Monday, April 23, 2007

Peaches on Toast

This is one of those things you make when you’re bored and you fancy cooking but there’s really very little to cook and you can’t be bothered to go to the shop or do something proper so you just gather up the few edible items around, apply your ingenuity, imagine you are on Ready Steady Cook…

… and most of the time you end up with horrible student-esque concoctions, things like the flapjacks I tried to make without instructions, which were just a sticky over-sweet mess that I nevertheless devoured in one sitting. Or like the soup I once made from swede and cabbage (it was awful; really truly awful, don’t try it). Or frozen broad beans fried with onions and bread and bits of old cheese… Yum.

Anyway, this one happened to be a more happy experiment. It’s very very simple, but very very good. All you will do is pluck a ripe peach (or plum, or nectarine) from the fruit bowl, stone it and slice it. You’ll dip the slices into icing sugar then lay them in a heated frying pan and cook them on both sides until they are soft and brown and bubbling.

Then you’ll slice some crusty white bread and pop it in the toaster. And you’ll lay the peach slices on top of the toast, drizzling over whatever juices you can get out of the pan. And you’ll eat it and it will be like super super deluxe bread and jam, monstrously fruity and satisfyingly sickly sweet and slightly naughty.

Mmmmm Cardamommm...

Was it just my imagination, I thought, or did the subtly spicy milky coffee I just supped as I reclined on the sofa, settle in my belly with a warmth like the physical feeling of happy contentedness?

I had got home a little earlier from a lazy day enjoying the city, and had decided to crack in to my treat to myself of a bar of the beautiful blue and white packaged Rococo chocolate. Discovering I had unwittingly bought white instead of dark chocolate I was momentarily disappointed. (I’m not a big fan of the pale stuff.) However, the cardamom it was infused with converted it completely from a sweet milky confection to something regal and intriguing and good.

I hadn’t had cardamom for ages - my first memories of it are of surprising chewy mouthfuls of a strong bitterness, when encountering whole pods in Dad Saucepan’s curries. And, its reputation stained by childhood distrust, I hadn’t afforded it a place in much of my cooking. Like much met with an older palate, it was joyous then to rediscover and re-learn the flavour and to find I really – really – liked it…

Inspired by this discovery, I found an old jar of pods in the spices collection, smashed some up and added them to the milk I heated to make the aforementioned coffee, with its feelgood aftertaste.

And, carried away on a wave of fondness for my new best spicy friend, I set to augmenting a recent VE&T cake recipe, which turned out pretty nicely...

Spiced Summer Fruit Mini Cakes

Preheat oven to 180 degrees
Sift 200g plain flour with 75g ground almonds, 2 tsps baking powder, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground cardamom seeds and ½ tsp salt into a bowl.
Beat 125g butter, 220g dark brown sugar together until pale and fluffy
Add 3 eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
Add 150g sour cream, beat until just combined and then stir in flour mixture, followed by 100g raspberries or mixed summer fruits (I used frozen ones defrosted and drained).
Grease a muffin tin, spoon in the batter and scatter another 100g raspberries or mixed summer fruits on top.
Bake for 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Cool in tins for 5 mins before turning out.

PS - I’ve since discovered an utterly luxurious breakfast from a Jane Clarke article in the Times – you put a couple of crushed cardamom pods in with your porridge, and serve it with pomegranate segments and some thick greek yoghurt. It’s divine.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lemon and Fennel Risotto with Scallops

It's a pity it couldn't be a little more pretty, but sometimes things just aren't so easy on the eye as the palate...

Imagine though, if you will, the creaminess of a risotto, cut through with clean, tangy lemon and studded with soft aniseed-y fennel. You place a little on your fork and add a slice of fried scallop with an almost caramel taste from the seared surfaces, and the inside all meaty and silky.

It's comforting and refreshing and a little bit special and chic all at once.

Make it. See for yourself...

Lemon and Fennel Risotto with Scallops
(serves 4)
  • Fry off a finely diced onion in a generous slug of olive oil over a low heat.
  • Once soft, add one fennel, cut into thin (about 5mm) slices.
  • Add about 400g/14oz arborio rice, and stir until all the rice is coated with oil.
  • Tip in a small glass of dry sherry or white wine and stir in.
  • Then add the juice and zest from two lemons and continue to stir.
  • Cover with a generous amount of vegetable stock, bring to a simmer and put the lid on. Stir every 5 minutes or so for the next 30-40 minutes, making sure the rice doesn't stick to the bottom, and adding more stock or hot water as required by the rice (I never bother with the one spoon at a time method - it's ever so consuming and I'm not sure it makes that much difference - do try not to forget your risotto tho - it will burn!)
  • When the rice is cooked to your taste, stir in a little butter and parmesan for extra creaminess (optional).
  • Heat a little oil in a frying pan til fairly hot, and sear 8 scallops on both sides. Turn heat down and cook for 3 or 4 minutes until cooked through.
  • Serve the risotto with a little parmesan and then the scallops and top, and some green beans on the side.

Adventures in Dining Out - Andrew Edmunds; Le Cercle; Barrafina

I thought I would do a little round-up of restaurant reviews, as I seem to have been (prandially speaking) getting round a little bit recently...

