Friday, 18 May 2012

Barbecued butterflied salmon

The Boy has always said "Never trust a thin chef" and he seems to follow a similar logic for bushmen. Since I got to know him, I know that I've been wrestling with a rather hefty draw for his affections. He totally loves Ray Mears. His logic is that Ray, with his generous waist line, is not simply surviving in the wilderness but properly living.

His high regard for the portly master of the wilderness extends to his cooking skills. Our feeding-of-the-many-people gave him the ideal opportunity to try out some Mear-esque catering. Our lovely friends at Cronkshaw Fold provided us with a mammoth (whale-like) salmon which inspired The Boy to try out a butterfly technique that he’d seen Ray demonstrate.

After removing the fins and scoring around the head, he gently plied the bones away from the flesh and – voila! – a perfectly butterflied salmon. He then laid it out on the barbecue grill until the skin was satisfyingly crispy and the flesh was meltingly soft and juicy. It had taken on a deep smokey flavour which was incredibly moreish. We served it as it was with no accompaniment as a sort of starter before a vat of risotto was dished out.

It was pretty simple so I think this will become a regular dish at summer barbecues when the weather makes up its mind. I don’t know about you but I don’t think of fish when I think of goodies to slap on the grill. Sausages, for sure. Burgers, defo. Halloumi, my goodness yes. I might do a few prawn kebabs but nothing more adventurous than that. There must be good recipes out there! What are your fish recipes for the barbecue?

Butterflied barbecued salmon

You will need:
one whole salmon (ideally gutted and scaled by your fishmonger unless you're hardcore like Ray)
one sharp knfe

- If the fish is fresh from the water, scale it and remove the guts and innards.
- Remove the fins from the belly of the fish.
- Slice just behind the gills; this will help you when you remove the head later.
- Remove the dorsal fin by running the knife along the top of the fish.
- With the fish belly up, run your thumbs along the length of the spine between the skin and the ribs to ease the bones away from the flesh. Do this on both sides and pull out the head, spine and bones in one piece.
- Lay the fish skin side down on a hot barbecue and cook until the skin is charred. If the fish is particularly fleshy and thick, cover it with foil to help cook the otherside.
- Briefly turn the fish over to add some colour to the flesh before serving.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Review: Hotel du Vin, Birmingham

I don't think that I've ever been spellbound by a breakfast table until I was lucky enough to be treated to Hotel du Vin. After a glorious sleep in the biggest big that I've ever had the pleasure of getting lost in (even doing my best starfish impression, I couldn't touch the sides), we traipsed downstairs and were swiftly seated.

The service was prompt and before long, our hot food order had been taken and we were let loose on the selection of chilled and baked goodies to while away the time until our food was ready. In sophisticated surroundings, I grappled to keep my inner child - who was urging me to run circuits around the groaning table, piling my plate ever higher while whooping with excitement - under control. It was truly a feast of breakfast delights. There was fresh banana bread and fruit flapjacks in addition to the common or garden croissants. A bucket, jewelled with dewy condensation, was packed with ice and studded with darling little screw top jars of yogurt and a smattering of fruit compote. There were bowls filled with cereals including a hearty rustic granola, stewed summer fruits and spiced apricots. Even the orange juice was a joy to behold; sweet yet zesty- what a friend might describe as a (pleasant) citrus slap in the face.

Being as restrained as a I could bare (they were, after all, playing jazz at breakfast - tres chic), I daintily (ha!) filled my plate and returned to our table to report back to The Boy. My excitement got the better of me as I blurted out something along the lines of: ohmygoodnessitsamazingtheresEVERYTHING.

