Sweetbreads – the sweetest most offally nice morsel a gland ever produced

A bad shot of the finished article

Sweetbreads act like menu marmite, strongly repelling a lot of people and yet drawing in others with their magnetic appeal. I’ll often order a dish just because it has a side of sweetbreads for a small taste of that pillowy light meatiness. But first off, to dispel the myth once and for all, they are not (or certainly should not be) bollocks of any kind, nor brains. They have a very precise definition. OK, they actually confusingly have two precise definitions. They are either the thymus gland from the neck or the pancreas. Typically from lambs although apparently you can get them from calves as well, I haven’t seen that variety before. Some people with less than strong stomaches avoid them but I defy anyone who likes meat to try one and not instantly love them.

Clearly they are hard to sell since the butcher chucked in an extra pack when I bought some, so two big bags (easily 6 good side servings) for £2.50. Although they are money-cheap, they are not time-cheap, requiring some fiddly (although I stress, not particularly difficult) cooking and preparation to get the best of them. This was my first time cooking them and I was extremely pleased, I’d encourage anyone who loves meat to give it a go. I paired these with sumac, a middle Eastern bright red spice with a sharp lemony flavour to cut through the richness. As an alternative a squeeze of lemon works very well.

Sitting in all their glory

 

This first step isn’t the most appealing if you’re at all squeamish, it does certainly have a gelatinous feel of strange internal organs and slightly odd smell. I quite enjoyed it but Anna had to leave the room. Simply drain them and pop in a pan with a few bay leaves and crushed garlic cloves. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer for 5-7 minutes depending on their size (I did these for 6). This will just cook them through and firm them up so you can handle them. Drain, remove the aromatics and leave to cool. Once cool you’ve got the fiddly bit ahead. That slimy texture was due to the surrounding membrane skin, something which has now cooked and become chewy and sinuous. So, with your sharpest knife and a bit of dexterity slice the membrane carefully off, aiming to keep the pieces as big as possible (grape size or bigger is good). I found cutting into the membrane and slowly peeling off worked well. Cut off any tubes / bloody bits as well, anything that doesn’t look like a miniature brain.

A hard day's peeling!

 

What you end up with should look like this. Free of the majority of the sinew; lovely clean lumps of tasty gland morsels. The final step is to fry them in a hot pan with butter / oil for 2-3 minutes until you get a nice crisp outer layer to contrast with the light meat. Season with salt / pepper and scatter with a teaspoon of sumac or a squeeze of lemon. Eat as soon as possible and don’t tell people what they are until after, they’ll find a love for something they thought they wouldn’t like (perhaps only try this with better friends though).

Beer Thoughts: Dominion Hop Mountain

Nice bottle capAnother night, another beer. Again bought from Kris Wines, this is an American pale ale at a punchy 6.3%. Originating from the Dominion Brewery in Deleware you might expect aggressive hops but in fact they are quite balanced. The pour is very flat and only slight fizz evident. Quite a dark brown, the sweet malty presence cuts though the hops and alcohol making it easy drinking.

Dominion Brewery, DE - Hop Mountain

I actually would prefer a touch less malt but I can see the balance they were aiming for. Very good and well brewed, just not a regular drinker for my tastes.

Beer thoughts: Five Points Pale

Five Points Cap

The London beer scene is not just thriving, it is absolutely exploding. It was very different a few years ago; a single digit contingency of large pubco breweries were left feeding the same beer to the usual pubs (although I have drunk my fair share of Pride, Special and Ordinary in my time). Now you can’t turn a corner in East London without tripping over a new mash tun being installed alongside a keen man in a beard and wellies explaining the IBU of his latest IPA. Which I’m all in favour of, the purists might say I lack tasting finesse but I love hops, almost the more the better.

Five Points Pale

There is however, a slight lack of good beer shops, although that is improving. No problem for me you understand, since I live within a quick cycle of Kris Wines , an amazing if dangerous place for an alephile. Which is the exact place I bought this rather delicious pale ale, Five Points Pale to be precise from the unsurprisingly named Five Points Brewing Co. This is my first beer from FPBC and it’s a winner. Despite its low 4.4% and slightly fizzy light start on the tongue, it packs some terrific bitterness from Amarillo, Centennial and Citra hops. Very balanced with dryness and a touch of citrus, I’ll be seeking out some more of their beers.

