Thursday, 30 August 2007

Seafood & Chorizo Salad

A month or so ago, the Telegraph published some of Rick Stein's recipes to go along with the new book & series. The squid and chorizo salad has become a firm favourite. With some variations... We've not been able to buy fresh squid, so we buy a bag of Sainsbury's frozen seafood mix (which is prawns, squid and mussels) and I could rarely be bothered with soaking chickpeas, so we use a can. And we've varied the method a bit. Basically we make a salad of the drained chickpeas, a bag of rocket and tomatoes, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, cook the sliced chorizo (often a tub of diced chorizo, tonight some really nice Brindisa stuff) with garlic and chilli and add the seafood and some chopped parsley or coriander and chuck on top of the salad. It really just means that the chilli and garlic are cooked a bit in the seafood and chorizo instead of just raw through the salad. It's lovely - the flavours are so fresh and vibrant.

Monday, 27 August 2007

The Rose and Crown

It's bank holiday Monday - bless this country's random holidays - so we held off on doing the grocery run until today. Since it is a very bad idea to shop hungry (is my excuse and I am sticking to it) we dropped by the Rose and Crown, half way between us and Sainsbury. It is a great pub. Lovely setting on a hilltop with views across a horse-inhabited field, great food, good beer, nice staff. Just what you want as a local, even if it is a teensy bit far to walk. The restaurant was absolutely heaving.

We'd just planned to have a steak sandwich (they do the most gorgeous steak sandwiches: sliced, perfectly cooked ribeye with fried onions and mushrooms, on granary or ciabatta) but discovered that they were running the Sunday menu. And before they seated us we were warned that they were out of the fish & chips, the fish of the day and the other fish dish, but we could have one of the roasts. Fine by me. I had beef, my husband had lamb.

We had to wait a bit longer than I would like in a perfect world but that was OK because they were clearly frantic. At one point we could see the waitresses hand-washing teaspoons because they'd run out. We also got to watch some jumped-up, small-penised, wannabe hardman getting stuck into the poor girls and shrieking through the pass that he had to see the chef because his tuna was raw. And when they tried to make amends in an appropriate way, he turned into a martyr and did the big sighs and "No, I'll go without". There is an art to complaining about food and he clearly doesn't understand it. Fine, he wasn't happy about his food but sticking his head through the pass (over someone else's food) to bitch about it and refusing reparations is no way to behave. I would say, based on A.A Gill's theory of British complaining, that he hasn't complained about anything for a long time and it is suddenly all too much. Hope he doesn't go back. I don't need people like that at pubs I like.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Mon Plaisir


In May 2006, we arrived in London. First night, my husband took me for a walk around Soho and Covent Garden. I was horrified. There were people spilling onto footpaths from all the pubs, drunken women in tears sitting in the gutter surrounded by broken glass, police attending to men with blood pouring down their faces. It looked like a Hogarth painting, but was a normal spring Friday evening in the nation's capital.

To stop me from running shrieking back to the airport, my husband distracted me with food. He led me to a promising-looking French place, where we had a magnificent meal. I can't remember what we had, but I know we watched the people at the table next to us order the cheese for pudding, and I'd never seen anything like it. Visible from the moon, the waitress staggered under its weight and cut generous portions of the 5 or 6 cheeses the couple selected. Just what a cheeseboard should be!

It turned out that the restaurant was Mon Plaisir. We've been back several times since and have never been disappointed. It's the sort of food I have fantasised about when reading Elizabeth David's books since I was a child, but had never found before. Just wonderful.

So last night - partly because we've been too disorganised to plan anything for the bank holiday weekend - we went to see Spamalot and had dinner back at Mon Plaisir. To be honest, it wasn't the best meal we've had there, but it was still the best food you'll find in a long day's ride. I started with Ravioles de Royans au Jus de Moules et au Safran, which I was told was a cheese ravioli. I was expecting a portion of 2 or 3 big ravioli on a plate with a polite portion of sauce. I should have remembered that Mon Plaisir don't do things like that. I was served a hefty portion of delicious, tiny cheese ravioli, bathed in thick, slightly saffrony cream studded with fat mussels. Too delicious not to eat all of it, but way too much for someone who hopes to nail 3 courses. I had to borrow my husband's soup spoon to grab the last bit of sauce.

