21 June 2014

Opera: Season 1 Done

I've gone apeshit for arias, bonkers for bel canto. After seeing my first-ever opera in September I ended up going to eight for the season at the ROH, and I've already booked a couple more missions for next season.

orchestra stalls --> stalls circle --> grand tier --> balcony --> AMPHITHEATRE WOOHOO!

I did get to sit all over the place as well. The front row of the amphitheatre, way way up there, had astoundingly good acoustics. Unbelievable. Like the singers were mixed straight out in front on a platter. Crystal clear.

The cheeriness of the crowd when I went to see Figaro was no fluke. The experience was uniformly festive. No stuffiness and everyone always seems really happy: we get to see an opera tonight! What's not to be cheerful about?

And yes, I did use the cloakroom on several occasions and it's true, the ROH cloakroom is an amazement. Free, fast, friendly, efficient -- qualities so foreign to any area of service in the UK that at first it seems like a scam of some sort. But no, just a really pleasant surprise.

For the season I ended up seeing:
Marriage of Figaro
Elektra
Wozzeck
La Fille du Regiment
Turandot
Faust
La Traviata
Tosca


For me, opera is not just the music. There's acting! And a story. And staging. And even some dancin' -- notably the gypsy dance on the card table in La Traviata, the over-the-top ballet sequence in Faust, and Elektra's insane death-dance were highlights.

For most operas I went in cold -- deliberately knowing nothing about them. I found this heightened enjoyment of the story. For Tosca I listened to the full opera, without knowing the story, a few times before the performance. That seemed to work out well but not strictly necessary.

I really enjoyed them all. Figaro I loved. Wozzeck I liked a lot more than I expected to. Likewise ElektraTurandot was probably my least favourite, although the staging and spectacle were quite impressive, as were the two leading ladies. But the story was pretty bad, and the leading man had a couple issues. One is that although he did a fine job as far as I could tell (I'm not sure I can tell yet, one way or another), the women were rattling the rafters and pretty much overpowering him. The second issue is Nessun Dorma, which is now known for Pavarotti's renditions. That's a hard act to follow.

But it carried a bit more emotional weight for me because I remember [and I hope this is not a false memory] Gramps really liking Pavarotti. All those years ago I recall not understanding it, and rolling my eyes at The Three Tenors. At the same time Gramps was rolling his eyes at my music, so fair play. But now I get it. While I'd never go see something like a Three Tenors concert, I get it now. Here they are hamming it up, charmingly, in the last minute of O Sole Mio.

Fortunately Dad is still around, and tickled that two more generations have gotten into opera. If Gramps were still with us he'd be mighty pleased as well.

22 May 2014

PaleoCat Life Plan

PaleoCat on Fridge: a performance-art piece offering an unironic, melancholic comment on obligatory subservience to industrialized technology as required by neolithic sustenance practices. Or trying to get to the catnip.


Our cat recently had to go in for surgery due to blocked urinary tract & bladder stones. I'd been feeding him what I thought was a decent dry food but with this problem we've put him exclusively on "wet" [meaning real meat] food. Best quality I can find.

He lost a lot of weight in the hospital. When he first adopted us he was half-starved. Greedy little guy plumped right up pretty quickly. Now he's at "ideal" weight according to the vet. He's been home for six weeks now but has still maintained the lean figure. He's also peppier and his eyes seem brighter and bigger somehow.

You might think the lesson from this would be that animals, including humans, do better on species-appropriate diets, but you'd be wrong. The real lesson is that we should all live just like this cat.

I'll go first. My day will consist of 22 hours of lying about, interspersed with wandering around looking for an even better place to sleep. Giant pile of socks? Sure. Comforter? Of course. Inside a suitcase? Maybe.

The remaining two hours each day will be spent eating, frolicking, and begging for drugs.

21 April 2014

BurgerWeek 2

Not quite two years ago we did BurgerWeek (links for original at bottom). We decided it was time for another. We bracketed it with two from the previous BurgerWeek but tried five new (to us) places in between.



Day 1: Lucky Chip
We kicked off BurgerWeek2 with a sunny Saturday lunch at Lucky ChipThe chips were even better than last time -- properly dry and crispy on the outside. Burgers were fantastic as expected. I got the El Chappo. With fresh spinach, blue cheese, garlic mayo, roasted jalapenos, and bacon, this would be a normal-person sandwich even without the burger. But the thick, pink-in-the-middle beef patty held its own against the strong flavours in play and the whole worked beautifully together. Savoury, garlicky, crunchy, juicy, beefy. Yeah, this is the one I get every time we come here when it's on offer. Hard not to. 

