Thursday 22 December 2011

Christmas lunch menu at Paul Heathcote's The Longridge Restaurant

Sadly, in 2012, Paul Heathcote took the decision to close The Longridge Restaurant.  He still operates Heathcote's Brasserie and the original Olive Press in Winckley Square, Preston.

But here's what you've missed.

The Longridge Restaurant isn't exactly where it all started for Paul Heathcote (previously there had been at least Smithalls at Bolton, Sharrow Bay, the Connaught, and the Broughton Park Hotel near Preston), but it's where he started on his own, collecting two Michelin stars and an empire of restaurants across the north west.  The stars went as the empire grew, and then the recession did for the empire, and the business is now wisely retrenched to the two original sites, with two restaurants on the Winckley Square site in Preston and here at the flagship, Longridge Restaurant.

Chris Bell had been doing good work in the kitchen until earlier this year when he was lured back to his native Northern Ireland. Hywel Griffith is now installed as Head Chef and continuing to raise the game at Longridge.  I actually went (entirely coincidentally) on his first day, but, although it was a good meal, it seemed unfair to report on it when he'd only walked through the door a few hours previously.

Normally a Christmas lunch menu is not a good one to report on either, but this was good enough, and representative enough to overcome such scruples.

Three courses for £23 is a good deal, and combined with no booze at all due to to fears of random breath testing, it was an extremely good value lunch, especially for the quality.

With the menus, come some impressive canapés: a black olive palmier is jolly good, but entirely in the shade of a parmesan marshmallow.

That marshmallow must be one of the best canapés in the country at the moment: it's as light as air, but packing a rich, savoury, umami-laden flavour. Genius.

It is worth going just to have the marshmallow.

Bread has always been a strong point at Longridge, and continues to be.  Dinky little brioches, good wholemeal rolls, but the star is the white roll flavoured with caraway seed, reminiscent of the famous, and highly localised, Goosnargh cakes down the road where the chickens, turkeys etc come from.

The Jerusalem artichoke velouté was a good example, perhaps a little underseasoned/underpowered, with crosnes among the other decorations. It was, however, disappointing that the (soft boiled) quail's egg was cold and I couldn't really detect any tea flavours.
Jerusalem artichoke velouté, lapsang and quail egg
Pressing of local pork sounded like just another terrine, but this was lifted by being fried before being served on a nicely balanced apple sauce.  There's something vaguely slutty-American-diner-dive-drive-in about this: rolling belly pork, ham hock and pig's cheek up, frying it and then sprinkling with chorizo. But this was also a nicely refined version of piggy goodness.
When it arrived, I thought it was a bit of a small portion.  While it's true that you can never have too much pig on your plate, the portion size was bang on in the context of the meal.

Pressing of local pork: belly, hock, cheek, chorizo and apple sauce
In complete contrast to the multiplicity of pig, the vegetarian starter, a mozzarella and celeriac roulade sounded a bit dull. But this was really good too. This must surely be a Hywel Griffith dish, as it doesn't seem Paul Heathcote's style at all.  It's almost strudel-like, but using very thin slices of celeriac instead of strudel pastry.  It worked really well, especially with the accompanying broccoli purée and basil oil.
Mozzarella and celeriac roulade, wild mushrooms, broccoli purée and basil oil

Braised oxtail dumpling turned out to be a suet pudding. Most forms of suet pudding are usually substantial, but this one turned the norm on its head, with a very thin crust and lots and lots of meat inside. The meat itself could, perhaps, have been a little more aggressively seasoned, but in combination with the sweet, ultra-smooth (hello, Thermomix) carrot purée  and a classic Madeira jus, they got away with it.
Braised oxtail dumplings, carrot purée, roasted shallot and Madeira jus(doing an impression of Andy Capp)

the interior of the oxtail dumpling

Halibut is not my favourite fish, and this smallish piece of halibut, which suffered a bit from slightly uneven cooking (not quite sure how they managed that), didn't convert me. But that didn't spoil the dish for me as a whole, with the different types of sweetness of the scallop, the shrimps and the onion purée working together with the fish.  No problem with seasoning on this dish at all.
Seared halibut, king scallops, onion purée and brown shrimp butter

The traditionalist at the table had the turkey, which was, well, turkey. A tronçon of the breast which really did need more seasoning came with a small pie made with very good short pastry and containing confit of the leg with sage. The sage was a little too dominant, but in the context of the whole dish, the powerful sage and onion of the pie balanced the under-seasoning of the breast.

