Recipe: Quaking baking - Crab and asparagus tart

Crab and asparagus tart.
Crab and asparagus tart with a crisp green salad.
I have a confession - possibly a shocking one, for a foodie. I’m a bit nervous when it comes to baking. With the popularity of the likes of The Great British Bake Off, it might appear a bit strange that an alleged foodie is intimidated by making bread and cakes; baking is so in vogue, after all.

Given my upbringing, this shouldn’t really be the case. My grandmother was a fantastic baker. She lived right next to my primary school, and I would always call round on the way home to be greeted by the smell of cupcakes fresh out of the oven, or – my particular favourite – a slice of freshly cooked apple pie. And this being the 1970s there was no resorting to packet cake mixes or pre-prepared pastry. My gran made everything by hand in a tiny kitchen, and without the assistance of a food processor.

Given how much I love cooking I don’t know why baking causes me such trepidation. Maybe it’s the control freak in me. Whereas with a casserole, roast or risotto you can keep checking how things are progressing; basting here, adjusting the seasoning there, but with baking it’s much more of a leap of faith. Ingredients are assembled, in common with any recipe, but bear little resemblance to how the finished dish should turn out, and there is no opportunity to sample and adjust things once the bread, cake, or tart is dispatched to the oven for the heat to work its alchemy.

So I thought it was time I pushed my cooking envelope, as it were, and did a wee bit of baking for the blog. Also, as my recipes to date have been pretty carnivorous, I also thought I would cook a shellfish and vegetable-based dish, proving to my pescatarian friend Christine – the women behind the excellent Vegemite on Oatcakes foodie blog – that my cooking isn’t just about meat.

Sticking to my guns in terms of trying to use seasonal ingredients wherever possible, I decided to have a bash at Valentine Warner’s mouth-watering recipe for crab and asparagus tart. All ingredients were purchased from Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (bar the flour and butter for the short crust pastry) – see my previous post for a spotlight on suppliers. For a vegetarian alternative, the crab could be substituted for a flavoursome, but not too sharp, cheese such as Emmental. This will complement the asparagus without overwhelming it.

So was my baking apprehension justified? Well, combined with a green salad the tart was delicious, with sweet/savory crab and the fresh – yet earthy – asparagus being perfect partners. So much so that the slice I had earmarked for today’s lunch was snaffled by my other half. Maybe I should bake more often…

Supplier spotlight - Edinburgh Farmers' Market

Busy Edinburgh Farmers' Market.
Busy Saturday at Edinburgh Farmers' Market.
No matter how skilled or inventive a cook is, unless they use quality ingredients it is very difficult to produce really great food. Wherever possible when cooking, I like to know exactly where the produce I use has come from, and ideally it should be as local as possible. That way, it’s much more likely that I can be sure they are consistently of great quality.

In my grandparents’ era meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, bread etc. would all have been purchased from specialist retailers, in the days when our high streets were home to butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers, instead of phone shops and bargain basement clothes emporiums. But times have changed, and now the vast majority of us get our food at the supermarket. And whilst not all supermarkets are totally villainous in terms of how and where they source their produce, their massive buying power means that some of their suppliers might not receive the fairest price for their produce.

I, for one, am not keen on purchasing 'fresh' food which has travelled many hundreds – if not thousands – of miles and is 'out of season' in the UK, just because supermarkets now have the ability to fill their vegetable aisles year round with Peruvian asparagus or Kenyan fine beans. The provenance of ingredients is also important to me. The recent scandal of horsemeat being passed off as beef provides a stark warning of the risks associated with a food supply chain where goods pass through multiple suppliers (and potentially a multitude of countries), with the result that big retailers cannot always be totally certain of where particular products have originated, nor indeed can they guarantee that they are as described.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, the last decade has seen a resurgence in independent suppliers and retailers providing great quality produce and products, and Scotland is home to an impressive selection of these. I will be dedicating occasional blog posts to highlight some of those Scottish-based suppliers I often turn to when sourcing the ingredients I cook with, starting with Edinburgh’s Farmers’ Market.

