Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Christmas Day: my struggle and subsequent victory over the Lochness monster

Chestnuts roasting on the fire
Chestnuts roasting on the fire

I studded tangerines with cloves and tied ribbon around them, you can do this with any citrus fruit, smells lovely.
I studded tangerines with cloves and tied ribbon around them, you can do this with any citrus fruit, smells lovely.

Fresh blinis on the Aga
Fresh blinis on the Aga
I positioned the fish in the 'swimming position', that is, on it's stomach...cover head and tail in foilI positioned the fish in the 'swimming position', that is, on it's stomach...cover head and tail in foil

Stripping the skin off is easy when it's roasted in a hot oven
Stripping the skin off is easy when it's roasted in a hot oven (bit Silence of the Lambs though isn't it?)

Nessie about to go in the oven...

The night before Christmas, the whole salmon arrived. I'd asked for one big enough to feed ten people. Did they add a zero to that number? The salmon was enormous, about four feet long. There was no way I was going to get this beautiful creature into the oven.
I planned to make saumon en croute but I haven't cooked it for a while and in my mind's eye, conflated it with another dish: baked whole salmon. Usually skinned and boned salmon fillets are used for saumon en croute, not entire fish. How was I going to get rid of the skin and the bones and keep the whole fish together in one piece?
I propped the salmon in 'the swimming position' with scrunched up silver foil shoved into it's seasoned(salt pepper and lemon) stomach to keep the shape. Why the 'swimming position'? Because this way you can skin both sides of the fish. If you lay it flat on the tray, the skin on the underside will not be roasted.
However the only way to fit the fish into the oven was to bend the head and tail around so that it was in the shape of a ring. This would be a swimming position if it was biting it's own arse.
I loaded the heavy tray into the Aga roasting oven. After ten minutes, I checked, surprised at how quickly it cooked, the skin was bubbling up. I hauled the thing out and placed the tray on the draining board. The skin was easy to remove, lifting away in whole sections. I snip off the fins. The bones were another problem however, it really needed to be cooked for longer. Studying the problem, my entire family now gathered around, offering solutions, I decided to go for a 'halfectomy' and cut the entire fish in half.

"It'll end up covered in pastry anyway" said my mum "you can put it together again".

Mums are people who have done several Christmas dinners and Sunday roasts. They've been there, got their battle scars, earned their bravery stripes when faced with a large piece of flesh and a zillion vegetables and can offer valuable support. Christmas dinner is a nightmarish meal to create, even for myself who is used to cooking for large numbers of people.
"Just imagine" my mum comforted me" there are thousands of people all over the country who have got back from the pub having had a few drinks and forget to take the turkey out of the freezer. Christmas morning, they remember, and spend hours trying to defrost it in the bath, with hair driers, anything they can think of..."

I put the now skinned fish back in the oven. Another ten minutes. My god that Aga is hot I think to myself. Took the salmon out and left it to cool. In the meantime I'd left my giant pavlova in the simmering oven. The bell rung.(1) I looked at the pavlova....Noooo! the top was burnt! It had only been cooking for two hours. I generally cook a pavlova for about five hours in the simmering oven. I've never had one burn before. Something was up....

