Shortbread

September 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Shortbread is the classic British, or more properly Scottish, biscuit. With just three ingredients, flour, butter and sugar balanced in the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1 it’s sublime in its simplicity, the perfect riposte to an oversized cookie or indeed the overworked esoterically flavoured creations on offer on our TV screens at the moment courtesy of the Great British Bake Off.

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Shortbread is relatively straightforward to make at home (though as I have discovered there are several ways to go wrong) but you can buy great shortbread too. One of my favourite commercially produced shortbreads is that made by Dean’s of Huntly. On a visit to Aberdeenshire not so long ago (mainly focused on sampling Speyside whiskies) we found ourselves in the small town of Huntly and took the opportunity to visit the factory showroom and café, learning the story of how Helen Dean started baking and selling shortbread from her family kitchen in the early 1970s. Dean’s shortbread truly is melt-in-the mouth and the list of ingredients for the premium all-butter shortbread is admirably simple.

So if Dean’s sets the benchmark, where does my own shortbread recipe come from?

It’s a combination of various different recipes plus a little trial and error.

In contrast to the brevity of the ingredients list, there are a number of aspects to the method for making and baking of shortbread that warrant a little further discussion or explanation.

1) Ratios

I referred above to the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1. Where does this come from you may be wondering?

I have 3 unimpeachable sources. The first is my mother-in-law’s handwritten recipe which calls for 6oz flour, 4 oz butter and 2 oz sugar (incidentally this is also what she does to make the best crumble topping); the second is Jane Grigson’s shortbread instructions from her book “English Food” (sorry Scotland!); the third is a classic shortbread recipe attributed to Katharine Robertson from the book “Seasonal Cooking” by Claire MacDonald of MacDonald who runs a famous hotel, Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye.

2) Substituting some of the flour for cornflour, semolina or ground rice

The received wisdom seems to be that you can substitute up to one third of the plain flour with one of the above alternative starches. I have found that shortbread made with just plain flour has an amply crumbly and melt-in-the mouth texture if properly baked so why make things more complicated than they need to be?

3) What sort of butter is best?

I like to use a salted British butter, ideally a farmhouse one as this gives the best flavour to the finished biscuit. I think a little salt in the recipe lifts the flavour and if this is added by way of salted butter there is no danger of over-salting the dough. British butter is generally made from straightforward pasteurised cream and is known as “sweet cream” butter. Butter from the continental mainland e.g. Lurpak or the many French butters available are generally made from cream that has undergone lactic fermentation. This gives butter with a fresh, clean flavour but for shortbread making I prefer the richer taste of a sweet cream butter.

4) What sort of sugar is best?

Some recipes call for icing sugar but as far as I’m concerned, caster sugar is the way to go helping to achieve the desired crumbly texture. I also think that golden caster sugar gives an extra depth of flavour to the finished biscuit.

5) How should the ingredients be combined?

Some recipes suggest rubbing in the butter, flour and sugar whereas others suggest creaming together the butter and sugar and then working in the flour. I’ve tried both methods and find that it makes no difference. I find it easiest to start by creaming the butter and sugar in my Kenwood mixer and I was pleased to see that the legendary Helen Dean started off her family shortbread-making business using a trusty Kenwood mixer (proudly on display at the company’s HQ in Huntly – see photo above) so I feel I’m on solid ground here.

6) To roll or not to roll?

Several recipes suggest rolling out and cutting shortbread dough into shapes. Good luck to you if you can manage it! There is no way I’d attempt to roll out this type of dough as I find it just to hard to work with which is why I press my dough into a tin and cut it into fingers when baked. There are other recipes available for crisp little sablé-type biscuits that contain either egg yolks or whole eggs which are more suitable for rolling-out and cutting into shapes if that’s what you’re looking to make.

7) How long to bake and at what temperature?

Different recipes contain vastly different instructions on this aspect. As far as I’m concerned, relatively low and slow is the way to go which is why I suggest a baking temperature of 150 degrees C fan and 45 minutes’ cooking time. If you like a paler shortbread you might consider dropping the oven temperature by a further 10 degrees – Claire MacDonald’s recipe referred to above calls for a conventional oven temperature of 150 degrees C and a baking time of 1 hour.

