Month: March 2020

Pan-Demics, part 1

Now would probably be a good time to disclose that I have had anxiety issues for twenty years. Like my girlfriends they tend to come and go in waves, and like my girlfriends the worst ones bring an overwhelming sense of dread, headaches, nausea, and heartache. I joke, because that’s how I deal with these things, but it’s not nice. Over the last two decades I’ve tried CBT, medication, and paid for shrinks. It works. Sometimes. Other times I’m the same pent-up arsehole. The last month or so hasn’t been nice; the media is awash with bad news, keen to tell us the latest death numbers, projected death rates, what isn’t stocked in supermarkets, symptoms, possible symptoms, the latter an issue that anyone with anxiety will tell you is a problem. When the worry takes over the brain you get sweaty and hot and the chest tightens to the point you can’t breath and you feel like you have to cough, even though you know inside you don’t. And if you have just read that last bit thinking the same is happening to you, please message me for my number. I’m here to talk.

I’ve made a recent decision to not mention either of the C words online. In these torrid times you can be part of the panic or part of the positivity, and I know which one I want to choose. So I give to you ‘Pan-Demics’, a likely short series of easy recipes from chefs and bloggers which use (mostly) stuff you’ll (likely) have at home. First four are below, please let me know if you try them at home and how they end up.

1) Jamie Desogus of Harborne Kitchen. Onion Broth

This is so simple but one of the most pleasing things coming out of our kitchen at HK, we like to keep things as simple as possible and not impart any unnecessary flavours so use water as our base. We have also made this with meat and vegetable stocks as the base which adds another dimension.

15 brown onions

10L water

Rapeseed oil

No that’s really it

(Roscoff’s makes the best broth but availability isn’t likely in supermarkets. Italian white onions are also good, but seriously this is delicious with a big standard brown or Spanish onion)

Peel and then half your onions, leaving the root on so they stay in halves, this is important.

Sear off the flat side of every onion in a deep stock/sauce pot with the rapeseed oil, you will not have enough room to do them all at once so work in batches and put to one side on kitchen towel to drain while finishing the other onions. You are looking for an extremely caramelised brown onion.

Once all onions are seared, wipe any excess oil from the pan, but leave the caramelisation from the onions in the pan.

Place the onions back into the pan and top up with water so all the onions are covered.

Bring to a simmer, and let simmer but not boiled for 40 minutes, then remove from the heat and let sit with a lid for 2 hours.

Top back up with water and bring back to a simmer for 20 minutes then again let sit with a lid for 2 hours.

Remove lid and skim any oil (if any) from the top of the liquid

Next remove all onions from the pan and discard, this may seem wasteful, and you can use the onions for a purée if wanted however they have lost all flavour to the stock and no longer have any value.

Pass the stock through a fine strainer and simply bring to the boil and reduce.

How far you reduce is up to you – keep it light and add to a gravy, reduce to a syrup and finish with pepper and cream for a steak sauce, or in between as we do in the restaurant.

We finish the broth with a minus 8 vinegar to add some balance and acidity.

Enjoy

2) Nathan Eades of The Wild Rabbit. Potato, leek, and wild garlic soup.

I collect wild garlic on my daily walk. It can be found alongside most riverbanks. This is a simple recipe, but remember to integrate waste: use the leftovers in other meals and put the potato skins in the compost bin.

1/2 potato

1 leek (washed)

1/4 onion

300ml veg stock (branded is fine)

150g of wild garlic

Start by separating the leek top and saving it for later. Slice the onion and leeks into the same size, use a peeler to slice the potato. This will mean they all cook at the same time. In the largest pan you have sweat the veg in 1 tablespoon of veg oil. If you have bay leaf and/or thyme add them at this stage. Add a generous pinch of salt and sweat for five minutes, until the veg starts to cling to the pan. Add the stock to the pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the veg is tender. Add the wild garlic, cook for 20 seconds. Blend. Eat with crusty bread. Tres Bon.

3) Jonathan Swain of Plate Licked Clean. Tuna spaghetti

This recipe isn’t fancy or intricate or even- brace yourselves- ‘Instagrammable’, but it is easy, quick, tasty and strangely comforting.

