Tuesday 29 April 2008

Liver & onions

It's rainy and grim and despite all of the blossom on the trees (we think we have an apple tree in the bottom of the garden), it has been feeling wintry again.

So - a warming dish of liver and bacon. Served in a smaller portion than usual to fit the diet, with just a pile of greens instead of anything starchy. The asparagus is Spanish though... disappointingly, Waitrose had sold out of the British stuff by the time we got there.

Fry a sliced onion in a spot of olive oil until it is collapsing. Add some lardons of bacon and whole button mushrooms. When you have a good sizzle on, and the onions are really properly cooked but before they start to crisp, add your slices of liver. When they are almost cooked, add a splash of sherry or port or something. Swirl around the pan and onto the plates. Yum!

Sunday 27 April 2008


I'm sure it will come as no surprise, but I eat quite a lot. And as a result, I weigh quite a lot. So in the run up to turning 35, I have decided it is time to shift a few kilos. In the past I have been quite successful on the Healthy Inspirations program, so I am back on that. This program begins with a 3 day "Healthy Quick Start" which is lots of protein and green veg and not much of anything else, which apparently prepares your body for weightloss.

I wasn't entirely organised to begin my Quick Start yesterday, so I fell back to plain boiled eggs for my breakfast. I do love a boiled egg, although it was something of a tragedy not to have buttered sourdough toast soldiers to dunk in them. These are Clarence Court eggs. We'd usually get the Old Cotswold Legbar ones, which have lovely pastel blue and green shells, but Waitrose were out last week so we got these rather magnificent Burford Browns. Such a lovely rich colour, both of the shell and the yolk.

Today I was better prepared, and made eggs and asparagus for lunch, to celebrate the start of the British asparagus season. The asparagus was so delicious! Even if you aren't bothered about your carbon footprint, or food miles, I have to say the flavour and texture of fresh, local asparagus is so superior I wouldn't buy Peruvian again. I will just been eating as much British asparagus as I can afford for the 8 weeks of the season. I wrapped a bit of proscuitto around my husband's asparagus, but "deli meat" is off the menu for me. A slick of hollandaise sauce would have been perfect, but as I am only allowed 2 eggs a day on this bit of the programme, I had to prioritise. Maybe next weekend.

Friday 25 April 2008

The benefit of hindsight

Food memories make fools of us all. That is the hypothesis I have come to after many bloody awful curries in Britain. I now believe that the nostalgic Poms who wail about the delicacy and savour of a British curry are having the same sort of perverse flashback that leads me to think fondly of scrambled eggs sprinkled with sugar. Which were great, I swear.

So I was a bit worried when I decided that I really, really liked our new local Thai place. Was it genuinely good, or was I just addled after 2 years of sweet gloopy sauces clinging to the roof of my mouth? We took some friends, recently arrived from Sydney and well-travelled in Asia, and they pronounced that yes, it has the freshness, vibrancy and balance that we expect from good Thai food in Sydney.

That's all right then.

Tonight I had lovely limey, fish-saucey tom yum gung as a starter, with lots of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf and galangal (handy hint - Thais eat with spoon and fork, so if something is cut bigger than the spoon, it is a flavouring that you aren't expected to eat) and then a grilled beef salad. My salad was delicious - lovely tender meat, crisp vegetables, balanced dressing. But I consider it a mark of the superior levels of hospitality in Thai culture that 2 different waitresses were very upset that I left slices of chilli on the side of my plate. They swore that they would tell the chef that his food was too hot. I hope I was firm enough in telling them absolutely not to, that the flavour the chilli gave was just perfect but that I can't eat that many slices of tiny, incendiary birdseye chillis. Because honestly, I will be crushed if we go back and they have dumbed it down to yet another sweet, gloopy sauce.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Seafood & Chorizo Salad (again)

Way back last August I posted about how good Rick Stein's squid and chorizo salad is - although I made a few variations to the recipe as written. Well, I still haven't made it as the great man wrote it, but it is still a firm favourite!

