Thursday, 23 April 2015

Crab and Comté cheese quiche

When I threw open the curtains yesterday morning and saw the way the sun was beaming through; all shards of light, punctuating a forest floor strewn with pants and socks, I thought to myself - 'Today is beautiful and so surely, this has to be a shorts and t-shirt day!' And I got dressed as such. After tidying up my side of the bed that is. Yet when I wandered outside to go and do a daily shop like Nigel Slater, with wicker basket in hand, the brightness outside belied the truth. For it is still farking freezing cold out there folks. Like yer granny says, ne'er cast a clout before May is out. A mantra that was very much racing through my mind, as I raced up the road, nipples protruding and buttocks clenched tightly, like one of those speed walkers, wot crapped themselves.

However I did manage to pick up some bits and pieces in the supermarket; namely some eggs, ready rolled pastry and some crab and hit upon the notion to make a quiche. Because I love quiche and I haven't made quiche in a long, long time. Or "kwitch" even. Which is apparently how my wife's granddad used to pronounce it.

The introduction of crab was a bit inspirational and last minute actually. I was originally going to go all Lorraine like because I already had the bacon lardons back home in the fridge. But then I spotted a pot of ready picked, fresh crab meat on the shelves; from a Cornish company called Seafood & Eat It no less. So after laughing hard and pointing at the pun for a full on five minutes, I decided to sod it all and make a crab quiche instead.

If, like me, you love crab but hate the damned rigmarole of scooping gorgeous white and brown meat out of a rose pink shell and often furry legs, this stuff is a godsend. I bought two pots and at £3.75 a punt (at time of writing) you might think that it's a bit pricy but considering that an average crab, undressed costs about £8-£10 (depending on where you are and time of year), which would yield about the same amount of meat, well it does work out to be quite reasonable in the end. Plus you save yourself from itchy fingers (unless you wear marigolds when smashing up your crab).

Crab in a pot
Coming back to the matter of quiche though, there was an added impetus for making one because I had a slab of Comté cheese sent to me to try and if quiche benefits from anything, it is a slab of nutty joy from the Jura in France. Cheddar is fine for an eggy baked flan but sometimes it can be a bit overpowering, especially if mature. Aged Comté on the other hand is slightly different. Subtle yet complex. Sweet and aromatic. Grassy or peppery, depending on the time of year when it's made. The flavours of Comté do vary throughout the season and accord to whatever the Montbéliarde cows are munching on, the cattle famous for producing the milk. Their varied diet of hay, flowers, grass will all have a different effect on the end result and I mused on this whilst eating a clump of the cheese that had been grated into a bowl. Before remembering that I needed to keep some back for the quiche.

Grated cheeeeeese, hmmmmm
Now, a warning. This quiche is, how to describe it, a bit of a wibbly wobbly thing. If you sit in the firm camp and appreciate a stodgy, rigid and unrelenting quiche; the sort of quiche that would do nicely for smashing a window open or replacing a car wheel, this is not the quiche for you.

If however, you like your quiche to be light. airy and just slightly, slightly gooey in the middle, then this mellifluous tart will go down a treat. Especially if you make it for a picnic. Make sure you wear a cardie though.

Crab and Comté cheese quiche - serves 6 to 8


250gms ready roll shortcrust pastry sheet (cheat!)
100gm Comté cheese, grated
150gms crab meat, white and brown (I used one and a half pots basically, using the spare half for a sandwich)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks, from 2 large eggs
200mls whole milk
150mls creme fraiche
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Zest of one lemon
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt, to season
Knob of butter

The main ingredients for kwich

First heat your oven to 200C and leave the ready rolled puffed pastry out of the fridge for 30 minutes. When ready, take a loose bottomed flan tin (mine is 20 cm across and 5cm deep, roughly speaking) and drape the pastry sheet over the tin. Carefully tuck the pastry down the sides and to the bottom, leave some to hang over the tin. Prick the bottom with a fork, line with greaseproof paper, throw some baking beans in and blind bake. See here for explanation on blind baking. 

