A Lot On Her Plate Supper… in Paradise

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A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of inviting some of my finest food-loving friends to a little supper at Paradise By Way of Kensal Green in West London. The idea was to introduce my cooking and some of the recipes from the forthcoming book (named after this blog) to my peers, in a fun and fabulous setting with plenty of drinks to wash it down. I had my 25th birthday at Paradise, and I know what a great venue it is – rather ahead of its time in terms of decor and outlook: channeling a sort of relaxed, eccentric decadence, but because it’s all the way over in West London it’s not somewhere I go often enough.

Lucky for me, the guys at the venue are an absolute joy to work with, and gave me a huge amount of autonomy in everything from styling the table, to what I was going to serve for dinner – making the whole experience enjoyable, rather than stressful. We decided to keep things intimate – with a sit-down meal for 25, starting off with Aperol Spritz (my all-time favourite drink), kale chips and Marmite Gougeres in the twinkling conservatory, before heading into the candlelit private dining room for the meal.

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In the dining room the table was laid with a grey tablecloth and decorated with flowers and succulents by my favourite florist Grace and Thorn, as well as some pineapples that I brought along because I love using them as table decorations. This wasn’t planned, I promise – but the room is painted a lovely turquoise blue, matching the vintage turquoise blue and gold dress I was wearing, and while coordinating with the decor wasn’t the first thing on my mind, I got lots of compliments on the outfit and on the styling – people loved those pineapples!

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When we were all sat down the wine started to flow and people got stuck into the bavette carpaccio and leeks vinaigrette – two of the dishes from the ‘starters’ section of the book. It was pretty surreal to look around me and see respected food folk like Felicity Cloake, Clive Watson, Rebecca Seal, Victoria Stewart, Alice Levine, Elly Curshen and Uyen Luu eating my food in a restaurant setting. It was such a fun night, and I was so happy and heartened by the supportive turnout, I soon forgot my nerves and got stuck into the plates with everyone else. David, the brilliant chef from Paradise translated my recipes absolutely faithfully and was kind enough to say that he thought my food was the sort of thing he’d serve in the restaurant. David you charmer!

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That day, while David had been grafting for the evening’s service, I’d been cooking up the dessert (huge thanks to Uyen Luu for allowing me to commandeer her brand new oven for perfect results): two huge cherry pies I brought along, balancing the overspilling, crumbly pastries on my lap in the car on the way. They went down very well indeed (the recipe will be in the book), and while some people left after the sweet course to make the last tube, some of us stayed on for more Aperol and to have a dance in the conservatory. I remember rapping to Jay-Z with Clem from Paradise and Antony Rettie, but that’s about the last thing I remember.

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Massive thanks so Shelley Martin-Light for making this thing happen and feasting with us on the night, despite being very close to giving birth. You are such an inspiration lady!

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If this is the kind of thing you’d like to come to, watch this space because hopefully there might be some more next year, to tie-in with the book’s release. We might even throw a copy of the book in with the ticket price…

The night’s menu:

Rosie Birkett Supper Club

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Food styling for Guardian Cook

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If you’re a follower of this blog, my Twitter or Instagram, you may have noticed that the old Cathcart/Birkett dream team was recently reunited for a shoot for the Guardian’s Cook supplement, which comes out each weekend as part of the Saturday Guardian, sharing some wonderful recipe ideas and relevant, original food content. You can read a couple of pieces I’ve written for the supplement here. Being a massive fan of Cook, which has been taken up a notch by hot-shot editor Mina Holland, (author of the wonderful Edible Atlas), and always includes gorgeous photography and styling, I was super excited to work on four of its 10 Best spreads, which included cover shots.

The 10 Best feature takes one ingredient and shares recipes that are brilliant because you’ve probably not made them before. Our ingredients were pepper, plums, sweet potato and ‘sauces’, and the recipes included things like dairy free, gluten free sweet potato donuts and one of my faves, walnut romesco sauce, from amazing cooks including Michel Roux Jr, Anna Jones and Anissa Helou.

