Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Never Rub Another Man's Rhubarb

Rhubarb 'Assiette'
Champagne Jelly, Crumble & Creme Anglaise, Milkshake

     This entry is a tribute to an old colleague come anew.  Mr. Timothy Hall- pastry chef extraordinaire, gentle giant, Kingpin and lynchpin.  As head chef of a hotel, my role was often overseer, bad cop and paper pusher.  Tim was often the executor of my ideas and this collaborative relationship between sous and chef was fruitful and intuitive. 

Southernhay House nears completion

     My purgatorial status is soon to end with proximity to Kingpin, (and Donny Innocente) a factor in the decision.  One door closes, another opens.  Next month I take up the reins as head of the exciting new Southernhay House, just round the corner from the old dame.
     I am sure that once the dust settles a natural and beneficial cross pollination of ideas will germinate between the iconic Burgh Island of which Tim is now head, and the Exeter venture.

Here are the bare bones of this old Hotel B favorite...we can't give away all our secrets!

Ingredients for 2

300gm rhubarb (2cm dice)
120gm caster sugar
5tbsp milk
5tbsp cream
3tbsp soft flour
1.5tbsp unsalted butter
1.5tbsp brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 vanilla pod


For the rhubarb compote:
1)Place the rhubarb on a baking tray and sprinkle with 110gm caster sugar.
2)Put in an oven pre-heated to 160 degrees Celsius.
3)Cook for 20-30 min or until tender.
4)Remove from the oven and place in a sieve or conical strainer to drain the excess juice.  Reserve this juice for breakfast yogurts!

For the crumble topping:
1)Place the flour and butter in a freezer for 30 min.
2)Using a food processor, mix the flour and butter to a breadcrumb consistency.
3)Add the brown sugar to the food processor and mix well to the butter and flour.
4)Place the mixture on a baking tray and cook until golden in a 220 oven.
5)Break up the crumble topping with a whisk and allow to cool.
Refrigerate indefinitely and use as necessary.

For the creme Anglaise:
1)Combine the vanilla, cream and milk in a pan and bring to the boil.  
2)In a metal bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining caster sugar.
3)Pour the hot, vanilla infused milk and cream over the egg yolks, whisk well and return to the pan.
4)Cook the Anglaise out gently over a low heat until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  If you have a temp probe, 69-75 degrees Celsius is ideal.
5)Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a metal bowl over ice and stir continuously until chilled.  Use immediately or refrigerate for up to three days.

     Early season forced rhubarb is really an incredible thing.  Hidden away in the dark, these first stalks are the sweetest and best for colour.  Towards the end of the season you may find yourself needing to use more sugar and possibly a drop of Grenadine in the mix to keep up the vibrant hue.  Rhubarb flourishes in cold ground and is perfect for late winter early spring Britain.  Originally from Asia, it is actually a vegetable but a US Customs Court ruled in 1947 that it is a fruit, since that is how the plant is normally eaten.  My earliest memories of rhubarb are of my Grandma giving me a couple stalks with a small bowl of sugar to dip.

     Creme Anglaise is literally, 'English Cream'.  Although the Brits usually stick to dubious and day-glo 'Bird's' powdered custard.  Maybe it was an ironically named French jab at 'Le Rosbif'.  Simply, creme Anglaise is a pouring consistency custard used as a sauce for desserts.  The higher you take the temperature whilst cooking, the thicker the custard.  Make this once and you will say goodbye to that sickly yellow, corn flour packed pap.

'Never rub another man's rhubarb'
-The Joker

Note: Apparently one of these rhubarb pics is property of ChefHermes.com

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Importance of Asparagus

     Tis the season for English asparagus.  An 8-10 week delicacy that shouts of spring.  Nothing irks me more than when I see asparagus on a menu in January.  Who wants tasteless stalks flown to your plate from Thailand, Mexico or Peru?  Delight in a treat with a relatively short season.  Once picked, the sugars in asparagus react the same as peas, turning to starch very quick, losing all their natural sweetness.  The only asparagus that is really worth munching is picked the same day as consumption.
     Don't over cook, don't under cook.  3-4 minutes in boiling salted water is all that is needed.  Possibly a minute more if steaming.  The stalks should still be vibrantly green.  Toss in extra virgin olive oil or butter, maybe a little lemon juice if desired, liberal seasoning and Parmesan or pecorino if you are feeling posh.  Hollandaise is also excellent.  Another great recipe is to use the spears as 'soldiers' to dip into a soft boiled egg.  For a touch of finesse, drop a knob of butter or a little truffle oil into the egg first.  Here are two of my takes on one of the all time great ingredients...