"Spanish" Food

This is a bit like "Mexican" food - very tasty, but possibly unrecognisable to a Spaniard. Last night we were discussing options for dinner and decided that if we were going to have a bottle of wine (in an effort to reduce calorie intake we aren't drinking alcohol during the week, unless we are at a restaurant) it should be a good one. So we went up the road to Salud where they have a cellar of very old Spanish wines at extremely reasonable prices.

In the past when we have been to Salud, we've erred by ordering a couple of tapas to start, and then not been able to do justice to the massive main courses. This time we decided to order just some tapas and pace ourselves.

The thing that struck me immediately (with my 5 days in Spain expertise) was how much bigger the portions were than the tapas in Spain. We ordered 7 dishes and we really should probably have had 5.

The fried calamari was lovely - so tender it was almost like boiled egg. The boquerones were also very good, but piled in a huge mound over shredded lettuce it was just too much. Pollo al ajillo wasn't as good as the one I made the other week. Excellent grilled sardines. Delicious chorizo cooked in wine. Fat garlicky mushrooms. A whopping plate of serrano jamon, a little dry and too thickly sliced. All stuff that you would find in bars in Spain, but somehow not quite as it would be done there - I think all of the garlic was ready chopped from a jar, for one thing.

Anyway, a very pleasant meal with a lovely bottle of wine. And a fascinating floorshow - the only other occupied table contained a pair of frumpy middle-aged women who discussed very loudly their roles as the sexpots of Rickmansworth. You wouldn't have thought they'd have it in them, but men bang on their windows every night. Fascinating eavesdropping.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Corned beef

I do try not to serve beige meals, but occasionally I impress myself with the colours on a plate. Tonight's vibrant green and orange are so very pretty.

When I moved to the UK I had no idea that corned beef was held in such poor esteem here - it is entirely associated with the cans of shredded not-sure-what (which my husband makes into a fab, comforting pasta sauce) and not at all with the corned silverside of Australian country Sunday lunches and brilliant sandwiches. Come to think of it, I must find out from my mother how she came to be such a proponent of the art of silverside without being Australian or a country girl... On the other hand, there is a great fondness and respect for the Jewish hot salt beef bar, and from where I sit, salt beef and corned beef are very much the same animal.

Tonight's corned beef was a small piece from a brisket that I cured according to a recipe in Preserved by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton. It's been sitting in the freezer for quite some while, and I am on a bit of a freezer-emptying jag at the moment, so I decided the time had come. With the other piece from this cure, it was a bit too salty, so I soaked this one overnight, before cooking it for 2 1/2 hours in fresh water, with a slosh of vinegar, a bayleaf and an onion spiked with cloves. I don't think the extra flavourings do anything much for the flavour of the meat, but they make the kitchen smell heavenly.

I am very lucky to have found in my husband a soulmate: someone who likes their parsley sauce thick as wallpaper paste, and with far more parsley in it than white sauce just like I do. It is so rare to find that I don't think I will be making parsley sauce for anyone else, ever. So, corned beef, peering from a thick blanket of sauce, with roast butternut pumpkin, some roast cloves of garlic and steamed broccolini. Yum. Nothing like the stuff in cans.

Monday 21 April 2008

Not a triumph

If you use "scallops and black pudding" as your search terms, you will discover that matching the plump, delicate seafood with the richly spiced pudding is a pretty common thing to do - although the Riverford Organic Farmshop (not, I would have thought, on the cutting edge) thinks it is passe.

So for dinner tonight I dressed a pile of baby spinach leaves with a mustardy dressing, fried black pudding until crispy, apple slices until golden and tender and big fat scallops until nicely browned and put it all together on a plate. And you know what? Won't be doing that again. The black pudding and apple slices together were very good, but the scallops and black pudding had nothing to say to each other. Still, the picture turned out nice.

