Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cooking in Clapham

On a recent trip to the UK I had the opportunity to cook a modest, small-plate dinner party for 20 at my brother's home in the Clapham neighborhood of London. I say modest because typically these small-plate affairs require days of advance prep and I allowed myself only a day to prepare this spread. It wasn't a problem in that I followed one of the oldest rules of cooking: when working with exceptional ingredients, keep it simple. And at the Borough Market in central London, where I did most of my shopping, exceptional ingredients are about the only thing available. Now, I'm no novice when it comes to foreign markets, having frequented some of the best in France, Italy, Mexico and China, but I've never been as impressed with the variety and quality as I was on several recent trips to London's signature food emporium. To be honest, the Borough Market has had time to work out the kinks having been at its current location for over 250 years and in the vicinity for 20 centuries. It's a reality of visiting almost anywhere outside the US, but I couldn't help but pause to think that where I was buying turnips had been around longer than my own country.

When shopping at any market, and when I don't have any specific dishes in mind to prepare, I always visit the produce farmers first. Seasonal produce will change on a monthly, if not weekly, basis while things like meat and cheese will have less fluctuation (although the Scottish spring lamb I had in the UK was among the best I've had anywhere and according to the butcher only available for a few months). There is one clear sign that a market is a grower's market vs. a seller's market (a grower's market being one where all the food on had has been grown/raised by the people at the market while a seller's market is usually like an outdoor shopping center with merchants reselling shipped-in goods). If virtually all the produce being sold by the different vendors is the same and slightly unique (meaning not everyone is selling lemons and oranges) it probably is a grower's market. On the days I visited the Borough Market you saw a lot of beets, kohlrabi, bulb onions, and spring carrots. Some great looking stuff, but not a lot to work with. Thankfully, the various meat, seafood and cheese vendors more than made up for the slightly wanting early season produce. The primary seafood monger had an awesome array of European seafood that is hard to find in the US. Things like: in the shell Bristol Bay scallops, red mullet, langoustines, smoked eel, as well as a variety of native French and English Oysters. Then there was Scottish spring lamb, fresh rabbit, guinea hen, quail, capon, squab.. for some reason it all made me think about Jean Renoir's classic class, hunting film "Rules of the Game" (in retrospect as my anniversary was only a few days away perhaps I should have been reminded of 'Tom Jones'). But despite my enjoyment of shopping at the various butcher stands and seafood tables, probably the highlight of the market for me, and I'm sure many others, is Neal's Yard Dairy's shop just of the central market. The room could have been a scene out of 'Wallace and Grommit' for its cartoonish quantities of cheese (yes, of course there was a Wensleydale). The best part was you could sample any of the offerings. The great thing about visiting this market, if you enjoyed it as much as I did, is that while the memories might very well be fleeting, the smell of the ripe cheese on your hands probably isn't.

The biggest challenge for me whenever I cook in Europe, having done it several times now, isn't the unfamiliar terrain for shopping, lack of staff help, or even slate of new ingredients. No, the most frustrating thing always ends up being the size of the refrigerators. Usually about the size of the trunk on a SMART car, the old country's ice closets are typically energy efficient and indicative of a culture that does it's shopping every day (and I must say this is one of the things I LOVE about Europe). But tell that to someone lugging enough food for a multi-course meal for thirty (including 15# of sea scallops in their shell, a slab of lamb, and enough NYD cheese to open a wine & cheese shop). Needless to say, it's a good thing I wasn't planning on prepping several days prior to the dinner.

The dinner itself, after the extensive shopping and carting of goods throughout London's underground train system, was pretty low-key. Mostly native-English colleagues and friends of my brother and sister-in-law. They were all intrigued at the idea of having family visit for "holiday" and then putting them to work cooking a dinner for several dozen. They clearly didn't know my family, where even if it's just four of us, we still cook for twenty. Yet despite the ease with which we cook for large groups, I must say, it's nice having an assistant, albeit a neophyte. My wife, Carol, who I've been reluctant to bring into the cooking business as she already does everything else better than me, was a wonderful assistant and did a great job in putting her abilities as an artist to work in finishing many of the dishes. It ended up being a lovely affair with everyone seemingly having a "grand" time. We served: Treviso Radicchio with NYD Blue Cheese, Blood Orange & Balsamic, Dates stuffed with Chicken Liver & Almonds, Lamb Satay with Sri Lankan Spices, Kohlrabi with Smoked Herring & Pickled Beets, Crab Tartlets with Creme Fraiche and Asparagus, Grilled Pizzettas with Assorted Spanish Hams & Cheeses, Sunchoke & Potato Gratin with Cumin Flecked Dutch Farmcheese, among other things I can no longer recall. After any party you usually come away with observations, like: "it was a big eating group" or "they loved the red wine". On this night I couldn't help but commenting that none of the English guests ever sat down. This wasn't that unusual, as most of the food was designed as finger food and could be enjoyed in one-bite, but the fact that they all stood for almost five hours straight surprised me a bit. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they're so used to running out for more foodstuffs, because they weren't able to fit it in their refrigerators the first time, that they never allow themselves to settle-in. Just a theory.
Then again if I lived near the Borough Market I'd run-out every chance I got.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Dispatches from London

They used to say that the "sun never sets on the British Empire", which of course hasn't been true for decades. After a recent trip to London I must comment on an equally antiquated misconception regarding English food. An old joke has it that English accents were developed because the Britons were trying to find ways to talk while preventing British food from entering their mouths. At one time true? Perhaps. But it couldn't be further from the truth in modern Britain. In fact, one would have a hard time arguing that London isn't one of the top food cities in the world. Naysayers would claim that this amazing "food revolution" is the result of transplants cooking foreign food (ie. French, Indian, Japanese), and that English food is as bland and uninteresting as ever. Having just returned from the UK, where I made it a point to explore "New English Cooking" in all its forms, innovative and delicious takes on traditional English food are flourishing today throughout the UK. Here is a short listing of my must-visit restaurants serving inspired cuisine.

The Fat Duck Labelled the 'Best Restaurant in the World' by Restaurant Magazine (albeit an English publication), Heston Blumenthal's Michelin 3-star establishment invites comparisons to other food destinations (think El Bulli) that play with the chemistry of cooking. Located in a 450-year-old former pub in the quaint village of Bray, about an hour outside London, The Fat Duck experience is difficult to put into words. Borrowing from the experience a chef colleague of mine had at El Bulli, Ferran Adria's landmark restaurant in Roses Spain, he said: "I can totally respect the experience, but I'd never want to cook that way." It is eating as an intellectual exercise, designed to have you question the very nature of the foods you've grown-up eating. Blumenthal adheres to the principles of 'molecular gastronomy', according to which the quality of the diner's experience can be enhanced considerably when the physical and chemical processes that take place in cooking are understood. Thus the menu reads like a child's worst culinary nightmare: 'snail prridge', 'sardine on toast sorbet', 'salmon poached with liquorice', 'nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream', but plays-out in a much more satisfying way. In fact the snail porridge was a revelation, tasting like the best onion soup you've ever had. However, the sardine sorbet and salmon poached in liquorice were interesting but not nearly as delectible. All in all, if you love food, you'd be short-changing yourself by not sampling this type of food experience at least once. It can be a lot of fun, a fancy restaurant run by Willy Wonka, and by all accounts it is where "eating as entertainment" is headed. (If you don't feel like travelling to Spain or the UK, Alinea in Chicago is getting rave reviews in doing similar culinary experimentation.)

St. John If The Fat Duck is Willy Wonka cooking, the St. John is Sweeney Todd. Located in the heart of London's meatpacking district, and to borrow from the title of its creator's (Fergus Henderson) cookbook, St. John is "Nose to Tail Eating". Renowned for their use of the whole animal, you won't find any chicken breasts on the menu, St. John is an offal lover's paradise. The setting is stark white and bare, the walls are simple adorned with coat hooks. It gives the impression of eating in some Orwellian asylum. But that is the point. St. John is a 'temple of the hog' (or cow, or lamb, etc.), where the raw material is the star. You'll find no herb sprig or micro green garnish, in fact you don't even usually get a sauce unless it's part of a braise. What you will get is impeccably sourced and prepared New English food: 'middlewhite & chicory', 'smoked eel, bacon & mash', 'Braised Ox Kidneys & Swede'. Not to mention amazing classic desserts (just think a lot of puddings). St. John is Chez Panisse from a working-class, British perspective.

The Anchor & Hope I had been hearing a lot about gastropubs before I travelled to the UK. It seems recently that any new restaurant to open in the states with good, simple, often locally sourced food and a list of boutique beers is labelled a gastropub. Now after visiting one of London's most popular gastropubs, the Anchor & Hope, it could easily have been labelled "favorite neighborhood joint in a good food city". While that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like gastropub, what I'm trying to say is The Anchor & Hope reminded me of a lot of independent, casual, restaurants in the US. Dark wood, no pretense, a solid wine list with a few good beers on tap. The menu is printed daily, and has some fanciful European-inspired dishes 'torchon of foie gras with prunes' as well as English staples 'steak & kidney pie'. It was the kind of place I could see myself visiting every week. And you could sense the community that had developed there. It was like a great neighborhood restaurant in New York or San Francisco.