Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Step back in time…

A final rummage through my notes reminded me that I was, all in one day, an action hero, a ‘girlyman’ (to quote Arnold Schwartznegger) and a time traveller. I think abseiling down the side of a 14 storey building constitutes the hairy-chested-man-of-action-Grrr image that I would like to convey, albeit without the box of chocolates.

On the flip side, is the ‘girlyman’ wimp that hid behind his hands watching Wolfman, with the ever gorgeous Emily Blunt. Jumping out of my skin when someone behind me dived into a pack of popcorn at the most tense of moments. But time traveller? Well, yes.

The late evening ticket for the film meant that I needed to eat something before going into the cinema. Something quick and simple and not too far that going back to the flat would constitute an easier option. Round the corner and down the road from Fulham is an old institution. I say ‘old’, this institution is somewhere I went in the 80’s and early 90’s as a teenager, and I couldn’t resist checking it out again for old times’ sake; a trip down Memory Lane (or in this case, Kings Road).

Even with the passing years, nothing has really changed at Pucci Pizza. The location is different, having formerly been housed in a terrace diagonally opposite the Chelsea Fire station; the interior has been done in a deliberately similar layout, regular customers (mainly pretty young girls about town) are pictured in framed collages on the walls, and the place still retains some of its former character, hints of red and green against a white wall, to demonstrate its true Italian-ness. The owner’s son is now in charge and provides a link between the past and the present. Teens and twenty-somethings sit along side those, like me I guess, who were customers in the 80’s and 90’s, and are now old enough to be their parents (now that is scary!) or ex-Sloane Rangers harking back to their youth. There is a very casual party atmosphere and that is reflected with the music, occasionally live, and staff who look like they are, sometimes, having more fun than the customers.

A rather formal touch to the informality for the place were the small bruschette delivered once the order had been placed, (though because of the pending change of license I had to order wine and put it down as a rather large service charge). They had a really tomato and vinegary zing and crunch, and went very quickly. In fact, they could have been a main course in copious amounts.

Pizze are hard to mess up once the base is made, and that was one thing I do remember about Pucci. They never used to get it wrong, so the twitching suspense was heightened as the waiting for the pizza drew out (though not too long!). I ordered the Capriciosa. I have always loved egg and anchovy as a combination so couldn’t resist it. My pizza was piping hot from the over, crispy, crunchy and thin, the base softening the closer you got to the centre. I prefer thin crusty pizze to the breadier, thicker bases. The flavours? well that is the easy bit: a rich tomato base, layers of cheese and anchovies and, of course, the egg, though I don’t like my egg scrambled and cooked into the topping as they did on this. For me, leaving the egg to fry in the centre is preferable, but that is my choice and many would disagree, as they would about the thickness of the base and so many other things.

Still, it worked; powdery, crumbly golden yolk and salty, briny anchovy shock; tart tomato and creamy melted cheese, scattered pieces of mushroom and ham completing the tutti frutti colour balance (although the ingredients' quality were run of the mill). So? It’s a pizza! And I was full enough and ready for my schlock horror film.

Wow! What a retro-mental experience. Seeing it without rose coloured glasses is a whole new experience. It is old Chelsea and ‘to hell with it’. It relies on its reputation for being fun and buzzy and has done so for nearly three decades. (Not only that, but its website points out it is Chelsea in the address, next to the changing pictures of the parked red Ferrari and Callum Best). Cheap and cheerful? Definitely. I guess I would prefer to go there than go to one of a chain of well-knowns. Classy? Erm.. think again. But for a value for money quick bite I would probably go again.

Pucci Pizza 442 Kings Road SW10 0LQ Chelsea London T: 020 7352 2134 E: enquiries@puccipizza.co.uk

Monday, 22 February 2010

An Experiment… on a theme of risotti…

Aside from the chance to put on spangly thongs, big feathers and party until the early hours, isn’t the idea of Mardi gras to clear out the larder, use up what you have and start afresh? Well, isn’t it? And while sparkling fireworks and rhinestones light up the Brazilian night, here the dark and gloomy slow crackle of damp wood on fires and cold, wet weather inspire something altogether different. I have a need to create.

Spurred on by the success of one home made risotto (the delicious Nigella Lawson’s irresistible Lemon Risotto – albeit slightly amended to suit my needs) and the discovery of one large tub of fish stock (made only from salmon carcasses), I decided to combine my Lenten clear out with that of continuing a theme: risotto. And so begins the experiment.

Flickering lights from the stormy gusts light up a lonely pack of Arborio rice gathering dust in the cupboard. Some equally cheerless shallots, and the last decent couple of cloves on a bulb of garlic, sitting solemnly beside the Aga, were enough to turn famine to feast, ready to bring life to the listless and mundane.

