Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Claire's top 10 cookbooks

When I wrote up my top ten books it caused some consternation from a few people not least Claire who has her own, very well defined list of books.

So here they are in no particular order (apart from number one which at the moment is Claire's all time favourite), some are the same as mine, most aren't. All of the following text is by Claire

Jamie At Home;

Lovely book to look at, great programme to watch (I own the DVDs too), and not a bad recipe yet.

French Laundry;

Despite being rather intimidating, I have attempted a few recipes from this book.  Each one has been incredibly easy to follow, and has turned out amazingly well.

How to be a Domestic Goddess;

I have made a large number of the recipes in this book.  All have had outstanding results.  All of this despite my hatred for the woman.


A lovely read, and the recipes are all really straightforward, with fantastic results

Delia's Complete Cookery Course;

A go-to reference when I'm stuck on or unsure of any 'classic' recipes

Leith's Vegetable Bible;

Good for inspiration - especially when a glut of courgettes/tomatoes/turnips/squash comes our way.

Dessert Fourplay;

I think I wish I was Johnny Iuzzini (maybe without the tattoos).  One day I will get up the courage to attempt some of his beautiful recipes.  In the meantime I will swoon over the pictures.

The Return of the Naked Chef;

I love most of Jamie's books, but this is the second entry in the top ten purely for his 'Fantastic Fish Pie'.


A beautiful book to browse through, but I've yet to make anything from it....

Nigel Slater's Real Food

One of the first cookery shows I ever watched and enjoyed on TV.  I love the book and his style of cooking.  Appetite is probably a better book in terms of number of recipes/quality of the read, but this is my favourite.

A tale of two beers. Adnams Innovation and Sam Hill Homebrew

The first beer I'm going to write about today is a pretty special one. When I won the World Cup Beer Sweep my prize was three cases of beer, one from Ales by Mail, one (still to arrive) from the Highland Brewing Company and one from Adnams. The one I was most excited about in this package was the Adnams one. Adnams and I go back a long way, there beers were often on of the "out the back" real ales at my local when I grew up and I have helped drain casks of them at a few west country parties.
I will admit here and now that I was a little disapointed when the package turned up and it was 12 bottles of the same beer, one which I hadn't heard of. "No Broadside, Southwold or Explorer?" I exclaimed when ripping open the box, "How could they?" I am exaggerating my reaction somewhat, in the back of my mind I knew that Adnams, who had been making me quality beers for fifteen years, would see me right for my prize. What a prize it was, twelve sleek, sophisticated bottles that you see above, a mysterious embossed label with a single highlighted word, "Innovation".

An exclusive beer like this will always pique my interest. It is my hatred of feeling like I missed out that led me to carefully transport two bottles of Russian River Supplication home from San Francisco in our luggage. It causes me to spend too much money buying limited edition beers from crazy Scottish brewers.

I followed the instructions on the back of the bottle and chilled a few of these down before sampling and I was blown away. Tonight, four weeks after opening the first bottle we drank the last one. It really is a surprising and beautiful beer. It has a deep golden but not amber colour and a well established head. On the nose it has rich stone fruits, some tea and plenty of honey and caramel. The flavour really delivers all of those aromas and more. The sweetness of the honey and caramel  is offset with delicious bitterness. This beer changes the further down the pint you drink and it becomes difficult to pinpoint individual tastes. I did have a stab at it though and this is what I have noted.

Christmas Pudding
Jolly Ranchers
Cough candy.

All of this flavour riot sits over a 6.7% ABV but not once during the twelve bottles did it taste this strong. (I have to admit after 3 of these bottles it feels that strong!)
If you can't tell already I love this beer, so much that I am going to place an order for another twelve. I need this beer in my life.
After such an intensively flavoured beer it was probably a mistake to have an impromptu tasting of the homebrew I made from a St Peter's Ruby Red Ale kit, but I will tell you what we thought anyway.

It was my first time making homebrew beer and inexperienced as I am, allowed a bit too much yeast to end up in the bottles when it was time for conditioning. This has led to a nicely carbonated beer in the bottle with about half a centimetre of sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The only way to pour a clean pint of the beer is to chill it right down so the bubbles don't disrupt the sediment layer. This suppresses the flavour and as a result the beer really suffers. So, unlike the Adnams, a warming needs to be performed. About half an hour after pouring we tasted. Even with the warming the beer is a little flat and dry tasting. There appears to be little residual sugar from the malt extract and as a result not enough body. Having said that it is a perfectly palatable beer with a nice hoppy flavour. Next time I make a kit I will reduce the starting volume so there is a more of a body to it and of course I will be a lot more careful with the yeast!

