Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Great British Picnic

Up and down the country, parched lawns groan for moisture, dogs pant under the cooling seclude of a kitchen table, and the smoky smells of food scorching on a barbecue, waft over garden fences. It's the time for eating outside and were in the mood to embrace this while the goings (hopefully) good. With the long days, comes the opportunity to bust away from the hot stove and the artifice of bulb lit kitchens, and to bask in sepia afternoons with hand held nibbles.

I love the careful preparation of making food to be enjoyed al fresco, so this month were stocking up on hampers, paper plates and cups and taking the next supper club outdoors. On the 24th July the theme will be the Great British Picnic with a menu looking something like this:

Homemade Lemonade

Pea and Mint soup w/ truffle ricotta foam

Black pudding scotch egg w/picallilli

Chick pea stuffed courgette flowers

Shooters Sandwhich

Summer Ruby Salad

Anya potato salad w/ shallots and vinagarette

English Trifle

This supper club will be taking part somewhere in Victoria Park and will commence from 4 o'clock, so dust the dried grass from your picnic rug and get booking.

Mexican food is tough work, it almost tequila'd us

Normally our supper club themes, see our guests turning up with easy drinking wines, but the Mexican themed night saw people arrive armed with various brands of Tequila. It was nice to see that everyone was getting into the spirit of things!

We'd planned to get things moving ourselves, with a homemade Margarita for all diners. Like any drink with tequila in it, the tentative drinker seems to approach the glass like a person who has to de-venom an injured colleague - slight fear, but a knowledge it'll probably be worth it in the end. I'm sure our Margarita didn't disappoint, which we followed from this classic recipe we swiped while holidaying in San Francisco.

(This makes 4 margaritas)
Ice Cubes
240ml of Sour Mix
85 ml Blanco Tequila
36ml Cointreau
18ml Orange juice

The tequila used was Arette Blanco Tequila, recommended by the shop I tend to buy most of my booze from - The Whiskey Exchange in Borough Market. It's a little tucked away (you have to walk through Lathwaites wine shop), but it's worth it. Always impressed how knowledgable the staff are there…and it's reasonably priced too. Ha, that really reads like an advertisement placement, but I mean every word!

So with a difficult act to follow, our first course was served - Salmon ceviche w/ fresh mango salsa and home made tortilla chips . I waited with bated breath to see if our guests would notice the authenticity of the home-made nachos, as they were a little labour of love.

While in San Francisco the notable difference between their tortilla chips and the ones we have in the UK was considerable. Wonderfully hot, crunchy yellow corn tortilla's would be bought to the table before glancing at a menu, and before you'd know it - the whole basket was polished off, and busily filled again. Damn the unlimited pot of triangular heaven. I had to recreate this for our guests, and so began my experiments in creating homemade nachos.

Our experiments started with cutting wedges out of the standard flour tortilla (that proliferates the supermarkets in the UK) and deep frying them in groundnut oil. The results were not unpleasant, but not better than anything that can be bought in a shop. Instead of a golden colour, the end result was rather pallid, and any attempt to get them looking heat kissed, resulted in them burning quickly. They also arrived crispy on the outside and a little chewy in the middle. I guessed this must have been something to do with some moister retention (being fresh flour tortillas) so I tried frying a batch using stale tortilla's and another fried after being dried out in the oven. Both methods seemed to rectify the soggy centres, but unfortunately it seemed there was no way to authentically replicate mexican chips using floured tortilla's. For that authentic mexican tortilla chips you have to use corn based tortillas, which unfortunately are not readily available in the UK, but if you feel inspired and live in the Bethnal Green area you can pick them up at Casa Mexico (along with most of the specialist ingredients i had to source for this supper club). Alternatively this website has a comprehensive list. To make the corn tortilla chips you simply cut a tortilla into wedges and fry in a deep fat fryer for around 2-4 minutes per batch, then dry on kitchen towel and toss in sea salt. They proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the Salmon Ceviche, as guest scooped large pieces of the raw salmon and mango onto the chips.

The second course saw Beef Empanadas served w/ salsa and salad, a dish very familiar with anyone that's travelled in South America, and that varies subtly between regions. The Mexican empanada tends to be a little fruiter than those on the South American continent, with many recipes I'd tested including pineapple, raisons, apple, and pumpkin. I opted to keep it to apple and raison as this gave them the right amount of sweetness. l did try a version with pineapple too, but found this too sweet for my taste.