Traditional shortbread

Makes enough to fill a standard rectangular Swiss roll tin (mine is 33cm by 23cm by 2cm) which when cut into fingers yields 36 individual biscuits. The ratio of flour to butter to sugar is the simple to remember 3:2:1 so you can readily alter the quantities to suit whatever tin size you have.

Ingredients

250g salted British butter
125g golden caster sugar (plus a little more for sprinkling afterwards)
375g plain white flour

Line the tin using a sheet of baking parchment carefully trimmed to fit. I do this by cutting a sheet of parchment slightly larger than my tin, pressing it into the tin to mark the division between base and sides then carefully snipping the paper at each corner at right angles then folding in the sides origami-style to create a 3D lining. If this sounds too complicated then just line the base of the tin.

Making the shortbread dough is easily done in a stand mixer but works well using a large bowl, wooden spoon and some elbow-grease too.
Cream together the butter and caster sugar thoroughly until the mixture is a little lighter in colour. Add the flour in 3 or 4 stages, mixing until well incorporated. The end result should be a crumbly dough that barely holds together and looks like badly made shortcrust pastry.

Tip the dough into the lined tin and spend a few minutes carefully pressing and distributing the dough evenly in the tin. You can do this using any combination of your knuckles and fingertips, a metal spoon or a small crank-handled palette knife. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork. I think this helps the dough to bake through more evenly, it looks attractive and importantly creates tiny pockets in the baked surface allowing the final sprinkling of caster sugar to adhere better to the biscuits.

Place the tin of shortbread dough into the fridge for at least 15 minutes to chill and firm up. It can be left into the fridge for several hours, even overnight if that suits your timetable.

When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 150 degrees C fan. Bake the shortbread for about 45 minutes until a light golden colour throughout. Judging the right degree of baking is perhaps the hardest aspect of this recipe and will probably require a degree of trial and error depending on how accurate your oven temperature is. It shouldn’t be too dark a colour – baking long and slow is the way to go. Also, if the shortbread is baked too long it becomes too hard and brittle and will shatter when cut into. If underbaked it will lack flavour and have a claggy rather than melt-in-the-mouth crumbly texture. When it is baked just right it will still be somewhat soft when cut into while still warm but, fear not, it will firm up to the right crumbly texture when cooled.

Once baked, remove from the oven, immediately carefully cut into fingers of the desired size (I cut mine lengthwise into 3 long strips then crosswise into 12 strips to produce 36 fingers) and sprinkle the surface with a little more golden caster sugar. Leave to cool completely in the tin.

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A summery salad from Southwold

May 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Whilst on our annual pilgrimage to Southwold on the bracing Suffolk coast I tried out a new salad recipe inspired by the cover recipe on this month’s Delicious magazine. It combines two of the season’s best ingredients – asparagus and baby new potatoes and adds to them crunchy radishes and a fresh herby dressing. The Delicious magazine recipe requires you to whip up a herb hollandaise sauce to dress the salad but creating a vinegar reduction, separating eggs and creating a delicate emulsion is not my idea of fun for a quick holiday lunch, and frankly, the idea of all that butter is a little off-putting. I replaced the herb hollandaise with a quick and easy yoghurt and herb dressing that worked really well with the other ingredients.

At this time of year, Southwold’s greengrocer, the Crab Apple in the Market Place is heaving with local Seabreeze asparagus, so much so that one no longer feels the need to treat it reverentially. Wild fennel grows in abundance by the beach and a little of this thrown into the herb dressing adds a fresh aniseed flavour note that works well with the asparagus and potatoes.

The genius part of this salad is that the potatoes are not just plain boiled but after a quick parboil are smashed and roasted in olive oil in a hot oven becoming deliciously crispy.

In terms of aesthetics, the long thin white tipped Breakfast variety of radish look prettiest, especially if you leave on a little of the green radish top. If you can’t get hold of these then the regular scarlet globe-shaped type works just fine.

Here’s the recipe. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to pep up a holiday lunch and it provides welcome relief from yet another carb-heavy pork pie and sandwich picnic.

