Dishes of the Year

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It’s that time of the year (Listmas? Ugh), when we gorge ourselves on the opinions of others, hope that we can make up for a year of apathy by digesting the entire cultural calendar in a bullet-pointed frenzy. With nothing much else to do (I’m not going to blog my Christmas dinner, am I?) I thought I’d wade into the fray. In chronological rather than ranking order, these are the best individual dishes I have eaten this year. I might have had better meals (that cheap, boozy fish dinner in Barcelona) or sampled better ingredients (salmon pastirma, perhaps), but these are the finest considered, composed plates of food I have sampled. For fairness and variety, I’ve only picked one dish from any meal or holiday – I could have chosen six from the Sportsman, for example – while for reasons of not being an arse, I have excluded anything cooked by myself.

SPAGHETTI WITH SEA URCHIN
Piccolo Napoli, Palermo, 28/2
Just a triumph of simplicity, which I wrote about at the time. Spaghetti, fresh sea urchin gently cooking in the heat of the pasta, parsley (chilli?) and oil. Outrageously tasty, supremely redolent of salt and sea, it made me want to eat urchin all the time.

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EEL AND EGG
The Sportsman, Seasalter, 16/4
The most impressive part of a very impressive meal, the full tasting menu at this Michelin-starred seaside pub. A warm poached egg yolk, a cool whipped eel cream, hiding little chunks of smoked eel and a violently fresh parsley sauce, all housed in an eggshell. Technically magnificent, beautifully flavoursome.

TROTTERS IN MUSTARD
Mousel’s Cantine, Luxembourg City, 26/5
This is a little unfair, as half the fun was the place itself – a little brasserie around which waiters rushed, looking like extras from Asterix, carrying trays of foaming stone beer mugs, platters of choucroute and beans and potatoes – but this dish was lovely. Boned out feet, stuffed with something piggy, braised in a sauce rich with ham and mirepoix, sharp with mustard. You know it’s going to be good when the waiter warns you it’s “special”.

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PAPADA BUN
Tickets, Barcelona, 12/6
Not actually from the tapas bar itself, we had this from a food festival pitched up in the Ramblas, with various revered eateries offering little bites. I can’t even remember what else was in this bun, just the glazed softness of the brioche and the melting fat of a pig’s double chin.

GRILLED ONION SALAD
Mangal 2, London, 9/7
Blackened white onions and fat tomatoes and a vast pile of herbs, with a couple of lettuce leaves and bits of cucumber for form’s sake, all drenched in pomegranate molasses, lemon and oil. Powerfully delicious, I could drink that dressing by the mug.

WET POLENTA
Polpetto, London, 6/8
Not really a dish? I was going to put the octopus, absurdly tender, spiced just so, charred in all the right places – but then I realised I had completely forgotten the beans that had come with it, and thought it was unfair to include a dish I couldn’t even remember properly. That polenta, though – I can taste it now. So rich, so delicately seasoned.

PUFFED JALAPENO
Billy Franks, London, 3/9
A canapé! Don’t worry, it’s the only one (I don’t make a habit of eating canapés). Served at the Young British Foodie awards ceremony, which we were shortlisted for. I must have eaten about ten of these. A dried, deep-fried jalapeno, topped with an n’duja cheese sauce, pineapple bacon jam and some kind of powdered beef jerky, this was exactly the sum of its parts and therefore filthily tasty.

HERB SALAD
Ciya, Istanbul, 28/9
Parsley, a purple herb I didn’t recognise, white cheese. Pomegranate, oil. Come on.

KOREAN CHICKEN WINGS
The Wingman, Norwich , 20/11
A brand new popup at the Birdcage which I hope we see more of, this is certainly one of the most exciting things to happen to Norwich for a while (not counting Pickle and Smoke, obviously). Sweet, sticky, spicy, covered in sesame, fresh spring onions and herbs, melting off the bone. The kimchi was pretty underpowered, but you can’t have everything. Give it time.

CONFIT GOOSE
The Granville, Canterbury, 23/12
This is the Sportsman’s sister pub. Not quite as fancy, it confines itself to doing ‘pub grub’ very well. Annoyingly, they weren’t doing their cheap lunch deal in December (which they didn’t mention when I booked), so we spent a bit more than intended. Still delicious though. Tender meat, crisp skin, perfect roast potatoes. Nothing groundbreaking, no, but that’s not always what you want. A good start to the feasting period.

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Fish/Fruit

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I’ve never been a particularly keen fish-eater. Fish depends, I think, more than any other food, on a sense of place for its enjoyment, and while some of my favourite ever meals have been simply- or barely-cooked white fish or shellfish, eaten within pissing distance of the sea, I have never felt much of an urge to recreate them at home. Grilled cuttlefish or prawns, sea urchin scooped from the shell, lose their piquancy without the seasoning provided by the crash of waves and the tang of the salt air.

