Unbelievably, well for me at least, tomorrow will mark the first birthday of Scrumptious Scran. It is a cliché I know, but it simultaneously seems like five minutes since, and an age from when I decided to try my hand at food blogging. So, to mark this, personally sweet, anniversary I thought I would share a few things I have learned during my first year as a food blogger:
I am still learning. I’ve been reviewing restaurants, devising recipes (for print) and writing about food and drink stuff in general for 12 months. Yet I still feel like I am finding my feet – or my “voice” as it is often referred to. Being the columnist, sub, and editor combined can be tricky. But I think it’s going in the right direction. Blogging is brilliant, but sometimes it is challenging.
I’ve met some fantastic people; fellow food bloggers, writers, producers, chefs, campaigners, activists… It’s inspiring how many people share my passion for all things culinary, on every level. I simply didn’t have the confidence to interact with them in the same way, until I started writing about food on the blog.
Always be fair and honest in what you write. Enthusiasm and disappointment make for great copy in equal measure, but they are dishes that need to be served cold. Allow a couple of days of cooling off, or warming up, before you decide to publish that review or recipe. Oh, and if you have eaten somewhere for free – often at the behest of PR agencies – make sure you tell your audience. It should never influence opinion, of course, but always be up front about a freebie.
Food photography is hard work. Even with swish smart phones and digital SLRs, food pictures might not do justice to the dish. Food bloggers increasingly get sucked into what is described as “food porn”. I, too, like taking and sharing great pictures of what I eat. Sometimes in Scotland, in the middle of winter, these aren’t always as pretty as I would wish…
If you are passionate about food, use social media to find likeminded folk. Used properly, it is the best blether about food and drink you could wish for. By way of example, a tweet from a fellow foodie last week led me to the most amazing coffee I have had in an age. Ideas fly and news spreads. And – this might sound a bit trite – sometimes you even get to have a chat with some true food heroes and heroines.
Thanks to everyone I have met, compared foodie thoughts with, and who have taught me so much over the last year. But above all, thank you to everyone who has taken time to read Scrumptious Scran. I am genuinely honoured.
(Thanks to Ardfern for allowing the use of the lovely birthday cake photo).
I’ve always thought that cooking is as much about science as it about art. Of course, there is an art to being a great cook or chef. But there is also a sort of alchemy in making seemingly diverse or divergent ingredients work together. And there is most definitely a lot of science involved in bringing those ingredients to market and our tables. We might not always recognise it but such science is – to be frank – everywhere. Those anchovies adorning your pizza, why does the tinned variety taste different to the ones from the deli counter, and how do they still remain edible even after months in the tin? Oh, and the tomatoes making up the pizza sauce. What variety is used, and how did it come about? I think you are getting the picture.
Given my interest in the science of food I’m delighted to learn that this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival – the world’s foremost annual celebration of all things scientific – features a fascinating strand billed as Gastrofest. This mini festival of the science of food and drink brings forth an innovative series of events that will explore the centrality of science to our culinary experience. Topics under consideration at Gastrofest include: why some food and drink combinations are delightful whilst others are disastrous; how molecular science is now influencing the world of cocktail making, to produce greater intensities and varieties of flavours; and a series of discussions examining subjects such as food security and whether eating healthy costs more.
Given how important 2014 is to Scotland, one event in the Gastrofest is particularly intriguing. Feast of the Commonwealth will mark 100 days until the Glasgow Commonwealth Games by celebrating the role that food can have in bringing nations together – and in particular the exchange of culinary cultures between Commonwealth Countries – as well as the innovative role played by Scottish scientists in global food research. Taking place at Our Dynamic Earth on Friday 11 April, not only will Feast of Commonwealth feature a globally-inspired gala dinner devised and prepared by the likes of Café St Honore’s award-winning Chef/patron, Neil Forbes, but it will also allow diners to learn the intriguing scientific facts about how some of the menu’s ingredients made it to onto their plates. There’s something pretty alluring about such scientifically-inspired scoffing.
I certainly think it is a case of [chefs’] hats off to Edinburgh International Science Festival for developing a strand of their programme that marries the world of science and food so inventively. And as a scientific foodie, I’d be delighted if Gastrofest became and annual fixture.
In my last review on Scrumptious Scran – for the excellent The Apiary bistro – I mentioned how, at the end of a long winter, we often need something comforting (food-wise) to provide a bit of cheer. Spring, may be about to bring us warmer days and the year’s first crop of fresh produce, but even March can have a wintry sting in its tail.
When we can now skip to the supermarket to purchase out-of-season asparagus jetted in from South America, or fresh tomatoes grown at any time of year, it’s easy to forget that historically during this season people would mostly be cooking with produce harvested the preceding year, and preserved to last through the winter. Personally speaking I think that some of the best comfort food to be made uses these preserved ingredients, and a fine example of this can be found in a steaming-hot bowl of split pea and smoked ham hock soup.