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Southwold asparagus and crispy potato salad

Serves 4

Adapted from a recipe in the Delicious magazine May 2015 edition.

Ingredients

450-500g baby new potatoes (e.g. Jersey Royals), scrubbed
4-5 tablespoons olive oil
400g asparagus, woody parts trimmed-off and ends peeled
200g radishes, washed, trimmed and halved lengthwise (the long thin white-tipped Breakfast variety look prettiest but the regular

For the dressing

250g full fat natural yoghurt
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
small clove of garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped
generous handful of fresh herbs – whatever you can get hold of – I used fennel foraged from the beach, basil and chives

Optional garnish

a spoonful of extra chopped herbs
a little balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses

Heat the oven to 200 degrees C fan. Line a shallow roasting tin with baking paper

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 7-8 minutes until you can just pierce them with a knife point but they are not quite tender. Drain thoroughly and tip the potatoes onto the prepared roasting tin. Press each potato with a fork to squash it partially. Drizzle over the olive oil, season and toss lightly to coat. Slip the roasting tin into the oven and roast the potatoes for about 30 minutes, turning them half way through the cooking time.

While the potatoes are in the oven, make the dressing. Put all the dressing ingredients into a medium bowl, stir to mix, cover and set aside in the fridge.

Steam or boil the prepared asparagus until just tender – about 5 minutes for the plump spears shown in the photograph. Slice each asparagus spear into two halves carefully on the diagonal.

When the potatoes are ready, tip them onto a platter and spread them out. Scatter over the asparagus and then the radishes. Dollop the herbed yoghurt dressing over the salad and, if liked, scatter over a few chopped herbs and drizzle with just a little balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses.

Cod from the Suffolk coast

June 6, 2013 § 2 Comments

We’re just back from our family holiday to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. I went with intentions of cooking lots of the wonderful fresh fish you can buy there straight from the fishermens’ boats. We did indeed eat plenty of fresh fish – crab salad with new potatoes, skate wing with black butter and capers, crispy battered fish and chips, flavourful fish stew with French bread – but embarrassingly this was all eaten in Southwold’s many pubs and restaurants.

Shamed, as we prepared to drive home on Saturday morning, we called in at Samantha K’s fish shack on Southwold’s Blackshore harbour, to pick up whatever looked most tempting. That turned out to be a lovely piece of cod, from a fish caught on the tiny fishing boat Laura K and landed the evening before, its grey-green mottled skin a thing of beauty.

Back home that evening, I cooked one of my favourite fish recipes, Cod with Cabbage, Bacon and Peas from Gary Rhodes’ 1994 cookbook “Rhodes around Britain”. The cod is skinned (on reflection this isn’t necessary) and briefly seared in a hot pan before being finished in a hot oven. It’s served with mashed potato and a butter-enriched broth containing pieces of smoked bacon, onion, shredded green cabbage and peas. It’s a perfect dish for late spring combining all that’s good about fish pie with the lightness of a flavoursome broth and new season green vegetables.

I still haven’t found an entirely satisfactory fish cookery book – I get a little bored as they descend into encylopaedic lists of uncommon fish species (am I really likely to come across a walleye, pompano or porgy on my local market stall?) or obscure definitions (pelagic, epipelagic, demersal and the like…). My favourite fish recipes are dotted about here and there in different books, clippings and folders.

When deciding what to do with my lovely piece of cod it was a close run thing between the Gary Rhodes recipe and one from Simon Hopkinson’s best book, coincidentally also from 1994 “Roast Chicken and Other Stories”. This recipe requires the cod to be poached and served with braised Puy lentils and a punchy salsa verde. I’ve included it as a second recipe here as it sounds so good and I don’t want to forget about it.

Recipe for cod with cabbage, bacon and peas

Adapted from a recipe in Gary Rhodes’ “Rhodes around Britain”.

