Sunday 31 May 2009

Ashridge Estate Afternoon tea

We went in search of a bluebell wood. At Ashridge Estate we realised that we'd missed the bluebells by about a fortnight - the ones that were left were faded and drooping. But the aroma wafting through the trees indicated that we were just in time for the garlic season. I have never in my life before seen so much wild garlic! It was such a pity we hadn't packed a plastic bag, or I would have done some serious foraging (although I suspect that would be against National Trust rules).

After a lovely walk in the cool woods - doing a lot of research for Captain Haddock on the natural growth habits of the field maple - it was time for tea.

Paul has never knowingly left a scone uneaten, and while he isn't a huge fan of the fruit scone, he was pretty happy with this one.

I'd sort of had my heart set on a piece of sponge cake - if at all possible sandwiched with strawberry jam and whipped cream and dusted with icing sugar. It wasn't to be. But what they did have was a very close relation of the brownie crusted cheesecake Mr Orph posted about recently. It was a good effort - but should have been lemonier to cut through the rich chocolate of the brownie crust.

Saturday 30 May 2009

Middle Eastern Night

The chef at the pub we go to is Iranian. And they recently gave him free rein to do a Middle Eastern night. I put them in the way of a good bellydancer (one of my teachers). It promised to be fun...

He started with a home-made peach and saffron vodka. Which didn't taste as bad as it smelled, and that is about the best you could say for it. A pity, because the mirza qasemi - richly-flavoured grilled aubergine slices topped with a paste of onion, tomatoes and eggs - was absolutely gorgeous and deserved a good white wine.

The next two courses were served with Lebanese wines. Which again were not as good as the food and really, it is kinder not to talk about them too much.

Dawn's first dance set came before the next course. She wore a very pretty pink bedlah and did a lovely romantic Egyptian piece - but there were a few diners who didn't really know how to behave. I guess country pubs aren't the most obvious place to find a bellydancer.

Taas kabab - sort of a meatloaf of beef (although most recipes I have spotted look more like stews) was really delicious, served warm with spinach and yoghurt, (and somewhat ubiquitous) bread and radish salad.

They were substantial portions, and I could probably have stopped there. I was a bit apprehensive to realise that there were another two courses to come. I remembered that when we used to go to the Persian place in Sydney, we were always uncomfortably full by the end of the meal and could never face dessert.

The main course was zereshk polow, a beautifully colourful dish of roast chicken, served with rice garnished with pistachios, saffron and barberries. While it looked wonderful, I thought this was the weakest dish of the night. The chicken and rice were both a little dry - which was disappointing, because fragrant, buttery, fruit and nut-bejewelled rice is something I have adored in Middle Eastern meals in the past.

At about this point Dawn came out for her second set of the night. With isis wings - pretty spectacular at the best of times, even more impressive in a small pub. This was a more upbeat piece - she wore a pretty striking red and black evening dress style costume and there was audience participation from yours truly. I thought her performance really added some fun to the evening, but I haven't spoken to the manager yet about how they thought it went...

The dessert was a borrowing from French cuisine - the light layers of puff pastry and sweet, vanilla-y whipped cream that make up a Napoleon are simple but so delicious. Garnished with slivers of pistachio it was even better. But my lord was that a big portion! I made it through about a quarter of my serve before the waitress started to laugh at my pain and took it away from me. The dessert was served with a glass of zibib - a drink of the ouzo/arak ilk, which fortunately tasted deliciously of cherries and bitter almonds, rather than being a strong aniseed hit.

So - I ate too much, danced in public and had a lovely time. Pretty much a perfect evening then.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Langoustine & broadbean salad

It's so exciting having spring vegetables in season AND weather that makes you want to eat them! The croutons add texture and give the salad enough body that you don't feel like you've JUST had salad for dinner, the crab rounds out the seafoodyness from the langoustines.

