Saturday, 31 December 2011

Gravad Lax

When I was a child, we used to have gravad lax as the starter every Christmas. Gradually, the tradition died out and was replaced with smoked salmon, which became the go-to each Christmas. I never complained - as a child, I was never quite convinced by gravad lax's strange, herby green crust and peculiar accompanying sauce. 

As this is my last Christmas as an unmarried woman and my fiancé is heading home to Ireland to see his family, my mother and I decided to go out with a bang. We brought back a morel-stuffed guinea fowl from France and many delicious canapés. We agreed that I would buy the smoked salmon, but rather than buy it, I thought I'd try making its Scandinavian cousin - gravad lax. 

Gravad lax literally means "buried salmon", and rather than being smoked, it is cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper, coriander and of course, dill. I did a trial run before attempting this one, and it is both very easy and well worth the effort. 

When you buy the salmon, make sure you get two similarly shaped pieces, ideally from the same fish. If you can, take your pieces from the middle of the fish, where they are as square as possible. Freeze the salmon for 24 hours and defrost before making this to kill off any parasites that may be in the fish.

about 900g salmon fillet
150g smoked sea salt
150g caster sugar
50g whole black pepper
30g coriander seeds
150g dill

For the dill sauce:
50ml cider vinegar
50g muscovado sugar
50g honey
50g dijon mustard
30ml olive oil
30g dill

Begin by making the salt cure. Put the salt, sugar, black pepper and coriander seeds in a blender and blitz until you have a reasonably even powder. I tried doing it by hand using a pestle and mortar the first time round, and trying to break up the peppercorns was remarkably ineffective.

 Next, finely chop about half the dill and set to one side for the moment. Cover a chopping board with cling film (keeping it attached to the roll) and lay the two salmon fillets side by side. Make sure you lay them thin to thick edge next to each other so when you flip one of them on top at the end, they slot together neatly.

 Divide the chopped dill between the two fillets, distributing evenly across both of them and pressing in firmly with your hands, then cover with the salt cure, again distributing evenly and pressing it in firmly. When you have used up all the cure, cover the side you intend to flip with a thick coating of dill sprigs from the remaining unchopped dill.

 Flip the dill-covered salmon on top of the other piece - I used the cling film roll as a winch to flip the salmon over, which made it easier and less messy - then wrap tightly in several layers of cling film. I went around three times in one direction, then wrapped it three times again to seal in the first layer's ends. 

Place in the fridge for 2-3 days, then when it's ready to eat, brush off the cure and most of the dill and slice thinly on the diagonal using a salmon or ham knife. Serve with rye bread and the accompanying dill sauce.

While the fish is curing, you can make the sauce - place the muscovado sugar, cider vinegar, honey, mustard and dill in a blender and blitz together. It will keep in the fridge for a week or so once made.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Simple Sponge Cake with Cream & Strawberry Filling

Having a day off work ahead of the weekend makes for all kinds of productivity. I made gravad lax, black olive truffles and a vat of soup all in the space of an afternoon. Sadly, the same couldn't be said for my other half who was glued to the sofa, playing Skyrim all day. I am definitely a PS3 widow. 

Midway through the afternoon, he asked me if it would be very bad if he opened the pannettone he had bought to take over to Ireland for Christmas, and I replied that it was, but I would make him a cake if he so desired. It seemed he did, so I set to work and made a very quick and easy sponge cake. 

This is perfect if you're in a bit of a hurry - you can have it on the table and being gobbled up within 45 minutes. Ideal for greedy gamers then!

Ingredients (fills two 20cm cake tins):
175g plain flour
175g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 large eggs

75ml double cream
1 tbsp icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
5 large strawberries

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C and line the bottoms of both cake tins with baking paper. Then sift the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, eggs and vanilla essence. Melt the butter and as you beat the ingredients together, slowly pour it in. This is easier if you use a Kitchenaid!