Thanks for reading. I hope there will be plenty more beer reviews to come. Marble, Hardknott, Russian River and hopefully some Highland beers will be tasted and remarked upon as soon as I can!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Per Se

I apologise for taking so long to post this post about our meal at Per Se in New York. It's taken a while to get used to being back in the UK with it's humdrum weather and everyday problems. The only problems we had on honeymoon were what to eat and drink for breakfast, lunch and dinner! The drink part more difficult than anticipated with the size and variety of the wine lists.  In my top 50 cookbooks I mentioned two books by Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon. The French Laundry is Thomas Keller's flagship restaurant in Yountville in the Napa Valley and has been wowing its diners with contemporary French/American  food since 1994. In 2004 Keller opened a sister restaurant in New York named Per Se. These restaurants are two of only six in the US with three Michelin stars such is the quality and dedication to perfection of these kitchens.

The status of Per Se in the New York restaurant world means that it is quite tricky to get a reservation, certainly one at a decent time. But we persevered and maybe via a friend of a friend or maybe by spread betting on the backup list we managed to get a 9:30 table on a Saturday night.

Per Se is housed on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Centre on Colombus circle. It is a bit strange to walk in through the side entrance of a shopping centre to get to any restaurant let alone one like this but this isn't a normal mall. It also boasts another top restaurant, Masa, as well as a lot of fancy shops.

It was Saturday evening and I was very excited as we entered the garden and approached the front door.

The glass panel to the left slid open and we were greeted by a dark, plush, deep red entrance hall and an English accent from  the greeter. We were then shown to our table, drank some excellent champagne and perused the tasting menu and wine list. There were a number of choices to be made and this would take some careful consideration.

This is a scan of the menu we pilfered on our way out. It is almost identical to the one we had but the striped bass dish was replaced with Kindai tuna. This I'm afraid is one of the only pictures we have of the meal. It just felt wrong to sully our experience by wasting time, taking pictures instead of enjoying each other's company and the outstanding food which was being laid out in front of us.

A restaurant with Per Se's reputation will always keep a number of its famous hits on a tasting menu like this one. Per Se has a few chart toppers which made an appearance during our meal. The first of these which was not on the menu was the famous salmon tartare cornets topped with red onion creme fraiche. Just like tiny ice-cream cornets but with fresh raw salmon these were a lovely start to the meal.

The first dish on the menu was another one of the restaurants permanent fixtures and one we were not looking forward to, 'oysters and pearls'. However this sabayon of oyster and pearl tapioca with caviar may have changed my dislike of oysters in a way that it seems to do for others. It was delicious, so delicious that I think I may be trying a few more oysters in the future (as long as they come with tapioca!)

I won't describe all of the dishes but will highlight our favourites. The tuna was fantastic, (which was a relief because Kindai tuna is a very expensive ingredient). The courgette flowers stuffed with veal balls was much tastier than its English translation may lead you to believe! 

The lobster succotash dish and the Calotte of beef were also stand-out dishes for me. The butter poached lobster was juicy and so sweet and with the chanterelles was a delicious pairing. The calotte, which is a part of the ribeye normally thrown out by the butcher, was really a really excellent piece of beef. I'm a sucker for bone marrow and it makes any beef dish better in my opinion. Gorgeous.

It was past midnight by now and we were still being brought plate after plate of desserts, petit fours, biscuits and bon bons. It all started to become a bit of a bluras we gorged oursleves on sweet treats but one thing I remember well was the extra-menu infamous coffee and doughnuts dessert. It's a cappucino semi-fredo with brioche doughnuts and this is the dish that finished Claire off. So I had to eat both of them. Oh well probably only 1000 calories between them.  

Stuffed and somewhat dozy we left the restaurant clutching a couple of boxes of uneaten sweet things, ready for bed. The question we always discuss after any meal we have out is if we lived in the area would we go back. The answer for Per Se is a resounding yes. I think it's worth the trauma of booking and the seriously wallet busting price. We were treated very well and felt completely at ease. In actual fact we are sort of going back. Next year we are going back to the states for the second leg of our honeymoon and this trip will take in a visit to Yountville where we are hoping to book tables at the French Laundry and Ad Hoc.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Lunch from Acton Market and dinner: risotto stuffed round courgettes.

I've still got lots of US restaurants to write up but in the mean time I'll tell you about lunch and dinner today.