During the shoot we were spoiled rotten with the food – I particularly loved Michel Roux Jr’s plum tarts, which while being fairly demanding (I needed to make a proper creme pat and stock syrup to poach the plums in) are worth every effort once you sink your teeth into them. They also look beautiful because the plums sort of melt into the creme pat, their skins scorching and shrinking, their flesh turning to sweet, unctuous pulp. Hurry up and make them while plums are still here! 

Hemsley and Hemsley’s beef Lok Lak was also delicious, and will certainly be gracing my table again, not least because it’s fabulously quick and satisfying.

You can find all these delicious recipes here:

I love working with Helen because her pictures are always beautiful, natural and evocative, and she always makes food I cook look its best. It’s amazing to see these pictures in print on the cover of a supplement I’ve been reading (and writing for) since it started. Here are some of the pics – I hope you like them. With thanks to Linda Berlin for her ace prop styling and Jenny Brown for her brilliant assistance during the shoot, check out her excellent blog Bake here.

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Book shoot and summer supper club fun

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It’s been a while since I put up a blog post, but I have a good excuse, promise. For the past few months I’ve been working, cooking and sweating my not-so-little ass off to get my cookbook (WHOOP) submitted to the wonderful Hardie Grant. As seems to now be the pattern (remember last summer’s Christmas photoshoot for Booths?), I spent the June heatwave split between my tiny, dark basement kitchen and the lovely light, airy kitchen at  Helen Cathcart’s location house cooking and prepping for two solid weeks for the shoot.

Never have I cursed my wretched rented kitchen, or loved my dweeby trainers and their comfy orthotic inserts more. I am so lucky to have worked with Helen on this as she always takes the most beautiful photos, and we are really on the same page when it comes to styling and props, which we sourced together for the book. I am really excited about the way the book is going to look – you may have caught the odd glimpse on Instagram and here are some more outtakes:

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To celebrate finishing the shoot – which was genuinely one of the most full-on working experiences of my life – but great fun thanks to the wonderful company I was in (thanks also to my amazing helpers Maggie, the hilarious Stephanie Boote, Jenny and Ben), Helen and I – ever suckers for punishment – decided to throw a little supperclub in Helen’s magical garden in Hackney. We invited some of our friends, laid on Sacred gin and elderflower cocktails, had some beautiful floral table dressings from fab local florist Grace and Thorn, and I cooked up a selection of recipes from the book including potato and rosemary pizzas and my famous homemade porchetta.

We served everything on big platters in the middle of the table, and the food went down really well, along with too many bottles of wine to recount. After all the courses had been served, I took off my apron and headed outside to drink and dance the night away with the guests, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. The whole night was a real team effort, with Helen taking some beautiful shots (below), some of which will feature in the book, and my pal Ben Blackburn stoically helping in the kitchen, despite having graduated from his cookery school the day before. Helen’s gorgeous sister Lilee (pictured) waitressed, and Jamie was chief KP, keeping the kitchen ticking over very smoothly.

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Supperclub

Supperclub

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This was the menu:

A Midsummer’s Supper Club

Snacks
Bagna Cauda and raw veg
Rosemary and potato pizzas

Starter
Seafood orzo salad with slow roasted tomatoes, baby squid and roasted pine nuts

Main
Homestyle porchetta with green lentils

Salads
Panzanella
Fig, rocket and gorgonzola

Dessert
Lemon meringue posset

Doing the supper club was huge fun, and it’s definitely something I want to again, it’s just a case of finding a venue that will work. So watch this space, because you’ll be invited to the next one…

Cooking with elderflower: simple cordial and rhubarb and elderflower upside down cake

Elderflower picking, Hackney
Photo by Helen Cathcart

I really love the start of spring, when rhubarb comes into season and the trees are fragrant and floral with little white elderflowers. I’ve never lived anywhere where elderflower season has been so apparent, but I’m near the River Lea and Hackney marshes, and suddenly my morning runs and bike rides have become heady with the gorgeous scent of these pretty, fragrant and short-lived white flowers, which seem to be growing from every tree and hedgerow. I’ve been collecting it by the bag-load, covering myself in pollen and making cordial (some of which is now fermenting into wine) and more besides. Elderflower is such a versatile ingredient, wonderfully pretty for garnishing desserts, great as fritters dipped in a light batter and eaten crispy and hot, or made into cordial and used in cocktails or baking. The season will be over soon, the flowers will start to turn brown – so hurry, get out there and get picking!

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Here’s my very simple cordial recipe – it uses less sugar than normal and I’ve put the citric acid as optional because I’ve made it with and without, both successfully. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to wash the elderflower before you make it as that will wash away all the aromatic pollen which gives it its special scent and flavour.

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20 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, zested and finely sliced
 into rounds
500g caster sugar
1/2 tsp citric acid
 (optional)

Put your sugar into a large saucepan or casserole, cover with about a litre and a half of water and bring up until it’s not quite boiling, but the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the lemon, zest and elderflower, and citric acid if you’re using. Stir, and steep for 24 hours.

Line a colander or sieve with a clean tea towel and place over a large bowl. Carefully pour the elderflower mixture into it in stages if you need to, and allow it to drip through, filtering. Remove to a jug and fill sterilised bottles and jars with your cordial. It should keep for up to 6 weeks in the fridge.

Rhubarb and elderflower upside down cake
Serves 6

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This recipe combines elderfower with fruity, tart rhubarb in a light, gooey-bottomed, self-saucing sponge cake. This is best enjoyed with a large dollop of cool creme fraiche.

40g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
300g trimmed rhubarb, cut into 3cm pieces
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
80g caster sugar
4 heads of elderflower, tough stems removed, plus another head for garnish
40g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
100g natural yoghurt
2 medium eggs, separated

Preheat your oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Lightly grease a pudding dish or cake tin. Place the rhubarb in a saucepan with the elderflower cordial and a tablespoon of the sugar over a low heat. Simmer gently for 5–10 minutes until it’s softened and part-cooked but still holds its shape. It will release its juice during this time.
Put a sieve over a bowl and strain the rhubarb, reserving its juices. Set aside to cool.

Once cool, arrange half of your rhubarb on the bottom of your cake tin/pudding basin, as neatly as you can, along with some of the elderflowers. This will be the top of the cake and look very pretty once you take it out of the tin.

Beat together the butter and the remaining sugar. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Slowly add in the flour and baking powder, mixing well, followed by the yoghurt, the rhubarb juices, and the remaining rhubarb and elderflowers, mixing well after each addition. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and lightly fold into the batter.

Spoon the batter on top of the rhubarb in your baking tin and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is firm and golden. Leave to cool for and settle for 5 minutes on a wire rack, then use a palate knife to loosen it from the tin. Serve immediately with loads of creme fraiche.

Restaurant crush: Lardo

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The food at Lardo is so good, that I found myself chowing down on a radicchio, gorgonzola and walnut pizza about an hour after eating a HUGE bowl of nduja pasta and raspberry jelly at home, like it was the most normal thing in the world. I know. I’d popped in for a ‘drink’ with a pal (thankfully it’s in my new hood Hackney), and I wasn’t intending on eating, but once I saddled up on a high stool overlooking the chefs at work and the pizza-spewing wood oven, it was like I’d never eaten… well I suppose this blog isn’t called ‘A Lot On Her Plate’ for nothing.

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve been there twice, and I will continue to go there as long as it carries on being what I reckon is one of the best informal, reasonably priced Italians in London.

From the outside, looking in on this pared-back, understated restaurant near London Fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a pizza joint, thanks to the huge, disco ball-esque wood-fired pizza oven that looms large through the window. But great as the pizzas are, this place is about so much more than that.

For starters, you might not know this, but Lardo – which takes its name from the delicious cured back fat of the beast – has its own extra special charcuterie made from Mangalitza pigs that are bred especially for it in the West Country. These pigs are furry and cute, so you might not want to Google pictures of them too much, but they’re also perfectly suited to yielding cured meats, thanks to their marbled meat and plentiful, flavourful fat. Try the deliciously fragrant fennel pollen salami and silky, silky coppa.