Asparagus, Poached Egg & Toast
Lamb Sweetbreads, Wild Garlic Gnocchi, Asparagus & Morels

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Spring is for Spider Crabs

     'I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by...'
     This classic verse from John Masefield was drilled into me as a young boy and, wanted or not, always creeps back like an impossibly catchy pop song whenever I glance seaward.  A perfect poem exuding a warm and lilting inclination towards a lazy yet brisk stroll along the sands.  Whereas zipping a wet suit on in early May and eyeing the dark and choppy water with a novice's trepidation is entirely another kettle of fish.  Let's get things straight, I love diving for crabs...but I'm no expert.  I would'nt dream of venturing off all aqualunged up without my savvy Breton merman, Kilda Giraudon.  A forager extraordinaire raised among the rock pools and mushroom stocked forests of Northern France, he is a true friend and a great guide to all things wild.
Kilda Giraudon
     What we seek today is the spider crab, Hyas araneus, a spiny, bright red, and well fortified creature that houses a most succulent and sweet meat.  Yet, Brits don't eat them.  They are harvested by the tonnes and shipped off to the broader palates of Portugal and Spain.  True, the brown crab is plentiful and the flesh more easily extracted, but how can you turn your noses up at something so abundant, so easy to catch and so very tasty. They really are good eating.  The legs are deceptively meaty and the honey-comb like carapace holds a multitude of flesh-jammed compartments of very sweet meat, superior in my mind to the brown crab.  Free food gets me excited.  What can be more flash on my dinner menu than, Chef Caught Spider Crab Bisque.  Free-range, organic, wild...nay, 'chef-caught' is the ultimate.  The spider crab starts meandering over the sea bed from France in droves and begins to hit the Devon coast late spring.  They don't only look unusual, their mating habits are also rather kinky.  Most female crabs must moult from their shells, so as to be nice and soft in order to entice the male to the party.  Not so this rough and ready spider.  They'll mate with ardor even though both are armoured to the hilt.  This spiky tough love gets even stranger due to the fact that, if push comes to shove, the female can actually forego the male's advances entirely and apparently perform immaculate conception.  It has been shown that the female can store sperm somewhere within for years if necessary in the case of males being a bit sparse.  How very crafty.

     Splash.  To all you land-lubbing Devonians that live within a stone's throw of the sea- it really isn't that cold.  Seriously.  With a good wet suit, you will shudder for only a moment.  We bob about around 2-3 metres in depth, taking large breaths and darting down quickly to make the most of what can only be short, sharp attacks on the exodus below.  Gloves are highly recommended.  The back of the spider crab is near razor sharp with a prehistoric cover of knobby bumps and crevasses.  This surface will thrash your fingers if left uncovered, as you clutch breathless at this slowly escaping delicacy.  The real shock is the sheer number of crabs.  At times they seem to be everywhere.  And, spoiled for choice you dive again and again, greedily searching for the largest.  The bigger the better.  Once you get your sea legs, brown crabs, lobsters, sea bass and scallops can all be had with a little luck, a keen eye and the right tools.

     Spring lamb has become a bit of misnomer, what with great flavoured meat around these parts all year, and the Easter push arguably dropping the quality somewhat.  Let's start a new spring tradition.  Spider crabs.  What a great way to keep fit and work up an appetite simultaneously.  A fabulous South West ingredient that we can eat guilt free and for free.  Surf's up.