Ingredients

4 smoked back bacon rashers, rinded and cut into strips
2 onions, finely chopped
25g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
600ml chicken stock (homemade or a good quality bought fresh stock rather than from a cube)
½ green cabbage, finely shredded
100g fresh podded or frozen peas
25-50g soft unsalted butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick pieces cod fillet, skin on, each one 175-225g
a little vegetable oil
knob of unsalted butter

To serve

1 quantity mashed potatoes made with 900g floury potatoes (Maris Piper or Vivaldi); plenty of unsalted butter, salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg

Make sure you have all the recipe ingredients, pans and utensils prepped and ready before you begin cooking as the vegetables and fish each take only a few minutes to cook. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C fan.

Prepare the mashed potatoes and keep warm.

Gently fry the bacon and onions in 25g of the butter and the tablespoon of olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Cover, turn off the heat and set aside for a moment while you start the cooking of the fish.

Heat a little vegetable oil and a knob of unsalted butter in a large frying pan with a heatproof handle. When hot, put in the pieces of cod fillet skin-side down and fry for 2 minutes. Place the frying pan into the preheated oven for 3-4 minutes (170 degrees C fan), depending on the thickness of your fish.

While the fish is in the oven, bring the stock back to the boil and add the shredded cabbabge and peas and cook at a brisk boil until tender but retaining a little bite and vibrant green colour.This will take only a few minutes.

The fish will now be ready. Remove it from the oven but keep it warm while you finish the bacon and vegetable broth by whisking in 25-50g unsalted butter in pieces (the amount you choose to whisk in is up to you).

Divide the hot mashed potato between 4 shallow bowls. Sit the fish on top of the mashed potato skin side up and spoon the broth and vegetables around.

Recipe for poached cod with lentils and salsa verde

From Simon Hopkinson’s 1994 book “Roast Chicken and Other Stories”. Serves 4.

Ingredients

700g cod, descaled, filleted and cut into 4 pieces (leave the skin on)
water for poaching
juice of a lemon
enough salt to season the cooking water lightly (a teaspoon)

For the lentils

225g Puy lentils, washed and drained
450ml water
½ chicken stock cube
1 clove
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, peeled
salt and pepper

For the salsa verde

Bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
10 basil leaves
15 mint leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
6 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers, drained
150ml extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

To serve

1 lemon, cut into wedges
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
pepper
a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley

First cook the lentils. Place them in a saucepan and cover with the water. Push the clove through the bayleaf and into the onion. Add the onion to the pan. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Now add the stock cube (I don’t add this at the outset as salt in the cube can toughen the lentils and prevent them from softening) and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes more until the liquid has been absorbed and the lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

While the lentils are cooking, make the salsa verde. Put the herbs, garlic, mustard, anchovies and capers into the food processor with a few tablespoons of the olive oil. Process for a few minutes, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula from time to time. Once the mixture is smooth, with the motor running add the remaining olive oil to the mixture in a thin stream through the processor bowl lid’s funnel. The process is akin to making mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper once the oil has all been incorporated. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Once the lentils and salsa verde are ready, it’s time to poach the fish. Bring a large pan of water with some salt and the juice of a lemon added to it to the boil. Slide in the fish fillets carefully, bring the pan back to the boil, cover and switch off the heat. After 5 minutes, carefully lift the fish out onto a hot plate

To serve, place a portion of fish onto each individual plate with a wedge of lemon. Drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle a little sea salt and a grinding of black pepper over each piece of fish and scatter over a sprig or so of parsley. Pass the lentils and salsa verde separately.

Week in Wales: the forager’s holy trinity completed

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve already written about blackberries during our summer holiday on the North Wales coast. It’s the more unusual samphire and chanterelles that completed my foraging threesome.

I was a samphire virgin before setting out on my coastal trek, scissors and waterproof sandals at the ready. I’d wondered about gathering samphire for years but had been thwarted as the plant didn’t seem to appear in my trusty field guide, Marjorie Blamey and Richard and Alastair Fitter’s classic “The wild flowers of Britain and Northern Europe”. You’ll find rock samphire and golden samphire pictured in loving detail but nothing that looks like the samphire we can buy from up-market fishmongers and fashionable restaurants.

A copy of the River Cottage handbook “Edible Seashore” found on the bookshelves of our holiday house solved the mystery. Expert forager and now author John Wright clearly explains that Marsh samphire Salicornia europaea is a species distinct from Rock samphire Crithmum maritimum although both grow on the coast and both are edible. Crucially, the alternative common name for the marsh samphire is glasswort, the common name used in my wildflower field guide.