Suffice to say, the cold buffet was fantastic and would've been a sumptuous meal in itself. The cooked portion of our meal had quite a lot to live up to! The Boy was pleased with his full English breakfast which was chock-full of quality ingredients including the tastiest bacon either of us have ever experienced. The only thing that it was lacking was some baked beans though I suppose the debate about whether these are an element in a traditional full English should be discussed in at a later date. My French toast (when in Rome, etc) was good if a little greasy. It was served with maple syrup which was lovely but I added some of the stewed summer fruits from the cold buffet which perked it up a treat and gave a pleasant sharp contrast to the otherwise sickly sweetness of the dish.

In short, Hotel du Vin know how to do breakfast!

Hotel du Vin Birmingham can be found at 25 Church Street, Birmingham, B3 2NR. Tel: 0121 200 0600

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Review: Pitt Cue Co, Soho, London

It might just be my sources but the word on the meat scene of the capital has been dominated for some time by three words: Pitt Cue Co. For those of you who have been out of the loop, the minuscule Soho-based restaurant has been making (cow-shaped) ripples in the food scene for a while now - the hype about their no reservations policy has been matched only by that of their fabled barbecued offerings. And, of course, the publicity has started a vicious (ever hungry) circle as the eatery gained popularity which created longer queues and in turn fed its cult status among carnivores.

The combination of urban food myth and char-grilled meats made it an ideal place to take The Boy during one of his infrequent visits to London. Having done our research, we arrived 30 minutes before opening and joined the already sizeable queue. I must admit that, having lived in Britain for my entire life, I'm something of a queue-connoisseur; we Brits like to form lines for everything. However this queue was unlike pretty much any queue I'd witnessed before; the queuee's (as I shall call them) were cheerful. Maybe it was the quirky Soho setting or maybe the glorious smell of searing ribs combined with low blood sugar was making everyone delirious but people were waiting patiently and happily. After several months of shoulder-bargy, foot-squashing, tube-cramming, irate-to-the-point-of-evaporating-with-rage London commuters, I started to think I was seeing things.

Around 6pm, the kitsch lace curtains that lined the bar's windows began to twitch and, finally, the doors opened. I half expected the air of patience to dissolve and for us to rush the entrance like eleven year old's at a One Direction album signing but instead the doorway was barred by a friendly gentleman - keeper of the keys, if you will - who organised the tables. The Boy and I only just made it over the threshold; the queue was cut short just behind us. The place was jam packed and we were seated to eat in the bustling bar which was fine for two but probably would've been a pain for a larger group.

We ordered and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes masking the rumbling of anticipation emitted by our impatient tummies with pleasant conversation while nursing pints of house "Whatever" lager. Dubbed "Whatever" because it's exactly that: any beer that takes their fancy at the time. We got lucky; it was equally moreish and thirst-quenching. Despite the noisy setting, it was quite nice to see the bar staff working away while we waited. They seemed in their element as they churned out cocktails and pulled pints.

Enamelled trays were set down in front of us with a satisfying clink against the wood of the table and I bearly had time to take note of it's contents before instinct took over and I had to start gobbling. I'd chosen brisket with a side of chipotle 'slaw. The meat was so tender; it could have been cut with a spoon. Satisfying for the novelty if nothing else. It was somewhat drowned in barbecue sauce but, to fair, it wasn't your average barbecue sauce. It was seductively smokey and packed full of umami flavours - literally finger licking! The 'slaw was delish and surprisingly refreshing - the creamyness was a delightful contrast to the fragrant sauce on the meat.

The Boy went for pork ribs with burnt end mash and this definitely didn't disappoint. The ribs were mammoth. Literally! Like the gigantic ones that are strapped to the side of Fred's car in the closing titles of the Flintstones. They were juicy and tender too. I found myself feeling rather jealous as The Boy knawed (caveman-style - very apt) on the bones to extract every ounce of flavour. The burnt end mash was much nicer than it sounds - creamy smooth mashed potato covered in a layer of burnt scrag ends from the barbie. Seriously good stuff.

Pickles and a hunk of char-grilled bread were included as standard and worked well. The briny sharpness of the pickles helped to cut through all of the strong flavours while the bread was essential for making the meal finish sociably - I have no doubt that we would've been licking the trays at the end if this hadn't been provided.

