#36: Burger & Lobster

In dinner terms, I do not think that £20 is an extortionate amount of money. It’s six Boots meal deals, four bottles of on-offer-in-the-supermarket red wine, or two ‘dine in for a tenner’ ready meal bundles. It’s roughly what the boy and I would spend each on a mid-month meal out. Or, now, it’s a lobster. A highly non-extortionate lobster. Alternately, indeed, a rather extortionate burger.

Burger & Lobster – which has finally opened in Bath after months of rumours, teases and anticipation – isn’t exactly cryptic about what is does. For a flat £20, you can have a burger (10oz, piled high with cheese and bacon), a whole lobster (just steamed, or finished under the grill) or a lobster roll.

We both went for the grilled lobster. They were a decent size – served with thin-cut fries, a well-dressed side salad and a boat of beautifully silky lemon butter sauce – and came halved, with the claws partially pre-cracked. The meat was sweet, especially from the claws, and the grilling gave an extra, smoky dimension to the flavour. Delicious. We agreed that next time we’d both probably give the steamed lobster a try, as there’s always likely to be a trade-off between the extra flavour and the extra chewiness that the grill adds.

The best thing about Burger & Lobster, though, is its lack of pretension. Lobster might be a stereotypically ‘sophisticated’ dish (burgers less so), but airs and graces aren’t expected – the atmosphere is relaxed and pressure-free. To be honest, a restaurant that gives you a plastic bib along with the requisite tools for a potentially messy dish has clearly seen me coming, and I appreciate that. Not a restaurant for a first date, perhaps.

Pudding had two options: a berry cheesecake, or a ‘Snickers pot’ (£4.50 each). We both went for the latter – a little plastic pot of chocolate mousse hiding a bottom of salted caramel and peanuts, topped with chocolate cornflakes. When I say that the caramel genuinely tasted of salt, I really do mean it as a compliment.

We were lucky enough to grab a booking for the restaurant’s soft opening (huzzah for Twitter!), so we only paid for our drinks. That said, we’d happily have paid our non-extortionate lobster bill – and are already planning our return. Why you’d go for anything other than the lobster baffles me. There are plenty of great (and cheaper) burgers on offer in town (hi there, Grillstock, Firehouse et al!), but nowhere else that does such afforable crustaceans. I did see someone on a neighbouring table bite into theirs, though, and the look on their face suggested that they were very far from disappointed – so perhaps that’s me told. It’s the seafood section of the menu, though, that’s got its claws into me.

#35: Sticks & Broth

I have one word: finally. Finally I am free from the soul-crushing envy that comes from hearing all about these awesome London ramen joints when I don’t live in London or its vicinity. I do live in the vicinity of Bristol, however, and Bristol has Sticks & Broth. Phew.

I’m always keen to try craft beers brewed specifically for a certain restaurant – what better way to pair up flavours than by creating your own beverage? This Red Ginger Pale was ideal to go with Japanese food. It was light and slightly fruity, with just a gentle warmth from the ginger. I can’t stand the throat-tickling fire of ginger beer, so finding a ginger… beer so enjoyable was a pleasant surprise.

To start, I had tempura prawns and my friend had gyoza. I won here, because while his gyoza were tasty enough in the crispy-chewy-umami way that gyoza always are, the prawns were huge and juicy. Their natural sweetness and the crunch of the tempura were cut through by a smear of wasabi mayo and slivers of red ginger.

Tempura is all well and good (very good), but the ramen is what’s been in short supply in this neck of the woods. I had the chasu pork ramen, which had two rounds of perfectly be-crackingled pork belly, seaweed, a soy-marinated egg, spring onion and sesame seeds. The broth was savoury and meaty, and the noodles an authentic consistency. I’m not usually a fan of eggs where the yolk is anything other than cooked-to-solidity, but here the creaminess of its semi-soft centre complemented the other flavours. Consider me at least semi-sold on the idea. And 100% sold on the ramen here in general.

My pal went for the house ramen, which teamed tender shreds of beef brisket and rocket with the same pork bone broth as the chasu option. The bowls were deep – and full to the brim with generous servings of each topping – but we soldiered through like true samurais, I feel. The range of toppings on offer was impressive, too, meaning I’m already desperate to make a return visit.

The service was fast and friendly – my only niggle was that the restaurant’s website claims it only accepts bookings for groups of eight or more. When we arrived (as a pair, on a Friday evening) we were told that was actually no longer the case – we were absurdly lucky to nab the last table that was freeing up. And I am very glad that we did.

