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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. 

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