Tuesday, 22 December 2009

‘Cumbersome treats

Whilst the BSG is adventurous with food, I would say that I will try most things once (except brain and heart, there’s something too fundamental about those organs for me). No, there aren’t many food places I wouldn’t go. However, when I was small I would crumple up my face in disgust at the thought of three rather watery and embarrassingly inoffensive foodstuffs: celery, cucumber and melon. They scared the life out of me.

Since childhood, I have grown to first to tolerate and later enjoy the first two, but strangely (with the exception of watermelon) the last still confounds my palate. There are no doubt far stronger and more extreme tastes and ingredients to worry about, but for me melon has a taste that sneaks up behind me, like water from a glass that’s just been through a dishwasher with an eggy plate. Eurgh. All wrong. I am fully aware that this is pretty outrageous as people love melon, so I’m the accepting responsibility as my own failing; my palate is simply not sophisticated enough. You won’t be finding any melon recipes here.

spices close

The cucumbers we know are perhaps not regular visitors to the shopping basket at this time of year when we are searching out darker colours and clunky flavours. Like strawberries, they are linked to a very specific time and place, be they floating in your Pimm’s, sliced in crustless white sandwiches or layered over a poached salmon. Think The Cookery Year, stopping just short of the aspic – brilliantly retro. They scream (or rather: gently insinuate) British summertime. This was very much my train of thought this week as we were drawing and quartering our slender green victims - we spared them the hanging. Ironically I think these are more robust gutless; their flavour becomes more profound.

Being a fan of all things sharp I have always looked for a handy snack solution in cornichons and gherkins, and now we’ve found a recipe that perhaps exceeds even their sweet tangy hit, using the humble English cucumber. There are many nationalities of cucumber (who knew?), which predominantly fall into two categories: the smooth slicing variety and the nubbly pickling variety. The Romans introduced the vines to Europe (the Emperor Tiberius was rather partial to a cucumber a day and ladies used to wear them hanging around their waists for fertility...hope they changed them once in a while.) Just to confuse, this recipe breaks the rule and pickles the slicers.

snozcumbers Our helpless prey, disembowelled and cut into finger-lengths, was pared with a peeler into fairylike translucent ribbons, glistening with moisture, unaware of the imminent parching, salting and smothering in a towel with sweet onions for a day, which doesn’t sound like fun if you’re a cucumber (or the towel). Being over 90% water, so many fruits shrink to so few jarfuls. As we packed them tightly and covered them with spiced vinegar, thoughts turned to the barbequed meats they’ll accompany in 2010. Wishful thinking: I shouldn’t think they’ll make it past January. With these nestling amongst pickled red cabbage and preserved lemons the cupboard is bursting with bright Christmas baubles; our special tree of treats.

The BSG was out one evening and I arranged a rendez-vous with my culinary nemesis: sugar syrup. How something so simple in essence has become a dreaded silvery foe is a mystery – it has a sly habit of waiting until my back is turned and then burning (it never misbehaves for the BSG). On a pipe-dreamy trip through Fortnum & Mason yesterday, I lost myself amongst the turquoise towers of Turkish Delight, Florentines and those thoroughly grown-up-sounding treats: Marrons Glacés. Having seen our guardian angel Hugh F-W demonstrate these on his bumper River Cottage Christmas programme, I felt confident enough to attempt them for our homemade hampers, alongside some very successful chocolate-covered orange peel (yup, the BSG made that).

pickeld cuc 2

Anyway, back to the sugar syrup. Last night it had my full attention. Sugar and water: two basic ingredients for goodness sake! How hard could it be? (Going on that theory, I should have mastered poached eggs many years ago, yet they have only just stopped being an ordeal). The process of peeling the skin and astringent membrane off the freshly-boiled chestnuts was certainly more time-consuming than I’d first envisaged, so there was a bit of juggling between them and the syrup, just to check it was behaving itself. Not relaxing, despite a soundtrack of Classic FM carols to keep away the Scrooge-like thoughts. I very much enjoyed singing through the pain to every carol ever written but, in fact, if I were to repeat the process I’d try ready-cooked and peeled numbers next time, to save my raw thumbs and husk-embedded nails – not a perfect look for Christmas parties.

This morning I wake up to a light dusting of snow on the wall outside and a crisp sugar-frost enrobes the chestnuts drying on the rack. Yip! I am definitely on a sugar high. Now all they need is a twist in greaseproof paper.

marrons glaces Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

One day in Bray

I’ve suffered a major disappointment recently. Completely unexpected and a bit of a shock, I feel let down and knocked for six. After many years of harmony, my trusty sidekick, my secret weapon, the Penfold to my Danger Mouse, the fabulous Panasonic Lumix with Leica lens decided to format its memory card, without any warning. A mid-life crisis, perhaps? Let’s hope it’s just a phase.

It can’t be an act of rebellion - it’s not as if I’d ever mistreated it. On the contrary, my compact, sleek companion has accompanied me on many colourful adventures. Most recently, it was a special guest at the BSG autumn feast at the Hind’s Head in Bray, documenting an afternoon’s merry gorging through British pub favourites expertly composed by Heston Blumenthal’s crack team. It captured the moment of oozing perfection as the first crisp Scotch egg was sliced open to share, billowing peppery steam. (For the more delicate in the group, this bar snack proved the perfect reset button.)

I can’t deny that the picture opportunities on the pre-blowout march had been weak (unless you have a penchant for asphalt and Eddie Stobart). After a couple of wrong turns we found ourselves ambling, not along the meandering Thames, but alongside the screaming M4. Bracing indeed. The Lumix took a great picture of us, dressed for the country, flat-capped and buffeting about in the slipstreams – a masterpiece, though it’ll have to be in your mind’s eye now.

After a delightful trudge round a building site, we spent the next hour looking for a way to cross back over the river to Bray, only to wind up in Maidenhead (where we’d started). Thank goodness for Brunel’s mighty railway bridge, comprising two flat brick arches which were the biggest in the world at time of building. These red vaults are impressive even now, with First Great Western juggernauts roaring across them every few minutes (you might have thought about a footbridge too, Isambard). A good minute was passed as we stood, hollering for the impressive echo (no, there were no children with us…) As we waited for the late crowd (who’d spent considerably longer on the motorway than we had), we decided that it would perhaps be better to consult a walker’s guide next time.*

In the warmth of the pub, the cold air banished, the walk becoming a distant memory and the feelings coming back into our extremities thanks to the aforementioned magic bar snack, we were ushered upstairs to our table under a high, vaulted ceiling. The late autumn sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating the silver and glass – it all felt like a bit of an occasion. The menu comprised a list of British faves; creatures from air, land and sea, seasonal vegetables and traditional accompaniments. How lovely when you’re hungry to order something that you know you’ll love. Potted shrimps in a spiced butter with brown bread and a watercress salad started me off, whisking me momentarily Norfolk-wards. The shell-averse BSG enjoyed slivers of raw Scotch beef dressed with capers and shallots, beautiful to behold but - unfortunately for me no proffered fork this time - gone in a flash.

The blade of beef that followed was rich, earthy and gelatinous, it looked like a steak but fell apart at a nudge. The BSG and several others had the roast whole partridge, with Savoy cabbage, bacon and bread sauce. Hearty fare indeed. Simon tucked into a venison pasty, which was a surprise hit of the day. It arrived on a wooden board with a tiny jug of gravy on the side, sitting humble and looking a bit dry and sorry for itself. But how its appearance deceived! The pastry was somewhere between crumbly and crisp, the meat inside beautifully seasoned and cooked: it was a mouth party. The triple-cooked chips that had been so greatly anticipated did not disappoint the crowd, crisp and golden-skinned giving way to floury potato in a satisfying crunch. As for the sprouts, they were just right; leafy, swathed in butter and all shapes and sizes, as if they’d just been dug up from Mr McGregor’s garden by Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter (but enough about the leaves, lest this blog skates dangerously close to becoming the BSG: Boring Sprout Geek.) Being late November, it was dark and misty outside as we settled our very reasonable bill, wrapped ourselves up once again and spilled rosy-cheeked out into the night, which was yet young.

Lazy Sunday mornings; winter’s outside, London’s swathed in chilly fog and a low, lemony light. Some people might like to relax, perhaps stick their noses out and wander to get some papers. Not the BSG. The morning after the night before (which we’d all made sure had aged in style), he had a plan: to try and replicate the amazing mouthful that had been our Hinds Head’s highlight: the Scotch egg.