Split peas and flavourings about to be cooked.
There’s something truly lovely about the look of this deep khaki-green concoction, punctuated with pink flecks of meat. But if it looks good, it tastes event better. Drying the peas imparts a really earthy mellowness to them, totally different to the taste of these legumes when fresh out the pod. By salting, then smoking the hock (or hough), the rich meaty flavour of this cut is further enhanced and transformed to yield (once simmered for a couple of hours) tenderly smoky, almost gamey meat. The further addition of good quality stock and some complimentary herbs and spices all combine to produce a splendidly tasty and filling dish. And what’s more, given that the ingredients are usually pretty cheap, it makes for an economical meal, too.
Splendid simmering smoked ham hock (hough).
Now it occurred to me that though this is a traditional dish, it isn’t one that can be enjoyed by non-meat eaters. However, I did think that the recipe could be adapted, leaving out the smoked ham and substituting in its place a couple of (rehydrated) dried sweet peppers, together with a teaspoon or two of smoked pimentón (paprika). This should provide a complimentary contrast in texture to the peas, together with an intense, smoke-tinged flavour. I’d be interested to hear back from anyone who tries the vegetarian alternative, but in the meantime I give you my own take on this scrumptious, winter warmer (with split peas and ham hock). Ingredients
1 smoked ham hock of good quality – I tend to use those from Simon Howie.
500g packet of green split peas, soaked in water overnight.
2 small onions, peeled.
A large carrot, scrubbed and chopped into large chunks.
3 bay leaves – fresh if you can get them.
A couple of sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stalks.
About 1.5 litres of chicken or vegetable stock.
Salt and pepper.
Preparation and cooking
Place the ham hock in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Place in the fridge and soak for 24 hours – changing the water a couple of times – to remove excess salt resulting from the curing process.
Drain the ham hock and place in a large pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and then cover and simmer for an hour and a half or so, until the meat is “fall off the bone” tender. Remove and set aside until the joint is cool enough to handle.
Stud the onions with two cloves each. Place in a large pan together with the pre-soaked split peas, carrots and bay leaves. Cover with the stock (add a little more water if necessary) and bring to the boil. With a slotted spoon, remove any foam that rises to the surface. Turn down the heat and simmer the peas until soft (about an hour or so). When soft, remove the onions, carrots and bay leaves. Add the thyme leaves and either mash the peas, or puree with a hand blender if you prefer a smoother soup.
When the hock is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and any excess fat. Using a couple of forks separate the flesh in strands, and then add to the pea puree. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as required. If the soup is very thick add a little water, then heat through until just simmering and serve in warmed bowls, with fresh bread and butter as an accompaniment.
I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that late February can be a bit grim. Whilst spring is tantalisingly just round the corner, the second month of the year can still dampen spirits, with its short days, long nights and stormy weather. Sometimes, a pick-me-up is needed at this time of year. And what better to boost spirits than visiting a new restaurant that is generating a bit of a buzz?
I had already been hearing good things – from the likes of Lunchquest and Scotland on Sunday’s Richard Bath – about The Apiary, even though the place only opened a few weeks before Christmas 2013. Occupying premises in Edinburgh’s Newington district – that previously housed the Metrople café-bar – a glance at the new restaurant’s website indicated it promised “Modern British grub to comfort or excite; pickling, smoking and preserving all done in house…” together with “Top to tail offerings dressed head to toe in tasty.” Home curing, smoking and pickling AND nose to tail grub – well that most definitely whets my appetite. So maybe The Apiary would provide the culinary lift I was looking for?
Initial portents were promising, as so busy was the restaurant on a wet winter Saturday that the only dinner reservation available was at 7pm. When we arrived, the large and airy dining area was already peppered with full tables, so we were courteously shown to one of the leather-upholstered booths that line its walls. With the combined a la carte and specials menus offering plenty to consider – including some very appetising-looking sharing platters – we ordered a couple of beers (with my Harviestoun Wild Hop IPA being notably refreshingly bitter) whilst we made our choices.
Just as when we thought we’d finished placing our order, our server – and I should point out that the front of house staff really know the menu, and how to make diners feel at ease – drew our attention to the “side bar” section of the carte. A side order of crispy pig’s ear, smoked Maldon salt and aioli – oh why ever not?! And as our starters appeared so did a beautifully crisp – yet fruity – bottle of Marqués de Altillo Rioja blanco.
Ham hock hash & hollandaise.
