If you take the trouble to book a particular table two weeks in advance and explain that the occasion is a special one and the restaurant promises to do their best to honour the request, it’s hard not to be disappointed when you arrive to be told someone else has also requested the table. That’s what happened to The Barrister and I at lunch today. It was our second visit to La Trompette, my local posh restaurant, in just over a month and both visits were special occasions. The first time I’d also taken the trouble to go in several days in advance and specify a particular table. As it happened it was the same table.
Only a few tables were taken when we arrived on this second visit but ‘our’ table was laid for three. We were shown to another table. From our vantage point we couldn’t help but clock the guests arrive at what we had hoped would be our table. The manageress made a special detour to warmly greet the threesome so we knew they were special guests. To be fair, we were given a fairly private window table – actually second choice on our previous booking – but the mix up cast a shadow. Service is a strong point at La Trompette but not so on this visit. Our waitress wasn’t able to help with the finer details of dishes we were interested in but did get someone who could. The menu nomenclature is little more than a list of ingredients, so it’s hard to work out how they relate to each other and what to expect. Raw Loch Duart salmon, for example, was sliced and ‘cured’ with ginger, green clementine, togarashi (Japanese 7 spice) and wasabi, a pretty plate with a scoop of icy cold granita bathing the fish as it melted. A small fillet of Cornish mackerel arrived hidden under a cloud of tiny taupe bubbles on a bed of risotto-esque fregola, with scraps of cuttlefish, preserved lemon and salty bottarga. Roast Herdwick lamb with potato gratin, golden beets, kale and salsa verde was pretty much as it sounds. Three chunky slices of meat were piled neatly next to a small showing of beetroot, kale and salsa verde. The gratin was served separately, in a little dish. On our previous recent visit I’d had a fantastic turnip gratin, the cream cooked down and the top enticingly crusted but the potato version was undercooked by comparison; the potato slices swamped in under-seasoned cream. Sadly, this wasn’t the treat we had hoped for and we left wondering if we would ever bother to return.
Supper, on the other hand, was perfect. It was The B who remembered my idea of stirring nduja into baked beans and it comes highly recommended. The trick is to simmer, occasionally stirring, the beans with enough nduja to taste – I’d say 1 tbsp to 400g can beans – until the liquid is reduced, the beans very soft, the flavour rich and spicy. The gloopy gorgeousness is piled over hot buttered, slightly chewy sourdough toast (in this house Hedone brown from www.bayley-sage.co.uk). Beans are added to toast when eggs have been poached, Cheddar grated and flat leaf parsley chopped. At the moment I could eat this every day. Yum. Very yum.
It’s bright, it’s cold and I’m craving soup for lunch. In my fridge I have leeks and at the bottom of my faux dresser where I keep onions, I also have potatoes. No question, then, it’s the simplest ever leek and potato soup (again). I make it regularly because it’s so quick, so delicious, so healthy and very satisfying. All that’s required is to thickly slice a leek or two, agitate it in cold water and add it to a pan with equal quantities of peeled and diced potato. Add enough water to generously cover with generous pinch of salt and simmer until the veg is tender. Stir with a big knob of butter and serve with a doorstep of bread and it’s lunch done. If, like today, I’m very hungry, I poach an egg while the soup simmers and slide it into the soup just before serving. There is enough for tomorrow.
Tonight we are going to the first Christmas party of the season. These friends never do parties by halves, in fact this year, their invite offered a choice of two parties, one on a school night and one at the weekend. We arrive to a few glasses of fizz, then it’s next door to a long table piled with an extended mezze of salamis, hummus, olives, warm pitta bread, pickles and cheeses. The main course is fish pie. Roger brings his huge pie for inspection, the top golden and crusty, the sides scorched with sauce overspill and then it’s whipped away to be dished up with peas. A huge choice of ketchups and chilli sauces from around the world were offered but I’m happy to admit that it was me who asked for Heinz tomato ketchup.
