Wednesday, 21 April 2010

At Home: Candied nuts

Another simple party pleaser, adapted from an out-of-print 1970's American 'sweet gifts' book, "Gifts from the Kitchen" (Norma Myers & Joan Scobey), which sits well-thumbed on mom's cookbook shelf. She makes batch after batch every Christmas, giving them away in kilner jars as gifts.

1 1/2 cups pecan nuts (or walnuts, if preferred)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1-2 tsp grated orange rind
  • Put all the ingredients in a large heavy skillet, and cook over a medium heat until the water evaporates and the nuts have a sugary look.
  • Pour the nuts onto a greased baking sheet, separating them quickly with a fork. Cool, and store in a sealed container.

At Home: Parmesan crisps

These are the easiest crowd pleasers. I've made them as party nibbles for years, ever since coming home with a scribbled version of the recipe after a day cooking Italian treats at Cucina Caldesi in Marylebone with Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi.

This will take no more than 30 minutes of your time in the kitchen, I promise.

Makes 20 biscuits/crisps.

100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
100g Parmesan cheese, grated
120g self-raising flour
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pink of black pepper

In a mixing bowl, beat the soft butter and grated cheese until combined. Add the flour, cayenne (to taste), and pepper, and fold in. Roll the dough into a long sausage, wrap in cling film, and chill to harden.

Cut thin discs from the chilled dough sausage, and bake in a 180C oven for 10 mins.

It couldn't be simpler!

OPTION: if you'd like to make them a little snazzier, roll the sausage over a layer of poppy seeds before chilling so that the crisps have a pretty edge when baked.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Skylon Restaurant

Dining rooms with views are guaranteed to disappoint, aren't they? Though perhaps I should hold my tongue until I've tried Galvin at Windows Restaurant, purported to be an exception to the rule. Horridly overpriced, made to cater for tourists, and passing trade with more money than taste, they seldom display culinary expertise.

A 9-to-5 resident of The Strand, I regularly head north for proper sustenance, to Soho and beyond, the Thames and South Bank being instead a refuge for boozy summer evenings in riverside watering holes, when food consists of bar snacks at best.

A friend had waxed lyrical about the bar at Skylon, located within the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, overlooking the river. Hanging out with an old uni mate on the South Bank, we decided to give the Skylon Grill a try, for a lazy lunch (supposedly less formal and better value than the restaurant).

The menu is instantly forgettable: bland modern European brasserie fare, at ridiculous prices, much like - possibly worse than - the Portrait Restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery. Mushroom gnocchi at £14, what a joke. To steal Lisa Markwell's phrase from her recent review of Petrus in the Independent: 'it has the distinct feeling of an operation that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing'.

Uninspired, and struggling to choose, we were asked by three different waitresses whether we were ready to order: none of them seemed dedicated to a particular dining area, but rather aimlessly wandered around, looking bored or gossiping (they clearly tired of the impressive view long ago).

On to the food:
Pumpkin tortelloni with confit tomato, wild rocket and shaved pecorino: £15. 10 pieces of mediocre filled pasta, and the chef forgot the promised shavings of pecorino, and deemed it acceptable to place just one poor, lonely tomato (nothing 'confit' about it, by the way) on the dish. Lame.

Jo came off a little better with the Sunday roast - rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, and roasted veg: £17.50. The beef was agreeably tender and rare, but rather tasteless. At least the serving was generous, and the Yorkshire puddings crispy.

Greens: £3.50. Again, forgettable.

Chocolate and pear tart with Guinness ice cream: £6.50. The worst part of the meal. The ice cream was a miserable scoop of defrosting water crystals, in which I couldn't detect dairy products, let alone a treacly hint of hops. The chocolate tart was bland, the pastry thick and soggy, and the poached pears on top even blander. How they could feel proud enough of this dessert to decorate the plate with a pointless line of the same bland chocolate and a half-hearted sprinkling of icing sugar, I don't know.

If the cocktails are as lackluster and overpriced as the food, I wouldn't bother. Just enjoy a cold beer on the terrace a floor below Skylon, or head to the buzzy Benugo Bar in the BFI building for a 'pint' of hot sausage rolls.