Spaghetti (other pastas are available, but this works best with a long thin shape)

Two tins of tuna in oil

Garlic (3 cloves for me, but however much you and your fellow isolationists can bear. Besides, garlic kills C***D I saw it on Facebook. And that’s SCIENCE.)

Chicken stock (warm, ¾ pint)

Dried parsley

Black pepper

Get your pan of heavily salted water on to boil. Heat a little of the tuna can oil – you’ll fry your garlic in this. Give the rest to the cat. Have the drained tuna ready to go. Slice your garlic. Not Goodfellas prison-style thin, you don’t want it to burn. Fry your garlic on a medium heat until it starts to soften. Add the tuna. Stir. Throw in a good scattering of the dried parsley and a few hefty grinds of the black pepper. Raise the heat and gradually add the warmed chicken stock, stirring, so that the mixture stays bubbling away. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and reserve a few tablespoons of the starchy water. Add it to the tuna mixture. Add the spaghetti to the sauce (not the other way round) and toss over a low heat for 30 seconds. Another grind of black pepper won’t hurt about now. Enjoy. It’s great the next day, too.

4) Chris Wiggin of Canoodle. Wild Garlic and Porcini Polenta

3 cups of polenta

3 teaspoons sea salt crystals

100g Unsalted butter, diced

Coarse ground black pepper

Handful of fresh wild garlic leaves

1 cup dried porcini

Extra butter and olive oil for re-heating

Bring 3 litres of water and salt to the boil. Gradually pour in polenta whilst whisking. Lower heat and continue whisking whilst adding the diced butter. When polenta becomes to thick to whisk, transfer to wooden spoon. Continue cooking for about twelve minutes, stirring frequently unless all the polenta grains are soft. Meanwhile, trim wild garlic of stalks, wash thoroughly and finely chop. Place dried porcini in a small bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to rehydrate for a few minutes until soft. Pour porcini stock into polenta and finely chop porcini. Add a good grind of coarse black pepper and adjust salt if needed. Add wild garlic and porcini and stir thoroughly. Pour in a non-stick 12 x 8-inch baking tin and allow to cool completely. Once cold turn out onto a board and slice into 16 2”x1” portions. To serve heat some extra butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan and cook the polenta slice on all sides for about five minutes until heated through. Note, this makes enough polenta for an Italian family, but you can of course reduce the quantities.

Semplicita at 1000 Trades

The world seems a very different place to when we turned up at the latest kitchen residency at 1000 Trades this time last week. That evening the bar was busy; tables were full, people were drinking and taking heed of the ‘carry on’ attitude being asked from the bell end in number 10. We sanitised and ate and drank and sanitised, saying goodbye to the staff and going home for more wine. Fast forward seven days and the landscape is different. Fear and panic has swept across the country. It’s bleak out there. Everyone is scared. We don’t know when, or if, normality will resume.

I’ve come to realise that the opinion of a food blogger counts for nothing right now. It doesn’t matter where Semplicita stands on the list of residencies, or how it compares to the other Italian restaurants in the city. What matters is that places like 1000 Trades are still there to serve the community when this has all blown over. If you’re near to the JQ feeling healthy and comfortable go inside for a pint and a bowl of that comforting chunky lamb ragu. If you’re anxious swing by to get cans of craft beer and ask if you can have the arancini or bruschetta to go. They may say yes. They may say no. I no longer know anything.

The reality is a bleak one. Right now those in hospitality, aviation, taxiing, retail (and many more industries) are wondering how their bills are going to be paid, whilst the NHS and emergency services are approaching breaking point. When this passes there stands a possibility that places you used to frequent are gone for good. It is our responsibility to ensure that our favourites are still there. Ask them how you can help. Buy stock from them now before they close. Purchase gift vouchers. If you can afford to, pay a meal forward. This blog will take a break to focus on the more important things in life. I hope to see you in 1000 Trades for a pint when the good times return. Please don’t lose hope.

Pub du Vin, Birmingham

I should probably start this by saying that I quite like Hotel du Vin, the hotel which sits above today’s subject matter, Pub du Vin. It has a nice bar that makes a servicable negroni with a great team of staff who are knowledgable and well trained. They have great wines – just as well given the name – and do interesting wine dinners, of which I’ve attended a few. The food is decent; not as refined as it believes it is, but certainly a place that rarely disappoints. All of which makes the following about Pub du Vin more baffling.

The ‘pub’ sits within the basement area, a dark and cavernous space where no light enters and no attempt at lighting from the inside is made. They show sports and have a dartboard where the board is barely visible at any point of the day. Tables are heavy wood, the floor stone; all set around the bar in the centre of the room. You order at the bar, find a table and wait. And wait.

Food eventually arrives from the upstairs kitchen. At least we are told this is our food; we can barely see it, nevermind photograph the thing. Maybe this removal of one of the senses goes some way to explaining the lack of flavour. It’s as bland as an episode of Love Island. The chicken burger achieves neither of the spicy and crispy description, reaching the table a soggy, disappointing mess. If the guacamole is there it tastes of nothing, and even the cheese looks sad; curled over like it’s grieving for me. If darkness is a deciding factor for your meals the chicken burger at Bonehead is 50p cheaper, with equally bad lighting, and is exponentially better. Just saying.

Claire has a fish finger sandwich that reeks of old cooking oil, with a batter coating a concoction of the cheapest white fish known to man. I’d guess at coley, but it could easily be catfish hidden inside the dense crumb. The bread barely holds it together, the mushy peas desperately low on salt. She finishes half. With these we share chilli con carne fries that start well and then, no, sorry, we can’t eat them.

The bill for this is nothing because there is an issue with the fries that brings our meal to a sudden halt. I won’t go into specifics because the team are excellent and refund it without question, but this is the saving grace of the meal. The front of house are some of the best in the city, I just feel for them having to work with this. The food at Pub du Vin is instantly forgettable, which, given it comes from the same kitchen as upstairs, makes it all the more unforgivable.

4/10

Transport by A2B. They won’t leave you in the dark.

Bigfoot Festival, Ragley Hall.

#AD

The hashtag bit above tells you every bit you need to know about the following post. In the effort of full honesty, no I’m not being paid to write this, but yes, should you find yourself purchasing tickets using the link at the bottom, I’ll make a few quid. I don’t make a habit of doing this, and if you want to turn off now that’s fine. Or you can stay and read about what will likely be one of the funnest festivals of the year. I could cut and copy the press release, but I won’t because if you’ve come here to read someone else’s words I’ve well and truly fucked it. Instead, let me tell you about the bits I think you’ll want to know about, in the order that I think you’ll appreciate them in: food, then drink at the top, going all the way to a fad called ‘yoga’ (I believe it’s pronounced ‘yogi’) at the bottom. I should probably mention now that it takes place on 19-21st June, so if you’re busy on those dates, I’m sorry for wasting your time but probably best for you to carry on with your day as usual.

So food. I’m guessing as you’re on a food blog you like food. I do too, allegedly. Big Foot are killing it with the food. Like your festivals to be punctuated with world class dining? Me too. How about pre-bookable dining with Matt Orlando from trailblazing Copenhagen restaurant, Amass? Or Shoreditch’s finest Two Lights (hopefully) bringing their legendary fried chicken to the party, or Doug McMaster bringing his Silo vibe? Fine dining; tick. Next you’ll need something for the inevitable hangovers, to which I’m going to suggest burgers from Brum’s own Original Patty Men, or the capital’s Patty & Bun. You’ll likely find me working through the menu at 10 Greek Street, or getting my morning caffeine fix at Dough & Brew. With more to be announced the food is looking great.

Drinks time. You’ll need hydration for the heatwave we’ll 100%* be having (*this is not a guarantee). Bigfoot have got you, but then that was always going to be the case given it’s from the team behind Beer Central. Forty world class breweries, winemakers, and distillers bringing various ABV’s to the bash. The names on the guest list include Verdant, Northern Monk, Four Pillars Gin, and Ancestral Wines. It’s a festival so breakfast beers are actively encouraged.

The soundtrack to this weekend is supplied from the likes of Little Dragon, Fat White Family, and Hot Chip Megamix, with DJ sets from Maribou State amongst many others who’ll keep you dancing until the wee hours. Then, when you’ve overdone it, you can hang out with my girlfriend in the wellness tent doing the likes of meditation, tarot cards, and sunrise yoga & smoothies, which sounds almost as good as ‘Pilates and Prosecco’. A government register prevents me from telling you about the family section, though I can tell you that for grown-ups they have hot tubs and morning swim clubs, as well as cinema, tree climbing, shuffleboard and much, much more. It should be the summer’s most eclectic, food and drink forward festival. I personally can’t wait. And for those who do attend, you’ll find me with a large gin and tonic in hand, attending hip-hop yoga.

Get your tickets here

Pulperia, Birmingham.

This post finds you from somewhere over the Alps, on RyanAir’s flight from Pisa to Hell. There are drunk Brits (I may be one of them) who have little regard for pandemics, and Italians in masks who don’t know whether to fear the British or Coronavirus more. Two rows in front a slurring man with red wine stains around his mouth made the rear of the plane aware that he was a medic. Behind me a posh lady is scolding her partner for their poor choice of rental vehicle. Despite this, we’ve had a lovely trip, drinking lots of great Tuscan wines and eating far too well. If you are reading this as one of the many people who offered suggestions as to the best steakhouses Florence offers, then thank you for the suggestions but they were dutifully ignored. I find steak boring. There, I’ve said it.

Part of the problem I have with them is how badly they are generally cooked. I cook a serviceable one at home, but my modest cooker struggles to get up to the temperature required and imparts none of the smoke that the best steaks have lingering in the background. The ones in Birmingham, well, let’s say they mostly disappoint. Go find the street food vender Beef On The Block if you want a good bavette, but those within bricks and mortar never hit the mark consistently. Whilst the rest of the country have Goodman’s and Hawksmoor, we have three branches of Miller and Carter. Enough said.

Praise be to Aktar Islam for changing that. He is a man of detail – anyone who has eaten in Opheem will know that – so I had an inkling Pulperia was going to be good. It’s better than good: it’s the steakhouse the city deserves; one which is notionally set in Argentina yet finds itself orienteering around the world to wherever the best produce is. It’s on these menus, amongst the wet aged beef from Argentina, you find rare breeds and dairy cattle whose life has been more than purely raised for meat. All in a dining room which is unmistakably Aktar; that juxtaposition between the masculine heavy textures and the feminine floral displays. The room is as good as Brindley Place has ever seen.

We begin with three starters; chorizo has a gentle smokiness reminiscent of gammon with tomatoes that are far too tasty to be British, all dressed up to the nines in a herby and garlicky chimicurri. Soft sweetbreads kissed with char from the grill so a delicate touch can still be applied over flames. These come with chicory and a burnt lime chimichurri that is bold and smokey whilst still retaining the soul of the condiment. The empanadas – those Argentinian pasties – are good, with the spicy beef better than the chicken. They each need a little more filling inside them, though the romanesco style red pepper dip proves great to dunk the excess pastry in.

Those steaks. Let me tell you about those steaks. In the effort of transparency, we don’t get the steak we order, with the kitchen sending out large two pieces of Holstein Fresian – a rare breed dairy cow aged up to 18 years and listed here under the title of ‘basque cider house’ steak. A kilo prime rib here (for two, unless you’re my girlfriend) will cost you £85 and is worth every penny; delivering a depth of flavour unlike any we are used to, full of umami and beefiness. It’s the ultimate in beef, up there with Bar Nestor though without the terroir, cooked over high heat until the Malliard reaction kicks in and then rested until the juices disperse inside the ruby red interior. It doesn’t need the bone marrow and Malbec sauce, but that sauce is so very rich and so very good. With this we have fries and carrots roasted with chicken butter and the best version of humita I’ve ever tried. Seriously, creamed sweetcorn is the best friend of steak. You heard it here first.

We share a serviceable chocolate fondant for dessert, along with two bottles of Malbec, a couple of cocktails, and finish by making two more bookings to come back. Those looking for a cheap steak should book elsewhere; Pulperia is a celebration of the cow, not a trip to Beefeater. Those on a budget should aim for the Argentinian experience; a fillet with fried egg, Malbec sauce and that humita will come in a touch over £30. But why should you when you can experience some of the best beef in the world? We’ve waited a very long time for Birmingham to have a steakhouse of this quality. It’s time for you to enjoy it.

9/10

We visited during a soft launch and received a discounted bill.

Steak this good needs the best in travel. Time for to take A2B

SY23, Aberystwyth

Never let it be said that I am not invested in this blog. Whilst the rest of the city sit around waiting for their next Captain’s Table invite for a communal get-together of poor food and even worse company, we made the call to continue with our plans to visit SY23 despite the threat to life warning from Storm Dennis. How bad can it really be, we never asked ourselves, as the wind blew both the sea and beach on to the promenade, conveniently closing public access to the bit outside our hotel. Really really bad, is the answer to the question we never asked, as we fought against nature to get through the narrow streets of Aberystwyth and to the restaurant tucked into a corner of a square by the clocktower.

When we do arrive, it’s pretty much as I imagined it would be. This is the first restaurant from the previous head chef of Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s trailblazing restaurant. During his tenure there Nathan had used his previous occupation as a tree surgeon to tap into the local birch for their syrup and helped produce some of the wooden items still found there. He built some of the grills they cook live fire over. And it’s the same here: tables hand built, grill system for cooking over fire hand built, hand-cut sheet of metal bearing restaurant logo. This is very much his work even if the shades on the walls, the cutlery and the plates feel familiar to anyone who has visited his old workplace.

This means it is of little surprise that the dishes follow the same formula of protein heavy, umami-packed flavour bombs. But no complaints here, not when the lunch menu of three courses for £25 might just be the biggest bargain in the UK, backed up by a wine list that offers serious value throughout. Glass of crémant for £6? Don’t mind if I do, and I’ll take a glass of that silky red from Roussillon for the same price whilst you’re there. A loaf of sourdough for the two of us appears that right away confirms we are in safe hands. The texture is good, as is the strong flavour from the local grains. Miso butter brings enough acidity and the entire thing disappears before the first course appears. When that does we are treated to the highpoint of the meal; John Dory topped with nori, soy, with queenie scallops and a crumb made from dehydrating the scallop fringe and then refrying it. It’s an ode to its surroundings; the bounty of the ocean which ends on the coast 100m away. It also has that ideal balance of natural sweetness and lip-smacking savoury. One course in and he’s nailed it.

Main is served in two courses. The first a delicious hot and sour lamb broth with wild mushrooms that is to be drunk from the bowl, the second a lamb rib and slow cooked shoulder combo that feels very familar without stepping into plagiarism. Here the slow cooked meat is fuelled with the deep tang of black garlic and a sticky jus, relying on little croutons and puffed grains for texture and additional nutty character. It’s all perfectly cooked with accurately judged acidity and the kiss of fire lurking in the background. Then the optional cheese course, which, at £6, is far too cheap. A local blue cheese of which the name eludes me, a drift of buttery breadcrumbs, in a puddle of sherry and raisin dressing which is all boozy sweetness. Top produce, not messed about with. It’s exactly what I hoped we would find.

Dessert, in keeping with the rest of the meal, is great. A zesty, fragrant, set lemon cream, with yogurt sorbet, and a burnt meringue. It serves a purpose to finish on a light note, cleaning up the umami and acidity that runs through it’s predecesors. There is a heady burnt butter fudge with the bill that comes to under £40 a head with one us drinking a decent amount of wine.

Now, if I’m being entirely honest, it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. The restaurant sits above a cocktail bar whose staff were very quick to stop us from going up despite us arriving bang on time. We were then sat for twenty minutes without the offer of a drink until it was alright for us to go upstairs. That silliness needs to stop, especially when Aberyswyth is going to swell with the kind of tourist who might not be forgiving. But after that, once the food and wine arrived, we knew we were going to have a great meal. The guy can really cook and I personally can’t wait to see how his own style develops over time. That said, SY23 is already a restaurant you should have on your hitlist. Get there whilst it is this cheap.

9/10