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Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Marmalade Ice Cream

One of the best things about having an ice cream maker is that you can indulge in your own choice of flavours and make ice cream a more grown up treat than the usual selection of tubs in the supermarket offer you. Having enjoyed the salted caramel butter creation of the week before, I was keen to try something else, but not too sweet and a bit different, so when I espied the half finished jar of marmalade in the fridge, I knew exactly what to do with it…

I’m actually not a huge fan of marmalade (or jam) but I’ve never met an ice cream I didn’t like, so I thought this would be the perfect way to convert myself to this most traditional of preserves. And if I still couldn’t summon my inner Paddington, I’d simply feed it to friends and make myself very popular.

I adapted the basic recipe that pretty much every ice cream recipe uses, heating a carton of double cream and the same amount of milk in a pan with the zest of an orange until about to bubble while whisking 5 egg yolks with about a quarter of a cup of sugar until they were light and fluffy. I then used the same quarter cup to pour some of the heated milk into the egg mixture to combine it, warm it up and prevent it scrambling when added to the rest of the milk as you make the custard. I then heated the whole thing a bit more, until the custard thickened slightly (don’t expect it to go the consistency of Bird’s) before taking it off the heat sharpish. Don’t linger or you’ll have an unholy mess on your hands.

Pour the custard mix into a metal bowl you have already placed inside a larger bowl full of iced water and chill the whole thing in the fridge for a few hours or overnight if you have time. Then pour into your ice cream maker and churn to make a super easy ice cream with a minimum of fuss. Or do what I did and have a moment of sheer lunacy and forget to put the arm into the machine, leaving the frozen bowl to spin as aimlessly as a 1970s drummer at his kit awaiting his solo, and creating a bizarre semi frozen mess that clings to the edges of the bowl without resembling actual ice cream. You can then defrost the entire thing in a bowl of hot water and have to rechill it all overnight before trying again.

Next morning, I gave everything another 25 minutes churn with all parts of the machine in place and was rewarded with a creamy masterpiece. I then gently heated the roughly half jar of marmalade til it went all sticky and jammy and soft, added a tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice and poured it all into the ice cream, whipping for another five or so minutes until well combined. You could also do this as a marmalade ripple if you preferred and I think I’d add a splash of rum if I was doing this. Pop the whole thing in the freezer for a couple of hours or until needed. Then prepare to taste the best ice cream in the world…

Rich and creamy beyond belief, it is spiked with tiny chewy shreds of peel just bursting with refreshingly tangy bitter citrus gorgeousness and the sunshine sweetness of fresh orange. Stunning on its own or with some dark chocolate ( I used Maya Gold in the pic), it is a very grown up and utterly sensational ice cream that has converted me so wholeheartedly to marmalade that I’m booking a ticket to Darkest Peru tomorrow…

Salt n’ sweet ice cream

Despite the legendary pronouncement as a child in a huff that I don’t like Italian gelato, I do like a decent ice cream once in a while and since Marine Ices is a right trek from my house and i haven’t made it to Gelupo yet, I have always fancied the notion of having an ice cream maker.

So when I discovered that John Lewis have a new model out for a mere £35 that comes well recommended by Which? I couldn’t resist. While waiting for it to arrive, I browsed several recipes for ice cream and compiled a list of ones to try. I also put out a batcall for other people’s favourites on Twitter and the hands down mentioned-a-million-times winner was this David Lebovitz recipe for salted caramel butter ice cream. Luckily my machine turned up sooner than expected and I had time to freeze the bowl for 24 hours prior to a friend coming for dinner during the week.

On the day, I rather tredipidiously making the recipe. Lizzie over at Hollow Legs found it tricky and since I’d spent the weekend burning sugar like it’s a superpower, I felt this might go off piste if I wasn’t careful. I decided to concentrate on the cooking carefully, so I don’t have any photos of the various stages, just the end product. The original recipe page has some though if you find that helpful.