Homemade Christmas pudding was a good pudding, quite possibly more fruit than pudding and lots of foamy brandy sauce.  Again, one for the traditionalist. Not for me. Like all Christmas puddings, a bit too heavy at the end of a meal.

A vanilla parfait, filled with glacé fruit was literally exemplary stuff: an exemplar of its type, showing a confident hand in the pastry section, as did its accompanying mulled wine sorbet, which managed to avoid over-winey-ness or over-spicing.  Nothing to complain about with the accompanying cherry purée and jelly, though they somewhat got lost next to the brilliance of the parfait and sorbet.
Vanilla and glacé fruit parfait, mulled wine sorbet, cherry purée and jelly

Rhubarb crumble with custard and mince pie ice cream sounded pretty straightforward, but was rather more involved on the plate.  Again, this was a really excellent dish, let down only by the plating, I think.  And not even the plating, but rather the plate itself, which just seemed a bit utilitarian and clumsy for what was actually a very refined dish.
Rhubarb crumble, toasted oats, mince pie ice cream and custard

Poached rhubarb, a rhubarb parfait, rhubarb purée with vanilla pannacotta(?) forming the custard. I would happily have taken away a litre of the rather gorgeous mince pie ice-cream.  The shard of shortbread in the middle of the plate deserves special menu.  Somebody in the kitchen has a really good hand with all sorts of pastry. Ultra-short and buttery, it defied being picked up without breaking.

The pastry excellence continued with the petits fours, which were some quite remarkable small mince pies: open tarts with a blob of frangipane on top of the mincemeat. But it's the pastry that took your breath away: it was as thin as paper, yet also remarkably short.  My guess is that they were slightly overbaked (the colour of the pastry suggested this) to help them hold up: otherwise, it's quite difficult to understand the engineering, as they shouldn't have been able to hold the filling, let alone hold up to being picked up.

Still room for improvement in the coffee department though.  But 'twas ever thus.
Longridge on Urbanspoon

Thursday 15 December 2011

Producer recommendation: Wareing's of Tarleton

There was a time when much of the moss land either side of the Ribble Estuary was given over to market gardening.  As a boy, I remember all the greenhouses and fields of crops on Marton Moss near Blackpool. Much of that has gone now, sadly, save for some tomato production.

To the south of the Ribble Estuary, in the area between Penwortham and Southport, the tradition is surviving better, and it is here that Wareing's of Tarleton are based.

I first came across Wareing's at the excellent Hoghton Tower farmers' market, but they attend many markets in the north west, including the new Longridge farmers' market.

For some time, I've moaned that many farmers' markets are dominated not by farmers, but by value-added products (too many sausages and cupcakes!).  That's not to denigrate the livestock farms, but stalls like Wareing's are what are needed to balance what's on offer.  If high streets, markets and farmers' markets (separately and together) cannot provide a full range of food, then supermarkets are going to win.

So, enough ranting.  What do Wareing's do?  Well, they are a family firm, established over 100 years ago, with a mixed market garden producing a wide range of fruit and mainly vegetables.  The range of produce is excellent and amazing.  The first time I came across them, I made the mistake of asking if the lettuces and some other produce was their own.  "Everything here is grown by us." I was proudly told.  It was also very evident that much of it was freshly dug too.

Their onions are the freshest, juiciest onions I've come across, and it was a real surprise to see them selling garlic too.  Garlic, grown between Southport and Preston! There isn't any reason why it shouldn't be grown, but as far as I'm aware, Wareing's are the only ones doing so commercially.  It's clear garlic production is on a relatively small scale, as the bulbs on sale have not been cleaned and processed the same way as the imported garlic you'll find everywhere. But it's very fairly priced and has a really good flavour, without being bitter, which was the problem the one time I tried growing my own.

Carrots (orange and purple) are great, and again the freshness shines through. The same goes for chard, lettuce, celery, leeks etc that I've tried.  It's nice to see things like purple kale and purple sprouts, alongside their more familiar green cousins.

Do look out for them at farmers' markets.  They're just what we need.

