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.

x

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…

Tongue sandwich?

As I was struggling to peel the skin, taste-buds and all, from the massive beef tongue I’d been poaching for a couple of hours, my French housemate walked past me. “I’d offer to help you, but it disgusts me,” he said, totally straight-faced. And that’s the thing with tongue, isn’t it? Some people just can’t do it (he later tried it and liked it) – they find the idea of chewing on another animal’s tongue just too repulsive. Lord knows the photo below got a mixed response on Instagram. I might be among the grossed out, had my mother not fed it to me from a young age. I somehow maintained the opinion that ‘tongue’ was a colloquialism for another kind of meat, or pate or something – until she confessed that it was exactly what it sounded like: tongue. Still loved it, still do. Love that beefy (it tastes like brisket, no?), earthy flavour. Essentially, it’s a muscle just like any other, and it has a really delicate, delicious flavour. Especially poached in a fragrant bouillon like this one. Plus, once it’s cooked and prepped and chopped up, it’s just a piece of beef. Saying that, the prep can seem a little gruesome if you’re a bit squeamish – like I mentioned, you do have to peel the skin and tastebuds off the thing before you serve it, so do bear that in mind before you embark on the recipe.

One thing I learned on this occasion is to not serve it warm. The texture is all flobby and fatty, it’s just too much like French kissing a cow. But once it’s been chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours, and taken as a cold cut, it is divine. The flavours settle in and it has a meaty, satisfying texture.

Why the sudden urge to cook tongue? I recently got back from Portland, armed with a copy of the beautiful Le Pigeon cookbook, which has a whole chapter dedicated to this cut. Will certainly have to try the ‘elk tongue stroganoff’ and ‘lamb’s tongue fries’ – but first I just wanted to reacquaint myself with beef tongue, which is best poached gently and slowly, with lovely fragrant aromatics for a couple of hours. I got mine from the amazing organic, biodynamic butcher here on Commercial Drive, called Pasture to Plate. I’m now a regular here because their meat is second-to-none, well priced and they can get you unusual cuts, plus they usually have a nice stash of frozen tongues and beef cheeks etc. And all their meat comes from one ranch!

Having discovered that my tongue was better as a cold cut, sliced quite thin, I put it on an open sandwich with lovely toasted sourdough from the Italian bakery also on the Drive. To go with it, and give the sandwich a smoky piquancy reminiscent of a deli sandwich, I made a celeriac remoulade with a smoked oyster emulsion. Oysters and beef go really nicely together, and the punchy, smoky mayo created by blending the oysters with garlic, lemon juice and parsley works well against the crunchy, creamy celeriac. It’s a good way to create a smoked meat effect – without having to actually smoke any meat. Give it a go and let me know what you think about the remoulade/tongue combo.

Beef tongue and smoked oyster and celeriac open sandwich

1 beef tongue,
1/2 bulb of fennel,
1 big carrot
1 onion, halted and studded with cloves
2 cups white wine
sprig or two of parsley
6 black peppercorns
1 clove garlic
3 cloves
bay leaf
sea salt

for the celeriac
1 tin smoked oysters in oil
1/2 clove very fresh garlic
extra virgin olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice

For the sandwich
sliced white sourdough
mustard
1 large tomato, sliced
2 small leaves of baby gem or romaine
salt and pepper

Method

First prep your tongue. Give it a good wash, then pop it in a big casserole with a lid, or curl it around in a large pot. Add in the aromatics – the carrot, onion, parsley, fennel, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf, cloves and salt. Cover with the wine and fill up with water until it covers the tongue. Bring to the boil on the hob, skimming off any scum as you go. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with the lid, and let poach for around 3 hours.

In the meantime, you can make the celeriac remoulade for the sandwich. Peel the gnarly celeriac and slice in half. You’ll only need a half for this recipe. Then julienne the celeriac into matchsticks.

Blend the oysters, garlic and parsley in a food processor with half of the smoky oil from the tin. Add a drizzle of olive oil until the mixture is the consistency of a thick mayonnaise. Add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of white pepper to taste.

Put the celeriac in a large bowl and pour over the mayo. Use your hands to coat it evenly and refrigerate.

Once your tongue is feeling tender – poke it with the prongs of a fork at the base and tip to check – remove it from the stock onto a chopping board. (NB Reserve the stock – it’s good for cooking potatoes or making gravy, just like a more funky beef stock!)

