Friday 31 July 2009

Didn't see it coming...

There's always a slight frisson when you eat with someone new. This was the exact moment when, let's call him Dave, because that's his name, told us about running over a gypsy in Romania. For the next five minutes I wasn't sure if he'd done it on purpose or not. It was a strange limbo... was I eating with some bizarre right wing gypsy hater? I'm rather partial to gypsies. Well, the idea of them.
Anyway, turns out he was just doing a good job of story telling. It was an accident. Gypsy through windscreen, could happen to anyone, though probably not the first excess waiver you'd think of for a car hire.
Initially arrested, then told, that despite the enormous amount of blood involved, the gypsy had survived. The police said this was a bit of a shame, because he was a very bad gypsy... and sent them on their way.

I've always thought there's something of the gypsy in chefs. A disregard for borders and paying taxes. Quasi mystical practices and a way of life that exists in parallel to our own. They all know each other, help, steal, sleep and feud with each other. The one thing they don't have in common is dance. Chefs can't dance. It's a fact. If you don't believe me, just find out which nightclub kitchen staff frequent in your town of a Sunday night, and watch. For commis chefs and kitchen porters it must be a joy... like seeing the boss naked.
Alan's a chef. Frankly if I'd spent all week cooking I'd buy food in. Alan didn't and as a result we had a splendid meal, assisted by his commis chef, and wife, Issi, so presumably, she really does get to see the boss naked.

Duck in consomme with little mushrooms. Incredible depth of flavour. Made using 8 duck carcasses. Strewth. A massacre. With earthy, bloody beetroot seeping through.

Warm smoked haddock tart. When cut into, it oozed creamy lushness. Perfect consistency.

Lamb, ratatouille, fried polenta and an delicious potato dauphin. Mmm.

Forgot to photo the chocolate mousse, sorry Issi, it's one of my favourite deserts. Lovely. With it we drank one of the few wines that's supposed to go with chocolate.

And it did. They'd brought this one back from the region a few years ago.
Swirling in the glass it made a beautiful version of what the French call 'legs' and the Germans 'church windows'. I know which I'd rather see.

It was lovely- a rich orangey, figgy sweetness with a lick of benylin cough syrup and a touch of varnish. It really went well with the chocolate and, also, it brought out the pinch of chilli that was in the mousse. Didn't even know it was there until a sip of the Banyuls. Gypsy magic.

Alan and Issi's baby, Hamish, was very easy going, positively laid back. Until, that is, we started talking about gypsies. Now gypsies have a bad image among the young... what with all those tales of curses and swapping.. but Hamish seems to like them and got very perturbed whenever they were dissed. Maybe he'll grown up to be gypsy? Or a chef.

Friday 24 July 2009

How to kill a crab

Fairground goldfish started losing their appeal by the time I was six. Even a child could see, from the size of the bulls-eye, missing wasn't really an option. I'd take my prize home and in a matter of days, have to bury it. Then, about to chuck in the towel, I picked a belter...
Tim, incredibly, lived for 5 years and made me rethink everything I thought I knew about goldfish.
Tim remembered stuff. Like dinner time. And, he could dance. He'd swim different patterns to different tunes. His favourite was, I kid you not, "Don't Stand So Close To Me', by The Police.
Then we got cats.
They didn't care about Tim's longevity, impressive fishy memory, or unique dancing style, they just flung him onto the carpet, tormented the little orange gasper, then ate him. Harsh. It took a long time to forgive them.

Hey, times change. Now I choose to buy my fish dead.... but my crabs alive! There are many good reasons to buy them live, this is one of the best...

Some people pop crabs in the freezer for a few hours before cooking to 'slow them down' and make their passing easier.

Or, you can plunge a skewer into the hole, found by lifting the "apron" underneath the crab. That kills them pretty instantly.

In my experience, so does plunging them into fiercely boiling water.
The water should be really salty- seawater strength- and, if you want, can be flavoured with onion, peppercorns, wine, herbs etc. Putting them in upside down helps keep the claws on.
Return the pan to the boil, keep on a gentle boil for 15 minutes per kilo. Turn off the gas and leave for another 15 minutes per kilo. Then plunge the crab into cold water, drain, and leave it to cool.

Now for the bit, where, if the eventual plan is to share, you'll have to try really hard not to eat it all.

Prize off the top. Inside is the brown meat. Scoop it all out, even the sloppy stuff. It's all edible, but avoid the stomach sack if you see it. I normally don't. The white 'tendrils' are called 'Dead Man's Fingers'. They're the gills. Discard them.

Mash all the brown meat together. You can add soft breadcrumbs if you want. Not just to increase volume, but to alleviate some of the very rich taste. Lemon juice helps too.

This is what's left once the lid and all the claws have gone. Do not discard! This is where the majority of the white meat lurks.

Cut it in half with a heavy knife.

And get poking! Carefully though because the shell here is brittle and you can easily end up with fragments throughout the meat. This part of the process takes a bit of time.

A sharp bash with a rolling pin... and hey presto.

Loads of lovely white meat.

And a great big mess...