Our choice of wine proved an ideal accompaniment to JML’s first course of ham hock hash cake, with poached egg and hollandaise. This proved to be a generous, round slab of fried mashed potato combined with meaty morsels exuding delicious smoked porcine flavours, and brilliantly set off with silky-smooth sauce and an egg poached to perfection. To be honest, it was a challenge to solicit a forkful from my dining partner for me to try. My choice of starter counts as one of my all-time favourite dishes, so the pressure was on – but I needn’t have worried. The plate of crispy whitebait that landed on the table was absolutely spot on, harbouring an intense taste of seafood which was further enhanced by being dipped in the accompanying citrus-infused mayonnaise. This was most definitely good mood food.
For his main course, JML moved from ham to lamb – a dry spice rubbed rump (to be precise) accompanied by mint yoghurt, Moroccan aubergine and flatbread. When carved, the meat was a perfectly-cooked pink, with its great taste being further enhanced by a coating of North African spiciness. Together with the well-matched accompanying ingredients, this was a plate that would definitely have you believe you were dining nearer Marrakech than Marchmont!
Fab pheasant – but maybe a bit more saucy?
My choice of pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto, pigeon breast, crème potato mash, braised red cabbage, and red wine jus presented perhaps the only slight blip in what was turning into an excellent evening. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad dish at all, with the pheasant being richly gamey and succulent (which can be hard to achieve this late in the season), and the accompanying prosciutto and red cabbage respectively adding nice salty and fruity contrast. But the crème mash could have maybe been a wee bit more, well creamy, and it would have been nice to have had more of a puddle of the wine reduction on the plate. It’s probably just that the starters had set the bar very high. We couldn’t fault the side of crispy, salted, shredded pig’s ear, mind – imagine sweet, crisp, umami-laden slithers of pork scratching, and you’ll be getting there.
Having put away two pretty accomplished courses, we paused for breath before consuming pudding. This gave me time to properly take in the ambience of The Apiary, and I have to say the team behind it have managed to create a really pleasingly informal – but not too laid back – vibe, the kind that can be frequently encountered when dining in decent bistros on continental Europe. A commendable achievement in a building that was formerly a bank.
A cracking coconut & cardamom sponge.
And so to the desserts… I went for the warm coconut and cardamom sponge, with a Malibu and lime syrup and vanilla ice cream. It was light, yet packed with exotic coconut richness, which combined tremendously with the subtle floral hint provided by the cardamom, and the zingy notes coming from the lime syrup. Plus the ice cream was excellent, too. Across the table from me, an absolute triumph of a sweet was being consumed. The combination of a chocolate and brioche butter pudding, with orange zest, chocolate and stem ginger ice cream, and crème anglaise was something magical. It tasted every bit as warming and comforting as it looked, and those are the words spoken by someone who claims not to have a sweet tooth.
This restaurant is a cracking wee find. It’s friendly, without being too casual; the front of house staff are simply charming; and the kitchen turns out some fantastically enjoyable and inventive food, yet without making it overly complicated. It also offers some excellent lunch and pre-theatre deals. To be honest, it’s the sort of place you’d probably like to keep as your little secret. But that wouldn’t be fair. So, as the long winter closes (or at any other time of year, for that matter) if you want to put a spring in your step, make a beeline for The Apiary.
Food 8/10 Atmosphere 8/10 Service 8/10 Value 8/10
Ambience – Expect a venue with a relaxed – but elegant – bistro/café ambience.
The Dear Green Place, Glasvegas, Glaschu or simply Glasgow. Whatever you prefer to call it, as an Edinburgher I have a soft spot for Scotland’s second city. Yet despite the fact that it’s only 40 miles and 50 minutes away on the train, for some reason I don’t seem to visit Scotland’s largest metropolis anywhere as often as I should, despite the fact it has some great places to eat and drink. The centre of Glasgow is architecturally stunning, and very different from Edinburgh. Like Birmingham – the city of my birth – it grew out of the industrial revolution, and similarly its city centre is still adorned with many of the grand Victorian buildings constructed from its industrial wealth. Central Glasgow is also laid out in a grid system, which – it is rumoured – inspired the one that is now such a prominent feature of New York. It has even doubled as the Big Apple on a number of film shoots.
How appropriate then that when JML and I caught up with some friends in Glasgow last weekend, one of the members of our party suggested we go for lunch at Ad Lib – a New York-inspired eatery a stone’s through away from the city’s grand Central Station (sorry!). To be honest, it wasn’t a place I had heard of before, but I do love the melting pot of influences and flavours there is to be had in a decent US diner – even one located on Scotland’s West Coast – so was most definitely keen to give it a go.
The frontage of Ad Lib is certainly understated – not the brash Americana one might expect, given its culinary specialisation – and my first thought on stepping through the door was that the place was “toty”. Yet I was actually greeted by a slim, but cleverly stylish, dining space leading to the bar and main restaurant area, and which matches vermillion walls, cubic wooden furniture and tasteful, US-influenced artwork. Collectively, this had more of a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright than Trump Towers, I am pleased to say. Beyond the bar the airy dining room offers more of this stylish, Greenwich Village-esque vibe. But enough already about the décor, what about the food?