Firstly, let me just tell you that in no way is shelling a soft-boiled quail’s egg relaxing. Au contraire - for us both, it was almost a deal-beaker. There must be a technique but for the life of us we don’t know it (though somebody has since told me that the shorter the best before date the easier they are to peel). Thank goodness we’d only decided to do four. After two minutes in boiling water, the speckled numbers were painstakingly rolled and peeled, before being carefully swaddled in pork mince blended with lots of cayenne and ground black pepper. Then for the double coating of flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs (Japanese Panko crumbs are probably the best for high crunch factor but we used the end of an old loaf), and a five minute spell in the freezer to firm up, before a plunge into a pan of hot vegetable oil for 2 minutes or until golden brown and 3 minutes in a hot oven. If this all sounds like a bit of an ordeal but I have to tell you it was absolutely worth it. Crisp on the outside, warm peppery and unctuous within, we were proud to have produced them. We’re taking some on our wintry walk next weekend, to keep everyone warm and accompany the mulled wine (but really to show off).

knole park

* There will be a next time. Just as well really, I’ll take two cameras.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

?

Sorry for the silence, I've been ill.
Worse than that, a sick sort of ill - not ideal for someone so accustomed to eating with abandon. The BSG has been nursing me back to fighting-fit by way of baked potatoes and hot water bottles.
A new post is almost here, as is Christmas. The flat smells of oranges and cloves, trays of mince pies have been seen coming out of the oven: the BSG has been busy.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Home-Style Cabbage…

No! Please keep reading! I am not going to write about cabbage for the second week running, I promise. Well, not entirely about cabbage. First I have to explain how I got here, as I know you’ll be curious.

It was via the Silk Road – sounds exotic doesn’t it? Giant pink skies and stretching horizons?

Not exactly, unless you visit this fine Chinese establishment on Camberwell Church Street one deserted summer’s evening. A combination of tube, train or bus will get you to this Silk Road – I can’t tell you exactly where we were, but I would happily take any means necessary to return, even if it does take almost as long to get to as the ancient Asian trade routes...The restaurant is mercifully difficult to get to, so still feels like a well-kept secret – how the regulars prefer it, I’m sure.

I have to come clean; this was to be an epiphany for me. Chinese food has not always been that high on my list of top eats. Now I realise that that was a bit like me saying that I don’t really like European food, the nation is so vast and the tastes so varied. This simple restaurant, run largely by a very happy family, turns out Xinjiang cuisine, from the west of the country, near, um, (I gave up Geography at GCSE so I’ll stop right there before I embarrass myself).

IMG00054-20091118-2010 This food was completely new to me, hot, fragrant and not a glint of MSG in sight. Moreover - and a first in my not-so-illustrious Chinese eating career- the entire meal was enjoyed and not a single grain of rice passed our lips (the main carbs were in the form of flat homemade noodles, slipped into our Big Plate Chicken at the end). The dumplings we had to start, some filled with lamb and onion, others with pork and celery, were quite the best I have ever tasted anywhere. The flavours that slapped us were big and pure: lots of garlic, chillis and tomatoes. IMG00051-20091118-2003The fiery chillis almost beat me twice – the first time when my poor broth slurping technique caused red flecks of the hot stuff to hit the back of my throat at high speed, prompting much amusement and a timely glass of water from our hosts. (I blame enthusiasm, and over weaning pride preventing me from asking for a spoon. Due to my shortcomings with the chopsticks this I probably ate half the amount I had intended to. A good cutlery solution for Christmas feasting I reckon.)

The second heated moment came when I took the BSG at his word that his dried chilli hadn’t been hot, chomped one between my back molars and consequentially could do nothing – talk, eat, drink – for the next ten minutes. Unfortunately, for these near death-by-capsicum episodes there was no handy glass of milk around...perhaps I should bring my own bottle in future.

IMG00053-20091118-2006

What we ate was plentiful and completely wonderful; shredded pork with black fungus, raw cucumber in a sauce (extraordinary), home-style cabbage with chillis, home-style aubergine, lamb skewers with cumin...and of course the Big Plate Chicken, a hot stew of chicken, chillis and potatoes, for which the aforementioned slurping technique is required, indeed encouraged. I could swear that my stomach stopped me in the street a couple of days later asking me to run straight back there. For all sorts of reasons, my taste buds will not forget the trip for a very long time. We wondered if there’d been a mistake when we were given the bill. For the 6 of us, with a couple of Tsing Tao beers each, it came to £12 each. This was the best and possibly the cheapest feast we have eaten this year, and I can’t wait to go back (after a bit of intensive chopstick practice).

IMG00049-20091118-1945

Silk Road

49 Camberwell Church St
London, SE5 8TR
020 7703 4832

WTHBTVKN6MCH

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Brassicas and birthday cakes

By now I suspect that some close family members will no doubt be wondering how I can have come this far and neglected to mention my love - well obsession really - of cabbages in all shapes and sizes. When I was a child I would have so many extra helpings that whoever was doing the cooking would get in extra, just for me. I always remember Sunday lunches at my grandparents’, granny proudly announcing that she got lots of cabbage in, just for me. Given the dread this foodstuff instils in most children, my family must have thought me a little odd. I could happily occupy the space in my stomach others saved for pudding with mountains of the green stuff, when other children around me would offer me theirs too. I don’t remember there being the adverse side-effects associated with such a habit, any classmates sidling away from me in confined spaces, or siblings running for the hills…at least, I don’t think so.

sprouts water

This addiction has since spread to all green veg; broccoli, spinach, beans, peas, asparagus – in fact, apart from Gossip Girl and SATC reruns, one of my guilty BSG-less pleasures is a bowl of freshly cooked peas, a knob of butter melting into them and a dollop of salad cream…the BSG just about tolerates the presence of a bottle in our fridge…

In eating terms, these leafy delights were probably my first love; though I have discovered many things that I have adored since, it is that intense joy I experienced during these cabbage-laden feasts that remains with me. Happily, and unlike many first loves, I have not endured the lows – apart from the odd school dinner, of course, though the associated self-denial perhaps comes in the revelation that my younger self would not have indulged quite so vigorously had it not been for the ever-present butter or gravy to mop it up with. My adult self is certainly more than capable of taking down a bowl of pure, unadulterated emerald veined Savoy, a mountain of squeaky greens or a plate of tight, firm Brussels sprouts. Just season to taste.

sprouts pan

It is at this time of year that those tiny, compact members of the green family come into their own. The sprout. They are so often murdered in boiling water until soggy and yellow, and that is why so many people avoid them. So I suggest trying them a different way. Last week we cooked them in a shallow pan, with butter and a lid, for five minutes, until lightly caramelised but still acid green and slightly firm. They were great. This week they’re for the wok, to be stir-fried with soy and ginger.

So it is Stir-Up Sunday (thanks OFM), the day when traditionally you start on the Christmas cake, and this morning we were indeed baking. However, the candied fruits didn’t leave the cupboard – it was the BSG’s sister’s birthday – Victoria Sponge time. She is one top baker, so the bar was set at astronomical. Watching the BSG doggedly working at the butter and sugar, creaming them carefully to a paler hue, I realised what I had been doing so wrong all my life. Care and attention to this seemingly simple process makes all the difference. How can a mixture of such mundane ingredients; flour, eggs, sugar and butter speak so profoundly to us? I know a girl who used to follow cake recipes to the complete raw stage, then take the bowl, hide under her bed, and eat the lot. What happens during the baking process still completely astounds me, the magic, the alchemy that makes the humble cake batter transform into such a floaty princess of a thing. It speaks to so many of us and conjures countless food memories. We served ours (worthy of the W.I thanks to the BSG's lightness of touch) with a filling of crème fraiche and apricot jam, with steaming cups of fragrant Earl Grey tea, the weather stripping the last leaves from the trees outside.

cake 2

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Not guilty…

It is so rare that it is not overcast and drizzling whenever I land back in England that I thought it worthy of a mention. Like broken egg-yolk, dawn permeates the morning sky, the grapefruit drop sun filters through the cloudscape in a riot of reds, pinks and purples.

These hues match those of some jaw-stingingly sour sweets we bought two days ago (called something apt like Head Blasters), in a shrine to all things artificially coloured and flavoured: Dylan’s Candy Store, a New York must-see, according to Ari. ‘How sour can they be?’ I thought. Well let me tell you, it was endured rather than enjoyed - the child in me wouldn’t let me spit it out.

