Friday, 29 December 2017

Talking turkey

A dish of prawn cocktail and a glass of champagne
By: Mrs Robot

We had turkey for Christmas dinner this year.

"Yeah, yeah," you say, "everyone has turkey at Christmas." But we usually have goose, so this was a bit of a departure for us.

We also often have visitors on either Christmas Day or Boxing Day, but this time it was just the two of us (plus two greedy cats). It made the whole thing much more relaxed than usual. Mr Robot took over cooking duties. We started with prawn cocktail. That can sometimes be a bit of a sad dish, with teeny little prawns and some sweetener-laden glop out of a bottle, but in this case the sauce was made from scratch, covering the big, beautiful prawns we had in the freezer, and it all felt really luxurious. The prawns were so large the six we had each felt almost too much. And the hint of smoked paprika in the sauce really benefitted the whole dish. I could eat a lot of that!

After that we moved on to the classic turkey dinner.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Hari Ghotra at Walter Rose

By: Mrs Robot

Chef Hari Ghotra was at our butcher, Walter Rose, last Saturday promoting her book Easy Indian. We had to go and get our weekly shop anyhow, so stopped and had a chat. She was really friendly, and the chicken dish she was cooking smelled amazing, though we didn't stick around long enough to try any of it as we thought it would be rude to monopolise her time.

We'll review the book properly once we've cooked a few things out of it. We're probably not the ideal readership as we don't actually own a slow cooker, which is what all the recipes are designed for, but I'm hoping some of the dishes will be the sort of thing we can leave in the oven on Low while we go to the gym. I also plan to try some of the recipes from Hari's website as they look really tempting.

Hari's also bringing out a range of spices-and-masala packets. We're big fans of Anjum Anand's 'Spice Tailor' range as an easy option when we're feeling lazy, and these look like doing the same job. They'll be in Morrison's, which we don't have, but if you shop at a Morrison's they'll be worth looking out for to keep as a cupboard standby.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Rangoonies (never say die*)

By: Mr Robot

It's been a busy, exciting time at Casa Robot lately. The other weekend for example we had the great joy of heading to London for a Rangoon Sisters Burmese supper club.

We've been Twitterchums with them for a few years so I'm not going to pretend to be objective here - best consider this more an extended gloat than a review - but while it was lovely to meet up with them, I can honestly say with hand on internal fluid-pump that the food alone was worth the trek.

And it's fair trek at that - from darkest Wiltshire to the big city, out into Zone 3, past Olympic Stratford (and what a corporate hell-hole that looks) to the charming Coffee7 at Forest Gate. Hosted, incidentally, by Masterchef hero Michael Sanders, who turns out to be jolly nice indeed.

Having sufficiently disrupted Emily & Amy's preparations, we settled down with very fine lemongrass-infused G&T's, and gently thudded the table in anticipation, in the manner of spoilt schoolchildren, which we basically are.

First up by way of an amuse, we had some delightful Shan tofu: essentially a chickpea batter that's been set and deep fried, and served with tamarind dipping sauce. This was great because when Mrs R attempted it she completely destroyed the fryer, so we've been waiting years to try the stuff. Unlike her basket-o-goop, these were light and crisp, mildly nutty and went very well with the tamarind. They disappeared in seconds amid the first of my many curses at being forced to share.

What is this "sharing plate" of which you speak?

The first course proper was Nangyi Thoke, a spiced chicken noodle salad with squillions of accompaniments (as is the Burmese wont) that I've had a go at making in the past. Not only was it absolutely delicious, it was gratifyingly close to my own efforts. 10 points to me.

More importantly it set us straight to reminiscing about the food we'd had in Burma: the little cafe on Sule Pagoda Road in Yangon; the breakfast curry in Pyin Oo Lwin; street food at a festival in Mandalay... Now you may say "I should hope so - that's kind of the point" but this was the most familiar dish of the evening and these are such happy memories for us it was wonderful to have them brought back so powerfully.

Nangyi Thoke - humbly suggesting you rethink your idea of chicken salad

In any case, the other guests around us - not familiar with Burmese food - loved it too, so there.