Mum explained."They put the gas pressure up on Christmas day. Imagine they normally have, say, a million dinners being cooked on an average day. On Christmas Day, everyone is going to be using their ovens, they will have several million dinners cooking...so they increase the pressure"
I scraped the burnt bits off the pavlova. Cooking on an Aga requires experience and knowledge of your oven temperatures which cannot, after all, be adjusted as in a conventional oven.
"Never mind" said mum " you can cover it with cream, no one will know".
I start to feel deflated, a bit tearful even. I can feel the rise of hysterical sap coming on... We prep the potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash, whole onions, salsify, all of which will be roasted. We also prep the brussel sprouts (amazingly fresh) and carrots (crisp and sweet). I will cook the brussel sprouts with boiled chestnuts and butter, the carrots with Kilburn honey and poppy seeds. All of the vegetables, except for the salsify which I bought at Borough market, are from Riverford Organics and are such good quality.
I slice the field mushrooms and soak some dried porcini and trompettes de mort in some water. These I will fry in butter and oil with garlic, including the water from the dried wild mushrooms. I add fresh spinach chopped finely. I spread the mixture on my rolled out sheets of puff pastry.
The salmon has cooled enough for me to attempt to bone it. I removed the large spine and as many of the pin bones as possible without destroying the shape of the fish. Even though the beast was now in two halves, it was still very heavy. To lift it onto the pastry required three of us plus numerous fish slices slid underneath at various intervals. Deep breath, count to three and woah...steady! Onto the pastry with it's covering layer of mushroom and spinach. We repeated this for the other half of the fish, placing the two halves together again to make a whole. I placed the other stretch of pastry on top and attempted to seal the top and bottom layers of pastry together with egg white. Liquid started to escape from the fish, running off the kitchen surface onto the floor. Panicking, kitchen towel was placed all around the fish in an attempt to soak up all the liquid. I was trembling. I'd been up since 5 am. Mum said calmly
"I think we need to leave it to dry out for a while"
But first we had to get the leaky fish off the kitchen surface onto a baking tray. This is impossible to do on a normal tray without the fish breaking up. I had an idea. The Aga comes with a cool shelf, a flat tin shelf that can be used to regulate the temperature, to prevent things burning on top.
"Lets use the cool shelf" I said "maybe we can slide it underneath the fish."
Various solutions were offered...cover the shelf with tin foil...no let's grease it...um shall five of us put a spatula underneath and lift it on...no... Finally my dad took over...lets just flip it over onto the shelf which is wedged underneath the edge of the salmon.
It's more or less there. A bit of repacking needed. Quite a bit more kitchen towel to soak up the juices. The puff pastry is soggy and not enough to seal the enormous fish. Dad and the Teen go off in the car, cruising down the Kilburn High Rd, looking for more puff pastry in the ethnic shops which remain open on Christmas Day. The Teen returned with three packets of filo pastry.
"That's not puff" I said
She looked crest fallen. Dad and the Teen set off again. Finally they bring three packs of frozen puff pastry. I put the packs on the Aga to defrost.
I prepped the spaghetti vongole, frying shallots in olive oil, a whole bulb of garlic, flat leaf parsley and a whole bottle of white wine. The clams had been kept in sea salt water and I rinsed them, tapping each one to make sure that they shut.
Back to Nessie, as the salmon had now been christened...I rolled out the puff pastry into a flat sheet about half a centimetre thick. I cut out circles of around three cm's in diameter with a small glass, cut them in half and laid them onto Nessie in layers, overlapping like fish scales. Finally a 'head' was made...a pastry 'hoodie' for Nessie and a cranberry for the eye. The pastry was brushed with butter although in retrospect I should have brushed it with egg yolk to give a golden shine.
The dinner started with Champagne, cremant, and generous plates of smoked salmon from Forman & Field from their London smokery. The smoked salmon was closely knit, not fatty, a deep colour with a silky and fine texture. I made a blini mix earlier, leaving it to rise into a bubbly dough. Now I greased metal rings and with a tablespoon and teaspoon, carefully spooning the mixture into the rings, set about cooking the blinis on the simmering plate of the Aga. Here is the recipe I used, an adaptation from Delia:

40 g buckwheat flour ( I didn't have buckwheat so I used Rye flour instead)