(Very!) Quick lunch, tomato and fennel salami open sandwich

Tomato, fennel salami, bread.

A good tomato is a joy forever. Excuse my misplaced Keats reference, but for me a tomato is indeed a thing of beauty and to be savoured. They play some part in a lot of my quick lunches since they are easy to prepare, full of flavour and can be happily served raw or cooked. BUT, they really do have to be ripe. Most supermarkets sell their tomatoes woefully under-ripe, and don’t get me started on hard avocados when I have a guacamole craving. Keep your tomatoes at room temperature, for the following reasons:

  • They are probably under-ripe and need maturing anyway.
  • In the fridge you’ll damage the cells and end up with a mushy, mealy tomato (yuck!).
  • They are absolutely most flavourful served at room temperature.

Roasted garlic ... and *bread*?

Naturally sweet, the only thing they need is a small sprinkle of crushed sea salt to enhance their juicy goodness. Basil is obviously a classic extra, along with cheese. Garlic too, which brings me nicely to this loaf I found (at Belsize Park Budgens of all places). A roasted garlic loaf to be precise, irresistible! Yes, those are whole chunks of sweet pungent roasted garlic you can see. What a bread, and what a lunch!

Review: Casamia, Bristol from the Iglesias brothers

The subtle High Street signage in Westbury-on-Trym

Having previously celebrated the start of my fourth decade with a full-on twenty person weekend bash, I wanted something a bit more understated to mark the progress of another year. A more refined, dare I say elegant, affair. So what better than a posh meal with a small group of good friends. But where to go? The Critical Couple’s review of Casamia was all the persuasion I needed to give this restaurant just North of Bristol the honour. I booked several months ago and began the long anticipatory wait, making the eventual arrival of the day even more exciting.

A welcoming entrance

We were staying an hour or so North, or at least thought we were until the coach fire on the M5 made a mockery of our sat-nav timings. But fortunately we navigated the back route and were barely half an hour late, with the restaurant being very accommodating. Given we were in for a 4hr+ lunch it wasn’t much of a worry. Casamia is located on the high street of Westbury-on-Trym, and has a classy understated grey gate hiding the unusual astro-turfed corridor entrance. The restaurant is family run, the nice twist being the Iglesias parents handed the kitchen over to their very talented sons who have elevated the food to a spectacular standard.

The menu in full

We were greeted very warmly and shown through to our table for six, complete with a birthday card which was a nice touch. It’s quite a small restaurant, maybe 40 covers, and has a relaxed feel. The design aesthetic is clean but with some interesting large photographs on the wall and stone crockery, fortunately not naff and apparently designed by the brothers and sourced locally. I particularly liked the cutlery stacks (held in place by a stoneware rack) as an interesting touch, and it gives much more room than layers of knives and forks for tasting menus. Smart casual in a good way. There is the option of a small 5 course or larger 10 course menu at lunch, priced at £38 and £68 respectively. Given the travelling to get there and very reasonable prices we opted for the 10 course menu, along with matching wines at £60. We were asked if we wanted the apple pie (at a rather steep additional £12!), apparently their signature dish from the Great British menu, and opted to decide later how many we wanted.

A quick note about the dining room and pass setup, cleverly the food is plated in the corner of the main dining room and then brought straight over, often by the brothers themselves who can explain the dish and answer any questions. This provided lots of interaction and made the meal seem even more special, particularly given the brothers and rest of the staff are so enthusiastic and passionate. It was also exceptionally calm, probably helped by the fact the menu is cleverly designed and doesn’t require a lot of frantic last minute cooking. They also aim to follow the seasons closely and hence have 4 main menu changes a year to reflect that.

Rosemary foccacia, olive oilPre-dinner drinks were offered (without menu or prices) but I wanted to see the options. The wine menu started at £15 a glass for champagne (admittedly from 2004), pretty steep so we made other choices. They did make a very well balanced Negroni for me at a more reasonable £8.50 and a Hendricks and tonic was served with cucumber for the wife. The order of the “cheap option” of an Estrella beer by Ollie was surprising, when a champagne size bottle designed by Ferran Adria arrived, along with a slightly odd tasting to check it wasn’t “corked”. Apparently designed for food and flavoured with coriander, orange peel and liquorice, I found it pretty bland. Not a big deal but perhaps a warning before ordering on the size and price would have been good, it was ironically £15. A generous helping of focaccia was presented along with bowls of a tangy, fruity olive oil. The bread was very very good, it had a springy, fluffy and light interior surrounded by a thin crisp salty crust and strong rosemary flavour throughout.