Main course was a three-pronged affair of smoked aubergine, the traditional pickled-tea salad (Laphet Thoke) and a fabulous deep, rich shin of beef curry called Amehnat we'd never had before - heavy with (I think) ginger and turmeric and which I WILL have the recipe for, or we shall have words. It was stunning. I know the photo's dreadful but if you could smell it you'd understand - you don't mess around with that in front of you.

Yes, yes - how could I be so mean to one so lovely?

The tea salad was a proper treat since it's uniquely Burmese and not easily found. To my mind this well exceeded the one we had in Burma (a tourist trap in Bagan - the guide let us down that day), though Mrs Robot managed to get bonus shrimp so struggled a bit. Frankly that just meant one less competitor for me.

More tea, vicar? Laphet Thoke

Pudding isn't really a thing in Burma but we weren't let down with a pavlova riffing on the Burmese favourites of mango and coconut, and the most extraordinary jaggery praline that's now top of my list of Swank Things To Put On Things. Pick any sense you like, it was as beautiful as it looks.

Mangoconut Jaggery-pokery

Amy and Emily popped out from the kitchen afterwards (along with their respective husbands who'd been on waiter duty) so it was great to be able to chat a bit afterwards. If I was a touch over-gushy in my praise, well what are you going to do? Anyway, there had been Wine.

All too soon we had to brave the TfL line and head back to the relative comforts of Zone 1, but given my way I'd still be there now.

I understand the next supperclub is planned for some time in September so keep an eye on their website - if you're even vaguely nearby, it's well worth it. Even in Zone 3.

*Mrs Robot insisted I did that in the hope it would make people watch The Goonies, which seems cruel and unusual. Besides, for all I know "die" could be something really sweary in Burmese, in which case they may well say it quite a lot.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Viva La Revolution

By: Mr Robot

No better welcome

A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to get into a pre-opening night for the Bath branch of Omar Allibhoy's Tapas Revolution (the only time an email subscription has ever proved worthwhile, I might add).

Effectively a dress rehearsal for the staff, we were warned it may not be entirely perfect and in exchange given a frankly ludicrous discount, but of course given our love of all things Spanish we'd happily have paid full whack. They should have had no concerns, because it all went swimmingly and the staff couldn't have been more welcoming.

As we always do, we piled straight into the Jamon - promised genuine Bellota, I was expecting this to be excluded from the discount, but no, even that was included.

It was pretty much everything you could hope for. I've seen the odd negative comment since but honestly can't see why. Maybe it's not quite the stuff you find in the back streets of Extremadura, but that's only to be expected - they keep the best stuff to themselves. But it was clearly hand-cut (if I had to be critical, some slices were a little thick and so a touch chewy), deep, sweet and rich, and most importantly had that whiff of acorn that marks The Really Good Stuff.

Really, really good stuff

We went through a whole range of dishes with great happiness: croquettas were fat and crisp with a good ham level; a lovely salad of braised lettuce, peas and asparagus with runny egg; squid like armadillos (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside); meatballs in a proper sauce done properly...

Through all of it the overriding sense was the absolute authenticity of the food - it took us straight back to our favourite experiences in Spain.

Not Armadillos

The meatballs in particular were exactly as our first encounter on honeymoon in Seville. That was a real moment of misty-eyed nostalgia.

Never mind the meatballs, here's the croquettas

Probably the highlight for me was bacalao (salt cod) with braised peas and sobrasada (chorizo goop) which was utterly lovely. When handled properly there's something almost magical about the way salty bacalao reacts with the other elements on the plate, and this was perfectly done.

The magic of Bacalao

The only real negative was the building. Like so many of these places (it's in the newish Southgate development), the units are multifunctional retail jobs modelled on - and with all the charm of - a warehouse.

While it's been managed well visually (I particularly liked the half-sherry-barrel lightshades) the atmosphere suffers: you don't get the cozy buzz of a busy bar, but instead it's just a bit loud and shouty.

Could be cozier

For drinks we opted to go Full Crass and have a jug of Sangria, which I'm sorry to say was more fruity than boozy (had an odd strawberry note) but I did manage some small hilarity in trying to order a bottle of Er Bocqueron beer and instead ending up with anchovies (boquerones). The waiter chastised me gently, as is only right, and it's the kind of linguistic snafu that marks every good  Spanish evening. I was very pleased to have achieved it.

