Tag Archives: food

A great way to spend a Sunday evening: Dylan’s, Criccieth

There were rumours this was happening for some time. Whispers, vague speculations, gossip. But if we believed everything we heard, all sorts of things would be true that patently are – well, rubbish. However, these rumours became more concrete – almost literally. Dylan’s, the restaurant beloved of those lucky people in Menai Bridge, was coming to Criccieth.

And in what a building.

Dylan's Criccieth

It looks Art Deco, but it was actually built in 1954 – it’s a typical Clough Williams-Ellis design, in that it’s a classy pastiche. It was built as a cafe, but not one like Dylan’s; in fact one of the owners in the early days was Billy Butlin, and people staying in his holiday camps would come for tea dances; after that, it was rented out. It’s listed (grade II), and it is indeed made of concrete.

As soon as we knew Dylan’s were taking bookings, we rang and got in as early as we could – you’ve got to test these exciting developments – and so we piled into the car yesterday evening and set off for our supper. An hour’s drive, yes, but we knew it would be worth it (the Menai Bridge branch has been well, er, researched).

ready and waitingWe were booked in quite early, and when we arrived the place was almost empty, allowing us to have a good look around. It’s a delightful, airy space, with full-height windows giving an magnificent view of the sea and lots of light. The restaurant seems very spacious and I suspect it will continue to do so, however frantic it gets at the height of the season.

Almost empty though it might have been when we arrived, it soon filled up – it was fully booked, in fact, as a few speculative ‘walk-ins’ were being told. The service was – no surprises, given past experience – great: efficient, friendly, chatty without being intrusive. The major problem was deciding what to have. Pizzas (such as the Menai Strait, with lobster and scallops)? A burger (maybe the felafel burger, with its sourdough bun, chunky chips, relishes and pickle)? Mussels (perhaps the Drunken Mussels, steamed in Welsh cider, with leeks and bacon)? A lobster salad?

We eventually went for other things. After all, we can come back and check out the pizzas and burgers – and indeed everything else – quite easily now. So I started with Gravadlax, salmon which had been cured for 48 hours in beetroot and gin, and which was served with a potato salad, including lots of fennel (I thought I detected dill instead, but it may just have been very strong fennel). Beautiful.

I follDylansowed this with a Ceasar Salad. I know it may seem boring, but I reckon that’s a good test: the dressing, the quality of the chicken and the Parmesan, even the lettuce – I’ve had some horrors over the past few years. This was a good one. In fact, this was a very good one. The chicken was perfect, and there was plenty of it – another good test: one anaemic, tasteless slice doth not a Caesar Salad make.

I decided to test their chunky chips too (someone has to do these things), and can report back that they were delicious, and I can also say that the house white was a perfectly respectable Sauvignon Blanc. The others had roast halibut and a hake fillet with a herb and parmesan crust, and were equally impressed – but we were too happily full to test the dessert menu. One for another visit…

Finally – the setting:

Dylan's boardwalk

Imagine this in a winter storm, with a warm and welcoming restaurant to watch it from. Perfect.

Dylan’s Restaurant, Maes Y Mor, Criccieth, Gwynedd, LL52 0HU;
01766 522773 – open 11a.m to 11p.m

 

 

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chickens for soup...

On comfort food and chicken soup

I have not been very well and, while I haven’t felt an awful lot like eating, it takes more than a nasty virus to stop me thinking about food.

The Sick Lady(This is me. Oh, all right, it isn’t. I’m in jeans. And I’m not getting any sympathy at all.)

I have had a horrible cold, followed by bronchitis. OK, none of it’s very serious when compared to what some of my friends are going through, but it’s thoroughly unpleasant. And of course the infectious nature means I’m steering clear of people, particularly a couple of friends who are immuno-supressed at the mo.

I have been distracting myself with thoughts of comfort food. Not, until recently, eating that much of it, and I admit my interpretation might be a little eccentric: for some reason taramasalata doesn’t often crop up on lists of foods that make you feel better. I’ve been having a lot of mashed potato and chicken soup – not together, eeeugh – which is possibly unsurprising, as I clearly remember someone once describing mashed potato to me as the gentile equivalent of chicken soup. Comfort food. But chicken soup also does you good. Mashed potato? Not the same. Nobody ever called mashed potato ‘gentile penicillin’.

Chicken soup helps – and this is really true, backed up by some serious science which must have been fun to do if the researchers were allowed to taste – with colds and coughs. It is not a myth; it’s reality. It has anti-inflammatory properties. Yes, it improves hydration; yes, it helps your ‘nutritional balance’ – but, and more significantly, yes, it accelerates ‘mucosal clearance’. Perhaps doing the research wasn’t so pleasant after all…

chickens for soup...Over the years I’ve had a bash at all sorts of variations on the chicken soup theme, from great chunks of chicken in cock-a-leekie (yum) to home-made chicken stock in an avgolemono (also yum). Oh, yum to the lot of them – well, except from some rather bizarre-tasting tinned things, that is.

But when I talk to some of my friends about making chicken soup, the general consensus – and there are some very honourable exceptions – is that it’s too much faff. But it doesn’t have to be, unless you want to go into overdrive and Eastern-European shtetl-based stereotypes and boil up a raggedy old fowl for several hours first while playing the fiddle on a roof.

