Monday, December 18, 2006

Menu for Hope

I was just trying to think of a good title to sum up this post, and decided that, well, the title that's already been given me is pretty damn good already - there's the food bit and the giving bit (well, kind of). I just want to expand on the cool bit... It is very cool.

So... this is the third year of Menu for Hope, though only the first year I've been aware of it. Pim, of the legendary Chez Pim, has once again brought together an extravaganza of food-blogger-powered giving and foodliness to raise donations for a good cause linked to a subject close to all our hearts.

The idea is so perfect it almost hurts. Like all the best ideas, it's beautifully simple. And symbiotic. A load of lovely people give some lovely food prizes, a load of other people give money in return for chances to win the particular prizes they like the look of and then all the monies raised go to the UN Food Programme . Given our preoccupation with food, and the time of year there doesn't seem a more appropriate cause than those who will be at the very opposite end of the scale from our seasonal greed and gluttony.
Oh, and the prizes are GOOD... I have my eye on a voucher for the tasting menu at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and half a kilo of Cambodian peppercorns.
So... GO!, as below:
1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from the Menu for Hope.
2. Go to the donation site at and make a donation.

3. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. Please specify which prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code—for example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 for EU02. (Please use the double-digits, not EU1, but EU01.)

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so the corporate match can be claimed.

5. Please allow your email address to be seen so that you can be contacted in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

Check back on Chez Pim on January 15 for the results of the raffle.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hot Sour Good

Obviously there were good intentions. There always are. Home by 10, up early, that kind of thing. And, as is often the way with good intentions, their blithe little voices were soon drowned out by louder, bolshier characters - temptation, jollity, the first glass of wine...

I did have a good excuse for overindulgence though, having just finished the monster exams which brought an end to my recent intensive stint at college. Still, that didn't do anything to lessen the equally monster hangover which took hold of me the following day.

By about mid-afternoon I started to fantasise about soup. In my experience it's a surefire ameliorator when plagued with a hangover. A little while later, the thought of chillies slipped into my soupine daydreams. Guaranteed to clear out a foggy head, and packed full of vitamin C.

As if that wasn't enough, the idea was cemented when I started googling for hot soup recipes and came across this article . Hot and sour soup it was...

This is my take on hot and sour prawn and scallop soup then. It's fantastically easy and it did the job to perfection. It just tastes like goodness. And the chilli-effect (watering eyes, streaming nose - the birdseyes were stronger than I anticipated) you can imagine (if you so desire) is tantamount to purging all those excesses of yesterday. The broth is deliciously spicy and flavoursome and comforting. Scallops, pearly and smooth, are - without wanting to be hyperbolic - heavenly, and meaty prawns, crunchy sugarsnap peas and mushrooms add enough interest for it to be like a whole meal in a bowl.

Scallop and Prawn Hot and Sour Soup

(serves from 2 very hungry people to 4 polite people)

6 scallops (no roe)
8 raw king prawns
150g sugarsnap peas
150g chestnut mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1/2 red chilli
2 to 3 green birdseye chillies
2 sticks lemongrass
Juice of 2 limes
tsp Thai fish sauce
about 600g good chicken stock (sorry, I don't know the liquid measurement as I bought it in pots that measured in grams, not litres)
3 spring onions - finely sliced
Handful of mint - sliced

  • Chop and crush together the garlic and red chilli

  • Put in a pot with the chicken stock, fish sauce, lime juice, lemongrass, sliced birdseye chillies and mushrooms

  • Bring to boil and simmer until mushrooms are cooked (add more boiling water as necessary according to your desired liquid:solids ratio

  • Add peas, scallops and prawns and cook for just a minute or two until the prawns have gone pink and the scallops are cooked through

  • Serve topped with a handful of chopped spring onions and mint

Monday, November 13, 2006

Of Fat Slugs and Acorn Houses...

An interesting food-related fact for you: "In the Thames Valley area alone, 1,000 tons of fat enters the sewage system every year. Eighty per cent of this is estimated to come from restaurants and takeaways.

"The fat quickly congeals, forming plugs that can cause raw sewage to back up behind the blockages - just like in a domestic sink. This is particularly bad in Soho, in central London, where in the year 2000 a 150ft-long, concrete-hard slug of cooking fat had to be cleared with pick-axes."


This from this article in the Independent this Saturday. The article describes Acorn House, a new restaurant in London's King's Cross describing itself as 'London's first truly eco-friendly training restaurant'. Reading it consolidated in me a feeling of - what was it now? guilt? resignation? disgust? a melange of all these and others? - whatever; it has set off a constant simmering pot in the back burner of my mind over the last couple of days.

