Restaurateur and seafood expert Rick Stein has been absolutely bloody everywhere. He’s written numerous cookbooks (many of them with an accompanying TV series) covering France, Spain, India, the Med, the Far East, most of Europe and the UK. Now he’s turned his attention to Mexico and California with The Road to Mexico. The book, and TV series, retraces Steins steps from nearly 50 years ago when, as he explains in the introduction, he ‘crossed the border from the USA at Neuvo Laredo and headed for the city of Monterrey’ and ordered some tacos in a bar.
His recent experience of Mexico was undoubtedly more luxurious than his original trip, swapping hitch-hiking, Greyhound buses and German cargo ships for a pale blue convertible Mustang, but the food probably hasn’t changed all that much in intervening half-a-century. Tortillas, tacos, enchiladas, corn, chilies and avocado abound. Recipes include ‘the original Caesar salad’ from Caesar Hotel in Tijuana made with salted white anchovies; refried beans, guacamole and roasted red tomato and chilli salsa. A short section on staples like guacatillo sauce made with tomatillos, avocado and chilies and a list of essential Mexican larder ingredients make the book a perfect primer for the first-time Mexican cook.
Each of the seven chapters that cover breakfasts and brunch, street food, vegetables and sides, fish and shellfish, poultry, meat and desserts and drinks is prefaced by a short essay by Stein, which, combined with the comprehensive and informative recipe introductions and the vividly colourful location photography makes for a satisfying travelogue.
Because the recipes are arranged into categories rather than place of origin, you’ll need to watch the series to get a proper sense of the regional variations of Mexican cuisine, and to understand why California has been included. Stein avers that ‘there is so much Mexican influence in Californian food’, and while that is true, recipes like Italian cioppino (monkfish, mussel and prawn stew) from Tadich Grill, chicken noodle soup with yellow bean sauce from chef Martin Yan’s M.Y China and Alice Waters’ rhubarb galette Chez Panisse (all in San Francisco) don’t reflect that influence.
So, the book’s premise might be a bit shaky and the recipe selection scattershot, but that shouldn’t prevent you from cooking from it. Recipes are well written, easy to follow and for the most part straightforward to prepare. Stein has an unerring nose for a great dish and The Road to Mexico has enough of them to make it a must buy for Stein’s many fans and anyone who wants to find out more about one of the world’s greatest, and most fashionable, cuisines.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I had never seen ratatouille cooked and served this way until I saw the animated film of the same name. It inspired me to revisit this dish, and I’m glad I did because when it’s not cooked to a mush and the vegetables still have a bit of bite, it has the comfort and flavour of rustic food – even though it’s dressed up a bit. It takes a bit of time to assemble, but it has real wow factor when you bring it to the table; everyone always remarks how beautiful this is. For the prettiest presentation,pick tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes that all have a similar diameter.
Serves 6 to 8
Aubergines 2 narrow, about 680 g (1½ lb total)
Courgettes 2 large, about 450 g (1 lb total)
Beefsteak tomatoes 6
Salted butter 45 g (1½ oz), at room temperature
Extra-virgin olive oil 60 ml (2 fl oz)
Garlic cloves 4
Fresh thyme sprigs 8
Fresh basil leaves 3 tablespoons
Cherry tomatoes 450 g (1 lb)
Fine sea salt
Orzo 450 g (1 lb)
Preheat the oven to 190°C (170°C Fan).
Trim the aubergines and courgettes and slice off the stem ends of the beefsteak tomatoes. Cut the vegetables into thin slices, about 6 mm (¼ inch) for the aubergines and courgettes, and a bit thicker for the tomatoes. Keep the vegetables separate. If you have a mandolin or V-slicer, use it for the aubergines and courgettes.
Butter a 23 to 25-cm (9 to 10-inch) round shallow casserole dish or a frying pan with a lid with 15 g (½ oz) of the butter. Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Crush the garlic with the flat side of your knife, then peel the garlic (discard the papery skins) and add it to the casserole along with the thyme sprigs and basil leaves. Halve the cherry tomatoes and gently squeeze them over the baking dish to release their juices and seeds into the pan. Reserve the cherry tomatoes for another use (see below). Using your fingertip, poke out the seed clusters from the sliced beefsteak tomatoes and add them to the baking dish. (I use an enameled cast-iron casserole for this dish because it is heavy and distributes the heat so well. You can also use a heavy frying pan, as long as the handles are ovenproof).
Alternate the tomato, aubergine and courgette slices in the baking dish in rows, filling the dish all the way to the centre. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and season with salt.
