Stand-out dishes, and a hiatus

What makes a stand-out dish? What elevates a plate of food from being great to truly memorable, something you will talk about for days or weeks or years to come? I’ve eaten lots of great food, and by and large I’ve forgotten most of it.

Longevity of memorability isn’t the be all and end all. In bluntly biological terms, food is first and foremost sustenance; and sharing it as part of friendships and relationships is sustaining too. Just as most interactions in a friendship are ephemeral, so too is most food. I don’t remember every conversation I’ve ever had with friends and family, but cumulatively they are what constitutes the relationships’ nourishment. Many of these conversations have been undertaken over food. Many have been about food.

But still, there are stand-out dishes that linger in the memory.

Possibly the best thing I ate last year – and certainly the one that most easily comes to mind – was a dessert at The Swine That Dines. This small set-menu operation is well worth a visit anyway, and late last year I rounded off a delicious meal with a serving of Leeds Blue cheese with beetroot ganache, granola and pink peppercorns. I can be foul-mouthed when I want to be, but on the whole this is by choice; this plate of food elicited an involuntary (though fortunately fairly softly-voiced) swearword of delight. Leeds Blue is a sheep cheese made by Mario Olianas, a Leeds-residing Sardinian who makes the pecorinos [or pecorini, to exercise my Italian grammar] of his upbringing with local Yorkshire sheep milk. He’s justifiably been winning serious cheese awards. I’ve been eating his produce for some years, and will tell anybody who will listen (friend, family or otherwise) about how good his cheeses are. Somewhat like the farmyard quality of goats’ cheese, sheep cheese has a natural funky depth that Leeds Blue enhances with its mouldy veins and offsets with creamy opulence and a satisfying kick of salt (already this dessert was onto a winner, as you can tell). The beetroot ganache – at a guess made with beetroot and white chocolate – provided a sweet counterpoint, as did the nubby clusters of granola. But what made this dish a stand-out was the sprinkling of crushed pink peppercorns that adorned it, their fragrant piquancy unifying the sum of the parts into a greater whole. Absolutely inspired, absolutely delicious. Quite why this dish made such a strong impression on my memory I’m not sure – I say it is possibly the best thing I ate last year, but without any certainty that I didn’t eat something better that has slipped my mind – but make an impression it did.

One of the ways in which it made an impression, in which it was joined a few months later by a goat’s cheese ice cream I had in a small restaurant in Hereford, was as part of the inspiration for a supper club plan. This is the hiatus in this post’s title: there was a plan to run this in September, but it is now on hold. To much else on at the moment to do the plan justice, whether or not that justice is a whole night of stand-out dishes. Goat’s cheese and beetroot is a combination that people find to be one of: a classic that never fails to delight; a dreadful idea because goat’s cheese is farmyard-y and/or beetroot is earthy; an over-used vegetarian option that has become a cliche that show’s a kitchen’s total lack of imagination. [I say ‘one of’ – for some people it’s the second and the third.] The supper club plan is to base a whole menu around goat’s cheese and beetroot.

With two such distinctive ingredients there is a risk of every course just tasting the same. (This would definitely work against the possibility of the dishes being stand-out.) To mitigate against this there might be a course that uses goat’s cream rather than goat’s cheese, or (as in the photos accompanying this post) a fresh home-made goat’s curd that hasn’t had chance to develop strident caprine notes; and featuring the beet family rather than just beetroot allows for the use of spinach or chard, quinoa (who knew quinoa is part of the beet family!?) and sugar from sugar beet.

goat curd 4

Hopefully I’ll have more time and brain space very soon to return to the supper club plans. All sorts of ideas, some fairly straightforward (smoked beetroot and fresh goat’s curd – see pictures), some willfully ‘cheffy’ (savoury desserts), and some that are a great excuse to invent a new word (arancini made of quinoa = aranquini).

 

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More reviews, and maybe a preview…

Once again it has been a good while since I posted anything here. So I’m adding links to some of the food writing that I have done.

A review of a burger gave me the chance to write a very short history of veggie burgers, and to rhapsodise about the best chips ever.

Leeds Indie Food festival took place last month, and I went to sample raw vegan food, a vegan supper club, and a celebration of the origins of Leeds craft beer and Indian street food maestros Bundobust.

Plans are forming for running my own supper club. Having sous cheffed at two of Cath’s Messy Cook nights, it is (she supoortively informs me) time to take charge of one of my own. Not being one who is afraid of a bit of willful perversity, I am planning to have a very narrow theme, and to not cook curry which is the cuisine I arguably am best at. I am awaiting confirmation of the venue booking, and the inevitable fear that will kick in when I realise what I might be commiting to – watch this space…

Bank Holiday baking

One of the first things that I learned to cook was sponge cake (the 4:4:4:2 method for those of us who grew up with imperial measurements). But since then I have tended not to do much baking. I’m inclined towards the kind of cooking that you can do without accurately measuring things.* I have made enough bechamel in my time to do it by eye, but other than that I tend to avoid flour-based recipes. As such, it was a bit of a departure for me to be making bread at the weekend.

I’ve been meaning to make no-knead bread for a long while, ever since my friend Paolo introduced me to it. It’s a slow-proved bread, the dough mixed with a wooden spoon until just combined and then left to rise overnight, the gluten developing as the yeast works to stretch the dough rather than through kneading. The crust was strong and crisp, the crumb moist and springy and nicely airy without being insubstantial. There’s a number of recipes out there on the internet; I used the New York Times one.