Quiche Lorraine

Chilled broad bean soupA first course, or amuse-bouche given the size, was a one bite quiche lorraine. A crisp thin-pastry shell contained a ridiculously light savoury egg custard filling flavoured with ham and chives. Almost ethereal at first, the addition of strong Keens cheddar grounded it and added some needed body and a touch of earthiness. Just as we were getting thirsty the first of the wine course arrived, an Austrian Gruner Veltliner very much to my taste and paired with the chilled broad bean soup. This recalled the chilled pea soup at Dabbous which was a revelatory course for me. The Casamia version is instead made with broad beans and a mint snow. Perhaps an unfair comparison since Dabbous has less courses, but I wish there had been more of this soup, particularly to balance the copious amount of mint snow. However the soup was very well balanced, completely smooth and paired perfectly with the mint and garnish. And I can certainly appreciate the work in preparing broad beans, being a favourite of mine but a pain to prepare in volume.

Tomatoes, countless waysTomatoes. Lots of them. Preened, pinched and prepared in many ways. Paired with mozzarella. I LOVE a good tomato so this course sounded great and was clearly a nod to the classic Insalata Caprese. Beautiful “heirloom” tomatoes of several varieties were sat on a tomato jam and dressed with black olive and a dehydrated(?) tomato crisp. The mozzarella had very interestingly been blended and re-set for a softer texture. It was also very salty, presumably from the brine that was mixed in with the blending. Salty soft cheese with ripe tomatoes went beautifully. And it was paired with a tomato liqueur, new to me, almost Marsala like and with notes of salty black olives and of course tomatoes. Some of the others felt it was overkill with this dish but I can’t get enough tomato-ey goodness and loved it. Clever stuff.

Summer saladBaby courgette and flower

The next course was a summer salad. Perfectly inoffensive sounding, dull even. But things got more interesting when we were presented with a pair of tweezers each. We were given a pretty assortment of carefully placed flowers, vegetables and herbs, and a hot very punchy cider vinaigrette was carefully pipetted (literally) on. Encouraged to try each element separately, this cleverly brought out the flavour of each morsel including a tiny courgette with flower, nasturtium leaves and flowers amongst others.

Wild salmon, cucumber and dillFish next. A delicate piece of wild salmon, poached in olive oil with cucumber, dill and sea herbs. The fish was very light pink for wild salmon which surprised me a bit, I’ll take their word for it though. It had been poached precisely in oil to just cooked and had an amazing soft texture somewhere between sashimi and cooked. The cucumber and dill sauce was well done, along with the sea herbs. Given this was the second to last savoury course I would have liked a significantly larger piece, but it was a solid if slightly ordinary dish.

Duck, carrot puree

Meat next, and I was ready for it. The protein was duck, cooked deliciously pink as you would hope (sous-vide?) and served with carrot puree, rainbow carrots (orange and purple at least) and a carrot puree. The meat was very tender although maybe a slighter crisper skin would have provided more texture. The carrot puree was perfectly smooth, but sweet and I think felt unbalanced with the sweet glazed duck. The carrots were cooked very well and the fennel was a solid addition. But again, I would have preferred a slice more of the duck since we were about to enter dessert territory. Excellent execution but one more element of texture or flavour wouldn’t be overkill here.

Next was possibly the favourite overall between our group, and I forgot to get a bloody picture. Nevertheless it was a pea, lemon and ricotta transition course, or as I hilariously called it, “The Intercourse”. Designed to take us between savoury and sweet with elements of both, it achieved this amazingly well. A small bowl topped with savoury pea shoots then went through layers of ricotta and lemon to take you from thoughts of salad through to cheesecake. Amazing, innovative and clever paired with downright delicious.

Peaches and cream

Now we were fully into dessert, peaches and cream. Peach granita topped light whipped cream which was atop stewed white Italian peaches. Or their nod tinned peaches as one of the brothers called it when he served us. The contrast of cold ice, soft light cream and beautiful peaches was delightful. Maybe an extra element would have elevated it though, I recall the marigold served with peaches at Dabbous worked fantastically for example.

