Thursday, 31 January 2013

Jamie Oliver Round Up, Vol. I

I've always wanted to choose a recipe book and cook every single recipe in it. So, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I've been steadily cooking my way through Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meal recipe book, and have really enjoyed it so far. The recipes are very easy to follow, and usually take me around the 45 minute mark. The ingredients lists are usually quite extensive so I doubt this is something you could cook every night as he suggests. However there's some really tasty special feeling meals in there that I'll definitely be cooking again. I think where he really excels are his exciting salads, which is something I never think to include with a main meal, especially a hot one.

So, here's my round up of the first five dishes I cooked.

1. Tasty Crusted Cod, my mashy peas, tartare sauce, warm garden salad.

The herb crust on the fish was a crunchy, well seasoned match for the clean fresh tastes of the cod fillet. The mash held all sorts of exciting textures and the mint sauce gave it an unexpected kick. Since making this recipe I've made the tartare sauce numerous times as it's easy and much more satisfying than buying it in. Also, it means the big jars of cornichons and capers that we wouldn't usually buy can be put to good use. The salad had crispy pancetta that gave the leaves a naughty fatty edge which is always welcome. Overall, an excellent alternative to an ordinary fish n potatoes tea. I'm giving this one 8/10.

2. Oozy Mushroom Risotto, Spinach Salad, and Quick Raspberry & Lemon Cheesecake

Lots and lots of STUFF was chucked into this risotto; rosemary, garlic, thyme, dried porcini and a variety of wild mushrooms. So I was very surprised when it actually tasted quite bland. Perhaps it was the quality of the stock that I used but it needed more seasoning and I just expected it to deliver more of an earthy mushroomy smack to the face. The actual risotto was easy enough and the consistency was perfect. Whilst the sun dried tomotoes gave the salad a much needed bit of excitement, plus I LOVE pine nuts. The quick dessert was the highlight of this meal and led to me discovering how ace lemon curd is. I've never been a fan before but it's lovely and sweet, and I got it from our new local family run village shop. How virtuous of me. A 6/10 because of the slightly disappointing risotto.

3. Summer Veg Lasagne, Tuscan Tomato Salad, and Quick Mango Frozen Yoghurt

I love different takes on lasagne and this one was really scrummy. The bulk of it was made from my favourite green veggies; broad beans, peas and asparagus. Then a creamy mix of cottage cheese and stock. It all got a bit messy and some parts of the pasta was a little chewy for some reason but overall it was summery and very satisfying, especially considering it was meat free. This was one of the best salads I've ever had. Big chunks of bread with fresh tomatoes and basil; sort of a deconstructed bruschetta. A proper revelation for me. I swapped mangos for strawberries which worked very well, only I made it ahead and froze it for too long which spoiled it a bit. Very quick and healthy though. An 8/10 for this meal.

4. Seared Pork Fillet & Catherine Wheel Sausage, Meaty Mushroom Sauce, Celeriac Smash, and Garlicky Beans

I always think fondly of this meal as when I was deciding which one to make, the man himself tweeted me! I always tend to veer away from pork as I've been put off by dry and bland chops. However, I went to  Chadwick's and picked up a bloody lovely piece of pork fillet along with some kidneys for the sauce and sausages. This new (on me) cut of pork was a real revelation as it was tender and tasty. But what made this meal was the sauce; the kidneys made it so much more exciting than an ordinary mushroomy sauce, so it was meaty as well as creamy. I couldn't get hold of celariac in any of the supermarkets I visited so we just had ordinary mashed potatoes which is always nice. The apples and sausage complimented each other really well but I think it was all a bit too much altogether. Especially considering the Catherine wheel sausage is the main component of another meal in the book. Overall a 9/10 mostly because of that pork and the sauce.
5. Super-Fast Beef Hash, Jacket Potatoes, Goddess Salad, Lovely Butter Beans & Bacon

This was one of those meals that I didn't think would be anything to write home about, but ended up being one of the nicest I've had in a long time. Avocado still feels like a bit of an exotic treat to me and I enjoy it in all its forms so the salad and dressing were lovely. The hash was hearty and comforting but still full of interesting flavours. The butter beans were absolutley gorgeous; meaty and fresh with lots of different textures going on. At all tasted very nourishing and everything really came together beautifully; a 9.5/10 as I feel I should reserve the big 10 as you never know what might come along!

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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Book Review; Cook Italy by Katie Caldesi

When in Chester recently, we decided to walk all around the city walls. On our way round we came across a treasure trove of second hand books; Bluecoats Book Shop. Gav lost me among the shelves and eventually found me huddled over in the cookery section, of course. It was a thick yellow book on Italian cuisine that had caught my eye and as I flicked through the beautiful pictures I knew I was going to buy it. It's called Cook Italy and is by Katie Caldesi; English born and married to a Tuscan chef. They own a restaurant and cookery school and I'm not in the slightest bit jealous.

