Thursday, June 02, 2016

6 places to eat in Glasgow, one to avoid and one lovely food shop

Bank holiday weekend - why is there a holiday on the last Monday in May? - and the man and I decide on a little trip to Glasgow. By train. Specifically by sleeper. Which given how physically dinky this country  is, what that means is a train that leaves just before midnight that - I think it goes round and round the perimeter of these sceptred isles till just after 6am then chugs into Glasgow Central. It's fun.

Early arrival needs proper breakfast so, after a little googling, I'd found the famous Cafe Gandolfi, close to the station, open from 8, and serving a full Scottish. Gorgeous high ceilinged room, friendly staff and a menu that suggested it takes 30 minutes for a fry up as it was all to be done properly. Looking good. Unfortunately what was eventually served was decidedly underwhelming - a sausage that was warm but a bit cold at one end, bacon so dry it was difficult to chew, a potato scone that was so hard it wasn't possible to cut with the knife, a small sad fried egg and a slice of utterly magnificent Stornaway black pudding. The man had cleverly ordered the black pudding with poached eggs so he ate much better than me!
Met a man in the bar on the train, he recommended the Mussel Inn
After our unimpressive breakfast we had a 2 hour walk around the city, guided by students from the School of Art, looking at a lot of extraordinary architecture loosely connected by Rennie Macintosh and his wife Mary. Really hungry by the time it was finishing, by chance we walked past the Mussel Inn, still serving lunch. Made a mental note of the location and scampered back for brilliant huge bowls of steaming mussels - one with shallots, garlic and cream and one with chilli and coriander, both fabulous. Only mistake was to order a single bowl of chips - the bowl was not large and the chips were amazing. Should have been two...

Dinner was booked a little way out into the burbs to 111 by Nico, a small bistro nestled into an unassuming row of shops with a Spar and laundrette for company. They served wild mushroom soup in an espresso cup as an amuse - like a deep rich hit of the forest, it set the standard high for the meal to come.
loved the ham hough, crisp toastie wrapped shreds of ham served with shreds and small balls of fresh apple and shreds of fennel and just pleasure in every mouthful

the man had smoked mackerel, the oiliness complemented with crisp asparagus and new potatoes, all brought together with an egg in the magic way that eggs have

Mains were only slightly less successful - I had the duck, which came as a few little nuggets of pan fried bits, like yesterdays leftovers, but well served with a trio of green veg all perfectly rendered and sauced. The man was seduced by pork belly, which was a lovely slice of meat but came, oddly, with the listed ricotta and some slices of salami, not sure why. Though the peas and wild garlic were great it didn't quite come together as a dish.

The man, as always, had dessert - coffee creme brûlée with instant coffee. Meh.
A very enjoyable dinner, a definite recommend. 

To Finnieston next day for lunch, more pub than restaurant really, and by 2pm the punters were largely settled with gin and happy chat. The menu is mostly fishy and despite coming across both sides of an A3 sheet the waiter also recites a list of the specific specials, the market fish and soup of the day. Add some complicated additions of sauces and sides for some but not all of the dishes we needed the excellent negroni and scientific gin cocktail to get our heads round it all. I wasn't feeling entirely confident at this point about lunch.
3 with crispy bacon and haggis crumb with whisky mist thinking they'd be local specials but the crumb was more sand and the mist simply evaporates - holiday tragedy. 
They do serve oysters so I ordered 3 plain - which were extremely fine, salty and fresh. The man's scallops with curried parsnip and salty fingers was a definite hit - there's a theme of adding curry notes to a lot of dishes we see round town, and sometimes it works.
Mains were an absolute treat
Salmon fillet with sides of zatar beetroot and just perfect buttered greens had the man grinning with delight. My cod flaked to perfect petals the better to dunk into black olive paste which worked so well with the fennel salad and more chips. Great lunch. Dessert was a luxury version of rice pudding for the man - nothing in the world would convince me to eat it, but hey, he loved it but was defeated by the size. Another recommend, feel like I'm on a roll.

Quick mention for the nearby store, Roots Fruits & Flowers, that sells great food and smells for all the world like an old fashioned health food store. I was expecting something modern and shiny and was delighted with the simplicity we found. Bought lots of treats - bread, smoked salmon, some minute steaks and other bits and pieces to feed us at home for the rest of the weekend, with an enormous Stornaway black pudding  to take home as my holiday memento.

