Saturday 31 October 2009

Happy Halloween

Australia doesn't really do Halloween. You get some kids trick or treating, and the odd person who throws a party to provide an excuse for dressing up as a slutty pirate, but it isn't particularly widespread. In the UK it runs much deeper, but the celebration now is still more informed by American TV than by traditional practices.

But this week in my veg box there was a small, smooth, orange pumpkin. And I just knew that it had to become my first jack o' lantern.

As it happens, the hardest part was scraping out the seeds. No matter what I tried I could NOT get the fibres out. The carved-away flesh joined another pumpkin in becoming a pot of velvety soup.

Friday 30 October 2009

Fig and Walnut Flapjacks

The other weekend I went to a dance festival. It wasn't the best-organised event I have ever been to - no joining instructions were sent out, no details were available about the facilities etc. So I was heading off for 6 hours of workshops without knowing if there was going to be food available. And you must know that for me that is an impossible situation.

So - just in case there was no food available - I decided to take a snack and a hell of a lot of water (the last festival I went to ran out of bottled water half-way through the last day). My snack needed to be nutritious, sustaining and portable. Something with oats and nuts seemed to fit the bill.

I decided on Nigel Slater's Fig and Pumpkin Seed Bars (at the bottom of this page). Of course, the pumpkin seeds that I was sure I had turned out to be sunflower seeds, but the substitution wasn't a problem. The walnut flavour was much more dominant than the sunflower seeds, and calling it a "bar" doesn't appropriately convey the sticky moistness so I renamed it.

As it happens, there was some food available, but a piece of my flapjack was very welcome in between the Dynamic Duos and Spins and Formations workshops and it saved me from whatever horrors lurked in the snack vending machine.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Roast tomato sauce

A recent trip to Costco yielded a 6kg box of lovely ripe tomatoes. Paul and I decided to have a cook-off - split the box in half and each produce a tomato sauce to our own taste and then compare. But this is my blog so you only get to see my efforts...

I decided to concentrate the tomato flavour by roasting them. I peeled, quartered and seeded the tomatoes, then pushed the seeds through a sieve to get as many of the juices into the sauce as possible. I packed them in a single layer in a roasting tin, sprinkled a little olive oil over them and studded the tomatoes with whole peeled garlic cloves and a couple of sliced green chillies. A small seasoning of salt and into a slow oven for 2 hours.

The tomatoes cooked down almost to a puree. I split the cooked sauce into 3 portions, froze 2 and used one the following night for dinner.

We had a lot of rare roast beef left over from a previous meal. I'd been thinking about a week of beef sandwiches for lunch, but then I decided it had a better fate. Apparently it used to be traditional to mince the leftover Sunday roast and produce it for Monday dinner - as cottage pie or rissoles or something.

I chopped the beef (and another green chilli, just in case you were concerned by the green flecks in my mince) and put it through the mincer.

I fried a chopped onion and some sliced garlic in some olive oil, added a heap of dried herbs (rosemary, celery seed, oregano, thyme and marjoram) and a sliced yellow pepper. When the pepper was slightly softened I added the mince, then a portion of the roasted tomato sauce.

After a nice slow simmer I served it on wholemeal spaghetti with grated parmesan.

It was very tasty! The ground beef produced a much finer-textured sauce than raw mince does. There was a lot of liquid (normally my meat sauce can support a spoon) but it was very full-flavoured and much richer than I would have expected.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Cook the Books - French Lessons

This month's selection for Cook the Books is Peter Mayle's French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew. It's a series of short pieces on his gastronomic adventures around France and I have to say I was a bit bored by it. I loved his books A Year in Provence and Toujours, Provence so I'd been really looking forward to this one, but I just found it all a bit same-y. He goes somewhere for a festival celebrating a food that people in Britain don't usually eat, discovers it is delicious and that the locals are passionate about it and then he drinks too much. Rinse and repeat.

I wasn't particularly moved to eat any of the things he talked about. I wasn't even particularly moved to visit France and attend any of these festivals myself. I was a bit at a loss. And then I was watching Eating in the Sun on iPlayer and Nadia's challenge was to recreate a meal at Alain Ducasse's restaurant La Bastide de Moustiers. This was what I was looking for! All the countryside they showed in the episode was the Provencal landscape Mayle describes so lovingly in his other books and the care and attention the chefs at La Bastide de Moustiers put into their dishes was exactly what I wanted to convey about French food.