Enchantingly, it seems that the name glasswort was given to the plant by itinerant glassmakers from Venice who arrived in Britain in the sixteenth century. The ashes of Salicornia europaea can be used for making crystal clear soda based glass as opposed to the greenish glass based on easier to obtain potash. Who’d have thought it? And it seems a waste to burn it when it is so hard to gather and equally good to eat.

I’d identified the tidal salt marshes between Portmadoc and Portmeirion as likely samphire territory but had never seen the plant actually growing there. Up for a challenge, the hunt started at mid-tide on a glorious beach during a rare spell of afternoon sunshine:

Golden sand is all very well but estuarine mud and the resulting sheltered salt marsh are where you’ll find samphire growing. So, it was a long trudge to the rocky point at the end of the beach with the only navigable way round into the next bay being a clamber up and over this rocky slot:

On the other side, the territory looked much more promising:

And sure enough, I soon found the prize I was after. The field guides will all tell you to pick samphire that’s been washed by every tide. There’s no way to be more certain of this than by picking a plant with its roots lapped by avelets of incoming seawater:

And after a whole afternoon enjoying the thrill of the chase, this was what we ended up with for supper that evening:

This would have been just right for a dainty starter for two served asparagus-style (steamed, with plenty of melted butter). However, we were 6 for supper that evening so I served the samphire as a vegetable accompaniment intermingled with squeaky French beans. The two are quite similar in texture with the samphire providing an interesting salty flavour burst every few mouthfuls.

And if all this sounds like too much trouble, you can always pop into Waitrose, £1.99 for 90g of the stuff although airfreighting it in from Israel is hardly an authentic taste of the British seaside.

On to the chanterelles. I was delighted to find this little clutch of sunshine yellow mushrooms brightening up a woodland walk in the rain on the penultimate day f our holiday.

They were nestling in a mossy bank beneath an ancient oak tree, absolutely classic territory for chanterelles. I picked up a useful new tip for identifying chanterelles and distinguishing between the real thing and the disappointing false chanterelle which is that they should have a mild yet distinct smell of apricots.

I know of no better treatment for chanterelles than to fry them briskly in butter, season with salt and pepper and serve them with softly scrambled egg. I’m not sure if it’s complementary tastes or some sort of egg yolk yellow colour association but either way it’s a great partnership and made a suitably celebratory breakfast for our final morning:

Blackberrying

August 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Nothing to do with electronic devices but the easiest and most rewarding of wild foods for the first-time forager.

These beauties came from the grounds of the house on the North Wales coast where we holidayed last week. For us Mancunians, it’s like Cornwall but without the long car journey. Breathtaking mountain backdrops, glorious sandy beaches, quaint stone cottages – all it lacks is reliable sunshine.

The brambles love it there and there is excellent blackberrying to be had at this time of year if you can find a sunny spot against a dry stone wall where the fruit has had chance to ripen. The best blackberries are always just out of reach – but maybe the scratches and attendant cunning required to hook down the high branches are all part of the appeal, the annual repetition of childhood ritual.

What to do with your precious hard-won haul? If you’ve exhausted the repertoire of pies, crumbles and jellies, here’s an idea for an easy-to-make pudding that lets the flavour of the blackberries shine through. It’s a blackberry clafoutis, the simple French baked pudding from the Limousin region usually made with cherries. This version, which I’ve adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” replaces cherries with blackberries.

The house where we stay when we come to this part of Wales is a rambling manor house remodelled in the last century by Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of nearby Portmeirion. Cooking here is a pleasure as the house is blessed with a cool slate shelved pantry and well-equipped kitchen with cupboards packed with Portmeirion pottery. But you don’t need a well-equipped kitchen to make this pudding -it’s quick and easy and the proportions are forgiving so it’s perfect to make when your’re staying in a holiday house or cottage.

The berries are macerated in delicious Crème de Mûre, French blackberry liqueur, and the resulting juices are added to the batter mixture along with some blanched almonds which enrich the pudding and the subtle almond flavour works well with the blackberries.