Dylan’s is not a place to go if you are feeling in any way fragile, waves of colours and flavours hit you as do immediate thoughts of overdue dentist trips. I wondered how the staff could stand it, listening to candy-themed classics such as ‘Lollipop’ on an interminable loop, and retain their teeth (not to mention their sanity). Don’t read this wrong – it was a marvel: I was 10 again, eyeing up the everlasting gobstoppers and custom-coloured M&Ms. For this riot in glorious technicolour I had been well prepared. Just the day before, we’d spiralled up the smooth white snail-shell of the Guggenheim for the kaleidoscopic Kandinsky exhibition: an altogether different feast for the eyes. The museum stands on the edge of the park, an alien monolith in the towering Upper East Side landscape.

IMG00045-20091110-1622

 

Too often, food that is most immediately obvious is sugar-laden, guilt-rich, and high in fat. Luckily, Dylan’s was a case of reverse psychology for me, otherwise I would still be there chomping my way through it all. Looking at my ‘to eat’ list, a great number of items were laden with healthy dollops of vice, however food-guilt is not something I am troubled by. The hot pastrami bagel (I’m told it is called the Reuben, piled high with mustard, cheese and pickles) tackled one lunchtime was New York in a bite, and I don’t regret a morsel of it. Like everything here, it was big…but I coped, and got some help in.

After reading many internet entries about the city’s perfect burger, I had an inkling that perhaps I was trying too hard – surely none of them were too shabby? An evening at PJ Clarke’s, a red brick tavern style place, a two storey bastion in a forest of glass towers, satisfied my craving. I am not entirely sure that I am all that high-maintenance – just give me a soft bun, some ketchup and a gherkin and I’m happy. However, I must say that this was a satisfying experience all round, the burger was slightly crisp on the outside, smothered in golden melted cheese, with a side of crispy matchstick fries in their obligatory paper. In the Big Apple, the burger is a different creature, unpretentious and easy to eat, and it must be approached accordingly (if it comes in a plastic basket, so much the better).

hamburger

Another night: another world. Dinner at Rouge Tomate was homage to eating healthily and sustainably, concepts that are perhaps less visible behind the hotdogs, pizzas, bagels and other fast foods on offer in this city. We were told proudly but not sanctimoniously that our meal would provide three quarters of our recommended daily nutritional needs – not bad so far. But the trouble with things that are really good for you is that so often they are on their way to disgusting, stopping en route at bland and insipid. Not so here, everything was cooked to bring out the natural flavours of the ingredients, and to prove how delicious the results are, the restaurant had just been bestowed with its first Michelin star. Its laid-back appearance belied this; it was convivial and unstuffy, with lots of natural wood and a long cocktail bar. We were lucky enough to sit in a booth looking out onto the vast dining room; the whole thing felt very Sex and the City.

ceviche

The ceviche of fluke I had to start was exquisite to behold. Sprinkled with micro herbs, kiwi and mango, the petal thin slivers of fish were scattered with popcorn which was fun and gave an interesting textural dimension. It was fresh and fragrant, tangy on the tongue: I felt very virtuous and not at all like I was compromising. The enormous scallops (the two were enough) that followed were perfectly caramelised on the outside and delightfully translucent within, and worked well with stir-fried sprouts and sweet goat’s milk polenta.

scallops

Sprouts get such a bad rap due to people’s hideous childhood memories of being force-fed overcooked balls of yellow mush, but for me they are a lifelong love and I must champion these misunderstood greens. Slicing and stir frying them keeps their important bite and makes them different creatures altogether…especially with little bits of bacon and chestnuts for the impending festive season.

venison

Mariza’s squash soup tasted like Christmas in a bowl and whilst Dad’s gravadlax came second to the exciting apple salad it sat under, the venison he had next packed an extremely tasty and similarly festive punch. We shared a tangy California white wine, recommended by the sommelier who knew her stuff. The combinations were thoughtfully conceived and fresh-tasting, the flavours made complete sense, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, everything tasted like it should at its best, if you know what I mean. Even after a pudding each we did not feel so overwhelmed that we couldn’t squeeze in another cocktail…

As the plane taxied for take-off last night, New York gave me her swan song, one last frisson of what I would miss, leaving the city for another year. An island of lights in a sea of inky darkness, her flashing firework displays providing a mental snapshot to carry with me until we meet again. Next time I will bring the BSG, there’s lots more food exploring to do.

gugg 2

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Chomping my way through the big apple

When the moon drops and the day invades, the New York dawn is electrifying. Jetlag and the city’s heartbeat have steadily rocked me awake, ensuring my front row seat for the sun’s performance as it ascends and illuminates the geometry of this vertical landscape. The ever-present hum is soon joined by a steady note of heavier traffic, punctuated by a percussion of horns and sirens, harmonies and discord building, the orchestra tunes up for the melody of another day…Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I reckon.

nyc dawn

This metropolis doesn’t shut down; transitions between night and day are marked not by stops and starts, but rather by a change in tone. This place is brash, fast, sleepless, beguiling, never more so than during these first waking moments, and right now it feels like it is all mine. From Dad’s apartment on the 29th floor, it is all at my feet (or rather a long way below them – I am told that on rainy days you can be in the clouds up here), a man-made carpet of activity and adventure lying before me.

On the eve of my departure for this city that never sleeps, we thought we’d enter a New York state of mind with some transportative cocktails at 69 Colebrooke Row, a Prohibition-style speakeasy of a cocktail bar, a handy seven-minute walk from my half-packed suitcase. The owner and head alchemist, Tony Conigliaro, has won the title of something like ‘the absolute best bartender in the world…ever’, so says the BSG, so we were in for a treat. We stepped from the chilly night into a low-lit, cosy room, softly resonating with a tinkle of jazz. The whole place felt like a secret. Given seats at the bar, at the mouth of the magician’s cauldron and by far the most exciting place to be, we huddled over the menu, whispering at the possibilities. I had the Death in Venice, an elixir of Campari*, grapefruit bitters and Prosecco – it took me on a dreamy holiday for long after I had finished it. The BSG ordered his usual, an Old Fashioned, which he said was the best he’d ever had. We will go back, again and again, until they can no longer stand the sight of us.

bridge

So here I am, and without my BSG. With regards to spare time, I felt it only appropriate to state my intentions early on; I am a food tourist, eager to take food souvenirs back home. My Dad, Step-mum and stepsister were expecting this and have done some preliminary research…I have 10 days and an appetite. So this week, work dominates, next week, food.

Still, a girl’s gotta eat…

food emporium 

First stop was a food shop, always a good method of immersing oneself in a different eating culture, and this excursion didn’t disappoint. Dad and I squeezed our way through the adoring crowds of marathon supporters (no, we weren’t running, and no, I don’t have a marathon in me, but I think people who do are amazing), intent and devout in our mission. Nestled underneath the arches of the 59th Street Bridge, the patter of running shoes bravely soldiering on twenty feet above us and unheard, we found ourselves in an ivory temple to food, our chosen place of worship this Sunday morning, cavernous and beautiful. This was the Food Emporium, one of a chain of many supermarkets in the city, but I got the distinct impression we were in the smartest (the neighbouring Conran Shop was a clue). These ivory halls celebrated foodstuffs of every variety – this was not a weekly drag round soulless aisles under flickering strip-lights – this was an experience, an event where abundance and choice are key. How many UK shops can boast a whole shelf of peanut butter? This was my kind of spirituality, packaged any way you wanted it.