Lou’s Salmon Risotto with wrapped Monkfish

2 banana shallots
250g Arborio risotto rice
750ml salmon stock (I couldn’t make up the full litre, but it is fresh!)
1 small glass white wine (such as Pinot Grigio)
1-2 cloves garlic finely sliced
1 sprig of rosemary
Maldon sea salt

2 fillets of monkfish (or other firm white fish)
2 packs pancetta or Parma ham
1 small pack of baby spinach leaves.

Serves 2

As I said before, it is all in the preparation. Mince the shallots, and warm up the stock. Next, prepare the fish as follows:

Lay out the Parma ham from left to right so that the ends overlap and you have a wide ‘sheet’ for wrapping. Trim each spinach leaf of its stalk and place on top of the ham, making sure the leaves are layered evenly. Leave a centimetre at the top and bottom. The leaves need only be two or three deep. Once done, place each fish fillet at the bottom end and roll the ham around it into a sausage. I would not put salt on this as with the stock and the ham it is likely to be salty enough. Lightly brush with some olive oil and place in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes (or until done).

Meanwhile fry the shallots, with oil and butter, add the rice and coat well. Add the glass of wine and reduce until practically gone, then start adding the stock, one ladle at a time until all used up (In the final stages I added the rosemary and garlic so that the flavour of the rosemary has a chance to infuse and the garlic settles rather than being raw and pungent).

To serve: remove the rosemary stem. Place the risotto in a dish or on a plate, slice the cooked fish in a diagonal, and place on top of the rice, the idea being to show off the tricolour of the fish, spinach and ham on a slightly yellow rice. Clean, simple and elegant.

What I got (pure luck) was a contrast in colours of the white, meaty fish, the stripe of the green spinach followed by the rich red of the ham changing what would be a visually ordinary white-on-white (made grey by the cloudy weather) serving into something more appealing. Testing the fish morsel, it reminded me of the texture of a soft centred chocolate; firm to the bite with a softer centre. The pancetta, sometimes crunchy at the end gives way to a moist, meaty and tender monkfish; the spinach giving some cleanliness to the salty ham.

Creamy butter and rich fish stock (part of your Omega 3, I guess) make a smooth combination, coating the rice, contrasting with the ham and the fish: nutty rice and firm meat; soft monkfish and spinach; strong salmon, rosemary and bacon flavours combining to pull the taste buds back and forth, here and there.

Keep your rhinestones, your feathers and your twenty-four-hour-party-people carnivals, your music, dancing and fireworks. The hypnotic flicker of the fire and the smooth comfort of a risotto is enough to warm even the most miserable of cold nights (though I did look at prices on Last minute).

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Unseasonal itch...

You know when you get that urge? That certain craving? That itch? That wanting that no other taste or texture will make up for? Craving a risotto was a first for me. No need to check my oestrogen levels to know that this was out of the blue. But urge, craving, compelling pull, call it what you will, this was an itch that needed scratching. Badly.

What to do? Faced with an already defrosted chicken breast in the fridge, I had thought of a simple (read: bland) cep risotto with fried chicken breast. Quirky, angular cuts of opaque meat scattered with the remainder of some forest green thyme leaves, gently placed on a small bowl of Harris Tweed-dappled, ivory coloured Arborio rice and tobacco and nutty brown mushrooms, and hints of creamy yellow parmesan cheese. Smoke, beef and wooded mushroom flavours contrasting with the succulent, sweetness of the meat and the sharp, saline nuttiness of the cheese. Very simple and appealing to my blokey nature.

However, my tweetamie @Hollowlegs, with the tact and smoothness of a Venetian ambassador, suggested that it was too simple and needed livening up. Flatten the chicken breast and coat it in lemon zested breadcrumbs. Wonderful! Added sharpness with the zest would contrast very well with the thyme and mushroom. Crisp breadcrumby crunchiness matching the bite of the rice (it’s Arborio not Ambrosia). But by then there were more items on my shopping list than indictments against the Parmelat Directors, and if I were to go that far, why not go all the way? Come on girls, blokes like gilding the lily!

Lou’s lifted Nigella Lemon Risotto with Chicken.
2 shallots
1 stick of celery
Olive oil
100 grams risotto rice
500 ml chicken stock (I used a pack of Waitrose liquid stock but home made would have been richer)
Lemon juice and zest of half a lemon
Yolk of an egg
Parmesan 2tbsp and some for scattering
2 tbsp double cream,
Maldon sea salt
Chicken breast and garlic for flavouring the frying oil

Technically you shouldn’t have moved away from the risotto as it needs to be constantly stirred at a gentle simmering point (but you knew that already). So, firstly, prepare. Heat the stock but don’t boil it. In a bowl, mix the egg yolk, cream and the 2tbsp of Parmesan, lemon juice and zest, and rosemary. Next, finely chop the celery and onion. At the same time (who says men can’t multitask?), heat some olive oil in a pan and add some garlic making sure it aromatises the oil and doesn’t go burnt or bitter. Remove the garlic and get ready to fry the chicken breast.