Johnsons Farm
Johnson Meanygate

Friday 9 December 2011

Cooking a neck of beef

All animals have necks. The one you're most likely to come across is lamb neck, either as scrag end for hotpot or lamb neck fillets. Pork (pork collar) you may find. Stuffed goose neck is a bit of a classic throughout much of continental Europe, though finding goose necks will be a challenge even for a real butcher.

What is common to all the necks is that they contain muscles that are worked all the time (all that leaning down to eat grass): they are the absolute opposite of fillet/tenderloin. With the exception of properly prepared lamb neck fillets, they all benefit from long, slow cooking, both to make the meat tender and, as importantly, to break down all the connective tissue to give that ever so desirable unctuous feel.

I was inspired to start thinking about beef neck by a post by Matthew Fort on his blog, though I didn't find his final method of serving it (as a sort of rillettes, I think) all that attractive. A good straightforward braise (with the prospect of a gorgeous rich stock/gravy at the end of it) seemed much more appealing.

You need a traditional, independent butcher for cuts like this.  If you have a proper butcher who buys whole carcases and breaks them down himself/herself that shouldn't be a problem. Supermarkets and meat retailers, who only get joints that have already been broken down from the carcase simply won't be able to do it for you.

So, the next time I was at the marvellous Roy Porter butcher's shop in Chatburn in Lancashire's Ribble Valley, I asked innocently about the prospect of a piece of beef neck. Roy Porter and his team always seem to rise to the challenge, and after checking that I really did mean a whole neck, and not chuck steak or clod, shopped up as mince or stewing steak, and controlling the rolling of their eyes, they set to taking a neck off, I think, a Dexter carcase and boning it. I was presented with a gorgeous, great hunk of flesh, in excess of six pounds in weight. Just as Matthew Fort says in his piece, there were claret and burgundy coloured muscles within this mound of flesh. I was a little surprised just how lean it was. As you can see there is not exactly a shortage of fat and connective tissue, but it's predominantly lean, pure muscle.

I removed a few small pieces from the major muscles to see how it would respond to quick frying/grilling. Some pieces of meat that we traditionally regard as braising cuts do make good steaks (hanger and skirt for example). Unfortunately, unlike lamb neck fillets which are surprisingly tender, it was immediately evident that these were not suitable for quick cooking.

I did not bother trying to trim the meat at all. The first stage in preparing my dish was to give a liberal coating of, and rubbing in the khmeli suneli spice blend made by the excellent Seasoned Pioneers. This is a blend of Coriander Seeds, Cloves, Cinnamon, Fennel Seeds, Mint, Dill, Savory, Fenugreek and Marigold Petals, apparently based on a Georgian recipe. It's a good, warming blend that doesn't dominate, but quite literally adds a certain je ne sais quoi. (I sometimes use it as a flavouring in wholemeal loaves.)

I melted some dripping in a large pot and added a large onion, cut into quarters. Then around half a pound of bacon bits (the trimmings and ends of bacon that butchers generally sell off cheaply), roughly chopped, and some thyme.

Returning to the meat, I roughly rolled it, though without bothering to tie it, and added it to the pot with some bay leaves. The pot was then topped up with roughly one-third water and two-thirds of a young, fruity red wine.

I brought the liquid up to the boil on the hob and then put it in the oven, pre-heated to 120°C, where it stayed for around six hours. It was cooked and reasonably tender at this point, though could clearly benefit from a little longer.

But I took the meat out at this point and left it and the pan to cool overnight. My purpose was to allow the fat which had rendered to set on top of the liquid, to make it easier to skim off the excess fat. After that, the cooking liquid could be brought to the boil and left to simmer for a while to reduce it, reheating the meat in the liquid. If you were serving it all in one go, you should reduce the cooking liquor down to the desired serving consistency at this point. I was going to serve the meat over a couple of days, so initially, I left the cooking liquor as a lighter broth, though it still had a good, rich flavour and texture.

Here's the meat, still steaming, straight out of the pot, ready to "slice" - I put that in inverted commas, as the meat is now so soft and unctuous that it's not easy to slice. You certainly need to cut across the grain.

And here's the inside, showing the layers of different muscles and textures:

I think this is a dish that cries out for a bowl of creamy mash and buttered cabbage.

If you go on to reheat it a few times, the cooking liquor is going to improve in depth, and indeed, if it lasts long enough the very last portions will make a good ragu to serve with pasta.