Thursday, 21 June 2012

Aquavit-Cured Salmon, Cucumber & Capers

Last week the Ewing excitedly called me up from work to tell me about the latest 'bargain' she had picked up from the market. Now, it would be churlish of me to complain about the amount of money she manages to spend every week, as I always get a loaf of Hoxton Rye Levain from the Flour Power Bakery (and sometimes some cherry pie, too) as well as the odd bit of bleu des Basque or bag of English cherries, but it certainly ain't cheap.

This time, however, she really had bagged a bit of a deal; twelve quid for a whole salmon? It would be churlish to complain. After getting the fishmonger to gut and fillet it, we ended up with two sides of fish and a bag with the head and bones. The bones and one side went into the freezer, the second side divided into half; one piece to grill and eat with baby new potatoes, wobbly mayonnaise and asparagus, the other to be buried in a bed of salt and sugar to cure over the weekend.

I've made gravlax before, and it's simplicity itself. I'm not quite sure why I don't do it more often as there is nothing better than surreptitiously slicing a few pieces of cured fish, a la Nigella, every time you go to the fridge. In fact, the only downside I can think of is that you have to wait a couple of days until your salmon is ready to sampled. This turned out to be serendipitous timing - it would be ready just in time for a Midsummer feast.

While there are subtle variations to the main theme (raw beetroot can be added to the cure to give the fish a deep, magenta colour) the main ingredients are salt, sugar, pepper and copious amounts of dill. This time I also added a generous splash of aquavit, bought back from a trip to Denmark, for a real Scandinavian edge.

Three days gently bobbing in it's briny bath and the salmon was ready to sample. Perfect enjoyed on an, all too rare, warm June evening, complete with a heap of pickled cucumber and capers to cut through the salmons oily richness. The salt of the fish also goes perfectly with a spoonful of sweet dill mustard sauce (I got mine from IKEA, but most supermarkets seem to stock it now) and a few slices of buttered rye bread. And don't forget the icy schnapps chaser. Glad midsommar och skål!

Aquavit-cured Salmon, Cucumber & Capers

A piece of salmon, approx 500g, boned and trimmed
1/2 cup sea salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1tsp Crushed black pepper
Bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
1 tsp aquavit

1 Cucumber, peeled
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
1 heaped tsp of brined capers
Freshly ground black pepper

-Mix together the salt sugar pepper and dill and sprinkle a small amount of the mixture on a large piece of cling film.
-Place the salmon, skin down, on the curing mixture and cover the flesh with the rest of the mix.
-Wrap the fish tightly in the cling film and place on a plate. Place another plate on top of the fish, weight down with two or three tin cans, and put in the fridge.
-Turn the fish every approx 12 hours, draining off any brine that forms. Depending on the thickness of the fish it should be ready between 24-48 hours, although you can leave it for three or four days.
-Unwrap the fish and gently rinse the cure off, leaving thin layer of dill on the flesh. Pat dry with paper towels.

To make the cucumber salad
-Halve long strips from the cucumber, discarding the seeds, and place in a bowl with the vinegar, salt and sugar. Leave in the fridge for an hour or so to lightly pickle.
-Drain the liquid from the cucumber, add the capers and black pepper to taste.

Slice the fish very thinly and serve with the pickled cucumber, dill sauce, and rye bread or crackers.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Mission Burrito

When the Ewing and I first started dating, many aeons ago, both London and myself were just succumbing to our first wave of burrito love. It was before I was regularly blogging, and I decided that sampling and then writing about all the burritos I could lay my hands on would make a great new project.

Being in the first flush of love, I was somewhat oblivious to the Ewing's luke warm enthusiasm to endless helpings of sludgy beans and stringy chicken (I blame all the Margarita's we were helping the food down with) until, one fateful, hot afternoon in Islington, after becoming hopelessly lost, she finally put her foot down and would only eat a plain avocado and drink an agua fresca. The dream was over.

Fast forward to now, and although her interest is still somewhat limited, we have reached a happy compromise of burritos in moderation. A good job for me as I know our America trip would take us to San Francisco, home of the fabled San Francisco Mission Burrito.

