Saturday, 31 December 2016

Festive Ramen

by: Mr Robot
Christmas in a bowl
Most years we have a goose around Christmas - generally on one of the subsidiary days when we have friends over, because a whole goose for two would just be ridiculously extravagant. This year, however, we decided to go all out and keep Goosey to ourselves, not least because I had this follow-up dish in mind.

I don't know about you, but get l sick of quick & simple easy-peasy ideas for using up leftovers, usually around late October. But don't worry - this isn't one of those. Ramen isn't quick and, if not necessarily difficult, you should be careful. Or at least, full of care.

The first and hardest part for this is, don't eat all the goose. Obvious but trust me it's easier said than done. With incredible willpower we also managed to reserve a couple of pigs in blankets. I know. After depriving Mrs Robot so dreadfully, I really had to make this work.

Goose Broth
The well-scavenged carcass goes in a massive pot with some stock veg, along with a tub of homemade chicken stock and a guinea-fowl carcass I happened to have kicking around. You may consider those optional.

A small handful of peppercorns, a bayleaf and the half-orange I'd shoved up Goosey for roasting also went in, along with about 6-8 pints of water, and it all boiled hard for around 6 hours, scum-skimmed occasionally. Then it was strained and left to cool overnight.

Normally you'd never remove fat from a ramen broth but goose fat is so very oleaginous I didn't want to risk the final broth being overly greasy. So I removed about half the fat and kept it back in case I needed to restore some later. As it turned out I didn't, so that's gone in the fridge for future roasties.

From there I reduced it to about 3 pints in volume, which was the point it hit the richness and intensity I was looking for. I've learned to beware over-reducing so it's always a matter of tasting and judgment now, rather than target volume.

Once reduced I seasoned with a sachet of dashi powder, about 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper, a good couple of teaspoons of salt and, because it felt it needed something, a splash of mirin. I considered a dollop of miso too but in the end opted against - I know I have a tendency to overdo it, so held back. But it was a close thing.

Goose & Pigs
The reserved breast meat and pigs in blankets were sliced about 5mm thick. Half went into the broth for 10 minutes before serving to warm through, the other half fried in a little goose fat. I did that in the hopes of textural interest but frankly we couldn't tell the difference, so that's just washing up for nothing. Some spare goose skin crisped up in the pan and sprinkled on at the end worked a treat though.

Red cabbage
Because a ramen needs some cabbage and Christmas demands it be red. I'd considered pickling but then had a better idea (see below) so simply shredded and braised it gently.

Pickled Sprouts
Oh yeah. Sprouts separated into individual leaves which then sat in a mix of rice wine vinegar, mirin and salt for about 30 minutes brought a very welcome freshness and acidity to what is, after all, an absurdly rich bowl. Honestly I was surprised how well these worked.

Sprout Genius

The Egg
Now, we had a bit of an argument about the egg. My idea, nay my vision, was to take festivity to a new level with a Mulled Egg - steeped in red wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves etc overnight - but Mrs Robot put her foot down like a steam hammer.

In the end we went with salted duck egg which was great but not, you know, my vision.

So that was all assembled over noodles and scattered with a few sesame seeds.

Things I thought of adding but didn't
I'd have loved to incorporate spuds but really couldn't think how to make it work so in the end had to leave them out. Parsnips, on the other hand, could make a great garnish as tiny crispy shavings.

Cranberry seemed an obvious candidate for garnish but Mrs R gets cross about it. I briefly considered a dollop of apple sauce too but since we hadn't had it with the Xmas dinner it didn't feel right.

I wish I'd done more sprouts because they were delicious and they went all too quickly. But if you've never tried it, separating sprout leaves is what's officially known as A Right Pain In The Arse. It could've done with more acidity though, so some fresh apple matchsticks might have made a nice alternative, or possibly a shaving of orange zest at the last minute. To be really swank, a few chunks of blowtorched orange segments would be cool.

My guide in all things ramen is Tim Anderson's Nanban and I thought long and hard about adapting his spicy miso butter to a spicy miso goose fat but ultimately felt I was already skirting the Fatty Event Horizon and as it turned out, I think that was the right choice.

The end result was everything I'd hoped: a lovely bowl of ramen feels perfect for those chilly, grey in-between days. It's deep and intense, but gentle and comforting. Bringing the Christmas flavours in felt very satisfying and, of course, was kind of fun. In fact I'm already plotting next year's Baked Ham Ramen.

