Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Christmas Chique 2012: Hot Roots and Seeds – British Grown Wasabi, Horseradish, Tewkesbury Mustard and Smoked Haddock Pâté

Wasabi is being grown for the first time ever in the UK by one of our top watercress-producing families based in Dorset. It's notoriously difficult to grow and takes 2 years until it is ready for harvest. If you haven't tried fresh Wasabi before it has a uniquely sweet pungent taste and fiery heat which really wakes up the taste buds and sinuses. It stimulates the nasal passages rather than the tongue and the heat is more akin to horseradish or mustard than chilli.

The Wasabi Company use traditional Japanese methods and grow Sawa Wasabi – the purest, sweetest, hottest and healthiest variety. Fresh Wasabi is unlike the wasabi green paste in tubes that you see sold in shops – these usually contain a substitute which is a mix of horseradish, mustard and green food colouring with as little as only 5% of the real wasabi root.

Sawa Wasabi is native to mountainous river valleys of Japan and thrives along the cool and shady banks of stream beds. Although Wasabi has been eaten in Japan for thousands of years by the 16th century it was restricted to the Japanese ruling class. It wasn't until the rise in production of sushi that Wasabi used became more widely available. It is the preferred flavouring for sushi and was prized for its ability to counteract food poisoning.

This British grown Wasabi has been a boon for chefs up and down the UK with Gary Jones, executive chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, summing it up as "bloody marvellous, a small miracle of pure taste and flavour." You can buy varying sizes of Wasabi rhizomes (roots), specialist graters and bamboo brush brushes from The Wasabi Company's website. They have handy guides on how much you will need and recipe suggestions – which go far beyond sushi.

I'm not surprised Wasabi has become such a big hit in the UK given our love of horseradish and mustard. Horseradish was used as a medicinal herb in 13th century Britain but became popular in the 1600s. By the end of the 17th century horseradish was the standard accompaniment for beef and oysters among all Englishmen. The English, in fact, grew the pungent root at inns and coach stations, to make cordials to revive exhausted travellers (the Germans still make schnapps out of horseradish root). It's not a member of the Wasabi family but is a distant relative as they both belong to the Brassicaceae group which includes cabbages – and mustard.

We don't live far from Tewkesbury which is famous for its Tewkesbury Mustard which is made from mustard and horseradish (and sometimes local cider!) – a tradition that dates back centuries. It was mentioned in William Shakespeare's play Henry IV and King Henry VIII was presented with Tewkesbury Mustard Balls covered in gold leaf when he visited the town in 1535. The Tewkesbury Mustard Company is the only mustard-maker in Tewkesbury and continues this tradition – they were featured on Ainsley Harriet's The Great British Food Revival on BBC 2 this week! We eat it regularly at home and if you haven't tried it yet please do, it's delicious.

I use horseradish in Smoked Mackerel Pâté (see here for recipe) but this year I'm making Smoked Haddock Pâté for Christmas Eve snacks using our local Tewkesbury Mustard.

Smoked Haddock Pâté

2 or 3 big fillets of un-dyed smoked haddock (cooked)
300 ml double cream
2 boiled eggs (chopped up small)
1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
3 tsp Tewkesbury Mustard

I tend to poach the smoked haddock in a pan with a knob of butter and just enough milk to cover the fish. Flake the cooked smoked haddock into a blender/liquidiser, discarding the skin and any stray bones. Add the liquid from the pan that the fish was poached in and the boiled eggs, double cream, lemon juice and Tewkesbury Mustard to the blender. Pulse until roughly minced. Deposit into a bowl and stir in the freshly cracked black pepper, put into individual ramekins, sprinkle with cress and serve.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Christmas Chique 2012 – Game is the New Turkey

