Monday, 31 December 2007

Happy New Year 2008 everyone!

Meringues with Chestnut & Kahlua Cream

Having dealt with the awesome Lemon Tart, it was now time to deal with the pool of egg whites that were left over. As John and I had practically been cooking for most of the day (whilst the rest of our throng were kicking back down at the pub), it was time to think of a use for the whites. "I know - I'll make meringues!" I spurted, now feeling the effects of the second bottle of Champagne that both John and I had decided were for the cooks use only! So I set to, and left them to cook away in the oven over night.
In the morning I was blessed with these billowing clouds that were gilded with gold leaf and then filled with a sweet chestnut cream laced with Kahlua. I served them with a hot chocolate sauce - like the one I made on Masterchef, but without the bijou copper skillet.

The River Cafe's Torta di Limone, as made by John

Luckily I was spared the responsibility of making pudding for Christmas lunch, as my good friend John had already decided that he would make a rather magnificent looking Torta di Limone from the River Cafe Cookbook. I must confess to having a weakness for Lemon Tart, but an even bigger one for Lemon Meringue Pie which was something my Mother used to make on Sunday afternoons. This tart used an extraordinary amount of eggs; 18 to be precise, and the skilled hand to make a fine, crisp pastry for the base. I admit that making pastry isn't really my forte as it is something I really have to work quite hard at to get right (I think that might apply to baking too to some degree - you are either fabulous at it and gifted like Hannah, or text book and clumsy like me). John set to work on the pastry as I looked on, but I did get a bit involved with the beautiful egg filling that frightened us both with its unnatural amounts of egg, butter and fresh lemon juice that threatened to split at any minute.
Grabbing the bull by the horns, we soldiered on the create the most sublime lemon custard that would grace the very fine pastry base. It was back into the oven to burnish the tart, and that was it - et voila!, a tart worthy of any fine dinner table, and a delicious way to finish a meal.

Here's another Rive Cafe Lemon Tart recipe using Marscapone:,,1687696,00.html

J & D's collection of found objects

Assembling the Three Bird Roast

As you can see this was quite a long and drawn out excercise - the kind which is perfect for Christmas Eve, with lots of things to nibble at hand, big glass of champagne and of course something silly on the telly to watch. When it comes to boning, I am fairly self taught - but I have figured a way to carve out the carcass before moving on to removing the wing bones and the thigh and leg bones. My method is simple; I cut down through the breastbone, cutting away the breasts to expose the ribcage, then running my knife under the backbone to remove it all. I admit it is a rather fiddly business, which took me the best part of two hours to complete all of the birds. I started on the quails first, which despite being small - were the easiest to do. I then built up confidence to tackle the chicken, leaving in the wings and legs intact to maintain a bird-like shape. Once all the birds were boned it was a case of layering; the chicken was laid flat and seasoned, with a generous layer of the sausagemeat stuffing applied. Next I laid the guinea fowl, this time with a layer of the fennel and date stuffing. Lastly I laid two quails and placed a small bundle of chives in the centre (purely for decorative purposes and to see where the middle of the bird would be when cooked). The whole thing was then drawn together, and tied tightly with twine to maintain the shape throughout cooking, then put back into the fridge to rest overnight and let the flavours in the stuffing permeate through the birds.

The Exotic Stuffing - Caramalised Fennel with Dates and Saffron

As the major stuffing had been finished, I needed a second stuffing that would permeate the inside layers of the bird and provide a contrast in flavours to the richer sausagemeat stuffing. I had opted for something vaguely Middle Eastern, which was my little nod to Bethlehem. I had bought the fresh dates with me from London, with the very purpose of using them in a stuffing. The base for this was fennel; slowly cooked with fronds of saffron until it caramalised, along with a juicy red onion. The chopped dates were folded in, along with some sourdough bread crumbs to bind it and the zest of an orange and a lemon to add some citrus bite. I lastly added some fresh parsley, which would add some astringency to the richly aromatic fennel, saffron and date combination.
With this done it was on with the birds and the boning!

The Classic stuffing - Sausagemeat, Chestnut, Thyme and Apple

As everyone had decreed that stuffing is their favourite bit of Christmas lunch (I too count myself in there..), I made sure that there was plenty of it, but also kept it traditional in flavours. The base for the stuffing was shallots and a leek, sweated down till silky and translucent. To the same pan I then added some diced russet apples, and cooked them until lightly golden. I let the aromatics cool and added them to sausagemeat, along with chopped chestnuts, nutmeg, seasoning and plenty of fresh thyme.
The mixture was left to cool before layering inside the bird roast.