The tip in the recipe for pouring a layer of batter into the baking dish and gently letting this cook to provide a base so that the fruit can’t all sink to the bottom really does work:

Adding the macerated blackberry juices to the mixture turns the batter an appealing but shade of pink:

But don’t worry, despite starting off as pink, the baked clafoutis will puff up and become crusty and golden brown just as the recipe promises.

Dust with icing sugar or sprinkle with caster sugar and serve with chilled pouring cream. Dig in and enjoy your the fruits of your blackberrying.

Recipe for clafoutis

Adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. I give first of all the basic recipe with cherries, then variants with liqueur, almonds and blackberries. The version I cooked last week combined all 3 ie I substituted blackberries for cherries, macerated the blackberries in liqueur and added almonds to the batter as well.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

For the batter

½ pint milk
2oz granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
2 and ½ oz sifted flour

For the fruit

¾ lb stoned black cherries
2 oz granulated sugar

Place the ingredients for the batter in the jar of a liquidiser or food processor in the order listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute. If you don’t have a liquidiser, break the eggs into a well in the flour and sugar and gradually incorporate them into the batter with a whisk, adding milk as you go.

Pour a ¼ inch layer of batter into a 3 to 4 pint capacity shallow ovenproof baking dish. Place over a moderate heat or hot oven until the batter has set. Remove from the heat. Spread the cherries over the batter and sprinkle on the sugar.

Pour over the rest of the batter and smooth the surface with the back of a spoon.
Place in the middle of an oven preheated to 160 degrees C fan; 350 degrees F and bake for about an hour. The clafoutis is ready when it is puffed and brown and when a knife plunged into the centre comes out clean.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve hot or warm.

Variant 1 – cherries marinated in kirsch

Additional ingredients

1/8 pint kirsch
2 oz granulated sugar

Let the cherries stand in the kirsch and sugar for one hour. Substitute the liquid that results for some of the milk and all of the sugar in the master recipe.

Variant 2 – with almonds – “À la Bourdaloue”

Additional ingredients

3 oz blanched almonds

Add the almonds to the liquidizer and puree along with the other ingredients. If you don’t have access to a liquidiser, add ground almonds to the flour instead and proceed with the well mixing method as described in the master recipe above.

Variant 3 – Blackberry

Substitute 12oz stemmed and washed blackberries for the cherries.

Increase the flour from 2 and 1/2 oz to 3 and 1/2 oz as the berries are juicier than the cherries.

Just as a footnote, if you fancy having a go at the classic Limousin version of clafoutis with cherries then I can recommend the Oxo Good Grips cherry-stoning device which I picked up on Amazon.co.uk for £7.99. This gadget really is the business and the boys couldn’t get there hands on it once they realised they could fire cherry stones at one another…

Reunion lunch at Mallory Court, Leamington Spa

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Checking my AA road atlas before heading off to a long-planned reunion lunch, Mallory Court looked dangerously close to the industrial outskirts of Leamington Spa and Junction 13 on the M40.

I needn’t have worried as this is the view from the hotel terrace:

The M40 is there in the background but practically invisible. Mallory Court could be the setting for one of those beer ads “if Carlsberg did Motorway service stations” – long camera pan up the drive to the honey-coloured ivy-clad stone walls of the manor house; cut to guests sitting in cosy oak panelled dining room; lingering shots of guests sipping coffee on the terrace overlooking immaculate formal gardens…

So what was the occasion? Having exchanged nothing more than Christmas cards with Mike and Lynnette for years, it was Mike’s very good idea to meet up for lunch in the centre of England as we live at opposite ends of the country. We all met on a week long residential tennis course at Windmill Hill in Sussex in the early 1990s. Those who know me will confirm that my tennis didn’t really improve but we had the best of weeks – looking back I recall it as a week of sunshine, Glyndebourne, drinks and fun. Oddly (or perhaps not) I seem to have forgotten how to hit a double-handed backhand or how to apply topspin to my lob.

It was therefore very fitting for the three of us enjoy a hedonistic lunch after all these years. We had a lot of catching up to do so my attention was on conversation and company rather than the finer points of the food, which is after all how it should be.

