Thursday, 30 August 2012

Anniversary dinner @ Dinner: A picture post

Him Indoors and I very recently celebrated our 2nd English Wedding Anniversary. You see, we had 2 weddings. For some people, this could lead to confusion and panic. After all, that is two cards which have to be bought well in advance, two dates which have to be remembered on pain of death! However, we have found this is an excellent excuse for having two BIG meal blowouts a year! Our 2nd Indian Wedding Anniversary was celebrated at Le Petit Maison, the superb Southern French restaurant which proudly declares "Tous célèbres ici" (everyone is famous/a celebrity here). So following that wonderful meal up was always going to be a challenge. We decided to haul out the big gun; Mr Heston Blumenthal. 

I've always had a soft spot for Heston. Maybe it's because I grew up in Heston, maybe it is Heston's utterly driven, borderline geeky pursuit of food perfection. I don't know. I always enjoy watching him create his masterpieces on TV. Especially his brave attempts to construct food equipment from the most unlikely objects. So when Him Indoors said he had managed to book us in to Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge, I was delighted. 

We arrived, and the place was animated and happening. It only got busier as our time there went on. This place seems to be a magnet! Tourists, businessmen, family groups and couples of all ages and races were there. It would appear that Heston's reputation and appeal has transcended all boundaries.

What did we eat?

Meat Fruit is described as "Mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread" and was inspired by a recipe from c.1500. Coincidentally, it costs £15.00! But as with so much of the molecular/super-innovative food of today, the description doesn't properly prepare you for the reality. What you get is a perfect, smooth chicken liver parfait, rolled into a ball and covered in mandarin jelly. How the jelly tastes so good, and yet manages to mimic the skin of a mandarin so perfectly is probably one of Heston's biggest secrets. And if he tells you, he may have to kill you! The grilled bread is a sweet toasted brioche. My only criticism of this super dish is why only the one slice? More bread, please!  

Rice and Flesh is described as "Saffron, calf tail & red wine", and is inspired by the oldest of the Old English recipes which influences the menu at Dinner (dating back from c.1390). To put that into context, Geoffrey Chaucer was alive then. And English was not English as we know it, but was 'Middle English'. If you want to have a look at how different the language was back then, check out Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales here: (Good luck! I studied it for A level English Literature and spent a fortnight trying to translate it!)  The dish is a slightly al dente rice dish, made from a type of risotto rice, gently flavoured with saffron. It has the creamy taste and saffron flavour of a Risotto Milanese, but the bite left in the rice is intriguing and somehow (sacrilegious as this may seem to risotto lovers) totally right for this dish. The calf tail, stewed in red wine has been slow cooked to perfection. All of which will set you back £16.00.

The Roast Turbot, inspired by a dish from c.1830, is described as being served with "Leaf chicory & cockle ketchup" and is a steep £36.00. The turbot is superb quality, and perfectly cooked. However, I was slightly disappointed with the dish as for me the cockle ketchup was overly sour and did not go well with the leaf chicory. When eaten with some of your side dish, the ketchup is mellowed. But to serve something with such a strong tang with such a lovely piece of fish doesn't quite do it for me. It was totally edible, so don't get me wrong here. 

The Black Foot Pork Chop served with "Hispi cabbage, lardo, ham hock & Robert sauce" is from an original source recipe from c.1860. The on-the-bone chop was a lovely hunk of pinky meaty deliciousness. What is Robert sauce? I don't really know. It's thymey and mighty tasty! Compared to some of the other main courses, it is pretty reasonably priced at £30.00

When it came to puddings, I just couldn't choose. The menu is varied and everything sounds superb. Thankfully, my exceptionally polite and helpful waiter suggested I went for the Tipsy Cake. This is one of the dishes which has come to be commented on by quite a few other reviewers. Based on a recipe from c.1810, it is made from spit roast pineapple, lovingly cooked for three whole hours. Actually, when you arrive, before they take you to your table, check out the glass walled area where you can see the chefs at work. You will be able to see the precision built spit, rotating the 6 peeled pineapples whilst simultaneously raising and lowering them. It's mesmerising, and you could probably watch it for the 3 hours that the pineapples take to cook. Costing £12.00, this is a dish which delights with the boozy, sweet cake which I can only liken to a brioche, but seems almost to taste of custard, complimenting the caramelised pineapple beautifully in texture and flavour. 

