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!