Saturday 19 April 2008

Braised Venison Shanks

I took a half day from work yesterday and went to Borough Market yesterday - hence the black pudding with breakfast this morning. While the vegetable, flower and cheese stalls at Borough are always gorgeous (I was sorely tempted by some massive globe artichokes and an amazing gooey brie) my problem is then how to transport my booty home. Meat just travels better! So I end up buying loads of different types of flesh. This time I bought (in addition to the black pudding) some bratwurst - probably dinner tomorrow, with some sauerkraut, a rolled shoulder of heather-grazed Orkney lamb and a couple of fallow venison shanks.

The weather today has been filthy - cold and blustery and rainy - so a casserole of the shanks was most definitely in order. I've been hankering for osso bucco, but my husband isn't a fan, so I figured I would apply the best part of osso bucco, the gremolata, to my shanks. In addition, at the Market I'd tried a balsamic syrup flavoured with orange, and my friend Kim had pointed out how lovely it would be with venison. So I decided that some of the marmalade backlog would go into the sauce and that the gremolata would be orange zest, not lemon. So here we have it:

Braised venison shanks with gremolata

2 venison shanks
1tbs oil
1 onion
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
selection of winter veg (I used an M&S concoction of more onion, carrot, cabbage, swede, leek, potato and lentils)
½ bottle red wine
500ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
5 juniper berries, crushed
2 tsp bitter orange marmalade
salt & pepper

For the gremolata

2 more garlic cloves
bunch flat-leaf parsley
grated rind of a large orange

Brown the venison shanks in the oil on all sides in a heavy, lidded casserole or saucepan (I used a le Creuset dutch oven), with the whole cloves of garlic. Add the onion, diced, and stir around until the onion begins to soften. Add the cubed veg, wine, stock, bay leaf and juniper berries and bring to the boil. Put the lid on and turn the heat down to a simmer. If your pot fits in the oven (mine doesn’t), you can put it in a 150C oven. Cook gently for about 3 – 31/2 hours, until the meat is falling off the bone.

Combine the extra garlic cloves, the finely chopped parsley and the grated orange rind.

Remove the shanks from the pot, put in a bowl and pour a couple of spoons of the cooking broth over, and put in a low oven to keep warm. Increase the heat under the pot, so that the sauce reduces. Add the marmalade and half the gremolata and season to taste. Cook for another couple of minutes to soften the parsley. There should still be a bit of liquid around the vegetables but not too much.

Divide the sauce between deep serving plates and top with a shank each. Sprinkle with the remaining gremolata and serve with a simple green vegetable.

Full English

This week the Times decided to get all silly and try to provoke controversy by publishing a debate on the Full English breakfast. Now, I love Giles Coren; I read his reviews with eagerness every weekend and take heed of his opinions. But he has Gone Too Far in denouncing the Full English Breakfast.

It isn't something for every day. In fact, I don't think it is something for every weekend, but it is a lovely occasional treat. I think the one I have just finished eating was an excellent example of the genre, too.

The thing that looks like a hockey puck is, of course, lovely Scottish black pudding, fried until crunchy on the outside and meltingly tender in the middle. Outdoor-reared, dry-cured smoked bacon. A fried tomato (only a tiny half - I thought I had more than that in the fridge). Heinz baked beans (warmed through with a shake of Tabasco). Fried eggs - sunny-side down for my husband, sunny-side up for me. Perfect.

I'd normally do some fried mushrooms as well, but somehow we have run out. We never have toast/fried bread/saute potatoes with it when we have it at home, because with all the rest on the plate you just don't need it, and there is no one to care if you lick your plate to get the last bit of eggy baked bean sauce.

Monday 14 April 2008

Crab Ravioli

Some time ago my friend Jude introduced me to the wonders of Costco. Since I'm not quite organised enough to have all the paperwork to join myself, Jude will occasionally do me a huge favour and take me around on her card. 2kg jars of marinated artichoke hearts for less than £5 are one of the highlights. Packets of prosciutto for 1/3 the price of Waitrose are also good. Duck confit cheaper than I can make it myself. And last time I bought a 450g tub of pasteurised, vacuum-packed crab meat for a piddling amount of money.

