Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Fire & Knives

I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Fire & Knives from the market at Brick Lane just before Christmas. It's a new 'Food Quarterly' that launched in November and turned out to be the perfect little xmas present to myself, the ideal accomplice for those frequent periods of lying on the sofa recovering from overeating and drinking, usually with a glass of something and a box of Belgian chocolates nearby and several family members dozing around me, paper hats sliding slowly down over their eyes.

The first thing you notice about Fire & Knives is how beautifully it's presented, the thick paper and distinctive, colourful layouts combining to make it a pleasure to just hold and idly flick through. It's obviously been a labour of love to produce and you get the same impression from the writing within, editor Tim Hayward puts it best in his foreword:

Fire & Knives had to be about love of, enthusiasm for and fascination with food, in all its aspects. It could never be about being a 'connoisseur' - literally 'one who knows' - it had to be about being an amateur - 'one who loves' … so we gave our writers a simple, one line brief: write as an amateur about something you love.

And when you finally stop flicking, skimming and browsing and settle down to read, you find a wonderfully eclectic range of topics and writers all taking their brief very seriously. There's Matthew Fort wrestling with the question of defining English cooking and Tom Parker Bowles confessing the extent of his cookbook addiction, there's a couple of striking photo-essays, a touching portrait of a Bengali women's inner city vegetable growing and cooking community round the back of Spitalfields City Farm, a culinary expedition into poorly-mapped territory trying to cook with tobacco, a faces-at-the-window peek into the privileged dining rooms of City institutions, a surreally funny bit of quail-related fiction, an hilarious skewering of dining-scene pretension sneaking in as a restaurant review and a wide, quirky spectrum of other entertaining, thought-provoking and unexpected articles each as diverse and original as the last one.

They're all about food of course but like all the best writing so many of them are about so much more, food as the context that we live our lives with each other, those we love, those we barely know; the hooks around which we form our memories of times and places that we carry with us forever. It's a pleasure to read and I'm looking forward to issue 2 already. You should too.

Details of subscriptions on the Fire & Knives website.  No details on there about shops carrying it but I believe there's a few places in London, Foyles and Books for Cooks spring to mind.  Hassle them on Twitter for locations near you.

Pictures pinched from their website.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Smoked Anchovies

I always found the idea of smoked anchovies to be utterly, utterly minging.  I'd see tins of them on the shelves in Brindisa and pass them quickly by, making little gagging noises and sticking my tongue out at them as I did so, but one day after spending a small fortune in there (they sell lots of nice things) they insisted on giving me a couple of tins for free.  I thought that asking if I could perhaps have something different for free was just too cheeky and I couldn't exactly shout "MINGING!" and chuck them across the shop so with a watery grin I took them with away me.  This was shortly after they'd opened their deli in Borough Market so I guess they were eager to impress; the price of a tin has almost doubled since then so it looks like it's worked.

You'll be surprised to hear that after opening a tin I discovered that they weren't the honking little abominations I was expecting, they were in fact the Best Thing Ever.  Looking back I've no idea why the thought of them made me want to hurl, I've always loved anchovies.  The intensely salty cooked tinned ones can add depth and a savoury quality to almost anything, especially if it involves tomato sauce or roast lamb and as for the marinated, preserved fillets - boquerones - that you see in Spanish tapas places and delis, well I could eat my bodyweight of those and be back for more the next day.

These smoked ones though, they're very special.  Toothsome fleshy fillets of fish like the boquerones but the slight vinegar sharpness is replaced with a gentle, softly sweet smokiness.  It's a flavour that's obviously there but subtly so, serving more to bring out a smooth full-on umami hit from the fish itself.  Left to my own devices I'll happily just eat the whole tin with nothing more than a glass or 2 of chilled manzanilla but if other people are expecting feeding as well I'll brush off the biscuit crumbs, put on some pants and try to dish them up in a slightly more elegant manner.

Smoked anchovies and scrambled eggs on toast is quick, easy and comfort sex on a plate.  The eggs need to be creamy (I don't mean with cream in them, just cooked to a creamy consistency), go easy on the salt, I like to put a pinch of chilli powder in mine, not enough to make them hot but I like the lift they get from a little pinch.  Creamy eggs is the real key though, anchovies and creamy eggy things is quite a classic combo, the parmesan custard with anchovy toast at Le Cafe Anglais being the pinnacle of mankind's achievement in this sphere.  Until someone invents parmesan custard with smoked anchovy toast, that is.

Purple sprouting broccoli with smoked anchovies is my favourite and a great example of something already wonderful improved with smoky anchovy magic.  Purple sprouting broccoli deserves be revered as much as asparagus and it's at its peak in these cold winter months.  Think of this as a winter version of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, but better.

And finally I also love this bruschetta from the River Cafe which remarkably (a) only has 2 ingredients and (b) only takes about 20 minutes to make: mix some cherry tomatoes, slivers of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, roast in an oven for about 15 mins at 200C/400F/gas 6.  Meanwhile warm through some borlotti beans tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little red wine vinegar.  Mix the beans with the tomatoes, I like to get them a bit crushed and mangled, it looks a bit rough but it's quite entertaining to prepare.  Spread on toasted sourdough bread, and lay fillets of smoky fishy alchemy on top.  

You may notice the last step appears to be missing from my photo, and indeed by the time I'd make the bruschetta I'd eaten all the anchovies.  I find this to be a common problem, if you're planning on making any kind of dish with smoked anchovies then I strongly recommend allowing for the fact that you'll have already eaten half the tin before you need to use them.

More details on Brindisa's website (they're £6.50 for a 100g tin in the shop)

Photo of (live) anchovies courtesy of Team Awesome! on flickr

Friday, 18 December 2009

Galvin Cafe De Luxe

The Galvin brothers opened Galvin La Chapelle to quite some fanfare a few weeks ago and it seems like every blog and newspaper and restaurant website you can think of has weighed in with a review of the place recently.  Generally speaking they're all very positive although there seems to be a common theme of being distinctly underwhelmed by the whole experience, the high expectations from the Galvin brothers previous ventures, the rather dramatic setting of their new place and the prices charged making it quite common to see reviews ending with rather wistful noises about what could/should have been.

But whatever, something that seems to have gone pretty much uncommented on is the cafe operation attached to the side of the main restaurant.  Wandering past it tonight in freezing temperatures, snow coming down horizontally at 100mph thanks to a biting wind that was whipping up my trousers and on the verge on unmanning me, that was all the excuse I needed to pop in and investigate.  Open from 8am doing breakfasts and through the day with a 'plat du jour' at lunch and into the evening it's a much more ordinary looking affair that backs out onto Bishop's Square than the spectacularly housed restaurant with its discreet Spital Square side entrance into the renovated St Botolph's church.  It's actually a bit surreal sitting as it does beneath several floors of brand spanking new City Lifestyle designer apartments, which you can gaze up at from within parts of the cafe thanks to the glass ceiling and the two small outdoor seating areas.  It reminded me a little bit of the Blueprint Cafe, the restaurant above the Design Museum on Butler's Wharf where you can look out on one side straight into several of the swish riverside flats next door to it and watch the residents pottering around as you eat your dinner.  Or maybe I just need to curb my voyeurism.

Sitting at the bar, still with my coat and scarf on (although I'd taken my gloves off - I do know how to behave in these places) I ordered a gin martini and took a look at the menu whilst waiting for me to come up to the same temperature as the rest of the room.  The martini was decent enough, the "twist" of lemon peel (about 1/4 of a lemon) somewhat over the top but it was nicely chilled and did a good job of warming me up, the poor waiter who was sent diving through the doors into the wet arctic gale to rescue some chairs that were being blown away could probably have done with one too.  The menu reads well, it's full of things you want to eat (assuming you're not a vegetarian) and it's not easy making a normal-sized-person choice - onion soup, snails, steak tartare, herrings, fois gras terrine and a choice of oysters amongst the starters, pork belly, bouillabaisse, steak, boudin noir stick in the mind from the choice of mains although they're all described in much more attractive detail than that.

I had ham and celeriac remoulade starter and am kicking myself for not being able to remember the name of the ham - air-cured and sliced wafer thin with large pristine white fatty borders it was stunningly good.  Parma, serrano, iberico, san danielle, whatever, if it's previously been part of a pig and it's been cured then I'm a big fan of it and this rated up there with the very best I've had, beautifully soft and moist with a deep but gentle flavour that forces you to slow down and savour every mouthful.  The celeriac was spot on too, a classic pairing to be sure, but so often it's the kitchen cocking up the straightforward things that really dispirits me - the shonky mayonnaise, flabby chips, bland aioli, too-sharp ketchup, fridge-cold butter, gloopy bearnaise, bacon that looks like it's been microwaved.

Next up was confit leg of duck with braised lentils and black pudding, not quite as successful but I still would have licked the plate clean if the place hadn't been so busy.  The duck had a nice crispy skin but the meat itself was too dry, the former probably causing the latter.  The lentils and black pudding were delicious, rich and hearty, the black pudding of the soft and crumbly variety that you can almost spread on stuff and just right for this dish.  Other dishes getting wheeled out around me look great, the onion soup and the bouillabaisse in particular.  I think if I had my time again I'd order the onion soup followed by two ham and celeriacs.

All classic stuff that you'd expect to see really, and the cafe menu reads a lot more like a shorter version of the menu from their first restaurant, Bistrot de Luxe.  Comparisons with it's grand conjoined twin are inevitable though: La Chapelle has a Cote de Boeuf (for 2) the cafe offers a rib eye steak (for 1); La Chap serves a pavé of halibut, in the caff you get a wood roast sea bream; LC can do you a tagine of "squab pigeon", CDL a confit duck leg; in the churchy bit they have a "Feuillette of baby leeks, salsify and hazlenut emulsion" (oh yes they do) and well, I think you probably get the point.  La Chapelle is big and elaborate, impressive to look at and hitting all the aspirational pressure points in the bodies of the expenses-fuelled City lunchtime wheeler and dealer with the clinical expertise of a Bangkok soapy massage.  The Cafe De Luxe on the other hand sits quietly round the back with its low ceiling and funky zinc bar and little tables, serving familiar food that people want to eat and sending them on their way with a proper happy ending.

A couple of other points worth mentioning: the menu for the cafe has a "from the wood oven" section with only 4 items on it - a tarte flambé and pizzas (one of which was a pissaladière, a white pizza) - but which sounded impressive, just one or two ingredients on each suggesting a confidence that reeled me in, I nearly ordered the ceps pizza.  I didn't see a single one served unfortunately but am keen to return and investigate what's quite an odd little section to be sitting in the middle of their menu.  I don't recall a "from the wood oven" section in the La Chapelle menu although I'm sure it must be used for some of the dishes, they can't have installed such a thing in their kitchen just to knock out pizzas for the cafe.  A final thumbs up goes to the wine list, predominantly (but not totally) French they have a good size proportion available by the glass (175ml), small pot (250ml), large pot (450ml) as well as the bottle.  Not the whole list unfortunately, but it's nice to see them making an effort that more places should be making.

Details of all the Galvin restaurants can be found on their website.  They don't mention the hand-dryers in the toilets that will blast the skin off your hands if you're not careful - be warned.

Bugger, the name of that ham is really winding me up, noix de something I think, ggnnnnnnnnnnn

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Dose Espresso

London's history with coffee and coffee houses goes way back, Lloyds of London famously starting life as a coffee shop back in about 1690.  They were the places men (no women allowed) would meet to swap news, debate the politics of the day and conduct business, or at least that's the accepted version of events.  Looking at the historical context though, this was the time of the famous Gin Craze and given the phenomenal rate of alcohol consumption - gin or otherwise - at the time, everyone was obviously off their heads one way or another and the coffee house's explosive rise in popularity was mainly because the speed-freaks needed somewhere to hang out away from the alcoholics.  Of course news was swapped, politics discussed and business conducted: everyone had to do something whilst they were whizzing their caffeinated nuts off waiting for someone to invent amphetamines and playstations.  Once that happened though, the level of sophistication in London coffee culture really plummeted and never showed much sign of recovering until recently.