Later we had homemade doner kebabs for dinner. We can use bacon burgers this week to ensure we sustain weekly minimum pork fat levels, but we were worried about not getting enough lamb fat. The DIY doners did the trick nicely.







Day 2: Honest Burgers (Soho)
Honest Burgers: GBK for adults.
There are now five instances of the growing Honest chain. This was our first ever visit but won't be our last. The Soho branch is small but comfortable and very relaxed and cheerful, with friendly and just-attentive-enough service. 

So, the food? Well, the onion rings were the best we've had in the UK. They were the best because they were just normal batter-dipped onion rings done right, and the bar here is really low. 
Most London onion rings taste like rings of wound cling film coated in oil-soaked paper towel. For a nation that can do fine dipping pieces of cod into batter and then the fryer, onion ring mastery seems oddly elusive. The basket of rings came to the table piping hot, dry, not at all greasy, with a lovely dark golden crust. Beneath the crunch the onions were sweet and tender. They were what onion rings are supposed to be.  
excellent onion rings, Honest
The chips were similarly cooked well. We both appreciated the dusting with rosemary salt. For the burgers we both got the special "BrewBurger", a collaboration with BrewDog that the brewer describes thusly, "150g aged beef patty topped with Comté cheese, then piled high with 5am Saint candied bacon. Oh yes. Then on top of that, we've got beer fried onions, made with Punk IPA, and for the icing on the burgery cake we've developed a BBQ reduction with Paradox!"

It was sweet and tangy and beefy and hit the spot. We're hoping for more Honest branches. We put Honest above Byron (which we are quite fond of) in this category (and well above GBK).







Day 3: Bleecker St. Burger, Southbank
Food truck on Southbank. Bit disorganized but cheerful and pleasant. I got a double with cheese,Garvey got the blue cheese burger. Thick patties with decent beefy flavour. Chips were tasty enough but limp. Overall not terrible but pretty run of the mill. Not worth a special trip. A very large step below Lucky Chip. And in the area it's worth the extra 10 minutes walk across the river to go to MeatMarket. Unless you're baked out of your mind I'm at a loss to explain the overenthusiasm this place engenders.
We were far too sober for this one








Day 4: Comptoir Gascon
Holy mother of duck! Change of pace night. Comptoir Gascon used to be a deli until they turned it into a nice but casual bistro with the deli bits relegated to a small display in the corner. Food is Gascony focused, as you might guess. The space is inviting and comfortable, service warm and relaxed. We were here for the duckburgers. We nearly started with duck rillettes and crispy glazed barbecued duck neck, but instead got the irresistible "piggy treats". Amidst the charcuterie was a warm rectangle of the most perfect black pudding we've ever had. It was pure melting satin inside a crisp salty shell. Unbelievable. I seriously considered asking for some for dessert.
oh the black pudding
And the burgers? Duck burger topped with a generous slab of foie gras ("the deluxe"), covered in a nicely glazed bun. It was as savoury and as velvety rich as I'd hoped it would be. A warm ceramic bowl filled with luxurious chips cooked in duck fat matched perfectly. Looking forward to return visits.





Day 5: Patty & Bun
Calm down, it's just a burger
Queue up. Or don't. I don't like waiting in lines. Shockingly, this place had a 30-minute queue outside the door. I would never have eaten there but the youngster got there 45 minutes before I did and didn't mind waiting. So by the time I got there my wait was around a single minute. But seriously, no burger joint is worth a wait like that. MeatLiquor is about a three minute walk away. Within 30 minutes there are easily 10 decent burger places to go. Queuing up for food like that is really dumb, unless you'll be meeting your heroin dealer in the restaurant. Then it's ok.

Patty & Bun is a bit of a hybrid -- it's got table service but has more of the feel of a food truck or a takeaway shack. It's bustling, high-energy, positive vibe. Also noisy, small, packed, elbow-to-elbow. Service was super quick without being too aggressive. Despite the queue, the ladies next to us felt comfortable spending a lot of time just talking. They were already finished with their food before we sat down, and were still chatting away after we'd left. I was curious to see if the waitstaff would try to hurry them out, but they just accommodatingly left them to it.

a bit gloppy
The burgers were large and mighty. The patties were excellent. Thick, beefy, and cooked a perfect medium rare. Really outstanding. The buns, too, were top notch. The whole burger was a bit mixed. Bright orange cheese works better on thin diner-style patties. For a thick burger with quality beef, a better quality cheese is needed. The lettuce wasn't shredded. The tomato slice was too thick. The sauce was a bit too sweet. But it was enjoyable. Once the beef is perfect it's hard to not have a good time. It went quickly. The chips were very good. This is one obvious difference from BurgerWeek two years ago. Average chip quality seems to have improved across the board. The beer selection was worrying at first. The only regular beer on the menu is Red Stripe. There's a craft beer boom in London, why bother importing a crappy lager from Jamaica? [The only reason people think Red Stripe is good, and it really isn't, is because they associate it with pleasant warm-weather holidays.] Happily they had a few other beers on offer, including Founders All-Day Pale Ale, a hoppy session that went really well with the food.




Rounding out our meal was an order of wings. One of my pet peeves with UK restaurants is the usual laziness when it comes to wings. Almost no one sections them. A wing has three sections. cut them at the joints -- you can finesse this or just brute force it, very easy in either case, even for a home cook -- use the tip for stock, and use the other two sections for your dish. It's really not hard. And professional cooks should be embarrassed to put an entire wing on a plate. So when I order wings I start mentally preparing to be annoyed. I was delighted to see these were properly sectioned! A hearty cup of them. Gold star. Also a gold star for tenderness. These were slow-cooked or something because they were succulent and easily falling-off-the-bone tender. The chicken meat itself was flavourful as well. Unfortunately, they were spackled with a thick, sickly sweet sauce. Just covered with the stuff. Ready to build a retaining wall out of wings, pre-mortared. The sauce had a pleasing tangy base and a hint of heat, ruined with huge amounts of sugar. It's a shame I couldn't just get these with a splash of hot sauce, or even a salt and pepper rub. As hyperglycaemic blindness set in, I started to think of them as dessert wings. It was the sweetest ostensibly savoury dish I've tasted since the infamous Canadian maple syrup salmon incident of 2009.

Another huge downside of Patty & Bun: location. I had to spend a good 30 seconds on Oxford Street in order to make my way there, which is at least 31 seconds too long.

So… it was great and not so great. Not worth queueing for and we won't go back. HOWEVER, a second branch is opening on Liverpool Street, and we will definitely give it another try when it does.








Day 6: Elliott's Cafe 
Nice place, great looking menu. Only one burger choice, their cheeseburger. Almost elegant. Thick burger, cooked to the rare side of medium rare using wonderful-tasting beef. Bit of cheese and grilled onions. Could have used more cheese, it was almost like a condiment. I think the onions were trapped in between the melted cheese and the burger, which is a nice way of keeping things together. There were no chips, just "fried potatoes" -- lazy hunks of potato, err, fried. We didn't care for them. Nice place to sneak a burger in if you're with a group not on a burger-specific mission.





Day 7: Hawksmoor 
Still the king! Wow, what a treat. The beef, the cooking, the stilton… yeah. I just love it. Fabulous chips, fantastic starters (perfectly roasted scallops before burger? sure!), lovely creamed spinach, inviting cocktails, good wine list, improving selection of beers, this place is always worth the trip. And the sugar fiends in the family swear by the cornflake milkshake. Great finish to the week.




Epilogue
We did still enjoy and make use of BurgerApp to plan this round of BurgerWeek, although we certainly differ on a few rankings. Looking back, the big winner from our original BurgerWeek has been MeatMarket, as it's the one we've returned to most frequently.


The original BurgerWeek writeups/links:

Day 1: Lucky Chip
Day 2: MEATmarket
Day 3: Rivington Grill
Day 4: Bread Street Kitchen
Day 5: Byron
Day 6: Hawksmoor & restaurant wrapup
Day 7: homemade


20 April 2014

Confit Easy


Yesterday we had the confit[ed] legs from the Christmas geese. Usually I wait months longer but I've been hoarding duck legs so immediately had a new jar's worth of waterfowl. Confit is really simple:

(1) salt
(2) poach in fat
(3) save it in fat
(4) wait several weeks or months
(5) eat and reuse the fat for next batch of confit

That's it. A lot of chefs use the word "confit" to mean only #2 -- gently cooking something in fat. That's a fine way to prepare some stuff but it's not really confit in the traditional sense.