Warm Langoustine and Broadbean Salad (serves 2 as a main course)

1 bag of salad leaves
1-2 ripe avocadoes
1 small tub white crab meat
100g broad beans (shelled weight)
1 bag of croutons
squeeze of lemon juice
10 raw, peeled langoustines
splash of olive oil
2 cloves of chopped garlic
lemon garlic mayonnaise made from: 1 eggyolk, olive oil until it feels right, a splash of boiling water, 1 clove chopped garlic, juice of a lemon and a squeeze of ketchup (because this is a posh prawn cocktail, really).

Divide leaves, cubes of avocado and crab meat between 2 large bowls and sprinkle with a squeeze of lemon.

Peel the second skin from the broad beans and boil until tender.

Pan fry the langoustines with the garlic and olive oil until opaque and pink.

Top the salad with the drained hot broadbeans, the langoustines and pan juices, the croutons and a good drizzle of lemon garlic mayonnaise.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Venison fillet, asparagus & baby leeks

Another day, another piece of meat served with asparagus. I can't help it. It's the brief British asparagus season and I feel like I am missing out if I don't eat it at every opportunity. This piece of meat wasn't exactly seasonal - some Scottish venison fillet we unearthed from the chest freezer.

The meat was panfried medium rare & rested while we made a little red wine reduction in the pan. Zapped the asparagus and baby leeks in the microwave, added a splodge of bearnaise (once you've opened a jar it's impossible to stop) to the plate and there it was. Very British ingredients, very simply cooked, very delicious.

And because it was so delicious, we got out The Good Glasses and opened a very good bottle of wine. A 2003 Warwick Pinotage. Huge flavour, a bit overwhelmed by the alcohol (14.5%) but just the thing for the rich game meat.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Duck, asparagus & white bean mash

This looks much fancier than it was. Amazing what a difference peeling the asparagus spears makes to your presentation!

Boneless duck breasts, slashed on the skin side, 7 minutes a side in a hot pan (skin side down first). Drain off the fat and allow the duck to rest, deglaze the pan with a splash of red wine.

A can of cannelini beans, drained and well-rinsed, mashed in a pot with a fork, seasoned with some olive oil, chopped garlic and dry rosemary.

Asparagus, zapped in the microwave, a spoonful of bought bearnaise sauce.

Very easy, very delicious, very impressive looking.

Monday 25 May 2009

Skate wings

It's hard to beat sticking a piece of fish in a frying pan for a speedy supper.

Skate is a member of the ray family - it has lovely white flesh on a cartilage skeleton, so it flakes off really easily. A good option for people who usually eat fillets because they don't like messing around with bones.

Dusted with flour, seasoned with some (homemade) Old Bay Seasoning, then fried in a splash of olive oil. When the fish was almost finished, I added a knob of butter, some chopped garlic, the juice of a lemon and a spoonful of drained capers.

Served with some asparagus, microwaved until tender. Less than 10 minutes from walking through the kitchen door to putting it on the plate. Takes longer for them to deliver a pizza.

Sunday 24 May 2009

New Toy - icecream ball

I have been told that I can't buy any more kitchen appliances until we've bought our own house. Which seems fair really, but I decided that I NEED an icecream maker. And then I saw these icecream balls and managed to bring an icecream maker into my home without it being considered a kitchen appliance. In fact, you could almost consider it exercise equipment...

So, you put your icecream mixture in one end, some ice and salt in the other and shake and roll it around for a while. And there you have a pint of icecream.

The first batch I made was a simple cream, sugar and mixed berries one. The berries were still mostly frozen, so it only took 10 minutes of shaking to have a luscious batch of purpley pink ice cream. But because it was a cream base, the leftovers froze rock-hard and didn't have the mouthfeel of a custard base.

For the second batch I used some bought premium vanilla custard, a slosh of cointreau and a big scoop of my homemade quince marmalade. The mixture wasn't as cold as the last one, so it took longer - closer to 20 minutes to get to a soft-serve texture. But it was just delicious, with the proper velvety texture I look for in icecream.