So I have had a tub of crab meat in the freezer and no idea whatsoever what to do with it. I thought crab and sweetcorn soup (which my husband adores), crab cakes, maybe omelettes. And then my husband announced that he thought crab ravioli with a sauce of peppers. And he was very definite that they were to be orange peppers, not red or yellow. I think the sauce looks a bit disgusting actually, but it tasted good and it allowed me to use saffron, which is my current obsession (or hadn't you noticed?).

Crab ravioli

200g white fish fillets
1 egg, separated
¼ cup double cream
white pepper
450g crabmeat
snipped chives
2 packets of wonton wrappers

Saffron pepper sauce

2 orange peppers
30g butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 pinch saffron strands
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup double cream
Salt and white pepper

Blend the white fish and cream until smooth, then fold through the stiffly beaten eggwhite and chill. Add the crabmeat and season with white pepper, salt and snipped chives. Make into ravioli with the wonton wrappers (I folded them into triangles for ease), sealing with the eggyolk.

Roast the peppers until blackened, peel and deseed, saving the juices. Bring the wine to the boil in a small saucepan, add the chopped shallots and saffron and simmer until the wine has reduced by 2/3. Put the reduced wine, peppers and juices in a blender and puree until smooth. Put back in the saucepan, add the cream and bring to the boil again.

Gradually incorporate the chilled cubes of butter into the sauce, using a whisk and moving the saucepan on and off the heat to make certain it does not become too hot, which will cause the sauce to separate. Season to taste.

Boil the water for the pasta. Add the ravioli and simmer gently for about 4 minutes or until the pasta is cooked as you like it. Drain carefully to avoid damaging the ravioli. Serve with the sauce.

Makes about 60 ravioli. The sauce doesn't go that far.

Because we have dozens of ravioli left over (8-10 is a pretty good main course portion) we'll freeze them on a tray and then seal them in bags.

Friday 11 April 2008

My turn

Well I had to, didn't I? After all that delicious food in Spain, I had to have a crack at making it myself - partly for my own satisfaction and partly so my husband could try some of it.

It wasn't hard to decide what to make. Spinach and chickpeas are 2 of his favourite things, so the espinacas con garbanzos was a certainty. I made it sort of like this version - although it will be a cold day in hell before I weigh 1g of cumin or 3g of salt - adding a good bit of paprika and turmeric. It was OK. Needed a higher proportion of spinach to the beans, and I think it would have been better cooked in a large quantity for a long time, and then reheated later. That may sound a bit disgusting, but the way spinach melts to a puree and gradually turns a burnished bronze colour is one of my favourite things in dishes like palak paneer.

I'd been so won over by the garlicky dishes I'd tried - the pork and the rabbit cooked with many whole cloves - that I thought I would give that a try with joints of chicken. And then discovered of course that someone else got there first and called it pollo al ajillo. I read a bunch of recipes and then went slightly in my own direction. But in my opinion it maintained the spirit of the originals!

Pollo al Ajillo (the North London way)

Sprinkle a flat plate with 1tsp salt, put chicken thighs on the salt, sprinkle with another 1tsp salt and leave for about 10 minutes while you get everything else ready.

Pour a good slug of olive oil into a cold cast iron dish (starting from cold because I want the maximum garlickyness to infuse into the oil before it starts to singe).

Peel a head of garlic and chuck the cloves into the cold oil (both times I had this in Spain the skins were left on the garlic, so you could do that, but I don't like picking the papery bits out of my mouth). Put the pan of garlic and oil onto a low heat and allow to slowly come up to temperature. When the garlic starts to sizzle, wipe the salt and released juices off the chicken thighs with a paper towel and place skin side down in the oil. Brown thoroughly (and I mean brown - until it is becoming crisp, not just until it goes opaque), turning the garlic cloves over from time to time.

Add 2 bayleaves, lightly crushed, and a pinch of saffron threads. Pour on about a cup of dry sherry (I used manzanilla). Cover and place in a preheated oven at about 180C for about half an hour.

This made much more delicious sauce than we needed to eat with the chicken (there are days when I wish we ate more starches), so I have it stashed away in the freezer for the next time I make a risotto. It will be an excellent addition!