This linking food to the environment is nothing new of course. The ethics and consequences of what we put on our plates and in our mouths are everywhere nowadays. From all corners there's evangelists and doomsayers proclaiming the new food sins and absolutions. Books, articles, television programmes.

And of course, as someone with a passion for food - (and the world!) - it's an issue which has often piqued my interest. Though the terms of the arguments can sometimes annoy me - the 'good vs bad', the continual onslaught of what is in and out this week - in general it's a jolly good thing to have this raised awareness and noise about the tremendous and manifold global political, social, economic and environmental effects food and its industries have.

My particular current concern is not one of these big issues you read about though; it's more personal. It's the gap between what I proclaim to believe in and how I actually act. I rail against intensively-farmed meats and then blithely order beef curry with no knowledge of its sourcing. I tut as I read how much food we waste, and then find myself filling the bin up with sad mouldy creatures from the depths of the refridgerator. I wax evangelical on the joys of home cooking and then buy a ready meal from Marks and Spencers...

And I make some excuses for myself - about living in the city and working 9 to 5 and so on and so forth. But really I know they are baloney. To be sure, I don't live in a country idyll with chickens producing fresh eggs outside my kitchen window and a garden full of produce, and I don't have hours on my hands to whip up everything from scratch, BUT every single time I buy food or eat food I have a choice in how I do that. Noone frogmarches me into Wetherspoons for lunch, noone tortures me to make me buy cheap sausages...

I don't want to lessen the enjoyment of my food by getting all puritanical and dogmatic about it. I know I can't live in line with what my absolute ideals would be; but I do want to heighten the enjoyment of my food by knowing that I have made the best decision I can given the circumstances about what it is I choose to buy and eat and cook. And to enjoy knowing that I am putting my mouth where my mouth is, as it were, eating as a means of activising belief and ideals.

So, some soul-searching and researching to be done I think. It's not so long until 2007, a nice blank page, so watch this space for some new-food-year resolutions...

Sunday, October 15, 2006


So, you want to say ‘Thank You’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Welcome’ or maybe just ‘Hello’ or ‘Mid-morning break!’. And you want to not just say it, but bake it. What could be better than a batch of homemade cookies?

Who can not like cookies?

(Not that I had anything in particular to say, just certain ingredients to use that lent themselves to cookie-cooking. But as soon as I had made them I thought, what a good little gift these would make... )

These particular cookies are from The Cook’s Book – one of those books with big photos of clear, numbered steps to perfection that almost makes you feel anything in the world – buying a house, finding a husband, upholstering chairs, solving the middle east crisis - should be perfectly simple if you just follow the nice, ordered steps properly.

Well, whilst this is obviously not the case, happily the cookies, although they don’t look much like the picture, do look strikingly gorgeous, once all steps have been properly adhered to. It’s just a matter of a simple dough mixture, which is chilled and then sliced. Maybe 20, 30 minutes to make, and 10-12 to bake.

This recipe makes about 30 large-ish cookies – plenty for giving and sharing. The original recipe was the chocolate-nut version, but I’ve included the other two varieties I tried – Chocolate Orange and Orange and Blueberry. The blueberry ones (below), due to more moist berries and less dry nuts, were a bit moister, cakier than the others. Still delicious, but in a less cookiesome way.

Cookies - Three Ways

150g (5½ oz) butter
1 tsp salt
240g (8½ oz) light muscovado sugar
2 eggs
225g (8 oz) flour (I found you needed actually a little bit more than this – experiment until the dough sticks; it doesn’t need to be dry but not too gloopy)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda

For Choc-Nut variation
120g (4oz) chopped nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamias, whatever you fancy)
240g (8½ oz) really good chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids – I used Green and Black’s cooking chocolate)

For Choc-Orange variation
Finely grated zest of two large oranges
240g (8½ oz) really good chocolate

For Orange-Blue variation
Finely grated zest of two large oranges
Two handfuls of frozen blueberries

1. Cream the butter, sugar and salt together until light and fluffy
2. Mix in the eggs one at a time until well combined
3. At the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and which ever of the additional bits you are using (chocolate etc. )
4. When it is mixed into a dough scrape it into a ball with your hands then roll out into a sausage shape about 5cm in diameter
5. Wrap in foil or cling film and put in the fridge for at least 2 hours (you can leave it overnight if you want to prepare a day ahead)
6. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
7. Cut the dough into 1cm thick slices, put on a greased tray and bake for 10-12 minutes until just golden brown
8. Cool on a rack

NB - The first batch I made I had no bicarb, and they came out pretty crunchy. The second, with bicarb were more spongy and soft. Neither had that perfect balance the book described of being ‘crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle’ so I’d advise on adjusting your bicarb and baking powder levels – less for those who like a little crunch and more for those of you in the soft cookie camp.

In all of the unlikely places...

