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Archive for March, 2011

Mexican food in restaurants in this country has so often left me disappointed and I’m yet to find a Mexican cookbook that meets my expectations. I’ve begun to wonder whether my idea of Mexican food is just wrong, but how can that be so when ingredients such as fresh and vibrant avocado and tomatoes, umpteen varieties of chillies, corn tortillas and limes are typical of the cuisine?

The idea behind this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club book is a great one: Mexican Made Simple. What better than a book that makes an exotic cuisine accessible to the home cook written by someone, Thomasina Miers, who has lived in the country for some time gathering invaluable knowledge?

I had high hopes, thinking that maybe this would at last be a Mexican cookbook with which to expand my repertoire beyond chilli con carne, fajitas and Tex-Mex style tacos.

With much gusto, I worked my way through the recipes, trying far too many to mention. We ended up with a mixed bag of results; some lovely dishes, many mediocre and one was just odd!

We were disappointed by several dishes and struggled to understand how tasty ingredients like chorizo, thyme and cheese could result in something quite lacklustre. There were a few highlights; the sweet chipotle paste, refried beans (well worth the effort) and rice pudding flavoured with vanilla, cinnamon and the zest of orange and lime. Best of all though was the cucumber agua fresca. Seeing past the vibrant green colour, this is a fantastically refreshing and summery drink, great to cool the heat of chillies. The odd dish, in case you’re wondering, was meatballs de Mehico, containing capers, boiled egg, rice and milk!

I think of myself as an accomplished home cook, not afraid to try something new, experiment with unusual ingredients and happy to tackle a complex dish, but at times I was stumped by some of the recipes. I felt a little misled by the title of the book since, for a great part, this wasn’t Mexican made simple. A fair few of the recipes involved hours of preparation and several intensive and time-consuming steps. Others had long, off-putting ingredients lists I wouldn’t expect to see in a book like this without some kind of words of encouragement to persevere. Insufficient photographs made it difficult to know how unfamiliar dishes should look and a lack of clear and accurate instructions led to some puzzling and frustrating time in the kitchen.

I also found some ingredients, especially the varieties of chillies, tricky to source and ended up shopping online. Whilst I appreciated the message from the author that it’s not important to use all the correct ingredients, I was hoping for at least some level of authenticity. Why make a Mexican dish if it isn’t going to resemble the genuine article?

I have mixed feelings about the book. I wanted to like it, I tried my hardest to embrace it and whilst it has grown on me a little throughout the month, it’s never going to be one of those books I go back to time and time again.

Mexican Made Simple has all the building blocks for a good book. The range of recipes is interesting and enticing. Mexican dishes you’d expect to see are combined with ones many would never have come across had they not visited Mexico. What I feel is lacking is some care and attention to detail which would make this an unmissable and very usable cookery book for any home cook and lover of Mexican food.

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I’ve recently happened across a few quotes, all relating to food, from various famous people. I’m sharing them with you now for no other reason than they’ve made me smile or think ‘that’s just so true’!

“Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.” Alice May Brock

“My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.” Orson Welles

“I am not a glutton – I am an explorer of food.” Erma Bombeck

“There are five elements: earth, air, fire, water and garlic.” Louis Diat

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Classic Voices in Food is a new series of cookery books from publisher Quadrille. The nostalgic series rediscovers great cookery writers and heroes from as far back as the nineteenth century and is aimed at modern day cookery enthusiasts looking for a taste of times gone by. 

Publications which have been unavailable for decades, except to those ruthless collectors dropping lucky in a charity or second hand book shop, are being respectfully re-issued, unabridged, and given a new lease of life. Many are still relevant today and with interest in good food continually growing this series lets us revisit the books which started the food writing trend.  

The first two titles in the series launching this Spring are Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book and Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families. The next two titles, Simple French Cooking for English Homes and The Gentle Art of Cookery, will be launching in September.

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Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book was first published in English in 1938. Simone Prunier quickly became THE authority on fish cookery in England. She opened her restaurant in London in 1934 where she gained a reputation for cooking impressive and innovative fish and shellfish dishes. 

The book is mainly a collection of recipes from her father, Emile Prunier, himself a renowned restaurateur in Paris, who shortly before his death had collated his recipes and prepared an outline for a book, but failed to publish it before he passed away. His business partner, Michel Bouzy, was the first to publish Emile’s collection of recipes in 1929; Simone’s Fish Cookery Book is a revised version of that publication. 

‘If Madame Prunier has her way, English people will soon become much more “fish-conscious”, and by asking for cheaper and more unfamiliar fishes will soon find that a demand is created.’ Ambrose Heath, original editor of Fish Cookery. 

