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Monday, 21 March 2011

Our favourite time of year

Today, at last, the air smells sweet with Spring and the sky is blue. It’s almost warm here in Edinburgh and we’re pretty excited about the next couple of weeks. The change in seasons brings a wonderful change in available local produce and there’s certainly something about the limited seasons that makes them all the more delightful. And then, there’s our soon to arrive Spring baby. No wonder this is our favourite time of year.

Of course, many chefs have been naturally driven by the seasons for years, but in fairly recent times the words seasonal, local and sustainable have all made fashionable appearances on menus throughout the UK and rightly so, cooking in season, when products are at their best, seems rather obvious.

We have some of the most fabulous producers and products imaginable right here for all levels of culinary skill and palate. We planned our early 2011 menus to make the most of venison, quince, celeriac, forced rhubarb, hare and beetroot, we adore Uncle Joe’s eggs, enjoy reading tips from Tom Kitchin with his from nature to plate philosophy as he champions all things Scottish, we love visiting Stockbridge to try old favourites and be converted to new ones especially in George Bower or Armstrong’s, we have been recently impressed by Guy Grieve and his inspirational ethical seafood story and we can often be found referring to seasonal cook books. The most used in our collection being Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, Gordon Ramsay’s A chef for all seasons, and The Farmers' Market Round-the-seasons Cookbook. There’s also been a recent new addition to our collection: Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food, published by Quadrille just a couple of weeks ago.

Each clearly defined month begins with a simple, one page glimpse of key ingredients and continues with a longer list of “other ingredients not to be missed.” With every month there are some classic favourites and some nice, more unusual surprises too. Who knew when pike or pennywort was at its best?

Next, Hix helpfully talks readers through making the most of each month encouraging us to get better at shopping and cooking off the hoof and not simply fall back on the most popular ingredients and prime cuts.

The uncomplicated style is continued with the design which combines comforting, homely photography with simple original drawings and the recipes which, as you might expect, allow the ingredients to speak for themselves, scallops with purple sprouting broccoli (March) being a great example. There’s no doubting Mark’s technical ability or prowess as a restaurateur but he has made his recipes here easy to follow for those who aren’t as blessed.

The layout is straightforward (though I personally would have preferred larger text and one recipe per column or page) and again there’s a careful mix between classics such as piccalilli and cauliflower cheese (both January) and the more unusual cod’s tongues (yikes) with smoked pork belly (January) and red gurnard with sea spinach, steamed cockles and brown shrimps (February).

We’ve tried hard not to gallop ahead into future months but are already anticipating fried duck’s egg with brown shrimps and Sprue asparagus (May) and the summery delights of gooseberry and elderflower meringue pie (June)… and we’ve made a resolution to get better at foraging too. As the month's pass, this is sure to be a book we revisit time and time again.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The other side of the table...

It's long been our hope that more supper clubs, or at least one, would open here in Edinburgh. We have hoped this selfishly, so we can have a night off and selflessly so that more people embrace and experience the not so new concept. We've been sworn to secrecy until now but, at last, there is another couple who are brave, or mad enough to open their home to diners: chef Mark and his wife Mary Porter.

Their brand new venture Dinner at Kitchen Porter's is coincidentally timed to follow on from our last supper and just one week on, we traded Saturday night in the kitchen for a more restful Saturday as diners at one of their tables. All thanks to a large nod, wink and gracious invitation from Edinburgh Spotlight. Lucky us.

So how did we find it? Well, we were able to experience the curious combination of anticipation, excitement and nerves involved when you arrive at a strange door, in the February darkness and ring the bell, truly having no idea what or who is behind it and yet somehow expecting dinner and trusting that it will be enjoyable!

We joined other guests in the immaculate sitting room for canapes and a welcome drink (hugely reassured that you can have such a tidy room with a toddler - the giveaway stair gate and family photos didn't escape our attention on arrival). We were then very warmly and officially welcomed by Mark and Mary and gradually taken through their shiny, open plan kitchen (so organised, you'd never expect what was about to happen) to a lovely eating place (the transformed family room). Unlike our own cosy arrangement where the kitchen doors tend to remain closed and all diners eat at one Table, there were three groups of diners seated at three separate tables. I'm sure this flexible arrangement will be especially popular with those who are intrigued by the concept of eating out in some one's home but turned off by the idea of eating with strangers.

Given Mark's background as a professional chef and current role as a tutor, it's no surprise that the tables were uniformly set and had a welcoming but distinctly restaurant feel. As for the delicious food, there is only one way to describe it - slick. The presentation and service was very professional and enjoyable and what's more, by the time we headed away, all traces of the cooking and clearing had vanished and Mark and Mary were happily, deservedly reflecting on a successful evening.

We're so grateful for such a pleasant night off, delighted that we're not alone and certain that seats at monthly Kitchen Porter's will be in great demand. Our remaining hope, is that Mark and Mary have as much fun doing it as we've had.

You can find out more about what we ate here and join the mailing list for Kitchen Porter's or sign up to the demos by emailing kitchenports@yahoo.co.uk