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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The rudest mushrooms you'll ever meet

They were labelled 'Egg Mushrooms, England' on the stall, and they do indeed look quite ovular. Touch them, however, and the impression changes. Their velvety skin encloses a thick layer of gel surrounding a small firm capsule.
The people on the stall had no idea as to what they might be, how to cook them or whether they might be palatable.
Naturally I filled a brown paper bag and set off to challenge all comers. Mostly it was just fun watching people pick them up. Their expressions would flip to bewilderment and mild disgust as they bit back the immediate reaction: "But they feel like testicles!"
I tried all my foodie friends, the manager of the Chinese restaurant where I ate that evening and the staff at Carluccio's.
There we neglected all the other customers to look the eggy mushrooms up in Carluccio's mushroom book, but to no avail.
Finally the Man (who had only heard them described over the phone) somehow came up with an identification from a website. My 'egg mushrooms' that so sensually resembled hairless testicles were the immature form of a charming fungus known as the stinkhorn, or phallus impudicus.
If left unpicked for another 24 hours, they would have sprouted into foul-smelling phalluses. Judging by the online photos, these were probably the something nasty in the woodshed that traumatised Aunt Ada Doom.
All references made it clear that the mature form was inedible, even for the least squeamish, but some half-hearted allusions were made to cultures in which the eggs are a 'delicacy'.
Never one to shirk a challenge, I skinned them, washed off the extremely tenacious gel and sliced the surprisingly hard nubs to fry in butter. They were unpalatable to the point of being not worth eating. After four mouthfuls, I threw the rest in the bin, regretting only the waste of good butter. The mushrooms themselves had provided me with enough entertainment to more than merit the money spent on them.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The realisation of a dream

Have you ever looked forward to something so much that you were sure it couldn't live up to expectations? Eating at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant the Fat Duck was one of those experiences for me, but he didn't let me down.
Nestled in a small town half an hour by train from London, the Fat Duck looks unpretentious to the point of being self-effacing from the outside. On entering, you are conscious of warmly welcoming staff and plain but good décor. Then you sit down, notice that the starched white linen napkin has the name and logo of the restaurant woven into its fabric and after that there is no time for details that are not about the food.
The tasting menu provides some 18 or 19 courses, many of them minute and all witty.
Blumenthal is famous as a pioneer of 'molecular gastronomy', a fancy name dreamt up for even fancier application of science to cooking. He likes to put flavours and concepts together that sound like bad dreams and taste like marriages made in heaven. Sardine on toast sorbet or vanilla mayonnaise maynot come from any culinary tradition, but if you are open-minded enough to taste them, you will be surprised at how well they work.
Surprise is a major element in the food here, whether it be the orange and beetroot jellies, where the colours belie the flavours, or the nitro-green tea and lime mousse Œcooked¹ in liquid nitrogen and disappearing almost instantly in your mouth.
A begrudger might wonder whether the trickery has taken over from the fundamental cooking, but dishes such as the roast foie gras with almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile would quickly reassure any doubts. The foie gras is perfect, the chamomile pointing its flavour beautifully, while the combination of almond and cherry enhances the sweet cyanide bitterness of each to counterpoint the rich savoury meat.
Hot and cold are also dimensions in his culinary universe. In the kitchen, Blumenthal has experimented with cooking things at different temperatures; salmon poached with liquorice was cooked sous-vide, sealed and poached for a long time at a very low temperature, turns out meltingly soft but with an essential and subtle flavour that is complemented as much as overwhelmed by
the liquorice.
The glass of hot and cold tea that comes at the end of the meal is hot when drunk from one side of the glass and cold from the other. This playfulness is evident throughout the menu ­ only go to the Fat Duck if you are prepared to be open-minded and like to be entertained.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

As well hung for a sheep as for a lamb

There are occasional campaigns to revive the British tradition of eating mutton, but they never seem to get very far. This doesn’t seem too surprising, given that the British seem to value tenderness in lamb far above flavour, although that may also explain why the mutton stalwarts continue to fight the good fight.
Having spent years failing to find lamb in the UK that carries the savoury depth of flavour that a Wicklow sheepfarmer’s daughter considers a prerequisite, I was very open to conviction on the subject of mutton.
My first foray, an attempt at Irish stew, was disastrous. The flavour was no more than ok, and the meat was almost inedibly tough. Given that I was trying out recipes for a buffet, this was an important consideration!
But this week I wandered into überbutcher the Ginger Pig to enquire about their advertised butchery courses (watch this space for further details!), and was tempted by a display of cubed Swaledale mutton, hung for 28 days and advertised as perfect for curry.
I chose a Rajasthan recipe (based on the fact that this was the only recipe I could find for which I had all the ingredients in the kitchen) which involved a teaspoon of whole cloves and a dozen dried chillies.
This ferocious dish cooked for about an hour and a half, reducing the spices to a fabulously rich, thick gravy, and I’m happy to report that mutton was precisely the right meat to stand up to this abusive treatment.
Despite looking worryingly sinewy when it went into the pan, the mutton had turned into tender chunks with a rich meaty flavour that was not overpowered by the curry sauce.
Only the fact that there is something irredeemably wrong with my rice let the meal down. Originally I assumed it was just bad karma that meant my rice wouldn’t cook right, but now I think it’s just too old. I will buy some new rice and report back on whether my karma improves.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My new motto

This delightful Italian deli gives the impression to the casual customer that it is most interested in salami and different hams (to great effect), and the counter of cheese at the back can seem like an afterthought. However, take a step back and it's clear that the owners have a fine sense of priorities.
I'm not at all sure that I know what this means, but it feels like my kind of motto.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Choices, choices

I have mentioned my favourite cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, before, and I may even have written about the difficulty of choosing between the different editions available. There is now a new version,, but the reviews don't convince me that it's worth getting one sent over from the States specially.
This review doesn't mention that there is also a UK version of the 1997 edition - but if you're that knowledgeable about the Joy concordance, you also know that it's not worth the pounds sterling.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Don't watch - I'm eating truffles

Tolkien’s hobbits were inordinately fond of mushrooms. Although I don’t think of myself as hobbit-like in any other way, I sometimes worry that there is something sinister about how much I like eating fungus.
My first experience of eating fresh truffles was at a reception held by a French investment bank. I couldn’t tell you which one, anymore than I can remember anything about the speech that the chairman made just after the very simple pasta with truffles was served.
Nobody had warned me that the real attraction of truffles is that they taste subtly but unmistakeably of sex. Eating truffles in polite company is like watching an erotic Japanese arthouse movie with your parents. It’s not totally taboo, because it’s a classy film, but you are embarassed by how beautifully sexy it is.
Sadly, almost the only way I can afford to eat really good truffles is when it’s being paid for on an expense account, so I have spent a lot of time wondering how much the embarassment blunts my enjoyment of these subterranean jewels. The conclusion I have come to is that it’s always worth it, even though it sometimes makes me very resentful of the generous person simultaneously buying and ruining my lunch.
Until my ship comes in, I am very happy to stick with more plebian mushrooms in my own kitchen. This cep formed the main flavouring ingredient in a richly comforting risotto last week, while pieds de mouton, English boletus, slippery jacks, girolles , chanterelles and shaggy parasols made a wonderful mushroom stew to accompany a savoury pie.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

My dog has no nose. How does he smell?

The morning after a delightful evening at which my wine-writer friend supplied the drink and my affineur friend the cheese, I opened the fridge to get butter for toast. Even though the fridge door was only open for perhaps thirty seconds, this was long enough for an invisible fume of dank, drain-like smell to escape, hover a minute or so in the kitchen, then wind its poisonous way through the flat to the bedroom, where it woke up the Man quicker than I’ve ever seen him come to consciousness on Sunday morning before!
The cheese, wrapped though it was in several layers of waxed paper, was not asleep.
What is the relationship between smell and taste? The theory is that we have tastebuds for just five flavours: salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. All the other delicate arrangements of flavour that we experience while eating are actually through the olfactory bulb in the nose.
If this is the case, why do we experience the smell of so many food stuffs as so different from their flavour?
As a child, coffee seemed repellent to me to taste, but I used to go out of my way coming home from school in order to sniff the air next to the coffee stall on the market. Durian fruit is notoriously bad-smelling, but pleasant to eat. And cheese can smell like a teenage boy’s gym kit but be absolutely delicious.
I think (and this is based on nothing more than personal observation and wild speculation) that there must be some change in how we perceive things that are inside our mouths. The smell may be the same, so the olfactory experience is technically the same, but it is now combined with a mouthfeel (cool, salty, fattiness in the case of cheese) and our expectations of the sensation is altered.
By this latter, I don’t just mean that we expect the époisses to taste good, but that it fills our sensory horizons so we no longer have a standard of non-smell to compare it with. When I worked in the cheesemongers, many customers (not all under 8) would wrinkle up their noses on entering the shop and perform amusing mimes of themselves vomiting at the smell. If they didn’t immediately flee in fits of laughter, we were always able to cure their nausea. A taste of cheese, ideally Montgomery’s Cheddar, would instantly dispell the tyranny of the air heavy with the aroma of dozens of cheeses.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Turkey twizzlers? I don't think so!

