There was an error in this gadget

Friday, 22 May 2009


Is it the credit crunch that's doing it, making every other paper/TV channel/media start a campain to change my back lawn from a toddler's playground to dysfunctional version of The Good Life?

Am I the only one who thinks this is all a bit ludicrous? Let's face it, modern properties don't normally come with gardens large enough to have a veg patch (and greenhouse) big enough to make it worth while; vegetables are seasonal as well, meaning that you're not just going to plant something today and be able to eat it next week - unless you started months ago it's going to be Autumn before you reap the fruits of your labours and next year before you get the real benefit.

Also let's not forget that the majority of us have no clue about gardening any more; my father is a good gardener yet I learned nothing about it growing up, my mother likes gardening as well but I've not inherited her green fingers; the closest I've got to gardening recently was planting a rose bush in the front garden because my wife told me that all that digging was "man's work". My point? Simply idiots like me can't expect to plant a huge seed crop and for it to all work, at least half will fail because of my ineptitude and then my wife would moan that I've ruined the kid's favourite corner of the garden.

I'm all in favour of allotments but really, who has time in this modern age? Families, jobs, there are so many other calls on ones time that they're just not practicle unless you're a bit older or have less demands.

Instead I'm going to keep supporting my local farm shops, organic boxes and vegmongers; it's the best for us all, don't you agree?

It's Barbecue time...

I love Barbecues, I really do - my grill even has a name: "The Beefmaster", though this is a brand and not a flight of insanity on my part. Except for the hardy few who'll use their barbecues as wood or coal-fired ovens the year round, May is the start of grill season so here's a few of my handy tips and maxims:

  1. Get yourself a grill brush - they're only a few quid, are easily found in garden and DIY stores and are the best way to clean the grill; once you've discovered that brushing it while warm has a better effect than soaking for hours in the kitchen sink, you'll never make a mess of your kitchen again (and will probably barbecue every other night).
  2. Also get a spray... thing? (what are they called, misters? I use the same type as my wife waters the houseplants with), this can dampen any flare-ups caused by dripping fat and stops things getting unpleasantly burned.
  3. Think about the charcoal you buy, charcoal production causes huge deforestation in some areas but it's easy to find sustainably produced charcoal in B&Q's and lots of other places.
  4. Also, think about what you're cooking when you choose between lumpwood and briquettes, lumpwood burns hotter but doesn't last as long where briquettes give a longer, lower heat; I often use a mixture of the two.
Now, as for what to cook, try some imagination - a single rib of beef, oiled and seasoned will slice into the most wonderful steak for 3 people (or 2 greedy bastards), a leg of lamb butterflied and marinaded in garlic, thyme and lemon for a few hours is fantastic, chicken is a similar marinade or one of harissa lightened with oil or yogurt, a recent discovery of mine is pork leg/shoulder/loin in a Korean marinade, simply heaven. Serve all this stuff with a decent salad and some bread and you can carve it table side, just to show off your masculinity and make your guests (who invariably just chuck supermarket sausages on a barbie) feel inadequate!

Review - Restaurant 21212

On Wednesday I attended the opening night of Paul Kitching's new operation, Restaurant 21212 and it was really rather good; the restaurant is the ground floor of a Georgian Townhouse (the old 3 Royal Terrace for those who remember) with a drawing room and private dining area on the 1st floor and plush rooms above. It's been decorated in sympathy with the period features yet has a contemporary edge; it feels as effortlessly stylish as Per Se coupled with a relaxed and welcoming ambiance.

Anyway, we arrived to a warm welcome and were invited to repair to the dining room for some opening night Champagne, all very civilised. It was here that we saw Paul popping in to speak to the waiters, checking they were ready for the night ahead; he looked understandably anxious but still made time to say hello.

The menu was as billed, a choice of two starters, a soup, two mains, a cheese course and two desserts; bread was offered which was stuffed with pistachios, dried fruit and curry notes, I found it lovely though my wife, who doesn't like dried fruit, was a bit disappointed in the lack of choice. Technically it was great, light and airy, it excited the palate without being filling.

To start I had the Chicken BLT while the rest of the table opted for Scallops with "seven peas". The Chicken was a wonderful deconstruction of an otherwise indifferent sandwich, the distinct flavours all worked together and were stunning individually. The Scallops were almost as nice, I suspect they were butter-poached as they were plump, succulent and scallopy, the "seven peas" seems to be peas prepared in seven ways, most successful though my wife and mother-in-law felt some of the peas were too hard, I tried a couple and suspect they may have been dried.