Merry Christmas peoples

 All images (c) PP Gettins

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

'tis the season to be soppy

My happy place
by: Mr Robot

I think it's fair to say 2016 has been a bit of a stinker in many ways, so as I'm sat here reflecting and, to be entirely honest, have had a few, I thought it worthwhile remembering and thanking those who've improved and enriched my life over the last 12 months or so.

First off Tim Hayward, who I only really came across through the BBC's Kitchen Cabinet but have come to worship almost as a god. He has a manner that appeals to me on a very deep level, a casually authoritative voice imbued with kindness and decency - almost the definition of avuncular. I often think he's the culinary answer to Kurt Vonnegut.

Early in the year I tackled the week-long project that was his cassoulet from The DIY Cook. Sadly it didn't turn out to be photogenic enough for a post but was as delightful in the making as in the eating.

Hayward's Knife book was one of the highlights of my year, and may well have triggered a new and vastly expensive hobby. I read it in one enchanted sitting and it has a permanent, if disturbing, home beside the bed.

Always take a Knife to bed

Mr Hayward, I salute you.

Which brings us nicely to Sr Morales of Toledo who produces wonderful knives and was kind enough to sell me an absolutely beautiful Damascus steel blade at a price I'd never even considered paying, but don't regret a Eurocent of. This knife makes me happy to a ridiculous degree. When I can't be arsed to cook, picking up that knife enthuses me. When I'm feeling keen it's like having a superpower.

My lovely lovely Toledo blade

I've used it pretty much every day for six months and it still gives me a thrill.

Señor, gracias.

Sticking with the Spanish theme, our trip around Spain with our god-daughter (aka adoptive juniorbot) was more wonderful than we could have hoped. We've loved Spain for such a long time, and always wanted to share that experience with others. The opportunity to show it to her took us right back to that joy of discovery - and the real joy was that she loved it too. We created a tapas monster and are very proud.

Yes those are minihamburguesitas and they are free tapas. Thank you Granada

So thanks to Lillian for taking the (probably quite scary) plunge, and to all those amazing chefs in Segovia, Toledo, Seville and Granada who gave us such happy memories.

At the risk of becoming tiresomely stalkerish, I must always give thanks to MiMi Aye and Uyen Luu who remain our Asian mentors and, certainly in the summer months, are probably responsible for around 30% of everything we eat. This year they were joined by Ping Coombes whose Malaysia book is already shamefully bespattered from enthusiastic usage.

Goes some way to explaining, if not excusing, the waistline

If you're anything like us, there are many cookbooks you like to look at, or the idea of. There are lots that you use occasionally. And there's a precious few that you wonder how you ever managed without. These ladies went instantly and permanently into that latter group. On Mrs Robot's behalf I should add Meera Sodha to the list, and closer to home Tom Kerridge's Proper Pub Food remains essential - as does Katie Stewart who basically taught us to cook in the first place.

It's no exaggeration to say that just about every day, no matter how crappy, ends with happiness for us, and that's mainly down to these folks. That's pretty amazing when you think about it, especially with enough beer.

Of course you can't cook anything without stuff to cook. Walter Rose is our local butcher and gives us such brilliant meat week in, week out. We revel in being the folks they can sell anything to (always up for something exciting) and in exchange they only ever sell us amazing things. Walter Rose won the national best butcher award this year, and it came as no surprise at all. Louie, Ed, Cameron - cheers guys.

Best butcher in the land. Officially

Our veg come mostly from Riverford who likewise bring us outstanding food every week of the year. We're not obsessively green or organic or anything like that, but we very much buy into to the philosophy of growing with care, and for flavour. The first Riverford carrots we ever had were just so damned . . . carroty. Had you forgotten potatoes have a flavour? We had.

Best ever soup recipe: First, kill your Riverford tomatoes....
In fact it's probably Riverford's fault my veg cookery remains so unsophisticated - there's really no need to muck it about. Roasting some tomatoes before souping is about as jazzy as we get. When's the last time you cooed over a boiled vegetable? For us it's less than a week ago, and we're endlessly grateful.

Nearly finally, since they're in large part responsible for all this, I offer up thanks to Bacchus and all His Mates for Palmers Brewery who have made me so very very happy, and sad, and excessively affectionate, and wobbly, and filthily hungover so many times. I love you guys. No seriously, I do. 'ma best mate. y'fugger. ahahahahahaha...

And least last of all, of course my thanks to Mrs Robot for putting up with the failures, the mess, the swearing, the every-pan-in-the-housery and subsequent lack of washing up. For sharing the delicious things we have, and for being the person I gladly go to such lengths for (a WEEK making cassoulet, FFS) because she deserves nothing but nice.

