Lemon and Garlic Cod, Truffled red pepper puree, pearl barley risotto and crispy pine nuts. Pimms Jelly, Avocado mousse and Vanilla and raspberry macaroons.

I’m sure it appears that my house is an endless stream of dinner parties at the moment. This is mostly because my parents have been storing up invitations to dinner until I came home, giving me an opportunity to practise my cooking before next year. This time it was the turn of some very good family friends of ours who I credit for helping further my career with advice and investment. They were the first people to listen to the ideas of a precocious 17 year old and trust me with catering 21st birthdays, engagement parties and even help me out with my brief hamper business. So no pressure with actually delivering something which lives up to their high opinion of me then… I was tasked with creating something not too heavy and of course given the dreariness of the British weather, something enticingly summery to counteract the rain. But then who in England isn’t extremely used to drinking Pimms outside whilst a faint mist of drizzle falls around them?

   

 

Lemon and Garlic Cod, truffled Red Pepper puree, pearly barley risotto and crispy pine nuts (serves 4)

Cod

4 skinless, boneless cod fillets, 4 garlic cloves, 1 sliced lemon, fresh coriander, black pepper, groundnut oil

Pepper Puree 

3 red peppers, drizzle truffle oil, 1tsp dried oregano, 1tsp dried basil, 1tsp chilli powder, 1tsp paprika, 1tbsp lemon juice, 2tbsp white wine vinegar, 2tsp sea salt 

Pearl Barley Risotto 

2 onions, 4 garlic cloves, drizzle olive oil, lemon juice, 3tbsp sherry, 2tsp each dried rosemary, parsley, thyme, 1tsp turmeric, 1tsp chilli powder, Fresh Coriander, 280g pearl barley, 1 stock cube 

75g pine nuts

  1. For the cod, place fillets on a piece of foil. Scatter with chopped garlic, slices of lemon coriander and black pepper (nb NO SALT) and drizzle with groundnut oil. Fold up into a parcel and crimp the top like a cornish pasty.
  2. Roast the Peppers whole in the oven on the highest setting for 20mins, turning halfway, or until skin is blackened slightly and blistered. Leave to cool.

  3. For the risotto, chop the onion and garlic and sauté in oil and a sprinkle of salt until translucent. Add the sherry and some lemon juice followed by the spices. Add pearl barley and cook for 2-3mins. Add 600ml water and stock cube. Leave to simmer stirring occasionally until water has mostly gone and barley is cooked. Add more water if needed. Stir through herbs. Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice. This can be heated up just before serving, if doing this, leave a little undercooked and add more water before heating.

  4. To finish the puree, remove the skin and seeds of the peppers. Using a blender liquidise all the ingredients, adjusting seasoning to taste.

  5. Bake the fish at 180 o C for 7-10mins. Meanwhile toast pine nuts on a medium heat in a frying pan for 3-5mins, then crush in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. To serve, spoon puree onto plates, top with risotto, then fish and finally crushed pine nuts.

  

Pimms jelly, Avocado Cream, Vanilla and Raspberry macaroon

Jelly 

125g sugar, 100ml water, 4 sheets gelatine, 125ml pimms, 100ml lemonade, selection of berries to serve, mint leaves

Avocado Cream 

1 avocado, 2tbsp greek yoghurt, pinch salt, 2tbsp icing sugar, 1tbsp lime juice

Vanilla and Raspberry Macaroons 

2 egg whites, 2tbsp caster sugar, 110g icing sugar, 175g ground almonds, 1tsp vanilla bean paste, 75g frozen raspberries, 1tsp vanilla bean paste, 2tbsp caster sugar

  1. For the Jelly, Bring the sugar and water to the boil and boil for 2-3mins. Meanwhile soak gelatine leaves in cold water. Remove syrup from the heat and add gelatine leaves, squeezed out. Add pimms and lemonade and stir. Pour into 4 teacups. Leave to set at room temperature for 1 hour. Add fruit, leave to set in fridge for 2 or more hours.

  2. For the macaroons. Whisk egg whites to stiff peaks. Add caster sugar to form a meringue. Fold in icing sugar, almonds and vanilla bean paste. Scoop mix into a piping bag and pipe into circles on greaseproof paper. You may find it easier to draw templates on the paper first. Preheat oven to 210 o C. Drop trays onto a flat surface from a low heat to remove any air bubbles and peaks. Leave macaroons for 20mins to set the tops. Put in the oven for 5mins or until the macaroons start to brown. Immediately turn the oven off and leave for 30mins.

  3. For the filling, Heat raspberries, caster sugar and vanilla paste over a medium flame. Stir and mash the raspberries together as they defrost. Leave to simmer till dark and jammy Remove from the heat. When room temperature, sandwich to macaroons with the jam.

  4. For the Avocado cream, blend all ingredients together and adjust to taste.

  5. To serve, pipe cream onto the jellies, top with a mint leaf and serve macaroon on the saucer.

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Macaroons:2 / L’Escargot

Macaroons: 2
Every year my family and I make the huge journey from Oxford to London for an annual christmas shopping trip. We try our best to pretend that we only go up to London once a year (despite the fact my sister now lives there) and plan the trip months in advance. It’s all terribly exciting…. The secret to this shopping trip to prevent the inevitable stress of actually shopping 5 days before christmas on Oxford street, is not to actually buy anything. The hour we spend in Topshop London is about the extent my father can cope with in a shop that isn’t a suit shop or Fortnum and Mason (this year he managed to buy £8 worth of Turkish Delight despite the fact he is the only one in our extended family who likes it). So we tend to potter around, look at the window displays (I go around and gawp at the Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason food halls), do a final mad dash round John Lewis when we realise we haven’t actually bought anything and end up collapsed in a heap in Waterstones coffee shop.

This year I was delivered some welcome respite in the form of a Champagne and Macaroon date with the red haired friend to celebrate her 21st. I wasn’t sure what to expect really when I eventually found my way to Eric Lanlard’s patisserie, Cake Boy. It appeared to be at the bottom of an office block surrounded by a busy roundabout and residential area, I was pretty sure it was the only shop for miles. Once we got in though, it was very modern and smart. This vibe was matched when our macaroons turned up, accompanied by a glass of lovely champagne. 
The plate was so much more than your average plate of macaroons, with a piece of modern art made of chocolate, caramel, raspberry coulis, popping candy, freeze dried raspberry and cocoa nibs underneath the macaroons themselves. It was rather nice to be able to taste the plate as well as the actual macaroons themselves. the flavours they described to us sounded incredibly interesting, including lemon and white chocolate, lime and kinnow, chocolate and caramel and raspberry. However it was a bit of a shame that, while they were all well baked and tasty, most of them were just sweet and the main flavours you could taste were the lemon, chocolate and caramel. But then again I have been spoiled by french macaroons bursting with flavour.

L’Escargot

http://www.lescargotrestaurant.co.uk/Lescargot/intro.html

l’Escargot, as my father helpfully pointed out, means snails, so the assumption would be that this was a french bistro, however L’Escargot is so much more. It manages to bridge the awkward gap between michelin starred expensiveness and dynamic innovations (and sometimes pretentiousness), and the casualness and lack of finesse you get in other places, not to mention the repetitiveness of chain restaurants. It was perfect for a celebratory meal. Most places I’ve been to of a similar price (not very cheap but nowhere near michelin prices) tend to underwhelm on the food for what you’re given, but in this case the food and service impressed.

We were not only celebrating managing to get to the end of the shopping trip and the first time we had all been together in a very long time, but my sister also received her first ever job offer, so we started off the meal with something bubbly. The staff were incredibly helpful and attentive, not only taking all our shopping bags and sopping wet coats as soon as we got in the door, but also charging my phone while we ate our meal. They had the level of attentiveness that I would expect in a michelin starred restaurant (filling up water glasses a lot, pushing chairs in/ laying napkins, refilling wine) but importantly didn’t force bottled water on us (they were perfectly happy for us to have tap) and nor did they push the most expensive food/wine choices on us.

After agreeing on a white wine to go with our various choices, we were pretty much left alone, excepting when we were offered 3 different types of bread (olive, brown, white) all warm with sea salted butter (no additional expense). The olive bread I had was particularly morish, clearly made with olive oil, and we kept being offered more (I did decline with the knowledge that christmas with its’ gut busting mounds of food was just round the corner).
When are starters arrived my first thought was, not too big not too small. Mine came with huge chunky tempura prawns, a lovely light crisp batter with a marie rose sauce, a sort of gourmet fish and chip shop fare. But this gave way to a lovely crab mayonnaise, light on the mayonnaise, heavy on the crab, with a nugget of avocado underneath, lovely.

My Father obviously went for snails, insisting you had to have snails in a place called ‘L’Escargot (he’s an English teacher, takes everything literally). I have to say snails are one of those things I can eat but only as part of a dish, the texture on its own is a bit too odd for my liking, it’s sort of up there with tripe. Having said that my Dad looked positively delighted to be presented with a plate of snails along with his own gadgets to eat them with (boys and their toys), his only criticism was it could have done with a tiny bit more garlic but otherwise very nice.
 
My sister’s Tuna also proved a big hit, although it was less lightly seared and more medium rare, but this may have been more pleasing to any clients with a fear of raw fish. My mother had the enigmatic beetroot and goats curd ravioli, about which the waiter went to great pains to tell us that it wasn’t actually ravioli (I don’t think my mum was that annoyed about the lack of pasta) but was paper thin beetroot surrounding the goats curd. It was a classic combination but well executed with a professional finish.

The mains arrived with the same pomp and ceremony as the starters, plated up beautifully. I started by thinking mine was lacking in side dishes as it was essentially a huge mound of pheasant and chorizo type sausage on a small amount of cabbage and a few smears of parsnip puree. However I soon realised this was because the pheasant was so delicious and meaty (although the highlight was the jus which I could happily have licked off the plate) that it only needed garnishing with the sides, a starchy potato dish would have been too overwhelmingly rich. It possibly wasn’t the most ladylike meal to eat in such a nice restaurant (I tried to pick as much meat off the bone as possible) but luckily the only people who could see were my family who aren’t allowed to judge me too harshly.

My family were equally complimentary. My sister’s sea bass with fennel boulangere was apparently perfectly cooked, and I can vouch for the taste of the fennel myself. She particularly enjoyed the Lie de Vin sauce apparently delicious and alcoholic.
 
My Dad liked the samphire and Salmon combination which was complimented by the sweet ratatouille. My mother went for a rather unusual scallop dish (I generally don’t see scallop on the menu except as a starter), but it seemed like it fulfilled the unusual potential of being filling enough as a main, sweetened by the raisins.

Having had such a good meal I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity for dessert. I rather liked how they added matching dessert wine underneath if you desired. We did have to find our way back to Oxford so decided not to do that but my sister did have one glass of excellent sweet sherry. My mum and dad went for the more traditional items on the menu, Apple tart and Sticky Toffee pudding. I was a bit put off by the fact the tart was served with both calvados cream and creme fraiche but apparently the tart itself enough but made up for it as it was perfection. The sticky toffee pudding likewise got the thumbs up. While my more unusual apricot soufflé and white chocolate toffee crumble was tangy and well cooked for the souflee, but accompanied by a rather odd and disconcertingly bright green shot, which turned out to be a sort of pistachio milkshake, nice for a sip but a but overpowering to have a whole shot of.

All in all I was very impressed with L’Escargot, it managed to do what it said on the label – fine dining, affordable glamour. Greatly enjoyed by all – I would come again if just for that jus on the partridge.

Macarooooon

Macarooooon
            My mother had the wonderful opportunity this year to work in Paris for a couple of weekends. Being the fair, equal rights sort of person that she is, we each got a weekend. She first took my dad (only fair, he is the oldest), then my sister got a chance and finally me. The only issue was that she happened to pick the weekend right at the end of term, but just before choir tour so naturally all the musicians in the university had been in the pub the night before. I had to be in London early for the Eurostar so I of course just dragged myself out of bed without bothering with make-up or contact lenses or brushing my hair for that matter, figuring I could do that all on the train, and anyone up at that hour was crazy anyway so they wouldn’t care what I looked like. What I had failed to factor in was the large number of people with a similar agenda leaving Cambridge on the same train. Not only was there no space, let alone a seat for me to make myself look like a normal human being, but also I was forced to make conversation all the way down to London looking like a trampled hag.
            This wasn’t the only issue of the downward journey. I had forgotten my phone with the wilful ease of someone who believes a phone wouldn’t be necessary and that it might be nice to have a couple of days detoxing from constant communication. A brilliant idea but I now had no way to contact my mum who I was meant to be meeting somewhere in the vague interior of St Pancras. There was less than 30mins to go before the Eurostar left when I finally decided that I had no option but to ask the nearest policeman to borrow his IPhone, sometimes it helps to be an innocent looking girl.
            When we finally arrived in Paris I was left to wander while my mother did the work she was actually there to do. There was only one thing on my mind. Macaroons. I spent the entire afternoon on a blissful macaroon tour of Paris. I would spot a patisserie, wander inside, assess the quality of the macaroons and if I liked the look I would buy one (I think I totalled 8, which is a lot of sugar for one afternoon). There’s something about French macaroons that Marks and Spencers just can’t replicate. The flavour sensation is so much more vibrant and the texture is sublime. I find it hard to knock Pistachio off the top spot for flavour but the unique carrot and orange flavour I had at one place or the cassis from another almost did. In fact the only macaroon that disappointed (and we are talking very little as I find it hard to be disappointed in any macaroon) was the praline, it lacked the intense flavour of the others.
            All in all as I wandered round Paris I discovered one thing, the French are as obsessed with food as I am. They sell everything with either sexy poses or food. Handbags are surrounded by cupcakes and mannequins are adorned with baguettes. If only I had actually taken French GCSE I would happily move to Paris for good.