Taking place every Saturday in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, on the aptly-named Castle Terrace, Edinburgh Farmers’ Market has been running since 2000. Regularly attracting over 50 specialist food producers, it has been voted the best farmers’ market in Britain. The majority of stallholders are “primary producers” growing what they bring to market. As you might expect from a Scottish market, there is an excellent range of stalls selling top quality meat, including pork, lamb, chicken and beef as well as venison and even locally-reared buffalo. Depending on the season, there is often a good range of locally-sourced game on offer.

Edinburgh Farmers’ Market isn’t only about meat, however. There are a number of stalls providing a terrific array of seasonal fruit and vegetables (including organic veg). Free range eggs and cheese are also to be had, as well as fresh fish from around the Scottish coast. And in addition to the primary producers, there are also stallholders who prepare their own products, including bread and cakes, honey, chutneys and jams, and drinks (of both the soft and alcoholic variety). Is anyone else’s mouth watering, yet?

Review: Café St Honoré - A French gem with a Scottish Twist

Front of Cafe Saint Honore.
A wee bit of Paris, in Thistle Street Lane.
We visited Café St Honoré on a freezing spring evening, having been keen to experience this French-influenced exponent of “slow food” for a while. Despite the cold weather, the welcome was immediately warm as we stepped into the restaurant which, if you forget it is hidden just of Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, would be entirely at home in Paris’s Latin Quarter.

Café St Honoré specialises in using seasonal, locally-sourced produce to create bistro-style cuisine, and the passion of it's chef-director Neil Forbes with this regard has lead to the establishment being rated as Scotland's most sustainable eatery in 2012. As already mentioned Whilst the ambience of the restaurant is very obviously French, its insistence on using - wherever possible - Scottish ingredients creates an ‘Auld Alliance’ of classic cuisine français in combination with quality Scot’s flavours.

From the several alternatives available, we decided to go with the ‘café classics’ menu which provides diners with a choice from two options for each course and offers great value at £22.50 for starter, main and pudding. My partner opened proceedings with a dish of potato and herb dumplings with Highland Crowdie cheese which were, as anticipated, satisfyingly both herby and cheesy and provided a good balance of flavours. The real star of our first course, however, was my cullen skink which was packed with delicious smoked haddock and potatoes, all bathed in a luxurious creamy sauce that had assumed the smokiness of the fish during cooking.

An offal-ly nice adventure - riñones al jerez (kidneys with sherry) with braised chicory

A glass of tasty sherry.
A nice glass of Amontillado.
Inspired by a recent Guardian article by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on both the sustainability, and fantastic flavours, associated with cooking offal, I decided to post about my own recent foray into using these cheap and versatile ingredients. Now I know offal isn’t for everyone – my other half included – but as Hugh astutely points out, “If we kill an animal for meat, surely it's respectful to make the most of every scrap?”

Last weekend, with my offal-loathing other half out of town, I decided to swing by Edinburgh’s Farmers’ Market on the hunt for some under-used ingredients with which to cook. I was immediately drawn to some tasty looking venison kidneys on the stall of Fletcher’s of Auchtermuchty. Obviously, venison is a great sustainable, free range product and deer offal – such as the kidneys I plumbed for – has a deserved reputation for great flavour.

Having purchased the main offal ingredient for my supper, the next task was to decide what to pair this with. This was a straightforward choice. As I’ve previously mentioned, I am a big fan of Spanish food. My liking of Spanish cuisine has been significantly inspired by the cooking of London’s Moro restaurant, and their first cook book contains a simple yet delicious recipe for “Riñones al Jerez” – kidneys with sherry, to me and you.

Thankfully, gone are the days when – for many people – the word ‘sherry’ conjured up a mental picture of a dusty bottle of the sickly-sweet ‘cream’ variety, that only left the drinks cabinet at Christmas to provide a tipple for Great Aunt Agnes. For a useful beginner’s guide to how great and versatile sherry can be, check out Andrew Sinclair’s blog in The Guardian. For this recipe go for a dark, dry Oloroso, or slightly lighter, amber Amontillado, but in either case make sure the sherry is good quality.