I still aspire to a proper icecream maker, but this is a cute gimmick. And it makes a nice small quantity so I can have it as a little treat without too much effort. And it gave me the opportunity to experiment with putting up a bit of video.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Maple Spiced Nuts

Another dance workshop, another reason to experiment with the perfect combination of flavours for spiced nuts. With every attempt, I think I get closer. They are certainly delicious, and as densely packed with nutrition as you could want.

Maple Spiced Nuts

2tbs freshly ground flax seed
2tbs cold water
2tbs maple syrup
1tsp garlic flakes
1tsp smoked paprika
1tsp ground or minced chilli
1tsp seasalt
100g pistachios
100g almonds
100g brazil nuts
200g cashews
1/4 cup desiccated coconut
100g dried sour cherries

Whisk the flax seed into the cold water and allow to rest for a couple of minutes until it becomes gloopy. Whisk the maple syrup and spices into the flax gloop, then stir in the nuts and coconut, coating well.

Spread onto a baking sheet lined with silicon paper and bake at about 175C for 40 minutes, watching and turning occasionally. It'll still be sticky when it comes out but when it cools it will set and become crisp. Stir the sour cherries into the nut mix and allow to cool before packing into an airtight box.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Date Night Friday - Star Trek and Dinner

On a recent Friday evening, I lured Paul to Covent Garden with the promise of nerdiness. The new Star Trek film, in fact.

Ever since we moved to the UK we have been talking about going to see a movie on Leicester Square - where all the premiers are held - but somehow we never had. But I was convinced that Star Trek would be worth seeing on the big screen and it would put us in the perfect position for dinner afterwards.

It was definitely worth the ticket price! I'm not a hard-core Trek fan. Most of my viewing of ToS has been in the context of university film and television lectures (humanism, check; fear of communism, check; zeitgeist, check) so I have seen episodes, but I don't really know the mythology. I just thought this was a well-made movie. The liberties they took with changing events to fit a prequel were explained well, and the "younger selves" all did a very good job of getting the look and mannerisms of their original series counterparts.

But Winona Rider as Spock's mother? Really? Am I that old? How did that happen and who do I complain to?

I've realised in recent years that I don't like suspense. That visceral feeling from movies when you don't know what is behind the door or what is coming up behind them and knowing (thank you very much JK Rowling) that sometimes the heroes don't survive... it's for the birds. So this was all very comforting. I KNEW that Spock, Kirk, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov were going to live to fight another day, so I was able to relax and enjoy the ride.

And after a very enjoyable couple of hours, we emerged blinking into the light to search for dinner. We decided to gamble on there being a table at Mon Plaisir. It was only when we were seated that I realised that it was almost exactly 3 years since we'd arrived in England - and therefore almost exactly 3 years since we first went to Mon Plaisir - and also that we were seated at the same table as that evening 3 years before. Serendipity.

Paul started, in his traditional way, with onion soup. I started with roast tomatoes, crisp Bayonne ham and roquefort icecream. Other than the fact that the tomatoes were cherry tomatoes on the vine, leading to the ever-amusing cherry tomato roulette (will it explode? will it slice? will it burn my mouth? will it shoot off the plate and land in that woman's champagne glass?) this was a perfect starter. The sweet roasted tomatoes mixed with the sweet and salty cheesy icecream and the crispy salty ham in a perfect combination of flavours and textures.

Then again, dictated by tradition as well as inclination, we had the cote de boeuf, with bearnaise. It was superb. The bearnaise at Mon Plaisir is occasionally insipid, but this was perfectly seasoned. The lovely rich beef only needed some tiny haricots vert and a bunch of watercress to make a magnificent dish.

Paul had a glass of cognac instead of dessert, but I'd seen all these little clipseal jars being carried past on triangular slates and knew I had to have what was in them. It was Cappuccino Lèger Vanille Café, Madeleine Tiède au Miel - coffee and vanilla mousse with a warm honey madeleine. It wasn't very successful. It was way too large a portion, the mousse layers had too much gelatine in them and the madeleine was a bit tough. Excellent flavours, not so good textures. But such a gorgeous presentation that I would do it again in a moment.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Baked camembert fondue

This is the fastest possible dinner, and it manages to feel very luxurious with no effort at all.

