't stress what a bargain the £10 tin was. We got 5 pieces of duck, which has made 3 gorgeous meals - cassoulet, duck confit with white beans - and this hash. And we're still left with a good amount of duck fat for some proper roasters as we head into Sunday Lunch season.

As there's two of us and we got 5 pieces of duck we were scratching our heads for what to do with the last piece. Thinking about it now we could have made Michel Roux's duck and mushroom pudding, which will be on the menu when we next have some confit duck. Instead we chose to make a hash, it seemed like a good excuse to cook some spuds in duck fat.

That's how we started things. Peeled potatoes, enough for two, chopped and par-boiled. As they steamed dry I got the confit duck into the frying pan with some chopped shallot. The gorgeous fat soon renders and the meat begins to fry. As it's tender already it only takes a few minutes before it starts to fall apart which means you can remove the bones.

With the duck and shallots sizzling away I added the potatoes to give them a chance to get brown and crispy.

As it is, those 3 ingredients would make a very nice meal. But I really wanted to try and produce a really balanced dish and I thought that I needed to add something to cut through all the richness, so I added a couple of dessert-spoonfuls of chopped capers. That just about did it. A generous squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley did the rest.

It was a lovely meal, the only thing missing was poached egg, duck egg ideally, but other than that it was a fine way to use the last piece of duck confit. I can't wait to buy some more!