At Bloomingdales (an early stop, natch), my stepmother and stepsister led me to Forty Carrots, where we indulged (or rather drowned) in the most gigantic cumulus of frozen yoghurt known to man (Ari says it’s the best: it was spectacular, bigger than her face, and would have kept a small village going for a week). We all got brain-freeze, which explains the fit of impulse buying that ensued…

A stateside childhood treasure for me (up there with Archie comics and Reese’s Pieces), is the garish and irresponsibly categorized breakfast cereal they call Froot Loops. There it was, staring at me from the kitchen cupboard, the last box left from a variety pack; I had to try it once more. I must say that although a tiny part of me still loved them, it was to be my final foray into this hyperactive realm of coloured (all natural flavours eh?) breakfast confectionery. Well, perhaps I’ll revisit Apple Jacks just one more time…

froot loops

* When it comes to Campari, I am a bit of a Johnny-come-lately I must admit, the bitter taste was to me reminiscent of pencil-sharpenings. Until recently, that is, when I realised it was for sipping rather than quaffing.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Stockings and service not included

I got an email from the BSG last week, asking if he could borrow a pair of my tights. Mildly alarmed, and more than a little intrigued, I agreed to the whole sordid-sounding affair. I’ve already said I’ll marry him, so I suppose at this stage anything goes…

As it turns out, the BSG is a gentleman, and a quince-essential one at that…

Alright, I am sorry about the terrible attempt at a quince-based pun, but honestly, it is a rare breed who sees a Tuesday night stretching ahead of them and thinks it’s a night for jelly-making (he’d already spent the previous week making industrial amounts of membrillo – delicious, we had the first slivers with some manchego on Sunday) I got back after supper with some girlfriends to find him craning over a furiously bubbling mass, checking his watch and occasionally stirring. The tights (not my favourites), now consigned to the bin, had taken one for the team and been essential of the drip-sieving process. What’s that thing they say about a watched pot? Not applicable to this one, which as it turned out had boiled way past quince jelly into the realms of Wonka’s factory. We now have two jars of jaw-sticking boiled sweet and no idea what to make of them. Consequently, a jam thermometer is high on the BSG’s Christmas list, along with a mandolin and a food processor. I am not sure he can wait until then before trying again, and for the sake of the surviving nylon population in my drawer, I sincerely hope that he’s off to a hardware shop first.

quince and cheese

We had been in a state of high excitement for the duration of the week as, having read fantastic reviews from esteemed bloggers such as gastrogeek and various newspaper critics, we had bagged ourselves a table at the spanking new restaurant of the moment, HIX, on Brewer Street. Being rather smitten with all things Mark Hix following a memorable feast at his operation in Smithfield earlier this year, and loving his book, we’d jumped at the chance to sample another fun-filled gorging session…

Perhaps our expectations were just too high, maybe it was just bad luck, who knows, but it was not the night we’d imagined.

Flanked by tables of complete bankers and other inebriated money-movers, initially we struggled to make ourselves heard. Not a problem, we raised the volume too, we were in high spirits, we were at HIX, and all was right with the world. Still menu-less and in need of a drink after ten minutes, the BSG, understandably, was starting to lose his temper. A very nice man saw the problem (and the ear-emitted steam) and gave us both a drink on the house – the BSG was delighted with his pewter mug of Indian pale ale (add one pewter mug to aforementioned list). The bread that turned up was warm and delicious, straight from the oven, the expert crackling and crab-apple sauce huge fun, and it lifted our souls back off the shiny, sound-repellent floor.

After much deliberation (decisive is not my middle name), I opted for Heaven and Earth, a extraordinary combination of velvety black pudding, permeated with winter spices, sitting on a bed of mashed potato and apple so perfectly matched that lightning must have struck when they were introduced. This simple dish set my mind a-wandering through lines of a Dylan Thomas poem called ‘Fern Hill’, and linocuts by Sybil Andrews of harvests and horse-drawn ploughs. In fact each mouthful was so good that it made me think minutely about every flavour that crossed my tongue: the tastebud-to-cranium mainline was in overdrive. The BSG waxed lyrical over his clean-tasting bunny offal and celeriac, and in turn we accepted proffered forkfuls of each. We had started off with a leap and a bound hand-in-hand through the British countryside. The food sings celestial hymns to the British Isles, employing simple down-to-earth ingredients, each one lovingly and carefully sourced.

The bar was busy, the place thoughtfully decorated, there was a party atmosphere throughout – it just felt like we weren’t on the list. The rest of the meal was good, but could not compensate for another interminable wait, this time over plates of empty marrowbone and a red gurnard skeleton. Unwittingly, we had entered a service void - like stars around a black hole the waiters orbited our table, unaware of our existence. From our vacuum we watched helplessly as these stars were sucked into the vortex of paunches and suits, tending to their every want as they became increasingly boisterous.

Having already spent most of the meal waiting, we had neither the time nor the inclination to opt for a pudding, regrettably. That it smarted to pay service on the bill is an understatement, and we left disappointed and a bit frustrated. A one-off hopefully, and not a sign that this shiny place will forever be condemned to sponge up the after-effects of corporate brainstorming sessions in the nearby pubs. Nevertheless, we’ll be sticking to the Smithfield branch.

However, with a friend’s dinner at Roussillon on the horizon, we weren’t to be down in the mouth for long.

Next time.

Ps: the BSG’s just walked in with a brand new jam thermometer…

IMG00029-20091029-0821

Egg in a cup.

(for Dave who is running around like a headless chicken setting up his show)

I am sure that every family has a hybridised recipe using these exact same ingredients, but this is ours, and it comes from my Granny Scraggs*. She and my mum have made it a signature dish in our family, ensuring that it will run through generations to come.

When we were small, this was what we ate for tea most often, when the four of us had been out playing too late or were overtired and not up for much else. Nevertheless, it always elicited squeals of excitement, usually preceded by a race down to Gran’s henhouse to collect the star ingredients.

Did everyone have those enormous china tea cups at the back of the kitchen cupboard, that no-one ever seemed to drink tea out of? Well, as far as we were concerned, they had this one extremely important purpose. Even now, using a substitute, a bowl, feels like cheating…

I have altered the volumes, for grown-ups (and I suppose the more responsible adults might want to use brown bread, which works too). It all depends on your appetite.

For a very quick and easy supper, you need

2 eggs
2 slices of soft white bread
Lightly salted butter, out of the fridge for a bit
Salt and pepper

Put the eggs in a pan of boiling water and cook for four and a half minutes or so. Meanwhile, butter your bread - if it tears, then all the better - fold in half and rip apart into chunks, about bite-sized. Place the bread in a wide cup (a bowl is more practical I suppose, but far less fun), then once the eggs are ready, take their lids off and scoop out the soft-boiled egg with a teaspoon, into the cup. Mash up all together with a fork, adding salt and pepper to taste.

You get lots of different bites in this cup, some yolky, some buttery. I would have thought that you could add Marmite, Tabasco, bits of cooked bacon, to your liking, but it is wonderful as it is – an enormous hug – in a cup.



* so-named after the place she lives rather than her lovely Christian name (I am responsible), and who makes the best fish pie in the world.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Picture this if you will

Typos: the bane of many office emails but sometimes rather useful. On Friday, the BSG emailed to say that he was off to Bodean’s (I hasten to add that this was not of his choosing), but that he wasn’t even remotely hungary.

At the very same moment in an office across London I was in fact ravenous, so this random error led me to a favourite Hungarian food-daydream, goulash, and the extraordinary version that Jamie Oliver does using a pork shoulder, cooked slowly in a lidded pot with a mountain of sliced peppers and paprika until it falls apart at a mere glance. Clouds of fluffy rice and sour cream are all this needs to complete it, and if you are feeding many, it is relatively cheap. I am sure that the recipe wouldn’t be hard to find on the internet and it is well worth looking.

Having met our very pregnant but completely relaxed friend for a convincing – yet thankfully not labour-inducing - curry at the brilliant Mirch Masala in Tooting last week, thoughts are turning to core-warming foods. Indeed, central heating is essential at this time of year, when the temperature can plummet or rise sharply in a matter of hours. And I don’t mean the skin-desiccating, global warming stuff – though that can be rather helpful too – I mean these kinds of soul-filling, oven-and-pot-cooked dishes that lead you away from the watery crunch of summer salads and into the deep stew-ladle of winter.

Arriving in Norfolk on Friday and faced with a cold, dark house, the only thing for it was a warm fix, pure and simple – spaghetti and meatballs. A blend of minced beef and pork (the insides of good sausages, we were in a hurry), they were squished in our hands and rolled together with some thyme, browned off in a pan and added to some chopped tomatoes, port and garlic, before we even took our coats off. Left to stew for about an hour their brownness seeped into the tomato sauce, reducing it to a wonderfully jammy consistency, into which we mixed our cooked linguine and feasted, each mouthful inching up the internal thermostat.

Trout, usually a fish I associate with summer, was the cameo in our yellow-curry-laksa-type-thing last week, and we were surprised that this sweet delicate flesh stood up amongst all the spices and ginger – we’ll definitely repeating that recipe, over thread-thin rice noodles.