Baked camembert fondue

Take a fairly cheap camembert. Wedge it into a dish just big enough to hold it, spike it with some slivers of garlic and put it in a 180C oven for 25 minutes.

While it bakes, prepare some fresh vegetables for dunking. We had some steamed baby carrots and lovely asparagus spears, but steamed broccoli or cauliflower florets would be lovely too. Or little new potatoes if you really want some comfort food.

Put the hot, garlicky melted camembert in between you and dive in with your fingers. If you run out of vegetables and have to wipe the remnants of the cheese up with a cube of bread, that won't be too great a hardship.

Monday 18 May 2009

Amanda's Artichoke Bread

When I saw this recipe over at Joie de vivre, I knew I had to make it. What could be more perfect than crusty bread filled with hot melty cheese and artichoke hearts?

Inevitable tweaking - I hollowed out my loaf, filled it with an uncooked mixture of reduced fat sour cream, mozzarella, parmesan, garlic and chopped artichoke hearts, then wrapped it in foil and put it on the barbecue alongside some nice thick beef burgers.

I should have cooked it for longer - I didn't quite get the ooziness of cheese that I was after - but the flavours were just lovely, and as an accompaniment to the burgers, topped with onion marmelade, it was just wonderful. Made it look as though I had put in much more effort than I actually had!

Definitely one to do again.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Sunday Lunch - The Crown, Amersham

On a sunny, spring Sunday, we headed out for a pub lunch.

Our first destination, The Bricklayers Arms, was heaving. We couldn't get anywhere near it, not even just to park and see if we could perch at the bar to eat. So we headed off to another favourite - The Swan in Amersham. The Swan does an excellent Sunday lunch, and we've always eaten very well there.

But as we got closer I remembered seeing a rather good review of another pub in Amersham - The Crown. So we decided to try our luck.

It was a good decision.

It's an old coaching inn; you pass under an archway and a courtyard opens up in front of you with blossoming cherry trees and a herb garden on one side and the wide doorway into the restaurant on the other.

It was very busy, but we were given seats at a lovely long communal table (but we didn't have to share it with anyone) adorned with a massive earthenware jug of lilacs.

We were offered glasses of prosecco spiked with home made elderflower cordial, but Paul stuck to a locally brewed beer (Rebellion Blonde) while I had plain prosecco.

Decision-making was quite difficult, because there were lots of good-sounding dishes on the menu. And the house-made soda bread that they brought out was very reassuring about the quality of the food.

The service was fairly slow, and quite patchy in quality. A not-very-engaging young woman took an order for water and was never seen again, and then a really on-the-ball young man eventually took the same order and was back in moments.

As a starter, Paul had a salad of chicken livers and beetroot. I was surprised, because he reckons not to like beetroot and he is VERY picky about chicken livers. But these were cooked very much to his taste (browned beautifully on the outside and barely a trace of pink in the middle).

I had a terrine of local pork with spiced pickled prunes, which was just lovely. Really good chunky texture, not too liver-y and perfectly seasoned. It was maybe a fraction cold, but that is one of my perennial complaints. The prunes were an excellent accompaniment, but I could have done with a little bit more toast.

As main courses, Paul went traditional British and I went traditional French.

His roast sirloin of beef with roast potatoes, fluffy Yorkshire pudding and horseradish cream was a really good example of what a Sunday roast can be.

My crisp-skinned, meaty confit duck leg came on a lovely bed of Puy lentils - slightly too salty if I am nitpicking.

The vegetables are what really makes or breaks a pub lunch. There are loads of places that can turn out a perfectly decent piece of meat and crisp roast potatoes but then let themselves down with microwaved frozen mixed veg. The Crown is not one of those places. We had a generous portion (on a pewter plate, which isn't great for keeping things warm) of sweet little roasted chantenay carrots, perfectly steamed purple sprouting broccoli and buttery, tender green cabbage.