Wait for it to be cool enough to handle, but while it’s still warm you need to peel it. Peeling becomes impossible once it’s fully cool. To peel it, use a pairing knife to get under the skin and create a flap which you can then peel off – hopefully pretty easily. If you’re finding it difficult to pull the skin off, use your pairing knife to cut it off.

Once it’s fully peeled, leave it to cool completely and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To assemble the sandwich

Use some really nice sourdough. Pop it in the toaster until it’s deep gold and crunchy. Hot butter. Remove the tongue from the fridge and slice it finely. Top the toast with the lettuce, tomato and tongue and slap a bit of mustard on the tongue, if you’re that way inclined. Top with the smoky celeriac remoulade and some salt and pepper. Enjoy!

Hot corn with Mexican butter

I ruddy love corn. Popcorn, sweetcorn out of a tin, corn on the cob – you name a corny foodstuff and the chances are I’ll be into it. Even if it does leave me picking at my teeth for the rest of the day, it’s worth it for that crunchy, buttery, addictive goodness. Gimme!

Anyway, I picked up some corn on special offer the other day and, inspired by a little dish I had at my favourite Mexican restaurant here, Tacofino Commissary, I decided to get all Mexican on its kernals. This is a really simple recipe and it seems to work pretty well. I love the way the acidic lime and salty parmesan (used in lieu of queso fresco) work with the sweetness of the corn. The herbs offer a nice fragrant lift to the whole thing. You can use coriander in the place of parsley, but I just used what I had to hand, which was a nice bunch of flat leaf.

Serves four as a starter
Two ears of corn, stripped of their husks, cut in half
120g butter, at room temperature
2 tbspns of grated grana padano or Parmesan
the juice of half a lime
tsp red chilli flakes
2 tbpsn of chopped mint and parsley
Grind of black pepper and salt

First mix the butter with the cheese, lime and salt and pepper, then add in the herbs and chilli flakes. Now heat up a skillet really hot, rub your corn with a little vegetable oil and place them in the skillet. You could use a barbecue, if you had one to hand, but a really hot skillet works just as well. You could par-boil them before grilling, but I found that a few minutes on each side worked well. Turn the corn at intervals – some of the kernals will char and blacken but this just adds to the flavour. When the corn is tender and a good, deep yellow – after about six-eight minutes, remove from the skillet and smother in the butter. Eat immediately, with the butter dripping down your wrists. This is an optional extra, but it’s a little ritual for me when I eat corn: when you’ve chomped all the corn of the cobs, smear the ears with more of the butter, let it soak in, and then suck it out. SO good!

From Vancouver, with love – and lots of courgette flowers

So it’s been three weeks since I’ve been living in Vancouver and I thought it was about time I wrote a ruddy blog. Sorry for the delay, but the truth is, I’ve been having something of a summer holiday. The weather, which has now turned – and all the Vancouverites, bless their delicate souls, are insisting that it’s now ‘fall’ (it’s not) – has been amazing, and we’ve been spending time on the beach, cycling lots around the wide, tree-lined avenues with their sunflowers and wooden Victorian houses, and generally I’ve just been getting to know this unique, scenic city.

My favourite flower shop in Vancouver: Olla flowers
This kind of thing is EVERYWHERE

And oh my gosh have I been eating. And cooking. And eating. And cooking. I don’t know whether it’s a comfort thing – but being somewhere new without my family and friends has just made me lose myself in food even more than usual (recipes forthcoming). I’m really lucky in that my boyfriend (who’s been out here since March) has chosen to live in an area known as Commercial Drive in the east of the city, and it’s basically this mile long drive that’s choc-full of amazing independent restaurants, businesses and food shops. It reminds me in its way of Brixton or Hackney, and I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to bakeries, health food places, specialist shops, coffee shops and grocery stores selling everything from tinned oysters to achiote paste.

So I bought this baby, and have been filling it regularly with ingredients from ‘The Drive’.

But one thing that has been really quite shocking is the price of everything. This is a very expensive place to shop in, and very often it’s actually cheaper to eat out than it is to buy a load of ingredients and cook them. Dairy products are the absolute worst:

Decent, affordable cheese is very hard to come by. I’m yet to find mozzarella that isn’t the consistency of halloumi (middle class crisis alert), and a tub of marscapone for cheesecake set me back $7. The best I’ve found so far is a gorgeously juicy, creamy truffled goat’s cheese from Salt Spring Island cheeses which is sold at the amazing Trout Lake Farmer’s market – a market that takes place every Saturday five minutes from our house, showcasing the best produce from around BC.