Sunday lunch was at Ox & Finch, a newish gastro pub style restaurant that sees itself as world class but which is really just fine. I don't mind the sharing plates and food delivered whenevs to suit the kitchen - it's the dull explanations that come with it that does my head in. You have been to this kind of place. Started with the seafood cocktail and it was, by any definition, totally amazeballs. Shiny fresh sweet crab and crayfish spiked through with chilli and lime and dotted about with avocado cream it disappeared in a moment. There was griddled asparagus, slightly underdone and a sour back note of old fat, but served with good chunks of tasty sausage and another day another egg. Roasted carrots come with a generous dusting of spice and a scatter of feta chunks. Like it. Slow cooked hogget pulls to easy shreds and comes with bouncy balls of Israeli couscous and middle eastern spicing,
dishes with a debt to Ottolenghi
 The final dish is hangar steak, perfectly tender rosy middle with expertly charred edges the meat is rounded out with a very good blue cheese and, a current favourite of more than just mine, char grilled baby gem lettuce. Oddly on arrival we were told we could have the table till 3,15, giving us an hour and a quarter. Our allowed time up we didn't stay for dessert or coffee or digestif. When we left there was plenty of available tables for the non existent late diners...

Monday was our last day, left our stuff at the station and headed to Hutchesons for another shot at a good fry up, this time in an elegant room. Wow - such a contrast to the first. I was delighted with  properly charred rump steak done medium rare with egg and grilled tomatoes, the fairly ordinary toast is forgivable.  The man LOVED the full Scottish - pudding, sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, home made beans and home fries - which are golden sauté - all of it fresh. With toast. Same price as Gandolfi and a thousand times better.

Enough to get us through a lovely day at the Burrell Collection and a long wander in Pollok Gardens in the spring sunshine and keep us going till the last meal of the trip, fab local Italian at Eusebi Deli. Recognisable to me as the kind of place I ate at as a kid in Wollongong where post war immigrants set up little cafes and community centres serving great pasta and pizza in basically cheerful environments. Loved it.  We shared silky slices of beef carpaccio with a fine dice of tomato and a mighty lump of burrata with a gorgeous aubergine paste with fingers of fresh foccacia - so good the people at the next table needed to know what it was so they could order it next time.

Then we  had pizza of course, with sausage and wild broccoli and malfatti - little ricotta and spinach dumplings, light as air and a treat to eat. The man went for gelato, two scoops of chocolate, enough to finish us off. Serious recommend.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Confit Garlic

Garlic is one of the things that makes my life complete. I eat it practically daily in one form or another, crushed raw into salads and small plate type things, cooked gently into the base of braises and stews, tossed with abandon into roasting trays with meat and all kinds of vegetables, beaten to a paste with salt to stir into fresh mayonnaise, slivers crisped to golden for an unexpected crunch in salads, flipped through noodles and stir fries, mashed into butter and cream cheese for garlic bread. You get the idea - the list goes on....

It is used in most cuisines around the world with the exception of subgroups like Jains who don't do garlic or onion, carrot or potato either - which would leave me thoroughly discombobulated. It is surprisingly complex in flavour depending on the cooking methods, just adding to its brilliant versatility.

I thought I'd tried pretty much every permutation until I came across the idea of garlic confit. Mostly I tend to associate confit with duck and leave it at that but it is a much broader and well loved method of preserving that can also be used with fruit and vegetables and, though I've not tried this at home, is apparently just a fabulous way to cook any kind of animal tongue, larks included presumably.

french duck
Confit duck warmed in the oven to serve
This makes sense because to confit you submerge the ingredient in oil - or sugar syrup for fruits - and slow cook it making for a very tender result with no appreciable loss of moisture or flavour. It is a really seductive way to prep your duck legs for the winter as the longer they sit untouched on the pantry shelf the more tender the flesh becomes till it really does just melt in your mouth.

The same is true of garlic, I'm pleased to say. I bought a LOT of garlic and cooked it down and have spent the last few weeks adding garlic oil to everything, mashing confit cloves into salad dressings and, undoubtedly my absolute favourite, toasting ciabatta and topping it with confit and salt crystals for the most decadently fabulous garlic bread ever invented. Melt a little cheese on top for variation. Try it - you'll thank me!