The very on-the-ball young waiter came back to try to sell us desserts. Unfortunately it was 3.30pm by this stage and we were expected at a friend's house for a barbecue at 5.30, so we had to decline. Next time. And there will be a next time for sure.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Nigella's Merguez with Halloumi and Flame-Roasted Peppers

This one - from Nigella Express. I couldn't get merguez, so I used some spicy Italian sausages. It will be repeated! With a pile of leafy salad on the side it was a perfect no-brainer supper. And I do love one-pot meals. I think if you wanted to bulk it up a bit, some little new potatoes could go into the pan with it.

Monday 11 May 2009

Oatmeal honey bread

Ever since I saw this fabulous recipe on Laurie's blog, I have been keen to try her oatmeal honey bread. And you know what? It tastes as good as it looks.

My only tweaks - half stoneground wholemeal flour, half strong white flour, and I used dried yeast, so I added some of the honey to the warm water to activate my yeast. And I made a half quantity, although I think my loaf tin must be a fair bit bigger than Laurie's, because despite rising really well, I ended up with quite a thin loaf. But it was so good that next time I am going the whole hog. Just gorgeous. Tender, flavourful crumb, chewy crust.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Tonno di Coniglio

After the lovely rabbit salad that I had on St George's Day, I decided that I wanted to make one myself. As it happened, I had a rabbit in the freezer. I remembered eating a marinated rabbit salad once that was described as tonno di coniglio (rabbit cooked like tuna), which was precisely the effect I was going for.

Judy Witt showed me the way with her very straightforward recipe. A few days to marinade and there it was.

In a salad with lovely tender mixed leaves, some marinated artichoke hearts and some chopped up pork scratchings to give a crunch, and a splash of sherry vinegar to dress, it made a lovely light lunch. The rabbit comes out with a very similar texture to tinned tuna, but tastes like chicken.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Monday 4 May 2009

Baked Fig & Pistachio Cheesecake

We were going to have dinner with friends. I said I'd bring a dessert. I liked the sound of Nigel Slater's Pistachio Yoghurt Cheesecake, but I thought "barely firm enough to cut" didn't sound very transportable.

So I took the flavours from that recipe of yoghurt, pistachios and dried figs and concocted a baked cheesecake. Very successfully, too.

Baked fig and pistachio cheesecake

Biscuit base

80g unsalted butter, melted
210g shortbread biscuits
60g pistachios


600g cream cheese, at room temperature
4 tbs well-flavoured honey
80g dried figs, chopped
2tbs sherry
60g pistachios, chopped
60g dried sour cherries
3 eggs
3 tbsp plain flour
150g Greek yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla essence

1 Lightly grease a 20cm spring-form cake tin with a little of the melted butter. Wrap the outside of the tin in foil.

2 Melt the butter gently in a small pan on a low heat. Roughly break up the biscuits and place them in a food processor with the pistachios. Pulse for a couple of minutes until it resembles fine crumbs, with coarser chunks of pistachio. Pour in the melted butter and process for 30 seconds to combine.

3 Put the biscuit mixture into the base of the tin, using the back of a tablespoon to smooth the surface evenly. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes.

4 Soak the chopped dried figs in the sherry for 30 minutes.

5 Place the cream cheese, honey and yoghurt in a bowl and beat until smooth. Add the figs and sherry, roughly chopped pistachios and dried cherries. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour and vanilla essence, and beat until well combined.

6 Place the foil-wrapped tin in a large roasting dish and pour hot water to come half way up the side (not higher than the foil). Pour the filling into the tin and bake in a low oven at 150C for 1 hour. When cooked, the cheesecake should be well risen, with a golden-brown top. It should feel slightly firm to touch - if the mixture still appears wet, continue to bake a little longer. When cooked, turn off the oven and allow the cheesecake to cool in the oven, with the door open. When completely cool, place in the fridge. Decorate with pistachio brittle and some quartered dried figs.


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