Tonight I want to finish up the remains of the pheasant stew. This time it’s reheated, again in the oven to avoid hot spots and potential burning over direct heat, to go with mashed potato and sprouts. I make the mash in advance so I can watch masterchef and then Rick Stein eating out in Secret France. Masterchef is particularly good in this series and I’ve been watching every episode, fascinated by the different stages. There is so much talent on display but so many dishes don’t work out, usually because the chef is Trying Too Hard; less is more (Mies van der Rohe), keep it simple (Escoffier) keep coming to mind. The stew, incidentally, the carrots now molten was even better than the first time round; gravy thicker, richer, glossier, gamier. Gorgeous.
One of the good things about a freezer defrost is coming across forgotten foods. On my recent attempt, I came across a side of smoked haddock from Newlyn (www.trelawneyfish.co.uk). This smoked haddock is naturally cured, so a pale yellow colour and sold with skin on. I have many favourite recipes for smoked haddock but tonight decided on poaching it and using some of the liquid to make a Dijon-flavoured white sauce to pour over it. I had leftover mash, so on a whim made Mere Blanc’s potato pancakes, first sampled on a meal at Georges Blanc’s restaurant at Vonnas near Bourg en Bresse. On that occasion – in the early eighties, when I was a restaurant critic and aspiring wine writer – the little pancakes were served with roast chicken but they go with everything. Apart from the fact that they’re made with mashed potato and flour, it’s separating the eggs and whisking the whites to fold into the pancake mixture, that results in soufflé-like little pancakes with a lovely soft texture. I give the original recipe for Mere Blanc’s Pancakes (adapted from Georges Blanc’s restaurant La Mere Blanc) from Ma Cuisine des Saisons, translated and adapted by Caroline Conran but here’s the haddock with mashed potato and poached eggs:
SMOKED HADDOCK WITH DIJON SAUCE
The combination of thick flakes of smoky, salty fish with fluffy, buttery mashed potato and lashings of creamy tangy sauce is heavenly. Add a soft-poached egg and flourish of chives and it’s Proper Job, as they say in Cornwall.
Prep: 20 min
Cook: 30 min
4 large potatoes, approx 800g
4 thick fillets smoked haddock
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
splash red wine vinegar
1 tbsp chopped chives or parsley
Peel, chunk, rinse and boil the potatoes in salted water. Drain. Melt 30g butter in 100ml milk in the potato pan, return the potatoes, mash smooth then beat thoroughly. Cover to keep warm. Meanwhile, place the fish, skin-side down in a pan that can hold the pieces in a single layer. Add remaining milk and sufficient water to just cover. Simmer for 5 minutes then carefully turn the fish and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through. Melt 50g butter in a medium pan and stir in the flour then the mustard. Off the heat, carefully strain the fish liquid in the pan, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. Return to the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt, lemon and pepper to taste. Boil the kettle. Crack one egg at a time into a cup and slip into a pan of vinegar seasoned simmering water. Simmer for 1-2 minutes until the white is set. Serve a mound of mash in the middle of hot plates, top with fish, remove the skin, add an egg (lifted with perforated spoon), hot sauce and chives or parsley. Phew.
Beautiful bright, cold morning and today I’m meeting one of my oldest girlfriends for a walk and pub lunch. I suggest driving to Sheen Gate at Richmond Park then walking to The Victoria, a useful pub to know about for a walk-lunch-walk, a tip from my son Zach. The pub has the intriguing address of 10 West Temple, although we get to it from the Park,-along the riding track often more beset with bikes than horses. It runs parallel to the tall, red brick wall that cordons off the woods, a lovely route past petrified trees and grassy knolls for Red to frolic over. We walk through tall iron gates, turning right into the woods, over a stream and eventually past a football pitch and cricket ground and then a short walk on the road. The pub is part of the Jolly Fine Pub Group and it is. The food is masterminded by exec chef Paul Merrett. I remember is cooking at the Greenhouse in Mayfair which is where Gary Rhodes made his mark in London (initially at The Castle in Taunton) with his take on modern British food, taking over from Richard Shepherd (more famous at Langan’s Brasserie). The menu doesn’t change much and has favourites like deep fried squid, interesting south east Asian-inspired salads and very good fish and chips but I almost always have soup of the day which comes with fresh focaccia, oiled and seared. Today the soup is thick and lightly spiced squash and lentils, with a surprisingly successful garnish of toasted coconut shavings. We greedily share a plate of cheese with biscuits and slivers of fruit stuffed toast after the soup and set off for the return journey very happy – the wine probably helped.
The spiciness has prompted a craving for curry and rather than a takeaway (as suggested by The B), I decide to make spinach dal, a quick and easy chicken curry and nip out to M&S for fresh coriander (didn’t have any), nan (didn’t have any) and goat milk (didn’t have any). My Simple Chicken Curry requires no grinding of spices or careful measuring of ingredients and the recipe originates from The Fish Store (page 182) if you have a copy. The dal too is a family favourite, often making an appearance alongside lamb chops and grilled tomatoes and that is where you will find the recipe: Spinach Dal with Lamb Chops and Grilled Tomatoes.
Recover from nasty dental appointment by getting ahead with preparations for Sunday lunch when we have The B’s son and his new girlfriend coming for lunch. Peel and grate beetroot for soup with Bramley cooking apples. They’re quartered, peeled and cored then chopped into small pieces and tossed with lime juice. Both are tipped into diced onion softened in butter with a little garlic, briefly sweated with a pinch of salt and the lid on, then chicken stock added. It’s simmered until the beetroot is tender, then blitzed in batches to make thick, fluffy soup seasoned to taste with Tabasco jalapeno and salt. Apple and Lime Borscht with Chipotle for quantities. Make thick, luscious salsa verde with anchovy, capers, flat leaf parsley, garlic, basil and mint. (See Roast Lemon Hake with Salsa Verde for recipe). I halved tomatoes and roasted them smeared with olive oil, laid cut side up on foil; a tray load at 150C for about an hour until squashy, sweet and luscious. Cool and then transfer layered with foil in a poly box to stash in the fridge. Buy vigorous bunches of thyme to stuff Sunday’s chickens but more about that on Sunday.
Tonight we have tickets for Ian McKellen’s one man show (absolutely fantastic; what a star) then nip around the corner for a late supper at Sheekey’s. I love Sheekey’s and I love sitting at their bar (as happened on my first date with The B) and remember the Old Days, when there was a lot of mirror work behind the bar and points around the restaurant, useful for spying and flirting. We had a delicious itsy bitsy supper of scallops on the half shell, prawn tempura, deep fried goujons (so good, we had to order more), fearsomely hot, very crisp, very creamy croquettes, chips and a green herb salad, this greedy feast followed by a cheese board. It really was a special night out.
I’m up and out of the house, down to the butcher before queues start forming and put in my order of two chickens (for lunch tomorrow), 10 Cumberland sausages (for supper), veal stewing steak and minced beef (both for the freezer). Head off with Red the dog for a few hours clearing up after the builders at The B’s place in Covent Garden. I took pork pie, tube of English mustard and Scotch eggs for lunch and we polished, dusted and put pictures, books and bits back where they belonged. Red sat and watched. Supper in front of the fire binge watching The Crown. Cooked the sausages in the oven, made mash with plenty of butter and generous dusting of nutmeg, with petits pois and Bramley apple sauce. I always serve apple sauce cold and make it by peeled, coring and dicing a Bramley apple, tossing it with lemon juice and cooking it covered over a medium-high heat with just enough water to cover. It takes about 6 minutes before the apple has puffed and fluffed. It’s then mashed smooth with my potato masher and whisked with a knob of butter and just enough caster sugar to take the edge of its sharpness.