I had all sorts of clever and profound things to say about the importance of introducing children to good food early on. I was also planning to boast about my friend who devoted a large amount of her maternity leave to steaming and puréeing organic fruit and vegetables, then freezing them in ice-cube trays so that Baby Louis would be able to have gourmet mixtures at every meal (apparently six veg-cubes constituted a meal). But in the end, the picture of Louis, now liberated from the strict vegetable diet, enjoying a hearty gnaw, speaks for itself.
This is how to enjoy food!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Radio review

One of the best things I have ever heard on radio was yesterday's Food Programme on BBC Radio 4. This is partly because it was dedicated to the potato, a topic close to my heart, but mostly because they were featuring an entirely straight-faced report on the 6th annual Festival for the Recognition of Sauté Potatoes with Onions as a Main Dish. Go to the website, listen again, and never again regard Sauté Potatoes with Onions as a menial side dish.

Irregular verbs

Have you ever noticed that, in languages other than the irrepressibly irregular English, it is the most commonly used verbs that are least regular? To a student, this can seem like a willfully excluding trait, putting the highest hurdle first; but of course it is perfectly understandable that the words that are most used are those that get rubbed into different shapes. Those shapes may seem unreasonable to the outsider, but they are comfortingly familiar to native speakers.
In the same way, it is the basic building blocks of a cuisine, universally used and often ignored, that are hardest to replicate in another country.
Everyone knows that the Irish are fussy about potatoes, so no-one is surprised when I lament the lack of ‘balls of flour’ in English greengrocers, but even I am taken aback by how much I still miss Irish bread. Not the brown (soda) bread that I could make for myself or even buy by going to the right London supermarket, but plain old Irish sliced pan.
After years of vague disappointment every time I had toast (Kerrygold butter is available here, so I knew that wasn’t the problem) I identified the issue: it wasn’t chewy enough.
I don’t know if it’s because of the damper climate, which might affect either the wheat itself or the rising process, but Irish bread is almost without exception chewier than its English equivalent.
It’s not necessarily better, but it’s how I like it. The glutinous verb of chewing bread is familiar to me and anything else tastes like a foreigner saying “I goed” instead of “I went”.
Even grand organic freshly baked bread is usually less chewy than I want it to be, but I have finally found a source of bread that is delightfully tough, although packed with flavour.
The Flour Station now has a weekly stall on Borough Market, where the staff are unfriendly until you show an active interest in their bread, at which point they open up and tell you in detail about their lengthy proving, the importance of the ingredients and how they are treated and how to look after the bread they are selling you. Apparently the difference is that any loaf of bread you buy from them has taken nearly 24 hours to reach its farinaceous apotheosis, which gives the gluten time to develop. Last week I spoke to a relatively junior assistant, who told me to come back when his boss was there to explain the science behind it. I plan to spend the intervening time reading Harold McGee’s account of bread-making, so as to be able to ask intelligent questions. In the meantime, I will live on the memory of the country levain, the English stick and even the olive-oil laden focaccia.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

One query answered, another posed

Thank you to Mat, who tracked down real Israeli couscous for me! It’s simple to cook and tastes exactly as it does at the Table, where I first came across it.

Now my only query is: what is the other stuff that I found? It’s more porous than the Israeli couscous and took forever to cook. It might be nice as a thickening in stew, I suppose, if one liked that kind of thing.

Betty Botta bought some butter

My grandmother, continually angry at being forbidden the high cholesterol of full fat dairy produce, reminisces about the days in the 1950s when her farming household consumed two pounds of butter a day. “One for your grandfather and one for the rest of the men.”
For the last forty years or so of his life, she never spoke to and rarely of my grandfather, so this snippet was memorable. She doesn’t know, or probably care, that he continued to consume butter in gargantuan amounts, only that she is forbidden to do so. Perhaps that is why she has outlived him.
Although falling short of Grandpa David’s heroic standards, I have inherited the family love of solid churned cream. Spread thickly on bread or used to fry almost anything, even melted into egg yolks to form hollandaise sauce, butter is one of my favourite food stuffs.
This has been the case for many years, but until recently I was under the impression that the only decision to be made about butter was ‘salted or unsalted.’ It is only recently that I have come to appreciate how much it can vary. My first inkling of this variability came at a point when I was trying to economise, and thought that one easy way was to buy cheaper butter from New Zealand in place of the heavily subsidized but still more expensive Kerrygold that I had been in the patriotic habit of buying.
This change in buying behaviour was also driven by a brief flirtation with economics, a friend having ranted to me about the iniquities of the European common agricultural policy. I did my bit for free market butter economics for a couple of weeks but was soon driven back to the protectionist stuff that did not go rancid so quickly.
This may be simply because it is more highly salted, as is my taste, but the underlying taste is also sweeter to my palate.
Having worked out this difference, it became clear that it might easily be worth spending money on expensive butters to find the best, or those bests that are most appropriate to different needs.
Since then I have wasted much money, raised my own cholesterol level and tasted many different kinds of butter. I know that it can vary in colour, texture, saltiness, firmness when refrigerated or not, keeping quality and sweetness. It can be made with fresh or fermented cream, or even the whey from cheese-making. Contrary to expectations, a higher water content is often a good sign, although it’s not clear whether that is because it associated with artisanal methods of churning and the higher quality ingredients that implies, or is actually a good thing in itself.
In the last few weeks I have sampled bright yellow and crystalline clotted cream butter, smoother whey butter, which is not noticeably less sweet, the familiar salty smoothness of Kerrygold (the standard Irish butter, originally produced by the Kerry Co-op and marketed internationally by one Tony O’Reilly, who went on to head multi-nationals Heinz and Waterford) and the pale sweetness of the French butter sold in Borough Market at a specialist butter stall, sliced from demi-tuns and eaten irresistibly with a London bloomer loaf.
I wouldn’t eat a pound a day of the latter, but only because I can’t afford it; my next plan is to try making pastry with it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Colourful cuisine

A colleague of mine recently went to the restaurant Dans le Noir, where blind staff serve you in the dark. She reported that it was disappointing to discover that her other senses were not stimulated by the deprivation of sight, and that she would not care to repeat the experiment.
‘Experiment’ is my word, and expresses the only way I think one could approach such an experience. Such temporary sensory deprivation is unlikely to give enough time for other senses to compensate, so the point of eating in the dark must be largely to bring home to one how important sight is to the enjoyment of food for most people. When I was little, we used to play around with such ideas by doing things like being blindfolded and being fed randomly cubes of onion and of apple, or eating assorted sandwiches with our eyes closed.
Certainly there are all sorts of visual cues that we pick up and interpret, without having to think in such sophisticated terms as aesthetic impact. Food needs to be the right colour for us to be comfortable eating it; apparently we are conditioned to be suspicious of blue food, but food that is inappropriately green, or darker than it should be, or even just brightly coloured and unfamiliar, will also set off alarm bells.
Whatever the evolutionary reason for the attention we pay to the appearance of food, it can now be used to enhance our enjoyment. One of my personal indulgences is the occasional purchase of black truffle potatoes, which are unprepossessing in their natural state, looking like dirty dark purple Jerusalem artichokes, dull and knobbly. When boiled, peeled and mashed, they turn into a wonderfully episcopal purple mass, with a dry, floury texture and an earthy, almost fruity flavour. With a garnish of spring onion tops for contrast, they make a beautiful third of a meal that also involves the jewelled red of pomegranate seeds on top of the fried duck-breast with a pomegranate sauce and the startling yellow of braised ceps.
Although the flavours were delicious, a great deal of my pleasure in this meal came from the simple joy of the bright colours together - I would love to go to Dans le Noir, but only as an experiment.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Everybody eats

Charles Campion is indubitably an accomplished restaurant reviewer, while only the most embittered begrudger would claim that Heston Blumenthal is other than a gifted and massively dedicated chef.
Campion however seemed blind to one of the most basic issues surrounding food, while Blumenthal was adept at avoiding the question of why Campion’s teenage children seemed open-minded at a sixteenth birthday lunch at the Fat Duck, but insisted on tomato ketchup on anything supplied by Campion himself.
Do we have to remind you of the tensions surrounding relations between parent and teenage child, Charles?
The reason food is an infinitely fascinating topic is precisely that everyone has to eat, so that it is an infinitely available battleground for power; person, political or absolute. If you are lucky enough to live in a society where sufficient food for basic nutrition is not an issue, it almost inevitably becomes a locus for expression of family relationships with all the complexity that implies.
To express bewilderment that a teenage child rejects your strongly held food-related values is surely disingenuous. It may be excusable in terms of your family relationship, but it is to ignore the fascinating psychological and power structures surrounding food.
Everybody eats. This basic fact means that food can never utterly dissociate itself from the need for survival, so of all art forms in our over-civilised society it is the most unsettling, the most decadent.
Campion complained that while an opera critic may be asked to stand in for the food critic on a newspaper, the reverse never happens. He sees this as an indicator of how lowly food is valued. Rather I think it is a sign that editors feel, rightly, that everybody eats, and anyone who is used to thinking critically can apply that skill to a universal act. It is hard to refute this opinion; the onus is on food writers to prove that we have something more to offer than simply a report on whether the steak was overdone.