Spider Crab & Wild Garlic Bisque
Yield: 10-12

1-2 Crabs (Fully cleaned with a nail brush or similar, smashed and roasted)
Sunflower oil
400gm Mirepoix (Roughly chopped fennel, onion, leek, celery, carrot)
2 Shots brandy or dry white wine
100gm Tomato puree
100gm Flour
100gm Butter
2 Bay leaves
2 Tinned tomatoes
1-2 Star Anise
1tsp Fennel seeds
1tsp Coriander seeds
1tsp Black peppercorns
Tarragon (or parsley/dill)
Pinch of saffron
Fish stock to cover (or water)
Wild garlic leaves

1) Heat 2tbsp of sunflower oil in a roasting tray and fully roast  
the two rough chopped/smashed crabs at 180 degrees for approx. 1 hour.
2) Heat 2tbsp of sunflower oil in a large pan and fry off the mirepoix on a high heat, adding the brandy and tomato puree towards the end.
3) Add the roasted crab, and all other ingredients except the flour and butter.
4) Simmer for one hour.
5) Remove half the crab frames and blitz the remaining soup in a very powerful blender.
6) Strain through a chinois and then through a fine sieve. (Muslin or tights work well.)
7) Make a roux with the flour and butter and slowly add the hot strained soup.  Bring to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes, check the seasoning, stir in some chopped wild garlic and serve.  Here I had so much crab, I boiled an extra one up for 10-12 minutes and flaked some over the soup.

Does my bum look big in this?

Monday, 4 April 2011

The First Cut is the Deepest

Anatomy of a knife taken from 'Cooking for Engineers'.

     'It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools'.  How often have you heard this old adage?  Usually muttered by grandfathers tossing in some well worn words, whilst watching one of their kin struggle with a task at hand under a jaundiced eye.  The fact is, if your knife is blunt, you won't get far in the professional or the home kitchen.  I have been a chef for sixteen years and I can honestly say that the majority of cooks wield neglected blades, incorrectly clashed together in a builder's toolbox. The very object that defines us, that moulds and shapes the ingredients for our creations, that with which we simply could not do without...we treat like a second class citizen.  I wish to spread the gospel and break some bad habits.

Keep safe and sharpen wisely

  If you spend any more than £20 on a knife, treat it right.  Store it in the box it came in, a knife block, wrap or wall magnet.  You must keep those edges safe.  The analogy I like to paint is that your cook's knife is like a child sitting on a tank.  The blade and handle of your knife are the tank; a robust piece of fine tuned machinery that will last forever, needing little maintenance but for some gentle cleaning.  The edge however, is the child; a delicate creature in need of constant care and attention for it to last a long and healthy life.  A steel rod, (in particular a diamond steel) is not the best tool for keeping the edge in good shape.  There, I've said it.  Every chef I know constantly use steels.  Think about it.  Metal on metal is a big reaction.  This routine is eating your knife, most probably not in a straight line.  If in doubt, give that rod a good wipe on a white cloth, now blackened from metal filings off your blade's edge.  If you have an uber expensive Japanese knife, a classic German chunk or our own sublime Robert Welch, do you really want to be bashing it against another piece of metal?  Even if you are cruising at the right angle, (between 12-20 degrees, depending on the knife) there is a lot of room for human error, especially when you are busy.  And we all know chefs are never busy.  The best tool is a ceramic wheel sharpener that corresponds to the knives you use.  Use this little but often to maintain a perfect edge.  The acid test is the ripe tomato.  The second you find your knife doesn't glide through a ripe tomato, 8 or 10 strokes on the ceramic will bring you back to box sharp.  The key is to not let your knife get dull and, for the love of God, do not use a chantry or electric sharpener.

