Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Elemental Blend tea

By Mrs Robot

Steampunks love tea. I'm not sure why, but they do. Chap-hop musician Professor Elemental is also very popular with steampunks. He's especially fond of a good cuppa, to the point where one of his most popular songs* is his ode to the drink, 'Cup of Brown Joy'. So what could be more fitting than that he should also release his own brand of tea?

I ordered this when I ordered the latest issue of the Professor Elemental comic. I did have some qualms – £8.99 is a lot to pay for some tea, and I'm not prone to being adventurous when it comes to tea. I don't know why insisting on, say, a particular sort of Assam or Darjeeling marks the drinker out as a person of taste whereas being equally keen on PG Tips or the like means you're seen as a tea oaf, but I am very much a tea oaf. I run on plentiful amounts of good, strong tea. My morning cuppa makes getting up to commute more bearable, and I drink a pot of tea each morning and afternoon at work. (Yes, I have a teapot on my desk.) Was I going to like this blend of Earl Grey and Russian Caravan? Would it be a costly mistake?

However, you do get a lot for that, 250g of the stuff. And it's delicious! Sometimes I find Earl Grey too strong, with the bergamot overwhelming the other flavours. This blend is nicely balanced, with the Russian Caravan giving it a good, tannin-rich bottom that is really satisfying. It worked very well with milk, which is how I take my tea, but it was also super without it. This makes it ideal for taking to work, where I don't always have milk to hand. What's more, from the first light cup to the last well-brewed (possibly stewed!) one, it remained perfectly drinkable. It's versatile, tasty and just a bit different. Splendid!

*Are they called songs when they're rapped? I'm an ex-goth and old fogey and have no idea what the kids call these things nowadays.

The trouble with fish

By: Mr Robot

I have numerous issues with fish.

Firstly my Mother was freaked out by it. Despite a lifetime in nursing she somehow found the texture and smell of fresh fish appalling (as opposed to, say, as a midwife manually extracting and burning placentas) so fish was hardly a relished ingredient when I was growing up.

Even though we lived on the Norfolk Broads and had a fish van each Friday bringing it fresh from world-famous Cromer - No. So fish cooking was largely done by my Gran, on which there will be much, much more when I can bring myself to deal with it.

Secondly fish is, qua protein, rubbish. Nutrimetrically it probably ticks boxes you never cared about until big pharma told you to panic about it (*cough* Omega-3 *cough*) but as Something For Tea is utterly lacking in the key respect of texture. I want to chew my dinner goddamnit. I'm constantly baffled that vegetarians don't eat fish because as far as eating goes it's a damn sight closer to overboiled carrot than a lump of cow, sheep or pig.
[I do realise how dreadfully Top Gear that sounds, and would like to apologise.
But I can't]

I have eaten and enjoyed fish on many occasions, but the times I haven't followed up with some sort of land-based product on the way home can be counted on the fingers of one fist.

Thirdly, it's hideously expensive. I freely admit this is my own fault in that anything involving less than a pound of meat counts as mere scooby-snack. So while A Fish is relatively inexpensive, try getting half-a-kilo of flesh off the bugger and see how your wallet feels.

And before you get all Hugh F-W on me, yes food should be expensive. I do pay £15+ for a chicken and eye-watering amounts for pork that's so bloody worth it you won't believe until you try. But the £/satisfaction ratio for fish is extremely poor (see above). Texture of soggy Spam at the price of muscles will never rate well on my spreadsheet.

Finally and fundamentally, it's hard to get. We have an outstanding butcher in Walter Rose and veg is largely organic from Riverford, or from a small local greengrocer. But for fishy we're basically reliant on stupidmarkets, which nobody wants. Walter Rose do in fact supply fish but since they (quite rightly) won't have it thrown away or sitting in freezers, you need to order it in advance. I'm just not that organised.

Never mind everything else, give me a proper local fishmonger and I'll be in there every week spending inadvisable amounts and building my cookery skills enormously. But there isn't one and I can't and THAT is the trouble with fish.

All the above notwithstanding, I have much-loved cookbooks where I've done pretty much all the meat but no fish (Tom Kerridge, Uyen Luu and Thommi Miers/Wahaca to name but some) hence I'm feeling the need to go off-pais. So expect fish in future but don't be surprised if I bitch about it.