Melt some butter and olive oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and celery until translucent. Add the rice and coat with the oils thoroughly, then, put in a ladle of the stock until it is absorbed. Repeat this process until all the stock is used up and the rice is done, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the chicken breast adding salt if necessary.

To assemble, once the rice is done add the creamy mixture, I tend to spoon some of rice stock mix into the egg cream first, stir and then pour it into the risotto pan so as not to curdle or shock the egg. Mix and add a bit more cheese if necessary. Slice the cooked chicken breast and either stir it into the rice or lay it on top in said quirky manner. Garnish with a little rosemary (and maybe a couple of slices of lemon zest lifted out of the Martini that has been helping you through this process).

Although this is a recipe aimed at bringing comforting warmth on those slightly chilly but sunny first days and weeks of Spring, what is striking about this recipe is the combination of simplicity and richness; smooth, unctuous and creamy textures; the sharp lemon tang and the almost sweetening effect of the salt; the yolky cream coating the mouth, not in an unpleasant way, wrapping you in a comfort blanket and protecting you from the sharp acidity of the lemon; the slightly crystalline, gritty Parmesan cheese; nutty rice bites against soft, moist, garlic infused chicken; and, hints of smoky herb from the rosemary, adding balance to the overall flavour. The stock, originally meant to be Marigold vegetable bouillon, is richer and adds a bit of beef (chicken actually) to the sauce and lifts what could normally be a bland meat into something more lively.

I poured myself a glass (or two) of Soave (Strele, Oddbins £10.99) with its balance of flavour adding to the creamier elements of the dish while helping give punch to the lemon. More-ish and satisfying, I can’t think why I never tried it before, so thanks @Hollowlegs for the inspiration.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Kitchen confidential

Gosh! Aren’t I the lucky one? Called, last minute, by my brother Ben who let me know that Villandry have opened a new bistrot and café in Chiswick and I should check it out (where he gets that knowledge from I have no idea). So instead of going back to the darkest depths of Somerset, I delayed… I deferred… I… well, I let my stomach take over my thought processes. There is a childish joy at being a ‘first’ customer. I was so excited by the thought of a free meal I was bouncing like Tigger… no really, I was.

Smells of paint, comfortingly and reassuringly imply newness, cleanliness, never before touched freshness; contrasting, the second hand rustic pine and oak furniture, zinc topped tables, and café lights of glass and steel. Light and airy arched windows, denuded walls and wooden floors give a ‘loft’ atmosphere upstairs (where downstairs seemed a bit darker, even though it had ceiling to floor windows… strange).

Open kitchens and on-display chefs give me a childish sense of anticipation, excitement and entertainment. No nose picking or inappropriate scratching, as graphically described by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, but I still crane my neck to see what they are doing and if it is my plate they are doing in places like that (Union Café in Marylebone is the same).

I ordered duck confit with haricot beans (well if they can’t get the classics right then there is no point in trying the ‘trendy’ stuff). It arrived, perfectly cooked and piping hot. Haricot beans, the larger Tarbais variety (?), slightly soft, mixed with tail clipped crunchy Kenya beans, small strips of roasted red pepper for variety, and a stock and tomato based burnt sienna coloured sauce, thickened with a beurre manié. Sat on this, knife tappingly crunchy, salty skin hid a treasure trove of fresh succulent dark duck meat, sweet and rich, easily pulled apart from the bone with just the slightest touch of the fork. Earthy, gamey, slightly saline duck flavours lifted up by the sauce. Meaty succulence mixed with golden skinned crispness; velvet powdery softness of the haricots shocked by the crunch of the green beans. Visually and texturally, this was good.

A glass of Pinot Noir by J C Boisset Bourgogne was meant to compliment the dish, but it was a bit too cold to show its fruitiness at first and needed to be warmed up (I understood that all the windows had been opened to quicken the paint drying).

Pudding? I had room… no, I made room! I definitely had to make room for pear and almond frangipane tart.

And WOW! The almond frangipane was sublimely light and eggy buttery, sweet as sweet sugary eggy almond frangipane can be: a golden crust; an interior, light and cloudy fluffy and hinting lemon. Although the pears had coloured brown grey (so not seasoned with lemon?) they had a nice bite, and I have always loved the graininess of pears. The crème fraîche, soured and thickened to an almost ice cream consistency, perfectly balanced the sweet fluffiness of the almond base, the smooth unctuousness contradicting the pear grain and the fluffy frangipane.

Washing this down was a lemon-cream Charles Frères, Cuvee Jean Louis Brut, Crémante de Bourgogne, wonderfully smooth, young and petillant.