First stop was La Taqueria, rated in both the guide books and on the web at sites such as Burritoeater as a decent shout for lunch. The large neon signs on the walls inside inside goe one step further, proclaiming that these are 'the best tacos and burriotos in the whole world'. A bold claim, and not one for a Mission Virgin like me to decide, but I was impresssed with the clean, bright interior as we arrived to the cool calm of the post-lunchtime rush; the glorious smell of grilled meat thick in the air.

After choosing our food, and ordering at the counter, we found a side table to sit down and enjoy our pineapple agua frescas while waiting for our ticket to be called.

I found this a little sweet for my tastes, but the Ewing was a big fan, helping herself to mine after she had finished draining hers in super quick time. If sweet, cold fruit drinks are your thing then the strawberry flavour are suposed to be very good, too.

The carne asada burrito with avocado. I hadn't realised when ordering, but La Taqueria are, controversially, one of the very few proponents of the Mission Style burrito who don't include rice (really making this more of a San Diego style wrap). I had mixed feelings about this, pleased that the filling was overwhelmed by extra carbs, but disappointment that the 'local' burrito I had been looking forward to was missing one critical ingredient.

In the end the absence of rice mattered very little; the burrito was a perfect mix of smoky, creamy and beany. Normally I would choose pork over beef, but here the grilled meat was gloriously charred, yet still tender. Its reasonably slender size (it's still pretty massive) and lack of rice also meant I could eat it without immediately slumping into a Cal -Mex coma, important when there are other things eager to be sampled.

The carnitas taco. I let the Ewing have a free reign with this one to start with, reasoning that the more modest bread 'wrapping' would appeal to her dislike of 'stodge'. My logic was right, and I had to quickly swipe the last few bites from her clutches so I could sample it for myself. I enjoyed this, the fatty, crispy shreds of pork topped with a fresh onion and tomato salsa, but found it a little uninspired compared to the majesty of the burrito.

La Taqueria on Urbanspoon

By this point we were both pretty sated; an unholy mixture of iced coffees, bacon donuts, bourbon cornflake ice cream, Mexican Coke, tacos and tortillas left us struggling to conemplate yet another feed. Walking back to the BART station we saw this on the corner, a tip in my burrito research and too tempting to pass by. A quick lap of Mission Street fortified us just enough for round two of our late Mexican lunch.

The interior here was darker and more austere. Despite the gloomy surroundings the place was pretty packed; every table taken by groups of friends, families, students and workmen, who were supposed to be concreting the pavement outside but obviously found the lure of meat and beans too hard to resist.(we had to be helped over wooden planks to get in the door).

Initally I may have been slightly dubious, but I really, really liked this place. The guy serving behind the counter was very helpful, patiently listening to our butchering of his mother tounge and explaining the menu permutations to us. The atmosphere was also lively and friendly, feeling at times more like a social club than a restaurant.

The totopos, gratis with every order. I quickly got stuck in, the crispy chips ably accompanied by pots of red and green salsa and  pico de gallo from the help yourself condiment bar. As ever the Ewing maintained a slight aloofness, until finally she relented and ate one. They didn't last for much longer after that.

Lengua Taco with beef tongue. Deciding that I wasn't quite ready for the sesos (brains) taco, I went for the tongue version instead. The meat was melty and soft, and pulled apart in strands as you ate it; the flavour was a little gamey, without being overpowering. The real problem was the whitish-grey, tastebuds still on the meat, that were rather reminiscent of the top of a piece of lego and gave the curious sensation of feeling like you were touching the top of your own tongue. The salsa seemed a bit gloopier than La Taqueria, and made the taco rather soggy, but the slices of lime on the side added a nice zing.

Weighing in at nearly two pounds this whopper was too much to manage after all our other Mission delights. Luckily it had been as carefully and neatly swaddled as a new born baby, meaning we could safely transport it back to our hotel, the silver foil helping to insulate it for a good few hours until we felt strong enough to brave it.