Space ship squashes (yes really!) at Trout Lake Farmer's Market

We’ve also been eating out quite a bit, as I’ve been researching a couple of travel pieces. My favourite place so far was Pidgin – an amazing restaurant on the Downtown Eastside which has been continually picketed by anti-gentrification protesters since opening in February. There’s a huge debate going on here in the Downtown Eastside about its low-income residents being displaced by new residential and business developments pushing up prices in the area, and protestors have been very vocal about trying to make an example out of this place, and shut it down. But given that this is a small, independently-owned, owner-run restaurant doing some really good, creative things and employing local people, and it’s a two minute walk from a cluster of places in Gastown (including Starbucks and Spaghetti House), this vitriol seems to me displaced and misguided.

Makoto Ono (left) hard at work at Pidgin

But above and beyond that, the food here is utterly amazing. And the prices are very, very reasonable for what you get – so a sharing plate of melting lamb belly with piquant pickled mustard seeds and silky, smoky egg plant was $16 (that’s under 10 English pounds). The chef, Makoto Ono, is Canadian-born Japanese but is classically French-trained, and his cooking is absolutely incredible – using French and Asian technique applied to fantastic local produce.

The delectable soft-boiled, ramen-marinated dipping egg with summer beans and yuzu brown butter at Pidgin

The above dish of ramen-marinated dippy eggs with sauteed summer beans and mushrooms in a yuzu brown butter was a total revelation, the eggs deeply savoury yet rich and creamy, and it even inspired me to have a go at my own version! I bought some kikkoman noodle base (which includes bonito, mirin and soy), gently soft-boiled a couple of eggs an picked off the shells, then packed them into a glass with the marinate and left them for an hour. The result wasn’t half as good as Pidgin’s – I think I should have diluted the marinate as it was too intense, but it was certainly a start and something I’ll carry on experimenting with. I ate them with wok-fried beet tops, radishes and zucchini from the garden, cooked in the marinate.

I’m also pretty lucky that the flat we’re living in has a kitchen garden, maintained by our lovely landlord Mr Choi. The garden is alive with runner beans, Japanese squashes, tomatoes, really fragrant basil and zucchini (courgette for us Brits), and Mr Choi was kind enough to let me have the flowers, which have been growing in abundance because he doesn’t use them. Now I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with courgette flowers, but I’ve always found them hard to come by in London – I just never seem to have been at the right Farmer’s Market at the right time (middle class trauma mark two), but now I find myself surrounded by the lovely little delicate yellow flowers!

So after paying above the odds for some marscapone I decided to stuff these beauties with it, mixed with a tin of smoked oysters, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. I then coated them in a tempura batter and shallow fried them in some olive oil. The result was a punchy, crunchy, creamy yet subtle snack which we enjoyed with some pale ale. Rather a nice way to see in a summer’s evening.

Tempura coated, smoked oyster and marscapone stuffed zucchini flowers

Last night I decided to make pizzas, as we had a friend coming over – and there were still lots of courgette flowers, so I picked them, took out their pollen-laden stamens and used them as a pizza topping along with some garden zucchini and the attractive space ship squash we bought at the farmer’s market – all of which I marinated first with a bit of lemon juice, white pepper and olive oil. I used a sour cream and raw garlic base, and chucked over some chunks of mozzarella, which was really sub-standard, and browned rather than going all creamy and gooey – but the result was still one of the prettiest pizzas I’ve ever made. And SO summery.

The experimentation continues.

 

Tofino: a wilderness paradise with an incredible food scene

The view from the Wickaninnish

From Victoria, we headed up the island’s only highway for just over four hours (with a quick wild swim in Lake Sproat) until we reached Tofino – a small surfer wilderness town with incredible beaches and, as we’d discover, an equally impressive food scene. Tofino has a population of about 2000 (though this swells like its waves in the summer when the surfers pour in), but the residents are spoiled by the quite amazing selection of restaurants, cafes, delis and take-aways that have made a home there. We ate ridiculously well every day during our stay, which we extended from two to three nights because we just loved the place so much.