All in all, the meal was good value and we thoroughly enjoyed everything (okay, if I'm being picky, they do that annoyingly fashionable thing where they price everything by one decimal place - £1.5 rather than £1.50 - but that can be forgiven). Be prepared to turn up early on a busy night and wear comfortable shoes for the queue. Other than that, if you're in London and you like meat, all I will say is that you must go.

Pitt Cue Co can be found at 1 Newburgh Street, Soho, London W1E 7RB. Open Monday - Saturday for lunch between 12pm and 3pm and for dinner between 6pm and 11pm. Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sticky Toffee Bread and Butter Pudding

Sometimes the simplest combinations are the best. Salty Cheddar cheese paired with sweet and sour Branston pickle, for example, or sweet ripe tomatoes combined with aromatic basil leaves. Both examples are far more than the sum of their parts. Bread and butter is another classic duo which are endlessly versatile; they work as an accompaniment with all sorts from scampi to jam.

I must admit that I was never drawn to the British classic, bread and butter pudding, when I was young. I always associated bread with savoury flavours and so, the idea of adding it to a sweet dish didn't compute. How wrong I was! It's such an easy dessert to make and is very forgiving if you feel the need to bend the recipe to your culinary whims. For my recent al-fresco-feeding-of-the-many-people moment at Cronkshaw Fold Farm, I added a luxurious sticky toffee element - as a nod to another British classic - but you could omit the deliciously sticky dates and caramel sauce for dried cranberries and white chocolate instead. Raisins and nuts would work well too. Or you could go for a virgin version and revel in simple stodgy comfort food. Either way, hot or cold, this ones a winner.

One of my lovely friends (I only have lovely friends, you understand) is gluten intolerant, just like my dear Mum, so my version was made - very successfully, I might add - with gluten-free bread. The custard binds everything together so that the bread, which without gluten is usually very dry and crumbly, was soft and moreish.

Sticky Toffee Bread and Butter Pudding
Serves four (multiply at will)

For the pudding
150g pitted dates
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g butter
10 slices of bread (brown, white, granary – the choice is yours)
400ml milk
2 eggs
25g sugar (plus 1 tbsp to top the pudding)
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the sauce
100g sugar
100g butter
100ml cream

- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Put the dates and bicarbonate of soda in a small saucepan and top up with water until just covered. Place over a low heat and simmer until the dates have broken down, stirring occasionally. Once the process is complete, they will look alarmingly like tar but fear not, as they taste amazing. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together until creamy. Set aside.
- Once the dates have completely collapsed and you've emptied the pan, pour the milk into the saucepan and place over a low heat to warm through. This has the double benefit of infusing the milk with the toffee notes of the dates while making the pan easier to clean (as well as reducing washing up!).
- While the milk is warming, butter the bread then smear with a little date mixture and cut diagonally into triangles.
- When the milk has come to temperature, whisk slowly into the eggs and sugar.
- Place a few slices of the buttered bread into a baking tin, slightly overlapping them as you go. If you have any of the date mixture leftover, add a smear or two of that. Repeat the layers until you've used up all of the bread.
- Slowly pour the egg mixture over the bread and leave it to soak for 30 minutes or so. You might want to press the bread down into the mixture so that it soaks up all of the custard-y goodness.
- Scatter with the reserved sugar and bake for 40 - 45 minutes until golden brown and crisp on top.
- While the pudding is in the oven, melt the sugar in a saucepan over a low heat. Stay on the ball here or you’ll end up with a burnt mess. The edges will start to melt first – as soon as the first centimetre or so starts to turn golden brown remove from the heat and whisk the butter into the mixture.
- Next pour in the cream and return to a low heat, whisking constantly to remove any lumps. Add a pinch of fleur de sel or sea salt if you’re feeling fancy and want to go for a de rigueur salted caramel sauce.

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