Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Swan, Lavenham, Suffolk

A few weeks ago I got a text from our friends asking if we were free on the 19th November as they were getting married What? in 3 weeks? Blimey. I must admit, congratulations weren't the first thing on my mind, but more selfishly, was I going to be able to find a new frock in that time?

Seriously it was great news and made even better because the wedding was going to be held at The Swan in Lavenham. Both The Swan and the village of Lavenham are lovely places. The last time were in Lavenham we stayed in a cottage for a long weekend for Tiny's birthday and had a wonderful time.

On the day we drove up it was a lovely crisp sunny day. We arranged to meet a couple of friends in The Angel for lunch as the wedding wasn't until 3.30. I opted out of eating as I was conscious that I was going to have to be shoe-horned into my 'control tights' in an hour or so and therefore thought it best to abstain. The others tucked in though to sausages & mash, home cooked thickly sliced ham sandwiches and sausage, chorizo & bean stew - sorry no photos.

Then it was off to The Swan (all of 100yds away) to book in and begin getting ready. The Swan dates back to the 15th century and is a wonderful building, full of oak beams and inglenook fireplaces and is beautifully furnished.

Our room was very comfortable and had a huge bed - it was almost wider than I am tall. It's always a relief when we get to a hotel room and find that we have a king sized bed, because if it's a standard double Tiny's feet hang out of the bottom and get cold.

Having scoffed one of the packets of complimentary biscuits between us (choc chip cookies if you're interested) we started getting changed. We both had new outfits and if I say so myself, we had scrubbed up rather well.

The ceremony, although quite short, was lovely. There were only 30 of us which made it rather cosy and intimate.

After the photos we made our way to the lounge, where seated on comfy sofas and with a log fire blazing, giving a lovely glow to the room and the guest's faces, we enjoyed champagne and canapes, which was rather civilised.

After quite a while of quaffing, nibbling and mingling we were beckoned through to dine. The room was bathed in candle light and the tables looked beautiful.

The meal was excellent. We started with chicken and roasted pepper terrine, which was moist, well seasoned and very tasty.

The main course of roasted rump of lamb, ratatouille and dauphinoise potato was equally as good. The lamb was tender and cooked to perfection and the dauphinoise was creamy, garlicky and unctuous and the ratatouille still had texture and wasn't too tomatoey.

The meal was rounded off with a lemon tart and raspberry sorbet which I didn't feel belonged together. Having said that, they were both extremely good. Lovely crisp pastry on the tart and the sorbet was bursting with flavour and not overly sweet.

After more drinks and some witty and touching speeches we relaxed over coffee in the lounge. Feeling very full, slightly squiffed and happy we weebled up to bed having had a lovely afternoon and evening.

I thoroughly recommend the Swan. The food, the rooms and the attentiveness of the staff made the occasion very special.

Just one thing though, if you're tall you might find the hotel a little challenging - as Tiny did.
The reason the photo is blurred is because I was laughing.

The Swan Hotel
CO10 9QA

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Crown Prince and the naked pumpkin

I think of the seasons in terms of food. I love Autumn because it's the time of year for my favourite foods: casseroles, stews, pot roasts, root veg and hearty soups. Comfort food I suppose. To me it's the mash & gravy season.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am extremely lucky to be on the receiving end of my sister's hard work on her allotment. During the Summer we had no end of goodies. And now Autumn is here I've been taking delivery of leeks, parsnips, onions and some smashing pumpkins (weren't they a band in the 90s?)

These plump beauties are a variety called Crown Prince. Their extremely tough, light grey exterior, is such a contrast to their bright orange flesh. They're fantastic just roasted with a little oil and butter, salt and pepper and served as a veg accompaniment, but they make the most wonderful soup. It's like you've liquidised an orange velvet cushion. It's so silky, warm and comforting. The recipe I use is from a very old Covent Garden Soup cook book, which my sister bought for me years ago. (Recipe below)

The other variety that she's been growing is a 'naked seed' variety. Now, a naked seed pumpkin means that the seeds lack the slightly tough husk that other pumpkins have, therefore they're much nicer to eat.