Got there in the end

Being kind of snobby about these things, we're a bit suspicious of chains, expecting fakey plasticity and bland homogeneity over interesting excitement. Bath is the seventh iteration of Tapas Revolution which puts in that troubling genre: not a corporate monstrosity to be sure, but neither the romantically tiny, unique operation. That said, the similarly-sized Bistro Pierre is a favourite and even Wahaca has become a chain for goodness' sake.

Can't help suspecting that's plastic ham: 1. no little cups to catch ooze, and 2. health & safety would go MENTAL

In the same vein I'm happy to say that on our experience Tapas Revolution is not letting brand or consistency compromise quality, and long may that continue.

As a final thought, with Tapas Revolution alongside the truly outstanding Ole Tapas (shamefully yet to be written up) and as-yet-untried Pintxo, Bath now offers the prospect of a genuine tapas crawl. I sincerely hope they all find the space to accommodate casual walk-ups to make it possible.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Simple Week

by: Mr Robot

I know we're extremely late to this party but earlier in the year we finally picked up a copy of Simple by Diana Henry, which is every bit as good as everyone says it is. Normally I'll pick one or two recipes to start with and slowly expand from there, but with Simple that was a hopeless task so in the end I had no choice but to devote a whole week to the thing.

So here are my six dishes (for, of course, on the seventh day He rested in the Pub).

Monday - Black Linguine with Squid & Spicy Sausage
Or, as it turned out, A Study In White since it turns out black pasta isn't a thing in darkest yokelshire. Which is a cursed shame because the dish looked much less dramatic but nonetheless tasted brilliant.

Now, I've never dabbled with squid before (one of the reasons I was so keen to do this recipe) but it's an exceptionally easy process and Henry is so blase about it, I had approached with confidence - and was rewarded by not cocking it up.

Fried off with our butcher's excellent Italian sausages and garlic, doused with lemon and parsley, and then tossed in pasta we ended up with a very light but hugely satisfying Monday dinner. In fact just writing this I count myself a buffoon for not doing it every week since.

Tuesday - Baked Sweet Potato, Chorizo, Mushrooms and Egg
Mainly because the vegbox was swamping us with sweet potato at the time, but also I could get a job lot of chorizo from Joe Le Butcher and partly because Mrs R has always found mushrooms challenging. Plus, it has A Egg on it.

This one, sadly, I did cock up in two ways:
1. I didn't give enough thought to the warning that the cooking time of sweet potatoes is variable, and
2. I did it on a night Mrs R was out on the lash so would turn up loudly demanding satisfaction, and demanding it now damnit.

Consequently my sweet 'taters, having roasted for only 50% longer than suggested, were still as hard as Vinnie Jones (this was also, incidentally, the final straw for the old cooker). So there was a fair amount of prodding and grumbling BUT the filling was a delight.

Fried chorizo will never make anyone sad and mixed up with mushroom, garnished with coriander and paprika, swimming in runny yolk was outstanding.

I kind of wish I'd left the sodding potatoes in the oven all night and served it for breakfast as I'm sure it'd be excellent with hangover.

Wednesday - Baked Sausages with Apples, Raisins and Cider

Look, if I have to explain it you'll never understand.

Just awesome. The only thing the title doesn't tell you is the raisins are soaked brandy. I know!

Beyond that it is exactly as amazing as it sounds. I'm actually kind of incoherent just remembering it, especially as the weather was perishing cold and this combined all the sausagey comfort of a toad in the hole, with the sweet/sharp apple promise that summer will be back before too long.

I served it up with some roasted (effing) sweet potato, baby spuds and spring cabbage but I'm kind of wishing I'd done about 4 kilos of mash.

Thursday - Parmesan Roast Chicken with Cauliflower and Thyme

In contrast I'd struggle to explain why I chose this dish out of all the other chicken ones available (there's even a Burmese one, riffing from the Naomi Duguid book we have - how did we resist that?) but I think the heart of it was when everything looks so very good, it can be a trigger to go somewhere you wouldn't ordinarily go.

Plus, the vegbox had delivered a LOT of cauliflower.

