Friday, 19 February 2010

The Black Album

This is my first menu based on the colour of a food. It seemed appropriate that this Saturday's midnight feast should be comprised of black food which, it is claimed by Japanese scientists, is very good for you.
Everybody will be coming in nightwear, the evening will start at 11.30pm and go on till we drop...

Projected Menu for the Midnight Feast

Black Russian

Black olive tapenade and black cod's roe on black bread
Black sesame salmon balls with black vinegar
Seaweed handrolls stuffed with black rice and aubergine with ponzu dipping sauce

Beluga lentils

Squid ink ravioli stuffed with goats cheese with a trompette de mort mushroom and cream sauce
with black Himalayan salt and Black pepper

Blackcurrant coulis/liquorice icecream

Expresso with dark chocolates

All of this is of course subject to being able to get hold of the ingredients, the hostesses whims, what dishes work in the practice run ect ect

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Anti-Valentines crèpe party

Crèpe making. The first one is always crap but then I got into my stride...


Crèpe Suzette

Even though the event was oversubscribed in terms of girls, one of the three men that made it asked if a female friend could come "she was dumped two weeks before Valentine's and is feeling a bit down".
Valentine's Day and Christmas Day create such pressure, are often the crunch point for a relationship. If you are going to break it off, you will be weighing up whether to do it beforehand or afterwards. I've been dumped twice on Boxing Day. One of the dumpers came for Christmas Day, hoovered up all the food and drink, and, in return for the large selection of presents I gave him, gave me a bottle of Baileys. Don't get me wrong, I love Baileys but it's the sort of present you get for an elderly aunt, not a lover. It was at this point I had an inkling he didn't feel the same way about me.
My Anti-Valentine's Pancake night had 17 attractive, intelligent, sociable, amusing women. The three guys, one at each table, swapped tables at each course. Talk about having a selection to choose from! At least one man left with somebody. (Found out later he never called. Scoundrel). But never mind, the girls may not have met their man but they certainly made friends; there was much swapping of phone numbers.
I had a tooth extracted on Monday and spent the day in a fog of Neurofen and pancake batter. In retrospect making crepes for 21 people was a little ambitious on an Aga which relies on the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of cooking should be in the ovens and 20 percent on the top burners. I was making crepes from 11 am till 5 pm on my trusty cast-iron crepière pan that I bought in France. The first batch consisted of a buckwheat and cider batter, crèpes au sarrasin(1). However the delicate frilly-edged doily of batter was difficult to turn over without breaking.(2)
At the end of this mammoth crèpe making session, the heat had gone out of the top of the Aga therefore the best solution was to fold the savoury crepes with garlic mushrooms and cheese into an oven dish and bake them. The alcoholic batter gave the pancakes a pleasingly boozy sour and tangy flavour.
Jane Milton of @FoodNetworking came to help in the evening. She made the broken galettes into a true Shrove Tuesday dish of leftovers from the fridge: I christened it Crèpes millefeuilles. It was a kind of crèpe lasagne, broken crèpes layered with cream, onions, pesto and Spanish Cabrales blue cheese which is incredibly piquant. The result was absolutely delicious. It's great having guest chefs, basically I get to meet a lot of different people that work in the food industry and I learn something from each.


French Sparkling Brut cider
Parmesan and poppy biscuits

Fresh made creme fraiche blinis (particularly light and fluffy) with Goldstein's smoked salmon, creme fraiche and chives.
Oven-baked cider galettes with cheese and mushrooms.
'Crepes Millefeuilles' or leftover surprise...
Mixed salad with pea shoots, alfafa, walnuts and walnut oil dressing.

Cheeseboard with heart shaped cheeses such as Neufchatel, a washed rind Coeur de Thierache and a tiny goat cheese heart Capriole encrusted with pink peppercorns, oat cakes, almonds.

Dessert crepes, a choice of lemon and sugar, nutella or crèpes Suzette (made with Sicilian oranges)

My old recipe for galettes au sarrasin, hence in ounces.

4oz buckwheat flour
1/2 pint of French cider ( you can replace with English cider or ale)
Pinch of salt
1/2 oz of melted butter
One egg
One yolk

Mix ingredients together but don't overwhip as the batter will give you tough pancakes (because you don't want to activate the gluten in the flour too much). Grease your pan with a little kitchen roll dipped in butter or an old butter paper (these world war two habits I learnt from my grandmother die hard). Let the batter rest for half an hour at least. Spread a ladle's worth of batter over the pan, tipping the pan so that the batter covers the whole surface. The trick is to have a large circular pancake which is still thin. This takes a little practice. The first one is always terrible but stick at it and they will improve as you get your eye in for how much batter to put in.
Let it cook first on a highish heat then lower heat so that the top side can 'steam' cook. This is because it's almost impossible to turn it over without breaking. Then, add your ingredients, be it cheese or a 'complet' with ham, cheese and a fried egg and gradually let cook. Fold over the edges and serve.
heart shaped cheeses
(1) Crèpes au sarrasin is the name for these buckwheat or blé noir galettes which are a speciality of Brittany. I've tried to find out why they are termed 'au sarrasin' which comes from the word Saracen or of Arab origin but can only assume it's because they are black. Moor or Saracen is a term often used for black in France.
Crèpes are also associated with a French festival on February 2nd called Chandeleur, (chandler in English meaning candle maker), the candles perhaps representing the triumph of light after the darkness of winter.

(2) I then discovered that galettes should be cooked one side only.


Found this on the balcony. The other week I found some salmon wrapped in paper too. I started to think it was guests that didn't like their food but for some reason were too scared to leave it on the plate! But I didn't serve green beans. I looked more closely, it was wrapped in a piece of paper with child's handwriting on it, with a list of presents he didn't want for his birthday...transformers, wolverine etc. Then I realised it was the little boy upstairs throwing his dinner out of the window again. He did this a couple of years ago when I found an entire plate of spaghetti on my balcony. I remember hiding my dinner in pot plants when I didn't like it.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Fat Tuesday

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, when traditionally we are supposed to use up all our leftovers before Lent. The days leading up to Mardi Gras are 'carnival' or 'carne vale', meaning 'goodbye to meat'. There is never any meat at The Underground Restaurant but we love pancakes and crepes, however we rarely get around to cooking them.
Being so close to Valentines day, I decided to make tomorrow night's event an anti-valentines meal, a singles night, entitled 'Fuck Valentines, let's eat pancakes'. Last year I did an aphrodisiac meal but I'm still single and not in the mood. It's amazing how people, well let's be frank, mostly women, become depressed on Valentine's day. It's a reminder of failure if you are single. Even my teenage daughter got upset because she got no cards "I'll never get a boyfriend". She's only 15!
But for this singles night, there is a problem; not many men booked. In fact the ratio right now is about five women to every man. O lucky men! My poor girls...I had such visions of being a matchmaker or shadchan (Jewish marriage broker).
What is wrong with men? is it a London thing? a British thing? Was French prime minister Edith Cresson correct when she said that one in four Englishmen were gay because they didn't take any notice of her?

“I remember from strolling about in London that men in the streets don’t look at you. When you do this in Paris, men look at you,” the notoriously frumpy premier told the Observer newspaper.
“Anglo-Saxons are not interested in women as women,” she continued, “For a woman arriving in an Anglo-Saxon country, it is astonishing. She says to herself, ‘What is the matter?’ It is a problem of education and I consider it something of a weakness. A man who isn’t interested in women is in some way a little maimed,” she claimed.
She was ridiculed at the time, and it certainly didn't do anything for Anglo-French diplomacy but did she have a point? I know so many gorgeous intelligent nice women who can't get a man. It does feel like British men are more interested in beer and football than women.

The menu

French sparkling cider

Buckwheat galettes with
  • melted cheese and garlic mushrooms
  • Goldstein's smoked salmon and creme fraiche
Green salad with walnut oil, walnuts

Cheese board

Dessert crepes with
  • lemon and sugar
  • Nutella
  • maple syrup
Crepes are a traditional Breton repast and in France are often sold on the street, one of the rare snack foods allowed between meals. But some form of pancake is common to most countries from the tortilla in Mexico to the Bánh xèo in Vietnam.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Cocaine, blancmange and Suzi Q

The mysterious instrument on the stairs...