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Oriental Slaw

Anne in Sweden blogged about Lime Jalapeno Slaw yesterday. Which struck me as a very good idea, and perfect for the really lovely piece of rump steak waiting in the fridge for dinner. And (almost inevitably) now that I come to look at the recipe again, what I did was almost completely different. But still from the same place of crispness, contrasts and really punchy flavours.

Oriental Slaw
Serves 2
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp dark muscovado sugar (in a perfect world I would have used palm sugar)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 good shake fish sauce
1 red chilli, seeded and chopped (don't know what sort - about the size of a cayenne chilli, quite hot but not ballistic)
2 big handfuls shredded cabbage
1 beautifully ripe avocado, cut in cubes
A few stems of coriander
Small handful of roasted peanuts

Combine the garlic, sugar, lemon juice and fish sauce in a salad bowl, and the rest of the ingredients, toss gently and serve almost instantly.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Yet more Spanish Food

We had to have a very much abbreviated siesta on the last afternoon. As well as doing the final dash to buy shoes and souvenirs, I had been promised seafood on the other side of the river in the Barrio de Triana (where apparently the Roman emperor Trajan was born).

I am quite a focussed shopper, so in not much time at all I had acquired an Indiana Jones hat from a famous equestrian shop for my husband, 2 pairs of wedge -heeled espadrilles and a pair of kitten -heeled sandals for me, as well as a handbag to match the kitten-heels and a couple of folding fans to use on the Tube in summer.

After a fairly long and not at all scenic walk, we were on the bridge to cross the river. A pause at a riverside bar to get a restoring beer, and then on to the 2 places that serve the best seafood around. At the first, we had a plate of chilled, steamed mussels and a lovely prawn salad. On Spanish menus they use different words for salads dressed with mayonnaise and salads dressed with oil and vinegar, so we knew that this was going to be a light, fresh, sharp salad.

Then on the other side of the plaza we went to a bar noted for their fried seafood. Tiny whole squid, none bigger than the first joint of my little finger, courgette fritters, more lovely cazon en adobo and some lovely merluza (hake) fillets fried and spread with a piquant salsa verde.

As well as seafood and Roman emperors, Triana is noted for flamenco. The real stuff, not shows put on by depressed Polish and Romanian girls for tourists. But since no one is likely to start dancing until after midnight, and we wanted to go out for a last breakfast before our taxi took us back to the station at 9, it didn't seem sensible. Next time!

Saturday 5 April 2008

More Spanish food

We knew the last day in Seville was going to be busy. So much more food to eat, so many shoes to buy. We walked to the Plaza de Espana - site of the 1929 Ibero -American Exposition. I'm afraid that it has to be said that it leaves the site of Brisbane's Expo '88 for dead.

Then a climb up the bell-tower of Seville's Cathedral. Used to be the minaret of a mosque and has a ramp instead of stairs because the Moorish prince who built it liked to ride his horse up, so I am told. The ramp makes for an easier climb, but descending in a half-crouch has led to very uncomfortable quadruceps. I like my ecclesiastical art and architecture a bit more austere and certainly less bloodthirsty. Do you actually need the severed trachea and vertebrae on your sculpture of John the Baptist's head? I think not, any more than we needed St Agatha holding her severed breast by the nipple in Segovia's alcazar chapel.

Clearly after that it was lunchtime. We made our penultimate visit to Bodega Santa Cruz Las Columnas - whose serviettes proudly proclaim "Especialidad en pringa tortillita de bacalao". Our light lunchtime snack consisted of berenjenas con miel (delicious slices of fried aubergine drizzled with honey), tiny clams in an oily, savoury sauce, rabbit cooked with garlic and sherry and a glass of gazpacho.

Spanish Food 4

The next stop was at Bar Europa - a spot that my friends had very fond memories of. It's a lovely space, tiled in blue and white which makes it very cool and relaxing. Unfortunately there seems to have been a less-than-successful change of management and the attitude from the spotty youth had my friend wild with rage. The things she'd been most keen to order were all unavailable, so we went with some different stuff.