Apple pie, custard and ice-cream Liquid nitrogen extinguished our candle Clove and cinnamon filled the air

Apple Pie. The signature dish of the restaurant although a steep addition at £12. We ordered 3 for the table. A crisp perfect thin pastry shell with an Apple-reminiscent logo stencilled in cinnamon. This was placed over apple puree, apple pieces and ice cream contained within, and a thin custard surrounded. As the brothers said, you always need custard AND ice-cream. Then bowls of clove and cinnamon were combined with liquid nitrogen to produce a heady homely aroma and great theatre. The pie was great and very reminiscent of the flavours of home-cooking but with skilful execution. Again very light though.

Chocolate, toast and lavenderTurkish delight White chocolate lollipop Mint teaChocolate, toast and lavender. 75% dark chocolate whipped into a light airy mousse. A surprise salted caramel centre was a welcome find, and the toast added crunch and texture. Strangely though it didn’t have the richness I was expecting, I think the process of whipping it left it somewhat lacking in depth. Our final course of strawberries and tarragon was beautifully presented in a large glass, combining strawberry jelly, fresh strawberries and cream. This was elevated with tiny crunchy tarragon meringues which were amazing. Over a nice mint tea and decent espresso we enjoyed some petit-fours of white chocolate lollipop (and popping candy, natch) and punchy bitter sweet grapefruit Turkish Delight, particularly good as I love grapefruit.

Wow, what a lunch. The execution of every dish was completely amazing, even more-so when you consider both brothers are around 30 years old. I loved it and would heartily recommend it as a destination restaurant, some of the dishes were mind blowing. It came in at £150 a head all-in, not cheap but for this standard well worth it and we didn’t scrimp on anything (bar the champagne). I didn’t make enough note of the wine but there were plenty of glasses throughout the meal, all paired well and were of a good standard. My few potential improvements? I realise it’s a summer menu but still think more bitter, earthy notes are needed to provide balance, and surprisingly given the number of courses I think there needs to be a bit more portion wise. Swapping a dessert for another meat course would help, and quite a few of the party agreed with this point.

But, despite any of that, this is an absolute top quality establishment and I certainly aim to go back and try some of the other seasons. The combination of incredible execution, clever dishes and a welcoming atmosphere makes this a superlative restaurant.

Review: The Gilbert Scott, King’s Cross (plus cocktails at Plum and Split Milk)

Funky wall stickers

King’s Cross. No longer just a destination for lonely gentlemen seeking late night company or youths seeking transcendent narcotics , you can now find a decent coffee, meal and cocktails to go with them. Before the main event we sauntered over to nearby Plum and Split Milk for a quick pre-meal cocktail. P&SM is situated in the recently refurbished Great Northern Hotel originally opened in 1854 by the same company who built King’s Cross, and now brought back to its grand origins as a boutique hotel.

The innovative cocktail menu

An excellent aperitif

We chose the quieter upstairs bar which has a timeless, grand feel to it along with a more contemporary mix of furnishings and artwork. Certainly a distinctive room, I settled in immediately and felt very comfortable. The name Plum and Spilt Milk comes from the old British Rail livery colours which is a nice touch, and the vintage rail theme extends to the cocktail list. I went for the 1854, a whiskey and vermouth concoction with smoked pineapple syrup and cardamon. The pineapple syrup was an excellent twist with the whiskey, adding sweet smokey notes. I didn’t detect the cardamon and an over zealous shaking left it slightly over-diluted, but for pre-dinner it worked very well.

Onwards to the Glibert Scott, a 5 minute stroll over to St Pancras and into the vast high ceilings of the main dining room. It is a spectacular room, marble and soft furnishing abound on a truly grand scale, which all adds to the atmosphere. It was buzzing and busy on a Tuesday night with a mix of smart clientele so it’s obviously a popular choice. The staff were well turned out with a mix of friendliness and professionalism, and we immediately ordered a bottle of Nyetimber, an English sparkling wine from West Sussex (thanks to Rob, our dining guest, who had a free bottle voucher).

Quail with snails and onion

The menu feels quite brasserie but with English twists and a few more unusual options. I opted for quail to start, with snails and onion. The quail itself was a decent portion, very succulent although also disturbingly pink in the middle. The snails were excellent, cut into small pieces with a big garlic hit. The onions were more like a strange bhajee, deep fried in a batter with seeds, I found them bland and soggy and didn’t understand the combination. But the meat, sauce and snails were a good starter. My two companions opted for a smoked duck dish and the crab salad. The smoked duck was tender and bright red, it came very thinly sliced with some earthy heritage beetroot. The crab salad was generous and well presented with a good amount of white meat.

Smoked duck Crab salad

For our main course I opted for Cornish plaice (only served on the bone) with mussels and tomatoes. It had a good size piece of plaice but unfortunately was overcooked and ended up mushy, not quite enough to send back though. The tomatoes and mussels helped save it, a rich sauce and juicy mussels. A side of brown butter mash was rich and decadent, but over-mashed so it had a bit too much stickiness. Peas with bacon and buttered greens were both cooked well, and had enough greenery to compensate for the doubtless copious butter in each.

Overcooked plaice made up for with a rich sauce Brown butter mash and greens

 

The other two mains at the table were the large rabbit, prawn and mushroom pie plus Cornish seabass with almonds. The pie looked good with a golden-hued crust and chunky succulent filling. The seabass was nicely cooked with an interesting accompaniment of crunchy blanched almonds and capers, texture wise it was odd having whole almonds though. Sliced would have worked better.

Rabbit and prawn (!) pie Seabass and almondsI was feeling fairly full by now with the large portions and sides, but we still opted to share a cheese platter between the 3 of us. The very nice waitress / sommelier took me round the selection, which unusually was only 3 cheeses. They were grandly kept in individual domes at the front of the restaurant, comprising a Cashel Blue, a Clonmore goat’s cheese and a washed-rind Irish Ardrahan. A plate arrived with 3 meagre slices for the price (north of £10, maybe £12? I recall), however they did each come with their own type of chutney and bread / cracker variety so that made the price slightly easier to swallow. Still, more cheese was needed.

Cheese-a-trois

The Cashel Blue came with a malt loaf (it could have been Soreen’s as my dining parter Rob said) but it cut through the rich blue well. The Clonmore was a mild hard goat’s cheese which was fine if a little dull, and went nicely with the fruit bread crisps / apple chutney. But the star was the Ardrahan, a pungent Irish washed rind which was combined with London honey / oat biscuits and worked brilliantly.

A trifle prettyChoc ice anyone?

Green chartreuse, the ultimate digestif after a heavy mealHaving indulged in the cheese I skipped dessert (well, sampled the others) and went straight to a delicious green Chartreuse served in this very pretty cut glass. The others went for a Lord Mayor’s trifle and kendal mint cake / peanut butter choc-ice. Yes, you did just read that right. I imagined a cloying sticky ugly lump on a plate but what actually came was light with the intriguing combination of mint, peanut butter and chocolate. Clever stuff. Similarly the Lord Mayor’s trifle was in fact cherries and a coconut sponge, another combination I wouldn’t have thought of and that was very well balanced.

Overall, it was an enjoyable night and the combination of great staff, a spectacular dining room and some interesting dishes (particularly the desserts) went down well. Still, my savoury choices in particular had some faults which given the price (this was close to £100 a head with 1 bottle of sparkling, 1 bottle of white and a glass of red between 3) shouldn’t really have happened. Still, the food was a mix of reasonable and interesting and I can recommend it for a special night out if you like the grand style dining room, but watch your savoury dish choices and the bill!

The Gilbert Scott on Urbanspoon

Review: Oliver’s Fish and Chips – Belsize Park

A nice traditional logoFish and chips, staple of the nation invoking dreams of trips to the seaside and pesky seagulls. Or more likely Friday nights avoiding confrontations with hooded youths. It doesn’t have the kudos of more modish cuisines; the trendy burgers and in-vogue pulled pork, but sometimes it’s the traditional you want. Which brings us handily to Oliver’s in Belsize Park, a “proper chippy” that doesn’t sell kebabs on the side, nor does it sell oysters and crab (Upper Street I’m looking at you). It sells, on the whole, fried fish and chips.