The last couple of years have seen a real change thanks to Australians and New Zealanders opening up coffee houses in the image of those back home.  Little places with lots of personality run by people who care deeply about what they sell, the environment they sell it in and the care and attention given to serving their customers.  It seems nothing special, just a smile and an acknowledgement of your existence when you enter, a friendly, polite enquiry as to what you'd like whilst actually looking in your direction, any questions you may have are met with words strung together that convey knowledgeable charm and courtesy, even stretching to a bit of casual chat and banter if you can cope with it, they make it look so simple it can leave you bewildered.

The best cup of espresso-based coffee I've had in London (and I've had a few) can be found at one of these establishments, Dose Espresso by Smithfield Market where on a drinks menu featuring all the usual suspects you can also find the mighty Dose.  There are many, many things that have to go right to make a great espresso, most of them can be face-scratchingly frustrating to get right on their own, trying to get them all just right in combination with each other is enough to drive a sane man to melt his face off with the steam wand.  "DIalling in" an espresso blend to a machine for that perfect shot is an art and a science to which certain people seem quite happy to dedicate their lives; luckily for the rest of us James of Dose Espresso is one of those nutters beautiful people.

The Dose itself is made by using a dose of coffee large enough for a triple espresso, this is tamped down, plugged into their beast of a machine (a La Marzocco FB-80 semi automatic with night sights and grenade launcher) and then the steady flow of thick, oily-looking, foaming pitch scrutinised intently as it oozes out to produce a drink not much bigger than a single espresso.  It's obviously a delicate art to get one of these things to come out properly and I've seen James throw away several attempts before producing something he considers worthy of serving, muttering and shaking his head at whatever he's seen that's rung the big Fail bell in his head before slinging the used grind and the offending drink in the bin and starting again.

The end result is quite astonishing though, both to look at and to taste.  To start with it sits on the counter in a little glass and you have to actually leave it to settle, sitting there like a little pint of Guinness for tiny people with tiny hands.  You stand there watching your drink slowly materialise in the glass, the black body gradually taking shape from the bottom as the fine bubbles slowly migrate and settle into a shiny crema at the top of the glass.  It goes without saying that it tastes wonderful, the details will vary according to the the particular beans that have been used that day, as well as Square Mile's seasonally varying blend of espresso they have bags of guest coffees acquired for James by fellow coffee worshippers on their travels.  What makes the Dose a really stand out coffee though is the remarkable body and texture it acquires from whatever voodoo goes into compressing all that coffee grind into a little garden gnome pint glass.  There's an amazing mouthfeel, a smooth and fabulously rich body gliding across your taste buds seducing everything it touches, wonderfully balanced, strong and gentle, an iron fist in a velvet glove if ever I tasted one.

The only real problem is ordering one.  "Hello, I'd like a dose please.", it's not very dignified but it's worth it.

Oozing espresso head photo courtesy of Dose, full details on their website.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Turnip Soufflé

What's in a name?  Quite a lot if you're a turnip.  There's no glamour in being a turnip, your name's a byword for idiots and stupidity, at least in England it is for a generation raised on Baldrick's obsession with them.  If you need a quick image to convey "huge moron" to your audience then the turnip is your go-to vegetable, as Graham Taylor will quickly confirm.

I don't think there's much of a culinary reason for this, in Eastern Asian cuisine you find daikon everywhere; it's usually translated as 'radish' and commonly looks more like a parsnip but it tastes more like turnip than anything else. Americans seem quite happy cooking turnips, especially at Thanksgiving, but with an American accent "turnip" doesn't sound quite so much a synonym for imbecile and daikon of course sounds more like a particularly cool Transformer (ninja->ferrari->ninja->ferrari->hiiiYA!->BrrRRMMMmm) but if you're the Sun launching a campaign to oust England's national football team manager, calling him Turnip Head is where you start.

Soufflé raises wide-eyed expectations, it says Michelin star, linen, candles, proper sexy serious cooking.  You wouldn't ever see Baldrick excited about a soufflé in the shape of a thingy or about his thingy being the shape of a soufflé.  This recipe isn't one of those dinky little show-offs rearing up out of its single-seater ramekin looking for 'ooohs' and applause however, it's a big savoury bowlful to be plonked on a table, scooped up and shared out in wobbly spoonfuls.

Winter turnips aren't particularly great for much other than burying in soups and stews, Jane Grigson* refers to them along with swedes as "that grim pair" and how, compared to the French: 
we stick too much to the agricultural view, regarding the turnip as a coarse, cow-sized vegetable, suitable for the over-wintering of herds, schoolchildren, prisoners and lodgers.
Turnips have a soft, sweet pepperiness that goes well with other warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardomom and in the spring and summer there are plenty of interesting ways to cook them more simply than the egg-fondling vein-bulging stress of making a soufflé, but getting into winter this is about the only option I know of for doing something delicious with them.  I'm always tempted to experiment more with the spicing in this dish, especially as xmas approaches, some star anise, cloves, a little juniper, I suspect I'd end up with something smelling and tasting very festive and exotic indeed, however I always shy away at the last minute towards something that I know to work.  I think this is the power of the soufflé to intimidate.


turnips - about 5 or 6 of the smaller ones or a couple of big ones.  After peeling and cooking and mashing you'll want about 200g, so aim for 300-350g of unpeeled raw turnips if you're weighing.
butter - 50g
flour - 50g
egg yolks - 4
egg whites - 5 (I know, just chuck the other yolk away, don't try and keep it in the fridge, really)
breadcrumbs - good handful
grated parmesan - good handful
chopped parsley - good handful
milk - 125ml
cinnamon, cayenne pepper - big tsp each

Peel and dice the turnips and boil in a pan of salted water till soft (15-25 mins) drain - keeping about 150ml of the cooking liquid - and mash.  Don't worry about mashing to a fine puree, I prefer the end result to have some texture (lumps) and they can be a bit of a bugger to mash smooth anyway.  Squish the mashed turnip into a sieve to get most of the water out and leave in the sieve to drain a little bit more.

Whilst the turnips are cooking/draining prepare your soufflé bowl and the egg whites: you'll need a soufflé dish about 1-2 litres greased all round with some butter.  By 'soufflé dish' I just mean anything that'll survive in the oven and is a vaguely sensible shape, I've no idea what my 'soufflé dish' was originally intended for, it looks more like a flower pot than anything else, but it's a decent size and seems to cope with oven temperatures so far.  Tip in the breadcrumbs and the parmesan and jiggle and turn the bowl around until the insides are all nice and evenly coated.  Gently shake out any excess and keep it safe to go on the top of the souffle before it goes in the oven.  Whisk the egg whites in a big clean dry bowl until they're getting to the soft peaks stage.

Melt the butter in a pan, once it's foaming stir in the flour and let cook through for a few seconds.  Pour in the milk and the turnip cooking water that you kept back earlier, stir through until smoothly combined then mix in your pureed turnip.  Once this is all looking well and good remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolks, one at a time.  Make sure you give them a thorough, vigorous stir as they land in the pan, you don't want them sitting there cooking.  I usually have the yolks all in one bowl and slowly try and roll them out one at a time.  This doesn't always work, sometimes a couple will plop out together but no matter, you just have to stir twice as vigorously.

Once the yolks are all safely stirred in check the seasoning and stir in the cinnamon, cayenne and parsley.  It should taste pretty strong at this point, probably a bit too strong, adding the egg whites will dilute it.  Finish whisking the egg whites off, another couple of minutes until they're at the stiff peaks stage, then gently fold into the turnip mixture a spoonful at a time.  Again don't worry too much about perfect folding and having little lumps of egg white in the mixture, no-one will know, it's more important to avoid stirring and beating the air out of them.  Pour the mixture out into your soufflé bowl, sprinkle the rest of the parmesan/breadcrumb mixture over the top and put in an oven at 200C/400F/gas 6, ideally on a metal tray that's been heating in the oven to make a hot base for the soufflé dish, for 30 mins or until the top looks like this:

* Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book.  This recipe is based on her jerusalem artichoke soufflé recipe in that book.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


I love the autumn for lots of reasons, mainly food-related.  Best of all is game, all of it.  From the furry rabbits and hares and deer to the various feathered ex-birds that spring up in market stalls, butchers and on menus all over the place.  Grouse is the big one for game season, the one with the foodie reputation, the hype, the glamour and the star billing, there's column-inches in the press with forecasts for this season's shooting, stories about Grouse shoots on the moorlands spun various ways to fit the news outlet's particular stance on these things.  They don't get much more iconic than grouse, they're fantastic eating and there's a real sense of occasion about ordering one in a restaurant.  The real highlight of game season for me though, is the woodcock.

You don't see them on restaurant menus very much, which I'm sure contributes to making being sat at a dining table with nothing between me and a little cooked woodcock such a source of pleasure.  They're highly migratory little birds and although I think there is a residential population in the UK, a larger number migrate here at the start of autumn making most of the shooting.  This means a pretty unpredictable and erratic supply and on top of that if you do see one, they're very tricky little buggers to shoot.  Whatever the reasons, if the hunters think they've got their work cut out trying to find them and shoot them it's nothing compared to trying to find them and eat them in a London restaurant.

Woodcock's empty their bowels before they take off.  This gives me twinges of guilt, rather than shooting and eating them surely we should be encouraging every bird to do this, especially the sodding pigeons, but I don't dwell on it.  What it means is that you can roast the whole bird, guts and all.  Roasting it this way heightens the flavour of the flesh itself then after cooking you scoop its guts out - intestines and everything - into a hot pan with a little stock and perhaps some booze, before spreading the roughly chopped and mixed offal onto some fried bread.  I've seen various ways of doing this described: some say you should salvage just the liver from the pan after a minute's sizzling and that should be chopped and spread with the rest going towards sieving and saucing, others tell you to discard everything except the intestines(!) and chop that up for your pate.

The other interesting thing about roasting woodcock is that you leave the head on as well, you need to protect it with some tin-foil so that after cooking the head can be removed, split and the brains scooped out as a delicate little accompaniment.  Quite an undignified end, sitting in an oven with a little tin-foil hat on and your innards cooking inside you but I think it's worthwhile.

The best woodcock I've eaten is at St John restaurant.  As with everything else they do there's no distractions or superfluous extras, it says just "Woodcock" on the menu and that's just what you get:

Although I suppose the 'watercress up bum' could be considered a distraction.  You can see the pate on fried bread in there and the split head, they thoughtfully provide you with a little teaspoon so you can scrape out the brains:

I just remembered to get a closer snap of the half-skulls before polishing off the brains in the other half:

The bird itself tastes amazing, it's pretty strong on that gamey taste that some people find so off-putting, skirting the rotting-meat/putrescence suburbs of the flavour wheel but with a sweetness that balances and lifts the whole experience; the meat has a wonderful bloody mineral tang to its flavour and is very rich and dense.  The fried bread/pate combo is an extremely intense hit of offaly meaty goodness, just the right consistency - not too rough, not pureed - and with a gentle hint of some booze in there too.  The brains, well, they're just hilarious - they don't have a strong flavour of their own, they taste creamy and feel rather soft and fluffy initially, that gives way to some firmness and solidity in texture as you bite into them, very enjoyable.

It's a tricky art stopping game birds drying out too much in the cooking, they need a hot oven for a short amount of time and you usually see them sold with their breasts larded with strips of bacon to that end.  You'd expect somewhere like St John to have this down to a fine art and this was cooked to perfection, the pan juices from the gut-cooking obviously used to raise the dish a little further.  Game birds like this aren't cheap, grouse and woodcock have been in the £27-£30 bracket on the menus in London I've seen this season and they'll be higher than that if it's a bad season ('bad' from a hunting/eating point of view, I imagine for the grouse it's a 'pretty chuffed' season) but they're worth every penny and one of the things I love most about this time of the year.

Woodcock usually appear on menus towards the end of Nov through to the start of February, best bets in London are probably to give Rules a call or keep an eye on the St John menu at their website (it's updated twice a day)

photo of (live) woodcock courtesy of guizmo_68

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Welsh Rarebit

The weather's been grim these last few weeks, the rain, the wind, the cold, the cold winds, the windy rain, the cold rainy wind, ok I'll stop there. It has an effect though, looking out of the office window at 5pm and it's already pitch black, fighting through dark sopping wet pavements filled with people huddled up against the cold, heads down, minds anywhere except the unpleasant present. My mind is usually on what I'm going to eat next and the more shitty the weather, the more deeply my imagination voyages into warm steamy comfort food territory.

One thing in particular had been on my mind over the last couple of weeks but what with the various pies, stews, slow-roasts and fish & chips that had been crowding my rather short-range radar recently it hadn't got a look in. After 2 steps out of the office this evening my hair was sodden, my whole head icy wind-whipped, my shoes full of freezing puddle launched sideways by taxis and buses and my body temperature had plummeted right down into regions that required emergency cheese-on-toast.

Welsh rarebit is not just cheese on toast, however. Well, technically it has cheese in it and it's on toast but it's a lot more than that, which is why this evening found me with the rain rattling against the windows and the wind shaking bits off the building outside whilst I was happily pottering about in my warm kitchen making a few glorious gooey, savoury, crunchy slabs of spicy rib-sticking comforting orgasmic pleasure. I'm not serious of course, no-one really had an orgasm during the eating, despite what the noises might lead you to believe.

Welsh rarebit - I'm not getting into the rabbit/rarebit debate, I find rarebit hard enough to cope with, calling it a rabbit is just weird - is effectively cheese melted with beer, mustard, worcestershire sauce and spices into a thick sauce spread on toast and grilled into a bubbling crackling finish. There is actually cooking involved (not a whole lot, admittedly), and then you leave the mixture to set before carving out slabs to spread on toast and grilling it to melting popping perfection under a grill. The bread's important here, use a proper loaf of proper white bread, not some plastic wonderbread nonsense or wholemeal coated in pumpin seeds etc.

You'll need:
  • knob of butter
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • cayenne pepper, paprika (either/or/both, I like both) 1 tsp each
  • Worcestershire sauce - good long glug
  • mustard powder 1 tsp (or just mustard is fine, about 2 tsp)
  • beer/stout 200ml (Guinness is popular, I used Meantime London Stout because it comes in bigger bottles than Guinness so there's more left to drink, and it's delicious)
  • Strong cheddar grated 400g (by 'strong' I mean weapons grade, I used Montgomery Cheddar)
Melt the butter in a pan, once it's on its way stir in the flour. Once that's starting to smell biscuity stir in the spices, then the mustard powder/mustard and once they're living happily together pour in the beer/stout and the worcestershire sauce. Bring it back up to a simmer and start melting the cheese into it a handful at a time. Once all the cheese is melted in, give it another minute's simmering then pour into a shallow dish and leave it to set:

You can see I just used a wide bowl here to set mine, whatever you've got to hand is fine, it's a pretty hard recipe to ruin. Once the mixture has cooled and set to reasonably firm consistency (about half an hour-ish) heat up the grill, make some toast then slice/spoon the mixture on top in about a 1cm thick layer:

Place under a hot grill for a few minutes until the it's bubbling away and taken on some colour. There will probably be gooey bits sliding down the side of the toast as it cooks. This is fine.

One of the pleasures of this dish is that it's never quite the same - I've never actually measured how much of anything I've put in it, and the ingredients vary according to what's on hand. This time round it was a little bit sloppier than usual (too much beer/not enough cheddar/not enough simmering after the cheese went in/playing the Clash too loudly whilst I made it? I don't know.) If I've got some parmesan lying around maybe I'll grate some on top before it goes under the grill. I prefer it with mustard powder but this time I only had Dijon to hand and in all the excitement of trying to remember to take photos I forgot to add any paprika and put it under a stone cold grill. But hey, guess what? It was still freaking delicious (once the sodding grill heated up), a lot of fun and very satisfying to make (always) and washed down with a good glass of red wine was just what was needed to cheer up a miserable, cold, wet night.

photo of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch train station courtesy of jonny2love
the rest are all my fault