The HUGE broiled oysters at Shelter

As well as some really on-the-money restaurants like Shelter: a surfer dude hang out where I ate amazing broiled oysters and smokey aged ribeye, and The Spotted Bear: a cool French-inspired bistro where we shared some amazing charcuterie and local mussels; there’s the legendary Taco truck Tacofino which serves the best tacos I’ve ever tasted. Tacofino now has two trucks and a sit-down restaurant in the city of Vancouver, and with combinations like seared sesame soy Albacore tuna with seaweed salad and wasabi mayo, it’s no surprise. When I’m back in Van we’re definitely going to check out the restaurant, and next time I want to try the fish tacos, made with tempura ling cod, chipotle mayo, shredded cabbage and salsa. In the same lot, there’s also The Wildside Grill, a take-away which is a joint venture between a chef and a fisherman. This place is all about local fish and seafood cooked fresh off the boat – we tried the halibut and chips with apple slaw, and the gumbo. I’m going back for the spot prawns! Tofino also has a cracking little micro brewery – we adored the light, caramel blonde ale, an organic coffee roaster and a chocolate/gelato maker.

Halibut and chips with apple slaw, and spot prawn gumbo at the Wildside Grill
Rock pooling!

Rock pooling!

At the Tofino micro brewery
Szechuan brisket broiled oysters with mustard greens at the Pointe restaurant

We were staying at the utterly stunning Wickaninnish Hotel, a Relais and Chateaux which sort of grows out of the rocks on Chesterman Beach – a long, deserted sandy beach with the best rock pools I’ve seen since childhood camping holidays to Brittany. Our room here was the best hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – with a balcony that overlooked the crashing sea, a gas fire and a bathroom with windows that shared a view out onto the coast. Just heaven.

The balcony of our INCREDIBLE room at the Wick
Beach boy

The hotel’s Pointe restaurant has equally gorgeous views, but the food is a more than worthy distraction. I ate an incredible starter of oysters broiled with Szechuan braised brisket and perky mustard greens, followed by salmon with sweet breads and morels. It was absolutely stunning, but I couldn’t help being jealous of Jamie’s beautiful cod with Romesco crumble. My dessert of olive oil sponge with yoghurt and grapefruit was a perfect end to the meal: unusual, light and delicious.

The mussel banks at Chesterman beach

If you ever find yourself in BC, planning a trip to Tofino, make sure you give yourself at least few days. You’ll need it to get around all these food places.

Pork and clams at The Pointe
local cod with romesco 'crumble' at The Pointe

To Victoria, BC: Red Fish Blue Fish, The Fairmont Empress and the bees knees

On the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island

I was definitely expecting Vancouver to have a cracking food scene, given its location on the West Coast (some have called it the ‘original’ Portland), all the different cultural influences and the fact it’s a major city. But what I was less prepared for was how good the food would be over on Vancouver Island, where we headed for a road trip to celebrate Jamie’s 30th birthday.

Our gorgeous hotel, The Fairmont Empress
Victoria's gawgeous Parliament Building lit up all pretty at night

After an insanely beautiful ferry crossing and a short drive, we got to Victoria, BC’s capital, hungry, so we were pretty pleased to find an outdoor waterfront eatery called Red Fish Blue Fish – a West Coast take on a fish and chip shop. We knew it was going to be good because there was a huge queue (always easier to take when it’s sunny) and there were people sat all over the wooden wharf eating fish and chips and fish tacos that looked delightful. While we were waiting we read a board next to the kitchen which explained that all the fish and seafood is part of the Ocean Wise Vancouver Aquarium program. It’s similar scheme to MSC in the UK – ensuring restaurants are using sustainably caught or farmed fish and seafood.

The queue at Red Fish Blue Fish
Some delicious tacones in the making
Scallop and temupura fish sub

We had some amazing tuna, Fanny Bay oyster and shrimp tacones, and next time I’m definitely going back for the fish and chips and tempura fish subs – this was the first time I realised that in this neck of the woods, it’s quite normal to have halibut, rather than haddock, as the basis for fish and chips. Oh yeah.

We didn’t want to fill up too much though, because we were having dinner at our hotel – the legendary Fairmont Empress which overlooks the town’s Inner Harbour and beautiful Parliament Building. We ate in the ‘Empress Room‘, which is old school in the best possible sense – all plush carpets, heavy wood furniture and linen table cloths – but not in the least bit stuffy, thanks to the food and staff. In my experience, they don’t really do stuffy over there.

Cheers! A nice glass of BC sparkling wine, with pinot gris and riesling

Our waiter Marc was a bit of a riot – he kept us smiling with his stories and maitre d Kirk gave us a tasting tour through British Columbian terroir with his selection of wines from the Okanagan Valley. I had no idea that Canada was producing such amazing wines – including some distinctly Burgundian Chardonnays and silky Pinot Noirs. Like I said, they don’t export much, so I fully intend to get my fill while I’m over there.

My lobster and sweetbread risotto at the Fairmont Empress
Sablefish baby
Marc working his magic on the drinks trolley

The food was farm-to-fork West Coast fine dining at its finest. My risotto of sweet lobster and crispy sweetbreads with truffle sounded like it could have been too much, but while it was creamy and incredibly rich, it was elegant and perfectly balanced, and left me enough room to really appreciate my delicious sablefish – similar to halibut but more oily – with Mediterranean vegetables. A plate of local cheeses for dessert further revealed the restaurant’s dedication to using the best local produce – apart from one, they all came from Salt Spring Island – which I’ve heard is something of a haven for ingredients. This is something I’ll be investigating further once I get back there.

If you ever do find yourself in Victoria, staying or having the famous afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, make sure you try the honey. It’s made with bees they keep themselves out in the garden, and given the climate and wealth of flora, it’s really special. They even put some in the peanut butter at breakfast, which is out of this world.

The bees at the Fairmont Empress
Gorgeous blooms in the grounds of the hotel
Our room

My trip was supported by www.BritishColumbia.travel and BC Ferries

India revisited: Mumbai’s Irani Cafes for The Guardian

I’ve been lucky enough to visit India three times. The first was as an 12-year-old with a bad fringe and even worse bum bag: awkwardly chubby, pale and privileged and utterly gobsmacked by the smells, colours, craziness and social disparity I witnessed. I’d joined my parents on a last minute trip to Varanasi because my late father Peter Birkett – a freelance journalist – had been sent there by the Express newspaper. He was there to investigate the extended family networks of the slum communities, in light of an arguably crass comment the Duchess of Kent made about Indian people being ‘richer’ than their affluent Western counterparts in terms of their supportive familial relations. I was packing a banana yellow Gameboy in my bum bag, but the children I was playing with were more mesmerised by a packet of balloons the photographer busted out.

My mother was petrified of me getting ill (bless her) so carried tins of corned beef in her handbag which we ate with fresh naan, which somehow passed the hygiene test. We rode on a crowded passenger train from Delhi to Varanasi and the attendants brought around dinner, which was actually festering buckets of slop with flies crawling on it. We eschewed, and my tummy remained in tact.

The next time I went to India, in 2010, a whole other kind of train ride beckoned as I was traveling as a journalist on the inaugural voyage of the Maharaja’s Express with one of London’s top Indian chefs, the lovely Vivek Singh. The train ride was more like Wes Anderson’s brilliant Darjeeling Limited than I could have hoped – we even went to the remote rural village visited by the characters in the film, and – and I know this sounds like some 70s acid trip delusion – I slurped opium tea from the palm of a prince of the Bishnoi tribe.

I saw the opulent ancient beauty of Jodhpur and Udaipur, and the poverty that I remembered from the last visit, which seemed emphasised by the luxe nature of my surroundings. Without my mother to watch my back, and with a food assignment to pen, I let my taste buds properly explore. We worked our way up from Mumbai, through Rajasthan to Delhi, and we tasted everything – from the the fiery hot Rajasthani goat curries to chargrilled paneer, chickpea-based Gujarati snacks and Indian hash browns for breakfast in Agra. It was here I also contracted amoebic dysentery, which made my life rather unpleasant for a couple of months on my return. But that’s India.

In January of this year, I was lucky enough to return to this crazy country to explore Mumbai in more depth. I was traveling with a fantastic bunch – London restaurant PR darling Gemma Bell; Olive magazine’s amazingly knowledgeable  deputy editor Lulu Grimes; the one and only Lucy Cavendish: mum of four and prestigious journo extraordinaire; Xanthe Clay – the Telegraph’s fearless food columnist and recipe writer and Ming Tang Evans: a fantastic photographer who provided us all with brilliant pictures from the trip. Leading us around were cousins Kavi and Shamil and Naved – the owners and chef respectively of London’s brilliant Dishoom restaurants which are based on the Indian city’s wonderful Irani cafes. You can read all about these, and their tragic decline in this piece I wrote for the Guardian.