Ad Lib’s lunch menu is engaging in a “I really can’t make up my mind what to have” sort of way. Inviting sounding starters and mains, deli salads and sandwiches, gourmet burgers, steak AND lobster (I kid you not), and a burgeoning specials board all vie for attention. Now, for the purposes of this review I shall be focusing on what JML and I consumed, given that trying to cover what eight people were eating might just stretch a point a wee bit too far. Oh, and in terms of drinks, I should point out that Ad Lib serves the excellent Portuguese lager that is Sagres on draft, meaning this was our quaff of choice. So…
That really is a “Big Burrito”.
In choosing a dish to kick of proceedings, I was somewhat torn. The salt and pepper squid, and Cajun prawn popcorn both sounded really inviting, but in the end it was the sticky molasses baby back ribs, with chilli and star anise than won me over. They certainly did not disappoint, featuring perfectly tender meat adorned in a tackily sweet-rich-spicy sauce, topped with a zingy fresh tomato salsa. Truly splendid. JML’s starter consisted of three ‘sliders’ (why so named?) – mini classic Aberdeen angus burgers accompanied by an onion relish. These were certainly tasty, with the relish providing a nice contrast to the umami flavour of the beef, but maybe the burgers were just ever so slightly on the dry side.
A lovely basket-o-fish.
Deciding on a main was an equally involved affair, especially when the specials board was also brought into play. It was the “Big Burrito” that caught JML’s attention, and this turned out to be a dish that could under no circumstances be accused of being misdescribed. What arrived was a gargantuan portion of seared stake, combined with chorizo, red rice, and black beans, all neatly encased in a dustbin lid-sized tortilla, and topped off with fresh salsa and sour cream. It was a plateful that would not look out of place on Man Versus Food, but the fact that it presented little challenge for my dining companion indicated just how good it was. Having started with turf, I moved onto surf for my main course, deciding to try the intriguingly named Bloody Mary basket ’o’ fish. This transpired to consist of an excellently cooked portion of haddock, bream and king prawns, all coated in a rich – but light – tomato infused batter, and sat upon a mini washing basket of skinny fries. Only a bit more kick and smokiness from the accompanying smoked chilli mayo would have made this really good dish a great one.
Sundae, scrummy sundae.
By the time it came to ordering sweets, I must admit that we were flagging, as were our waistlines. But so cannily persuasive were the young restaurant staff that we crumbled – we were signed up to the authentic US diner experience, after all. My New York ice cream waffle sundae – accompanied with hot toffee sauce, toasted pecans and berries – provided a good combination of textures flavours, even for someone who is a bit of a self-proclaimed “pudding-o-phobe”. Across the table, a home baked millionaires’ shortbread cheesecake was efficiently dispatched. Very pleasant, but a bit heavy after the “Big Burrito”, was JML’s opinion. Oh, and not enough evidence of the shortbread. Probably wouldn’t have been shopping on Fifth Avenue, as a result.
There is very much to like about Ad Lib. It’s a welcoming restaurant that is simultaneously stylish, yet laid back. It captures the essence of what makes American deli food so tempting and scrumptious, without turning itself into a pastiche. So if you are hungry in GLA and fancy a taste of NYC, be sure to check out this easy-going eatery.
Food 7.5/10 Drink 7/10 Service 7/10 Value 7.5/10
Ambience – Expect a stylish, yet laid back diner-come-bistro.
This is set to be an interesting year for anyone living in Scotland – a county that has been my home for the majority of my adult life. Firstly, 2014 has been designated the year of Homecoming Scotland – a programme of events and activities showcasing all that’s great about Caledonia. Secondly, for sports fans there is golf’s Ryder Cup, and the excitement of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games – having experienced London 2012, I personally can’t wait. Oh, and there is September’s referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent nation again, which will have repercussions, whatever the result…
It’s somewhat appropriate then, given that this is such a big Scottish year, that a Burns supper was my first celebratory meal of 2014. For those not familiar, Robert (or Rabbie) Burns is Scotland’s national bard, an 18th century poet, writer and lyricist, claimed as an inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and author of works that include A Man’s A Man For A’ That and Auld Lang Syne. Burns suppers are traditionally held each 25 January to mark the poet’s birthday and celebrate his life and work.
A Burns supper may vary from formal to casual, but will almost always have three elements in common: the reciting of Burns’ poems at some point in proceedings; the partaking of a “nip” or two of Scotch whisky; and a main course that consists of haggis, neeps (bashed turnips or swedes) and tatties (mashed potatoes). This is very traditional Scottish fare, historically eaten by people of limited means. The vegetables used were cheap and plentiful, and haggis consists of lamb offal – usually liver, lungs and heart – mixed with oatmeal, onion, suet and spices, all encased in a sheep’s stomach and simmered in water.