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To keep it true to the inexpensive, local Italian restaurants on which it’s modeled, the team at Lardo put huge effort into sourcing exceptional fresh produce and making things like pasta, simple cheeses, breads and even the syrups for its drinks from scratch. There are specials on all the time, and the menu changes according to what’s in season, sometimes on a daily basis, meaning that even though I visited twice in a few weeks (and ate the same pizza twice – it’s that nice), there were different things to try, and seasonal gems like stuffed tempura courgette flowers (£6), spaghetti with clams and wilted wild garlic (£12), or beautiful pale green nettle tagliatelle (£12) which comes wonderfully al dente and slathered in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and cheese.

The wine list at Lardo is focused and reasonably priced, honed on Italy and flitting between Northern Europe in winter, and Southern Europe in summer, with an emphasis on lesser-known European grape varieties. You can just pop in for a carafe and a bite, and sit at the bar watching the chefs (as I did) if you just fancy something light. But really, everything is so good you’ll just want to order and order – and I’d heartily encourage you to do just that.

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LARDO will open its summer rooftop bar and grill COPPA this summer on 24th May 2014, and I can’t wait for this as I stupidly managed to miss it entirely last summer. Bring it on!

Kale and coriander pancakes with avocado butter and roasted tomato

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It was Pancake Day yesterday. This post was supposed to go up then. But you, know, life happened (and I may just have forgotten to update WordPress in ages, rendering it unusable). But boy, did I get busy with the pancake pan. I did this smoked haddock pancake with frazzled leeks and lemony creme fraiche recipe for Fish On Friday – an amazing new fish website, and I also made these little beauties for breakfast – mostly because I wanted to feel better about eating pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner was the talented Uyen Luu’s Banh Xeo – thanks Uyen!)

Here’s my recipe – yes, sorry, another kale one, but it’s tasty, I promise! – for an alternative, and wonderfully healthy Pancake Day dish. The pancakes themselves are stuffed full of goodness in the form of very finely chopped kale, with the slow-roasted tomatoes lending a richness and acidity. The creamy, perky avocado butter is made with tahini and is dangerously addictive. Make too much and then smear it on hot toasted sourdough. Or just eat it with your fingers like I do!

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Kale pancakes with avocado butter and roasted tomato 
Makes two big stacks of pancakes

For the avocado butter
Half a very ripe avocado
1 Tbspn tahini
Pinch of red chilli flakes
Tbspn lemon juice or more to taste
Half a shallot, peeled
Pinch of salt and a good grind of freshly milled black pepper

For the kale pancakes
85g plain flour
15g rye flour
Half tsp baking powder
Tsp garlic powder
Tsp cumin powder
Lime zest
Tsp Maldon sea salt and a good grind of freshly milled black pepper

100ml milk
1 beaten egg
1 tbspn olive oil
Two big leaves of kale, destemmed and blitzed in a food processor until VERY finely chopped
Handful of coriander leaves, blitzed until very finely chopped
15ml cold water
Rapeseed oil, for frying

For the slow roasted tomato
1 large tomato, sliced into rounds
Olive oil
Maldon sea salt and pepper
A sprig of thyme

Preheat your oven to 160. On a greased baking tray or enamel plate, place your tomato. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and scatter over the thyme leaves. Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until it’s softened and slightly shriveled.

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While they’re roasting, you can make your pancake batter. Put your flour, baking powder, the lime zest, spices and salt and pepper into a mixing bowl. Combine the beaten egg, olive oil, chopped kale and coriander in another bowl or jug. Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture and whisk with a fork or balloon whisk, until you have a batter, adding the water to loosen it – you want it about the consistency of double cream. Leave to rest while you make the avocado butter.

Blitz your shallot in a food processor until finely chopped. Scoop the flesh of your avocado into the food processor and add the tahini, lemon juice, chilli flakes and salt and pepper. Blitz until you have a smooth paste – it should be the consistency of whipped butter. Scrape out of the food processor and into a bowl.

