J-choke soup 2

I already posted a Jerusalem artichoke soup recipe. It’s an absolute classic, no wonder it crops up in restaurants this time of year as a substantial starter or a warming amuse bouche.

But I am back to offer you more! For I have been fiddling around and I have made a thing that I call “J-choke soup 2”. Because I’m hip. You could also call it “Jerusalem artichoke and ginger soup”, if you’re a complete square.

Anyway, enjoy! I like inventing.

J-choke soup 2
Makes 4 small bowls, or 2 big bowls

5-6 Jerusalem artichokes
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, chopped
½ stick lemongrass
1 pint chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper
  1. Peel your artichokes. This can be a fun game in itself if you have the really knobbly ones! Roughly chop them
  2. Sauté the onion and celery in butter for a few minutes, then add the artichokes, garlic, lemongrass and ginger and sauté for a few minutes more
  3. Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, and leave to simmer covered for 30 minutes or until the artichokes totally fall apart when you prod them
  4. Remove the lemongrass, blend the soup smooth, you’re done!

The magic is in the ginger and lemongrass, of course. I’d have never thought of adding those typically oriental flavours to something as earthily English as Jerusalem artichokes. And I didn’t. Maureen did. Hail to the chief!

PS – this variant seems to have also banished the unfortunate gaseous effects of J-chokes. I won’t swear to it: further experiments are required, but it seems promising. Could it be the ginger?

Review: Brace of Pheasants, Dorset

For those of you who like a nice day out, I would like to propose Dorset. But dismiss images of Bournemouth, Sandbanks, Lulworth Cove and Kimmeridge Bay from your mind; there is a lot of pleasure and beauty to be found inland in the county.

Shoot along the A303 past Salisbury and the tourist-riddled building blocks of Stonehenge, then drop down the A350 to Shaftesbury. This attractive little market town perhaps only warrants an hour or so exploring, but it does include one unmissable site: “that hill from the Hovis advert.” If you now have Dvorák’s 9th going in your head then you know the one I mean. You may not know that the Hovis advert was directed by Ridley Scott, a few years before he had an Alien explode out of John Hurt’s chest. QI.

I had assumed the hill in question was somewhere up north, but here it is in Dorset. And Ridley didn’t use any camera trickery; it really is one of the most picturesque spots you could imagine.

Rambling west from Shaftesbury you’ll come to Sherborne, for my money the star in Dorset’s crown. This is a town steeped in history, including surely one of the oldest schools in the country (King Alfred the Great was a student). It has the most alluring architecture of warm red-golden limestone, as well as a stunning abbey that remains at the very heart of the town and two castles out in the fields nearby. The high street is a pleasure to wander, and great for foodies with artisan bakers, traditional butchers, delis, independent cafes and characterful pubs. The abbey is splendid, inside and out.

Keep going west past Yeovil (a bigger and distinctly less characterful town) and you’ll find Montacute House, alongside the idyllic village of the same name. The house looks amazing from the outside, but on this occasion we ran out of time to visit. That’s because we detoured south from Sherborne, half an hour on winding country lanes, to have Sunday lunch at the Brace of Pheasants in the unlikely sounding village of Plush. This is Dorset, though: you’ll find Plush among the nearby villages of Melcombe Horsey, Piddletrenthide, Droop and White Lackington.

The village, and the pub, lie at the end of a narrow lane in their own little private valley. This is definitely huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ country, your genuine rural idyll. There are a brace of stuffed pheasants in a glass case hanging over the door of the pub. Inside the bar is abuzz and it’s clear that most of the people here for lunch are local. With just a tad of misfortune, the bar room is only just full and so we are banished (in the nicest possible way) to the empty dining room next door. C’est la vie, it’s comfortable enough and we can still hear the buzz.

Despite the prospect of a full-on roast, I have a starter anyway. Pan-fried partridge breast is cooked pink and thus jolly moist and chewsome. The sauce is lemon and honey, a surprisingly good accompaniment for the delicate gamebird. I’m happy, even if the sauce could have been reduced just a touch more.

The roast is haunch of venison, and on reflection I’m not sure I’ve ever been offered venison as a Sunday pub roast before. The meat is in great condition and perfectly cooked; pink, tender and with a rich livery taste. Great gravy, nice roast roots, good Yorkshire pud, but although the potatoes are crisp outside they’re rather too floury within. Wrong variety, I reckon, though I’m not expert enough to spot which. I enjoy my roast a lot, enough to want to come back here one evening to try their game-heavy dinner menu.

This is good pub grub, the more so at £11 for the roast and £6 the starter. If you’re having a wander around rural Dorset, the Brace is definitely worth a bit of a detour.

Review: Fishmore Hall, Ludlow

I think I may have mentioned that we live in Ludlow at the moment. Before our year of travelling around the world we were in London, now we’re in the woolly Welsh marches. Do I need to tell you about Ludlow? I expect everyone likely to be reading a food blog already knows it as a gourmet destination and a distinctly “foodie” town.