A couple of weeks before my 21st birthday I was wandering through Soho and spied a hand-written menu pinned outside a building so dark and unassuming as to be almost invisible. The dishes described thereon impressed me, and the cute, small, apparently nameless restaurant to which it belonged charmed me. So, I declared, that's where we would eat in my 22nd year.

Four and a bit years on I finally made it to the place I later discovered was called Andrew Edmunds. (Soho can be tricky, I forgot which street it was on, we didn't know the name... For my 21st, we ended up at a Greek place and had a largely forgettable evening.)

Another birthday - Mum Saucepan's this time - precipitated the long overdue visit. We went for lunch on a cold rainy day a few weeks back, and spent a couple of pleasant hours in the cosy, crowded basement of the restaurant.

Aesthetically it really appeals to me - well-chosen flowers, candles, mirrors, plain tablecloths, a simple, comfy, stylish look.

The menu changes weekly, and features fresh, simple dishes - we had a scallop ceviche with guacamole; langoustines with lemon mayonnaise and a salad of jerusalem artichokes, artichoke hearts and snow pea shoots to start. All were good and clean and tasty.

Mains of smoked haddock on lentil and green bean salad, daube of beef and duck confit slipped down equally well. They taste un-tampered with, more homely than restaurant-y. Traditional, relatively hearty and yet stylish and somehow still very London-y. (I have got to stop this horrible habit of lazily adding 'y' to nouns to disguise the fact I'm all out of proper adjectives)
The wine list is extensive and the service is good. It's cosy and friendly and definitely recommended. Glad I got there in the end...

Since then, I've had the opportunity to eat at one place which I had no preconceptions of and found to be a real treat, and one place I had high expectations of and found to be merely good. (Sorry - no photos for either of these...)

To start with the latter, Barrafina attracted great press interest when it opened a few months back. The brothers who own it - Eddie and Sam Hart - regularly pop up in newspapers here and there, either with respect to their well-received smart Spanish restaurant Fino, or with Spanish recipes (though they are not actually Spanish, rather British hispanophiles). They added to their existing media-friendliness by setting up new venture Barrafina in a room barely bigger than my lounge room. Hence, only 20 or so people can eat at a time, and with a no-booking policy queues form, making it a rare spot and therefore in many eyes a highly desirable place to eat.

I visited Fino a year or so ago, and had some magnificent pork belly amongst other good and excellent dishes (along with a hearty amount of sherries, riojas and brandies which may contribute to why my memory of said dishes is rather patchy).
The owners chatted with us, we had views of the kitchen from where we ate at the long bar, and the barman was lovely and helpful, all making it a rather pleasant experience.

Barrafina is a pared down kind of Fino. The few seats are all around the L-shaped bar, behind which the chefs work, and a narrow ledge on one side of the room holds the drinks of those waiting for seats to empty.

In keeping with the smaller, more casual venue, the menu is shortened and simpler. We went for a razor clam special, a classic tortilla and the now-ubiquitous chorizo, with watercress. Clams were rather
like I've found snails in the past - nice and garlicky and chewy, but really you could be eating any number of simple little life-forms. They were a lot smaller than razor clams I've had in the past. The tortilla was good - pleasantly less cooked than many, but really just a tortilla. And chorizo, similarly good but unspectacular. A santiago tart was unneccessarily accompanied by some kind of muesli-fruit mixture, and was not as good as others I've had.

One of the brothers - Sam - was there, welcoming guests, serving, clearing glasses; admirably involved. Our waitress however, albeit very friendly, was a little intrusive we found, and not altogether helpful.
At £22 a head with drinks, it's not bad value, but I wouldn't queue round the block for it.

A meal at Le Cercle on the other hand, I would happily wait in line for. I was a little sceptical - hidden away in the basement of a hotel on a side street just off Sloane Square, I was worried it would be overpriced and stuffy. A menu that could be considered somewhat gimmicky - small dishes are grouped into categories such as Marin, Terroir, Vegetal, from which you create a tasting menu for yourself or to share - didn't help allay my fears.

However, we soon stopped worrying when we started eating. In a tiny black pot, suitable it would seem for a pixie, or a squirrel, we found chanterelles in a port and wine reduction so full of flavour a single pixie-sized spoon seemed to spread flavour right throughout my body. Ravioles de Royan - a kind of very posh version of that lazy-persons favourite supermarket 3-minute pasta parcels - were bathing in a truffle juice, and were also delightful. A sliver of sea bass and some chunks of stuffed rabbit with a chicory gratin were similarly well executed and full of interesting tastes and textures. The piece de resistance however was a pudding which - I lie not - made me grin like a cheshire cat completely involuntarily. Roasted pineapple was somehow much more pineapple-y than I could have imagined and the accompanying spiced toffee ice-cream was one of the most dreamy things I have ever eaten - and this from someone who is not normally a massive fan of ice-cream.

The dishes are very small - so don't go if you prefer hearty, generous cooking - but we found that we felt fully satisfied without feeling full. I think the intensity and interest of the flavours means you savour the food for much longer and so fill up in a very grown-up kind of way.

The room is very smart and cosy - separated with chiffon-y curtains, and with views on to the wine cellar at one end (they have a large selection and recommend different glasses for each dish), and a cheese room at the other.

To me it felt somehow kind of foreign - I suppose because I don't frequent that style of restaurant all that often, and so gave me the pleasant impression of being out of London for the evening. A mini gastronomic holiday if you will.