Pour the cake batter into the two cake tins and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until baked and golden. To test that it is cooked, plunge a skewer into the middle of the cake and hold it there for 5 seconds. If it comes out clean, the cake is done.

Set the freshly baked cakes onto a cooling rack and leave to cool. While you're waiting, mix up the filling: pour the cream, icing sugar and vanilla essence into a bowl and beat until thick and creamy. This takes about 5 minutes when beating by hand. Then chop up the strawberries and stir into the creamy filling. 

Spread the creamy filling thickly on the bottom layer of the cake, place the other layer on top and then dust with icing sugar. Attempt to eat it all on your own without your gamer other half noticing (sadly, impossible)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Eating out in Budapest

I first visited Budapest about three and a half years ago when my fiancé whisked me away there on a minibreak to celebrate getting back together. On that first visit I discovered quite how beautiful the city was, and thought it the perfect destination for a family get together to celebrate a milestone birthday (we don't mention numbers here).

Budapest is a wonderful city with plenty to do at different times of year. In the early summer, we walked for miles soaking up the architecture and visited a very rickety Eastern European theme park with a wooden rollercoaster. In the winter, we wrapped up very warm, and also walked for miles. This time, however, there was the Christmas market to explore, and for those arriving a week later than we did, the largest frozen lake in Europe to skate on. I was gutted to miss that as I love ice skating.

As a city, Budapest isn't particularly famous for its food, aside from its two main exports - paprika and goulash. But that's not to say there aren't some gems there. We visited four restaurants in our time there. One incredible, one good and homely, one bad and one where words fail me. I'll start with the bad.

Vendeglo a Zsakbamacskahoz
Lovag utca 3, Budapest

We were recommended this by the hotel we were staying in, and contrary to several highly complementary reviews on Tripadvisor, it wasn't an entirely positive experience.

The ambiance was pleasant, with a couple of other large parties present in this cavernous cellar restaurant, and both the wines we ordered were excellent. However, things went downhill from this point. The menu was classic Hungarian, which was what we had set out to eat that night, and at first glance looked promising, if not a little dated.

We eventually managed to order after trying to catch the waiter's eye for a good 40 minutes (2 bottles of wine down at this point) - not normally a problem, except that it wasn't busy and they weren't doing anything. As it was already late, we decided to forfeit getting a starter. I ordered a spinach and ricotta stuffed chicken with garlic pasta, as did my sister. My uncle and aunt ordered duck with mushrooms, and my mother and other aunt ordered the pike perch.

A further 45 minutes after ordering (and a further bottle of wine sunk), our food finally arrived. My mother said her pike perch was virtually inedible, and my uncle and aunt commented that the duck was rather dry and flavourless. My chicken was similarly dry, and the "garlic pasta" was in fact, spagetti in tomato sauce with very little garlic to speak of. Edible, but very disappointing. It took us a further 40 minutes after asking for the bill for it to arrive. 

Vendeglo a Zsakbamacskahoz is not a restaurant I'd go back to however good the wine was, as both the food and service was lacking. Luckily, our party were full of celebratory spirit so it failed to dampen the mood.

Meal - 6/10 - dated menu and poor service. Nice wine though
Cost - around £20 a head for a main course with (lots of) wine


Vörös Ördög Étterem
Orszaghaz utca 20, Budapest

This was a pleasant surprise, and proof that you shouldn't always go into the first restaurant you see. I'm not normally one to eat in the "tourist-y" parts of town, but we were hungry and having eyed up the restaurant across the street, we decided to try our luck with this place. The name literally means "red devil restaurant", and when you see the cellar (which is only open in winter as it has a lovely courtyard) you can see why. There are red devils everywhere!

Our party had split in two, and my uncle and aunt had gone off to see an old friend, so my mother, sister and I were left to our own devices. We took a taxi up to Buda, the old town, and wandered around. Not quite hungry, but slightly peckish and aware that it was lunchtime, we wandered into here. The waiter was charming and the restaurant itself, warm and cosy. 