There are no images (c) PP Gettins because, well, read the damn thing

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Retro recipe: raspberry buns

By: Mrs Robot

The weather here was truly dreadful yesterday, so I decided to do some baking. I've had my eye on the recipe for raspberry buns in Julie Duff's book Cakes: Regional and Traditional for some time. Here at the House of Robots, things involving flour, pastry in particular, seem to be my thing. Another thing I love is old cookbooks and recipes.

Cakes: Regional and Traditional is a brilliant compilation of historic cake recipes from around the UK. Duff has done a massive amount of research for this book. The recipes are split into five sections - Small Regional Cakes, Large Regional Cakes, Small Country Cakes, Large Regional Cakes and Gingerbreads and Ginger Cakes. Yes, ginger was once so popular every region had its own variation so gingery bakes get a whole chapter to themselves. Where possible she tells you the region the recipe is from. There are six different apple cakes, for example, all with variations in their ingredients according to what was available and liked locally, from the Irish recipe involving mashed potato to the West Country one with spices (possibly a legacy of the area's major ports, including Bristol) to a Yorkshire one made with Wensleydale cheese. Raspberry buns are a 'country cake', assigned to no particular region, and Duff states the recipe she's reproduced comes from a cookbook handwritten in 1923 by a lady named Ivy Peatman.

The beauty of the recipes in this book is that they're so simple, possibly reflecting the sorts of ingredients that were widely available, and the limited amount of kitchen equipment most people would've owned. In this case all I had to do was rub fat with flour, add sugar, add liquids, make into balls, pop in jam and bake. Easy. Of course, it would have been easier if I had remembered to add the sugar before adding the liquid! As I worked in the sugar I was a little worried about overworking the dough. However, the resulting buns were light and looked as domed and golden as the ones in the book.

You might be looking at these photos and thinking, "They look a bit plain." If so, Cakes: Regional and Traditional probably isn't the book for you. Everything I've made from it has been absolutely delicious - Mr Robot is especially keen on the Irish lemon cake - but nothing has been especially fancy to look at. On the other hand, if you like cake but can't bear twee fripperies, get this book!

I think when I make this recipe again I'll make two variations. I'll add a drop of almond essence to the mixture, as I think it would be delicious with the raspberry jam. Also, instead of making a little ball and popping a lump of jam into the centre, I'll make two discs and spread the jam across one, leaving space at the edge to seal the discs together, because in my buns the jam tended to stay in a blob in the centre, and I'd prefer the jam to be more spread out across the cake.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

End this madness now

By: Mr Robot

Among my many failings neurotic pedantry has always been a favourite, and recipes provide almost infinite opportunities for a crisis of common sense.

I've been playing with Jason Atherton's Social Suppers - a fine book which I won in Page to Plate's giveaway (thanks!) and am enjoying greatly - but today ran into a particular bugbear: the ludicrously unnecessary precision that comes up in these things.

Not that I'm singling Chef Atherton out by any means - it's just the book that happened to be in front of me - but here he gives a fine example of this pernicious habit.

Very slightly less than half a bottle of wine

The recipe calls for, and I quote:
2 onions
2 carrots
2 sticks of celery
1 head of garlic
1 leek
125ml soy sauce
375ml white wine
etc etc

Go through that that again, slowly. Three hundred and seventy-five ml of wine? Really?

If you have a certain mindset, that already looks suspiciously precise for what is basically half a bottle, but read on and it gets better.

Once the veg are softened the (also dubiously specific) soy sauce goes in and gets reduced "by half". Then the wine goes in, again to be reduced "by half".

Never mind that my veg are beardy organic types in deviant sizes, how in the name of sanity am I supposed to establish that, of this pan of vegetable, cooking oil, soy sauce and wine, precisely 187.50ml of it is el vino?

I reckon that's 203.48ml wine - another 2 minutes then 

It's absurd, clearly, and drives me mildly potty. So why bother with it in the first place? I have two theories. Either:

  • The obsession with detail required to become a Michelin-starred chef is so all-consuming they simply can't help measuring absolutely everything no matter how inappropriate - which begs interesting questions of, say, the wedding night, or
  • This is something dreamed up by editors and publishers who believe that we, the humble book-buying public, need it for the sake of credibility or overcoming our own ineptness. 