My friend Tom has a stall at Acton Market where he sells his "seasonal, inspired foods" which he cooks himself. Some of my colleagues and I popped down to see him today and to buy our lunch. We bought quite a few of these satisfying and moreish seasonal vegetable pies. They were laden with fresh courgettes and parmesan and we kept going back for just one more!

The stars of the show for me were the range of Brutti ma buoni biscuits made both traditionally with hazelnuts and as an alternative with almonds. There was also a chocolate and nuts version and some lemon bicsuits.
The almond and hazelnuts biscuits were sweet, nutty and crisp. So I bought a box of each and they are going down  very well both at work and at home the lighter almond being my favourite.

A far better lunch than the usual from the Hammersmith Hospital canteen, I would advise anyone in the area on a Thursday or Saturday to drop by and pick up some of these treats!

Tonight for dinner we needed to use up some more seasonal produce that had come our way from a number of sources. So I made a turnip and carrot risotto,

hollowed out two round yellow courgettes

stuffed them with the risotto

and baked them for 30 mins

A very satisfying dinner! Thanks must go to Frances at the British Library for the spectacular round courgettes and to Claire's mum for the turnips.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Observer top 50 cookbooks and my top ten

This Sunday the Observer Food Monthly published it's top 50 list of cookbooks. It is a varied collection of (mostly British) books from the great and the good in the food writing world. I was very interested to see how many of these books I owned and whether I agreed with the choices. So I decided to put together my own list and see how it compared. At 30 years old I didn't experience the impact that many of the books in the list had to the British household so I have picked books that have had to most impact on me and my cooking.

A brief scan through the list shows that is made up of books from a lot of British writers, a few Americans, a spattering of French and a few other nationalities. I think this represented the make up of the panel which was mostly Brits. The list certainly concentrated on books for the home cook and omitted many of the coffee table restaurant books (mostly American) which I consider key tomes in my collection.

It turned out that I currently own ten of the fifty books, of those ten I think only one or two would be in my top ten. Some of my top ten's authors were represented but with books I don't consider to be their best. My top ten are all books that I've cooked from successfully and also one's I enjoy reading as books.

1. Essence:Recipes from Le Champignon Sauvage by David Everitt-Matthias

We went to the two Michelin starred Cheltenham restaurant, Le Champignon Sauvage a few years ago to celebrate Claire's birthday  and the meal we had was an exhilarating celebration of British produce. Essence by the owner and head chef, David Everitt-Matthias, is a beautiful book, filled with the innovative and exciting dishes which are prepared in their kitchen every day. The recipes range between straightfoward to challenging and are split up into their component parts and all these recipes are illustrated with gorgeous photography. I have been inspired by the ideas in this book more than any other I own especially as the author encourages experimentation and combination of different components.

2. The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman

Some people have said that Essence is the British version of The French Laundry Cookbook. They both are detailed instructions on how to recreate their respective restaurant's menus at home and both are beautiful to read. But the French Laundry cookbook is a much grander and maybe even daunting affair. Some of these recipes are unachievable for the home cook but the majority are very much doable and will reward the daring cook many times over. This wonderful blog by Carol Blymire documents a home cook's attempt to cook every recipe in this wonderful book.

3. Jamie At Home by Jamie Oliver

Lot's of people seem to hate Jamie Oliver and I have never really understood why. I can see that the early Naked Chef persona may have grated and that the fake friends and lifestyle were just a bit silly, but his passion for good honest food really shines through especially in his later books. In my opinion the ultimate Jamie book is Jamie at home. It accompanied an entertaining TV series based around Jamie's vegetable garden and it epitomises his straightforward hands on approach to food where quality of ingredients and simplicity of flavours reigns over fiddly preparation. The Observer list has Jamie's Italy in the list but I don't think that it should be there as there are better and more comprehensive Italian cookbooks on the  shelves and in the kitchen. Silver spoon and Locatelli's Made in Italy to name two.

4. Appetite by Nigel Slater

The Observer list has Slater's Kitchen Diaries in their top 50 but I believe that it is Appetite that is deserving of the top spot. This is the book that made me want to change the way I cooked and even lived. I have a bad habit of sticking religiously to recipes from the books I own. In Appetite Nigel Slater rails against this type of cooking. He wants the home cook to regain their independence and inherent knowledge of how to cook good food. I think you could find a large percentage of the Kitchen diary's recipes in Appetite either explicitly or in the suggested. The whole point of this book is to arm you with knowledge of techniques that lead to the ability to make an almost infinite number of dishes. The fact that the whole book is written in Slater's friendly prose means that it is a delight to read and feels like he is there with you helping out in the kitchen.