Chieftain of the pudding race ready for cooking.
Haggis might not sound appetising to everyone but it is the original “nose to tail” food, and tastes delicious. And these days, equally tasty vegetarian versions of the “chieftain of the pudding race” – as Burns called the dish – are readily available. This got me thinking that tradition is great, but tastes evolve and progress. Scotland’s culinary scene is now very different – and dare I say much more diverse and sophisticated – to how it was even a couple of decades ago. So why not try a reconstructed take on haggis, neeps and tatties for Burns night or indeed any other dinner that takes one’s fancy?
So I give you a stack of whisky infused haggis and crushed neeps with chilli and sage butter, topped with a garlic and thyme flavoured fondant potato, and served with stock and red wine reduction. At the risk of appearing immodest, it tastes as good as it looks. As Burns so eloquently put it, in Address to a Haggis.
And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin’, rich!
Oh, and remember – you don’t have to limit haggis, neeps and tatties only to Burns night. It’s a great dish for any autumn or winter evening…
Recipe will feed two people generously.
One small haggis (either meat-based or vegetarian) of good quality, such as those made by MacSween or Simon Howie
1 small, or half a large, turnip (swede) peeled and cut into 1-2cm cubes
1 very large or two large potatoes, peeled
A few fresh sage leaves, lightly crushed
1 red chilli – deseeded if you prefer less heat – finely sliced
250ml of good quality chicken or vegetable stock (for the fondant potatoes)
Around 400ml of good quality beef or vegetable stock (for the reduction)
A large glass of decent red wine – about 250ml – if you wouldn’t drink it don’t cook with it, is my rule!
Unsalted butter – for frying the potatoes and adding to the ‘neeps.
A good nip of decent whisky – see guidance on wine (above)
A couple of cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
A couple of sprigs of thyme
Salt and black pepper, to taste.
Preparation and cooking
Cook the haggis as per the maker’s instructions – I always think traditional simmering is better than microwaving, even if this takes longer.
Place the turnip (swede) chunks into a saucepan, fill with water and add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cover, cooking until the chunks become tender (about 10-15 minutes should do it).
Whilst the turnips are cooking gently melt a good chunk of butter (about 30-50g) in a saucepan and when this begins to foam add the crushed sage. Turn off the heat. Now add the chilli to the butter and sage, swirling the mixture around for a few seconds, and set aside.
To prepare the fondant potatoes trim the top and bottom off the peeled spud(s) and cut out two round shapes about three or four centimetres thick – a cookie cutter can help with this and if you want to be really “cheffie” trim off (turn) the edges to make a bevelled shape. Set aside in a bowl of cold water with a squeeze of lemon until ready to cook.
Once the turnips are cooked drain them and add the sage and chilli butter – having first removed the sage leaves. Mash until getting towards smooth but still with a bit of texture (you are not looking for a cream). Season to taste and set aside until the haggis is ready.
When the haggis is cooked remove the minced contents from the surrounding casing and place in a bowl. Pour in the nip of whisky and stir into the haggis “meat”. If it is a decent specimen, it will need no further seasoning.
Lightly oil a non-stick baking tray/sheet and the inside of two cooking rings – around 10cm in width and 6cm tall. Place the rings on the baking sheet, divide the haggis between each of them, and firm down with the back of a spoon.
Next divide the crushed neeps between the rings, to form a layer on top of the haggis. Firm down and smooth the top surface. Brush with a little melted butter. Put the stacks into a preheated oven to 170 degrees Celsius for around 25mins, until thoroughly warmed through.
Put the stock and wine for the reduction in a saucepan and place on a high heat. On a fast simmer reduce until 2/3 of the liquid has evaporated. Keep an eye on it and turn off the heat, and re-warm before serving, if the reduction is quick. You should be after a moderately thick, silky sauce.
Melt a good lump of butter in a medium size frying or sauté pan, over a medium heat. Drain the potatoes and pat dry. When the butter is foaming put the fondants in the pan and fry for around five minutes until the side in contact with the pan becomes golden.
Turn over the potatoes and fry for a further five minutes – or so – until the other side is also golden. Add the stock, followed by garlic and thyme, cover and simmer until the potatoes become tender. Keep warm.
When the haggis and neeps stacks are ready, carefully remove them from the cooking ring and place each one on the centre of a warmed dinner plate. Arrange a warm fondant potato on top of each stack.
Spoon a generous serving of the wine and stock reduction around each stack, and serve.
Although traditionally haggis, neeps and tatties are served on their own, they go well with green vegetables, such as the braised leeks that accompanied my take on the dish.