Removing sandals on holy ground

Tonight I went to hear a demi-god of contemporary cooking and was confronted with a veritable god of the pantheon. Evening Standard reviewer Charles Campion was soi-disant ‘warm-up’ for Heston Blumenthal, who casually referrred to ‘Harold’ in the audience. This was Harold McGee, author of McGee on Food & Cooking, for whose signature I queued up with a collection of similarly awestruck foodies.
I first heard of McGee’s work in the early nineties when visiting my plant geneticist aunt in Palo Alto. Her foodie/scientist friends insisted to this embryonic compulsive cook that no-one could be serious about food without knowing this cross-over writing from an English graduate with an interest in chemistry.
14 years later, I was overwhelmed by the presence of this inspirational pioneer, who coined the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ but still seemed pleased to hear about my recurring awe at the everyday magic of food.
Anyone who has ever wondered at the alchemical transformation of clear egg white into firm white foam after beating or opaque rubbery whiteness through heat should read McGee for an enlightening, empowering and exciting exposition of the alchemy of cooking.
Cooking is quotidian conjury, chemistry and physics at your fingertips, and McGee explains it without removing the spark of excitement. No self-respecting cookery shelf is without his masterpiece, although not everyone is lucky enough to have a signed copy from this personally charming sexy greybeard!

If you take school dinners....

"If you take school dinners,
Better set 'em aside.
A lot of kids didn't.
A lot of kids died."

There is a lot of debate about school dinners going on in the UK at the moment, but it can be hard for a foreigner to engage with it.
How shocking we are supposed to think it that there are schools that have no kitchen at all! But no school I ever went to in Ireland had a kitchen. The more luxurious ones had hot soup available at morning break.
One secondary school in the London borough of Hackney makes a big thing of its healthy living ethos, which involves banning vending machines from the school (good, but why in the world were they let in in the first place?) and forbidding students to bring packed lunches. Huh? What’s wrong with packed lunches? Admittedly I hated packed lunches, but then I hated every aspect of school, and the idea of taking some responsibility for one’s own nourishment is not a pointless one.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, where I spent one term aged 10, all schools in the district had the same menu each week. This menu was announced on local radio (I never missed corn on the cob day), so that students and their families could decide if they wanted to eat school food or bring a packed lunch. It is now available on the internet , parents are as welcome as ever in the canteen and the menu looks remarkably similar to my memories of more than two decades ago.
My two worst school dinner experiences were indeed in the UK: at primary school in a very deprived area of Liverpool, we were convinced that the second sitting of lunch had to finish up whatever the first sitting left. Burned in my memory is the time that a small boy at my table (we were all small, but he was naughtier than most) stirred his pudding into a disgusting pink moosh, then refused to eat it. The table monitor pleaded with him, explaining that it was unfair to leave this horror for second sittings, but in vain. How grateful we all were to the capricious authorities who had declared we got to eat first!
Another stint at a UK school came some ten years later, when I volunteered to report on the otherwise unvisited school canteen for the School Council (a very democratic institution).
The air surrounding the canteen building was thick with grease, while the interior was how I imagine a temporary army canteen might be, right down to the terrifying people serving the food. Marked out as exceptional by our age and non-uniformed status (only the lower orders in the first three years usually ate there), my head-girl friend and I had to force down our oily burgers and cold chips under the glaring eye of the head dinner lady.
Returning to the Irish morning ritual of putting together two cheese sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a packet of crisps and a drink did not feel like a return to deprivation.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hooray for hedonism!

Originally uploaded by clashsophia.
What a great evening! This is why I like living in London, against all the odds. This evening had three excellent events, so my only problem was to decide which of them I could get to and which had to fall by the wayside.
It started with a drinks party at Nobu, where the canapés lived up to expectations and my glass of champagne seemed bottomless.
I managed to say “Stop, little glass, stop” firmly enough to enjoy the lobster and foie gras skewers and the chunks of black cod, and to charm the CEO of the company hosting the drinks party into a promise of match tickets at the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium. I can only hope that he didn’t see my exit, which was delayed by an irresistable need to waylay one of the serving staff who had foolishly allowed me to glimpse her plate of prawn tempura.
Consoling myself with the thought that everyone understands that journalists are underfed, I swanned off to a colleague’s birthday drinks at Hawksmoor bar in Shoreditch. Against all expectation, I managed to resist the enormous buckets of punch, but the ebullient Cuban barman Jorge did (after a refreshingly citrussy French 75) inveigle me into drinking a bizarre but delicious concoction of gin, gooseberry purée, thyme syrup and fresh mint, which must remain nameless because Jorge couldn’t remember its name and I was too drunk to insist on looking it up.
The steaks for which Hawksmoor is known looked wonderful coming out of the serving hatch, and I will probably manage to get back there for the meat before I can save up for an evening at Nobu, which is now definitely on my list.
And the event I missed? A debate on ethical food at the Garrick Theatre. It sounded fascinating, I would have loved to go, but against Nobu canapés and supporting a colleague, it stood no chance.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The sweet flavour of rosehips remembered

I have always been a fan of gathering the wealth of the hedgerows, although I may have been a little spoilt by the ready availability of sorrel, blackberries, raspberries and fraughans (the Irish word for little wild blueberries) along the little-used roads surrounding the farm where I grew up.
Even in London, I am not to be deterred from gathering nature’s bounty: gallons of elderflower cordial are the product of trips to the local graveyard; more recently I have eaten myself sick on mulberries ignored by everyone except the birds, the squirrels and me.
However, despite their beauty and nutritional value, rosehips have never tempted me. They are impressively high in vitamin C: when rationing was imposed in Britain during and after the second world war, children were expected to gather them to make rosehip syrup to ward off scurvy, in lieu of the citrus fruit that was virtually unavailable.
Their flavour is tangy but not too sharp, often a welcome ingredient in herbal tea to balance the insistently herbaceous hibiscus and they grow almost everywhere.
So why are they not top of my scavenging menu?
It’s the guts of the fruit that put me off.
At my primary school in Ireland, there were wonderful sprays of rosehips gracefully draping themselves over the school wall into our playground every autumn term. And every autumn term, some bright spark would pluck a dark red fruit, split it open with a fingernail, scrape out the furry, fibrous seeds inside and use this pale stuff as horribly effective itching powder. In the end there were always tears, the teacher would get involved and punishment and bannings from the playground would ensue.
It’s probably silly to pass up on all the hippy goodness of the fruits, but I don’t think I could dissociate their flavour from the prickly, itchy feeling of fibres that are so firmly lodged in the fabric of your t-shirt that it can even survive washing.
In fact, I am even now shifting uncomfortably in my chair and furtively scratching my back where I can feel the phantom rosehip seeds.
Nostalgia is a fine thing, but it can be over-rated.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Eggplants at Turnips

As a teenager I maintained a feverish correspondance with a friend that involved all sorts of games about decorating the envelopes in various ways.
At one point she unearthed a collection of vegetal poems that made their way to me, one on the back of each letter. I have forgotten them all, but the image of the glamourous aubergine in its purple zootsuit lingers.
As an adult I have managed to calm my passion for purple clothing but a fondness for the enigmatic aubergine remains.
It’s an odd vegetable, beautiful when whole but distinctly plain when sliced and cooked, turning into unattractive soggy beige slices. Some people think it has little flavour, but to my palate it is very distinct if unassertive. I love its soft squidginess, finding it comforting and soothing.
Older cookbooks (including Elizabeth David) are stern in their instructions to salt the slices to ‘draw out the bitterness’ but no modern variety I have come across requires this treatment. I have read that this salting treatment, which removes some of the moisture, can make them less sponge-like when it comes to soaking up oil, but then I quite like the greasiness of a slice of aubergine thoroughly drenched in good quality olive oil.
If you want a less fattening way to deal with them, you could cut small aubergines in half lengthwise, then spread miso paste over the cut face and put under the grill.
Baba Ghanoush, that lovely smokey aubergine dip from the middle East, is possibly the best thing to do with your purple beauty.
Roast or grill a whole aubergine until it’s soft (if you have a gas hob, try charring the skin before cooking it for that smokiness); cut it open and scoop out its innards, discarding the skin.
Blend the pulp with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt and sesame seeds. The proportions are entirely a question of taste, as is the texture. Experiment with extra ingredients such as cumin, chilli, yoghurt, spring onions, sour cream, oregano, anything you like really.
Serve as a dip or in pita bread.
Mmm. I think I’ll go back to Turnip to buy some aubergines and spend the weekend experimenting.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Not for fish haters!

