Thursday, 25 February 2010

Arbutus and abstinence

So the BSG-instigated ‘meat-free week’ has started well for me, depending on how you look at it. Whilst not one morsel of beast has passed my chops since Sunday, neither in fact has a great deal else - nothing like an untimely reverse from some dodgy shellfish to put paid to that eating malarkey. My rescuer - apart from the BSG of course - was the trusty, uncontaminated banana; I never cease to wonder at this magic fruit Mother Nature has so kindly packaged for me. In my journey to recovery, rather like Colin Firth’s fridge man, this wonder-food has been instrumental. There are so many wonderful things to say about it that I am going to devote a post to it, and soon. In the meantime, try writing in biro on a banana skin – it is one of life’s pleasures.

So anyway, back to seven days of meals without meat. I think that there is more chance of Sarah Palin winning the Nobel Prize for Geography than me giving up meat altogether; I love it in so many forms – restorative bacon sandwiches, lemony roast chicken, good pork sausages, the ceremony that is steak tartare… I could go on and on - but I suppose of all the things I can do to put less strain on the planet, my wallet and my health, this is quite a realistic measure to take. So the BSG and I thought we’d devote a week to investigate exactly how do-able life with less meat would be, and try out other recipes and combinations – a sort of cold turkey (sans turkey of course). Recipes and results to come next week.

By complete coincidence we’d had a suitable swansong. Last week we took my Dad to one of our tried and tested favourite eateries, Arbutus on Frith Street in Soho. It is just past all of the hubbub and noise; every time you approach it you start to wonder if you’re on the right street, but then there it is, our reliable friend, aglow and convivial, tucked between dark shop-fronts and offices. If ever there was a place to feast the night before giving up carnivorous delights, then this is it. Arbutus does flavoursome, interesting and Michelin starred grub for reasonable prices - their set lunch is probably the best value food of this kind in London. I have yet to try its sister restaurant, Wild Honey, but I have heard wonderful things about it and am excited to go.

rabbit saddle

rabbit shoulder cottage pie

Seduced by snippets of poetry devoted to various animal treats I eventually did what I always do and ordered the squid and mackerel burger which gives such an intense, brazen lick of fishiness that it’s verging on naughty, adorned with a tangy green sauce, pretty sea purslane and macho razor clams. This is perhaps the perfect dish, though the pork belly petit sale with braised lentils that followed was pretty stupendous, as was the saddle of rabbit with shoulder cottage pie we’d cajoled Dad into ordering (not much cajoling required, in truth). The BSG jumped at the prospect of pieds et paquets (lamb’s tripe and trotters to you and me), Marseillaise-style which he hummed his way through, comprising three – yes, three - different elements (I think I like these Marseillaise – one look at the copper pans of bouillabaisse at the next table convinced me that we must get down there soon). He would be the first to admit that he is a bit of an offal strumpet, homing straight in the sections of menus devoted to on appendages and organs, but I tried it and this was pretty wonderful.


The slow-cooked Norfolk hare he had to begin with - an apt cooking method for a creature that spends so much of its life tearing thought the countryside – mentally prepared us for the weekend we were about to spend there with Ma BSG for her birthday. It seems that there is not a furrowed field in that part of the world that doesn’t sport a couple of the jumbo-haunched athletes. They have spectacular hearing too (who wouldn’t with those ears?); on Saturday morning just one rap on the kitchen window from me was enough to send one of these skittish numbers, already half a mile away, into a Usain Bolt for dear life across the snowy field.


The weather was unpredictable to put it mildly; a sunny Saturday spent walking under epic skies gave way to a Sunday muffled by a heavy fall of fluffy white stuff. We had to escape early or risk being snowed-in (I could think of worse ways to spend a Monday). However, in our short sojourn, we did manage to sample some sweet brown Norfolk shrimp, some local, thick-cut bacon and had a very good lunch at the Victoria in Holkham.


Sometimes, a picture can speak a thousand words.