What remained by the time I remembered to take a photoShowing the (disputed) Jewish origins of the dish we went for the matzo breaded haddock and chips, a large was just under a tenner which is fairly steep but you get a lot for your money. So large in fact it came in 2 boxes, one for the fish and the other for the chips! The picture in fact shows the last third after we had already split out 2 portions! Plenty for dinner for 2 people in my opinion, unless you enjoy the food induced coma of overly large takeaway meals. It was certainly a big piece of haddock that flaked nicely, it was a tiny bit dry (should have got that tartare sauce and mushy peas) but the batter was crisp and thick enough to add bite but thin enough not to overwhelm. And the chips, oh the chips. They were great, no poncey fries or triple cooked chips. These were chippy chips, a super soft interior; angular shapes and a light crisp outer shell. With plenty of vinegar and salt. Job done, highly recommended.

Oliver's Fish and Chips on Urbanspoon

Kami – Takeaway sushi in Kentish Town

There is something irresistible about good sushi. Maybe it’s the purity of the ingredients with very little space to hide when you are placing fresh fish on a rectangular piece of rice, plus a dab of wasabi and soy sauce. Given the relative newness of the cuisine to England (I still remember being blown away by the conveyor belt Yo Sushi in London Bridge in ’99) we have embraced it wholeheartedly in everything from fine dining to all-you-can-eat buffets. I’m by no means a serious aficionado but I know what I like and the ingredients are what shines forth for me.

During a quiet birthday night in I decided it had to be sushi for dinner, and handily a new restaurant had just opened in the area, Kami. It has taken over from a previous Japanese restaurant at the same premises, Satuma, which I had eaten at once and thought was decent enough. The menu of Kami looked good and the KentishTowner seemed pretty impressed so I was ready to order. It arrived promptly in 30 minutes and was a (just about) reasonable £33 for plenty for 2 people.

Gyoza

First up, some gyoza since I can never resist. They had a plump, juicy filling of chicken and vegetables. The dough had a good bite with just enough chew, and one side grilled for colour and texture. Very good so far.

The essential edamameSome warm edamame provided a nice bite of fresh soy beans, with a dash of salt and fortunately not covered in it like some restaurants seem to insist on.

 

Tuna / salmon / sweet tofu nigiri and salmon sashimi California rolls Spicy tuna roll

 

Next was the “Sushi Set B”. The nigiri and sashimi were very nicely presented, and the nigiri in particular were generous with their rounded fish slice completely engulfing the rice. I tried the Inari nigiri first, sweet tofu wrapped around rice. Wow, certainly very sweet but I really liked it as something slightly different, my best description is it was the sushi version of French toast with maple syrup if that helps. The tuna and salmon nigiri were both excellent, the rice had a nice sticky texture to complement the well cut fish, along with a dab of wasabi underneath. And the sashimi was even better, the fatty soft texture of the marbled salmon being one of my top sushi bites ever (barring perhaps Yashin).

California maki came rolled in tiny flying fish roe which I always like, with its salty fish pop when you manage to bite into one of the slippery little things. They had a decent amount of avocado and crabstick and were well put together. The spicy tuna maki similarly were good although I would have preferred more spice and they had been a bit damaged in transit (or the making of them missed the mark). Good solid favourites though.

Dragon rollThe final piece was the dragon roll, which looked spectacular with its dragon scales exterior (eel flesh and avocado) plus a crunchy filling of prawn tempura and Tobiko (more flying fish roe I discovered). Texturally this was a triumph, the crunchy tempura and roe with sticky rice and soft meaty eel and avocado. And the taste was even better, sweet prawn and unctuous sweet eel were delicious together. A great dish for sure, and lots of skill involved for the £5 it cost, I wish I’d ordered two.

It was a very enjoyable meal with some spectacular sashimi, good solid staples and stunning special rolls to elevate it further. I’ll definitely be visiting at some point and trying the Omakase to see how eating in compares.

 

Mexican feast recipe: pork carnitas with black bean and sweetcorn salad, plus guacamole and salsa of course!

Mexican. Executed properly it’s a joyous mix of fresh flavours, top ingredients and simplicity put together into healthy, bright food. Banish the chain restaurant “Tex-Mex” rubbish and look at it with a new set of eyes. As a mental image, Mexican to me is bright and colourful; zesty and fresh. Lime brings this altogether in one-go, adding a floral, zingy quality to everything (absolutely not replaceable by lemon). Corn and beans are other pivotal ingredients, used in everything from salads to dips to the tortillas for scooping together your food.

