Sunday, 31 January 2010

"Mmmmm, Pie!" An Ode to Weebl & Bob and a Very Fine Pie!

For many years, my username on some sites has been Kaveypie, rather than Kavey. That's all down to my having introduced the members of one particular website to the delights of Weebl & Bob, back when the cartoon had just a couple of episodes to it's name.

"Mmmmm, Pie!" became a common refrain and I became indelibly associated with it! Even today, some 7+ years later, I still find myself mimicking Weebl & Bob and singing out loud about loving donkey almost much as pie!

So, what a travesty then, that I'd never made pie myself!

I recently got my mitts on a book I've been eyeing up for quite a while: John Torode's Chicken and Other Birds and decided on the chicken, leek and mushroom pie as the first recipe to try from it.

We had many of the ingredients already to hand: In the freezer, leftover roast chicken, home-made stock and home-grown leeks (peeled, sliced and frozen raw). In the fridge, most of a pot of double cream (which I figured I could substitute for single).

Our amounts didn't match up to the recipe, and we realised only once we peered more closely at the contents of the defrosted box that the "leeks" were actually home-grown spring onions, which we went ahead and used, so I'm providing the original recipe ingredients first and then what we ended up using.

John Torode's Chicken, Leek & Mushroom Pie / Kavey's Chicken, Spring Onion & Mushroom Pie
100 grams butter* (I used 50 grams)
2 leeks cut into 1 cm pieces (I used a couple of spring onions, both green and white parts, cut quite small)
6 celery stalks, chopped (omitted)
50 grams plain flour plus extra for rolling pastry
250 ml chicken stock (I used 300 ml)
125 single cream (I used 100 ml double cream)
200 grams button mushrooms (I used 250 grams of slightly larger brown mushrooms)
750 grams roast chicken meat, without skin/ bone (I used 415 grams)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
375 grams ready-made puff pastry
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for glazing (omitted)
salt and pepper

*The recipe ingredients specify 100 grams butter but the instructions only mention using 50 grams. For some reason, my brain noted the 50 grams reference and that's what I measured out and used. But it did feel too little to easily mix the flour into (I hadn't yet noticed the discrepancy between instructions and ingredients), so I would recommend using the full 100 grams in the ingredients where the instructions refer to 50 grams.

  • Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add spring onions (leeks and celery) and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Add 50 grams flour and mix to a paste.
  • Stir in the stock and the cream.
  • The instructions suggest bringing to the boil and then reducing the heat to simmer for 15 minutes, but once I'd brought it nearly to the boil and reduced heat for just a few minutes, it was already a really thick consistency. I tasted to ensure the flour taste had cooked out and decided it didn't need another 12 minutes cooking.

  • Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken, mushrooms and parsley. Season to taste.

  • Heat the oven to 220°C.
  • Take a suitable pie dish (recipe suggest 1.2 litre) and roll out the pastry to 5mm depth and 5 cm larger than the pie dish. Place the pie dish upside down onto the pastry and cut around it leaving a 3 cm border.
  • Use remaining pastry cut into 2 cm strips and fit the strip around the top edge of the pie dish, using water to help it stick, if needed. (I found the instructions for this a little confusing with no pictures to illustrate what was required; luckily Pete was able to decipher them!)

  • Transfer the pie filling into the dish, piling it more deeply in the centre than around the edges.

  • Set the pastry lid on top, using water to help it stick, if required. (Our ready-made pastry was quite sticky so we didn't need any water).
  • Use a fork to press the edges down onto the existing pastry strip and seal the pie.

  • I added extra pastry to spell the word PIE. The recipe suggests marking decorative patterns of leaving plain as desired.

  • Cut a small vent in the pie lid, at the centre.
  • Bake for 25 minutes, reduce heat to 200°C and bake for another 15 minutes until the pastry is crusty and golden.
  • If the pastry browns too quickly, cover it with a sheet of damp baking parchment.
  • Serve hot straight from the dish.

I was soooooo pleased with this pie! We really enjoyed it, especially given how often we have leftover roast chicken meat and home-made stock to use not to mention leeks grown in our back garden! The spring onion substitute worked fine, though the flavour was a touch stronger than I think leek would have been, so would use leeks next time. And I loved the brown mushrooms, but might cut them in half next time, as they were a touch large, though perfectly cooked and very tasty!