Exploring the city with Shamil, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir as our guides was absolutely fantastic because these guys know the city like the back of their hand – Shamil and Kavi because they used to visit their grandparents here, and Naved because he cooked here for almost five years. They understood the inquisitive, intrepid nature of our group, and as well as showing us the historic cafes, took us both on and off the beaten track – sniffing out good food at Chowpatty Beach, taking us for an incredible, authentic multi-course thali at the home of their lovely friend Pooja and on an guided tour of the Mohammed Ali Road, where we sampled some very unique and memorable Muslim street food – including bheja roti – rotis fried with delicate lamb’s brain and finished with a squeeze of lemon, a delicious, gelatinous trotter curry and bone marrow curry.

Bone marrow curry on the Mohammed Ali Road

My mother would have had heart palpitations if she’d seen the ramshackle state of some of the places we ate in, but I can happily report that apart from a momentary wobble, my tummy was fine.

Here are some of my photos from the trip – hope you enjoy.

 

The one and only Mr Kohinoor of Brittania Cafe – check out those specs!

The lone chandelier

Life sized cut-out of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Britannia

Britannia’s famous chicken berry pulao

The best creme caramel I’ve ever tasted at Brittania

The amazing mosaic tiled floor at Kyani

Bun maska, chai and akoori (chilli scrambled eggs) at Kyani

Red carrots

Pomfret at the market

Pictures of Irani body builders at Yazdani bakery

The bakers at Yazdani

One of the chefs at Radio restaurant

Sunset on Chowpatty

 

 

A winter’s feast: slow roasted rosemary lamb shoulder, Jansson’s Temptation and kale salad

When it’s getting dark at 4pm, you know it’s time to start feasting. I had some friends round last weekend and I wanted to spoil them with cosy home-cooked dishes that would warm their cockles and make them feel sated and happy. Because I knew I had a tough week ahead of me, and because I wanted to have fun, dammit, I settled on a roast for the main course. I wanted something I could whack in the oven and leave to its own devices, which in this case was a nice fatty British lamb shoulder, covered in rosemary and garlic and slow cooked for four hours (180°C) with some peeled carrots and onions.

The starters, or perhaps ‘nibbles’ is more apt, were two things I got out of the Polpo cookbook; rough chopped chicken liver pate and walnut and rocket pesto – both things that could be easily made in advance and slathered onto some toasted sourdough (from Wild Caper, natch) on the night. I added chopped tarragon to the pate recipe because I bloody love tarragon with chicken, and I used Courvoisier rather than port and brandy, because it’s what I had to hand. It worked well, but next time I might be a bit more generous with the cognac…

With the lamb I served two sides inspired from my travels and recent meals. I did a take on Jansson’s temptation, an amazingly comforting Swedish dish which is basically dauphinois without the garlic and with the genius addition of anchovies, which as you know, go ever so well with fatty lamb. I had this recently with my Chateaubriand at the new Hawksmoor Air Street, and have been thinking about it ever since!

I adapted my recipe from one I found in Delicious magazine. I added in thyme, even though authenticity dictates rosemary, because I had some to hand and I always think thyme and caramelised onions are lovely together. I also added in the zest of a lemon to give it a fresh lift.


Jansson’s Tempation
Takes about an hour and a half including prep, serves 4-6 as a side 

2 white onions, finely sliced
25g unsalted butter, halved
5 medium waxy potatoes, finely sliced as you would for Dauphinois
300ml double cream, seasoned with white pepper and a pinch of salt (no more because of the anchovies)
1 and a half cans of good quality anchovy fillets in olive oil
The leaves from 4 sprigs of thyme, or rosemary
The zest of half a lemon

While you’re slicing all the ingredients, preheat the oven to 180°C. Drain the anchovies, pouring the oil into a frying pan, add half the butter and heat until the butter has dissolved into the oil. Then add the onions and make sure you’re cooking them over a very low heat, until they’re sweet and melty but not charred – should take about 20 mins. Near the end, add in the thyme and cook it with the onions for about five minutes.  When the onions are sweet and translucent, remove from the heat and set aside.

Butter a deep baking dish or tin with the rest of the butter and layer half of the potatoes in it. Pour over the onions and then place the anchovies evenly spaced on top. Place the remainder of the potatoes on top and pour over half of the seasoned cream and lemon zest. Bake for about 30 minutes, then add the remaining cream and bake for another 25-30 minutes, until the top has caramelised and the potatoes are cooked through.

