Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Mega Egg

It's a well worn tale but many years ago I found myself in a bar in Temple Bar, in Dublin talking to a heavy built man from Cork who had enormous hands and tight curly hair. We covered quite a wide range of subjects but seeing as pints and pints of the black stuff were flowing I can't really remember what the hell we were talking about. However, I do remember the matter of heritage being brought up as the giant from the South laid a hand on my shoulder and boomed in my ear:

"Yerra bhoy, like eh, looking at yer as I do, I'd say like you had some Irish in yer."

To which I replied, "er yeah, yeah I do *hic*....er I got ancestors that used to come from er........Lilliput."

"Lilliput??", the big man hollered, "like... what like the place with all the little people?"

Cue long pause from me as my undulating eyebrows danced about the place desperately trying to figure out the place name.

"Ah I mean Limerick *hic*, I think some of my relatives hail from Limerick."

The curly, rosy faced farmer's son patted me again on the shoulder, looked at me ruefully and squarely in the eye and said "ah stab city, it all makes sense now." And then wandered off for another round.

I often look back fondly at that exchange and regale the story to anyone who'd care to listen with or without stifling yawns but I am still puzzled to this day where the word 'Lilliput' came from. I mean it's not as though I am overtly familiar with Gulliver's Travels and any Swiftian notion of parody (although I did see the film with Ted Danson in it) so I wasn't trying to be clever or make a joke. No perhaps all it boils down to a simple longing that exists somewhere in my psyche. A wish, a dream, to be tiny and small. Seriously, I wouldn't mind eking out an existence as a Borrower. Sure it might not be fun living life on the run from the cat and having to fashion trousers from feather done and stockings out of apple rind but the rewards, oh the rewards would be great. Imagine going on your travels across the kitchen floor and coming across a crumb of stichelton, the size of a football or a slither of pata negra, the length of a blanket. Oh the joyous, bountiful feasts you could have....................................

Or maybe we should just forget about skipping through the daisies, leave this gibberish behind and concentrate on the fact that I received a mahoosive Ostrich egg a couple of weeks ago and had great fun piss balling around with it.

Now there are a couple of interesting facts about ostrich eggs in that they were revered by the Egyptians, a grown man could step up and balance atop one without it cracking and ostrich hens up lay up to 200 eye watering eggs a year but that's all heresay. By far the most interesting thing about an ostrich egg is that it's bloomin' huge and the possibilities for creating super sized meals are endless. So much so that I spent a good few days nesting over my prize egg wondering what the hell to do with it, with much conflaboration on Twitter. In the end and after some cajoling from Nick from The Drapers Arms and Linda of With Knife and Fork, I decided to go in for making a giant scotch egg. The mission was tested along the way with some folk knocking the wind out of my sails during research, all unintentionally I am sure. "You'll need 40 litres of oil!", "You'll boil yourself alive!", "You'll get a coverage of 1gr/cm3 with 2.4kgs of sausage meat" (WHAT?!) "You just need some good pork belly, pork shoulder and mix it with your shit". Yes the Twitterhive can sometimes be a little bit overwhelming at times but still I was grateful that someone mentioned Stefan Gates had a done one in his Extraordinary Cook Book. So I went with his fairly straightforward and simple recipe, being the grovelling fanboy that I am. Except I baked mine on grounds of safety, what with the fact that we often have minors wandering into the kitchen. Often at high speed. Should you ever get your hands on one of these monsters, which are now readily available in Morrisons across the land for 15 English pounds, and would like try making one of your own, here are the step by step instructions that you need to follow to make a #MegaEgg (term coined by The Grubworm).

First boil your egg for 1 and a half hours in a large stockpot. Now I know it's quite fashionable for scotch eggs to have soft yolks and all kinds of la de da but I opted for a proper hard boiled version as the prospect of a supermassiveyellowgooeyhole seemed a step too far even for me and I like runny eggs. If you want to try it soft, the packaging recommended 50 mins. After you've taken the egg out of the water and it's cooled slightly, smash it open with a hammer. Seriously, go on, whack it.

Once you've made a decent dent and wrenched off a couple of pieces, which was surprisingly tough to do, the rest of the shell then cracks open quite easily. Breathe in the eggy aroma and then dry the turgid white mass with kitchen towel and leave to cool further.

Assemble your key ingredients. 1 boiled ostrich egg, 1.5kgs of sausagemeat (good quality), 3 hen's eggs (beaten), 400gms breadcrumbs (from a mixture of odds and ends of loaves that I keep in the freezer for such use). I also crumbled some Bury black pudding into the sausagemeat, my one concession to la de da scotch eggs. First coat the egg with some of the beaten egg and leave to dry and get 'tacky'.

Then spread out your sausagemeat, using cold wet hands and plonk on top of the egg. In a rather unwieldy fashion, press the sausagemeat to the egg trying to keep it uniform which is easier said than done. I ended up wrapping the whole rugby shaped ball with cling film to manipulate the meat without getting all sticky and messy (is this sounding rude yet?). I then put the egg in the fridge to chill and set for a bit longer.

Take the egg out of the fridge and baste with the remaining egg wash and roll or carefully spread rather the breadcrumbs over the surface and underneath. Take a photo of your egg with an object like a fork in the frame for scale and punch the air, laughing to yourself like a silly schoolboy. Place the egg in a pre-heated oven at 180c and bake for approx 40-50mins.

Take the egg out of the oven and place on a pretty platter. Take another picture whilst simultaneously whistling 'U Can't Touch This' and doing the MC Hammer dance.

Cut the egg open and take even more pictures to post and boast all over the Internet and then yodel, scream and jerk your body like a horny pony would and revel in your own greatness. After coming to on the kitchen floor, get back up and try some of the scotch egg. Hopefully you'll find that it rather tastes like scotch egg, although you may also find as I did that the actual white is strangely translucent and jelly-like in texture. But no matter because you've just made a huge, mahoosive scotch egg, a Mega Egg and maybe for just once in your life you can stand there, eyes closed and finally imagine that you are Tom Thumb. With an acorn cup perched on your head at a jaunty angle.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Basket Case

I am a big fan of The Fox and Anchor gastropub in Smithfield as they always have great beers on tap, the food is good, the staff are friendly and the decor exudes a wonderful olde worlde charm with it's snugs, nooks and crannies. All in all a great formula really. And as it's close to where I work, I frequent the place a fair bit. Be it for lunch, some post-work lubrication and.....oh what the hell, sometimes for a sneaky one at breakfast time. But before you cast any aspersions, let me just say that early morning imbibing is part and parcel of life in this part of London. The butchers and porters of Smithfield meat market put in a hard, hard days work well before the rest of the city wakes up and sets their wavering, meandering toes on cold carpets. So we deserve a pint in the morning and I say 'we' because I start work at 6:30AM so that qualifies me, OK? Flagrant denials aside, a pilgrimage to EC1 to undertake The Fox and Anchor's massive City Boy Breakfast is a must. Simply because it is really very good indeed. Just make sure you free up a couple of hours afterwards to digest the plethora of meat before trying to exit the building. So yes I like this place. A lot.

The Fox and Anchor City Boy Breakfast (photo courtesy of Essex Eating)

If I had any gripes it would be that the pub is far too narrow in places which to my mind makes it a haven for frottaging and just lately I've started to notice a slightly gimmicky element with the presentation of their food. Which may well have been there all along but on my last visit I was piqued just a tad. I went last Friday to meet the very mysterious Uncle Ji for a long overdue WMPC swap (post to come shortly, well maybe in a month or two) and ordered chish and fips, what with it being a Friday and all. And when it arrived, it all looked delightful. Firm, crisp beer batter surrounding a moist, generous portion of cod, chunky triple cooked chips and a lovely dollop of mushy peas with a healthy boat of tartare sauce. Fantastic. Except the chish and fips came served up in a frying basket. Now I am not a delicate diner at the best of times, yet mindful that I was eating with a stranger I did try my best to put on some airs and graces. However the basket did not allow this. In fact trying to deconstruct my lunch with arms shortened and wrists pointed in a curious downward fashion felt very odd indeed. It was as if I had been reduced to some kind of Tyrannosaurus Rex picking up cutlery for the very first time. After a few minutes of preening and prodding and pinging of said knife and fork onto the floor, I gave up and emptied the whole lot onto the plate, casually throwing the basket over my shoulder. I say that the Fox and Anchor could do without this kind of nonsense and frippery and in future would do well to serve their delicious fare straight up on plates. It would certainly save on the washing up. So please, no more baskets and if you could widen the room just a touch, it would be much appreciated.

That is all.

Fish and Chips in a basket (when it could be on a plate)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Franck Pontais and The Glass Kitchen

Where would we be without the beautiful people eh? Seriously, what would we do without them?

I was pondering this question last Thursday night, winging it back to leafy Essex on the tube from Knightsbridge having run into some at Harvey Nichols, that leading international luxury fashion destination. I was making my way out of the bling bling store at the time, waiting at the lifts on the fifth floor, fully aware that some kind of event to do was 'happening'. A vodka launch or something like that. The red carpet was out and I had spotted Noel Fielding walking across the shop floor wearing an IKEA rug and sporting a sexy looking girl on his arm so I figured that it must have been a fairly prestigious party. So, like I said I am waiting at the lift and ping, the doors open. Inside are a group of lithe, hot, bouffant, trendy, Bieberish, skinny, foxy cats, both male and female with slack jaws and utterly vacant expressions. I look at them and smile. And they just stare back. With slack jaws and utterly vacant expressions. For a quick moment I think 'wait, is this the service elevator? Are they mannequins?' but no they're real and I step back to let them get past. However the beautiful people just stand there, staring, eyeballs in unison scanning me from my very tip to my very toe. Only seconds tick past but it really does seem like an age, having to stand and wait there under close scrutiny. I consider informing them the metal box they are standing in is a lift, you know in case the fact was lost on them during the journey up. But I button it, in the vain hope that if we all wait just a little bit longer, the doors will close and they'll all have to go back down. Alas, some master controller flicks a switch and finally they sashay out, hips swinging, lips pouting. I offer my hand to the last gormless soul to exit and say "Hi, I'm Harry Hill". "Harry who?" is the response but by then I am already inside with the doors closing.

Yes the beautiful people, what would we do without them. But what was I doing at Harvey Nicks in the first place? Well I had been invited to sample some dishes that a certain Franck Pontais has been magically pulling out of his pocket at the aptly named 'The Glass Kitchen' over the last month. The word 'dishes' plural is a bit of a misnomer actually, I should have said that I was there to try out his 'verrines' and if that word is unfamiliar to you, well let's clear up any sexual connotation straight away. A verrine casually and simply put, is food layered and served up in a glass. And it's a trend that has gone from strength to strength in France, possibly reaching saturation point but very little is known about this culinary concept in the UK. But of course, there is a lot more to it than my rather blaise definition as Franck was keen to point out when I met him last week Going by first impressions, I would say that Franck doesn't suffer fools gladly, which put me on the back foot when I first arrived at the food hall. I spotted him straight away, so I waved, bounded over and interrupted his chat with a solitary blonde at The Glass Kitchen bar. Having introduced myself, he was a bit perplexed as to what I was doing there so I said that I was a food blogger. Like duh? To which he responded with the definitive "OK" and asked if I had a card. I said no. "OK, so what else do you do besides blogging?" So I told him I work in print. "OK, so you work in print, you turn up here unannounced and you don't have a business card?" "Yes, er yes, well not quite I've been invited by your PR but er no". No indeed and not the most auspicious of starts but luckily Franck's gruff exterior soon melted and he became quite chatty. Especially once I started fawning over the segmented tower of glass in front of me containing pockets of food, vivid and vibrant in colour.

The first rule, Franck explained to me is that you can't just take any old glass to create a verrine. It shouldn't have a stem ("This is not a trifle Danny!") it should be wide, rounded, with a heavy base and should you want to present a verrine as a main course, you would use a tiered set such as those made by Durobor. Franck presented this part with a flourish to some boxes that were stacked to the side of the bar. I enthusiastically nod my head in favour at his sales pitch but silently think to myself that if I ever give these verrines a crack at home, I would do them in our whisky tumblers, wine goblets and shot glasses. Franck then went into further detail about the construction and assembly of the food that goes into the verrine. The layers of each prepared element of the verrine should be considered carefully so that when you place your fork or spoon in and take a mouthful, the combination of flavours should work together rather than stand apart. He used one of his desserts as an example pointing out a small layer of fragrant pomegranate jelly, a healthy amount of rich white chocolate mouse with a medium spoonful of tart cherry confit saying that each component should be measured as such to create a perfect balance. It's a common sense notion when it comes to cooking and creating a dish but I quite liked having it spelled out to me nevertheless. I even let out a Bill and Ted "woah". But the most important thing with verrines, Franck said, was to have fun putting different and sometimes unusual elements together to see where you could go with it.

Thankfully my dinner date, Andre Dang then turned up and we got to ordering straight away going for the smoked mackerel and hot smoke salmon terrine with herby crushed potatoes, cucumber and poached radish salad with fine rustic bread wafer. AND smoked duck breast on a cauliflower flan with puy lentils and lardons, poached saffron quails eggs and crispy fungi mushrooms. AND the aforementioned dessert along with blackcurrant mouse topped with a sharp and creamy lemon posset, semi set mango jam, lavender and lemon shortcake. All served up in glass. It was really interesting to watch Franck assemble the verrines as it highlighted to me, quite starkly the importance of prep or mis en place when comes to cooking. By getting the hard work out of the way, I presume sometime earlier in the day, the empty verrines were transformed into very impressive looking pyramids of food, very quickly. Almost by some sleight of hand. My chosen verrine of duck was described as a bit of a 'Daddy' and it was certainly filling, surprisingly so. The combination of flavours from the robust, earthy lentils to the almost sweet cauliflower worked well with the smokey game and the quails egg when punctured delivered a lovely dribble of yolk over the mushrooms. I always get a little thrill when that happens. I nabbed a forkful of Andre's salmon terrine which was delicate and light with a more subtle smoke taste than that of the duck. For dessert, I leaped with spoon in hand into the white chocolate mousse with cherry confit with black forest fudge and muscovado tuille biscuit. I should add here that Andre had suggested we share the all the verrines but that didn't really work well with my 'focused' style of eating. Scraping the last of the pomegranate jelly into my mouth, my eyes switched to the right to where Andre sat, I was suddenly aware that I should have offered him just a little bit but it was so good, especially the fudge. So I didn't.

Unfortunately, it was soon time to go as the floor was closing for the private party or maybe Harvey Nicks was just closing full stop, I don't really shop there that often. A real shame as I would have liked to have bent Franck's ear some more, especially to talk about his book Terrines and Verrines which is an absolute corker. The pride I felt for some of the meat-loaf style, pork and bacon packed creations that I've rustled up in the past soon palled after flicking through the pages. Evidently there is a whole lot more you can do when it comes to the humble terrine. And when it comes to verrines for that matter also. Without a doubt Monsieur Pontais really does know how to turn it on when it comes to creating visually impressive food. And therein lies the danger that this approach or trend in food could be interpreted as having too much style over substance and that ultimately it just becomes another vehicle to show off. No doubt the beautiful ones would lap this kind of stuff up if you was put in front of them. But having had just a little chat with Franck, hearing his passion for the ingredients he uses, the dishes he creates and his philosophies about food, this is obviously not his intention. Ironically, given that Franck has appeared on Iron Chef UK, he was quite disparaging about the level of competition that is developing in this country when it comes to cooking. He explanation was slightly overwrought but essentially he believed that food should be about enjoyment and fulfilment. It should be fun, it should be social and verrines are just one way of expressing that notion. I am quite happy with that and I hope that Francks influence brings the concept of verrines more into the mainstream into the UK.

And as for the beautiful people, well I've got their next trend lined up.

Layered food.......................in socks. They'll love it.

Franck Pontais' residence at The Glass Kitchen, Harvey Nichols has been extented for an extra week

PS Formatting issues have prevented me from labelling photos but I am sure you can work things out (blame Blogger, I don't know what the hell is going on).