Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ottolenghi au gratin

I like Yotam Ottolenghi's style & enjoy his story.  I dig his recipes in da Grauniad
I tried his beetroot and celeriac gratin. My assistant did the peeling and chopping, as usual. She assembled the bake, put it in the oven, and left me to it.
We didn't have enough cream and Yotam's specified 'teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of white pepper' is a mite de trop, so it was on the dry side and over-seasoned. 
Delish, mind, and even better cold the next day.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


'Wahaca' would be a great name for a Scouse restaurant, but in fact it serves so-called 'Mexican street food': tacos y burritos. It's very London, in the format pioneered by wagamama nearly 20 years ago: there's no booking; orders are taken electronically; dishes made to share & delivered in no particular order; average spend is twenty quid incl. drink. There's an impromptu outlet made out of eight shipping containers on the Queen Elizabeth Hall terrace @ Southbank, The Wahaca Experiment.

It gets busy, but there's a holding area, past the bar upstairs, where you can watch the river, imbibing margaritas or mocktails while you wait. The typography of the drinks menu - black on pink; tiny letters in low lighting - is not legible. It is the WORST thing about the place! However, when they tell you it'll be half an hour, our wait was no longer. They give you a gizmo that goes off when your table is ready.

Mexican food in London was always poor before Thomasina Miers won MasterChef Goes Large (as the show was known for a while upon its relaunch with Gregg Wallace, whose celebrity redefines 'cult') in 2005. Ms Miers then reinvented herself as 'Tommi™' and opened the first Wahaca @ Covent Garden in August 2007. Now, they're all over the shopping centres and avidly surfing the street food wave with a couple of mobile units. What can I tell you, VFM food operations are recession-proof in this City. Plus the second line of Tommi's bio. says she's married to an 'investment banker', which proably isn't rhyming slang.

Tommi™ seems like an unlikely expert on Mexican cookery, but I suppose she's researched the subject and I'm told that the pork pibil served at Wahaca is a worthy interpretation of the classic dish from the Yucatan. That's what the Big Fellow said, as if he should know. My Glamourous Assistant wasn't quite so taken with her 'British steak burrito', for all its chipotle salsa & grilled spring onions, but she is a tough critic.

There is, I am pleased to report, plenty for those who eschew flesh. The 'winter vegetables burrito' - a mix of seasonal vegetables and pasilla chillies, served with feta and avocado salsa, wrapped in a toasted flour tortillas - was practically a meal in itself. I've been disappointed, so far, not to taste the cactus tortilla I've heard about, but can vouch for the plantain tortillas, spiked with a sneaky smear of chilli.

I'm not a big fan of the quesadilla, a folded tortilla that's been toasted in a sandwich press. You can skip the Huitlacoche - sautéed mushrooms - but Wahaca's homemade black beans are especially good when they ooze with melted mozzarella and cheddar cheese. These bodacious black beans - Frijoles - are a staple of the menu and Tommi™ has selflessly provided the recipe on her blog.

It's basically a puree of cooked beans with onion, chilli & garlic: child's play, providing you can buy the black beans. Our frijoles didn't achieve the colour and consistency of Wahaca's, at least not the first time round, but we did give them more of a kick. Re-fried the next day, after a night in the 'fridge, the beany mush was even better, with smoother texture and deeper colour, which I roseated slightly with ketchup.

The second time round, I mixed some red kidney beans with the black beans, added paprika, Cayenne, and a dessert spoon of the chilli jam I made a couple of weeks ago. Next go round, I could take it another way, with garam masala in the base and coconut cream on the finish?

Back at Wahaca, star of the menu, so far, for me, has been the sweet potato & feta taquitos: deep-fried corn tortillas wrapped around the roasted tuber and tart cheese,  served with shredded lettuce, crema, salsa fresca and Wahaca's chipotle mayonnaise.

Before we leave, Lottie, a from Cardiff, begs, 'please don't make the mistake of forgetting to order something sweet for after your main! Chocolate or caramel churros are so delicious and moreish that you'll amazingly find more room in your very full stomach to eat more.' I neglected to do that and so - inexplicably - did my Glamourous Assistant. But we'll be back!

Wahaca hasn't yet brought to market a pose-able action figure of Tommi™, but it can only be a matter of time. There is, however, a book that allegedly contains 'the much sought after secrets of our juicy pork pibil', plus a range of three Wahaca-branded hot sauces, available via Sainsburys. Their fiery habanero salsa is wahicked and provides a model for my own experimental hot sauce. The label says it contains water, carrot, onion, apple cider vinegar, sugar, honey, habanero chilli, extra virgin olive oil, maize starch, garlic, red chilli, salt, garlic, spices (Cayenne, coriander, cumin), oregano, sunflower oil, white wine vinegar. 'All of which are totally natural with no nasty preservatives anywhere in sight.'

My own diluted Scotch bonnet 'n' bell pepper puree underwent a primary fermentation in the bottle before I added some Tropical Fruit & Carrot juice, which prompted further fizzing. Now, it tastes like zingy, fermented fruit juice with a massive kick to it. Apart from the fermentation issue - which may be desirable? - my sauce is too thin. Its flavour is gob-smacking, but not in a good way. However, the sweet jam I've kept in the 'fridge has possibilities. I'm thinking I could cook down diced onion and grated carrot with garlic, add the salt and spices, deglaze with cider vinegar, mix in the chilli jam, add a bit of water mixed with cornflour and blitz it?

Apparently, it took Tommi™ a year, 'working tirelessly on the recipe with a specialist company' to perfect her sauces - and it wasn't merely a matter of commerce, oh no, but 'a labour of love' - so it may take me and my GA a minute to create our own elixir. I'll let you know how it goes.

A corner of the hot sauce lab: testing continues.

Wahaca Southbank on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hot 'n' Saucey

I found out about chilli peppers in my mid-20s, the mid 1980s, when I went to work for Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206, which was named by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as the quintessential New York restaurant kitchen, because of the cohort of gastropunks who did time there. I was that soldier, hired for my 'European knife skills'. Brendan, from da Bronx, had made his name purveying his own spin on Southwestern cuisine from premises at 206 East 60th Street that had originally been styled as a Swiss ski chalet. All they did to change the vibe was put mesquite in the aircon.

On day one, Brendan introduced me to the bewildering array of poblanos & pasillas, anchos & Anaheims, to name a selection of the peppers that flavoured his signature venison chilli. He ordered me to cut and clean and slice and dice boxes and boxes of fresh & smoked chillis. So I did that, in the basement prep. kitchen. Then I put the prepped chilis away in the walk-in 'fridge, cleaned down, and went upstairs to report, pausing en route for a piss (yes, I washed my hands afterwards).

Chef told me, "get a ramekin with some olive oil and sit for five minutes, working the oil into your finger tips. The capsaicin in the peppers you've been working with will start tingling, so you need to... What's the matter?"
"I - erm - visited the bathroom just now and I didn't wash my hands first." 
Brendan smothered his mirth, but others didn't bother to hide their glee at my initiation, advising me to "put it in the sink and run cold water over it, bro."

The heat of chilli peppers - here's a useful list - is usually measured on the Scoville Scale and rendered in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Scoville's Organoleptic Test relies upon the subjective opinion of human tasters and works on a scale from zero (sweet bell pepper) to 16,000,000 (pure capaiscin). The chillis I've listed, above, are all at the mild end of the spectrum, with poblanos about 2,000 SHU. The Tabasco pepper is 30,000 - 50,000 SHU and Tabasco Original is at the mild end of hot sauces; the habanero peppers that power my favourite hot sauce, Brother Bru-Bru's, pack real oomph at 100,000 - 350,000 SHU although they are far from the hottest of hot peppers.
Like most Brits, I imagine, Tabasco was the first hot sauce I encountered, inevitably in a Bloody Mary. As a food writer, in my thirties, I went on a junket to Avery Island, in the Bayou, where Tabasco sauce has been made since 1868, and can report that McIlhennys are Bloody Mary enthusiasts par excellence. At every engagement, be it on the lawn or down by the jetty, a trestle table would've been set up, swathed in a white table cloth, with a large black man standing behind it like the henchman in a James Bond flick, nursing a jug of tomato juice, flagon of vodka, and a king size Tabasco bottle.

Tabasco is made by mashing the proprietary peppers with salt and vinegar and fermenting the mush in barrels, with more salt. Its sodium content is off the scale and that bothered Bruce Langhorne, a major dude who developed hypertension in his 50s and set about creating a pepper sauce that's free of salt, sugar & preservatives. Brother Bruce's original recipe hot sauce (don't bother with the Chipolte or Mild remixes; mild hot sauce is oxymoronic) derives its endorphin-pumping heat rush to habanero peppers, from the Yucatan.

The Scotch bonnet - so-called because it looks like a Tam o’shanter - is a cultivar of the habanero and packs similar heat. My next favourite hot sauce, currently, is Karimix Scotch Bonnet & Mango. Karimix seem perpetually on the verge of a re-launch and at the time of writing their web site is undergoing an overhaul and Hot Headz are out of stock. However, while waiting for fresh supplies, why not try making a hot sauce of one's own?