Prune and armagnac souffle Needless to say, the prune and Armagnac soufflĂ© with Lapsang Souchong ice cream I had at Arbutus was not around for long…

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

hello Tiger

In geographical terms, Xinjiang province and Taiwan are worlds apart - well China apart, anyway - and that’s a long way. So this week, the BSG and I did the gastronomic equivalent of crossing that vast country (sort of) to celebrate the imminent Chinese New Year and the arrival of the year of the tiger. For Xinjiang read Camberwell Church Street and Taiwan the Pimlico Road – there seems no easy link between them, figuratively or literally (there’s no handy bus route, which I should imagine is true of their Eastern counterparts). In neither place did we find the glossy Cantonese fare we Brits are most used to – how refreshing - but this is pretty much where the similarities between the two end. What follows is not a comparison, as Hunan and Silk Road are too different and I have waxed lyrical about the latter in a previous post. They are simply stories of different happy evenings both, in my two favourite places to eat Chinese in London. There is one big difference: whilst Silk Road will have you rifling through the real money section of your wallet, Hunan is a credit card sort of a place.

Armed with loose change and fond memories, we returned to Silk Road last week to find it had changed little since we were last there. The food was every bit as wonderful and this time I was more careful with the little red varmints. The bill was still a wonderfully pleasant conclusion to the feast, at £11 each for the 6 of us – even the maths whizz in our midst needed clarification. Perhaps the only difference was that the restaurant was busier, but this can only be a good thing in snowy February in a recession (yeah, yeah, green shoots - whatever.)


And so we found ourselves rather a long way from home on Pimlico Road last Saturday night, having a very merry time beforehand in the Ebury, which doesn’t seem sure if it’s a pub, cocktail bar or restaurant. We left none the wiser, vowing not to opt for the Peroni on draught again: tempting though it is to tell them they’ve made a mistake, you won’t get much back from your fiver. We had booked at the small-yet-perfectly-situated Hunan which, by the time we arrived on time for our table, was packed to the rafters with families and pre-Valentiners. The ever-cheerful head waiter, betraying with a slightly mistimed laugh that he’d given away our table, scuttled off and ousted two star-crossed lovers from their bubble of sweet nothings to a table near the kitchen door. For the rest of the evening I would feel their stares, burning holes into the back of my neck – apparently nobody puts daters in a corner. I must confess that we didn’t waste much time worrying about it – their bailiff was still smiling, already at our elbows taking orders, so we were happy.

As someone crippled by indecision and floored by extensive menus, Hunan provides the perfect tonic. There is no dilemma because there is no menu – you just sit back and enjoy the ride. After a brief chat about dislikes/allergies, the food came out in a parade of exciting tastes and carefully balanced flavours, beautifully presented and there for the sharing. This feast for all senses made for a fun and intimate experience, so would be great for a third or fourth date (I got the feeling our evictees were on their first date - or their last, whichever way you like to look at it – they weren’t relaxed).

Each dish is announced in succession in a heavily accented, blink-and-you’ll-miss it fashion (or perhaps it was the wine…) No one seemed keen to be the first to try the stinking prawns until we realised that they were Steamed King Prawns and they were delectable, thank you. The only downside for me was that this format of eating once again highlighted my need for a spell at remedial chopstick school but I had to soldier on – and used my fingers wherever possible. I must remember to buy a spoon to keep in my handbag for such occasions.

A surprise stand-out were the battered green beans with chilli, crunchy and still green in a light tempura, they were salty and completely moreish, with just the right amount of spice. The spicy chicken wraps were a perfect overture in their cool iceberg leaves, the pork dumplings perfect little money bags of flavour with a crunch; as for the crispy tofu – this was the first time I have ever enjoyed the white rubbery stuff, because it wasn’t rubbery. The pig’s tongue and ears were delicate, crunchy petals of offal, laced with a rich and perfectly-matched sauce. The whole sea bass was beautifully cooked and tasted fresh and sweet.

After this right royal variety performance we didn’t have room for the toffee bananas for pudding that Gastrogeek describes so lovingly, but the four of us put away around 14 different dishes – each one a taste polaroid of the mastery at work in the kitchen. The maestro chef, Mr Peng, came out to listen to his customers humming with pleasure and to remind us to slow down, despite our enthusiasm. ‘One at a time’ was the mantra he kept repeating: to enjoy every twist and turn and variation on flavour, texture and temperature…well Chef Peng, we certainly did. We each paid around £60 for the food and some wine – not something you’d want to do every time you went out for a Chinese – but this showcase of Taiwan-influenced tricks is worth saving up for and let’s face it, cheaper than a flight over there. For every other time, there’s always Silk Road.


Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cake off

In my life I have employed a few odd things to break the fast; fish fingers, beans on toast, cold pizza, curry, left-over Shepherd’s Pie, Egg Mornay…the list goes on. But never cake. No, cake is definitely an after-mid-morning thing for me. Not today. First thing, a loaf-sized box came to the door in the arms of our smiling postman – I am not sure he knew what he was delivering but it certainly seemed that way. I have to admit that I’d had my misgivings when the lovely Michelle at Vanilla Patisserie told me she would ‘post some samples’. I had, until this point, been unaware of the travelling capacity of cake - the only comparable experience being in those plastic party bags we were given when we were small and these were usually sat on in the car on the way home. (If they ever did make it home they were often forgotten in favour of the pot of bubbles and left to languish in their paper napkin, sweating in the bag for a couple of weeks before being thrown out). I was delighted therefore to discover that all 11 samples had survived transit and still resembled cake, moreover, were convincing enough slices to go under the tester’s scalpel to become sample slivers.

The BSG ruled that there would be no talking whilst the testing was in progress. Each piece was marked out of five for moisture and flavour and of course, there would be no conferring. Each teaspoon of cake was punctuated with a slurp of tea (to cleanse the palate you understand), which worked much better than water at erasing the taste memory.

Cake samples

I surprised myself; eleven mouthfuls of cake all but defeated us and the BSG, who is not great mates with sugar under normal circumstances, had the shakes for the remainder of the day. Amidst the more classic flavours were accents of hazelnut (think Nutella) and Cointreau, and a nod to all things retro came in the form of dark chocolate cake with a blackcurrant filling – all we needed was a trolley and some doilies. The lemon sponge was clean and fragrant and danced on the tongue, and the carrot was infused with a lovely ginger-snap taste. The name of the game though was to find the three flavours we liked best – and find them we did.

Although we proved that you can have too much cake and eat it – the nadir of the sugar low hitting me mid-afternoon – it made us very happy and took us straight back to birthday tables of our youth. We won’t be doing much for Valentine’s Day, feeling it is the day of the year to go out for a romantic-supper-that’s-not-romantic-because-everybody’s-doing-it, but we will definitely be cooking, and I might just bake the BSG a cake - low sugar, of course.

Red Velvet Cake

For the cake:
• 120g unsalted butter
• 300g golden caster sugar
• 2 large eggs
• 300g plain flour
• 230g buttermilk or ordinary milk if this cannot be found
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 20g cocoa powder, sifted
• ½ tsp red food colouring, or sufficient to give the cake a rich red brown colour
• 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
• 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the icing:
• 180g unsalted butter
• 150g sifted icing sugar
• 450g full fat cream cheese
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• Chocolate curls for decoration

Pre-heat the oven to 190 Degrees C/170 degrees for fan assisted ovens. Line and grease a 20cm diameter cake tin.

Cream the butter and caster sugar together until light and fluffy. This is easily done with an electric whisk and should take around 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly. Add the flour in three separate stages alternating with the buttermilk/milk. Then add the salt, vanilla and cocoa powder and enough red food colouring to turn the cake a rich red/brown. Mix the vinegar with the bicarbonate of soda in a bowl and add this to the mixture.
Spoon the prepared mixture into the cake tin and bake for between 45 minutes and one hour - a cake skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean when ready.