It's an inauspicious kind of corner - opposite the bright lights of the Windmill Fish Bar, and continually subject to the waxing and waning roar of Kennington Lane. There's a Pizza Express round the corner, a couple of estate agents and a smattering of shops and eateries, but Kennington is not the kind of place which would inspire anyone not within walking distance to proclaim, "hey, let's go there for the evening!"

However, Franklin's, perched on said corner, is the kind of place which should make people want to come to Kennington. Once you're off the busy street it's calm and classy, without being fancy - subdued colours, matching modern prints adorning the walls, simple paper tablecloths and cute thistles instead of flowers.

The menu is changed daily, presented on a printed sheet of paper (as above - apologies for no better photos - I forgot to take my camera!). It's that rare thing - 'modern British' which really is modern British - made with local, seasonal produce, creative and yet with references to older times and traditions.

You know how you don't know what you've got til it's gone? Well, also I think sometimes we also don't know what we've lost til we find it again. In this case, good service. It's so long since I had genuinely good service in a restaurant that I think I had forgotten what it is. Not just polite and efficient, but genuine enjoyment and involvement; basically making it a profession, an artform, rather than the lowly service job it's often treated as. Both our waiter and waitress were helpful ad knowledgable without being patronising, friendly without being overbearing and enthusiastic without being fake.

This was just one aspect in which you could tell someone had had a vision of everything this restaurant should be and had made it. You could see it in the homemade bread and the good, sweet butter (attention to detail!), in the careful decoration, and not least in the food.

I had two starters, as last time I had a proper meal out I could barely even make a dent in my main course - better to err on the side of the caution and make sure there's room for pudding. It was the right thing to do. After the stuffed squid and breast of lamb I was quite full and not in need of pudding at all, although of course I couldn't say no…

But back to the starters; the squid was a tiny bit rubbery, as squid can be, but I don't think it was the cooking, just its inherent texture. The stuffing seemed pretty simple - tomato-y and chilli-y - but somehow had much more depth than I would have imagined, so that every mouthful was as bright and fresh and interesting as the last.
The breast of lamb was presented somewhat peculiarly - five cuboid fingers, crunchy in breadcrumbs and fried, aside a spoonful of obviously homemade piccalilli. Again, it was packed with flavour; like the 'lambness' had been distilled, and was rich and delicious, nicely complemented by the sharp piccalilli.

B had potted mackerel with toast. Not too dissimilar to a mackerel pate - more chunk and oily and with a slightly more subtle flavour than the smoked variety. The aged sirloin that followed, accompanied by wild mushrooms, was humungous - no other word would do. A solid, substantial slab of meat. It wasn't the best steak I've ever sampled, but pretty damn good (one slight quirk - the waiters don't ask how you'd like it cooked as the chefs want to do it their way. I guess that's fair enough that they want you to eat it how they plan it - which luckily was medium rare, but most people are just used to being able to have steak to their taste).

So, completely stuffed, we recklessly decided to ignore our moaning bellies and sample the pudding menu too. I can't refuse an apple crumble, and wasn't let down by their very apply, crunchy, muscovado-flavoured version (with extra-thick cream; almost like clotted) and B discovered a new ice-cream flavour - quince, which tasted a bit like mincemeat to me, or something kind of spicy, but very nice all the same.

The only downside to all this was that unaccustomed to such quantities of rich food, our stomachs somewhat incapacitated us - you know that completely too full feeling, where you just have to rest and let your body concentrate itself on digestion?

But, questionable gluttony aside, it was a 5-star meal; and a restaurant I would certainly like to go back to, even if I didn't live just around the corner.

NB - we paid £67 for three courses each, with drinks. They do a set course lunch Monday to Saturday until 5pm which is very good value at around £11 for two courses or £15 for three.

This is yum

I've been having a bit of a love affair with feta recently. Somehow the sharp, salty creaminess seems to be the perfect candidate for a number of culinary vacancies - finishing off a sandwich, melting onto toast, making up a simple salad.

This particular salad is the latest reason why I adore it. It's nothing special, no fancy ingredients, or techniques. But it is yum...

Feta, Avocado and Fennel salad

It's just that:
Feta (cubed)
Fennel (sliced)
and Avocado (ripe and cubed)
with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What Valerie did next...

Shortly after I first came to London (almost exactly six years ago as it happens), I started a mental list of 'London things I want to do'.

I can't remember the bulk of them now, but I do know one was to have breakfast in Patisserie Valerie.

Patisserie Valerie sits on Old Compton Street, and every time I was going one way or the other along that busy Soho thoroughfare, I made sure to slow down and allow myself the childish pleasure of nose-to-glass cake-gawping... The window under the awning is always full of magnificently frilly chocolate creations; cakes upon which dancing girls of icing shake multiple skirts; hosts of fruit tarts; a plethora of pastries; outrageously decadent gelatined creamy creations... It's a wonderland.

