Monday, February 26, 2007

Savour it

...those moments that make you stop and smile and appreciate.

Some of mine from the week just gone:

  • The novelty of staying in posh hotels for work - mini shampoos! cleaned rooms! new biscuits every day!

  • Daffodils and crocuses signalling the beginning of the end of the gloominess with their brazenly cheerful petals
  • Finding a new good book to get into on the tube - (Bel Canto by Ann Patchett)

  • Radiator-warmed trousers ready for post-work lounging
  • Surprisingly succesful crumbly sweet pastry
  • ...

    The last of which, I would like to share with you. I was planning to make cooked pears to eat with yoghurt for breakfast. I HEART cooked pears. It was a sunny lazy kind of morning however, and I found myself idling, vaguely thinking and reading the paper as I sliced. And they emerged from my fingers uniform and slim, not chunky for stewing. I was arranging them all neat in the bottom of the pan. Obviously my subconscious had been thinking about tarts. So, what else could I do but return to the little shop for butter and flour? Breakfast fell by the wayside, and I settled in to improvise a pear tart. I don't believe there are many better things to do with a saturday morning.

    Now I wasn't actually going to mention the words, those alliterative beauties. But I can not kid myself that that was the platonic ideal - the mighty Tarte Tatin... But, you see, I have issues with tarte tatin. I tried it once and the caramel went wrong and it fell in a heap and the pastry was Awful, and I felt a little tricked and unamused.

    So, I didn't put any pressure on. It's not a pear T---- T----, I told myself, it's merely a pear tart, upside down. Which really it is, because I couldn't be bothered with the caramel sauce.

    And besides there are a million and one recipes for the TT. But in case you too are afeared of it, or you just quite fancy a plain Pear Upside Down Tart, then I thought I would share with you that this is: 1. very simple 2. fun to make (it's all that flipping out and watching the pastry float and brown above its fruity load) and 3. so tasty I polished the whole lot of in a day (NB - this is not recommended; try and make it when you are in the company of hungry people not avoiding white flour and sugar).

    So, without further ado:

    An Upside Down Tart of Pears...

    4oz flour
    2oz butter
    2oz caster sugar
    about 4 or 5 smallish pears
    another few slices of butter (maybe 1 or 2oz)
    another few spoonfuls of sugar (probably 4 or 5 dessertspoons)

    1. Peel, core and slice the pears, and arrange in a frying pan that is ovenproof (I didn't peel mine, but I should have)
    2. Put over a low heat with some slivers of butter and a sprinkling of sugar. Put a lid on and heat until it's all starting to cook
    3. Add a little more butter and sugar and cook for a little longer with the lid off until it's going all brown and caramelly

    4. Rub the butter into the flour and sugar with fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs
    5. Drip in a little cold water - a teaspoon at a time, cutting it in with a knife until the breadcrumbs turn into bigger lumbs you can push into a soft dough - you will not need more than 2 tablespoons of water, probably more like 1. Err on the side of caution
    6. Roll out your dough to a little larger than the size of the pan
    7. When the pears are soft and covered in a sugary sauce, put a few more slivers of butter and sprinklings of sugar on for good measure, and then cover with the dough, tucking in the edges round the pears as best you can
    8. Put in a preheated oven at 200C for about 20-30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown
    9. Cross your fingers, cover the pan with a plate and flip the whole lot over - hopefully it'll fall out, all golden and triumphant
    10. Serve warm with greek yoghurt, or cream, as you like...

    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    Drink and be happy

    About 350 years ago some unknown someone, or somebodies, introduced to the island nation I inhabit a drink made out of the brewed leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. It had quite an impact. The people liked it so much its importation created trade deficits with China. The ensuing attempts to counteract this by selling opium to the Chinese, sparked the first Opium war. And after failing to set up plantations with illegally smuggled seeds in Britain's murky climes, they set about sowing great swathes of India with this special plant. Across the atlantic it was involved in another little ruckus when the residents of Boston destroyed crates of the stuff in a lively protest...

    I can understand the fuss. There have been so many occasions when this ancient drink has been just the elixir to ease aches and pains and worries and weariness. It leaps to the rescue, it comforts, it soothes, it revives. It brings together, it refreshens. Morning tea, afternoon tea, tea break, after dinner tea, lunchtime tea, black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong, earl grey, jasmine, gunpowder, caravan. I love it all.

    One day a little while back I was feeling a little grey, a little weary and tired, a little lost and uninspired. I was trudging through the streets of London, quite aimlessly, as I often did in the days before nine-to-five. And I noticed I was outside a little shop I'd seen often before, with blue and white awnings and windows full of pastries. It must have been nearly Christmas because there were rows upon rows of endearingly imperfectly shaped mince pies alongside the normal enticing confections.

    I had nothing better to do. I went in and sat upstairs and ordered a pot of tea and a pastry. And the joy at having proper tea in a teapot with a strainer, at having the best pain au raisin I'd ever eaten, and sitting in this small scruffy smoky room strewn with handmade paper Christmas decorations, erased all the lacklustreness I'd been feeling. And I loved it ever since.