Slightly nervous service (well it was opening night) and a couple of tweaks (the slightly too soft haricots, the below room wine; peripheral stuff) aside, would I come again? Yes. Recommend it to friends? Yes. Pay? Oh if I have to.

Villandry Kitchen, 217-221 Chiswick High Road, London W4 2DW. T: 020 8747 9113. E: Chiswick@villandrykitchen.com

Monday, 1 February 2010

Icing on the cake... Caffé Caldesi

Inspired by my fellow food twitters to reach beyond my love affair with wine and dalliance with the discussion on food, I think... no I am happy...no, delighted, that my first blog on food should be on Caffé Caldesi in Marylebone Lane.

Having tweeted, twittered and tapped my newfound twitter friends for possible ideas, I was still set on going to Caffé Caldesi for Aunt J’s birthday. (I might add that a kind tweet from Katie Caldesi – she of the caffé – clinched the idea to return. That, and Aunt J’s love of all things Italian and the caffé itself).

My glamorous friend Helen, fashion buyer and old chum from wine course days, originally took me there some years ago and I still find it an ideal place for the odd treat. But oh, the stress of the train journey…! Oh, the lack of tubes at the other end..! Oh, the tension and suspense as the Tuscan Restaurant upstairs is closed in the winter months and you can only lunch downstairs without reservations (no wonder I am balding!)

Thankfully, as we decided on our courses (and again, thanks to Katie Caldesi) the manager served us a refreshingly welcome complimentary glass of lemon fresh prosecco to tease the tastebuds while we made our choices.

The Frittura mista di pesce, crispy fried calamari, whitebait and prawns. Delicious contrasts between the saline, the citrus, the crunch and the tenderness, presented in a rich, light batter, and served on a board. This, for Aunt J, brought childhood seaside memories of crispy fried whitebait. Crunchy to the taste, fishy and lemony; a must for her. Sweet meated prawns and to-the-bite calamari provided variety to this dish.

Me? Well, I am a bloke. Let’s face it, I eat meat. It’s a savage, sweary, Grrr, hairy-chested thing going back to hunting-gathering. A primal itch (continuing the theme in Twitter on Blokeseatbeef) that needed scratching. I chose the Tagliere misto di salumi e formaggi (Ok so there’s cheese in it, and I am a bit of a softy). Textural differences of smoothly elastic parma ham, spongy mortadella, and the firmer, drier bite of a rich bresaola, contrast with the two varieties of pecorino, of which the Sicilian had a wonderful, almost blue vein mature spice to it; olives and sun dried tomatoes (acidy citrus and tomato sweetened oil); a light and lightly salted foccacia; and finally, a melt-in-the-mouth artichoke perfectly cooked and effortlessly swallowed. (Goodness, what will the main course hold for us?)

I wanted to order Il Peposo; a slow cooked piece of beef with tomatoes and black peppercorns on a bed of polenta. Sounds salivatingly dreamy, doesn’t it? However, it really is slooooooooow cooked (and I was too early). Tempting as this was, our union will have to wait until another time.

Instead, both of Aunt J and I chose the La Milanese, a breaded veal escalope with potatoes and green salad. Veal, breaded and served on the bone (this one seems to be cut like a valentine chop before being hammered out, and is big enough for any bloke with primal meat urges, in fact, bigger). Cubes of oven roasted (an assumption there) floury potatoes compliment the light velvetiness of the veal. The breaded crumb coating is rich and eggy, crisp to the knife; the milky lightness of the veal, almost as melt away in the mouth as the artichoke earlier, cuts as easily as butter and is sharpened by the lemon juice. Neither the refreshing salad, nor the wine, could help me finish this course off. No bad thing, except for my ever growing waistline (strangely, Aunt J managed to eat it all and still remains slim!)

A Nipozzano Chianti Ruffina, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, 2002 (A half bottle, the station is still a seven mile drive away from Aunt J’s house) accompanied the main course. Fruity berries, tannins, richness and acidity. Mouthwateringly good with a long, long finish.

Pudding? Just a mouthful. Tiramisu, and with a candle in it for Aunt J’s birthday (the manager also offered to sing, but to his relief we decided to remain discreet!) Spoonful followed spoonful of gorgeous textures from the streaks of infused sponge to the mascarpone; cloyingly (in a good way) long lasting creaminess and chocolate powder. (I like a bit of crunch when I make mine so add amaretto biscuits soaked in alcohol but, like my writing, maybe I gild the lily). But hang on a minute, has the recipe changed? Last time I thought it had a rich Tuscan yellow cream (perhaps it is an egg yolk thing?)

Still, it was delicious and I needed a very long walk to burn it all off. (Actually, I needed to lie down, wrapped in the blanket of my own gluttony. Bliss.) Thank you! Thank you for making it a really enjoyable day.

Caffé Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, London W1 U 2QF. T 020 7935 1144. E: caffe@caldesi.com