Thursday, June 24, 2010

Delicious Scotland - Part II

Welcome to part two of my Scottish food adventure. Here are some more of my favourite meals enjoyed in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the picturesque Highlands. There was just so much beautiful food out there to experience and I manged to sample some fantastic dishes. Here are some more of my highlights.

I enjoyed this beautiful rich seafood chowder at a small inn on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of leeks, herbs, cream and a selection of succulent local seafood it was indulgent and delicious. They served hunks of straight- from- the- oven, house made bread on the side which was perfect for capturing all that delicious liquid. I haven't made chowder for ages and this really inspired me to do just that very soon.

This next dish was just so simple, but it proved yet again that if you use quality ingredients you don't have to fuss around with them too much. This perfectly prepared local smoked salmon was served with a drizzle of parsley oil and fresh herbs, and that was all that was needed for a luscious starter. The salmon had an almost buttery texture that was irresistable against the freshness of the parsley oil. Yum!!

You already know how I feel about meringues *swoon* - and this gorgeous looking specimen that I enjoyed in Edinburgh was pretty much meringue perfection for me. The sweet crunch of the meringue, served with tangy raspberries and marscapone cheese were a knockout. And my goodness, doesn't it look beautiful on the plate?! Like garnet red jewels on a snowdrift. *sigh*

Scottish seafood knocks my socks off again with these fabulous oysters. Freshly shucked, briny, plump and glistening in their shells, they needed nothing but a touch of lemon and a dash of pepper. I just love that pure explosion of sea taste that a very fresh oyster delivers - and these oysters were simply outstanding.

My experience of the following dish was no doubt enhanced by the fact that I ate it whilst sitting out in the gardens of the historic Dornoch Castle Hotel on a crisp highland spring day, overlooking the 12th Century Dornoch Cathedral. But setting aside, I really loved this dish of pork loin and celeriac mash served with a superior black pudding and a creamy mustard and cress sauce. Rich flavours, juicy pork and a beautifully spiced black pudding made this dish so satisfying. 

Visiting old friends in Edinburgh, we had planned to have lunch together and then go off for an afternoon of strolling around the gorgeous city. Unfortunately the strolling never eventuated - lunch kind of stretched out to a four hour, twelve course extravaganza at a fantastic Spanish restaurant my friends Tancred and Evelyn recommended. The afternoon was wonderful - lots of laughter, invigorating discussions and Spanish wine of course! The tapas dishes we enjoyed were outstanding. Each one so full of flavour and perfect for sharing.

So, we started with scallops cooked with leek and crispy jamon, marinated white anchovies and a confit of duck leg served with a sauce of calvados (with duck meat so tender that you literally touched it, and it fell from the bone)

Next on the menu we chose a spicy chorizo stew in a garlicky, chilli tomato gravy - then moist, juicy almond and herbed beef meatballs - and waiter.... please bring us more duck.......oh...the duck......

Evelyn and I are both black pudding fans, so we couldn't resist the black pudding with apples - which was for me one of the standout dishes of the afternoon. The best black pudding I have ever tasted. And it worked so beautifuly with the sweet, caramelised apples. We also enjoyed a selection of spanish cured meats and cheeses, and completely addictive chicken croquettes - we loved them so much we ordered a second batch! Crunchy and crisp on the outside, creamy and rich and decadent on the inside.

As well as a second batch of croquettes, we savoured a whole hot baked goat's cheese with seville oranges (what an inspired combination - rich and sticky and delectable) and fried, spiced chicken with lemon and mustard - the chicken inside the crisp coating was meltingly moist, sweet and tender. Just delicious. Lunch was four hours of complete gastronomic heaven, made all the sweeter by sharing time with dear friends.

My last night in Scotland - and this beautiful, perfectly cooked lamb shoulder was a fitting end to what was a suprising and satisfying culinary journey. The lamb had been slow cooked and was so tender it just fell apart on the fork. Served simply with a reduction of pan juices and a touch of wine and juniper, it was as comforting and cosy as a bunny rug. It went beautifully with the amazing, peaty, velvety, buttery tasting whisky that I drank with it. Outside, the wind blows over the black, icy loch. Comfort food? Yes - very comfortable thankyou......

