Truly great scones

For most guys, scones aren’t exactly the food of our childhoods. They’re things our girlfriends and sisters, mothers and especially our grandmothers, ate. There is absolutely nothing masculine about sitting down for tea and scones. Which meant that for the majority of us boys, during our childhood, it would have been up there with cooties, a trip to the dentist and a haircut. Of course, as we age we get a little wiser and at some point, hopefully a little more genteel. We’re also prone to do anything for the gals in our lives that we love (or think we love) and want to impress. Even if that means sitting through an oh-so-civilized afternoon tea when all we really want to do is hang out with the boys and make fart jokes.

Now, here’s the thing. Most of the scones I have tried throughout my life have been seriously underwhelming. And I’m willing to wager most of my male peers have had similar experiences. I mean, it’s tough enough to sit calmly in an overly romantic and all too prissy atmosphere, string quartet doing serious injustice to Vivaldi, while you sip your Darjeeling from an insanely delicate porcelain cup you’re afraid you’re going to break, all the while trying not to let your significant other have the slightest inkling that you’d rather be in a T-shirt and jeans, throwing back beers and playing video games. You’d hope at the very least that the food you’re being forced to eat — and eat properly (cut scone, spread cream, dollop jam) — wouldn’t taste like dried up cardboard. But most of the scones I’ve tasted, unfortunately, have been hockey puck hard, dry, and spectacularly unappealing. (Keep reading)

Sauce from scratch

There are some foods that we self-professed gourmands try as often as possible to prepare from scratch. We shake our head and pooh-pooh store-bought pasta sauces. Canned soups are verboten from our pantries. We cry foul whenever friends try to serve us pizza baked on premade bases. Pasta must be made by hand. So too must our bread be, kneaded or not. Our fries have to be hand-cut, never frozen. And we take great pride in pointing out that the confit de canard we’re serving is home-made and most definitely not from any can.

But then, there are some other foods that we simply accept for what they are. Despite our new-found (and occasionally pretentious) predelictions against store-bought products, we never even think about making these things from scratch.

Like ketchup for example. I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve been pretty happy eating Heinz for most of my life. It’s one of our kitchen staples. There’s always an open bottle in the fridge and often a sealed one in the pantry (running out midway through a burger is simply a no-no). Unfortunately, most other ketchups just don’t measure up to the “thick, rich one”. Most are either too watery and simply unsavory. One of the rare exceptions is a Swiss German ketchup that S found in a gourmet store. It was nice, with a sharp and almost curry-like taste.

Recently, S and I have been helping some friends develop ideas for a new restaurant here in Singapore. One of the things that came up in conversation while we were brainstorming food concepts was the idea of serving homemade ketchup. S remembered that Heston Blumenthal, one of our food heroes, had included a recipe in his fantastic book Family Food.

The more I thought about it, the idea of making (and eating) ketchup without any artificial ingredients and preservatives was really appealing.

Heston’s recipe calls for 5kg of ripe tomatoes, which yields approximately 500ml of ketchup. Truth be told, I looked at these numbers for quite a while before finally deciding to actually try making it. 5 kilos of tomatoes is one heck of a lot of tomatoes. And to only get 500ml of ketchup seemed like a whole lot for a whole little, both in terms of quantity and in terms of costs of ingredients. But, I rationalized, if it tasted great, better in fact than any other ketchup that I’d ever had, it would be worth it.

Making the ketchup was easy. But it did take several hours, so be sure to set aside enough time. I suggest using the recipe (reprinted below) as a general guideline. I honestly eyeballed almost all of the ingredients (save the quantity of tomatoes that is), slightly increasing and decreasing some to suit my taste.

The resulting ketchup was delicious. Nothing at all like Heinz, but still gorgeously sweet and savory. The combination of ingredients — especially the mustard, cloves, five-spice, ginger and cayenne — gave the ketchup a spicy complexity. One friend who tasted it said it was more like a thick, slightly sweet salsa than a ketchup. Another said it tasted like ketchup, but one that had a real distinct richness. S liked that it really tasted of tomatoes and not artificial thickeners. It worked beautifully with some fries (home-made of course) and a nice bottle of bubbly (hey, a boy’s gotta celebrate these little culinary achievements). I simply can’t wait to spread some on a burger later this weekend.