It wasn't until about two years ago that I actually managed to tick that ambition of the list though. One morning, Shelley and I were in town at just about the right time for breakfast and just about the right place for Valerie's.

So we entered the narrow little room and settled ourselves in a dated looking table near the back. I had poached eggs on toast, I had some fragrant tea, I had the thickest hot chocolate I've ever had, and if memory serves correct, I washed it all down with one of the preposterously pretty fruit tarts. Shell was a willing accomplice in gluttony, so between us we sampled a fair proportion of the menu, including taking extra cakes with us (in a pleasingly salmon pink box) 'for later'.

It was everything I had thought it would be.

Later, I had reason to have briefer and less exciting dalliances with other branches of the small chain. Cream tea on a winter's day, and various little tarts bought here and there. A treat to be sure, but with none of the magic of the original Soho branch.

Most recently Little Sister Saucepan and I sat down for a post-shopping pot of tea at the Kings Road branch, and proceeded to wait 20 minutes to have our order taken. After we'd waited another 5 or 10 for the tea, with no apologies forthcoming, we walked out and took our custom elsewhere.

So it's with mixed feelings that I greet the news that Patisserie Valerie has been sold (or at least enough of it to matter). It has been acquired by Risk Capital Partners of which Luke Johnson, already chairman of Channel 4, and now also of Valerie's, is a member. Johnson has been involved with the development of Belgo, Pizza Express, Strada and Giraffe, and is evidently expecting Valerie to follow the same style of domination.

According to the Times, "The first outlet [of Patisserie Valerie] opened in Frith Street, Soho, in 1926, when the Belgian-born Madame Valérie decided to introduce continental patisserie to the English. It moved around the corner to its present location in Old Compton Street after those premises were destroyed in the Blitz.

"The decor of the site is a holdover from the 1950s, complete with Toulouse-Lautrec cartoons. Since 1987 Patisserie Valerie has been owned by the Scalzo brothers, Enzo, Robert and Victor, who have turned the business into a chain of 11 cafés, all in London, including three franchised outlets.

"The sale process is understood to have been sparked by a difference of opinion between the eldest Scalzo, Enzo, and Robert and Victor, who are twins, over the best way forward for the business."

It seems to me that this recent development is in many ways but a consolidation of what was already happening. Although the Old Compton Street original seemed to retain much of its charm and integrity the process of branching out was already producing paler versions, cliches, clones. And now there will just be that many more of them.

I can't get that misty-eyed for the old Valerie, because I have only known it since it started expanding, and no doubt it will be a reliable-enough place to stop for an (expensive) cup of tea and a confection, as chains tend to be. But what chains can't provide is the magic and mystery of a place with its own history, which the original little VAlerie still clung on to.

No doubt also it will be a valuable asset for Mr Johnson, but I for one will endeavour not to contribute to his profit, and look instead for more exciting, singular little places - places to put on a wishlist, to aspire to, not to pass by with the same 'see it a million times' nonchalance with which we must view 90% of our modern high streets.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oriental-ish Fish

There are some days when, upon returning from another day of existential pondering over what precisely you are doing trapped in front of a computer crunching meaningless data, you just crave some order and satisfying neatness in the kitchen.

On days such as these, you might feel like chopping things into sharp little sticks, and heaping them in smart little piles, before distributing them in terrifically neat parcels... The order of the veggies on the chopping board will ease the ache of day-to-day tedium in your temples and restore a certain calm to your being.

If such is the case, you might want to consider making a dish such as this. It's nothing fancy; a little bit Supermarket magazine actually - a 'Speedy Supper' kind of thing. But it was exciting for me, as I'd never cooked salmon in a foil parcel before (really? yes, really!). And besides, I was feeling a need for some soothing chopping and ordering of the aforementioned variety. As added benefits, it turned out to be not only pretty easy but also perfectly satisfying and tasty.

I'm calling it Oriental-ish because I make no claim to authenticity - the ginger, chilli, garlic, lemongrass, coconut and coriander are I imagine a westernised impression, a bastardisation if you will, of real Thai food.

But, it was damn good, so I'm happy enough with "ish" fish!