In fact it was the stunning medieval town and castle and the wild rural hill country around it that we loved when we first visited Ludlow. It was entirely by accident that we discovered its culinary credentials. “Yes, the town has three Michelin-starred restaurants,” our B&B hosts explained to us, “we can phone for a table, but it’s fairly unlikely there will be anything free tonight.” Followed five minutes later with, “aren’t you lucky, they’ve had a cancellation at Mr Underhills!”

Since then we’ve visited several times, got a second home here, and now have moved here at least for the nonce. And of course we’ve identified the good, the bad and the ugly of places to eat in the area. In fact it’s getting hard to find somewhere new that is likely to be any good. This weekend we took ourselves to Fishmore Hall, a small hotel just outside the town that is building a reputation for fine dining.

The hotel is a fine old manor house, and inside the décor is pleasant without feeling particularly deluxe. It’s contemporary and a little unmemorable, but relaxing. Service was friendly and efficient throughout the evening, although the restaurant was admittedly quiet – the annual Medieval Christmas Fayre in town no doubt attracting all the guests away.

Our amuse bouche was a cauliflower veloute with a rather hefty drizzle of truffle oil. I could probably have stopped proceedings right there and made some fairly astute predictions about the course of the rest of the meal. Although I would have had egg on my face, because there were actually some decent bits of invention in our later courses.

My pave of confit salmon wasn’t novel, but it was good, with nibbles of beetroot and a creamy goat cheese mousse. Maureen’s pigeon breast was presented on a piece of slate (no waaaaay!) but it was presented nicely with carpaccio cauli and curried pinenuts, a tangy little revelation. The other starter among the four of us was scallops, a little undercooked and a tad too salty.

My main was duck breast, great little roasted turnips, a blob of fragrant quince puree and a dribble of mead gravy. I ran out of sauce long before I ran out of duck, which was a pity as I’m always more interested in the accompaniments than the core ingredient of a main. Okay, not always. But I must have eaten well-cooked slices of decent quality duck breast a score of times before so it’s hardly what I’m focussed on at the twenty-first outing. Maureen’s venison was jolly good, its Jerusalem artichoke puree astoundingly tasty, and the addition of three slighty squodgy raspberries to the plating frankly bizarre. The best main (judging by the cooing noises Martin was making, as I didn’t try any) was some rolled rabbit saddle with peanuts and lime. Peanuts and lime, eh?

The dessert made me smile, mostly in a good way. It was a banana cream slice, with some peanut ice cream. The banana cream was an arrow straight out of childhood which smacked cleanly into my heart. The ice cream was decent company, though predictably sickly. There was some other stuff on the plate, including bits of squishy banana and a fairly tasteless jelly, but they didn’t need to be there. A meringue-covered cheesecake with nifty tarragon ice cream (must remember that one) was declared very good, while a rhubarb concoction (seasons, people!) was somewhat unbalanced but definitely rhubarby.

So where did we end up? Well, it looks like there are some interesting ideas in chef David Jaram’s head, but accomplishment perhaps isn’t quite reaching aspiration. There were some slightly duff elements and some plating that made me smile in the wrong way. The menu was £49 for three courses, with a decently priced wine list. In the gastronomic micro-climate of Ludlow it’s easier to judge value: this is £10 more than a decent three courses on white linen at Dinham Hall Hotel, and £10 less than having your socks knocked off by three courses at La Becasse. On the evidence of this outing, that is probably a tad expensive for the food and ambiance here.

Review: The Bell Inn, Yarpole

This weekend was clearly doomed. Doooooomed!

Which is another way of saying that we were too late trying to book the restaurant(s) we wanted and so ended up eating somewhere dull on Saturday night. And then we didn’t even manage to rectify things with a good Sunday lunch, making for pretty much a culinary failure of a weekend.

Our friends Tim and Vanessa were visiting and we had wanted to try The Checkers in Montgomery, which scored a Michelin star this year… but was perhaps understandably booked up a couple of weeks in advance. So we thought we’d return to The Stagg at Titley, the granddaddy of Michelin-starred pubs, which we hadn’t been to for years. Fully booked. So we settled on The Bell at Yarpole, that I vaguely recalled had a Bib Gourmand and was run by Claude Bosi’s brother.

The Bell is actually under new ownership, has been for a year. Cedric Bosi has followed his brother up to London and can be found at a new gastropub in Wimbledon. The current chef at The Bell was apparently winner of Herefordshire’s New Chef of the Year, 2010. Their website is annoying, but I like that the address is “thebellyarpole.co.uk” which looks like it should read “the belly arpole”.

It’s still a lovely pub, and the chap behind the bar was friendly and helpful. Service was generally friendly too, though not terribly skilful. And so we come swiftly to the food. Four of us ate, and the bill came to £145 including a £30 bottle of wine. So, roughly appropriate gastropub prices for the Marches.

