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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.