Oriental-ish Fish

for 2 parcels

2 salmon fillets
2 sticks of lemongrass
clove of garlic
knob of ginger
1 or 2 red chillies
1 red or yellow pepper
1 spring onion
1 carrot
(substitute other veg that can be cut into batons if you prefer)
handful of coriander leaves
1/4 block of creamed coconut
1 lime

to serve: thai fragrant rice and pak choi (or green veg of your choice)

* Preheat oven to gas 4-5
* Cut all the veg, the garlic, ginger and chilli into thin strips
* Divide 1/2 of the strips between two large sheets of foil. Bash the lemongrass sticks a little and add one to each sheet
* Skin your fillets, salt and pepper the fish
* Place fillets on top of veg on foil and top with remaining strips
* Pour 500ml boiling water on the creamed coconut block in a little bowl and stir until dissolved.
* Now, fold up the sides of the foil square a little bit so the coconut mix won't escape
* Pour enough coconut in to nearly cover the fillet, then crimp the sides of the parcel together so it is all closed up
* Place on a baking tray and pop in the oven for 20 minutes
* Meanwhile cook your rice and veg - I cook all rice the same and it seems to work - measure the rice out in a cup (approx 50g per person). Add exactly twice the amount of water (in volume - use the cup again). Put a lid on. Bring to the boil. Turn down as low as possible. Now leave for 20 minutes - DO NOT TAKE THE LID OFF until done. It should be sticky and fluffy and perfectly done (however this is a basmati method, so I'm always surprised when it works on other varieties. Don't blame me if it burns - maybe I have always fluked cooking rice!)

* To serve - open the foil parcels and put in all on a plate. Top with a handful of coriander leaves and a good squeeze of lime.

It's alive!

OK, I know I've posted a lot of fruit recently, but I promise this will be the last of that little un-anticipated series. I just can't help but share with you the bounty I found in the garden when I last went back to my parents' house.

Hidden pumpkin babies peeking out from the compost heap!

Showers of alien-looking blackberries next to the back fence!

A chandelier of crunchy apples!

Victoria plums diving off the trees every time the wind blows...

To me, being amongst green and growing things is a pure and unadulterated pleasure in itself. But when those growing things bear food, alive in the earth which nurtured it, it's doubly good.

Of Biscuits and Blogging

So I made some Anzac biscuits from a recipe I copied out of a BBC collection of recipes one rainy afternoon in a bookshop somewhere.

They were a little burnt round the edges but thick and oaty and golden-syrupy; satisfyingly different to any shop-bought biscuits.

They went down well with a cup of tea, and they went down well with B.

But I looked at my amateur photos and I considered the unadulterated recipe with its six simple ingredients, and I felt slightly disappointed in these honest, humble, plain chunks of biscuitness.

They weren't, you see, blog-standard food. At least not in my eyes. And with work and studying and so on it's not so often nowadays that I get to really make any food. And without home internet currently, it's even less often that I get to post.

So I've been fretting. It is my wont, as concerns projects and so on. I always want them to be something that it inevitably will not straightaway be. I have a lamentable lack of patience with these things...

But, what negates all that silly fretting is that I am really enjoying having a blog. And what I am enjoying about this project is that I am now actually doing it, rather than just planning it, and although at the moment the reality does not live up to the plans, it is by going through these starting stages that I will achieve what I initially envisaged. By cooking more I will cook better and by writing more I will write better.

So, I'm going to blog the slightly burned and not terribly inspired biscuits. They aren't anything super special, but they are good, and they are another brick in whatever I am building here.

Anzac biscuits
(Makes 20)

Preheat oven to 180C (160 for fan oven), gas 4

Put in a bowl:
- 3 oz oats
- 3 oz desiccated coconut
- 4 oz flour
- 4 oz caster sugar
and mix

Melt together:
-4 oz butter
-1.5 tbsp golden syrup

Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients gently

Put dessertspoons of the resulting mix on buttered tins about 1" apart

Bake for 8-10 minutes and cool on a rack

Thursday, August 24, 2006

In praise of the greengage

The greengage is a curiously overlooked fruit. I suppose against the big, bold, sumptuously fragranced and summer-coloured stone fruits – the peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots – it doesn’t shout much for itself. It looks small and, well, green… unripe perhaps the uninitiated might think.

But those who overlook this little verdant fruit are missing out. For me, it is one of the best summer fruits, one of the fruits closest to my heart.

We have a greengage tree in my family home, but unfortunately it’s rarely ever borne more than three or four tiny but perfect fruits. It’s feeble effort has marked the greengage in my mind with the anthropomorphic characteristics of a plucky survivor, an under-achiever, a shy, retiring, struggling kind of fruit, unlike the plentiful Victoria and purple plums which rained down from the trees either side of it.

And maybe because the fruit were so rare, it made them all the more precious. Each summer would only provide me with one or two sugar-packed emerald mouthfuls.

Putting all that sentimentality aside though, I truly do think this is a king among fruit. It’s just so packed full of its particular summer taste; so perfect in its balance of sugar and tartness and flavour.

