Mac n Cheese with evaporated milk…

I’m not a massive fan of pasta. I think it stems from my days as a student when we used to buy Asda value fusilli by the sackful and cover it with Campbells Condensed Soup trying to pass it off as some sort of fancy sauce.

I’m not a massive fan of most cheese either. I like a mature cheddar, will happily stretch to a gruyere but never to a blue cheese and absolutely not to anything remotely goatey.

But it would be amiss to say that I like macaroni cheese. I frigging love the stuff. I remember reading my Mum’s recipe books when I was little and I was fascinated by the ‘Dairy Book of Family Cookery’. Recipes and pictures for potatoes au gratin, mousse and cream based sauces were so different to anything my Mum cooked that I used to stare at them and wonder what they tasted like. The book also had a recipe for macaroni cheese and I designed a school home economics project around it simply because I would get to make it.

This leads me to something else I’m not fond of – making a roux. I find the whole affair a pain in the arse. I normally have to start one and throw it out before I can make a decent attempt and even then the likelihood of me whisking milk all over myself or burning the butter or not cooking the flour out long enough is pretty high. But I love macaroni cheese so I do it.

However, upon doing a bit of reading, I’ve discovered that the American method of Mac n Cheese (note the name change) is not to use a roux but to use evaporated milk. Sceptics, put away your wagging fingers and stop shaking your heads. It works. And it’s delicious. And it’s SO easy.

Mac n Cheese

900ml water

340ml evaporated milk

500g macaroni

175ml milk

a pinch of salt

1 tsp cornflour

1 tsp mustard of your choosing – I like English mustard

175g cheddar cheese, grated

175g melting cheese – something like Emmenthal / Gruyere / Comte, grated

25g butter

ground black pepper

1) In a large frying pan or skillet mix the water, evaporated milk, salt and pasta and heat over a medium/high heat until simmering

2) Simmer until pasta is tender (about 9/10 mins)

3) In a bowl whisk the milk, cornflour and mustard together

4) Once pasta is al dente, stir in the milk mixture. Stir and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly (for about 2 mins)

5) Remove from the heat and add the cheese one handful at a time stirring well after each addition

6) You might need to loosen the mixture by adding more milk

7) Add the butter and lots of freshly grated pepper and stir well.

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You could happily pimp up this dish by substituting half the pasta with small cauliflower or broccoli florets and sprinkling some breadcrumbs (and cooked pancetta cubes for the meat lovers) over the top when finished and popping it under the grill to crisp up…

Belly pork with awesome crackling

Being Chinese, my whole family is obsessed with belly pork. Some of my earliest memories are of us eating my Mum’s highly spiced Chinese style belly pork and crunching my way through shards of crackling. One year I lost a filling to a particularly crispy bit but it hasn’t stopped me eating it.

My mum has perfected her style of belly pork in a turbo broiler (or a halogen oven to you and me)  and it’s the dish we request the most when my brother and I go to visit. I’ve often tried to cook it but without much success – the meat is either too dry or the fat hasn’t rendered down properly or the skin is tough rather than crunchy but I think I cracked it this weekend.

I’ve given up attempting to copy my mother’s 5 spice marinade so I instead looked to Yotam Ottolenghi for inspiration. His recipe called for a garlic and herb marinade and a crazily hot oven and a lot of time to spare. I started cooking at 4pm and we were finally ready to eat at 8:20pm! The meat was soft and yielding, the fat had rendered down and the crackling…. Wow. The last hour of cooking is to completely dry the crackling out and it really made a difference. Don’t be tempted to skimp on this step. It’s truly worth every second.

1 bunch of thyme, roughly chopped
1 bunch of rosemary, roughly chopped
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and crushed
150ml olive oil
1 piece of pork belly, weighing 2–3kg
1 bottle of white wine
coarse sea salt and black pepper

Heat the oven to 250°C/Gas Mark 10 or its highest setting. Place the herbs, garlic and olive oil in a heavy-duty blender or food processor and purée them roughly.

Lay the pork belly in an oven tray, skin-side down, and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Use your hands to spread the herb mixture evenly all over the top, pressing it on so it sticks to the meat.

Turn the belly skin-side up, wipe the skin dry with kitchen paper and sprinkle sea salt evenly all over the skin (but don’t put too much on,
as it might create a crust and prevent the crackling forming). Put the tray in the oven and roast for 1 hour, turning the tray around every
20 minutes. Once the skin has formed some crackling, turn the oven down to 170°C/Gas Mark 3, pour the white wine into the tray (avoiding the pork skin) and continue roasting for another hour. If the belly starts turning black, cover it with foil.

For the last cooking stage, turn the oven down to 110°C/Gas Mark ¼ and continue roasting for another hour, until the skin has crackled completely and thoroughly dried.

Remove the pork from the oven. Use a sharp knife to divide it into segments of a few ribs, cutting between the rib bones.

Belly pork

Cake Lace

My new favourite cake decorating tool is an amazing product called ‘Cake Lace’. I absolutely cannot wait to start decorating with it. It’s all the more spectacular considering it starts off life as a powder. It’s made with sugar and is totally edible and you can colour and flavour it.

I’m hoping to try making a pistachio cake covered in a honey buttercream in the next couple of weeks so thinking it would look positively gorgeous adorned with some cake lace. You can make it weeks (even months!) ahead and it will keep as long as you store it correctly. I’ve coloured it green so it will stand out amongst the white of the buttercream.

CakeLace

Gas & Co… distinctly average

Gas & Co took over the premises of what was Sarsaparilla and Henry Africa’s (twice over) on Whiteladies Road almost a year ago promising an authentic American smokehouse experience. From feedback on Tripadvisor and their own Facebook page, it would seem that many of their customers disagreed and the reports of terrible service and bad food put me off going but today I was invited out to lunch so thought I’d give it a try.

My first impression was that it was so empty. Working on Whiteladies Road, I often frequent the various restaurants and cafes scattered along the strip from Clifton Downs Shopping Centre to the BBC and from Las Iguanas to Brew Cafe, they are usually bustling with activity so I was quite surprised that my dining companion, Ben and I were the only ones in there. And then I discovered why.

There is no lunchtime deal. Other restaurants such as Brace and Browns have their set menu or 3 tapas for £10, the Townhouse has 3 courses for £10, the Burger joint has a lunchtime deal for under a tenner… Can you see where I’m going with this?

The offer they were running was 2 for 1 burgers, but if like me, you don’t want a burger then you have to pay a la carte prices which start at £8 for a hot dog or plain burger but if you want anything more extravagant or something from the smoker – you’re looking at an average of £14 which is expensive considering the great deals to be had everywhere else.

They were also out of veggie burgers, porterhouse steak, short beef ribs and curiously, peanut butter milkshakes. This would suggest to me that the veggie burgers are not made in-house and that they don’t source their beef locally considering that Ruby & White is just up the road from them. And assuming that their basis for all milkshakes is vanilla milkshake and milk, I’m puzzled as to why they couldn’t stretch to the addition of peanut butter.

As it is supposed to be a smokehouse, I thought I’d order something from the smoker and went for a half rack of ribs served with sides of chips, slaw and beans. Ben ordered a Double Pork burger that came with bacon and pulled pork (the 2 for 1 offer still stood even though only one of us was having one so he ordered a cheese and smoked bacon to take away with him afterwards). His burger came with chips and slaw. This presented me with my first issue. Surely you would want French fries with your burger, not chunky chips more suited to a steak or a hunk of battered fish?

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The food was nicely presented and Ben’s burger did looked great, it had a huge stack of pulled pork and the bun sounded the right side of crisp as he sliced through it although it wasn’t robust enough to take the amount of pork and although he did an admirable job of eating it neatly, I’m sure I would have needed a knife, fork and copious amounts of napkins.

My dish was ok – a decent portion of ribs covered in a sticky sauce with the promised chips, slaw and beans. Again, I wish I had French fries but the chips were very nicely cooked. I wasn’t too enamoured with the ‘slaw’ – it tasted pretty strongly of onion and had obviously sat in the mayo dressing as it was quite watery and limp but weirdly there were grains of mustard seed through it which didn’t add much to the overall flavour. It reminded me of coleslaw you get in places like KFC – mass produced and bought in. And with it being the season of cabbages, brassicas and carrots, there’s just no excuse for a bad coleslaw.

The smoked beans were quite unusual but not altogether unpleasant. I’m not a great aficionado of beans – I hardly ever touch the baked variety but with chunks of celery and carrot running through and with a slight smokiness about them, they were fine but too big a portion for me to finish.

On to the ribs. I wanted to like them. I truly did. I adore ribs and will happily gnaw my way through an entire rack of them until I’m covered with sauce and have bits of meat between my teeth but I just wasn’t into these ones. I had expected the meat to be falling off the bone but they were overcooked and tough with no hint of a smoky flavour. The sauce was an average barbecue sauce that tasted like a lot of bottled sauces I’d bought over the years. If you’re eating ribs, you want that sauce to be heavily vinegared, spicy and moreish. This just wasn’t.

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Considering I thought that the meal was going to be terrible, it was better than I expected but I wouldn’t rank it more than OK and it was very expensive for what you got. And although unconfirmed, I have my suspicions that many of their products are bought in rather than made in-house. If they are made on the premises than the chef really needs to learn how to season and taste his food. While I wouldn’t run back there tomorrow, I hope that they work on improving the food. American inspired restaurants are popping up all over Bristol – Grillstock, Spitfire and the Urban Standard to name but a few and all of them are focusing on using the best meat they can get their hands on as well as amazing sauces and sides to give their menu that added je ne sais quoi.

I can only advise Gas & Co to get with the programme, check out the competition and to stop aspiring to just be average.

A letdown of a lunch at the Cowshed

It’s quite rare I write a bad review – a mediocre one maybe, but rarely a bad one. In fact, it’s quite rare that a restaurant makes me feel angry but one managed to today. The culprit? The Cowshed on Whiteladies Road.

It started off as a lovely proposition – a dog walk and then Sunday lunch but as I rang round some old favourites to make a reservation, it was obvious that lots of other people had the same idea and everywhere was fully booked. I eventually called the Cowshed and they did have space so I promptly booked in – I hadn’t been there for Sunday lunch for a long time but we often partake in the weekday lunchtime deal so thought it would be great.

We were seated and drinks were ordered and quickly brought to our table. My dining companion, Caleb and I both wanted the roasted pork belly but when we went to order it, we were told that they had run out so I went for the roasted sirloin and Caleb ordered the lamb which came two ways.

We waited over half an hour for our meal and the table of two next to us who were sat after us and had ordered after us were served first. The restaurant was busy-ish but certainly wasn’t full (we were seated in the newer extended part) and there was no apology for the food coming late. When I had ordered the beef, the waiter asked if I was all right with it rare. ‘Yes!’ I enthused. What came was most certainly not rare. It was pretty close to well done and dry around the edges. In fact it looked like meat that had sat under the hot lamps for too long. Pretty disappointing. The sides weren’t very impressive – certainly not something worth waiting such a long time for. The Savoy cabbage was shredded and boiled but served with no butter or seasoning and was rather plain. The carrot and swede mash was watery and overly purified (“I do have teeth,” was the verdict from Caleb) but the cauliflower cheese looked good and the roast potatoes were golden and crispy.

I really wasn’t happy with the beef at all so I asked a waitress if I could have some prerequisite rare slices to which she agreed to. Caleb’s saddle of lamb was very fatty and the thin slice of rolled breast still had its string round it which wasn’t very appetising.

My beef didn’t come. So I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Caleb was feeling quite ill (no reflection on the food or the restaurant, I might add) so we called yet another waiter over to explain the beef situation and that it still hadn’t come and we wanted to go. The waitress who had dealt with me before came over and said that the beef was coming and that the kitchen had to carve more. Not very satisfactory considering how long we had to wait in the first place and made even worse that while we were waiting for my replacement beef, we had clocked other dishes of roast beef coming out of the kitchen. And how long does it really take to carve a couple of slices?

As the side dishes were now cold, we decided to cut our losses and go. The waiter packaged up the remaining food and they were good enough to knock one of the meals and the drinks off the bill but we were still very disappointed with our lunch. £15.50 for one course is one of the more expensive roast lunches in Bristol and it hardly seems good value for money considering the competition on Whiteladies Road with the Townhouse and Brace & Browns

It’s such a shame that the quality of customer service and execution in the kitchen lets them down considering that the restaurant occupies such a lovely space and has a local source of fantastic meat from Ruby & White’s next door. The Cowshed’s ethos of ‘simple things, done well’ was not evident at lunch today and with many other establishments in the local area, I won’t be returning in a hurry.

Let’s talk ham…

It’s post Christmas. And post New Year. The decorations have been put away, the tree’s been slung into the garden and all the naughty Christmas food has been shoved into the cupboard but there’s one ingredient that’s still everywhere at the moment and that is gammon. Or ham if it is in its cooked form.

I always think ham is an underrated joint and like turkey, people only seem to cook them at Christmas. But they are often incredibly good value for money and leftovers will serve you well for several days after in a variety of recipes. Ocado were doing a special on ham and I ordered one but disappointingly it was a processed ham –  uniformly round with no fat or skin. But an improptu trip to the butchers by work saw a large pile of small joints and I was able to pick one up for £4. I decided to cook them both together last night but only the butcher’s ham would be able to be cloved and glazed.

Here they are, nestling snugly together. I never know how salty they are going to be so I always pop them in cold water, bring them up the boil and then discard the water.

Boiling hams

The next stage is to choose your cooking liquor. I am a massive fan of Nigella’s Ham in Cola recipe but last night I slung them in some cider with an onion and cooked them for about 45 minutes – reckon about 1 hr per kilo (but as these were two separate smaller hams I cooked them for a shorter period).

Onion and ham Cider ham pour Hams in cider

I couldn’t really do much more with the processed ham as there was no fat to glaze but as for the butcher’s joint, I peeled the skin off, scored the fat into diamond shapes and studded each diamond with a clove. I then glazed with a mix of black treacle, mustard powder and demerara sugar (this is the glaze from Nigella’s ham in cola recipe) and put it in the oven at 220C for 10 minutes.

The processed ham turned out pretty dry and uninspiring but it’ll go well in pea and ham soup which I plan to make over the weekend and be a tasty addition to fried rice or some fried noodles. The glazed ham was delicious and moist – it really does need the layer of fat. I served it with grain mustard mash, french beans and tenderstem brocolli.

Dry ham Cooked large 2

Baxter

One of the reasons I’ve not blogged very much in the last year is because we’ve had our hands full with the latest addition to the Charlton household. Back in March 2014, I sent a picture of a rescue dog from the RSPCA to Si and the rest, as they say, was history. I was determined to get a dog but Si was never all that keen but when we met Baxter, I think it was love at first sight. He’s changed us completely and definitely for the better but I don’t think I appreciated how much Baxter himself had changed. It was only after going through some photos of him that I realised what a markedly happier dog he is.

Found abandoned and cowering under a bush, he definitely came with some major issues but the three of us have worked really hard together to overcome them and whilst he still has his problems (and we totally understand why), he’s a very different pooch. We officially adopted him in April 2014 and I think we’re so lucky to have him in our lives.

Here’s a photo taken the very first time I met him and another from a recent walk on Weston Super Mare beach. I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s incredibly different!

Baxter compare