Oh go on then - the 7-day cassoulet. Not pretty but OMFG

So, who's brought you joy this year?

All images (c) PP Gettins

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Retro Recipe: German onion tart

 By: Mrs Robot

In my adventures in vintage, I rarely make it as far as the 1980s. However, it's a jolly interesting decade food-wise, and the recent BBC documentary series The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook made me reach for one of our inherited cookbooks, Mary Berry's Complete Television Cookbook. Sandbrook went on and on about Delia Smith in the first programme in the series, but we're definitely on Team Berry here at Casa Mechanica.

You can tell Mary Berry's Complete Television Cookbook is from the 1980s. In the section on kitchen equipment, it states, 'Microwave ovens are a luxury, but if you can run to one you will find it marvellously useful.' Nowadays most people see them as pretty much essential, and look at us askance when Mr Robot and I say we don't have one. The recipes don't feel fantastically 80s - there's nothing particularly nouveau - though the Asian recipes are more adventurous and feel much more authentic than the ones I've got in British cookbooks from earlier decades.

The recipe I decided to make, German Onion Tart, is somewhere between a quiche and a pizza. Pizza, because of the yeast-leavened base, quiche for the filling of eggs and onion, topped off with bacon. The base actually seemed easier to make than pizza dough, as it didn't need anywhere near as much kneading. I was impressed by how quickly it came together, though I rolled it out too thinly when I assembled the tart and it cooked too fast, leaving me with a darker pastry-bread case than I'd expected.
The filling is very economical, with loads of onions but only three eggs and a sprinkling of bacon. Okay, there's half a tub of double cream in there too. But still. It's very substantial and mostly onions, which are cheap in autumn. The recipe also includes an optional teaspoon of caraway seeds, which I put in as if you're going to make something that's supposed to be German, it might as well taste properly German.

The end result? Highly edible. I probably had the oven too high as the filling wasn't completely set when the case was cooked, but because the onions are softened in advance it was all perfectly edible. 'Carbonara pie' was Mr Robot's verdict. I'll give this another go at some point, perhaps replacing the bacon with sliced frankfurters. Good for autumn evenings.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Still eating salads

By: Mrs Rabbit Robot

I said I was going to make a conscious effort to eat more salads, and so far I've managed it. I think the major revelation for me on my veggie-munching mission so far is that I don't have to eat lettuce. Lettuce was pretty much the base ingredient for every salad I had growing up, and I'm not massively fond of it, so allowing myself to ditch the stuff has made Project Salad a lot more interesting (and easier to stick to). The other revelations I've had are that herbs can be an ingredient, not just things you sprinkle on top in tiny amounts or add to dressing, and that if you make a salad of little chopped bits it's best not to throw too many ingredients in, otherwise it all ends up a bit jumbled, and all your salads end up tasting the same in the long term. These are probaby things hardcore veggie lovers knew already, but they've been amazing to me!

My lunchtime salads are pretty much just chopped stuff in a box – chunks I can easily eat with a fork at my desk. There are usually around five things in the box, and my current favourites include: tomato, melon, mango, cucumber, peach, pepper, sweetcorn, and grated carrot with kohlrabi. I did try grated carrot, green pawpaw and Thai basil, but the basil overwhelmed the other flavours, so I need to use less of that if I use it in future.

Evening salads, which I've been having with my main meal of the day, are where I've got more room to be more complex. For one thing, I have more time to prepare them, and for another I've avoided things like dressing, oil or mayonnaise in my lunches, whereas I am allowing myself those things in the evening. In the case of oil and mayonnaise, it's because of their calorie count, whereas in the case of dressings, I adore east Asian dressings with fish sauce in, but the salt in the fish sauce makes the veggies all watery by lunchtime.

On Sunday I made som tam, a Thai salad based on green pawpaw. Monday's meal is in the photo: koftes from our butcher, Walter Rose, plus a tomato, cucumber and onion salad with a bit of coriander on. (Raw onions never go in the lunch salad, I like my workmates too much to inflict that on them.) The other thing on the plate is just roasted sweet potato, onion and chickpea with a little cumin on, topped with tahini and garlic sauce; I don't class it as a salad as it's been cooked and is served hot, though some people might think of it as one.