Scotch bonnets are popular in the Caribbean and, therefore, freely available in South London street markets. Not available for free, you savvy, but you can easily buy a bowlful for a quid. At the same time and in the same kind of places, you can pick up a carrier bag full of red and yellow sweet peppers for not much more, say a couple of quid. I've been experimenting by cooking down diced sweet peppers with minced Scotch bonnets, adding sugar to make a fiery chutney (in the jar), and/or liquidiz-ising the mixture and diluting it to a runny consistency to make a pokey hot sauce (which is fermenting like crazy, now, in the bottle:-)

I say that I have been experimenting with dicing and mincing, but since I lost my left hand, I'll never again be employed for my knife skills. It's to do with balance, I guess. But I now enjoy the services of a glamourous assistant, who does the hard work for me, but may be camera shy. I mean, this blog isn't part of our agreement, so I'll have to see if my GA will agree to appear, or if she'll choose to preserve her mystique.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Easy Macaroni Cheese 'n' Peas

Easy Macaroni Cheese with Peas, after Heston Blumenthal, to give it its full title, is a shockingly simple variation on the old favourite that's so easy it can be made by a nearly blind person with one hand. Peeps with two hands and decent eyesight can tie one behind their back and put a paper bag over their heads.

I never did see the point of Hestom Blumenthal. I mean, I respect Harold McGee's work and the chemistry of cooking is all very interesting, but who can be bothered to fart about with dry ice? Private Eye pegged him in a cartoon depicting 'Heston's infallible method for perfectly boiling an egg: first, build a nuclear reactor.'

But then, the great man whipped out his cheese sauce. It happened on the first day of February, on Channel 4's How To Cook Like Heston and the shock waves continue to reverberate around t'internet (although Channel 4 assiduously polices its copyright). Could this be the paradigm shift that was predicted for 2012?

A conventional bechamel sauce, made with milk and thickened with cornflour, tends to mask the flavour of cheese, or anything one adds to it. So, Heston came up with the idea of mixing the cornflour with finely-grated cheese before combining the mixture with stock! He knew what he was doing, too, telling the camera with a barely-concealed smirk that you'll find all sorts of uses for his cheese sauce. Such as smothering chips in it:-(

Mr Blumenthal has a four step procedure for producing the perfect silky cheese sauce and I can tell you for starters that step four is, finish the sauce with a big dollop of cream cheese. You may consider this otiose. Heston uses chicken stock with a white wine reduction, but veggies can use Marigold or similar bouillon powder (I'm using one from Suma).

Make 350ml of stock and put it on to simmer for 20 minutes with any cheese rinds you've saved in the 'fridge. If you don't save cheese rinds, start doing so, because simmering the rind from a piece of Parmesan, say, in the stock infuses it with a wondrously cheesy flavour before you've even started.

While the stock simmers, finely grate at least 100g of semi-hard cheese, such as Cheddar. Heston uses 80g of grated cheese but, likesay, he adds a big dollop of cream cheese at the end. You can use whatever cheese you've got. In my photo, there's a lump of Gruyere and a piece of Comté. Yes, it's from the Comté man in Borough Market and I made sauce with it. I don't care if that seems extravagant; that's how we roll in South London.

If you're blind, get your carer or an obliging friend to weigh the cheese for you and store it in 100g blocks, in a tub. If you can't see the scale on a measuring jug, experiment with your coffee mugs to find one of appropriate capacity.

Mix the grated cheese with a heaped tablespoon of cornflour, tossing the cheese so that it gets coated with flour.  Before making the sauce, however, boil your macaroni. Heston has specific instructions for this, but then he adds truffle oil to his macaroni cheese and serves it in a hollow cheese rind. Boil your macaroni, making sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan and, when it's just about cooked, throw in a handful of frozen peas.

I'm a great believer in frozen peas. There is hardly any recipe that can't be improved, or complimented, by a few bright green garden peas. I know I'm not alone. Only the other day, I heard Will Holland sing the praises of Birds Eye garden peas, which may give a clue as to why he lost his Michelin star last year! Any supermarket's proprietary peas will be perfectly good.

While the macaroni and peas are coming back to the boil, strain the rinds from the simmering stock, turn down the heat and add the grated cheese & cornflour, stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook slowly as the sauce thickens. The more you cook the cornflour, the thicker it will get, but don't use too much heat, or stir it too vigorously, or the fat in the cheese will be overcooked and turn oily.

Strain the cooked macaroni and peas, add them to the cheese sauce, stir the whole lot together and serve. Or put it in a flame proof dish and gratinate it first, if you feel so inclined.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Lashings of Gravy

I'm relaunching my food blog with a new name because someone told me that my name, 'Russell', when pronounced as if there's an 'h' instead of the second 's', sounds a bit like the Hindi for 'more gravy'. I've been through big changes over nearly two years since this blog was last active, losing my left hand and my eyesight to cataracts (which are now being fixed) but the concerns of this blog will remain the same, albeit with a new emphasis on how to prepare food with one hand when you can't see very well.

I'll be recording my vegetarian culinary and gustatory adventures, including but not limited to: legumes and all sorts of dal, plus ultimate frijolemole; aubergines - the love affair goes on; places to eat in Sarf London; selected cookery books and suchlike. As soon I've figured out  my new camera phone, I'm going to essay Easy Macaroni Cheese 'n' Peas after Heston Blumenthal and I'm going to the Ludlow Food Festival for my birthday, next weekend, so I'm sure there'll be lots to blog about in the Marches innit.