Oh and, as we didn't want to waste the strip of puff pastry leftover from the pie lid, we grated some Comté and made a cheese straw. As it took only a few minutes to cook, we shared it as a little canapé before the pie!

And what do I think of the book? It's a book I've really enjoyed reading - I like Torode's
very personal and personable writing style. Many of the recipes look delicious! But I found myself bookmarking less of them into my mental queue of things to make than I usually do when I get my hands on a new cookery book - I never cook half of them but I love the idea of doing so! There are also a couple that don't seem to fit the rest - the idea of using leftover roast chicken in a simple sandwich is probably one anyone who'd contemplate the rest of the recipes has probably worked out already! But the book has given me some ideas, and been an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Quadrille for the review copy.

John Torode's Chicken and Other Birds is published by Quadrille and currently available from Amazon for just £9.69 instead of the RRP of £20.00.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Life is good... and so are Gower Cottage Chocolate Brownies!

Life's pretty good as a food blogger!

I know people think of all bloggers as blaggers. And accepting any freebies is frowned upon by some. But... when someone offers to send you a sample of their chocolate brownies, brownies you've read such lovely things about, how exactly can you be expected to resist and why would you want to? The answer in my case was, "Yes! Yes, please... {dribble}, {dribble}"

And since my blog is a miscellaneous mix of restaurant reviews, home-cooked recipes, cookery book trials, feedback on food events and my thoughts and feedback on random food and drink products... sharing what I think of such samples fits right in!

Of course, some people worry that accepting products for review leads to unfairly positive reviews. To that I have two things to say: The first is that, I believe my blog posts to date show that this isn't the case - I've not been afraid to say what I think when it's been negative. I do my best to be as fair and balanced as I can but I don't pull my punches. The second is that, when I've been sent something for review, I make it clear in my post, which gives readers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to place less store in my opinions on these products.

So! My Gower Cottage brownies arrived in the post, just as the snow had melted away.

A real cottage industry, started only a few years ago by Kate Jenkins when she and her family moved to the Gower and Kate started selling her home-made brownies in the local village cooperative shop, the business has grown quickly, due to rave reviews from both customers and food industry awards bodies.

Kate's brownies are deceptive.

I've often been seduced by a sexy looking brownie - all cracked crunch on top, moistness within, maybe some walnuts thrown into the mix - only to be disappointed by a gritty texture, rancid nuts or an overly sweet, cheap chocolate taste.

But this time, the opposite happened. I unwrapped the beautiful packaging to find some "plane Jane" brownies sitting on the parchment before me. Brownies that would never win first prize in a brownie beauty pagent, no siree bob.

But, oh! When I took a bite, I was seduced! Dense, gooey with a marvellously rich, deep dark chocolate taste these are seriously good, utterly indulgent, naughtily moreish brownies! These aren't cheap thrill, quick and dirty, unsatisfying one-night-stand brownies. These are take-home-to-mother, marry and come home to every night for the rest of your life brownies!

They are are all about the eating experience rather than the window display! And isn't that just as it should be?

If you need to say "thank you", "I love you", "get well soon", "good luck" or just "I've been thinking of you!" to anyone who appreciates top quality chocolatey goodness, I can wholeheartedly recommend giving them a box of these brownies - they'll get the message loud and clear! (And I'm hoping some of my friends and family might be reading this and make a mental note... I'm not kidding and yes please!)

I've had the good fortune to try some really good chocolate brownies this last year (Paul A Young, ChocStar and others). Hand on my heart, these are the best I've tasted.


Thursday, 21 January 2010

Voddie, Pig Cheeks, Dumplings, Laughter & Flamboyancy @ Bob Bob Ricard

Bob Bob Ricard reminds me why I rate restaurant reviewers Jay Rayner, Marina O'Loughlin and Fay Maschler quite highly but have absolutely nooo time for critics like A A Gill (just allowing his name to sully my blog makes me feel dirty;). His ilk strive so hard to be entertaining that their default mode seems to be disdain, mockery and posturing; they are far too jaded and world-weary to find fun in the over-the-top flamboyancy of places like Bob Bob Ricard. And god forbid they stop and think about what their readers might actually enjoy – I reckon some of them might quite like to indulge in a little pomp and circumstance on a night out now and again!