For the icing:
Cream together the icing sugar and butter until soft, mix in the cream cheese and vanilla essence. Spread over the cake once it has cooled.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Me old china

A common dilemma: you’re hungry, it’s miserable weather, you want to come home and do yourself a lovely cottage pie, but there’s only one or two of you, and a dish so big it’d do for sixteen…Oh well, do it the next time you have friends round for supper…

Not any more.

An innovative solution, boys and girls, has presented itself, courtesy of the brilliant Mr JC: I give you the Cottage Jacket, or Cottato if you’re into haute cuisine. We stumbled upon this whilst thumbing through a copy of an excellent charity cookbook compiled by a friend, and of course, the BSG had to go straight out and stock up with the ingredients.

Yes, it’s what you’d expect it to be - a cottage pie (or any other pie for that matter) inside a scooped-out baked potato, with the fluffy innards mashed and laid on top, then baked for a little longer. It’ll run and run, this one - just think of all those combinations, and afterwards none of that really crusty, hard-to-shift washing up that the smiley Ainsley Harriott is so fond of. Amazing.


Do you remember that very important time of day when you were a child, somewhere between grazing a knee, plasters, applications of Germolene, and bathtime? Tea (often high tea in our house, which usually meant something involving baked beans) was part of the daily ritual when we were young, and it’s back. In fact, it’s the new black, and altogether a bit of a vamp.

They say it is the cocktail of choice in 2010, imbibed by the most fashionable and forward-thinking Londoners (By ‘they,’ I mean I and by ‘most fashionable Londoners,’ I mean our friends). Tired of hosting pub drinks for a birthday? Well then, Happy Hour has just got a bit earlier. Why not try the Vintage Patisserie and hold a tea party? That’s what our friend Mr C did, for Mrs C’s 30th.

On a very wet Saturday afternoon, having hopped over possibly the biggest puddle London could conjure, we were led into a cosy parlour at 93 Feet East on Brick Lane, straight into the 1920s where we were met by Angel and her team and there, laid over three tables, was a teascape that’d make Bertie Wooster wince with envy and fire Jeeves for not cutting the mustard. Cakes, rockscones, a tiny white chocolate cube on each beflowered saucer bearing the birthday girl’s name; delicate mismatched china teacups, filled with a beguiling cocktail of jasmine green tea and sparkling wine, sprinkled with mixed berries. I’ll admit I lost track after the fourth cup, but it must’ve been packed with antioxidants….Of course, there was the real thing too.


If it didn’t already feel like a game of Let’s Pretend, the presence of a dressing-up box definitely brought out our roaring twenties personas. For some reason, the BSG was rather taken with a string of pearls, which he wore as well as braces and a top hat for the duration.

Crustless white sandwiches made with the softest of breads came round on dainty silver stands – I’m not sure I’ve ever had an egg sandwich that good. Others were filled with delicate slivers of smoked salmon and crisp cucumber. There were plates of chocolate-dipped strawberries and bowls of dark, decadent cherries to remind us that summer had even existed and to promise it would return. In the lucky dip of shot-sized puddings, I got the tiramisu: the BSG’s favourite. This was definitely grown-up tea, with a twist of naughtiness in it.

The sodden afternoon was forgotten in the convivial glow, the elusive January light fading into the blue evening. I half expected Gatsby to saunter in. What a lovely way to while away the hours!

If you are cold, tea will warm you.  If you are too heated, it will cool you. 

If you are depressed, it will cheer you.  If you are excited, it will calm you.

(William Gladstone)

Tea existed properly once – and was not confined to consumption with children or grandparents. We should be making more tea dates, and I don’t mean tourist-style in hotels where you pay the earth. I say, in the spirit of Gladstone, we bring back tea in all its glory, what what? Moreover, I know just the people to spearhead the campaign….

Birthday Girl