Saturday 5 May 2007

Asparagus......... well and truly here! One of the few seasonal products - strawberries being another - where the arrival of the real thing is actually worth celebrating, and one can stop being fooled by the pretty-but-tasteless fakes that we get offered all winter, and which all-but fool us into forgetting what the wonderful taste of these things really is.
I don't know why, but in the UK we don't seem to shout about the arrival of seasonal asparagus in the way that they do in other countries. In years gone by, when I had to attend the Basle annual jewellery fair (which, by the way, is a whole story in itself!), I remember it generally coincided with the arrival of the first of the asparagus crop, and the enthusiasm on the part of the locals to sample that year's Spargel was easily as great as used to be the case in London for the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau (which I confess I always thought a slightly silly thing to do, anyway). And again, in another business incarnation, we were in Munich doing business with the owner of a Chocolate School, and the conclusion of negotiations involved him insisting that we all go off and sample the arrival of the new asparagus, which we duly did at four in the afternoon - only to meet friends for dinner that same evening, who insisted equally on going off to do exactly the same thing only four hours later. I don't think I minded, but it probably confirmed the image I already had of Munich as a centre of eccentricity and decadence.

Asparagus is one of the foods that is best left entirely to its own devices, and mucked around with as little as possible. I don't even bother shaving the ends off before cooking it - which probably consigns me to cooking hell - but instead leave people to sort out the point at which they don't want to go any further, and leave the ends at the side of their plate. I don't use one of those complicated vertical asparagus steamers, but merely cook the asparagus in plenty of boiling salted water (generally in my largest saute pan, with the lid on) testing it for done-ness at the first hint of cooked asparagus assailing my nostrils. As a method, it works. Then, melted butter if I'm feeling lazy, and Hollandaise if I'm not. Other than that, Asparagus makes sense in a risotto, but I can't see the point of roasting it, or of using it in any of the other ways that people have devised over the years, seemingly in need of a way further to justify its existence. To my way of thinking, it is well-justified without any further effort.

And for those who need any further explanation, I can only refer them to 'Love in the Time of Cholera', in which the central character cites asparagus as his favourite food for reasons that will strike a chord in the minds of all asparagus lovers everywhere. That moment several hours later, when one wrinkles one's nose and says in recognition 'Ah, yes.....I did have asparagus for supper, I'd entirely forgotten...!'

Tonight's Dinner:

Boudin Blanc, lightly sauteed, with a Cream and Truffle sauce

Onglet, grilled, served with Mushrooms and Shallots.

Raspberry Pies.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Recipe: Raspberry Bread & Butter Pudding

For Six.

Ingredients: 1 Brioche, approximately 6" in diameter; 4 oz of Butter; half a pint of Milk; half a pint of Cream; 1 teaspoon of Vanilla Essence; 2 Eggs; 8 oz of fresh Raspberries; 3 dessert spoons of sugar.


1. Butter an 8" souffle dish. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C.

2. Put the Milk, Cream and Vanilla in a zimmertopf or double boiler, and heat together over a gentle heat while you slice the Brioche.

3. Slice the Brioche thinly enough to make enough slices for three complete layers in the souffle dish. Butter one side of all of the slices. Then make one layer of Brioche in the dish, placing the pieces butter-side up.

4. Scatter half of the Raspberries over the Brioche layer, then sprinkle with a dessert spoon of Sugar.

5. Make a second layer of Brioche over the Raspberries, and over that scatter the remaining Raspberries and another spoonful of Sugar.

6. Beat the Eggs in a bowl, and then pour the milk/cream mixture onto the eggs, beating gently to incorporate them. Slowly pour this custard into the souffle dish, allowing the Brioche slices to absorb it as you do so.

7. Once the Custard has all been poured in, make a final layer of Brioche slices, and sprinkle the final spoonful of Sugar over the top. Allow to sit for about 20 minutes, then bake for 45 minutes in the pre-heated oven. A skewer inserted into the centre will show if the pudding is done if it comes out clean. Allow the pudding to cool slightly before serving.

