Definitely not the same old poutine

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John Parsons’ poutine at the Beer Engine

POUTINE sounds like a female follower of Russia’s President Putin but actually it’s a foodie fad which in my sheltered life I’d never come across until a year or two ago. It’s the Canadian version of cheesy chips, that student stand-by, although as I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties the most exciting thing to eat was a late night Wimpy. We never went exotic and put cheese on chips.

Back in 2015 I saw it on the blackboard at Jonty Cork’s eponymous little café on Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield, and asked what it was. He’d been taught it by a Canadian houseguest who was on a cheesemaking course at Welbeck School of Artisan Food.

The idea was to cook some chips, add cheese curds and bathe the lot with gravy. It is, apparently, a fast food dish which started life in Quebec, the mostly French speaking province of Canada. As I recall Jonty had a bit of a problem getting the right curds – apparently they have to be the same size as the chips – until he settled on a squidgy German mozzarella.

Well it was breakfast so I didn’t get to taste Jonty’s poutine although I saw it on other menus and, once, chalked on a wall. As I’m a bit of a food snob there never seemed to be a cheesy chips moment and then it seemed to fade from fashion.

But I’ve been going to the Beer Engine at the bottom of Cemetery Road quite a bit lately and noticed it on chef John Parsons’ menu. Still, I shunned it in favour of dishes like pig cheek ragu, dipped ox cheek sarni and crab and prawn rice rolls. Then, lunching with fellow foodie blogger and Masterchef contestant Craig Harris, we reckoned that if ever there was a cheesy chips moment it was then.

John makes no claims to it being authentic but says it is his Sheffield version. He didn’t use the word but I will, superior. It is listed as Sheffield Poutine: cheesy chips and ox liquor gravy with cinema cheese sauce. I had to ask what this last was and was told it squirts out of a bottle. See what I mean about a sheltered life? The chips were big and fat. The cheese sauce (curds are not the way with this dish) was a béchamel with cheese (I forget which), spiked with paprika, and the gravy the left-over liquor from the ox cheek. It was lovely with a glass of Neepsend Blonde.

“It’s been on the menu since I started. It’s a case of using up whatever is in the kitchen,” said John. It costs £4 and fills you up splendidly. There’s a veggie version but you’d miss the best element, the ox cheek liquor. So is it poutine a Quebecker would recognise? Probably not but I’d take this any day.

We had only one complaint: you needed a hunk of bread or a spoon, which we got. John was taking no criticism. “You do this” – and he mimed picking up the dish and drinking the gravy down – “particularly after a few pints!”

Check out the Beer Engine at http://www.beerenginesheffield.com and Craig’s excellent blog at http://www.craigscrockpot.wordpress.com

I’m a fool for gooseberries

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Cheap as chips and good enough to eat!

AS a kid, whenever I asked the question how I’d been born my mother would brush me off by saying I had been found under a gooseberry bush. This time of year I spend plenty of time hanging around them, collecting box in hand.

 They are cheap enough in the shops but free gooseberries taste even sweeter, albeit with the addition of a few tablespoons of sugar. I have my own special hunting ground in one of the local parks where I also pick blackcurrants, cherries, apples, damsons and plums in season. I’m not telling you where!

 I am usually surprised no one else bothers but this year I thought someone had beaten me to it at the bigger of two bushes. There were only gooseberries at the highest levels but once I’d got my eye in I found more. The smaller, more accessible bush, had hardly been touched. I quicky collected a shade short of two pounds.

 Some of them were going to make a gooseberry fool, the most spectacular and cheapest of desserts and, more to the point, the only way I can get my wife to eat them. This is a deluxe version of the recipe I gave last year here and this time with measurements.

 To fill two large wine glasses you need 300g of gooseberries but taste one first to judge how much sugar you’ll need. I used two tablespoons and then a bit. Last year I used elderflower gin but it has gone off so I added a capful of my favourite gin, a tablespoon of water then nipped down the bottom of the garden and nicked four of my neighbour’s heads of elderflowers. As they were next door that counted as foraging. On the way back I took some fragrant (unidentified) blossoms from my hedge. That wasn’t. You will also need thick yoghurt and, if you’re being really snazzy, some crème fraiche and ice cream.

 First top and tail and wash your gooseberries. That removed a caterpillar. Put them in a heavy bottomed ban with the sugar, liquids and very well shaken blossoms. Using a simmer plate and the lowest heat, watching like a hawk, I cooked the berries until soft, about 20 minutes.

 I strained the gooseberries and reserved the best ten for garnish. I measured the liquid and used only half of it, putting it in the blender with the cooked berries and pressing the button. This is a very good suggestion from Nigella Lawson, on whose recipe mine is loosely based. This is to stop the puree being too runny. I put the remaining liquid in a shallow box to freeze to make water ice.

 Now mix half the resultant puree with a few tablespoons of yoghurt and leave in the fridge to cool. Check the water ice after a couple of hours and mush up with a fork.

 This is a last minute assembly job. In two large wine glasses I put some ice cream in the bottom followed by layers of yoghurt-puree mix, the remainder of the gooseberry puree, some crème fraiche, splinters of water ice and finally the reserved gooseberries, garnished with a spring of garden mint.

 It tasted as good as it looked. You could simplify this, as Nigella does, and just have yoghurt and puree but don’t forget the water ice, something for nothing. As were the gooseberries. We reflected that in a restaurant this dessert would easily have cost £6.50. Not bad for an hour’s foraging.

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Chickens

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ONE of the continental book fairs, I can’t be sure whether it was Frankfurt or Hamburg, used to run a competition for the silliest book title. My favourite was Know Your Pony but another year The Joy of Chickens came top of the list.

I’ve never forgotten it and it makes the title of this post. If you’re a foodie who cooks and wastes nothing you will already know that a chicken just keeps on giving and the initial cost, whether cheap or expensive, is spread over meal after meal.

The other day we bought a medium chicken from Kempka’s on Abbeydale Road (you have to order in advance these days and collect on Saturdays), see http://wp.me/p5wFIX-K8 and I cut it up into portions because I was going to marinate it in lemon, olive oil, garlic and herbs before grilling for Sunday lunch.. As there was just the two of us, my wife settled for a breast and I had a leg. We didn’t want the skin so while I was busy in the kitchen I snipped it into bite-sized bits and gently fried them as a snack, see here.

It was amazing how much meat was left, if you really looked for it. I got enough for a curry and a stir fry, which I froze, with some left over for a pie. The carcass made a stock for a soup, although I grilled the wings for part of my Monday lunch. I had bought some leeks so the greens went in the stock while the whites made it a chicken and leek pie. So one chicken gave ten main courses (the soup was substantial) and a couple of snacks.

You really can’t do this with any other meat: leftover beef or lamb with give you a cottage or shepherds pie, duck just runs to fat. For me it really is the joy of chickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There by the skin of my teeth

I ONLY got to judge Radio Sheffield’s chef cum celebrity cook off this Bank Holiday weekend at the city’s food festival by the skin of my teeth – literally. I was having the two front teggies replaced by implants but not until after the contest. Then disaster! The temporary falsies snapped and the standby teeth shot out every time I sneezed.

A food critic is no good without his gnashers but luckily my dental surgeon got them fitted in time.

It was fun. The radio station’s presenters Paulette Edwards and Steve Bailey were paired with two of Sheffield’s finest, Lee Mangles, late of Silversmiths, now at the Lawn View Clubhouse, and Luke Durkan from Craft & Dough, respectively.

Both chefs had 20 minutes to cook up a dish with celebrity help, or hindrance in the case of Luke, from a box of mystery ingredients. I was a little surprised they didn’t have the same ingredients. 

Lee had a baby rack of lamb which he finished off as three chops, served with spinach and an ace onion jam, made there and then. Nice but he wasn’t given any rosemary and the pressure of time (or helper Paulette) lost marks because the broad beans hadn’t been skinned. They weren’t young or tender enough to eat unskinned.

Luke’s fillet of Moss Valley pork won the day on taste and a clever little orange, garlic and chilli sauce, even though Steve lost half the orange zest while prepping.

It genuinely was close and while I was there by the skin of my teeth poor Lee lost through the skin of his beans!

Paulette, Lee, Steve and Luke cook like fury at Radio Sheffield’s cooknoff

Don’t duff up my prawn cocktail!

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This is what a prawn cocktail should look like

 
I’M not sure which chef first took prawn cocktail out of a cocktail glass and onto a plate but he deserves to have his liver gently sautéed as punishment. You eat first with your eyes and no matter how you dress it up, once you give the glass the old heave-ho you’re left with a pink splodge.

 I still remember the giant prawn cocktails served up some years ago at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn at Ladybower. They were famous for it. Later it was reborn as the hipsterish crayfish with avocado.

 Restaurant kitchens are constantly reinventing. I’m all for that. It’s when a chef offers a ‘deconstructed dish’ of a classic that I reach for my coat. Some dishes you just don’t mess with and this is one.

 Now a slight smirk might be starting to form on your face as you read this. After all, isn’t prawn cocktail supposed to be retro, a hark back to the Sixties and Fanny Cradock, Berni Inns, Abigail’s Party and cheese on a stick? And wasn’t there a cookery book called The Prawn Cocktail Years to celebrate it in an ironical way? There was, by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham.

 It may be a girlie starter but I have quite a soft spot for the prawn cocktail and I’m in good company. So has Herman Blumenthal. But, for me, it’s going too far to add avocado, as he does, which should stick to being guacamole. For me it’s just prawns, crispy lettuce, Marie Rose sauce and a cherry tomato plus a good dusting of paprika.

 So who is guilty of duffing up the prawn cocktail? Once a chef does something new, the rest follow like lemmings. Gary Rhodes? He was a great deconstructionist. But it could be someone even more famous. A chef I respect gave me a clue when I ordered prawn cocktail, got a splodge on a plate and sent a pained word back to the kitchen asking why they’d run out of glasses.

 The waiter came back with the message: “Chef says if it’s good enough for Gordon Ramsay it’s good enough for him.” Well expletive deleted Mr Ramsay, you’re not the one eating my prawn cocktail.

 There’s a bit of a mystery about where it originated. Probably America, where they call prawns shrimps, but I don’t buy the story that a Californian Gold Rush miner dunked his oysters in a drained whisky glass with Tabasco and ketchup and called it an oyster cocktail. From oysters to prawns (or shrimps) was but a short step. Too pat, too neat.

 There may be something in the suggestion that restaurants during Prohibition years used up their redundant wine and cocktail glasses as dishes for prawn cocktail.

 Over here, Berni Inns (the forerunners of Beefeater) did not invent the dish but certainly popularised it. Fanny Cradock was not the inventor, either, although she memorably described a poor one as a ‘sordid little offering . . . a tired prawn drooping disconsolately over the edge of the glass like a debutante at the end of her first ball.’

P1020548

Not what I’d call a prawn cocktail

 Americans had bathed their prawns in a mix of horseradish, tomato ketchup and chilli sauce. We were more restrained but the posh sounding Marie Rose sauce was nothing more that tomato sauce and mayonnaise, albeit with a squeeze of lemon (fellow blogger and Masterchef contender Craig Harris used lime when he ran and cheffed at The Peaks at Castleton} and a shake of Tabasco.

 These days it is getting harder and harder to find a prawn cocktail in a wine glass. At the otherwise classy and fishy Wensleydale Heifer it arrived looking like it had been turfed out of its container by a lobster in a strop. It was no better at the fishily famous Magpie café in Whitby: a mess on a plate.

I once had one artistically laid out on a slate. It was like Eric Morecambe’s Grieg’s Piano Concerto: all the right ingredients but not in the right order. So these days I ask first: Is it in a glass? If not, I’ll pass.

 

 

Still not a proper job?

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Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
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Pigging out with Smithy

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Pork belly at Thyme Cafe

I RECALL a few years ago that chef Richard Smith got a bit of a kicking from some London critic who had been to review his then flagship (now deceased) restaurant, Thyme, in Crosspool. There were the usual clichés – yawn – about being Northern, the Full Monty, Sheffield steel and, the killer punch, Sheffield Portions.

 The point being that the food being served up was not London portions, dainty little bits of food which left you hungry, but plates which left you feeling stuffed. Well, you don’t have to eat it all, advice my wife and I should have taken after a bit of a blowout at Thyme once when we had eaten so much we had to find a friendly wall to hold us up when we left.

 Smithy was a bit perplexed by the criticism. Sheffield folk liked Value For Money and that meant big potions, he said. I told him not to bother and he didn’t.

 I’m thinking all this after failing to finish my Saturday lunch pork belly with mash (£15) at Thyme Café, the sprog of Thyme, in Broomhill. Mr Smith shares the running and ownership of this restaurant with the self-effacing Adrian Cooling, who always left it to his partner to handle the publicity.

 Perhaps it’s my age but I don’t eat as much these days. Or it really is a big portion. Whenever I see pork belly on the menu I am drawn to it like a moth to the flame and must have reviewed dozens of them. While Thyme Café never seems to get into the guides, this pork belly is up there with the best of them: a satisfyingly brittle and generous shard of crackling, exceptionally tender and flavoursome meat, silky cum crunchy grain mustard mash, sweet roast carrots, a slice of black pudding, good cider gravy and, the only jarring note, severely undercooked green beans. I’d hoped by now this fad for super-crunchy veg was over.

 In the end I was defeated but not substantially. It was then I’d noticed that a girl at the next table had taken delivery of a cheeseburger with trimmings the size of the Isle of Wight while her friends were eating chicken Caesar salads, although they were almost of Mam Tor proportions. She got halfway through it then, wisely you might think, swapped it for a friend’s salad.

 My wife was having chicken (£16), a whole chicken breast rubbed with the Arab spice mix za’atar, stuffed with an olivey mix, served with couscous, fried breadcrumbed cubes of feta (note to try this at home), red pepper, roast courgette, butternut squash, almonds and mint. You might think this enough but the kitchen thought it was ‘a bit dry’ said the restaurant manager, announcing it would also be swerved with dollops of hummus and tzatziki. I tasted the chicken and it was good.

 I was surprised she finished it and then had room for a pudding. I didn’t. But they gave me a spoon. It was a quietly superb almond tart (£6) with an excellent pastry case, warm, slightly sticky almond filling and topped with apricot compote, or as the menu would have it, tea-infused apricots. It was a paragon of puddings which would not have been out of place at the old Thyme. I’m just sorry I was too stuffed to think of taking a picture of it.

 I complimented the kitchen on the tart and got a friendly wave from the larder chef responsible. The bill for food was £37. When I was reviewing I had a special rating for VFM. This would have got five.