The Beet Goes On

Mention beetroot to many people and the reaction more often than not is one of two extreme possibilities; an involuntary shudder with accompanying grimace or a rapturous vociferation about the joys of this underused and much maligned vegetable.
Beetroot is truly the Marmite of the vegetable world.
I admit for a long time I was with the former. Very rarely did you see beetroot presented as anything other than a side accompaniament to a rather unimaginative salad, either boiled on an industrial scale to within an inch of its life or doused in enough malt vinegar to dissolve your fillings.No thanks! The only discernable flavour was the acidic kick of the vinegar with nary a hint of the true epicurean delight that beetroot can deliver. Its no wonder that beetroot was consigned to orbit in the outer reaches of the vegetable galaxy.
My Damascene conversion to the joy of this wonderous globe came when for some reason lost in the mists of time, I decided to grow some in the hotel garden.I do not remember why, maybe I inadevertantly bought a packet of seeds or somebody gave me some. Either way, in the ground they went and thereafter were pretty much left to their own devices,unloved, unwanted, untended. In spite of this wilful neglect and regular attacks by voracious chickens who had free ranged out of their coop into vegetable territory ( an all too frequent happening), the plants grew, nay thrived in a forgotton, rarely visited corner of the garden. It is a sad indictment of my horticultural skills that they were so succesful in spite of (because of ?) my lack of attention and at some point later that summer I discovered that I had inadvertantly produced rather a lot of splendid looking beetroot.
So what to do now? Having survived against the odds I felt I needed to do justice to them. Boiling them seems to suck any flavour out of them and lets just stay away from the whole vinegar thing!
A little reading and research of course produced many recipes and suggestions for utilising them in many interesting and unusual ways all of which eschewed the usual pickling and boiling.
I have shared a couple of these recipes and ideas below but there are of course many more ways that you can utilise this wonderful earthy vegetable. Give them a go, you may surprise yourself!
The simplest way is to bake them just like a jacket potato. Leave an inch or so of the stalk and taking care not to break the skin , brush half a dozen ping pong ball sized beets with a little oil, place in a roasting tin with a pinch of salt and a sprig or two of thyme.. Bake in an oven preheated to 400°F/200°C/Gas Mark 6 for 30/35 minutes or until the beets are soft but not shrunken. This way the flavour is kept inside the skin and indeed intensified, the natural sugars in the vegetable also concentrate and the rich earthy flavour just seems to be elevated to a new high
You will need your marigolds to peel them if you want your hands to remain the same colour as the rest of you, but this is best achieved by gently squeezing them out of the skin and is quite satisfying to see this beautiful shiny perfect globe emerge from the wrinkled, dried casing.
Roasted like this the beetroot is excellent served with peppery salad leaves like rocket and watercress, a few sweet cherry tomatoes and a little goats cheese such as a soft creamy Capricorn or shavings of a firmer Woolsery, Drizzled ( are we still allowed to say drizzled?)with a little olive oil and a light fruity vinegar – not repeat not malt!! – it is a perfect summer salad.
As an accompaniment to a main course try a Beetroot Dauphinoise.This should produce six generous portions
8 medium potatoes
4 medium beetroot
half pint double cream and a quarter pint of milk
2 cloves garlic
1 sprig of thyme and one bayleaf.
Salt and pepper

Method
Chop the garlic and sweat in a little oil in a deep pan with the bay leaf and thyme. Add the milk and cream and bring to the boil.Simmer gently for five minutes.
Peel the beetroot and potatoes, slice thinly and in a deep baking tray , alternate layers of potato and beetroot, seasoning each layer in turn to almost fill the tray. Remove the herbs from the cream and milk mix and pour over . Place a sheet of greaseproof on the top of the tray not quite covering the top, maybe an inch or so in from the edge all round.
Bake at 190c (375f or Gas Mk 5) for an hour or so until cooked.
Excellent with dark meats like beef and venison.

Who’d be a chef?

I was forwarded the following letter by a chef friend of mine which is doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, as these things do. It made me smile and empathise with the writer.It also made me wonder why any sane person would willingly choose this profession when there seem to be so many easier ways of making a living.