After that I didn't really need to eat anything else, but greed got me through a fair amount of the cote de boeuf. Such a lovely piece of meat! The bearnaise sauce was lacking a bit of punch - not enough shallot, not enough tarragon, but still a wonderful accompaniment to the meat. Fortunately we'd just ordered some green beans to go along with it. I couldn't have faced anything starchy.

With the best will in the world I couldn't have eaten pudding. I enjoyed watching the pretentious theatrefolk at the next table being upsold their puddings - the perky young waiter sold a bottle of pudding wine and 4 desserts even though they'd initially said they'd have 2 desserts and a glass of sticky. But I am made of sterner stuff and couldn't be moved. So I had a glass of mirabelle and called it a night.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Muffins

It's a cold, rainy day. Far too cold for August. Having been raised with a certain spirit of frugality, I point blank refuse to put the central heating on before the end of October, but I had to keep myself active to stay warm. Sorting the wardrobe for the charity shop occupied some time. Doing some laundry likewise. But cooking gave me the excuse to be in the nice warm kitchen AND make something to stoke the internal fires.

A pot of Delia's Fennel Gazpacho will provide me with lunch for a couple of days. Such a flavoursome soup, if it's too cold to eat it chilled it'll be lovely reheated too. A batch of chorizo and rocket muffins from one of Julie le Clerc's books turned out unexpectedly well too. And to round out the day, some health muffins.

I'm really quite proud of the health muffins - I think they are the only cake that I have successfully developed:

150g wholemeal S.R flour
60g oatmeal
1tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
90g soft dark brown sugar
1 large carrot, grated (I leave skin on)
40g dates, roughly chopped
80g dried apricots, roughly chopped (the important thing is 120g total dried fruit - this is the best combination so far but sometimes sour dried cherries are good instead of the apricots. The dates make them moister and more luscious, so I hardly ever leave them out)
120g walnuts, roughly chopped (again, it can be any combination of nuts, but the walnuts work really well but my husband prefers a combination of pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds)
1 large green apple, grated (I quarter it, it core it, but leave the skin on - it ends up with some green skin in, but it sort of grates off the skin and is quicker than peeling first, I think bramleys are the best for this because they are so juicy when you grate them)
2 medium eggs
60g butter, melted (you can use veg oil if you prefer)
1tsp vanilla extract

Makes somewhere between 9-15 muffins, depending on your tin. I use a friand tin because I find they are the perfect size to just have one for breakfast.

Use a brush dipped in the melted butter to grease your muffin tins.

Preheat oven to 180C. Put the flour, oatmeal, cinnamon & salt into a large bowl. Add the sugar (which clumps together, so stir it well into the flour), carrot, dried fruit & nuts & apple and mix until combined. Add eggs, the rest of the melted butter and vanilla and mix until combined. These are quite forgiving, you can mix them harder than average muffins and they don't go leathery.

Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes (depending on size), or until risen and browned. They don't rise that much because there is so much stuff in them!

From these basic proportions you can vary it quite a lot. Today's batch only had 60g dried fruit (sultanas and cranberries) because I added a mashed banana, and instead of the nuts I used 60g sunflower seeds and 60g pumpkin seeds. They look quite virtuous, but they taste wonderful!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Night Markets

I met up with a friend this afternoon to hit Covent Garden's Night Market. At 5pm, it really doesn't have the atmosphere I was expecting, but there was some great stuff there. A lot of favs from Borough Market have pared down stalls there, but the great trade was being done by the eateries. Afterall, a hogroast roll followed by a pastel de nata really does wipe the floor with the Cornish-ish pasties that are Covent Garden's usual street food. I sidestepped the Ginger Pig - despite the beautiful cote de boeuf they had on offer, I figured that it'd be quite some time before I got home and I didn't think it would travel well - and bought a wild boar and a venison terrine from a French stall, an artizan chorizo from an olive seller and some Thuringer Bratwurst from the German guys. All to placate my husband who hadn't realised I was going out...

After we'd shopped and tasted as much as we could at the stalls, we headed up towards Holborn for some proper food. Really wanted to go to 32 Great Queen St, but even at 6pm on a Thursday you don't get a table without booking, so we retraced our steps to Le Deuxieme. Despite what it says, that isn't the current menu! Similar, but different. I had wonderful seared scallops with pink grapefruit and sweet chilli dressing, followed by roast lamb rump with ratatouille and aioli. The lamb was perfect, the ratatouille seemed to have cinnamon in it (which was nice, I just didn't expect it) and the aioli didn't have any obvious garlic in it. It's such a nice restaurant though - really lovely atmosphere. Had a glass of banyuls for pudding. Delicious! That is what I want when I have a pudding wine.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Goats' cheese salad

One of our local Italian places does this really lovely starter of grilled goats' cheese and proscuitto salad. It's really too big a portion to be a starter, but I thought it'd make a lovely quick supper. And so it did. A couple of little cheeses (labelled Somerset goats' cheese - mild creamy ones, not really butch goaty ones, not that anything will convince the anti-goat brigade), each wrapped in 3 slices of proscuitto - not a really expensive one - and placed on silicon paper to bake in a 200C oven for 20 minutes. Flipped onto a deep bed of mixed leaves dressed with olive oil, a dollop of M&S caramelised onion chutney on the side (if I was less hungry/had more time I would have made my own caramelised onions) and then drizzled with balsamic reduced to sticky. Very successful. The well-wrapped cheese was beautifully oozy inside the salty ham, the balsamic and onion chutney were just the right sweet/tangy counterpoints. Happy with that, will definitely do that again.

Gaucho Grill

There's been a bunch of family in town for a wedding, and they fly out today, so we had a bit of a celebratory dinner. Gaucho in Hampstead is always a crowd-pleaser - for the meat-eater - so it was a natural choice. Particularly since the wedding was vegetarian and we've all been overcompensating since.

My love of Gaucho is tempered by my attempts to eat ethically. It seems absurd to patronise an establishment that makes a virtue out of the food miles on their beef. And it's even worse with the current foot and mouth outbreak limiting the transport of British meat. So eating Argentinian steaks seems to be rubbing it in a bit.

Of course the other reason for going to Gaucho is the cheese bread they serve at the beginning. Gorgeous, elasticky, cheesy balls of bread. It took a while, but I eventually figured out that they are called Pao de Queijo and found a recipe. The next difficult thing was finding the manioc starch - ended up getting it in Wing Yip, where they call it tapioca starch. I think their tapioca starch is the equivalent of sweet manioc starch. Anyway, the dough comes together like a sticky choux paste, but the finished cheese puffs are heaven. Better than at Gaucho!

So, in solidarity with British beef farmers I had a seafood stew, which I think was called Zarzuela de Marisco. It was delicious - monk fish, mussels, calamari rings and big fat prawns with tiny new potatoes, asparagus and cherry tomatoes in a beautifully flavoured creamy saffron broth, with a couple of pieces of sourdough toast on the side. A very good choice, I thought!

Couldn't face pudding - my experience with Gaucho is that the good desserts are too filling and the light desserts are disappointing. But I did have a glass of pudding wine. It was a South American moscato, which I found a bit too sweet and one-dimensional. Never mind - still a lovely meal!

Monday, 13 August 2007

Wahaca

Last week I went to Wahaca, Thomasina Meirs' place in Covent Garden. Now, I really didn't like Tommy on Masterchef Goes Large, and I don't like her writing that I have read, but my god is Wahaca a good idea (if not perfect in execution)! She deserves to do really, really well with it.