They are a stalwart of the store-cupboard, unlimited by the seasons, but in our house puy lentils don’t really come out in the summer months – I can’t imagine why, these nutty green pulses are completely wonderful. With them, the BSG made us a great supper; they were boiled, tossed immediately with chopped roasted peppers, paper-thin sliced red onions, and cherry tomatoes. These were dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and parsley, and topped with pan fried mackerel fillets, though you could easily use cold tinned/jarred fillets and stir them through the warmth. It is a perfect one-dish supper full of vibrant colours and fresh salt-sweet flavours; there was plenty so we discussed taking some for lunch the next day. Unfortunately we chomped the lot in one sitting. I defy you not to.

This week I find myself without my camera, my trusty sidekick, so words without pictures will have to do. Tell me this: would Postman Pat ever leave Jess behind on Mrs Goggins’ Post Office counter? No. (I’m not sure he’d go on strike either, but that’s for another blog…) For this careless act, I am rather ashamed.

However, I blame a triumph of taste over all other senses, as usual.

You know that it’s autumn when weekend lunches with friends get later, flirting with the dusk, and the red wine is already open when you arrive and unwrap yourselves. Our host on Sunday had warned us that, as there was an imminent inspection at her school this week, we weren’t to expect too much. Knowing Anna as we do, we didn’t believe her – as a cook and general host (and teacher I don’t doubt) she is of the most generous and caring variety, every bit of the feast she laid on for us smacked of this kindness, from the beautifully constructed canapés of toasted bruschetta topped with variations of avocado, bacon, goats cheese, tomatoes and peppers, the delicious roasted chickens surrounded by salads of every kind, through to the cakes warm from the oven; banana and walnut, drizzled with chocolate, and a crisp-edged apple cake, unbelievable. Unable to choose between accompaniments, I have to confess that my end of the table might have had custard (Bird’s, naturally,) cream AND Ben & Jerry’s with ours. In a nutshell, Anna lovingly fed and wined us into blissful submission, the day disappeared, and my camera was forgotten (yes, forgotten) in the postprandial haze.

No matter I suppose, meatballs, albeit delicious ones, aren’t very photogenic…

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Moveable Feast

We had sped across the flat countryside, the black throat of the tunnel fast receding, the drizzle we smugly thought we’d left at home catching up with us. As G had put it, this part of Northern France, arguably good for tank warfare, was perhaps less successful in terms of window-gazing. No matter, our minds were already feet-up, drinking and watching the world in a Paris bar. Somewhat prematurely, I had sung the praises of the new high-speed rail link to the BSG, telling him how astounded he’d be at the shorter journey. However, two coffees, a KitKat and several murderous glances at the chatterbox across the aisle later, after almost an hour’s delay, we were stopped a matter of 100 befuddling metres from our platform. Needless to say, we were parched.

The Paris we arrived in was humid and grey, the closeness of the impending storm mirroring our excitement at the weekend ahead. We were here for the wedding of a very elegant and sophisticated friend of ours, so of course I had vastly over-packed with outfits for every eventuality. Luckily, we were staying in Rosie’s sister Kate’s beautiful apartment only a stones’ throw from the Gare du Nord, and it was high time for an aperitif, so we got to her local bar and ordered some drinks, just in time to miss the opening of the heavens. Kate wasn’t so lucky, but still managed to turn up for her pre-ordered Viognier looking the kind of rainswept chic only a Paris-dweller can carry off.Then on to supper at Chez l’Ami Jean, a bastion of Basque cuisine in the heart of the 7th arrondissement. Sparkly new sister-in-law Rosie had told of the wonders produced within, so we were excited (un grand understatement) at the prospect. Charging through the downpour from taxi to door we were met by a flood of welcoming light and noise, kissed by the maître’d, and presented with boards invisible under delicate petals of saucisson sec and chorizo – now that’s what I call a welcome. There was only one thing for it: a generous glass of buttery champagne to kick off the weekend.

soup

Furnished with these goodies, it was an absolute pleasure to wait at the tiny wooden bar, the place was rammed but nonetheless ran with clockwork precision. From the tiny and fully exposed kitchen, surrounded by copper pans of all shapes and sizes (not a microwave in sight), the chef Stephane Jego skipped about in his headband, quick on his toes like a prize fighter, insisting upon and attaining perfection in every dish that left the kitchen. There were some re-calls and reprimands for dishes that had eluded his eagle eye, and boy, did you hear them – the temper was as fiery as the busy stovetops.

pate 1

The menu read like an inventory of the autumn countryside: game birds of every kind, chestnuts, mushrooms, root vegetables, and beautiful creatures plucked from the sea. Keen to try as much as possible, the seven of us opted for the tasting menu, a palette predominantly of burnt siennas and umbers, punctuated with the odd shot of electric green, not in leafy vegetal form (you don’t see many of those on Paris plates), but in the surprising yet hugely flavoursome granny smith sorbet served with our hare stew. A lifelong Marmite lover, I was in heaven, the stocks employed were rich and intense reductions, the jelly lacing my delicate pork and foie gras terrine the essence of the purest mushroom, the soup we started with transported me straight to the forest floor. Like a contented truffle pig foraging amongst the leaf-litter, I am sure my nose didn’t come out of the bowl, though I would like to hope I lent a touch more elegance to the process…

hare stew

The atmosphere in this tiny buzzing place was one of camaraderie, everyone eager to see what others had chosen, and to hear it being vociferously enjoyed. It was the perfect place for a group of friends to be, just like having supper at a friend’s house, the eponymous Jean, for example. The pudding was in fact a trio of puddings, which followed the cheese course; yup - there was cheese too. This was Act 5, the denouement , and we weren’t sure we had anything left to give. That changed, however, when we tried the riz au lait. Yes, the minty chocolate thing and the pear tatin were all very well (read absolutely delicious), but there was something about this rice pudding that made you want to eat it for the rest of your life, even though you were already full. The rice was plump and silky, enrobed in unctuous cream swirled with constellations of tiny vanilla seeds. It was so enticing that I took one look at the wooden serving spoon and wondered if anyone would mind if I used that instead of my rather mean-looking spoon. As we all fell silent at this miraculous finale of cream and rice, our French friends on the table behind became more and more animated, excited at the prospect that we rosbifs were sharing in their adulation of this humble-sounding yet utterly celestial pudding. I will be back for many reasons, but mostly to taste this again. Joyous.

The following morning, after a breakfast (what fast, exactly?) of boiled eggs fresh from a farm in Emmanuel’s parents’ village, with copious amounts of torn baguette and yellow Normandy butter (ok, a bit of pain au chocolat too – this was France), we headed out for an amble up the hill towards Montmartre, to breathe in a bit of this wonderful city. It seemed that everyone was out, it was the most beautiful shimmering October day, the leaves on the chestnut trees had burned bronze but not yet dropped. I found myself wishing that we had an extra day to wander. But it’s Paris; we’ll be back.

The wedding was perfect, and the beautiful bride, being a foodie herself, had made sure that we were fed and watered to the highest standard. She was exposed as a fellow bedtime-cookbook-reader by her new husband. “At least we know that there are other food nerds around”, the BSG had delightedly whispered. There are some things that you remember being good, and there are others so good that you remember the taste of them. The canapés played out like French hits; tiny tartes à l’oignon and croque-monsieurs amongst the favourites we munched on at the reception between sips of champagne, the top of the Eiffel Tower twinkling above the trees. For the main course, fillet of beef, flawlessly cooked, yielding like warm butter under the slightest touch of the knife – tremendous. The BSG is still talking about the late-night cheese board, adamant that we will go some way to a reverent nod at it for our wedding next May….on a vraiment jeté le gant.

 

Ps: We dined at the old Arsenal Stadium on Thursday – a shrine for the BSG and many other nutcases devoted to the game of two halves, now converted into some very sleek flats. It was really rather impressive, but the Spanish-themed banquet that awaited us eclipsed even this wrapping; a lovingly made tortilla with asparagus, padron peppers (I got 3 hot ones in a row – a tastebud-searing record,) chorizo and manchego were just a few of the wonders on offer. I think it’s got to be Barcelona next for the BSG….

Sunday, 11 October 2009

‘s Gone

Hmmm. They’ve put the Christmas lights up on Oxford Street. I know it’s because retailers want to get cracking with their festive trade and good luck to them, but the arrival of these lights heralds the willing away of such a great season, and the start of the ‘Christmas Rush’. Do we have to rush it? It seems that as soon as summer is behind us, it must be time to count down to Christmas, which is faintly ridiculous as surely the autumn gives us more satisfactorily seasonal weather than both.

So, in retort, here is a metaphorical kick in the baubles (not in a Scrooge-like manner, you understand - I love Christmas): a recipe for the scones the BSG and I made on a whim last Sunday. I in no way associate them with December, but rather the summer and the autumn, when jams really come into their own, and a time of day that we are often too busy rushing around to consider.