If you want the Tipsy Cake, make sure you order it at the same time as your meal. The brioche is baked especially for you, and therefore takes time. 

The intriguing Brown Bread Ice Cream (inspired by a dish from c.1830), really does taste of brown bread, although sweeter and more satisfying. Served with salted butter caramel, pear & malted yeast syrup and clocking in at £9.00, is a great combination of crunch and slurp. Sweet heaven. The portion could be a little bigger, but perhaps I am being greedy!

To finish off came a glorious caraway seed biscuit with a ganache chocolate pot. I think if I had been able to sneak into the kitchens I may have slipped a couple of them into my handbag! Rich, indulgent, calorific and delightful.

After all that, I needed a lovely digestive pot of green tea. Because frankly, I was stuffed! 

Dinner has a very wide selection of wines available by the glass. This means with the help of the sommelier, you can match your wine with each course very precisely. It is worth bothering with this, particularly since you are likely to pick very different flavours (some of which can be very strong) in each of your courses. We found this really enhanced the quality of our experience. There is also a cocktail menu if you are that way inclined.

A word on the sides: if like me, you've read all about Heston's special 'triple cooked chips', you need to know that these are only available seasonally. So just like the true old fashioned chippies (the ones which don't buy frozen ready cut chips), the potatoes available in the Summer are not quite the right type for chipmaking. I remember having slightly lacklustre chips in the Summer at my old local chippy, and waiting for Winter to come again, bringing the tasty chips. The poor chipmaster had to put a note up in the window when the Summer potatoes came in, so many people would complain that the chips weren't quite right. Dinner have made the decision simply not to serve chips, substituting with twice cooked fries. Just so you know!

Dinner is an amazing restaurant. It IS expensive, I'm afraid. Particularly when you start to add drinks to the bill. It is the kind of place you go to for a special occasion, as we did. It is not an every day place. But we all need things to look forward to and to which we aspire. That is where this kind of 'uber-restaurant' fits the bill perfectly. If you love your food, you'll know of great local restaurants, pop-ups, street food and market stalls for ordinary treats. Save up for a trip to Dinner and it won't disappoint. Just don't expect to make it a habit. Unless you win the lottery.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Friday, 24 August 2012

Cheating at cooking: Cheat's Aruhar Dahl

Sadly, there are many classic Indian dishes which, frankly, I don't have a Scooby about. (Scooby Doo = clue, in Cockney rhyming slang. Anyone not familiar with this somewhat tongue-in-cheek vernacular can consult My mum is an amazingly accomplished cook whose Indian food is as tasty as she is modest about her abilities. No, she isn't one of those Indian mothers  who says they aren't a great cook secretly fishing for praise. She seriously does not think her abilities equal that of my dear departed gran, her mother, and is geniunely taken aback by praise (and equally so an empty plate after second servings!). But I never managed to achieve her nouse and intuition for Indian cooking. 

I realise some of you will have heard stories, which you have decided can only be apocryphal, about gifted Indian home cooks who never measure anything out. Let me assure you, my first 21 years were spent watching the reality. Mum never measured anything out. Her superb instincts guided her in every delicious dish she made.

All of which leaves me in big trouble. I want to eat the food of my childhood; comforting dahls, satisfying gravy-fest curries, spiced stir fried veggies..... One of my students recently said that this food was, to her, 'Soul Food'. She's right, it is my Soul Food too. Food which connects me to a heritage I have largely missed out on due to my pathetic inability to absorb or understand Hindi or Bengali. But, like my grasp on Bengali, my grasp on Indian cookery is shaky, inaccurate, sometimes hamfisted or overly heavy-handed.

Recently, me and Him Indoors went out for a meal in Shoreditch. We arrived in town early, hoping to scope out a bar for a pre-dinner drink. We found ourselves very close to Brick Lane. The spices started calling me, and I asked Him Indoors if he wouldn't mind if we walked along Brick Lane. We'd arrived in plenty of time for our booking, so off we went. And then I found it..... BANGLA CITY! 

My parents are Hindu Bengalis. They are a people who come essentially from the geographical area which is now Bangladesh. In 1947 all non-Muslims were advised to leave what was soon to become East Pakistan. My mum's and dad's families didn't hang around and moved into India. Many atrocities occurred on all sides of the 1947 partition. No one has the right to any moral high ground. What is clear is that many ordinary people had to give up homes inhabited for generations for an uncertain future in a new land. 

So my culinary heritage is Bengali/Bangladeshi. Their food is spicy, but not fiercely hot. Often juxtaposing spice with sweetness. There is also a tangy, spicy sweet-sour flavour which is very prized. It is a subtle mix of flavours which, frankly are easy to bodge. I felt I needed a helping hand. And Bangla City promised to provide it.
My Cheat's Ingredient: Spice mix

My mum makes what she calls 'Aruhar Dahl'. This is a dahl (lentil stew) made up of Toor Dahl. Some may not be familiar with Toor Dahl. Chances are you are familiar with Masoor Dahl, a dehusked and split  orangey-red pulse which is about 3mm in diameter. Or you may have had Chana Dahl (made of split chick peas). Some restaurants serve the delicious Punjabi Madhi Dahl/Makhni Dahl (Madhi means "mother's", Makhani means "butter"), made of black (urid) dahl. Toor Dahl is made from Yellow Pigeon Peas (Cajanus cajan), which are dehusked and split. They can be bought dry, but are often coated in oil to preserve them for long storage and shipping. You will see that I bought the oily variety. This is available in Indian grocers shops, but larger supermarkets, particularly in areas where a lot of people of Indian origin live will also stock packs.

I know what you're thinking; "Oily lentils? Ugh! I thought pulses were supposed to be healthy!" Don't worry; you will wash the oil off. Although you will need some patience. I found that it took 2 short soakings and 2 thorough washes to get the oil off. You've got to get your hands in and move the lentils around under running water, but you'll find that you'll get to the point where the water is pretty clear.
The great unwashed? This is what the dahl looks like straight out of the packet

After a 5 minute soak and some agitation

After the first rinse through

Second soak

After the second rinse: time to start cooking!

When making Toor dahl, it is customary to add some fried asafoetida (or hing) at the end of the cooking. Hing comes from the root of Ferula assafoetida. When I tell you what some of its common names are, namely devil's dung and stinking gum, you might realise that one of it's most characteristic features is its strong smell. But please don't worry, the hing will be cooked, and its smell will mellow. 

The recipe on the pack reads thus (copied exactly):
"Boil 200g Arhar Dal in 800ml. water till tender. Fry 80g chopped onions in 40g cooking oil till golden. Add 100g chopped tomatoes and 15g Arhar Dal masala. Stir for 4-5 min. till it becomes paste. Take one part of boiled Dal and add to it. Mix well. Then transfer it to the remaining boiled Dal. Check seasoning. Simmer for 5 minutes. Dress with chopped coriander leaves & serve with Rice or Roti."

Perhaps not expressed as well as it could be, but the method is fairly clearly set out. This is basically a dahl with a tarka made of onion, tomato and the spice mix. I've made lots of Tarka Dahls in the past (Tarka is the fried spice mix thrown into the lentils at the last minute, not the type of pulse used).  I have posted my own recipe previously (link here), but I have never made a tomato tarka. So I was curious about the outcome. But before we get to the verdict, let's review the preparation and cooking process.

As I have said already, you need to wash the lentils. Now you're read to start cooking. 

The directions don't tell you how long it will take until the Dahl is 'tender'. Well, that appears to be about an hour. Mine took 1 hour 5 minutes. Just so you know. Put the pan on a low simmer, and then do something else. Set your laptop up in the kitchen and either get some emails done, or waste time (sorry, I mean browse) Youtube or Facebook. But leave youself 5-10 minutes for chopping the onions and tomatoes.

This is what the tender Dahl looked like:

Tarka time! I fried the onions for 5 minutes before I then added the tomatoes and masala mix. I'll confess that I found measuring out exactly 15 grammes of spice quite difficult. I wish they'd told me how much masala in teaspoons or tablespoons. My scales didn't initially register the weight of the spice, and it took a couple of goes to get it right. (Request to recipe writers; domestic scales are not very good for precise weighing of small weights lighter than 25g/1oz. Please use spoon measures instead!)

