Friday, January 29, 2010

Ken Hom's hot wok

In Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, she describes taking a whirlwind, whiskey-fuelled tour of Flushing's Chinese restaurants with Ken Hom. Before reading it, I thought of him mainly in connection with the garlicky pages of our copy of Foolproof Chinese Cookery (the spicy chicken with peanuts is a favourite, although it demands a lot of chopping). Afterwards, I realised how much he knows, how long he's been at it, and that he shares the excitement about finding the good stuff that's common to most food people.

I was surprised to see him on the list of guest chefs for this year's Obsession festival at Northcote – the restaurant he consults for is in Bangkok and he lives between there and France, neither of which is handy for the Ribble Valley. Apparently, Atul Kochar was instrumental in setting up last night's event, and on screens in the dining room we watched Hom, 60, darting about the Northcote kitchen with a glass of white in his hand, tasting, plating and overseeing the service of his five-course menu.

Highlights were Vietnamese rice paper-wrapped spring rolls, served with crisp iceberg lettuce and leaves of basil, coriander and mint to form a fresh outer layer, and a poky dipping sauce with lots of lime. I don't generally see a recipe for a simple square of pale steamed fish and think 'yum', so the steamed turbot with ginger and spring onions and a soy and sesame dressing was an unusual treat, and pud – warm slices of perfect mango with basil leaves and vanilla ice cream – was great too. This being Northcote, the whole lot was bookended with excellent warm bread, a cheese course and coffee with tiny, very loveable Eccles cakes, and served with warm professionalism and humour.

The company was great, too; a communal table included Sam Allardyce and his wife (he likes elvers, she finds octopus freaky), Angela Hartnett (hates Tesco, loves Steven Gerrard), William Hunter (grows an awful lot of carrots) and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines. A Czech child refugee and one of Winton's children, she's past 80, full of life and devoted to helping young Czechs who work in hospitality find their feet over here. She's also better with a knife and fork than chopsticks, which made me feel a lot better about my own ineptitude.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Get Fraiche

Last night, a bit of Wirral glamour came to Manchester in the shape of Marc Wilkinson and a selection of culinary toys including a smoke gun. It was the first Harvey Nichols guest-cheffery occasion that I can remember, and like a small-town theatre in summer, the bar and brasserie had gone dark in order to focus the collective mind on the matter in hand: 40 Mancunian covers, keen to taste Marc's food without trekking to Oxton for it.

As I breakfast contemplatively on the herby caramelised pecans boxed up for the ladies to take away after dinner, I can report that all went well. There was a jovial, slightly excitable atmosphere – by its nature, it's not often that the HN dining room is full of customers whose main interest is in the food – and Gemma Perry, Marc's right-hand girl, ran an unflustered service.

For £90 with plenty of matching wine (£65 for me, the poor non-boozer), we had a dinner that I'd rank, if I was the Hornby sort, somewhere in Per Se's slipstream but far above our recent sortie to Mr Underhill's in Ludlow, which has held a star for years, and probably over Purnell's, Juniper old and new and Simpsons as well. Highlights included the novelty of a dish of smoking olives with a plume that rose when the lid was lifted ("They taste," said Tim, "like they've just come out of a house fire"), and an extraordinarily tender loin of rabbit swapped in for the foie gras course in case baby H'n'H, now 34 weeks and kicking like a mentalist, was adversely affected by all that vitamin A. There was also a revelatory pairing of sweetly seared scallop – not pictured, that's another one of his scallop dishes – and fresh, clean pineapple puree.

Wilkinson does like to fiddle, but he gets the balance right, and the processes he puts ingredients through serve to clarify the flavours: my melon and almond soup came with little barrels of melon stuck with slivered almonds, like tiny fruit and nut angels, and the almonds themselves were ridiculously...almondy. The verjus drizzlings with a piece of seared sea bass and aubergine yoghurt shook the whole thing awake, although I will admit that I thought it was tamarind for a while, and I hadn't even had a drink.

Things slowed down marginally towards the end, and I decided that I would willingly have sacrificed one of the dessert courses in order to leave while I was still awake. Then Tim asked me whether I would have missed the chilled, fizzy grapes, the lemongrass pannacotta with the sour cherry foam, or the deconstructed Sachertorte with the shot glass of apricot sorbet and warm, mouth-filling chocolate moussey stuff. I didn't have an answer for that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Heart of darkness

I'm working on a story about making home-made sweets as a Valentine's gift. It's not Treadstone, or even Sugarhorse, but yesterday I decided to do a spot of deep background research and make some chocolate-covered honeycomb, aka cinder toffee, aka Crunchie.

One of my interviewees for the piece is Chantelle Nicholson, sous chef at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and co-author of Nutmeg & Custard, Wareing's rather lovely book. There's a whole chapter dedicated to home-made sweets and, before I start blithely advising readers to create one of the most dangerous situations known to the home cook (all it takes is someone to come along and stick their finger in that tempting molten sugar), I wanted to walk a mile in the sweetmaker's shoes (which are, sadly, usually dirty Crocs).

Nicholson had told me that the honeycomb was a piece of the proverbial, and she was almost right. You add three tablespoons of honey and one of golden syrup to 150g of sugar, stir until the crystals dissolve, and add two teaspoons of bicarb. Then it explodes into sweet, amber-coloured foam, which you steer into the waiting lined tray. 15 minutes and a dip in chocolate later, you've got that Friday feeling.

