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Thursday, July 31, 2008

'Snot fair

Is it fair for a restaurant to have only a set menu, admittedly with a wide and excellent array of choices, but with only a three course option?

If you didn't want a large and elaborate pudding after two delicious but substantial savoury courses, the options were to pay a £4 supplement for cheese, or accept that you've paid £40 for two courses.

This does not seem entirely fair play to me. I suppose that's their business model, but given how pricey their drinks were, how hard they worked to sell us champagne (the sommelier wheeled over a trolley of the stuff as soon as we sat down) and how ginormous said puddings were, surely they could manage to stretch their margins in some way that didn't leave the customers feeling bullied and cheated?

But the view was wonderful!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Peaches and cream

Growing up with American children’s books, I have an image of fruit pies as the epitome of healthful plenty. Peach pie, apple pie, blueberry pie. They must have beautiful golden crusts, possibly with latticed tops and come with thick cream. Ideally they are made with fruit that you have picked yourself, and obviously they must be made by a plump and smiling housewife.

I had never eaten such a thing - apart from apple pie, my mother only made fruit tarts, and always with horrible short pastry - until last week.

Staying at the in-laws for the weekend, they had gone out, the Man was asleep or working on his computer or similarly unavailable, the young lady and myself decided to amuse ourselves by baking something.

This is one of my favourite games - get out the cookbooks and find something that sounds delicious but you’ve never eaten and then make it.

This time I’d brought my copy of the Joy of Cooking with me, so we just looked in that. After a lot of discussion of what we were capable of/equipped to do/liked the look of, we settled on Peach and Raspberry Pie with Flaky Cream Cheese Pastry.

The pastry is very easy (I think the cream cheese really makes it much easier) and if you have a freezer to hand, it’s not so important to have cold hands.

Flaky Cream Cheese Pastry:
1 cup plus 2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3 oz butter (75g) (diced and put in the freezer for ten minutes)
3 oz cream cheese (75g) (also put in the freezer for ten minutes)
2-3 tbsp iced water (or cream, if you worry that it won’t be rich enough)

Whisk the dry ingredients and then cut in the fat until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some pea-sized ingredients. This is not the moment to get over-precise - you actually want there to be unevenly sized lumps, because that’s what makes it flaky.
Add the liquid very slowly and cut the dough with a spatula, just enough to bring the dough together in a lump.
Divide the dough into two not quite even lumps, shape into discs, wrap in clingfilm and put them in the fridge for at least an hour.

Then roll out the larger disc to around 13 inches and fit it into a 9-inch shallow pie dish or tart tin. Make sure to leave at least 3/4 of an inch overhang all round, and trim it neatly. Put it back in the fridge.

Now for the pie lid. Roll out the other disc of dough to around 12 inches and either put it back to chill again or start doing basket work with it. We went fancy and made it into woven lattice, which turned out to be a lot less work (although quite time-consuming) than you might think. Instructions can be found here.

Make the lattice on a little tray or something, so that you can put it into the freezer to stiffen while you make the filling.

10 peaches, peeled and slice
2 cups raspberries (you’re aiming for around 5 cups of fruit altogether)
3/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 tbsp cornflour
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp almond extract (optional)
Large pinch of salt

Mix it all together and let stand for 15 minutes. At this point, you should turn the oven on to heat to 220°C.

Now stick it in the pie, place the lid carefully on top and bring the edges of the lower crust over to hold it in place, pinching it firmly. If you haven’t made a lattice, remember to cut steam vents.

Brush the lid with milk and scatter a wee bit of sugar over it to make it pretty.

Put it in the oven for half an hour, then turn the heat down to 180°C, slip a baking tray underneath it and bake for another 25-35 minutes, until the fruit is bubbling up.

Let it cool before eating it - fruit and sugar get pretty hot!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The most important meal of the day?

I have always had a difficult relationship with breakfast, although now that I no longer have to go to school or a job I hate, it has become easier.
Nevertheless, it is hard to settle on a working-day breakfast that makes me happy (weekend breakfasts are another thing altogether and a joy to consider).
At the moment the steady compromise is muesli with milk and a mug of black coffee.
The milk is a recent innovation after years of yoghurt, which is healthier but just a little harder to organise, since my breakfast companion insists on milk.
He also likes his muesli very sweet. This is a difficulty because for years I have been in the habit of buying unsugared muesli and then adding extra oats and nuts to dilute the sweetness of the dried fruit.
So our compromise is that we buy muesli with lots of fruit, he adds tons of sugar and I add a handful of oats.
And every morning I am reminded of my grandmother, who eats muesli for breakfast because she knows it is good for her, but makes no attempt to pretend she likes it. "Disgusting stuff," she grumbles. When I am 97, I too shall give up all attempts to convince myself that I am enjoying my muesli.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Atkins dreams