5. River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
This is the only book in the Observer top 50 that is in my top ten and with good reason. It is an encyclopaedic manual for the preparation and cooking of meat.This is the book I refer to whenever I want to cook meat or when I need inspiration for a protein heavy meal.

I will quickly list the next five in the list as I consider these to be slightly less vital to me in the kitchen.

6. Bouchon by Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman


8. Leith's Vegetable Bible by Polly Tyrer

9. Moro by Sam and Sam Smith

10. Moro East by Sam and Sam Smith

Thursday, 12 August 2010


One of the restaurants I felt would be a one off experience for our honeymoon is Wylie Dufresne's HQ, WD50. If Grant Achatz is the US's Heston, then Dufresne is their Sat Bains. His restaurant is a welcoming and comfortable way to experience his novel and surprising food. Like a lot of the restaurants we've been to, lighting was low and romantic. Exactly the opposite of the ideal iPhone camera conditions as we have seen in the Jean Georges review. So when describing the meal I will link to the excellent photos on the WD50 website so you can get an idea of the detailed design of these dishes-Please click on these otherwise the descriptions may not mean quite as much!.

We were persuaded by the sommelier (it's amazing how persuasive they can be !) to have this italian number to go with our meal. A very interesting wine, its age had given it an interesting oily character whilst it retained its delicious dry fruit and acidity.

'Everything Bagel' is somewhat of a signature dish for WD50. Wylie Dufresne wanted a classic New York dish on the menu and this is how he did it (click here to see this beautiful start to the meal). The bagel is bagel flavoured ice-cream, the salmon is turned into threads with a Japanese method, then smoked and the white crisp on the side is made of cream cheese. I loved every mouthful of this dish and loved the idea of turning this classic on it's head. This is exactly what WD50 is about, revelling in fun and unexpected delights.

The next course was all about unexpected delight.This
Foie Gras and passion fruit course was exceptional. The foie gras pate had been pressed into a thick disk and in the centre a sharp passion fruit sauce which oozed out when the disk was cut. The sharpness of the passionfruit balanced the richness of the fatty foie very well. This was a standout dish of the night for us.

If you ask Claire what her favourite thing about high end restaurants is she won't say foie or truffles. Champagne and lobster don't impress her much. No, if you ask Claire what she loves about Michelin starred cuisine she will tell you she loves vegetables cut into tiny, tiny cubes. (brunoise to those in the trade). The next dish had extremely tiny cubes a plenty. these particular cubes were the fried potato that accompanied this fascinating scrambled egg and charred avocado dish. It came with some raw kindai tuna and was yet again was a fun and exciting course.

Another Dufresne soon to be classic up next. Apparently conceived when using up leftovers for a staff meal. The cold fried chicken with buttermilk ricotta and caviar was wonderful mixture of midnight snack and luxury.

Beef and Bearnaise was another of our favourite courses. Like the Bagel it's a classic turned on it's head. The beef part was a rich beef broth and the bearnaise came as dumplings submerged in it's savoury depths. I would have eaten this one may times over. WD50 should open a sister cafe serving only this!

Lamb loin with black garlic and soy bean was ok. The garlic paste tasted a bit burnt and bitter, the soy bean was grainy and unpleasant. The lamb was good though so we let them off for this.

The next course was not too good either. Chewy lychee sorbet was lovely but the lemon and celery that came with it was salty, weird and really not pleasant at all.

I very much enjoyed the Chocolate hazelnut tart with coconut and chicory. Claire found it a bit salty and the chicory too bitter for her taste.

Desert of the evening for us was the Rainbow sherbet, rhubarb, tarragon, orange, olive oil . The psychedelic tube of sour fruit sherbert was a real treat and the orange and tarragon brought refreshing subtle flavours.

I loved WD50. The most fun and relaxed meal I had in New York. I will definitely be back, maybe in a couple of years when the menu has changed again and when I can afford it!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Best Sandwich Ever*:An ongoing quest

For a short while is was a sausage sandwich from Mario's sandwich shop next to Waterloo station. Greasy cheap sausages cooked on a hot plate, sliced in half and spread out on even cheaper white bread. The scalding heat melting the butter through into the napkin. Delicious with or without a hangover.