Now this book is the American edition of  The Italian Cookery Course. I didn't realise this at the time but at £13 I was hardly going to be picky. However this means American measurements/spellings/ingredients so I would recommend you buy the English version if possible. I managed fine as I have a nifty little conversion cup thingy and I can handle translating egg-plant to aubergine without feeling the need to rage about it in a review on Amazon.

Throughout the rest of the weekend I was engrossed by this book. It was such an interesting read as well providing enticing recipes. It gave me a real feel for the role food plays in Italy and was full of little anecdotes and insights that gave the book it's own unique character. I read the entire thing from cover to cover and decided that the only thing I could possibly do next was to plan and create a FIVE COURSE ITALIAN FEAST. I said this phrase so many times over the following week I am ASTONISHED it didn't trend. So I planned and planned and planned and one wintery Sunday, I finally did it. What a better way to review an Italian cook book then?

So. I shortlisted and shortlisted until I came up with my menu; an Antipasti course, a pasta course, a fish course, a meat course (with a veg side) and a dessert. This pretty much reflects how the book is organised. I wrote out all the ingredients and recipes on the computer so that I could colour code them and print them out (saving me flicking from page to page). I then wrote a chronological colour coded to do list to coincide with the recipes. However, disaster struck when I couldn't get my printer to work. Gav to the rescue who sat and wrote out all my recipes by hand. What a hero. FIVE COURSE ITALIAN FEAST back on.

The antipasti course was made up of a couple of ideas from the book. This involved salumi; a selection of cold meats which Lidl came up trumps for, I recognised lots of what they had in store from the book. Formaggi included Gorganzola and Manchego. Yes, I know the latter is Spanish but I was limited by where I could shop ok? My olives were not stoned as I don't have a fancy de-stoner, get over it and buy me one for Christmas yea? We also had pane (lightly toasted) and olive oil. The night before THE FEAST I made salsa di pomodori (tomato salsa, similar to what you'd find on a bruschetta) and pure di fave which was a broad bean and pecorino dip. The dip was a big favourite and one of those things that you think Wow, I've never tried this flavour before in my whole life. All this time something I really like has been out there waiting for me to try. This makes me so excited for all the other things out there I haven't tried yet which could potentially be my favourite food!
For my pasta course I went for the ragù alla bolognese. The recipe included milk, chicken livers and bacon and sounded rather intriguing and decadent. I'd heard many a time and also read on Mr Food Urchin's hilarious blog that a good ragu needs to be made the night before. This allows the ingredients time to mingle and flirt and become extra tasty. So again, the night before I made the ragu (apart from the milk which was added during the reheating the next day). This was so so meaty! The liver added an extra dimension of texture and elevated this to so much more than your typical bolognese. The milk also gave it a slightly creamy luxurious edge that I would never expect from this dish. Definitely one to make again.

For our fish (pesce) course we had filetto di branzino con pure di cannellini e salsa verde or fillet of seabass with a canellini bean puree and salsa verde. I replaced the fish with tilapia, which I've had before and whose mild taste I knew would be a good partner to the bolshy salsa. I recommend this fish as readily available, sustainable and easy to incorporate into many dishes. The puree was a tasty alternative to mash, and the salsa verde gave the dish a much needed lift. In laymans terms, I would describe it as a tartare sauce without the mayonnaise. It's tart, rustic and very fresh, and is a great side to grilled or roasted meat and fish.

I had warned the family not to eat today but they hadn't listened and by now they were getting a little full. I hadn't eaten and was fine, but still we only had a small portion of our meat (carne) course of rotola di agnello con pecorino, menta e carfiofi served with insalata di verdure grigliate. This translates as rolled shoulder of lamb stuffed with pecorino cheese, artichokes and mint, served with a roasted vegetable salad. This was dead easy to do; just truss it up and shove it in. The pecorino was hard to find around here, I tried 4 places before I found some in Morrisons. The mint gave it a bit of a green tinge but we coped. The meat (from Chadwicks) was beautiful and the stuffing was another eye opening new taste experience. The veg was what it was, but the juices from the lamb took it up a notch.
For dessert I had chosen pere cotte ripiene di crema di ricotta all’arancia con salsa di cioccolato. Or poached pear stuffed with ricotta cream and orange with chocolate sauce. I love pears and have always fancied them poached. As you may know I don't believe in desserts unless they involve chocolate and this rich sauce was a great balance to the refreshing pear. The syrup that the pear had been cooked in did cause the sauce to go slightly seperatey and gelatinus, but all in all this wasn't a pretty dish anyway. The family loved it though and it was very different from what we would usually have.