Apparently Game – feathered and fowl – is going to be popular this year instead of the traditional Turkey. Venison is always a favourite but Pigeon seems to be experiencing a renaissance. The days of Pigeon Pie are long gone and pan fried Pigeon Breast seems to be all the rage. I'm not surprised – it's an easy dish to prepare and is better than duck in my opinion. Pigeon meat is dark and has very little fat. If you haven't tried it before it tastes a little like a mild pâté. Wild Wood Pigeon is usually available in the markets but Squab (young domestic pigeon) is more tender – and plump.
Pigeon is a delicacy in the Middle East - from Morocco to Persia. In Egypt raising domestic pigeons is an important industry and you'll see dovecots dotted about the farms and small holdings along the Nile, some of which are a centuries old. It's believed that they were domesticated starting 10,000 years ago and pigeons are mentioned in 5,000 year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics
I remember a meal I had years ago at a restaurant of pan fried pigeon breast served with an apricot tartlet – it was delicious and would make a good addition to any Christmas menu. The apricot tartlet was very simple – just plain pastry with lattice work over apricot compote - and the pigeon breast was pan fried in butter with no marinade or sauce. Simple flavours and so good it has stuck in my mind for over a decade! Red Cabbage would be a great accompaniment and rather than use a braised red cabbage recipe I thought this one for a Red Cabbage Warm Salad looked scrumptious.
Red Cabbage Warm Salad
1 small red cabbage (finely shredded)
1 red onion (sliced)
4 tbsp sultanas
2 apples (diced)
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Olive oil
1 piece of root ginger (grated)
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp cinnamon
Handful fresh parsley (chopped)
Fry the red cabbage, onion, apple and ginger in a pan in the olive oil for a minute or so until they soften slightly. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for 5 minutes. Serve.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Christmas Chique for 2012 – Baked Alaska Makes a Come Back

Baked Alaska is making a comeback for Christmas this year as Waitrose have teamed up with chef Heston Blumenthal once again to create a Caramelised Banana and Raspberry Baked Alaska. Last year the chef brought us pine-sugar mince pies that smelled like Christmas trees, the year before was all about the Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding.

Heston's Baked Alaska is a different take on the Baked Alaska that reached the height of its popularity in the 70s and 80s. It is made with raspberry parfait core encased in dark chocolate, surrounded by caramelised banana parfait instead of ice cream.

Heston explained that:

Baked Alaska is a childhood favourite of mine. I love the juxtaposition of the soft meringue against the smooth creamy interior, but I hated the idea that it all melted so quickly. So I was inspired to create my take on the old school classic by creating a raspberry mousse centre which gave the creaminess without melting and adding one of my favourite flavours – bananas!”

Baked Alaska was popular during Victorian times when 'ice cream cakes' were all the rage but the name wasn't coined until 1876 when the chef at Delmonico's Restaurant, New York, Charles Ranhofer, named the dish in tribute to Alaska after it had become an American territory a few years before.

Like its contents Baked Alaska has a combination of origins – the idea of cooking an ice dessert within warm pastry seems to have come from the Chinese who introduced it to Europe in the 1800s when a delegation visited Paris. The French caught on to the idea and substituted the pastry for meringue, calling it Omelette à la Norvégienne (Norwegian Omelette).

Normally Baked Alaska is made with ice cream on a bed of sponge, topped with meringue which is then placed in a very hot oven just long enough to brown the meringue. However you can make all sorts of Baked Alaska by varying the ingredients and flavours – some are made with ginger or digestive biscuit bases instead of sponge and others have sorbets or frozen yoghurts instead of ice cream. Jamie Oliver makes a Baked Alaska Mince Pie and Aldi have a recipe for Christmas Baked Alaska using Christmas Cake as a base.

Tips for Making Baked Alaska

Save time by buying the sponge and ice cream rather than make them from scratch – you can be as inventive as you like, using from chocolate sponge to walnut cake!

Freeze the sponge before topping it with ice cream to help keep the ice cream cold when you are heating the dessert.

The meringue can be flavoured with spirits such as Amaretto, Brandy and Rum – you can use essences too like Almond, Orange and Vanilla. Be artistic when you are coating the ice cream with the meringue using swirls or piping as this makes a great effect.

Use different toppings as a decoration such as sauce, fruit coulis, chocolate shavings or edible glitter.

Enjoy with Sparkling Wine – a Sparkling Rosé would be lovely!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Christmas Chique for 2012 – Gingerbread's 'Hot' this Year

Last Christmas we saw Ginger flavoured drinks gain favour with Marks & Spencer seeing sales of Ginger Wine and Ginger Beer up 20% and the launch of new Gingerbread Rum and Gingerbread Cream Liqueur. You may have also spotted Gingerbread Houses at Aldi last December – which sold like hot cakes. According to statistics, exports of Root Ginger from India have gone up by 76% year on year and this year it appears that retailers have caught on to the fact that Ginger is enjoying a renaissance.

This September John Crabbie & Co announced 2 new flavours: Scottish Raspberry with Ginger and Lemonade with Ginger and Bulmers have launched a new Ginger Cider in Australia. Procter’s Sausages produced the prized Champion ‘Essex Sausage’ based on a traditional recipe with Ginger and Mace flavourings running through it and Ginger Honey is now on sale at Morrisons.

For Christmas 2012 the Bakers and Patissiers Just Desserts have created a Fever Tree Ginger Beer Cheesecake and Sainsbury's have a Gingerbread Man Chocolate Cake as well as Gingerbread Dough Blocks (as do Tesco) and a Make Your Own Gingerbread House Kit (easier said than done!).

Hansel and Gretel

It's thought that Gingerbread Houses became popular in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their book of fairy tales which included "Hansel and Gretel" in 1812 but it's probable that Gingerbread Houses were being made long before this. In the 1600s Nuremberg in Germany, became known as the Gingerbread capital, thanks to the elaborate Gingerbread scenes, animals and figures – often decorated with gold leaf – made by the bakers of the city.

Queen Victoria, and her German-born husband Prince Albert, brought Gingerbread into fashion when they included it in with the other German Christmas traditions they adopted, like the Christmas tree, back in the 19th century. However Gingerbread has been popular in the UK since the 15th century. Many English villages had a tradition of young women eating Gingerbread men, or “husbands,” to ensure that they would soon be married. Often towns would have a Gingerbread fair – Market Drayton in Shropshire, is still famous for it, as is proudly displayed on their town’s welcome sign.

There are plenty of Gingerbread recipes for Christmas around: Jamie Oliver's Gingerbread and Sherry Trifle and Nigella Lawson's Gingerbread Stuffing but I really like the one for Gingerbread and Lime Cheesecake over at BBC GoodFood. I've simplified the recipe here and you can use Gingerbread Dough to make the base or crunch up Ginger Biscuits.

225g Ginger biscuits or Gingerbread - crushed
115g butter - melted
300g full fat soft cream cheese
250ml double cream
2 limes - juice and zest
4 tbsp Ginger syrup (you can buy stem Ginger in ginger syrup and use the stem Ginger to decorate the dish)

Crumble up the Gingerbread and mix with melted butter, then press hard into the base of a ring mould. Pop into the fridge to chill for an hour. Whip the cream and mix in the cream cheese, ginger syrup and lime juice. Add the stem ginger and lime zest. Spoon onto the Gingerbread base and spread. Place in the fridge for a couple of hours until firm.

Enjoy with sparkling wines that are aromatic, crisp and palate cleansing or dessert wines that are honeyed, spicy and rich. My choice would be a dry Cremant d'Alsace or Sauternes as they work well with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Cava and late harvest Riesling or Ice Wine are also good pairings.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Christmas Chique for 2012

You might be surprised to learn that the UK supermarkets Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons unveiled their festive foods for Christmas to the press in July this year. Harrods' Knightsbridge store opened its Christmas department in July, hoping to tempt people to shop early and to capitalise on tourists visiting the capital for the Olympics. Christmas has also come early to Asda who opened Santa's grottos in August - which the supermarket says were designed to encourage people to start saving for the festive season. What's more selected branches of Tesco have had dedicated Christmas aisles for a month or so already.

What's going on? It seems that this early Christmas drive has been inspired by research commissioned by the supermarkets which showed that almost half of Mums were more worried about the cost of Christmas this year than in 2011 and that a third had started to buy earlier in the year . . . some as early as late Spring.

Lots of folk get fed up with Christmas coming earlier in the shops and claim it dilutes the festive spirit but I take a different take on this. For me, living in the countryside, Autumn has always been a time of harvest – and of jam making, bottling, pickling, freezing etc. So as the nights start to draw in I am always thinking ahead and inevitably preparing for Christmas becomes part of the ritual. Doing things in advance these days helps busy Mums, especially those of us who are working with families to care for at home, and so planning for the festive season to come not only saves money but precious time.

City folk have the same problem and why shouldn't they pick up some items for Christmas and store them away in a cupboard till needed? In these times of rising prices and shrinking budgets it makes sense to spread the load, to say nothing of the time spent in preparation – after all who wants to spend a frantic few days battling down a crowded high street and cooking up a frenzy in the kitchen because you are under pressure?

With this in mind I have spent some time looking at the Christmas trends for 2012 in food, drink and festive decoration. I've poured over catalogues full of glass baubles fresh from Germany, scoured celebrity chef's new creations for Christmas and pondered over press releases for novel and inspiring Christmas food and drink launches.

I want to create my own spin on Christmas Chique this year with versions of dishes and decorations that are the height of Christmas fashion, which are quick and easy to prepare and that won't cost a fortune . . . so watch this space!

If you have any ideas or would like to share any tips then please get in touch.