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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tea shop prejudice overcome

Pay no attention to those bleeding heart liberals who tell you that prejudice is a terrible thing that disadvantages those who are the misrepresented by it. Pay even less attention to those stony-hearted right-wingers who tell you that it’s ok to be prejudiced because only bleeding heart liberals care about the disadvantaged.
The reason you don’t want to be prejudiced is that it will blind you to unexpected opportunities and joys. My most recent example of a prejudice that could have led me to overlook a jewel came in the small Suffolk town of Sudbury, where a thirst for tea and a desire on my companion’s part for cake led us to The Secret Garden. Now, my experience of tea-shops in English market towns is that they offer stewed or weak tea, along with not particularly nice cakes, at rickety tables with uncomfortable chairs and with surly or incompetent service. This is a summary, you understand. It’s only in the best establishments that you get all of these together, but you can usually count on two or three elements. Never order coffee in such an establishment.
These places are greeted by English pleasure-seekers with cries of delight and described by them with tears of nostalgia afterwards. It’s like the English sense of humour and liking for waxy potatoes: incomprehensible to me.
The Secret Garden looked from outside like a perfect example of the genre,but inside turned out to be far otherwise. For a start, it seemed to be run by a pair of French brothers, and its chalkboard of specials made no mention of chips, although there was the possibility of an omelette.
The menu started promisingly, but not exceptionally so for London visitors, with assertions about fair trade, organic products and the option of soya milk, before listing the espresso-based coffee options.
Then it launched into a list of five different coffees available in a cafetiére, including tasting notes. Hot chocolate could be made either with cocoa powder (not a mix with powdered milk) or dark chocolate, the latter to be served with a home-made marshmallow.
Teas were categorised as blended, black unscented (seven varieties), black scented (two), green unscented and scented, white and oolong scented. In all there were 14 possible teas, not counting herbal teas and fruit infusions.
Emboldened by this lavish display, we decided to risk the food. Croque Monsieur Maison was toasted cheese (possibly Gruyère) with cured country sausage on toasted sourdough bread with a green salad. It was delicious, but not as good as my companion’s rillettes of pork, which came with similar toast and crunchy gherkins. Only stern reminders that I needed to taste it in order to be able to write about it (and a threat to sulk for the rest of the afternoon) bought me a bite of this. The rillettes were slightly smoother than I would have expected - more terrine than rillettes, perhaps - but the flavour was a balance of meaty and fatty, cut with a subtle amount of seasoning, just enough to bring out the flavour.
This gem among tea-shops is licensed. Although we didn’t feel that three o’clock on a sunny afternoon with a country walk ahead of us was an appropriate time for drinking, I would love to go back to try the select wine list, especially the Rivesaltes Mas Christine Roussillion. Who could resist the description: “tangerine marmalade flavoured wine made from late harvest Grenache Blanc”?
My prejudice against tea-shops in English market towns remains untouched,because this was so clearly an exception, but I am prepared to learn the lesson that you cannot tell where these exceptions will arise, and always be prepared to override prejudice in quest of unexpected joy.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Making friends with salad

An unlamented ex of mine used to declare “You make no friends with salad.” One of the many benefits of life without him has been learning how satisfying salad can be, in flavour, texture and sheer calorific satiety.
Beautiful weather last Sunday prompted my housemate to cancel a plan to go out for lunch, substituting an afternoon in the garden with chilled bottles of champagne and a table covered in salads improvised from the contents of the fridge. A Swedish-inspired concoction of prawns with cucumber, dill and yoghurt made a cool but filling central dish, while a bag of rocket tossed with the dressing taught to me by my father added greenery to our plates. The dressing is very simply 3 or 4 spoons of olive oil to one of vinegar (usually red wine, because that’s what I tend to have in the store-cupboard), with crushed garlic and salt and pepper. The key is to mix all of this vigorously at the bottom of the salad bowl until it emulsifies. Then you put the leaves in on top. Just before people are ready to eat the salad, you toss it vigorously until every leaf is evenly coated with dressing.
This seems to astonish people with how delicious it is, despite its simplicity. After years of blushing prettily at the compliments and thinking how clever I was to make such good dressing, I realised that the secret was simply in the emulsification and the tossing. It is fashionable to serve green salad naked with dressing on the side to be drizzled over the leaves on the plate. This results in lettuce dressed like a classical Greek maiden: quite a lot of stuff on the body, but so unevenly distributed that a great deal of naked flesh is visible. If your dressing is designed to balance with the flavour of the lettuce (and if you think lettuce has no flavour, you’re not eating the right sort), this is very unsatisfactory.
It is presumably designed to overcome the problem that leaves that sit around in the dressing room in full costume go limp and soggy, but surely any dinner too formal to have the salad tossed at table is formal enough that someone will be available in the kitchen to perform the task there? In which case, they can take the pleasure of tossing it in their bare hands as recommended by Nigella – a typically sensuous and inconvenient suggestion.
Conversely, most tomato salads benefit from being dressed ahead of time to allow the flavours to merge. Tomatoes from the Isle of Wight tomato stall in Borough Market dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and freshly plucked basil leaves rounded out our salad collection (you have to put the basil leaves on after the dressing or they go disgustingly brown and soggy). Inferior tomatoes can be improved out of sight by sprinkling them with sugar an hour or so before the meal, but if you can get good tomatoes, they will even convert a reluctant tomatarian like myself.
If you are determined to force a hearty eater who despises ‘rabbit food’ to accept that salad can be enjoyable, try a huge bowl of mixed leaves with a hearty dressing, croutons fried in garlicky butter, shavings of parmesan or chunks of goats’ cheese, crispy bacon bits, perhaps some toasted pine nuts or other seeds, slices of apple and any thing else that strikes your fancy. It is not exactly the delicate, healthy option that ‘salad’ calls to mind, but accompanied with fresh bread and butter it will satisfy even the most macho of eaters. It may even win you their friendship, if you really want it.

