Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dinner at the Fat Duck

I don't normally write restaurant reviews on this blog but this week I did something I have wanted to do for a long time and I need to tell the world.
I had dinner at the Fat Duck.
I am thoroughly intrigued by the pleasure and delight Heston Blumenthal obviously derives from making the food that he does and the apparent impossibility of mere mortals reproducing it. I really wanted to try it.
Better and stranger than I was expecting it was like falling through the looking glass.
But to start at the beginning. Months ago I rang the restaurant and, after waiting on hold for the best part of an hour I spoke to a friendly woman who told me I could have a table for four at 7pm on the 17th March. Had to say yes.
Then we waited and waited and finally it was March. Time slowed.
To snail's pace.
And then, out of nowhere, it was March 17th. Our day!
The man and I caught the train to Waterloo, Jaey and Marie joined us at Richmond and we got off at Windsor. We'd booked a cab to to Bray - got in to the wrong mini cab as it happens but hey - it was cold. And we got there!
Place is tiny with low ceilings crisscrossed with beams. Lots of front of house - and all of them delightfully cheerful. Started with champagne - of course. Then a man came over with a trolley and what looked like an ice bucket which he filled with liquid nitrogen and then he made quenelles - one at a time - from egg white that had been mixed with lime and vodka which he then froze. Then this little frozen meringue was put on a plate and dusted with green tea powder and you eat the whole thing in one go - and it really is like nothing you have ever put in your mouth. Meanwhile they spray something with a little atomiser only you don't notice till you've swallowed and then you have this amazing scent of citrus and lime. They did this for each of us around the table - and our palettes were cleansed and we were buzzing.
The first woman who served us told us they would serve a couple of dishes in quick succession to take the edge off our excitement and then we would be able to relax and enjoy the whole evening.Then there were a teaspoon size ball of grain mustard icecream - yes I ate it in one! - in a gazpacho of red cabbage that was darkest purple with tiny tiny cubes of cucumber in the base, quickly followed by the most sublime thing you've ever seen. They brought out a square of oak moss about 30cm square onto which they tipped more liquid nitrogen to make it smoke so you had this really lovely smell of woodland forest. There were little tiny plastic cases about 2cm long that you popped open and there was a thin sheet like gold leaf that you put on your tongue and it melted to give you the flavour of smoked wood. Then you ate a tiny rectangle of truffle toast topped with miniscule dice of radish and in a separate deep cup was langoustine cream with a lump of foie gras parfait and tiny tiny cubes of quail jelly scattered like tiny jewels. Could not have been more impressed (I thought) and we did calm down a little, partly I think because it was already just like magic to be there and from now on it could not be a disappointment.
A few minutes later it was the famous snail porridge - a circle of dense green made from puréed parsley and barley grains with black slices of snail and an elegant swirl of fennel ribbons on the top - just amazing flavours and textures, cooked raw clean rich - wow.
Then the was cube of the most sublimely well cooked peice of foie gras studded with toasted pine nuts on a plate with a stripe of bitter almond cream and a kirsch cherry - and I think it was this one that a tiny stripe of zested lime. Each plate was so incredibly exquisite I wish I had taken a camera and shot each one before I started. Partly as an aide memoir and partly so I could lick them surreptitiously in case some magic of alchemy offered a final taste.
Sound of the sea - whaaaa. First there were conch shells and each one had a mini ipod with the sound of a very english beach - ie more lonesome seagull than crashing wave. Then they gave us a 30 cm square dish that had a wooden base covered in shells and things and there was a raised glass square like a platform upon which everything was edible. There was sand made from tapioca that was so fabulous it had all of us determined to find out how it was done topped with tiny crunches of eel skin, individual slices of raw fish - yellowfin, salmon and mackerel, and a spume of foam down the side made from essence of fish. So beautiful to see and to eat.
By now I never ever want to leave.
The next plate has a thick rectangle of salmon that has a fine black skin made from intense liquorice that didn't penetrate the fish somehow, with a slick of vanilla mayonnaise with two halves of grilled artichoke heart and tiny drops of olive oil - a rendition of salmon in black & white. Strewn across the plate like petals were dozens and dozens of individual pellets of ruby grapefruit - you know the little tiny bubbles of flesh they have inside each segment? - adding colour and miniscule bursts of sour.
There was a short hiatus of perhaps 10 minutes and I was vaguely aware of the other tables but not really. Though it is actually very small and the tables are quite close together you don't hear other conversations and there are an extraordinary number of staff but no sense that they are under each others' feet or putting any pressure on you to do anything other than have a fabulous time. They serve slices of a great sourdough bread - white and brown, with salted and unsalted butter - and whenever one of us finished a piece they would come and offer more individually, occasionally lifting the plate to clear the crumbs and replacing it again till all the savoury dishes were done.
And indeed the next one was the last one of said savoury plates. Tiny - that word again - tiny portions of sliced perfectly rare pigeon, boned and rolled and poached in spiced red with a slick of what looked like dark blood and was in fact black pudding.
Just swooning with pleasure.
After that they came with little glasses of tea - ever so slightly jellied - one half hot and one half cold vertically in the glass - so strange a sensation - wonderful.
They bought a bowl filled with those silver confectioners balls into which they had stuck four little ice cream cones with a crispy salty skin and filled with an apple curd. Waaah!
Then little tubes that looked like hollowed out sticks with a kind of tube at the top like liquorice but we were warned not to eat it - it was there to scoop out the sherbert in the bottom of the 'stick' - and now our mouths are zinging and no one can stop smiling.
The next plate has a thin orange stripe of mango a bright orange disk of the same and woody flavoured deep red/black thick stripe and a perfect ball of blackcurrant sorbet.
I'm starting to worry that this might be coming to an end but they bring out mini cereal boxes with cornflakes that are really parsnip and a bowl to tip them into and a jug of parsnip flavoured milk to pour over them once you've tried them plain - all this after the woman announces that now it's time for breakfast!
Still there is more - the man comes back with his liquid nitrogen and makes balls of frozen scrambled eggs - some of which sticks to the bottom of the pan just like real scrambled eggs - and he balances the eggs on top of little slices of pain perdu across which he drapes a slice of bacon. There is also tea jelly.
It is almost over - but not quite yet. There are two more plates put onto the table - one with perfect shiny round disks of darkest chocolate that is violet in your mouth, then chocolate cups that are bubbly like aero's and taste of mandarin. On the other plate there are four caramels wrapped in cellophane which we are instructed to eat without unwrapping - which taste like essence of rich butter with a little crackle before the wrapper melts against your tongue.
By now it is nearly 10.30 - we have been here since 7pm. I can't believe that really is it. I want to applaud it has been so astounding.
Can't wait to go again.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chicken Casserole with Butter Bean Mash