(Picture note: The fries and ketchup are displayed in a “Nuevo Doble Bowl”, a beautiful disposable plastic bowl from Tast. S and I first saw Tast products at a World Gourmet Festival event in Bangkok a few years ago and fell in love with them. Until recently though, we had no idea where to get these gorgeous Spanish disposable catering tools. We’ve just discovered that you can now get Tast products in Singapore through Ruiter Far East. We think they look great and our friends have been totally wowed by these cute and sexy little plastic bowls.)

Tomato ketchup
From Family Food by Heston Blumenthal
Makes approximately 500ml

5kg very ripe best-quality tomatoes
200g onions, chopped
4 cloves of confit garlic or 2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
8 cloves
2 coffeespoons salt
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice
A good pinch of ground ginger
A pinch of cayenne pepper
6½ soupspoons icing sugar

Core and halve the tomatoes, then roughly chop them and put them into a casserole. Cover with a cartouche (a circle of parchment paper that covers the top of the braising liquid in the pan) and bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Pass the tomatoes through a fine-meshed sieve into another casserole, and add all the other ingredients except the icing sugar. Simmer until the mixture is reduced by approximately half and begins to thicken.

Push the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve again, return it to the casserole, and add the icing sugar. Put the casserole back on the heat. Whisking regularly so that the ketchup does not catch and burn, bring to a simmer and cook until the desired thickness and flavour achieved.

Pour the mixture into a sterilised preserving jar, seal, and stand the jar in simmering water for 40 minutes. The ketchup will then keep for several months.

Roast whole suckling pig

I know this post is going to offend some readers. So, I’m placing this little warning here. If you’re among that part of the population that doesn’t condone the cooking and eating of cute, baby animals, please don’t scroll down. If, however, like S and me, you live to eat and absolutely love the idea of tucking into a gorgeously roasted suckling pig, keep reading.

It’s no secret that both S and I love pork. It is most definitely my favourite meat. A healthy portion of the recipes found on this site are pig-dishes. And when S and I recently combed through the two leather-bound books in which we archive our menus, we discovered, not too surpisingly, that we almost always serve at least one pork dish when entertaining.

Over our years together, we’ve prepared pork in many different ways. And while we’ve long considered ourselves pretty pig-proficient, there was always one style–one rather amazing dish–that we would often talk about but never got around to making. Truth be told, I always found the idea of roasting our own suckling pig hugely daunting.

I’m not sure why, but I had always assumed that preparing a roasted, whole suckling pig would be incredibly difficult, time-consuming and complex. The idea, quite simply, scared me. It’s the kind of dish you could eat in a restaurant but not the kind of thing you’d make for a Sunday lunch. Then S came home with a copy of Fergus Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook and declared that we should attempt his amusingly worded Roast Whole Suckling Pig recipe.

What S and I discovered is that roasting a piglet is one of the easiest things we’ve ever done in our kitchen. The hardest part, in fact, was getting over how cute the raw piglet was. Our suckling pig was delivered frozen. It was wrapped tightly in plastic with its front trotters tucked under its chin. When we unwrapped it, it rather pathetically sat on our counter top, looking more like a sleeping pet than a future meal.

Prepping one’s piglet is easy. We were, admitedly, lucky. Our pig came gutted and cleaned. Our only chore was removing its kidneys, setting them aside for our stuffing, and salting the beast inside and out. To supplement Fergus’ recipe (which is entertaining but rather low on details) we also consulted the very detailed, illustrated notes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two.

Making Henderson’s stuffing took just 20 minutes. It is essentially a confit of red onions and red wine, mixed with stale bread, the pig’s kidneys and some herbs. While we enjoyed it, S has decided that when we next roast another pig, she’ll substitute Henderson’s stuffing for a more Asian glutinous rice mixture studded with shitake mushrooms, chestnuts, dried shrimp, dark soy sauce and salted duck egg yolks (like a rice dumpling or bak chang).

We decided to slow-roast our little piggy for just under 4 hours. It came out beautifully. We were thrilled. The skin was crisp, thin and easy to both cut and bite into. The meat was flavourful, tender and moist. It was fantastic. We served our suckling pig with some asparagus (simply blanched and then seasoned with sea salt and pepper) and a rich, sinful gratin dauphinois spiked with Comte and Beaufort D’Alpage. With all this, we offered our friends the choice between a lovely, light, sweet and zingy Gralyn Racy Red wine and a yummy, slightly savoury and refreshing Weihenstephan wheat beer.