 

The flavours of oily fish, on the other hand, seem to travel a little better. (Although their flesh does not – the meat is really only good for one day; mackerel fishermen, in times when such things mattered, used to have special license to trade on Sundays so they did not waste their catch). They are more robust, and will stand up to bigger flavours, – smoke and vinegar and punchy fruit – than the vague wisps of fennel and lemon which so often accompany more delicate creatures; this also allows for a little more leeway in the quality of the fish itself. You will never recreate that beautiful bream you ate on the beach, with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of something cold – not with a supermarket specimen, anyway. With oily fish, though, the spices and sauces carry the burden that the flesh can not.

 

Some of the nicest seafood I have ever eaten has been in Turkey, but very often in the form of the fresh, the white, the inimitable. Fish are everywhere, live in buckets or slithering on ice, twisted with rigor, in varieties unobtainable in Britain, and are often very simply grilled or fried. Sometimes, though, for mezze dishes, the treatments are a little more complex. The following is based on a dish we ate in Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul, a very unusual preparation of mackerel, almost confited in a spiced, syrupy oil.

 

POMEGRANATE MACKEREL

For 8 as a mezze, perhaps 4 as a starter, with some bread and salad

8 mackerel fillets, pinboned

2 tsp coriander seeds

 

200ml pomegranate molasses

100ml red wine vinegar

8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

grated zest of one orange

6 banana shallots, thinly sliced

500ml good olive oil

salt

You can leave the fillets whole, or slice them in half widthways and then again lengthways for ease of eating as a mezze, either way, salt lightly and set aside.

In a wide pan (ideally wide enough to fit the fish in one layer, and deep enough to hold all the ingredients) gently toast the coriander seeds until they start to give up their aroma, then pour in the molasses and vinegar. Stir them together, then add the garlic, orange zest, and shallots. Let the mixture simmer for a bit, although you don’t want it to cook particularly.

Lay the fish in evenly, and then pour the oil over it. Warm it over a very gentle heat – you will see bubbles coming up through and from the fish – until the pieces of mackerel are just, just cooked, having lost their translucent grayness. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside – the mackerel will carry on cooking as they cool.

Serve with some of the juices and some appropriate accompaniments.

Eggs Dracule

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Reading food writing all the time, it’s easy to think that recipes spring, fully-formed, from nowhere; that other people’s lives are parades of perfect meal after perfect meal, crafted and styled. Even leftovers are never chucked in a sandwich or in the bin, but instead reimagined, ‘upcycled’ into hashes and pilafs, fritters and arancini. “I always make extra, just for the leftovers!” they cry, and you curse them from your pit of crisps and shame.

 

Of course, no-one lives like this in reality, or at least no-one who has anything else to do with their time. The lifestyle we are shown in cookery books, blogs and TV shows is a fantasy, even for those who espouse it; Nigel Slater recounts, in the middle of his Kitchen Diaries (otherwise full of farmers’ markets, trips to Chinatown, odes to his herb garden), being publically accosted while carrying a bag of frozen peas, and fleeing in shame. Nothing wrong with frozen peas, of course, but the message behind this careful lifting of the mask is clear. “I am like you”, he says. “I am human too.”

 

In the interests of transparency, then, I feel I should say that my breakfast yesterday consisted of a co-op ham and cheese sandwich and some crisps. The gas was off, the house was freezing, and I stayed in bed until hunger drove me out; there was nothing to eat in the house that didn’t need cooking. That, however, doesn’t make for a very good blog post, at least not on a food blog. Brunch today, then, is what I will write about. While a little fancier, it was still born of necessity, surplus, and experiment, an off-the-cuff meal that turned out quite well.

 

I have a lot of dried blood left after making black pudding, and had been searching for things to do with it. I remembered reading about some research done by the Nordic Food Lab, in which they had discovered that blood has a very similar make-up to eggs, and so this dish was born.

 

EGGS DRACULE

a fine romantic brunch for two

4 eggs

2 English muffins

4 slices of good ham

a little chopped parsley or chives

PIG BLOOD HOLLANDAISE

50g butter

2 tblspn dried blood

50ml water

25ml red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a small, lipped pan, and leave to settle a little. Put a pan of water on to boil. In a heatproof bowl, whisk together the blood, water and vinegar with a pinch of salt until the blood is dissolved.

When the water comes to a boil, put the bowl over it, turn off the hear, and start whisking. When frothy and thickened slightly, start adding the butter in a slow stream, whisking as you go. When it’s all added (leaving behind the white solids) you should have a light, glossy sauce. Season, and leave over the hot water while you construct brunch.