I was so taken by the Mexican street food thing last week, that I persuaded a work colleague (a woman with rubber arms when it comes to food) to come back with me today to see if it was really as good as I thought. And it was.

The waiter we've had both times really gives me the shits. He sits down next to you, doesn't listen and invades the personal space. I think some people like that sort of informal kookiness. I don't like things that can be labelled kooky. Anyway, we eventually convinced him that we wanted a citrus Belu each - Belu mineral water with lime and mint (delicious, nonalcoholic, environmentally sound, so virtuous) and off he went. Not to be seen again for 20 minutes...

When he came back, we ordered some chorizo quesadillas and chicken tortilla soup. I was a little dubious about the quesadillas, because they looked like they were stuffed with mashed potato, but in between the mash were chunks of juicy chorizo and melted cheese. Heaven. Possibly more than I needed as a starter at lunch time, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The soup decision was based on presentation - the girls at the next table ordered it - and as odd as it sounds, it was delicious. You get a big white bowl, filled with chunks of avocado, a generous mound of shredded chicken and a pile of tortilla chips, and a jug of thick, spiced tomato soup. They pour half of the soup over the chicken and leave the jug with you. Ever so slightly underseasoned (I added salt) and absolutely not what your Montezuma's chains would have you think is Mexican, but heaven. Really, really delicious and satisfying.

Meanwhile, the weather has turned to crap again, so I can't BBQ my brined duck. It's in the oven - over a rack this time! And the spices I put in the brine (cassia, anise, cloves, garlic) smell wonderful. We'll be having it with a tub of M&S edamame salad with sweet chilli dressing.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Sunday dinner

Last weekend my husband came home with a mad Pole and a pair of duck crowns. It was far too late to cook, so we took the mad Pole to the Sugar Loaf Inn for dinner and the ducks have languished in the fridge for a week - thank god they had a good long best before date! But I hate wasting food and we were pushing it a bit, so we had to have one of them tonight.

Really simply roasted, seasoned with salt & pepper. Did some celeriac mash with olive paste, because I read someone saying this week that they only like celeriac that way. Rocket salad, and some home-grown mange tout. The duck was good - I should have roasted it on a rack though. I usually do, completely forgot. Such a pity I don't need any duck fat, I've got a good cupful rendered out.

The mash was OK, although the olive paste turns it a terrible colour; the mange tout were gorgeous. It's hard to believe that some vegetables can be so much better fresh-picked. I tried to think of a sauce for the duck, but there was too much going on already, so the little bit of vinaigrette on the rocket was all, and it was enough. I'm going back to my normal celeriac mash though - which is just plain and buttery with a spoonful of capers stirred through. In total, the meal for the two of us cost about 6 quid - not including the wine. Pretty reasonable, I thought!

Of course, we still have a duck crown to get through. Hoping tomorrow will be good barbecue weather, because I think the smokey flavour from cooking it in the Weber will do excellent things for duck. And, because I have been meaning to try it for a while, I've got the duck in a brine in the fridge. I keep reading how much flavour and moisture brining adds. We'll see how it goes!

First blog

Having done the odd bit of food writing in the distant past, I've been feeling a bit rusty since I re-located to the UK about 18 months ago. So much food eaten with so little thought since then!

So I want to return to the glory days - of really thinking about what I eat, planning meals, appreciating restaurants, exploring ingredients and, occasionally, eating something good enough to take a picture of. The meal I made for New Years Eve 2004 was probably the best I have ever made - we started with cauliflower puree and unpasteurised salmon roe, and oysters, with a bottle of champagne. Then duck breasts with a port and fig sauce, served with sauteed wild mushrooms and a bottle of Pauillac. To finish we had a half bottle of sauternes with Butter'd Orange. Perfection in a meal. Completely romantic and a much better way to spend NYE than packing around the Harbour with the sweaty hoardes.
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