So here are a couple of simple chicken soup suggestions with some variations – written out generally as most of them are designed to be riffed on, as it were. And both of them involve the remains of a roast chicken (you can bake a couple of chicken thighs if the two-legged mice have been at your cold chicken while you weren’t looking). Both are designed to serve two, though they can easily be stretched further.

First, my simple roast chicken soup:
Strip all the meat from a roast chicken carcass; there are usually some pieces left over which nobody quite fancies. Remove the skin and any bits of gristle from these, and put them to one side – ending up with a small pudding-bowl full of meat. Put a little oil in a pan over a medium heat. Peel and finely chop a medium onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery. Add to the pan and cook gently until transparent – do not brown. Peel a medium-sized potato and add that, then add the chicken and enough chicken stock (ideally, but good vegetable stock also works) to cover. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Check for seasoning, adjust the thickness by adding some boiling water if necessary, then blend the soup. Serve and start feeling better.

Variations:
• Omit the carrots;
• Use a couple of slim leeks instead of the onion;
• Add two chopped cloves of garlic in the last minute or so of cooking the onion, carrot and celery;
• Add a little smoked paprika at this stage (but not with the garlic: hmm? Nope, too much – for me, anyway);
• Don’t blend the soup, or blend some of it and then return it to the pan to reheat.

And a quick Chinese-style chicken soup:
You need some good-quality chicken stock for this – about 600ml – as well as the bowl of chicken bits. Put the stock in a pan and bring it to the boil (skim if necessary). While it is coming to the boil, finely chop about 150g mushrooms, a clove of garlic and a piece of fresh ginger about 2cm square. Cut four thick spring onions into fine diagonal slices, and shred a couple of small pak choi. Add the garlic, ginger, mushrooms and chicken to the boiling stock and cook for five minutes. Then add the spring onions and pak choi. Simmer for a couple more minutes, check the seasoning, and serve.

Variations:
• Add finely chopped chillies. Or chilli. As many and as hot as you dare (that will scare the cold bugs away). Add with the mushrooms, garlic etc.
• Add a dash of Tabasco.
• Try using Chinese dried mushrooms – about 25g, rehydrated in boiling water for 20 mins, then drained and chopped.
• You can add a beaten egg for the ‘egg flower’ effect and some extra nutritional oomph. When there’s barely a minute to go, beat an egg well and drizzle it into the cooking soup over an upturned fork. Don’t stir; remove from the heat and serve.
• Or add a few noodles. A few.

You can freeze the first one – beautifully. Not the second, though; it needs to be fresh.

Interestingly, the chemical composition of a good chicken soup is remarkably close to that of a drug (acetylcysteine) which is sometimes used to treat bronchitis. I have bronchitis. I clearly need chicken soup. NOW. I’m off to get some chicken thighs and get stuck into making more.

Jan Steen, Fat Kitchen
Jan Steen – Fat Kitchen

 

 

Flour power

Oh, I know, such a predictive post title – but I couldn’t resist! Yes, it’s rant time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more a ‘shaking my head in sad bafflement’ time.

IMG_6863I’m a baker. I love making bread, hands and/or ancient Kenwood permitting, and do so on a regular basis. I slice it and store it in the freezer, and always try to have stock in. That’s because if I run out I’m back to the boiled baby’s blanket that passes for a loaf – even a supposedly ‘artisan’ loaf – in a local supermarket. Oh, all right – rant alert: what the heck is ‘artisan’ about any Tesco bread anyway? But I suppose ‘mass-produced in some giant factory and then shipped out to stores for a quick tart up’ doesn’t have quite the same marketing spin, does it?

Artisan, my arse. Ahem.

I buy flour in bulk. I used to share a sack with a friend, but I’m using much less wholemeal now, having finally twigged about excessive fibre giving me digestive problems. So I now buy five 1.5kg bags of Marriages Strong White Organic from a wholefood co-op, and add a little wholemeal for extra oomph. I’ve been quite happy with that, but the latest batch has been rather different. It’s softer than normal, much lighter, even finer. It’s got a completely different feel, and I’d be happy to make cakes with it which I would normally avoid with bread flour. It also makes perfectly good bread, but I’m intrigued. I know flour varies enormously – even the flour you get from one field of wheat can be different from that produced by the grains grown in the next field – but this is a huge change. Maybe it’s time to look at some different flours?

white flourI’ve tried quite a few, all stoneground – the Marriages is roller-milled, but until now I’ve been fine with that; it’s the only roller-milled flour I’ve felt was comparable. I’ve tried other roller-milled flour (the standard way of producing flour, at least in a more ‘commercial’ setting) and I can tell the difference, or I think I can. I like my flour to taste of something, and I find that other roller-milled flours are rather bland for breadmaking. Great if that’s what you want (or, of course, what you can afford) and absolutely fine for some circumstances, but I did a comparison bread test and yup, I could tell. Or maybe it was a case of emperor’s new clothes – I’m still not sure.

If I am right, there might be good reason for it. Many bakers think roller mills run too quickly, thus generating enzyme-damaging heat and giving rise to flour which lacks character. In addition, roller-milled flour has all the goodies – like the wheatgerm – removed and then added back in at the end of the milling process.

quernBut I’m not going back to prehistory, either: grains ground between the stones of a quern like this one could a) take forever – I know, I’ve done it, and b) add extra tooth-grinding grit to the flour, depending on the material used for the quern. Using a quern also wrecks your knees, neck, back, hands and wrists – women’s work, eh?