The main reason I took the Billingsgate course was that I have always felt intimidated by the idea of buying, preparing and cooking fish; I hoped that being shown exactly what needs to be done to a fish would give me confidence when faced with a fishmonger’s slab.
Yesterday I put this to the test, buying sea bream and accompanying ingredients , asking the fishmonger just to scale the fish (I did once own a fish-scaler but I only bought it because I didn’t know what it was and I lost it before I worked out its purpose - being keen on gadgets is not the same as having common sense).
Inspired by suggestions from CJ Jackson, director of the Billingsgate school, I thought I could do a vaguely South-East Asian arrangement of flavours, with chilli, ginger , coriander and sesame oil.
Gutting the fish turned out to be just as easy as it had been under supervision, which was a relief - I had worried that I might end up in tears with horrendously torn fish and fish guts disgustingly spread all over the kitchen as my knife turned out to be inadequate and the fish malevolently different from the tidy fish provided in the school. The fish slit easily down the belly, with only a little hitch at the breast bone, and the guts pulled out equally smoothly, heart and stomach and unidentifiable bloody thing all cossetted in a duvet of fish farm fat.
The only difference was that I realised that between the membrane that covers the bloodline and the fillet was a layer of white fat that could be squeezed away easily with a finger.
Wrapping them in circles of baking paper took some practice (I threw away a couple of metres of the stuff after making too much of a mess of it to retrieve) but I got there in the end. My only quibble, which may be due to a problem with my oven rather than the recipe, was that it took much longer than expected to cook, and then I think I may have overcooked it.
Nonetheless, the fish was delicious, full of flavour, melting off the bone, with the skin pulling away neatly and easily and the skeleton lifting beautifully off the fillet as a perfect cartoon fish with head intact and every bone articulated.
The school asked us to fill in a questionnaire at the end of the day that included the query ‘did this do what you expected?’ My answer must be a resounding yes!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The promised recipe

This is a heavily adapted version of the recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese in my favourite cookbook of all time, The Joy of Cooking.

Joy of Cooking Spaghetti Bolognese

2 rashers of bacon
1 carrot
1 onion
500g mince
2 tbsp tomato purée
2/3 cup stock or white wine
strip of lemon peel
2 bay leaves
grated nutmeg
100ml double cream

Mince or chop finely the first three ingredients and fry them gently in butter until soft. Add and brown the mince, then add the rest of the ingredients, except for the cream, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for an hour uncovered, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the lemon peel and bay leaves, and stir in the cream.

The amounts are very approximate and the method is fairly robust. If you don’t have an hour to simmer it, a half an hour will do. If you can make it the day before, the flavour will improve noticeably with 24 hours in the fridge. It’s worth getting good mince (ie fairly low fat). If not, you should pour the exuded fat off the browned mince before adding the tomato purée, stock etc.

The trouble with waiting

Last night I offered to cook, planning nothing elaborate. However, the Man said he wouldn't be free till 9 o'clock (which translates in real time as 'Sometime before ten, probably') so I ended up with a couple of hours on my hands.
Most people would sensibly use this time to catch up on other important tasks, calling friends, relaxing with a book or a film. Foolish compulsive cooks see this as an opportunity to expand the original bowl of pasta into a three course meal. The first step was to consult the cookbooks, since I knew without even checking that there was nothing in the fridge but some cherry tomatoes, which would have been scorned instantly, and some parmesan.
Am I the only person so indecisive that I will prepare two alternative menus, each with its own shopping list, to put off the decision? What decided me last night to go for the spaghetti bolognese (I'll post the recipe later) instead of pad thai was that I found a recipe for gooey chocolate puddings that could allegedly be prepared in minutes. Anybody else follow that reasoning? It helped that I knew I wouldn't find Phuket crackers - the Thai version of prawn crackers, but vastly superior, and it's pronounced Poo-kett, for those of you sniggering at the back - on the Holloway Road.
So off to the supermarket for the ingredients for a menu as follows: antipasti, spaghetti bolognese and green salad, gooey chocolate puddings. But the indecision was not resolved - and here is where it can be an advantage: the local supermarket had a special offer on ripe figs, as well as some rather good (though very expensive) buffalo mozzarella. Vague 'antipasti' were instantly binned and a fig, basil and mozzarella salad conceived.
Here are the results:
All that's added is balsamic vinegar and lots of black pepper. We mopped up the juice that had exuded from the mozzarella and somehow emulsified itself with the balsamic vinegar with German-style light rye bread.
The chocolate puddings were a success, although my previous opinion was confirmed that Nigella Lawson's idea of how much rich chocolatey goo it is possible to consume in one session is wildly exaggerated.
If I'd had longer to wait, I could have made soup and provided a cheese course....

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Afternoon tea

Apparently it was a duchess (Anna, Duchess of Bedford) who invented the tradition of afternoon tea to help her through the longueurs of the eighteenth century. “A sinking feeling” around four or five could be staved off by having tea and some light snacks brought to her room.
Its place in English culture is undisputed, but for the Anglo-Irish it could be seen as even more emblematic. Allegedly those taking tea in the Shelbourne Hotel during the Easter Rising in 1916 were so unmoved by the bloody events taking place outside that only when a stray shot hit a clock in the hotel drawing room did they retire to another room at the back of the hotel. This story demonstrates nicely both the attractive aspects of the culture (there is something admirable in this impeturbability and how could you not like people whose main ritual centres round tea and cake?) and their extraordinary distance from the vast majority of people in their country.
In literature, the two best afternoon tea scenes are in the same play, also by an Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde. The first scene established forever the centrality of cucumber sandwiches to the meal, while the second is an invaluable demonstration of the use of polite ritual to be unforgivably rude. I am of course talking about The Importance of Being Earnest - if you are not familiar with this work of genius, I recommend the film with Edith Evans.
My maternal grandparents held the meal in great respect, with a Victoria sponge baked every day and usually fed to the Pekes - at least when I attended; I’ve never cared much for cake and it was a great treat to watch the dogs perform their tricks for the jam-filled reward.
Now most hotels with any pretensions to style will serve afternoon tea. In Dublin, the Shelbourne’s offering has been superceded by that of the Merrion, which is delicious and vastly overgenerous, as well as being consumed in saloons decorated with an excellent collection of Irish art, while being regaled by a harpist.
In London, I used to take tea at the Cadogan Hotel (site of Oscar Wilde’s arrest) when looking for a rendezvous, delighted by the cucumber sandwiches and white-gloved, white-haired butler, but it is a little bit out of my usual circuit, so I am experimenting with alternatives.
Claridges is famous for its afternoon tea, but it is fabulously expensive, so it makes champagne seem like a cheap option. The restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery has a wonderful view but the tea is made with tea-bags, the cake is too cloying and the sandwiches lack the delicacy that luxury requires.
I will keep you posted on further research.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Just shut up and eat.

At the moment, food seems to be the subject of much media debate here in the UK, and is possibly even a common topic in discussions between real people.
Mostly these are positive debates that look at aspects of food and people’s attitudes to it, but recently there is also a thread of the argument that says “Food is just functional. Just shut up and eat.”
In some ways this is a compelling argument. Comparing white balsamic vinegar with yuzu juice is a decadent pastime, spending hundreds of pounds on a meal is a shocking denial of the reality of our unfair world and a society that is simultaneously struggling with an obesity epidemic and fears about anorexic models is seriously dysfunctional. Perhaps we should just be grateful that we have enough to eat and be quiet about it.
Of course I don’t agree. Food fascinates me, not just because I love the experience of eating, enjoy the flavours and aromas, the textures and the satiety, but because it is so important in so many ways.
Every one needs to eat. The unfair way that our global food supply is distributed is largely a political issue. The methods used to produce our food help to shape the physical world we inhabit. Our cuisines are defined by our cultural history and much of the dynamics of family life, both positive and negative, revolve around food.
A Poetry Society publication that combines poetry and recipes stresses the positive aspects of both the cultural and psychological power of food - it is a lovely book, but its unrelenting cheerfulness left me wondering about whether poets ever write about the painful sides of food.
In Like Water for Chocolate, the heroine’s emotions are the most powerful ingredients in her cooking; this seems to me a more honest depiction of the way that food and self interact.
It is still incomplete, though: we can express emotion through cooking, but equally emotion can affect our experience of food. After a traumatic life event a couple of years ago, not only did I lose my appetite (though not my palate and enjoyment of food) for nearly a year, but my ability to tolerate sweetness and bitterness changed dramatically and permanently.
Perhaps we can think about Western society’s attitude to food as being like its attitude to women’s breasts. Their primary function of nourishing infants still exists, but in most people’s minds, for most of the time, it has been overlaid by the secondary function of sexuality and all the complex ramifications of that. A feminism that insists that breasts only exist to feed babies is trying to deny the reality of a vast layer of Western culture, and therefore failing to engage with the issues raised within that, even though in evolutionary terms it may be correct.
Similarly, food is fundamental for survival, but it has also come to serve many other important functions in our lives. Saying “just shut up and eat” may be tempting after one too many Sunday supplements proposing the merits of seasonal cooking or blueberries as a superfood, but it is a reductionist response to an interesting if sometimes overblown discourse.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish

Yesterday’s silence was due to utter but happy exhaustion after a day at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School . Rising at five is not my favourite way to start the day, and I wouldn’t normally consider eating jellied eel before eight o’clock in the morning, but it was all part of a wonderful day learning more than you would have thought possible in a single morning on the subject of fish.
Among the fruits of my labours was a pair of Dover sole, skinned and with the fillets ‘lifted’ by myself, so that I could stuff them with pesto made in concert with Dean, who got stuck with me as a desk partner. Inspired by instructor CJ Jackson’s accounts of adding langoustines to the mix, I put prawns down the centre, with the result you can see above.
At a later date I will write at greater length about how tuna is sampled with a cheese iron, the fennel scent of fresh seabass, the filing cabinet full of live eels and most of all CJ’s inspiring teaching, but for tonight I will just leave you with the image of snapping off a gurnard’s head so that the swim bladder suddenly pops up, a tiny opaque white balloon emerging from the body cavity with a sickening squelch. Perhaps you’d rather not know about how much fun it is then to turn the head back on the body, pulling it down so that the skin peels neatly off the body like the paper from an ice lolly.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Italian treats?