Confit Garlic

3 or 4 juicy heads of garlic
Olive oil to cover

Break the garlic into individual cloves, peel them and drop them into a small saucepan. This looks like a pretty daunting task before you start but is remarkably quick once you begin.

A bit of a mess!
Pour over just enough olive oil to cover the cloves and put the pan over a low heat. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat as low as it will go, and cook for 45 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat and, using a slotted spoon transfer the softened garlic cloves to a clean jar then pour over the oil. When the contents are cool, seal the jar and keep it in the fridge.

Use it with everything from a sauce for steamed vegetables to a base layer for pizza and slathered onto warm naan bread as a snack - it's definitely all good.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Six Recipes for Parsnips!

Star vegetable of the week is creamy sweet parsnips, the pale and interesting cousin of the carrot family with a delicate nutty flavour and a lovely smell as they cook. Though Spring is definitely on the way, the market is not yet bursting with new season produce, and it's the brilliance of the last of the winter veg that will see us happily through the 'hungry gap'. I could happily eat asparagus and baby broad beans on a daily basis after the long winter of hearty dishes but so early in the season it would quickly send me broke. Time to look to the stalwarts for just a little bit more.

Parsnips have been around since at least the time of the Romans, a ubiquitous staple long before potatoes and still a firm favourite tucked in alongside a Sunday roast. The name was borrowed into Middle English from the French word pasnaie, which was derived from the Latin pastinaca and pastinaca  goes back to pastinum, which means a small gardening tool for making holes in the ground for planting (possibly parsnips!).

There is a fabulous, if slightly gnomic saying - fine words will butter no parsnips. Obviously - but um, really? Before potatoes were one of the two veg to go with meat there were lots of root vegetables, often mashed and always improved if they were 'buttered up' with lashings of the the golden stuff - flattery, innit! But fine words count for nothing if there's no action to back them up and, speaking as someone who enjoys a little toast to go with her butter, mash without butter is just plain wrong. This source offers an interesting snippet - the English were known for their habit of layering on butter to all manner of foods, much to the disgust of the Japanese who referred to Europeans in general and the English in particular as 'butter-stinkers'. A new term of abuse...

The incredible versatility of the parsnip is a bonus as Spring tentatively replaces the winter. These winter roots are a very unfussy vegetable to use, requiring neither precision timing nor complex prep. Late in the season, as we are now, they are usually fairly big with a woody core that can be cut away if it is too substantial as the rest of the flesh is tender.

When the day dawns gloriously sunny simply peel and grate and eat them raw or try this delightful Lebanese salad with dates and yoghurt. For cooler nights try the more substantial Curried Parsnip and Lentil Salad - parsnips seriously love spice.
Parsnips are a thing of joy when steamed and pureed with cream,  or gussied up a little with spring onion and cooked as individual ramekins and a surprisingly delicate ingredient in cakes - a brilliant way to your five a day.

One last idea, from the brilliant Heston Blumenthal, parsnip cereal with parsnip milk. I was lucky to go to dinner at the Fat Duck a few years ago and one of the many magical things we ate was this cereal.

So ppppick up a parsnip today!

A version of this post first appeared in the Local Greens newsletter

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Roasted Blood Orange, Fennel and Shallot Salad

The weather is slowly meandering towards spring, some days at least, but the new season produce is sadly still quite some way behind. I am definitely hankering for brighter, sharper, lighter than slow cooked casseroles ladled onto clouds of mash, rich soups thickened with cream or pasta swimming contentedly in pools of cheesy sauce - and like as not a glistening tranche of garlic bread on the side. Apart from anything else I seem to be growing an arse the size of the world. I'm calling it my end of season look.