This well flavoured casserole is reminiscent of the kind of delicious comfort food my mother used to make when I was a child. It has a lovely flavour that really makes the chicken shine but you do need good quality chicken on the bone. Lots of butchers have special deals on thighs and drumsticks and this is a great way to make use of such a bargain. Sweet smoked paprika is available from speciality food shops and Brindisa at Borough.

Chicken & spinach casserole with creamy butter bean mash
Serves 4

Preparation time less than 30 minutes
Cooking time less than one hour


8 chicken pieces (thighs and/or drumsticks)
2 tbsp plain flour mixed in a plastic bag with 1 tspn of smoked sweet paprika and salt and pepper for dredging the chicken
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
100g/4oz unsmoked bacon, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small batons
2 ribs celery, washed and thinly sliced
1 onion, roughly chopped
600ml/1 pint chicken stock or water
450g/1lb spinach, washed, stalks removed and discarded
1 tbsp potato flour dissolved with 1 tsp cold water
For the butter bean mash
500g/ 1lb dried butter beans, soaked overnight
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin


1. Dredge the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour until well coated. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over a moderate heat. Cook the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary, in the hot oil for 3 or 4 minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden. Remove the chicken to a plate.

2. Discard any remaining oil from the pan. Over a low heat, cook the bacon till the fat starts to rend, about 4 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and onions, stirring to coat them in the bacon fat, and cook until the onion is translucent.

3. Add 2-3 tbsp of the stock or water to the pan and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add the remaining stock/water to the pan.

4. Return the chicken to the pan along with any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the juices run clear when the flesh is pierced with a knife.

5. Wilt the spinach in a separate hot pan with just the water that remains from washing it, then drain and chop roughly.

6. When the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear when pierced with a skewer, stir in the chopped spinach and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Check the seasoning.

7. Meanwhile, for the butter bean mash, drain the soaking butter beans and put them into a clean pan with unsalted water. Bring it to the boil, skim any scum from the surface then simmer for 15 minutes. Now add about a tablespoon of salt - salt added any earlier will toughen the beans and they will never soften. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes until the beans are tender.

8. Drain the butter beans, return them to the saucepan, add the olive oil and cumin and whizz with a stick blender till smooth.

9. Gradually add the potato flour/water mix to the casserole over a medium heat, stirring until the sauce thickens slightly and becomes glossy.

10. To serve, divide the butter bean mash equally among four deep bowls and ladle the chicken and sauce generously over the top.

This is easy enough to prepare for a midweek supper and you could cook it and then reheat next day, just adding the spinach at the end for a quick dinner. It's really good at this time of year when the days are a little warmer but there's no guarantee the nights will be the same.

It works out to a very reasonable £2 per serving.