I’ve become somewhat obsessed with salt. Now before the health police bang me to rights over daring to start a food blog article with such a provocative statement, I should point out that this is a positive thing as far as my cooking is concerned. You see, I haven’t become fixated with over seasoning my meals, far from it. However, I have discovered the age-old techniques of preserving food – and potentially enhancing the way it cooks – that are salting and brining.
A wee while ago on Scrumptious Scran I mentioned how – inspired by Tim Hayward’s excellentFood DIY – I decided to attempt producing my own salt fish – salted coley, to be precise. The process was both straight forward – merely involving parcelling the soft fillets in sea salt – and fascinating, as the liquid was sucked from the flesh turning it stiff and dry. And when ready to cook with the salt fish all that is to be done is to rehydrate them in a few changes of fresh water for 24 hours or so. I can testify that when incorporated in croquetas the salt fish was delicious, with deep seafood flavour that wasn’t salty at all.
Delicious, home-made salt fish.
And that delicate, yet significant, flavour change is something key. Certainly the primary function of salting food is to preserve it, which is why the process was so popular in the days before refrigeration. But the way salt interacts with meat, fish, and even vegetables can also enhance the taste and texture of the foodstuff. I shall spare you the detailed chemistry lesson, but basically salt reacts with the proteins in the foodstuff to subtly change their structure. This can ultimately transform the tenderness and succulence of your salted food of choice, in addition to how it tastes. Treating food with salt is certainly not a dry subject though, oh no. I am talking brine.
I first became properly aware of soaking food in salty liquid – which is basically what brining involves – when I got my hands on Jane Grigson’s inspiring book,Good Things (to Eat). Although originally published in the early 1970’s the passion for great British ingredients and culinary traditions expressed in this work are still current today. And it features a whole chapter on salting meat, including Grigson’s own recipe for brine, which basically consists of equal parts of sea salt and brown sugar dissolved in water. Yet interestingly, it also features the addition of aromatics – such as bay leaves, juniper berries, and peppercorns – which impart subtle notes of flavour to the meat that is soaked and preserved in the liquid.
Now we are in the depths of January the festive season might seem just a distant memory, but the Christmas just past provided an opportunity to dip my toe into the pond of brining. Turkey is the festive bird of choice at Scrumptious Scran Towers, primarily because my father-in-law is pretty traditional when it comes to Christmas dinner. I always try and get the best quality turkey available – bronze of feather, free-range, organic, probably called Horatio or something similar – to ensure two things: that the meat actually tastes of something; and that it isn’t dry. Choosing top quality usually delivers. But having witnessed a festive TV programme where Nigella waxed lyrical about brining one’s turkey for 24 hours before cooking, I wondered if this could make an already great fowl even more tender and flavoursome, as La Lawson claims.
Horatio the turkey, ready for a brine bath.
So at lunchtime last Christmas eve Horatio the turkey was deposited into a lidded plastic tub together with sufficient salt, sugar and water to make a brine, and a whole host of herbs and spices – bay leaves, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, star anise, peppercorns, juniper berries, clementine juice and peel, thyme, parsley and onions. Then into the fridge it went, until about an hour before cooking Christmas dinner was due to commence, whence it was drained, dried and brought up to room temperature. A mere two and a half hours in the oven – I certainly wasn’t going to overcook the turkey, as much as I wasn’t going to undercook it either – and the bird looked and smelled perfect. But how did it taste?
To be honest, it was blinking amazing. My father-in-law proclaimed it was the most moist, tastiest turkey he had ever sampled. The flesh was truly tender and not at all dry – which was down to more than just the quality of the bird, as the brining process helps lock moisture into the meat. And it had an almost mild gamey flavour, somewhere between guinea fowl and pheasant, but also with a very subtle hint of the aromatics that had gone into brine. This is certainly how I shall prepare our turkey from now on, but brining is not just for Christmas, as Jane Grigson’s recipes for salt duck and spiced salt beef clearly demonstrate. Watch this space!
Edinburgh is blessed with a plethora of great places to eat. Not only that, but – like pretty weeds poking through cracks in a garden path – new gastro-pubs, bistros and restaurants seem to appear in my home town on a monthly basis. With this constantly emerging choice it’s perhaps unsurprising that favoured old haunts sometimes fall by the wayside.
I must admit that I do feel a wee bit regretful when circumstances change, and visits to oft-frequented stomping grounds begin to tail off. On the flip side, re-acquaintance with a now neglected eatery or hostelry can be joyous, when their present offerings live up to rose-tinted memories of meals past (see my review of The Shore, as a case in point). With this in mind, when JML and I met a couple of friends for lunch the other weekend, I was both intrigued and a little trepidations when one of them suggested dining at The Doric.