I then took some of the cooked Dahl and put it in the Tarka pan. The contrast of colours is amazing.

Mixing the two up causes the Dahl to darken and go a mellow browny-orange. The texture thickens as you mix. And the smell is very inviting!

Time now to put this mixture in the main Dahl pan. Look at the difference in texture and colour.

The two halves of the Dahl need thorough mixing to disperse all the flavours of the cooked spices. Get your stirring arm going!

Because I really wanted to see what flavours the spice mix would give to the lentils, I did not add the chopped fresh coriander at the end. Chopped fresh coriander is not to everyone's tastes, but I personally love it added to cooked Dahl. It freshens and lifts the taste in a way which makes it worth the hassle. If you are adding some, you will need a good handful. I find when I am cooking Indian food, the supermarket bags of coriander leaf are a little too stingy for my liking. I go and buy a bunch from a local ethic shop. I get much more leaf for much less coinage. 

My verdict: this spice mix delivered a very satisfying result. It was quite hot, and for me, did not need any more heat. It has an authentic balance of flavour. Although the phrasing of the recipe could be improved, it is very effective. The texture added by the onion and tomato tarka gives the Dahl body. Him Indoors likes more chilli than me, and was suitably impressed with the kick of this dish. We will be making it again, when I next have time for a curry-fest (it is a shame that Indian food can be so time consuming to make!).  

The masala mix contained coriander, red chilli, salt, mustard, turmeric, cumin, onion flakes, tamarind, dry ginger, garlic flakes, cloves, nutmeg, curry leaves and asafoetida (hing). If you have space to store another carton of ingredient, I would say it warrants some cupboard space. Getting the balance of spices right can be tricky, and this stuff takes the guesswork out of things. 

If you want to try to make an authentic version from scratch, here are a few recipes: (Very helpful instructions for both pressure cooker and ordinary cooking, and a simple tarka. Exactly what you'd expect from Mamta, the mum of Kavey of Kavey Eats fame, one of my favourite food bloggers) (Slightly different from the Bengali version)

As ever, if any readers have their own recipes, techniques or feedback, please let me know! I am always pleased to hear from you. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

What you've missed on FB - A Favourites List

Hello everyone,

Hand pulling noodles from dough
One of the food blogs that I follow is the excellent "101 Cookbooks" by Heidi Swanson. Heidi started her blog when she realised she had too many cookbooks but wasn't actually cooking from them enough. I know the feeling; I'm always tempted to buy more cookbooks when actually I have enough to cook from to feed myself and Him Indoors for several years!

Heidi's blog is a 'recipe journal' and contains great dishes and superb photography. It is definitely work a visit:

But one thing I particularly like is her monthly 'Favorites List' (it's an American blog before the UK "Spelling Police" get to me, OK?). In these lists, Heidi collects together articles which interested her, film and book recommendations, and of course, recipes. 

I've been posting occasional links to things I find interesting on the Snig's Kitchen Facebook page for some time. It's done as and when I find something I like, or when I have time. Find the Facebook page at: 

However, perhaps now is a time to collect together these random recommendations so that if anyone has missed something, they don't have to dig through my timeline to find them.

After this post, I will do my best to put together monthly Favourites lists. So, Heidi, thanks for your wonderful blog, and thanks for a very useful idea!

Blogs worth reading:


Hong Kong food at its best

I unapologetically notice that I have posted a LOAD of Chinese recipes here. After my wonderful trip to China, and eating so much great food, what did you expect?

(Angela Hartnett's red wine and chorizo risotto)

Other food items:

Ship's kitchen on the Yangtze
Food thoughts on Indian Independence Day 

2nd Dishoom coming soon to Shoreditch!

Waiters and their secret codes to denote nice (and not-so-nice) customers

Let us keep our delicious seafood and stop sending it abroad!

Defending food bloggers 

The truth about MSG

Bargain Michelin starred restaurant lunches

You are what you eat?

A tale of two menus: the 'secret' insider menus in some Chinese restaurants

Food bloggers pick their fave places to eat

Cards to print to indicate dietary restrictions when in Japan

Phew! That was a lot! But that was a few month's worth. Hope you enjoy browsing over the next few weeks!

More Favourites in September!