The supermarkets can’t really do it justice, but luckily London is blessed with a multitude of small fruit and veg tradespeople, who man little stands on many busy streets. So just a short walk from the office I can buy half a pound of greengages for 60p, and even if it’s grey and miserable like today, I can stand amidst the grime and bustle of the city and be wrapped up in a little sunshiny world as I pop each little gage straight out of the paper bag and into my mouth.

A little extra information…

The fabulous Wikipedia tells me that:

“The Greengage is an edible drupaceous fruit, a cultivar of the plum, Prunus domestica 'Reine Claude'. It was developed in France from a green-fruited wild plum originally found in Asia Minor. It is identified by its small, oval shape, smooth-textured flesh, and ranging in colour from green to yellow, grown in temperate areas. They are known for their rich, confectionery flavour that cause them to be considered one of the finest dessert plums.

The name 'Reine Claude' is after the Queen-consort of King Francis I of France. "Green Gages" were imported into England from France in 1724 by Sir William Gage, 2nd Baronet of Hengrave, from whom they get their English name. Allegedly, the labels identifying the French plum trees were lost in transit to Gage's home in Bury St Edmunds. Soon after, Greengages were cultivated in the American colonies, even taking a place on the plantations of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, their cultivation in North America has declined significantly since the Eighteenth Century

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I heart cherries


It's hot and I have big fat juicy shiny sweet cherries.

Life is good.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Good company

"Hmmm", said the walnut bread to the curly lettuce, "the two of us make a pretty good pair, don’t we? With your crispy freshness and my rich nutty denseness. But I’m just wondering whether we wouldn’t benefit from another friend or two?"

"You’re right", said the curly lettuce to the walnut bread, "I do think a slice of tart goat’s cheese, brushed with manuka honey and grilled to bubbling perfection would sit just beautifully atop your rich nutty denseness."

"Oh yes!", cried the walnut bread, "how perfect. And then, imagine, a shower of shining pomegranate seeds, to contrast with the creaminess..."

"And", added the curly lettuce, "just the briefest splash of vinaigrette."

And both lettuce and walnut bread sighed at the happy creation of gastronomic delight.

And thus was born one of my favourite speedy salads of the summer...

Marie’s Goat and Pom Salad*

  • Several leaves of roughly torn lettuce on a plate (I prefer the curly type with its bright green, crispy and tasty base)

  • One slice thickly cut, toasted walnut bread

  • Atop which, one slice goat’s cheese, brushed with honey and grilled

  • Scatter over a handful of pomegranate seeds

  • A light balsamic dressing (just olive oil and balsamic vinegar) completes it

*thus named because this one was really little sister saucepan’s creation

... and the Delicious Doggy DooDoos (Birthday Cake Part Two)

Following on from my last post, did you notice those little things around the edge of the cake?...

Because there’s a little part of me that thinks birthdays aren’t complete without something of a chocolate nature, I decided to accompany my lemon and berry cake with some little treats I had been meaning to try for a long time, since seeing them on the magnificent Chocolate and Zucchini: Biscuits Chocolat et Feves de Cacao

I’ll refer you to Clotilde for the recipe (click link above)… My only modifications were accidental – I couldn’t find plain cacao nibs, so used chocolate covered ones (a tasty whilst-baking snack I found…) , and I somehow forgot to get cocoa powder in my rush to bake all this in secret, so just substituted flour. The result was still plenty chocolatey enough for me – these are just the right amount of bitter and sweet for me; nicely darkly chocolatey. The somehow heavy lightness, the cute bite-sizeness and a strange compulsion to distinguish whether this is a cake or a biscuit means you really can’t stop at just one.

I added raspberries too, as I had some leftover from the cake. This, I decided, was a good addition. The bites can be a little bit dry so the moist berry in the middle was the perfect foil.

The Crazy Canine Choir Cake...

It’s one of those happy serendipities that people seem to enjoy and appreciate homemade cakes as much as I like planning and making them. I sometimes feel almost guilty receiving thanks and praise when I truly feel the pleasure was all mine – it’s such a treat to have an occasion to bake for.

So it was with B’s birthday. Not long was it since I had read the latest
Australia Vogue Entertaining and Travel and salivated over the lemon and berry cake Jo Miller and Juliet Robb shared in the story about their Long Track Pantry in Jugiong, New South Wales that there was this perfect opportunity to try it out.

I’m a big fan of cakes which use ground almonds, and a big fan too of citrus flavoured cakes, so this already had me sold on two counts. The addition of jewel-like and summery raspberries clinched the deal.

It’s a pretty easy recipe; one of those ones with melted ingredients which you can whip up conveniently quickly. I burnt mine at the edge a tiny bit but it didn’t matter an awful lot. I planned to do a lemon syrup to drizzle over and leave to soak in the day before, but in the event it was sticky and lemony enough already, so me not getting round to it was not too much of a loss.