Bake uncovered for 20 minutes. Cover the casserole and continue baking until the aubergine is a few shades darker, like a strong café latte, and the courgette is an almost translucent, pale and glossy yellowish colour, 20 to 30 minutes more. If your baking dish doesn’t have a lid, place a baking sheet or even a pie tin on top.
While the ratatouille is baking, bring a large pan of water to a boil over high heat for the orzo. When the water boils, add a tablespoon or so of salt. Stir in the pasta and cook, stirring every 2 minutes to ensure that it does not stick to the bottom, according to the packet directions until al dente, about 8 minutes, depending on the brand.
To warm the pasta serving bowl, place it in the sink and set a colander inside. Drain the pasta in the colander and return it to the cooking pan, letting the hot pasta water stand in the serving bowl for about 30 seconds to warm it. Empty and dry the serving bowl and add the pasta. Stir in the remaining 30 g (1 oz) of butter.
To serve, bring the ratatouille to the table in its baking dish. Spoon the orzo into bowls and top each serving with the ratatouille and some of its juices.
R E D U C I N G K I T C H E N W A S T E
I hate to throw anything usable and edible away, and instead think of these odds and ends as a head start on future meals. The squeezed-out cherry tomatoes can be mixed with some diced onion, fresh chilli, coriander, olive oil and lime juice for a quick salsa to put on cooked fish or a cheese omelette, or you can chop and combine them with basil, garlic, salt and chilli flakes for an uncooked sauce to toss with hot pasta and cubes of mozzarella.
Extracted from Downtime by Nadine Levy Redzepi
(Ebury Press, £27)
Photography by Ditte Isager
In Denmark this is called a cake, but it’s really more like a trifle, with layers of whipped cream and crushed cookies on a base of caramelised apple purée. Whatever you call it, it’s light and delicious and easy to make. You can also double the recipe and make it in a large bowl, trifle-style, but don’t assemble it until just before serving, as the cookies will lose their crunch. This recipe makes about 20 large cookies and you won’t need them all for the topping, so you’ll have some left over for snacking and lunch boxes. If you have been saving your scraped vanilla bean pods this is the perfect way to use them up. Otherwise, just use a whole fresh one, slitting it and scraping the seeds over the apples.
Dessert apples 1.8 kg (4 lb), firm and not too sweet
Scraped vanilla pods 2
Marzipan 200 g (7 oz)
Sugar 400 g (14 oz)
Large egg whites 3
Plain flour 12 g (. oz)
Baking powder . teaspoon
Double cream 360 ml (12. fl oz)
The filling needs to chill, so make it first: Peel, quarter and core the apples. Put the apples in a large, heavy pan. Place the vanilla pods on top. Cover the pan and cook over medium-high heat, without stirring, until the apples are lightly browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Caramelising the apples brings out their sweetness without any added sugar. It’s okay if some of them scorch a tiny bit.
Stir the apples, scraping the browned surfaces from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to very low, cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples have softened into a chunky purée, 45 to 60 minutes. If the apples start to stick or scorch, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan and stir to loosen them. Let the apples cool a bit, then cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 1 day.
Make the cookies: Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C Fan) with the racks in the top third and centre of the oven. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with baking paper.
Crumble the marzipan into a food processor. Add the sugar and process until well combined. Transfer to a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat in the egg whites one at a time, making sure each white is incorporated before adding another. Beat until smooth. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the flour and baking powder just until combined. If you don’t have a food processor, grate the marzipan into a medium bowl using the large holes of a box grater and stir in the sugar.
Scrape the cookie batter into a pastry bag fitted with a plain 12 mm (½ inch)tip or a large zip-top plastic bag with the corner snipped off. Pipe out 5 cm (2 inch) mounds of the batter, leaving about 7.5 cm (3 inches) between them. The cookies will spread in the oven. Bake until golden brown and crackly, about 15 minutes. Let the cookies cool completely on the baking sheets. They will fall and crack, but that’s okay, as they will be crumbled later. Don’t try to remove the cookies from the baking paper until they have cooled completely or they will stick and break.
Whip the cream in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high speed just until it thickens and begins to form soft peaks. It should be slightly fluid, not stiff and fluffy.