So, as you have seen, I had a lot of fun with this book. I can't wait to explore it further. I loved spending the evening and the whole next day cooking and getting things together, and it was actually easier than most of the three coursers I've done before. I think this demonstrates that the Italian's seem to just know that less is more. They know the little that you need to do to well matched ingredients for maximum impact. This massively inspiring book has taught me a lot already and I can't recommend it enough. This is just the tip of the iceberg recipe-wise; it's rammed with over 400 of them with huge full colour photos. If you're interested in Italian cookery and learning more about the culture that surrounds it, look no further!

Monday, 7 January 2013

Piccolino's, Chester

In my last post I told you about the meal we had at Loch Fyne on our first night in Chester. We had researched the restaurants beforehand and fancied Italian on our second night so booked a table at Piccolino's. I don't know anything about this chain or its ethos but the menu looked full of an interesting variety of dishes and they seemed to know what they were talking about.

I would describe the restaurant as very rectangular. Long straight lines everywhere; modern a little Americany but not particularly intimidating. We were greeted and seated straight away and given a selection of complimentary artisan bread. Gav and I had to fight over these as they were soft, fresh and delicious. We also ordered some noceralla olives to nibble on which were a revelation to me. They're a very bright pea green and taste quite mild and buttery. I loved them so much Gav tracked some down for me as a Christmas treat!

I love chicken livers and the starter of Fegato alla crema sounded right up my street, and I was right. The offal was very delicately cooked to a blushing pink and wasn't the least bit rubbery, as liver can often me. The marsala cream sauce was rich and decadent while the green grapes and pine nuts offered little bites of freshness throughout. I loved this combination and would definitly try it again.

For my main course I had the 'Pollo ai funghi'. This was chicken breast with gnocchi, roasted portobello, oyster & chestnut mushrooms cooked in a garlic cream. This was really delicious and the mix of mushrooms added a great earthiness. I'm not a massive fan of gnocchi as they can be a little bit dense and floury, but these were light and tasty. However, this dish was quite similar to my starter so I struggled to finish it which was a bit of a shame. I wonder if any restaurants advise against these sorts of pairings when customers order courses that aren't complimentary?

The atmosphere was lively, service friendly and they offer good value for the excellent quality of food on offer. I really enjoyed my meal here and it rounded off a lovely couple of days spent exploring Chester.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Loch Fyne Seafood Bar and Grill

Before Christmas Gav and I enjoyed a couple of days away in Chester. It's a beautiful city with plenty to do and see and we had two of the nicest meals I've had while we were there. We'd been planning on visiting Loch Fyne in Knutsford since we went to Rick Stein's restaurant over the summer. So we decided to book a table and made the half hour trip from Chester on our first night.

We were impressed straight away by the surrounding area - Knutsford looks like a lovely place and I'd like to go back for an explore. The street the restaurant is on was really quaint and had a couple of old fashioned country pubs on it that I wished we'd left time to have a drink in.

As you walk in you're met with a gleaming fish counter filled with their fresh fish and shellfish for your own viewing pleasure. The dining area was a good mix between stark wood and homely seaside themed additions. To be honest, we needn't have booked as there were only a few other tables filled. It was a weeknight but a livelier atmosphere would have been welcomed.

I had already drawn up my menu shortlist and was looking forward to my starter of Potted Smoked Peppered Mackerel with toasted bloomer. This is making me so hungry just looking at it, I NEED to recreate this at home! It was quite simple but perfectly executed. Buttery, with a deep smoky flavour and a little heat. The bread wasn't very exciting but the mackerel more than made up for it. Gav had the Tempura Battered Squid which he wolfed down without letting me have any and declared it the best squid he'd had.

For my main course I was planning on having the Smoked Haddock with Colcannon mash, mustard and crème fraîche sauce and soft poached egg, which is all right up my street. But I decided that I could probably quite easily make that for myself at home, and I wanted to treat myself and make the real really special. So I had the lobster as I had never even tasted lobster before and thought why not do it somewhere that specialises in seafood?

I'm so glad I tried it as I really enjoyed it. The meat is very sweet and delicate and was complimented well with the peppery watercress and creamy mayonnaise. The fries were a bit pap though, I know it's traditional to serve it in this way but I was very jealous of Gav's chunky chips across the table. Fries are just a bit pointless aren't they? Regardless, I loved the whole experience of cracking open and eating the lobster and would definitely order it again. We also shared a seafood medley side order of seared scallops, grilled king prawn & steamed mussels which were perfectly cooked and a welcome addition to the main. Gav chose from the 'Fish, Your Way' section of the menu, which is a really good idea. You choose the type of fish you want, how you want it cooked, pick from the sauces or salsas and add two sides of your choice. He had pan fried hake with tomato salsa, chips and green beans. Simply tastes and flavours cooked well.
I highly recommend this restaurant to lovers of seafood. The food is actually beautiful to look at and the menu filled with well put together dishes made from simple well cooked ingredients. I am completely inspired to try and recreate some of them and would absolutely revisit this place.