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Monday, 21 November 2011

In the meantime...


Isn't that beautiful?  I was really taken with the jewel-like colours of this fruit, which struck me as redolent of autumn.  That is why, of course, I promptly went and dumped a load of crumble on top and then cooked the shit out of it.

There's been another hiatus in posts again, for which I apologise.  It was due to factors beyond my control (but has something to do with the need to make a living.  You understand I know.).  If it's any consolation, there's been little of note to report on the cooking/eating front lately anyway.  I had some success with a couple of batches of sourdough, but rather than give you a recipe let me just point you in this direction for how to get a lively starter going, and here for a receipt.  It took me a few go's to get something really decent, but that was part of the fun.  I'm now a little bit obsessed and, in the spirit of nerdery, have put a sourdough proving basket on my Christmas list.  Continuing in the Dan Lepard-inspired baked-goods vein, there were also these extraordinarily delicious tamarind cookies which I cannot recommend to you highly enough.  I substituted stem ginger for glace ginger and they worked an absolute treat.  But other than that, there's virtually been tumbleweed blowing through the kitchen.  I think I need to peruse the interweb to re-whet my appetite and get my cooking mojo going again.  I'll get back to you.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The first day back at school



There's nothing like the first day back at school or work following a blissful holiday to lower a person to new depths of misery and ennui.  Mr. F and I returned from two lovely weeks away, in Toronto and California, and I find myself already burdened by the monotony of everyday life.  It's no surprise really: our week in California (in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys to be precise) was always destined to be a huge blow-out where caution and moderation were thrown to the wind, and where luxury and gourmandism were embraced.  Each day involved a trip or two to a winery, copious tastings, and in the evening, a wonderful meal which, despite this being body-conscious Cali, was seemingly served with the sole intention of convincing us that butter really is a delicious substance.  Needless to say, we were well and truly persuaded by the end of our trip. 

Wine-related highlights included:
  • The Quivira Winery, where we drank cold, flinty Sauvignon Blanc with the stinky cheeses that we had bought the previous day at the Oxbow Market in Napa.
  • Frog's Leap, where our tasting (a Chardonnay, a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon and an exceptional Petite Sirah) took place in this idyllic garden:

  • The Hendry Ranch Winery, where we were educated by George Hendry as to the processes involved in making a great bottle and as to the particularity required when matching wine with food.  George advises that Primitivo is a good match for chocolate desserts as a result of its lack of tannin.  So there you go.  Don't ever let me hear it be said that Forkful isn't a learning environment.*
Exceptional eating experiences were had at:
  • Ad Hoc, the one Thomas Keller place to which we could actually afford to go.  These lobster rolls were a transcendental experience; they came in the most buttery brioche known to man which had, I think, also received a light saute in some additional butter just before being served.

Those leaves atop the rolls are from the actual French Laundry kitchen garden.  Yes.
  • The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, although I wish I had taken on board the fact that the aubergine soup was "enriched" with cream as it significantly lessened my enjoyment of the whipped Yukon Gold potatoes that came with my main-course flounder.
  • Breakfast.  Although that Somerset Maugham quote about how the only way to eat well in England is to eat breakfast three times a day is something one hears oft-repeated, it's plainly not true any more, and one would tire pretty quickly of eating fried bacon and eggs every day.  No, I think the Americans have got breakfast in the bag.  During our stays at various wondrous locations, and most notably at the Beltane Ranch, we were served delicious and inventive breakfasts, my only quibble with which would be the offence of serving sweet (i.e. an oven-baked lemon pancake) on the same plate as savoury (i.e. spicy black beans with chicken sausage).  I know it's the done thing in the US, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it.  Despite this, our breakfasts were often the culinary high point of the day.

Beltane Ranch**

Now we're home we are on a strict and spartan regime.  Last night I made a squid salad, the recipe for which is based on one in Sophie Dahl's book.  I have to say that although it's very prettily produced, and well-written, the recipes are a bit, how shall I say...unconvincing.  It's not that she's not entitled to write about food because she is or was a skinny model, it's rather that I think that her food is just too simple to warrant the treatment it has received in print (and on screen for that matter).  There's not enough balance between easy stuff and more technical dishes, and the overall effect is to make the book seem somehow lacking in plausibility.

But, regardless of that, this squid salad is really very good.