Now it’s time to make the pancakes. Dig out your best non-stick pan (I love the ceramic coated ones) and a silicone brush. Pour about a tablespoon of rapeseed oil onto a small plate and brush your pan with the oil. Heat the pan up over a high heat and then spoon about half a ladleful of the pancake mixture into your pan. Swizzle to evenly distribute the mixture – you’re aiming for small, thick pancakes rather than traditional thin, large ones. Cook for two-to-three minutes and then shake the pan. If the pancake comes away from the bottom easily, flip it over and cook on the other side for another two minutes, until golden. Remove to a plate and keep warm in the oven – which should be turned off but still warm from cooking the tomatoes. Repeat the process with the rest of the mixture, divide the pancakes between two plates and serve topped with the tomatoes and avocado butter.

Woodland Pie Recipe

Chocolates and flowers are all very well, but I think if you really adore someone, making them something hearty and full of love is the way to go. And who doesn’t love a pie? Which is what my boyfriend will be getting this Valentine’s Day (well he did go and take me to Venice for my 30th, so I thought I should make a leetle bit of an effort!).

A raised, hot water crust pie takes some time to make, especially if you’re filling it with something other than sausage meat, but it’s worth it in the end for a nice chunk of flavour-packed pie, succulent with jelly. And it’s really not as scary as it sounds, you just need to make sure you put aside an afternoon when you’ll be pottering in the kitchen to give the dough time to cool and rest, and you time to poach the chicken, make the filling, bake the pies and them wait for them to cool before you make and add the jelly. But it’s a satisfying process, and a pie like this should last you a while, especially if you just dip into it – it’s perfect as a snack to have with drinks, or as a little starter before a main meal.

I decided to fill mine with chicken, pork belly and mushrooms, because I wanted something a bit lighter than solid pork, and had some fab dried porcini I brought back from Venice. You could easily substitute chicken for game like guinea fowl or pheasant when during game season. I used the stock from poaching the chicken and the rehydration stock from the dried mushrooms to make the jelly – giving it a sort of woodland character. I also put some dried tarragon through the pastry to give it a little lift, and because obviously tarragon is great with chicken and mushrooms. I also used pork belly rather than sausage meat as I couldn’t get hold of any decent fresh pork mince. I’ve made this pastry twice now, and I found using my Kitchen Aid stand mixer a massive help the second time because it incorporates the hot fat and water more smoothly than my rather lame mixing action, but it can obviously also be done by hand in a big bowl. Let me know how you get on with this recipe if you try it out.

Woodland (chicken, pork and mushroom) pies

Makes two medium pies or one big one

It goes without saying that you should use the best quality meat you can find and afford. Corn-fed chickens have more flavour and make for a better stock. I prefer to use pork belly and mince it myself than using pork mince. Marscapone adds a bit more fat to the mix and lemon zest keeps it fresh.

For the filling
1 medium chicken (you will only use 300g of this, but keep the rest for salad, sandwiches etc)
300g pork belly, skin and bone removed
1 tbspn olive oil
5 g butter
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
5 black peppercorns
1 leek, halved and washed
2 cloves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
Large pinch of dried red chilli flakes
zest of one lemon
30g dried mushrooms, keeping their rehydration stock for the jelly
2 rashers of smoked bacon, chopped into lardons
Small bunch of sage leaves, torn up finely
1 tbspn marscapone
Very good grating of nutmeg
1 tsp fish sauce
pinch sea salt
good grinding of black pepper

For the pastry
100g lard
75g unsalted butter
2 tsp dried tarragon
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg, beaten
475g flour
160ml boiling water
1 egg, beaten (for the egg wash)

For the jelly
200ml chicken stock
100ml mushroom stock
50ml dry white wine
3 leaves of gelatin.

Fill a pot big enough to poach an entire chicken full of water, add the anise, black peppercorns, cloves, leek and bay leaf and bring to the boil. When it’s boiling, add the chicken and gently poach for 1 hour, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface as you go. When an hour has passed, pierce with a skewer to check the juices run clear, and leave to cool. Pass the stock through a sieve and reserve – you will need this for the jelly. When it’s cool enough to handle, shred 300g of breast and thigh meat into a bowl and reserve.

Then make the pastry. Place your flour and tarragon in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the beaten egg and stir in until it’s incorporated. You could do this in a stand mixer for ease.