Mix first four ingredients together.
Slightly warm creme fraiche and milk, not so hot that it will kill the yeast then mix in with the rest. Add the eggs. Mix well and leave for at least an hour to rise, covered with a damp tea towel.
Each guest had two blinis, they also had the freshest buffalo mozzarella ("best I've ever had" said my sister) from Waitrose with good vine tomatoes from Riverford Organics. I dressed this salad with aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil leaves and Maldon's sea salt.
Then onto the spaghetti vongole: I boiled De Cecco linguine (11 minutes) for about 8 minutes and strained it, dousing the pasta with olive oil to make sure it didn't stick. Simultaneously I had dropped the clams into the shallot, parsley and white wine mix and the shells were steaming open nicely, the aroma filling the house. Now I mixed the linguine and clams together, plating up into a bowl, a small portion each, there were still several courses to go...
At this point I could sit down with my guests for a little while. I orginally set up this date, inviting strangers to eat on Christmas day because I felt it was part of the ethos of home restaurants, sharing your food and your home. I always invite people who had nowhere to go at Christmas anyway, as do many people. It's the true spirit of Christmas. This time they would be contributing to the cost of the meal but I also invited people who perhaps couldn't afford to come, due to the recession and unemployment, as my guests, for I knew they would be alone on that day. I wanted to do a 'secret santa' with everyone bringing a present which could be put into a bag and chosen in a lucky dip. I probably didn't explain it well enough as this didn't really happen...
My guests included:
  • Two Spaniards who booked last minute for they weren't sure about transport from Spain. Actually they weren't Spanish, but lived in Barcelona, one was Italian and the other Taiwanese.
  • A friend of a friend who is allergic to Wifi to the point that she's had her bedroom lined with tin foil (she was then named Tin Hat as shorthand) and her parents. I had to turn off the Wifi for the day.
  • A gorgeous blonde Estonian lesbian or 'Esto Lesbo' as my sister called her, who lives nearby. My dad got merry and started to flirt with her, futiley. My sister claimed that she had her hand on my sister's knee through out the meal and that she reckoned she'd pulled! In fact my whole family seemed to be competing with each other about who Esto Lesbo fancied more...even my Teen announced she was in with a chance...
  • A lovely lady who had booked off wegottickets who I never really got a chance to chat to.
  • My family which included The Teen, my parents and my sister.
  • Just as the main course was about to be served, Fat Les of Bellaphon fame turned up, having walked for an hour from Marble Arch. Generous as ever, he'd bought two bottles of very good wine.
The vegetables were dished up family style (Christ there were loads of them). The carrots were overcooked. I announced lightly to our foreign guests that this was "typical British cooking".
Nessie was brought out, looking more like a reptile or Dougal from Magic Roundabout than a salmon. I sat down. Les made a crack about my sister and I being

"the gruesome twosome". (Bastard. Just because my sister and I are funny, extrovert and not thin and bland)
My dad said "I've heard their brother call them worse..."
There was a slight silence at the table as it dawned on people that they were at a real family Christmas, family rifts and all.
I tried to joke: "Well as you are all away from your dysfunctional families for the day, it must be nice to join mine".
Nobody laughed. In fact Tin Hat's parents looked distinctly uncomfortable. Tin Hat muttered: "We won't go into that".
The 'Spanish' carried on eating. I could barely eat. I hardly eat when I cook, I get sick of my own food plus I was already full after the first two courses. However the salmon was even better the next day cold with a hollandaise sauce.
The wine was flowing, conversation started again. I'd committed the fatal error of sitting down. Being the cook is a bit like being pregnant; once you sit down at the end of the day, you never get up again. My sister went out to serve the cheese course...a fantastic selection: British cheeses Caerphilly, Wensleydale and Childwickbury from Neal's yard; Manchego and Cabrales from Spain and the French cheeses, Langres, Reblochon and another goat cheese from Mons. These were served with Kilburn honeycomb, Italian fig chutney and quince, with Swedish crispbread and oatcakes.
Another rest was required before I brought out the pavlova, by now topped with double cream, brandy cream, salted butter caramel and passion fruit.
My mum went to have a rest in the bedroom, my teen had a little sleep in her room and I, by now a little recovered, went to the kitchen to make some mince pies. I could hear in the living room silences then laughter; everybody was getting along famously, playing a game called Balderdash. My sister came in and said

"People want Christmas pudding. The foreigners want to try it".
Of course, although it's boring for me and I thought they would be too full, if you come to Britain for Christmas you are going to want to try typical food. I must admit I cheated here...my mum had brough a Christmas pudding from Marks & Spencers...I didn't make my own.
Later I went out with the mince pies and joined in the game. Bowls of nuts were shared plus physallis fruits (I always think of them as syphillis fruits). People went home about 10pm having arrived at 2pm. It was a typical Christmas, long, boozy, stuffy, fun: the only difference was that this time it was a supperclub!

christmas pavlova
mince pies

The living room at Christmas time...
The living room at Christmas time...