One of the dishes Nadia was challenged to cook was a sort of spelt risotto, with several different squash preparations and black truffles. I thought that tied in nicely with the truffle mass that Mayle attends in French Lessons.

I didn't follow the recipe exactly. For some reason every time I tried to read the recipe I went cross-eyed and got really confused, so I got the ingredients and then pretty much made it up. I softened chopped onion and garlic in some butter and olive oil, then added the pearled spelt and some finely chopped butternut. I added a splash of cava (because it was what I was drinking and I didn't want to open another bottle of white wine) and when it was absorbed I proceeded with hot vegetable stock, as if I was making a risotto. Towards the end of the cooking I stirred through half a jar of sliced truffles. These weren't the brand I have had before and unfortunately they were almost entirely lacking in flavour and aroma. Then I stirred through the shredded flesh of half a baked spaghetti squash and served the risotto topped with caramelly roast slices of butternut, some mustard cress and shaved pecorino pepato.

Aside from the disappointment of the truffles, it was a truly delicious autumn dish. I've never cooked with spelt before and while it didn't give the creamy starchiness that rice gives a risotto, it had a lovely nutty texture and I think it'd be a lot more forgiving of being cooked in advance and reheated. The different flavours and textures of the squash were really lovely. I served it to a largely vegetarian friend and he was either extremely polite or pretty impressed too. I will definitely make this again - but I'll probably skip the truffle and the first squash bit and just add the spaghetti squash at the end with cubes of roasted butternut stirred through.

And now I am saving for a weekend at La Bastide De Moustiers. Maybe 2012.

Friday 23 October 2009

Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons

When my foody friend started planning her trip several months ago, we agreed that when she was staying with us we would have a no-holds-barred, fuck-the-expense, blowout meal. And I knew just the place. Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons has held 2 Michelin stars for 25 years and has won pretty much every other foody award going. And it isn't very far from where we live.

We have been there once before, but it was when Foodycat was but a baby blog and I was too shy to take pictures. No such reservations this time...

We sat in a lovely sunny bay window in the lounge, watching a host of ladybirds climb the stone windowframes. We sipped champagne, perused the menu and stuffed down the elegant canapes with a regrettable want of manners.

As well as some really lovely olives we were served two slate slabs bearing an enticing assortment. There was a piece of red pepper jelly (a bit like a fruit roll-up) wrapped around goats cheese mousse, a sort of mini pizza topped with more goats cheese, a crisp piece of almost lacy toast topped with marinated anchovies (like the Spanish boquerones, not like the canned ones you put on pizza!), a crisply fried ball of courgette risotto, a square potato crisp topped with salmon tartare and caviar, and a choux puff filled with foie gras. All the ones I tried were delicious, but I really felt that fewer would have been better! It was just too many flavours.

We chose the Les Classiques du Manoir aux Quat'Saisons - five courses of Raymond Blanc's greatest hits.

We ordered a half bottle of 2006 La Forest Chablis Premier Cru to go with the first portion of the meal. This sort of turned out to be a bad idea, because it was absolutely sublime - buttery, rich and lovely - and it would have been much better to get a whole bottle. On the other hand, it also allowed us to witness one of the subtle touches that shows why Le Manoir has kept their Michelin stars for so long. Paul asked the (absurdly young but accomplished) wine waiter to leave the empty bottle on the table so that he could get the details of the wine. The waiter, without missing a beat said "Would you like us to remove the label for you?" and in about 10 minutes the label was returned to us, mounted on a pretty postcard, all ready to be placed in Paul's wine diary (if he were organised enough to keep such a thing).

The first dish on the menu was a beetroot terrine. This was on the menu the last time we were here and it was even better this time! As well as the central beetroot terrine, there were pieces of three different coloured beetroots, some beetroot puree, two coloured crisps and some baby beet leaves. All crowned with a wonderful horseradish creme fraiche. The thing that makes it so amazing is that every element tastes subtly different, so the flavour is as varied as the colour. Just brilliant.