I am very much someone who reads recipes for inspiration rather than instruction – which again doesn’t work well with the more precise science that underpins baking. In the case of my breads, I restricted myself to the addition of some chopped fresh rosemary in one loaf, and some finely ground fennel seed in the other (4 rounded teaspoons to 3 cups of flour, measurement fans). Both very successful. My sense is that the flavour of the rosemary and the fennel were more pronounced the second day than the first; I’m not sure why this might be.

As well as the no-knead breads which were baked in a cast iron casserole, I had a go at pizzas on my new baking stone. I’d say this was a bit less successful than the loaves, in that the edges of the pizzas were a fraction dry. I forget what recipe I followed, but think it made a rather drier dough than should have been the case – being inexperienced, I was unsure if the pre- proving dough would transform into something altogether smoother and less shaggy than I had made. It didn’t. The pizzas were okay enough but I guess there’s a place for experience alongside measurement.

* In the nauseatingly faux-cute couples-banter weekend food programme he runs with his partner Lisa Faulkner that I watched over the weekend, John Torode made the distinction between ‘home cooks’ who measure things and ‘chefs’ who do not. Charitably, I guess he could have a point that professional chefs might well not measure things because they make them repeatedly and so measure by eye. But for his point to stand one needs to ignore the many pastry chefs that no doubt measure things, the molecular gastronomists that work in milligrams for some of their more “science” ingredients, and the many home cooks (eg. me) that don’t measure things.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

I’ve written before about my love of cheese. Of the many subjects, food and otherwise, that can get me excited, cheese is a strong contender for the one that most arouses rhapsodic exhortations of delight, and unnecessarily flouncy language.

Cath and I received a voucher for a cheesemaking course as a present last Christmas, and a few days ago attended a day’s cheesemaking at Lacey’s Cheese in Reeth, North Yorkshire. Prior to attending, I knew a bit about making cheese, but only a bit. Simon Lacey pitched the day at us as enthusiastic amateurs, though questions were invited and welcomed – had we wanted more technical detail, I have no doubt that he would have given it to us – and between the information we were given, the information that could be looked up (or checked with Simon), and the all-important hands on experience of seeing and feeling milk turning into cheese, I reckon I could have a good go.

I have made cheese before, just about. In preparation for last September’s cheese-based supper club, I experimented with junket, which is sweetened milk coagulated with rennet (vegetarian rennet in the case of my experiment). If you’ve made cheese, junket is the same point as the stage where you first cut the curd, before any whey is drained. It looks like a very white custard, but quickly starts to leach the watery whey and lose structural integrity, becoming a somewhat unappealing mix of curds and whey (think runny blancmange rather than cottage cheese).

Early stages of cheesemaking (well, early stages for course attendees – Simon had taken the milk in several hours before our leisurely 10.30am start). On the right – the first cut of the curd, the same stage as junket.

And then a couple of weeks ago, in early preparation for what may be this coming September’s cheese-heavy supper club, I made goat’s curd – goat’s milk coagulated with rennet and then drained of a good deal of whey to make a kind of cream cheese. The curd had very little flavour – the capricious hint of the farmyard that belies its goaty origin, the sweetness of milk, but none of the deeper flavour that comes from culturing and maturing. For its intended purpose, though, this unctuous blandness was just what was required: the curd was a foil for smoked beetroot and tarragon and pumpkin seed pesto. Watch this space for more about the supper club plan…

The East End Park goat’s curd factory

We came away from Lacey’s with many good things: happy memories of a fun day; better knowledge about one of our favourite foods; the germ of a plan to get a wine fridge or similar to try maturing home-made cheese at the eight to fourteen degree optimal temperature; and a hearty haul of cheese including some of the one I am gazing adoringly upon at the top of this post (but none of the stuff we made, which we left being pressed in moulds and which, if you buy Lacey’s Wensleydale in six to eight weeks at one of the many farmers’ markets they attend in North Yorkshire, you may be buying. I hope you love eating it as much as we, and Simon, loved making it.)

Cooking for lots of people, part 5

The charity curry went ahead and was a success.

In the end, there were forty or so people rather than seventy. We cut down the quantities of most recipes – the mutton curry was limited by the available slow cooker space to a rather meagre portion for seventy people, so we kept to the original plan. I still have a lot to learn about cooking for large numbers though, and ended up making enough dhal for about a hundred people based on the amount left over.

The internet was, as ever, uninformative and contradictory: suggestions for how much rice to allow per person ranged from 40g to 120g; I spent far too long trying to find the density of meat – how much by weight will fit into eight litres of slow cooker (around 7kg was a good fit, for the record). Note to self: your capacity for chick pea consumption is significantly higher than average.

I’m pleased to report that all leftovers got taken away to be given good homes.

Huge thanks to Elspeth for roping us into this – it was hard work, true, but good fun and good experience, and nice to be part of raising some funds for things like taking the school to the theatre. Huge thanks to Cath for sous cheffing and all round being a trooper. Huge thanks to Christian, another of the parents, who allowed me to boss him around and give him all the repetitive tasks like peeling endless potatoes. And huge thanks to everyone who came, and said nice things about the food.