Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lasagne and a very long rant

"Grandmother, may I have another sausage?" asked Hugh Anthony.
"Certainly not," said Grandmother.
"Why?" asked Hugh Anthony.
"Because you've had two already."
"But why can't I have three?"
"Because three wouldn't be good for you."
"Because they are made of pork, and too much pork is not good for children."
"They aren't made of pork. Sarah says Mr King's sausages are made of horse. So may I have another?" Sister of the Angels Elizabeth Goudge, 1939.

There's horse meat in prepared meals you say? Cue the proliferation of jokes. So very many jokes. Enough that the jokes are reported almost as much as the latest developments. But it isn't very funny really. For one thing, it's not just horse meat of unknown provenance. Pork, prohibited by Muslim and Jewish dietary laws, has also been found in these "beef" products. And there have been suggestions that the horses may actually have been donkeys.

Aside from the jokes, I've seen mainly three categories of responses: serves you right for eating meat, what is wrong with eating horse anyway and what did you expect from value meals?

There's not really much I can say about the first. Some people who choose not to eat meat are very keen to proselytise. They have a point - I'm sure most people would benefit from eating less meat (particularly highly processed meat products) and more vegetables. It probably would benefit the planet, too. But I honestly don't think that many people who do eat meat will stop as a result of this, although sales of frozen beef (or "beef") burgers have fallen.

The "what is wrong with eating horse" school also gets short shrift from me, because it is just fundamentally missing the point. If you choose to eat horse, there is nothing wrong with it. If you don't choose to eat horse and you end up doing it anyway, that is the problem.

It's the "Well what did you expect from value meals" response that has me really wound up.

Where to begin?

Firstly, what I expect is that it "does what it says on the tin". I expect "made in the UK" to be made in the UK. I expect gluten-free bread to be gluten-free. I expect food labelled "suitable for vegans" to be suitable for vegans. And I expect something labelled 100% beef to contain 100% beef, whether it is from an economy range or premium. The problem with horse or pig or donkey or rat being substituted for beef is a matter of fraud. Laws are being broken by selling one foodstuff as another. The Food Labelling Regulations 1996, a bunch of EU regulations and directives, all dealing with maintaining a safe food-chain and ensuring that food is labelled accurately. There are suspicions that some of this is down to organised crime  - it isn't just a mistake or the consumer not being careful.

Secondly, this has opened up a whole nasty can o' worms regarding attitudes to the poor. The snobbery that has been on display is absolutely grotesque. From the smug "I never eat ready meals" to the more vicious pervading messages that you have to be both stupid and lazy to buy cheap meat, the horse meat scandal has led to a lot of victim-blaming. Often prefaced with "why don't they just...".

Why don't they just cook loads of lentils, shop at markets, buy from butchers, buy in bulk? My friend Miss South has eloquent things to say on the subject of food poverty, which are well worth reading as a rebuttal to those.

Cucina povera just isn't enormously suited to urban living. You can probably get chicken carcasses and secondary cuts for pennies and make lots of nourishing dishes from them. If you aren't working all the hours that the butchers are open. If you don't have family members with complex health needs and no respite care. If you have a butcher that actually breaks down whole animals and doesn't buy them in pre-packed. If you aren't reliant on a microwave because the landlord won't fix your cooker. If you can afford the fuel for long slow cooking. If you aren't spending all of your energies trying to get your benefits reinstated while undergoing chemotherapy.

I love the idea of taking my tangier to the local hammam and leaving it to cook all day in the fires underneath the bath house, but Greater London isn't really set up for that. I'd like to see the look on their faces if I rocked up to the local Wenzel's and asked them to stick my lamb boulangère in their oven for the day. I'd probably also get some funny looks if I went cutting firewood in the park in order to fuel my jambalaya-cooking.

Criticising people for buying the cheapest protein they can, when one in five mothers is missing meals so her children can eat, when the UN is investigating UK food poverty, when children are increasingly going to school hungry, is offensive and ignorant. Demonising people who are not in a position to make better choices is not going to help them.