The trick to sliding gracefully into spring in early March is to look for new and better salad combinations using the last of the winter veg and supplementing it with some of the tasty produce of nearby sunnier climes. Citrus, particularly Italian, is a lovely thing at this time of  year and much of the best of it comes from Sicily which has the optimum  winter temperature range of around 13-29 C, perfect for growing blood oranges. Now blood oranges are a strange fruit, not one I knew at all as a kid and a complete surprise the first time I came across one. They are much the same size as a usual orange, with the same lightly pitted skin. Although it is orange in colour is also has a delicate reddish tinge, like raw sunburn on fair skin. But this is still indisputably an orange. Then when you cut it open, particularly late in the season, the flesh is red - anything from a few traces running through the segments to fully deeply carmine as though the heart of the fruit has suffered unbelievable trauma and bled all the way out to the skin. They are a thing of extraordinary beauty with a sweet taste with a faintly bitter edge and, apparently, three times as much vitamin C as ordinary oranges, at least if you believe what I read on the internet.

This has become my current favourite salad for lots of reasons - it is easy, it is quick, it smells lovely, it tastes amazing, is pretty as a picture, it's not expensive, it's great warm or cold and is a treat in lunch boxes for a day or two. It has contrasting flavours and textures which makes every mouthful different. The first time I made it I served it with a Persian herbed omelette and another salad of aubergine, yoghurt and walnuts and the next time with crisp skinned rare fleshed duck breast and soy and citrus dressed noodles. Both meals were definite highlights of the week.

Roasted Blood Orange, Fennel and Shallot Salad

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 large, nicely rounded fennel bulb or 2 smaller ones
6 banana shallots
2 blood oranges - or ordinary navel oranges if you can't find any
2 tablespoons olive oil

Line a heavy baking sheet with parchment. Cut the base and the 'fingers' away from the fennel then cut the bulb in half from top to bottom. Cut out the core, then cut each half in two again from top to bottom. Turn the pieces onto their side and slice thinly into pieces about half a centimetre thick. Scatter on the tray.

Peel the banana shallots and cut them into half centimetre rings and add to the baking tray.

Cut the oranges in half, reserving one half for later, then cut a very thin slice off the bottom of the three remaining halves. Put one half flesh side down onto the chopping board and cut into quarters then cut each quarter, flesh and skin, into half centimetre slices and add to the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining two halves.

Drizzle with olive oil, season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and toss everything together. Put into the oven at 200C/400F and roast for about  40-50 minutes, stirring the mixture every 15 minutes or so, until the edges are nicely caramelised.

Remove the tray from the oven and squeeze over about half the juice from the reserved  orange. Tip it all into a pretty bowl, mix gently and taste. Add more orange juice, salt and pepper till you have your perfect balance. Serve while still warm  or at room temperature.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cocktail Delight

Come Thursday it's St Patrick's Day and the whole world celebrates all things Irish, raising a glass in honour of the country's rich cultural heritage. A wonderful notion and not actually one that needs to be played out with Guinness, as I discovered to my delight this week. Bord Bia - the Irish agency that so brilliantly promotes the fine food and drink of Ireland held Spirit of Sharing at the beautiful Irish Embassy in London. As guests of the Ambassador of Ireland, Daniel Mulhall and his wife Greta we were greeted by around twenty drinks producers offering the chance to sample some of the high end spirits and craft beers being produced with a great deal of skill and passion across the country - he really was spoiling us!

The world is full of Irish pubs, even in Vietnam we came across Finnegan's and Paddy's and The Dublin Gate, and as Ambassador Mulhall pointed out in his welcome they spread a cheerful warmth, making people feel they know the Irish as a delightfully charming and sociable race. As cultural stereotypes go it's a positive winner.  The world of Irish drinks extends far beyond Guinness and Baileys, evidenced that night by the fascinating range of craft beers, whiskey - spelt like Irish way - and premium gin. Award winning writer and whiskey aficionado Dominic Roskrow spoke with admiration for the drinks on offer, identifying the skill with which the Irish producers are positioning their wares as a high quality mid market offering, cleverly slotting into the gap between mass market blends for general consumption and high end single malts that can reach into a pricing stratosphere beloved of collectors and show offs. They specialise in classic whiskeys like that produced by Hyde, a single malt named after the 1st President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, which has a rich peppery finish after sweet honey and caramel notes upfront.