Despite its name and initial impressions, Mallory Court is not an ancient manor but an Arts and Crafts trophy-house built in 1914 for a retired Manchester cotton baron. The house changed hands a number of times before being converted to a country house hotel in 1976. It’s now owned by Midlands entrepreneur (sounds posher than Brummy businessman doesn’t it?) Sir Peter Rigby who dabbles in hotels and airports as well as his main IT services business SCC Group.

The immediate impression on entering the hotel is one of welcoming efficiency. There are cosy armchairs to sit in and staff appear just when you feel like ordering a drink without the feeling of being hovered over. I always use the ladies’ loo as a bellwether of attention to detail in an establishment. Mallory Court did not disappoint:

After champagne and nibbles we were shown to our table in the dining room. White damask-clad tables are spaced discreetly apart to allow diners to talk business in privacy and there’s a comfortable, club-like atmosphere.

This is a Michelin-starred establishment so we began with the obligatory amuse-bouche. This comprised a tiny precise cylinder of smoked eel mousse together with vibrant magenta beetroot served three ways, the flavours pointed up with a scattering of micro-cress and flavour explosions from tiny shards of deep-fried caper.

I suppose the purpose of an amuse-bouche is for the chef to summarise his approach to food in one tiny little plateful. This is what chef Simon Haigh did here – what it told me is that this was a chef who likes classic combinations brought up to date, applies precision and attention to detail and has an eye for colour and texture. It came as no surprise to learn afterwards that Haigh learned his craft under Raymond Blanc at the Manoir au Quatre Saisons. In fact he seems intent on creating a Manoir-like atmosphere here in Warwickshire using produce (including that beetroot) fresh from his own kitchen garden.

I chose a rather weird sounding first course of egg purée, crispy ham hock and pineapple chutney, trusting the chef to turn it into something edible. This is what arrived:

The crispy ham-hock turned out to be a spring-roll type affair, and the egg purée a super smooth scrambled egg or perhaps a hot savoury custard. Very clever and no idea how you’d go about recreating it at home.

Main courses were a little more classic and little less off-the wall. Mike chose pork loin served with the most adorable Mirabelle plums looking like miniature apples:

Lynnette and I both chose sea bream with black squid ink risotto, squid rings and Mediterranean vegetables. This should have been served with fillets of red mullet, one of my favourite fish, but (disappointingly but reassuringly I suppose) they’d sold out by the time we ordered hence the substitution of sea bream.

Another picture on a plate, but with every element contributing to the harmonious balance of flavours. A square plate this time, as weirdly shaped crockery seems to be de rigueur these days for any restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

I’m not normally a pudding person, but this wasn’t an everyday occasion so I chose crème brûlée with honeycomb mousse and strawberry sorbet.

This was a perfect size for a post-lunch pudding and each element was technically perfect.

I’m sorry to say we were a little greedy at this stage and, purely out of intellectual curiosity of course, ordered another pudding to share – peanut ice cream with caramelised bananas and bitter chocolate tart. Peanut or peanut butter ice cream is popping up in smart restaurants everywhere these days and this one did not disappoint, nor did the intensely flavoured bitter chocolate tart:

We concluded our lunch with coffee and petit fours on the terrace outside.

In fact the coffee here is both cheaper and a darn sight better than a slop-bucket of Starbucks from WelcomeBreak Warwick North. So next time you’re speeding along the M40 I recommend you take the slightest of detours from junction 13 to refresh the soul as well as the body.

Contact details

Mallory Court Hotel
Harbury Lane
Royal Leamington Spa
Warwickshire
CV33 9QB
01926 330214
reception@mallory.co.uk
http://www.mallory.co.uk/

Weird fish

June 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The weird fish in question is a ling, a member of the cod family. Rick Stein writes about ling in his “Taste of the Sea” like this:

“Ling is one of those underrated fish which, in addition to being reasonably flavoured, is also firm in texture – a cheap version of monkfish, if you like. It is an extraordinary looking fish which could easily be mistaken for an eel, so long and sinuous is its appearance.”

He’s certainly right about how it looks as the picture above, snapped at Samantha K’s fish shack on the harbour at Southwold, shows.