It is sad to think that what Madame Prunier was hoping to achieve from publishing the book is still a battle for fishermen and chefs today. The chapter on salt-water fish starts with the editor’s introduction ‘She has always been a little puzzled why it is we cannot as a rule get fishes such as Bass, Gurnard, Sea-bream and so on in the fishmonger’s shop, and I am inclined to think that the reason is that even if we were to see them there we should neither recognise them nor know what to do with them if we bought them.’ Whilst a wider range of fish is more readily available in our shops today, it is probably still true that people do not recognise nor know how to cook many of them. 

The likes of Rick Stein and Mitch Tonks, and more recently Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver with the fish fight campaign, continue the fish heritage the Prunier family brought to English home cooks. Times have changed but much of what Prunier was encouraging people to do back in 1938 is no different to what chefs are shouting from the seashores and fishing boats now. 

She includes recipes for herring, mackerel, whiting, gurnard; inexpensive fish at the time which were, until she included them on the restaurant menu, neglected by her well-off clientele. It is these same fish which are being championed now as sustainable and affordable alternatives to cod, tuna and salmon on which we’ve got ourselves hooked. 

Much the same as Mitch Tonks in his Fish cookbook and more recently with his Eat Fish iPhone app, Madame Prunier gives heaps of sound advice on buying fresh fish and shellfish, basic rules for cooking them and help with what to serve with them. 

Buy it fresh, cook it quick, keep it simple, though by all means adorn the fish with a classic sauce, for which there are plenty of recipes in the book. She, as Mitch is saying today, proclaimed that all you need is a bit of knowledge and a little experience and fish really is nothing to be frightened of. 

In addition to the advice and information, sauces and accompaniments, a note on pairing wine with fish and original illustrations, there are hundreds of recipes for hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, soups, fresh-water, salt-water and shellfish as well as turtle (now illegal), frogs and snails. Many of the recipes are timeless classics widely found on menus today. They are concise, descriptive and elegantly written, making the simplest of dishes sound decadent. The chapter introductions are personal, simple accounts and musings as well as frank and sometimes humorous observations. 

Except for the style of writing, definitely a sign of the times, this book would not be out of place on book shelves alongside modern works from Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson or even Raymond Blanc. The re-publication of Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book in the Classic Voices in Food series has given the Prunier family a new stage from which to passionately encourage us all to embrace the fruits of the sea.

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Eliza Acton has been described as the first modern cookery writer, preceding Mrs Beeton by sixteen years. After trying her hand at teaching and writing poetry, she was encouraged by her publisher to turn her attention to something more practical; cookery writing. 

Modern Cookery for Private Families was first published 1845 and was an immediate success. The book remained popular for many years and was republished countless times. It wasn’t until the publication of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management that the success of the book started to dwindle. Modern Cookery however remained influential for many cookery book writers; Elizabeth David, Delia Smith and Mrs Beeton included. 

Modern Cookery made history, being the first cookery book to give detailed preparation and cooking instructions, to list ingredients with the exact quantities required and to discuss issues which may arise during the preparation of a dish along with advice on how to fix them. The book is filled with recipes she had quite clearly cooked and tested herself time and time again. She spoke from a wealth of experience. 

Her recipes were aimed at her peers; ordinary, middle-class, home cooks. At the time some of her audience may well have had staff, a maid or a cook, but Eliza made it possible for them to help out with grocery shopping, meal planning or step into the kitchen on such occasions when the staff weren’t available. Her book taught women how to provide their families with nutritious and tasty home-cooked meals.   

Modern Cookery for Private Families has stood the test of time and is well deserved of republication in the Classic Voices in Food series. The theme of the book resonates with the plight of many a modern British household. She argued that processed food, shop-bought bread, and the lost art of ‘preparing good, wholesome, palatable’ food was the cause of countless health problems and malnutrition. They may be different foods in question (fast food, microwavable ready meals or chocolate bars) and new health issues, such as obesity and heart disease, but it’s the same story. As a nation, we’ve forgotten how to cook, eat well and be healthy. 

In this book Eliza proves that you don’t have to be rich to eat good food. Understanding ingredients, knowing the best way to cook them, working with cheap ingredients and not wasting food can provide a far richer and wider range of meals than a few mistreated expensive ingredients. Just look now at the trend for cheap cuts of meat, eating in season when produce is abundant and therefore economical to buy, and the cries from influential food writers and chefs to get creative with leftovers, produce stocks from chicken carcasses and to make a little go a long way. In fact, it is traditional recipes for many of these ingredients from books like Modern Cookery which are today being re-invigorated by chefs, food writers and home cooks alike. 

This tome has 32 chapters covering everything from soups to baked puddings via souflles, curry and pickles. It’s a classic family cookery book full of wonderful traditional recipes which should be part of everyone’s cook book collection.

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We’ve had a busy few foodie months and, after missing out on several occasions because of date clashes, finally managed to get a place at the Bishopston Supper Club on Friday evening. This being only our second foray into the world of the secret supper club (we dined at the Montpelier Basement in November) we were excited to see how our evening with the Resting Chef would pan out.

Danielle, blogging under the alias the Resting Chef, has worked as a chef in several Bristol restaurants, including Hotel du Vin and H Bar, but now offers cookery lessons and runs the Bishopston Supper Club from her home.

Her ethos is to use locally sourced and seasonal produce to create homely and classic dishes of restaurant quality and with her own creative twist. To help achieve this aim, Danielle has a list of trusted local suppliers including Castellano’s Deli, the Fish Shop and Trethowan’s Dairy but is also often seen tweeting about her foraging efforts in Bristol’s hedgerows and undergrowth in preparation for her supper clubs and to stock up her storecupboard with preserves. No surprise then that the menu was to feature nettles, picked around St Werburghs City Farm earlier in the week.

The local connections don’t stop at sourcing the food. The Resting Chef has teamed up with newly opened Grape and Grind to provide guests with wine recommendations for each course, making it easy to stop in on the way to pick up a couple of bottles knowing that they’ll be a perfect match for the food.

There was a relaxed atmosphere in the dining room and the kitchen when we arrived. A few guests were already there and we had met another as we walked up the pathway to the house. Danielle and her sous-chef and washer-upper for the evening, Georgia, were very calm. There was plenty of time for mingling with guests whilst bringing out an aperitif of Somerset cider brandy with apple juice and our appetisers; crisp ewe’s curd and spinach filo parcels. More traditionally found filled with feta or ricotta, the ewe’s curd was a great local alternative with just the right tang needed to contrast with the irony spinach.

Once everyone had arrived and drinks were in hand we took our seats at the large communal table. It was pleasant to see couples opting to sit apart so that they could talk to more people around the table. One of the beauties of supper clubs is that opportunity to meet new people in a friendly environment and there would certainly be no uncomfortable feeling if you were to turn up on your own, as a couple of the diners did.

Our starter was a Provencal style fish soup with croutons and rouille. I thought that the fish soup would be a challenge for me as I don’t have fond memories of fish soup from childhood trips to France but I was unduly concerned. The flavour was stunning. It was rich, deep and yet still light enough to serve as a starter. Served with fillets of fish and plenty of shellfish it would have made an amazing main course. Wine recommendation: a Provence Rose.

Next up; nettles. The nettles had been blanched then sweated off to form the base of a risotto which was earthy and perfectly al dente. A few toasted pine nuts, shavings of parmesan, a drizzle of olive oil and a home-made stock which had been tended to for hours took the dish from homely weeknight supper to fine-dining. Wine recommendation: Sauvignon blanc.

I was really looking forward to the main course and the accompanying wine. It was right up my street. Braised mutton with white bean puree and greens. Danielle had chosen to cook the mutton in a good red wine with a bouquet garni and the usual stock vegetables.  Mutton has a richer, gamier flavour than lamb and when cooked long and slow, as this was, is so tender it almost melts in the mouth. The cannelini beans on which the mutton sat had been pureed with garlic, thyme and rosemary. A delicious alternative to mash potato. I’m not ashamed to say I wiped my plate clean with the freshly baked focaccia still left on the table from the start of meal. Wine recommendation: Chianti or Barbera.

There was just enough room left for a light dessert! Rhubarb and Moscat jelly with poached rhubarb, bay ice cream and shortbread. The jelly was not over-sweet and had the perfect wibble, the poached rhubarb was so intensely rhubarb flavoured and a vibrant pink and they were both complimented by the fragrant, slightly savoury bay ice cream. My first taste of bay ice cream and one I’ll be looking for again. Wine recommendation: a late harvest Riesling or Tokaji.

Danielle and Georgia, having finished in the kitchen, joined us at the table where more wine, cider brandy, tea and coffee freely flowed with the conversation into the small hours.

Bishopston Supper Club felt more like a dinner party than a restaurant-style experience and yet the calibre of the chef showed in the attention to detail, presentation, depth of flavour and quality of the cooking in every course. The best of both worlds. A fabulous evening. Compliments to the chef!

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Which chefs? Nathan Muir of The New Inn, Backwell. Josh Eggleton of the Pony & Trap, Chew Magna. Toby Gritten of the Pump House, Hotwells. Jonray and Peter Sanchez of Casamia, Westbury-on-Trym. 

