Ready, Set, Review: The Rusty Gun

We sort of unconsciously stopped going to The Rusty Gun (on the road between St. Ippolyts and Hitchin, Hertfordshire) last year. That sounds awful, because it’s actually a truly lovely venue, but we’d been stung a couple of times by awkwardly small portion sizes and unsightly high prices. I could easily spend almost £30 for two courses that didn’t even fill me up, so it just didn’t feel good value any more.

But when a friend of mine invited me there for dinner, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there’s a set menu at lunchtimes and between 5-7pm Monday to Friday. Two courses are £12.95, 3 courses are £15.95.

Now that’s more like it! Same delicious, seasonal food, but at least half what I’d normally pay. Plus, I like early dinners!

Service here remains unerringly pleasant without being intrusive, something that similar places in the Hertfordshire area haven’t quite mastered yet. My companion wasn’t feeling too well so decided to order a starter and a dessert, and our charming waitress didn’t call her a mentalist and barely even had to check that we wanted my friend’s pudding to arrive with my main.

The fixed menu changes seasonally, but there’s always four or five options for starters and mains and a couple of desserts – I’ve never been yet and not known immediately what I wanted to order.

To start with, we both chose duck and spring onion bhajis. Take a look at these bad boys:

duck bhajis

They were easily as tasty as they look. The duck meat was beautifully pink and tender, the hoi-sin pretty much as addictive as crack, and the bean sprouts and cucumber on which the bhajis nested was far more than just a garnish – it added a lovely refreshing squelch to your mouthful to stop the dish being too stodgy.

I can’t quite believe I’m saying this after my earlier criticism, but the only fault I could find was that it was maybe too big as part of a two or three course dinner! We both turned up famished but by the end of this dish I sort of didn’t need my main. I know, I could have just left some – but seriously, you didn’t taste them.

We slurped this down with a bottle of their Yalumba Y Series Viognier for £17.95. We know you can get it for half that price in Sainsbury’s, but that’s actually not a bad markup for a restaurant, and it really is joyous: orangey, rose and candied pear flavours are seriously moreish, and it’s great to see a Viognier on the menu as it’s probably my favourite white grape.

My main was chicken and ham hock pie with buttery mash and green vegetables. Again, you can’t fault the presentation:

chicken and ham hock pie.jpg

The pastry was delicious with just enough crunch, and the meat was brilliantly cooked. I have to say, though, this did disappoint a little. For one thing, it was just a little too salty – I know, it’s ham hock – but it was like they were actively trying to up my blood pressure. It wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but I’m not sure it needed it. The other issue I’ll illustrate to show I’m not just being fussy:

ham watery

Now, I’ve had a lot of chicken and ham pie in my time (it’s why I’m a bit of a chubby monkey) but normally it’s held together by a creamy filling. This pie was chicken and ham hock floating in water-thin broth. It meant I ended up stabbing out bits of chicken and ham until I got bored and gave up, leaving behind a ramekin full of salty water. It was disappointing, but the greens and mash were super tasty and provided a nice crunchy/creamy contrast.

elderflower crumble.jpg

My friend’s dessert was gooseberry and elderflower crumble with ice cream and custard. The presentation was divine, and the tangy filling was a treat with the crunchy topping and creamy ice cream. The latter does melt quickly on the plate though, so eat it quick!

All in all, it was a steal for £12.95 – I’d have paid that just for the main. The atmosphere is always intimate without being dull, the decor is rustic and cosy without being dated (although the lamp over our table may once have been used for interrogation purposes) and we walked away feeling like we’d been fed well, at almost laughable value for money.

Rating: 8/10

Ready, Set, Review is a feature I’ve decided to launch where I review ‘set menu’ options at swankier foodie haunts that I couldn’t otherwise afford!

Food For… People Without Fridges

I like those riddles where you have to try and think your way out of an impossible situation, in a ‘how do you escape a room with no windows and doors?’ kind of way. I like them because they twist your brain in knots, and because you can talk about them for hours. But I mostly like them because they’re not real. So, when I was asked ‘So how are you going to do a dinner party when you have no fridge or freezer?’ my brain started hyperventilating and scrabbling to escape through my ears.

Yes, my fridge and freezer have gone to the great big pearly kitchen in the sky, conveniently kicking the bucket the day before I’d promised my friend a slap-up meal. Small salvation was brought in the form of my housemate, who found a mini-fridge which was just about big enough to hold one can of beans. Still, it would do for holding one or two vital ingredients.