Luckily I still had room for beer, in this case a dark, slightly sweet Negra Modela; perfect with all the smoke and spice. The Ewing was particularly thankful for hers, after I assured her the pico de gallo wasn't that spicy (turns out that it was).

This is the real deal, rice'n'all, super burrito mission style. Tempted as I was to go for the carne asada this time I chose the al pastor; marinaded pork cooked on a spit with onions and pineapple. Despite my Mexican overload that afternoon, the glorious smell coming from my bag meant I couldn't resist unpeeling it from its silver wrapper as soon as I got home. Within minutes it had been devoured, leaving a trail of fallen rice and salsa drips in its wake.

Although I actually didn't miss the rice in La Taqueria's version, the extra carbs in this were spot on. The rice had been cooked with herbs and tomato, and was well seasoned, combining perfectly with the mealy, sweet pinto beans. The middle featured a cooling seam of avocado and sour cream resting on the spicy, smoky shreds of pork, and the pineapple and onion lending a slight sweetness to cut through the slightly fatty, crispy meat. This was a supreme burrito; despite any reservations about the rice the Ewing wolfed her half down without complaint, too.

While it might not always be pretty or chic, both our stops featured big, honest, good value food that doesn't taste cheap, or stodgy, or bland. The subtle spicing on the meats, as well as the different marinades and cooking methods mean the flavours remain distinguished, and the array of salsa, beans and toppings mean that there are endless permutations of the simple burrito and taco to be enjoyed.

El Farolito on Urbanspoon
It would be impossible to talk about the Mission Burrito without saying a little something about the area that begat such a wonderful thing. Taking the BART to Mission and 24th Street we were immediately hit with a wave of heat and colour; wall murals and painted houses and shops brightening every corner. As well as our Burrito fix we also made room for donuts and ice cream (at Humprey Slocombe and Dynamo Donuts, whose magnificence are to be saved for a later post) and a visit to Casa Lucas, the popular Mexican supermarket on 24th Street.

The Ewing, proudly clutching the aloe vera leaf purchased as a DIY aftersun substitute (a menace that lurked by the bathroom sink back at the hotel, ready to attack me every time I turned the tap on).

They certainly like their beans. Also note the sacks of maize flour and hominy used for tortillas, pupusas, and tamales on the bottom shelf, and the Rice-a-Roni on the second shelf down. This popular boxed convenience food bears features a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the tag line 'The San Francisco Treat!', as it originated in the Mission District.

Now, in me, Homer Simpson has a rival for the biggest pork rind lover in the West, but even I wasn't too convinced by these pickled specimens in bobbing menacingly in their glass jars. Curious as I was, these stayed on the shelf for another time.

Now, that's is more like it, shelves and shelves of hot sauces and canned chillies. I couldn't go home without grabbing some chipotles en adobo and some Tapatio sauce weighing down my suitcase.

Goat's milk caramel lollies. Although I didn't try one of these, I did buy some cajeta, after our delicious experience at Chicago's Girl and the Goat earlier on our trip. It currently sits in the cupboard, awaiting some culinary inspiration (or the point where a sugar crash and lack of options forces me to drink it straight from the bottle).

Sadly we only had time for one lap to experience the Mission's Mexican fare, meaning we missed out on such delights as birria (goat), chile rellenos, or the Californian tofu taco (maybe a good thing).
But how ever long you have to spend, this is a wonderful, colourful, vibrant corner of San Francisco, and an essential stop for anyone looking for some fabulous food and Cal-Mex culture.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

King John Inn, Tollard Royal, Wiltshire

The King John is a brick and flint coaching inn, set in the picturesque village of Tollard Royal, right on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. It's a lovely rural pub; mixing style with tradition, and attracting a mish-mash of eccentric villagers, Range Rovers, corduroy, wet dogs and Guy Ritchie. (His Ashcombe Estate is just up the road, and, having yet to read a review that doesn't mention this fact, why buck the trend?) And thanks to my mum moving here a little under three years ago it has now become a local away from home.