To serve two you will need:

Two squid, cleaned and prepped by slicing the bodies into rings about 1cm wide and the tentacles into halves (Sophie uses baby squid, and I reckon you would need about 200g to feed two)
Two bell peppers (red or yellow, your choice), de-seeded and cut lengthwise into strips about 1cm wide

For the dressing
A big handful of coriander
Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed to a fine powder
One clove of garlic, peeled
The juice of half a lemon, or more to taste
Olive oil, about 50ml I reckon, but add more or less as you wish.  (You'll need more for frying too.)
Salt and pepper

25g of toasted pine nuts

Heat a grill pan on the highest heat.  Coat the peppers lightly in oil and then chargrill until they are scorched and blackened in places.  (You may have to do this in batches.)

Whilst the peppers are cooking whizz the dressing ingredients in the food processor until you have a pleasingly emerald sauce.  Taste, and adjust as you see fit.  I generally think it's a good thing to go heavy on the lemon.

Once the peppers have cooked, toss them into a bowl.  Heat a frying pan and a slick of olive oil and then cook the squid.  Cook the tentacles first and for a bit longer than the rings - fry for about one and a half minutes before turning and then cooking for another thirty seconds.  Fry the rings for about a minute on one side and thirty seconds on the other.  You want the squid to be a tiny bit golden.

Add the cooked squid to the peppers, coat with the dressing and add the toasted pine nuts.

Eat whilst commiserating with your other half about being back from holiday.

*In the spirit of learning, let me let you in on some important logistical info. Mr. F and I had a stop-over in Toronto on our way back to London. Turns out that the Province of Ontario, lord love 'em, are rather less relaxed in relation to the importation of alcohol for personal use than good old HMRC. We had blithely purchased a number of bottles, but then realised following a last-minute perusal of the relevant website, that we would have to pay duty of 50% of the value of the six bottles (over the four - 1.5 litres per person - we were allowed; HMRC allows two litres of sparkling wine or alcohol under 22%, plus four litres of table wine per person) were we to bring them with us into TO, regardless of the fact that we were going to be there for less than 12 hours. In a panic we asked the helpful folks at Frog's Leap what to do: without hesitation, they pointed us in the direction of the Buffalo Shipping Post in Napa. We took our half-case there, and within five minutes they had sorted it all out. It cost us about $100 to ship the wine back to the UK, and it is destined to arrive in the next couple of days. We will end up paying another 18% of the value of the wine in duty, but our wines weren't astronomically expensive and it still works out at less than we would have paid those darned Canadians, in addition to the cost of checking the box as an additional piece of luggage. The moral of the story is a) to check on the duty situation in relation to any stop-over you may have before purchasing your favoured bottles, and/or b) to go to the Buffalo Shipping Post should you find yourself in a fix like we did.
**You will note that I have a new camera. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Green rice and eggs

It's been a bit quiet around here recently, hasn't it?  Not one post during the whole of May.  You'll understand the silence when I tell you that the reason for it was the fact that last month Mr F and I moved house...

...which is something that I won't be doing again in a hurry.  Stressful, dusty, argument-inducing, dusty, chaotic, frustrating, dusty, and painful.  And did I mention the dust?  I discovered whilst packing and unpacking my worldly possessions that approximately 75% of what I own is dust.  Or fluff.  Or a combination of the two.  It got everywhere, and I suspect that I have significantly and irrevocably reduced my lung function as a result of moving house.  Well, moving house and the increase in my nasty little smoking habit brought on by the need to soothe the stress caused by the fact that there was dust EVERYWHERE.

But we are now settled in, mostly unpacked and beginning to feel like we can be happy in this house (we both spent the first few nights here longing to be back in our old flat; the new place just felt too weird).  There hasn't been much time for proper cooking, and as yet I haven't made as much use of my fancy new oven as I should like.  There's been plenty of stove-top cooking though, including the dish below, which I made last week.

Green rice and eggs



Oh Hipstamatic, how I love thee

Serves 4

250g basmati rice
300g baby spinach, divided into 200g and 100g
Juice and finely grated rind of one lemon
Two tablespoons of Greek yoghurt
100g feta cheese, crumbled
Half a packet of fresh dill, finely chopped
One red onion, finely sliced
4 eggs, hardboiled and cut into quarters

Cook the basmati rice using your preferred method.  My preferred method is to get Mr. F to do it, because he makes perfect steamed rice and I cock it up every time.

In a saute or frying pan, fry the onion in olive oil until golden brown.  Remove from the pan and drain the excess oil off.  Wipe the pan clean and then cook 200g of the spinach with a drop of water.  After about 5 minutes, take the pan off the heat and drain the spinach well.  Allow it to cool and then squeeze out more of the water.  Chop it up. 

