Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to cook Chioggia beets without losing the stripes

I came across Chioggia beets at our farmers' market in Bristol yesterday, pink stripey beetroot that the producer was so proud of he'd cut open to display. There was one bunch left which I was just about to buy when a woman shot up and said 'I'll have those'. Fortunately the stallholder still gave them to me, narrowly avoiding an unseemly scrap.

Anyway that's how beautiful these beets are so you can see I was reluctant to prepare them in any way that sacrificed the stripes. Checking the internet there seemed no guaranteed way of doing that so I consulted Twitter. Opinions differed - some said eat raw, others favoured steaming and yet others roasting them (my favourite way of cooking beets but I couldn't see how it would work in this case.)

I cleaned them up, trimmed them and sliced them finely on a mandolin then, hoping to use them raw, took a nibble. They were unpleasantly, unrescuably bitter. No beet carpaccio, then.

I decided to divide them in half and try different treatments. I salted half for half an hour (above, top, in large-holed colander) then rinsed them and dressed them with a couple of spoonfuls of lemon juice and seasoned them with salt and pepper. Just before I served them I added some extra virgin olive oil then scattered over some finely chopped spring onions, some double podded broad beans and a little chopped parsley.

The other half I blanched for a minute in boiling water (lower pic above in colander with smaller holes) then dressed in a light vinaigrette made from red wine vinegar and olive oil. Then added the extra ingredients as above.

The first method (above) kept the colour perfectly but they were still a little bitter and flavourless. The second way lost a bit of colour definition (see top of post) but tasted sweeter so I reckon that's the way to go. I also scattered over a bit of crumbled feta which finished off the dish perfectly. I’d have added a little chopped mint if I’d had some.

So there you have it. Unless you grow or have access to particularly sweet beets it seems you can’t serve them raw (and no, it’s not that I don’t like bitterness. I love the Japanese radish mooli) If you want a richer, more earthier beet-like taste you need to roast them but then you’ll get pink beets not pink stripey ones. It’s possible you could stir fry strips and not lose too much colour or make stripey beetroot crisps which would be amazing but the more heat you add and the longer you cook them the more likely you are to lose those stripes..

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I don’t intend to waste the greens. You can use them in place of chard or spinach.

*Apologies for the variable quality of the pix btw. My camera battery ran out so had to use the iphone for some of the shots!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Another great Bristol supper club

Last night saw the launch of yet another Bristol supper club, this time run by food stylist and cookery book author Genevieve Taylor of An Egg a Day.

She'd taken Moorish food as her theme and cooked up an amazing feast of grilled meats and salads, spicy empanadillas, labneh and beetroot dips, pistachio meringues and fresh strawberries and - as if we weren't full enough - Portuguese custard tarts to go with a final glass of fresh mint tea (too dark to snap these by that stage).

The weather was a bit iffy so we ended up having it inside with occasional forays into her gorgeous garden which was full of enviably healthy veggies and herbs as well as the 'girls' as Gen calls her hens.

What's interesting is how different supper clubs are - which isn't so surprising when you come to think of it. Montpelier Basement, the one we've been to most regularly, is like an intimate urban bistro. An Egg a Day felt more like a private party. Brilliant food in both cases, though. It's a good way to eat in Bristol.

Gen is thinking of having another supper in September. Follow her blog for dates.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Six recipes to cook from ... Small Adventures in Cooking

Just as I had to declare an interest in Signe Johansen’s book last month so I have to confess that I’m a bit partial to James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking. James, like Sig, was one of the students who gravitated my way through my Beyond Baked Beans cooking project and became one of the co-authors of The Ultimate Student Cookbook. And now he too has his first book.

What I’ve always admired about James is that he’s a writer first and a cook second which is not to say that he isn’t a good cook just that he’s a very, very good writer with an enviable lightness of touch and deft turn of phrase that has already established him as one of Britain’s best young food writers. (He’s already written for The Times, Guardian and the FT.) So Small Adventures in Cooking - the title is intended to convey going just slightly off the beaten track - is not just a useful collection of recipes but a companion in bed and a friend in the kitchen.

It only arrived yesterday so I haven’t got round to cooking from it but this is what I plan to make. (All the recipes have Twitter hashtags so you can compare notes with fellow tweeters that have made them.)

Beetroot soup and goats curd p99
It was a bit of a standing joke when we were working on BBB that James would always come up with a beetroot recipe so here you have one. I’ve actually tasted it at his supper club and it’s delicious.

Lamb neck fillets with harissa and chickpea salad p24
James’s cooking takes full account of the fact that people (especially blokes of his age) don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen and this is one of those bish, bash, bosh recipes that conjures up a deliciously big-flavoured plateful of food in minutes #lambneck

Grilled aubergine with tahini and pomegranate p100
I never think of James as a veggie but, as he argues, starters are a vital course. “Diving into the main sometimes feels just wrong like going into the cinema just as the film starts”. Easy, tasty colourful - what more do you want? #grilledauberginesalad

Rabbit with mustard and cream p110
“When frost kisses the windowpanes and your breath hangs on the air this is the time to stuff yourself to the gullet with robust food” So speaks a lad who was brought up in deepest Yorkshire. A classic French bistro dish made with cider rather than wine. Simon Hopkinsonesque comfort food of a high order #mustardrabbit

Cardamom, rum and banana ice cream topping p36
Anything with cardamom rocks my boat and this sounds a fantastic topping for chocolate ice cream, as James suggests. Definitely trying this one. #icecreamtoppings

And in the same vein, Breakfast Raita p83 - bananas, cardamom, yoghurt, honey and raisins which doesn’t have a hashtag so I’m giving it one #breakfastraita. Love it.