#34: Nutella bread

I’m not much of an ingredients snob. Sure, I like nice things, but I don’t need a brand label on my packaging. My product loyalties are few and far between: Westaways sausages, Stokes garlic mayonnaise and Nutella. When it comes to chocolate-and-hazelnut spread, you get the good stuff or you get the hell out of my flat. Even when it comes to baking it into things, such as this plaited Nutella loaf recipe I found thanks to Reddit’s Food section.

The dough was almost brioche-like, in that it was enriched with egg yolks and milk, so I decided to knead it with a mixer rather than get my hands and surfaces dirty. Having spent years at the behest of a mixer that near-as-damn-it refused to mix, doing so in my shiny new Christmas-present Kenwood was a minor revelation. I didn’t have to scrape the dough hooks clean even once! (This is in stark contrast to having to do so at approximately 45-second intervals.) Nope, I just stood back, watched and sipped on a glass of wine for the requisite seven minutes.

Once the dough was proved, it needed splitting into four equal parts, which were rolled out, layered up and marked into circles using a frying pan – the bottom three having been slathered with Nutella. This was the bit I found the trickiest, because despite the fact I’d softened the spread first by plunging the jar into a bowl of boiling water, it needed a really delicate touch to keep the dough on the receiving end from tearing. In a bid to keep the knife-to-dough contact minimal, I probably spread the Nutella a bit thickly. Although, let’s be honest, as problems go, ‘a little extra Nutella’ falls somewhere between ‘first-world problem’ and ‘not a problem at all’. In fact, it’s almost certainly the latter.

Shaping the loaf was actually suprisingly easy. Once the layers were assembled, the edges rounded off and the middle marked with a tumbler, it was just a case of splitting the dough into sixteenths and then twisting pairs in opposite directions. Honestly, it’s just the layers that make this look even slightly elaborate. Illusory fanciness: my very favourite kind.

When this was done, I used greaseproof paper to ease the loaf on to a tray, brushed it with egg white and baked it until it was golden. The result was a rich slab of deliciousness, the bread itself acting largely as a vehicle for the hazelnutty goodness. At its best still warm from the oven, but almost as good heated up later with a blast in the microwave – and ideal for breakfast. Although probably not every day. My pancreas couldn’t take it.

#33: Spiced corn on the cob

Weekend evenings in our flat often tend to be finger-food nights – whether that’s a full-scale tapas feast, or just some chicken wings and other assorted tasty bits to nibble on in front of the TV. I like to include at least a concession to vegetables in there somewhere, so when I saw this Tom Kerridge recipe for spiced corn on the cob with burnt onion ketchup in my Dad’s copy of Best Ever Dishes over Christmas, I mentally bookmarked it.

The accompanying ketchup was the bit that took the longest, starting off with chopping and charring batches of onion. They made the flat smell a bit like a fairground, which is no bad thing.

After that, I threw the onions in a saucepan along with the sugar, vinegar and seasonings. Despite my best efforts, the mix kept catching a bit on the bottom – even when I added extra water as directed. This was the point at which I cursed the fact that the only heavy-bottomed pan I possess is a vast maslin one. It meant that the ketchup, once anchovied-up and blended, had a bitter edge that I’m not sure was meant to be there and that – if I’m honest – ruined it a bit. Note to self: buy better saucepans.

On a far happier note, if there’s anything more pleasing than whipping butter, I’m not sure I can cope with it. This was a paprika-heavy blend that was punchy and smoky, with just a hint of spice – a bit like that wonderful oil you get when you pan-fry chorizo.

Silly muddlehead that I am, I managed to completely miss the line of my shopping list that contained tinfoil, so I made do and mended by wrapping them up in some greaseproof paper. I don’t think things suffered as a result. Baking the cobs basically en papillote sealed in all the moisture and kept them wonderfully sweet and juicy. The spiced butter stood up to the corn without overpowering it, and was a brilliantly simple variation on a plain dish. I might not put the time in on the ketchup again, but the corn is welcome to stay in the finger-food repertoire. After all, there are a lot of weekends out there.

#32: Candy cane cookies

One of the downsides of being an adult (along with paying bills, taking care of yourself and doing your own damn laundry) is that candy canes become more attractive as a decoration than as a foodstuff. So while they were most welcome adorning my Christmas tree, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them once Twelfth Night had come and gone. Then an idea popped into my head: cookies!