Poach the eggs according to your usual method, unless your usual method is terrible, in which case get someone else to do it. Split, toast, and butter the muffins, and put a slice of ham on each half. A poached egg on that, a blanket of sauce, and a sprinkle of herbs, and there you go.

 

Stuffed

Stuffed Pheasant

Don’t get me wrong, I love hands-on, elbows-on-the-table, sauce-on-the-face eating – wings, ribs, mussels, snails, whole crab, anything that goes well with lots of friends and napkins and beer – but it’s nice occasionally to have something a bit more, well, refined. Something where the hard work, the nuts and bolts and bones, is got out of the way long before dinner, and all you have to do at the table is sit and eat. This is especially true, I think, over Christmas, when you’ve got quite enough to eat without making it any harder for yourself, and when the tradition of carving at the table leads to unwanted scrutiny of your knives and skills.

 

Carving a bird isn’t the hardest of tasks, but there is something a bit silly about the whole affair; taking off the breasts before you can slice them, utensils wrestling with tasks better suited to hands, and then the whole question of stuffing. If you actually stuff the bird with it, it plays havoc with the cooking time, and of course you have to get it out again; if you don’t, well then it isn’t really stuffing, is it? Drastic as it may seem, de-boning the whole bird is really the best solution to all of these problems. To carve, you simply slice across, and the flesh becomes, really, a wrap for the stuffing, which after all is usually the best bit.

 

Against this, of course, is the work of actually boning the damn thing. Well, you could always ask your butcher to do it (I’d give him a little advance notice, though). Or you could (as I did) learn how to do it from this excellent video. It isn’t that hard, although it certainly isn’t quite as easy as he makes it look. Or, of course, you might already know how to do it! It’s incredibly satisfying, anyway. Here’s what I did with mine.

 

PHEASANT WITH BLACK PUDDING AND CITRUS STUFFING

serves 2, festively, or more in leaner times.

STAGE 1

1 pheasant, fully boned (keep the bones)

1 leek

1 fat carrot

1 onion

2 cloves of garlic

bay leaves

peppercorns

juniper berries

Roast the pheasant carcass in a hot oven, then make a stock with it and the rest of the ingredients, covered with water. It’ll need a good 2-3 hours of simmering. You could pop the pheasant in brine overnight, too.

STAGE 2

1 rasher of streaky bacon, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely diced

2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

2 good chunks of black pudding (about 100-150g)

a small handful of parsley, chopped

a small handful of dried breadcrumbs

1/2 tsp allspice

a grating of nutmeg

1 tbspn chopped candied citrus peel

1 small egg

lard, salt and pepper

Sweat the bacon, onion and garlic in a dollop of lard until soft and clear. Crumble in the black pudding, then stir through the rest of the ingredients. Season. When cooled slightly, beat the egg lightly and mix that in too.

STAGE 3

the pheasant

the stuffing

the stock

1 leek, sliced into chunks and washed

1 carrot, peeled and sliced into chunks

1 onion, peeled and sliced into chunks

5 rashers of streaky bacon

another onion, finely diced

1 tbspn flour

a little mustard, redcurrant jelly, and/or booze, as you will

lard, salt and pepper

string

Get the oven to Gas Mark 4/180C/350F. Lay your pheasant, skin side down, on a board or counter. If not brined, season enthusiastically. Rearrange any ragged bits of meat so there’s a good, even layer, then spoon over the stuffing. Spread it out, leaving a slight border, and work some right down into his trousers. When happy with your work, begin the reconstructive surgery. Fold over one side into the middle, and then the other, overlapping the skin slightly. Turn over onto the seam, cross the legs at a jaunty angle, and tie, again as shown here; finally, lay the rashers of bacon across the breast, then get his bed ready.

Melt a little lard in an appropriately sized (ie small) roasting tin, then toss in the vegetable chunks, making sure they get a good coating. Place your handsome pheasant sausage in the middle of this, then roast in the oven for about 45 minutes. As ever, you’re after clear juices and crispy bacon. Remove from the oven, remove the bacon, and wrap the bird up to rest. While this happens, make the gravy.

Sweat the onion in a little more lard, then stir in the flour, cook until it smells vaguely of biscuits, and add whichever of mustard, jelly and booze you see fit (I used all three). Gradually add the pheasant stock, stirring slightly manically, and simmer until thickened nicely. How much stock, and how much further liquid you add, depends on how you like your gravy. Pour in the vegetables and juices from the roasting tray too, and simmer some more. Strain into a jug.

Serve, sliced thickly, with the gravy, greens, perhaps tossed with hazelnuts and mustard dressing, and some sort of potato. As for the bacon, you could chop it and add to the greens, or just have as a treat on the side. Or eat it, while making the gravy, and pretend it never existed.