The only problem I had was I didn’t have time to buy the ingredients until twenty minutes before my guest arrived. And we were both really hungry after a hard day at work. So, not only did I need something that didn’t need a fridge, I needed some fast, easy enough to prepare with my guest watching, and yet still really tasty.

Here’s what I came up with:

Angel-hair chilli prawns
Serves: 2

Ingredients:

150-200g angel-hair pasta
One packet of king prawns (cooked with tails removed)
1 large chilli, finely chopped
Zest of one lemon
Juice of half a lemon
1 handful of chopped parsley
6 tbsp creme fraiche
Three large tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/2 an avocado, roughly chopped

Method:

1. Cook the pasta according to the instructions, then drain the water.
2. Return to the pan, and add the rest of the ingredients except the tomatoes and avocado. Make sure they’re all warmed through, but be careful not to overdo the pasta or it becomes less angel-hair and more angel-snot.
3.  Just before serving, stir through the tomatoes and avocado.
4. Serve, preferably with a glass of opulent pinot gris, or four.

Raspberry, elderflower and gin coulis (served on – yes, horribly un-impressive meringue nests.)

LOOK, FORGET ABOUT THE MERINGUE NEST BIT, OKAY? It’s actually embarrassing. But it’s all I could do whilst half-cut and without any way of storing good ingredients.

My original plan was to do elderflower pannacotta or something, which actually would have been worth blogging about, but the coulis I concocted out of thin air after a bottle of wine did seem too yummy not to share. Just stir together the following:

  • A dozen or so raspberries, pressed through a sieve
  • Juice of around 1/4 lemon
  • A couple of tablespoons of elderflower cordial
  • A healthy splash of your favourite gin
  • Sugar to get the coulis to the required sweetness (I think I used about two tablespoons. Icing sugar might make it a little thicker too, depending on how gooey you want it.)

It’s truly delicious, and a nice cocktail ingredient too.

Next week… something that didn’t come out of a packet. Ooh.

Food for Sick People

Whoever said ‘Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food‘ wasn’t wrong, you know. Just a bit repetitive. Honestly, Hippocrates, sort your life out.

Anyway, he has a point, old Hippo. Or as I prefer to put it: don’t be vommin’, be nommin’.

As soon as I so much as sniffed as a child, my Mama would rush out to the kitchen to whip me up something tasty to convince me to be well again. So when my housemate was poorly recently, I too went into Italian matriarch mode and decided the only way to cure her ills was to concoct something scoffable. And I did.

Being incurably lazy, I didn’t create this recipe but nabbed it directly from Jamie Oliver’s website. He’s a cool dude, that fella. And he’s managed to devise something perfect for someone as half-heartedly caring as me: it’s  mouthwateringly flavoursome and yet essentially involves just throwing things at a roasting tray and seeing what sticks.

That’s one of the main reasons I decided to blog about this recipe – it is SO easy if you need something quick and comforting (and more substantial than a hug.)

Here’s the recipe on Jamie’s site, but I’ll reproduce it here (I served it with lentils and peas rather than any of his suggestions, just so you know. NOM.):

Ingredients:

• 2kg lovely ripe cherry tomatoes, mixed colours if you can find them
• 2 prigs each of fresh thyme, rosemary and bay
• 1 tablespoon dried oregano
• 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
• 12 good-quality Cumberland or coarse Italian pork sausages
• extra virgin olive oil
• balsamic vinegar
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

There are so many things I love about this dish: it’s all cooked in one tray; we’re using more robust herbs like thyme, rosemary and bay with the tomatoes, which work really well; the half-roasted, half-stewed fresh tomatoes turn into a lovely rich and chunky sauce which is miles better than anything you can get if using tinned tomatoes; and we’re roasting the sausages, which I think is far better than frying or grilling them. Try to buy the best fresh coarsely ground sausages you can.

PS Any leftovers can be chopped up and made into a wonderful chunky pasta dish, using penne or rigatoni, the next day.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/gas 5. Get yourself an appropriately sized roasting tray, large enough to take the tomatoes in one snug-fitting layer. Put in all your tomatoes, the herb sprigs, oregano, garlic and sausages. Drizzle well with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss together, then make sure the sausages are on top and pop the tray into the oven for half an hour. After this time, give it a shake and turn the sausages over. Put back into the oven for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how golden and sticky you like your sausages.

Once it’s cooked, you’ll have an intense, tomatoey sauce. If it’s a little too thin, lift out the sausages and place the tray on the hob to cook it down to the consistency you like – I tend to make mine quick thick – then put the sausages back in. Check the seasoning and serve either with a good-quality loaf of bread warmed through in a low oven for 10 minutes (great for mopping up the sauce!) or with mashed potato, rice or polenta, a green salad and a nice glass of wine.

