It’s my son Henry’s birthday today. He arrived two months early and quite by co-incidence, two of last night’s dinner guests were crucial in saving his life and mine. His arrival was dramatic, a drama that went on for months but looking at him now – tall and fit – it’s hard to believe it. Anyway, he’s older now than I was when he was born and we have lunch booked on the river at Hammersmith. My main course choice put me in touch with the chicken brick, giving me a chance to chart it’s history. Nasty dental work meant gentle food as the week progressed, a highly recommended fish pie from Charlie Bigham and a superb smoked haddock risotto from me. Usefully, it’s one of the few risotto that don’t depend on home made stock.
Woke to a beautiful bright frosty day, the sun sparkling as it melted the velvety white layer covering my garden. Decided to walk along the river from Chiswick to Hammersmith for son Henry’s birthday lunch at Sam’s Riverside. Every man and his dog was out, a veritable crush to weave past but we the were first of his party to arrive, so sat at the bar to ponder the menu over one of their very good, very strong Bloody Marys. No set lunch today but Heritage pork rib or Herefordshire sirloin with Yorkshire pud, roast pots and carrots, cauli cheese and hispi (sweetheart/pointed) cabbage on the roasts menu, otherwise one veggy, one fish and one chicken dish. I was intrigued by brick chicken with black cabbage and poor man’s Parmesan, so ordered that. The strangely named poor man’s Parmesan turned out to be breadcrumbs fried to a dark crisp in olive oil with herbs. It was tumbled over the cavolo nero covering most of the plate topped with a couple of pieces of rather dry chicken breast (always the dullest part of the bird). I haven’t seen brick-cooked chicken on a menu for years but there was a time when it was very trendy, particularly for home cooking. It first made an appearance inn 1968, in the early days of Habitat, it was Terence Conran who introduced Britain to the chicken brick. In those days it looked like a giant unglazed terracotta acorn with a wavy join, lifting apart to make a chicken size clay coffin. Once placed in the oven, the chicken cooks in its own juices without butter or oil to emerge moist, the skin crisp and golden. It was an incredibly exciting concept, novel and mad and very trendy. The brick can, of course, be used for other meats, even stews and root vegetables like potatoes, beetroot and carrots, or fruit, anything except fish or curries that will irretrievably scent the terracotta. The brick goes into a cold oven turned to the required temperature, so food takes slightly longer than normal. The idea is based on ancient cooking methods of placing food in earthenware containers over fire, sealing in air and moisture, so the food cooks naturally in its own juices. There are two schools of thought about whether the brick needs to be soaked in cold water for 30 minutes or so first; I do. It certainly helps prevent the crock from cracking. As the brick ages, it will absorb flavours and turn darker in colour but that is quite normal. One very important point; a chicken brick should be washed in hot water with a little salt or vinegar but never with detergent. Take a look at Amazon, there are loads of people selling a variation on the original which I could no longer find at Habitat.
Before we set off for Sam’s Riverside, The B nipped out specially to buy a lump of nduja (from www.bayley-sage.co.uk). He wanted the Sunday papers anyway but had supper thoughts, already thinking of our new favourite lazy Sunday supper of Nduja Baked Beans with Poached Eggs and Grated Cheddar . And that’s what we had. So yum, do try it.
The first leftovers supper of the week. I picked all the meat off the bones of our big meaty chops in the goat stew (see last week), supplementing the paucity of actual meat in the thick, dark gravy with extra stock and fried up buttery shredded leeks with leftover mash to make a leek version of bubble and squeak. With boiled sprouts, currently the favourite vegetable at my house and whenever possible bought on the stalk (which is stored outside on the garden table), this was perfect comfort food on a cold, icy night.
The second leftovers supper of the week was Moroccan Meatballs with Peas and cous cous. I merely added more chopped mint to the meatballs, heated it up and scoffed it in bowls with fork and spoon in front of the fire. Perfect.
Spent the afternoon in the dentist chair, emerging pummelled and numb. Very pleased not to have to think about supper. I was lucky to have it cooked for me, a very good and very generous fish pie from Charlie Bigham. The pie was loaded with cod, salmon and haddock in parsley sauce with a creamy mash and Cheddar and breadcrumb gratinee topping. I remember when Charlie started his business in 1998, expressly to make meals for foodies, restaurant standard but homely, using good quality ingredients. The sort of food you could pass off as your own. Not cheap but it wouldn’t be. At the time I wrote an after-work cookery column for the London Evening Standard called Home Cook – later the name of my company – but for a period I wrote a complementary column called The Good Fast Food Guide, when I reviewed a ready meal or store cupboard saviour. Looking back through my cuttings I was always a Charlie fan. I raved about his Global Gastronomy range based on his travels through India and beyond. I particularly recommended Punjabi chicken, Moroccan-marinated lamb with an apricot and fresh mint sauce and Thai-marinated chicken breast with coconut and shallot sauce. www.bighams.com illustrates the range with a useful find a stockist link but most leading supermarkets and delis stock bighams.
I’m in need of more soft food after my dental assault. Risotto would be just the ticket and I remember that I have a side of smoked haddock in the freezer. Perfect. Smoked haddock risotto, the smoky flavours lifted by a little Dijon mustard and lots of Parmesan, is an all-time favourite. It could be garnished with a handful of crisp, streaky bacon croutons if there is bacon in the house but I just stick to chives and plenty of Parmesan. See Recipes for quantities that make a lovely soufflé for 4.
It’s Friday, so it must be fish! Actually, it was my very good luck that The B spotted Dover soles in the window of the fishmonger on his way to the tube, popped in, bought two and sent me a message saying he’d done so. What a brilliant boyfriend! All I had to do, was collect them, cook them (under the grill) and make oven chips. Oh my, oven chips are worth the effort and can be kept on hold after the first stage for up to 24 hours. Proceed as if making chips for frying but do the first blanch in boiling water rather than oil, drain them, then spread out on an oiled shallow roasting tin, leave them to cool. Add a sprinkle of salt and roast at 200C for about 20 minutes until gorgeously crusty.
There is a big lunch party to celebrate the life and times of one of The Barrister’s relations and I’m invited. The party is in one of many private rooms upstairs at Beaufort House, a huge club house on a corner site on the King’s Road part of Beaufort Street. It’s a very jolly, happy affair, with many impromptu speeches of past memories as the meal proceeds. We’ve chosen our food in advance and the service for 3 big tables in a bright airy room with windows on two sides is run with incredible efficiency. I fell on my starter of Dorset dressed crab with apple and truffled celeriac that sat in the middle of a circle of radish carpaccio. There were no potatoes with my main course of chicken breast, charred leeks, English asparagus (goodness knows where that came from, a tin, perhaps) and truffle jus but I do remember a conversation about potatoes with my neighbour at the table. I told him about Hasselback potatoes (see My Week In Food, 29 Dec 19 for full details) and shared other tips for good roasties. I’d ordered sticky date pudding with butterscotch and mascarpone ice cream but it defeated me. We slipped away to the Chelsea Arts Club around the corner and ended up staying for supper (steak and chips; very good, as always, but portion size seems to have shrunk).