The next course was a wild mushroom risotto. Everything risotto should be but seldom is! It was soft and creamy, but still with some texture to the rice. It was topped with sauteed wild mushrooms, some baby leaves and some very generous slices of truffle.

The fish course was the only let down - and don't get me wrong, if I'd eaten it anywhere else I would have been overwhelmed, but it just wasn't up to the standard of the rest. A tender piece of Cornish brill, topped with the plumpest, sweetest scallop I have ever tasted, but the subtle, buttery sauce didn't add a lot and the waitress couldn't identify the vegetables with it. There were ribbons of cucumber (she said they were leeks) and something that I suspect may have been some form of seaweed. Of course, we'd finished the gorgeous Chablis by this time, and were on to a very nice red wine - but it couldn't compete with the Chablis and it didn't do the fish any favours.

The lamb that followed made everything better. A pile of couscous flavoured with preserved lemon was topped with a really delicious rare lamb cutlet, with a little pile of sticky, tender braised lamb shank meat, a half kidney that finally made me understand why people eat kidneys, a smear of the most velvety aubergine puree and half a tiny artichoke heart. I could eat that dish every day for a week.

When the dessert arrived I realised I had made a mistake. Because we were having a set menu, I didn't pay all that much attention to the details. So what I saw on the menu for dessert was "Bitter cocoa sorbet" but I had missed the all-important second phrase "... concealed in a pistachio souffle". Oh my. I adore a hot souffle, so it was a wonderful surprise. It was a very sweet, delicately green cloud, and then nestled in the bottom of the dish was a nugget of the darkest, bitterest chocolate sorbet ever. A perfect combination! The sorbet was just beginning to melt, adding a little more moisture and richness to the souffle. Divine.

We moved back into the lounge for coffee and petite fours. I had a lovely pot of verbena tisane, which is one of my more recent discoveries as a digestif. Very soothing to a full stomach! The array of petite fours was amazing - liquorice icecream covered in crisp chocolate, pistachio macaroons, pistachio sponge topped with apricot preserve, a rich salted caramel and chocolate tart, a white chocolate cup filled with cream and mango, a chocolate truffle topped with gold leaf, squares of chewy chocolate fudge.

Eventually we felt able to take a wander around the gardens. I include this picture of Paul & me looking happy and well-fed because it is a particularly nice photo of my lovely husband.

The vegetable gardens are amazing - and it was so nice to see men in chefs whites ducking through with a basket and a pair of scissors, getting ready for the evening service.

I've never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant in a city, so I just can't imagine what they can offer to make the total experience on a par with Le Manoir. Now to start saving for my next lunch there!

Sunday 18 October 2009

Borough Market

I do have friends who aren't foodies - I truly do - but there is something so satisfying about sharing food experiences with people who are on the same wavelength.

We had a friend from Australia staying recently and I knew that she was someone to whom I could say "Let's go to Borough Market; we won't have dinner tonight, we'll just put together a platter".

We wandered around, taking full advantage of the free tasters on offer, and bought as much as we could carry. Then we came home, opened a bottle of wine and ate it all. Brilliant!

So what did we buy? Well. A loaf of lovely French walnut and honey bread. I sliced it thinly and toasted it. With some foie gras pate that we had in the pantry waiting for a worthy occasion, it was just heavenly. We had fresh purple figs, some lovely British raspberries, an absolutely gorgeous vegetarian mushroom pate, a slice of rabbit and mushroom terrine and several French cheeses. The piece de resistance was some exquisite Spanish ham. Jamón ibérico de bellota is amazing stuff - sure, a good Italian proscuitto is delicious, but it cannot hold a candle to the rich, sweet nutty ibérico. It's bloody expensive but worth it for special occasions!

We piled all these treats on a platter along with some spiced, pickled tangerines and more of the toasted walnut bread. A glorious meal with a foody friend.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Butternut Fritters

For some reason, Mr I-don't-have-a-sweet-tooth* has been reminiscing about sweet things a bit recently.

When he told me about the butternut squash fritters, redolent of cinnamon, that his grandmother used to make, I thought they sounded wonderful.

He was heading off fishing for the day, so I thought he needed a pretty substantial breakfast, and I had the necessary, so I whipped them up. The baking of the butternut is the only thing that takes any time, the rest takes about 3 minutes to throw together.