Monday, June 05, 2006

My most annoying cookbook (and a recipe for grilled salsa)

Supper tonight consisted of cucumber, yoghurt and dill salad, grilled tomato salsa and an improvised version of a vegetarian recipe that I had previously tried more faithfully and more successfully.
The original version is artichoke paste, spinach and Coolea cheese grilled sandwich – tonight I forgot the artichoke paste (blend artichokes, garlic and olive oil – simple and delicious!) and added grilled bacon. My first attempt had used Staffordshire oatcakes but there were none available tonight, so tortillas had to stand in.
Without the artichoke paste, and with tortillas being less moist than the oatcakes, the baked wraps were dry enough that the salsa was absolutely necessary.
The salsa was simplicity itself:

4 medium tomatoes
¼ onion
1 green chilli
1 or 2 cloves garlic
8 sprigs coriander
juice of ½ lemon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Char the first four ingredients under the grill, then peel the tomatoes and chilli. Put everything in the blender at high speed for thirty seconds, then stick it in the fridge until you’re ready to eat. Apparently it has to be eaten within a couple of hours, but the recipe book didn’t say why.
The grilling gives it a wonderful smokey flavour – you’ll never need to buy barbecue sauce again!
The (non) vegetarian wraps were inspired by the most annoying cookbook I own.
A couple of years ago, a friend gave me a cookbook called ‘Paradiso Season’, by an Irish chef called Dennis Cotter, whose vegetarian Café Paradiso in Cork is the Mecca for all Irish non-meat-eaters. Even devoted omnivores like myself can be persuaded to forego animal protein for a meal from the restaurant.
The book is beautifully produced, with mouthwatering pictures that give the lie to the idea that vegetarianism is perforce dull, and everything I have cooked from it has been delicious, but it is has occasionally provoked me into slamming it across the table in frustration and fury.
Not only does Cotter have a similar style to Nigel Slater (deceptively airy, but actually quite patronising and controlling), but the recipes are incredibly elaborate. This is a frequent problem with restaurant cookbooks – if you are cooking for large numbers and have sous-chefs, it may be no problem to prepare two sauces, pre-cook your pulses and spices, steam the vegetables, assemble the plated meal and garnish it beautifully, but if you’re cooking a simple meal for two, this seems like a lot of work. However, sometimes it’s worth making the effort for a grand meal, sometimes it turns out that the dish is improved by simplification (there’s a delicious hazelnut and squash gratin that really doesn’t need the Gabriel cheese and cream sauce he suggests) and sometimes it’s possible to work out a shortcut.
More annoying than the elaborateness is that the recipes are very slapdash. Whoever tests the recipes must be so used to cooking with Cotter that they forget that we mere mortals need to be told boring details like temperature and approximate cooking time. This means that one rarely gets the dish right first time, although it is usually nice enough even when done experimentally that one is prepared to spend another evening peeling roasted hazel nuts and reducing vegetable stock (don’t tell, but I usually use chicken stock.)
Other successful recipes I have tried from the book include a beetroot soup that is served with a shot of vodka floating in it and gratin of asparagus and blue cheese. The recipes are always mouthwatering to read and usually as good to eat, but the wear and tear on the cook’s spirits is incalculable.