If you ever have the opportunity to visit beautiful Scotland, then make sure you sample the spectacular seafood that they have on offer, as well as the wonderful game. I think it is the clean air and water and the wild open spaces that make the produce so special. I absolutely fell in love with the food as well as the countryside that seemed to teem with wild pheasants, rabbit and deer. And I'm sticking to my guns on the whole haggis issue - forget about being squeamish about what it is made of - it is a delicious expression of head to tail eating. The Scots knew what they were doing with that one. It's good to occasionally eat something that scares you a little. Well, they aren't Scotland the brave for nothing!


Monday, June 21, 2010

Scottish Food Fancies - Part 1

As well as bagpipes, tartan, the kilt and big hairy cows, Scotland is also the home of the deep fried Mars Bar -  so you can imagine that when I jumped on my flight from London to Inverness I was probably not expecting the best in the way of culinary experiences. Before I go any further, I will confirm that I am a haggis lover. I am not squeamish about chowing down on this iconic Scottish dish of minced offal, barley, oats and spices, served conveniently in a sheep's stomach. My sister who lives in Scotland thinks the whole idea of haggis is revolting, but happily my lovely Scottish brother in law doesn't feel the same way and treated me to haggis and tatties (potatoes) on my very first night in Scotland.

Haggis dispatched, it was time to see what other culinary treats Scotland had to offer. As it turns out, my visit to Scotland was full of wonderful food experiences - so many in fact that I will be sharing them with you two installments.

Driving around the Scottish Highlands is thirsty work and we decided that afternoon tea was in order. Now, whilst I adore a cup of tea (in fact, I do confess to having a bit of a tea fetish - I have so many varieties and even my desk at work has a pot of tea permanently brewing away on it) I'm generally not a huge cake fan, but when I saw the homemade cakes on offer at this little roadside coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, I just had to indulge. Mine is the chocolate and sour cherry concoction at the front - and boy, was it spectacular. My brother in law chose the creamy caramel delight at the back (which I tasted and can confirm that it was delicious) The cakes were all made by the lady that ran the shop (she also runs the ajoining plant nursery). Teamed with an invigorating pot of freshly brewed tea, it was just perfect.

Whilst visiting the small town of Beauly, I enjoyed this beautiful whole loch trout, at a local restaurant called The Priory (located next to, you guessed it - a 13th Century priory) cooked simply with butter and lemon sauce. It was my first foray into Scottish seafood and as you will see, it wasn't the last. Perhaps it was the deep, dark, cold and very clean waters of the local lochs that made this fish taste so pure and delicious, but it was just perfect.

Oats feature heavily in Scottish cooking and being a big fan of oats I jumped at the chance to try this dish of oat crusted seafood in the little seaside village of Cromarty. The oats were finely ground and seasoned and provided the perfect nutty tasting crust to the super fresh local seafood - scallops, octopus, mussels and salmon. Again, quite a simple dish but so tasty and delicious. I will be stealing the oat crust idea for a dish of my own very soon - it is a great super tasty alternative to breadcrumbs and makes the crust super crispy. Yum!

Back to The Priory for afternoon tea and a selection of Scottish shortbread, scones, caramels and my favourite - meringues! These meringues were to die for - sandwiched between a layer of freshly whipped cream, they were all I wanted with my pot of tea. The other selections didn't stand a chance, so I can't tell you what they were like!! Those meringues took me to my happy place.

I love a terrine and this game terrine really hit the spot. Made with venison and rabbit, served with hot toast and a housemade beetroot relish, this was perfect washed down with a pint of ale at the Plockton Pub. Does anyone remember the wonderful series "Hamish Macbeth" ? Well it was filmed in the picturesque village of Plockton, which can now add a pretty fabulous terrine to its attractions.

Still at the Plockton Pub - it was cold and windy outside, but this salmon and haddock pie warmed the cockles of my heart. Served with a creamy mustard and herb sauce and a breadcrumb crust, it was comfort food personified. The fish was a mixture of fresh fillets and a touch of smoked haddock, which really took the flavour to another level. It was rich and tasty and the fish was cooked just right.

A change of location now - off to the cobbled streets of Edinburgh for their version of a seafood platter. More like what I would call a chowder - Salmon, mussels, scallops and prawns served with a dash of cream, horseradish and crusty bread. It was big on flavour and once again the seafood was superb - clean, fresh tasting and perfectly cooked.

My love affair with game was indulged in this superb venison pate, flavoured with juniper berries and served with oatcakes, spiced red cabbage and fresh redcurrants. This dish came from a little cafe/restaurant in the village of Cromarty (where you will recall I also enjoyed the fantastic oat crusted seafood) This pate was rich and velvety, with the herbal aromatics of the juniper complimenting the venison beautifully. Teamed with the tart burst of the fresh redcurrants and the nuttiness and texture of the oats, it really was a taste sensation.

So ends the first installment of my favourite Scottish food experiences - there were a whole lot more, which I will share with you all soon in Scottish Food Fancies II. Scotland is indeed proving to be bonny. And not a deep fried Mars Bar in sight.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food! Glorious food! - London

Tea with the Queen??
Me outside Buckingham Palace -
HRH was in residence and I didn't even get so much as an Iced Vo-Vo!

When I announced that I was going to spend a few days in London on the way up to Scotland, and that I was looking forward to checking out the food there, a lot of people gasped, clutched their pearls and warned me of the supposed horrors of British cuisine. Lots of people seemed to have tales of either how hideous the food was, or how expensive - or both - and I was regaled with lurid stories of "Chippies" (purveyors of all things fried) , vats of rancid cooking oil, stodgy, bland gluey concoctions, grey mince and soggy cabbage. I certainly arrived in Old Blighty with low expectations. Whilst I had no intention of hitting the posh end of town and sampling the really high end establishments (budget was a factor, so there were definitely no Michelin stars on my horizon!) being a first time visitor I didn't know what lay between a degustation menu at Claridges and a deep fried Mars Bar at the local Chippie. I have to say that I was delighted to find a whole range of well priced, frankly delicious options.

The myth of British food being mad, bad and dangerous to know was blown out of the water for this culinary traveller. I didn't eat a bad meal the whole time and was impressed with the range of fresh ingredients available and the accessability of good quality food at reasonable cost. Like anywhere, the second you find yourself amongst the tourist traps, you know that your chances of finding anything decent to eat drop dramatically. In my opinion, if you eat at a place less than a couple of kilometers away from a famous landmark/monument/tourist spot , you get what you deserve - which will in all probability be something mass produced, overpriced and disappointing. My top foodie travel tip would be - observe where the tourists are heading and then set your course in the opposite direction.

Admittedly, I had a little inside foodie information in the form of my gracious hosts, Mark and Francis - who pointed me in the right direction of what I might like and who also kindly allowed me to stay in their gorgeous home in Stoke Newington. Thanks boys , your hospitality was treasured and I felt very spoiled, having somewhere to really call home during my visit. I was also treated to delicious home cooked Nigerian cuisine, courtesy of Francis' lovely mother (who was also visting) who cooked enough goat, creamed yams, baked fish, spiced fried chicken and delicious vegetable stews to feed the EU. All lip smackingly good I might add - her oxtail braise was to die for! (Even if that second serving required a little lie down afterwards - I ate FAR too much!)

Anyway, I thought I would share a few of my favourite meals from my time in London with you all. Bear in mind that all of these selections are from cafe style establishments, pubs or high street venues - I did not do any fine dining at all. As you will see, there were some great dishes - some that would give a few fine dining restaurants I've visited a run for their money. Here are my top 7 tasty London treats....

Scallops are my very favourite seafood, so I jumped at this delicious entree from a pub on Church Street, Stoke Newington. The black pudding and the scallops together were a match made in heaven - rich and delicious - and the fresh tasting pea puree balanced the dish perfectly and stopped it from becoming too cloying. I really wished they did this as a main course - just three scallops and black pud slices just weren't enough - so moreish!

Hand dived scallops with black pudding and pea puree

The next dish also came from a pub - their house made piccallili relish was perfect with the sweet and salty pork terrine. I love a terrine of any kind and this one was just delicious. The pork was lean and lovely and full of flavour and the different textures - the cruch of the sourdough, the tang and creaminess of the piccalilli and the bite of the terrine made this dish a real delight.

Free range pork terrine with sourdough toast and house made piccallili relish

Who remembers when lamb shanks were the bits that you gave to the dog and that butchers would often give you for free? Well, now we know better than to give this flavour packed cut of meat away gratis and some folks, like the fine people at The Three Crowns Hotel on the Stoke Newington High Street know how to treat their shanks right. And oh my..... do they do it right. Slow cooked meat that literally falls from the bone at a touch, moist, full of aromatics. Lip smacking, unctuous goodness served with a superb cassuolet in a fetching copper serving pot. Pure heaven.

Slow braised lamb shanks with cassuolet

For something a little lighter, this beautiful fresh salad really hit the spot - the spatchcock was so moist and beautifully cooked. It just melted in your mouth.Teamed with the citrus, watercress and fennel, it just screamed "welcome spring!" (which it is in England right now) and it was just lovely.

Roasted spatchcock salad with orange, fennel and watercress

How could I go to England and not have pork sausages at least once? Well, I had them more than once I admit, they were so damn good - and what is it about English bacon? So much better than any bacon I've eaten anywhere! Anyway, I digress - this delicious specimen came from Banger Brothers on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, who specialise in free range, english pork sausages. They don't try and tart them up too much - it is just a first class free range banger in a freshly baked roll with plenty of yummy condiments and a side order of freshly cooked chips with salt and a good dose of vinegar. Very old school and just what I needed to build up my strength for shopping at the Portobello Road Market. Banger Brothers of Notting Hill, we salute you.

Free range British pork sausages with dijon mustard/ chips and vinegar

I love crab meat, and I love it even more when I don't have to spend precious eating time picking out all that sweet, succulent flesh from the shell myself. These crab cakes that I enjoyed not only saved me that pesky and fiddly task, but also delivered the fresh crab meat in a lovely light, crunchy shell of its own. Teamed with a house made pickled cucumber and poppyseed salad, a beautiful saffron aoili on the side and a wedge of lime, it was crabby heaven.

Crab cake with pickled cucumber and saffron aoili

Who would have thought that I would experience the best huevos rancheros I've ever eaten on a blustery grey morning in Shoreditch, London? "Foodhall" in Old Street, Shoreditch is a specialty food store that includes a little cafe at the back and a cheese room 'round the side. It is a also a veritable treasure trove of foodie delights - organic bread, baked goods and milk, a great selection of oils, glazes, wine, spices and dry goods. They also serve the best coffee I had in London. What's not to like? Their huevos rancheros was served with slivers of spicy chorizo, avocado and a char grilled chilli and it was just so, so good! All future forays into huevos rancheros territory will be forever judged by this one. I used to think that my own interpretation of this classic dish was pretty good, (spicy, warming, all those lovely textures) but the "Foodhall" version just blows it out of the water.

Huevos rancheros

So, as you can see, London yielded up lots of culinary treasures and I didn't have to resort to the horrors of a "Chippie" once. Nor did I spend wads of cash to get delicious food. It was all there if you knew where to look. A couple of other delights that deserve a mention (but alas I have no pictures of!) are the spectacular bagels from the 24hour bagel shop "Beigel Bake" at 159 Brick Lane (also in Shoreditch). The constant queue out the door tells you that these people know how to bake a bagel! I enjoyed a freshly baked bagel filled with warm, tender salted beef (We call it corned beef in Australia) and a creamy mustard sauce that literally had me sighing with pleasure. The price will blow you away too - bagels range from about 15 pence to one pound fifty depending on the fillings you choose.

My final recommendation is reserved for what is reputedly the best kebab shop in London (and conveniently located a five minute walk from where I was staying in Stoke Newington) And yes, the store is literally called "The Best Kebab" and you will find it at number 125 on the Stoke Newington High Street. Again, the queue out the door will give you a hint that their kebabs are indeed the best. Frequented by chefs and punters alike (Ainsley Harriot is a regular) this no frills establishment serves up a range of beef, lamb and chicken kebabs cooked to order and served with fresh salads and delicious pickled cabbage that is so delicious. I sampled both the beef and the lamb during my stay. I decided on the lamb option as my last meal in London, and it was a worthy send off. (They even have their own Facebook group full of fans, which I have of course joined)

I will be very excited to explore more food options on my return to London (and yes, I certainly will be returning - particularly to concentrate on some of the great looking food stalls I saw along the canal in Camden, that I didn't get the time to try. And who knows, next time I might also go a bit upmarket and visit some of the swankier food establishments) But let's just clear up once and for all that myth that English food is all heart attack inducing fry ups and stodge. As you can see, I had some fantastic food and didn't have to pay a fortune for it either. Rule Brittania!


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paris Cooking School

Hi everyone - well this weary traveller is back from a month away, still a bit jetlagged and adjusting to having to get up for work every morning and be back in the real world again. I had a fantastic time away, and over the next few weeks you will be seeing and hearing a little of some of the food experiences I had in my travels. I have returned home with a whole swag of inspiration and ideas for dishes, as well as some new skills (I now know how to butcher a whole rabbit!) and some great kitchen hints and techniques. My trip took me to London, Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paris - all very different places with different produce and different food traditions. But I thought I would begin with an account of my cooking school experience in Paris.

Starting the day with a cafe au lait before heading to cooking school

I woke really early on my second day in Paris very excited that I was heading for cooking school that morning. Students had all been instructed to meet outside the Jules Joffrin train station where we would meet our instructor, Chef Pino Ficara. We would then walk to the nearby market to purchase our fresh ingredients and then up the hill to the school itself for class.

Our first market stop was a fromagerie (cheese shop) where Pino gave us a lesson in the various kinds of cheesemaking techniques which had us all spellbound. Cheesemaking is such a scientific and magical process and many recipies and ways of working have been around for literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. I learned about how the fromageries were set up, in order to have the cheese at it's best, and also to prevent the stinky cheeses from cross contaminating the more delicate ones- a lot of the cheeses are not refrigerated and virtually all of the cheese is made with raw milk. In Australia, it is illegal to sell raw milk products (an exception was only recently made that allowed 2 kinds of Roquefort to be imported, but our laws are ridiculously antiquated) so I was so excited at the prospect of having a raw milk cheese fest.

A tiny sample of the huge selection of cheeses I came across in the fromagerie

And a fest it was. I tasted no less than 15 kinds of cheese (there must have been a couple of hundred in the shop) - all hand made - some made by monks, some aged in caves, some preserved in straw, cheese soaked in wine or basted in beer, cheese from cow milk, sheep milk and goat milk, bright yellow hard cheese and creamy milky white cheese, cheese that tasted of clean air and pure milk, cheese that was sticky and deliciously foetid, cheese covered in ash or studded with wild herbs and lavender,tangy and crumbly cheese, velvety white goat cheese so delicious it made your eyes roll back in your head! The shop itself was so beautifully set up. The aproned staff expertly cut and lovingly wrapped our selections and we headed to our next stop - the charcuterie (butcher)

Some of the poultry and game on sale at the charcuterie

If you are squeamish about raw meat or you are only used to buying your meat wrapped in sanitised plastic packets, then you might have been a bit freaked out on entering the butcher shop. Much of the meat such as poultry and games is sold in one piece, with head, feet/ claws all still attatched. Not only are these used for stock, but they also allow you to ensure that the meat is fresh. The selection available was so exciting - including pheasant, squab pigeon,quail, duck, about 7 or 8 varieties of chicken, venison, rabbits and hares. I love game and particularly rabbit so I was thrilled when it was decided that we would cook rabbit that day. We bought two whole rabbits (skinned, but with the head and all left on, as well as the liver - we had plans for that) which were wrapped up by the butcher in brown paper and string and we headed down the street to the fishmonger.

Oysters and fresh live crustaceans for sale at the local fishmonger

The selection of fish, and particularly shellfish was spectacular - so many varieties of oysters! (they are never pre opened, they are sold closed or you can get the fishmonger to shuck them for you), mussels and clams, periwinkles, live crabs of all kinds, langoustines, prawns and lobsters - also smoked fish, snails and fresh kelp. The first thing that strikes you is that the fish doesn't smell fishy - it is SO fresh that it just smells like seawater. Everything looked so superb - we chose two large silvery bream that we planned on turning into a starter for our menu.

Delicious berries, destined for our kitchen

Pretty fresh radishes and onions at the greengrocer

Next stop, the vegetable market- a riot of brightly coloured reds, greens,oranges. Tight bunches of scarlet radishes, bundles of emerald green and creamy white asparagus, all kinds of herbs displayed in large wicker baskets big enough to put your washing in - and the berries! That luscious aroma of fresh strawberries again, cherries, melons... Everything looked so abundant and beautiful. We decided on what we wanted to serve with our dishes and came away with bunches of sweet smelling herbs, celery root (celeriac), wild asparagus (which I had never seen - delicate, with thin stalks and small pretty tapered ends), endive (witlof), fresh carrots, eschallots, garlic, a punnet or two of ruby coloured raspberries and some sweet smelling strawberries.

Gorgeous fresh artichokes for sale

Final stop on the way back to school was an artisan bread maker (who Chef said is quite mad and obsessed with perfection - but makes the best bread in Paris - using a centuries old woodfired oven, grinding his own flour with a stone grinder and keeping his sourdough culture literally locked in the basment because he is scared someone will steal it!) The bread! Oh.....the bread! The best I have ever eaten in my life. We chose bagettes, walnut bread, and a fruity rye loaf that we planned to serve with our cheeses. We munched on still warm bagettes happily as we walked up the hill to school in the sunshine.

Fresh bread from the artisan bakery - baked 4 times a day

The class was amazing and I learned so much - so many great tips and techniques as well as learning more about the actual chemistry of what happens to ingredients when you combine them or treat them in a particular way. It was also SO much fun. I learned to make proper creme patissiere (the beautiful custard that goes into choux puffs or tarts, and also butchered my first whole rabbit, which was like conducting surgery. In Australia they never have the feet or head left on!) I was in culinary heaven as we put our menu together - a starter of oven roasted bream filllets baked on a thick bed of fresh herbs and served with creamed celeriac, the main course of braised rabbit with sauteed endive, wild asparagus, carrots and eschallot confit and a dessert of a strawberry and raspberry tart, with an almond pastry base and vanilla creme patissiere. We also enjoyed a superb cheese platter between main course and dessert and lots of lovely french wine to wash it all down with. An unforgettable experience.

Here is what I cooked that day:

A starter of herb baked bream, celeriac puree and mache

Braised saddle of rabbit with wild asparagus, confit eschallots and witlof

Fresh fruit tart with almond pastry and creme patissiere

Because it doesn't get dark until 10pm, I decided to jump on a boat after class and cruise the Seine, enjoying the warm weather and that beautiful golden evening sunshine that turns everything buttery yellow. I cruised past the palaces, the tower, the Louvre - along the embankments where people were enjoying a glass of wine or lying on the grass. I felt so lucky to be there and to have had such a wonderful day. When I eventually made it back to Montmartre, I decided that I would have a picnic on my balcony for dinner, (I had eaten a lot during the day so I didn't want a big restaurant dinner) so I simply bought a small bagette (warm from the oven - they bake 4 times a day here!) ,a small piece of succulent cooked duck (in Paris butchers sometimes sell meat they cook on the premises), some raspberries and a little pot of creme freche to dip them in and ate them on my very Parisian wrought iron Juliet balcony overlooking the street as the sun went down. What a great day.

Chef Pino Ficara and I in the Montmartre kitchen

I have fallen completely and utterly in love with Paris - can you blame me??? I am already planning an extended return trip in 2011. In the meantime, I plan to hone my new skills and appreciation for French food in my own kitchen. Bon appetit!