(And to the two critics who've renamed Russian owner Leonid to Sergei: which one of you was so lazy they copied the details from the other's review and which of you puts your hand up to the original sloppy journalism?)

These days, I turn less to the words of restaurant critics when looking for the low-down on where's good for food than I do to food bloggers and twitter (though when I do seek out reviews from the pros, Rayner and O'Loughlin are usually the first I check). And twitter is also where I've forged a wonderful, warm network of food loving friends - fellow food bloggers, industry PRs, restaurateurs and chefs, food journalists and cookery book authors, catering company owners, cheese and fish mongers, food producers and, of course, home cooks!

This online community of London foodlovers is also how I became involved in the Blaggers Banquet charity fundraiser and how I came to engage with Leonid Shutov, one of the owners of Bob Bob Ricard. We corresponded by email and chatted on the phone a number of times about the auction prize BBR kindly donated. I confess, until then I'd never heard of BBR but was delighted to put the generous prize into our auction and even more delighted to see how much it raised! My interest in BBR was definitely piqued!

And when Leonid mentioned some high-end vodkas he was tasting and I replied (vodka being the only spirit I'll drink given my dislike for gin, whisky, brandy...) he suggested I get myself over to BBR and sample a few! Who am I to turn down that kind of invitation?

Although I'm currently on holiday between contracts, I did agree to deliver a single day's training as a favour for a long-term client. I knew it would be a frustrating day so it seemed an ideal evening to pop into BBR for dinner and drinks. The day was even more exasperating than I'd imagined possible so I was quite the pressure keg by the time I met up with Pete at Picadilly Circus!

We arrived at BBR just after 5pm; unsurprisingly, we were the first customers of the evening, though the place became pretty busy by the time we left, and that on the second Tuesday of January!

Shown to one of the booths by our pink-coated waiter, Salvatore, we settled in and gawped at the décor - old world decadence with a sprinkling of glitz and a large dollop of kitsch! I loved the dark turquoise leather banquettes reminiscent of first class train travel in times gone by, the plush velvet curtains on little gold curtain poles, the regal yet futuristuc bronzey-gold chandeliers, the gorgeous Japanese book binding paper used to paper walls and ceilings with flying birds and tie dye circles, the resplendent bevelled mirrors and the beautifully patterned granite and marble table tops and a hundred other little details that contributed to the flamboyant whole.

I used to visit the site regularly in it's (earlier) Circus days so the contrast between that modern, minimalist look and the current extravagance was staggering!

Moments later, Leonid joined us and we ordered aperitifs. Pete went for the house signature pink rhubarb G&T. Not normally a big gin drinker, or a fan of girlie drinks he really liked it. I had the pear bellini, a lovely variation on the peach original.

After slaking our thirst we took a quick tour around the restaurant including the downstairs bar. It's red colour scheme and narrow room layout evokes even more forcibly the hey days of the Orient Express. Luxurious fittings, more private nook and cranny booths with extra fold-down seats and lots of glitz and glamour. It's open to restaurant diners and members, but off limits if you're neither.

The tour was followed swiftly by the voddie session! Leonid ordered a selection of Russian starters and, of course, the vodka! Salvatore poured us shots of Kauffman Special Vintage 2006, chilled to –18°C - chilling the vodka makes it more about drinking it than inhaling the fumes of alcohol beforehand. Leonid explained how best to drink it: ready a forkful of food, down the shot in one, and immediately eat the forkful.

Leonid explained that vodka "brings out and amplifies the flavours of the food but does not change them. Unlike wine, neat vodka cannot be properly enjoyed on it's own, it needs food to complete the experience!"

We started with the jellied ox tongue with horseradish cream. I liked the textures of the meaty tongue against the wobbling jelly and the horseradish gave it a nice kick. And certainly the flavours sang out, whether that was the vodka or not I'm not sure, but I rather liked downing a shot before each mouthful!

Our second shots were Imperia by Russian Standard. This vodka has a more distinct grain flavour, perhaps less completely distilled than the other, perhaps with the taste of grain deliberately added back to it. Leonid described how some vodka producers take rye bread, toast it, soak the toast in water to create an essence of the flavour and mix this into the vodka to add in just a hint of the grains from which it's made!

With these shots we tried the russian herring, cured with salt rather than the sweeter cures more common in Scandinavian versions, and served with tiny rings of raw red onion. Powerfully fishy and packing a hefty salt punch, we swiftly followed each mouthful of herring with a bite of boiled royal kidney potatoes - the naturally buttery flesh instantly cut through the saltiness.

As both Pete and I preferred the Kauffman, it was shot after shot of this vodka that prefaced the remaining ox tongue and herring as well as other dishes.

The malosol cucumber is brined in dill, sea salt, horseradish, garlic and blackcurrant leaves (a new one on me) for just 24 hours to create this refreshing pickle that is at once fresh cucumber and crunchy pickle. Very more-ish!

Not really into our champagne we were nonetheless able to watch the champagne call button in action, as Leonid commandeered it to call for yet more vodka. It worked!

The star of the selection was undoubtedly the meat pelmeni with white vinegar and sour cream. These very traditional dumplings are filled with a pork, beef and raw onion and, in Russia, they are usually made in bulk and frozen. They were served with a generous pot of sour cream and another of white vinegar, the perfect accompaniments. Not unlike chinese steamed dumplings but without the ginger, chives and other ingredients that are often included. I definitely ate the lion's share of these, each one with a very generous dollop of the sour cream.

One last treat was in store and that was salo served on rye bread. Salo is cured pork lard, known in Italian as lardo di Colonnata (named for a Tuscan village where it's produced). As the Tuscan version is virtually the same as the Russian, BBR source theirs from Italy. Salty, fatty pork with the rich rye taste is another dish that we found worked very well with vodka!

Our conversations were many, varied and fascinating but when I took a trip down memory lane (and tested out my one remaining phrase of Russian) to relate an extremely vodka-fuelled trip to the Ukraine and another, a couple of years later, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, equally vodka-heavy it was time for Leonid to showcase quite how different our premium vodkas were to the Stoli of those long-ago years. A bottle of Stolichnaya was duly brought out, chilled as the others had been. Cough! Splutter! Cough! Really, I coughed a lot. 20+ years makes it easy to forget quite how rough and raw Stoli is and certainly made us appreciate the Kauffman we quickly retreated back to even more!

Now, you might be forgiven for assuming, based on the above, that BBR is a Russian restaurant. Actually, the eclectic all-day menu is mainly British and the handful of Russian dishes have been added to complement the vodka and as a nod to Leonid's heritage.

Finally picking up the menu (with sections for cocktails and shakes, vodka, caviar and russian snacks, starters and soups, mains and sides, desserts and afternoon teas) we ordered yet more food.

Torn between a number of starters, Leonid steered me towards the Scottish langoustine cocktail. My face dropped as Salvatore stepped in to tell me they didn't have any langoustine today but my smile returned in an instant when he continued by proposing that they make it for me with lobster instead. Leonid confided that supplies of good quality lobster are actually easier to secure than langoustine so this is the norm rather than the exception! Given that the price stays the same, who am I to argue? I love lobster meat and but don't have it often. And it was good – a generous portion of moist, firm meat on a bed of properly crunchy lettuce smothered in an unctuous marie rose sauce.

Pete went for the rabbit, foie gras and date terrine. The richness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the rabbit and the sweetness of the date came together to create a balanced dish; and a combination we'd not encountered before. Very nice!

Leonid ordered the BBR beef tea soup, a proper Victorian restorative! In his bowl were raw pieces of beef, a poached quail's egg and alphabetti spaghetti. In an amusing touch, the only letters provided are B and R but I didn't check whether the Bs were twice as many as the Rs! The soup is served in a silver teapot to be poured over the beef, egg and pasta. A little bit of ceremony can be a fun thing now and again; I rather liked it!

We were on our own for the mains – running a restaurant does require some work, after all. Having asked Leonid about their most popular dishes I duly ordered the chicken kiev. Pete opted for the pork cheeks braised in port.