Kidneys with sherry is a dish that is packed with big, bold, rich flavours and therefore needs an accompaniment that can hold its own and provide a nice counterpoint in terms of taste. A vegetable that really fits this bill is chicory. Though approaching the end of its growing season in April, it’s still possible to get decent specimens of this bitter-flavoured leafy veg, and it’s great braised in butter (which adds a nutty tone), a squeeze of lemon juice, and splash of apple juice (which together provide an accent of sweet and sour). The bitterness of the chicory will lessen and take on the flavour of the other ingredients during the course of a slow braise.

So, whether it be kidneys (or indeed any other offal), chicory, or sherry, why not give more common ingredients a day off and try something just a bit different?

Review: Pomegranate - Make sure you get the "mezze" of this place...

Pomegranate restaurant's mezze.
Photo of mezze courtesy of Pomegranate's website
I paid a second visit to Pomegranate in March 2013, having previously been there with friends at the end of 2012, and the experience was once again joyous. If you are a fan of middle-eastern cuisine – or even if you have never tried it before, but like good food, well served – I would recommend you dine at this restaurant.

Located at the top of Leith Walk, Pomegranate serves an excellent range of authentic Turkish and Arabian dishes with a contemporary twist. The menu includes kebabs, bamya (meat and okra stew) , and shawarma (grilled meat or vegetables, often served in a naan bread) . But the real star of their show is the selection of mezze – a sort of middle-eastern tapas, for those not in the know. My partner and I went for the set mezze for two people, which allows for a choice of six dishes from their extensive mezze menu, including two that are meat based – vegetarians will be delighted to hear the majority of their mezze dishes are meat free, and mouth-wateringly good.

Service was friendly and efficient, and the dishes arrived within 10 minutes of our order being taken, all at the same time and accompanied by a large naan bread that was fresh out the oven. All our mezze were delicious, but my particular favourite was soujuk - spicy Lebanese sausage sautéed in tomato, green pepper, garlic and chilli. As well as being delectable, the set mezze menu provides excellent value for money at £27 for two people. Combined with the fact that Pomegranate is BYOB and charges no corkage, a fantastic meal can be had without lightening one’s wallet to any great extent.

Recipe: “Hogget” the limelight – slow-cooked overwintered lamb with anchovy

Hogget (lamb) about to be slow cooked.
All ingredients in the pot - now to casserole!
The first four months of 2013 have been extremely tough for Scotland’s livestock farmers, as the unseasonably cold weather and heavy snow extending into, what should be, Spring has had a devastating impact on sheep and cattle herds. As recently reported in the Farmers’ Guardian, the situation is so dire it could even threaten the existence of what were previously financially robust farms.

It’s even more important, therefore, that the meat eaters amongst us do our bit to support Scottish livestock farmers by shunning imported products which can be found lining the meat counters of many supermarkets at this time of year, and instead buy quality meat reared in Scotland. Not only does domestically-reared produce taste great, it also doesn’t generate the “food miles” associated with importing beef from Argentina or lamb from New Zealand (see footnote).

Although it is still very early in the season for this year’s Scottish Spring lamb to be found at market, you can still pick up quality home-grown fare in the form of overwintered lamb – or hogget – which is usually between 12 and 18 months old. This tends to have a richer flavour and firmer texture than spring lamb, whilst not being as fatty as mutton (meat from sheep over two years old).

Lamb/hogget is a tremendously versatile meat, and can take a lot of flavours being thrown at it, without being overwhelmed – think, for instance, how well it stands up to the spices used in a tagine or saag ghosht. It might seem an unlikely pairing, but a great flavour accompaniment for lamb is anchovy. Yes, I did say anchovy!

A word about my review scoring…

Graphic saying "score".
Now that the first Scrumptious Scran restaurant review has appeared on the blog, I thought I would just put up a wee post to explain my own approach to scoring the venues I have dined in.  For each revue, I score them out of 10 in four areas:
  • Food – let’s be honest, it’s the primary reason that most of us dine out.
  • Atmosphere – The food itself could come from a kitchen with two Michelin Stars, but would you truly appreciate it when consumed in a freezing shipping container?
  • Service – Not just about bringing food and drink to the table, but also about providing essential information on what is being served, and providing a welcoming dining experience.
  • Value for money – Whether it’s simply a burger or an haute cuisine indulgence, if you pay over the odds for what is served, it is sure to take the shine off a meal when the bill finally comes.