According to One who Knows, food in Turkey is all about the salad. The meat is good, but a bit same-old, same-old after a while. The really exciting thing is the salad, made from ultra-fresh fruit and vegetables, grown full of flavour under the Mediterranean sun.
Here in Dalston, it's all about the meat. Our nearest restaurant is luckily also one of the best. Mangal 1, so-called to distinguish it from its younger but bigger brother round the corner, Mangal 2, is named for the Turkish barbecue that forms its centrepiece and its main cooking style.
We went there on impulse this evening and were lucky enough to be seated immediately. This had the disadvantage that we were rushed past the list of meats available to be grilled - no such frills as menus in Mangal.
When asked to order, we looked blank, so the long-suffering waiter said 'Would you like a mixed grill to share?' In order to show some independence and originality of thought, we bravely asked for aubergine to start with.
Anywhere else, just asking for aubergine would be a bit strange. Here it brought us a plate covered with a beautiful hot mush of smokey aubergine and roasted peppers, brightly spiced and salted, with a blob of sour cream to provide smooth bass notes.
I foolishly asked for more of the hot Turkish bread to mop it up with after we finished the first basket.
Foolish only because the starter, which would have done me quite happily as a light supper, was followed by a plate with approximately half a lamb, several small birds and delicious meat-juice-soaked flatbread. After we had resigned ourselves to spending the rest of the evening chomping our way through a wall of protein, a huge plate of salad was put down in the only remaining space on the table.
The salad was nice enough - grated carrot, rocket, shredded red cabbage, small chunks of white turnip (bear with me here) and other vegs chopped up and a little salad oil poured over them.
But the meat! Oh, the meat! I am used to meat here in the UK being tender but not particularly flavourful, especially the lamb. In Mangal, every mouthful is savoury, juicy, just resisting enough to the bite to give a satisfying mouthful.
After about ten minutes (one lamb chop, a chicken wing and several bits of shish kebab), the waiter returned with two enormous adana kofte, long tubes of spicy minced lamb, delicious but slightly obscene looking.
Luckily they seem quite used to effete eaters who are unable to cope with this bounty, and volunteered to put the remains of both grill and salad in a box, so our meals for the next three days are sorted.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Summer menu

One of my discoveries this summer has been how well Berkswell cheese goes with asparagus. Berkswell is an English sheep's cheese, a little like Manchego. It is mild and sweet, like most sheep's cheese, with a subtle nuttiness that means its flavour flows into that of the asparagus without a harsh contrast like that of Parmesan.
Tonight I was taken with the idea of simple luxury, so we had asparagus and Berkswell risotto, flavoured with summer truffles, and a peach and feta salad. Eaten in the late evening sunlight, filtered through the green leaves of the trees surrounding our airy flat, it was hard to imagine a better way to celebrate a beautiful summer evening.
Accompanied by an Australian Semillon, very faintly sparkling and tasting of toasted almonds and honey, it made for a luxurious but light supper.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Feeling alive

When I was about ten, I had an impassioned argument with my father about which was better, strawberries or raspberries. At the time, I couldn't understand how anyone could fail to accept the supremacy of strawberries, so sweet and juicy, warm from the sun.
Hot, sticky hours picking raspberries for my grandmother had left me prickled by the canes and covered in horrid little orange mites. I had no time for raspberries.
I am now older and wiser and understand the appeal of these ruby concatenations of seeds. Oranges may not be the only fruit, but if I had to choose one fruit as the epitome of true luxury, it would be the raspberry. Eating good raspberries in the sun is one of the greatest pleasures in life.
At my mother's birthday party, I heard a middle-aged man, indistinguishable from the farming neighbours with whose children I went to school, say as he popped a single berry into his mouth: "Ah, you always feel truly alive when you eat a raspberry." The truth of this impressed me greatly, although I felt the poetry in it was less surprising when I learned that the speaker was award-winning playwright and novelist, Sebastian Barry, not one of our neighbours who left school at 14.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Signs of summer

I am always impatient for the seasons to change. I love the liminal, the edge seasons of spring and autumn, but what I like most is the changing, spying signs of a difference, leaves, flowers, fruit, that weren’t there yesterday. A tang in the air as autumn approaches or the realisation that the watery sunshine now has some power in it.

One of my favourite signs of summer is the creamy white blossom of elderflower. Even in London it paints the gardens, parks and hedges a lovely green and ivory, scenting the air with its particular sweet powdery smell.