Except. As you can see from the picture, in which my first attempt looks considerably darker than the second, I burnt it. It started boiling before the sugar had dissolved, and by the time I got it out of the hot pan, it was smoking. You can see the dark seam of burniness running through the middle, and although the texture is great, Tim rightly observed that it tastes of petrol. It's not the love token I was aiming for.

It had also filled the house with the smell of burnt honey. In my excitement about finding a purpose for some of the stash kindly sent by a man from Rowse last year after we discussed the plight of the honey bee, I had forgotten that we both hate the actual taste. It's all floral and pervasive, and brings to mind a 23-year-old with a beret and a book sweetening her tea in an ostentatious manner here.

For the next lot I subbed in all golden syrup for the honey, used caster sugar to encourage melting and boiled it briefly. The result wasn't as spectacular – the burnt stuff had formed a much more voluminous foam, presumably because the base liquid was thinner and lighter to start with – but as you can see (it's on top of the stack), it looks like proper honeycomb. Sweet.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gordon's prawns

Gordon Ramsay's F Word? These days, that would be frequently – as in 'frequently on telly, with diminishing returns'. He's back on Channel 4 tonight with Gordon's Great Escape, a culinary jaunt around India that at least promises to be more about food than celebrity fluff. Never mind the annus horribilis or that lost Michelin star: we'll tune in to see him make 'real deal versions of Britain's favourite dishes', if only to shake the taste of BBC 2's own Monday night offering, the tin-scraping Delia Through The Decades.

Hale and Hearty didn't get a preview copy of Ramsay's show, but we have cooked the Bengali prawn curry recipe he supposedly picked up on his travels. It's pretty good, too, from the rather austere, blend-your-own aromatic paste that only reveals its full character in the final minutes on the hob, to the relative luxury of marinated king prawns (I can't imagine Ramsay commanding his brigade to 'bulk it out with a bag of cheap tiddlers', but that's exactly what we did).

Is it authentic? It certainly has the subtlety– and seafood bias – you might expect from Bengali cooking. Resist the temptation to ramp up the seasoning and you'll have a healthy, warming bowlful with enough well-delineated flavours to make it interesting, if not particularly fun; you suspect most consumers of those aforementioned favourite dishes would demand something richer next to it on the curry-house table. As an appetiser for the show, though, it bodes well.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Spangle dangle: stars in the north

The Michelin results have been 'leaked' once more, and it's a case of something and nothing for the mighty north. Some things remain, comfortingly, the same: Fraiche has kept its star, Anthony's lack of Michelin status continues as a source of ire, Birmingham stays high-profile and ex-Alty man Paul Kitching has picked up a plaque for his Edinburgh restaurant, 21212. Northcote is still the most convenient option for the man standing in the middle of Manchester, thinking "where can I get me some star-studded snacks?".

Of course, the London news, especially the loss of a oner for Ramsay at Claridge's and the new three for Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, is big. But what strikes me is the lack of interest in the only 'rising two star' award in the UK, given to Simon Radley, the funny-looking fella on the right of our picture, who's been cooking at the Chester Grosvenor since I was a bairn.

'Rising' awards are difficult. They mean that the chef is tipped for the stars proper next year, but they're pretty unpopular among the recipients, hard to explain in print, and perhaps suggest that Michelin haven't got the prairie oysters to just sod it and give them the stars. Nevertheless, Simon Radley's new status is pretty interesting. I've been a couple of times and liked it, but I'm curious to know, after all this time, what he's done this year that he didn't do last. I think more of my fellow foodlers would also be curious, if only they knew or cared where nobbins it is.

The other award-winning place now on the H'n'H list is The Alderley Restaurant at the Alderley Edge Hotel. Footballers love it, we liked it when we went a few years ago at the height of the asparagus season, and now the AA has declared its affection: it was one of 12 places given three AA rosettes in this year's round. Caterer rightly describes this as shifting it into the big league, and it's pootling distance from Hale, so I'll be looking out my snootiest facial expression for a trip to the Edge.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I am the egg man: chocolate fondant

Last night I made a batch of chocolate fondant (or 'the perfect chocolate fondant', to use the headline in Olive). I did so wearing this rather fetching new apron. It's illustrated with cartoon eggs, which chimes nicely with the pivotal role played by our ovoid friends in this classic dessert. That's me, buttering the moulds.

The recipe came from jowly restaurateur and Civilian Masterchef judge John Torode, and is on the long list of indulgent treats favoured by his televisual partner in crime, Gregg Wallace (who appears to believe it should be pronounced, loudly, 'fondont'). It's also regularly attempted by contestants, with wildly mixed results: the eggy mix must be prepared and cooked with precision if you are to avoid either raw flavours or a bone-dry core.

I've never made it before, and don't know how closely this recipe follows classic iterations. One Torodian touch is the addition of white chocolate for texture (we used Milkybar Buttons instead of the suggested Green & Black's). He also recommends metal pudding moulds (for improved heat conduction). Purists will tell you hand-beating achieves better results, but trust me: you'll need an electric whisk for the all-important mixing of eggs and sugar over a pan of simmering water.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Snow cake

Last year Hale and Hearty considered the purpose of a plastic cake decoration styled as a naked female torso. A solution has now presented itself.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Baking in a winter wonderland

Cranberry and orange cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. The recipe is from a pre-Christmas acquisition, the Primrose Bakery cookbook. Happy new year!