Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Day In the Life (and Halibut with a Garlic, Potato and Saffron Broth)

 Halibut with a Garlic, Potato and Saffron Broth

Until recently, I have always superciliously scoffed at the whole idea of 'date night.' Largely because... well,  if a couple has to start making concrete plans in the diary, putting time by for candle light wooing, footsie under the table and some prospective how's yer father; something has to be wrong doesn't it? It just didn't seem right to me that any notion of romancing should be pigeon-holed into a two hour window of opportunity and scribbled hastily onto the calendar. I also took the haughty long view against date night largely because it is an American concept and I do like to rail and kick against sterile, uniform ideas from across the pond; like perfect teeth and cheese-whiz.

But as of late, along with my wife, I have begun to embrace the idea. Simply because we are very busy. Busy, busy, busy. Busier than a squirrel collecting nuts in autumn, busier than a one armed paper hanger and certainly busier than Lord McAlpine's lawyers. If we didn't take the time out to simply sit down at the table, to chat and laugh once a week, there is the terrible prospect that before we knew it, the children will be all grown up and off and we'll be left sat opposite each other in a living room, wondering who the hell the other person was. OK, I just trotted out a bit of a cliché there about parenting but the underlying message is that it is important to make time for each other. Any opportunity for a date night, at home or out at a restaurant or pub or whatever, is a good opportunity to me.

So yesterday, over a quick gulp of coffee, I lavishly declared to Mrs FU that that night would be 'date night' and I had in mind to cook some fish for a change, something sophisticated; just to remind her that sometimes I can be a bit more than a meat-eating, knuckle-dragging philistine in the kitchen. Just sometimes. Something like fish with a garlic, potato and saffron broth, a dish I picked up from a very short tenure at Rick Stein's Seafood School many years ago.

She left to get the kids to school, afterwards heading off on wedding expedition thing with my sister who is soon to get married and I made a dash for Heston's favourite supermarket; Aldi would not suffice for what I had in mind. After running around the aisles, extravagantly sniffing root vegetables and squeezing packets of dried fruit, I went to the checkout and when it came to paying I promptly discovered that I had left my wallet at home. It was very difficult trying not to swear in front of the elderly checkout lady but she quickly got the gist of my angst, re-enacted through mime and said that she would keep my bag behind the till. And so after a quick, expletive ridden 10 minute journey to home and back, I dutifully paid for my shopping.

Next stop was the fishmongers, a risky business shopping on a Tuesday as there probably wouldn't be much in yet; and there wasn't much to be honest. Excitedly though, I pointed at some red fish, asking yet another septuagenarian assistant if it was gurnard and she just laughed, saying they were mullet, making me feel wholly inadequate in the process. I then pointed vigorously at some halibut (I knew it was halibut because it was labelled 'halibut') and enquired by barking, if it came from a sustainable source. Suddenly my purple haired quarry became all steely and cold.

"It came from Billingsgate this morning, that's all I know."

Sensing a punch up, I meekly withdrew and throwing all ethical scruples out of the window, I asked gently for two portions; you know, enough for two. Which cost me twelve f**king quid.

With my tail between my legs and drained of cash, I popped to the bank to check my balance. As we are coming towards the end of the month, I noticed that the coffers were getting low so I decided to queue to transfer some money, rather than do it at home on the internet like a sensible person. This decision cost me something like an hour. When I finally got to the counter, as soon as I put my request in, my cashier's computer died and as she smiled and winked at me with wrinkly, twinkly eyes, cooing that her machine was just 'rebooting'; I started to come to the conclusion that my day wasn't going well. And that the entire working populace of Upminster consists of old ladies.

This shopping trip, which should have took half an hour at most, was now running to two and a half, and as the clock ticked, I was becoming more and more agitated. I had some chores to do at home and the end of school deadline was looming so once I got back through the door I threw myself into the housework. Dusting, hoovering, washing, drying, mopping, all that kind of shizz; yes I am the definitive modern man. Then the door goes and so I answer and it is my neighbour from a couple of houses down. He has an apology apparently. He was reversing into a space just behind our car and sort of scraped the back bumper. My response is to simply laugh hysterically in his face and slam the door shut; leaving my neighbour to ponder my indifference and to wonder why I was wearing a pinny.

At quarter to three, the alarm on my phone goes off with a reminder note that flashes on the screen: 

GET THE KIDS! GET THE KIDS! GET THE KIDS!

And so I jump into the car to collect the twins from school. Despite encountering a deluge of rain, bumper to bumper traffic and an OAP who takes an age to drag his shopping trolley across a zebra crossing ("Where are they all coming from?" I silently scream) I make it to the playground just in time. Running with a small hand clasped in each of mine across the tarmac, we get back into the Megane, complete with red scratch on the bumper; our warm panting breath and giggles steaming the windows up inside. So it's a quick wipe with an abandoned sock found on the floor of the car and off we set. And narrowly we miss another car that comes from out of nowhere. Mindful of the children's ears, I wind down the window and yell "IDIOT!" to the sky and Fin helpfully reminds me that I mustn't call people that. He also tells me that I mustn't say "F**king hell." I physically blanch, quietly chastise myself and then casually ask them about their day, trying to bring some calm to proceedings.

For a while the calmness remains, insofar in that once we get home, everything becomes normal. Uniforms and ties are festooned around the place; toys, crayons, paper and books are strewn everywhere and CBBC blares in the background. My earlier efforts were in vain but no matter because I was about to get stuck into preparing dinner, fishcakes for the kids and a date night feast for later; prepping veg always has a meditative effect on me. Then the phone rings.

By all accounts, Mrs FU had gone to Lakeside with my sister, that emporium of quality goods and every Essex girls' favourite whine; and had visited a coffee shop for break. And had her handbag pinched from under her nose by some bastard tea leaf whilst in there. A carrot flies across the room and Finlay, the inquisitor of foul language, pops his head around the door with a severe, stern look on his face. 

"Horlicks," I tell him. "Daddy said Horlicks."

Phone calls to banks are made, fish cakes are haphazardly formed and slapped on plates with crunchy undercooked broccoli and the twins sit there with knife and fork, watching me ruefully as I sit with them. Probably because my left eye is involuntarily twitching and I have opened a bottle of wine, breaking the 7PM watershed. Mummy comes home, white and shaking with anger. The best I can offer is a hug and a glass of wine and playfully suggest we turn one of Isla's dolls into a voodoo effigy, cast a spell or two over it and then stab it with skewer. Mrs FU laughs and then we notice Isla silently weeping at the table and we have to reassure her that Daddy is not going to stab Lily, her favourite patchwork toy.

With date night still in mind, we didn't lose sight of that, Mrs FU says that she is going to get the kids ready for bed and off to sleep whilst I get on with the business making our special dinner; a fragrant, warm, enticing broth with some chunky, pan-fried sweet fish and a sprinkling of sharp capers with oregano. I put some music on, clear the table down and scrape fish cake residue from off the floor; the candles come out and I throw a bottle of Prosecco in the freezer. A tumult sounds off from upstairs and heavy steps come thundering down the stairs. A naughty daughter just won't go to sleep and is testing an already stressed and frazzled mother to the limits and I flip the lid, exclaiming that I will rip Lily's head off if she doesn't go to bed. Isla then bursts into full tears, saying her stomach hurts and she can't sleep and the sledgehammer of guilt whacks me straight in gut. Together we all huddle on the sofa, trying to reassure her (again) and after 20 minutes or so, a dose of Calpol is dispensed. But as her spasms increase both Mrs FU and I exchange worried glances, both telepathically thinking that a visit to the hospital is looming.

Suddenly it happens. From out of nowhere, Isla produces a loud parp of such intensity and strength, that my glasses nearly melt and fall off my face. After that Isla continues to utter soft, lingering farts or 'fairy puffs' as we call them, from her derriere for at least another 20 minutes, after which she seems much better. She ended up falling asleep on her Mummy's lap in fact, so I lift her carefully and carry her upstairs. I place my beautiful girl onto her bed and she turns her back to me in slumber; shifting one last blast of the trumpet.

It is very late now and our date night has sort of been spoiled by events of the day but c'est la vie, that is life. At least the halibut and broth was good, it really was; a fantastic contrast of flavours, light yet meaty fish with a heady garlic and earthy vegetable soup. Even the stale bread worked, toasted instead of wasted. Of course, date nights don't have to end with a nudge and a wink. Sometimes, it is just as good to simply drain the remnants of your glass and head upstairs for a quick cuddle and then to tumble into the oblivion of sleep. The washing up can wait till tomorrow and that Prosecco can wait till another spicier, bubblier date night.

One word of advice though, always remember to take the bottle out of the freezer. 

I found this out this morning.