Nope, I’m happy with perfectly normal stoneground for my bread, so I’m going on a mission: to try all sorts of flours from small mills, big mills, artisan mills, little mills up obscure lanes in the Welsh countryside who sell their flour though a single outlet in Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Conwy or Bangor. Whenever I find something a bit out of the ordinary, I’ll buy it and give it a go.

I can easily get Marriages and Dove’s Farm, and those are what I’ll use in between. I can also lay my hands on Bacheldre (the mill was up for sale in the summer, can’t work out if it’s been sold or just withdrawn from sale), Gilchesters, Little Salkeld Watermill and Shipton Mill, because they’re all available through the co-op or local healthfood shops. But I’m really after the unusual (plus I had a weevil-based experience with Shipton Mill’s strong white which has rather put me off retesting that one).

It doesn’t have to be wheat, either; of course there are other grains to try. I’ve used spelt and I love it for soda bread; its perfect for that. I’ve tried emmer and einkorn (as an acrchaeologist, even an ex-archaeologist, I felt obliged to give these neolithic grains a go) and I’ll happily have a bash at almost anything. But for me, it’s fundamentally wheat flour. But which one? I’m no nearer to my answer, though I have now set myself off on a Flour Quest for 2015 (think Shrek and Donkey going after Princess Fiona, though I’m female, not green and am unaccompanied by Eddie Murphy). But am a lot nearer to a beautiful fresh loaf. Must let it cool down, must let it cool down…

YUM!

PS: since writing this I’ve been in contact with Marraige’s, and they’ve asked me to send a packet back to them for them to check out. Luckily I still had one unopened pack – the rest had gone in the flour bin – and it’s on its way back to Essex as I write. A strange Christmas present for the miller, but there you go… us flour-obsessives are a strange lot.

Back to the future with retro cooking

A couple of days ago I was in search of a recipe. I knew I had it somewhere, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. Then I thought about the cookery books I keep down in the basement/office/general store, and ended up down there. I didn’t find it, but I did find something else: The Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook from 1970. Oh yes!

This was one of the first cookery books to have every single recipe illustrated, and illustrated in – drum roll, please – colour. Strange colour, in some cases, but colour. It was written by four people and the contributor of the first section is Mary Berry – in fact, it was her first foray into cookery books. Her part is largely devoted to baking and sweet recipes, and is predictably reliable, but I was looking for more savoury recipes. And I found them. Either the authors were under serious pressure (always possible), or these dishes were acceptable then, because some are – um – extreme. Many are extreme.

'rice salad'I found myself in a strange land, serving to remind me just how far we have come, and just how far food styling has come too (the images are printed at so low a res that my shots will have to remain small, btw). This is a rice salad, which consists of a large mound of cold rice with various uncooked ingredients placed on it in stripes, and surrounded by watercress. That’s it.

Should you wish to host a retro dinner party, then I can sincerely recommend this book as it is, and not as it is in any ‘modernised’ version. It was a classic – almost every home had one – and it is perfectly, absolutely of its time. Think Abigail’s Party.

'lasagne pie'Mind you, there might be a problem in sourcing some of the ingredients. Or not, even though they might be missing from your cupboards at present. The ‘lasagne pie’ for instance, uses a tin of minced beef or a tin of chunky steak (I think the stylist went for chunks), and that’s almost it. Half a packet of lasagne, the aforementioned meat, 1 tbsp tomato puree, some garlic salt and pepper, with single cream and grated cheese (not for a Béchamel – you just pour cream over it, cook it and scatter the cheese on top when it’s nearly done).

IMG_0327Vegetarians, predictably, get few offerings. I spent ten years as a veggie – my family still are – and I well remember the Ubiquitous Omelette, now replaced (my brother tells me) with the equally ubiquitous mushroom risotto. This is the Vegetarian Sunburst Salad. In case it’s not obvious, it’s grated carrot, grated cheese, some lettuce leaves and cucumber slices. It does look pretty, though… oh, and the dressing is peanut butter mixed with (bought) vinaigrette.

reallyI’d not realised the extent of the 1970 pineapple obsession. Fancy fried pineapple, with sausages and baked beans? No problems. Try Sausage Beanfeast, with a bunch of spring onions, a can of pineapple rings, pork sausages and a large tin of baked beans in tomato sauce. You fry the onions and some chopped pineapple in butter, and add the beans and chopped grilled sausages (reserving some). While you’re doing this, you fry the remaining pineapple halves. Then you assemble as shown.

But for me the prize goes to this dish. Now, my mother had this book. Plenty of friends had this book. I took an updated copy of this book to Uni. I’ve eaten some good things made from recipes in this book. I am not belittling this book. But I am – gobsmacked, I think is the right word – by Pineapple Crowns.

aghThese are Pineapple Crowns. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I read the recipe title as I flicked through, but it wasn’t this. Ingredients? Mustard pickles, finely chopped; white bread with the crusts trimmed away; lard; slices of canned pork luncheon meat; another tin of pineapple slices (the mustard pickle is the stuff that looks like droppings on the top – thank heavens food styling has moved on). Basically it’s bread fried in lard, luncheon meat friend in lard, pineapple rings fried in lard, all piled on top of each other and topped with mustard pickle. Rather like a Noughties’ chef might produce a tower, though I don’t think lard would feature quite so prominently… just saying.