Salt: rub goose legs or duck legs or pork belly or any piece of meat with a bunch of salt and let it sit in the fridge for a couple days. Just salt is all you really need, but you can add more to the salt rub if you want -- e.g. chopped bay leaves, garlic, fresh thyme, black pepper.

Poach in fat: cook gently in goose fat or duck fat or lard or probably any decent quality fat, at any temperature from 100-150C. I generally do 120C but this is an old and unfussy way to preserve food so precision is not paramount.

Save it in fat: jar it in the fat and it will keep quite a while in the cellar, or even longer in the fridge.

08 April 2014

Sous Vide Gyros (Doner Kebabs)

The Ginger Pig has started a "fakeaways" series on their blog. The other week they did doner kebabs and it looked really good. Check out their recipe -- it's really easy. I adapted it as follows:


1kg lamb mince
40g (approx) garlic, minced (about 7 cloves)
2g onion powder
1.5g black pepper
8g salt
5g ground cumin
2g chili flakes


in food processor, blend all ingredients well (pulsing to the point mixed well but not too gummy, don't let it heat up)
in large bowl, knead it a bit until thoroughly worked then form into thick cylinder
roll in cling film, ballotine-style, to form smoother shape
pack in bag, still in cling film
3+ hrs @ 63C

chill thoroughly -- start in ice water -- it will keep for quite a while in fridge like thisto finish, slice thinly, lengthwise or disks -- we used a meat slicer
then pop a trayfull under the broiler browning one side only

06 April 2014

Sous Vide Ox Heart

At last year's Meatopia London, we had two different ox heart dishes, and loved them both. I eventually got around to trying it at home.

It's a hefty lump of a thing. To trim, rather than working from the outside in, I worked from the inside out. I essentially opened it up further, like butterflying it, trimmed all the sinew and such off, then cut slices off with the blade parallel to the cutting board, until reaching the outer layer of tissue. Sharp knife required.

To cook mix up

  • chopped garlic
  • chili
  • smoked paprika
  • ground cumin
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • olive oil
  • red-wine vinegar
Toss meat slices until coated evenly. If you don't want to cook it sous vide, marinate it a while then grill the slices. To cook sous vide:

Bag it all and cook @ 55C 3+ hrs. It should get more tender a few hours more but three hours was good. To finish, reserve liquid from bag, sear slices in very hot cast iron pan and set aside on warm plate. Deglaze plan with all the liquid from the bag, then reduce into a sauce. Spoon sauce over the heart slices.


We served on shredded lettuce and red onions with a squeeze of lime and some cilantro, as a salad or wrapped in a large tortilla.

22 March 2014

Sauerkraut

Yes, I do eat vegetables, too.

pay no attention to the salami and cheese

I recently got myself a Gärtopf -- simple, old design, but very clever & effective -- and started turning 2.7kg of cabbage into sauerkraut. I love it. It seems too simple to work but it is just so good. I used up to 2.5% salt by weight, including top-up brine as needed. It was really nice after a few days. It's two weeks in and getting even better.

precision-engineered German crockery

The biggest problem with making your own sauerkraut is feeling like a complete idiot for paying 100x too much for inferior grocery store stuff for so many years.

small jar, did not last long


16 March 2014

Measuring by Weight vs. Volume for Dry Ingredients

I recently read a recipe calling for "3 tablespoons of sea salt". Well, I have six different kinds of sea salt in my cupboard so I grabbed three and weighed each to see how much the density would vary. The results:

1:  8.80g per tablespoon
2: 11.75g per tablespoon
3: 17.75g per tablespoon

Much better to use weight measures for dry ingredients in recipes.

05 March 2014

Sous Vide Beefathon: Silverside, Pickled Brisket, and Shortrib Rendang

This arrived Saturday at 6:01am
A very weak observational study just came out that says people who claim to eat lots of animal protein who are between 50 and 65 years old die more than people of that age who say they eat low protein, but that people who are older than 65 who say they eat more protein actually die less. Naturally the press took this with a bit of perspective in their usual calm and reasoned way...

TelegraphHigh-protein diet 'as bad for health as smoking'
GuardianDiets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking
IndependentEating too much meat and eggs is ‘just as bad as smoking’, claim scientists
Fox News: Eating large amounts of meat, cheese may be as deadly as smoking, study shows 

Sigh. [The only semi-reasonable writeup I've seen is here.]

I must have had a premonition because this weekend I kicked off three different beef dishes, all of which have now been completed and tried. All meat came from Turner & George.

