Eating out | All the way across town to The Brackenbury

22 May 2014

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I’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant less conveniently located from where I live. Try as I may, I couldn’t figure out a way to get there in less than an hour. Miraculously, the Picadilly line would take me all the way; I guess I could find less conveniently located places, after all.

This is something one learns quickly about London. As any experienced Londoner readily points out, the city is huge, travel is inconvenient and slow. Choose your neighborhood well, because that’s where your life will unfold, it’s where you’ll stay. I was determined not to get trapped by this insularism, at least hold out as long as I can.

I might admit that the friend who suggested The Brackenbury lives much closer to the restaurant. I could have lobbied for a more practical choice, somewhere half way; but I know her well, and I trust her hunch. This was the place she’s really wanted to try. And anyway, on principle, I am game.

On the way toward the tube I began questioning whether being so open minded really is such a good thing; after a good 40 minutes on the train I began grumbling that this place better be very good indeed; partially lost and sidling into deserted dimly lit streets I concluded this probably wasn’t such a great idea.

Finally I arrived. From the street it looked bustling and warm and inviting. I relaxed.

The Brackenbury feels very much like a neighborhood restaurant, and resolutely untrendy. The space is a bit drab. With carpeted floors, comfortable seating, and starched tables arranged in nooks up and down steps in adjoined rooms that resemble an expanded home.

Most importantly, the food is great. The calf’s liver was probably the best I’ve ever eaten; perfect texture, cooked beautifully, impeccably accompanied by the most delicious polenta and kale. The starter was a simple salad of bitter lettuces whose name I can’t recall and it was very good (though when my friend ordered the same later as a main course it was a bit sloppy and overdressed). For dessert there was sweet, tart, ethereal rhubarb Eton mess.

Simple, and one of the very good restaurant meals I’ve had in a while.

Would I try to convince someone to trek all the way across town, late at night, for dinner at the Brackenbury? Perhaps not. But if I lived a bit closer I’d go again in a heartbeat.

The Brackenbury

Open for lunch Fri-Sun 2.00-3.00 pm
Dinner Tues-Sat 7.00 -10pm
Closed Monday

http://brackenburyrestaurant.co.uk/

A good steak with anchovy and herb butters and shallot confit

15 May 2014

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Key, of course, is the quality of the meat. Beef should be grass-fed and dry-aged. To say I choose my homes according to their proximity to a good butcher is exaggerated, but we’ve been lucky for a while now, with, for years, excellent meat just a few blocks away. There was Ottomanelli in the West Village, Harlem Shambles uptown, and, here in London, we live close to another great butcher, Godfreys.

The cut is important, too. Meat on the bone is typically more flavorful, and thick cuts (an inch and a half at least) are much easier to cook to perfection: very brown and crisp on the outside but perfectly rare in the center.

There are debates over whether steaks should be seasoned early or whether salt left on the meat absorbs some of the moisture. I’ve decided to settle into the camp that favors early seasoning, allowing the salt to seep into the cut. Since meat should be brought to room temperature before cooking, I take the steaks out of the refrigerator about one hour before dinner, season them generously with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, and let them sit a while.

It is useless to try to give a cooking time. Every steak is different, depending on the cut, its thickness, its initial temperature. I’ve found that a cast-iron skillet works best, and it should be very hot before the meat is added. A combination of butter and olive oil in the pan is good, as the butter is delicious and won’t burn as quickly together with the olive oil. Ideally one could add herbs to the rendered fat and baste the steak as it cooks.

Sear the meat on very high heat, turning it over once the first side is evenly brown. The steak is perfect when the outside is brown and crisp, like a crust, and the meat has contracted, but just barely. Not too much or it is overcooked.

Like all meat, steak needs to relax a little before being cut; about ten minutes, just the time needed to get the rest of the meal on the table.

Serve the steak with the butters, shallot confit, and some strong mustard.

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Herb and anchovy butter
These must be made a least an hour ahead, and easily the day before.
I make one butter with anchovies, parsley, and basil, and the other with just herbs and sea salt.

250g good unsalted butter

A generous handful of parsley

Small bunches each of basil and chives

A dozen anchovies in oil

1/2 teaspoon coarse grey sea salt

Cut the butter into two equal parts, place each in a small bowl, and let sit at room temperature until it becomes soft and easy to work with (probably about an hour).

Wash and shake the herbs dry. Pick the parsley and basil leaves from the stems.

Separate the herbs into two groups: one with half the parsley and a few basil leaves, the other with approximately equal amounts of parsley, basil, and chives.

Finely chop each group of herbs.

Drain as much oil from the anchovies as possible, and chop finely.

Using a fork, mix one of the softened butter with the anchovies, parsley, basil; the other with the parsley, basil, and chives, and the salt. Mix each well until the butter is homogeneously speckled with the herbs.

Transfer each piece of butter into a small serving bowl, even out the surface, and let cool in the refrigerator for at least an hour. The butter will keep for a while, though it will be best for a couple of days.

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Shallot confit

3-4 large shallots

Olive oil

Small sprig fresh thyme

Small sprig fresh rosemary

One bay leaf

Sea salt

Peel and slice the shallots into thin-ish slices. (The shallots can be cut either crosswise or lengthwise.)

Place in a very small saucepan with enough olive oil to comfortably blanket the bottom of the pan. Add the herbs and a good pinch of salt.