Lovely lamb & Madeira sauce. As for the veg…
Situated just behind Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station (in Market Street), The Doric is housed in an architecturally-impressive 17th century tenement building, and bills itself as “Edinburgh’s oldest gastro-pub”. The bistro section of the establishment, located above a separate bar, is accessed via stairs that would not be out of place in an instalment of Harry Potter. Walking into the restaurant it seemed little had changed from the last time I dined there over four years ago – still the same primrose yellow walls punctuated with an eclectic array of prints, and dark wood floors and furniture. Except, maybe things looked a bit more down at heel than I remembered.
We joined one of our – already ensconced – lunching partners and placed our drinks order with the Maitre d’, just as the final member of our party arrived. Service was friendly and courteous. But when we were handed the menus, my immediate thought was these had seen better days – both physically and in terms of contents. And while we perused the, somewhat dog-eared and grubby, menu cards the bottles of wine and water we had ordered were literally plonked – unopened and unannounced – on our table by another member of waiting staff. The portents, to be frank, were not good…
Now I must admit, I sometimes struggle to do a review justice when there are more than two of us dining, as there are maybe too many viewpoints to take into consideration – tastes and preferences often seem to get a bit complicated. This restaurant’s menu is not short on choice either, even if many of the dishes might be considered “pub grub stalwarts”. Add to this mix the fact that one of our party was gluten intolerant – which, to give The Doric its due, it did its utmost to accommodate –I thought we might be in for some mixed opinions. However, by the time it came to don our coats, consensus reigned amongst our party that our dining experience was a bit hit and miss.
Rich chicken & chorizo with butter beans.
My starter of mussels in a white wine and cream sauce was tasty enough. The shellfish were plump, but the white granular substance covering them indicated the cream had split from the sauce during cooking. Plus, the accompanying chunk of bread was a tad dry, as if it had been cut for a while. JML’s goats’ cheese tart was nicely presented and appetising, but was somewhat dominated by the inclusion of a whole round of baked cheese. The dishes of smoked duck, and smoked salmon seemed to be eagerly consumed across the table from us – the later accompanied by a gluten-free toast which was surprisingly tasty.
Another bottle of wine arrived – thankfully, this time opened and poured – at the same time as our mains. To be honest, my chargrilled rump of lamb was lovely. It possessed just the right level of rareness and its Madeira sauce matched it well. The accompanying Boulangère potatoes were adequate enough – though they would have benefited from some crispness to their surface, but the whole roast pepper and turned artichoke didn’t contrast the richness of the meat as much as I had hoped.
Pork two ways, with a zippy pepper sauce.
JML decided on the “home made” shepherd’s pie, which was – as the menu description suggested –homely rather than tantalisingly tasty. Our friends variously plumbed for chicken with chorizo, and the pork belly and loin. The chicken was moist and nicely accompanied by butter beans and chunks of spicy sausage, but in combination with a cream sauce maybe the sum of the dish was a little over rich. In relation to the pork-fest, the belly was very nicely cooked with a deep flavour, but the loin was slightly underwhelming, and whilst the sweet pepper coulis added tasty zippiness this highlighted that the accompanying fondant potato and honeyed carrots were a bit insipid, by comparison.
This being a lunch-time get together, we decided to forgo puddings, choosing instead to share a plate of “fine Scottish cheeses” with biscuits and home-made chutney, whilst we drank our coffees. The cheeses were nice enough, but I don’t recall any indication being given of what they were, or where in Scotland they hailed from. It could be that we were all a bit too busy chatting, however…
All in all, I think my re-acquaintance with The Doric left me a bit flat. It wasn’t an awful experience by any means, but in the intervening years since I regularly crossed its threshold I think the venue and its cooking has become a wee bit tired. And with the prices of some of the mains roughly comparable with those served by such trendy and celebrated newcomers as Kitchin’s The Scran and Scally and Greenaway’s Bistro Moderene, it might be high time for The Doric to contemplate a bit of a refresh.
Food – 6/10 Atmosphere -6/10 Service -6.5/10 Value – 5.5/10
I like cooking. I wouldn’t be writing a food blog if I didn’t. Yet sometimes, no matter how well developed someone’s culinary skills might be, a hankering develops for a dish that is tasty whilst simultaneously requiring only the minimum of effort in the kitchen.
Breakfast is always one meal that I prefer to be flavoursome and simple, even at weekends, when I have a bit more time to prepare food. Saturday and Sunday morning staples at Scrumptious Scran Towers tend to consist of the likes of a decent bacon buttie (dry cure on sourdough, preferably), maybe scrambled eggs with sautéed mushrooms, or if I have the ingredients to hand, a ham and cheese omelette. Yet now and again I yearn for something a bit more adventurous that’s still easy to prepare and speedy to cook.