Halibut with Garlic, Potato and Saffron (works with other fish though)

4 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil

4 sprigs of fresh oregano

1 small head of garlic

1 tsp of chopped oregano leaves

100 ml dry white wine

500ml fish or chicken stock

1 leek, cleaned and sliced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 tomatoes, chopped

300g waxy potatoes, thickly sliced

Pinch of saffron strands

1 teaspoon of capers

Salt and pepper

Method

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan. Add the oregano sprigs and unpeeled garlic cloves and cook for 2 minutes, until the garlic is lightly browned. Remove pan from heat, cool a little, then add half the wine. Return to the heat and boil rapidly until it has almost evaporated. Add the leek, carrot and tomato and stir for a minute. Add the stock, saffron and some seasoning, then cover and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Shortly before the potatoes are ready, heat the rest of the olive oil in a frying pan. Add the halibut, skin side down and fry for 2 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn over and fry for another 2 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through.

Serve up the broth in a deep pasta or soup bowl and place the halibut on top. Mix the capers with the chopped oregano in some olive oil and salt and pepper and drizzle over the fish and serve. Stale toast is optional but very tasty.







Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Food Urchin Chrimbo Supper Club


Oh Ye! Oh Ye! Hear me now!


Christmas is fast approaching and I am sure you have loads of fun things planned on the run up. Like sitting in traffic, queueing at the supermarket, tearing your hair out and screaming at your beloved ones, especially at the young 'uns as they pander to adverts on the television set and constantly repeat "I WANT THAT. I WANT THAT. I WHAT THAT." I know I might just take a cricket bat to ours soon!


Ho ho ho!


However, if you fancy a break from all that nonsense, if you urge some respite from the oncoming mania of the festive season, if you would simply like to sit down at someone else's table and enjoy a memorable, delicious Sunday lunch before the madness descends; then book yourself a place at the Food Urchin Chrimbo Supper Club based at my house in Hornchurch, which will be on the 16th of December.


Here is the menu, in the immortal words of Borat, "It's very niiiiiiiiiiice."


Smoked Mackerel Pâté with Chicory and Fennel

Roast Quail on Toast with Caramelised Onion and Tomato Picada

Slow Cooked Venison in Red Wine and Rosemary


Damson and Port Jelly


Panettone Bread Pudding OR Baked Quince with Honey, Bay, Verjuice, Pomegranate and Greek Yoghurt
.


All the for the very reasonable donation of £25 per head and as always this includes homemade bread and the finest tap water you can find in Essex.


Vegetarian options are available on request.


And naturally, the house will be festooned in cheap twinkling lights and gaudy decorations from Poundland, just to get you in the mood. I might even hang my sparkling, pajazzed baubles out for you all to admire.


If you would like to reserve a seat then please email me at foodurchin@gmail.com or if you would like to be on the mailing list for the supper club for future events, drop me a line anyway and I shall spam you till your hearts content. Or not, as the case maybe.


Merry Xmas!


Love from The Furch.


PS. Incidentally, I took the twins to visit Santa at our local department store on Sunday, the very old fashioned Roomes in Upminster where I do believe Mrs. Betty Slocombe is still working and still harping on about her pussy. And may I just say, he was the most uninterested, boring Father Christmas I have ever encountered. He was one day into the job and already his eyes were dead and his patter was just soulless. I suspect the road to the 25th will be long and arduous for this particular and possible former RADA graduate and he'll be on the whisky by then end of the week.


Oh well, the kids were enthralled nevertheless and at least I can put the squeeze on them for the next month or so.


"That's it! I am calling Father Christmas! I am telling him RIGHT NOW that the pair of you have been very, very naughty!"


Works a charm everytime.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Quail on Toast

 Quails

When we finally shuffle off this mortal coil, you would hope, at the very least, to go out with a certain degree of style and grace and dignity, wouldn't you? I know I would. In fact, one of the over-riding factors for the due diligence of my underwear drawer first thing in the morning, is to make sure that everything is clean, present and correct before I stride off for my strides. Because once upon a time; I went to work wearing a pair of my wife's knickers. Had I been knocked down by a bus or choked on a chicken bone that day, the later discovery of this innocent mistake and subsequent ignominy would have been too much for my family and friends to bear. OK, I am sure that there would have been couple of arched eyebrows and suspicious sideways glances at my funeral but I am also sure that the pall of embarrassment would have hung heavily over proceedings; especially for my father. I can picture him now in the chapel, on his knees, weeping and sobbing under his breath:

"Not my boy, not my boy....... not in Holly's shreddies."

I learnt a valuable lesson that day. Where death is concerned, we have no control over our ultimate destiny; but at least on a daily basis, we can make sure that we are wearing the right pants for the occasion.

Let's consider for a moment then, the fate of the shy and retiring quail. This chirruping creature is smallest of the game birds readily available for consumption at this time of year, and if cooked well, quail is a sweet, tender and succulent treat to enjoy. But in comparison to its older cousins, once plucked and eviscerated, its tiny frame does suffer the shame of impropriety somewhat. When trussed neatly and ready to be cooked whole, pheasant, duck, partridges, woodcock and pigeons can speed happily towards their final destination of a baking hot oven, safe in the knowledge that at least their end had some sense of decorum. Quails on the other hand, due to their diminutive size, often suffer the indignity of having to lie in a roasting tin, spread-eagled, for all the world to see. The spitting, hot fat of a frying pan does it no favours either; as the muscles fibres shrink and contract, a quail’s legs will tend to arch upwards, in some gross akimbo fashion. The effect, to coin a friend's phrase, is quite 'gynaecological' and is not really a befitting spectacle for the kitchen table. Should feathered mourners ever magically appear, to pay their last respects around the table cloth, resplendent in tiny black ties and little hats with organza; their grieving, dull eyes fixed upon the plate would certainly be countered by their flushed, pink cheeks.

Unlike man and woman, who is privy to free will, causation and effect and the choice to wear whatever underwear they like; none of this exists for the poor, humble quail. Their lives are pre-determined. No matter what they do, once captured and cooked, they will always bare a cross; they will always end up with their bum in the air. With no style, no grace, and definitely no dignity.

I don't often spend my time considering the philosophical dilemmas of quails you know, this just all entered my head when I was rustling up a lovely dish from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain the other evening; namely Quail with caramelised onion and brandy. This Catalonian recipe is extremely straight forward and simple and I urge you to try it but I also urge that you try this little twist I added.

The inspiration for the twist came from a recent visit to Moo Grill, tucked neatly in between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. It was London Mallorca Week, a gastronomical celebration of all things Mallorcan and Rachel McCormack was hosting a wine tasting there. The wines were very good and I gravitated towards a previously unknown grape, the indigenous, dense and berry flavoured Callet, with great aplomb. I then got chatting to an attractive lady called Jenny (I think it was Jenny) from a company called Ametlla who, after some chit chat, pressed a package into my hands and whispered seductively into my ears, “Try my nuts.” The nuts in question were fine, Mallorcan almonds, which had been crushed with various herbs and spices to form a readymade picada, of which there were three varieties.

Being the food adventurer that I am, I accepted them without question and then one night this week, after musing over the metaphysical nature of quails, I decided to use Ametlla No 1, the tomato based one, to make an accompanying sauce.  And it was pretty damn special actually. Given the already rich textures of Madam Roden’s dish, with gently braised quail, squat gregariously atop soft, melting, toffee onions; the Ametlla sauce really ramped up the comfort factor. It was fragrant, fruity and complimented the delicate meat of the quail without overpowering.

That this was all to be served up on toast. Plain ol’ toast, like you would with beans, eggs and pilchards, seemed at first to be the last humiliation for this noble bird; a final injustice. But of course, the toast was the best element, which grew soggy under the weight, soaking up all the juice and the nutty sauce; becoming perfect for mopping the plate with a fork. Delicious.

So in the end, for the quail, it wasn’t such a bad ending after all.

Quail with Caramelized Onions and Brandy 
serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

4 quails


5 tablespoons olive oil


2 large onions, peeled, halved and sliced


salt and pepper


125ml brandy, or to taste


4 large slices of firm white bread, toasted or fried


Additional sauce


2 tablespoon Ametlla No 1


4 tablespoon water 


2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and diced


1 tablespoon olive oil


Method


Pull off any remaining feathers or singe them off over a flame, then rinse the quails and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Heat the oil in a wide, heavy frying pan or casserole and put in the onions. Cover and cook slowly over a very low heat for about 30 minutes until they are soft and beginning to colour, stirring often.


Push the onions to one side, put the quails into the pan and season with salt and pepper. Turn up the heat to medium. Keep turning the quails to brown them all over - around 7 or 8 minutes - and stir the onions so that they brown evenly. Add the brandy and cook, covered, over a low heat for 25 to 30 minutes until the onions are caramelized and the quails are done. Pulle the leg of one of the quails - if it moves easily they are cooked. They should still be a little pink. Serve them on toasted or fried sliced bread.


For the sauce, gently fry the tomato in olive oil in a small pan. In a glass, mix the Ametlla and water together and then add to the pan, mix together to emulsify and keep warm before use. Drizzle liberally over the quail and plate.


Ametlla can be found and purchased at Bar Tozino at Maltby Street and soon on Edeli.


Onions
Ametlla

Quail with Caramelized Onions and Brandy (and Ametlla No1)