! wanted...I bought ... I made

Should be an easy shop this week. Saturday I think steak would be nice with a little salad and it was a total treat. Sunday we are out in the evening so nothing perhaps or a salad at lunch took ourselves down to the Fentiman intending to have lunch in the garden but the only tables left were in the shade and they were charging £13.50 for an okay but not great roast so we went home and had some roast pork and roasted vegetable salad that I'd made for lunches in the week and it was very fine indeed. And then we had pizza at the Ritzy for dinner and that was not bad. Monday I am out and there is already some chicken casserole for the man. Tuesday we are going to the Fat Duck for dinner and I don't think it's possible to be more excited than I am at the prospect of dinner and not burst. Wednesday might try for pasta again very simple zucchini and garlic and chilli flakes fried for 10 minutes in basil oil then topped with Parmesan but an edible one this week. Thursday stir-fry noodles. And Friday we are off to Mauritius for a holiday. Yay!

Saturday was a little overcast to start but the weatherman promised sun! At Ginger Pig we were a bit undecided about the weekend plan so bought a humungous piece of rump steak, a beautiful piece of pork shoulder well ridged with creamy fat and a single pork steak which came to a not unsubstantial £34.70 - which meant we got free sausage rolls as I had got that far on the customer loyalty card - lunch sorted!

Then we went to Booths for rocket, courgettes, tomatoes, carrots and spring onions for £3.40

At Wild Beef I returned about 20 empty egg cartons and bought one full one - £1.50

At Neals Yard I bought milk, bread and a tub of rhubarb and yoghurt for £7.80

Last of all some hot cross buns because I am miss piggy! - £2 at Flour Power

So only £49.40 - though I also bought fennel, aubergine, onions and parsley at Brixton Market and some tinned cannelini beans as well

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Paella de cerdo con chorizo y espinaca

Otherwise known as rice with pork, chorizo and spinach. I am having a bit of a spanish/moorish/possibly most specifically Moro-ish phase at the moment. I love the rich complexity of chorizo served any which way - anything from plain grilled, or sliced fresh and especially mixed into rice dishes like this one. It is one of those ingredients that somehow makes a dish greater than the sum of its parts.

I was googling the other week looking for stuff for a tapas style Saturday night special and came across this recipe from The Moro Cookbook. I was immediately taken with it because it says at the very beginning This rice is very Spanish in taste. A complex and comforting dish. And I thought - what is a very Spanish taste? I genuinely don't immediately know beyond a mix of rice and paprika which seems a bit too reductionist. Took me only a second to think jamon - the Spanish seriously love their ham and indeed all things pork (this could be one reason for my current fetish) and then to remember some of the best olive oil in the world comes from Spain. Perhaps I know a little more than nothing.

I made this Sunday night with the plan to have it for lunch Monday/Tuesday. It is seriously good - cooking the pork separately at the beginning and adding it back at the end with the wilted spinach made it stand out in the finished dish. I bought my noras peppers from Brindisa.

Paella de cerdo con chorizo y espinaca

7 tbsp olive oil
12oz/340g pork fillet, halved lengthways, then sliced across roughly into 7mm strips
4oz/110g mild cooking chorizo, cut into little pieces
2 large Spanish onions, finely chopped
1 large green pepper, halved, seeded and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8oz/225g calasparra (paella rice) or arborio rice
1 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
2 ñoras peppers (or dried peppers, not too hot), soaked in hot water
1.75 pints/900ml hot chicken stock or water
1lb 2oz/500g spinach, washed and drained
Sea salt and black pepper

In a 30-40cm paella pan or frying pan, heat the olive oil over a high heat, stir-fry the pork for a few seconds so it is still a little undercooked. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side.

Turn down the heat to low, and fry the chorizo for a minute. Add the onion and green pepper and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the garlic, and continue cooking for a further 5-10 minutes. At this point, the mixture should have caramelised and taste sweet.

Stir the rice into the pan to coat in the mixture for a minute. Up to this point, everything can be cooked in advance. The next stage requires about 20 minutes' more cooking time.

While the garlic is cooking with the onions and peppers bring the stock to a simmer in a separate pan.

Now season the rice with salt and a little pepper. Add the paprika and noras peppers, drained of their water and chopped roughly, followed by the hot stock, and simmer for 15 minutes or until there is just a thin layer of liquid around the rice.

Meanwhile, briefly wilt the spinach with a little salt, either by braising or steaming, and put to one side with the pork fillet.

When the rice is done, evenly scatter the pork over it, followed by the spinach. With the back of a spoon, gently push the pork and spinach partially into the oily liquid that remains at the bottom of the pan.

Cover the paella tightly with foil and let it sit for 3-5 minutes.

It was indeed a comforting dish on a cold Sunday night and a lovely thing for lunch next day. If this is the taste of Spain I will happily eat a lot more of it.