I lean toward the latter, and imagine the editorial meeting thus:

Editor:  This "half a bottle" of wine you've got - can we change that? It's a bit woolly.
Chef:    That's how much goes in
Ed:       But it's not very cheffy is it? They'll think you're just winging it.
Chef:    Ok then, put 350ml
Ed:       Nah, no good - they'll see right through that
Chef:    [sighs] Fine, make it 375ml but don't blame me if some nutter starts ranting on the internet

Not that I want everything to be like our venerable Quaglino, where the assumption is that the cook knows practically everything anyway and the book is largely redundant. Opening a page at random we find
FAISAN CASSEROLE: cook pheasant in butter and finish with pieces of bacon as a garnish, a little gravy and serve 
which is followed by
FAISAN DEMIDOFF: Same procedure as for Quail Demidoff 

(I suspect M. Quaglino was a fan of Spinoza)

Quaglino's Complete Hostess

But there must be some middle ground where we can get useful detail without being treated like children with recipes that, if you think too hard about them, start to look like fairy tales.

Perhaps it's just my peculiar mental frailty that I even notice these things, never mind get wound up by them. But if the interweb is good for anything, it's surely the opportunity to inflict our personal neuroses on the world.

Incidentally, the recipe in question was Braised Pork Belly with Chorizo & Pepper Puree and Spiced Onions. Once I'd stopped ranting and actually cooked the thing, it was absolutely magnificent.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Ambiente Tapas, York

By: Mr Robot

York is a delightful city. The pubs are many and excellent, there are some outstanding museums, the wonky streets of the old town never cease to please and it's packed with tempting eateries. Whenever we visit, our main regret is not having the time or belly to do it justice and this latest trip was no different.

The Trembling Madness, Blue Boar and Three Tuns were all enticing but time and circumstance were against us, though we did find some excellent eating - including the (practically compulsory) roast pork place down from the Minster and a fine pie shop.

Highlight of the trip, though, was an impromptu visit to Ambiente Tapas on Goodramgate. We were lucky to get in, what with it being Tour de France Day, but they slotted us in to a high barrel-style table in the bar area, which turned out to be a very good thing. There's proper dining upstairs which we didn't see so can't comment on but for me tapas belongs in a lively, informal setting and that's just what we got.


The menu is plenty big and priced reasonably with most dishes coming in around £4-£5, and covers both classics and slightly more off-the-wall offerings. So we ordered ourselves a big jug of rebujito and got stuck in in an impressive - not to say appalling - way.

Would it be bad to order everything?

First up was a sharing platter of cured meats, pate, olives, bread etc, along with croquetas de jamon (Mrs R's favourite thing in the whole world) and for your humble correspondent, carilla da bresa: pork cheeks braised in Pedro Ximenez.

The platter was just as you'd expect: a fun snacky mix of which the serrano-ham-wrapped-dates stands out. The pork cheeks too were excellent - rich and soft and sticky and deeply moreish. The croquetas were, well, just a bit odd. I'm not sure what went in them - perhaps some pimenton or saffron or something, or perhaps the ham had been minced in - but the centre was sort of pale orangey-red, not the pure bechamel with tiny jamon nuggets one expects. Not that it was bad, mind, it was very nice. And the accompanying pea puree was lovely. But in Mrs R's book there's only one way to do croquetas and that's not fuck with them.

Croquetas de Jamon

Then I noticed the Jamon Iberico Bellota. At £8 a pop it's easily the most expensive thing on the menu and so it should be, because this stuff comes from the back leg of free-range black-footed pigs stuffing themselves fat on acorns and is just about THE BEST THING YOU CAN EVER EAT.

Jamon Iberico Bellota

And so it was.

Tapas is not for sharing but with the bellota we did just that because we love each other so much, and are used to fighting in public.

Share this? Seriously?

This was followed by creamy, herby mushrooms for me and albondigas - meatballs - for madame. Traditionally albondigas come in a rich tomato sauce but Ambiente had decided to go off-piste with a Thai-style chilli & lemongrass affair which worked extremely well.

Note to cynics: "confusion" is just the Spanish for "with fusion"
NB. We're not so precious about meatballs having been caught out in Seville with ones made of, um, cuttlefish - which is exactly as vile as it sounds.

Quickly rejecting the offer of pud, we returned to the menu yet again. This time pancetta de cerdo - similar to chicharrones, being nuggets of pork belly that's been slow cooked with lots of cumin and salt. Aside from the Bellota this was my favourite thing of the night: one of those dishes that just makes you groan happily at every bite.