This gnarly 'naked' brute is a variety called Lady Godiva (great name eh?) It really is only good for its seeds as the flesh is quite tasteless.

And here they are. Aren't they gorgeous? Silky, pearly little critters - like little legless green beetles.

Once they're out of the pumpkin you just dry them off and roast them. You can obviously leave it there, but after roasting I ground up some celery seed, rock salt black pepper and chilli and mixed it into the seeds. They were delicious on top of the soup, but they are great to just nibble (terribly healthy)

One of the baby pumpkins still in the nursery aaaaah.

Some of the older ones having a little go on the trampoline

Pumpkin Soup

25g (1oz) butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
200g (7oz) potatoes, peeled and chopped
900g (2lb) pumpkin, diced
250g (9oz) carrots, diced
1.2l (2 pints) vegetable stock
150ml (1/4 pint) milk
demerera sugar to taste
finely grated nutmeg to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter and cook the onion gently for 5 minutes in a covered saucepan, without colouring. Add the potato, 700g (1 1/2 lb) of the pumpkin, the carrots and the vegetable stock. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Cool a little, then puree in a liquidiser. Return to a clean saucepan and stir in the milk. Meanwhile, add the remaining pumpkin to a saucepan of boiling salted water and cook for 2 minutes. Drain and add to the pureed soup. Add the sugar, nutmeg and seasoning to taste.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A Sloe afternoon

Every year around about the end of September Mr AC and I go sloe picking. You have to wait until the fruit has a 'bloom' on it - which means that the little black berries take on a sort of opaque bluishness. NEVER eat one. They're so sour they'll draw your bum up to your elbows (as my Father-in-law used to so eloquently say).

Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush. Thorn indeed, the branches are covered in incredibly sharp and vicious ones. When we've finished picking our arms look like we've been self-harming.

So why do we do this? Sloe gin of course! (and sometimes vodka). Firstly the berries should be individually pricked with a needle or a fork, but as this is incredibly tedious, we just pop them into the freezer for a day or so, then when you defrost them they 'break down' a little bit all by themselves and they're then in a perfect state to release their flavour and their fantastic colour. Then, you just add gin and sugar, shake the contents up every so often and three months later (coincides nicely with Christmas ha ha!) you strain the gin through some muslin and there you are. We usually make enough to give some away as gifts.

However, this is not all we make from these blue/black little devils. Combined with some cooking apples and sugar they make a fantastic jelly.

You just simmer equal quantities of sloes and bramley apples with some water until they're really soft. You then need to separate the clear juice from the fruit pulp.

So, to do this, first sterilise an elephant's condom..........

Only joking, it's a jelly bag!! It fits over a metal frame/stand thingy (which tends to collapse while you're trying to stretch it over). When it's finally in place, you just dollop in the fruity mixture and leave it to drip into the bowl below. One important thing to remember is NOT to squeeze your bag (ooh matron) as this makes the jelly go cloudy.
When all of the juice has dripped through, you just add sugar (1 pint of juice to 1½ lbs of sugar) and boil it in the same way that you would when making jam. The crimson coloured juice then turns a much darker, almost black coloured jelly.

The flavour it develops is not unlike a full bodied, tannin rich red wine. It keeps its fruity flavour, but it leaves a lovely dryness in your mouth and I think it is perfect with white meats. In fact we always have it with our Christmas turkey and pork.
Last weekend though we ate it with some chicken breasts that I stuffed with black pudding and wrapped in bacon. The combination of flavours worked really well.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Down the pan

A change of scene for this blog, for 'tis I, Tiny, 'guest blogging'. The Ample Cook was uncertain how to tackle this one so neatly sidestepped and before I knew it the laptop was on my lap. The keener eyed amongst you may notice there has been a slight delay in publishing and there are no photos– this will all be explained further on.

The subject of this blog is the Toulouse Restaurant in Southend-on-Sea. We had heard mixed reviews from fellow foodies so the opportunity to go with a confirmed supporter gave us the opportunity to make up our own minds. Toulouse is housed in a converted public convenience (two loos, geddit?) on Southend's seafront, away from the gaudy amusements thankfully, with views across the estuary to the twinkling lights of Kent (if you ignore the burger shack dead opposite!). Presided over by Stephane Bailhe, ex-proprietor of Stefans Restaurant, Toulouse opened with the obligatory open kitchen, slick web-site with the arty quotes from the chef proprietor, and minimalist design that passes for 'London chic'. It should be said at this point that we had enjoyed a couple of cracking meals at Stefans so we hoped for an enjoyable evening of French-based food.

The evening started well as the welcoming maitre d' guided us to join our friend who was already in residence sipping a glass of prosecco with a selection of olives. AC decided to follow suit with the prosecco whilst I plumped for a G&T choosing Bombay Sapphire over Tanqueray. The drinks arrived with no further olives and my G&T was premixed – not impressed, I like to control how much tonic I add to my gin. Still, lots of catching up to do with our friend and an interesting menu to peruse.

Having made our choices we were shown to our table, just near enough to the open kitchen to be able to see what was going on without suffering too much from the noise, perfect for nosey buggers like us. A bottle of Shiraz and a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc were dispensed by the waitress along with a glass of soda water. Is it me, or is £2 a lot for a glass of soda water?
Starters arrived, in order of acceptability: crab, and prawn fishcakes with red mullet beignet, salad and oriental dressing; duck terrine with orange chutney and toasted brioche; and caramelised onion and stilton tart with wild roquette. Our friend's fishcakes were made from minced fish, negating the ability to identify any of the ingredients which is probably just as well as the oriental dressing clashed badly with the bland fishcake. On the positive side, the red mullet was deemed 'delicious', the overall dish just seemed ill-concieved. My terrine was of a strange, slimy, texture with a distinct lack of taste and little sign of the slices of duck breast the maitre d' had waxed so lyrically about, whilst the chutney consisted of primarily of hard pieces of orange peel. The single slice of brioche was out of all proportion to the amount of terrine served. These two dishes were off the 'Daily Specials' menu, whilst the AC's dish was off the a la carte.
The onion tart had a number of issues: the pastry was so overcooked that approaching it with a fork turned it into space dust; the onions were undercooked to the point that the coarser pieces were stil hard; the stilton was virtually non-existent (which may be just as well considering the state of the cheese board!); but the 'wild roquette' was just what it said on the menu. The AC politely pointed out these shortcomings to the waitress and just as she was gaining momentum it became obvious that our fellow diner didn't have quite the appetite for complaint that we have. We'd already vetoed the idea of taking photos due to the 'embarrassment' factor!

On to the main courses. The two ladies chose Honey roasted Breast of Gressingham Duck, Confit of Leg, Potato and Spring Cabbage Cake, Cider Jus and both professed themselves happy with their choice. If we were being picky (which of course you are now expecting) the potato and spring cabbage cake was too wet and lacking in cabbage but the duck and the jus were just right. I chose the Cassoulet Toulousain – just the name conjured up visions of crispy skin yet soft meat of duck confit with a garlicky robust sausage and pieces of slow cooked belly pork nestling amongst unctuous tomatoey beans flavoured with just a hint of thyme. So what did I get? Insipid bean mush with a sausage that had no texture or discernible taste, and a duck leg that was tough and showed very little signs of being confited – I suspect it had just been slow braised. Disappointed would be an understatement! How can a restaurant have a perfectly adequate piece of confit duck on one dish yet get it so wrong on another. I tasted the AC's piece and it was a totally different experience.

The ladies chose to forgo dessert (one was full and the other just wanted to escape!) so it was left to me to give Toulouse a chance to redeem itself. In a French restaurant, what can be nicer than the cheeeseboard to round off the meal. Well, in this case, just about anything would have been better. The trolley had a large number of very sorry looking pieces of cheese and I was hard pushed to choose four that I hoped would eat better than they looked. I was, of course, wrong. They were universally rubbish with the pride of place going to the Roquefort which managed to be acidic, harsh and wet. Call me old-fashioned but I like a Digestive biscuit with my cheese but there were none to be had, plus there was only one Hovis cracker left in the stale Jacobs cracker selection. Only to be expected really! By now the AC and I were laughing at the absurdity of the evening only for it to reach new heights – the cheese was served in a shallow dessert bowl. When the AC asked why, the waitress, without a hint of irony explained they hadn't any clean side plates! If she had bothered to look around the restaurant there were empty tables, fully set as they had remained unused all evening, complete with side plates.

We called for the bill, and after a discussion with the maitre d' the AC's starter was removed but we still ended up paying the best part of £150 for a fairly awful meal. We were going to blog the meal anyway but didn't want to do a hatchet job, so I contacted the restaurant outlining the exoperience we had 'enjoyed' and inviting their comments and to the Chef's credit he came back to me with his views, some of which I found a little puzzling, so I sent another email to which I didn't get a reply.

The best comment he made was “As for the dishes served that night, most of them are removed from the menu and I am back to the drawing board to improve them”. If he knew they were sun-standard, why did he let them out of the kitchen and, more importantly, why was he happy to charge punters for them? Having watched Stephane in the kitchen, perhaps 'happy' isn't a description that sits easily on his shoulders!

His explanation of the cassoulet was also intriguing: “The Cassoulet in southwest France is a bit like roast dinner in England; every family have they own recipes and interpretations. The dish was designed by peasants to cook slowly all ingredients in one pot over the fire while they were working in the fields. Almost anything was placed in the pot with addition of “haricots blanc” and water. I am sorry that my version did not meet your expectations”. I have never eaten such a poor cassoulet and every recipe I have read fails to mention 'cook the beans until they are a mush, then throw in a bit of tough old duck and a Tesco's sausage' – perhaps I'm wrong? It was how I imagine those cheap tins you see in French supermarkets would be.

So, am I going to take up Stephane's offer of “I will be very happy to cater for you and your guests to better standards”? I'm sorry but no. I object to being charged £2 for a glass of soda water, disagree with the practice of charging £3 for a side order of a single vegetable, and, above all, do not go back to a restaurant where I had an awful meal on the promise that they will be better next time! It's a shame that, in an area where there is a marked lack of good places to eat, we have yet another restaurant in the area that has the look and prices of a London venue but without the quality of food to back it up. Given the choice, would you rather spend £48 on the set lunch at Le Gavroche or a meal at Toulouse? No contest I'm afraid.

“All fur coat and no knickers” as my mother would say!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tatty bye tommys

I adore tomatoes, so it's always a sad day at Ample Cook Towers, when the tomato plants are pulled up. This year we have had a huge crop. Mind you we did plant 25 of the buggers, which I know is a lot, but it then allows me to make provision for the long dark tomatoless months.

Some of them have already been turned into hot, sweet tomato relish (Yes Dan, there's a jar with your name on it).

The majority of them however have been turned into passata using our trusty 'mouli'. It's brilliant, you either roast the tomatoes or simmer them until they're soft, then the mouli sieves them and leaves all of the skin and pips behind ta dah! It's brilliant.

It's then frozen into portions ready for pasta sauces, pizza bases etc. Here's a pizza we made on Saturday. If it's for a pizza I just simmer a portion of the passata down until it's a bit thicker.

Here are next year's babies. They're tomato seeds that I've extracted, soaking in water to remove the gel-like stuff, then they'll be dried and planted next year.

Actually that's not true, it all starts with a Mummy and a Daddy tomato. They have to kiss lots and rub each others vines until a pip is squeezed out, the Mummy then swells up and ripens and that's how you get tomatoes. It's true.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Ample Cook is 50

I was a happy baby
(The photographer must have been waving a pie)

That's me in the front and no, I've never grown into those ears.
Apparently I sneezed when I was just born and out they flapped.