What is the answer? Unfortunately that is where my ranting falls down. I just don't know really. Children are going to be given cooking lessons but since this has been discussed since 2008 I'm not holding my breath. Unless underlying issues of poverty are addressed, knowing how to cook ingredients that people can't afford isn't going to help. It probably won't hurt though.

For me, this lasagne was a very frugal dish. I didn't have any pasta in the cupboard but I did have eggs, flour and the equipment and know-how to make them into pasta. I have a large and well-stocked freezer, so was in the luxurious position of having organic British minced beef and pork, bought when they were on special offer. And I have time on my hands and a paid-up electricity bill so was able to give the sauce a nice long simmer. For the price of some spinach and milk, I was able to produce six hearty portions of food. In short, this is the sort of food people on a budget should be eating, if we ignore what real life can be like. But it actually didn't taste as good as Findus.

Spinach lasagne sheets made according to this recipe
Thin layers of ragu and bechamel
Warming, comforting lasagne

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Clockjack Oven

"Oh why would you live in England when you can live in Australia and have that lovely weather?"
"Have you ever been to Australia?"
"No, but I watch Home and Away"

I have had that conversation many, many times over the last seven years. Strangely, the people who talk about the lovely weather are aware of the floods, droughts, bushfires, heatwaves and occasional cyclones that also beset Australia. There are definitely things I miss about Australia, but the weather isn't counted amongst them. I miss people, mostly. Some specific experiences like eating fish & chips at Balmoral Beach or having brunch in Manly on weekends or seeing movies at the Cremorne Orpheum with the organist coming out of the floor beforehand. And food. There are definitely foods I miss, that are either difficult to obtain here or just weirdly different.

Chicken shops. In Australia there are loads of shops dedicated to takeaway rotisserie chickens. They have really high turnover so the chickens are usually hot, fresh and juicy. You get a choice of "seasoned" (stuffed with sage & onion) or unseasoned. They sell trays of roast potato, pumpkin and sweet potato, or eggplant, zucchini and peppers. They have vats of potato salad, chicken and avocado salad, fruit salad and horrible gloopy pasta salad that I am sure someone likes. About five times a year since we moved, we have lamented that chicken shops here sell manky deep-fried chicken with no obvious signs of vegetables.

This is why I got really excited when I heard about Clockjack Oven. They are a rotisserie chicken restaurant, seemingly the prototype for a chain. They serve chicken and a few side dishes. What more could I ask for?


3 pieces of chicken for £6.95
Let's start with the chicken. The chicken is excellent - succulent, flavoursome skin, fall-off-the-bone tender meat. It could possibly have been a shade more bronzed perhaps, although I could easily have eaten another three pieces out of sheer enjoyment of the flavour. But I don't really know why, when Britain produces some really magnificent organic chickens, they are using their sourcing of French chickens as a selling point. I mean, yes, depending on where in the UK a chicken comes from, Brittany can actually be more local to London, but I'd still rather give money to British poultry farmers.

One of my companions at this meal was one of those - far from unusual - people who don't like to eat meat on the bone. So while she is happy to eat chicken, the boneless options were salads or sandwiches. She ordered the CLT torpedo - chicken, lettuce and tomato on a bun. And she said it had no flavour whatsoever. The mayonnaise or whatever it was binding it was distinctly bland.
House salad

Sadly, there were no steaming trays of roast vegetables on offer. We ordered a house salad - lettuce and apple slices topped with crisp stuffing balls. The lettuce and apple were fresh and crisp but the stuffing balls weren't particularly tasty and had too dry a texture and generally seemed a bit misguided. There was a dressing on the salad but it seemed to be there to prevent oxidation rather than for lubrication or flavour.

The chips, on the other hand, were perfect. Crunchy outside, soft in the middle, not too fat, not too thin.

We requested a couple of sauces - chilli and ranch. I'm not a connoisseur of ranch dressing: I don't actually know what is in it or what it is supposed to taste of, but this one tasted good to me. It was creamy and a bit tangy and just the sort of thing I like to dunk chips in. The chilli sauce wasn't fiercely hot but had a nice warm burn and a slightly smoky flavour. Not one for your competitive chilli eaters, and not nearly as good as my home made, but still very pleasant.

The tableware was an unusual choice. Rustic-looking glazed china of a type I'd normally associate with Japanese restaurants. It was pretty, but the bowl-shaped dishes were a bit awkward to cut up chicken on. Fine if you are planning to eat with your fingers but we were of course far too refined for that. I would also bet that a lot is going to get pinched.

The staff seemed really stretched, so service was patchy. One waitress was absolutely brilliant, had eyes in the back of her head and managed to dart around the room like a dragonfly. The other waiter was, shall we say, in need of more training. So while two of us were presented with water and a little dish of vegetable crisps as soon as we sat down, our later-arriving friend was asked for her order before she'd taken her coat off and didn't get water until the food arrived. The people sharing our table were asked to order before they'd been given a menu. He just didn't seem to be entirely on the ball.

We didn't try the desserts, and I just had a glass of the (perfectly acceptable) house red wine while the others were on soft-drinks. So we really didn't give the full menu a working over. But I think when I go back I will just stick to chicken and chips. They do them well and that is a beautiful thing.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Smokey Bacon & Corn Hash

This was also part of my frugal cooking week. A using-up-bits sort of brunch which ended up turning out really well and is worth commemorating.

Bacon & Corn Hash (serves 2)

1 medium potato
1/2 an onion (according to Terry Pratchett "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman.")
6 slices bacon
1 cup frozen sweetcorn
1/2 teaspoon Luchito smoked chilli paste
2 fried eggs, to serve

Cut the bacon into chunks and fry in a large pan until the fat runs, then add the potato, cut into small cubes. When the potato chunks crisp at the edges (you may need to add a bit of vegetable oil if your bacon is on the lean side) add the diced onion. When it is translucent add the corn and smoked chilli paste (use diced chipotle in adobo if you don't have Luchito). When the corn is cooked, divide between two plates and top each with a fried egg.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Ben & Jerry's Core

On Tuesday evening I was invited to attend a sneak preview of a couple of Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavours. I don't say no to ice cream!

The Ben & Jerry's Core 500ml tubs contain a soft core of something (like a raspberry ripple sort of effect) with two flavours of ice cream around them. A few flavours were launched last year but these were new.
Woody made a fleeting visit

A masseuse was on-hand to give moo-ssages (apparently the cows have a massage machine so we were pretty much being given a taste of life as a dairy cow), a couple of nail artists were doing Ben & Jerry's themed manicures, the prosecco flowed and there were as many peanut butter and jam sandwiches and brownies as you could possibly want.

Peanut butter and jam? Yes, I'll get to that.

There was also a lot of ice cream. Lots and lots.

I started with my nails. Cow print with cow faces on the thumbs. Not my usual style at all but very cute and I had a great antipodean chat to the lovely Kiwi girl who did them.

Then on to the ice creams. The Blondie Brownie is a core of salted caramel with chocolate ice cream with chocolate brownie chunks and vanilla ice cream with blondie chunks.

The salted caramel was absolutely divine but I found the ice cream component a bit hard going. There were just too many chunks in it, which detracted from the caramel and made it all a bit too sweet (yes, the brownies are sweeter than the caramel), and not enough ice cream! Plus I am not really a fan of cookie dough or cakey sorts of inclusions in ice creams, so this one just wasn't the sort of thing I would usually order or eat. I had to have a second helping just to be sure though.

I much preferred the other flavour, Peanut Butter Me Up. An ode to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it was a core of raspberry jam with peanut butter ice cream, and vanilla ice cream studded with mini peanut butter cups. The jam was, of course, jammy but actually not too sweet, the peanut butter flavour was fairly subtle but given a boost every time I bit into one of the little peanut butter cups. I would definitely buy this one, although to be honest I think if they combined the salted caramel core from the Blondie Brownie with the ice cream and peanut butter cups from this one, it'd be much closer to my idea of ice cream heaven. Or a peanut butter caramel core in raspberry and vanilla ice creams? Now there's an idea...

Rhodri Morgan, one of the brand managers for Ben & Jerry's UK, did a very brief spiel about these new flavours, but then I got to have a bit of a chat to him about the brand, our shared love for Nigella Lawson, the wonders of twitter and so forth. Ben & Jerry's is of course a Unilever (massive global conglomerate ptooey!) brand now, but they seem to be trying to maintain their hippy roots with progressive policies and an eye on the environment. In the UK they have moved over to entirely fairtrade ingredients, their ice creams are vegetarian friendly and they are campaigning for equal marriage legislation and to improve welfare standards for dairy cows in the E.U. All of which I like. These ice creams do, of course, have a much longer ingredients list than home made but at least I recognise all the words on the labels.

And now to work on my plan for an even better peanut butter and jam inspired ice cream...
Two days before a hair cut and colour and sadly not my glorious orange handbag

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

By popular demand - peshwari naan

A couple of people have asked for my naan recipe, so here it is (with the usual provisos that I am not Indian, this is not authentic etc etc):

Peshwari Naan (makes 4)

250g strong white flour
pinch salt
1 sachet fast action yeast
1tbs olive oil
2tbs plain yoghurt (not thick Greek-style, just regular)
100ml-ish water
2tbs desiccated coconut
1tbs caster sugar
1/2tsp fennel seeds, crushed
Seeds from 5 cardamom pods, crushed

Put the flour in a large bowl & put the salt on one side, the yeast on the other. Add the yoghurt and olive oil and bring together with your hands, dribbling in the water gradually until you have a slightly sticky dough. Knead until smooth and elastic (the olive oil in the dough makes this less difficult than you would think) then cover and allow to rise for an hour.

Combine the coconut, sugar, fennel seeds and cardamom seeds in a small bowl.

Once the dough has risen, divide into 4. On a floured surface, pat one portion out into a disc, then pile 1/4 of the coconut mixture in the middle. Bring the sides together so you have a little sort of dough bag with the filling enclosed in the middle, and give it a bit of a twist to seal the edges together. Then gently roll it out into a oblong or teardrop sort of shape. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling ingredients.

Heat a griddle or frying pan (I use a Le Creuset for this) and cook the naan for about 3 minutes a side - I use a totally dry pan, it doesn't stick or anything. On the second side I found that they puffed up like a pita bread, but they collapsed when they came off the heat.

You could add a bit of gloss and extra luxury by rubbing each one with a little melted butter or ghee when they are cooked, but I didn't bother with these since I was serving them with a very rich curry. Serve fresh & warm.

Tamarind beef shin curry

You know how you can get really subtle curries with delicate, refined spicing? This is not one of those. This is a big, butch curry that whacks you around the head with beefy flavour and lip-smacking texture. But it's actually not that hot - it wouldn't get more than 2 chillies on any curry-house menu.

I was having a frugal cooking week, mostly using up things from the freezer and store cupboard, and decided that the whole Galloway beef shin wanted to become a curry. I was thinking vindaloo, but Paul screwed his nose up at the idea and suggested something with tamarind as a souring agent. That seemed like a good idea to me.

I thought about boning the shin and cubing the meat, but decided that the wastage from that would be, well, a waste. So I cut the meat on the bone into a check pattern (sort of like when you are cutting mango cheeks) and put it in the pot like that. A few hours later the meat just fell off the bone, leaving not a scrap behind. It does mean, of course, that you need to cook it in a bloody huge pot, but there is something very satisfying about stirring an enormous cauldron of food. Slices of beef shin like for osso bucco or even boned shin would work if you can't get a whole one. But it really does need to be shin for the way the connective tissue dissolves into gelatinous ooze.

I made some peshwari naan to go with it. I roasted wedges of butternut, then sprinkled them with spices half way through (like the baked peppered aubergine and potatoes, but I added some cinnamon as well) and served it with some yoghurt drizzled on top. And I dug a jar of aubergine pickle from the cupboard, where it has been happily mellowing for a couple of years.
Yeast-risen naan, filled with sweet coconut, cardamom and fennel seed.

Tamarind Beef Shin Curry

1 whole beef shin on the bone
1 black cardamom pod
2 dried red chillies
1 tbs tamarind concentrate
1 vegetable gel stock pot thingy (oh the shame)
1 large onion
5 cloves garlic
2 inch chunk of ginger, peeled
2 tbs vegetable oil
Spice Mix
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbs black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
Seeds from 10 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp cloves
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
1-2 dried red chillies, extra

Process, or finely dice or grate the onion, garlic and ginger (if processing, add the oil to help it along, otherwise, just mix the oil through after). Scrape half the onion ginger paste into a large casserole or heavy based saucepan with a lid, and allow to cook gently for a couple of minutes while you prepare the meat.

With a small sharp knife, cut around the meat 3-4 times lengthwise and 4-5 times the other way, cutting right down to the bone. Put the hedgehoggy-looking shin into the pot, then scrape the second half of the onion mixture on top, pushing it down into the cuts in the meat. Turn up the heat and brown the meat on both sides. Should be on all sides I guess but it is actually really tricky to turn a piece of meat that big so I only turned it once.

Combine the spices for the spice mix in your spice grinder or coffee grinder or mortar & pestle or whatever you use for such tasks and process to a fairly fine powder. Sprinkle it all over the meat. Tuck the whole dried chillies and the black cardamom pod down into the onion mixture at the base of the pan. Add a good tablespoonful of tamarind concentrate and a vegetable stock pot, then pour over a bit of water - probably about a teacupful (should come about 1" up the meat).

Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover tightly. At this point I put it in a 140C oven for 4 hours, but you could just do it on a very low heat on the hob. I usually find that there is more evaporation and more chance of hotspots catching on the pan on the hob, so you might need to add a bit more water.

After 4 hours, take it off the heat - by this time the meat should have fallen off the bone completely, so take the bones out. We left it to cool for a couple of hours to allow the spices to completely draw through the curry (plus it freed up the oven for roasting the butternut) and then reheated it on the hob just before dinner, but you can serve it straight away. Or the next day.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Cat's Mother Guest Blogs - Cook the Books: La forma dell’acqua

La forma dell'acqua - The Shape of Water
I was introduced to Inspector Montalbano through the telemovies. Then I discovered the books were available in English and I have read every one. At the moment we are watching the TV prequel of the Young Montalbano. I dream of Sicily.
What is loosely called "Italian" food is my favourite cuisine and I love the way Sicilian food reflects the island’s climate and history. The trouble is, this particular book doesn’t mention many meals and no dish mentioned in this book inspired me. How to solve this mystery?
"I’m not Sicilian; I was born in Grosseto and came to Montelusa when my father was made prefect here." This is how the engineer’s widow begins her explanation about the phrase which leads Inspector Montalbano to the truth about Signor Luparello’s death and gives the book its title.
Taking my lead from Signora Luparello I looked up Grosseto and discovered it is a city and province in Tuscany in the Maremma area. Like the better known Pisa, Siena and Florence, Grosseto was an independent city state in the high Middle Ages and Renaissance. Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy informs me that the culinary specialities of Grosseto are turtle soup and a lamb soup made from heart, liver and lungs with plenty of bread and onions. Where I live turtles are endangered and a major tourist attraction. I have not checked the penalty for catching and cooking a turtle in Queensland but it likely includes jail time. As for Grosseto’s second speciality, the lamb soup had way too much offal for me. Like the Inspector, I sensed I was on the right track but thwarted.
Next I consulted La Cucina: the virtual bible of Italian regional cooking. There I read that acquacotta (cooked water) is the most typical and traditional dish of central Italy. It is a soup made from simple ingredients and is based on water (acqua) rather than broth or stock. The three fundamental ingredients are dry bread, olive oil and aromatic herbs, importantly nepitella or calamint. After that the other ingredients vary with local tradition and produce availability.
I have a kitchen garden with a selection of culinary herbs. Calamint was not one of them. I had never even heard of calamint! Glad for the long lead time for this CTB challenge several phone calls and some internet work led to a parcel delivery from a specialist herb nursery. Two little seedlings were planted and have thrived. 
Nepitella or Calamint
Some of the acquacotta recipes in La Cucina include fish but most are vegetarian with the optional addition of an egg. The recipe I chose was collected in the Maremma region. It is something Signora Luparello might have eaten in the summer holidays when she was a girl visiting her parent’s farm in the Amiata, east of Grosseto.
Acquacotta Maremmana
Heat olive oil over a low heat, add a sliced medium onion and sautĂ© until golden. Add aromatic herbs, sliced chard leaves and a little grated pecorino. Cook 2 minutes, then add red wine, passata and water. You may need to add more water if the mixture is too thick. Simmer for 15 minutes. 
Line earthenware bowls with slices of toasted bread. Break an egg per person into the broth and gently poach them for 3 minutes. Ladle into the bowls and wait several minutes for the bread to soak up the liquid. Serve with more pecorino.
Acquacotta Maremmana
Readers of Foodycat’s blog will not be surprised to read that I had to improvise a little (I don’t claim all credit for her culinary talent, but she did learn something from her mother). I did not have a bottle of red wine open so, for a Sicilian touch, used Marsala instead. 

The final dish was flavoursome and filling. Bill pronounced it “good” but added some chilli – a Sicilian improvement. I seasoned mine Tuscan style with olive oil and some extra cheese.
So for Inspector Montalbano and The Shape of Water I give you Acquacotta Maremmana – salute!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Seville orange ice cream - BSFIC

IceCreamChallengeTo celebrate the fact that Bloggers Scream For Ice Cream is now a year old, Kavey's challenge this month was to make a frozen treat that fit the theme for one of the preceding months. The one I have come up with actually fit the brief for three months gone by - June's fruit, July's condensed milk and December's booze. Three times as good, then.

Last Sunday it was our wedding anniversary. 7 years. We just stayed in and had a nice dinner. Getting married so close to Valentine's Day means we sometimes bundle it up in the set-dinner-for-two thing, but this year it was just a special day for us.

For our dinner on Sunday, I served delicious onglet steaks with duck-fat sauteed potatoes and steamed broccoli topped with anchovy and garlic breadcrumbs. And then I served this light, tangy ice cream for dessert, along with Azelia's marmalade brandy snaps.
Azelia published the recipe and step-by-step guide at just the right time
I'm giving two recipes here - the one that I made and the one that I think will improve on what I did. You see, even though it is the obedient condensed milk base, I put in a bit too much of the deliciously acidic orange juice, so it doesn't scoop so softly. It does have a wonderful fresh flavour and lovely velvety texture though, so it certainly wasn't a failure, it just needed to sit out to ripen for a few minutes before scooping.  Paul even asked for a portion of his own, which never happens. I didn't have to share the brandy snaps though, he found their butterscotchy gorgeousness too sweet for his palate.

Seville Orange Ice Cream (which was not quite right)

300g condensed milk
300ml double cream
Juice and zest of 3 seville oranges
1 tbs marmalade vodka

Whisk the condensed milk into the juice and zest of the seville oranges. It should thicken pretty much straight away. Then add the cream and vodka and whisk until it holds soft peaks. Scrape into a container and freeze. 
Creamy orange-flecked folds of loveliness

Seville Orange Ice Cream (which will be better next time)
300g condensed milk
300ml double cream
Grated zest of 3 seville oranges
Juice of 2 seville oranges
2tbs marmalade vodka

Follow the recipe as above, increasing the booze and decreasing the juice. I think this will be brilliant, but I will let you know when I have tried it!
We ate it with a little shot of the chilled vodka on the side

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Meatball pancake canneloni for Shrove Tuesday

Thin pancakes, flecked with herbs
The perfect expression of pancakes is obviously rolled with lemon juice and sugar, but occasionally variations are acceptable. I was planning spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Paul announced that he wanted canneloni. This was the compromise.

I made a big stack of thin pancakes, flecked with parsley and thyme. A couple we ate immediately for lunch with a filling of sauteed mushrooms, the rest hung around until dinner time.
Rolling meatballs in pancakes isn't all that easy

I browned the meatballs and cooked them in a thick tomato sauce with lots of garlic. I rolled 4 meatballs in each pancake with a little sauce and put them in a pyrex dish. Paul felt that a layer of bechamel before the cheese would be a good idea but I thought it would be way too rich, so I just poured the tomato sauce from the meatballs all over the rolled pancakes.
Lovely melty cheese
Then I smothered them in cheese. I used mostly reduced fat cheddar, because that was what I had, but then dotted it with nubbins of mozzarella. Then into the oven until everything was heated through and bubbling.

If I were planning to fast for Lent (which I assure you I am not) this really would be a great way to celebrate Shrove Tuesday - eggs, cheese and meat, all tidily cleared out of the fridge. Of course, it is very filling; two pancakes made a very satisfying portion, so that means leftovers on Ash Wednesday, which is hardly in the spirit of the season.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Kung hei fat choi and farewell Megan

Megan and Ellen

Over the last couple of years, many of my culinary adventures have involved Megan. She's commented a couple of times that my blog has been a useful record of her time in the UK, as we've eaten Lebanese food, had a weekend in Bath, met Nigella Lawson and generally eaten and drunk enjoyably together. But now, as they say, the end is near. Megan's visa is expiring and she has been inexplicably unable to find a man to marry, an unexpectedly British parent or an employer to sponsor her to stay.

Last Sunday we met to send her off in the appropriate manner, with food followed by booze.

Megan has made Soho and Bloomsbury her own and has been responsible for introducing many people (including me) to the extremely delicious xiao long bao served by Dumplings Legend. It seemed only fair that we should have one last dumpling feast. Somehow, I've never previously photographed our dumpling meals, even though they are terribly pretty, but this one obviously had to be commemorated.

China Town was dressed for festivities, preparing for Chinese New Year and welcoming the Year of the Snake. I think red is a particularly joyful colour placed against a miserably dull sky.

My previous visits to Dumplings Legend have all been in the evening, so I was really excited to see that they do a proper dim sum menu for lunch. No trolley aunties of course, but you can't have everything. The Australians at the table got all nostalgic about yum cha at The Marigold and East Ocean.

We had several baskets of xiao long bao, initiating Megan's housemate into the technique for biting them so you can suck the soup out of the dumplings. These were a bit more fragile than I've had there previously - several tore and spilled their soup while I tried to get them off the paper.

We also had a couple of different types of prawn dumplings, with lovely fresh crunchy prawns in them. And I ordered some barbecued pork pastries, although apparently I didn't take a picture of them.

A platter of barbecued meats, some salt and pepper aubergine and some choi sum rounded out the savoury selections.

To order the dim sum you have to tick boxes on a card. I knew it was only a matter of time before I ticked the wrong box (the cards are a bit confusing - I was going cross-eyed trying to see which box lined up with which menu item). And so it was - instead of the custard tarts which are for me an absolute essential, I managed to tick the box for Green tea and smoked plum pudding. As it was my mistake, the waiter quite reasonably showed no inclination to take the green tea and plum pudding away, or take it off the bill. So we ate it.

Turns out to have been quite a happy accident - I would never have ordered it intentionally, but it was delicious and I would have it again. It's one of those cubed layered agar jelly affairs (there's a picture on the Dumplings Legend menu page). A bottom layer of green tea jelly, a middle layer of vanilla-y custard-y substance and a top layer of fruity (one assumes smoked plum). The gelatinous texture isn't my favourite but the combination of creamy and fruity and smoky with an edge of green tea was very nice.

And the egg tarts were worth the wait.

Happy travels, Megsie darling!

Edited to add: Ellen got a picture of the aubergine and the green tea pudding and very kindly let me use them

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Smoked salmon chowder

This delicious - and surprisingly light - soup was inspired by Mary's Gold Beach Winter Chowder. I don't even know what shoepeg corn is, and I made a few other changes, but it conveys the same sense of warming, nourishing generosity and colour to make your heart sing that hers did.

Smoked salmon chowder (serves 2)

1 tsp butter
1 onion, finely diced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 floury potato, peeled and chopped
250g frozen corn kernals
500ml vegetable stock
100g hot smoked salmon
100ml skim milk

Melt the butter in a large-ish pot and add the onion and celery, sauteing gently until the onion is translucent. Add the potato and the stock and bring to the boil, then cover and cook for about 10 minutes. If you are making this ahead of time, make it up to this point and then take it off the heat, finishing it off about 5 minutes before you want to eat.

When you want to eat it, add the corn and return to the boil for a couple of minutes, then add the salmon, broken into large flakes, and the skim milk. Bring just back to the boil and serve.

SouperSundays This is a soup for Deb's Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Burger Breakout at the Old Crown

One London food trend of 2012 which shows no sign of disappearing is the appallingly-named "dirty" or even worse "dude" food. This is, for anyone happily ignorant of London food trends, the sort of American-style fast food that foodies usually deride made acceptable by careful sourcing, good cooking and social media buzz. Fried chicken, burgers, ribs and fries topped with all manner of extras.

Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of chicken and burgers and fries, especially when made from high-welfare meat. What I object to is adding value judgements to food - I don't like "naughty" or "guilty pleasure" either and as for the implication that this food is not for girls... well just don't get me started. Anyway, the "dirtiest" food I know, from the point of view of dripping down your elbows, is a beautifully ripe mango which hardly fits this trend.

Most of the places that specialise in this food don't take bookings. So what with one thing and another, aside from a quick solo lunch at Pitt Cue Co I haven't tried any of the new-wave luxury junk food.

Then an old friend came to town. I suggested a couple of lunch location options and The Old Crown got his nod. I've been following @burger_breakout on twitter for a while, so I was very much looking forward to trying their food.

I knew that with only two of us we wouldn't be in a position to try the pig in a pail, but I had hopes for burgers, a few side dishes and possibly one of their boozy milkshakes. Unfortunately Kendal was in recovery from eating way too much cheese and sausage on a ski trip: he shuddered at the prospect of deep-fried pickle spears and was faintly judgemental about the size of my beer. He restricted himself to the Camilla burger (chicken, of course) and the accompanying fries.

With a limited number of seats and the lunch time rush, the staff were pretty keen to get people fed and out (not unpleasantly, though) so I didn't get to consider the menu in quite the leisurely way I prefer. I ordered the first thing I saw, the Bambi Bought It - a thick venison patty, Tunworth (a Camembert-style cheese from Hampshire), beetroot pickle, chocolate & quince BBQ sauce. I also ordered the deep-fried pickles.

As soon as it hit the table I knew I was going to have to cut it in half. There was no way I could approach the monstrous mound of ooze any other way. The bun was good, although I had to turn the burger upside down to eat it - the bottom layer was pretty well saturated and soggy with juice. The lettuce and tomato were redundant as to flavour, but I suspect did help prevent the total collapse of the bun. The patty itself, whilst having a pleasing pink middle and good venison flavour, had spent a little too long on too hot a grill and featured a bitter and crunchy layer of char on the outside. The beetroot pickle could have been a little more assertive to stand up to the sweet barbecue sauce, but the soft cheese was just the perfect thing.

The skin-on fries were just how I like them, although I couldn't detect any horseradish in the salt. The deep-fried pickles were the best deep-fried pickles I have tried so far, with a good, crunchy layer of batter keeping in the explosive juices. I couldn't possibly eat the whole portion myself, sadly.

Kendal said his burger was among the top burgers of his career - pipped by one he'd had in New Zealand. Mine, although flawed, was still excellent and the best burger I've had for ages. I will happily go back to try more of the menu. Next time, though, I have to take a girl with me, because I want a witness for the eccentricity of the ladies' room. I ducked in before we left and was confronted by two toilets occupying one long cubicle. Fortunately I didn't have to share.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Baked peppered potato and aubergine

I had an aubergine that needed to be used. I had a solitary large potato. I was making lamb curry. I didn't know when Paul was getting home for tea.

I decided to cut my coat according to my cloth, so to speak, and take some of the flavours of my old peppered potatoes and cauliflower to make a side dish.

Baked peppered potato and aubergine (serves 2)

1 large baking potato
1 aubergine
Drizzle of olive oil
1/2 tsp white peppercorns
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
pinch cumin seeds
pinch salt
big pinch curry leaves

Scrub the potatoes and cut into chunks. Cut the aubergine into chunks. Toss in a drizzle of olive oil and bake at 180C for about 25 minutes.

While it is cooking grind the peppercorns, cumin seeds, salt and curry leaves in a spice grinder to a coarse powder.

Toss the vegetables in the spices and return to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, until they are cooked through and golden with little caught crispy bits.


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