With twenty minutes to kill between lunch in a Lebanese fast food joint on the Edgeware Road and a press conference near Marble Arch, I decided to have a coffee. Instead of resorting to a coffee-chain such as I could patronise any day, it seemed like a nice idea to go to a little independent café on New Quebec St.
It seemed promising that the waitress greeted the customer ahead of me familiarly, in Italian. They discussed what should go in his sandwich - he wanted prosciutto and formaggio, but couldn’t decide what cheese, so he was offered tasters of the different options. He insisted that the most important thing was that it be made with love; she assured him it would be made with love. It was all delightfully Italianate, even though I think he was actually English.
I suddenly realised the downside of this authentic Italian jollity. By Italian standards, it was far too late to ask for a cappucino. Although it wouldn’t be my normal choice, I had already drunk much too much black coffee this morning to be able to contemplate yet more unadulterated dark stuff. I cravenly asked for a machiato, which they served without blinking.
This emboldened me to explore the possibilities of the pastries that were obviously the specialities of the place. Unfortunately I was not sufficiently emboldened to ask what exactly an Aragostina was - trusting that it was more interesting than the deep-fried croissant it looked like, I ordered one without enquiring.
Well, it was definitely more to my taste than the crumbly dry biscuity things (including but not limited to biscotti) that were the alternatives, but I was deeply disappointed to discover that it was simply a crispy pastry filled with Nuttella. A sort of overweight, hazelnut-free Ferrero Rocher. Back to square one in my quest to appreciate Italian cuisine.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Squash to the left of me, courgettes to the right...

In mid to late summer, my mother spends her time racing to keep up with the courgettes as they attempt to take over the garden. Unfortunately the usual summer inhabitants of our home are mostly my father’s family, all of whom despise vegetables. In Borough Market today I found a display that shows what happens if you give in to the in-laws and fail to gather the courgettes.
It had never occurred to me that squashes and pumpkins belong to the same family (Cucurbitaceae) as cucumbers and melons, but once it’s pointed out, it makes a lot of sense. Their seeds are virtually identical (although no-one’s ever tried to make me eat toasted watermelon seeds) and it also explains the cursed sweetness of many squashes.
I have always been appalled by the idea of the traditional American pumpkin pie with marshmallows, an obligatory part of the Thanksgiving dinner, but it is a recognition of the undeniable sugariness of the orange globe.
I have recently given in to the blandishments of the butternut squash, but only those recipes that use chilli, cheese or citrus flavours to offset the sweetness really convince me. Puréed squash on its own is too cloying for my palate.
A soup of butternut squash with toasted hazelnuts, fresh ginger and lemon is delicious, although I slightly have the feeling that this is because the added ingredients successfully disguise the flavour. That’s not a good sign. Perhaps I should stick to the decorative squashes my mother started to grow this year, assuaging her desire to grow the vegetables without putting pressure on her relationship with those who sit at the table saying “Ugh. Zucchini. Ugh.”

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stone soup

There is a Portugese folk story of the wily beggar who gets the most miserly woman in the village to supply him with the ingredients for a delicious soup from what she alleges is an empty larder. He claims to be able to make the soup from nothing but a magic stone and some water. A carrot, some seasoning, the odd onion or hambone that she might find discarded at the back of her larder would make it even more delicious… in some versions he even manages to sell her the stone after they have drunk the soup!
Some people take this as a parable about co-operation in difficult circumstances. I see it as a serving suggestion.
When you find yourself contemplating an empty fridge, it’s easy to give up and order pizza, but when your bank account is in the parlous state mine is in, and you pride yourself on your ability to produce good food, it’s time to implement the stone soup system.
My magic stone that transforms the scraps into an edible dish is pen and paper. A hunk of dried cheddar, the remains of some chicken gravy from the weekend, some slightly sweaty mushrooms: this are not inspiring to look at, but write down the list without the descriptions, add anything you may have in the freezer or store cupboard, and the likelihood is that you will be inspired. Even if it were just a dried out chunk of cheddar, a little bit of butter and milk and some frozen peas, that could be turned into a passable macaroni cheese with the aid of some nutmeg and a bayleaf.
Tonight’s list, after I had thrown out the soggy tomato, drooping carrot and a half and the remains of an elderly salsa, consisted of: spring onions, cream, créme fraîche, parsely, stewed plums and (in the freezer) some prawns.
The results you can see above - at least the main course. I had gobbled the plums and cream before I thought of preserving their image for posterity!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The scent of apples

As a devotee of heritage apple varieties - and no one is more delighted than I am when the fragrant boxes start to appear at farmers' markets and outside Neal's Yard Dairy - I am supposed to despise Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady and other such plastic-bag-packed, supermarket waxed, varieties.
But outside of September and November, when I spend most of my time crunching on Norfolk Russets or Nutmeg Pippins, I do occasionally have a yen for a soft, sweet-scented Golden Delicious, spraying sugary juice as you bite into it, or a crisp, plastic-skinned Granny Smith, whose acid flesh was always paired in my adolescent midnight snacks with processed red cheddar. Pink Ladies are a more recent introduction and so have no childhood memories to soften my perception that they are a scary apple clone, intended to satisfy the minimum requirements of an apple and therefore quell our desire for the wild and inefficient variety of oddly sized, differingly flavoured, sometimes scabby or misshapen apples that are the natural heritage of anyone brought up in the temperate climes of north-west Europe.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Oooh saucy!

I have eaten in a couple of fantastic restaurants recently where excellent service and imaginatively used ingredients were undermined by a failure to balance the main ingredient with the sauce. At Zuma, a seaweed salad came drenched in a tahini sauce that not only beat the subtle flavour of the sea vegetable into submission, but left the succulent, rubbery texture bedraggled and unattractive.
The signature dish of marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf, while obviously the finest fish you could wish for, was again overpowered by a sweetish sauce that simply did not give the fish room to express itself. Mixing rice into the sauce did lighten the mixture so that one could see the point, but given the way the menu was set out (very Atkins friendly), it would have been easy not to order any carbohydrate at all.
I should say that the sashimi was delicious, the soft-shell crab with wasabi mayonnaise dreamy and the service assiduous without being intrusive. My notes say that we also had grilled tuna with barbecue sauce and grilled chillies. I remember the tuna (fish that good is hard to forget), but the barbecue sauce has passed from my memory and is not visible anywhere on the menu.
Lunch today at Café Studio Delfina (pictured) was as delightful as I have come to expect from this interesting outpost of culture, both visual and culinary, behind London Bridge. The starter of tempura Monte Enebro goat's cheese drizzled with lavender honey and almond nibs next to a salad of bitter leaves was beautifully judged. The balance between unctuous and delicate, salty and sweet, lush and bitter, brought all the ingredients together in a complex system of flavour and mouthfeel.
However, the lemon sole with strawberry and Thai herb sauce, served with rice, displayed the same failing as the Zuma dishes. Excellent ingredients, thoughtfully combined (the sweetness of the strawberry sauce was beautifully cut by the anise of the Thai basil), were just in the wrong proportions. The delicate sole was swamped in the bright pink gravy, both texture and flavour dampened by too much sauce.
At least this time rice came as part of the deal, but it was served in a bowl alongside, consisting of fat, undersalted grains, failing to fully serve its purpose as a soaker-up of unnecessary sauce.
A friend of mine has accused me of being anti-sauce, but I'm confident this is not the case. As a devotee of French cuisine, I am sometimes even concerned that I am too much given to smothering my food with sauce, but I do try to make sure that the underlying component can stand up to the overlay. Perhaps I just need to prioritise the carbohydrates on my restaurant plate - or perhaps fashionable chefs need to spend more time thinking about the structure of their dishes as eaten by the customers, instead of concerning themselves only with the checklist of flavours.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A friend in need makes pie