Over the years we’ve gently fallen in to the routine established by my husband’s family of joining a large family party at Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat out some of the time but for the most part take turns to cook an evening meal served on the big kitchen table.

Last Thursday, it was my turn to cook so, being by the seaside, I decided to cook fish. One of the pleasures of a holiday in Southwold is wandering along the Blackshore Harbour waterfront to buy the freshest possible fish without guilt – it’s caught sustainably on lines by small day boats which supply the harbourside shacks in the most direct way possible.

You have a choice of 3 fish shacks to buy from. My favourite is the smallest and simplest of the lot, Samantha K’s:

The Sole Bay Fish Company, a pebble’s throw away is good too and clearly has a superior PR machine. Blimey, you can even find Jasper Conran extolling its virtues in a Guardian Online article…

Having looked at what was on offer, I couldn’t resist choosing the impressive and rather scary whole ling. All mine for £24. The fish guy kindly filleted the monster for me while Tim and I slipped off to the Harbour Tearooms for an early morning coffee and toasted teacake.

I chose a simple Indian-inspired recipe to show off the fish at its best – the fish fillets are briefly marinaded in lemon juice plus added aromatics, then coated in lots of chopped fresh herbs before being baked for 20 minutes in a hot oven.

I included wild fennel which I found growing wild on the beach in my fresh herb mix for a truly local flavour:

It’s a very adaptable recipe which would work well with all sorts of white fish and the half hour marinading period gives the cook a perfect excuse to slip off to the local pub for a sundowner.

Cooking with fish this fresh was a real revelation. The raw fillets on the board didn’t smell fishy at all, there was just the faintest seaweedy smell of the sea. The cooked fish flaked easily, was an amazing pearly white and the taste was clean, fresh and very summery. So yes, Rick, I agree with you about the fish being underrated and reasonably flavoured but beg to differ on its texture being similar to monkfish – it’s much closer to the flaky texture of cod. A cheaper version of monkfish really would have been too good to be true.

I served the fish with spiced basmati rice, an Indian style grated carrot salad, cucumber raita and some simply steamed greens. A shameless attempt to persuade some of the curry fans in our family to give fresh fish a try – it seems to have worked:

Recipe for fish baked with herbs

I’ve adapted this recipe from one given in Thane Prince’s “Summer Cook”, a slim paperback volume perfect for slipping into your bag if you’re heading off on a self-catering holiday. Her recipe is called Pudina Macchi and she attributes it to Indian chef Satish Arora. Pudina is the Hindi word for mint, a key ingredient in this summery, fresh tasting and straightforward dish.

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 square chunky pieces of white fish fillet, one per person, each weighing about 6 oz so approx one and a half pounds in total. I left the skin on to help the fish keep its shape. I used ling but cod, haddock or any similar variety would work fine in this adaptable recipe
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 fresh red medium hot chilli deseeded and roughly chopped (adjust quantity of chilli to suit your group’s capacity for heat)
juice of 1 lemon
small bunch each of mint, coriander and an aniseedy herb such as fennel or dill
2 tablespoons light olive oil

In a shallow glazed ceramic dish which which will hold the fish fillets snugly without overlapping to much mix together the garlic, coriander, chilli and lemon juice to form a marinade. Place the fish in the marinade flesh side down, skin side up, cover with cling film, refrigerate and leave in the marinade for betweeh 30 minutes and 1 hour. Don’t leave it longer than this as the lemon juice “cooks” the fish and you’ll end up with a ceviche on your hands rather than fish ready for cooking.

Meanwhile, prepare the herbs. Remove the leaves from the mint stalks and chop roughly. The coriander and fennel/dill can be chopped just as they are as their stems are tender. Mix together the chopped herbs.

Once the marinading period is over, remove the fish from the marinade and discard the liquid. Press the flesh side of the fish into the herb mixture aiming for a really thick generous herb coating. Place the fish skin side down, herb side up in a shallow baking dish.

Drizzle the light olive oil over the fish and bake in a preheated oven at 200 degrees C for approximately 20 minutes. Test the fish for doneness as it approaches the end of its cooking time by pressing with the point of sharp knife feeling for the difference in resistance between just cooked and slightly underdone fish.

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