There are also some useful pages with tips on, for instance, prepping, tasting and seasoning and on making mistakes. "Things will go awry" says James, reassuringly. “We all do it. The best thing to do is to laugh and get on with it. Eat some toast. Drink more wine. Ultimately this is just food”

Amen to that. A great first book, perfect for the student generation James was first writing for when they leave uni and start to want to make more impressive and flashy food. And for James, surely a stepping stone to higher things? A household name in 5 years I bet you.

You can also follow James on his blog and even eat his food at his underground supper club The Secret Larder.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hotel d'Angleterre, Chalons-en-Champagne

This week must be about the sixth or seventh time we've been to the Hotel d'Angleterre, a solidly bourgeois hotel in Chalons-en-Champagne, the least glamorous town of the Champagne district. It's main virtue is that it's a brilliantly based pitstop for breaking your journey between the Channel Tunnel and the south of France - or Alsace for that matter where we've been this past week. (It's about 3 hours from the tunnel.)

It's much less flashy - and less touristy - than Reims and Epernay - a rather nice provincial town of the type you still find in parts of France that aren't served by a nearby Ryanair airport. That makes it sound staid but it's not entirely that - just look at this 'happening' which we caught the tail end of as part of a weekend of street theatre.

The other virtue of the hotel is that the food is good and that's by no means a given in today's France. There's a one star Michelin star restaurant named after the proprietor Jacky Michel but like the locals we always eat in the brasserie Les Temps Changent where you can get a fixed price menu for 21 euros (VAT and service included). Basically Michelin standard food using less expensive or leftover ingredients as I've pointed out here*.

They also have the most spectacularly lavish brunch-style breakfast which we don't normally bother with but decided to this time as we knew we were unlikely to get any lunch.

A useful base if you want to tour Champagne, obviously too. Rooms are from 95€, breakfast a slightly pricey 16€ a head but as I say it would last you all day ...

* Just in case you were wondering why I've blogged about them twice, no it wasn't a freebie - we paid our own way and they had no idea I was a journalist!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Da Polpo's Piadina Meatball Smash

The moment I heard that Da Polpo was majoring on meatballs I knew I’d be in there like a flash and 24 hours after the soft opening - or ‘preview’ as owner Russell Norman likes to call it (“soft opening always sounds a bit flaccid”) - I was.

I didn't even know that they were offering what was in effect a meatball sandwich - a piece of flatbread wrapped round a helping of sloppy meatballs which they’re calling a Piadana meatball smash. That might sound counterintuitive - I mean why make mince into meatballs only to pull them apart again but believe me it works. Especially with a sprinkling of cheese, which presumably accounts for the fact they cost almost twice as much as having the meatballs on their own.

I admit the photo doesn’t do it justice. I would make the excuse that I don’t like to spend too much time snapping away at table - and I don’t - but the fact is that my fellow blogger London Eater’s photo is far, far more professional and gives you a much better idea just how enticing this dish is. I didn’t even think of opening up the bread and breaking open the meatballs. Duh!

Oh and it was also insanely good with a fennel, curly endive and almond salad which you should order as a side.

Anyway I’m sure we’re going to be hearing a lot more about meatballs which have been a craze in New York for a while. 2011, the year of the meatball. You heard it here first. Well, probably about 21st. Whatever. Meatballs rock.

PS To fill in those of you who don’t follow the London restaurant scene obsessively, Da Polpo is the latest in a clever series of small, very cool Venetian-inspired restaurants which include Polpo, Polpetto and - just a few weeks ago - Spuntino. This is the biggest so far - and you can book which you can’t in Polpetto and Spuntino or in the evening at Polpo.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Champagne on ice - but not as you know it

It’s taken me a week or so to blog about Moet’s new Ice Imperial which was recently launched in London, I suspect because I still can’t quite make up my mind what I think about it. It’s a champagne designed to be served on the rocks - yes, that’s right - poured over ice cubes. To achieve that it’s a good deal sweeter than the standard Moet non vintage - a demi-sec, but with more structure than that style of champagne generally has, thanks to a higher than usual percentage of pinot noir. It’s served in a large Riedel-style Chianti glass with precisely five ice cubes and is designed to be drunk by the pool.

My first reaction is predictably snotty. A cynical marketing exercise designed to appeal to footballers’ wives, rich Russians and the entire cast of TOWIE*. It’s only available for the moment in one bar in London and - mysteriously - about 10 in the Bournemouth area which apparently has the most expensive real estate in Britain outside London. (I’m doubtful about that but can see there might not be many other distractions in that part of the world. Apart from pools and yachts.)

On the other hand Moet’s winemaker Benoit Gouez is a serious kind of a guy and a talented winemaker and the champagne is, when served as cold as it should be, frankly delicious. Especially with odd bits of fruit, citrus peel or other flavourings dropped into it which Mo√ęt is encouraging. (Gouez admits to liking it with ginger). It’s clearly designed to appeal to young drinkers who find conventional champagne too dry - and why not?

Because it's ridiculously expensive at £50-60 a bottle you might argue, and you'd be right. But when was champagne ever cheap? Strikes me that Moet is simply taking a leaf out of the book of the spirits producers and making a premium product available to a very few people to ramp up demand. Up to you if you want to spend your money that way.

I can’t help wondering though if you couldn't achieve the same effect with a very cold bottle of Moscato d’Asti at about an eighth of the price. Or a bottle of demi-sec Cava and a dash of sugar syrup. Worth a try . . .

*The Only Way is Essex - cult UK reality TV series