    So if you find yourself in Soho, on Greek Street, in front of a little french patisserie/cafe with a blue and white awning, go in and have a cup of tea. They've been up and running for over a hundred years apparently and they're pretty damn good at what they do.

    Maison Bertaux
    28 Greek Street
    W1D 5DQ

    020 7437 6007

    And look at the cake I had! (on my last visit, with little sister saucepan, partner in crime and cakes).

    I'm dreaming of it all - tea and cakes and escape from the bustle - now, as I ache with mild wintery illness and irksome work travel. Oh, for a cup of tea.

    "Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future." ~Thich Nat Hahn

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Warm food for cold nights

    So, after all the excited newscasters telling us for days there would be the most snow in, like, a Million years, we got, a few days ago, a delicate smattering of the cold stuff; a dusting of squeaky white icing on trees and letterboxes and rooves and cars.

    Enough to make me smile at this cute little bike, not enough unfortunately to mean gigantic snow drifts stood impassable in the way of my commute to the office. Enough for kids to create snowball crossfire across the morning streets; not enough to hold out until lunchtime before becoming soot-coloured slush. Enough, though, to make it feel wintery enough to search out the lentils and make this humble but classic dish from my childhood:

    Oh I know, there's lentil and sausages a plenty in the cookbooks and gastropubs of the day. But we've been eating this in the saucepan household since I can remember. We've had it on Christmas day, we've had it with friends and without, for celebrations and just for long weekend meals. It's always been a 'treat' food, despite its rustic simplicity, and the unglamourous basis of lentils - how many children have lentils as the basis of their favourite food?...

    And although I know there are a myriad variations i could do, I like it just like this. So I'll put the recipe here so you can see if you do too.

    Lentils with Chorizo
    Serves four

    Lentille vertes - check the packet for per person quantities and then add some; it's good cold too if you're not greedy enough to eat it all (Btw - I don't know why similar recipes call for puy lentils - they seem to be much the same, just more expensive. The little lentille vertes do fine for me - not to be mixed up with green lentils, which are bigger, flatter and more mushy)
    1-2 onions
    1-2 carrots
    A few sticks of celery
    (Optional - any other bits of vegetable you want to use up such as an old pepper or some cauliflower leaves, etc.)
    2 or 3 cloves of garlic
    4 or 5 bay leaves
    A splash of red wine
    A ring of chorizo (or two little ones like you get in Sainsburys)
    Stock (or even just hot water, as the chorizo adds lots of flavour)
    Salt and pepper

    Chop all the veggies into small-ish dice and the chorizo into discs or half-discs, depending on your preference.

    Sweat off the onion in some olive oil in a big deep pan, then add carrot, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring, until softened a little.

    Add the lentils and stir round til coated in oil and vegetables.

    Add splash of wine and stock enough to cover generously.

    Add chorizo and bay leaves

    Bring to the boil then simmer for about 30-40 minutes until lentils are cooked to taste. Season

    Serve with potatoes (to mash in the juice) or crusty white bread. A green veggy or fresh salad will go nicely too.

    p.s. apologies for those extremely unphotogenic potatoes. Actually, it's not much of a looker of a dish all round. Trust me though on this one - it tastes good.

    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    Too cute!

    Many, many years ago, before email and mobile phones and reality tv, two little girls lived in a small town in South West England. Every Saturday the older of the sisters would get a shiny big 10 pence piece - pocket money. Being a generally super kind of big sister, she would allocate one penny of this to the younger child. Both would walk up the road and over the bridge and across the crossing, and enter the kingdom of the little shop on the corner, where big sister and littler sister deliberated over which of the myriad of sugary delights to drop into the old Vitalite tub and purchase with the treasured pocket money. Aniseed balls or white mice or sherbet spaceships for me and my one penny probably. Maybe a blackjack or fruit salad, a cola bottle...

    Predictably, the splendour and allure of pick'n'mix sweets has rather faded 20-odd years on. However, when I popped into Heals on Tottenham Court Road recently, that wide-eyed kind of wonder and greed flooded back as I found an impossibly cute miniature bakery shop where there used to be a flower stall.

    Before I'd even got to inspecting the edible wares, I'm a sucker for that old-style type font they use. Cute! - especially with the soft lights and tiled walls and minty hand-written labels. As for the food... it had rows of pretty multi-coloured fairy cakes with far too much swirly icing and liberal scatters of sprinkles; it had hand-thrown pork pies and big, luscious looking slices of quiche; it had fruit tarts and hugely decadent looking frou frou cakes; it had hot pies and cold sandwiches; it had jams and stylish boxes of various teas; it had plates and plates of sweet-smelling biscuits and muffins and cakes...

    I wasn't really hungry and I didn't really need a cake but as with those Saturday mornings at the sweet selection, the fun was all in the oohing and aahing and ummming about what to pick over everything else.

    I picked a banana muffin. It was good. Not super, but pretty damn good. And now I'm just enjoying thinking what I'm going to spend my pocket money on next time I go in...