Divide the apple sauce among 6 serving bowls and top with the whipped cream on the opposite side. Coarsely crumble 1 or 2 cookies over each serving. Serve immediately. Leftover cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Extracted from Downtime by Nadine Levy Redzepi
(Ebury Press, £27)
Photography by Ditte Isager
When it was our oldest daughter’s turn to have her school playgroup over for dinner, I asked her what she wanted me to make and she requested lasagne. I’ve never been a huge fan of lasagne, which is usually a bit bland and stuffed with too much melted cheese for my taste, so I challenged myself to create a version that was full of flavour and a bit surprising. I added a lot of garlic and little balls of sausage in addition to the minced beef, and layered it with a lightly cheesy béchamel sauce, and it really took it to the next level for me. This requires a bit of work, but it serves a big crowd.
Extra-virgin olive oil 90 ml (3 fl oz)
Garlic cloves 8
Minced beef 800 g (1. lb)
Whole peeled tomatoes in juice 3 400g (14 oz) tins
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Salted butter 110 g (4 oz)
Plain flour 70 g (2. oz)
Whole milk 950 ml (1. pints)
Fine sea salt
Sweet Italian pork sausage 450 g (1 lb)
Pre-cooked pasta sheets 450 g (1 lb)
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 225 g (8 oz), freshly grated
1. Make the meat sauce: Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large casserole dish over medium-high heat. Chop the onions, adding them to the pan as you go. Do not stir until the onions are beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they turn a deep golden brown, about 3 minutes more. Crush the garlic cloves with the flat side of your knife and discard the papery skins. Coarsely chop the garlic and stir it into the pan.
2. Push the onion mixture to one side of the pan and add 2 more tablespoons of the oil. Crumble the minced beef into the pan, avoiding the onions. Let the meat cook for 2 minutes to lightly brown on the bottom. Using a wooden spatula, break up the meat and stir it into the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juices and stir to combine, crushing the tomatoes with the spatula.
3. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until it has thickened slightly, about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the remaining oil. Season to taste. Stirring in a bit of extra oil will help emulsify the sauce and give it more body.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C Fan).
5. Make the béchamel: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Gradually whisk in the flour to make a thick, paste-like roux. Let it bubble for about a minute but don’t let it brown. Raise the heat to medium. Gradually whisk in the milk. Simmer over medium-low heat, whisking often and making sure the bottom doesn’t scorch, until it is lightly thickened and smooth, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt.
6. Place a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Squeeze the sausage meat out of the casings, forming it into small balls. Add them to the pan and cook until they are lightly browned and their fat has rendered. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the sausage balls to the sauce and combine gently.
7. Spread about 240 ml (8½ fl oz) of the meat sauce in a 23 x 33-cm (9 x 13-inch) baking dish. Top with a layer of lasagne sheets. Cover with about a quarter of the remaining meat sauce, a quarter of the béchamel, and sprinke with 60 g (2 oz) of the Parmigiano. Repeat to make 3 more layers. (You may have lasagne sheets left over.) Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano.
8. Bake the lasagne until it is bubbling and browned, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for at least 20 minutes before serving. Don’t cut into the lasagne too soon or it will fall apart when you serve it. Even 20 minutes isn’t too long a resting period, and it will still be hot.
Extracted from Downtime by Nadine Levy Redzepi
(Ebury Press, £27)
Photography by Ditte Isager
How did The Sportsman book come about?
I wasn’t planning to do a book at all particularly, but then I got an email from Phaidon. I thought, I quite fancy doing something with them, they make such lovely books. My motive really was to make a souvenir, a representation of The Sportsman and the work that we’ve done over the last 17 years, so it was as simple as that really.
I love a cookbook when it’s not just a collection of recipes, but also tells the story of the restaurant which The Sportsman does brilliantly.
Oh, thanks, that was the plan. I’m the same, I think we’ve probably got quite similar tastes in that respect. Just another recipe, photo, recipe, photo book can be lovely, but if you cook a lot you don’t often need that and its quite interesting to have a story, isn’t it?
I was a little bit intimidated by having to write the whole story, so I tried to do it episodically. I can write 1000-1500 words but as soon as it goes over that I’m a bit out of my depth, so I wrote essays. It appealed to me because I like that kind of Pulp Fiction thing where you move around in the story. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the reader, it allows the reader to work it out for themselves.
Having written for The Telegraph for two years, I often have to assume no knowledge or intelligence on the part of the reader because that’s part of newspapers, everything has to be crystal clear- recipes that idiots can cook and all that kind of stuff. It was really nice to do a bit where actually I didn’t have to worry about that. I had a bit more of a free hand.
What are your favourite recipes from the book?