Bring on the toms & eggs…
So this Saturday I decided to rustle up a breakfast dish that certainly packs a flavour punch, is relatively healthy and, most importantly, is a cinch to prepare – my own particular take on huevos rancheros. A staple of rural Mexico, the literal translation of this delicacy is “rancher’s eggs”, as it was staple breakfast fare for those working the fields or tending livestock.
Traditionally, huevos rancheros combines a spicy, tomato-based sauce with fried eggs, maize tortillas, with a side of refried beans. But to be honest, this is a wee bit elaborate for me, especially if I’m cooking on a Sunday morning following a somewhat ‘lively’ Saturday night. So my recipe concentrates on an adapted version of the spicy sauce, which – when ready – is used to poach a couple of fresh eggs. This is all served with ample slices of crusty bread.
The recipe below serves two people generously, and I leave it entirely up to taste as to how spicy or otherwise the sauce is made (think of it as a sort of edible Bloody Mary mixture, but without the vodka). Of course, if you have house guests for breakfast it’s very straightforward to just double or triple the ingredients to ensure everyone is properly fed.
A good glug of olive oil (3-4 tbsp)
1 medium onion, finely sliced
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
Half a dozen (or so) large chestnut mushrooms, wiped and sliced
A good pinch (dependent on how spicy, and the preferred level of heat) of dried chilli flakes
A 400g tin or carton of good quality chopped tomatoes
A generous squirt of tomato puree
½ tsp thyme leaves (preferably fresh, and chopped)
1 bay leaf (again, fresh if available)
2 large eggs – hen or duck
Salt and pepper, to taste.
Preparation and cooking
In a medium sized frying pan heat the oil over a medium heat, until hot but not smoking. Add a pinch of salt followed by the onion and pepper. Fry until they begin to soften, stirring to ensure they don’t brown.
Add the garlic, and chilli flakes, give a good stir and cook for a further minute.
Now add the mushrooms and continue to cook for a couple of minutes until softened and just starting to take on some colour.
Pour in the tomatoes, followed by the tomato puree, thyme and bay leaf. Give the ingredients a good mix and when bubbling turn down the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens. Check the seasoning.
With the back of a tablespoon, make two indents in the tomato sauce and crack an egg into each of these. Place a lid or plate over the frying pan and cook until the eggs just set.
Serve at once with lots of sliced bread, or tortillas and refried beans, depending on your mood…
Hopefully, alchemy is currently occurring in the kitchen of Scrumptious Scran Towers. Fret not – no work units have been sacrificed in order to install a smelter that converts base metal to gold. The transformation occurring in the fridge is more subtle, but no less remarkable. It’s all because I have discovered a cure. And it’s for cod. Well for coley, if I am honest – it’s a more sustainable seafish.
I fear a little bit more contextualisation is called for. Back in July, a dear friend bought me a great cookbook as a birthday present. This was Tim Hayward’sFood DIY. His book is a veritable encyclopaedia of how to prepare food and drink many of us love, but few now make themselves. From corned beef and bacon, to smoked salmon and even gin – with no distilling required – it re-acquaints people with the techniques that enable such culinary staples and delights to be prepared at home.
Given my love of Spanish cuisine my attention was immediately drawn to salt cod – or bacalao. This preserved white fish is ubiquitous across the Iberian Peninsula, having originated as the favoured means of preserving the abundant catch captured in the Atlantic, in the days when refrigeration was not an option. Unlike Spain and Portugal, in Edinburgh there isn’t a market just round the corner offering this cured delicacy. I suppose I could buy some online, but how to guarantee the quality?
Well thanks to Food DIY I have no need to worry. I am making my own salt cod (coley), with three simple ingredients. Fish, sea salt and Prague powder #1. “Prague what?” you may ask. Well it’s an additive – to be used sparingly – that ensures that the curing process sees off even those bacteria that cause botulism, and with good reason. Trust me, I have no desire for my laughter lines to be static, let alone those muscles that keep my lungs bellowing, and blood circulating. And neither should you.
Cured, wrapped, now dry…
I am cooking for an smashing dinner party soon – watch out for further news on “lamb wars” – and have a dish in mind featuring salt cod. So, sprinkled in a kilo of cure, wrapped in cheesecloth, tied in string, two lovely fillets of white fish are now sat in my fridge having all their liquid content pulled from them. And there is some major osmosis going on. Hayward describes it as a “fierce cure”. Judging by how dry my hands feel merely rubbing the salt into the fish, he is not wrong.
Wrapped in their shrouds, and exuding inherent moisture, I want to keep peaking at the alchemy occurring to the fish in my fridge. I know I must just leave them to dehydrate – bar turning them over twice a day. If all goes well, soon the fillets will be as dry as biscuits and then I can rehydrate them again, in order to cook with my salt fish. Why go to this trouble, some of you might ask? You really just have to taste salt cod, to discover the answer…
Be sure to check back soon to see exactly what I cook with my salted fish.
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