I’d assumed that US recipes for this sort of thing would abound online – after all, Americans have pretty much built a cult around cookie dough – but this was one of those times when America lets you down. Typing ‘candy cane cookie recipe’ into Google yielded nothing but cookies that looked like candy canes. So I took matters into my own hands, modifying this user-submitted recipe from the BBC Good Food site by simply swapping half the quantity of chocolate chips for smashed-up candy cane. Turns out that a) a toffee hammer is the ideal tool for reducing hardened, minty sugar to rubble, and b) 100g is a lot of candy cane. The mint taste was quite strong, so in future I’d be tempted to use a bit less.

As well as swapping out half the chocolate, I replaced the remaining quantity with dark chocolate. It was, in hindsight, a very wise move – the end result was incredibly sweet from the candy cane, and anything more would have been overload. I can also confirm that despite its innocuously crumbly, enticing appearance, eating too much of this cookie dough can make you feel sick. I did that bit of research so you don’t have to. It’s okay; you can thank me later.

A dough this crumbly and sticky is never going to suit being rolled out, but having received some gingerbread man-shaped cutters from a friend for Christmas, I did want to shape the cookies – so I laid out the cutter and carefully flattened hunks of dough into it with my (clean!) fingers. I’d forgotten that they would of course spread, though, so the effect was less ‘adorable little biscuit figures’ and more ‘aftermath of a nuclear meltdown’.

As my cookies were a bit smaller than those suggested by the recipe, I shortened the cooking time from seven minutes to five – barely enough time to dance around the kitchen to the Flashdance theme tune (don’t look at me like that), but just right to give a squidgy, gooey centre. In fact, they were still practically liquid when I removed them from the oven. These may have been an unusual way to get rid of excess Christmas sweets, but they tempted at least one colleague away from a January diet…

#31: ‘Healthy’ turkey pie

In the wake of the inevitable Christmas over-cater in which if you haven’t consumed your own bodyweight in cheese, you’ve not been trying hard enough, I’m sure I can’t be the only one with both leftover turkey sat in the freezer and a desire to eat at least moderately healthily this month. Cold weather and pie go hand-in-hand (even if it has been a relatively mild January thus far) so obviously creating a slightly lighter version was my first attempt of 2015.

As well as a turkey leg, which I hacked into chunks of deliciously moist, dark meat, I also had some leftover gammon ham in the fridge. I try to live my life by the mantra ‘the more meat, the better’, so that joined the mix, too. I thinly sliced up a leek and a couple of garlic cloves, before softening the whole lot in a pan with (a little) butter.

Disclaimer: I am pretty sure I saw the next bit on a cooking show, or read about it somewhere. I can’t remember who or what or where or why or how. It was definitely an idea I was keen to incorporate, though, not least because it saved having to make a calorifically creamy white sauce or a heavy gravy. So, sorry to whoever I stole this from and am unable to credit. I added some – a very precise measurement, I’m sure you’ll agree – chicken stock, and simmered it for a few minutes in a bid to infuse a bit more of the filling’s meaty, oniony flavours, then fished everything out with a slotted spoon. Some black pepper, Dijon and a bit of cornflour later, a sauce had appeared.

The whole lot went into some adorable individual cast-iron dishes (about £10 for the pair from Aldi a while back, I believe), which I’d lined with a double layer of filo pastry – shop-bought, because not even chefs have time for that home-made nonsense – and a few spritzes of Fry Light, before spending 15 or so minutes in the oven. Served with roasted parsnips, this was a hearty and hopefully not-too-unhealthy Sunday-night feast. Tasty pastry vehicle that’s less bad for you than puff or shortcrust? January win.

Also: apologies for the dearth of updates over the past couple of months. Big changes at work meant that things went into overdrive, swiftly followed by the pre-Christmas rush, which in tandem meant that I had very little time to even think, let alone cook or write about it. Weekly (at least) updates can now resume, promise!

#30: The King William

Given the proximity in which the boy and I live to this pub, it’s sort of silly that it took us six months to actually eat there. Because the King William has such a small downstairs, it’s also really hard to get a table to sample the bar menu at. There is an upstairs dining room, but it’s more of a formal restaurant, from what I gather. In the end, we actually wound up sampling something from both menus.

Seeing as our super-cheerful waiter was seemingly more than happy to let us mix and match, despite the fact we’d booked a table in the bar area, we got starters from the restaurant menu and mains from the bar one. I started with pork and chorizo rilletes, served with kohlrabi. It was rich, meaty and cut through by the crisp sides.

Tom had soft-boiled quails’ eggs with a potato salad and cheese twists. It was light and delicate, with gooey yolks perfect for dipping.