Some of the sections are a little random, leading to some alarming juxtapositions: Cheesy Buttered Noodles (they look like tagliatelle, with butter and grated cheddar, then baked) next to Butterfly Layer Cake, which is topped with a can – well, with the contents, dur – of blackcurrant pie filling. They’re both in ‘rice and pasta’ by the way – ‘continental favourites’ has a frankfurter salad next to crèmes au chocolat – but there are more elsewhere. For me, this is the opposite of appetizing: it makes me feel slightly ill, and that’s without eating Pineapple Crowns.

But I am so glad I found this book – if you see the 1970 version in a charity shop, do buy it. It won’t break the bank (mine cost me £1.50), and it may bring benefits. Remember the Rum Truffle? I don’t think I’ve eaten one since about 1987, but I did love them and there’s a recipe here and I’m going for it.

As a finale, how about this masterpiece of styling? Get those chiffon dresses and lurid corduroy jackets out now, because this is just fab:

IMG_0329Yeay!

(Chicken Chaudfroid – poached chicken, covered with mayo which has been set with aspic jelly, and decorated to within an inch of its life. Couldn’t you guess?)

Farewell then, broad beans

I’ve just dug up the last of the broad bean plants. It’s something I’ve been putting off – they get chopped up and added to the compost bin which is a bit hard on the (injured but recovering) hands – but it is done now, and that’s it until late spring next year. Sigh.

beansBroad beans are normally my first serious crop, my first seasonal treat (and usually my first brush with excess). When you grow a lot of your own veg, seasonality – inevitably – plays an enormous part: and that’s an enormous part of my enjoyment in growing vegetables. I find I really look forward to the first baby broad beans, the slim courgettes, the crunchy mangetout, in a way I wouldn’t if I went down to the Co-op and took them out of the freezers or picked them off the shelf.

If you can have anything, any time, do you really value it in the same way? I’m not sure, but for me the answer is ‘no, not so much’. As the year starts, I plant up my seeds and wait for the little shoots to appear, watching for hints of green in an ever-so-slightly obsessive manner. I coddle them along, let them spend time outside the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be allowed out all night, then plant them out… You definitely don’t get that level of anticipation from Bird’s Eye.

In preparation for my normal – and quite ridiculous – level of overproduction I drew up a master list of recipes. Hm – that sounds rather more preplanned than it was in reality. When I totted up the surviving plants and realised I’d got over thirty, all of which would produce pod after pod, beans after beans after beans, I trawled through my old notes, my cuttings and part of the first section of one of the bookcases (I lost the will to live after I’d found broad beans + bacon to the power n) and wrote down some ideas.

The very first were eaten raw, at the prompting of an Italian neighbour. Delicious, and I’d not tried that before. She said that as a child she’d never have dreamed of eating a raw pea though her family ate broad beans raw all the time, and that she’d been quite disconcerted to find it was the other way round in the UK. We stood by the plants and chomped on raw beans while she told me all about her early life. You don’t get that with Bird’s Eye, either.

After that, I went into salads. Broad beans do have a stunning affinity with piggy products, and a spinach salad with broad beans and crispy bacon can be a real treat, despite almost every book including a version of it. Keep it simple, and it’s stunning. But I rather overdid that one last year, as I did a chorizo version, so this year I branched out and made salads with warm baby broad beans and salame finocchiona from Lidl (pretty good, not surprised it won an award last year). Goat’s cheese made another delicious companion, a change from feta.

After I’d had so many salabeans 2ds that I could barely face a lettuce leaf, I branched out into risottos (yum), pastas, toppings for bruschetta – great for the bigger ones; the ones I missed because they were lurking at the back – and, star upon star, a wonderful frittata.

That was an accident; it was just supposed to be an ordinary omelette but I needed to make room for another egg box and therefore used more eggs than I normally would. Served with a tomato salsa and some sauté potatoes – by that time the spuds were beginning to come on stream too – it was one of the simplest and best BB dishes I’ve ever cooked.

Another absolute hit was meatballs with broad beans and lemon, from one of my favourite recipe books of all time, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (you can find the recipe here, as it was also published in the Guardian). I particularly loved the mixture of skinned and unskinned beans, and the lemony tang. The recipe worked beautifully; my one quibble was that the cooking time was a bit too long for my just-picked beans; when I made it again – it was that good – I added the unskinned ones at the end of cooking.

Ah yes: shelling broad beans. I always, but always, unless specifically told not to, skin my broad beans unless they are the size of my little finger nail. Get fresh beans. Pan of boiling water. Broad beans out of the pods into bowl. Empty bowl into water. Boil a minute or so. Drain into sieve. Run cold water over beans; skins pucker. Easy to pop the bright green, tender, appetizing, succulent beans out of their skins, which do just fine in the compost bin.

And at the end of the season, when I’m left with monster beans – well, not too monstrous, because I don’t let that happen – it’s time for a BB purée with lots of garlic. Great on sourdough – back to bruschetta – or with pitta, like a hummous.

