Monday, 21 December 2009

At Home: Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

My first attempt at making marmalade, late last year, was not a resounding success. It was Seville orange marmalade, and took hours to reach setting point. I had to hurry it along by chucking in a muslin bag filled with lemon rind. Also, it had boiled down so much it was more a thick caramel syrup than a marmalade. The pieces of rind were as long as spaghetti, so it wasn't an easy spreader.

This time around I tried Nigella's Pink-Grapefruit Marmalade from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. It seems too simple at first glance, but works brilliantly.

You boil two grapefruit for 2 hours, until they're soft. Then drain and slice thinly, chopping a bit (removing any large pips), before returning to the pan, along with 1kg preserving sugar, and the juice of 2 lemons. After boiling for 15 minutes or so, test for setting point. The easy way to do this is to have a plate in the fridge. Place a teaspoon of the mixture on the plate, and leave for a minute. If the surface of the mixture creases when you push it, the marmalade is ready. Pour into clean jars, and seal.

'Foolproof' is a dangerous term, as all recipes require a certain degree of common sense and judgment. My husband points out that often these foolproof recipes are anything but, requiring a considerable level of culinary know-how. For instance, would everyone know what Nigella means by 'boil until setting point is reached'? If you know the jam basics, though, this is a hit.

A couple of notes.
  • Nigella doesn't tell you to skim the mixture as it boils. I would recommend doing this though, as the scum that rises to the surface can make the finished marmalade cloudy rather than clear.
  • It may well take longer than 15 minutes to reach setting point. Mine took 35 minutes. Be patient, and test it every 5 minutes or so.
Another great addition to Christmas hampers. Give it a go!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Hix, Soho

This is Hix's third establishment. The two I've visited - the Hix Oyster and Chop House in Farringdon, and Hix in Soho - have both been designed wisely, and front of house and kitchen never fail to impress. Assuming the canny business sense comes from the man himself, I wouldn't be surprised to see another open before too long, but hope this doesn't impact negatively on the 'Hix' name. Too many ventures, born of a chef's passion and zeal, end up watered-down corporate entities, as we all know (Leon, Canteen, Gordon Ramsay's empire...).
So, it was comforting to see Mark Hix present and correct on a wintry Tuesday night, propping up the bar with Fergus Henderson and Mitch Tonks for company. This new Soho spot has had no end of positive write-ups over the past few months, for its simple food, first-rate ingredients, and happy buzz. Everyone loves him, even hard-to-please AA Gill.

The dining space on the ground floor is very pleasing. Off a narrow street, you enter through an enormous imposing wooden door, and are greeted in a corridor from which you can turn left to enter the restaurant, or descend to the basement bar. The restaurant itself is a large barn-like space, with low well-spaced seating (no one made to face a wall), the furnishings simple yet comfortable.

The menu is a hymn to the best of our isle's seasonal produce, from field to shore. If providence is your thing, you'll be amply rewarded here: West Mersea oysters, Cornish sprats, Sheringham mussels, Orkney lobster, Aberdeenshire beef, Woolley Park Farm chicken...

Unfortunately, being pregnant meant most of the menu was off limits. Where I would have gone for oysters, black pudding and apple (Heaven and earth), and Barkham blue cheese, I instead was limited to: De Beauvoir smoked salmon 'Hix Cure' with Corrigan's soda bread (£12), Blythburgh pork chop with celeriac mash and Bramley apple sauce (£19), and Sea buckthorn berry posset (£6). Fortunately, none were a disappointment.

The generously thick-cut salmon is reverentially plated up with none of the usual accompaniments, save two slices of Corrigan's famous rich, treacly soda bread. Simple intoxicating flavours. I usually avoid pork chops, so often dry and dull, but as you'll see from the picture below, Hix knows his chops. Cut on the bone, thick, with lashings of fat and seared flesh, every succulent mouthful oozed porky goodness. Suffolk's Blythburgh pigs live a good life, and it shows. You can buy their pork products online.
My companions each had the Fillets of red gurnard with cockles (replaced by potted shrimps) and wild chervil (£18). The cockles would have worked beautifully, we all agreed, but the potted shrimps were just too rich, and the whole dish was swimming in butter.
Our two hours were up. Rather than kicking us out into the cold, the staff cleared a sofa in the basement bar so we could finish our meal in comfort. Full of mismatched leather sofas, metal tables, a pool table Hix won on eBay, and colourful rugs, the scene is anything but pretentious. The barman made a beautiful non-alcoholic cocktail for me (pineapple, mint, lime and ginger) and served it in a special goblet as we lingered over dessert: one of the two possets, covered with a tart berry posset...
and the Barkham blue with Hix Oyster Ale cake, which was just a touch too dry.

Although there were a few lapses in concentration, resulting in a lack of culinary finesse from time to time, the produce is first-rate and the menu impressive. A fine example of how far British food has come in the last 10 years. Hail Hix!

Hix on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Ebury

This is a great place for a lazy Sunday lunch. Housed in a handsome building on the corner of Pimlico Road, not far from Sloane Square, the airy and gently lit ground floor brasserie and bar welcomes you in from the cold.

The Ebury has a loyal local fan base, and they were all out on the bracing December Sunday I met old uni friends for lunch. Smart chaps in brogues standing at the bar sipping Bloody Mary cocktails, thirty-something ladies groomed to within an inch of their lives, picking at oysters and salads (mind that creamy dressing, girls!), and Sloaney family outings. My mojito was exceptional, better than those concocted in some of London's best drinking spots. If that's not enough to draw you in, try the food.

The gastropub-style menu isn't anything to shout about. A hotch potch of the usual pan-Med stuff: smoked salmon, foie gras, salads with goat's cheese, risotto, gnocchi, lamb shanks, coq au vin. But the surprise was the attention lavished on each dish. They clearly care as much about the Caesar salad as the roast beef.

We all, it being Sunday lunch, chose the Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and veg. For £15.50 the plates were generously piled with thick chunks of medium-rare tender and flavourful beef, and all accompaniments were well-conceived. A steal, particularly in this area of town.

It's not as easy as you might think to find a dependable place in Central London for Sunday lunch. You can pay through the nose, book a month in advance, risk a pub with a no-booking policy, or just settle for something second-rate. At The Ebury you can expect decent food, cooked with care, and enjoy it in a comfortable, pleasing setting. If you're with other foodies, you may prefer Hawksmoor, or Smiths of Smithfield's, but if your companions aren't seeking culinary fireworks, or a particular cut and breed of beef, The Ebury will hit the spot.

Ebury on Urbanspoon

Polpo

It's taken me a while to get around to writing about this one, so I hope my memory won't betray me.

Back in October I and another food enthusiast/book editor, who often try out new culinary enterprises together, wandered into Soho after work to eat at Polpo, the new Italian-Viennese joint that's secured short-term (and hopefully long-term) success with many generous and gushing column inches in the national press. When we visited they were taking bookings, but it's now first come first served. Our waiter explained why they scrapped reservations: apparently it's more egalitarian and they believe it will give Soho locals and Londoners the chance to use it as a neighbourhood restaurant, somewhere you can drop in on a whim. This seems fair, but I'm not looking forward to the queues - this is why I've never made it to Barrafina. And is it fair on out-of-towner's, who'll probably not risk the commute without a guarantee of a table? But then, is this simple joint the kind of place people book months ahead?

On our visit, we were given a warm welcome by Russell Norman, the new proprietor and former manager at Zuma and the Ivy Club. The distressed bare walls and rickety wooden tables certainly gave the place an unpretentious feel. Having sadly never visited the bacari wine bars of Venice, I can't claim this resembles the real deal, but it was certainly buzzy and jolly.

Small plates for sharing, much like Spanish tapas, is the concept (the chef is from Bocca di Lupo down the road). We shared 10 plates: Arancini, Figs with mint, Salt cod crostini, Fennel salad, Slow roast duck with peppercorns, olives and tomatoes, Grilled polenta, Spinach with chilli and garlic, Roast beetroot, Tomato and tapenade pizzetta, and a Honey and walnut semi-freddo. With most dishes costing less than £4, our final bill, including wine, came to a very reasonable £46. This is simple fare, and the ingredients were most certainly top notch. The chicheti and pizzettas were the most delicious of the lot, the arancini the most pedestrian (though we could hardly complain at £1.50 a pop).

Unfortunately, the tables surrounding us were occupied by the kind of people who eat at a place because it's trendy and 'the place to be', not because of the food. One poncy toff dared challenge my vegetarian friend, telling her what she was 'missing out on'. Prat.

Irritating fellow diners aside, the food and service is welcoming. Nothing to set the world on fire, but a great place to meet up and hunker down for a few hours of decent wine, grub, and gossip.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

At Home: Honeycomb

I've always wanted to try making honeycomb. On a weekend escape to Brighton, I popped into the excellent Steamer Trading kitchen shop in the Lanes and picked up a sugar thermometer for under a fiver. The ingredients for honeycomb are simple enough (basically, sugar), but the key is getting it to the right temperature.

For such a simple sweet, there are an awful lot of recipes out there. Some use honey, others liquid glucose, and the old Gary Rhodes recipe I chose from More Rhodes Around Britain uses a knob of butter.

I should start by telling you all how quick it is to make. Once the sugars (225g caster, 225g demerara, 50g golden syrup) have melted with 2 tbsp water, it's just a matter of popping in the thermometer and patiently watching the mercury rise. Once the bubbling caramel reaches 138-140 degrees centigrade, you stir in the tbsp bicarbonate of soda, let it fizz and rise, and pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper to cool. Simple. It took 20 minutes at the most.

Adding a knob (10-15g) of butter is unusual, but the result was delicious. It was softer than standard honeycomb, but still crunchy and crumbly, with a spicy rich flavour.

A cheap, quick treat, and a lovely homemade gift for Christmas stockings and hampers. Pop a sugar thermometer in the stocking and hamper too, with the recipe written out on the gift label, and they can have a go at making it themselves. (Remember to store the honeycomb in an airtight container so it doesn't lose its crunch.)