Wipe the pan out again (sorry), and then heat another slug of oil.  Add the rice, spinach, onion and most of the dill.  Allow it to heat through.  Add the yoghurt, the lemon zest and half of the juice, and the remaining 100g of spinach (I did this as I wanted to give the dish a bit of texture by having some of the spinach only very lightly cooked).  Continue to heat until the new spinach is half wilted.  As this dish is sort-of Greekish, you can be authentic about it and eat it lukewarm.  Whenever you're ready to serve it, top with the eggs, feta and remaining dill, and drizzle with a bit more olive oil and lemon juice if you like.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Saturday night's supper*

Courgette and scarmorza ravioli with wild garlic pesto

Roasted rhubarb with vanilla yoghurt and almond shortbread

*Or, "On Discovering Hipstamatic"

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Standard Grill green beans


Behold the last photograph taken on my little Pentax, which decided suddenly to depart this world whilst I was standing on the corner of a street in Chinatown, NYC, desperately trying to take photos of the hundreds of varieties of dried fish and shrimp (please do not be alarmed - this picture is not of the green beans mentioned in this post's title).  I confess to having no idea how one would use them as an ingredient, although crushed up or steeped in stock seem like viable possibilities.  I didn't buy any in NYC, not being able to face the inevitable argument at customs over what would seem to be an obvious violation of the injunction against bringing animal products etc. into the UK.  I also know that buying ingredients like this on a whim most commonly results in their sitting unused at the back of a cupboard before being thrown away when one moves house or something.

I was more brazen in relation to one gift that I lugged home for Mr. F.  My friends and I were staying at Hotel on Rivington (recommended), and on our way back from a particularly lengthy shopping and schlepping outing we passed by Bisous Ciao, purveyor of delectable macarons.  The shop is all restrained monochrome, though thankfully the staff in attendance have been trained at the US school of helpfulness and charm rather than at its Parisien counterpart.  I took home a box of their vanilla and salted caramel macarons.

We had other successful gustatory experiences at WD-50 (where I ate the famous eggs benedict, got shown round the kitchen and met Jon Bignelli) and mambo 'italiano (a red sauce joint on Mulberry Street, where we enjoyed chewy-crusted pizza, nice Chianti and warm but not over-friendly service).  Whilst my favourite meal was that which we had at WD-50, my travel companions declared that they had enjoyed our experience at The Standard Grill even more.  To be fair, we did eat delicious food there, it's just that I preferred the theatre and technical wizardry at WD-50. The highlight of my meal at The Standard Grill was my starter, a dish of cold french beans, dressed with cinnamon and yoghurt.  It was wonderfully grassy and fresh, and although it was and is delicious on its own, I think it would also be excellent with some grilled lamb chops or fish.

My recipe goes something like this:

For two

200g of french or green beans, washed and topped and tailed
75g Greek yoghurt
Half a clove of garlic, smushed or finely grated
Half a teaspoon (or more to taste) of cinnamon
One small onion, sliced into slender half moons
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil and vegetable oil
Salt and pepper

Heat a very generous slug of vegetable oil in a frying pan and add the onion slices. Cook them over a medium heat until they are crispy and dark golden brown.  Tip on to kitchen towel to drain away the excess oil.

Cook the green beans in boiling salted water for four minutes.  Drain and run the cold tap over them to cool immediately.  Dry them between sheets of kitchen towel.

Mix the yoghurt, garlic, cinnamon together and season.  Taste and add a few drops of lemon juice and/or olive oil if desired.  Add the green beans to the yoghurt dressing and mix well.  Garnish the salad with the crispy onions before serving.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Banana bread

I have just returned from an excellent trip to the States, and am bursting to tell you all about the various wonderful meals I had in NYC and to pass on a recipe for an extraordinarily refreshing yet satisfying green bean salad that I ate at The Standard Grill.

But suffice it to say that time is not on my side today, so the salad receipt will have to wait until the weekend for a write up.  I hope by then to have replaced my camera, which breathed its last just as I was photographing some tiny silvery dried fish in Chinatown. 

Before the weekend I thought I would pass on a brilliant banana bread recipe from Dan Lepard aka The Guardian's baking guru.  I've made this twice - once on the day after my birthday as a cure for a mild but longlasting hangover, and once in order to provide Mr. F with a week's worth of breakfasts whilst I was in the US.  It is completely delicious and filling smeared with crunchy peanut butter.  It also freezes well.