Makes 6 scones

225g self raising flour

½ teaspoon salt

55g butter

¼ pint milk

1 beaten egg or some milk (to brush on as a glaze)

Preheat the oven to 220°C and flour a baking sheet.

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, and then using the tips of your fingers, very lightly but swiftly rub in the butter until the mixture is like breadcrumbs. Make a crater in this, and pour in the milk, mixing to soft dough, this time with a knife.

Shape the dough out onto the baking sheet, so that it is smooth, then either roll or press to about an inch thick and cut into round using a cutter or, even easier to hand, an upturned glass from the cupboard, and lay them our on the baking sheet.

Glaze depending on how you like your scone – egg for golden glossy crust, or milk for a lighter, softer one.

Bake in the top of the oven for about 7 minutes, until they have gone golden and risen.

You can leave them to cool but good luck with the wait: they are irresistible warm.

Ps: According to the BSG, the most important part is the lightness in the fingertips, you then get a satisfactory golden cloud of crumbly scone on which you can slather your favourite jam (and perhaps some cream…)

P1050417

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Food fast!

The BSG’s favourite place to indulge after we have, erm, indulged in a little too much wine of an evening (it has been known…) is a magical and very reasonable place on Upper Street called Tortilla. It does a quarterback of a burrito, with a choice of pulled slow-cooked pork, chicken, beef or veggies, different rices, glossy black beans, salsas and guacamole, not to mention the various dairy hits; sour cream, cheese…. Wow.

Everything is heaped onto a deceptively flimsy-looking flour tortilla, then neatly but firmly rolled (I don’t know where these people train, but they are pros) into a bundle of pure joy. With all the food groups literally rolled into one, we skip (run) the four minutes home, unwrap the foil and special paper, (which for some reason makes it even more delightful), and inhale it. It is a great treat, inevitably eaten too fast every time, and there are two branches in London, which has come over all Mexican of late. I suppose that this is more California-Mex, but it’s worth a try all the same.

The only problem with Tortilla is that it closes at 11pm – how very wise of them, keeping the rabble out - so when we missed it the other night, the BSG alarmingly close to tears, there was one solution: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio.

It is called aliolio in our house as there is usually no time to waste, and this is the quickest homemade fix imaginable (and far less expensive than the kebab you’ll find trailing up to your front door in the morning). This was just one of the joys that the Captain - a real-life aviator - brought into our lives while he was living with us. Apart from a good braai - he’s South African, they win at barbeques - other fine lessons he taught us include; what the many peculiar noises in planes are (I hated flying before), not to be scared of biltong, and that men can be chocoholics too. This recipe is brilliant for when you come home and there is nothing in the fridge. All you need is a clove of garlic, some chilli, dried or fresh, some olive oil and some spaghetti. We put chopped parsley in it too for a nod to greenery, and some grated parmesan at the end. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, leaving it to slick in a bit of its cooking water, whilst in a pan you heat up the chopped garlic and chilli in the olive oil to break out the flavours. Then throw in the pasta and parsley, mix up and serve. The flavours are intense – so perhaps not one for a romantic first date.

“So is that how you spell it then?” the BSG asked me, scratching his head as we gazed up at the white plastic fascia. I must admit, I thought I was on the verge of one of those epiphanies of long-held ignorance, like the flush one feels at discovering that after many years you have been singing the wrong words to a favourite pop song. Surely not, I had seen it spelt otherwise, pretty much everywhere else. B-A-G-E-L. Not here, here on Brick Lane it is beigel, and apparently has been since they started selling them in the vicinity in the mid 19th century. Cool.

bagels

We had shuffled along the bricks on the idle tide of Sunday strollers, weaving our way past stalls selling some lovely things, juxtaposed with the latest stolen bikes, and what looked to be the contents of peoples’ houses. 24 Hour Beigel Bake does not look like much from the outside, but if queues are anything to go by, this was going to be as memorable as the BSG had told me it would. Don’t be daunted by the snake of people out of the door (and round the shop), it moves fast; the uber-efficient team make sure that the orders fly out. While we waited, we watched men carry slatted wooden trays of the doughy rings to and fro between boiler and oven in the busy back room. You can buy them plain to take home, with smoked salmon and cream cheese, tuna, salt-beef and other fillings. Before we knew it we were back out and blinking in the bright sunshine, paper parcels in hand. Packed with warm slabs of salt beef, gargantuan crunchy gherkins and the must-have slick of mustard these beigels made a delicious lunch on the go. They were wonderfully dense, chewy from their boiling, a little crisp on the outside from their baking – the gnashers really had to work. The glutton in me was screaming out for a second.

salt beef bagel

Off we trotted happily for a velvety coffee in a small yard off Columbia Road, surrounded by lovely materials and antiques, all at peace with the world. Little prepared were we for the tragic scene that was about to unfold. A contented tourist (and shouldn’t we be encouraging them to come back time and time again?), eager for his late breakfast after a busy morning negotiating the flower stalls had ordered scrambled eggs on toast, a fantastic choice I hear you say, high in soul-filling protein. SCRAMBLED EGGS – a choice of champions. Some mornings they sing with yellow joy atop crunchy buttered toast, others you know that, like a good friend, a good dollop of these will see you through until lunch at least…

Stop right there: this was something very different. A dry insipid mass, overcooked, pale alien-green – the pain in the man’s expression was palpable as he attempted to keep it down. I am not sure what those eggs had been through to get to the plate, but the ‘chef’ could have done with the same treatment. Collectively we gaped in horror as he soldiered on, having rashly refused both ketchup and brown sauce, which would no doubt have aided him in his ordeal. We left, so I never did see if he made it to the other side, but I should think that he took a taxi straight to the nearest airport.

back room bagels

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Something warm, for a rainy day

Last weekend, in the late golden September sunlight, we kicked off the hot autumn pudding season with a fragrant, fruity crumble, made by my brother Har, and of course, the BSG.

Here's the recipe...

This can be pretty much any fruit you like, (and quantities really depend on what crumble to fruit ratio you prefer.)

Makes enough for 6

8 good-sized plums, purple, red or yellow
4 large cooking apples
2 tablespoons of water
Caster sugar, a couple of good shakes from the bag

For the topping:
200g plain flour, or mix half and half porridge oats
100g cold butter, cubed
125g demerara sugar
Ground cinnamon

Wash the fruit, stone and quarter the plums, peel core and chop the apples. Put them in a heavy based pan sprinkled with the water and sugar to start them off, only for a few minutes (you can even put a star anise or two in with the fruit to spice it up a bit; it works well with plums, and cardamom pods suit rhubarb very well). Put the fruit in a buttered oven-proof dish.
In a food processor blend oats/flour, butter and sugar, until you have something the texture of builder’s sand – but taste it! If you like, sprinkle in some cinnamon and blend again. Then spread evenly over the fruit, don’t pat it down, and put in the oven at 180C for 35 minutes or so, until light brown on the top and bubbling at the edges.

Serve with crème fraiche, ice cream, yoghurt, custard: whatever’s your favourite.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A time to gather

I know this blog primarily centres on taste but, in terms of memories and associations, smells are equally evocative, if not more so. How appropriate that wood smoke, a breath of it lacing the evening mist as we arrived in Norfolk on Friday, is for me a comforting scent of home. It transports me to countless afternoons spent clearing (ragging about in) woods as children, building huge bonfires with Dad and Grandpa and watching them crackle. Then if we were very lucky we’d wave a marshmallow on a stick at the embers until the doughy white skin blistered brown and started to ooze. This was usually the stage at which we lost them to the fire, making the eating all the more pleasurable.

Despite recent Indian Summer-like days, those damp mushroomy notes of autumn have returned to the countryside; the perfect accompaniment to the spike of smoke, pricking our nostrils and calling to our olfactory gear just as the springtime called Mr. Mole out of his burrow in The Wind in the Willows. It makes you want to wrap up and get outside for walks, to light the fire and be cosy. On Friday we ate at our warm and welcoming local pub, The Dabbling Duck, which was celebrating British Food Fortnight with some very British dishes, steak and kidney puddings and crumble with custard among them. The BSG’s Lancashire Hotpot didn’t touch the sides. I plumped for fish in a golden batter, with enormous chips and minted mushy peas – it was Friday after all!