Food for Sleepless Nights

Corinne Bailey Rae – Trouble Sleeping

“Sophie couldn’t sleep.”

This is the first sentence in The BFG, one of my favourite childhood books, and I’ve always loved that opening line.

As an on-and-off insomniac, I know that when you can’t sleep it can be pretty rubbish, but I like this line because it reminds me that sometimes, not being able to sleep can bring adventures.

Tart-shaped adventures may not sound as exciting as giants, but adventures they remain. And star-shaped biscuit adventures are just awesomesauce.

At half past eleven a few weeks ago, I realised that yet again my body had decided to forego sleep in favour of making my brain go something like this. Instead of watching endless stupid Youtube videos (which is how I came across that last one, as it happens), I decided to do something productive. At 2am I finally finished, and I slept better than I had done in weeks.

Here are the recipes, both of which are from Good Food Magazine, aka The Bible in convenient monthly packages, as it has become to my household:

Cherry Shortbread.

They used hearts as you can see on the online recipe, but I used stars because they’re a bit less vommy. And lead to far less “Oh, I’ve broken your heart!” or “GO ON – TAKE ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE OF MY HEART!” jokes. I know my colleagues too well.

Also, if you’re not a fan of cherry then feel free to use raspberry or apricot. They work equally scrumptiously.

The other point I will make is not only will you probably need more flour than that stated (I probably used another 30-50g), but you really should put the dough in the fridge for a while before you roll it. Much less sticky.

Ingredients:

  • 100g icing sugar , plus extra for dusting
  • 200g plain flour , plus extra for dusting
  • 50g cornflour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 250g pack cold butter , cut into cubes
  • 50g glacé cherries , finely chopped
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • 8 tbsp cherry jam , sieved
Method:
  1. Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Sift the icing sugar, flour and cornflour together into a bowl. Stir in the ground almonds and butter, then rub in the butter until smooth. Stir in the chopped glacé cherries and almond extract, and bring together to form a dough.
  2. Roll out on a lightly floured surface, then stamp out biscuits using a heartshaped cutter. Keep re-rolling the trimmings until all the dough is used. Carefully transfer the biscuits to baking trays lined with parchment and bake for just 8-10 mins until just pale golden.
  3. Using an upturned bottle top or similar, press gently into the centre of each biscuit to make a round indent. Spoon in a little jam and return to the oven for 2 mins. Remove and cool on a wire rack, before dusting with icing sugar to serve.

Cavolo Nero and Pancetta Tart

(Yes, the picture does show that my pastry sort of collapsed and it was a tad overdone. But in my defence, I think the entire thing disappeared within three minutes of me serving it, so it can’t have been a total disaster…)

I really only picked this one because it meant I got to announce it at work in an Italian accent and sound all foreign. But Cavolo Nero is essentially Kale. A bit less romantic but delicious nonetheless.
Oh, and whatever you do don’t ask anyone at ASDA if they sell ‘baking beans’. It leads to scenes you wouldn’t even expect in a badly-written sitcom that make you do a bit of a cry.

The recipe for this really is as easy as it sounds (hooray for Good Food Magazine!). Which is good as, by 1am, I was beginning to get a bit trippy. The only tip I can think of is to actually have a rolling pin, rather than a bottle of strawberry wine, like me. It did a good job, but it was a bit doughy afterwards, and therefore less of a hit when you bring it along to parties. Which for some reason I did, and puzzlingly no one else wanted to drink any of it…

Ingredients:

  • 500g pack all-butter shortcrust pastry
  • 1 small head of cavolo nero , about 200g
  • 70g pack sliced pancetta
  • 200ml whole milk
  • 150ml double cream
  • 2 eggs , plus 1 yolk
  • 85g Parmesan , grated
Method:
  1. Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Roll out the pastry and use to line a deep 20 x 30cm loose-bottomed tart tin or 23cm round tin. Prick the base and line with greaseproof paper and baking beans. Sit the tin on a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins, then remove beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 mins until pale golden. Lower the oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4.
  2. Meanwhile, trim the cabbage and separate the leaves. Cook in a pan of lightly salted boiling water for 4-5 mins, until tender. Cool and drain well then squeeze out any excess water. Pat dry with kitchen paper.
  3. Arrange the cabbage leaves and pancetta slices in the tart case. Beat together the milk, cream and eggs until well blended. Stir in the Parmesan and some freshly ground black pepper then pour into the tart case. Bake for 25 mins until just set.
  4. Leave to sit in the tin for 10 mins then carefully lift out, cut into slices and serve while still warm.