The kiev was beautifully cooked: tender moist chicken, a crunchy bread-crumbed exterior and juice garlic butter inside. Although the flavour of the garlic came through perfectly well, I'd have liked more garlic butter, so a little flooded out onto my plate as I cut into the chicken. Pete, on the other hand, was of the "less is more" camp. What really made me grin whilst eating this dish was the sweetcorn and potato mash. So creamy, it was the essence of sweetcorn and I completely adored it!

And yet, the pork cheeks in port were even better! Neither of us had eaten pork cheeks before and were bowled over by their tenderness. We were also surprised to find the cheeks more beefy than porky, perhaps because they are more like red meat than the more familiar cuts of pork? The rich, full-bodied port sauce was perfect and the kitchen didn't stint on it either. Served with carrots and mash, this is one of the dishes I've been dreaming of ever since!

With his pork cheeks, Pete had a glass of wine, drawing on our waiter's advice. I'd heard about BBR's wine list as it caused quite a stir in the industry; such that even a non wine-drinker like me had heard of it. The reason is simple - unlike most premier restaurants BBR have capped the mark-up they put on the price of any bottle of wine, no matter how premium, to £50. This is, explains Leonid in the wine menu, plenty to cover the cost of selecting, sourcing, storing and serving the wines and provide a modest profit. This means that BBR undercut many top restaurants by hundreds of pounds on some bottles, making them a popular destination for those who like to appreciate top class wines when dining out. We don't fall into that category, but luckily wines start at £5.50 a glass and £19.25 a bottle for whites and reds and there are a number of choices coming in at less than £30 a bottle.

By this stage, as you can imagine, we were pretty full! But, in the name of research, curiosity or just flat-out greed, we took a look at the dessert menu. And that was our downfall; we could not resist! Torn between the warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream, the striped ‘strawberries & cream’ soufflé, the vanilla, salted caramel and valrhona chocolate ice-cream and the bramley and cox apple jelly with cream and shortbread we compromised and ordered the apple jelly to share. And two BBR chocolate truffles as well.

Well, the chocolates, one raspberry and one lime and mint, were perfectly nice. But it was the jelly that stole the show. You'd think the most appley thing you could eat would be an apple, wouldn't you? But no, I think it could be this jelly, which was the very essence of British apples. The sweet cream and two crisped apple slices were lovely on the side. And the shortbread rounds were the shortest shortbread I've come across; given how they crumbled the moment you put them in your mouth, I can't imagine the delicate touch needed to keep them in one piece during baking and service!

During dessert, Leonid returned and brought with him his friend and business partner Richard. (Incase you're wondering, Ricard is Leonid's piss-take nickname for Richard and Bob is Richard's nickname for Leonid. Bob's name features twice in the restaurant name because he stumped up two thirds of the money). As simple as that!

Queue lots more fun chatting and laughter, and nosey questions about how the pair met, how they conquered Russian PR and how they came to open a restaurant. And all kinds of random other stuff. And the slightly surprising discovery of a mutual fondness for penguins, which may or may not have been Richard pulling my leg, though he did seem to know more about penguins in the Falkland Islands than most people I've met!

Truly, we had a really lovely evening.

I had been a little nervous beforehand, not about meeting Leonid nor about the vodka sampling but about the food. I'd not googled in advance for food blog posts and restaurant reviews, nor had I heard much mention of the food in the food twittersphere and I worried that this might mean it would be disappointing, mediocre at best. And if it had been, I'd not have reported otherwise. So, imagine my delight (and relief) when we not only had great fun with our hosts but also had an unexpectedly fantastic dinner as well!

Of course, I googled for reviews as soon as I got home and discovered again why I rate Rayner, O'Loughlin and Maschler – despite sampling the best of what London has to offer and being no strangers to luxurious surroundings, good food and excellent service, they were able to recognise what BBR offers – a strong serving of tradition, a hefty dose of the theatrical and great eating and drinking!

I loved Circus (excluding the last few years) and I love it's successor even more. In a world of short-lived restaurant openings, long live Bob Bob Ricard!

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon


Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge!

When Fiona threw down the cheese gauntlet with her Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge, I could not resist!

Macaroni cheese is a dish I adore and, like so many, have very fond childhood memories of. And yet, I hadn't made it for years and years and years. What an oversight!

Such neglect meant I didn't have the confidence to create my own original recipe. I thought about entering the best use of artisanal cheese category and popping down to Neal's Yard Dairy for some Montgomery's Cheddar or whatever else took my fancy, but I didn't have time to schedule a visit. And I'm not well placed to suggest the best drink match, given that I enjoyed my macaroni cheese with a can of Coca Cola, though Pete said it went well with the Bergerac red he opened. So I guess I'm aiming for the most mouthwatering photo (or series of photos)!

What this means is that, for the first time ever, I tried to think ahead about how I wanted to photograph the ingredients and finished dish. My main photographic interests are travel and wildlife and I tend to shoot candidly, so working studio-style feels alien to me. Having long lusted over the magnificent photography on blogs such as La Tartine Gourmande, Matt Bites and What's For Lunch, Honey? I knew I'd never match their skills with food styling and design. But instead of grabbing a couple of snapshots on the kitchen worktop as I usually do, for the first time ever I set up a makeshift table (on a cardboard box), chose and draped a new red travel towel as backdrop, thought a little about my choice of dishes and presentation and roped in my husband to hold an off-camera flash to the side for me whilst I took the photographs.

Of course, the other decision was which recipe to choose? For the last several days, Pete and I have been tidying the spare bedroom. This has been a week-long process because of my hoarding nature and our mutual hatred of house work; both of which had lead to a tottering mountain of boxes of stuff which we always intended to deal with shortly after boxing, but never did. In one, I found greetings cards from our wedding day (in 1994), in another we discovered work files from a job I barely remember and in yet another was a pile of Sainsbury's and Waitrose Food Illustrated magazines from 1999 to 2001! Scouring through these magazines for "keeper" recipes (including a great one for chicken and garlic by Fiona herself) I found not one but two macaroni cheese recipes; I took this as a sign that I absolutely had to enter the challenge!

So I chose the Nigel Slater recipe I found in an old Sainsbury's Magazine:

Nigel Slater's Really Good Macaroni Cheese
350 grams macaroni (or any other short, hollow, dried pasta)
95 grams grated mature cheddar
1 litre milk
1-2 bay leaves
60 grams butter
60 grams flour
6 slices smoked streaky bacon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 handfuls fresh, white breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons grated parmesan
salt and pepper

Note: We used 150 grams of mature Cornish Davidstow cheddar. And as the milk we had in was fully skimmed, I sloshed in a little double cream that I had in the fridge. We opted for De Cecco tortiglioni instead of macaroni as I like large pasta tubes.

  • Preheat oven to 400°C.
  • Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till just tender.
  • Grill the bacon until slightly crispy and cut into small pieces.
  • Meanwhile, warm the milk in a saucepan with the bay leaves; turn it off as it comes to the boil.
  • Melt the butter in another pan, add the flour and stir over a moderate heat until you have a smooth roux.
  • Pour the hot milk into the roux and whisky to remove any lumps and then simmer, stirring regularly, until the sauce is the consistency of double cream.
  • Stir the grated cheddar into the white sauce.
  • Fold the drained pasta, bacon pieces and mustard into the cheese sauce, and then season to taste.

  • Transfer the mixture into an ovenproof dish.
  • Mix the breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and scatter over the pasta and sauce.
  • Bake for 35-40 minutes.

After all that effort in planning, making and photographing, I was actually a little disappointed with the result! The flavour was really lovely, with the bacon and mustard complementing rather than overpowering the cheese, and the Davidstow providing a lovely rich flavour. But for me, the texture was too stodgy. Talking to Pete though, it seems it's a matter of preference as he thought it was just as it should be! I realise I like mine to be much looser and saucier; essentially, I want the texture we had when we poured the pasta and sauce mixture into the baking dish.

Given that the mixture is hot when it goes into the baking dish, next time instead of baking it in the oven for half an hour, I'm going to pop it under the grill for a much shorter time. That should allow the breadcrumb topping to brown without drying out the pasta and sauce beneath.

Click on the images to view larger versions.