It's not cheap initially - this cost about £8 and it is really special. We got six meals from it so in fact it's quite reasonable. Positively a bargain when it works out to be just over a pound per serving!

Friday, March 06, 2009

I wanted...I bought...I made

We're off to the theatre Saturday night to see Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear so that will be a treat except it wasn't, he was good but the rest of the cast were appalling so not a good night at the theatre. Will have a late afternoon brunch of hot sausage sarnies damned fine they were too with a thick garnish of rocket I think. Sunday I'm planning to go to South Ken to the science museum so would like to make a spanich rice dish wonderful and good for lunch for a couple of days that I bought most of the stuff for a couple of weeks ago for the tapas night then realised I'd bought enough to cater for the five thousand. Monday I'm out and the man can have the spaghetti from the freezer. Tuesday I would like grilled pork chops with some lentil salad and a bread salad that a man in Portugal emailed me about and instead we had ma po tofu and carrot and ginger stir-fry with rice and enough left for lunch Wednesday. Wednesday is french so a quick pasta after I made a lemon cream pasta from a recipe from the River Café and it was horrible - it is a very long time since I made something that was so bad it went into the bin so we ended up with bread and cheese instead, Thursday I am really going to have my tofu tea since that was Tuesday I made a really lovely chicken casserole with butter bean mash. Friday omelette perhaps spinach with a little snack to start of chorizo and a few olives.

Had a list for the market Saturday and we were there by 9 to find Borough pretty quiet and calm. Went to Wyndhams stall - they have closed their shop as the rents have been pushed very high recently - and bought some chicken pieces casserole Thursday night with enough for the man to have for dinner Monday night and a couple of carcasses lots of lovely stock for the freezer which cost £7.90

Then to Lizzie at Wild Beef for eggs and sausages - seriously love her thin beef sausages grilled for Saturday brunch - for £5.60

Bought cheese at Gastronomica - Parmesan and a truffled sheep's cheese with bread for Wednesday's emergency alternative supper - £12.70

Coffee from Monmouth - £8.50

Had thought I would not buy anything from Ginger Pig - but obviously I can't just walk past so ducked in and bought some unsmoked oyster bacon that looked beautiful so glad I did as the man made scambled eggs and bacon and toast and coffee for breakfast Sunday and it was just fantastic, thoroughly decadent way to start the day - £2.70

At Booths I needed rocket, carrots, spanish onions and spring onions - £2.20
Peppers from Tony - £2

Milk, ciabatta, cream and pasta from Neals Yard - £8.90

Hot cross buns from Flour Power - £2

A grand total of £52.50 - not too bad. Have also bought parsley, tofu and spinach. And a baguette.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Roasted Vegetable and Lentil Salad

I had food chain this weekend and I'd already decided I'd like to make corn bread for the evening meal as it's a tasty treat. But it does need a little something to go with it. Last time I added simple egg salads with peppers - for some reason I find the combination of sweet corn and sweet peppers a perfect match, I just love the mix of those flavours in my mouth.

I've been eating lots of spanishy things of late so thought I might extrapolate that experience into my companion piece. The other obvious restriction is that it had to be frugal (which is different to cheap!) - the whole budget for the day is only £3.50 a head. I wondered about roasting peppers with lots of onions then realised I could bulk it out very cheaply with lentils for their lovely earthy flavour and then tie it all together with a little garlic, sherry and olive oil dressing. Rather than just head straight in on Sunday with salad for 65 I tested it at home Friday night as the salad to go with our spinach omelette and garlic bread. Pleased to say it was a total triumph - a really lovely thing to eat. The man was very impressed.

Roasted Vegetable and Lentil Salad

3 peppers, red and yellow, cored and cut into 2cm squares
1 large spanish onion, or a couple of smaller ones, peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes
200g green lentils
1 clove garlic, peeled and puréed with a little salt
5 tbspns olive oil + oil for roasting
1 tbspn sherry vinegar
2 tbspn chopped parsley

Spread the chopped vegetables onto a baking tray that has very low sides - it means the moisture escapes as they cook rather than steaming them. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt. Roast in a moderate oven, Gas 5, for 45 minutes to an hour, mixing half way through, till the vegetables have collapsed and are a tiny bit charred in places.

At the same time cook the lentils in plain, unsalted water for ten minutes, then add a tspn of salt and cook for another 10 minutes till just al dente. Drain.

Whisk the oil, vinegar and garlic together with a little ground pepper.

When the onions and peppers are cooked to your liking tip them, with their cooking oil, into a bowl along with the drained lentils and chopped parsley. Stir through the dressing and check the seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

Worked a treat on a large scale on Sunday too - and my kitchen assistants loved it!

For the domestic version the cost is about £1.50 - and it kept very well in the fridge for a salad treat Saturday.