Finished dish

I decided to tackle carnitas, a new dish to me and to some extent the Mexican equivalent of pulled pork, though the cooking is more like a confit duck. Using cheap fatty cuts of pork (shoulder in this case) and slow cooking in oil with some simple flavourings (orange, garlic and cinammon) creates unctuous melt-in-the-mouth tender strands. Then an additional grilling crisps some bits up for texture and contrast. Not having been to Mexico I didn’t realise it would also call for a large vat of lard or oil, not that manageable in a home kitchen. Fortunately Kenji from the SeriousEats food lab has a detailed roundup of a much simpler way to achieve the same effect, so props to them and their great site.

I initially was going to prepare some refried beans but decided given the lovely weather and the pork, something lighter to cut through would be better. I still wanted to use beans and instead made a simple salad of pinto beans, sweetcorn and raw red peppers. Topped with some superb aged Feta (to roughly simulate Mexican cotija cheese) and brightened up with lime it was a great pairing. More freshness came from a classic guacamole and added some moisture to the wraps. Unfortunately I didn’t make the tortillas (it was a hungover Sunday after all) but will be looking into those at some point.

 Carnitas (feeds 8 hungry people)

  • 2kg pork shoulder (I bought thick steaks), chopped into 5cm cubes.
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 8 garlic gloves, smashed on the back of a knife
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon, broken into 4 pieces each
  • 2 oranges, quartered
  • 8 bay leaves
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • Tight fitting casserole dish

Lots! of shoulder Flavourings Tightly packed with the flavourings

Preheat the oven to 140°C. Season the pork chunks with a decent helping of salt, then combine in the casserole dish with the onions, garlic, cinnamon and bay leaves. Squeeze the orange juice over and mix the orange segments in. Try and make sure everything is tight, then cover with vegetable oil (as much as you need to cover it). Tightly cover in foil and place in the oven. Cook for 4-5 hours until everything is very tender.

Take out of the oven and let it cool in its own liquid. Extract the pork, shred it with two forks and store separately until ready. Carefully remove the bay / orange / cinnamon / garlic and throw away (keeping the fatty stock). Let the stock separate into liquid and fat and carefully scoop the fat back into the reserved meat. Now the genius part is you can use the liquid pork stock for your salsa as below.

When you’re ready to serve (and have prepared the rest below) grill the pork and fat mix spread out on a tray for 5 minutes, mix it up and grill again for 5 minutes until you have a mix of delicious strands of soft and crisp bits.

Salsa

  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 6 large tomatoes (or tomatillos if you can find them)
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 jalapeno peppers (or 1 hotter chilli)

Place everything in a pan together with the pork liquid. Top up with water to cover the veg and boil for 10 minutes. Allow to cool and then blend, its quite watery compared to what I’m used to but works really well with the pork.

Guacamole (per 2 people)

  •  1-2 ripe soft medium avocados
  • 1 lime
  • Sea salt
  • 1 handful of coriander, chopped finely
  • Cholula sauce (Mexican medium hot sauce) – optional

Firstly make more of this then you think you need, everyone I know loves it and it disappears in front of your eyes. The quantities above are for 2 people so scale accordingly. Firstly cut the avocado in half, working around the stone. Carefully extract the stone (I whack a knife in it, twist and pull out) and remove the skin. I find it easiest to peel avocados as long as they are soft enough, just gently pull away from the skin and you have no waste. Roughly chop and place in a large bowl. Mash them to your desired texture, I prefer to have discernible lumps than a paste. Add the juice and zest of half a lime, plus the coriander and mix. Salt is the key here, add a decent pinch and taste. Adjust both the acidity and salt to taste. I like to add a touch of cholula (or even cayenne pepper) for a bit of bite but that’s optional. Serve straight away or cover and refrigerate, it’ll keep happily for a few hours if need be.

Quick Mexican Salad (serves 4-6 as a side)

  • 1 large tin of sweetcorn drained (or 2 kernels freshly cooked if you have time)
  • 1 large tin of pinto (black) beans drained
  • 1 large handful of coriander, finely chopped
  • 1 large red bell pepper finely diced
  • 300g of feta (or more authentically, fresh Mexican cotijo cheese if you can find it)
  • 2 limes, juice and zest
  • A couple of tablespoons of olive oil
  • Sea salt for seasoning

There’s plenty of work in the rest of this meal so I made the side salad pretty simple using mainly tinned ingredients. However the combination works really well and is a refreshing side dish. Mix all the ingredients except the cheese and adjust to taste with the lime, coriander and salt until you’re happy. Bear in mind the cheese will add quite a lot of saltiness so keep it slightly underseasoned. When ready to serve crumble the cheese on top.