(1) Since getting the Aga, I soon learnt that you need several timers, I even wear one around my neck. The Aga is like a little tomb, silently cooking the food inside its chambers. As a result it is very easy to forget you have food in there...hence the timers. With a conventional oven there is whirring and clicking which subconsciously reminds you that something is cooking.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A round up of new supperclubs

The Altenburg Kitchen

Cloakroom area and skis

Altenburg girls...

Wild mushroom risotto

Blackberry cheesecake

A box to put the money in, is trustingly placed in the hallway...

The architecture and layout of your house can be crucial in a home restaurant whereas most conventional restaurants are specifically designed to accommodate the cooking and serving of food to large numbers of people.
The Altenberg kitchen is in a ground floor flat, all on one level, with a large kitchen and plating up area, two large and elegant dining rooms and a spacious hall area for hanging up coats and welcoming guests. This Clapham home restaurant is run by two girls, Camilla and Lucy, who are so amazingly competent they scarcely broke sweat as they catered for 25 people. The apartment has a warm and cosy ski chalet feel, in fact skis are casually leant against the wall, nestling among the coats on the rack (wonder if they ever get a chance to use them in London?). It came as no surprise that the girls had worked as chalet chefs. I asked how come they had 25 matching soup bowls...
"my mum was a caterer and had stacks of them"
Aha, so it's in their background, no wonder it looks like a breeze.
The food: parmesan and chilli biscuits to snack upon followed by pumpkin soup then wild mushroom risotto for me, some sort of meat for the others, finishing with a blackberry cheesecake for dessert.
It was all very tasty, good home cooked food, a lovely addition to the South London group of supperclubs.
£20 minimum donation

Salad Club

Quirky neighbours hang artwork on the stairs


Spiced pumpkin soup

Washing up in the bathtub

Salad Club girls: Ellie and Rosie

Unusual loo roll holder

Waitresses become singers

Main course of pork

Guest getting comfortable...shoes off

A Caribbean Dessert

A popular supperclub in South London is run by two girls who go under the name of Salad Club. On the 3rd floor of a Brixton council flat on Electric Avenue, you are served by extremely pretty waitresses in flowery tea dresses, who later, formed part of a group and sang.
This evening's menu, on the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, was inspired by the Carribbean.
I started with a delicious soup, spiced pumpkin and good bread bought locally.
The mains: jerk pork for my companion and fish for me, with black rice, were nicely seasoned accompanied by a fennel and pecan salad which was, needless to say, very well dressed.
Dessert, a lime and coconut cheesecake possibly did not work as well texturally but was prettily decorated with flowers.
The hostesses had quite a few friends that night and so I didn't get a chance to talk to them. I realise due to space and furniture limitations that there are several tables for two, but it would be nice if table-hopping were somehow encouraged. It had the same problem as a normal restaurant in which you were not sure if you could talk to other tables.
Saladclub, Brixton
Price: £22.50

The Civet Cat Club

Sumac balls with home-made cheese

Tapioca fritters with a fantastic green chilli and coriander chutney


The open kitchen

Mr Singh's Bangras... a sikh sausage

Rice with quorn, green banana curry, salad, yoghurt

Carrot Halva with blackberry sorbet, fruit and mint

These little dolls were sewn from a drawing...

Murano glass ants

Mice heads...yes you read that right, not moose heads... more or less actual size

The Civet Cat Club in Newington Green is a new addition to an area already heavily populated with supperclubs: The Secret Ingredient and The Shed. Is there any house in Newington Green that doesn't have a supperclub?
Bravely the hosts, Tess and Daljit, cook in an open kitchen at the top of the house (it takes a while to open the door), in front of the diners.
We started with zingy balls of home-made cream cheese rolled in lemony Sumac.
Daljit has taken a family recipe from his grandfather, Mr.Harnam Singh and, with the help of Cinnamon Club chef Vivek Singh, created an Indian sausage soon to be available in major supermarkets.
Obviously as a non-meat eater I could not comment on the sausage, but it seemed to go down very well. I was given dukkah and pitta bread as a replacement which was a coincidence, as the hosts came to my supperclub back in February for the Middle-Eastern evening and I served dukkah!
The main course consisted of various authentic curries. There was a slight problem: I dislike beetroot, so did the other vegetarian (we don't all like beetroot!) so although I tried the beetroot and coconut curry, I just don't like the texture.
There was also an interesting cold curry; Moru Kachiathu mango and green banana curry with yoghurt, rice with Quorn and salad. The meat eaters had a lamb curry which they delared delicious.
The decor and style of The Civet Cat Club house is stylish, with interesting little works of art dotted about; it merits a good nose around. After all one of the main attractions of home restaurants is the thrill of voyeurism.
My only tiny quibble is I felt that most of the dishes were rather undersalted which was a shame as otherwise it was all very good. I later found out that Tess was brought up with very little salt.
Jeffrey Steingarten talks about salt in his book 'The man who are everything'. The neurosis about salt is very odd, it's totally unjustified except for the tiny proportion of the population (8%) who have a salt sensitivity. I think the no-salt message that is going out from the government and a bunch of other joyless finger waggers is wrongly directed: don't cut out salt, use good salt. Always use sea salt, it retains minerals lost in table salt. 
My issues with the salt is possibly why dessert was for me the real standout: fantastic carrot halva (recipe at end) with a blackcurrant sorbet. I could have eaten double the portion of the carrot halva though. It was that good.
The Civet Cat Club, Newington Green.
£30 minimum donation.

Fernandez and Leluu

Fernandez in the kitchen upstairs

Pear, pomegranate and oak leaf salad

Nice details on the table settings: tea towels as napkins...great idea, cheaper and you don't have to iron them, name tags. Uyen is a fashion designer too and you can see the little thoughtful touches everywhere...

Menu on the mirror

Fried mushrooms

The only beetroot thing I've ever liked plus a pie thingy

Risotto for me (a little bit too salty perhaps)

Uyen Luu looking a bit sweaty because...

...she had to run up and down these stairs about a million times...

Simon Fernandez' set list: the man must be a control freak: look at that timetable! You can tell he comes from I.T. My list of stuff to do is written on the back of a paper bag generally...

Table plan

Seabass and potatoes...simple but nice

Dessert, I got two as they weren't sure if I ate gelatine: a lime jelly mousse and fried bananas with chocolate.

Takeaway bags for leftovers...a proper Asian restaurant! (Good idea, saves trying to foist it on the neighbours)

Fernandez and Leluu: A Spanish/Vietnamese couple in a modern building near London Fields who have been getting good reviews. I have several friends who live on those streets (some of whom are planning an 'urban olympics' to parallel the real one in 2012), remnants of the 80s/90s Hackney squatting scene. It was like a punk Coronation Street. Uyen said she'd seen one of my friends, a guy with some mental health problems, a kind of Henry VIII figure on crack, in the street in his dressing gown.
Many of my friends gained ownership of their houses by squatting more than 12 years. Squatters, often maligned in the press, preserve buildings that would otherwise go to ruin, be torn down by councils and property developers that prefer to erect a modern building than preserve an old one.
I probably made a mistake by going for the 'Lamb Feast' night which of course, I could not eat. They made me vegetarian and fish options which was kind but probably put too much stress on the kitchen. There were long gaps between courses and the architecture of the building most certainly contributed to that. Their kitchen is upstairs from the dining area so poor Uyen must have run a mini-marathon going up and down those stairs! I said at the time "you need an extra person for front of house" and I've heard that Leluu's mum now helps out. I was there for only their second evening so I'm sure they have got things under control...
However they are the only place that has ever made me like beetroot, via a delicious dip which had the pink colour but not the awful texture of beetroot. Through the grapevine it's said that the Vietnamese nights are the ones to go for...
£30 minimum donation.

One of the things that upsets me are the reviewers that review supperclubs as if they are in a league table, as if they are in a normal restaurant. It seems to me that they are not understanding the ethos...it's not a fucking competition. Every house, every dinner is different. In fact I've never been to a home restaurant that didn't try a thousand percent to give you a great dinner... it's such a privilege to go to someone's home. It seems to me that this attitude is general nowadays: from the 'competitive dining' of 'Come Dine with me' to X-factor. It all stems from game shows on tv.
Now a whole generation is brought up on this...one radio host asked me "do people hold up cards with numbers out of ten at the end of your meals?" er no, and if they did, unless it was a joke, I'd ask them to leave.
There is room for us all, and the reason I started the supperclubfangroup on Ning is to make it easier for others to start up...

Elegant guest...

Recipe for Carrot halva by Paul Bennun:

Happy to give you the recipe for Grannyji Parminda Bennun's carrot halva
as requested by Tess of The Civet Cat Club

1kg carrots
1 litre full-cream milk
Some water
Sugar (300g modern taste or 450g old-school)
Teaspoon-ish of cardamom seeds
Star Anise (1 or 2)
Cinnamon (good half teapsoon, ground)
Dried blueberries (modern) or raisins (canonical)
Pistachios (75-100g)
Almonds (couple of tablespoons)
Ghee (2 tbl spoon)

Get shitloads of carrots (1kg was what I used at the CCC). Wash / peel /
dice or grate the carrots. Put them in a big ole pan and put some water in
(not to quite cover them, maybe just more than half a cup) and boil the
water for maybe 8 minutes.

Add as much full-cream milk as you used carrots -- so in this case a full
litre. This is where it gets hard work -- you'll bring this to the boil,
reduce to a gentle simmer and stir every few minutes. Do this for an hour.
Grannyji would put a star anise in and remove it before serving. A very
small amount of cinnamon bark -- grind less than a teaspoon -- rounds out
the flavour.

Meanwhile, get your nuts. You'll need a good 100g of shelled pistachios,
which you'll blanch with boiling water and then rub in the hands (or with
a cloth) until the skin comes off. Reserve. Separately, you may want to do
the same with a few tablespoons of almonds -- I don't, personally.
Normally I would also be soaking some dry blueberries or raisins in Wray
and Nephew's rum. Grannyji would use raisins only and she wouldn't soak
them in rum. Anyway.

At this point, the halwa will probably still be very slush. Don't panic if
it's dryish. Either way, add a LOT of sugar. In the past, we're talking
nearly half the weight of carrots in sugar. These days, I use a bit more
than 300g of sugar for 1kg of carrots. Stir, stir, boil and stir until the
milk and sugar have been absorbed.

When it's time to dish up, melt 2 tablespoons of ghee into the mix
(optional but you'll be damn glad you did it) and simmer until mixed
thoroughly in. Stir in 1 teaspoon of cardamom seeds (crushed pretty
finely) and the raisins or blueberries. Put the halwa into a huge serving
bowl or individual portions and sprinkle your nuts on the top.

Recipe for coriander chutney by Tess O'Leary of The Civet Cat Club

Coriander chutney - I couldn't really say the amounts as I tend to make it up as I go along. However the ingredients are as follows:
tempered cumin seeds (this is when you lightly fry the seeds in ghee)
pinch of salt
finely grated ginger
plain yoghurt
lots of fresh coriander - more than you would think
coconut - fresh or dry, not cream - soak the dry first to soften it
You could add a few fried mustard seeds if you haven't got them in an accompanying curry - you don't want everything to taste the same!
Add the whole lot into a blender and away you go. Add more garlic, lemon, salt or sugar to taste. Try to make it at least a few hours before serving for it to infuse well. I made it quite sweet and sharp.