For the last five or six years I have gathered elderflowers in Abney Park Cemetery, a nineteenth century burial ground for non-conformists, penultimate resting place for the likes of William and Catherine Booth, Generalissimo and consort of the Salvation Army, several prominent abolitionists and (my favourite) Victorian menagerists Frank and Susannah Bostock, commemorated with a gorgeous marble lion. It is now maintained as wildlife reserve (butterflies, not lions)and yields a wonderful crop of blossom if you don't mind making polite conversation with suspiciously idle young men with very tight t-shirts.

The elderflowers I bring home and make into elderflower cordial, with which I make cocktails and ice-lollies and give to friends and family to drink the taste of summer.

Elderflower cordial
3 1/4 lb sugar
2 1/2 pints hot water
25 heads of elderflower, picked on a sunny day
2 lemons chopped
2 oz citric acid (this can be bought in many places,including my local Turkish grocery where it is labelled ‘lemon salt’)

Pour the water over the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the rest of the ingredients and let stand for two days (or more, if convenient!). Strain through muslin and bottle.

I use the kind of glass bottles that have ceramic lids held on with thick wire. In hot weather, I have known plastic bottles blow their lids off, sending sticky stuff all over the entire flat. It comes off easily with water, but before you get it all, you’re already invaded by ants. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Found a peanut

Sung to the tune of 'Clementine':

Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut just now.
Just now I found a peanut, found a peanut just now.

It was rotten, it was rotten, it was rotten just now.
Just now, it was rotten, it was rotten just now.

Ate it anyway......
Got a stomach ache...
Called the doctor...
Didn't work...
Died Anyway...
Went to Heaven...
Wouldn't take me...
Went the other way...
Didn't want me...
Woke up...
It was a dream...
Found a peanut...

Despite a term at an American elementary school - in Virginia, where peanuts are a staple crop - I never really liked peanut butter. The texture sticks your tongue to the roof of your mouth, along with the rest of the sandwich or piece of toast, and the flavour is impossibly cloying. Too often peanut butter is sweetened, which I find repellent; so much so that I never even tried the traditional peanut butter jelly sandwich about which I know even more silly children's songs.

But in recent years, a growing familiarity with South-East Asian food has led me to look at peanuts with a new respect and peanut butter with an appreciation of its convenience as a shortcut to satay-style sauce.

There is no attempt at authenticity in this recipe, as it is just the basic spicy peanut sauce that I have developed relying on the regular contents of my store-cupboard.

We usually have it with steamed vegetables and noodles for a surprisingly healthy convenience supper, that shouldn't take more than 15 or 20 minutes to prepare altogether. If you feel the need for more protein, prawns or meat would also go well with this.

Easy satay sauce

One jar of peanut butter
2 cloves of garlic, finely grated
1 inch of fresh ginger, finely grated
2 red chillies (or to taste), finely chopped
250 ml chicken stock
a large dash of fish sauce
juice of one lemon

Dried noodles

Put all the ingredients in a pan and heat gently. Allow to simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water if it gets too thick.

In another pan, bring water to the boil and prepare noodles.

Meanwhile, chop some vegetables (I like courgettes and mushrooms, with red pepper to add colour, and perhaps some fennel for the flavour) and steam them.

When the noodles are done, drain and refresh them, then put them into serving bowls with a dash of sesame oil. Put the vegetables on top and pour over a few spoonfuls of satay sauce and garnish with chopped coriander.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pancakes for breakfast

One of the joys of living in Dalston, a not particularly salubrious but lively neighbourhood in Hackney, east London, is breakfast in the many Turkish and Kurdish cafés around.
My current favourite is Café Evin (which I think means 'home' in Turkish). The chief attraction of this particular venue is that there are two lovely women called Fatma sitting in the window all morning making goezleme or Turkish pancakes.
Fatma-1 rolls balls of savoury dough into huge circles and covers half of each disc with a filling. You can choose between cheese, spinach or potato. If, like me, you aren't good with choices before you've had your morning coffee, you can have multiple fillings.
The cheese, spinach and potatoes are all mixed with a variety of spices and vegetables - largely spring onions, I think, but am not sure.
Then she hands the delicious semi-circle to Fatma-2, who is in charge of the hob, a domed metal thing heated from underneath with gas.
It comes to the hungry breakfaster as a great dry floury thing, thinner than a pizza crust and wavering between soft and crispy. A much more satisfying breakfast than the full fry, and it won't leave you feeling full of grease.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Low fat? Delicious!

We've been on a bit of a health drive in Compulsive Cookery Towers, so I've been struggling to think how to cook meals that are low fat, low salt but still not depressing. It's not easy.