Flares & platforms the first time round.
This was the year that I was planning my wedding to David Cassidy.

Make-up by Dulux
A scary perm at some point in your life is compulsory

Well I can honestly say that I can't believe I'm 50 as I just don't feel it (that doesn't mean to say I don't look it mind!) In my head I don't feel older than 30. Age, as they say is just a state of mind.

In reality of course I know that just around the corner lurk the things that 'women of a certain age' will inevitably have to suffer - hot flushes, a hairy chin, grumpiness, varicose veins, control pants, unexpected flatulence and 'easy-fit' polyester trousers*.

I won't go down without a fight though.

*Husband informs me that most of these things have already started.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Jam packed

From mid August to the beginning of September my house alternates between smelling of boiling fruit and sugar to the acrid pong of hot vinegar. Yes, it's jam and chutney season. As soon as the fruit trees start producing I'm like a blur in my kitchen. Everything seems to come at once and with fruit you need to turn it into jam as soon as it's picked as that's when the pectin levels are at their greatest which means the difference between jam that you spread and jam that you pour. Add to this, the end of the courgettes and tomatoes ripening by the minute it's been manic.

This year I've been very lucky as a couple of friends have given me bucket loads of plums and pears. Plums are wonderful and very versatile, they make fantastic jam and chutney. The rest of the fruit I've either picked or bought. Over at the farm I managed to pick loads of blackberries and was given some damsons, and from a local orchard I bought Bramleys and greengages.

Unfortunately, as you can imagine all of this fruit attracts those evil little critters in brown and yellow jumpers. I have therefore become very skilled in thwacking them with an oven glove. The score currently stands at Ample Cook 17 - Wasps nil (ha ha!)

Damsons & greengages

The fruits of my labour

(actually this is the tip of the iceberg)

I know you can buy good quality jams and chutneys these days, but I promise you, nothing tastes like homemade. Just 1 lb of fruit and the same quantity of sugar will make a couple of jars of jam and takes very little time and effort to do. Chutney made now will be ready to eat at Christmas, making a really thoughtful gift.
Go on, give it a go.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Who needs Abel & Cole?

I was going to blog about this a couple of weeks ago, but decided it was a bit too smug. But then I got over it. *

This little crate of loveliness is from my sister's allotment. We've had various 'deliveries' over the last few weeks, including : onions, both red & white, shallots, potatoes, runner beans, french beans, beetroots, a few carrots, broccoli and LOTS of courgettes. Oh and of course not forgetting the wonderful raspberries which I made in to raspberry ripple ice cream. Her produce is quite simply amazing and we are very lucky.

Together with our own 25 tomato plants cropping like an Essex chav shells out babies, we have been blessed. It has been a little challenging shall I say in using all of our bounty and creating something new and exciting. But knowing how hard my sister has worked on her allotment to produce this wonderful veg, we have endeavoured not to waste a single bean. I would be lying though, if I didn't tell you that there was a faint whimper from the other side of the dining table, when I brought in the 'Sunday roast courgette'. I jest, there's been plenty of carnivorous accompaniments. Mike is more likely to eat a vegetarian than become one.

With regard to our tomatoes, I know that 25 tomato plants sounds a lot, it is a lot but as they crop, those we can't eat while they're still fresh, I just roast, then use a wonderful contraption called a mouli, which sieves all the skins and pips out. It's then reduced down until it's a bit thicker and you have lovely fresh passata, which goes into the freezer to use during the rest of the year.

Anyway, here's a small selection of how we've used our veg.

Char grilled courgettes & pepper with feta & herbs

The start of a spanish omelette

Roasted tomato & bean stew

Tom & basil bruschetta

Courgette fritters

Roasted toms, courgette & bacon pasta sauce

Courgette pickle & chutney

*I should point out that this is by no means a dig at those who did accept the Abel & Cole produce (and I mean that). I also had their offer, but turned them down.