Throughout this months theme, I really wanted to show the more experimental side to Mexican cuisine so was a little worried that Empanadas might be a little familiar to our guests, but when I read a little about the origins of the meaty parcels, I had to leave it on the menu. The Mexican Empanada is a variation of our very own Cornish Pasty, as it was taken over by Cornish miners, during times when the silver mines needed their expertise - a nice little link and not too surprising when you consider the recipe and look. It also appears you don't have to soot your face and wield a pick axe to work up an appetite to eat them, as some of our guests with healthier appetites went in for seconds.

The first two courses may have felt a little more like a dreamy siesta, as the next two dishes were my tequila soaked worm. For main came the Meatballs in Chipotle chile w/ mexican rice.

A homely dish that celebrates all that is good about Mexican food, heat, complex smokey spices with herbs springing freshness in the dish. When l tested the meatballs l ate them until my stomach felt like a pocket creaking under too much loose change. On the night every guest seemed to want more. Luckily l had prepared more than enough, so our guests lucked out, and my dinner the next day rapidly disappeared. Sob.

For the desert came a change to the planned menu - out went mexican chocolate pudding and in came Capirotada w/ homemade vanilla ice cream.

When l initially began researching the mexican menu, l thought that desert would have to be something macabre, something dark and chocolatey, with hidden heat from a chili so that Diablo himself felt he was scraping your tongue with a trident. I'm starting to regret building this up, because instead of the wicked, the Mexican chocolate pudding tested turned out a little predictable. At this point i turned to a recipe l found for a Capirotada, a desert usually eaten around Easter in Mexico and remarkably resembling the bread pudding we have in the UK; apart from the fact it has a spiced syrup, and cheese instead of custard. Yup you read correct - CHEESE. It seems Mexicans put cheese in everything, especially deserts, but intrigue got the better of me and l had to see how it turned out, so the recipe went into test.

The resulting pudding is a sure fire hit, and if l wasn't the caring sharing type, l would definitely try and keep this one to my self. It's a wonderful, hearty desert and would be a great alternative at Christmas, for those that find Christmas pudding or fruit cake not to their taste. It certainly seems to borrow a lot from these dishes, but has subtleties to suite delicate palates. The cheese is a stroke of genius too, as it really, really works. It adds a creamy sourness that cuts through the spiced syrup. Without it l suspect the dish would even be a little sweet.

It certainly seemed to be the star of the night and the dish that most guests wanted the recipe for so here it is. I urge you to try it, this recipe serves 10.

For the syrup:
500 g/18 oz dark muscovado or Barbados sugar
1 litre/1 3/4 pints water
4 cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves
5 ml/1 tsp fennel seeds
1 large lemon, juice and grated rind

For the bread pudding:
350 g/12 oz bread, two or three days old, sliced 1 cm/1/2 thick. In mexico they use bolillos as the bread, but a French stick is recommended as a replacement. I actually used an uncut white loaf as i wanted to control the presentation.
Soft unsalted butter
175 g/6 oz raisins
250 g/9 oz toasted, flaked almonds
250 g/9 oz eating apples, peeled and thinly sliced
200 g/7 oz fresh goat’s cheese, crumbled

To start, place all the ingredients for the syrup in a saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat, stirring all the time to ensure the sugar dissolves. Once it starts to boil, turn the heat right down and leave to simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Strain into a large jug and set aside. You can reserve the cinnamon sticks and use them when baking in the pudding, but I took them out as l didn't want guests to find bits of cinnamon bark in their dish.

Next lightly butter the stale bread on both sides and arrange a layer on the bottom of an ovenproof dish - You should aim for two and a bit layers of bread, so your dish should allow for this. Sprinkle with half the raisins, almonds, sliced apples (I used a cox apple and cored and sliced into discs for presentation) and cheese. Repeat the process, adding another layer of bread and the rest of the fruit, nuts, cinnamon and cheese, and finish off with remaining bread. Carefully pour the syrup all over the pudding and set aside for at least one hour, or even overnight in the refrigerator, to give the bread time to absorb all the liquid.

Preheat the oven to 180oC/350oF/gas 4/fan oven 160oC. Bake the Capirotada until golden, for approximately 30 to 45 minutes then serve. Capirotada is traditionally served at room temperature, but I preferred it hot and served it with home made vanilla ice cream.

After a few enthusiastic swings at the pinata, partly fueled by the effects of the worm, our guests departed - a little loco, with their pockets filled with sweets. We wouldn't want it any other way.