22 April 2007

First in a chain of goodbyes

It's official. Chefette will be moving to Bermuda at the beginning of July.

The Husband has landed himself a fantastic job opportunity, which will involve a 3-4 year commitment. So it's 'goodbye' to fabulous theatres, hard water, and the world's most overpriced public transport system, and 'hello' to bright sunshine, beautiful beaches and hideously expensive housing.

Saturday was my last night working at the restaurant. And would you believe it, on my final night, we had a Michelin-star chef in the dining room. I got to cook for Angela Hartnett, the head chef at the Connaught in London. Her uncle is one of our regulars, and they were both there with a big family group. (She ordered the panzanella salad and the lamb stew, in case any of you out there are interested). Didn't get an opportunity to meet her, but it felt pretty cool, nonetheless, having a VIP chef eating my food. And her sweet uncle came into the kitchen at the end of the night to wish me all the best for Bermuda-- a thoroughly classy chap.

After the end of service on Saturday, the staff all shared a bottle of prosecco in the kitchen as we were cleaning down, which was fun but also a little bittersweet. I will miss C to be sure. Could not have asked for a better boss. I have learned loads from her, and

Friday night was incredibly busy (we did 49 covers!), but it was also oodles of fun. A big happy gaggle of friends came into the restaurant, and then we all decamped back to our flat after service for a nightcap en groupe. Special kudos must go to the Husband, who did a valiant job tending the bar back at ours until almost 2am, even though he had to get up to catch a train at 6.30am that morning.

One final titbit of news before I skedaddle: I passed my wine exam (hoorah!), and now have my Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits from the WSET. Who knows? Maybe a wine-related job might be calling in Bermuda??

25 March 2007

One of those days

Some days, you’re better off not going into the kitchen. Chefette had one of those days on Friday.
  • I burned my biscotti.
  • I dropped an entire container of freshly made porcini mushroom soup on the floor of the kitchen during service.
  • I sent out a chicken liver salad without one of the key ingredients specified on the menu (black grapes).
  • I mixed up the orders for Table 4 and Table 9.
  • I cut my left index finger while making the staff meal.

Not exactly my best ever day at the restaurant!

Thankfully, I’m off to Paris next weekend, when my parents will be visiting. Very glad to see that my father, on the packed tour itinerary he sent me, has allotted time to eat ice cream at Berthillon (the famous Paris ice cream parlour, known in the Chefette household as “the Mother Ship”). Now that’s what I call having one’s priorities in order!

19 March 2007

Last night's dinner

Sometimes, at the end of a long weekend in the restaurant, the last thing you want to do is cook at home. I remember Anthony Bourdain once writing that at times all he has energy for when he gets home from service is wolfing down a couple of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

So when Chefette got home from Mother’s Day lunch service yesterday (after serving 46 covers for Saturday dinner and finishing at 1am), needless to say there wasn’t a whole lot of zip left in the tank.

Thankfully, there were steaks in the house. Organic Herefordshire beef rump steaks. Mmmm. I served them with sautéed chestnut mushrooms, and some bubble & squeak made with leftover potatoes and Savoy cabbage. Total preparation time, under 20 minutes.

Anyway, they looked so lovely sizzling away on the ridged griddle plate I had to take a picture.

09 March 2007

Starting to share the news

Just back from service. Time enough for a mini-blog.

I texted C that I would be in a bit early for service tonight, for us to have a chat. So I told her about the Husband's international job offer, and let her know that I probably won't be able to work for too much longer. Needless to say, we both got a wee bit misty-eyed and had a hug. But she was genuinely pleased for the Husband's good fortune. And she also said she was glad that at least I won't be leaving her to go to another restaurant. People, I am surely going to miss that kind-hearted lady!!

To top it off, she's let me put my top 2 requests for dishes on the menu for tomorrow. One will be a chicken liver bruschetta, finished with Marsala wine and porcini mushrooms. The other will be an antipasto of grilled vegetables with buffalo mozzarella and fresh pesto. Cross your fingers that they'll sell well.

The only other thing on my mind is a bit of advice to all cooks out there. Also a hard-earned reminder to self. Never, Ever, Ever (!) touch your eyes after you've been working with hot chillies during service. Even if you've washed your hands multiple times. 'Coz that hot chilli oil gets everywhere, and it doesn't take much to induce a painful burning sensation. (Gentleman, I understand from anecdotes told to me during chef school, that this advice applies doubly to boys visiting the urinals after service ...)

04 March 2007

Sunday lunch

London in at the end of wintertime is dire. It's miserably cold, grey, wet and rainy. But right now, Chefette is too well fed and watered to care. She has just got back from a memorable Sunday lunch at Pont de La Tour (the Bar & Grill side, not the Restaurant side), where she indulged in a lusciously dressed langoustine cocktail, followed by chargrilled calf's liver with bacon, mashed potato and caramelized pearl onions. The Husband had a crab mayonnaise followed by a medium rare sirloin steak with deeply golden chips and bearnaise sauce. We shared a bottle of 2005 Marsannay (well rounded, and full of ripe red fruits), plus I had a 2003 Californian ice wine for dessert (the 2004 Bonny Doon California Vin Glacier -- quite lusciously sweet, with vanilla and honey notes). The husbanded opted for a slice of the classic lemon tart. How spoiled we are to have this place within 15 minutes' walk from the flat!

The coolest thing of all was the feeling that I got when I looked over their dessert menu, to see they were serving rhubarb jelly. As it happens, I recently made rhubarb jellies at the restaurant, and C (the head chef) put them on the menu. Let me tell you, it felt tres chic to see that a top London bistro also has your dish on its menu! At one point, I got a glimpse of their version coming out of the kitchen. Their jelly looked quite similar, but mine was more lavishly decorated. I garnished my jellies with some of the rhubarb compote taken from the base mixture (flavoured with cinnamon, sugar and blood orange), as well as a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream, and a dollop of thick cream.

As it happens, we were celebrating a couple of special recent events. First, is the Husband's acceptance of a New Job Overseas (of which readers of Chefette will hear more when it's publicly announced). Second, is that Chefette has just finished taking her Advanced Certificate course at the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. The course was very intensive (Monday to Friday, 9am to 4.30pm each day), with tastings and lectures, followed by 3-4 hours of reading and note-taking at home every night. Nevertheless, it was fun to be back in the classroom for a week, tasting wine with other students/teachers. All in all, we tasted around 90 wines over 5 days. Everything from Gran Reserva Rioja to Margaret River unoaked Chardonnay to dry Oloroso sherry. We finished with a 2 1/2 hour exam.

The first part of the exam was a blind tasting. We had to check off the different characteristics that a particular wine displayed from a master list (intensity, fruit characteristics, acids, tannins, body, etc.). Then we had to guess the type of wine, the price per bottle, and the quality level. Then came a multiple choice section of 50 questions, followed by 4 short essay questions on wines, spirits, vinification and viticulture. It wasn't easy, folks. Keep your fingers crossed that Chefette passed.

17 February 2007

Valentine's day

Candy hearts and red roses it wasn’t. Chefette learned a new meaning this year to the phrase: “Valentine’s day”—big-time mise-en-place, and a non-stop busy service!

On the big night, we offered a special six-course tasting menu. We’d taken around 68 bookings (compared with c.35 on a typical busy night). We'd even started service an hour early to accommodate extra customers.

For my part, I kicked off the first four hours of the afternoon making 58 portions of beetroot tortellini. That’s 178 of the little critters. Then, during service, I had to open loads of oysters – over half a crate of them. And although I shan’t be winning any oyster speed contests for a good while yet, at least I managed to pick up the pace a bit by the end. Suffice to say, after all that shucking, my right thumb was amazingly sore the next day!!

Fortunately, everyone on staff was working on Valentine’s night. All three waiting staff, and four of us in the kitchen. Mostly things went smoothly, although there were a couple of instances of major staff confusion on table numbers. (Usually, we lay the tables out in a mix of 2s, 4s and 6s. But on Valentine's night the entire restaurant was laid out in 2s, so the table numbering got a bit creative at times). At one point, had brought orders for two different Table 12s. And then Table 8 kept getting Table 11’s food.

The low point of my night came when I had to dash outside into the courtyard to be sick. (Literally sick. In a black bin liner.) It wasn't the flu, just an oyster that disagreed with me. As I get older, my system is becoming hyper-sensitive to oysters. I end up getting sick more times than not after eating them. Even the cooked ones are starting to affect me. Woe is me.

Anyway, I'd love to know if any of you have any views on the recently held “1 million baht dinner” in Thailand?

It sounds like an amazing meal, but even so I cannot believe there was not a single Thai dish on the menu! An outrage.

05 February 2007

Cooking a pig's head

Apologies to anyone who (a) is a bit squeamish, or (b) thinks that Chefette wastes far too much space droning on about offal. But it’s not every day that you get to cook a pig’s head.

C and I spent an afternoon in the kitchen last week, each transforming a pig’s head into something fabulous. She made “brawn” with hers, a type of pig’s head terrine, with green peppercorns. I made mine into ravioli, with a red wine sauce (method recapped below for anyone who is interested).

If you're thinking about getting a pig's head, be aware that it's not exactly convenience food. The cooking wasn't particularly difficult, but there was a lot of time involved. It took me around 3-4 hours to cook the head, and another 2 hours to make the ravioli. The good news is that the results were spectacularly tasty, both for the brawn and the ravioli. After a long, slow cooking time, the meat from a pig's head is rich and flavourful, and the braising juices are full of body.