P1050361

Each season brings its own welcome scents; one of the roses in the garden smells so sweet, like the most delicate cup of tea imaginable, its petal-packed heads flower twice a year. At the height of summer, the swathes of lavender under the windows exude a heady fragrance, as they heave with bees (which incidentally have a very keen sense of smell – honeybees have been trained to detect landmines), clamouring for their hit, and as the heads are warmed by the sun, by the evening it is intoxicating. However there is a power to autumn’s earthy aromas, when evidence of nature’s industry is in such abundance, and something deeper, winter, waits beneath the surface. The hedgerows heave with berries, fruits and seedpods, furnishing their occupants with storable riches before they close down for the year.

Thoughts drift to mushroom-hunting excursions amongst the leaf litter - until you realise that Nature being Nature doesn’t make any one thing that looks like the photo in the fungi book, but rather several of them. Which is it; the ‘slow agonising death on ingestion’ one or the ‘very nice with toast’? The ensuing 45 minutes is spent flicking though the book several times to make absolutely sure, then abandon the mission in favour of the more hazardous in appearance but far lower fatal-seizure-risk chestnut (nut allergy sufferers excepted). As I write this I am lunching on a velvety mushroom soup: I am sure that the very nice person who picked these enjoys the fact that their patch isn’t full of idiots keeling over every half hour, so I’d say its definitely something best left to people who know, save perhaps a couple of flat field mushrooms from a damp pasture – and you know what they grow out of…

red cabbage

Feeling guilty at the drifts of apples littering the garden, uneaten and neglected, the BSG and I decided to bring them back and make them into a chutney or 20. And we didn’t stop there – at his Mum’s house we took pity on some unripe green peaches and he ploughed through the cookery books until he found a pickle to include them. Our kitchen has become a job-centre for unemployed fruit. Thank goodness we take in homeless jars, too. While we were at it, why not pickle some red cabbage too? Speaking of smells, the eye-watering sting of malt vinegar is not something I miss once it’s gone…

chutney raw

I am not averse to the odd present, and when the BSG returned from a recent work trip he gave me a pot of gold. Wow. A proper giant’s jar of French moutarde, in a rustic-looking (read more expensive) ceramic pot - which I’ll hang on to for storing salt - it has a very pleasing sulphur colour and a sharp tang. Even luckier for me then, that the BSG served up a perfect rare steak, served on sliced beetroot slicked in horseradish and a crisp green salad to celebrate its first outing. I hear you say that horseradish AND mustard is a belt and braces approach to a steak, but I couldn’t resist.

steak mustard salad

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Where's the culinary alchemy?

You may have noticed that the BSG has not been featured much lately, he has been too busy riding tandem bicycles, getting hit by booms on sailing boats and visiting physios as a result. I have asked him to stop shouting at Masterchef: The Professionals on the telly, to put down Nigel Slater's new book and to get back into the kitchen.
He is enjoying (if that is the right word) the copper pan I bought him at an antiques fair - something to do with good heat? Simple pleasures I suppose.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Pork you pine for

paper

The other day, whilst minding my own business, I stumbled across this bombshell, and chose to take it entirely out of context. It was, after all, a headline on a discarded newspaper lying on the pavement, between a grubby chewing-gum mark and a cigarette butt: obviously whoever else had read this didn’t believe it either and had chucked the offending article away in disgust, without even waiting for a bin to come into view. I am pretty sure that in the unwritten rulebook of autumn, Sunday lunches are near the top. The one that we had at Tam’s house in Suffolk was a case in point.

Dare I say it, we had all slightly overdone the Moscow Mules (not to mention the wine and champagne) the night before, and her herb-rubbed shoulder of lamb, roasted directly on the Aga rack, its juices dripping over silky boulangère potatoes, was the edible equivalent of an almighty hangover-busting hug. To follow, a couple of dark plums plucked straight from the tree, some squares of dark chocolate and some velvety coffee took the Sunday blues far away, for a little while at least.

taters 2

But where am I?

This was Suffolk, where it’s all about pigs and apples.

What luck to find, having cycled through the leafy tunnels to the local farm shop, that Saturday was Apple Day; cooked, pressed, toffee-d, brewed, these versatile and seemingly uncomplex fruits were presented and celebrated every which way. This chance to peruse was welcome as the day had started unseasonably warm. Each variety displayed differences in the look of its skin, perhaps due to how much the sun had touched it, which branch it had been on or leaf it had resided under: from emeralds to neon-greens, russets to coral pinks; sweet, tart, pink-fleshed, smooth or nobbly, these were all there for the tasting. The crisp acidity of the Lord Lambourne made it my favourite on the day, but I suspect that, rather like wine, it depends upon your mood and what you are going to accompany it with, if anything at all, that is.

apples crates (3)

So here it is: the pig section. And greedily on Saturday I had it twice. Lunch at the pub after a good morning’s activities had to be pub-like, if you know what I mean. So I opted for a ham sandwich with crisps and a salad, (well, an onion and tomato wedge, on the side). Boring? Not at all – for this wasn’t something you would apply the word ‘wafer’ or ‘value’ to, or perhaps even the word ‘slice’. Every uneven hunk looked like it had been shaved off with a chainsaw, dwarfing the bread that was trying desperately to contain it – the kind of meat worthy to be included in a ploughman’s lunch. Salty pink and delicious, I am afraid it had to be adulterated with the obligatory smudge of hot yellow English mustard.

This was a simple example of the sheer gloriousness of British fare which surrounds us throughout the year, and it is British Food Fortnight now until the 4th October so we must celebrate it now!

The second porcine delight of the day was slow braised pork belly, taken from that sweary Ramsay man’s book Secrets, and it has prompted me to do more cooking from books. I would probably get into all sorts of trouble for reproducing it word for word here, so go and track down the recipe - this is the kind of dish you cook for someone who will then instantly fall in love with you. After cooking for a few hours in a mixture of soy sauce, sherry vinegar, stock and aromatics the meat only needed to be looked at to fall apart in a melting, treacly mass, atop a pillow of the creamiest mash you can imagine (the BSG’s heart soared at the discovery of a potato-ricer in the house). Alongside these glistened leaves of squeaky forest green chard, its rhubarb-hued veins a sharp contrast, its iron taste a welcome palate cleanser between shovelfuls.

Completely sublime are two words that fall embarrassingly short of doing this dish justice. I took no photos of it – there was no time to waste – but suffice it to say we all fell just a little bit in love with Tam on the spot.

Oh, and we (notably the BSG) couldn’t let perfectly good crackling go uncrackled…

crackling

Thursday, 17 September 2009

No one puts Baby in a corner*

A little bird told me recently that, though indeniably delectable and certainly pleasurable, there is no nutritional benefit to sweet corn. Whilst I am not absolutely religious when it comes to healthy eating (in fact I am very much a believer in the ‘little bit of what you fancy does you good’ mantra) this made me feel a little bit sad about it. Surely something so redolent of sunlight and basic wholesomeness had something going for it? It is a vegetable, weren’t they all supposed to be good for us?

So, I decided to do some research on behalf of this long-loved hunk; I felt I owed it. My favourite food as a child, it was always reliable, slathered in butter, great fun, even when in haste you burned your mouth to get to it. When we were small, Mum and Dad would offer the luxury ‘on or off the cob’ service, dependant on our moods, or how many milk teeth were loose at time of eating (between the four of us kids, a few came out this way).

P1050271

The BSG and I have had a hankering for the husks recently, so I was absolutely delighted to find that they provide good amounts of vitamins A, B3 and C, fibre and folic acid, though as the name suggests there’s a fair amount of sweet starch too. We will keep crunching, guilt free. Purists may say that melted butter is the only way to have corn, but my favourite is how they served maïs on the street in Chiapas in Mexico – boiled, slathered with a slick of mayonnaise, powdered with red cayenne pepper and some lime juice squeezed over. Extraordinary. Their season is right now so go and get them!

Saturday dawned powdery blue and bright, and the BSG and I had the perfect day. London was in a good mood, full again after the holidays and at its bustly best. A trot around Borough Market slapped our senses awake, followed by a walk along the river and turn around Tate Modern, before lunch at our favourite tapas place, Barrafina in Soho. There was a short queue so, to pass the time, we opted for a Cruzcampo, a welcome quencher and in a frozen glass no less, and some emerald pimientos de padron, charred and sprinkled with generous flakes of salt. Of these, one in every ten or so is a hot one – has queuing ever been so much fun? Don’t be deterred, the wait never lasts long, or, in this case, long enough.