Preparing the Christmas Three Bird Roast, the Quail, the Guinea Fowl and the Chicken

This Christmas was always destined to become an event that I would remember for years and years to come, with fondness and huge amounts of affection purely because of the wonderful friends I shared it all with. With so much love in the air I figured we needed a ceremonious bird (well it turns out to be birds) to carve up at the Christmas lunch table. I have always been quite intruiged by age old recipes for lavish multi-bird roasts, which seem to conjure all that is representative of Christmas plenty. I did however figure that 5, 7, or 10 birds stuffed into one another seemed a little excessive, so I opted for a modest three bird ensemble. I am not a huge fan of turkey, nor are many of my friends, so we quickly established that it wouldn't be a feature on our table this year. We had pondered Goose too - but I feel that a Goose is too magnificent a bird to be played with, and demands to have its own one man show at Christmas. Quails I have always loved and were already on my list. Guinea Fowl was a good compliment to the Quail, without being excessively gamey. So the last bird had to be weighty, delicious and awesome - so we opted for a beautiful free range organic Chicken that had obviously lived a very fine life indeed on a farm in Devon. The birds were bought whole, which meant that I had the challenge of boning them ready for layers of stuffing, followed by trussing with yards of twine to transform them back to a bird like shape again.

Christmas Eve preparations - the early morning panic to collect the vegetables from Tregenza's, Penzance

Christmas Eve morning was met with the teensiest of hangovers, which soon gave way to panic and fear that the vegetables needed collecting from the greengrocers. Tregenza's, Penzance is one of those hard to find establishments that not only stocks local, fresh produce (some organic - some not), but also a whole array of spices and other larder ingredients.
For Christmas lunch I had ordered all the essentials; fine local potatoes to roast in goose fat, shiny bunches of carrots, parsnips, and handsome stalks of brussel sprouts with a bouquet of squeaky leaves that went on to make the most delicious bubble & squeak (a Boxing Day tradition). Other items included fennel, celery, leeks, chesnuts (these were French and in a jar), beetroot for curing some salmon and banana shallots. As I had left things a bit late (the stampede had already happened at 6.30am), I was left with a scant choice of fresh herbs to take home with me. Luckily I managed to grab the last few bundles of thyme and bay which I knew would do the trick nicely. So it was homeward bound and back to deal with the birds.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Origami, antiquity and taxidermy - fashioning Christmas decorations

With always the eye for an original concept, my host's Christmas decorations were just so inspired. A whole bunch of us sat for hours neatly folding japanese origami paper into cranes and what looked like paper pigeons. Along with these were strung antique paper lanterns, with a rather arch looking Christmas magpie finishing off the look. Very de riguer.

Christmas lights at Angarrack

The Christmas lights at Angarrack are something of a local institution, with hoards of people in cars and coaches (yes, coaches!) flooding into this tiny Cornish village that is lit with enough Christmas lights and tchostche to be seen from outer space. It was indeed quite a spectacle, particularly as there were traffic queues for hours on end. There was this great pub that we all ended up in which served some lovely Cornish ales which we sat and drank by a crackling fire and felt duly festive.

Rhubarb & Ginger Pavlova

This is one of those desserts I always end up making when I've had to use excessive amounts of egg yolks and get left with a bowl full of whites. I know that meringue is not the most original thing create with these, but when feeding friends it always becomes a popular choice, especially where dessert is concerned.
I had bought some rhubarb earlier in the day with the specific intention of using it instead of the jetlagged and flavourless berries that were on offer.
I have learnt from Delia the magic quantities of egg white to sugar ratio to create a billowing meringue (3 egg whites to 6oz caster sugar), and also that a hand held whisker is far better and less exhausting than doing it by hand. (John's Grannie's hand whisker came in very handy here!). The other trick is to make the meringue the night before, allowing time to let it dry out over night.
The rhubarb was lightly stewed in it's own juices with golden caster sugar, vanilla pods, orange zest and some finely grated ginger root. Once softly stewed I then add some very finely chopped candied ginger (or ginger conserve), and some of the syrup.
I prefer to serve rhubarb just slightly warm, which combined nicely with a cold creme fraiche that also topped the meringue.

Obscurity and beauty in Penzance harbour

Crab bake feasting

After our drenching on the beach it was back to the house and quickly back to cooking these delicious creatures. A searing hot wok was the perfect vessel for the mighty claws, which did need a bit of hacking at the joints to make them more manageable. (I do have a whopping great dent in one of my best Global knives, as I stupidly and impatiently set to work cracking these beauties open). The scallops were put under a hot grill, with aroma of the meat, the pesto and hot shell filling them room with the most delicious aroma. The mussels hadn't as yet been cooked, so the contents of the parcel were put in a saucepan and the mussels steamed open. Once cooked, everything was piled high and the scallops were served with a salad of local Landcress - which has a pepperyness not dissimilar to rocket. Plenty of lemon wedges were cut and then everyone just helped themselves, along with thick slices of granary bread to mop up the beautiful juices. The most amazing flavours were had from the fire smoky, but sweet crab meat which was got at with all manner of blunt tools and picks. I think this has to be food at it's sexiest, where you can pick and smash to only be rewarded with delicious, succulent morsels. Nothing really beats the fresh, sweet flavours and the utter simplicity of the accompaniments. Not a foam in sight thank god.

Crab bake on Marazion Beach

Having got so enthused with the glorious bounty from Newlyn, I figured the best way to retain some of this glorious crab's freshness was to cook it out on the beach, amongst the elements and a cold sea crashing around us. The idea was to dig a large hole on the beach and cover it with large stones. On top of this a large fire was lit, with the white hot embers and searing hot rocks becoming an oven to bake and steam the claws and mussels, with help of course of a few seasonings and some aluminum foil. I had a trusty team of eager fire lighters John, Dean, Nic, Alex, and Katie) who did a sterling job of lighting a magnificent fire, which sadly and eventually became dampened by a downpour.
The claws I had chosen to cook whole on the fire, all smoky and sweet. I had made a delicious tarragon aioli to accompany the crab, along with a parcel of steamed local organic potatoes. The scallops got a different treatment - which after they had been cleaned of grit and frills, were left in their beautiful shells and anointed with a spoonful of a homemade pesto (large bunch of basil, handfull of pinenuts, fat clove of garlic, lemon zest, a good few glugs of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt - as it's fish I omitted the Parmesan cheese as I wanted to concentrate on the herbiness with the scallop) - these were then placed on the embers to cook and sizzle for a few minutes. Lastly the debearded mussels were bundled into a foil parcel with shards of fennel and a good slosh of Noilly Pratt. These too were destined for the fire.
Needless to say that the rain did put out the fire, and freezing cold we decided to salvage our feast and continue the cooking back at the house...

Gazetteer - W. Stevenson & Sons, Newlyn, Cornwall

One Cornwall's best assets is its majestic seas and stunning coastline, and within it a bounty of some of the best seafood to be found in the world. Being in Cornwall at any time of the year is such a treat - the fresh air, the landscapes and beautiful beaches, the friendly and warm people, but the it's the freshly caught fish, lobsters and crabs that really get me excited. These are fished in local waters and are sold glistening and supremely fresh, or in the crab's case, alive and pinching.
Newlyn is a small port close to Penzance that sees most of its catch head up to Billingsgate Market, and ultimately many of the fine restaurants in London and across Britain.
The Stevenson family have been fishing since the early 1800s, and now how several retail outlets in Cornwall, as well as a fleet of trawlers and an export business. They will also send up a mixed box of fish on an overnight courier from as little as £40.00, which will include some the the freshest fish you could possibly lay your hands on (contact the store for further details).
I visited their shop on the harbour in Newlyn intent on buying crabs for a crab bake on the beach that evening, as I had heard that the local Newlyn crab are some of the best in the country. The store had a very fine array of beautifully fresh fish; Pollack, Turbot, Hake, Bream, and fine Megrim Sole among others. As I was in the business of buying crab, I was rewarded with a large container full of big, meaty claws which once belonged to some very handsome crabs indeed. I had initially intended to buy live crabs and dispense with and dress them myself (which I must admit I am rather squeamish about - it's the underside I can't stand..) however I was saved by the convenience of these menacing claws that were packed full of sweet, white meat. I also bought a dozen live scallops (diver caught and not dregded from the sea bed) - a bargain at £6.00 per dozen, and a kilo of fat, shiny mussels. These were packed in a polysterene box and were taken home lovingly to be cleaned and prepared for cooking on the beach.

W. Stevenson & Sons,
Newlyn, Cornwall.
01736 362998

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Merry Christmas from Cornwall!!!

I just wanted to add a quick post from deepest, darkest Cornwall to wish everyone a really fantastic Christmas. This year I am spending Christmas with friends in a beautiful house by the sea, and am taking a well earned rest from London. So far, I have been taking advantage of the abundance of supremely fresh Cornish seafood (particularly crab), and other fine produce. Tomorrow being Christmas Eve I will be busy preparing all sorts of wonderful dishes for Christmas lunch that I intend to share with you as soon as I am back in London and with internet connection.
In the mean time I just want to wish everyone a wonderful holiday, and also a heartfelt thankyou for many of your words of encouragement, wisdom and wit that have made writing this blog such a joy over the past few months.
Merry Christmas everyone!!
Steven X

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Paris, and the poetic genius of Pierre Gagnaire

I've had a couple of mad weeks that have included working on a very interesting production for the BBC, as well as writing, sourcing ingredients and seeing friends in the run up to Christmas. Unfortunately this past weekend I have become quite ill, and have found out that I have succumbed to a nasty bout of Tonsilitis, the less said about that the better.
So in light of my self imposed quarantine, I thought it an ideal time to share some of my experiences during my two week estagier at Pierre Gagnaire that I completed back in September. I will write about it in much richer detail throughout the week, after which I will of course focus upon my plans for Christmas and foods I love to cook. As I'll be in Cornwall this year it I will be using lots of locally caught fish and crabs, which I will be to cooked on the beach New England Clambake Style.
So, more to follow on Pierre Gagnaire tomorrow...