Like the sausage (OMG the sausage) dish above, this is basically a one-roasting-tin dish and in many ways I think the two recipes encapsulate what Simple is all about. There's little buggering around here - just the understanding that a little thought and attention, a few well-considered flavourings, can take the ordinary and turn it into a massive cliche.

So, chicken, spuds (not sweet, thank the lord), onions. Appropriately seasoned and roasted, topped with parmesan and roasted some more. Another one for a miserable evening when you can wait an hour or so for dinner because there's a good bottle on the go in the meantime.

Mrs Robot absolutely loved this, by the way, though she rejects the term Chick'n'Caul'n'Cheese.

Friday - Pork Chops with Mustard and Capers
This was the one I'd been looking forward to the most, since it's one of my favourite ways of cooking that perversely I've completely overlooked over the last few years. It is, in short, that classic French technique which (I believe) Escoffier codified as, "Put lumpy stuff in the pan until it's brown; put runny stuff in the pan until it's lumpy".

In this case the lumpy stuff is pork chops (and may I say how much I love the book just for having a chapter called Chops and Sausages), and the runny stuff is cream, vermouth, Dijon and capers.

At the risk of attempting double-insight, this too is Simple at its very best: one pan; maybe 20 minutes or so to make; ingredients you can probably get from a bloody petrol station these days; an old-fashioned (or perhaps unfashionably straightforward) technique that gives staggering pleasure. This is  the recipe I've used most, not in the following, but in the process. I've done any number of chops, or steak, or sausage, or fish, in a way I'd almost forgotten about. If nothing else, I'll be forever grateful to Diana Henry for that reminder.

Saturday - Orange-Oregano Roast Chicken, Olive Gremolata
Yeah, so I told a weeny fib earlier - I had to do at least two of the chickens. But like the Parmesan this is sort of outside my normal sphere. Mrs Robot raised an eyebrow but to me the it just screamed JOLLY EXCITING, and I was in charge.

I think I expected it to be Taste of Seville, which on reflection is stupid because the taste of Seville is jamon and jerez and other things beginning with j-pronounced-h. The oranges are only fit for marmalade and chicken is probably the protein they're least excited about. The element you're most likely to find is olives, and those as a standalone snack.

But don't take that to mean I was disappointed: this was a lovely, complex, multilayered dish and for that reason I think I prefer to the parmesan roast above. Or, as I write this on a sunny evening with a Bank Holiday looming, perhaps it just calls more to me now.

Sunday - Poorly a la Stallards
Told you so

This has been half-written for some months now and since then we've done any number of other things, not least the Balinese Pork which is oh-my-golly good. But one of the core premises of a book like Simple is that's everyday cooking and, implicit within that, Every Day cooking.

Well it was only for a week (good enough for BBC science programmes) but I did use it every day and by god we ate well, and with precious little fuss. There's a lot in the book we don't happen to have (pomegranate molasses haven't made it here either) but as I hope I made clear, there was equally a load of recipes suited for what was kicking around.

I have particular love of and gratitude for the double-page of sauces & relishes, which serves as either guide for dinner or starting point for play, depending on your mood. Looking at our recent cookbooks, this seems quite an old-fashioned thing to do; in some ways it's quite an old-fashioned book, though accommodating the huge growth in ingredients and cuisines that make us so lucky to be living now.

I can't tell you how much I love Simple. If you don't already own it, go and buy it now.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Something fresh!

By: Mrs Robot

We're still around and still cooking - but as it's been three months since I last posted anything, I thought I'd better put something up. Anything.

It's been culinary sadtimes in the House of Robots, as our beloved butcher has closed its Trowbridge branch. We always thought it was a bit odd that a butcher as prestigious as Walter Rose had their second store in Trow, and over the past decade business in the town has slowed to the point where they're focussing on the restaurant trade. They're keeping their shop in Devizes, though, so we're taking a weekly drive over there now.

Leaving aside my sadness about what this means for my town - every time an essential shop closes, all the others lose a little more business - it is nice going to the Devizes branch, as business there is brisker so they have much more stock in the shop; among the things we got this week were smoked mutton and smoked chicken. There's also a fish counter at the Devizes branch (it had to be preordered in Trowbridge, which we were never organised enough to do) and it's been enjoyable having that as an option.

These prawns were absolute monsters, and we wanted to do them justice, so Mr Robot did them following Meera Sodha's tamarind and honey prawn recipe from her book Made In India. Served on vegetable cous cous with a cucumber and yoghurt raita, they were refreshing and delicious. We'll definitely be having them again!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A Mumbai feast

Dhansak and cachumbarIt's a while after new year, but I thought I'd write about our New Year's Day meal anyway. (Didn't want to do another post too soon after Mr Robot's last one, you might have run away in shock at two in a week.)

Mr Robot gave me a couple of cookbooks for Christmas: Mr Todiwala's Bombay, by Cyrus Todiwala, and Fortnum and Mason: The Cook Book. I don't know if I'd have picked up the Todiwala book myself, but it's really good. My go-to Indian recipe books tend to be by Anjum Anand and Meera Sodha. Meera Sodha is a particular favourite because her food has personality; you can really see how her family history and the ingredients around her in Britain have impacted on her cooking. Mr Todiwala's Bombay also has personality in spades. There's a real sense of place and of the mix of cultures that make up Mumbai as he shares the food that he loves: the street food that everyone eats, restaurant food, and the sort of thing families eat at home. I wanted to go to Mumbai anyhow as I love art deco and it's got some of the finest art deco buildings in the world, but now I want to go there for the food too!

A dish of cachumbar
I decided to make a proper dhansak (or dhaansaak as it's spelled in the book), as made by the Parsee community that Cyrus Todiwalla is part of.

Dhansaks are a curryhouse staple here in the UK, but this was very different from the oily stuff they serve up. You start by making the spicy lamb, which is then added to a pot of dal. I found the dal particularly unusual compared to ones I've made in the past as it contains fresh dill and plenty of sugar – I guess that shows the Persian roots of the Parsee people. The dal is supposed to be pureed smooth, and I did that this time but in future I might leave some of the lentils intact for a bit more texture and visual interest. There's a low ratio of lamb-to-dal. I was really worried about how all the flavours would turn out, as the mix was so unfamiliar to me, but it still tasted like 'a curry' to me, just with different herbal notes to what I'd usually expect. And that's one of the reasons I like making Indian food at home - bought ones always seem to lack the fresh flavour of the herbs.

A bowl of brown onion pulao with sheekh kebab balls on top
A gorgeous brown caramelised onion pulao, seekh kebab balls (raising the amount of meat in the meal to a level carnivores will be happy with), and cachumbar make delicious accompaniments. I'd happily make all three of those to accompany other things. Every Indian chef I own a cookbook by has a recipe for cachumbar; Todiwalla's is heavier on the onion than the others that I've seen but it works really well with the sweet, lentil-heavy dhansak. And usually when a recipe 'serves four to six' there's really enough for two greedy robots plus a little leftover. Not here! Even by our standards this recipe easily serves six. I've put two meals' worth of dhansak, pulao and kebab balls in the freezer.

The Fortnum cookbook is an oddity. I must confess, while I know Tom Parker-Bowles is a food writer, I've never read any of his food writing, I only know him as 'that bloke whose mum is the future Princess Consort.' Mr Robot got it for me because I love the funny old shop, and the history of things, and this book contains little bits of Fort Noms' history. It's also stuffed with illustrations from the company catalogues of the 1930s and 1950s. I'm not sure how I feel about a lot of the recipes in the book as they're really very simple and I have similar elsewhere, though in their simplicity they do mean you need to use the very finest ingredients – replace butter with marge and it'll be all too obvious.
Raspberry trifle

I made the raspberry trifle. I did vary things slightly, using cream rather than milk for the custard, and making a fresh raspberry compote rather than using jam. You're supposed to layer it jam, sponge with chambord, raspberries, custard, whipped cream, sponge with chambord, raspberries, custard, whipped cream, but I have a wide dish rather than a tall one so the layers came out a bit scanty. I left out the middle layer of cream and had a mere drizzle for the second layer of custard, so I think if I made it again I'd use far fewer sponges and only one layer of each ingredient. Still, it was jolly nice. Not over-fussy, just a tasty, creamy, fruity treat.

So, that was our New Year's Day meal. I hope yours was as good, and wish you all the best for the rest of 2017.