(1) shortrib rendang
I based it on this recipe. It was very tasty, but I wasn't thrilled with it. It turned out well, but needs quite a bit of work. Next time: less aromatics, more coconut, will use dried chilies, and maybe a few other changes. I cooked it 48 hours at 62C, which worked beautifully for the shortrib meat, which I'd cut off the bone into cubes. I did reduce the sauce after it was done cooking, might be no way around that. Definitely will try again.

(2) silverside
This one I brined based on this. Meh. The brine I can live without. Cinnamon with beef? Maybe in Cincinnati. Not my favourite. Next time just a salt brine. The cooking, though, was spot-on: 8 hours at 55.5C. Turned out perfectly cooked. Thoroughly chilled in the bag, then thinly sliced.

(3) pickled brisket
Normally I would brine the brisket myself but I didn't want to wait a week so got pre-pickled brisket and simply cooked it for 24 hours @62C. This was for sandwiches. If it had been meant to eat hot as a roast I would have left it in for 48 hours. Thoroughly chilled this and then sliced it thinly. This was really good. Definitely an easy way to get high quality corned beef (aka salt beef) for sandwiches. Next time I should really do my own brining though. Could have used a touch of juniper and pepper.

02 March 2014

The Jay Rayner Atherosclerosis Joke Counter

Oh dear. After an eight-joke review season in 2013, Jay started out strong in 2014 with a full two months clean before ruining it with a March kickoff. Damn.

2014
2014-03-02: Hoi Polloi review: "I feel my arteries begin to harden in protest."

2013
2013-12-29 Foxlow review: "by this point I imagined my entire cardiovascular system had called a flash meeting in my bowel to discuss strike action over unreasonable employment practices"
2013-11-03 "news bites": "the artery-hardening joys "
2013-09-15 Le Menoir aux Quat'Saisons review: "that have you tapping your wrists to check the blood can still push through the narrowed arteries"
2013-08-25 Whyte & Brown review: "glorious, salty artery blocker."
2013-07-07 Peckham Refresment Rooms review: "The heart sighs even as the arteries harden."
2013-07-04 Honey & Co review: "of the sort to make a cardiologist start calculating the bill for their services to come."
2013-06-02 Joe Allen review: "This restaurant has a special place in my congested heart."
2013-03-17 Ondine review: "to fur the arteries."

Seriously, Jay Rayner is my favourite food writer. Check out his stuff here.


26 February 2014

Salt, Smoke, Sear: Seven Months of Sous Vide, Part 2

Sous vide usually ends up as one step of several. There are exceptions: salmon is a nice single step. Chicken breast for chicken salad needs no finishing. Chicken breast for the plate could use some searing. Much sous videry involves both pre and post work. Post is often quick, and sous vide in the middle usually removes worry about timings.

brine for goose and duck

Beef shortribs: my favourite method is to smoke them for a couple hours then sous vide for 48hrs @62C then finish under the broiler, either sauced or not. Turkey breast: an herb brine, then sous vide, then finish under the broiler. Poached eggs: sous vide then crack into simmering water for a quick dip.

Much of this is all very simple. Sometimes, like with the chili, it becomes part of more steps. Over the next 7 months I'll likely try some more complex dishes with it.



24 February 2014

Sous Vide Seven Months In


I've had my sous vide setup since July. I use it frequently. It's been a good purchase so far. So what have I learned?

  • Vegetables: why bother? I've done some veggies in it but more trouble than they are worth. There are quicker and better ways to cook vegetables.
  • Meat: yes. Usually great results on everything from pork tenderloin to turkey breast to beef shortribs to ribeyes. Excellent use case, but...
  • The time needs to match the cut: At 55C, 72 hours turns Beef shortribs into a tender steak-like consistency, but 24 hours can dry-aged rump into mush (7 hours probably would have been about right).
  • Temperature! Well, duh. This is the reason for investing in something precise in the first place. But this means you get a fun science experiment every time you decide to cook some eggs. It means if you want to turn shortribs into filet mignon you cook them at 55C, but if you want to turn them into pull-off-the-bone ribs, 62C gives them a completely different texture.
  • Fish: also great. Salmon is so easy, and quick, and perfectly cooked every time. And has even worked fine straight from the freezer.
  • Vacuum packing is fun: This still hasn't gotten old. I might still have a 7-month old slice of bread somewhere. I will soon be sealing up an iPad and trying it in the shower.