Hot Cross Buns with Apple and Custard

You can’t beat a good hot cross bun – especially all warm and toasty with butter and a great big chocolate egg on the side (you can get away with that at this time of year) – and so I thought this year I’d make my own. Not content with this challenge (I’ve never made anything remotely bready before), I also decided normal hot cross buns are for wimps, and mine needed to be different. So I tried to make them softer, with custardy influence and a hint of apple to go with the sultanas and cinnamon. Sounded nicer in the planning stage.

I am eternally indebted to Domestic Sluttery for the basic recipe, but here are the ingredient with my amendments:

  • 125ml milk
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1tbsp dried yeast
  • 450g wholemeal bread flour
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1tsp ground cinnamon
  • 75g whipping cream
  • 100g custard powder
  • 85g soft butter (best at room temperature, if you have time)
  • 2 apples, cut into tiny little cubes
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
For the crosses

  • 110g plain flour
  • 1tbsp neutral vegetable oil
  • Some water

For the glaze

  • Apricot jam
Method

Here’s what I did (with all the bits that went horribly wrong edited out, clearly.) I should point out that I am absolutely indebted to Domestic Sluttery for the majority of this method, so you all need to tell Alexthepink how amazingly cool and cook-savvy she is. I bet she didn’t mess up half as much as me.

1. Mix the milk and cream in with the egg and set aside.

2.  Get a massive bowl and shove in the yeast, salt, sugar, custard powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and butter.

3. Make a well in the centre of the mixture (thank you, Domestic Sluttery! Makes things much easier) and pour in the milk a little at a time, beating it into the mix with a wooden spoon. When you’re done it’ll be all sticky.

4. Flour a worktop/chopping board and your hands, and then knead the dough on it for about ten minutes, until it is springy and smooth. Particularly good when listening to Arsenal play Spurs on the radio.

5. Pop it back in a bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave it to rise for about an hour, or until it doubles in size. Weep bitterly in a corner while Spurs equalize from 3-1 down.

6. Grease a couple of baking trays, and preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

7. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until it’s back to its original size. Knead in the apple and fruit as you do so.

8. Divide the dough into 12-16 buns and put on baking trays ready to cook. Leave lots of room as they’ll get much bigger.

9. Leave them to rise again while you mix the ingredients for the crosses into a pipeable paste. The best thing to do is use a piping bag to apply the crosses. I didn’t have one, and used Alex’s clever tip to use a sandwich bag, but I managed to make a massive mess and ended up with the pretty stupid last resort of rolling the paste into thin sausages between my palms. That’s why my crosses look ridiculous, so yours should be much better.

10. Bake for 15 minutes while warming the jam in a saucepan, then take them out to brush on a glaze. Bake for a final five minutes.

11. Leave to cool if you can bear to wait. I personally tucked straight in while they were warm, with butter and rhubarb jam. NOM.

Spring Lamb Meatballs with Anchovies and a Red Wine Jus

It’s Spring, which means many things are now an absolute must; including daffodils, flowery dresses, going out without your coat on for the first time in months, and LAMB, GLORIOUS LAMB. Nothing beats spring lamb if you ask me, and I’m also a big fan of it’s favourite acquaintances: rosemary, thyme, garlic, and especially anchovies. They’re a bit of an odd couple in a kind of Voldemort and Professor Quirrell way, but I think they go together better than Kate & Wills.

Last night, I had a couple of lovely ladies at my house drinking sparkling wine and talking about all of life’s best things, so I decided to rustle up some spring lamb meatballs. Based on this Sunday Times recipe, I added a few extras and made a jus and herby roasted vegetable couscous to go with it. Here’s how it happened…

You’ll need:

For the meatballs:

500g lean minced lamb, the fresher the better
75g breadcrumbs
20g parmesan
10 anchovy fillets in olive oil
Zest of a whole lemon, juice of half a lemon
5 spring onions, finely sliced
1 handful of rosemary leaves, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper (no salt needed – the anchovies are enough!)
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 egg, beaten
Flour, for dusting
Oil, for frying

For the couscous:

200g couscous
3 carrots, peeled & chopped
One onion, chopped (red or white, whichever you prefer)
1 courgette, chopped
Cherry tomatoes, whole
2 garlic cloves, whole but peeled
Sundried tomatoes
Green olives, cut into slices
Olive oil
Mixed herbs

For the jus:

The lamb juices (after cooking)
One glass red wine
1 1/2 tsp redcurrant jelly
Thyme (whole sprigs)

