Saturday 28 February 2009

Sunday Dinner

We tend to buy meat in bulk - we'll order half a lamb, cut into pieces, or a quarter pig, or a selection of slow-cooking cuts. The savings from buying in bulk mean that we can get really high quality, high-welfare meat, which we also prefer.

The problem with this scheme is that sometimes the cuts are too big for a couple to get through. And so it was that last Sunday we went over to visit friends, bearing a 2.4kg (5lb) leg of organic Devon lamb that we'd never be able to eat alone. A bit of salt, a bit of pepper and into a moderate oven for 3 hours. It threw off so much fat that we couldn't make gravy, but roast potatoes, asparagus, carrots & cauliflower cheese were all present. These friends eat early on a Sunday evening so that their small hurricane can eat with them, so we had the very great pleasure of sitting around a dining table having a really proper traditional Sunday roast dinner. It was lovely.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

School holiday treat - Bocca di Lupo

It's that time again - it's half-term which means that Jude and I get to go for our half-term treat. It was tempting to go back to Corrigans, or to Great Queen St, but in the interest of adventure and excitement, we decided to try something new. And the new kid on the block that is getting all the press right now is Bocca di Lupo.

I confess, as I walked up from Covent Garden, my heart wasn't really in it. I passed a couple of Chinese places redolent with crispy duck so by the time I got to Archer St I was much keener on those sorts of flavours and wasn't really wanting Italian. Plus another person was joining us and I wasn't completely enthusiastic about that either.

And then - mea maxima culpa - I had entirely fucked up the booking. I had somehow managed to book a table for late March. Of course, given the press that they have been getting, there was no chance of a free table, was there? So we ended up perched at the bar, on quite comfortable stools but too far apart in a single line to be able to have a proper 3-way conversation.

A very pretty waiter (who I suspect wants to be John Barrowman when he grows up) brought us water and delicious walnut bread and very, very delicious fat green olives while we thought about the menu.

Deciding that I wanted a glass of something dry and bubbly was easy - a Franchiacorta brut was in my hand within seconds. Deciding about food was much more difficult. The Bocca di Lupo schtick is that most of the dishes are available as small or large plates. So you can have a conventional starter and main course, or you can eat tapas-style. Barrowmanalike assured us that - if we weren't sharing - 3 small plates would be a good lunch. Which is good, because it did give more options.

I decided that balanced meals be damned. I ordered a fried dish of salt cod and courgettes, a dish of fried polenta with gorgonzola fonduta and a fried egg, and their signature crisp fried artichoke a la giudia. Jude also had an artichoke, and a pork & foie gras sausage with farro and porcini, and a salad of saved radish, celeriac and pecorino. Our other companion had a single grilled prawn, some breaded swordfish and some cooled romanesco broccoli with parmesan.

The salt cod and courgette was magnificent - the fish had been reconstituted into moist, white flakes, and the pieces were covered in the lightest of batter. A squeeze of lemon lifted the flavour perfectly; it wasn't a bit greasy or heavy. The sausage wasn't particularly foie gras-y, but it did have a lovely rich flavour. The single prawn was a pretty good size and a beautifully deep red colour, but I struggle to see how any prawn could be worth £2.50 when there wasn't even a fingerbowl forthcoming.

My polenta with gorgonzola fonduta was the dish of the day for me. A crisp outside gave way to a soft middle, while still having some of the texture of the cornmeal. The egg was just how I like it - a lace-edged white with a runny yolk. The gorgonzola fonduta was creamy and rich but with a big blue cheese punch. Jude's salad was fresh and delicate, although the truffle oil in the dressing overpowered some of the other flavours. The breading on the swordfish was a bit thick, so it ended up looking like a fishcake, but the fish inside was moist and disappeared without trace.

The thing that really sold me on the artichoke was the memory of Elizabeth David's Italian Food where she describes them as having "a very spectacular appearance, like a large, inverted sunflower". It certainly did have a spectacular appearance, and the outer leaves were crisp and crackling, while the heart was luscious and creamy. But the scattering of salt over it was too heavy-handed - and I love salty flavours. The artichoke heart fritters that I make sometimes are more to my taste, although I am glad I got the opportunity to try these.

Of course, one advantage of the small plate system is that it leaves room for dessert. And I had a terrible time with the dessert menu. I love rice pudding and I love icecream, so I was drawn to a cinnamon & rice icecream, but then a brioche sandwich with 3 types of gelato sounded wonderful too. In the end, I had a classic Cassata Siciliana. And very good it was too. The thin layer of sweet, soft marzipan under the fondant icing was a good contrast to the bland creaminess of the ricotta, and there was a good bit of orange zing throughout. But then I had a taste of the blood orange granita and realised that I really could have done better in my ordering. Jude's rum baba disappeared at a rate that suggested it was pretty good as well, although the pineapple on it looked under-ripe.

All in all? It was a nice lunch, but somehow disappointing. A tempting menu, nicely cooked and attentively served, but just not 100% there. Jude said it lacked a "Wow!" factor and I think that about sums it up. I won't be rushing back.

Sunday 22 February 2009

A Valentine's Menu

We never really "did" Valentine's Day. The cheesy commercialism and overblown sentimentality and prescriptive notion of what romance and love are about doesn't really sit too well with us.
And then we got married in the same week as Valentine's Day, so we've sort of adopted it - or the closest Saturday, which this year was the same thing - as our anniversary. But all of the things about Valentine's Day that don't sit well STILL don't sit well, so we are much more likely to cook something nice at home and sit on the sofa watching DVDs together, rather than going to a fancy restaurant and eating our way through the set menu with a rose for the ladies.

Of course, the weekend in Paris would still be nice, but I got a kitten who is too little to put in a cattery instead...

So we started with champagne. A very delicious Bollinger.

To go with it, I made some crab salad rolls. I basically wanted a light starter, that could be eaten as fingerfood. Because I was using ricepaper as my wrappers, I was a bit tempted to go with some Thai-ish flavours of ginger and coriander, but I decided to keep my flavour landscape a bit more European to match the other courses. And then I got carried away and used lime juice and Tabasco, so I strayed from Europe anyway...

Crab salad rolls

4 rounds of ricepaper
150g white crab meat
1 shallot, finely minced
Juice of a lime
1tsp double cream (if I'd had mayonnaise in I would have used that, but I didn't, so I used some cream leftover from the desserts)
2 shakes of tabasco
1 tsp tiny capers
1/2 cucumber deseeded and cut into batons

Mix all the filling ingredients. Dip a piece of ricepaper in warm water until it becomes flexible, then quickly add 1/4 of the crab mixture and a couple of sticks of cucumber and roll firmly. Repeat with the other pieces of ricepaper, filling and cucumber batons.

Try not to do these more than a couple of hours before serving, because they can dry out quite quickly, but tightly covered with clingfilm they'll be OK in the fridge for a while.

Then we moved on to the main course. Since the lovely lunch we had in Sydney at Pilu, I have been very keen to get some bottarga into my pantry. It took quite a lot of searching, but I did eventually track some down so I decided that it would have to feature in a special meal. I also got some lovely langoustine tails, some squid ink tagliatelle and some baby courgettes, to bring the whole thing together. The beautiful thing about this dish - other than it being pretty and the flavours being excellent - is that it takes about 12 minutes from the water coming to the boil to pull it all together.

Valentine's Pasta

Squid ink tagliatelle (about 150g raw weight)
Olive oil
knob of butter
1/2 tsp chopped red chilli
Grated zest and juice of a lemon
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
12 langoustine tails
2 baby courgette, sliced into thin coins
Bottarga to finish

While the pasta is boiling, warm a slosh of olive oil in a saute pan and add the garlic and chilli. When the garlic is on the verge of sizzling, add the langoustines. As soon as they start to turn opaque add the lemon zest and courgettes.

Drain the pasta, add a good knob of butter and the lemon juice to the saute pan, swirl the drained pasta through the sauce and divide it between 2 plates. Grate some bottarga over the plates in a shower of amber dust and eat immediately. We had a 2005 William Fevre chablis Premier Cru with it which was just lovely with the sweet salty seafood and the lemony hit.

After a time, we had dessert. I had a nice bottle of Andrew Quady Elysium, so I thought it was time to have a proper go at the muscat caramel custard that Great Queen St does so well. This was not a success. This picture is the last moment where they looked acceptable. The custard was set but without the rich velvetyness that it should have had, it was a most peculiar pink colour from the wine and they didn't turn out properly, going *thsploodge* into the bowls without most of the caramel following. Still, drinking the rest of the bottle of the Elysium was very pleasant. And in the words of Meatloaf, "two out of three ain't bad".

Friday 20 February 2009

French Onion Soup

The best thing about French Onion Soup is undoubtedly the cheesy crouton in it. Is there anything better than hot melty cheese? But even if it is just a vehicle for eating cheese, you really have to make sure that the soup the croutons adorn is worthy. And the only way to do that is the long way - the onions have to be properly caramelised, and this is not a time when you can cheat and speed the process with a spoonful of sugar.

French Onion Soup (as a main meal for 2)
1tsp butter
1tbs olive oil
4 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced (I use your basic brown onion, I think red onions add something weird and white onions are somehow acrid)
Sprig of thyme
Splash of booze (I used whisky because it was there, brandy or white wine would be better)
beef broth (I used a can of beef consomme and a can of water)
Salt & pepper to season
Good bread (I used a large square pain rustique roll)
Cheese (I used camembert and gruyere)

Melt the butter and oil together in a large, heavy based saucepan on a very low heat, and before it reaches sizzling point, add the onions. Turn them over in the fat until they are well coated, add the bay leaf and the thyme and clap the lid on, returning to stir them well every 5 minutes for at least half an hour, more like 45 minutes. The onions need to have completely collapsed and cooked to a deep brown without being burnt. A shortcut at this point leaves you with a very indigestible soup.

When the onions are ready, add a splash of booze to deglaze the pan, then add the beef broth. Simmer for another half hour.

Put cheese on bread and grill it - I used a slice of camembert for richness topped with a slice of gruyere for the perfect melt and bubble, but just gruyere is more traditional.

Taste the soup, season with salt & pepper if necessary, divide between two deep bowls and top with ferociously hot cheesy toasts. Enjoy the warmth spreading right to your toes. And even if it is mid-week, it would be rude not to have a glass of wine with this.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Spicy Nuts

Apparently I have been living under a rock. Apparently EVERYONE but me knew that the way to get a good crisp, spicy coating on nuts was to coat them in meringue first.

If this is so widely known, why has it taken so long for anyone to tell me?

Anyway. I shall put aside my bitterness.

A couple of nights a week I have a dance class and I don't get home until 9pm. I have a very low tolerance for being hungry. Being hungry makes me extremely cross and snappy. So I usually try to find a snack to eat on the train so that I can maintain some sort of positive outlook on society for long enough to get home to dinner. After spending a) quite a lot of money and b) eating a lot of unhealthy snacks, I decided that the best way would be to make something that I could take with me. So I turned to these spicy nuts that EVERYONE BUT ME knew about.

So, here we have:

Last One To Know Spicy Nuts

1 eggwhite
1 tbs muscovado sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp crushed black pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp crushed garlic
1/2 tsp crushed chilli
3 cups mixed nuts (I used mixed nuts and raisins, some blanched almonds that were lurking and some walnuts that were lurking)
1/2 cup flax seed
1/2 cup pumpkin seed

Whisk the eggwhite to stiff peaks. Mix in the sugar and other seasonings, then fold in the nuts and seeds. Spread in a single-ish layer on a silicon paper-lined baking sheet and roast on a low temperature for 10-15 minutes, keeping a close eye on things. Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight box.

Monday 16 February 2009

Spinach with Spirali

I remarked months ago that the sight of pasta with something green and something pink made me nostalgic for spinach with spirali. Well, a couple of weeks ago it came to a head and I just had to have it.

Bacon, fried with garlic and chilli. Frozen chopped spinach. And this was cavatappi, not spirali, but it was just the thing to grip the sauce in its curls and ridges. It was every bit as good as I remembered. More to the point, Paul, who didn't grow up with this and therefore didn't wear the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, thought it was pretty good too. Unlike last night when he indulged me and watched The Breakfast Club.

Sunday 15 February 2009

My favourite waste of time

This is Urchin. Two weeks ago she came to live with me. She was very sad and frightened for her first day or so, but she has adapted quite well to her new lifestyle I think... She likes fish more than meat and thinks that cheese is the best thing ever.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Cooking the Books - The Language of Baklava

For the second Cook the Books Club, we were set to read The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber. What a lovely book! Growing up as a Jordanian American in New York State in the 1960s and 70s can't have been easy (although I suspect it might be worse now) but the story is told with a lightness of heart that carries you past that.

There were a lot of parts of the book that resonated for me - I guess it is the migrant experience. Some of the things that Bud says when he goes back to Jordan are the things my grandmother would say after going back to Switzerland. I also very much liked the bit in the foreward, thanking people for accepting her memories, however embellished they may be.

And always, at the centre is the food. All the meals she recounts are enticing. I wanted to make and eat all of it! I especially loved the story she told about when she was feeling very down about being Arabic and announced to her aunt that she hated Arab food. So her aunt says "Let's make baklava - it's Greek; baklawa is Arab".

But in the end, I went with savoury dishes. I would have loved to do some of the meat dishes, grilled over charcoal, but the weather just has not been conducive to getting out the barbecue. In the end I decided to make her "Lost childhood pita bread" because I bought my copy of the book second hand, and that was the one recipe where the previous owner had made a note against the recipe. I love writing in my cookbooks and felt drawn to this other person who had noted what quantity a sachet of yeast is.

So - pita bread (which needs some work!), roast lamb shoulder in the marinade for "distract the neighbours chicken" (absolutely delicious), yoghurt flavoured with garlic and some roast courgettes. Then the following day, the leftover lamb and pita was served at lunch with some homemade hummus.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Chicken and peppercorns

I had chicken, I wanted spice and heat, I wanted to use my new chopstick set (£2 in Hong Kong). So I did a chicken-y modification of the green peppercorn tofu recipe, dredging my chunks of chicken thigh fillet in cornflour before frying it really hard in a small amount of olive oil.

The chicken came out of the pan while I made the peppercorn sauce, then went back in to heat through, with some par-cooked tenderstem broccoli. Unfortunately we were out of fresh or grated ginger, so I used a knob of stem ginger cut into slivers, and left out the muscovado sugar, counting on the sweetness from the ginger to balance it out. And it did.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Mars Bar Slice Bites

The 26th of January is Australia Day - the somewhat contentious holiday commemorating white settlement in Australia. It has become an excuse for unpleasant nationalism and racism, and I am pretty glad I don't live in Australia any more when I see some of the things that are said and done in the name of Australian "pride".

However, this year I decided that I would take something to work to show my colleagues the triumphs of Australian cuisine. I was tempted to introduce them to lamingtons - but I couldn't handle the thought of the mess. Chocolate crackles need Copha, and I don't know what the British substitute would be. Pavlova is really from New Zealand. Melting moments are too fragile too survive the London underground. So I settled on the Mars Bar Slice because it is sweet, requires no baking, is robust, doesn't need refrigeration under normal winter weather conditions and needs no expensive or exotic ingredients. And then my friend HH suggested doing them as cupcakes, which I thought was brilliant.

I followed this recipe, substituting good dark chocolate for the milk chocolate in the icing (it's sweet enough), squashing spoonfuls into paper cupcake cases, dolloping on the icing and then pressing a slice of mars bar onto the top for a garnish. Doing it this way you end up with quite a lot more icing than you need - I'd probably make 2/3 quantity to do it again. It made 14 generously-sized cupcakes, but could be very cute in tiny cases as a petit four. They were very popular in the office!

Sunday 8 February 2009

Swedish Turkey Meatballs

Heather's recent Swedish meatballs with nutmeg gravy inspired me. I used turkey mince - because I'd bought some and couldn't remember why - and did a mushroom sauce with half beef stock, half milk for extra savouriness. It was good. Would have been better with some parsley.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Whisky Marmalade

As every British foody knows, January is the fleeting season when you can get lovely bitter Seville oranges for making marmalade. You can make marmalade from lots of citrus fruits, all with their own charm (Rose's Lime Marmalade was a favourite treat in my childhood; cumquats make a very fine marmalade) but for me the pinnacle of all marmalades is Seville orange. It is tangy and very intensely orange-flavoured and just wonderful whether you eat it on toast or as part of a sauce for game.

Within the basic outline of fruit, sugar and water, there is almost infinite variation. Thick or thin cut peel, dark and bitter or light and fresh, Dundee-style or Oxford-style, with whisky, with brandy, with spices. And then there are the variations on technique - boiling whole oranges, juicing the oranges and then slicing the peel, soaking the peel, making it in the microwave, running the juice through a jellybag. And so on and so forth.

It gets even more complicated in the heady world of marmalade competitions. Rumour has it that entrants in the marmalade competition at the Sydney Royal Easter Show use a metal ruler and a scalpel to slice their peel into exactly even shreds and then use a fine needle to position the peel in the jar so that no two shreds touch.

I don't think it really needs to be said that I went to no such effort.

I like a fine-shred, not too dark marmalade (I find thick shreds fall off my toast). I followed this recipe although I didn't add any spices to it. I only did a half quantity, and even then I found it hard going! I had blisters from slicing the peel and the papercuts from my normal working week did not thank me for the application of lemon and orange juice. But the result of my toil was worthwhile - lovely fresh flavour, beautiful colour, and an excellent set.

Thursday 5 February 2009


In the fridge we had some tired-looking chestnut mushrooms, a packet of beef mince, some smoked bacon rashers and an onion. And at some point between thought and action the ragu that I had planned became meatloaf.

I do like a bit of meatloaf, but it isn't for me one of those misty-eyed tastes of childhood. I don't think we ever had it when I was growing up. This staple of American home-cooking is a relatively recent discovery, which I feel liberates me. I don't have the one best way that I always do it, I can just go with my heart. And on this occasion my heart said wrap it in bacon and do it free-form.

So. The mince, the mushrooms, an onion, an egg and some breadcrumbs were seasoned generously with some smoky barbecue sauce, patted onto overlapping bacon rashers topped with slices of tomato, then wrapped and flipped to get the nice presentation side up.

A hot-ish oven and about 45 minutes cooking, then sliced and served with some of my bottled baked beans. It was good, but I think the cold slice in a sandwich the following day was even better.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Venison Wellington, or The Best Sausage Roll

On a cold night mid-week, it is nice to have a well-stocked freezer! We pull out a couple of nicely trimmed roe venison fillets, some duxelles from the last time we did beef wellington and that was very nearly it.

Browned the fillets, onto the duxelles on a couple of slabs of pastry and into the oven. The most challenging element was rolling out the pastry with my fancy French-style tapered rolling pin.

When we used to do Wellington for the family, Paul's nephew would always call these "sausage rolls". So there you go, best sausage roll in the world. But if you get ketchup anywhere near it I will slap you into the middle of next week. It gets the proper oozing of juices into the pastry, and then the crisp outside, with the meltingly tender, well-flavoured meat, given an extra breath of gaminess from the duxelles. Some nicely iron-y greens and a glass of one of the butch-er red wines are all that is required.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Pear, ginger and walnut friands

The friand (free-OHNd) is one of the triumphs of Australian cafe culture. These little, oval, almondy cakes are so good, so delicate, so French-tasting, and yet (while they have developed from the French financier, apparently) they are much better known in the Antipodes. And despite his notorious lack of sweet-tooth, they are a cake that Paul actually likes.

The downside to the friand, if there is one, is that they take 6 eggwhites. So if you've been on a custard binge, or made mayonnaise for a boat-load of lobsters (or you've been quietly stashing single eggwhites in the freezer for 3 months), I urge you to give them a go.

You mostly get plain friands in Australia, or with a few blueberries and raspberries scattered through. I usually follow a brilliant Luke Mangan blueberry friand recipe but I decided to go with some slightly more seasonal flavours and bring pears, ginger and some walnuts to the party. I also beefed up the caramellyness with a bit of dark muscovado sugar subbed in for some of the icing sugar. And they were ace.

Pear, Ginger & Walnut Friands

75g plain flour
200g icing sugar
40g dark muscovado sugar
100g ground almonds
25g walnuts, ground/chopped quite finely but with some slightly chunkier bits
1 knob stem ginger
6 eggwhites
160g melted butter
2 halves tinned pear in juice (or a leftover poached pear if you happen to have one)
12 extra walnut halves (pretty ones to garnish)

Preheat oven to 210C. Grease friand (or muffin) tins.

Sift the flour and sugars into a bowl. Add the ground almonds and walnuts.

Lightly beat the eggwhites until they are white and frothy. Stir them into the dry mixture along with the melted butter. Fold in the finely chopped stem ginger and diced pear halves.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins, coming up about 2/3 of the way. Top each with a pretty walnut half. Bake 15 minutes at 210C, then reduce heat to 200 and bake a further 10 minutes.

Allow to cool for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.

Makes 12.

These are moist and delicious as they are - this is no time to fuck around with whipped cream or fruit sauces or complementary-flavoured sorbets. A cup of tea or coffee for morning tea, or a little glass of dessert wine at the end of a meal are all that you will want.


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