letter to a Culinary Student By Mark Mendez, Executive
> Chef, Carnivale, Chicago
>
>
> I am angry, so forgive me if I rant. You gave notice after
> only two weeks on the job and then didn’t show up the next
> day and really screwed me. I know why you quit; it was hard
> work, harder than you thought it was going to be. The funny
> thing is, you worked an easy station and never even worked
> on a busy night, funny right? The sad thing is you don’t
> even know how hard it really is, or what it truly means to
> be a line cook. It’s not all your fault; they didn’t
> really prepare you for this in cooking school did they? They
> didn’t warn you that being a great chef requires first
> being a great cook. They didn’t tell you about the
> sacrifices you have to make, the hard work, the hours, the
> dedication, the  commitment, the lack of sleep, the
> constant abuse of the sous chef, they didn’t warn you. You
> thought you would graduate from school and be like Thomas
> Keller in a couple years, that’s all it should take right?
> I know, I know, learning how to use you knife, make a great
> stock, or learning how to properly blanch vegetables is
> boring, it’s cooler to work sauté station or grill. I’m
> too old school anyway, no immersion circulators, no foams,
> no cutesy plates, no pacojet, boring really. Who wants to
> learn how to properly sharpen a knife or butcher a fish, so
> boring and tedious. Well I need to tell you a few things.
> One day, just maybe, you will be a chef somewhere. You will
> need to train and motivate the people who work for you,
> guide them, lead them, teach them, and inspire them. One day
> you will spend more time looking at a profit and loss
> statement than you do your station. You will miss prepping
> your station, making a sauce, butchering a piece  of
> meat, even sharpening your knife. You will spend time in
> marketing meetings, staff meetings, partners meetings,
> vendor meetings, all kinds of meetings. You will spend more
> time in the front of house than you really want to; spend
> time outside of the kitchen promoting your restaurant, give
> interviews, agonize over food and labor costs, kiss your
> wife goodbye while she sleeps because you have to be at the
> restaurant early for some insane reason, and somewhere in
> there make sure you are serving tasty food. You will miss
> weddings, birthday parties, graduations, all kinds of
> things. You will alienate your friends and family because
> you don’t write or call enough. There are no sick days,
> personal days, breaks, this is not like a 9 to 5 job, get
> over it. Get ready for years of sacrifice, hard work, and
> stress. Learn as much as you can, read everything, ask
> questions, write things down, save your money and eat at
> other restaurants, show up to work early  and offer to
> stay late, come to work on your day off just to learn how to
> make pastry or hone butcher skills. Taste everything you
> can, over and over, and ask the chef so many questions he
> gets annoyed. Take care of yourself and sleep as much as you
> can and skip after work drug/liquor binging, so you wake up
> ready and on time. Travel and experience another culture eat
> their food and learn to speak their language. Learn to
> appreciate the time you have right now, enjoy the ride, the
> process, don’t be in a hurry to be a sous chef or make a
> lot of money, it’s not about that and it never will unless
> you are extremely talented and lucky. There is only one
> Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller, or Grant Achatz, and they all
> have worked extremely hard to get where they are and
> continue to do so. Enjoy all the bull****   that comes with
> this life, embrace it, learn to thrive on it. One day, when
> you are an executive chef or chef/owner, there will be an
> epiphany so  powerful you will have to sit down. You
> will understand everything every chef or sous chef yelled at
> you, you will understand why we work why we do, you will
> understand why our profession is so wonderful, so unique,
> and it will hit you hard. I can’t tell when or where this
> will happen but I promise you it will if you work hard and
> keep your head down and do what your chef tells you. So keep
> this in mind when I give you a hard time and push you,
> criticize you and refuse that day off request. Maybe the
> next job you have you will suck it up instead of leaving
> them short a line cook on a busy night. tag anyone you know
> in the industry.. and pass it along ;-)

I suppose just about all jobs have a learning curve but the chef curve does seem to be one of the steeper ones, where the rewards dont always seem commensurate with the effort required for the slow and occasionally tortuous rise through the ranks, though I am sure anyone who has fought hard to get to a position of responsibility in any job can recognise the sentiments expressed by the exasperated Exec chef here when somebody lets you down.

Kitchens can be tough places in which to work and the atmosphere especially in larger kitchens with big brigades can be very testosterone fuelled with all the fun and games that brings.Certainly I used to occasionally whinge and bleat about the hours I had to put in whilst working in the various hotels, restaurants, pubs and ships that eventually led me to West Dorset and The White House (still do sometimes if I am to be honest) and yes there was most certainly an epiphany when we bought our own business. I also realised there was yet another steep curve to tackle which would take me from Chef to Hotelier.

I never dreamed that my own journey from my first catering job as a snotty sixteen yr old Kitchen Porter in the Lake District in 1978 would have lead me to to being fortunate enough to have our own business in Charmouth. It has been sometimes hard but is rarely dull , often exciting and ultimately very rewarding. Having a patient, understanding and supportive wife also helps. We are certainly very fortunate to be doing what we are doing ,where we are doing it, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, producing some of the finest ingredients in the world for me to use.And that is more than enough compensation for all those 15 hour shifts endured on the journey here.

panary

Last week my friend William from  www.woofwoodfuel.co.uk/ invited me along with him to a bakery near Shaftsbury. The purpose of the trip for William was to try out different types of wood for a wood fired oven,and I tagged along as I got to meet master baker Paul Merry from  http://www.panary.co.uk/.

Paul is an Austalian who has been baking in the UK for many years and is now based in Cann Mills just a few miles south of Shaftsbury . The mill http://www.stoatesflour.co.uk/ is very much a working mill and produces a variety of flours which Paul uses to create a fantastic variety of bread in his small bakery across the courtyard and mere yards from where the flour is milled. No problem with food miles there.

Chatting to Paul throughout the day whilst he produced an array of beautiful looking loaves, it was soon clear that he is very passionate about breadmaking and somewhat disdainful of the factory mass produced pap that is passed off as bread in our supermarkets nowadays. The loaves he produced were a world away from that and it was a pleasure and a privelege to see him creating the most wonderful produce which are sold only in a few select outlets in the Shaftsbury area.

Paul soon got Will and I working with some of the left over bits of dough and we made our own pizzas and focaccia which were then baked in the wood fired oven and greedily consumed for our lunch.

 

Wills tomato, pepper and anchovy Foccacia in production

... and 10 minutes later, out of the wood fired oven and ready for eating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The skill  in using a wood fired oven is knowing what to bake and when, getting the timing right so that as the oven loses its heat through the working day,the temperature is correct for the type of bread you are baking.The Sourdough was the last batch to be slid into the oven, Paul actually entrusted this task to William and I and I am pleased to say that we managed to do it right. Or if we did not, Paul was too polite to say so.

Sourdough before....

...during...

The timer was set and as we cleared down the loaves baked through in the remaining heat,Paul nurturing the bread through the cooking process, leaving the oven doors slightly ajar as he adjudged the oven to be a little too hot to have them closed. His expertise and feel for cooking in a wood fired oven produced stunning results and a mere twenty minutes later the sourdough was done.It was quite simply superb.

....and after.

Paul runs breadmaking courses from Cann Mill .

Details are on his website www.panery.co.uk

 

Fish

Putting on my rose tinted spectacles, in days gone by it seemed every town and many larger villages had a butchers shop, a general store, a chemist and a fishmonger dotted along the high street before the hegemony of the supermarket swept most of them away. As an island nation, fish and seafood has historically played a significant part in our national diet. Here in Charmouth we still are fortunate enough to have three of the four shops mentioned but we do have six or seven good fishmongers within a ten-mile radius (and a good half of that radius is sea). Nationally however, in the last fifty years or so there has been an almost unstoppable decline in the number of high street Fishmongers, truly a threatened species. The result of this is that really fresh fish and seafood sadly plays a much-diminished role on our dinner tables nowadays. It is of course much more expensive then ever it was and is now considered to be more of a luxury than a staple.

My parents live in a suburb of south Manchester, well served by all the big supermarkets and retail parks but when asked could not name or locate a single fishmongers in their area. Indeed they are only ten miles from one of the largest “Retail and Leisure Centres ” in Europe, where according to my father you can “buy everything you want but nowt you actually need”. A google search found only three actual real bone fide fishmongers in a twenty-mile radius of their postcode, an area that is almost as populated as the whole of Dorset. Now I know that you can buy fresh fish at supermarkets but putting aside my personal antipathy to these institutions, I am always slightly suspicious that it is not quite as fresh as it could be. Having gone through the supermarket supply route, I always suspect it has criss-crossed the country from fishing boat to national distribution centre to local distribution centre before finally landing on the slab on a supermarket fish counter a few hundred yards from where it was landed a day or two before. I may well be wrong but I am not prepared to let facts get in the way of my pre-conceived idea in this matter. If my fish is to be as well travelled as Michael Palin I prefer it to do it under its own steam in the sea and let its last journey be the shortest.

Certainly living as close to the coast as we do we are lucky enough to have fresh locally caught fish available pretty much all year round and despite some species being under threat from over fishing there are many types of fish that are not. Fresh fish-wise, we are truly blessed.

Last summer a friend of mine who shall remain nameless as it would not be fair to Eric, was given a couple of beautiful fresh sea bass but came up to the hotel and confessed he didn’t really know what to do with them. This is one thing I do hear a lot, many people are not confident about preparing and cooking fish. I do understand that scaling, gutting and filleting fish is not high on everyone’s list of favourite kitchen activities but all fishmongers will happily do that particular task for you, remember to always ask for the fish bones and heads so you can make a stock, more of which in a couple of paragraphs.

The trick I always say with cooking fish is to do as little to it as possible. Simply dipping a fillet in seasoned flour and browning it gently in a little butter or oil ‘til cooked through and served with a squeeze of lemon is as good as any method and works as well for Mackerel fillets as it does for Turbot.

The only caveat is that you take care so that you do not overcook this fish, as it then will get dry.  Fry presentation side down first so that you only have to turn it once, in a moderate heat so that the butter is just gently bubbling around the fish. When golden brown on one side use a fish slice or spatula to turn it over and do the same on that side.