Now melt the lard and butter in a saucepan with the salt and sugar. When it’s almost all melted, add the boiling water and bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once it’s boiled, remove quickly from the heat and leave it for about half a minute.
Now stir it into the flour and egg mix, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon to form a smooth, sticky dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, put it on the lowest mix setting with the paddle beater and let it mix until a soft, smooth dough forms – being careful to not over work. Cover with a tea towel and rest for one hour.

After the pastry has cooled and rested for an hour, tip it out onto a floured surface and flatten it out with your hands, shaping it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds by bringing one end into the middle and pushing down with your fingers. Repeat with the opposite end, folding it on top of the other. Press down again with your fingertips. Flatten it out again into a rough rectangle and place on a floured plate or tray, covering with foil or grease-proof paper and refrigerating for a minimum of 30 minutes. 

While the pastry is resting you can get on with the filling. First rehydrate the dried mushrooms in 100ml of boiling water. Put 5g of butter and olive oil in a frying pan and gently sauté the onions with 6 shredded sage leaves. After three minutes, add the chopped bacon and cook until the bacon is lightly cooked – about five minutes.

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the stock, squeeze out the moisture from them and chop them up. You want them to be about the same bulkiness as the shredded chicken. Add the mushroom stock to 200ml of chicken stock and put in a separate pan.

Put the pork belly chunks in a food processor and whizz until you have a chunky mince, adding in the onion and bacon mixture for a blitz. Put this in bowl with chicken, lemon zest, garlic, sage, marscapone, fish sauce, nutmeg, chopped mushrooms and mix together well with your hands, rubbing it all together to get the flavours incorporated. Put this in the fridge to infuse while the pastry rests.

Preheat the oven to 180. Grease and flour (tapping out the excess flour) two enamel pudding bowls or high-sided pie moulds.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and transfer it to a floured surface. Cut it in half and roll out each half as follows. Sweep it in a circular motion across the surface to coat it in flour. It should feel much stiffer and firmer to the touch now it’s cooled. Roll it out lightly, and then fold it into thirds, as before. Rotate it by a quarter turn and roll it out to about 4mm thickness, being sure to rotate it by a quarter turn every two or so rolls so it doesn’t stick.

Once it’s your desired diameter and thickness, drape it over a smaller cup or bowl that will fit inside your pie mould, reserving the rest of the dough for the lid (you may need to cut off the excess, press together the scraps and re-roll for this). Put the pie mould over it, and then flip the right side up. Remove the inner bowl and press the pastry into the bottom of the mould and against the sides. Chop of the excess off that’s draping over the rim and use this for your lid. 

Divide the filling between the pastry bowls. Put the lid on and squeeze the edges together with the side crusts, being sure it’s well sealed. Crimp the edges with your fingers and put a hole in the middle with a skewer – it needs to be big enough to fit a piping bag nozzle for the jelly.

Egg wash the pies and bake them for 40 minutes, checking that the tops aren’t burning as you go. If they start to blacken or burn, cover them with tin foil and return them to the oven. 

When they’re baked, check using a meat thermometer inserted through the skewer hole that the meat is 80c or more. If you don’t have a thermometer, insert a skewer – it should come out piping hot. 

Leave the pies to cool for two hours.

When they’re cool, make the jelly. Put the gelatin in some cold water for a few minutes until it’s squidgy, then squeeze out the water. Heat the stocks and wine up to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in the gelatin until it’s dissolved.

When it’s cool enough to handle, but not so cool that it’s setting, put the jelly into a piping bag and carefully pipe into the hole in your pie. Fill it with jelly until it’s coming out the hole. Wipe any that leaks onto the surface of the pie with kitchen roll.

Cool in the fridge for about 8 hours. Cut up and serve with a nicely dressed green salad.

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Photo blog: when we went to Portland

Charcuterie boards at Olympic Provisions

It seems like an absolute age ago now, but I was in Portland in September for FEAST – the city’s annual food festival in association with Bon Appetit magazine. Feast is a three day feeding frenzy which sees the city’s top chefs come together and cook superb Oregonian bounty at events like the Sandwich Invitational – a night where they all competed to create the tastiest meal between two slices of bread.

The whole trip got off to rather a rollicking start, as it turned out that we were staying in the Jupiter Motel, whose ground floor was the venue for the festival’s industry launch, so that night, after attending the ‘Sandwich Invitational’, Jamie and I found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the city’s chef and food big shots, dancing like maniacs to My Sharona and drinking free-flowing gin and tonics until 3am. I met a lot of people that night, and I’m sure I don’t remember all of them – but one thing’s for sure, the food scene in Portland is one of the friendliest and most inclusive anywhere in the world, and (said like Frank Gallagher) it knows how to throw a party.

I was there writing a food and travel piece on the Oregon city, which has, in the past ten years, become one of the finest US food cities thanks to all the amazing punk rock restaurants, food carts and cafes that have sprung up serving a global mish-mash of kick-ass cooking. I write about this in more depth in a forthcoming piece for Escapism Magazine (out soon), but here is a little snapshot of the place we visited and the things we ate.

Ned Ludd: nedluddpdx.com

 

Nong’s Khao Man Gai food truck

Nong's Khao Man Gai food truck

Pok Pok: pokpokpdx.com

For more information on Portland see travelportland.com

My little Vancouver kitchen and salted chocolate popcorn recipe

Crysanthemums from Mr Choi's garden

So the time has come for me to say goodbye to my little Vancouver kitchen, as we head off for our long journey home, via Nashville, Mexico (yay!!), Montreal and New York. It’s been good to me, this little basement room where I’ve cooked some of my best recipes yet. Sure, me and the oven have had our ups and downs – the temperature settings can be more than slightly temperamental, but in general this is a space where I’ve had the time to be creative, and inspired by all the frankly amazing produce they have here in British Columbia. Because it’s the fresh, seasonal produce that has to be my favourite thing about Vancouver, apart from gorgeous new friends. That’s what I’ll miss, Mr Choi’s garden bounty, and walking for 10 minutes to be on Commercial Drive, surrounded by little independent shops selling fresh apples, peaches and pears from the Okanagan Valley, Normans (my favourite shop) with its big crates of orange-frilled chantarelles, local beets and kale, and the Hungarian-run smoked sausage shop where a delicious hot, paprika-packed preserved sausage is only $1.85.

We’ve had some good times here, some fabulous dinners with our friends Renee, pictured, (who never failed to bring a lovely bottle of Zinfandel or two) and Cyril, who was always on-hand with chocolate, and shares my addiction for roasted hazelnuts.

In fact, the chocolate popcorn recipe below that I created for Suitcase magazine’s chocolate week content is partly inspired by Cyril. So I’ll leave you with that, and keep you posted from our travels. Mexico here we come!

Salted popcorn with dark chocolate and toasted hazelnuts

Ingredients: 

  • 100g dark chocolate, broken up (I like Green and Black’s)
  • 
Large handful of popcorn kernels
  • 30g roasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, and blitzed in a food processor or roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 
1 tbspn ground nut, rapeseed or vegetable oil

Method:

  • 
First, pop your popcorn. Put a large pot with a lid on a medium high heat and heat up the oil and half the salt.
  • Add the kernels in an even layer and put the lid on.
  • When the corn starts popping, shake the pan around gently to make sure the unpopped kernels get to the heat.
  • Put the slid slightly ajar so as to release some of the steam and make crisper corn.
  • Once the popcorn has stopped popping every few seconds, take it off the heat and rest it until all the popping has stopped. You don’t want to burn it!

  • Now heat up half a pan of boiling water.
  • Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and melt it gently with the rest of the salt until it’s liquid. Add in half the hazelnuts.
  • Line a large plate or baking tray with baking paper and scatter the popcorn over it in a layer.
  • Pour over the melted chocolate and hazelnut mixture and toss it around the corn until it’s coated, and leave to set at room temperature for an hour.
  • Serve in a bowl with the extra hazelnuts and an extra pinch of salt. You could add some chilli flakes if you were feeling adventurous…

Slow braised octopus with tomato, fennel, mussels and orzo

I have always been fascinated by octopus. I remember eating it on family holidays to Spain as a child, usually pickled or coated in oil and at the end of a cocktail stick, pleasingly chewy. I delighted in the texture of the tentacles – their beautiful gruesomeness, tinged with purple. I loved the way they felt against my tongue, the grooves of texture, their pleasing tangibility – they always reminded me of the suckers on those funny little furry toys I’d stick to every available window.