I started off making the caramel brittle that would be used to add bite and intensity to the ice cream. This is basically sugar melted til golden brown and bubbling, infused with some Maldon sea salt and then spread out on a baking tray as thin as possible til hardened. It was surprisingly quick and easy, although since the sugar is hotter than the sun, you do need to pay attention while doing it.

Feeling positive that the first step had gone well, I started making the actual custard. More caramel was created in the same way as the brittle, but once bubbling, it come off the heat and has butter mixed in and then cream to make a gorgeous creamy toffee sauce. It was all going well, and I hoped that adding the egg yolks wouldn’t cause a problem. By following the advice to add some warm sauce to the yolks to heat them gently and then add that to the main body of the caramel sauce, preventing any tricky splitting or curdling. It then thickened very slightly and in no time I had the whole custard cooling in the fridge for three or so hours. Even if the ice cream was a disaster from here on in, I was pleased with my custard making powers!

Later on, once the custard was cooled and everything else for dinner was complete, I got the machine out and ready to go. It’s super simple to assemble and a few moments later, it was churning away with no real effort and only a low rumble of noise. I might not want to be in the same room as it while it does its thing, but if you had to you could without yelling or losing your mind. I gave it exactly 30 minutes to churn, adding the now shattered caramel brittle in five minutes before the end. Rich and icy, it looked gorgeous and would have have been lovely as it was with a sort of soft scoop finish. But as I wasn’t ready for it, I popped it in a covered bowl in the freezer for another two or so hours.

After all my nerves about the caramel, the custard and the machine, I was overjoyed to see that it had set beautifully. Just like real ice cream in fact! I left it to sit in the fridge for about five minutes to make it easier to scoop and reminded myself I must get a proper gadget for serving in the future. Because if all the ice cream I make is going to be as good as this, I’m going to be using the scoop a lot…

This was just heavenly. Very very creamy, decadently rich and utterly heavenly. The slight tang of salt stopped it being too sweet and the little nuggets of crunchy caramel both challenge and delight the tastebuds as you go. It went down well with my dinner guest and we both emptied our bowl quite quickly. It’s so rich though that much as we would have liked, we just couldn’t have managed another portion. It will keep well in the freezer and make a delightful treat after any meal (or before a meal or as evidenced at lunchtime today, instead of a meal.)

Don’t hesitate to try this very grown up ice cream, even if it means having to splash out on the ice cream maker first. You won’t regret it!

Venison, bullets and spears

As it was Valentine’s Day (or more precisely the evening before, and I didn’t yet know what delights would present themselves at Guestrant) I fancied doing something a little more glamorous for a dinner for two, and wanted to explore a couple of whimsical thoughts. Luck and judgement conspired to help create something a wee bit different and classier than my normal fare… in this case venison steak, butternut squash bullets, spinach and potato gratin, and steamed asparagus tips.

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Ice Magic: Nitrogen Ice Cream at ChinChinLabs

Food has become more than fuel the past few years thanks to the influence of luminaries such as Ferran Adria, Bompas and Parr and Heston Blumenthal who create fabulous flights of fantasy with their ingredients. But while those creations make great dining (and of course television and books) they aren’t usually easily available to the average person in the street. Therefore my eyes lit up when I heard that Europe’s first nitrogen ice cream bar has opened in Camden in the shape of ChinChin Laboratorists

This is the chance to witness some gastronomic theatre while eating some great ice cream without re-mortgaging yourself for the pleasure. It sounded worth braving the teenage goths of Camden for and it didn’t take much persuasion to get a group of us together to try it out this Friday afternoon.

Opened last Sunday by husband and wife Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur and Nyisha Weber this dinky little lab designed by Okay Studios is tucked away between the joss sticks and hemp items of Camden Lock and despite being small, is easy to spot thanks to the wooden swings hanging outside. This sums up ChinChin Labs perfectly: a rather adult idea that makes you feel like a kid again!

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