Dense, crumbly, soft and moist, with tart sweet fruit flavours this is a cake for summer days or a taste of summer on not-so-summery days.

As for decoration it would have been a crime to cover the berries or detract from the lemon-ness with icing, so I opted for a cast of cardboard cutout dogs, a canine choir, to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in speech bubbles (B being rather a fan of dogs). Though I do say so myself, I was pretty chuffed with my inventiveness and the slightly absurd effect, which continued to make me smile the whole hour I waited for the birthday boy to return home.

Berry and Lemon Cake
(makes 1 x 20cm cake)

1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ cup ground almonds
185g butter
1 cup caster sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup raspberries (or seasonal mixed berries)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm cake tin.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, then stir in ground almonds.

Place butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon juice in a saucepan and stir over a low heat until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.

Gradually mix butter mixture into the flour mixture until just combined

Then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition

Pour batter into prepared tin and evenly distribute the berries on top (I attempted to spell out B’s initials, though it went a bit lopsided in cooking…)

Bake on middle shelf for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle withdraws clean.

Leave cake in pan and leave to cool on wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove from tin and leave to cool completely.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A good way to spend three hours

I loved making bread-hedgehogs when I was little. Breadgehogs. My mum would mix and knead the dough and cut off bits for each of us to shape. In between shaping bread rolls into pigs or tortoises or the aforementioned prickly ones, I would sneak bits of bread dough into my mouth, ignoring warnings that it would make my tummy hurt, enjoying the squishy yeastiness. And then we got to eat our little creatures, with their sometimes burnt spikes and snouts and tails.

I got back into breadmaking in my teens, experimenting with recipes out of Laurel’s Kitchen and Stan and Floss Dworkin’s Bread Book. This time the kneading was my own and the results all the more exciting for it. I still vividly remember a rich wholemeal loaf with eggs and oil and sugar in that tasted like heaven and had me crowing with pride to the rest of the family, who were not quite as impressed as I.

In Haringay House Two I got into a habit of baking enough for one loaf and several rolls to freeze, which saw me through the week. I don’t seem to get the time to do that now. You need three full hours from start to finish.

The whole process is so full of satisfaction though. Mixing the dough, rolling up your sleeves and using all your body weight to push and pull and twist and pummel. Slamming it down on the side, working out daily rages as you work the dough. Feeling it change in your hands, become more pliant and welcoming. Seeing it risen and full of life, punching it down. Smelling that belly-warming smile-inducing fresh bread smell, seeing the steam rise from the first slice that you always chop straight out of the oven, even though you think you should wait a bit. Butter melting on soft crumbs, the crunch and chew of a good crust. And that perfectly sated fullness that shop-bought bread just can’t supply.

My favourite faithful stand-by bread recipe is one for French bread from Laurel’s Kitchen. Laurel uses half wholemeal and half white flour, but I prefer just wholemeal. I measure in cups, and I’ve used many different ones; I don’t own a measuring cup. A smallish mug or tumbler should do, or if you buy an individual small pot of yoghurt, that works well too.

Laurel’s French Bread

1 cup natural yoghurt
1 and a half cups warm water
6 cups flour, plus some for dusting board and hands
1 sachet (grams?) dried fast-action yeast
Any additions you want – my favourite is walnut

Mix the yoghurt with the water – it wants to be about the temperature of your hand. Too cold and the yeast will take too long to wake up and rising will take much longer, too hot and you’ll just kill them off.

Pour the yeast in and mix around a bit.

Add three cups of flour and mix in with a spoon.

Add the final three cups of flour and get your hands dirty – use your fingers to mix it into a dough.

Turn the whole lot out on to a floured surface, rub dough off your fingers, and flour them well.

Knead for about 15 minutes, until the dough is feeling nice and pliant and is smooth with tiny satiny wrinkles in it.

Put in a big oiled bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Leave to rise for about one hour or until it is twice the original size. Test for readiness by gently pushing a finger in. if the dough bounces back it can rise some more. If the dent stays, it’s ready.

Punch down the dough – literally punch it in the middle to knock all the air out. Then give a second knead, just for a couple of minutes this time. Add any additions at this stage.

Shape it – I flatten it into an oblong, fold the two outside quarters (lengthwise) into the centre line, and then fold in half. Then pinch the edges together to get a short fat baguette shape. This means you don’t need a loaf tin.

Put on a greased baking tray, or loaf tin if you prefer, and again leave to rise until twice its size. Put straight in to a preheated oven, about gas 6, for 40 minutes or until brown on top and hollow sounding when knocked on the bottom with a knuckle.


Friday, July 07, 2006

If you can't beat them... stew them

What is it about supermarkets and fruit? Do they imagine that I purchase plums because I can not work out where to buy cricket balls? Do they think I am going to test the quality of my nectarines by dropping them from a three-storey building? Maybe they believe I want to use apricots as missiles to scare away neighbourhood cats digging up my gardens...

Ok, or perhaps it is just to do with such boring issues as shelf life and profit margins and transportation. Whatever, they seem universally unknowledgable of the concept of 'ripe'.

When I can I'll buy my fruit from markets, or the stalls on the streets who can manage to procure fruit that actually smells and feels like fruit... But more often than not it's late when I'm shopping and I'm in a big refrigerated building with a basket.

Peaches and nectarines do often ripen if left on the side, but I ended up last week with a punnet of plums threatening to chip my molars.

So, not too confident that they would ever reach the luscious maturity they should have been allowed to, I decided the only way forward was breaking them down.

Halved and stoned, I popped them in a pan with a cinnamon stick, some orange peel and a sprinkling of brown sugar. After 30 or so minutes they succumbed to the gentle heating and were bubbling happily, soft and fragrant, in a fabulously pink viscous sauce. (NB - a note of caution, don't go and watch Big Brother whilst they are on, unless you have a big saucepan and a very low heat - otherwise your hob, as mine, may end up looking like a fantastic vermilion swimming pool).

As it happens, this compote was the serendipitous answer to my breakfast woes - with yoga before work, I don't have time to breakfast at home. A pot of compote and a pot of thick greek yoghurt in the work fridge means I have been able to easily fill my belly every morning with a summery fruity bowl of pink and white. yum!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mmmmm... edokko!

I had my first raw prawn yesterday. It was a mouthful of slightly strangely sweet, smooth silkiness. It was part of a platter of assorted sashimi at Edokko, a small Japanese restaurant tucked away on Red Lion Street, in a quiet corner of Holborn, central London.

I liked the place as soon as I walked in. Or in fact sooner, because the two glowing scarlet lanterns hanging outside reminded me happily of paintings from childhood books. Inside, through a curtain and a door, there's little wooden booths, bar seating round a refridgerated cabinet full of fresh fish, pretty blue and white cushions, warm lighting from the paper lanterns and a smiling waitress ready to greet you (or at least there was when we went).Sitting at the bar (this was the only place we could reserve; the tables evidently go early, although both options are good) we started with the aforementioned sashimi, prepared in front of us by a silent, silver haired chef. The plate, and everything we saw emerge from his deft hands, was an aesthetic triumph - a magnificent sculpture of immaculate looking chunks of carved fish flesh, grated radish and elegant garnish.I'm no sashimi expert, so I can't place this in any grand scheme or rate it against any recognisable arbiters. But to this sashimi virgin, it was superb. We had tuna, salmon, sea bream, sea bass and the aforementioned prawns. The tuna in particular had a subtle meaty flavour that I enjoyed, but all of it was delicious - a soft, pure kind of texture and delicate taste, that I found left me with a strange contented satisfaction quite unlike the 'full' feeling I'm used to getting on eating more earthy foods. The prawn was a revelation.

We followed the sashimi with a mixed tempura plate – slices of aubergine, courgette, sweet potato, and some gigantic prawns, encased in a light batter. A more filling dish than the sashimi, it was tasty and fun biting in to each bubble-cased package, but not as revelatory as our first course.

I was smitten again with the dessert – but more for my eye than my mouth. The green tea ice cream which accompanied its red bean and vanilla cousins, was the most gorgeous shade of green. It tasted pretty cute too – just like green tea. The red bean though was a little bland, and the vanilla no more than a mediocre vanilla ice cream.

B was intrigued by a strange fruit squashing ritual going on to our left as we finished dessert, so we enquired of the waitress what she was making. It was Shochu – a kind of Japanese spirit, which was being served for some Japanese businessmen behind us with a preserved plum and some warm water. So, interest piqued, we tried one too. I liked the big red floating sun in the glass, and the liquid itself was smooth and subtly flavoured, except when you get to the dregs, and all the salt of the plum surprises you. With lemon – as we tried it afterwards – it was refreshing and clean. We started, by the way, with a small pitcher of warm sake – I love warm sake (although apparently the warm stuff is common and you should drink the quality stuff cold). Then we cut through the grease of the tempura batter with a couple of dry asahi beers – both perfect complements to their accompanying courses.

As we left, the table of Japanese businessmen (the clientele is predominately Japanese – a good recommendation) were being served a fourth or fifth round of shochu and appearing in increasingly good spirits. My spirits were in good form too – full of the delights of raw prawns, warm wooden décor, pickled plum drinks, beautifully hued ice cream and the unfaultable service. In fact, as B commented, the only thing we could fault edokko on was playing Kenny G. An offence, for sure, but given the rest, one we can forgive them for.