You can do what you like to pork belly, as long as it's this

Along with that we had bunuelo de bacalao - salt cod in batter - that was light and crisp and I wish we'd had earlier because it would've gone so well with the (sadly now exhausted) rebujito.

Bunuelo da Bacalao

This last round was accompanied by my traditional cry of "bring me something young, Spanish and rough" which delivered an excellent merlot. No idea what it was but it had the ripe fruit and startling tannins that's exactly what you'd want on a hot and dusty day in Castilla-Leon.

Finally I have to say the staff were fantastic. They weren't just attentive but positively and universally friendly, and very happy to talk about the food, the place, the drinks etc when time permitted. They even indulged my passion for speaking hopeless Spanish, which really is going an extra mile. As is so often the case, the food can be excellent but it's the people that make an exceptional evening.

All in the bill came to an exceedingly reasonable £75, and a tip only limited by the cash in my pocket. We waddled off with achingly full bellies, and very happy memories.

This is a fully independent review: Greedybots paid full whack and received nothing for free except kindness, of which there was lots.


All images (c) PP Gettins

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Where did all the noodles go....

By: Mr Robot

It's a while ago now, but the confluence of Sam & Sam Clarke talking about Morito and MiMi Aye's Noodle! book launch also marked the approximate end of our Asian food month.

Inspired by both the food and the surprising weight loss of our Burma trip we'd decided to go for a rematch on home turf in the hopes of eating well, learning something about cuisines we're shamefully ignorant of, and perhaps being a bit less porky. So how did it go?

Porky. Like me.

Well as far as the weight thing is concerned, Mrs R lost a little bit and I failed miserably. I think that's a combination of non-existent portion control (never seemed an issue in Burma, mind) and my taking the "unlimited beer" element a tad literally. Plus I'd find myself lunching on crappy sandwiches Chez Esso and thus undermining the whole thing.

Uyen Luu's Beef, Anise & Lemongrass stew: amazing eating
On the other hand, we ate amazingly well, and continue to do so. We would be genuinely wowstruck by both the food itself and the fact that we had made it. If for no other reason, everyone in the world should try cooking a totally new* cuisine just to get that sense of bewildered pride that comes of slavishly following instructions exploring a new flavour palette.

*ie. previous experience pretty much consisted of Mr Lau's very fine takeaway up the road and some eateries in Bath: home cooking practically nil.

We had three bibles and have come to love all of them:

Uyen Luu's My Vietnamese Kitchen was a complete revelation. We'd never eaten Vietnamese before, (never really thought of it to be honest), but it's a mighty attractive tome and the recipes are deceptively simple. Clearly with no context we could be producing absolute travesties, but if we are they're bloody tasty ones.

Summer Rolls. Probably a travesty

MiMi Aye's Noodle! which, for the pedants out there, went on sale a couple of weeks before the official launch, and has literally a hundred things to do with noodles. We're getting on for 10% in by now and nothing has let us down. It also contains recipes for things we had in Burma so carries a certain Proustian delight. Ah, sweet Madeleine - what a gal.

Shan Noodles like we had in Shan State, surprisingly

Ching-he Huang's Chinese Food Made Simple because Mrs R got bored of me constantly replaying it on TiVo. And yes it is very simple - at least to a chef of my standing. Ahem. My obsession point here was the Sichuan hot pot vat-of-chillies-thing which I've still never made because it's a hell of a faff and you really need friends round(which I don't have) BUT I do have a good inch or so extra round the tum thanks to everything else in there.

Ching-he Huang's Spiced Lamb on Orange & Fennel salad

We wouldn't pretend to be halfway competent of course, but a month focussing on a single style - even continentally broad - does wonders for the confidence and is great fun. We have eight to ten new staple dishes to roll out whenever, but more importantly our enthusiasm has only grown.

So at the end of our month, what had we learned?

  • Fish sauce has a permanent place in our cupboards
  • Dipping sauce
  • Thai basil needs to be eaten RIGHT NOW
  • Char siu is not only doable at home, it's practically compulsory
  • How to make mince with a cleaver
  • The less familiar the cuisine, the more fun you'll have
  • Once you let the wife call a dish Snakes On A Plane, she will never stop

Ants Climbing Trees. Not, repeat NOT, Snakes On A Plane

All images (c) PP Gettins