Whenever I’m at a fishmonger I’m drawn to the octopus – lying resplendent on the ice, dangling tentacles glistening like fishy chandeliers; but it’s never something I’ve attempted to cook. I suppose I’ve always been too scared to take such a magnificent, mystical creature and do the unthinkable to it: render it rubbery and inedible. But a gorgeous dish of slow-braised octopus eaten a few months ago at Rochelle Canteen has stuck in my mind as one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year, and something that I could at least try to recreate. It was deep, rich, velvety and heady – the octopus soft and tender and melding wonderfully with the olive oil, fennel, tomato and aromatic braising jus.

I’d also always assumed that cooking octopus would be super pricey, but when I was out shopping on ‘the Drive’ the other day I came face-to-face with a frozen whole octopus, priced very well at $7.99 (that’s under a fiver in British pounds!) so I thought I’d give it a go. I threw some mussels into the mix at the last minute because I was feeding three and was worried the octopus wouldn’t go so far – I was actually wrong as there was in fact leftovers – and the resulting dish was a bit of a hit. I will be making it again, and really the fact that the octopus was frozen didn’t seem to affect the flavour or texture at all. That’ll be the wonder of slow, careful braising!

Serves 2-4

1 octopus – fresh or frozen, about a kg
400g mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
half a small bulb of fennel, finely sliced
three large ripe tomatoes, chopped or, if not in season, a tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
half an onion, finely chopped
One large carrot, diced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
two cloves of garlic, minced
1 glass of white wine (preferably a good chardonnay for its aromatic richness)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
Pinch of dry thyme or a few fresh thyme leaves
Bunch of cavolo nero
Handful of chopped parsley

Prepping the octopus
First, if you’re using a whole fresh octopus you need to tenderise it, by either freezing it a few days before you cook it, or whacking it with a mallet for 10 minutes until it foams. If you’re using frozen octopus defrost gently on a plate in the fridge for about 24 hours, you don’t need to worry about tenderising it as the process of freezing does that.

Then you must remove the head, innards, ink, eyes and beak.  But don’t be alarmed! This is not as hard or as horrible as it sounds. You just cut below the eyes, separating the head from the tentacles. You’ll see there’s a hole where the tentacles meet, and inside that is the ‘beak’. It’s easy to remove – just push it out with your finger or thumb. Now take the head, cut the eyes off the bottom and discard. Rinse it inside and out, getting rid of the insides, and also rinse the rest of the octopus under cold water. Separate the tentacles too.

NB if you’re using a frozen octopus you won’t have to do this as the innards will have been taken out before it’s frozen. It’s still worth cleaning it in cold water though.

Method
Put the tentacles and sack into a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, cover with about 130ml of water and cook for 20 minutes on a low heat. This serves to partially cook the octopus, but also to extract its flavourful juices, which you can use later.

When that’s done, reserve the cooking liquor and chop the tentacles up into chunks of about 3-4cm or whichever size you prefer. I like to keep nice meaty chunks.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onions, fennel, carrots, celery and sautée until the onion and fennel is turning translucent and soft – about five minutes. Then add the garlic, bay and thyme and cook for another one to two minutes. Now add the octopus and sautée for a further few minutes, stirring, before adding the tomato, tomato puree, wine, octopus juice and black pepper.

Bring to the boil and then lower to a gentle simmer and cook for about 40 minutes. It might be a little less, you just need to keep testing the octopus until it’s tender but still meaty and not in the least bit mulchy.

About eight minutes before it’s ready, cook some orzo in boiling salted water until al dente and dress with a little extra virgin olive oil.

When it’s nearly there, de-stem your cavolo nero and chiffonade the leaves. Throw in the mussels and kale, cover with a lid and cook for about three-to-four minutes, until the mussels have opened and exuded all their tasty juice into the braise. Then taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Stir through the parsley and a dash of extra virgin olive oil, and serve in big ladlefuls on top of piles of orzo, making sure to dish out some of the octopus.

Enjoy!