Butternut Fritters

1/2 large butternut squash
1tbs demerara sugar
1 cup self-raising flour
1 egg
1tbs vanilla extract
1tsp ground cinnamon
oil for frying

Put the half butternut squash in a 180C oven for about 45 minutes or until tender but not browned. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh into a bowl with a spoon. Add the sugar and mash with a fork (the granular sugar helps break it up into a puree). You'll end up with about 1 1/2 cups of butternut puree.

Stir in a cup of self-raising flour, then a beaten egg, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Gradually stir in enough milk to make a thick batter.

Heat a pan. Add a small slurp of oil. Fry the batter into pancakes - I found that about 1 1/2tbs made a good, thick pancake and fit 3 to the pan. When large bubbles form on the surface it's time to turn them with a palette knife. Keep warm in a low oven while you cook the rest.

Serve hot with maple syrup and a sprinkle more cinnamon. Makes 12 - which for us serves 2.

* Mr I-don't-have-a-sweet-tooth says it is unfair for me to begin a post in such a manner. But it is a statement of fact so I refuse to retract.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Best carrot cake in the world?

Paul maintains that his Aunty Ena made the best carrot cake in the world. He doesn't have much of a sweet tooth so that is pretty high praise!

Apparently it was moist, very spicy and had loads of walnuts. So when again I had a huge pile of carrots from a couple of successive vegetable boxes, I decided to try to make a rival to Aunty Ena's carrot cake.

I came upon this recipe for the Best Carrot Cake Ever. I used mixed peel instead of raisins (because it turned out we didn't have any and I couldn't be bothered to go to the shop). And I have come to the conclusion that I have a dud batch of baking powder. This is the third thing I have made with this box of baking powder that hasn't worked very well. It collapsed in the middle (cunningly hidden with frosting and chopped walnuts) and had a bit of a metallic aftertaste. And all of the mixed peel sank to the bottom and stuck to the tin.

Aunty Ena's reputation as a baker is safe. Mine continues to suffer.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Urchin and the hose

Haven't shown any Urchin pics for a while... this is Urchin playing with the hose. She loves the hose! She will sit at Paul's feet and scream until he goes outside and plays with the hose with her. Funny beast.

Thursday 8 October 2009

A Consolation Prize - The Clarendon

Or, an object lesson in how not to run a business.

Once upon a time - about 6 weeks ago - I received an email. This email was notifying me of an autumnal wine dinner at a local gastropub. I was excited. I phoned to book. The person who answered the phone didn't know what I was talking about, but told me that named event coordinator would call me back that day to discuss it with me and take my booking.

After a week, named event coordinator hadn't called back so I rang again. Again the person who answered the phone knew nothing about it and took a message. I am reasonably sure he did actually write it down because we had a big old laugh about my very South African name not matching my very Australian accent.

Another week passed when named event coordinator failed to return my call.

The friends that we planned to go to the dinner with were actually dining at the gastropub, so they asked about it while they were there. The waitress didn't know anything about it, but reassured them that named event coordinator would call back within the hour.

Three days before the event my friend made a last ditch attempt. The person who answered the phone on this occasion said that she thought the dinner had been cancelled due to lack of interest. OH REALLY? Lack of interest and not extreme disorganisation? Not a lack of customer service? Not the fucking uselessness of an event coordinator who can't manage to return 6 phone calls in 4 weeks?

So there we were. All dressed up (so to speak - it was still a couple of days away so there would be several changes of clothes before we were ACTUALLY all dressed up) and no place to go. And my friend suggested another local gastropub, The Clarendon.

And you know what? Bloody good suggestion.

In days gone by the Clarendon had a bit of a reputation. Apparently it was where nice young boys used to go if they wanted a guaranteed shag and weren't too picky about the hygiene of the girl. Or so I am told by men who claim they had "friends" who used to go there. Things have changed somewhat. It has had a makeover. Rumours circulate about how much money was spent on the refurb, and they are all pretty much believable. It is now very clean, very pretty and the staff uniforms are absolutely gorgeous. They have also spent some money on staff training and have people in the kitchen with a real gift.

