Sunday, 27 September 2009

At Home: Jewelled pumpkin rice

As autumn leaves begin to fall, and dark evenings creep upon us, I start thinking about comforting and earthy flavours: warm spices, golden roots, orchard harvests, funghi and slow-cooked beasts. Pork belly roast with British apples, a hearty beef stew, spicy curries, and risottos - these are some of my favourite autumn foods.

Sam and Sam of Moro have created a dish that epitomizes autumn. Their fragrant Jewelled pumpkin rice recipe (a pilav of sorts) is a vegetarian godsend, but also effortlessly satisfies a carnivore's appetite. I've cooked this many a time, eating the pistachios as I shell them, while the sweet smell of roasting squash fills the kitchen. Without further ado, here it is, just slightly modified - I had a few Merguez sausages in the fridge.

Serves 4-6
  • 500g peeled and seeded butternut, or other winter, squash, cut into dice
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • big pinch of saffron
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 2 Merguez sausages, chopped (leave out for vegetarian version)
  • cinnamon stick
  • 4 allspice berries, crushed
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced across the grain
  • 15g currants
  • 50g shelled pistachios
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom (freshly podded and ground if possible)
  • 300g basmati rice, soaked in tepid, salted water for 1 hour
  • 450ml vegetable/bouillon stock
Preheat the oven to 230 degrees centigrade/Gas 8. Toss the squash with half of the salt and the olive oil. Spread in a baking tray, and roast for 30 minutes. Mix the saffron with 3 tbsp boiling water, and add 25g of the butter. Set aside.

Heat the remaining butter in a medium pan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams, then add the onion and remaining 1/2 tsp of salt. Fry over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to colour. Add the currants, pistachios, and cardamom, and cook for 10 minutes more, until the onion is golden and sweet.

Drain the rice and add it to the pan, stirring for a minute or two before pouring in the stock. Taste for seasoning, scatter with the roasted squash, cover with greaseproof paper and a tight-fitting lid, and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 5 minutes. Remove the lid and greaseproof paper, and drizzle with the buttery saffron water. Replace the lid and leave to rest, off the heat, for 5-10 minutes.

Recipe credit: p192, Moro East, by Sam and Sam Clark (Ebury Press).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

J. Sheekey Oyster Bar

Occasion: our 5th wedding anniversary. Where better to celebrate than an oyster bar. They may have been as plentiful and cheap as Big Macs in the 18th and 19th centuries, but present times have placed oysters firmly at the top end of gustatory pursuits.

J. Sheekey oyster bar, sitting alongside the 100-year-old Sheekey restaurant on a winding backstreet in the heart of Theatreland, was smaller than I expected, though pleasingly lit and furnished. They've squeezed in a couple of tables, but the place to sit is up at the bar, where you can watch the action, and eye-up your fellow clientelle: a mix of solitary diners, amorous couples, and the odd old-school toff. Black and white photographs of venerable thespians fill the walls, framed in sober black, and it oozes history, charm, elegance, and conviviality. Frosted windows shelter familiar faces from the limelight they've just basked in on stage, and give it a distinct gentleman's club feel.
After a fair amount of eavesdropping, we turned our attentions back on each other, and our appetites, and ordered a dozen West Mersea natives with champagne. Slippery, creamy, singing of the sea, and guzzled with the industrious sound of molluscs being cracked in the background, they were the best oysters we've eaten in London.
The bar menu sticks to simple classics, much as the other London stalwart, the Ivy, does. The seafood is left to speak for itself. 'Bar' is the operative word: only a fifth of the menu lists food. Naturally, we wanted to continue with the fizz, so chose a more affordable Col Vetoraz Prosecco to go with my lobster and chips, and J's tender and full-flavoured sautéed octopus. Both were small for main courses, but couldn't be faulted. The side orders of chips and spinach were standard fare.
The petite starter and mains, though rich, left us still peckish. Moving on to desserts, there are plenty of French classics such as creme brulée, cheeseboard, and almond tart, and fruit gets a look-in too. I couldn't quite stomach J's rich brulée, so tried Scandinavian iced berries with hot white chocolate sauce (poured over the berries at the table by a friendly chef from the kitchen). A tooth-killer, but an intriguing and pleasing combination.

An hour later, having unwittingly managed to consume £45 of wonderful Makers Mark Bourbon propped up on bar stools, we headed home invigorated, enthused and, safe to say, rather drunk.

If you go easy on the champagne and oysters, you can easily depart satiated and content for £20 per person. Whether you've got your eye on a blow-out, or post-theatre comfort food, the oyster bar is an indulgent homage to the bivalve that must not be missed.