P1050282

Our friend and fellow food adventurer G joined us for lunch. If skiing were eating, he is far more of an ‘off-piste’ person than I am. Perhaps it has something to do with having resided in Japan; he and the BSG encourage one another. This time, however, we stuck mostly to the piste (there was some octopus), with gloriously oozy ham and cheese croquetas, pan con tomate, chorizo and watercress, and an utter mouth party; morcilla, a blood sausage, with piquillo peppers topped with a quail’s egg. You couldn’t eat a lot of these, but this size they are hugely memorable. We lucked out with an outside table, but sitting inside at the bar you can see how beautifully these simple dishes come together in the kitchen, each chef knowing their own role…they even have one devoted entirely to the tortillas, done in tiny pans, little wonder then that they are so delicious.

The lazy late afternoon was passed in the lovely Albion pub in Islington, followed by the pizza competition to end them all. We bought our (yes a bit white and ugly) bread machine last year amidst much doubt that it’d get used – not only does it churn out delicious crusty loaves on a regular basis, but it makes the springiest pizza dough you could wish for. I am not knocking the many fine pizza establishments in this city, but to my mind nothing beats a homemade one….I don’t think we have been out for a pizza since.

Three days on from the sun and it feels like a different season altogether; there is a chill in the air and today the sky is slate grey, the rain coming down in rods. Last night the BSG knocked up the first autumnal supper, a risotto made with bacon and radicchio finished with parmesan and sage, the result was pink and beautiful like a leafy woodland floor. Possibly the best risotto I have ever had…

P1050284

Watching him with a glass of wine in one hand as he stirred away, had we known then the sad news that the legendary Keith Floyd was gone I would have insisted that the BSG cook it out on the balcony in a high wind and a bow tie. My photography skills don’t yet run to risottos, so I will have to practice in order to do them justice. “A loving close-up on this please, Clive…”

(*A tenuous title perhaps with regards to corn, but it is a very sad day and Patrick Swayze’s death cannot go without a mention: it is hard to get him into a food blog. I’m off to watch Dirty Dancing…)

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Devon knows…

Last weekend it was off to the edge of Dartmoor with some girlfriends, to a little white house with primrose yellow windows and a red tin roof, tucked between green water meadows at the end of a steep-sided river valley…no, this is not a children’s story. My maternal grandparents bought this as a holiday cottage in the 1970’s, and the minimum has been done since to improve it - much to the benefit of its character (the second loo is outside and looks exclusively onto the river).

You can rent it!

And joy of joys, what treasures awaited us in the garden! There were apple trees laden with rosy fruits which had not yet surrendered to the insects, jewel-fleshed figs growing on the front of the house, even raspberry bushes at the foot of the mossy garden wall, not to mention the blackberries peeping from every hedgerow – perfect porridge toppers. A rise at dawn on Saturday was trout-less (we hooked a lot of trees), but Caz and I kept away the chill with mugs of tea, marvelling at the dew-drenched surroundings glittering in glorious golden sunlight - gone by lunchtime. Was it worth it? You bet, especially if you ask the trout, they are probably still laughing. We’ll be back…

P1050216

There were some unforgettable Devon capers too. Ok, so maybe they aren’t exactly from Devon, but I bought them in Newton Abbot if that counts… These being a rather decadent item to buy in for a two-day stay (though an essential BSG store-cupboard staple,) I had to make sure these piquant buds were put to good use. Flavour-wise, they pack a punch way above their tiny weight. Any excuse for a salsa verde and I jump, so we had this with barbequed chicken thighs. I chopped the aforementioned capers, handfuls of flat leafed parsley and mint, added lemon juice, an addict’s dollop of Dijon mustard plus some coarse sea salt to make up for the fact that I’d forgotten to buy anchovies. Drenched in a convincing slug of green olive oil, we were ready to go. This goes with pretty much anything, especially as so many combinations of leafy herbs will do. I am so mad about this tangy hit, just give me a spoon and I’m off.

Whilst we’re on the subject – and only half a jar down - our small green friends are also the magic ingredient in a homemade burger. Into minced beef went a generous handful, chopped, with a finely diced red onion, mustard, one beaten egg, cumin, Worcestershire sauce, and a couple of cracks of salt and pepper, shortly followed by two hands, the best mixing tools for burgers. Pure and unadulterated, homemade burgers are a hug of a food in themselves, but a torn-off piece of mozzarella packed into the middle of the patty melts as the burger cooks for an oozy extra. The next question is: ketchup, mustard, mayo, salsa verde..?

With them we crunched on corn on the cob, sweet and starchy, boiled first and then lightly charred over the coals, getting it all over our chins and stuck between our teeth, thank goodness for kitchen roll! Then for the last act, a masterpiece of a crumble, using fruit from the garden and hedgerow (plus a few bugs for interest) and topped with porridge oats and raisins carefully picked from the Dorset cereals packet. Such sustainable enterprise, truly worthy of the likes of Mr. Fearnley Whittingstall, the fruit was even washed in the river! Hot pink, hot hot pud, Becca!

P1050198

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Keeping the wolf from the door

Almost as soon as I had yelped yes in reply to the BSG’s proposal, I had chosen my bridesmaids. They are, as Tina would sing, Simply the Best, and to demonstrate how much I love them I had to take them to a suitable restaurant for our first group session – the first of many I hope. Very keen that I get this right, and hugely excited at the prospect of sharing his love of the place with me, the BSG suggested Bocca di Lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), in Soho.

We walked in from the cold September wind (what’s going on?) and were greeted with a buzzing, warmly-lit interior, an honest-looking place that made me think of New York. Small and large plate options for each dish meant that our indecision was truly catered for, and between us we explored a large part of the varied regional Italian fare on the menu. We joyfully chomped our way through juicy sardines, crunchy shaved radish and salty pecorino salads, Italian sausages on wet buttery polenta and wolfed (sorry) down rich pigeon ragu clinging to perfectly al dente pasta. If you feel up to pudding, then brave the Sanguinaccio, a chocolate paté with a special ingredient, with sourdough bread. Highly recommended for a gathering of good friends – but don’t let yourselves be hurried.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Steep hills and sloe business

The BSG’s ‘motherland’ is the Isle of Wight, so what better place to spend the August bank holiday than on its beaches in the sun - during those ‘sunny intervals’, at least.
And this is exactly what we did, along with his mum and some of our great friends.

Steephill Cove in the south coast of the island is like a scene plucked from a Blyton-esque seaside adventure. Reached solely by a path or two (anything big comes down in a wheelbarrow apparently), there stands a small cluster of houses, beach huts and shacks. As you pick your way along the seafront around the lobster pots and gaily coloured buoys, small cafes and restaurants become distinct among the nooks and crannies in the weather-worn wood – it couldn’t be more quintessential had a film set-dresser gone wild on it.

At the café at the end, and out of the cool south-westerly wind that had, I discovered, acted as the burning sun’s accomplice that morning as I lolled idly in my deckchair, we feasted upon shocking pink prawns (to match our sunburn) and fresh crab baguettes. Completing the spread were doorstop slices of brown bread and butter, which would have been oh so Milly-Molly-Mandy if it hadn’t all been rather decadently washed down with a lovely sparkling wine. All very jolly, which absolutely has to be the right word, and although the allergic BSG had to make do with coronation chicken, there were no complaints from him.

It being a UK bank holiday, the weather then set in slightly, so we embarked on another mission, to be completed in May next year, at our wedding. We had been thinking for ages about putting our own stamp on the reception as we love making things, so sloe gin seemed the perfect answer. Ruby coloured and syrupy, it always strikes a festive note, and goes well with cake and cheese.

The BSG makes much of the island’s special ‘microclimate’, so when his 101-year old great aunt - still going strong and as sharp as Paxman – told us that sloes would be out and where to find them, I could well believe that she’d be right. As their location must remain secret for posterity I am stopping here, but needless to say Auntie Pad hasn’t lost her magic - the crop was abundant, and there is still a lot more for picking later on, if you know where to look. We soldiered through the bushes as they did their best to fight us off – ouch.

Once frozen overnight, pricked (sweet revenge), sugared and sloshed, those 5 kilos (!) of sloes are working their jewelled magic. As a bonus, we have found another use for them, once they are out of the bottle in a few months’ time. Flicking through a book on preserves, we came across a recipe for a sloe gin and juniper jelly – great with game apparently. It’s all feeling rather rich and autumn-y to me. Surely summer's not packed its bags just yet?