A few stand out. The one I’m really loving at the moment, it’s just gone back on the menu, is the pot roast red cabbage, that feels like a very modern dish. Rene Redzepi did this thing where he took a whole cauliflower, and, like a lot of people, I thought what a lovely idea. It makes you question the nature of a chicken versus a vegetable and why do we treat them differently. I thought I’d try a traditional cooking method applied to a winter vegetable and the result was spectacular. I love that dish.
The slip sole with seaweed butter is always going to be a big thing with us because that feels like a recipe with all the loose ends tied up, everything seems to work. It’s a local fish, its seaweed from the beach outside the pub, its butter from the diary, its salt from the sea, there’s something almost holistic about it.
You see slip soles on a lot of other people’s menus these days.
I know, I’m so chuffed. I love it, I think some chefs get annoyed when their ideas get copied but I actually see it as flattery.
Unusually, the book contains recipes for some fundamental ingredients, right down to salt.
That was the route that I chose twelve or thirteen years ago – to go elemental rather than poncey. We got to the point where the kitchen was quite well set up, I had a good team and I was able to start thinking about my own style. It was almost like a fork in the road; shall I go down the route that most two and three-star chefs do where they refine everything, and they trim all the fun out of the food and I went the other route which was to go a bit more elemental, to think about things like salt and butter and bread the very basics of restaurants and to try and elevate them and make them as good as they could be.
Then this whole idea sprang up that there were some things I could make in my own kitchen that were better than I could buy from any supplier. I used to love Echiré butter that you used to get in posh restaurants like Nico’s, it was so delicious, but I couldn’t afford it. But when I made my own butter that made a lot more sense. I always have to remind people that nobody was making their own butter in restaurants back then, so it was a radical idea, but it was also fantastic because it was a reflection of the landscape as well.
Has writing the book clarified in your own mind what your style is or was that already evident to you?
It was already there, but yeah, you’re right. Whenever you have to reflect a bit, inevitably it crystallises things and makes them a bit clearer. In that respect it was good. It was more just having to dredge into my own brain really and allow myself to look at it from that point of view. I don’t know whether it was revelatory, but it was a fun process.
How would you describe your cooking, it’s very distinctive isn’t it?
I suppose so, yeah. The Sportsman is like two restaurants in one. I’ve never really said it and not many people have observed this, but we do an a la carte which is for somebody who lives in Whitstable and wants to pop out for lunch, and then we do a tasting menu and it’s the tasting menu that I’ve put most work into in the last 10 years. When I wrote about a style of my own that was really it.
Olivier Roellinger and those kind of chefs developed a certain style. So Roellinger, I give the example in the book, was very much reflecting the spice trade in Saint-Malo; Michel Bras with his foraging reflecting the landscape on the plate, and that’s what the tasting menu is about really, it’s a bit more kind of highbrow but at the same time I’m also very keenly aware of not alienating people. My palate and my taste are quite traditional, and I love really tasty food. I think that’s the style.
It’s interesting that you mention chefs like Roellinger and Bras because you’re in the same category but you’re in a pub on the Kent coast. Have you ever been tempted to move The Sportsman into swanky restaurant premises?
No, I’ve never had a problem with that. I’ve always thought that anything’s possible where I am. The elephant in the room is their three Michelin stars versus our one, but I don’t mind that, I’m enjoying watching the arbiters of the food world struggling with the modern definitions of what’s good. We’ve added to that in a way. It’ll take you three or four visits to the Sportsman to realise, “oh wait a minute, this is really quite a serious restaurant”.
I’ve never had a problem with the idea that a pub is basically just a building same as a restaurant is and you can do whatever you like within reason. We don’t have locals because we’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no village around us, so that helps us to do whatever we like. The usual things that apply to pubs don’t apply to us. Because I have carte blanche then it’s just about what feels right rather than what anyone’s trying to tell you to do.
How has your cooking evolved over the time The Sportsman has been open?
I started off, I was a keen amateur and cooked dinner parties for friends. I loved everything-Chinese food, Italian food, I was a bit more ‘global-kitcheny’ as we all were back in the 90’s. Then I found a way to teach myself to cook by going to Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, La Tante Claire and all those places that were around in the 90’s and copying them.
When I was a kid of 14, I bought a guitar and to learn how to play it – it’s not like now, you go on Youtube and any song you want to play you can watch someone play it – then I used to go to gigs, stand at the front and watch the guitarist, watch what his fingers did and try and do it as soon as I got home. And I suddenly realised that’s how I taught myself to cook. I went to the restaurant, ate the food, then I understood what it was supposed to taste like so when I went home to cook it, with the aid of quite a lot of books, it was the memory of what it was supposed to taste like in my head.
So that style of copying Ramsay and Marco and Nico was the first five years of the Sportsman. We would knock people out because we got close. We weren’t some rank amateurs who were out of our depth, we were delivering. It’s just that I wanted a bigger picture. I noticed that all the great chefs find an angle and my angle was the surrounding history of this area. I didn’t want to copy old recipes, I just wanted the landscape and the history to inform the tasting menu more than dominate it.
I started almost closing in on myself. It sounds restrictive but the reason I did it was because it such a remarkable few miles. It was owned by the kitchens of Canterbury Cathedral in the Doomsday Book, so for a thousand years it was their larder. There’s everything you need here – fish, seafood, lamb, pigs, salt making, hedgerows, it just goes on and on. I wrote them all down once and I thought, that’s enough, that’s a menu. There’s a concept behind it rather than just whatever’s nice that day. The food, when we send it out, feels like it reflects the surrounding area.
What’s your involvement with Noble Rot in London?
It started out as a wine fanzine. Dan and Mark who wrote it worked in the music industry with my brother Damien who lives in Brighton. Dan was married to my cousin who had also been working for Island Records. I met Dan and we hit it off about wine because we both like those slightly nerdy, culty wines.
He came and had a look in my cellar and saw Raveneau and Leflaive and all these great names and we bonded over that. Then three years after doing the magazine they said they wanted to start a wine bar and I just said, let me know when you do it, because I didn’t want them to mess the food up. I said, I’ll help you, thinking that they’d get a little wine bar like Sager and Wild and of course they found a 50-seater restaurant, but you know, sod’s law.
I got the chef and gave them some recipes to use; I just go up every couple of weeks and keep an eye on it now. I think they’re going to do another one in which case I will get back involved a bit more heavily. We’re really lucky, we’ve got a great head chef and a good team and so far, there haven’t been too many alarms, but I didn’t want the call at eight in the morning saying we haven’t got any staff, I can’t get involved on that level.
So, you’re still based at The Sportsman?
I’m still here at The Sportsman, its where I want to be. I don’t want a chain of restaurants, this is where I’ll be staying. I still cook every day. It’s different to how it was because for the first 10 years it was quite easy. Although we were busy it wasn’t mad, and you’d get the odd shift where you were quiet.
Now its 100 plus covers a day, every single day and that starts to mean that you have to have somebody running a section. That really has to be their whole job because there’s a lot of things to think about, a lot of planning, ordering, making sure everything goes out right.
I have chefs on each section and my job is to go through everything with them, taste all the stuff, monitor the food that’s coming out, coming up with new dishes, finding new ingredients, I like to meet the farmers I use and all that sort of stuff. That’s more my job, but that doesn’t preclude me from being in the kitchen every day, but I just tend to get in the way now. But it’s still great, it’s lovely. As I get a bit older it suits me better than working a section and doing 13-14 hour days.
My head chef has been with me 17 years my sous chefs have been with me for 10-12 years, it’s a bit of a family business as well, my brother is here, Emma my girlfriend works up front and does various things for the restaurant, although I’m the only one that tends to get mentioned. That was another thing in the book, I wanted to let the others share a bit of the blame, that’s why I put the interviews with them and let them talk to the editors, just to share it rather than it all being on me.
Talking of being in the spotlight, have you ever been tempted to do TV?
There’s been a couple of television companies sniffing around, but it’s all the same old shit – amateurs cooking and you judge them. It’s like, ‘haven’t you made enough of these programmes yet?’ I wouldn’t mind doing something interesting, but I think I’m a bit too old now, I think I missed the boat. Ten years ago I would have been a good choice, but I’m not bothered, that’s cool.
Chef’s Table came here a while ago to do a recce but we haven’t heard anything back from them. I like their stories, they’re a bit more interesting than your average one and I think that’s what Phaidon were drawn to, the story. You might be a really great chef cooking, knocking out three-star, two-star food but if you haven’t got much of a story, what kind of a book are you going to do? And I think that’s the same with Chef’s Table.
This is your first book, will there more?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Actually, that question came up because when I wrote down all the recipes there were nearly 250 and we only had room for 55 in the book, so there is a lot of stuff left over. You can knock out a hundred of them because they’re dated slightly, but there’s still a lot that’s not in there so it’s possible. I don’t know how it works, if they ask me I’d have to think about it but no plans at the moment.