The range of craft beers available was fascinating, a myriad of styles expertly produced and all with a story attached. Boyne Brewhouse make the bitter and fruity Born in a Day, an APA using Australian hops brought over by Aine O'Hara, Head Distiller and Brewer. Aine, a Galway native, honed her craft for seven years as Brewer with Matilda Bay, Australia's most awarded craft brewery - her first beer for Boyne is a nod to her time in Oz. The White Hag Brewing Company use local heather and peat from the bogs along with Irish oatmeal to create their range of beers, named for the mythical creature that is perhaps mother nature herself. Chameleon or spirit of Ireland she's well honoured with their delicate IPA and their toasty award winning Oatmeal Stout. One of my favourites on the night was O'Hara's Irish stout,  a rich, complex beer that would be a brilliant match for smoked salmon or a dozen spanking fresh oysters.

Most surprising for me was the number of gins being made, all of them premium quality. The first one I tried was an apple based gin, Kilkenny Crystal Gin made at Highbank Orchards using the organic apples and botanicals grown on their own estate, which produces a smooth and delicate gin that is so fine it can be drunk without necessarily the addition of tonic. They also produce a superbly flavoured rich apple syrup that is like the very taste of autumn, and would no doubt be lovely over ice-cream or drizzled onto warm slices of pie.

Cocktail maestro Charlie McCarthy and his brilliant assistant were on hand to whip a few specials using this great range of drinks as their starting point. Intrigued by the gins on offer,  it had to be the starting point. The gin used is Bertha's Revenge, a milk based gin - yea, really, milk! It uses whey alcohol as its base from Irish dairy farms, natural spring water and foraged botanicals and is a lovely soft fragrant thing with a little spice in the middle. Its makers, Ballyvolane, are championing grass-to-glass - something we should all get behind if it is as good as this.

Irish Gin Cocktail

Not sure what it's called but do try this at home

Put 25ml of sugar syrup, 50ml of the brilliantly named Bertha's Revenge, 10ml of Pedro Ximenez sherry and a couple of drops of Jameson's Sloe Gin into a cocktail shaker and shake, shake, shake. Pour out over ice and decorate with a black cherry and a curl of orange rind.

However you celebrate, have a happy St Patrick's Day

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Salmon and Fennel Salade Composé

Only just March but a blog about salad? Seriously not madness.

I've been away for a few weeks, in part to celebrate my delightful nieces' 21st birthday in Australia, and have loved the sunshine and abundance of light in the other hemisphere. February days of 28 degrees and blue skies is the definition of bliss after a January of 10 degrees and drizzle. The man was busy busy at work and unable to join me, so I left the freezer full of lovely things in handy tubs and flew out late one Saturday night. I came back this week to a much depleted freezer and a man offering salad as the number one suggestion for what he'd most like to eat. So happy to oblige.

In every cafe and every brasserie in every village and every town in France the menu includes a  -usually a list of - salade composé. Best known is probably salade nicoise, the lovely laying out of crisp lettuce leaves to be topped with a spoonful of tuna in the centre surrounded by tomato slices, a tangle of limpid green beans, delicate slices of hard boiled egg and a scattering of salty black olives, all of it generously drizzled with vinaigrette. Add a chunk of crusty bread and you have a really fine meal, a fabulous array of colours, flavours and textures that are a thing of beauty. The sum greater than its individual parts - a really satisfying dinner any time of year, simple, healthy and filling (but not fattening). I am a fan.

There are many variations of this lovely dish, to some extent limited only by imagination and available ingredients. The defining characteristic is that the salad is composed - assembled from a variety of mini salads for the diners delectation rather than all tossed together making every bite uniform. With salade composé every bite is different as the various tasty elements come together in each mouthful making it a joy to eat. Try bitter chicory with sharp and creamy blue cheese and sweet slices of pear or oak leaf topped with beetroot and rare slices of pigeon breast and a scattering of toasted walnuts. One of my French café favourites is salade chèvre chaud - light greens topped with oozing warm goat's cheese, raisins and a light honey dressing. Add a hunk of crusty bread to achieve perfection.

My salad of choice this week was ready in ten minutes. After minimal peeling and chopping, no cooking at all and just the one tin to open, I presented a delightful assembly of baby gem topped with crisp fennel, cucumber and mixed sprouts, a burst of colour from crunchy slices of red pepper finished with a generous portion of tinned salmon and a drizzle of classic vinaigrette - seasoned olive oil and lemon juice mixed 3:1. Don't forget the bread!