But it was the economics of the exercise that really made an impression on me. Each pig’s head cost £2.50 from the butcher. C got around 10 starter portions of terrine (which we put on the menu at £4.50), and I got around 25 starter portions of ravioli (which we put on as a special at £5.00). We sold all the terrine and 7 portions of the ravioli in two days, for a cash take of £80. And we were able to freeze all the remaining portions of ravioli, so when those sell it’ll bring an extra £90. All in, that’s a cash take of £170 on ingredients worth well under £10!

Off to Paris tomorrow with one of the Husband’s glamorous cousins for a girlie break. Will be eating at Bistro Paul Bert on Wednesday night. I seem to recall they have brawn on the menu – perhaps a comparative taste test is in order?

Method for pig’s head ravioli

For the ravioli:
Cover the pig’s ears with tinfoil to prevent burning. Roast the pig’s head whole on a bed of onions until it turns a dark golden colour on the outside (around an hour).
Then put the roasted head into a braising pan with onions, carrots, celery, a pint of chicken or veal stock and about half a bottle of red wine. Cover and seal with aluminium foil. Braise until the meat around the cheeks is very tender and falling off the bone, around 2-3 hours.
Allow the head to cool slightly after you take it out of the oven. Then, using your fingers, pull the meat off the head, taking care to remove all fat/skin/sinew. Shred the meat with your fingers into small pieces, and put into a bowl.
Ladle a couple of spoonfuls of the braising liquor over the shredded meat. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning as necessary. The finished mixture should be well flavoured, but still fairly dry – too much steam when cooking may cause your ravioli to explode.
(NB: the cooked brain can also be incorporated into the meat mixture. It should be moist, soft and springy when cooked. The flavour is extremely mild, and it adds a smooth texture to the mixture. The tongue meat is firmer and stronger tasting. I would reserve it for another use.)
Roll out some homemade pasta dough into thin sheets for the ravioli, and fill with spoonfuls of the shredded, braised meat. Take care when sealing the ravioli to press out any excess air pockets.

For the sauce:
Degrease the remaining pan juices as best as possible, then reduce them down until they are dark and fairly concentrated. Taste the mixture at regular intervals, until you reach the desired concentration. Then add a couple of ladles full of homemade tomato sauce (or simply some chopped tinned tomatoes and some sweated garlic), and cook for a further 15 minutes. Season as necessary with salt and pepper. A pinch or two of sugar can also help to bring out the tomato flavour.

Serve the ravioli with a small amount of the concentrated sauce, and some freshly grated parmesan.

31 January 2007

A Foodie’s impressions of Saint Lucia

Before the 14th of January, Chefette’s only previous experience of food in the Caribbean was the Americanised offering of a large resort near Puerto Rico about five years ago. (Overcooked Chilean sea bass anyone?)

Fortunately, this time around in Saint Lucia, she and the Husband had plenty of chances to taste the real deal. They munched their way through as many of the local treats as possible. Imagine, if you will, eating freshly cooked fish cakes with hot sauce, bought from a vendor on the side of the road near a waterfall. Or being served grilled blue marlin, marinated in green spices, at a rickety sidewalk table on a balmy evening under the branches of a giant breadfruit tree. Or sipping on a positively lethal spiced rum punch at the Friday night street party in Gros Islet.

The food offering at our resort wasn’t uniformly perfect (at least one of the chefs was far too heavy-handed with the salt). But there were plenty of culinary successes when featuring island’s local produce. Favourite dishes that come immediately to mind included the sweet and tender conch salad with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil, and the homemade syrup for the breakfast pancakes infused with nutmeg, mace, bay leaf and star anise. Best of all were the tropical fruits. I think I ate my weight in slices of bright orange, perfectly ripe papaya finished with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Yum!

The Husband enjoyed the food, too. But I think his top culinary moment came after dinner one evening in the beachside bar, as he sipped a glass of the locally made Chairman’s Reserve rum – an amber-tinged golden concoction, served over the rocks – while smoking his favourite brand of Cuban cigar.

Anyone interested who wants to see a few foodie pictures from the trip, can click on the pictured link. It’s worth it, if only to see the lack of refrigeration at the butcher’s market stall! (By the way, the cocoa beans pictured at the Fond Doux Estate are destined to make their way into Hershey’s chocolate bars.)

14 January 2007

Little ears

It's just after 1am, and in a little over 10 hours (touch wood) Chefette will be boarding a British Airways flight to St Lucia in the Caribbean. So there's just enough time to share a couple of juicy titbits from this week's kitchen adventures.
  • Spent most of the restaurant time this week getting the hang of making orecchiette pasta. It is a really easy recipe (see below* for anyone who is interested). Anyway, after a not-too-brilliant first attempt, things definitely had improved by my third batch. It all culminated in a bit of a "high five" moment today, when a visiting VIP who happened to be eating in our restaurant (a former Romanian president of some sort) -- told my boss that he loved the oricchiette. Tony Blair it ain't, but still. It always feels cool to hear praise for your food.
  • The Husband recently discovered a new cocktail on a recent jaunt to Bermuda, and has introduced it chez nous. Namely, the 'Dark and Stormy'. A mixture of dark rum and ginger beer, served over the rocks -- the percentage of alcohol to be determined by individual preference, but the Husband recommends a 40-60 ratio. It felt like drinking a refreshing, effervescent infusion of gingerbread man. (Must remember to serve those next Christmas in fact.)
  • Lastly, a wee confession. I'm starting to become addicted to steamed white basmati rice. I must have eaten it at 4 meals at least during the past week (once in a fried rice option). Please, please send me any fantastic recipes you have that incorporate long grain rice, I'm dying to roadtest them.

Toodle pip.

* Quick Recipe for Orecchiette

Mix together on a countertop or in a bowl: 255gr of plain flour, plus 150gr of semolina and half a teaspoon of salt. Then add 150-250ml of lukewarm water-- the exact amount will depend on how much water it takes to make a soft dough. (Tip: The dough should feel only very slightly sticky before you reach the kneading stage.) Knead for c. 5-8 minutes, until the dough feels smooth and a bit pillowy. Wrap in clingfilm and leave in a cool place for at least 15 minutes.

To shape the orecchiette, roll out small handfuls at a time into thin (1cm diameter) sausages. Cut thin rounds out, and then push the rounds into little ear shapes (around the size of a thumbprint) by applying pressure your thumb. Leave to dry on a piece of baking parchment sprinkled with semolina. Cook in rapidly boiling salted water until al dente. (Exact cooking time will depend on how dry the orecchiette are -- drier=longer cooking.)

05 January 2007

Dieter's delight

Well it’s back to work today, after a wonderfully relaxing break for the holidays. (For “relaxing”, read: 3 weeks-plus of taking virtually no exercise, and eating plenty of gingerbread men, iced butter cookies, slices of rich fruitcake topped with icing sugar, and every other fattening holiday treat known to man on a daily basis …)

Like many of you, Chefette and the Husband are starting the New Year full of resolve to lose an inch around the middle, and firm up those jiggly bits. I should clarify at once that, in our household, this will under no circumstances involve eating less. The Husband’s appetite is grand, and never wanes. And nothing is surer to drive Chefette running, panicked, into the arms of a chip butty than the prospect of food deprivation.

What it does mean is taking care to put plenty of tasty, wholesome food into one’s body. Let me state emphatically that this is not about consuming those diet food products dreamt up by the processed food industry. What on earth is the point of reduced-calorie cheese or zero-fat biscuits? They taste disgusting, and serve only to drag you down into the mindset of deprivation, reminding you of how much you’d rather be eating the real thing.

Much better simply to eat more of what you love that’s really good for you. Going for those favourite dishes that are naturally splendid in flavour, only they just happen to be low in fat, or high in vitamins.

For me, nothing is more of a dieter’s delight than steamed fish. High in lean protein, low in fat. And best of all, the steaming process protects all the delicate flavours. Usually I do this Chinese style, sea bass fillets steamed with black bean sauce and garnished with lashings of thinly sliced spring onion. But last Wednesday I had a successful go with a nice trout fillet, so thought I’d share the recipe. (Traditionally, en papillotte means steaming in individual paper parcels, but I find that foil makes a more effective seal.) Enjoy whether or not you are on a diet!

Trout fillets en papillote with lemon & dill dressing

Serves 2

2 trout fillets of around 150-175g each, skin left on
½ a large leek (including some white and some light green)
1 tablespoon of Noilly Prat (or other white French vermouth)
Sunflower spray oil
Salt & pepper

For the dressing:
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon
1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh dill
S&P to taste

Preheat oven to 425F/220C.

Wash the ½ leek well. Cut down the centre lengthways, and leave the segments to soak in plenty of cold water for a good 10-15 minutes. The place where the green meets the white is usually the most gritty, so take extra care to rinse out any flecks of dirt.

While the leek segments are soaking, line a lipped baking tray with aluminium foil. Try to choose one that is just big enough to hold the fillets. Spray a very thin layer of sunflower oil on the foil. Put the fish fillets skin side down on the oiled surface. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

When the leek segments are thoroughly cleaned, cut them on the diagonal into thin slices. Scatter these evenly over the fish fillets. Sprinkle the vermouth over the fillets. Cover the entire tray with a top layer of aluminium foil, making sure the edges are well sealed. Bake on a high shelf in the oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.

While the fish is in the oven, mix all the dressing ingredients together. As soon as the trout is barely cooked through, remove from the oven, and carefully slide the fillets onto your plates, and pour the dressing over top.