As a starter, I had pea salad with goats cheese fritters. My sense of symmetry was offended. There were 3 little mounds of pea puree on the plate, but only 2 fritters. How is that right? How can you have a plate designed around a triangular formation of pea puree and only 2 fritters? And what is worse, they were absolutely delicious and I felt sincerely robbed. The tangle of pea shoots looked very pretty and tasted good, but it is a bit awkward to eat greens like that. I suspect I looked like a grazing bovine. The real revelation was the pickled lemon on the plate. It wasn't like a Moroccan salt-preserved lemon, it had a tang of vinegar and a hint of sweetness. If that is what Amy March's pickled limes tasted like, a literary mystery has been solved for me. It was absolutely the right thing with the hot, crisp goats cheese fritter.

My main course was ham & eggs. Lightly smoked, beautifully tender ham that tasted of Christmas, a perfectly fried duck egg, delicious home-made baked beans and a neat stack of triple-cooked chips. I really don't know what the third cook is supposed to do to the chips. They weren't fluffier within, crispier without or more flavoursome completely than a normal twice-cooked chip. But they were very good dunked into the eggyolk. The wee copper pot of baked beans was an adorable presentation, but I like my baked beans a bit zestier. These could have done with a slug of worcestershire sauce or some tabasco.
I was genuinely tempted to give dessert a miss. But then I saw homemade eccles cakes with Wensleydale cheese on the menu. Oh my. They were so good I almost cried. I've never had a hot eccles cake before, but these were amazing. Definitely a far cry from the dry, flaky things one of the coffee chains sells as an eccles cake. The rich, lardy pastry was flaky without crumbling, the currants in the filling were spicy and plump. The Wensleydale wasn't quite as crumbly as I like it, but the salty creaminess went very well with the eccles cakes. I had a glass of a Rutherglen liqueur muscat. Australia may not produce an eccles cake of such beauty, but they know how to make a pudding wine.
So. The moral of the story. If you return my phone call, I will spend money, smile at your staff, relish your food and recommend you to all my friends. If you don't, you are dead to me and I will be very tempted to reveal your name... and write to your head office.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Farewell Floyd - Jambalaya

I think you would have to be living under a rock for the last few weeks not to have realised that Keith Floyd - television cook, snappy dresser and gastronaut - had passed away from a heart attack.

As a tribute to the trailblazer, James and Julia from the UK Food Bloggers Association are running a Farewell Floyd blogging event. And as it happens, Paul and I had already decided that we needed to do something to mark the passing of someone who gave both of us so much enjoyment.

One of Paul's most treasured possessions is a signed copy of Floyd's American Pie, so it seemed natural that to honour Floyd we had to make something from that book. It also seemed appropriate that we should cook outdoors, in memory of all the scenes of the tide coming in mid-shoot, or the gas blowing out or any of the other hazards that befell Floyd with his location cooking.

And so it was that we settled on Jambalaya. It was Floyd who first introduced me to the notion of the Trinity - the mixture of onions, celery and green peppers that form the basis of a lot of Creole and Cajun cooking, including the Jambalaya, and it is a one-pot meal that really lends itself to outdoor cooking. It's also one of the dishes from Floyd's American Pie that Paul has cooked the most often. I didn't totally follow the recipe, I approached it more as a guideline for a dish.

I don't have enough bowls to do a really cheffy mis en place - and the patio table is too small, so I simplified. One bowl contained my Trinity. One bowl of diced chicken thighs, sliced spicy chorizo and whole cloves of garlic. One bowl of long grain rice, oregano, sage, cayenne pepper and a couple of bay leaves. One large measuring jug of diced tomatoes and chicken stock. And of course, several glasses of wine so I could have a little slurp while I cooked.

Paul made quite a hot charcoal fire in the Weber, and worked his magic on it to keep it stoked for the full cooking time.

I heated the saucepan and then add a good slurp of olive oil. When it was beginning to sizzle I added the Trinity and cooked that until it was translucent. Then I added the chicken and chorizo and gave that a good browning. When the lovely red oil from the chorizo was flowing nicely, I added the rice, herbs and then the liquid. Covered the pan and cooked it until most of the liquid had evaporated. Just before it was done I stirred through a handful of raw, peeled prawns. As soon as the prawns were pink and opaque, it was time to eat.

Vale, Keith.


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