 As we were still full from the previous night's meal, we opted for their lunch special: a vegetarian mushroom stew served with little dumplings, which we rounded off with a local beer. The stew didn't look like much, but tasted wonderful. Hearty, warming and intensely mushroom-y. Perfect winter comfort food. Rounded off with a delicious (and very rich!) chocolate crepe, it was exactly what was needed for a winter lunch.

Meal - 8/10 - simple, homely and delicious

Cost - around £10 for a main course, dessert and a beer


Onyx Étterem
Vorosmarty square 7-8

The jewel in the crown of the holiday. I'm not sure I know where to begin with this one. "Oh wow" doesn't even begin to cover it. My sister and I wanted something special for my mother's birthday and she came across this restaurant. We booked it back in April, and it was already nearly full, so clearly we were onto a good thing. How good, we had no idea. Of the seven of us that ate there that night, all of us declared it "the best meal of my life". Onyx has recently been awarded its first Michelin star. If I had my way, I'd give it three.

We went for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Extravagant, but, you know... needs must.  

 The amuse bouche: crayfish with a bacon reduction

Marinated, roasted and tartar tuna with yuzu and pineapple

Marinated saibling with caviar and orange-pumpkin cream soup

Sautéed scallops served with cauliflower textures

 Breast of quail with “Carbonara” risotto and mushroom jus; Monkfish with curd dumpling, sour cream foam and cucumber

Palate cleanser: creme brulée with coriander sorbet


Taϊnori chocolate, violet

Petit fours

The meal was paired with the following Hungarian wines:

Szürkebarát 2008 (demi sec) Zala - Dr. Bussay László
Darscho (Chardonnay) 2008 Burgenland - Velich
Pinot Noir 2009 Etyek - Hernyák László Birtok
Solus Merlot 2006 Villány - Gere Attila winery
Nyúlászó Aszú 6 puttonyos 2000 Tokaj - Royal Tokaji winery

I couldn't honestly pick a favourite dish. Everything was exquisitely prepared, the service was flawless - seemingly invisible and perfectly choreographed. The quality of each and every course was wonderful and nothing jarred or seemed out of place. Getting the wine pairing was an inspired choice and made an already perfect meal, moreso. 

Perfection doesn't come cheap though - a seven course tasting menu plus wine pairing set us back around £100 a head. This actually seems very reasonable when you compare it to the cost of, say, Les Trois Garçons in Shoreditch, where a five course tasting menu with wine pairing comes to just over £100.

If you were visiting Budapest and wanted to eat somewhere truly special, I honestly couldn't recommend Onyx highly enough. The menus are well thought out and innovative, the quality of the food in excellent, service is flawless and it truly is a very special place to eat at.

Meal - 11/10 (best meal of my life)
Cost - around £100 for the tasting men with wine pairing 


I've covered off the bad, the good and homely and the incredible. The final meal of the holiday was Fortuna. And... the experience was indescribable. Both painful and painfully funny. 

Fortuna Étterem
Hess Andras ter 4, Budapest

For our final meal, we had the choice of either eating here, or at Menza. Trust me on this one - we didn't go there, but go to Menza. Fortuna came highly recommended via several sources. A Budapest local friend of my aunt's, and several Twitter recommendations.  

We checked it out earlier on in the day, and although the restaurant itself was closed as it operates in the evenings only, the menu looked promising and it looked chintzy, but welcoming. When we arrived at 8, we discovered we were the only people in the restaurant. More worrying however was that this was the way it would stay for the rest of the evening. 

Our waiter was over-attentive to the point of prescriptiveness and didn't so much recommend us food choices, but "advised" us that we should order certain dishes. Unperturbed, I went against recommendations and ordered what I felt like. 