Starters included scallops on cauliflower purée, game terrine with spicy pear chutney, broccoli and Stilton soup. The scallops were fine, though for no good reason one of us had 2.5 scallops instead of 3 scallops. The terrine was good, very rustic with nice chutney. The soup was tasty enough but hardly elevated.

For the mains two of us had a trio of lamb (cutlet, breast, shepherd’s pie) and two had the trio of pork (belly, faggot and black pudding). The shepherd’s pie was okay but huge, the cutlet pretty good and the breast okay, the parmentier potatoes with it were squodgy and tired, and the gratin of beetroot and celeriac just didn’t work; the cream was very apparent and seemed split. I don’t think beetroot was made to gratin in this way. As for the piggy dish, the black pudding was tasty and probably home made while the faggot had a good strong herbal punk but needed gravy to prevent it desiccating your mouth. And was huge. The pork belly was fairly well cooked, but could have been a lot more unctuous and – criminally – the crackling was a waste of inedible chewiness. The mustard mash was fine, but there was lots of it. Especially with the side dish of (over) boiled veggies.

We finished with a massive lump of sticky toffee pudding in a lake of caramel sauce untempered by any bitter notes at all.

For the price, this wasn’t a terrible meal. But it wasn’t much good either. There were some basic mistakes in the cooking, and you can’t rectify that by giving us enough food to feed ourselves and the family of trolls we keep locked in the boot of the car. Only the smaller of the two dining rooms at The Bell was open this Saturday evening, which is perhaps telling.

I won’t trouble you with our failed attempts to recoup the weekend with a quality Sunday lunch. It didn’t work, we shouldn’t have tried for anything more ambitious than a pub roast without forethought and planning. In fact, Tim pronounced accurately that the best thing we ate all weekend was the homemade marshmallows that came with our (really good) hot chocolate at The Green Cafe, where we stopped after a leaf-kicking morning stroll along the Whitcliffe. Honestly, who makes homemade marshmallows just to offer them with a cup of hot chocolate? Our favourite cafe.

And needless to say, the weekend wasn’t really doomed. We always enjoy seeing our friends for a weekend even when the gourmandising doesn’t quite work out.

Spicy beetroot soup

There’s definitely a nip in the air this morning. A little frost in the shadows and by the road was a big old toadstool with a puddle of water on its upturned cap that was still frozen. Steamy breath and a hazy sun on the rooftops of Ludlow. I love chillies at any time of year, but when it’s cold outside the extra heat is very welcome in almost any dish. Maureen disagrees of course: chillies are vital in every dish at all times of year, and twice on Thursdays.

This month’s Sweet Heat Challenge is soup, which is handy because I had all the ingredients needed for a spicy beetroot soup. This stuff is packed with warmth: the warm glow of chilli, the earthy warmth of beetroot, the warm red of roasted pepper, the warm notes of toasted cumin, the cosy warmth of slowly cooked tomatoes, the smokey warmth of paprika. It’s like a woolly blanket in a bowl. Which would be horrible. Ugh, bad analogy. Ignore that.

Spicy beetroot soup
This makes enough for 4-6 bowls

2 large beetroots
2 red peppers
1 small onion, chopped roughly
1 stick celery, chopped roughly
2 cloves of garlic, chopped roughly
2 chipotle chillies (smoked dried jalapenos)
½ tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp cumin and coriander seeds mixed
1 tin chopped tomatoes
½ pint vegetable stock
  1. Simmer the beetroots (skin-on) in a pan of boiling water for 30-40 minutes until cooked through – test with a knife.
  2. Meanwhile, halve the peppers and rub with a little olive oil then roast on an oven tray at 160C for 30 minutes or until skin is brown/black in a few places.
  3. Dry-fry the cumin and coriander until toasty and smoking, then grind to a powder.
  4. Begin to gently fry the onion, celery and garlic in a large saucepan just before the peppers and beetroot are finished. Don’t colour them at all.
  5. Pop the peppers in a plastic bag and tie it – the steam will loosen the skins, which you can then peel off and roughly chop the pepper.
  6. Drain the beetroots and reserve a pint of the water. Once the beetroot has cooled a little, simply rub the skin off then chop the beetroots roughly.
  7. Now add the peppers and beetroot to the onions, add the paprika, the cumin and coriander, the chillies roughly chopped. Stir, then add the chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock and most of the reserved beetroot water.
  8. Simmer for 30 minutes or so, check seasoning, add more water if needed. Once you are happy, blend the whole lot to a smooth soup.
  9. Serve with a sprinkle of black salt and a swirl of olive oil on top. Soured cream is an even better alternative.

You can make this even better by roasting more of the stuff. For example: roast the garlic, or use smoked garlic, or roast some tomatoes to use instead of the tin of chopped toms, perhaps even roast the beetroots. It all depends what you have the time and inclination for and on this occasion I kept it fairly simple.

As an aside, I also added another dried Asian chilli for some real heat. The result was some serious fire though, which might not be everyone’s ticket for a comforting shoup. We like it hot!

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