For the next few years I had a favourite sandwich that I thought could never be bettered. Herbi [sic] Chicken Salad rolled sandwich from Doughmasters in Croydon. In this fine chain of sandwich purveyors they prepare their own flat breads on their patented tabletop ovens. The Herbi chicken salad a delicious mix of chicken breast, herbs, black olives and mayonnaise. I rarely choose any of the other excellent cold or grilled fillings, I can't get enough of the Herbi.
A trip to Barcelona led me to find a sandwich which would easily rival doughmasters. Back in 2006 in the New York times, food writer Mark Bittman claimed that the flauta d’ibéric d.o. jabugo from Cafe Viena is the best sandwich he had ever eaten. I tried this sandwich twice while in beautiful Barcelona on business and I can say that it's one of the best I have tasted. The design is simple. A crusty flute is sliced open, spread with tomato pulp and filled (not stuffed) with some of the best iberico ham you can buy. The bread with tomato is the perfect vehicle for the beautifully soft ham. The tomato softens the bread and balances the saltiness of the ham. Truly a great.

Our honeymoon took us on a whirlwind tour of some of the USA's finest food. While investigating places to eat in San Francisco I was advised to visit Boccalone. So we visited the Ferry Plaza building to investigate. Boccalone make outstanding Italian style pork products and more importantly for this post, the outlet in the Ferry Plaza sell sandwiches. I had to get one, I had to see if Viena could be beaten. I was not disappointed. Made, I think, with an Acme Bread company ciabatta style loaf and filled with tomato (similar to Cafe Viena) greens and a huge amount of Boccalone's sublime Salami pepato. The sarnie has it all and it's the meat that makes it. Salty, peppery and piggy I couldn't get enough and was sad to finish it. So sad that over the never few days I went back twice for this sandwich from heaven.



And thrice. This last time with a Blind Pig IPA from Russian river. Possibly the most bitter thing I've ever drunk.

So I presumed I had found it. I thought that this one couldn't be beaten. I may have been wrong.

We were taking a long walk back to the Ferry Plaza to buy another Boccalone and stumbled across the 21st Amendment Brewpub. Recommended to us by Mark Dredge we popped in for a beer and maybe more and oh boy did I get more. I opted for the meatloaf sandwich not thinking it would be a contender. Two thick slices of tasty meatloaf, full of herby savouriness, with bacon and cheese was covered with just enough excellent BBQ sauce. This is the current joint leader with Boccalone...for now.
So where is your favourite sandwich from? Please let me know in the comments!

*to clarify this is the best bought sandwich ever. The current joint leaders for best homemade sandwich ever are my darling wife's fishfinger sandwich and my best man Hatch's ultimate bacon sandwich, peanut butter, mayo and illegal amounts of bacon.

Katz's Deli for Lunch

Another New York food must is a visit to Katz's Deli. Famous in New York for decades for serving the best pastrami and hotdogs in the city before Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal had their highly satisfying meal there in When Harry met Sally. The stats back this up with the deli serving 5000 pounds of corned beef and 12,000 hotdogs every week.

The queue to get in is also testiment to Katz's quality and popularity. We stood in line for a few minutes before being handed a ticket and ushered through to one of the many secondary lines at the counter. For the uninitiated the system for ordering is more than confusing. We made our way forward in one of the sandwich queues and got to the front. We ordered the classic Katz sandwich of pastrami on rye with pickles. The pastrami was sliced in thick hot chunks and then piled high in between two slices of Rye sourdough. It's big and not pretty but the pastrami is soft, fatty and very satisfying. We shared this sandwich and it was enough for our lunch, I wish we could have gone back to try their corned beef and hotdog.

Les Halles:Back for brunch

A couple of days after our busy dinner at Les Halles we were passing again and decided to pop in for brunch.
It was a lot quieter but there were a few tables of people enjoying a a lazy morning meal. We went for some classic brunch dishes. I had a New York classic, Eggs benedict. This is poached eggs on an english muffin, ham and covered in a hollandaise sauce. This was my first eggs benedict and it was delicious.

and Claire had an Omelette Savoyarde which is filled with Gruyere Cheese.
Both dishes were served with sauteed potatoes and slightly strangely slices of orange and pink grapefruit!

We really enjoyed both our meals at Les Halles, it was reasonably priced and I would recommend anyone visiting New York to pop in and try it out.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Cheeky lunch at 21st amendment

We spotted the 21st amendment brewpub and restaurant on our way between buying beer and buying some sausage and remembering it had been recommended to us dropped in for lunch. A burger for Claire

and a superb meatloaf sandwich for me

(more on the Sam Hill best sandwich in the world competition in a later post) soaked up two glasses of watermelon wheat beer for the lady

and for me an Amber waves

And a Brew Free! Or Die IPA.

I think this is the best draft IPA of the trip yet. I am still thoroughly enjoying it!

Location:2nd St,San Francisco,United States