There's an incredible amount of flavour in the shell bits. Fry them in oil for 5 mins, add onions, garlic, tomatoes, white wine if you've some left over and simmer for an hour or two. Strain, season and add cream if you want. A delicious crab 'bisquey soupy' sort of thing.
As for the meat, well, when a crab's this fresh you don't want to piss around with it. I served mine on a bed of Scottish tomatoes (that's not a misprint), sprinkled with tarragon, a few drops of lemon juice and a tablespoon of top notch olive oil....

The Scottish chanterelles in the background went with the sea bass. But that's for another post. Mmmm, this was utterly delicious. Thanks crab. All washed down with a seafood classic combination wine...

Very nice. From Oddbins. Lot's of buttery, minerally flavours- from all those fossilised oyster shells in the Chablis soil presumably. If it wasn't over £12 a bottle, I'd say, snap it up!

Earlier, before boiling, I'd been admiring my big cock crab and noticed he had the perfect arms for tattoos. An 'anchor' with 'Mum and Dad' underneath perhaps? In the end I decided against drawing one, it would make me no better than the cats who ate Tim. Silly reasoning though, because I'm pretty sure crabs don't comprehend humiliation. Then again, who'd have thought a goldfish could dance...

Monday 13 July 2009

On the Trail of the Smokey Grail

This is one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. In a restaurant in a small town in Italy called Isolabona, that only opened at night to produce a seemingly endless stream of pizzas from it's huge wood fired oven.
Places selling pizza near me are legion, but none are very good. So occasionally, at a loose end, I'll join the throng on the growing, quasi religious quest to reproduce that wood fired lushness at home. Last weeks effort wasn't at all bad, so I had another go tonight...

This is what I did:

Combined 75g of spelt flour with 175g of strong plain flour. All plain's fine. Dried yeast, about a third of the pack. A teaspoon of salt. Stirred it all together then added A LOT OF LUKEWARM WATER, over 300 ml, so that it was pretty liquid, and stirred for a minute. This technique seems to make the dough more liable to bubble and blister in a wood fired oven sort of way. No idea why.

Then gradually added more plain flour and kept stirring. Eventually using my hand to push down.

Once the dough was nice and firm, popped it onto a floured surface and kneaded until it was elastic. I find the Doves organic flour is much less kneady than others... about 5 minutes does.

Back in a bowl, covered with cling film and left for 2 hours.

You can stick whatever you like on a pizza, experimenting is surely part of the fun? This is what I used.... mainly because it was in the fridge, cupboard or garden.

The Spanish smoked paprika went in my tomato sauce- to impersonate the wood smoke aromas! The oven went on it's highest setting with a baking tray inside getting hot too.
This stage in the process is an excellent time to pop out for wine. Might I suggest....

This is not a sophisticated wine. It's rustic but tasty, of elderberries I'd say, and even nicer if you have a glass and leave the rest in the bottle for a day. Most important of all, it's £3.99 at M&S. Perfect for things like pizza which murder good wine.

After two hours rising, the dough was knocked back to a ball shape, divided into 4 and rolled out. They need to be very thin, so should fit onto something you can use to 'flick' them onto the very hot baking tray. Like the paddles in proper pizza places. I use Ikea chopping boards. Odd shape but it works.

Provided they're thin enough these pizzas take about 5 minutes to cook... and they came out, well, not bad at all... but don't take my word for it, join the quest!

Pizzeria Del Vecchio Forno
Via Roma, 53
18035 Isolabona
0184 208187

Saturday 11 July 2009

Inn at the Deep End

Some things do exactly what they say on the packet. I'd always presumed that was the case with this place, so was surprised when friends suggested dinner here on Friday. Awe, poor things, they've had a funny turn, best play along though... one toasty or two I wondered?

It's a beautiful building and maintains a lot of it's original Victorian interior upstairs, the restaurant however, is below...

Inside, away from the whiff of chlorine, the decor's reminiscent of Brittany Ferries circa 1995. Not too hopeful, we ordered some cocktails. They were made with care and tasted good, no mean feat in Glasgow. Even better, the pricing was contemporary with the decor, £3.95 each! Then the menus arrived...

Again, at this price, I'm happy if it's edible. It was. Very.
Scallops with chorizo. Both very nice, but not really a match, the chorizo was too spicy.

Mussels were plump and fresh. It wasn't mariniere as billed, but a cream rich sauce. Good all the same.

The waitress was great and used to work at the Chardon d'Or on West Regent Street.

For mains we had a lovely piece of halibut, a huge, very tasty fillet steak and delicious lamb chops. All at prices that were hard to comprehend. Not flash, but good competent cooking.

We had the two most expensive wines on the list for £16 a bottle. A Chablis 2007 from Brocard. Lovely- bracing, minerally and I'm sure my teeth are whiter today. And this rather good Montagne St Emilion...

Clubs often need to look at new ways to generate income. Apparently this restaurant's part of the Western's strategy to do just that. It is great value but the numbers just can't add up, I was about to say go quickly before they do... however, there's a problem. I've just called to check and you need a member to sign you in to eat. How absurd is that? It explains why there was just one other table there on a Friday night.
If they ever open this eatery to the riff-raff then go. If they don't, it'll be gone before the autumn. Restaurants with more staff than customers do not survive. Especially when they're serving top quality ingredients at mid 90s prices.

8-12 Cranworth Street,
0141 576 0294