What's the best way to be a supportive friend? When a distressed pianist rang me up to say that the female pianist he had been seeing had severed relations (because she liked him too much. This is typical of musician-logic. Never get involved emotionally with a musician!), I naturally offered the most comforting response I could think of.
"Come and have a drink, and then let's cook supper together."
Luckily I had spent the afternoon experimenting with my pastry-making abilities; I've never liked short pastry but have always assumed that flaky pastry was both too difficult and too arduous for me to make. A Darina Allen recipe that promised infallible results provided the instructions were followed meticulously, combined with an empty Sunday afternoon, had inspired me, so a beautiful pat of raw flaky pastry was resting in my fridge, just right for providing aid and succour to heartbroken keyboardists.
We didn't follow a recipe for the filling (although we did glance at a couple of Nigella recipes for inspiration), but relied heavily on the contents of the musical fridge. The fridge and the local Turkish convenience store provided the ingredients for a broccoli, bacon and cheese pie, with red chilli to add zing visually and orally, and an egg to hold it all together.
Add some salad and red wine and it certainly softened the blow of being dumped.
Technical notes: I used unsalted butter in the pastry, which was a mistake as it left the pastry a little bit bland, and I was too proud of my pastry to bring myself to trim it properly - hence the odd triangles folded over the top of the pie. That was another mistake, as it left undercooked wodges of pastry under the triangles. I'll know better for next time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Birthday cake blog

You already know the recipe , so let's be specific about the baking of this particular cake.
I arrived home last night, confident that I had all the ingredients for Granny Grene Chocolate Cake, which I needed to prepare for this morning. My plan was clear and achievable: make the cake, put it in the oven, spend 20-25 minutes pottering over some chores, take the cake out of the oven and go to bed well before midnight. This would have made it easy to get up early, ice the cake and deliver it before going to work.
This all went swimmingly until it came time to measure out the flour and cocoa . I knew for a fact that I owned (in the sense of paid for and have not yet used) 1 1/2 small pots of Green & Black's Cocoa , and a large pot of supermarket own brand cocoa. Unfortunately I had not bothered to pack them in the last move, so they are all sitting in a kitchen cupboard in Chelsea, an hour's bike ride away.
Not a disaster. Put jeans on instead of pyjama bottoms, hop on bike, up to late night shop. Nearest LNS closed; go to the next one. Next two also closed. Head down Green Lanes (a lively or dangerous road, depending on your sense of adventure) to the 24-hour convenience store. First one: no cocoa. Second one: five different varieties of drinking chocolate, still no cocoa.
Back on the bike to get to another shop - this one I'm confident will provide.
But the nice police constable politely asks me to wait while the police photograph the crime scene between me and the final shop. Finally traffic is allowed through and I gingerly cycle past, not liking to stop and peer at what I think are bloodsoaked rags behind the police incident tape.
The last shop has cocoa!
Invigorated by my success, I zoom home to complete the interrupted baking.
After this adventure, it scarcely seems worth commenting on the actual baking, icing, decorating and eating of the cake. I would just like to say that my fan oven, which up till now I have found unsatisfactory, seems to bake cake beautifully.
Happy birthday, Jack!

Monday, September 11, 2006

How to stay thin and maintain your foodie status

What makes a diet successful, if you discount any of the pseudo-scientific babble about blood-groups, star signs, or the evolution of our digestive tracts? A successful diet gives its followers a framework for eating less, allows them to spend their entire time thinking about food and gets them to consume fewer calories.
Unlike most fashionable diets, my favoured method of staying thin has no claim to be backed by any scientific theory (although if pressed, I could probably come up with some improvisation about it using the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy). But it does allow, or rather command, you to eat delicious food.
The principle is that any food you eat should be delicious. It works if you concede a number of underlying assumptions: freshly prepared food is better; seasonal food (often organic) tastes nicer; with most foodstuffs, if you pay more you get better quality. Most importantly, once you have eaten more than a small amount, even caviar will slip from the pinnacle of deliciousness to being just very nice fish jam. The one thing forbidden by this diet is excess of quantity.
With this diet, you can eat whatever you like, whether it be foie gras or fried egg sandwiches, provided it is truly delicious. There are several ways in which this guards against over-consumption. First of all, you can’t afford to eat enormous amounts, because even a frugal-seeming plate of antipasto for two can blow a week’s budget if you’re buying the very best San Daniele prosciutto and marinated artichoke hearts.
Then, you will spend so much time choosing and preparing the food that you will have less time to munch as distraction from being bored.
Both of these factors are limiting in themselves, but they will also result in your having a more respectful attitude to the food that has cost you such an effort. You will appreciate it more, savour the flavours more carefully and eat less for more pleasure.
The only danger is that you become obsessed and start spending your time doing things like making flaky pastry or stuffing almonds into olives. Life is full of risks.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fear of fish

Every fish recipe you’ve ever read tells you how easy it is to cook fish. So why do I find it so hard? Even buying fish is difficult - there is so much choice (I’m never good with choice) and they don’t come with instructions. I often go to the fishmongers with the best of intentions and then come over all funny at the thought of coming to terms with red mullet or line-caught wild seabass, and have to run away to the butcher instead.
Having bought the fish, the next step is to find a recipe. This I also find intimidating, because they always tell me how easy and simple it’s going to be.
I never trust anyone or anything who tell me something will be easy. That just means that when it goes wrong, it will be for some unidentifiable but fundamental reason that is probably caused by my having bad karma. A complicated recipe is more likely to come out edible, because getting one step wrong (or forgetting it entirely - that happens often) is unlikely to spoil the whole thing.
Last week I tried a Nigella recipe for mackerel poached in cider; although it wasn’t inedible, it did end up overcooked and certainly not worth the effort I put into it.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason I can’t cook fish is that I don’t like fish. It’s certainly true that I am never tempted by the idea - my food fantasies are usually based on meat or cheese - but many of the best meals I have ever had in restaurants have been fish.
In attempt to get over this block, I will spend a day learning to face my fishy fears at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School . After this, I will either be capable of producing delicious fish or confident enough to say that I just don’t like eating things without legs.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Back or streaky?

Shouldn't bacon be streaky and smoked for maximum flavour? Until this morning, that was my belief. Then the Man cooked me breakfast with this bacon taken from the backs of happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs, with a layer of white fat significantly thicker than the meat.
He cooked it very gently so there was just a barely golden surface slipping off the fat, and accompanied it with entirely unncessary (but very nice) fried eggs.
The first mouthful did not appeal, because it was very different from my idea of bacon, but by half-way through the second mouthful, I understood and was in awe. The mouthfeel is extraordinary - light greasiness wrapping the subtle crunch of the unmelted fat - and the flavour required no smoking, no added sweetness. It was savoury without being salty, subtle without being elusive.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

heaven in small bites

People may complain (and they frequently do) that Brussels is not the most exciting city in Europe, but nobody could complain that it doesn’t have good restaurants.
Not only do even the small neighbourhood brasseries have excellent standards (I still regularly recreate a warm chocolate and cinnamon soup from one), but there is no lack of innovation and creativity in serving styles.
Although the ‘tapas-style’ or grazing menu has made its insistent way across the continent, it is not necessarily an easy one to get right. The temptation is to have too long a list of little things, so that the attention to detail that is key to making each individual dish different and satisfying is lost. In restaurants that avoid this pitfall, there is the danger that the ingredients and artistry required push the price up to the point that you end up paying huge amounts for tiny nibbles.
Le Fourneau managed to steer its way carefully between this Scylla and Charybdis, with just 15 principal dishes, four ‘indispensable’ and six ‘superflus’, although it’s hard to know by what scale of values haricot coco and potato with truffles is indispensable while a salad of baby spinach leaves is superfluous.
Everything comes either by weight (100g seems the base measure for things like fish or steak) or single units of itself, such as the lobster raviole.
Predisposed to like it simply because it was prepared to serve us ten minutes before the kitchen was due to close (three other restaurants had already turned us away - Belgian chefs like to go off duty at 9.30pm, and who shall blame them?), my companion and I were very taken with the high stools ranged along a bar surrounding a central table and viewing the kitchen. I would not care to sit at that central table myself, but it provided much entertainment after the chef had finally cooked his last bonne bouche.
A restaurant so expensively and minimally decorated in London would also be intimidatingly trendy. In Brussels the staff were of the highest competence but extremely friendly and helpful.
An amuse gueule of mousse de foie gras with quail was much lighter and less meaty than the description sounds, more like a savoury dessert in the mouth. My companion and I, having fought like sulky siblings over who got to order the best dishes, had a lobster raviole apiece, swimming delightfully in its cream sauce. This is the kind of dish that eaten in conventional quantities might give rise to nightmares, but in a portion that can be comfortably consumed in four forkfuls leaves one regretful that it is so small but ready to move on to turbot in butter sauce (heavenly) and carpaccio of tuna with mango (excellent but not as sybaritic as the other dishes). The only element that failed to strike a similarly high note was the papillote of langoustine with Thai basil, which came across as a half-hearted spring roll, minus the usual crispness of the vegetables.
This I supplemented with a perfect salad in petto, miniature little gem leaves with tiny bacon bits and croutons, leaving me ready to contemplate the dessert menu with much more than my usual enthusiasm.
The menu well repaid my interest, offering up a ‘panaché’ or smorgasbrod of delights. Melon soup, chocolate mousse, almond milk ice-cream and raspberry sorbet chased each other around my palate, spoonful by spoonful daring me to choose which combination I liked best.
The rich velvety darkness of the chocolate mousse was offset by the bitter cold of the almond ice-cream , while the clean sweetness of the melon balanced the tartness of the raspberry sorbet. Just another taste of chocolate to see how that goes with the raspberry, perhaps; although maybe the watery flavour melon would complement the thickness of the mousse. Another spoonful of bitter almonds to remind me of the scent of English 1920s murder mysteries… How can the raspberry sorbet taste so intensely of raspberries? And how can it all be gone already?
I was filled with envy of my companion who lives in Brussels and can go there every week if he so wishes, to discover what is so indispensable about ‘gateau de legumes, envie de soleil’ (does this mean that the vegetable cake sits on your plate, pining for the sun, or perhaps the sun is jealous of their summerry flavour?). When he actually told me about his next visit, when he inveigled his way far enough into the good books of the chef that the entire evening was spent accepting little offerings the chef had thought might tempt his palate, I turned green and started to lay plans to move to Brussels.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Serving suggestions, please

I work alongside a trade magazine for the drinks business. This means that there are often bizarre and wonderful beverages floating around the office, and occasionally I get offered a taste (although never of the vintage champagne, I've noticed!)

This afternoon, I was the only willing guinea-pig prepared to taste the chilli-flavoured beer. I had joined the general outcry of disgust when first told about it, but true to my principles was prepared to sip with an open mind.

The discoloured green chilli floating in it was not visually enticing, but it did augur well for the drink. This augury was not misleading, as it smelled and then tasted delightfully of fresh chillis, one of my favourite flavours. The next taste was just of a clean Mexican lager, and then finally a strong but not overpowering heat from the chilli.

My only problem with chilli beer is this: what would one drink it with? It's much too hot to drink with spicy food, but it would overpower most other meals. If I were ten years younger, I'd keep it in the fridge for drunken nights when I got home with a kebab, but I don't feel like going down that route any more.

Chocolate has a pleasing suitability, what with the Mexican connection, but I'm not sure what kind. Milk chocolate for the comfort and junk foodiness? Dark chocolate for cultural sensitivity?

Suggestions please!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Chicken noodle soup

[Note: this was supposed to be an apology for my refusal to back down and admit that I was wrong, but on mature reflection I have decided I was right, so it's a plea for forgiveness for being obnoxious instead.]

I am Jewish enough to think of chicken soup as a panacea for all ills, so when my Taste-tester had toothache, I rushed around armed with my pharmacopeia of chicken stock, noodles, chilli and coriander (I’m only Jewish through my paternal grandmother, which gives me leeway to make Thai-based chicken soup).
Despite pressure from the Taster to use reginette (wavy-edged, half-inch wide strips of pasta) I went with Sharwoods Egg Noodles, which I cooked according to instructions without salt. First mistake. Unsalted noodles are as uninteresting as any other unsalted pasta.
Then I assumed that the red chilli I had bought from Sainsburys would be very mild, so I chopped it all up and threw it into the stock at the very beginning. Second mistake. It was so spicy that I had to fish out most of it and add lots of lemon juice and fish sauce to tone down its fieriness.
The end result was not disastrous, but oddly unbalanced. It wasn’t too hot, but the lemon juice overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the stock, while the noodles were too bland to add any bite to the soup, which was also a bit salty in itself.
Because this was in the privacy of the Tester’s home (I am normally able to restrain myself from issuing searching critiques of my cooking when other people are eating it), I launched into an analysis of the problems and pondered the solutions.
I was enjoying myself, pontificating away as I considered the flavours in my mouth and imagined how they could be re-balanced, when the Taster jumped up and produced a book of noodle recipes for consultation.
For some reason, this eminently sensible action infuriated me, so I said scornful and illogical things about how pointless recipes were for such a simple dish, preached lofty ideals of allowing due weight to the sensory experience and ended up with almost a serious row on our hands.
His contention was that looking at other recipes would help me think about how I could improve my soup. I countered that it was futile to look at other people’s idea of what you should do with these simple ingredients in order to produce my own ideal. (Among other arguments against recipes that I won’t bore you with, and which anyway I would rather forget.)
In the calm light of day (and stuck in an oven-like office with only mind-numbingly dull work to do for the next couple of hours), I decided to be mature, climb down and look at alternative recipes for inspiration on how to improve my own technique.
And whaddayou know? The many recipes all aimed to achieve entirely different things with their chicken noodle soup, and were no help to me at all in thinking about my own recipe.

So here for the record is how I think I should have done it last night:

Chicken noodle broth for two

2 servings thin egg noodles
750ml chicken stock (I buy Joubere Organic stock when I don’t have enough of my own in the freezer)
a couple of scallions, chopped (reserve some of the green tips for garnish)
a stick of lemongrass, chopped into four cm lengths and bruised with the back of your knife
1 chicken breast, finely sliced
1 red chilli, sliced (and deseeded if necessary – the only way I know to find out if it is is to taste it, a risky strategy)
a squeeze of lemon juice
coriander, chopped

Boil some water, salt it generously and cook the noodles according to instructions. Meanwhile, put the stock, scallions and lemongrass into your soup pan and bring to a gentle boil. Add the chicken and cook till done, which should be only a few minutes. Just before it is done, add the chilli and the lemon juice, tasting to make sure you don’t overdo the lemon.
By this time the noodles are probably done. Strain them, refresh them in cold water and divide them between two soup bowls. Pour the broth over them, making sure the chicken gets shared out fairly. Add the chopped coriander and scallion tips as garnish.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monaco - third circle of hell

I get no sympathy when I complain that I have to spend a week in Monaco for work, but believe me when I say it's horrible. Do you like crowds of loud rich people flaunting their yachts and their diamanté sunglasses, unbelievably high prices, a dearth of taxis and temperatures in the thirties? Then you would like Monaco.
I cordially dislike all of these things (and don't start me on the investment managers I was there to interview), so I don't care for the Principality. (And I am on principal opposed to royalty, so I don't like being in a place where there are photos of a singularly unappealing prince all over the place).
The positive side is the yearly press dinner held by a company that wisely chooses good restaurants and eschews talk about work in favour of jolly conversation. Last year it was held in the Chateau du Chevre d'Or, in a delightful village half an hour from Monaco. This year the venue was more convenient (being just on top of the conference centre) but still had fabulous views.
After a week of bright sunshine, the thunder was rumbling and the heavens had opened, so we couldn’t sit outside at Zebra Square, perched atop the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco. Luckily the excellent mojitos mixed up by the bar staff consoled us while the wait staff rushed around bringing in cushions from the terrace and preparing an indoor table for our party of 12.
I love restaurants that offer an amuse-bouche, a little something that the chef has come up with to keep you going (and amused!) while you decide on your meal, so I thought I was onto a winner when the waiter at Zebra Square produced and flourished a tray in front of us.
But we all did a massive double-take when we realised that the tray held two enormous fish (one dourade and one sea-bass), as well as a large lobster. One of my companions shrieked as the lobster waved a claw at us – this was the specials list.
Once we had been introduced to our food, we sat back and waited for the antipasto misto to appear. Bresaola and parmesan was excellent, although the chiffonade of parma ham was less than exciting (am I the only one who thinks Spanish jamon iberico is more than its equal?), as was the mozzarella and tomato salad. Making up for this was the pungent octupus salad and the fried calamari with a soy-based dip with an entirely unexpected chilli kick. All of these were served together on luxuriant beds of rocket, which got nibbled up as we awaited our main course.
None of us had been quite brave enough to demand the sacrifice of the friendly lobster, but my giant prawns were large enough to terrify a small child. With prawns, the rule is usually the smaller the sweeter, the larger the meatier. These were no exception, being very butch in flavour, but the rice and vegetables they came with did not live up to their company, being quiet and possibly subtle – next to the prawn monsters it was hard to tell.
Three of my companions had asked for the dourade to be served up between them, and it was reported to be delicious – it certainly smelt excellent – while no complaint was heard about the steak served variously rare and medium.
A couple of months ago, my low expectations of Italian cheese had been confounded by an excellent cheeseboard in a London restaurant, so Zebra Square’s ebullient waiter found it easy to persuade me that it was worth another try. Alas, my original opinion of Italian cheese – that it is soft and smooth and bland – was reinforced by the Taleggio, Dolcelatte and other unidentifiable smooth cheese that came in place of the promised Parmesan and Asiago.
Other diners claimed that their desserts (spiced pear compote, crème brulée, something chocolatey) were excellent. The final civilised touch came when the waiters cleared away the table cloth with the debris so we could sit over our coffee and liqueurs in comfort.
(Supporters of Italian cheese will be happy to hear that back in London, La Fromagerie supplied me with an excellent wine-washed Ubriaco that proves that Italy can produce something interesting other than Parmesan.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Coronation Chicken

I thought it might be interesting for some people to see the recipes from the menu at my mother’s birthday lunch:

In some circles, (middle English Daily Telegraph-reading classes, I believe) , Coronation Chicken is no longer acceptable because it is such a cliché for the buffet lunch, but it is my mother’s favourite party food, so the birthday girl had her way. It is also entirely possible that it has been resurrected in the way that prawn cocktails and melon balls have recently been. “Ironically” - you have to say it like that, making little quote marks with your fingers to emphasise how ironic it is. I assume it was invented in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the UK, but would be delighted to be put right.

This is the recipe my mother uses, as copied from her hand-written cookbook:

Coronation Chicken, (Rita Cassels)

Rice salad:
1 lb rice, cooked and dressed with olive oil and wine vinegar dressing while hot. I add frozen peas at this point, then sweetcorn, celery, peppers etc.

Coronation chicken:
1 cooked, chopped chicken.

2 onions
2 apples
3 tsp curry powder
2 tbsp apricot jam
1 glass red wine
bay leaf
150ml chicken stock
3 tbsp tomato purée

To add when cold:
1/2 pt cream, whipped
5 tablespoons mayonnaise

Fry onions, add other sauce ingredients and simmer 20 mins.
Cool and then stir in cream and mayonnaise and chicken.
Decorate with grapes and toasted almonds and serve on ring of rice salad.

For silent vegetarians

The vegetarian dish was an old standby of mine from years ago when I was less ambitious in the kitchen and had more vegetarian friends. It is from a Madhur Jaffreyy cookbook originally, but I was introduced to it by a very silent tutorial partner at university, who had devised several shortcuts. Years of experiment led me to the realisation that the times given were based on rather tougher versions of chickpeas and bulghur wheat than I usually use, so I have further tweaked the timings and added a couple of extra twiddles of my own.

Charlotte Smith’s bulghur wheat with chickpeas and tomatoes:

4 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, drained
1/2 tsp + 3/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 cup bulghur wheat
lemon slices
more parsley to garnish

Heat the oil in a large pan with a tight-fitting lid. Fry the onions until soft, then add tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add chickpeas, 1/2tsp salt and minced parsley, and cook for ten minutes on a low heat, stirring gently. Add bulghur wheat, 1 cup of water and 3/4 tsp salt. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn heat down very low and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the flame, remove lid and cover pan wth a clean tea-towel. Replace lid and let sit for ten minutes. Stir in generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper and serve garnished with parsley and slices of lemon to squeeze over it.

Granny Grene Chocolate Cake

I have mentioned the inevitability of the Granny Grene Chocolate Cake as a birthday cake elsewhere, so here is the recipe, adapted for cupcakes. If you want to make a layer cake, use two 8 inch sandwich pans, bake for 35 minutes and use 4 ounces of butter as a base for the icing, which goes in the middle, on top and ROUND THE SIDES.
In any case, decorate with Smarties!

Please bear in mind that the recipe is American - measurements are given by volume and the cups are a bit smaller than European cups. I recommend investing a small amount in a Tala measure - I use mine all the time.

Granny Grene Chocolate Cake
Cupcake version

1/4 lb butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/3 cup plain flour
1/3 cup cocoa
1 2/3 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla essence (optional)

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4, 350° C.
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add dry ingredients, alternately with milk.
Put in bun cases - about one tablespoon of batter in each. Makes about 30 cupcakes.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes - or less, depending on your oven!

Chocolate butter icing:
Cream butter and caster sugar and add cocoa. Adjust amounts of cocoa and sugar to taste. You can add a liquid such as milk, cream, whiskey or whatever flavour you like.
I think about two and half or three ounces of butter is sufficient, then the amount of sugar and cocoa is entirely a matter of your own taste. You can substitute icing sugar for caster if you prefer smooth to crunchy icing.

Some people would recommend icing half the cupcakes with chocolate butter icing and the other half with orange butter icing, which is very simply butter and sugar creamed and flavoured with orange juice and a little orange zest.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A big birthday lunch

A couple of weeks ago, my mother turned sixty. Although she has always been vague about her age, this has never been due to vanity (she is even more vague about her children’s ages), so she decided to hold a party for the occasion.
Naturally I saw this mostly as an opportunity to gain experience in catering for large numbers. The main problem was trying to find out how large those numbers were, and then to work out what the appropriate scale of catering would be.
My mother invited everyone she knew, or at least everyone whose contact details she had, but was very vague about how many that was and even more so about how many were likely to turn up. It turned out that our original guess of something between 100 and 120, based on a number of rules of thumb and a wild stab in the dark, was not bad - 128 plates were used for the main course.
What is the biggest number of people you have ever cooked for? Up to about 12 seems to work by regular maths, where the recipe gives a good enough guideline. After that, the law of large numbers apparently takes hold and people eat different amounts and expect different choices to be offered.
Amounts for the canapés to go with the champagne were easy enough to estimate, as most recipe books give guidelines (we went with three per person, which was not inadequate), but once you’re into the main course, guidance is hard to find.
We went the cold buffet route, laying food out on trestle tables in the barn (my parents still live on the farm where I grew up). There were three main course options: coronation chicken, which my mother made, mixing it up in a huge black bin purchased for the occasion, smoked trout fillets, and a vegetarian option. My parents, who are abstemious types themselves, assumed that everyone would choose one of these and take a reasonably small portion. Just half the hundred available trout fillets available were put out and I was instructed to keep the vegetarian option small. Since to my knowledge just one non-meat eater was expected, I merely made enough for twenty.
The four salads I made in slightly larger proportions - enough for perhaps thirty each - and my mother at the last minute decided that, as a special treat for herself, she would make egg mayonnaise. In the couple of days running up to the party, everyone kept trying to lighten her load by offering to make the mayonnaise, until she pointed out huffily that she enjoyed this particular task. Adventurously, she decided to trust Julia Child’s unlikely instruction that eggs may be hard-boiled in large quantities in a pressure cooker. This worked extremely well, with just one cracking in a dozen of dozens, although the egg yolks did discolour, despite Child’s assurances that they wouldn’t.
I’m sure any experienced caterer reading this will have worked out already that we were cutting the amounts very fine, especially given most people’s propensity, when faced with three main course options, to take some of each. Luckily I saw the one vegetarian standing in line just before the last portion of chickpeas was taken, so I jumped her to the head of the queue.
The next course of raspberries and cream was simplicity itself to serve, although again the amounts were not particularly generous. Cream does not get whipped up in a trice, so latecomers had to put up with pouring cream, while the extra meringues that we afterwards found hiding in a tin would probably also have been welcomed. Twenty pounds of raspberries disappeared in approximately 15 minutes, which implies that our guests were not only appreciative but also very efficient in serving themselves in the not particularly spacious room where we had set out dessert.
Cheese went down very well with those who found it, although this was the one area in which we over-catered (it is no coincidence that it was also the only area for which I was solely responsible). I have written in more detail about the cheese in a separate post!
Finally, there was birthday cake. In my family, birthday cake is practically by definition a chocolate cake made to my grandmother’s recipe and decorated with Smarties. The only concession I have made to advancing age is to make the cake into cupcakes, which I think are more elegant to serve and eat, as well as providing smaller portions for those of us who no longer want to stuff our faces to the point of nausea.
So for my mother’s sixtieth, it seemed appropriate to make sixty cupcakes, especially as she had rejected the idea of candles. Then of course I had to double that to ensure that every guest could have one if they so wished. One of my sisters arranged exactly sixty of them to form the digits 60, although as we are not a family that are good at ceremony or co-ordination, greedy guests were allowed to start eating them before we had a chance to have a proper embarassing communal singing of Happy Birthday and appreciating all my hard work!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Food you don't want to eat

Dinner invitations (particularly business ones) are often accompanied by the query: "Is there anything you don't eat?" My answer to this has always been "Liver", on the assumption that no host would be so cruel as to serve kidneys or heart without warning. It's the combination of the almost bitter flavour and the grainy smoothness of the texture that is so unappetising; grainy smoothness is not an oxymoron in this case, because what is objectionable is the way that it melts in your mouth, coating it entirely with the tiny nodules of ultra-meaty dark flavour. Yeuch.
Recently (and partly inspired by Jeffrey Steingarten's 'The Man who Ate Everything'), I decided that I had to learn to love liver. Mostly I've been doing this by thinking how much I admire and respect Fergus Henderson of St John, whose motto "Nose to Tail Eating" does so much to amuse and disgust the fainthearted and weakstomached.
Last weekend I got to my local butcher's and realised that I didn't have any meals coming up that could legitimately involve delicious roasts or huge stews. Pondering the best cut for a single eater, I realised that a truly dedicated foodie would use this opportunity to experiment with liver. (And the advantage of doing this on my own would be that I could always throw it out and order pizza if it was too disgusting).
So I bought a small amount of lamb's liver, on the assumption that it would be less strong and liver-like than calves' liver, and took it home. An afternoon with my cookbooks produced mostly recipes for liver and onions or liver and bacon, most of which seemed to be predicated on the assumption that one likes liver (bizarre). I did find one recipe for sweet and sour liver, which sounded like it might be less offal than the others, so that was what I went with.
I managed to quell the nausea induced by handling the liver - just don't think about your own liver inside you, is my tip - and served up something that was definitely edible. Let's not get carried away here, the mushroooms that I experimentally fried with fenugreek, cumin and chilli were much nicer, but I didn't gag once while eating the liver. In fact, I might even consider trying again with a less cowardly recipe, but just don't expect me to salivate!

[This post is specially for my cousin Ed, who's not able to eat much at the moment. I thought it might be nice for him to read about disgusting food.]