Here's the link:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/mar/26/banana-bread-recipe-dan-lepard?INTCMP=SRCH

If you scroll down to the bottom you will see that Dan was kind enough to post a link to the photo of my finished product that I posted on Twitter.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A filler

I've been meaning to write about the success I had recently with a recipe taken from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life, which is a cracking book.  It was for a dish which she called "Custard-filled cornbread", but which I would call "cream-filled", because custard for me requires the involvement of a significant amount of vanilla and this doesn't have any.  It does, however, have a hearty amount of double cream.  So I am going to go for "cream-filled".

Anyway, I don't have time to write it up now or talk about what prompted me to make it, so I thought I would share with you this morning's breakfast REVELATION.  It goes something like this:
  • Send your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend etc. to the local corner shop to buy crumpets, eggs and milk (I am presuming you already have salt, butter and vegetable oil in the house, but if you don't, put them on the list.  I also requested a copy of The Observer, but feel free to select your own reading matter.).
  • When he/she returns put the kettle on in order to make the caffeinated beverage of your choice. 
  • In a wide but shallow bowl break two of the eggs, and whisk adding some of the milk (about 75ml I'm guessing).  Season with salt.
  • Put four crumpets into the egg mixture, and turn them over.  Press lightly to assist them in soaking up the liquid.
  • Heat a knob of butter and slug of oil in a frying pan.  When it starts to foam, carefully put the crumpets in. 
  • Cook for about two minutes each side, until deeply golden.
  • Eat with a splash of Tabasco and a cup of tea.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Nopi

I am not a lucky person.  My numbers have yet to come up on the lottery.  I have never had a win on the premium bonds.  I seem to recall once winning a bottle of Blossom Hill in the tombola at the annual fete held in the village where my parents live, but I think of that as Fortune raising a wry eyebrow rather than smiling beneficently down upon me.

This is why I was really rather shocked to be lucky enough to secure a booking at Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi's latest venture, on a Saturday night and at a reasonable time. 

I have Twitter, in addition to Fortune, to thank.  As a result of following @ottolenghi I was aware of the fact that a new restaurant on Warwick Street in Soho was in the offing; the attendant highs and lows of such an endeavour had also been well-documented on the Ottolenghi blog.  One morning my eye happened upon a tweet proclaiming that Nopi would be having its soft opening between 17 and 23 February, and that diners fortunate enough to secure a booking during that period would receive 50% off their bills.  I clicked through to the Nopi website and booked, half expecting to receive a phone call a bit later from an apologetic PR person informing me that something had gone wrong with the online reservations procedure.

But no.  I was called yesterday to confirm the booking, and when Mr. F and I arrived this evening all was well.    We were shown to our table in the shiny white dining room, which is warm and inviting rather than clinical as a result of the opulent lighting, pale wood tables and chairs, and richly-veined marble floor.

I'd been perusing the menu online for a number of days, and had been looking forward to trying a couple of dishes that were, sadly, not on offer tonight.  Our charming waiter informed us that the vongole with basil spatzle had been taken off the menu as a result of its being too difficult a dish for the kitchen to prepare in the requisite quantities (this accords with my own personal experience of trying to prepare enough spatzle for two people, the conclusion of which saw me standing defeated and tearful in the middle of the kitchen whilst Mr. F dutifully rang our local Indian restaurant for take-out). 

But no matter, the menu was still replete with a host of dishes that sounded intriguing and delicious.  Following the suggestion that we order three per person I opted for the grilled lamb cutlets with aubergine and moutain ash goat's cheese, grilled hake kebabs with lemon pickle and yoghurt, and green beans with roasted hazelnuts and orange.  Mr. F ordered prawn toasts, poached sea bass with tomato essence, a salad of raw brussel sprouts with mushrooms and quail egg, and winter greens with a tahini-yoghurt sauce.  We were informed by the aforementioned charming waiter that the dishes would be served to us as and when they were prepared by the kitchen.  I happen to like being left to the mercy of the kitchen in this way, though I can see that it might not be to everyone's taste, and on one occasion it misfired when a strongly-flavoured and hearty dish was served with one that was a little too subtle to hold its own.

We started with the beans, the brussel sprouts and the prawn toasts, all of which were commendable in their own way.  The brussel sprouts deserve a special mention for being the dish which seemed to promise least and yet which delivered most.  Finely shredded sprouts came dressed in a sharp, lemony vinaigrette.  Oyster mushroom gave the dish earthiness and texture, whilst soft poached quail's eggs lent richness.  Slices of Manchego provided the all-important umami savour. 

The fish dishes came next.  The hake kebabs were, for me, the stand-out dish of the evening.  They were juicy, almost meaty, whilst the lemon pickle and herb salad were zesty and refreshing: a perfect balance.  The sea bass and tomato essence couldn't quite compete in the circumstances.  It was an elegant little bowlful - the tomato essence was flavoured with anise (or fennel) and was light and sweet.  The sea bass was delicate and cooked as it should be.  But overall the dish failed to deliver in comparison to the hake.

My lamb, the greens, and the addition of a plate of burrata served with coriander seeds and orange came next.  The lamb was juicy and expertly seasoned, the goat's cheese grassy, and the aubergines silky in their tomato sauce.  The greens were fine, albeit a touch gritty and slightly watery.  The burrata was, however, another knock-out dish up there with the brussel sprouts and the hake.  The unexpected pairing with coriander seeds and slices of orange provided earthy fragrance and acid tang which counterbalanced perfectly the luxurious creaminess of the cheese.

Despite feeling stuffed to the gills our gluttony was such that we were unable to resist pudding.  My sultana financier were dense and moist, although sadly lacking in sultanas.  Mr. F's rice pudding with rose syrup and pistachios was pleasant if unremarkable.  We drank a bottle of red from Basilicata which saw us right through the meal with aplomb, and which went particularly well with the burrata. 

Mr. F and I passed an extremely enjoyable evening at Nopi, which seems to be sailing through its opening week.  My sense is that you'll need a prodigious amount of luck on your side to secure a booking there in due course.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Soda bread

I have written before on this blog about the fact that I am trying to avoid breakfast during the week.  I make a few Pret-a-Manger-based exceptions to this when I am either (a) a little hungover or (b) more tired than usual and feel a need to front-load the day with a sugar boost.  I'm a big fan of Pret's (nauseatingly titled) "Yoga bunny bowl", which is yoghurt and fruity/nutty bits; their porridge is also rather good, although I always find that the ratio of compote to porridge means that I can only manage half a tub.

I am acutely aware that I could easily make both of those things at home.  The shame.

Mr. F and I were regularly making the apple pancakes I posted about last year (the recipe for which can be found here) for weekend breakfasts.  I think we might have OD-ed on them though, because we have of late reverted to bread/egg combinations.  Mr. F is often heroic enough to make an early morning trip to Albion, a cafe and bakery located in the Boundary complex, a recent Conran addition to the London dining/hotel scene. 



Dinner on the roof terrace at Boundary.  That lobster's waving at you.

The bakery, which opens at 8am each day, makes truly excellent bread, cakes and pastries.  I had a croissant from there last weekend which got the balance between chewy interior and crisp exterior absolutely right.  Mr. F also brought home a cheesy Marmite swirl thing, the restorative quality of which to those who are feeling a little jaundiced cannot be overstated.  So give Albion a try.  The cafe is good too (although I note from the website that it calls itself a "caff".  It most definitely is not a caff - the interior is all cool milky colours, and there's elegant vintage cutlery and friendly waiters.).

I have started to make soda bread on days when Mr. F really can't be bothered to amble over to Albion .  The reward to effort ratio of making soda bread makes it a winner in my eyes - there's no proving to worry about, minimal kneading, and it bakes in the oven in about 30 minutes. You end up with a loaf that is dense, with an almost cake-like texture.  It's perfect with smoked salmon or trout, and with eggs, of course.

Makes one loaf

170g wholemeal flour (you can use wholemeal self-raising flour.  If you do, omit the baking powder)
170g plain flour
1/2 tspn of salt
1/2 tspn of bicarbonate of soda
2 tspn baking powder
290ml of buttermilk (or 175ml of plain youghurt let down with 115ml of milk or water)

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C.

Whisk dry ingredients together.  Add the buttermilk or yoghurt mixture.  The resulting mixture should be ever-so slightly sticky.  If it is too dry add a little more water, a teaspoon at a time.  Knead the dough lightly to ensure that it is smooth.  Shape it into a round and make a cross on top.  Scatter over some oats if you like.  Place on a floured baking tray and bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes.  The loaf is done when it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Allow it to cool a bit on a wire wrack.  Serve warm with lots of butter and a protein of your choice (bacon, smoked fish and eggs will all go really well, although having said that, this is delicious with butter and jam too).

Feel like a domestic goddess what with all your early-morning baking endeavours.

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