Creamed pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds, Honey marinated duck breast with mulberry ragout and dumplings

Both dishes I chose sounded like safe bets. The pumpkin soup was delicate to the point of being watery, though the seeds were a nice touch and added some much-needed texture. My first thoguhts when the duck arrived, however, was being slightly overwhelmed by the size of the portion. The duck, although rare, was tough, chewy and lacked flavour, while the potato dumplings were overwhelmingly stodgy. I was unable to finish it, and couldn't face the thought of dessert at this point.

The rest of our party didn't fare much better. My fiancé said the goulash was similarly light on flavour, and my sister's "Fortuna salad" was mildly disappointing. My mum had a special vegetarian strudel made for her as a main course,  which sounded enviably lovely and turned out to be sodden pastry, a couple of courgettes and an awful lot of celery. My aunt's milk-fed lamb was also disappointing - chewy and touch, which it really shouldn't have been.

And that was just the food. The additional "entertainment" for the night was a traditional Hungarian gypsy band, who expected payment for their services at the end of the night. I know this is convention in a great many Eastern European restaurants, but when there's only seven diners, it's bound to be embarrassing for both parties when we don't want to tip for something that was painful to listen to.

An evening so terrible that even three weeks on, we're still laughing about it. Entirely memorable, though possibly for the wrong reasons...

Meal - 4/10 (1 point for food, 3 for comedy value) 

Cost - £30 a head with wine

Have any of you readers been to Budapest? What did you think of the food? Do you have any horror stories or favourite restaurants? I've love to hear about them!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Spanish Chicken Thighs with Sherry & Olives

Ever since he launched his T for Tapas challenge on Twitter, where he and a friend travelled the length of the UK in a giant T shape, cooking up tapas at seemingly random locations, I have been a fan of Omar Allibhoy. While I'm none too fond of shopping excursions in Westfield, I do rather like the Tapas Revolution bar there.

So when I was asked if I would blog some recipes he wrote in conjuction with Olives from Spain, I jumped at the chance. I think Omar is great and I absolutely adore olives, so as far as I was concerned, I was onto a winner.

I must admit, I've tweaked the recipe slightly to make it my own, but it is essentially a Spanish version of a French Coq au Vin, and I think it is in many ways, nicer. The sherry and olives add a wonderful, rounded flavour to the dish and complement the tender chicken thighs perfectly. If you can, make sure you use Spanish queen olives. Mine came stuffed with almonds, which went beautifully with the chicken. I also used miniature Couchillo olives, which are my absolute favourite black olives at the moment, for extra flavour and contrast.

8 chicken thighs
70g diced pancetta
1 large white onion
3 cloves garlic
1 dsp flour
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
175ml dry Fino sherry
300ml chicken stock
125g Spanish queen olives
75g Couchillo olives

Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pan, then dry fry the pancetta (some of its fat will melt) until golden. Remove from the pan, leaving a little of the molten fat behind then place the chicken thighs skin-side down in the pan to brown the skins. Turn them over and fry on the other side to seal the meat, then set aside. 

Thinly slice the onion & garlic and fry these too in the pan until soft and translucent. At this point, pre-heat the oven to 200°C, and while it is heating up, stir the flour into the onions and slowly add the chicken stock, stirring continually until you have a sauce. Add the Fino sherry and season with a little salt and pepper.

Arrange the chicken thighs skin side up in an oven-proof dish, then scatter over the pancetta and assorted olives. Pull the rosemary leaves off the stem and distribute evenly, then pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover with foil and roast in the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes. Remove the foil and roast for a further 10 minutes. Before serving, pierce the chicken to make sure it is cooked and the juices run clear. Ideally the chicken itself should be so tender that it falls off the bone. I served mine with French beans and basmati rice while sipping on a beautiful white Rioja.

If you're also a fan of olives and Omar Allibhoy, you should have a look at some of the other recipes he's come up with here, or check out the YouTube channel to see the man in action. Here's another chicken recipe that I'll certainly be trying during the week: