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Saturday, December 29, 2007

A new twist on Arrabiata

My current favourite kitchen accomplice is vegetarian, doesn't like courgettes, aubergines or mushrooms, and has a very precise palate. There's no point trying to slip parsley or coriander into a dish - the Accomplice will notice and pick them out. If she doesn't like the food offered, she politely declines; if an idea is mooted that she doesn't approve of, such as anything with raisins in, she realistically mimes retching.

In spite of all this, she is an enthusiastic and creative cook, unfazed by being asked to act as pastry chef in a strange Spanish kitchen, undaunted by the tedious physical labour of rolling pasta and punctiliously polite in the kitchen.

We went to a local Italian restaurant recently, where she ordered Insalate Tricolore as a starter and then a main course of Spaghetti Arrabiata. When the salad came, she ate the tomato and the mozzarella but reserved the avocado slices. When the spaghetti came, she explained that the combination of spicy tomato sauce and avocado was what she was aiming for.

We have since experimented a little bit, and come up with this recipe.

Rakhi’s Arrabiata sauce

1 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1 avocado
1 ball of mozzarella
Grated parmesan

Heat the olive oil, gently fry the garlic and chilli briefly. Add the onion and fry for ten to fifteen minutes (or until soft), then add the tomatoes. Allow to simmer for ten minutes. Then just before serving, add half the avocado, chopped, and puree the whole.
To serve, pour sauce over pasta (whatever shape you like). Then, chop the remaining half avocado into chunks, tear the mozzarella into small pieces, and scatter both over the pasta. Serve with grated parmesan.

Friday, November 30, 2007

That elusive fifth flavour

On paper, the new (ish) restaurant chain Leon seems like a Good Thing. It uses organic food, makes it fresh, offers a comfortable space to hang out in that is open all day and serves coffee, food and beer at any time.

So far, so good.

Their fresh lemonade is nice and their coffee not bad. And all of their food is entirely unappetising to me. I felt like a complete grouch as I scanned the menu. For main courses, they have dishes served either with pilaf rice or wrapped in flatbreads. I asked - the pilaf has raisins in. Not for me.

The flatbreads fail to rise above the usual sodden boringness of most wraps; trying them once was enough.

The board above the service counter promised sesame chicken wings as a special - this sounds more like it. Unfortunately, it's misleading. They're not available. So I settle for houmous and flatbread. (Free, the server assures me, which is a relief, because I would have stormed out if they had tried to sell me a pot of houmous with nothing to dip in it.

The houmous, it turns out, has large amounts of lemon zest in. Again, not for me. But it did make me feel better, because I realised exactly what it is about the food that I don't like, without being able to say that it's not good food.

There is no umami flavour to anything I have ever eaten at Leon. If it were just salt missing, I could probably just shake salt on and be comfortable with it, but umami is harder to introduce.

The flavour palate is entirely tilted to the sweet/sour/bitter end of the spectrum. There is little saltiness and no umami in Allegra McEvedy's cooking. For lots of people, that's not a problem - the Man is very enthusiastic - but if you have a savoury tooth, it's no fun at all.

Insult to injury: the Man offered me his chocolate brownie as consolation. I waved it away, because even looking at it I could catch the whiff of orange in it. Truly Leon is not for me!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cheese Dreams

When I was little, we often used to have melted cheese on toast, which we called Cheese Dreams. There is a smidgin of truth in the theory that cheese gives you nightmares: apparently eating cheese just before going to sleep can increase your amount of REM sleep, during which you dream. This does not alter the proportions of normal dreams to nightmares, but if you are prone to bad dreams, they are presumably more likely to happen after eating cheese. If you usually have harmless or enjoyable dreams, eating cheese before bed seems like a good idea.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The secret ingredient

There were two secret ingredients that made this evening's cottage pie delicious. Having put some potatoes on to boil, I set to work to make comfort food.
I chopped and fried an onion and a carrot in beef dripping from Sunday's roast. When they were soft, I added a couple of chopped portobella mushrooms, and put some salt and black pepper in the mix.
Then I ground the leftover beef, mixed it in with the vegetables and moistened it with the leftover gravy and some red wine. Now it's time for the secret ingredients. Freshly ground white pepper and tomato ketchup add spice and sweetness.
When the potatoes were done, I mashed them roughly with some butter and salt, then built my cottage pie, slathered on some more butter and shoved it in the oven.
When the mashed potato was golden and crispy, I served it with peas cooked with butter and basil.
I never eat shepherd's pie, because I grew up around shepherds and think it's cruel to eat them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Farinaceous update

Remember my search for Israeli couscous? I finally found a good source: the Sainsbury in the Kingsland shopping centre. It has a Jewish foods section (about two feet of shelving, but it counts), and when I went to buy noodles for savoury kugel, I discovered Israeli couscous on special offer.
I hope that doesn't mean they were discontinuing the line. It went remarkably well with mutton chops and gravy.

Friday, October 05, 2007

In the dark

Do you eat with your eyes? Does the appearance of the food matter more than the flavour, and can you tell the difference? This is the question posed by Clerkenwell restaurant, Dans le Noir, where diners eat in a blacked out dining room, served by blind waiters. Not an original concept – there are similar establishments in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin – it is nonetheless intriguing.

And not a little intimidating, at least in prospect. It took me several years to gather the courage and the foodie companions to make it to the sixty seater, where you are greeted in a rather offputtingly large and empty foyer with a small bar and a wall of lockers. Customers are asked to put anything that might emit light, such as mobile phones, into the lockers, and then asked to choose whether they want a menu that includes meat, fish, seafood or none of the above.

Having chosen, each party is assigned a blind waiter, who leads a mini-conga line into the dark. Already you are unsettled by how different it is from a normal restaurant, where they may control you just as much, but they pretend they are offering choices.

Once in the dark room, I struggled not to burst into nervous giggles, as it was borne in on me how odd the situation was, but deep breathing calmed me. One benefit of having your restaurant in the dark is that you can seat the guests extraordinarily close together, on the basis that this will make it easier for them to communicate, or pour each other’s wine.

This does work, although it could go disastrously wrong if the stranger seated next to you were not as pleasant as the Iranian boy whose perfect manners made him a delightful neighbour.

Place settings were fairly simple: knife, fork, napkin. For glasses, two solid tumblers – “Please use the larger one for water,” said the waiter, before putting water and wine bottles down for us to serve ourselves. Although that seemed simple enough, I’m fairly sure I drank indiscriminately from my own wine glass and that of the lady sitting opposite me, the mother of the polite lad next me.

Most people struggled with knife and fork, but I dived straight in to use my fingers. The starter was clearly designed as a tease, challenging you to work out what you were eating. A tiger prawn wrapped in bacon, chorizo in some kind of sauce and deep fried bread with a jam were easy to identify, although details such as the red wine sauce and that it was mozzarella with fig jam were not revealed until afterwards. It was not a plate that one would hope to see in a normal restaurant; the individual ingredients were nice but not outstanding and had nothing to say to each other.

The main course generated some discussion in my party as to what it was: my insistence that it was chicken not pork turned out to be nearest the mark, which was guinea fowl. It came with some buttered celeriac, variously identified as potato, squash and celeriac, and puy lentils in gravy.

Dessert provided my only moment of real food disorientation, as I picked a small globe from the top of the chocolate pave and put it in my mouth. Rather than being a berry or a chocolate chip, it was hard and waxy and any scent it had was overwhelmed by the smell of chocolate. After I had nibbled cautiously on it for several seconds, unable to work out it out, the signals suddenly unscrambled and I realised it was a hazelnut.

Other than that brief moment of perplexity, I found this experience a lot less challenging than I had expected. The most difficult thing for me was accepting that I had to sit so close to strangers, and dealing with the cacophony of the room, where darkness seemed to make people much less self-conscious about talking than usual.

Thinking about the experience, I have to choose between feeling begrudging and patronising, neither of which is appealing. Either I was disappointed because Dans le Noir was not exciting enough – anyone who’s had a campfire has eaten in the dark – or I was not an ideal subject of the experiment because I have already thought so hard about my relationship with food and adventured so far into the borderlands of my comfort zone that simply eating in the dark was less exciting for me than many others.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Eurovision accompaniment

This post is a couple of months late, for which I apologise. I spent a delightful weekend in southern Sweden with my friend Kamila and her cousin Helena. It was a musical interlude, as Kamila was singing the lead role in a modern opera, I did some voice recording for a Finnish composer and we had to watch the Swedish competition for the national Eurovision entry 2007.
Last week the actual Eurovision happened and I remembered that I had promised to put this recipe on the blog after making it for Kamila and Helena to eat while watching the kitsch-fest that constitutes a large part of their national culture.
So here it is, girls:

Sophia’s Swedish Satay Sauce


Dried egg noodles

1 tablespoon veg oil
2 cloves garlic crushed
3 cm knob of ginger minced
2 red chilis finely sliced
1/3 jar crunchy peanut butter
3 tablespoons vinegar (ideally rice vinegar, but any white vinegar will do)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
juice of 1 lime

Bring water to the boil, salt and throw in the noodles.
Gently fry the garlic, ginger, chillies in oil, then add peanut butter. Stirring continuously, add water from the boiling noodles until it reaches a sauce-like consistency. Add the soy sauce, vinegar and lime juice to taste.
When the noodles are done (maybe five minutes?) drain them and refresh with cold water.

Stir fry ingredients:
Any vegetables you like
Spring onions
Prawns, chicken or any other meat you like
Cooked noodles
herbs: basil, thai basil, coriander
Soy sauce

The aim with stir frying is for everything to be done at the same time, so chop everything first. Try to make sure that things are all roughly the same size. Heat the oil and add the ingredients one at a time in order of which will take longest to cook, ending with whatever cooks quickest. Herbs are obviously always going to be last.
At the last, add some soy sauce; the pan should be hot enough to make it sizzle.

Serve with the satay sauce.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A simple lunch

Cafeteria food never sounds very appealing. Usually, its USP is the convenience of being able to eat without leaving the building. A tide of increasingly high standards for food in London, however, seems to have lifted even this waterlogged boat. One restaurant previously enthusiastically reviewed in this column, Delfina, started life as a canteen serving a set of artists’ studios, and another SE1 business, architects Allies & Morrison, built a canteen space to showcase its design skills and provide its employees with lunch, but having opened it to the public, find themselves with an award-winning restaurant on their hands.
The Table is not a place for formal dining, with its refectory style tables and benches, but by prioritising the quality of the food, they have got the balance between healthy and delicious almost exactly right. An array of salads uses innovative ingredients and combinations to tempt the eye and the stomach; as a committed supporter of the maxim “You make no friends with salad”, I feel disconcerted by the fact that I can rarely make it past the salad bar to try the sandwiches or the hot food.
A pumpkin, rocket and goat’s cheese salad will be given extra crunch by sunflower seeds, while mushroom, jerusalem artichoke and ratte potatoes add ballast to the salad plate. It was here that I first came across Israeli couscous, chewy farinaceous pearls that are likely to be the ingredient of the year when the fashionable restaurants catch on.
Passing on to the sandwich display, it is time to choose between sliced roast beef with gorgonzola butter in rye bread, or a portobello mushroom and cheese in a ciabatta bun. If you are still not tempted, chefs behind the main counter will offer you something from the grill - on a typical day, this might include steak, plaice and monkfish. You can then add a garnish such as rainbow chard or caponata, that Italian sweet and sour vegetable delight.
While it is always busy for lunch, mornings and afternoons are never totally quiet, as many customers come in to pick up a delicious chocolate brownie or a serving of bread pudding, while others use it as a convenient meeting place with excellent coffee.
There are plans to extend its opening hours to include evening dining and drinking when the enormous 1-2-3 Bankside development across the road is finally open - the question will be how soon the architects’ services are called on again to provide an extension.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Along with the Eau de Stilton

Apparently Eau de Stilton was just setting the trend. I have found a new set of his'n'hers perfumes made by the Wines of Spain promotional board. Women get some grape I can't remember and men get Tempranillo.
Q. Who goes out wearing wine and cheese scents? '
A. People who want to smell like me without putting on weight!

Embarassing confession

I think I might be a Swede, really. For lunch today I had herring and mild cheese on black bread and enjoyed it. Do you think there are support groups for this?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Fish in the City