The other side was a kale salad: because kale is in season right now, and I wanted something fresh and sort of healthy to go with the guilt of the lamb and JT. It’s based on a raw Tuscan kale salad I had in Nashville (the yanks are really good at kale) at a place called Tavern, which was so delicious and texturally interesting with all the nuts and raisins I couldn’t stop eating it. I’m pretty sure the Tavern version didn’t have chilli in it, but where I can I like to add a bit of fire to salads.

Raw kale salad with toasted almonds and sultanas
Takes about 20 minutes, serves 6 or more as a side dish

400g curly kale, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
Two good handfuls of sultanas
Two good handfuls of sliced almonds
The juice of one lemon
50ml nice extra virgin olive oil
50g Parmesan, finely grated
Red chilli flakes

Preheat the oven to 180°C. While you do this, whizz the kale up until it’s fine like tabbouleh. I did this in two batches to get an even chop. Then lay the sliced almonds onto a baking tray and toast in the oven for 8-10 minutes or until they’re starting to go golden.

Mix the lemon and olive oil until it’s emulsified. Put the kale into a large mixing bowl, add the sultanas, chilli flakes, Parmesan, and when they’ve cooled, the almonds. Mix it all up nicely using a spatula or good metal spoon. Pour over the dressing and give it one more stir.

To finish off the meal, we had a delicious hunk of Gorgonzola DOP which was kindly sent to me by Gorgonzola, which we ate with some rather interesting Sav Birch Sap wine, which was given to me by the Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren at a recent meal he hosted in London.

Dessert was treacle tart. I had this very one a couple of weeks ago at a friend’s house and they kindly passed on the recipe, which is Heston, though I used April Bloomfield’s brilliant grated sweet pastry recipe for the case! I served it with clotted cream.  These guys enjoyed it. Or at least looked like they did:

Warm salad of roasted aubergine and broccoli with anchovy lemon dressing

I love broccoli. It’s one of the foods I really crave when I’ve been overindulging, which, as you know, happens fairly regularly. I came up with this recipe after a couple of days of eating, when I got back to my flat and happened to have some aubergine and broc in the fridge. I wanted something wholesome and nutritious, but tasty and sating at the same time. I particularly love the nutty flavour broccoli takes on when you roast it in a bit of olive oil in a hot oven: it’s somehow more interesting and satisfying than just blanching it, and it retains its crunch a little better, which works really well against the squish of the roasted aubergine. You can add a dollop of crème fraîche to the dressing if you find it a bit sharp, but personally I like it that way – I love how the acidity cuts the creamy aubergine flesh.

For the salad
Serves 2 

Half a head of broccoli
One teaspoon of dried red chilli flakes
One garlic clove, sliced
One medium aubergine
Two handfuls of baby spinach leaves
1/2 teaspoon of Maldon sea salt
Glug of olive oil

For the dressing
Half a small tin of anchovies in olive oil, chopped
The juice of half a lemon
A handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Five teaspoons of olive oil
A splash of tabasco
Half a teaspoon of honey
Half a teaspoon of crème fraîche (optional)

Method
Preheat the oven to 180. Slice the aubergine into hearty rounds (about 3cm thick). In a bowl, coat the aubergine in the oil, salt and chilli. Then lay them onto a flat baking tray and place in the hot oven for ten minutes. In the meantime, cut the florets of broccoli off the stalk, reserving the stalk and any leaves, as these can be roasted too. Cut the florets into bite sized pieces – some might be the right size but you might have to slice others in half. People tend to throw the stalk away, but it’s actually just as tasty as the rest of this brassica if you get to the tender inside bit, so waste not, want not. Cut off the rough end of the stalk, and peel with a knife until you get to the tender pale bit inside. Slice into 2cm thick rectangles.

After the aubergine has cooked for ten minutes, remove the tray from the oven and turn the rounds over. Now add on the broccoli florets, stalk and any leaves. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes.

While that’s cooking you can make the dressing. Briskly combine the lemon juice, olive oil, tabasco, honey (and crème fraîche, if using) until it’s all emulsified and then add in the chopped anchovies, garlic and parsley.

When the vegetables are ready, take them out of the oven and let them sit for five minutes. Arrange the baby spinach on the plate, scatter over the aubergine and broccoli, and drizzle over you dressing. This dish works well on its own as a healthy supper, or on the side of something like roast lamb.