As with all cooking, good ingredients are key. Skinned chicken thighs from my favourite poulterer are surprisingly good fried in a dry pan: luckily I have excellent non-stick pans.

Tonight's meal was typical (of the successful experiments. I'll write about the unsuccessful ones another time!). We had chicken with brown and wild rice, a dried mushroom sauce and steamed courgettes and mushrooms.

The mushroom sauce is the key to not being depressed by the low-fat meal. I have never been able to like dry food - potatoes need to be soaked in butter, meat needs gravy, sandwiches need mayonnaise. A friend of mine once commented that there was a hint of obsessive-compulsive in my careful buttering of toast to cover every square millimetre. I say 'how could you bear to eat dry toast?'.

Unfortunately, most sauces, or at least most nice sauces, are fattening, ie made with butter, cream or both.

This is where the dried mushrooms come in. Pour boiling water over a handful of dried mushrooms and let stand for thirty minutes (officially at least. In practice, if I'm very patient, I let them stand for about ten minutes). In the meantime, chop a couple of shallots and fry them in olive oil, or other fat, depending on your dietary requirements and whatever is available. Then strain the mushrooms, reserving the water, chop them finely and fry with the shallots. When they start to exude liquid, sprinkle a wee bit of flour on them and cook for a few minutes. Then add the soaking liquid until the sauce is quite a lot runnier than you like it. Simmer it till it has thickened to your liking. Hey presto, delicious sauce!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Corporate freebies

One of the best things about my job is the gastronomic opportunities allied to being a financial journalist. The most reliable source of delicious catering has been BNP Paribas Securities Services, a division of France's largest bank that does things that no sane human being is interested in. Bizarrely, they have some very nice people working for them, and they throw excellent parties.
Tonight's party was a farewell do for Tony Solway, who is excellent company if you don't mind a certain emphasis on fast cars, and took place in Prism, a City offshoot of the Harvey Nichols empire. I've been there before, but never had their canapés.
Tonight's offerings, well lubricated with Moet et Chandon, were superlative. The foie gras on toast with quince jelly was excellent, as were the tiny smoked salmon blinis and the buffalo mozzarella with cherry tomato crackers, but the star of the show was the scallop tempura. It came with alleged wasabi mayonnaise, but I soon realised that eating them without mayonnaise would speed up the process and make it more likely that I would get almost all of them. Since the alternative was they would be eaten by a load of bankers, that was an easy moral choice to make.
Another time, I'll tell you about snail tempura, but for now, let me just savour the memory of the tiny, crispy hot morsels of batter, each encasing a meltingly sweet scallop. Mmm.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Little bites and nibbles

Tapas or 'grazing menus' are very fashionable in London at the moment, which I have always found difficult, as a greedy person. I tend to feel short-changed when I don't get a whole main course, ideally with several side dishes.
In Spain, it works quite well. You go into a bar; it's easy to find a seat. Then you order drinks and point to several different little dishes, which will fill in the corners until you feel like moving on to the next bar.
In London, what has happened to me is usually that I get to the bar a few minutes before my companions. There is nowhere to sit. The snooty waiter says that they don't take bookings and it will be at least 45 minutes wait. He looks surprised that I am not delighted at the prospect of waiting at the massively overcrowded bar for this length of time. He is also reluctant to accpet that there might be a time of day when one might have a better chance of getting a table.
I stamp and sneer and burn my boats as far as ever getting a table at Brindisa is concerned.
Then last Friday, the Man and I were looking for somewhere nice to eat, and we found Cigala on Lambs Conduit St.
Yummy sherry by the half bottle, delicious food, a menu that allows you to decide whether to have a starter and main course or four tapas dishes, and service that keeps an eye on things to make sure that if your companion has made the other choice, the food comes at the right intervals that no one is ever left hungry; all of these were present and the opposite of what habitués of Brindisa and other fashionable tapas bars might expect.
Then tonight my best girlfriend, drinking partner and foodie friend took me to Barrafina in Soho. Back to the no reservations system, but this time the queue was well organised, the waiter was welcoming and we were encouraged to order sherry, pan con tomate and caperberries while we waited. The pan con tomate alone was enough to overcome my prejudices.
The clam special, the gambas al ajillo and the grilled asparagus with balsamic reduction and manchego left me utterly converted to tapas, particularly as the staff made us feel welcome and looked after without bothering us at all.
I think it's time to reconsider a pressing invitation to visit a friend in Madrid...

Back in view

Hello everyone. Sorry for the long silence. I've eaten a lot in the meantime, although I haven't been cooking anything interesting, as work has been a bit demanding. But I'm back now and plan to keep you all updated on all the delicious food and fascinating foodie thoughts that occur to me.