Despite having set up camp at the bar on several precious visits, and enjoyed some lovely alcoholic afternoons and Christmas drinks (with Guy, no less. Well, he was there too...) thanks to Alex and Gretchen the owners, we had never actually managed to eat a proper meal; rather a bone of contention as my sister and her boyfriend had been to eat there just after my Mum moved down to Wiltshire.

With the Jubilee weekend coming, and a whole four days off work to overdose on cake and bunting, my mum and Sam invited us down for a few days. Lured by the promise of a meal at the King John and a lighting a beacon on the highest point of Cranbourne Chase, we packed up a tin of the Ewing's homemade scones for the WI church tea, and set off.

The menu is short and concise; a choice of half a dozen starters and seven mains. The steak and souffle are a constant presence, while the other options vary with the seasons. One thing that's central to their cooking is local sourcing, the provenance of all the main ingredients is shown on the menu and none is from further that a county border away.

Good house baked bread and local butter to nibble on .

My scallops, cockles and lobster sauce. Exquisitely sweet bivalves and a wonderfully deep, glossy reduction. My only real complaint was their wasn't enough of it. For eleven quid it would have been nice to have seen a couple more cockles an a little extra watercress adorning such a huge plate. As you can see, I made pretty light work of this one.

The Portland crab, my Mum's favourite dish on the menu and the Ewing's choice on our visit. The camera does lie in this case, with the ball of sweet, creamy white meat being a little larger than the picture suggests; and the perfect amount for the crispy, oily toast it sat upon.

I can quite see why my Mum raves about this so much; for my money crab from the South coast rivals that to which I've eaten anywhere in the world. Trips to Lymington to eat crab baguettes with my sister was a favourite treat back when we were students.

My rump steak with salad, fries and Bearnaise sauce. This decent chunk of pavé de coeur was as local as you could hope for, hailing from Iwerne Minster, just across the fields from the pub. I found it a little strange that the lump of hot meat had been positioned on a bed cold salad leaves, rendering them a little warm and soggy, but a careful bit of repositioning managed to salvage most the greenery.

A good couple of inches thick, and well charred all over, the steak looked rather past the rare I requested when I first cut it to it, but leaving it to rest for a further few minutes saw a rosy blush reappear. The flavour was wonderful; deep, smoky, nicely chewy and properly beefy. Exactly what you want from a simple piece of meat, even when slightly overcooked for my liking.

The fries and Bearnaise were both exceptional. Although the ramekin of sauce seemed a little miserly at first, it was so perfectly rich, glossy and buttery that it provided the perfect amount for dipping the impossibly crisp and fluffy potatoes. Certainly worth the calories.

My mum and Sam chose the lobster thermidor, fair value at £22.00 for a decent sized, locally caught crustacean. The Poole Harbour lobster half was big and sweet, the chunks of buttery meat standing up well to the rich, cheesy sauce. The plentiful dish of chips were the same ones I had enjoyed, a very good vehicle for any left over bechamel or seafood juices.

The Ewing ordered the roe venison haunch salad, and was rather surprised and intrigued to received this. It was more like a late spring Sunday lunch in a bowl, with caramelised baby carrots, greens, roasted beets and bacon sharing the space with some butter-soft venison chunks.
Despite being a little tricky to eat from the enamel dish, this was a very enjoyable plate of food; the mixture of sweet, bitter and salty working together nicely. There was also a goodly amount of rich gravy, perfect for mopping with the crusty bread. A nice, simple idea for the warmer weather.

My Rum Baba, a firm favourite that is seldom seen on this side of the Channel. Apart from its rather non-traditional rectangular shape, this was my pudding perfection. The buttery yeast dough was saturated with a rich rum syrup and dried fruits, and came with a scoop of gloriously smooth vanilla ice cream and an extra shot of golden rum.

While I was gently groaning with syrup-soaked pleasure the Ewing was having a similar reaction to her chocolate terrine with a shot of Turkish coffee. The terrine was impossibly rich and thick, just like the centre of a very decent chocolate truffle, and heaven for a confirmed chocoholic. The glass of coffee provided a needed bitter counterpoint for the sweet stickiness of the pud.