I have noticed I no longer get the mid-afternoon sleepy feeling, but I also no longer get the sense of satisfaction I used to get from my lunch. It's hard to put into words; I just get an immediate feeling of wellbeing from carbs, a sense of comfort and pleasure. My biggest wellbeing-feeling foodstuff is tea anyhow, so I'm making sure I keep drinking plenty of that. There really is nothing to beat a good cuppa. It's only been a week or so since I started making an effort to eat more veggies, so there's been no real change on the weight front. It's great to be using more of the vegbox, though, and being more creative with previously neglected ingredients.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Retro recipe: Russian salad

By: Mrs Robot

Growing up, I didn't know a single kid who liked salad, because if you were British, working class and growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, salad meant lettuce, cucumber and tomato, maybe radishes if you were lucky, all sitting sliced and separate on a plate. As for dressing, salad cream was your lot. This is, of course, a generalisation. Mr Robot's mum was working class but adventurous. He still remembers the cold baked beans she once served up as part of a salad. However, my point remains: nobody liked salad. They were, like the boiled veg served up in winter, the things that padded out your actual food, which was potatoes and meat.

Now I am in my forties, and somewhat fat, and get a weekly organic vegbox, all of which is making me realise one thing: I need to eat more salad. I've learned to enjoy it more over the years anyhow, but over the next few months I'm going to make a conscious effort to be more adventurous with my salads and get more pleasure out of that weekly vegbox. I've decided to kick off with a classic, Russian Salad.

I first encountered Russian salad as ensaladilla Rusa in Spain, served as a tapa. It seemed pretty much to be potato salad with some tuna in. After a bit of googling, I've learned that Russian salad started out as salat Olivier, a very posh salad made in 19th-century Russia by one Monsieur Olivier, which has undergone all sorts of changes over the years, becoming a staple celebration dish in Russia. Nowadays it's pretty much a 'shepherd's pie recipe', by which I mean everyone has their own version and they're all definitely different while being recognisably the same thing.

I based my salad on the recipe in 1080 Recipes, a classic Spanish cookbook. (Phaedon publishes a translated version.) That recipe contains simply peas, carrots and potatoes in mayonnaise. I included a few pods of broad beans in mine, because we've been getting loads in the vegbox lately, and some tuna, because I've only ever had ensaladilla Rusa with tuna in and it would feel wrong without it. I left the veg fairly chunky, and didn't over-flake the tuna, and the result was absolutely delicious. 1080 Recipes suggests putting prawns in, which would also be delicious. This looks like a perfect salad to make in winter too. Is there anything not to like about it? No wonder it's become a classic, in its many forms.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Malaysia - Ping Coombes

By: Mr Robot

Having already had Ping Coombes' food on one of her Laksa nights, it was inevitable that I'd buy her Malaysia book at the first opportunity, but if there'd been any doubt, two minutes leafing through it in Waterstones sealed the deal. It looks beautiful and has a vast number of recipes that are truly compelling in that they look both instantly appealing and highly achievable. Always assuming one is as highly skilled as me of course. Ahem.

In just a couple of weeks the book had already become a favourite. Idle browsing all too easily turns into a shopping list but that can only ever be a good thing. I probably bought more lemongrass and turmeric in the first fortnight than in my entire pre-Ping life. Again, this is a good thing.

So first up, and I guess predictably, we hit the Beef Rendang. Now, we've had a fair few Rendangs over the years, all of it cooked by people who do so for a living. So the fact that Ping's Rendang - as done by Cpt Ignoramus here - is without doubt the finest we've ever had, by a mile, should tell you all you need to know. It was truly outstanding.

I think the heat distinguishes it: the chilli is almost fierce as a deep, rich background which marries so well to sweet, fragrant coconut, lemongrass and kaffir lime.

And it's not a speedy dish: Ping demands tough, slow meat and it'll take a good 2 to 2 1/2 hours to do it justice.

I've always thought there's too much of the "quick and easy..." kicking around these days anyway.

Anyhoo Ping's Rendang needs devotion and love, but repays it tenfold.

From there I moved to a snack-food double feature. There was Lor Bak, pork spring rolls flavoured with five-spice, and Murtabak, a flaky bread (intriguingly made with condensed milk) stuffed with lightly curried minced lamb, and fried.

To be honest, the Murtabak was a bit of a faff - not least because it wanted to be bathed in oil all night long. Well, yes, who wouldn't, but does the dearest heart who completes your soul do that for you?


Plus, I didn't really achieve the hoped-for flakiness, which I put down to one or more of a) oil too hot / not hot enough, b) too much / little kneading and c) flakiness of my own.