When and where? 26 January: The New Inn, 9 February: The Pony & Trap, 23 February: The Pump House, 9 March: Casamia. 

The premise? The chefs joined forces to host an exclusive four-course dining experience at each of their restaurants. Four venues, four menus, one course per chef at each event. 

9 March: Casamia 

Tables for the four evenings were fully booked shortly after the events were advertised so we were very lucky to have bagged a table at Casamia last night. 

After taking our time walking up the courtyard to have a good nose into the kitchen, we were greeted at the door with beaming smiles. Our coats were whisked away, we were shown to our table and, in the style of Michel Roux’s Service, given the magic touch as we took our seats. We’d been given an early bird slot of 7.15 and arrived to find an almost desolate restaurant but it soon started to fill up and the atmosphere enlivened. 

The maître d’ presented us with a black envelope containing the menu. We were thoughtfully asked to review it and let him know if we had any food allergies or if there was a course we preferred not to eat. Alternative dishes were available. 

Nervous excitement was beginning to build as we really didn’t know what to expect from any of the dishes. Casamia’s menu style is to provide some reference to the ingredients in each course without giving anything away in terms of cooking technique, presentation or how the whole dish might unfold.

The order of proceedings was going to be the Pump House on starter, The New Inn on fish, Casamia on mains and the Pony & Trap on dessert.

We were brought our aperitifs, together with some unexpected antipasti. The antipasti were deliciously moreish: fruity Sicilian green olives, salt and pepper toasted macadamia, roasted almonds, a bundle of home-made star anise grissini and a truffle drip. 

The antipasti were cleared away and replaced with a tiny spoon and an odd-shaped wooden ‘bowl’, followed shortly afterwards by a second surprise: an egg box (!) containing two beautiful duck egg shells. The eggs were filled with warm, silky scrambled egg, cured pork and topped with thyme foam. Exquisite. 

Some freshly baked bread arrived next with home-made butter. There was a choice of soft poppy seed roll with crisp crust or an incredible olive oil and rosemary focaccia.

This was an evening with the chefs of four restaurants but so far our hosts had done well to stamp their Michelin starred mark on the event not only with the food but also the attentive service. 

Our Pump House starter was ‘cured mackerel wrapped in Serrano ham, rhubarb and watercress’. The mackerel was firm and strong tasting and the ham very salty but eaten with the watercress puree, poached pink rhubarb and delicate strands of candied orange zest, the dish really worked. Rhubarb and mackerel is a classic combination you rarely come across, mackerel, beetroot and horseradish being so much more common, so it was great to try something more unusual. 

The New Inn was in charge of the fish course, described on the menu as ‘turmeric cured sea bass, frittata of Cornish crab with sorrel’. Wow! I was torn between wanting to eat fast because it was just incredible and eating slowly to savour every morsel. The cured sea bass, similar in texture to gravadlax, was delicately flavoured with turmeric. No, I’ve never come across that before either! White crab meat was rolled in a very thin sorrel omelette and dotted around the plate were green shoots, spots of turmeric aioli, crunchy slivers of apple and cubes of pickled turnip. A stunning and inspired plate of food I could have eaten over and over. 

The home team were up next with ‘beef cheek, baked potatoes, pickled onion, horseradish, puffed corn’. The beef cheek had been slowly braised and was similar in texture and flavour to corned beef/brisket whilst the pickled onions were like fairy bowls; individual layers of halved silverskin onions containing a drop of pickling liquor. From what I’d seen on Ramsay’s Best Restaurant and read in reviews, I expected there to be one element of the dish which would be playful. I wasn’t disappointed, this came in the form of the mushroom flavoured popcorn (if only all popcorn tasted that good!) which we were instructed to sprinkle over the food like salt and pepper. 

To round off the meal, the Pony & Trap served a humorous dessert reminiscent of breakfast, though I think my doctor would be horrified if I was eating this for breakfast every morning! ‘Cornflakes pannacotta, cereal bar and banana’. This was a dish of three parts: a golden layer of cornflake puree topped with milky pannacotta, caramelised banana served with banana parfait and a super-sweet nutty cereal bar. Dessert really demonstrated the creativity of the chef. 

The menu was very well conceived considering the quite different styles and influences of the chefs. The talent of each shone through but together they did incredibly well to make the meal cohesive. An amazing showcase of what these fantastic Bristol chefs have to offer. 

Feeling satiated but not over full, we left planning when we could visit each of the restaurants to sample their own menus. First up, The New Inn next weekend!

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