Bringing it together

So, once those are all prepared you’re ready to serve. Put out the salsa, guacamole and salad. Heat the pork as per the instructions and at the same time heat some corn (or flour) tortillas in the oven wrapped in foil (or on a pan if you have time). Devour with friends and Mexican beer.

Review: Jason Atherton’s Little Social

Since launching Pollen Street Social, Jason Atherton is slowly forming a mini-empire around Soho. A prodige of Ramsay (he headed up Maze), he’s certainly a very talented chef and launched his flagship restaurant in 2011. I was very impressed with PSS, it showed lots of potential with an interesting menu format (“medium” size plates) and plenty of delicate touches and skilful execution. Plus interesting flavours and ingredients.

Skip to 2013 and we have 2 new Atherton venues in London. Little Social was launched first, directly across from the original, and we also have Social Eating House on Poland Street in the heart of Soho. Both, I suppose, are aiming to emulate some of PSS but in a more casual environment. Little Social is a very French brasserie in atmosphere, drinks and menu.

The well turned out bar staff

Firstly, the staff were excellent, walking the line between formality, efficiency and friendliness perfectly. Smartly dressed and moving quickly, yet still happy to chat and knowledgable about the menu. Through a slightly complicated mixup I ended up having a pre-dinner drink and starter at the bar, followed by my main and dessert at a table, which was a nice way of seeing both sides. The PSS dessert bar in reverse if you will. Pre-dinner I had the “French Negroni”, which I thought sounded like a bastardisation too far but was actually delicious. I think it had citrus Ketel vodka, Suze (French bitters), Lillet blanc and a splash of absinthe plus a twist of grapefruit. Looking much lighter than a Negroni, it was actually reminiscent of its inspiration and worked very well as an even more refreshing alternative.

Bread and butter

Bread was warm with a soft interior and nice crusty outside. The butter was salty, soft and served on a cute paddle. So all good there. I started with the cod brandade which came simply as a lot of things on toast. I know it’s brasserie food but it’s not the cheapest (£8 I think for this) and I found the presentation a touch odd, especially the lettuce horns as I named them. The brandade was nice with a good texture and salty fishy richness. But the rest felt a bit plonked on. Nothing offensive, and the flavours worked well enough, but I wasn’t very excited by a few bits of tomato, lettuce and ham. If I’d made it for myself for lunch I’d be very happy, here I found it pretty indifferent.

Cod brandade starter

 

Next up was roasted cod with cockles, pesto, cabbage and butter beans. I was clearly in a fishy mood (apologies for the absolutely dreadful image, difficult lighting and lack of photography skills are both evident!). It looked great, a whacking great piece of snowy white cod with a touch of crust from the roasting. Cutting into the cod it had a slight chewy feel and to my palate was slightly underdone which rendered the middle a bit unpleasant. Hmmm, not a good start. The cockles all (bar one) still had grit in them which made for an even less pleasant mouthfeel combined with chewy cod. The sauce was a bit watery from the cabbage, although the pesto did help bring it together (even if it was a touch bitter). And some butterbeans, which did what they said on the tin. I can see the aim and with a few fixes would have been a great summery dish, unfortunately this fell way short because of several problems.

Cod main

 

Dessert was a hot chocolate moelleux (read fondant in case like me you had no idea what a moelleux was) with almond and sea salt ice cream. It was certainly gooey, bordering on runny. It definitely delivered a big dark chocolate hit which is all you can ask. The ice cream was a tad melted and didn’t have as much punch from the almonds and salt as I would have liked, I don’t think it stood up enough to the chocolate black hole next to it.

Moelleux

 

Having read lots about Little Social, I seem to have a slightly contrary opinion to most reviewers. I can see potential in this restaurant and think it was a combination of me being unlucky together with too high an expectation from someone like Atherton. Then again the prices are not cheap and we have every right to expect excellent execution for simple brasserie dishes like these. I’ll probably be giving them another go, but then again won’t be rushing back.

 
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