Nonetheless as a crisp outside, gooey inside, meat-n-fats-n-carbs affair it's hard to fault and I sincerely hope to one day arrange for them to coincide with a stinking hangover.

It'll be awesome.

The Lor Bak we were already familiar with since they came as a side with Ping's Laksa and we absolutely loved them.

The recipe in the book didn't disappoint one jot, and they were so good I made a second batch a day or so later.

The fact that most of those were given away to friends says much about my great heart, and tiny brain.

Then came the other inevitability, which was the Laksa itself. To be completely honest it was a, though I have no doubt that was down to me (after all, what are the odds!).

Or rather, I blame Sainsbury's.

When Ping was in charge I raved about the intense but balanced fish note. Well, when I was driving that balance was off.

The base paste calls for  both dried shrimp, and two tablespoons of shrimp paste, which struck me as quite a lot at the time. In the eating it was just too fishy for comfort, and that shrimp paste overpowered the rest of the dish.

I strongly suspect that foil packet of supermarket shrimp paste (two tablespoons was basically the entire thing) was not what Ping had in mind.

Either that or I didn't cook the paste out long enough.

In some ways though, I'm quite glad it turned out that way.  It's been a good and rare experience of having a dish as it absolutely should be, and then failing to reproduce it myself.

An excellent demonstration of why the author has her authority.

Finally (so far) I had a bash at the Captain's Chicken Curry. I don't know why but the name made me sceptical - perhaps it sounds a little contrived - but I had some chicken to use up, so why not?

One reason why not, which gave me genuine pause for thought, was the use of 20 (yes twenty) Kashmiri chillies. Since the already pokey Rendang used 15 I feared it'd be a bit too much, and Mrs Robot might hiccup herself into total shutdown.

Well I needn't have feared - it's an absolutely stunning dish. Yes it's hot but again so perfectly balanced, this time given a real edge by a good dose of tamarind contrasting with the coconut milk, while the chicken itself is brilliantly smokey thanks to marinading in turmeric before frying.

Unforgivably, I failed to get any pictures. It just smelled so amazing, from the first minute of cooking, I didn't even think about the camera. That's how good it is.

In fact I think might even be better than the Rendang. Mrs Robot isn't sure and now demands both together for a proper comparison. I can't wait to do it.

There are so many more things I want to do from this book. We've had so much great and exciting stuff already, and t's a book that gives pleasure equally in the reading and the using. For me that's about as good as it gets.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Happiness is a bar in Segovia

By: Mr Robot

Actually that's a bit of a fib, since I'm not aware of anywhere called "Happiness" in Segovia, but if you pop into any of the bars in the city's old quarter, there's a good chance Happiness will show up, along with his good friends Oh My God and Oh My Tummy.

Segovia is just north of Madrid, about half an hour on the train, and is the city in which Queen Isabella was born and raised. She's the one who pawned her jewels to fund Columbus's Big Adventure but is more justly remembered, along with her husband Ferdinand, for booting the Moors out of Spain and thereby triggering centuries of forced conversion, bigotry and intolerance.

The Alcazar is where Isabella grew up, and the church in which she was crowned Queen of Castille is on the main square - it's the one that isn't the cathedral.

We're taking our 18yr-old American goddaughter on a tour of medieval Spain, so Segovia has been her introduction to Spain generally, and Tapas in particular. The perfect starting point not only for the history, but also because this is the land of outstanding free snacks

Bar Fogon, just behind the cathedral, is a great example. It's attached to a Sephardic restaurant and with inevitable irony has some of the best ham and shellfish in the city. Among numerous delights we were given was an anchovy and cream cheese affair that was more delicious than it had any right to be, and fantastic prawns cooked the best way possible - simply boiled in salt water, with a bit more salt on the shells.

Bar Infanta Isabella is a lovely place with deco-ish styling and served up little works of art, not least tiny canapés of liver parfait, along with humbler but no less tasty tortilla, tiny filo parcels of I-don't-know-what tastiness and battered chorizo lollipops.

Across the Plaza Mayor, with a name that escapes me, was a corner bar showing ludicrous game shows (great for the language skills!) and handing out ham and vegetable croquettes and some of the best fried chorizo you could hope for.

Down a little alley near the (staggeringly impressive) Roman aqueduct is Bar Duque which is a great place for the adventurous. Previously we've had pigs ears here (a mixed blessing) but this time got a pork and tripe dish that left both Mrs Robot and the adoptive Junior Robot cold, but which I snaffled quite merrily.