You can also make this in individual ramekins (if so, choose the deep ones if you have them), in which case bake for about 15 minutes at 180 degrees C.

In this household there is a difference of opinion about the best way to consume this pudding. The Technical Department prefers it hot, when the top is still good and crisp. I, on the other hand, think it is wonderful served cold (chilled, even) the next day, when the creamy brioche has taken on a velvety texture, and the flavour of the vanilla and the raspberries is sensational!

Your choice.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Creeping Pedantry......

Julian Barnes must be catching! I found myself critically analysing Rowley Leigh's recipe in this past weekend's FT for Squab with Peas and Mint, and harrumphing quite damningly about the fact that the recipe fell to pieces in the middle. It got to the point where the birds went into the 250 degree oven, and then before you knew it the temperature was reduced to 200, and they were cooked to brown for a further ten minutes, without there having been a first period of cooking for the further period to succeed. If you follow me.......

And then he talked vaguely about what to do with the vegetables in the roasting dish, without focusing on the fact that he'd already got two different lots of vegetables in two different roasting dishes, and it was entirely unclear which one he was talking about. Oh, it was all capable of being untangled and I pretty much sorted out what was actually supposed to happen, but by the time I'd done that, the gastric juices had dissipated, and decided I couldn't really be bothered with it. I could practically hear JB throwing saucepans against the wall in frustration.......!

In my list of larder staples, I realise I forgot Duck fat. I always have a pot of Duck Fat on the go, and dismember a Gressingham or Aylesbury every couple of months, in order to keep supplies up. The bones get used for stock, the breasts for grilled Magrets, and the rest is confited, while the fat is trimmed and rendered, normally providing a couple of pints of first-class usable stuff (plus a bowl of wonderfully crisp pieces of Duck 'crackling' - which last for all of about two minutes in this household!) . Much to recommend it.

Tonight's in Moreton Terrace, and so as yet unknown. With luck it will be the Moreton Terrace version of Cow Pie, which is stunning!

Monday 30 April 2007

Recipe: 'Poached' Pear with Rosemary & Honey

Although I've called this 'Poached' pear, in fact the process is more one of steaming, since the pears are never immersed in the cooking liquid. This means that none of the flavour is lost from the pear into the poaching liquid, but instead runs down into the syrup in the base of the pan, which is then spooned back over the pears when it comes to serve them. The combination of Rosemary and Vanilla is sublime, and is taken from a spectacular Bruno Loubet recipe for apple tarts with Strega and Rosemary.

For Two.

Ingredients: 2 large ripe Pears; 1 tablespoon runny Honey; 2 sprigs of fresh Rosemary; 1 teaspoon of good quality Vanilla Essence (you can go to the lengths of using the contents of half a vanilla pod instead, but I'm not sure it repays the extra cost or effort in this instance); half a cup of Water.


1. Peel the Pears. If they will stand vertically in the pan, that's fine; if not, take a fine sliver off the base of each Pear to ensure that they will stand upright.

2. Pour the Water into the pan, around the base of the Pears. Add to the Water the Vanilla Essence and the Sprigs of Rosemary. Dribble half a tablespoon of Honey over the top of each Pear.

3. Over high heat, bring the liquid to a boil, and then immediately reduce it to a simmer. Put a lid on the pan, and simmer until the Pears are tender - this will vary depending upon their level of ripeness, if properly ripe it should take only 15 minutes, if less ripe, expect the process to take more like 30-40 minutes. Test fore done-ness with the tip of a knife: if the knife slides in easily, the Pears are done; if the knife encounters resistance, they need more time.

4. Remove the cooked Pears to individual serving bowls, and if necessary boil the remaining liquid to a syrup consistency. More probably, it will already be at this stage, and no further reduction will be necessary. Spoon the syrup over the Pears, and allow first to cool, and then place in the fridge to chill before serving.