Whilst that is baking, take that knob of butter, place into a frying pan on a medium heat on the hob and then add the chopped onion and saute for 10 minutes until nice and soft. Leave to cool. 

When the pastry casing is done, put to one side and also leave to cool. 

Meanwhile make your eggy, crabby mix in a bowl by first mixing the eggs, milk and creme fraiche with a whisk until silky smooth. Then add and stir through the cheese, crab and parsley. And then finish up by throwing in the lemon zest, pinch of cayenne and some salt and gently mix it all together.

Turn the oven down 150C and pour the filling into the pastry case until it reaches the top. Place on the bottom shelf of the oven and leave to cook for 40 mins. If it looks too fluid after that time, just turn the oven off, open the door slightly and leave to finish off cooking in the residual heat.

Enjoy with whatever you fancy, like salad, radishes and Jersey potatoes.

Kwich and salad, tres bon

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Kitchen Is On Fire

I took two whole weeks off for the school Easter holiday just recently. To indulge in some proper, decent and gloriously happy times. Time spent looking after my two wonderful children. And boy, did we have some fun. Running all the place. To the park. To the farm. To IKEA even! Oh that was such joy. Skipping, dancing and giggling along the arrowed byways of that celebrated Scandinavian store; all flat, efficient and anodyne.

Shouting too. There was so much shouting. Shouting from them. Shouting from me. Shouting to leave the LJUSNING alone! To stop jumping on the MORGEDAL! And to please put that fracking FRÄCK down! Fer gawds sakes! 

This was on Day Two and to be honest, all I really remember about the holiday is lots of shouting.
Thankfully, I did get some respite for a couple of hours in that break, having been invited over to East London to do a podcast thingy with James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy

I’ve never done one before but basic premise seemed to involve sitting around and talking bollocks for an hour or so whilst drinking wine. Which was great. The conversation or debate was hardly intellectual. It was all quite childish really and for that I seem to have got the blame. However, I suspect that James and Sam don't really need help in that department. It was laugh though and we covered a wide range of subjects. Recalling cooking pasta for Christopher Biggins. Dreams of owning a cheese shop occupied by mice in tubes. Wondering whatever happened to Toadfish Rebecchi from Neighbours. Hard hitting stuff like that.

Gushing parents who goo about their children on Facebook were mentioned too. And from all four quarters they were subjected to some tough, tough criticism. Or should that be three thirds?

We are all Dads by the way and we all love our children dearly. But you’ll never, ever see us gush.

Have a listen to the podcast here: Episode 26 – The Axe Man

We are looking at a tiny fire in the corner of the kitchen in this photo

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Graham's Port Tasting at The Rib Room, Jumeirah Carlton Tower

Give me a bottle of port, a dainty little crystal glass and a quiet corner of the room and you will make me a happy man. Give me a thick wedge of blue cheese too, like some Stilton, along with some crackers and whoosh, off into the sky I will go; up into an orbit of serene bliss. Off to another universe even, through a wormhole, like that mumbling American bloke from Interstellar. Falling downwards into a tesseract, unbounded by laws of physics, where only the rules of port and cheese apply. Floating alone, surrounded by crumbs, eyes closed, corners of my mouth curled upwards and crusted with purple.....matter. 
However, beware. Try to take that bottle back and snap me out of that slumber, well let me just tell you now, get ready for a fight. For in the immortal and slightly abbreviated words of Charlton Heston, the only way you will get your port and cheese back is when you pry or take them from my cold, dead hands. As such, Christmas is always fraught with danger. I don't think anyone will ever forget the Boxing Day of 2003, when my fevered grip on a particularly fine LBV and truckle of Cropwell Bishop became so strong, that it took five members of my family to wrestle them from my grasp. I very nearly broke free too. But as I made my exit for the front door, all arms juggling and legs spinning wildly, my Nan took me out quickly by smashing a chair over the back of my head.

And that was the end of that.

Enough of that episode though, let's move swiftly on. The main point I am trying to make is that I am very much endeared towards both port and cheese. I love them in equal measure, yet I only really seem to partake in drinking and eating during the festive season and pair both in that singular combination. So the idea of attending a 5 course tasting menu event with Graham's Port, with each course complimented by a different port from their stable; now that sounded like a real leap into the unknown.

Held in The Rib Room at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in Knightsbridge, the setting for the meal certainly had a traditional, old school and slightly dusty vibe, which at first seemed to be a backwards step for the inventive proposal of matching port to food. My initial thoughts were 'Hmm, lots of suits, leather and touch of cigar smoke in the air? Blaady hell, what have I landed myself in here?' And I half expected Rowley Birkin QC to leap out from nowhere and scream "GIBRALTAR!" in my face; before settling back down into an old Wessex club chair, proclaiming that he was very, very drunk. I suppose though for a company that is nearly 200 years old, ties to the past are going to be very strong and rightly so. In that context, The Rib Room, with its impeccable level of service, was an ideal place to showcase.

Prêt-à-Port cocktail
And innovation soon jumped quickly onto my lap anyway. In the shape of a Prêt-à-Port cocktail, made from Graham's 20 Years Old Tawny Port, Tanqueray gin, cinnamon syrup, fresh lemon juice and raspberry jam no less. I say onto my lap, I mean table. The waiter didn't chuck it into my lap, no and given that my mixological efforts with port have only gone as far as that old dear's favourite - "Port and lemon please luv!" - I have to say it was a real eye-opener. Refreshing, crisp, subtly spiced and fruity as you would expect, especially from the jam, this cocktail had a toe dipped in all seasons. I would suggest that all you bearded, bar monkeys out there to take note here; port cocktails could be the next new thing you know. But I suspect you have already been using the stuff for ages anyway.

For the main event, we were ushered into a private dining room where Joao Vasconcelos, marketing manager for Graham's Port and Symington Family Estates, gave us the run down on the lauded and revered history of port. The most intriguing account he regaled was how the relationship between Britain and Portugal was forged out of strife, war and a wanton necessity for booze. Way back when, when, as per usual, we were busy fighting the French, the surrender monkeys cut off supplies to our beloved vin de table by closing all their ports. So the Portuguese basically waved a flag from yonder and said "Coo-ee, look over here. We have lovely, lovely wine in our country. It's quite cheap you know. Looooook!" And so we did. We travelled over there, with our bulbous red noses and visited the Douro Valley and went "Huzzah!" But the main issue was transporting it back to Blighty, as the wine would usually spoil on the long journey home, over the deep blue briny sea. So the clever Portuguese fortified their wine with brandy, to make it more stable by stopping the fermentation process. And not to mention more alcoholic, which in turn raised an even bigger "HUZZAH!" from the Brits.

This of course is a truncated and possibly inaccurate version of Joao's story. There was plenty more about the history surrounding trade between both countries, with many merchants such as the Symington family making the decision to move across and set up business in Porto, to help develop the great vineyards of the Douro, the varieties of port and such forth, etc etc etc. But by that point, I was more tickled by the fact that the French are now accountable for drinking the majority of all port produced, as an aperitif.

"Ha!" How ironic!" I thought, as my tummy rumbled away.

Then the first course arrived in the shape of pan seared scallops, raisin puree, roasted cauliflower, white port sauce and that is when the real fun began.

Pan seared scallops, raisin puree, roasted cauliflower, white port sauce
Paired with a fine white port, lightly chilled, this really was an enlightening introduction that port could be drunk with food other than cheese. I have had white port before (with cheese!) and I made this clear to lots of people at the table but they were ambivalent to my wittering; focusing instead on the beautifully cooked, slightly underdone shellfish with sweet grape and sticky puree. Conversation disappeared out of sight for five minutes or so and when it returned, we all agreed that it was a spot on marriage of flavour. It could have been an overly saccharine dish in some ways but the dryness from the white port was great at cutting through it all.

Graham's Fine White Port
The next course of seared foie gras with glazed free range pork belly and fig jus, paired with a 10 year old tawny, was also similar in its approach. Again chilled but the port was complex enough to handle the dense richness of the liver and soft, yielding pork. If I had to make a choice, I would single this tawny to be my favourite port of the night, even though there are three more to talk about. It really was delicious to drink.
Graham's 10 Years Old Tawny Port
Also, there was a suggestion from Joao that this port is versatile enough to be used with a variety of dishes and I could see that straight away. A cool bottle on a warm, summer evening in the garden would go down a treat. Especially with a banger or burger straight off the BBQ.

Only one bottle mind. Strewth, imagine what could happen with two?!

Seared foie gras, glazed free range pork belly and fig jus
For the next round things got a little heavier and the LBV (or Late Bottle Vintage) that was poured was very much akin to what I am used to slurping at Christmas time. 'Ahh, LBV....what does that even mean?' I thought, flash-backing to hasty purchases on Christmas Eves and the aforementioned rioting. Well, it means that the port has been matured for 4 to 6 years in the barrel before bottling, which is pretty self-explanatory really. As a result, these ports are often full and fruity on the palate, with a long sweet finish.
Graham's Late Bottled Vintage Port 2009
That chef decided then to pair it up with two gorgeous slices of venison loin, rare and supremely succulent, was a great idea. The meat was perfectly cooked and an excellent accompaniment, as was the blackberry sauce. But I felt that the addition of a wedge of Stilton and slow cooked deer pie was a step too far and took the shine off things. Saying that, as the pie came around in a cast iron pot, I could have said no. But hey, cheese had just made an appearance. Cheese always goes with port, said my brain. So maybe more fool me for being so greedy then.

Roasted venison loin, slow cooked venison and Stilton 'pie' (not pictured) buttered baby carrots and blackberry jus
Dessert soon reared its very elegant head after that and the Cherry Bakewell crème brûlée, with dark chocolate sorbet really was sight to see. Decanted into a glass verrine, all pretty and delicate, it seemed a shame to have to smash into it with a spoon but I smash I did. I dived straight into that glorious pudding, whilst taking sips of another tawny, this one a 20 year old.

Cherry Bakewell crème brûlée, dark chocolate sorbet.
Throughout the evening, there had been murmurs from some of the others that they were getting a nutty flavour from some of their ports, yet it was only until I tried this one that I sort of got that. The almond in the dessert probably helped but as Joao pointed out, the longer a tawny spends in the barrel, slowly evaporating and with time spent exposed to oxygen, these are exactly the sort of conditions that lead to that particular flavour. So there you go. I must just have expensive tastes.

(Graham's 20 Years Old Tawny Port retails at £36.49 by the way)  

Graham's 20 Years Old Tawny Port
The final blow of the trumpet (or should that be blow-out?) had to be the ubiquitous slice of Stilton, with sticks of celery, truffle honey and walnut bread; served along with a last glug of some very nice Six Grapes Reserve Port, one of Graham's signature wines. Knowing that I was quaffing one of Winston Churchill's favourite ports did lend a certain pomp and ceremony to the end of the meal. Although I did start to worry about the 'pump' that I was feeling in my stomach.

Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port
However, signing off with Stilton was, in the words of talented Head chef Ian Rudge, truly the only way to go and this dark, velvety, ruby port slipped down oh so easily (fnar) and eased my concerns in no time at all. It was a proper digestif in other words. Without it, I am sure I would have trotted off into the night and exploded by the time I got to the bottom of Sloane Street. Like a bald, ginger Mr Creosote. 
Organic Stilton, quince, truffle honey, walnut bread
So at the end of this journey and given my previous predilection for scarfing port and cheese only at Christmas time, I suppose it remains for me to ask myself,  what did I learn from the whole experience?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that port now needs (and I say needs with some urgency here) to be enjoyed and featured on the dinner table more often in our house and throughout the year. And it was the tawny port, both the 10 and the 20 years old that impressed me most, especially when it came to pairing with food. Yes, there are definitely some good prospects that lie ahead with this new found appreciation of port. No doubt about it

Bloody hell, birthdays, christenings and funerals will never be the same again.

Some wine and port
I dined at The Rib Room, Jumeirah Carlton Tower as a guest of Graham's Port.