For my main, I ordered a burger. And as soon as it arrived, I regretted having ordered a starter. A huge, juicy, pink-centred thing topped with cheese and bacon, it was the first burger in a long time to best me. That is saying something. Chips were the same triple-cooked beauties I’d expect from the people who own the Garrick’s Head, and the coleslaw was refreshingly tangy.

The boy, as almost always, ordered steak – a generously sized and nicely cooked flatiron with more of those gorgeous chips. Best of all, along with a pint each (it is one of our locals, after all), the bill came to around £25 each. I’ll happily sacrifice some Friday-night spontaneity to book again for that.

#29: Miniature pear tarte tatins

I always wish I had a better idea of what to do with pears. They’re delicious to eat straight, sure, but the window of ripe, juicy opportunity between ‘so hard you’ll hurt your teeth’ and ‘turned to mush already’ is tricksily fleeting. But then I recalled the idea of pear tarte tatin, and all was well with the world. After all, who doesn’t like pears, caramel and puff pastry?

I can vouch entirely for the provenance of these pears; I helped my Dad pick them from my parents’ garden. I’d even technically call them organic, too, given that when I asked him what his secret was for producing such a glut, the response was, “I dunno… Just planted it and left it. Put in an apple tree at the same time and it’s not given us a bloody thing.”

I used a James Martin recipe from the BBC site, albeit slightly adapted. It said to use the pears halved, but as I was making miniature tatins rather than a single large one (all the better to share in the office), I chopped mine into thin slices, short enough to fit into a cupcake tin. As they were thin slices, I only syrup-poached them briefly, so they didn’t fall to bits in the oven.

After they’d been coated in caramel, I layered them into the tin, adding a little extra sauce for good measure. The pastry was a rough puff, and I was surprised by how well it worked. I’ve only done rough puff with intact chunks of butter before, but for this one the butter was rubbed in with the flour at the start. The result was good enough that I’m not sure I’d bother making proper puff in future (not that I’m any good at that).

In hindsight, I probably could have used a few more pear slices per tatin, but – oh me of little faith – I hadn’t realised how much the pastry would rise. It’s light and crisp enough, though, that I don’t think the balance is off. Sweet, slightly savoury and definitely a success. Autumn baking: commenced.

#28: Mussels with cider and bacon

I am kicking myself. Why had I never done this before? Mussels are a perennial temptation on a menu, and they’re not expensive to buy fresh. But still, my home cooking of mussels to date consists solely of those slightly shrunken boil-in-a-bag ones in garlic butter. Far less hassle that way. Except, it turns out that fresh mussels are pretty low-hassle in themselves – the most time-consuming part was cleaning them, and even that was a speedy job.

I used this BBC Good Food recipe, which basically involved frying up some onion, bacon and thyme – which is always a promising base for a dish. Once that had softened/crisped (where appropriate), in went the mussels and a glass of cider. Lid on. Shake occasionally. I found the following eight or so minutes a suitable time to make inroads on the remainder of the cider.

The result? Sweet, tender mussel flesh, far plumper than anything you’d find in a packet, with a flavour-packed, bacon-crammed broth – ideal for scooping up with crusty bread on a Sunday evening. Boil-in-the-bag mussels are dead to me.

#27: Battered anchovies

I understand that anchovies are a divisive ingredient – super salty, intensely fishy and often abused – but they’re also one of my favourites. So when I alighted upon this recipe in A Girl Called Jack while searching for a novel Saturday-night starter, my decision was a quick one.I’ve been using quite a few of Jack Monroe‘s recipes lately – car-brie-nara and courgette fritters have been particular highlights – not through any real need to scrimp on the food bill (although saving money is always a plus), but simply because her recipes are simple, tasty and often involve using ingredients in ways I’d not previously thought of. I mean, have you ever fried an anchovy before?

The recipe called for fresh anchovy fillets, which I’ve never actually seen before and wasn’t able to buy. I substituted them for marinated ones from the deli counter, which through happy accident turned out to be a good move, as the vinegary flavour cut through the grease quite nicely. The batter was a quick and easy mix of self-raising flour, milk and lemon, whipped up in a mere minute or so.

Once dredged through the batter and deep-fried in sunflower oil, I served the anchovies with a lemon and coriander yoghurt, as well as some soda bread. As bite-sized morsels, these were great – the batter was lovely and light, with a slight fizz from the lemon juice, and the fish was sharp and assertive. The only letdown, for me, was that the high batter-to-anchovy ratio felt a bit stodgy by the end of the portion. I’m still Team Anchovy all the way, mind.