Vegetable kebab

Lamb Keema

Rani showing off her fresh home made paneer

Creamy rich Fish bhuna

Cardomom blancmange

Donation box

Three supperclubs that couldn't be more different but all worth visiting: the first at an Indian 'amma's' in Tufnell park; the second, a chic molecular do in an architect's bachelor pad in West London; lastly, a stylish duplex off the Holloway Rd.
Joginder's Supperclub is run by a mother Rani (cooking) and daughter Saira (front of house) team, at times aided by dad Graham. Eight guests sat by the fire in the living room, eating freshly fried onion bhajis with a glass of champagne. As we are led downstairs to the dining room dad points to a strange object on the stairs
"What do you think that is?"
We spend the rest of the evening trying to guess. (1)
It's a pleasure to eat home cooked Indian food, with home-made paneer and ground spices. We start with vegetable kebabs and sauces. For the main course I am assured by the meat eaters that the lamb curry is superb, certainly the fish bhuna curry is well seasoned and creamy. Rani made us roti and we ate family style, with a large selection of dishes. My only complaint is that much of the food was undersalted and Rani confessed that this was because her husband needs a low salt diet. The best solution to this is to put good salt on the table, a suggestion she took on board for the future.
One of my favourite parts of the meal is when they bring out a beautiful glass jelly mould, turning it out as a cardomom flavoured blancmange (Phrini). I mentioned that the glass mould brought back memories of my mother's rabbit-shaped tin mould, a special treat as a child and everybody at the table had similar stories. No one eats blancmange (pronounced blermonje in my family) anymore.
Joginder supperclub, Tufnell park
£20 a head donation

Truffle custard in eggshell

Red Cabbage Gazpacho and mustard gelato

Palate cleanser
Halibut and pistachio crust, accented by a zingy lemon sauce

Jill and Faiza
Urban Sage Supperclub on the other hand was quite a swishy affair. American Jill Richmond and cook Faiza, have borrowed the flat of an architect friend near Lancaster Gate. I enter a large Georgian room and we are given drinks and an unusual amuse-bouche of truffle custard served in an egg shell.
The guests are well off, highly placed in their respective industries (World Bank, TV, Skype, Google ect) mainly in their 30s and 40s. The food is experimental, plated restaurant style. The first course is a red cabbage gazpacho with mustard icecream. An interesting combination, the icecream certainly cleared the sinuses.
Then we have a little palate cleanser of unsweetened lemon granita. With each course you are served matched wines.
The main course is poached halibut topped with a pistachio gremolata, and underneath an onion confit. The fish is very fresh and well cooked. But afterwards I suddenly realise I am hungry. There have been absolutely no carbs in the meal. No bread, no potato, no rice. I feel light-headed and ask for a piece of bread. They don't have any. This would be my main complaint about the meal. If you were on an Atkins diet, or any diet, well, this is the supperclub for you. I can't drink alcohol without carbs.
For dessert there is good ginger icecream with poprocks chocolate discs (delice of chocolate) and cumin caramel. I couldn't really taste the cumin, perhaps I needed more sauce and the chocolate dessert was not sweet enough for me. We were served mint tea which is lovely but again, without sugar.
The location, guests and front of house is delightful but I would love to taste Faiza's home cooking. She has done a cordon bleu course but comes from the East. I'd be far more interested in cooking from her homeland. But that's only my opinion.
At the beginning I got talking to an attractive woman, now I was sitting next to a charming man that seemed to accompany her. I asked him, just for something to say...
"is she your girlfriend?"
"No" he responded "she's my mistress".
I guffawed then realised he was deadly serious. He also had a wife. He takes them out on alternate nights.
"You are a very naughty man" I said. He twinkled.
I got chatting to the mistress in the kitchen later, she said lightly they came to this supperclub expecting to put car keys in a bowl at the end. She said it was great being a mistress, they'd been together six years...
"much better than being a wife" she told me "you get lots of presents and don't have to do the boring stuff like laundry".
She showed me her undies from Agent Provocateur. I mentioned jokingly that I might need chemical help to get through the midnight feast I have planned in February.
As I was walking past the toilet, the woman yanked me inside. Two lines of coke were streaked across the toilet seat. I don't do drugs, never have. I much prefer a cup of tea. But I liked her and didn't want to look stupid and uncool. Peer pressure in my 40s! So I slipped the proffered twenty pound note up my nostril and snorted a line, internally crossing my fingers I wouldn't have a Woody Allen moment. Mission accomplished, I was suddenly wide awake. To be honest this was an inconvenience as I just wanted to go home to bed, having done my own supperclub the night before.
Once I got home, wired as fuck, the teen was sat in my bed watching tv. I told her what happened. Her eyes widened, she sniggered slightly and said
"Muuum, just say no!"
I can't guarantee you'll be offered class A's but you will certainly have a great time at the Urban Sage Supperclub/Number68 project
Different locations.
£50 a head without wine £55 with matched wines.

Lex eats dining room

Matching luggage set worthy of Victoria Beckham

Perfect towels

Er...buttons and liquorice allsorts in the bathroom...

Alexis hardly did a thing all night...just lounged around in her bed...;)

Alexis' wonderful handmade napkins...I'm persuading her to sell sets at The Underground Farmer's market...

Little notes on the table 'cloth'

The old style record player...

Another stylish touch...


A night on the tiles

Lexeats is the supperclub of Alexis, an Australian food blogger now located in London and her girlfriend Yohanna. They have tons of style which is evident everywhere in their modern duplex apartment off the cultural wilderness that is Holloway Rd. I have never seen anywhere as clean and organised. Alexis confessed that they both had OCD about tidiness.
We started with excellent home-made tortellini and pesto. So good I would have liked double portions. Main course was a savoury and filling fish pie, topped with golden crispy pastry. This time perfectly judged portion-wise and well-seasoned. We were then given little spoons (I think they have spent a small fortune in gearing up this supperclub with equipment) for a palate cleanser of lemongrass and coconut icecream, which was delicious. (Want the recipe)
Puddings were served on wall tiles (cheap and original!) in a trio: a brownie, a turkish delight cheesecake with some sort of Greek candy floss on top and a lemon tart. All were good but none of them could beat the icecream.
Yohanna then handed around some dessert wine. By this time I was really getting to know my fellow guests who were mostly Australian on my table. The guy had a mum called 'Suzi Q' (she was a fan of Suzi Quatro). Then Alexis tells me her mum is also called 'Suzi Q'. Must be a common name in Australia?
Lexeats, Holloway,
£20 minimum donation.

(1) It's an instrument for drying and melting ice in an area out of reach.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Patrick O'Brian night at The Underground Restaurant

Stargazy pie

Quail's egg shells

Blind Scouse

Ship's Biscuit

Stargazy pie: 'canoed' herrings, that is, they have been de-boned from the top.

Stargazy pie before baking

Steaming the pease pudding

Vegetarian Suet

Isn't the baby cute? Weighed about 9lbs.

Feet first!

Wrapped tightly in a cloth, looking like Moses in the rushes, boil/steam for at least two and a half hours

"You're late!" I barked opening the door at 8.30pm.
The two young pretty girls standing there in the cold trembled, made as if to go away. "Sorry, sorry" they whimpered.
"All right then you can come in" I allowed grumpily, beckoning them in "we'll just have to put the table back. You've missed the first course"
They ducked in, still apologising, gabbling about transport problems.
"Don't worry about the first course, if you like" they said in their piping voices.
Ross, Scottish Front of house, swivelled into the living room, carrying a 2 person table over the heads of the diners, plonking it down in front of the fire. The girls sat down obediently, coats still on, as table cloth, napkins, cutlery were gradually placed on the table. Two glasses of grog were dolled out.
"No. It's fine." I said with an air of martyrdom.
Only later did I realise they were also supperclub hosts 'Altenburg Kitchen'. I didn't recognise them. My daughter said to me
"Mum you can't talk to guests as if they are your children. It's not me coming in late after a night out."
I felt a bit sheepish. I'm getting bossier. I find myself telling guests off all the time. On Burns night I had to tell the whole room off for taking more than one welcome drink. I remonstrated with one woman for not eating up all her dinner. This night Ross told me somebody complained about corkage and the price of the meal. (My teen said afterwards "never tell mum stuff like this, you don't know what it'll lead to").
I reacted with outrage "What does she look like?".
Armed with a description I marched out to the living room and confronted said diner with
"I told you there was corkage beforehand. It was listed on the website. Plus it's not expensive".
The poor woman, taken aback, said "it wasn't me, it was her" pointing to her companion.
Who then said "It is expensive".
"NO IT ISN'T' I insisted "plus if you thought it was, why did you book?" I finished with triumphant logic.
She had no answer to that. In the end she thoroughly enjoyed it, despite a tongue mauling by moi.
Quite a few guests came in pirate or sailor gear, one with a plastic swashbuckling sword; the police laughed at her 'dangerous weapon' when she was spotted exiting the tube.

The final menu:
Grog (the original recipe suggested half a cup of rum, a little sugar, ginger, cochineal and hot water. Each. Naturally I diluted these proportions)
Blind Scouse soup.
Carrots, onions, leeks, pearl barley, butterbeans and various strange spices such as juniper berries, mace and all spice.
Hard tack or Ships Biscuit.
I didn't bake these the prerequisite (if they were to last five years at sea) four times. Once was enough. I announced that any dentistry problems would be at guest's own risk. Bizarrely some people liked them and asked for more. It was very difficult to knead the dense dough, folding it repeatedly into layers, one recipe suggested driving over the dough (in a bag) in a car.
Stargazy pie.
This was spectacular, theatrical food. Combining a few recipes together (some have pastry on the bottom, some don't) eventually it was comprised of herrings, quails eggs, cream, white wine, carrots and onions. James of @mycotswoldfood made shortcrust pastry and constructed them while I got on with the rest of the prep. I can see why they are not on menus all the time as it's very time consuming to make them. However it was well worth the effort. I added pastry stars and a moon on top and moulded the edges into wave-like shapes.
Dog's Body:
or pease pudding. This took hours to cook, steaming in a tea towel. It's the equivalent of dhal or hummus. I mixed the pease with copious amounts of butter.
Cheese board of Oatcakes, honey, Edam cheese and Cheshire cheese.
The original story behind Edam's red wax skins is that the cheese was hung over cow dung to mature. The ammonia from the dung would stain the wax red. Edam and Cheshire were both authentic shipboard cheeses as I could not obtain 'Flet' cheese which is no longer made.
'Boiled baby'
served with James' superbly light custard to which I added rosewater. Rosewater was frequently used in the 18th century in much the same way that vanilla is nowadays. The boiled baby, a very heavy suet pudding, took hours of steaming. It was the sort of thing you'd really want to eat if you'd spent several bells up the rigging in a force ten gale. I had soaked the sultanas in sherry to add an alcoholic kick.

Coffee with ratafia biscuits
which were incredibly easy to make. Ground almonds, almond essence, rosewater and egg white.

Many of my recipes were sourced and adapted from this fascinating book 'Lobscouse and Spotted Dog' by mother and daughter team Anne Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas based on the work of Patrick O'Brian.
This girl had to be given step by step instructions how to put a record on. When the music finished, Ross the waiter said "we need another record". "Why don't you put the other side on?" I asked. He said with surprise"There's another side?!" I was looking at him wondering if he was taking the piss/remedially stupid, then realised, of course, that CDs only play on one side. Youngsters eh?

It was great to work with and learn from James Benson, a gentle giant, previously a sous chef at Claridges and now located in the Cotswolds. Here's his website and his blog (in my blog roll). He now caters for private dinners, weddings and tourists, the latter a great idea for mothers on self-catering holidays because it's not exactly a break for them if they are still doing all the cooking like at home. James is used to adapting to different kitchens. Judging by the quality of his cooking, his sauces in particular were fantastic, I couldn't recommend him more highly. The prices are damn reasonable too. We talked about the difficulty of making a living in food when you can't sell alcohol as restaurants tend to make most profit on drink.

Link to Lucy Inglis' Georgian London formspring

What would be a typical Georgian meal?

If you were going out to a pub or inn during the day, they served a thing called 'the ordinary', which was the hot dish of the day, or it would have meant cold meats and cheese on a sideboard, with a small salad selection.

If you ate in, it would be common to have a soup or a fish course, even it was just a couple of grilled or pickled herring/oysters, followed by dressed meat of some description or a pie served hot. It was good drills to have at least one salad and a crisply cooked green vegetable. Not so different to us now really. Portions weren't enormous, so when you see loads of different dishes on a table, it doesn't mean it amounted to gargantuan amounts of food. I can PDF you Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery if you like. @msmarmitelover