Roast Whole Suckling Pig
inspired by a recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook
by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly

1 small suckling pig, gutted and cleaned, with the kidneys left within
olive oil
sea salt and black pepper

Stuffing
4 red onions
a dollop of duck fat
375ml red wine
kidneys of the pig, chopped
1/2 loaf of day-old white bread, cubed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
8 sage leaves, chopped

A day before cooking, salt and pepper your piglet liberally (we used around 6 tablespoons of salt), both inside and out, and place it uncovered on a wire rack, over a tray, and into your fridge. You want it to be cool and dry.

Cook the red onions in duck fat over low heat until the onions are soft. Pour in the red wine. Let this simmer and reduce until the mixture becomes a yummy, dark red confit. If you find that the onions are becoming a tad dry but aren’t soft enough, you can add a little bit of water to the pan and keep cooking. Add the chopped-up kidneys to the mix. Then add pieces of bread and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Take off the heat and add the garlic and sage. Set aside until cool to the touch.

When ready, stuff your piglet. Turn your piglet over onto its back and fill the cavity with the stuffing. Sew as much of your piglet shut as you can. I used kitchen twine and a large needle and was able to sew up about two-thirds of its front.

Preheat your oven with the fan on to 150 degrees Celsius. If you don’t have a fan function, heat to 160 degrees Celsius.

Lightly oil a roasting pan or oven tray and place your piglet on it, “sphinx-like”, i.e. belly down, with its legs close to but on the side of the body. Shove a small ball of aluminium foil into the piglet’s mouth. Also wrap the piggy’s ears in foil. Rub a healthy amount of olive oil all over the piglet’s back and sprinkle a little more sea salt over it. Pop it into your oven and roast for between 3 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours. We roasted ours for 3 hours 40 minutes and then turned off the heat in our oven, but left the fan on, and left it inside for another 30 minutes. Note, if you don’t have a fan-assisted oven, you may want to spin your pan around after about 2 hours.

Your pig’s skin should be crisp and the meat tender and moist. Carve it at the table or inside your kitchen. Enjoy!

UK eating

It’s amazing how a great meal can all of a sudden put you in a good mood. That’s how I’m feeling right now. Happy, bubbly, energized but at the same time stuffed and sated. But I’ll get to that meal much later. There’s a lot to catch up on.

I flew into the UK last Friday morning, arriving at an ungodly early hour and then caught the first bus from Heathrow to Cheltenham, a beautiful spa town in the English countryside some 2.5 hrs away. Because the town is a popular weekend destination for London yuppies (and partly but less because the Cheltenham Ladies College has become a popular place for wealthy parents from around the world to dump their daughters for a few years), Cheltenham is quite cosmopolitan, with a healthy selection of chic cafés, gourmet restaurants—including a two-Michelin star French place called Le Champignon Sauvage—a disproportionately high number of fancy kitchenware shops—including a branch of my fave HongKong kitchen supply store, The PanHandler—and an enormously well-stocked cookbook store called amusingly Cooking the Books.

On our first day in town, we ate at Raymond Blanc’s Le Petit Blanc, a no-frills restaurant through which Blanc proposes to cook unpretentious, reasonably-priced food. Both my colleague and I had the promotional menu, a two course meal with a glass of wine for 10 Pounds. I started with a pork belly and prune terrine, served with apple chutney. This was followed by deep fried whiting, pommes frites, and tartare sauce (yes, fish and chips). The food, while good, was nothing special.

Amazingly, the weather throughout our visit was amazing… perfect “sitting outside with a cuppa” weather. And the best place that I found to do this at was a very French café called Café Rouge. Here’s a quick picture of the menu that I like, followed by a picture of one of their two al fresco areas. You can see how nice the weather is from that one.

The other place in Cheltenham that I tried and that’s worth mentioning is called very unoriginally The Pie & Mash. Yup, no rewards for figuring out that it’s a pie shop. But it’s a pretty unique pie shop. In fact, it’s the UK’s only 100% organic pie shop. Some purists, of course, might scoff at that. Pies are, they’ll argue, meant to be unhealthy. But I think that this is an impressive effort. Unfortunately, while the owners’ hearts are in the right place, their tastebuds weren’t. Organic is fine. But organic doesn’t have to be bland, which the food here was. Of course, a healthy helping of their organic ketchup and a liberal sprinkle of salt, and my chicken, bacon and leek pie was actually pretty good. Here’s a picture of it.