Segovia is a much overlooked city, generally considered as a day-trip from Madrid (if at all). It's a lovely, relaxing place to be and while it's true the sights can be "done" fairly quickly, the food never will.

Go there, stay there, eat there. Happiness will find you.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Retro recipe: Pork in Cider

By: Mrs Robot

Traditional cookery. It's rarely pretty, but it can be very tasty, and this pork in cider is no exception.

I've never seen any food bloggers refer to Susan Campbell's book English Cookery New and Old online. I love old cookery books, and this is from 1981, but looking back for traditional recipes. Campbell wrote several cookbooks in the 1970s but seems to have been largely forgotten as a cookery writer - though she's now the country's leading expert on walled kitchen gardens, so she hasn't lost her love of British food history. This book is divided into menus. Many recipes are preceded by a little paragraph explaining their origins or, if a recipe is 'new' rather than 'old', why it's being included in a book of English cookery.

The recipe that really caught my eye in this book was 'Grassy Corner', a pudding served at Cambridge May Weeks just after the Great War. It's a strange cross between a trifle and a charlotte, and as I love trifle and between-the-wars history, it appeals doubly to me. However as that serves 12 it'll have to wait until we've got plenty of guests coming. Instead, Pork in Cider was what I made. Layers of pork slices, separated by a mixture of onions and mushrooms, splashed with cider then topped with a layer of cooking applees and cooked for a couple of hours before being topped with a mix of Double Gloucester cheese and breadcrumbs and baked to crisp, it's far from the most attractiive thing I've ever made. Oh, but it is good. The juices from the meat, apples, onions and mushrooms combine with the cider to make a delicious sauce that will go perfectly with mash and green veg. I'll definitely make it again.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Retro recipe: hot cross buns

By: Mrs Robot

I love hot cross buns. Even though I'm not religious, they're part of the food culture I've grown up with, so I try to eat them only around Easter time. Things can become boring if you have them whenever you want. That's not to say you shouldn't have something if you really want it, just that it's a shame if everything becomes commonplace and there's nothing to look forward to.

Despite loving hot cross buns, I'd never actually made them until this weekend. I started trying yeast cookery in 2015, and this year felt brave enough to tackle the buns. Also, I have been extraordinarily annoyed by shops bringing out nonsense variations like 'double chocolate hot cross buns.'* The recipe I used was from Julie Duff's book Cakes Regional and Traditional. Oddly, the recipe she gave didn't include the piped-on cross, but the buns in the photo in the book had clearly had a flour/water mixture piped on to make the cross shape. Luckily I'd seen enough other people making them to know that the decoration needed piping on. (Kavey's Hot Multicultural Buns being the most recent example.**)

However, I'm getting ahead of myself. I first attempted the buns on Good Friday and misread the instructions on the yeast, so added a teaspoonful instead of a tablespoonful. Oh dear. After several hours waiting for it to rise, I realised my error and the dough went in the bin. On Easter Sunday I tried again with the correct amount of yeast and, appropriately, this time they rose.

A plate of home made hot cross buns
The buns turned out denser than the sort you get in the shops, though that could be because our house lacks sufficiently warm places to get a really good rise. They were also sweeter than shop-bought ones, possibly because of the sugar in the recipe, possibly because I overdid the glazing. I didn't mind that; they tasted fab and I think I will try to make baking hot cross buns something I do every Easter from now on.

** This I do not class as messing around with tradition as it is taking something traditional and sharing it with everyone, as opposed to taking something traditional and throwing that tradition out of the window for the sake of chocolate.

Monday, 21 March 2016


By: Mrs Robot

I've had a real craving for noodles all of a sudden. I'm not sure why - maybe the coming of spring has put me in a mood for lighter foods than my winter pies and stews. It was a good excuse to revisit some favourite old cookbooks. Given what we had in the kitchen, Dan Dan Mian from Mi Mi Aye's book Noodle! seemed like a good plan.

We'd made Ching-He Huang's recipe for Dan Dan Noodles some time ago, but it wasn't quite our thing. However, her recipe uses tahini paste and Mi Mi's doesn't, plus Mi Mi's seems to use a lot more spicy ingredients, so I thought I'd give it a go and see if we liked her version any better.

As with so many recipes in Noodle!, while the list of ingredients seems long, a quick read of the recipe reveals that the process for making Dan Dan Mian is actually very simple. You can't just start and throw in ingredients as you go along, you need to get everything ready in advance, but as long as you do that, it's very easy to make the dish. Most of the ingredients are store cupboard staples: soy sauce, black vinegar, xiaoxing wine and so on. The only thing we didn't have was Szechuan preserved vegetables. I don't know what those taste like, so subbed in some of Mr Robot's homemade kimchi as that was preserved, vegetable, and tasty.

("Oh, we just substituted homemade kimchi." How poncy does that sound?)

We both very much enjoy Szechuan peppercorns. They have a fearsome reputation, which they really don't deserve. They're numbing, not burning. Chillies make me hiccup, but I can eat those peppercorns with no problems (I occasionally chew them raw, straight out of the jar). Mi Mi's recipe began with oil seasoned with a whole tablespoon of the things, and only got better from there. The resulting minced pork sauce was rich and dark with soy sauce, spicy with Szechuan peppercorns, then stirred by each diner through bland, delicious noodles.
We could quite easily have eaten twice as much, not because the portions are small but because it is delicious and we are greedy. Ziggy, one of our two feral kittens, came along and tried to help himself, but was shunted off pronto.

I will definitely be making this again.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Retro recipe: Tonight we're going to party like it's 1959...

By: Mrs Robot

It's no secret that I love vintage - or, as I generally call it, Old Tat. Back at the start of January my lovely friends Naomi and Zoe sent me a 1959 cookbook called Fun With Food: Planned Menus For All Occasions. It struck me as a book that might help out a housewife from a relatively humble background (or one who grew up on wartime rations), whose lifestyle has gone somewhat upmarket and is suddenly faced with hubby's boss coming for dinner. What to do?! Call on this little book by Nella Whitfield.

Tonight we tried one of the menus. It was supposed to be three courses, starting with strawberry cocktail, but I forgot to buy any strawberries. As it was essentially strawberries macerated in kirsch, served in glasses tarted up with either strawberry or lettuce leaves, I considered serving neat kirsch with a lettuce-leaf garnish, but thought better of it.

So, straight onto the chicken pie. The book called it chicken pie, but it also contained ham and, unusually, hard boiled eggs. You start by boiling the skin and bones with stock veg and a bay leaf for a couple of hours to make a stock, then put sliced egg in the bottom of a pie dish, pop chopped chicken and ham on top with some seasonings (including mace and a tiny bit of  grated lemon peel), top it up with stock, whack on a puff pastry lid and bake it.
Let's rewind there. 'Top it up with stock'. The recipe states three-quarters of a cup. I had my misgivings. It said nothing about flouring the chicken a little, so a nice gravy would be made during the cooking. However, I was sticking to the recipe for this, so in the stock went.
I baked the pie and it looked lovely, but when I dished up it was as I'd feared: the stock was still basically stock. Very tasty stock, but not the sort of thing I'd be prepared to include on the plate. I left it in the pie dish. The pie (served with cabbage and sweetcorn) tasted fine but not brilliant, and I couldn't help wondering how much of the flavour had leaked out into the stock. I'd make the pie again, but I'd flour the chicken slightly and use far less stock, just enough to keep it moist.
Pudding was 'Daisy Cream'. No daisies were harmed in the making of this dish. It was a jelly (jello) based dish. The recipe called for pineapple jelly but that wasn't available, so I settled for lemon. It was mixed with evaporated milk and finely-chopped pineapple and glace cherries. It's the sort of thing people laugh at nowadays, but it was actually pretty nice and, as Mr Robot pointed out, essentially a 1950s equivalent of pannacotta. I'll definitely leave the glace cherries out if I make it in future; they didn't introduce anything much flavour-wise, and my attempt at making cherry daisies for the top was lamentable.
So, it was an interesting meal. Which isn't to say it was bad; it didn't wow us but certain flavours, such as the seasoning in the pie, were much more sophisticated than I'd expected, less than a decade after the end of rationing. For its day, this was pretty posh fare to be eating at home. I'll definitely be trying more from the book as some of the puddings look quite good.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Restaurant Review - Pablo's Bistro, Bradford on Avon

By: Mr Robot

Pablo's Bistro, Bradford on Avon

Nestling in a valley a few miles southeast of Bath, Bradford on Avon is one of those picture-postcard chocolate-box cutesy places it's hard not to hate. The kind of place that, when presented with a valley, simply can't help but nestle in it; populated by the sort of people who read an article called "Why we should all move to Bradford on Avon" and act upon it.

However that does make it the kind of place that grows a decent food scene, of which Pablo's Bistro is a little Spanish highlight. BoA is also on one of the main train lines which is an excellent feature for the only driver in the house, who vigorously enjoys his wine.