I think that these categories are fairly sensible yardsticks by which to judge how good – or not – a dining experience is.  Yet I also think anticipation and ambience has a lot to do with how a dining experience is perceived.  After all, a casual pie and a pint after work with one’s mates is obviously going to be a different experience from that of going to a top end restaurant with one’s partner. 

 So I  have decided to add a category, but not a score, identifying the venue’s “ambience” or, if you work in marketing, its "segment".  This helps to contextualise how the revue is framed and what it’s comparable to.  Otherwise, I think it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges; or mangos and pomegranates…  Well what sort of analogy were you expecting from a food blogger!   

Review: La Mula Obstinada - An authentic tapas experience that certainly is no 'donkey'

La Mula Obstinada Logo

Although I live in – and love – Edinburgh, I sometimes think I should have been born Spanish. I admire Spain’s culture and architecture, and am passionate about Spanish food – a much underrated cuisine in my book. Fortunately, Edinburgh has a smattering of Spanish-influenced eateries, albeit of variable quality and ambience. Portobello’s Malvarosa is intimate and serves great food, Cafe Andaluz is decent enough for a chain, and Barioja – well, sadly, it appears it may have seen better days, I’m sorry to say.

Now there is a welcome “nuevo adición” to Spanish dining in Edinburgh - La Mula Obstinada.  Situated in a slightly cavernous, former warehouse building on Leith’s Queen Charlotte Street, which was previously home to the Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman bistro, this relative newcomer appears to be making a genuine effort to bring a little bit of Spanish warmth to Edinburgh’s chilly winter (and spring) evenings. 
The venue itself makes the most of its former warehouse credentials, combining whitewashed or bare stone walls with stripped wooden floors, all furnished with rustic-looking tables and chairs and archetypal Spanish art.  Squint, and it’s just possible to believe this is a former cigarette factory in Seville, as opposed to an old warehouse in Leith.

Service was friendly and efficient, and we were quickly seated and briefed on the dining experience ahead. As we had plumbed for the tapas "menu", we were asked if we had any particular culinary dislikes or allergies before it was explained that the tapas consists of dishes largely prepared from fresh, seasonal ingredients.  It’s therefore not a case of choosing from a menu, instead partaking of whatever is ready to serve from the kitchen – which is reassuringly open to the dining area – at that particular moment in time.   It was very enjoyable seeing the chefs prepare an appetising array of tapas dishes which were then efficiently whisked to which ever dining tables had consumed their last delivery of delicious delights.

Scrumptious Scran is born...

So, after (what is probably) years of threatening to set up a blog as a means of sharing my passion about food and drink, I’ve finally got my metaphoric finger out and Scrumptious Scran is now live. But why establish a food blog?

Well, anyone who knows me will be aware that I love food and drink. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sophisticated fare. What, for example, can compare to an egg, bacon and mushroom sandwich on sourdough bread, accompanied by a decent cup of coffee, to kick off a Sunday morning? But it has to be flavoursome and put together with care, attention and – hopefully – some passion.

Ideally, I also like the food I cook and eat to be seasonal, and sourced as locally as possible. I’m realistic, however, and know that it isn’t always possible to do a complete weekly shop at the likes of the terrific Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (more about this Edinburgh foodie institution in a later post on the blog). But my ideas about food do share much in common with those of the Slow Food Movement.

So what can be expected from Scrumptious Scran over the coming weeks, months and (hopefully) years? Well, my intention is for the blog to be a mixture of updates on how I’ve been ‘engaging’ with food and drink, including:

  • What I have been buying, and where from.
  • The recipes I have tried at home.
  • The restaurants, cafés and bars I have enjoyed (or even, not enjoyed).
  • The books, magazines and other blogs that have influenced my culinary perspective.

And, given the fact that it is nigh on impossible for one person to keep abreast of all the latest gastronomic developments, I will certainly be welcoming suggestions of any restaurants or products that might be worthy of a feature in the blog, via [email protected].

And so my literary, culinary journey begins! I look forward to hearing from those of you who follow its progress.