Next came the soup, it was cauliflower, carrot and apple with a slice of salami and, randomly, a confectionery apple string; for all this was the stand out dish of the evening, every mouthful brought a different combination of flavours that were a wonderful symphony in ones mouth. Seriously, I can't rave enough about this, equally I can only hint at the depth of flavour - as it constantly changed it would take far too long to describe.

For the mains I opted for the Turbot and Chorizo while the others had the Beef. The Turbot was as good a piece of fish as I've had in a long time, accompanied by lentils, caperberries, a baby chorizo and a couple of sauces which I couldn't even identify but were wonderful (am I beginning to overuse that word?), the lentils were slightly underdone for my taste but didn't bring the dish down. The others enjoyed the beef, it was served with what looked like some gremolata and they reported further lemon hints coming from what they called "the white stuff", not too technically helpful but they loved it.

Until the cheese came, all conversation at the table was suspended when the dishes arrived, only to resume while waiting for the next course. I would say we fell silent in reverence at the altar of Paul Kitching, but that might be a bit too melodramatic. It was seriously good though.Anyway, the cheese course allowed us to eat and talk, there was a great selection of 10 British and French cheeses served with porridge biscuits and a couple of others which I ignored. Can I just commend 21212 for having this as a separate course and for having it in the correct place (jamais le sucre avant le sale).

A pre-dessert came out of coconut and porridge infused milk, served in paper shot cups from a cute cow-shaped milk jug; this was great and fun, the flavours developed in the mouth like those of a good wine with the coconut surging and then ebbing to leave a delicious oatyness. Not too impressed with the paper cups though, they do look like something you'd find containing ketchup in an Ikea canteen, shot glasses would be preferable.

For dessert I had a baked custard which was flavoured with cumin and caraway and loaded with sultanas and kumquat and which was accompanied by a raspberry and linseed trifle; both dishes packed a flavourful punch that I'm still salivating over. The rest of the table enjoyed cheesecake and a fiery ginger sorbet that was so well received I didn't get to try any of it.

We had to leave at this point, our substitute babysitter having a time limit, so we didn't have time for coffee but Katie kindly presented both my wife and mother-in-law with some bon-bons to take home. I've eaten my wife's as I'm writing this, they are unctuous and mellow and could almost have converted me to dark chocolate. Fiona's going to kill me when she finds them gone.

Anyway, in summary: Restaurant 21212 is fantastic, Paul's dishes are going to challenge the culinary status-quo in Edinburgh by offering intelligent and complex flavours that excite the palate, all done with humour and a deft and skillful had. Even at Per Se, I only had one dish that made me this excited, at 21212 I had 5.The wine list is rather good with some interesting bottles there, though I do wonder if some of the mark-ups may be more London than Edinburgh (I'm thinking of a £60 bottle of Frank Phelan here, it was only a 2005 and I'm sure the last bottle I bought at retail was £17). The staff are pretty much faultless, welcoming and attentive but informal; they are really quite knowledgeable and seem to be proud of where they work. Justifiably.

On the down side, this was an opening night and there are a few things I think we'll see tweaked over the next weeks and months, lack of choice in bread, some of the cutlery is a bit more style over substance - I'm thinking of the two pronged forks that the others were given for the beef in particular and I don't think the room is large enough to be served napkins from a tray, it was nice but perhaps just impractical.

Is this worth £60 per head? Certainly.
Is this deserving of stars? Definitely 1, a few tweaks and possibly 2.
Should people go? Yes, but not too many of you, I always want to be able to get a table.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Hold on, I've just realised it's May!

And that means I'm just days away from my favourite veg, the humble but delightful Broad Bean.

Everyone bangs on about fresh, British asparagus, and it is lovely, but it can't hold a candle to the broad bean; you see, asparagus starts deteriorating much faster then most other veg so unless you've had something from the farm down the road picked that morning, you may as well buy frozen.

But even fresh asparagus reminds me of that gorgeous girl in the office who everyone lusts after but when you eventually take her on a date is slightly bitter and disapointing. Broad beans however are the girl in the flat next door, the one that you've always liked and then, when you go for a coffee, you find intoxicating, exciting and wonderful dressed casually in a coffee shop, dressed to the nines for a night out and most impressive when lighly steamed and in a salad. Or in lingerie, it's all good.

Vegging out...

I know that I prefer the nicer things in life, rare breed meats, heritage and organic veg and fine, estate wines; I also know that these are more expensive than other options and in this time of credit crunching, how can we afford it?

Well, one thing I'm doing is going veggie twice a week.

I don't mean that at weekends I become a woolly jumper wearing Guardian reader, just that on two nights through the week we have a meat-free meal. It's cheaper, healthier and I find it can prove an interesting challenge of I want to be stretched, or I can just make some scrambled eggs if I'm feeling tired, it's all good.

NB: I am not endorsing or advocating vegetarianism; humans are apex predators and pretty much have the right to eat any animal or vegetable they want.

The best thing that can happen to a steak...

Compound butters, be they garlic, maitre d' or harissa are all well and good, but for when you want to be really nice to both yourself and that prime Rib Eye you've just got from Well Hung and Tender:

Take a bunch of tarragon and strip the leaves. Chop finely and throw them into a small pan with 125 ml or so of sherry, red wine or champagne vinegar (or a mixture of the 2 or three, sometimes I'll also use tarragon vinegar), 2 shallots (or 1 large banana shallot) and a teaspoon of black pepper that's been bashed and cracked with a mortar and pestle.

Reduce this down 'till it's almost dry, do it slowly or it'll burn and the vinegar will stink the kitchen out.

While that's reducing place a block of unsalted butter, preferably French, weighing about 225/250g into another small pan and melt it gently.

When the reduced tarragon has cooled place mixture in a heat proof bowl and beat in an egg yolk. Now place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and beat in another 3 egg yolks, beat constantly until the eggs look foamy and thicker. This isn't scrambled eggs so if it looks like it's beginning to scramble or split, take it away the pan and add just a touch of cold water and whisk furiously; it may work and recombine, if not - go back to step 1. Also, use the best and freshest freerange, organic eggs you can get your mitts on, don't even waste your time with this if you're going to use some supermarket value egg that's been in hte fridge for a couple of weeks. Also also, have the yolks at room temperature before using.

When the yolks and reduction are combined, foamy and thicker, start to add the warm butter, spoonful by spoonful. Do this carefully because you don't want any milk solids (that white stuff in the bottom of the pan) getting into the sauce, keep whisking and whisking. Once the butter's almost all gone (except for the white crud), taste the sauce.

Season it with some salt and pepper, and serve it immediately beside that steak and some chips. Real chips, not frozen or oven chips, you've just made a kick-ass Bearnaise so why spoil it with frozen chips?

Review - Pani Solinska

Talk about an itinerant appetite, I set off for lunch with one of my regular chums, heading firmly in the direction of a new Korean restaurant that's opened in Edinburgh and we ended up in a Polish cafe. Not that there was anything wrong with the Korean joint, we just managed to walk past it, engrossed in gossip and were too hungry to head back.

Now I'm not a huge fan of the Polish food you tend to get in the UK, I normally find it too stodgy and with confusing flavours; certainly more suited to a winter's dinner than a spring lunch but chummy's blood sugar was dropping and that makes him grumpy, so hey ho...

No bad thing either.

Anyway, the cafe is a clean, modest but welcoming place which offers a range of dishes and sandwiches, mainly variations of protein on a theme, with a take away option as well. We opted for a tasting platter of Polish meats (£7.50) which came with a selection of homemade salads and a "Polish Soft Drink", a Pierogi - home made dumplings filled with sauerkraut and topped with fried onions and sour cream and a portion of sauteed potatoes with herbs and garlic.

The platter was nice with a decent selection of charcuterie and the salads were in reality some great pickles, the best was a sweet carrot and cabbage pickle which I've already tried to recreate. The dumplings were lighter than expected and had a nice balance and depth of flavour, the accompanying onions were slightly oily but nicely cooked. As for the sauteed potatoes, they were a bit dull and pasty, not parboiled therefore hard in the middle and the only discernible herb was dill which is, in my view, a bit dull.

Perhaps I'll leave the puns to someone else.

Anyway, the service was good and attentive with an authentically Polish waitress changing my mental image of Polish women to the better (much to the better).

The bill came to £21.45 for 2 mains, 1 side, 1 beer and 2 weird yet pleasant carrot and strawberry juices.

Not a bad place for lunch to be honest, though I'd have doubts about it as an evening venue. Do you want me to score it? i always think score are a bit trite, but if you want me to I will.