The salad of soaked bacalao with romesco sauce wasn't very successful. The garnish of olive slices added nothing but an air of bad takeaway pizza, the fish was still very salty, the layer of lettuce didn't really work and the romesco needed a bit more of a vinegar punch. On the other hand, the scrambled eggs with wild garlic shoots were curdy, creamy and utterly delicious. I am delighted that my friend has actually pointed out a patch of wild garlic near my house, so I could go and forage.

After that, we needed to go somewhere where the food would be better and the service less rude. We fetched up at a bar just near the pink church (the Iglesia del Salvador) that my friends always go back to for the espinacas con garbanzos. Not only were they the best of the versions I tried (I think they had a bit of turmeric in as well as the other flavourings), the bartenders were very good-looking and charming. And when we asked for glasses of manzanilla, they offered a choice of 3 and looked terribly serious while we decided.

We finished the evening at another bar with a portion of torrijas. I'm told that we were lucky to get it, because a lot of places only serve it during Holy Week. The version we had was made with wine and eggs and then soaked in a spiced syrup and served at room temperature. The overall effect was like a boozy gulab jamun. Yum. It seems odd to me that something sweet, alcoholic and eggy would be a dominant feature of Holy Week - I guess Lent takes a back seat when something truly delicious is on offer.

Spanish Food 3

After a hard morning of wandering around the El Corte Ingles department store, trying on shoes (oh the shoes!) and having lunch in the sun, we needed a snack on the roof terrace of our apartment to fortify ourselves before an evening of bar-hopping. The view from the terrace was rather good, and for a girl coming out of a British winter, the sun was just amazing. I basked like a cat (or possibly like a walrus, given the amount of food we ate).

We picked up the components of our snack in the supermarket department of El Corte Ingles. Lovely sweet strawberries, a big wedge of torta del casar cheese, slices of jamon, slices of a sort of truffled pork brawn, some nashi, some crackers, a tin of spicy mussels in olive oil and sherry vinegar and a bottle of white rioja.

Then it was off to a local bar for our first stop of the evening. We had boquerones - the pickled white anchovies I mentioned before - on fingers of toast spread with salmorejo, and toasted sandwiches. The best of these was filled with pringa. Pringa is a sort of meat paste, with a shredded texture similar to rillettes. Apparently it is made from the leftovers from the Cocido but that hardly does it justice. The ones we had (we'd had it for breakfast the day before too) were quite highly seasoned with garlic and smoked paprika.

Friday 4 April 2008

Spanish Food 2

Life looks better after breakfast. Especially when breakfast consists of a lovely toasted roll, filled with good sliced serrano ham and drizzled with olive oil. And quite a lot of coffee.

I was a bit perplexed by the hams at first. They are everywhere, hanging from the roof - trotters intact - but they all had funny plastic cones hanging from the bottom of them.
And then I asked and was informed that it is a drip catcher because the fat melts in hot weather and trickles down. Sounds most unhygenic and I can't imagine that it would be allowed in Britain but no matter, the ham was delicious!

But even on a solid breakfast, after some hours of wandering around Seville, it hits beer o'clock and thoughts turn again to food. My friends really wanted to go to one bar (just off the Plaza Alfalfa) but it seemed to be closed. So we stood at the bar at another place and had a quick beer and I turned down the snails. I've had snails before - Burgundy-style, smothered in garlic and parsley butter - but these were a bit too anatomically exact. They still had horns. And faces. I couldn't do it. So we went on to another bar, which previously wasn't very good apparently, but is now under new management.

Well. The new management seem to be kicking goals. We had most delicious cazon en adobo - marinated fried fish, really beautiful tortillitas de camarones - shrimp fritters, a fantastic dish of pork in garlic and sherry and I was introduced to the healthy and charming idea of ordering a plate of tomatoes to accompany rich fried fish. Simply dressed at the table with a little salt and olive oil, it was lovely, and set us up nicely for the next meal!


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