Overall a lovely dinner and, with the rather sizeable bill, a very generous treat from my mum and Sam. Although some of the portions may be a little on the bijou side, the flavour, presentation and quality of the food meant we all waddled away sated and happy after our meal.

The chance to recline and digest our meal at leisure was cut somewhat short by having to rush straight off after the last mouthful of pud, so we could catch the mini bus up to Win Green and see the beacon being lit for the Golden Jubilee celebrations. Bottle of red in hand it was a rousing end to a very nice weekend.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Pie Wars - Big Apple Vs Windy City

The Ewing and I were very blessed on our American trip; good weather, good company and a wonderful adventure. There is of course always some rough with the smooth and the nadir of this holiday came late on a Monday afternoon at a very windswept Coney Island. After my camera had broken, my watch had stopped and sand had blown in my hot dog we decided to abandon the beach and find Totonno's, the famous coal fired pie shop just off the sea front. While finding it proved easy enough, seeing it was closed until Wednesday finally tipped me over the edge. After a (very) half hearted attempt to kick a small tree The Ewing took charge and marched us off to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, home of Grimaldi's Coal Brick-Oven Pizzaria.

Patsy Grimaldi Learnt to make pies at his uncles in Harlem, before moving over the bridge to his Brooklyn storefront (Manhattan had, by that point, banned any new coal-fired ovens for safety reasons). What happened next was a saga featuring sell-outs, franchising and naming-wars deserving of its own mini-series, but all we really need to know for the purpose of this story is that Grimaldi's has just moved to a new location on Front Street, and is still serving coal-fired pies.

Getting there in the late afternoon meant we missed the worst of the lunchtime rush, although even at that time there was still a good 20 minute wait (and you have to join the same queue for take out too). But the lure of a crisp pizza and a cold beer was enough to keep us going.

I, of course, had to have an icy Brooklyn Lager while the Ewing went for a much needed sugar rush, in the form of a bottle of Olde Brooklyn cream soda. I will drink pretty much most things (that includes my Nan's parsnip wine), but still firmly believe that cream soda is the Devil's work. The Ewing polished it off in double quick time though.

In case we were pining for home they had very thoughtfully put the Manchester Derby on the TV, and considering the slightly fraught previous couple of hours it made a welcome distraction from our hunger, tiredness and general dislike of each other by that point.

Thankfully the pizza restored our good mood; we shared a medium red pie, half with garlic. The combination of homemade dough, fresh mozzarella cheese, crushed tomato and a handful of fresh basil is simple perfection. The cheese was milky and melty, the tomatoes provided a little tannic sweetness and the crust managed to be both soft and crispy in all the right places. The garlic on the Ewing's side gave the simple flavours an extra edge and, as our waiter pointed out, would certainly keep the vampires at bay. I would have liked to give the sausage or spinach a try to, but the simple things in life are often the best (as I am living proof) and it would be hard to improve on this triumvirate.

While I didn't have time (and the second stomach)to compare it to any other coal fired NY pies, what I can say, as someone regularly subjected to high street pizza chains in the UK, is that I still dream about it now. And as someone that's always constantly thinking about the next thing they're going to chow down, there can be no higher praise than that.

The blistered underside of my first slice, hot out the oven. For the first time in a long time I ate my first piece with out the adornment of any flaked chilli's, pepper, BBQ sauce or mayo to dunk the crusts in. (Yes, you heard me right readers, mayonnaise.) All this wedge of this pizza needed was to be gently folded down the middle and enjoyed while the mozzarella was still springy and warm, accompanied by a long draught of icy lager.

Grimaldi's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

The Chicago deep pan pizza is a much maligned thing. We met an rather waspish, young East coaster while travelling on the train to San Francisco who proudly told us that he and his friends would never dream of eating such an abomination; even in the Second City itself. I, however remained undeterred;  Saturday afternoon at the baseball followed by Saturday evening eating pizza sounded like the makings of a pretty good weekend to me.

Chicago deep pan pizza can broadly be seen as being served in two styles, regular deep pan, or stuffed. Both styles feature the tomato on top of the cheese, but the stuffed version offers an extra layer of dough between the cheese and the sauce. I was keen to try either, but Grimldi's, the most famous stuffed pizza in the City, was the closest to our hotel, and so it was that we excitedly (well, me, the Ewing wasn't really as eager to experience its doughy delights) made our way there for an early dinner.

Inside is just as you expect it to be. Groups of families, friends and young couples soaking up the 'atmosphere' provided by the rolling sports news on TV, retro Chicago inspired prints on the walls and plastic red-checked tablecloths. If all this sounds unappealing, it isn't supposed to be. The place has a genuinely friendly, buzzy feel, and while it certainly wouldn't be considered a place to linger for an evening, it provides the perfect backdrop for some solid grub.

Amongst all the watery Bud, Coors and Miller there were a few decent craft beers. I enjoyed the 312, a wheat beer from the local Goose Island Brewery. The Ewing went to town with the Windy City Hurricane cocktail, surprisingly strong and tasty despite its modest price tag and lurid cherry garnish.

We tucked in to a house salad while waiting for the pizza to be cooked (they are made to order and need about 40 minutes to cook through). The salad was nice, nothing too remarkable, until the Ewing had her first encounter with ranch dressing....

When the waiter had asked what dressing we wanted, before quickly reeling off a huge list, my mind went blank and I plumped for the first one I could remember. I've always enjoyed ranch on my salad, usually while on holiday in the States, but I could tell from the Ewing's look she was less than impressed with my choice.

After eating the first few leaves unadorned by any dressing she reluctantly poured a little bit on the rest of her plate. Well, readers, the rest was history. To say she enjoyed it was quite the understatement, not only did we have to slather it over all the rest of the salads we ate during the trip we now have a fridge full of it (Paul Newman brand, as the Ewing is impressed he gives all the profits to charidee) In fact, she's probably standing by the fridge necking some straight from the bottle as I write this.

This pizza is a serious beast. Even the 10'' is vast, containing serious amounts of meat and dairy, sandwiched between the thick, bread-like crust, and needing a cake slice to lever each piece out of the pan. Eating it was like swimming into a molten river of cheese, like bobbing up and down in a viscous pool of creamy mozzarella. I was shovelling it in at such a frantic rate that at one point that I nearly choked trying to swallow what must have been the half a pound of cheese that seemed to be stuffed into every piece.

If all this sounds like a terrible thing, trust me it wasn't. (The Ewing, of course, may have a different view, having to watch me grimace and splutter across the table.) Granted, you would need to be a fan of a substantial slice to get this best from this offering, but I really enjoyed it. The crust, as thick and doughy as it seems in the picture, was surprisingly ethereal and buttery without being greasy at all, and the cheese was studded by chunks of wonderful, fennel-spiked sausage.

The real litmus test for this pizza was the Ewing, who I was convinced would reject it out of hand for being too dense and stodgy. Instead she got stuck in like a trooper, managing nearly two slices before waving the white flag of defeat (only a little less than I ate). What was even more surprising is that I found her in the hotel room eating the cold leftovers a day later. Despite the cheese being a solidified mass by this point, and the crust being a little on the crispy side, it was still a rather moreish snack to enjoy in bed while watching the NBA playoffs.

Giordano's Pizza on Urbanspoon

The best pizza? I'm going to completely bail out of making that decision and call it a dead heat. What I do think, as wonderful as Grimaldi's offering was, is that coal (or wood) fired pie is fairly common (if not always great), while Chi Town really is the only home of anything approaching a good deep pan pie. While a good blistered crust with simple fresh toppings is now available in many places around the globe I would have to take a trip back to the Windy City to experience the beauty sinking my teeth deep into gooey cheese and sausage surrounded by a perfectly buttery crust.

So if you find yourself in the Midwest, don't be a pizza snob and try to find the hour to spare to experience one of these beauties. You can always eat the ranch salad while you're waiting.