Some people regard the City of London as an exclusive club, a closed system that is inimical to outsiders, and in some senses, they are right.
The advantage of this, on a social level, is that once you are in, you are in and no questions asked.
For years, I have longed to visit one of the great institutions of the City, Sweetings fish restaurant, but was always put off by the fact that it is so obviously an insiders' haunt.
It is open only at lunchtime from Monday to Friday, from 11 o'clock until 3 p.m. in the afternoon and doesn't take any reservations. The seating arrangements are idiosyncratic – mostly around bars and counters, with one long table that must be shared with all other comers, and the menu is almost Spartan in its simplicity. Starters consist of things like smoked salmon and brown bread, or crayfish cocktail, while the main courses run to fried haddock and chips, steamed sea-bass, and scampi.
My curiosity was finally sated recently when a Sweetings regular offered to be my escort for a leisurely lunch. He was warmly greeted by name, not just by the maitre d', but also by the waitress, the bar staff and the head chef, who came out from his lair specially.
I didn't like to demur when he suggested we start with Black Velvets, which to my mind are usually a waste of good champagne and good Guinness, but then I've never drunk them out of silver tankards before. I don't know if it was the receptacle, the quality or the friendly service, but this was a delicious if filling drink.
The crayfish cocktail was supplemented with generous amounts of lobster, by special request, and my breaded fried haddock was excellent. The accompanying chips were good, but the star of the main course, oddly enough, was the spinach, which was plentiful, beautifully seasoned and had just the right amount of butter on it.
We eschewed the public school dessert menu (sticky toffee pudding and the like) in favour of a savoury – Welsh Rarebit, made with cheddar cheese, mustard and ample Worcestershire sauce.
At this point we ran into another of the idiosyncracies that make Sweetings seem impenetrable. They don't serve coffee. Still, by this time I was enjoying myself so much, and had made such good friends with the staff that I was prepared to forgive even this, on the grounds that this was how it had always been.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Just a dab behind the ears

What do you want for your birthday? What should he pick up in duty free to make you happy?

A bottle of expensive perfume - Eau de Stilton would be perfect.

Isn't it sad that it's ten months till my birthday?

And do you think they make a bubble bath?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Don't mention the S-word

One of the greatest cheese debates is whether it matters if you make the cheese with raw or pasteurised milk. Food safety and taste are the two main heads on which people argue, but in the case of cheeses that are PDO (protected denomination of origin), it may in fact be a business issue.
I recently tried a new unpasteurised blue cheese. Not just new to me, but an experiment on the part of its makers, it is called Worksop Blue. It is an interesting cheese, not because it is particularly delicious, (the makers are still working on perfecting it), but because it is a possible source of contention with a powerful special interest group.
The little placard that gives information about it in the cheesemongers has a special notice on the back, where only the cheesemongers can see it, warning them not to mention a certain traditional English blue cheese in connection with Worksop Blue.
Stilton is one of a baker’s dozen of British cheese that have the sought-after PDO status, and its definition includes the rule that it must be made of local milk, pasteurised before use. Anything that is not pasteurised is not Stilton and cannot be sold as such.
I’m not sure if the cheesemonger who said he was afraid his enemies would report him to the Stilton Cheese Makers Association, but the fear of what can be done with a cheese iron and a length of cheesewire kept me from enquiring further.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Can't curl but can swim, Stickly Prickley, that's him

Over the last month or so, I've been far too busy cooking and eating to find time for writing on compulsivecook. Among the highlights have been a fabulous roast of beef on Christmas Day, a ten course meal on New Year's Eve near Nice, including a traditional Saarland-style barbecue where the marinaded pork was laid on a circular grill suspended spinning above the coals and a whole heap of foie gras.
I'm hoping to write at greater length about some of these things soon, but in the meantime I want to record my first experience of eating sea-urchin.
Before leaving Nice, we went to a delightful seafood restaurant where not only did we eat a surfeit of delicious oysters (just like the Walrus and the Carpenter), but the very nice waiter was easily persuaded to let me have a single exploratory urchin gratis.
My companions were very discouraging: the one who had actually eaten them before made horrible faces and tried to dissuade me, while the only other prepared to contemplate seafood was keen to watch me eat one but refused to commit to trying it herself.
I might have been daunted by this lack of support but for the family at the next table. This exemplary French family had piles of oysters, whitebait and urchins, and the two boys (both under ten, at a guess) were eagerly competing to get their share of the platter of spiny balls.
So, my sea-urchin.
It came in solitary state on a silver salver. It had been opened already, and it turns out that there is virtually nothing to one of these sea-hedgehogs. A little reddish cruciform strands of slightly chewy slime, salty and sea-tasting, disappeared in seconds. I'm not sure I liked it, exactly, but then I'm not sure I liked my first oyster.
However, given how rarely they seem to be available in my part of the world (North London), it's probably better for me not to cultivate a taste for them.