How long you cook the fish for depends of course on how thick the fillet is .If it is a fillet of plaice which will not be all that thick, then a minute or so on each side will be plenty. If it is however an inch thick halibut steak, then maybe two or three minutes each side will be required. Either way do not be tempted to ramp up the heat as rather than cooking it quicker, it will just burn it and dry it out quicker. Think of cooking fish as just enabling the heat to gently pass through the flesh. If you are not sure if it is cooked through, carefully bend the fillet with a pallet knife or fork and if it cleanly “flakes” apart then it is done. If it bends but does not break then it may need a little more.

A more failsafe way is to cook fish “en papillotte”. This is a French cookery term that translates as “in parchment”. It is essentially sealing it in a paper or parchment bag which when cooked, means the moisture and juices from the fish stay in the bag with the fish thus prevents it from drying out and is very easy to do. I prefer to use greaseproof paper and the easiest method is as follows:-

One 12-inch square of greaseproof paper

Knob of butter or splash of olive oil

Squeeze of lemon

Butter or oil the greaseproof paper.

Place a fillet of fish in the centre, season and give it a squeeze of lemon juice

Then fold diagonally the paper from one of the corners across to the other. You can then fold and twist the loose edges of the paper tightly starting from one corner and working your way around so you have something resembling a paper Cornish pasty with a fishy filling

You can just fold over the flaps and staple in position if you prefer.

I would avoid using just tinfoil as the acidity from the lemon can react with the metal and taint the food.

This is then popped in a moderate oven for about twenty minutes.

Of course there are a million and one variations on the ingredients you can add to the bag. Herbs such as  bay, dill, chives and tarragon work well. Swap the lemon for a lime and add a bit of ginger root and coriander for a more Asian take. Whatever you add, the principle is the same and all the flavours and juices stay with the fish when cooked and served.

I have been going out fishing with a couple of friends over the last few summers. I am what could best be described as hopelessly inept but I do like bobbing about on a boat just off the Dorset coast, chugging a beer and talking the kind of nonsense that middle aged blokes talk about when they are sat on a boat off the Dorset coast chugging beer but ostensibly fishing is the reason we venture out and though I have not troubled the Lyme Bay population of sea bass a great deal and most threatened species swim by us clearly unconcerned for their welfare, the one fish I can and do catch is mackerel. But then any idiot can. Which is fine by me because I like mackerel.

Mackerel is a much-maligned fish but fresh from the sea as many people round here know, is a real treat. Once landed, they do tend to deteriorate relatively quickly so are best eaten on the day of the catch; as it takes time to transport them to fish shops throughout the land, maybe that is why they are not so popular Filleted, floured and fried in a little butter with garlic and lemon, or chargrilled on an open fire on the beach they are unbeatable. Alternatively you can go South American and make Mackerel Ceviche, which is essentially ‘cold cooking’ fillets by marinating them for a few minutes in the juice of lemon, lime or orange with the addition of ingredients such as chilli, coriander and thinly sliced onion. The acidity changes the protein of the fish, which gives it a cooked appearance but it is still essentially raw. However don’t let that put you off, it is delicious and as it is quite acidic, it almost begs to be washed down with a cold beer.  Or two. For the more daring or foolhardy amongst you, you could have a glass of what best translates as Tigers Milk (though the literal translation is not actually ‘milk’ but as this is a family publication…) This is the strained marinade in a glass with a shot of vodka or other spirit added and is meant to be a great hangover cure though I think I may stick to bacon and eggs, a cup of tea and a couple of Nurofen.

Now that you are confident cooking fish, you will need to make a fish stock for the sauce. Avoid using oily fish such as mackerel; plaice, brill, sole and the like are ideal. Wash the bones, heads and skin and remove the gills and any bloody bits as these can make the stock cloudy. In a saucepan add chopped leek, onion fennel, a bayleaf, parsley stalks and a slug of white wine. Add cold water to cover and bring to the boil. Skim off the scum that rises and simmer for a further 15 minutes, any longer can turn the stock bitter as the bones start to break down. Strain the liquid and return to a pan, boil rapidly so that the stock reduces and the flavours concentrate. When you have reduced it by two thirds, pour it into a Tupperware container, allow to cool and then refrigerate it. When quite cold it will set like a jelly as the gelatine in the fish bones and skin will have dissolved into the liquid. This allows it to be cut up into cubes and frozen (or pour it when warm into ice cube moulds) so you can just take out what you need when you need it.

For a basic butter sauce, which is a brilliant accompaniment to most non-oily fish, melt a little of the stock into a small saucepan with a splash of double cream and a squeeze of lemon juice. Then quickly whisk in a few cubes of softened but not melted butter, which will emulsify the butter into the stock, taking care not to boil as it may split. You can then add a few chives or a bit of chopped dill for a perfect fish sauce. As it is about 90 per cent butter, you do not need a lot so you can be parsimonious with it.

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