But now – nothing. Niente. Rien. Zilch. Diddly squat. Because yet again I got carried away. Yet again I have failed to freeze any; yet again I have forgotten to save some for next year’s seed. There’s an upside to that though – I can try another variety. I’m going to try a heritage bean, one with red flowers, and see how it compares to my beloved Aquadulce Claudia. Roll on next May – and now for the courgettes.

In the hungry gap…

Every year I end up in this position come April and May. Nothing to eat. Er, except for a huge stash of frozen green beans, and they’re beginning to pall a little.

dig for victoryIt may seem surprising to anyone who doesn’t grow vegetables – though obviously we all should (!) and this is an accurate depiction of me, by the way – but this is the time of year when home-grown produce is thin on the ground. Traditionally, it’s the season when labourers and peasants’ resources were at their most stretched and starvation was a real possibility.

Happily that’s not (quite) the case now, but it can still be an issue for anyone who likes to grow as much of their own veg as possible. There just isn’t that much available. Brassicas and the like are mostly over by now, going to seed as the temperature increases, and nothing else has yet come on stream.

Admittedly there is a variety of kale which fills the gap – introduced to Britain in 1941, when it was most desperately needed – but I’ve lived on kale at this time of year before now and I’m not keep to repeat the experience. And that’s what it does: repeat. I shall say no more, but my decision has been a popular one. If you’d like to test it for yourself, Chiltern Seeds usually have Hungry Gap Kale. It’s frost resistant (not a problem for me), and it does have a good flavour, but… oh, yes; I said I would say no more. Instead I’m just going to stand in the garden and sigh.

We are still lucky though. Not only can we garden without the risk of enemy parachutists landing in the potato plot, we can supplement our stock with food from the shops. And even if we try not to fall back on that to any great extent, we do not have to actually can anything, though apparently one in five US households still do. Listen to Betty MacDonald on the perils of home canning in the late 1920s:

First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so it won’t be wasted. Frankly I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all of my spare time reading up on botulism…

That risk still exists today: between 1996 and 2008 there were 48 outbreaks of botulism in the US that were directly linked to home-canned food, and botulism kills – nastily. To me, this doesn’t sound like something I should be doing; I’m thinking the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, but with a jar of home-canned cauliflower.

beans dryingThank goodness we have freezers now (admittedly freezers full of french beans). Incidentally, the same over-production addiction – Betty MacD. noted that her neighbours were eating the season before the season before’s produce, and were still planting and planning on canning the current season’s stuff – applies today. I know I don’t need quite so many climbing beans this year, but guess what’s in the cold frame, ready to go out?

And in a few months time they’ll have been blanched and be drying off, ready for packing and putting in the freezer…

I’ve seen all sorts of alternative suggestions for things to fill the hungry gap but I’m not sure I could live on asparagus – and though I wouldn’t mind trying the season is short and doesn’t actually fill the gap. However, these ‘options’ mostly come down to other brassicas – purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, and more kales – and in my experience most of these are already bolting. Squashes, if seasoned well in a good autumn (and that’s a big ‘if’ for me here in Snowdonia) will keep, but even they are failing now, going a little squishy at the base or stalk or, alternatively, getting so hard you have to take an axe to them. Leeks can stay in the ground so they’ve been recommended, but by late April they’re generally sending up spectacular seed heads or are so woody as to be unusable. It’s that HG kale or diddly squat. Diddly squat, then.

Despite this, I rather like the hungry gap in a perverse way, even if I am fed up to the back teeth of frozen beans. It connects me one of the main reasons I bought a house with a decent garden: feeding myself. It reminds me that food should never be taken for granted, and that seasonality should be a factor in my diet. The more I rely on out of season foodstuff from a supermarket, the greater the negative impact on the environment. I know it’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a bigger thing. And in my case, a giant vegetable soup. Or Spanish green beans. Or green beans with tomato. Or a green Thai curry featuring – you guessed – green beans. Or just plain green beans with tomato sauce and fish fingers (getting desperate here). Green bean terrine?

Hang on a second – there is something other than frozen beans, though I’m not quite sure it’s a substitute for tomatoes, spuds, onions, beetroot, courgettes. The rhubarb looks promising…

Ooo matron (or the love of sausages)

What is it with Brits? When it comes to humour, most of us dearly love a double-entendre or anything scatalogical. When I was doing stand-up I sometimes felt that I could abandon my act and say ‘bottom’ for 20 minutes, and get the same hysterical response. Mind you, I was never brave enough to try it, not even at the midnight show at the Comedy Store.

So it’s probably best to confront all the Carry-On style double entendres immediately. This post is about sausages. That’s right, sausages: ‘An item of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork or other meat encased in a skin, typically sold raw to be grilled or fried before eating’, to quote the OED, and absolutely nothing else. OK?

We’re very lucky round here in that many of the butchers take pride in their ‘item[s] of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork’. Perhaps it’s not surprising; there’s a long-established tradition in Britain of local pig-rearing and smaller-scale butchery. Admittedly the small-scale butchery nearly disappeared, but, like some other food traditions – decent breadmaking, for instance – care and attention are again being given to pork products, and on a satisfyingly artisan basis.

Bewick cottagerAnd, even if we haven’t all quite got back to the point where there are piglets playing about while we hang out the washing, the tradition of small-scale pig-rearing is also beginning to reappear.

Some of my friends, for instance, have a pig-sharing thing going on – one rears the pig, the rest share the expenses and will get a share of the haul. But it’s not for me, despite the fact that I do have an old pigsty available. First, the neighbours would probably object, especially the Chapel next door; second, the pigsty is now a garden store and I’d have to clear it out if I wanted to keep a pig. Third, I must admit to being a bit nervous around pigs: I’m no Lord Emsworth, and they are big. One farmer I know had an enormous evil-tempered sow straight out of Celtic myth, and she scared even him (the sausage maker got her in the end; while it would be exaggerating to say that his village put the bunting out, many people were relieved – she’d been prone to escaping).

And, of course there’s that other reason: I can get good sausages and bacon easily, and  without all the fuss, bother or inevitable deterioration in neighbourly relations. The Spar shop in my village houses an award-winning sausage maker; there are multiple delicious choices at the local farmers’ markets and even the local Co-op does a good selection in their premium range. I’ve tried many of the flavouring options available and am currently coming down in favour of cracked black pepper sausages, either from local producers Oinc Oink (a happily bilingual name – there’s no ‘k’ in modern Welsh) or Ynysgyffylog. They’ve got enough punch to stand up to all sorts of other ingredients and are perfect for when I want exactly that impact but without the garlic of my local butcher’s best Toulouse-style sausage (itself ideal in cassoulet). And when I can’t get any of those, largely down to bad planning on my part, I get the Co-op’s Lincolnshires. Very good, very sage-y, as a good Lincolnshire sausage should be.

Ever since I discovered a tasty recipe in an old copy of Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter I’ve done much more than simply bake / fry / grill sausages and serve them neat, as it were (I did adapt the recipe, which was from 1974 – tinned carrots? I think not…). A good sausage is a good sausage, no matter how you cook it – and a bad one will always be a disgrace, much more appropriately found – and left – in CMOT Dibbler’s tray in Ankh Morpork than in my sandwich / bake / ragout / salad. Their potential is enormous, as indicated by all the /// alternatives. So here’s my latest recipe, a warm salad. The weather isn’t summery enough for a cold one. Yet.

saladWarm potato and sausage salad
Serves 2

The recipe uses cooked sausages. I bake mine, while I’m cooking something else, at about 180 degrees, 160 degrees fan / GM 4 for approximately 30 minutes (depending on their thickness). I then let them cool completely. It’s the spuds that are warm, not the bangers…

200 – 250g new potatoes
6 well-flavoured sausages, baked, chilled
3 sticks of celery
2 banana shallots or 1 small red onion
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
a little salt
lots of black pepper
a large sprig of parsley, chopped

Chop the potatoes into chunks no bigger than 2cm, and put them in a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the cold sausages into slices and put them in a large bowl. De-string the celery sticks and chop them up too, then add to the bowl as well. Cut the shallots in half and remove any greenish centres which can be bitter, then slice them into rings and add to the bowl as well.

Test the potatoes and check that they are just tender, then drain them well. Add them to the bowl and then quickly add the mayo, yoghurt and mustard. Add a little salt and turn the salad over carefully with a wooden spoon; the potatoes should not break up, but everything does need to be covered in the dressing. Add lots of black pepper and a good handful of chopped parsley and stir gently once more, then put it onto warmed serving plates. Serve immediately, with chunks of bread.

(And then steal any left-overs…)

 

 

Service, or tablecloths?

Casual dining is apparently bang on the button, it’s the cat’s eyebrows, It’s now, it’s so hot it’s cool.

Sorry about that – they’re all phrases (well, except for feline facial hair, but it’s probably only a matter of time) I’ve seen or heard which describe the fact that Marcus Wareing’s reopened restaurant is introducing a ‘new informal style of service’. Another top chef has dispensed with tablecloths: Kenny Atkinson was quoted in the Guardian as saying ‘I can’t spend £13,000 a year on laundry.’ None of this, of course, means that these places are suddenly going to be anything other than very expensive, but hey. Maybe it’s a start.

This made me stop and think for a while. What do I most remember, the surroundings or the service? I certainly remember bad service. Slapdash in Dublin; bordering on the aggressive in a top chef’s place in central London – ‘you will be vacating this table in the next twenty minutes’; nope, it wasn’t a question and, yep, it was just after 8.30. There was a Chinese place in Soho which was so notorious that people actually went there to experience the terrible service (the food was OK, though). I was there once with a Cantonese-speaking friend. There was the most enormous argument, and later she said that the bad service appeared to be a deliberate choice. A reputation feeding on itself, perhaps.

Menu outside the Petite Syrah in NiceIn semi-defence of the entire restaurant industry I must say that bad behaviour from customers often engenders the bad behaviour from staff, and there was some wry amusement last year at a cafe in Nice, which charged different prices for coffee according to how polite you were (photo courtesy Nice Matin).

Now I’ve done some waiting in the past, and customers can be very strange*, even when they’re not spontaneously rude. I had one woman who asked for more napkins because a huge sunburn blister on her leg had just burst – nice – and everyone who has worked with the public will know that some people are just spoiling for a fight. They don’t really need a reason; maybe somebody pipped them to a seat on the Tube, maybe their boss stared at them in a funny way – and so they look for someone to bully who can’t bite back. I can, and I’ve never lost a job because of it.

When I was first in a position in which I had to manage people who dealt with the public I used to say ‘treat customers as you would like to be treated’. No grovelling, no aggression, no indifference. Be polite, be courteous, but without any forelock-tugging whatsoever; just be friendly and helpful. (Oh yes – and ‘get me if they’re really horrible’.) The more I think about the service I would like to receive now, the more I realise that I somehow got it right even though I was very young – right for me, at least. That’s exactly what I want when I’m eating out.

So has anywhere got it right for me? I can immediately think of one example: the late-lamented Yetman’s. This small restaurant used to be in Holt in Norfolk, where I hired a cottage every spring for a few years to get away from ‘work’ work and do some real work instead. There was a sense of occasion there, not least because of Alison Yetman’s great cooking, and the service (from Peter Yetman) was great. It wasn’t laid back, though some critics felt it was; I found it confident, relaxed and deeply enthusiastic about the food – ideal. Above all, it wasn’t intimidating: no ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ stuff; you didn’t feel out of place in jeans, and you certainly weren’t treated any differently if you did turn up in denim. But there were big vases of flowers, comfy chairs in which to relax while you ordered, crisp tablecloths and napkins, and I liked all that: it added to that sense of occasion, florist and laundry bills or not. And that was – let’s see – must have been in the late 1990s.

So I don’t see why this ‘informal’ approach is being treated as though it was something new and insightful in a ‘fine dining’ (lordy, I hate that expression) establishment. It’s not. Informal service is not synonymous with bad service; top-end restaurants (and Yetman’s did have five stars in The Good Food Guide) do not have to have eighty-five waiters hovering around each diner, filling up wine glasses and brushing down crumbs every five minutes. Obsequiousness is not the same thing as great service.

dessertsI don’t think it’s just me.

I was staying in southern Normandy a few years ago, and there were two excellent restaurants nearby. The food was equally good at both, both had been equally well reviewed, and they both cost about the same. Neither was exactly cheap, and both of them had tablecloths (mais bien sûr).

The major difference was the service. One was a classic, preserved in aspic from the 1950s; the other was more modern in its attitude, more like a bistro, much more informal.

You could get a table at one of them whenever you wanted. Guess which? Yup. I am definitely not alone in what I prefer.

* OK, staff can be strange too. I helped a maitre’d friend a few times at a rather trendy restaurant in – no, let’s fudge and just say er, um, ‘in London’. It was perpetually short staffed, hence me putting on my black jeans and waiter’s half-apron. But I wasn’t the only helper… the boss was into S&M, and if things were really difficult he would ask what he revoltingly referred to as ‘my girls’ to come and help as well. We wore DMs; they wore stilettos (eek!). The kitchens were downstairs, and you could track the chef’s mood by the number of crumpled pieces of foil about the place – volatile, generally. One summer evening there was a mighty scream, and one of the ‘girls’ came running into the restaurant, followed by the chef wielding a large knife. What I couldn’t see was that there was a large rat between them: she was running away from it and the chef was chasing it, intent on rodenticide. Fortunately it was a Tuesday and it was pretty quiet, but any decent customer service which had been happening died on the spot (unlike the rat, which apparently ran off through the open door). I defy anyone to recover from that one…

To ramson or not to ramson…

Ramsons – aka wild garlic, stink bombs or stinking nanny (I kid you not), correctly Allium ursinum, has been, for the past couple of years, the hot fave trendy wild food. Think forgaging, think ramsons: that’s been the message in some quarters.

ramsonsThe plants are easy to identify (even easier once they’re in flower), they’re easy to gather and they’re prolifically present in hedgerows and woodland – and my garden – just about now. And now’s the perfect time, because the leaves are still young. Plus it’s the start of the hungry gap, the time when stored fruits and vegetables have been used up and the new season is yet to get going.

The recent popularity of wild garlic is nothing new; it’s been a useful herb for time out of mind. And that extends to more recent history too; the leaves were frequently collected and used during WW2 as a substitute for the flavouring previously provided by onions.

But – and I’m saying this as possibly the most enormous fan of all things allium since the Roman invasion of Britain – ramson leaves often leave me underwhelmed. Either they’re too strong or too slimy or they look revolting once cooked or they’re tough or – well, they can really, really dominate everything else. I recently slung some in a Thai green curry to see if they could hold their own, and they could. Roger Phillips almost left ramsons out of Wild Food – two sentences, no recipe –  and I’m coming round to the point of view that he might have been right.

That’s despite the fact that wild garlic is so common round me that the air can take on a distinct and powerful garlic scent – smell – at this time of year. Places are even named after it: Crafnant near me, just outside Beddgelert, means ‘valley of the wild garlic’…

But it goes against the grain, leaving such a prolific resource untouched. I’ve found two uses I do like, and like very much. The first is a wild garlic oil, made by steeping some young leaves in olive oil for a few days.

The second use is more traditional:  with fish.IMG_8576 Gerard, after all, said the leaves made a good sauce for fish but fit only for those with ‘a strong constitution and labouring men’. I’m not the latter, and I probably haven’t got the former, so I use it to wrap round the fish instead.

Salmon wrapped in ramsons
serves 2

5-6 ramson leaves, young and fresh
2 fillets of salmon
1 slice of lemon, and a squeeze as well

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees conventional, 180 degrees fan, GM 6. Spread out a piece of foil big enough to wrap the salmon generously. Put two of the leaves on the foil, cut the slice of lemon in half and put a piece on each leaf. Then put the fillets – head to toe, slim end next to fat end – on top of the leaves. Tuck more leaves between the fillets and lie two on top. Then pull the foil up around the fish and squeeze in some lemon juice. Bring the foil over the top and fold the sides together into a loose, but well-sealed,  parcel.

Put the parcel in an oven-proof dish and put it in the oven for 15 minutes. Carefully unwrap the parcel – the steam inside is hot – and check that the salmon is cooked, which will depend on the size of the fillets: they should be opaque all the way through and not transparent. Reseal and return to the oven if necessary for a few more minutes.

Once cooked, unwrap the fish and remove the leaves from the top and middle. Carefully lift the fillets from their parcel and off the lemon and bottom leaves, and put them on a plate to cool. Serve with a green salad (without ramsons, unless you’re addicted), sauté potatoes and lemon mayonnaise.

Spring on a plate.
It’s not that I haven’t tried other things, as often recommended. Ramson pesto: too strong by half, takes ages before everything you eat afterwards stops tasting of garlic. Ramson leaves in salad? Use one, and make it tiny; otherwise, ditto. Ramson leaves added to saute potatoes? If you’ve ever had burnt garlic, you’ll know the risk. Let’s just say I contemplated leaving home. And had to wash everything. Maybe I just have access to very strong wild garlic…

There are more than two coffee shops in Wales…

Way back in January of last year, one national – hah, allegedly – newspaper published a list of the fifty best independent coffee shops in the UK. Wales, apparently, has – wait for it – two. Both in Cardiff. At least they restricted their choice of London coffee shops to ten, but there were still more in the EC postcode area than in the whole of Wales. Hello?

Now this might have been acceptable, or even vaguely accurate, about twenty years ago (then again no, it wouldn’t have been either) but today it is merely lazy and complacent. There are plenty of good independents. Plenty. Even in small towns like those near me. OK, there are some bad ones and some which are merely indifferent. But there are some which are stonkingly good.

I’ve had a bit of a rant about coffee shops here before, where I contrasted a bad experience and a good one. Just to show that there’s more than one good coffee shop in Gwynedd, despite what what the Daily X might think, I’m going to have a quiet rave about another favourite: the Llew Glas Delicatessen in Harlech. It’s just had its second birthday (as it were), but it’s already hard to remember what Harlech was like without it.

Sigh. What’s not to like?

cakes at Freya'sEvery time I go in I’m reminded of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

OK, Rick’s featured a casino and not cake. And it’s not the gambling, the diamond dealing, the Nazis or Bogart in a tuxedo, either: it’s the fact that everyone ends up here. As Rene says in the film, ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’. I have seldom been in the Llew Glas and not known anybody there, but it’s not just a local haunt – some friends of mine popped in recently, complete strangers to the area, and were made to feel just as much part of the scene.

I came up with several pointers for a decent coffee shop in that earlier post – good coffee, good alternatives, good food and good service were, predictably, my top four (the others were a little more, um, idiosyncratic, including a complete absence of religious quotes and seats you can actually sit on).

The Llew Glas wins on all those; the coffee is good, as are the non-coffs, the herb tea (me), the hot chocolate (not for lactose-intolerant moi but for almost all of my friends). The food is great. There are light lunches – soups, sandwiches, a choice of scrumptious quiches – which are freshly cooked and not bought in, as well as the usual staples of gorgeous cakes and, as the sign outside says, ‘probably the best scones in Harlech’.

But for me it’s the service which shines out. An Irish friend of mine used to do a splendid act as a waitress in a newly-flash, Celtic Tiger, Dublin eaterie. She slouched up, got too close, sniffed juicily and then said, loudly and in tones of deep boredom, ‘y’aright?’. Once upon a time service like this was the norm; customers were a nuisance who got in the way. Unfortunately there are some places which haven’t realised that times have changed (another friend of mine was asked recently whether he could ‘take down’ the – accurate – reports of bad service which a restaurant had received on TripAdvisor, and was berated when he explained that this was impossible). But fake, we’re-afraid-of-TripAdvisor, service is one thing. Genuinely good service is another, and that is what you get at the Llew Glas.

Many years ago, some friends and I had a drunken conversation about something that was missing in Harlech. There were pubs (two, then, in the upper town) and a couple of very traditional cafés, but we didn’t feel that they catered for us or our friends. A wine bar was our conclusion, then. The main reason we felt we needed one was that it would provide a place for us to socialise without going to one of the pubs – no reflection on them, but they were quite a male preserve. To an extent, and a very considerable extent, the Llew Glas has filled this niche – and it’s a tribute to how good it is that it has done so without selling alcohol or being open in the evenings. After all, ‘everybody comes to Rick’s’ or, in this case, Freya’s…

harlech castleDetails? Well, the Llew Glas Delicatessen is at 3, Plas y Goits, Harlech – just opposite the Plas restaurant, in what is often known as Blue Lion (Llew Glas) Courtyard.

It’s open 10-5, Monday to Saturday; Sundays in the season, and if there’s only one piece of raspberry and coconut slice left, you won’t like it. Honest. Leave it.