Skylon on Urbanspoon

Monday, 5 April 2010

St. John Restaurant

Staycations. All the rage, apparently.

Well, being car-less and anticipating the capricious nature of National Rail, we'd made up our minds to be footloose in the city over the Easter break. And, it was Jon's birthday. Having treated ourselves to a birthday stay at Hazlitt's hotel in Soho a couple of years ago, and loved the place, The Rookery (its sister hotel in Clerkenwell) was next on the list. Its close proximity to Michelin-starred St. John Restaurant - our favourite London restaurant since moving here 8 years ago - sealed the deal.

The urge to slob out in the room, and have a long soak in the gorgeous bath, was overwhelming, but the eager anticipation of a return visit to St. John got us on our feet.

Two minutes later, we were in Fergus Henderson's lair, for a gustatory study in nose to tail eating. Without fuss or frippery, the menu exhibits the best of British produce, and we would have been spoilt for choice, had I not been pregnant: native oysters, goat's curd, sprats, rabbit offal, all poetically paired with seasonal leaves that hold their own: mint, dandelion, and watercress. St. John doesn't do garnishes. The robust food bears a striking affinity to the dining space, a white-washed former smokehouse: sparse and pared down.

Tearing away at chunks of homemade sourdough bread, we went for their signature dish, a must if you're new to St. John, the roast bone marrow. And, beautiful cured beef.
Cured beef and celeriac £9.50. This was outstanding. The beef cut to perfect toothsome thickness, paired with a stunning creamy celeriac 'coleslaw', spiked generously with fresh horseradish. A rugged dish, but one created with a deft touch.

Roast bone marrow and parsley salad £7. As usual, a winner. Nothing gives me more carnivorous pleasure than scraping out the rich, warm, gelatinous marrow and spreading it on charred bread. Shame it wasn't my starter, but I was generously given a look-in by the birthday boy.

Pigeon and braised Savoy cabbage £16.60. The only disappointment of the evening. Our waitress told us it would be cooked medium-rare. The bone-in pigeon breasts had hardly seen the heat. The plate was already brimming with blood when it reached me, and the breasts were raw under the skin (cold, in fact). Do not be mistaken, I love bloody meat, even blood itself. One of the culinary highlights of my life was a pig-fest in Bali with a Balinese family, where the star dish alongside the whole spit-roast pig, was a magical raw 'salad' of coconut and spiced pig's blood. Game blood is an altogether different experience, however: bitter, funky, smelly, and all-pervasive. We might well be alone here, but it didn't thrill us.

Rabbit saddle and parsnips £16.40. Not a looker, granted, yet it delivered in every other way. Rabbit, devilish to cook, and so often tough, was tender and full of flavour. Silky subtle flesh, on the bone, with sweet and earthy roasted parsnips.

Greens £3.50, Potatoes £3.50. Star side dishes. The humble cabbage elevated to new heights with a light steam, smothered in warm butter and a generous grind of pepper. They take their potatoes seriously, too: this is the first time Jon's ever ooh-ed and aah-ed over the humble tuber.

Brown bread ice cream £6.80. A Victorian classic, apparently. Hokey-pokey for grown-ups, it was chewy, nutty, and a perfect end to the meal. I was sorely tempted to pour Jon's Lagavulin whisky over it, to make a hardcore affogato-style dessert.

Topped off with a refreshing fresh mint tea (my pregnant state seems to be stopping everyone I eat with getting madly drunk. Shame really, as I want be the one to witness and recall everyone's embarrassing moments, for once), the meal came to a very reasonable £86.

This was the first time I'd had an off-key dish here, and it preyed on my mind. Had I just chosen badly? Everything else was cooked beautifully, and the staff were delightful. The St. John experience - in all three establishments - epitomizes everything I love about food: big, butch flavours, superb seasonal ingredients, and no-fuss presentation.

Their new establishment, a hotel/restaurant due to open in Leicester Square this summer, is bound to be a rip-roaring success, if they pull off the trick of delivering great rooms and great food, as Dean Street Townhouse has.

Too much was right about our meal to put me off a return visit. I'll just give the funky pigeon a wide berth next time.

St. John Bar and Restaurant Smithfield
26 St John Street

020 7251 0848