Choosing a Knife

  When searching for a good knife, the average consumer can easily be lost by misleading advertising, massive price differences, untrained shop staff and celebrity chef endorsements.  (Jamie...please go away for awhile.)  There are a few key points I look for in a good knife:

1)  Fully-forged.  Not 'forged'.  Fully-forged.  Made from one piece of metal.  This is paramount for strength and a sign of top quality.  Do not be fooled by the look of Global knives for instance, they are not one piece of metal, there is a weld between the handle and blade creating a weak spot and they easily break in half.
2)  Out of box sharpness.  If it won't glide through paper or trim my beard, it isn't sharp enough.
3)  Edge retention.  Ok, super sharp out of the box.  Is it a healthy mix of carbon and stainless steel that I can keep sharp easily enough?  This is where you can get into trouble with some Japanese knives.  Due to the extreme hardness of the steel they can be quite difficult to bring back when dulled.
4)  Handle/Balance.  How does the knife feel in your hand?  Does it feel well balanced between the blade and the handle?  Is the handle ergonomic and conducive to lots of chopping?  Do your knuckles have clearance with the heel of the blade?  You can get a nasty callous from that silly perforated Global handle or some too-squared German blades.  Look for any cracks or crevasses in the finish to the handle, this is a sign of poor quality and food can get permanently stuck in these hairline fissures. 

     For years one had to turn to Japan or Germany for a quality, professional chef's knife.  Simply put; Japan for a super fine sharp edge and appealing to our Samurai sensibilities, Germany for big sturdy work horses and a strong tradition.  This is still largely the truth but for one local hero taking on all challengers.  The Robert Welch Signature Series are winning awards by the fist full and beating the big competitors at CATRA, the industry's independent tester of all things sharp.  I am a huge fan of RW and pretty much use them exclusively bar a couple specific blades they don't yet have in their range.  I have become a bit of a collector of knives in general over the years, but the main reason I gravitate to Robert Welch is the handle and the edge retention.  There are lots of snazzy, sparkly and sharp as anything knives out there but, speaking as a chef, nothing compares to the RW handle.  I also love that they are English, the packaging is unsurpassed and the price a complete no-brainer.   My second favourite knife is a Mighty Mac.  An overpriced thing of beauty, it is as if the Japanese took a good long look at a traditional European chef's knife and then made it so much better.  The bronze metal goes to the Wustof Grand Prix range.  For years I used these knives and I still haul them out once in awhile when I am feeling nostalgic.  Believe it or not, Victorinox has a couple blades chefs simply cannot do without.  These plastic handled student kit knives are really not that bad and the serrated pastry knife and tomato knife are industry standard due to cooks' loving the design of the former and the near throw away price of the latter.
  At the end of the day, choosing a good knife is a very personal decision.  Do a little research, get a chance to feel and use the blade first if possible, and only spend what you can afford.  A £38 Robert Welch is just as good if not better than my £120 Mighty Mac.  Don't believe the hype when it comes to price, it costs very little to replicate production knives in factories.  Companies prey upon the publics' perception of all things sharp and shiny, so shop around.  When it comes to size, bigger is not always better.  I can't really understand chefs that use 25-30cm knives.  If you watch them at work, very little of the surface area of the edge is utilized.  Maybe they drive sports cars as well.  17-20cm is all that is needed for a good cooks knife.

Top Tips

Even if the manufacturer deems it safe to do so, don't put good knives in a dishwasher.
Would you put a Lamborghini in a car wash?

Crushing garlic cloves with the flat side and slicing through hard cheese can be potentially damaging to your knife.
The back and forth action of blade bending can cause micro-chipping.

If you need to chop through bones, buy a cheap cleaver from an Asian market or China town.  Hack away with no fear, simply replace when ruined. 

When chopping, always incorporate a bit of a roll on the action.
A straight forward up and down chop is very tough on the blade.

Always use a wooden or plastic chopping board.
Glass is a serious no-no.

A santoku is a Japanese all purpose knife.  Santoku literally meaning, 'three virtues'; slicing, dicing and mincing.
Very popular with many chefs today and my personal favourite.

The word is stain-less steel, not stain-never.  Ensure you dry your knives thoroughly after cleaning to prevent water spots.

To get even more technical about all things sharp, check out-

Dexter...a man that knows his blades.
Parting Shot
'I don't look at a knife the way I used to. I'm more aware of what it is. I think twice. 
This is my key finger. It's in every chord.' 
 -Neil Young

An edited version of this article can be seen in the April 2011 edition of Devon Life.