We'd booked up for Mrs Robot's birthday and I'm pleased to report not a whiff of staff singing or surprise things with candles in - this is a grown-up place that treats its customers with respect.

It's also very very tiny. If it were one of the many boutique clothes shops displaying six frocks and a handbag you'd think, "gosh this is a bit cramped". As a restaurant seating around 25 it's, well, pretty cosy.

That said, if your idea of making friends is to gently brush someone's hair with your bottom as you head to the loo, this is definitely the place for you. The welcoming staff negotiate the space with the grace of ballerinas; we of a more heffalumpy nature must simply suck in the belly and smile apologetically.

Once we squeezed into our window seat, though, we were presented with menus as comprehensive as the place is small.

Salted Almonds, the perfect bar snack
This is proper tapas, done properly (ok, it's not free with booze, but you know what I mean) and in my pre-visit browsing I'd identified something like 17 dishes we'd desperately want to try. As it turned out we only managed 11 but by gumbo they were good.

The only disappointment came early on. We kicked off with some olives, a dish of salted almonds (an absolutely brilliant snack - I've no idea why it's not more common), Rebujitos and what they called Carne Espanol but the rest of us know as a Tabla Variada - a board of bread, meats and cheese, that's pretty much the compulsory start of a good evening.

The highlight of this should have been the Jamon, but I'm afraid that was a letdown. Soft, pale and bland, it had all the hallmarks of machine cut, plastic wrapped, supermarket stuff. This was a worry.

Excellent chorizo, membrillo with the cheese is a nice touch. Shame about the ham
Normally the Jamon is the pride of the establishment and the single biggest indicator of quality. Maybe they'd had a problem with the supplier, maybe they couldn't get the good stuff at a viable price. Whatever it was, this didn't bode well.

Chicharrones & Croquetas - both to die for
Exchanging worried glances, we returned to the menu. I went for Chicharrones, Mrs R for Croquetas de Jamon - not without trepidation since it relies on the ham and is her favourite thing in the world.

Well our fears were unfounded. and everything that followed was a delight.

The chicharrones were outstanding: succulent, crunchy and salty as could be, with the all-important squeeze of lemon. And the croquettes were perfect with tiny chunks of proper Jamon this time - golden, crisp and gooey. Just as they should be.

Mightily relieved, we went on to Tortilla (pretty much the closest we got to vegetables all evening), Pollo al Ajillo for madame and Gambas - prawns with jamon & chorizo - for me.

My prawns saw a return of the plastic ham but this time fried crisp, and it was fine alongside the chorizo, peppers and onion.

Mrs R's chicken in garlic was much more creamy that we've ever had in Spain but tasted wonderful - a luxurious pimping of the bar staple.

Left to right: Gambas, Pollo al Ajillo, Tortilla

We were starting to creak a bit by now but I had an agenda and would damn well see it through. I've lost count of the number of times recently I've opted against squid and regretted it, so I was determined to have the calamares. And it was a wise choice.

Hunny bunny
Then there was the rabbit in honey.

I've never seen this in Spain but it called to me immediately so there's no way I was leaving without it.

It was great - the flesh was perfectly tender with a sticky honey glaze, and a top layer of saltiness that rescued it from over-sweetness and made the whole thing profoundly satisfying.

Mrs R was under some duress by now, but I persuaded her to go for one more dish and she opted for Albondigas.

Meatballs (for it is they) was one of the first tapas we'd ever had and remains a favourite despite some variable experiences.

These looked homemade in the classic style, though made distinctive with big punches of garlic and smoked paprika. They were also pretty substantial (as they should be) and I won't pretend to be sorry she could only manage half of it.

I sincerely wish we'd had capacity for pudding - they have a "tapas selection of desserts" that looked particularly tempting - but by then could only have ended badly. A fine coffee and home was the sensible option.

It's a tremendous little place, Pablos, bringing authentic, classic dishes with a couple of twists of personality.

The price is pretty reasonable too - vegetable dishes around £3.50, and fish and meat coming in around £5-£6 per plate.

Our total cost was around £50 per head, including cocktails, a good bottle of red, and a last-minute bottle of Boqueron beer (excitingly, made with seawater!). Given the quantity, quality and variety of what we had, I consider that pretty good value.

Being slightly less extravagant, you could fill a very happy couple of hours for less than a night in the pub.

I can see this becoming a firm favourite - and once summer kicks in it'll be perfect for lazy afternoons of wine and eats and more wine and more eats, just as tapas should be.

All images (C) PP Gettins