Cook on very low heat, staying close and stirring regularly, until the shallots are a deep golden. **In case the bottom does burn, quickly transfer the rest of the shallots to a different pan so the burnt flavor doesn’t tarnish the confit.**

Let cool a little and remove the herb stalks before serving.

The confit can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator but must be slightly reheated before serving, just beyond the point where the oil isn’t congealed to awaken the flavors.

Green asparagus salad with parmesan shavings

30 April 2014

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When you grow up in France or Germany, asparagus is invariably white, steamed or gently boiled, and served with some variant of Hollandaise sauce. When you move elsewhere, say to New York, your view of the world will likely deepen, expand, diversify; you will notice that asparagus can also be green.

You will learn that asparagus is, in fact, always green, that white asparagus is manually ‘blanched,’ hidden in little mounds of earth as it grows to prevent the sun from wielding its photosynthetic magic. You will discover that green asparagus absolutely should be grilled on a barbecue as soon the weather permits, or braised with a little acidity in the oven on a wintry spring evening. And, indispensably, green asparagus must also be eaten raw, in a simple salad, just like this.

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The tricky aspect is slicing the asparagus very thinly, lengthwise, so a good vegetable peeler is a must. My personal favorite is this kind.

Green asparagus, it should be very fresh and taut

Extra virgin olive oil

Freshly squeezed lemon juice

Good quality balsamic vinegar

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Chunk of parmiggiano reggiano cheese

Wash the asparagus. With a knife, cut off the tough end of the stalks (about 1 inch) and discard.

Cut off the asparagus heads and slice these lengthwise in halves or thirds (depending how thick they are). For the stalks, use the vegetable peeler to shave them into long strands, beginning at the thicker end.

In a serving bowl, toss the asparagus with some olive oil, lemon juice, a few drops balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper.

Add coarse shavings of parmiggiano reggiano, and serve.

Pining for an Easter brunch

9 April 2014

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Once again we will be away for Easter. It’s the second time and I thought I’d resolved it wouldn’t happen again.

No, I am not so undeserving as to regret last year’s magical vacation in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. Today we are going to Greece and for months I’ve been skipping-in-the-street excited about our upcoming trip! It’s just the timing. Ages ago in January when we booked the flights it all seemed so far away. But Easter is approaching and I feel a pinch. These trips have come in the way of a much older custom, started I think when Leo was one, and the Easter Egg hunt followed by a massive brunch is my favorite tradition. I blame all of this untimely travel on the school holiday schedule…

Were we coming home a few days sooner, here are some of the things I would likely prepare.

Chicken liver terrine

Cheat’s potted crab

Mackerel rillettes

Mimosa deviled eggs

Lentil and fennel salad with lemon and parsley

Dandelion, fennel, and pumpkin seed salad

Poppy seed and almond cake

Quick lemon and lime tart

Emboldened by Holly‘s success, I might finally attempt a panettone. I’ve been dying to try.

And crucially we would, as every year but last, dye the eggs with leaf and flower motifs.

Happy Easter, happy spring!

 

Cheat’s potted crab

7 April 2014

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I’ve been dreaming of potted crab since last October, when we left London for a few days during the fall vacation and drove South, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to places I’d often been as a child. We drove toward the sea through the meandering countryside, over detours of Ashdown Forest to my old school, our old house. In Brighton I couldn’t recall the fish and chips shop we always stopped at, though I remember the soggy chips, the flaky fish, the newspaper package sticky with vinegar and sea air, the grinding stones underfoot. The shop probably doesn’t exist anymore anyway.

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Later we walked across the Seven Sisters, but in between we stayed in what must indeed be one of the prettiest villages in Sussex. In that village there was a pub. And in that pub there was potted crab. I ordered it only once, but each subsequent night I bit my lips at not having asked for it again. It was the best thing they served, or rather, it was just plain great, without qualifiers.

Potted crab is characteristic of the kind of British food that I love. It is simple, traditional, and, at its best, stellar. It’s ideal pub fare, picnic food, and perfect for an apéro.

‘Potting’ is a preservation technique, that derives from medieval pies. Meats and fish were initially baked in crusts as a means of conservation (apparently a fairly coarse crust, not intended as part of the delicacy). Once cooked, the pocket of air left between the filling and crust was filled with a sealing layer of fat poured through a hole in the crust. Later, crusts were dispensed of completely by using reusable pots.

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Since that crab in the pub in the village in Sussex I’ve wanted to make it. It has taken me all these months and a split-second, spur-of-the-moment decision to make it. I cheated because I bought the crab meat. I have a very good fishmonger close by and as I mentioned, it was a last minute decision. Still, it was very good.

Cheat’s potted crab

250g butter

1 bay leaf

300g cooked crab meat (about 2/3 white meat, 1/3 dark meat)

Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Pinch sea salt

Pinch cayenne pepper

Chives

Melt the the butter slowly in a small saucepan with the bay leaf.

Place the crab meat in a medium sized bowl, add the lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper. Pour most of the melted butter into the crab meat, reserving about one quarter. Mix well.

Transfer the crab mixture to a bowl or glass terrine without packing it too much, smooth over the top. Coarsely cut a small handfull of chives over the crab and pour the remaining melted butter to seal (without the bay leaf). Keep in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 2 days.

Remove from the refrigerator about half an hour before using and serve with delicious bread.

It’s that easy!


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