How to Make it:

1. Put the lamb, breadcrumbs, parmesan, spring onions, garlic, rosemary, anchovies, lemon zest and juice, egg and black pepper into a large bowl, and mix together with your hands.
2. Put all the couscous vegetables (minus the sundried tomatoes and olives) and garlic into a large roasting tin, sprinkle with 2 tbsp of olive oil and mixed herbs,  and put in a preheated oven at 200 degrees for 1 hour.
3. Flour your hands and a board, and take golfball sized chunks of the meatball mixture. Flatten them to a depth of about 1.5cm.
4. Shallow fry them in batches: cook each side briefly in hot oil, then turn down the heat and cook for about eight minutes (or until still faintly pink in the middle.)
5. Fifteen minutes before the veggies are done, pour 500ml boiling water over the couscous (it should be in a deep ovenproof dish), then leave for five minutes. Pop it in the oven with the vegetables for the last ten minutes to keep it warm.
6. Pour the lamb juices into a pan, add the wine, redcurrant jelly and sprigs of thyme, and let it simmer for a few minutes until it reduces. I actually wish I’d added stock and let it simmer for longer so it became thicker, so please feel free to learn from my mistakes!
7. Take the couscous and vegetables out of the oven and mix them together. Add sundried tomatoes and olives.
8. Pour the jus over the meatballs, which should be placed on top of the couscous and vegetables.

It proved flavoursome without being overpowering, and we all cleared our plates. It was washed down rather nicely with a bottle of Some Young Punk’s The Squid’s Fist – a blend of Shiraz and Sangiovese from Aus that blew our minds. Plus the label on the bottle is AMAZING.

 Photo copyright Cake, Prattle and Soul.

Salmon and Sweet Potato Phat Phishcakes

I have a cunning plan. When – as it has done this week –  the summery weather we’ve been promised totally stands us up after only the briefest flirtation, and we are left disappointed (but grumpily mumbling something about not liking it that much anyway), I am going to cook my favourite summery food and just pretend it’s not cloudy. So there.

Yesterday I wanted stodge, but I also wanted flavour and sizzle (and I got a bit more than I bargained for, as you’ll see). I’d been thinking about making fishcakes for a while, and it just seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Mine are ‘phat phishcakes’ because a. They’re pretty hefty size-wise. You can make them smaller if you prefer. b. They’re AWESOME.

Here’s what you’ll need: (serves two)

For the fishcakes –

3 large sweet potatoes
2 salmon fillets
1 -2 chillies
Garlic (I used flakes because I’m cheeky, but one or two cloves should cover it)
3 tsp Brown sugar
Zest of half a lemon
Salt and pepper
A knob of butter
A splash of milk
One egg, whisked with a fork
Four to five slices of bread
A few tbsp of grated Parmesan

For the salad –

A bag of spinach
Blue cheese, cut into cubes (as much as you like!)
Dressing:
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Salt

To serve –
Creme fraiche
Lemon

Here’s how you do it:

1. I’m one part lazy to two parts hungry, so I microwaved the sweet potatoes. Put them peeled, pricked and clingfilm-wrapped in the microwave for 8-12 minutes, or until totally soft.

2. While they cook, bring a pan of water to a gentle simmer (the water should be only just deep enough to cover the salmon) and lay the salmon in it for six minutes, turning them both over after three.

3. Mash the sweet potatoes, adding milk, butter, seasoning, brown sugar, garlic flakes, lemon zest and chopped chillies, before flaking in the now poached salmon.

4. Blitz the bread (crusts off) in a blender and stir in the parmesan so you have nice cheesey breadcrumbs.

5. Squish the fishcake mixture into little discs (mine were pretty massive, because I’m greedy like that), dip them in egg and coat them in the breadcrumbs. (DO NOT make the mistake I made in thinking you can get away without using egg – all you get is a very big mess! Egg is a definite must.)

6. Shallow fry for three minutes each side, or until they are warmed through and crispy and brown on the outside.

7. While they shallow fry, pop the spinach in the microwave. Depending how much you use, it’ll only need a few seconds (mine was done in 30). I had to do mine twice, as I forgot about it the first time and it… well, sort of set on fire. Ahem. It’s okay, next time I’ll use the supermarket bags that come with instructions…

8. Mix the dressing ingredients up and stir it into the spinach, along with the creamy blue cheese.

9. Serve with a squeeze of lemon and creme fraiche.

Wine match: I ate these little beauties with a glass of crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It’s like squeezing a lemon over the fish, and really works well with the chilli.