We took another coach back to London on Sunday, getting into town around noon. After quickly unpacking, I headed over to Knightsbridge for an afternoon of shopping. My first stop was Harvey Nichols, where I enjoyed a late lunch at Wagamama. After Harvey Nicks, I made my way down the road to Harrod’s, home, among other things, of some pretty legendary food halls. Imagine my surprise when entering the baked goods room to see this:

Yup, a Krispy Kreme outlet. Yum. Of course, I joined the queue and 15 minutes later was happily devouring two hot original glazed doughnuts. Yum Yum! That night, I caught up with some friends over a lovely French dinner at a very classy restaurant in South Kensington called Racine.

The next day was a work day and that meant meetings after meetings all day. Our last meeting ended around 530ish. My colleague and I had made plans to meet another colleague, vacationing in London, and cult foodie Kevin Gould at St John for dinner. Kevin’s a huge advocate and fan of St John and its amazing chef-owner Fergus Henderson. S and I have the cookbook at home and while before that night, neither of us had ever eaten there, we were fans too. So, this was a meal I’d been looking forward to for a long time. The restaurant’s great looking, all white and modest, which forces the attention of the diners on the food.

The crowd was also young, surprisingly young given the prices and the prestige of the restaurant. I knew that I had to try the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. It was wonderful. The marrow was rich, oily, and full of earthy goodness. I was instructed to dig the marrow out and spread it on the toast that the dish came with. Over this goes the parsely salad, which is dotted with capers, and diced and sautéed small onions. The combination is pretty amazing.

For my main, I had calves’ liver and onions, a traditional English dish that’s been taken up a notch. For side dishes, Kevin had ordered some sautéed sprout tops (these were wonderful), a mixed salad, and a Welsh rarebit. For dessert, I ordered a half dozen madeleines, baked a la minute. This was the only dish that disappointed. Both Kevin and I agreed that the madeleines were only passable.

Yesterday was another busy day. Fortunately, we had a late morning meeting on Monmouth Street and a bit of time before the next one. One of my favorite places to eat in London is Food for Thought, on Neal St. I’ve been popping in there since my university days—especially because back then that was pretty much all I could afford. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a delightful, laid-back and tiny vegetarian restaurant and take-out joint. The food has always been consistently delicious. For lunch, I had a spinach quiche and a salad. It was fantastic. My colleague and I chased down our meals with equally amazing espressos from the Monmouth Coffee Company.

That night I went to Gordon Ramsay. I want to be as honest as possible about my meal there. It was my first visit and despite the fact that some friends of mine aren’t fans (ahem… Kevin), I was really excited. I went with a friend to the branch on Royal Hospital Road. The space really surprised me. It’s the complete opposite of Parisian 3-Star restaurants. While those are often majestic, palatial and fantastical, this restaurant is small and deceptively humble. Both my friend and I had a 4 course meal. I started with the ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon poached in a light bisque with a lemon grass and chervil veloute, After this, I had a small portion of slow braised pied de cochon pressed than pan fried with poached quail’s egg, ham knuckle and hollandaise sauce. My main was line caught turbot on the bone with coriander, tagliatelle, braised vegetables and a citrus butter sauce. For dessert, my friend and I split a tarte tatin and vanilla ice cream for two. Of the dishes, the pied de cochon and the tarte tatin were the stand-outs. They were truly amazing. The ravioli and the turbot were good. They were executed perfectly, but they didn’t knock my socks off. Which I think I was expecting.

One of the criticisms of Ramsay is that while his team serves up technically perfect food, it’s not exciting, not new enough or different enough. And, after eating there, I have to agree with this assessment somewhat. While the meal was very good, it comes nowhere close to the brilliant experiences I have had at places like Le Cinq. In fact, the restaurant that I have been to recently that I was most reminded of during my dinner at Gordon Ramsay was Gaddi’s in Hong Kong. The meal that David Goodridge cooked for S and I two months back was equally technically competent, and equally delicious. So either Gaddi’s deserves 3 Michelin stars or Ramsay doesn’t. Either way, there’s no way this restaurant is on the same level of a Le Cinq or an Alain Ducasse. That said, it was still a hugely enjoyable experience.

We flew into Frankfurt this morning, had an appallingly bad lunch at the restaurant that’s in the hotel we’re staying in, and spent the afternoon being amazed at the Frankfurt Book Fair. By evening, I was exhausted. Hoping to eat somewhere close to my hotel, I took a short walk down the road and found a small Italian restaurant called Da Pio. I had some antipasta (aubergine, zucchini, mushrooms, seafood, and onions), followed by a tagliatelle with shaved truffles (yum). The antipasta was really, really good. And the pasta delightful. And the after effect of the good meal is a natural high that’s motivated me enough to sit down and finish this post.

A Healthy Dip (the hummus, not the hubby), another guest post by S

For quite some time now, I’ve been on a quest to reduce the chubbiness of my hubby. I’ll readily admit that he isn’t clinically chubby, but I’d still prefer it if he’d eat a little healthier. So whenever he shows enthusiasm for anything that is remotely good for him (you’ll notice that his usual gustatory passions are pork belly, cream, duck fat and Strasbourgian foie gras), I try my best to master the dish in the hope that it’ll wend its way into our everyday menus. Yes, wives are sneaky and conniving in that way. Recently, we had some lovely store-bought organic hummus which he snacked on with gusto. Subscribing to the homemade-would-obviously-be-even-better-philosophy, I decided to make some myself.

I dipped into husband and wife restaurateur team, Sam & Sam Clark’s lovely first cookbook, Moro for a simple recipe. I haven’t yet eaten at their restaurant, Moro, in the increasingly trendy neighborhood of Clerkenwell, London. But the tale of their three-month honeymoon spent driving around Spain and Morocco has always drawn me to their recipes. It was exactly what CH and I had planned to do on our own honeymoon but couldn’t get enough time-off to do (we ate our way across Paris instead).

Their recipe, which makes roughly 1.5-2 cups, calls for
200g chickpeas, soaked overnight with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda
3 tbs olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste with salt
3-4 tbs tahini

Rinse the chickpeas under cold water, then place in a large saucepan, fill with 2 litres of cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum as it builds up, and cook for about 1.5-2 hours or until the skins are tender. Remove from heat, pour off excess liquid until level with chickpeas, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Drain the chickpeas, keeping aside the cooking liquid, and blend in a food processor with a little cooking liquid to help the chickpeas on their way. When smooth, add the lemon juice, garlic, tahini and olive oil. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper, and some more liquid if necessary.

The bicarbonate of soda helps to tenderize the chickpeas, but will result in a soapy taste. Paula Wolfert, in true slow Mediterranean kitchen-style, recommends cooking the chickpeas in a slow cooker for 8 hours. I just did without the bicarb (Claudia Roden doesn’t use bicarb but cooks the chickpeas for 1.5 hours).

The other thrill from making hummus came from getting to use our strapping, relatively new Sumeet Asia Kitchen grinder, a Christmas present from close friends of ours. It took no more than a couple of pulses to get a perfectly smooth texture.

Claudia Roden offers a tempting array of optional garnishes (I’d like to try her hot version which involves topping the hummus with melted butter and pinenuts fried in the same butter, before baking it), but my favorite way of enjoying hummus is to lick it off my finger. — S

Best Easy Roast Chook

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Until I discovered this recipe, my favourite roast chicken recipe was a rather unhealthy but delicious version picked out of Nigel Slater’s Real Food, which is also one of my all-time favourite cookbooks. Nigel’s version asks us to rub our chicken inside and out with butter (herb butter, granted, but still butter).

The recipe my wife and I now like best—which is the topic of this post—comes from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook. In fact, it’s the very first recipe in the book, and one that, when we first read, we didn’t quite believe. It calls for nothing more than salt and thyme (and of course the chicken). First, get a really good, big bird. Wash it and pat it dry. Preheat your oven to 230 Degrees Celsius (450F). Sprinkle some good salt over the bird-preferably inside and out. We like using fleur de sel but for the bird above we used some wonderful Murray River salt flakes, picked up on a trip to Adelaide. Truss the bird and then place it on a roasting pan (you can sprinkle a tad more salt over the bird if you want). Roast it for 50-60 minutes. Take it out of the oven, off the pan and let it stand for 15 minutes. While it’s resting, sprinkle the fresh thyme over the bird and pour some of the pan juices over the bird.

The chicken comes out moist, tender, and delicious. The skin will be lovely and crispy. All you need to make it better is a glass of wine and a side salad. The bird pictured up top was made over the weekend for my wife’s sister—back for the weekend on holiday from Beijing—and a good friend who was leaving town for a few months. We started the meal with a roasted vegetable tart and finished it off with some macarons from Canele. With the chicken, we enjoyed a lovely bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut.