Saturday 30 June 2012

Behold these rowdy ladies - weekend in Bath

Last weekend, I snuck off for a girls' weekend in Bath. I can't remember the last time I was away with the girls without it being dance-related. This was not dance-related, it was purely sybaritic. It was the one weekend this decade (possible exaggeration) that Shannon wasn't at a wedding and Megan wasn't swanning off to the continent, so we grabbed the opportunity.

Megan handled travel, Sophia arranged accommodation and I was placed in charge of provisioning. We're a good team to have at your back if you need to invade a small neighbouring country. I put out a twitter plea for restaurant recommendations, did some intense googling, and came up with more options than we had time for.

As Shannon was arriving a little bit after the London contingent, we decided to settle in to a pub and wait for her before having lunch. Based on a complex equation (factoring in the quality of website, likelihood of avoiding ghastly tour buses, independent ownership, promise of menu, distance to hotel) I chose The Chequers. Unfortunately my calculations didn't factor in the fact that Bath is built on a steep hill and the pub was a long way up it. The pitcher of Pimms we'd discussed as a pleasant way to begin our lunch became an urgent necessity about half way up.

Knowing that we'd planned a blow-out for dinner, we all opted for light-ish meals. My BLT was delicious, but the sausage sandwich and burgers on the table looked equally good. I almost had order-envy over the veggie burger, which is a first for me. Good food, a very pleasant room and a charming toddler at the next table making goo-goo eyes at us was just what the doctor ordered after the trauma of a 10am train from Paddington.
The Chequers BLT
Suitably fortified, we headed off to the Thermae Bath Spa.  Quelle horrible surprise, there was a massive queue. There was a couple in front of us actually having a picnic (M&S sushi and froglet rose, in case you were wondering). We decided that we were not British enough to queue and went for a wander, which took us by a boule competition full of very, very British people having a delightfully eccentric time.

We went to the Jane Austen Centre. Here my "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all" policy falls down, because if I don't say anything, how will anyone know what a fucking joke it is? And of course the joke was on us because they have the extraordinary nerve to charge £7.50 entry and we actually paid it. For £7.50 I could have got another delicious BLT and a second hand copy of Pride and Prejudice and had a lovely solo afternoon of appreciating Jane Austen, instead of listening to a dull lecture with nothing surprising in it, then traipsing around a very small collection of vaguely Austen-related memorabilia. On the other hand, seeing Shannon's face when she tasted one of the ratafia biscuits on offer was worth almost £2.

Further wandering was brought up short by exceptionally heavy rain. So obviously we had to take refuge in another pub, to while away the hours before getting back to the hotel, drying off and changing for dinner.

My twitter shout-out had produced a recommendation for Menu Gordon Jones, but even a month beforehand we couldn't get a reservation. Another shout-out produced The Olive Tree, which had actually caught my eye already.

We had to get a taxi because a) it was still bucketing with rain and b) it was right back up near The Chequers.

I was pretty tempted by the chef's menu of the day, but the main course was rabbit and the others were less convinced. Plus the à la carte menu was more than interesting enough to sway me.

The back of the menu at The Olive Tree. We took it as our motto.
The service was good (very sweetly, when the maître d' saw me get my camera out, he offered to take a group picture - had to explain that I was more interested in what my food looks like than what my friends look like). The food was better. 

Vichyssoise - I think there may have been some wild garlic involved. 

The other 3 had spring veg risotto. Best risotto I have had anywhere except Le Manoir.
Cornish Game Hen terrine with summer truffle. Cornish game hens aren't actually game and don't have enough flavour to stand up to truffle, so it was a bit over-seasoned to compensate. Very good textures though.
Megan had duck - couldn't get a decent picture of the gnocchi or the fish the others had

Pork belly with loin, cheek and pea tortellini. The thing on the left was a perfect little toffee apple. Utterly sublime cooking.
This was the only dessert picture that turned out for me - Megan's mascarpone cheesecake with roasted peaches and peach sorbet. Divine. I had an amazing citrus parfait with a shot of limoncello and some passionfruit sorbet, but my hand was not steady in those photos.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. The man behind our hotel bar was rude and dismissive (I asked for a double whiskey. He asked if I wanted them in the same glass), but a group of Koreans in Regency dress drinking beer made it matter less.

The following morning we decided to get to the spa early to beat the queue. It was a very good idea - both the roof top pool and the steam rooms were quite crowded already, but the basement "Minerva Pool" (which had a sort of 60s Bond villain pleasure-palace vibe) was emptier. A friend of Megan's had given her a couple of vouchers to the spa, so our 2 hours of bobbing around talking rubbish and abandoning attempts to keep our hair dry was very reasonably priced.

When Kavey did a jaunt to Bath last year, she said good things about the breakfast at The Pump Room, so I thought that would be a good way to celebrate our final meal in Bath (and hopefully see us through until we got home). We arrived at 11.55am and a slightly supercilious young man told us that they stopped serving breakfast at 12, but we could look at the breakfast menu of things we couldn't have. Then our much more obliging waitress said that of course we could order off the breakfast menu. So we did.

Megan and Sophia "took the waters" - Sophia is a country girl and said it just tasted like slightly warm bore water

3 x champagne breakfasts - gorgeous toasted soda bread, smoked salmon, poached egg and hollandaise with a bit of watercress. And a glass of champagne.
Sophia had been feeling fragile, so she had posh cauliflower cheese with truffles and grilled leeks

There was room for dessert - another magic cheesecake (I had a sherry trifle, which was OK but not awe-inspiring and not photogenic)
The thing about a moderately early start (we were in the spa shortly after 9am) followed by a bit of exercise and a nice breakfast, is that it leaves you disinclined for much activity. The rain had cleared up so we forked out £1.20 each (as non-residents) to get into the Parade Gardens, snaffled some deck-chairs and settled in for a final bit of hedonism before the trip home. The gardens really need to  get themselves organised with a drinks waiter.
These were not the same cosplayers that we saw in our hotel the night before
Divine decadence

The Portishead brass band

Thursday 28 June 2012

Nigella's sweet & salty crunchy nut bars

Becky is allergic to nuts, as I've mentioned, so I don't make treats for work that contain them, because I think it's a bit unfair. By the same reasoning the best possible thing for my waistline would be for a diabetic person to join the team.

But this week Becky is in the South of France, so I wanted to make something that packed in the maximum quantity of nuts. I did think about baklava, but I was away for the weekend (post about that is coming in a couple of days) so it had to be something quick.

The quickest, nuttiest things I know are Nigella Lawson's sweet & salty crunchy nut bars. Butter, chocolate, golden syrup, honeycomb and salted peanuts. I enhanced the nuttyness by using the remainder of my homemade maple and pecan cinder toffee (fascinatingly, given that I made that toffee in October and totally forgot it was there, it had no loss of either flavour or texture. Shows how effective candying is as a preservative!)

These bars would actually be the perfect thing to take on an arctic expedition when you needed really concentrated energy, but it also got an office full of people through a Monday.

Friday 22 June 2012

Chocolate cherry pikelets

Not sure if anyone is actually interested in my "creative process" but these pikelets were a pretty good illustration of how it works.

It nearly always starts in bed, between sleeping and properly waking, where I decide the important things like what I am going to wear and what I am going to eat. A typical internal dialogue (can't call it a monologue - there usually are at least two voices involved...) goes very much like this:

A1: What do you want for breakfast?

A2: Eggs benedict

A1: Don't be ridiculous - we have no ham, no muffins and I'm not making bloody hollandaise.

A2: What about Laura's ginger crunch pikelets? They were good and there's still some crystallised ginger from Christmas. Plus, whipped butter, yum!

A1: Mmmm good idea, yes.

A2:... oh arse, used the last of the golden syrup in the chocolate fudge ripple.

A1: But I want pikelets now! What else can go in pikelets?

A2: There are those cherries in the fridge?

A1: Those are for a granita.

A2: Not enough space in the freezer for making granita.

A1: Oh all right. There's some of the chocolate fudge ripple left that can go in too.

A2: It's a plan. Coffee?

Oaty batter, fresh cherries and chocolate fudge sauce 


Spoonfuls of the batter (about half oats, half self-raising flour, eggs and milk until runny) went into a pan of foaming butter. 3 halves of fresh cherry and a spoonful of chocolate fudge sauce went onto that, then another spoonful of batter over the top to encase the filling. They needed to cook a bit slower than a regular pancake to make sure they cooked through properly. They were good, but not chocolatey enough. Should have put some cocoa powder in the pikelets themselves! Which I now see from the ginger crunch pikelets post, I was planning to do anyway.

Garnish with more cherries and possibly some chocolate shavings

Monday 18 June 2012

Meat Free Monday: Chilli paneer lunch plate

Paul isn't quite as keen on meat free meals as I am. He's happy to eat them, but if asked what he wants for dinner he's seldom likely to actually nominate a vegetarian dish. When I batch-cook for our lunches, I don't ask what he wants!

For this week, I've made a selection of Indian(ish) vegetarian dishes. No meat, but very satisfying and well-balanced flavours.

The Hairy Bikers' Sweet and sour potatoes (which I have had bookmarked to make for ages), some spinach and chickpeas, and a big pile of delicious chilli paneer. I've made the chilli paneer before, with home-made paneer, but the texture of the commercial stuff is much better for this dish. Which very conveniently gets me out of making it from scratch.

For the spinach and chickpeas, I sauteed some mustard seeds in a little oil until they began to pop, then added a sliced onion and shredded spinach leaves. When the leaves melted I added a couple of chopped cloves of garlic, a spoonful of turmeric and a drained, rinsed can of chickpeas. When the chickpeas were well-coated with the spices, I added a little salt and some garam masala. Very simple.

The only thing this whole lunch plate needs to make it suitable for vegans is substituting some firm tofu for the paneer.

I'll put a little tomato kachumber on the side of mine - I suspect that dealing with a separate tub of salad in his lunchbox is more than Paul can face.
Sweet & sour potatoes, chickpeas with spinach and chilli paneer.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Sort of Spanish Barbecued Chicken Stew.

Disaster has struck. My dishwasher is kaput. After bailing out 2 inches of mucky water at the bottom (which turns out to be about 8 litres, once it's in a bucket) and cleaning the filter etc my personal diagnosis is that the motor is fucked. They do have motors, right? I haven't been able to get anyone out to look at it yet, so I am back to washing up by hand.

It'll be a lot of one-pot meals and not a lot of elaborate cakes and so on until we can get it fixed.

I've posted before about sticking a pot on the fire. Not only do you get a one-pot meal (although the one pot takes quite a bit of washing), but there is something about the very fine, rapid bubble that means the sauce emulsifies to a rich, creamy texture with very little encouragement.

Browning the chicken thighs in the lovely chorizo oil
We started by browning chunks of chorizo in olive oil, then when they were well-browned and had given up some of their delicious red oil, we browned some bone-in, skin-in chicken thighs.

Once the skin on the thighs was really crisp and browned, in went sliced onions, garlic and peppers, a spoonful of sweet paprika and a hefty spoonful of pil pil seasoning, followed by a can of crushed tomatoes and some home-made chicken stock.

Beautifully browned chicken
Once everything was at a rollicking boil, in went some rice. We used arborio, but just because it was open - we were going for a fairly soupy consistency and didn't really need the particular starchy qualities of risotto rice. Then, when everything was very nearly perfectly cooked, we added some prawns, mussels and squid (i.e tub of seafood mix) and just let it finish in the heat.

In a perfect world, we would have finished this with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. We live in an imperfect world.

Splashes on the plate - further proof of the imperfection of the world

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Black & white brownies - practically perfect in every way

Over the Jubilee long weekend, I'd had no plans to bake. Then about half way through the weekend, I decided that actually, I wanted to make brownies. The blogosphere was conspiring to push me towards them. Joanne made these delicious-looking cookie dough brownies, Dharm did a brownie throwdown for his kids, Choclette made chocolate brownie icecream... everywhere I turned there were brownies!

I've had success in the past with Jill Dupleix's recipe (via Mark Hix) for cranberry blondies, but on this occasion I wanted the chocolate to speak for itself, not get drowned out with tart bites of dried fruit. And of course, I was planning to take these in to work, and Becky is allergic to nuts, so that knocked out any macadamia/walnut/pecan/peanut butter additions. So it was very rich dark chocolate brownies with added chunks of dark and white chocolate.

Black and White Brownies (makes 24 pieces)

200g butter
300g good quality dark chocolate (I used a fairtrade, single origin with 72% cocoa solids, not ridiculously expensive but good)
3 eggs
150g caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla (or Camp coffee, or brandy - you are just rounding out the flavour a bit)
200g plain flour
100g good quality white chocolate (you want one made with cocoa butter, not vegetable fat)

Preheat the oven to 180C, and line an 18 x 28cm tin with baking paper.

Put the butter and 200g of the dark chocolate, broken into pieces, into a microwave-safe bowl and melt, in 20 second bursts in the microwave, until the butter is totally melted and the chocolate is almost melted, then set aside (the few remaining bits of chocolate will melt in the heat of the rest of it and you will be less likely to overheat the chocolate and ruin it).

In another bowl (big enough to take all the ingredients), beat together the eggs, sugar and vanilla until quite light and fluffy. This is the only leavening in the brownies, so don't skimp on this step.

In 2 batches, alternately fold in the flour and the slightly cooled melted chocolate, then chop the remaining 100g of dark chocolate and the white chocolate into chunks and fold those in too. Be quite thorough - this isn't like muffins where unmixed flour will cook out.

Spread into the lined tin, and bake for 20 minutes. The top will be quite firm and the middle a bit soft. Allow to cool before turning out of the tin, dusting liberally with icing sugar and cutting into small pieces.

Probably the best brownies I've ever made
These were extremely successful. Some of the chocolate chunks melted away, some retained some bite, they were squidgey and moist but not too fudgey and they managed not to be too sweet. They may not be the definitive brownie, but I think they are the closest I have come so far! I will have to make another batch to test the method for consistency, I think.

Monday 11 June 2012

Meat Free Monday: spinach and artichoke mac & cheese

Well what do you know? This is my 650th post on Foodycat! I suppose, had I given it any thought when I first started out, I would have realised that the amount I think and talk about food would have me racking up the post-count. At the same time, I do find it hard to believe that I have spent that much time on this little project. At least half an hour on writing each post (many more) not to mention the actual menu planning, shopping, cooking, photographing, selecting images and resizing them... it's a wonder I find time to do anything else.

I didn't plan this as a milestone-post. It was only when I hit preview that I noticed that I'd hit 650, so I didn't do anything special for it. Come back in August when I am celebrating my 5th blogoversary. There will be cake.

At the end of May, entries closed for the latest round of Cook the Books Club; dishes inspired by The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp (the name is much longer than that but I can't be bothered copying and pasting). Unfortunately, my copy of the book only arrived a couple of days beforehand, and I didn't have time to read it, but I am enjoying it so much I wanted to make something anyway!

I'm finding United States of Arugula generally fascinating (SO much sex. And Julia Childs had a filthy mouth; I'm not sure if I dare adopt one of her expressions...) but the chunk about the 60s and 70s particularly spoke to me. Kamp acknowledges the importance of Frances Moore Lappé's book Diet for a Small Planet, which I remember on our bookshelf when I was growing up. Even in 1971 she was very clearly making the case that world hunger was about politics and that a shift towards a vegetarian diet was more sustainable for humanity and the planet. I clearly remember some of her statistics on the amount of grain it takes to produce 1lb of beef (something like 16:1) - grain that is useful food for people but actually a fairly inefficient way to produce beef. Bill Niman's explanation of why grass-fed beef is better (tastier, fewer additives, better for the animal) than grain-fed made so much sense and just reinforced my existing beliefs about the meat that I choose to eat. I'd also had no idea about the background to the Celestial Seasonings tea company, although I've certainly drunk enough of it over the years. 

So what with one thing and another, I wanted to make something calling to the, well, hippier side of myself. I wanted it to be vegetarian but very, very American.

One of my fellow book-clubbers, the amazing Claudia from Honey from Rock (she grows her own cacao, people), made this creamy green penne as her submission. Which reminded me that I have had Arlene's spinach and artichoke macaroni cheese bookmarked for almost a year. 

Spinach and artichoke dip is one of that extraordinary family of American foods, the hot dip. While I just cannot get my head around the idea of creamy warm salmon, corned beef or crab dip (you can stop retching, I've finished) spinach and artichoke dip is delicious, and I thought the flavours would work extremely well as a macaroni cheese. I'm sure many American recipes for the dip include such processed horrors as Velveeta and cheez whiz, but Arlene is a class act, using fontina, parmesan and dry white wine in hers. It certainly makes a very sophisticated macaroni cheese!

Vegetarian is the same as healthy, right?

Friday 8 June 2012

Scallop and Bacon Salad

Clearly, this is not the healthiest salad in the world! There are far too many crunchy, oily, salty bits for good health. But boy it tastes good. It's just a big pile of leaves, dressed with the last of my chocolate balsamic reduction and topped with fried bacon, lovely plump scallops, crunchy garlicky croutons and a good seasoning of black pepper. I deglazed my pan with a little more balsamic (plain, not chocolate) and poured that over the top too.

As ever with a warm salad, it needs to be eaten immediately, before the leaves wilt.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Boxty - hangover breakfast of champions

One of the things about not being totally on-board with the whole Jubilee business is that I haven't overindulged quite so much as some. But if I had, these delicious Irish potato pancakes (served with bacon, black pudding and tomatoes) would definitely be my restorative breakfast of choice. They are made with a combination of raw (grated) and cooked (mashed) potatoes, bound with a bit of flour and lightened with a smidge of baking powder. I used this recipe, although I used plain yoghurt instead of buttermilk. And I made them much thicker than they should have been, so I did struggle a little to cook them through. 

The leftovers, warmed through in the oven, were fantastic later in the day with some cheese.

Only just realised how utterly filthy the stove is in this picture. Sorry!

Sunday 3 June 2012

Jubilee Tiramisu

"Bunting" is a strange word
It's the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - 60 years on the throne - and it's being celebrated with a 4 day weekend.

I'm a bit conflicted over the whole thing, really.

The country is in a very bad way at the moment and the combination of the Jubilee and the Olympics feels very bread and circuses to me. Obviously when the country won the bid to host the Olympics we didn't know that we were going to be in a massive recession, but at the same time it feels like a very expensive distraction technique. Plus, while I like Elizabeth II's fashion sense and think she's probably a lovely lady, I find the notion of a hereditary head of state pretty obnoxious.

On the other hand... 4 day weekend! Lots of shops are running tenuously-linked sales! (although wouldn't you think that a Diamond Jubilee sale would have to be 60% discount?) Friends are having barbecues! Street parties! There is bunting! Yay! Rule Brittania!

Lots of lovely berries. In the background is a sponge cake, decorated beautifully with blueberries and raspberries, but as the person who made it is only 13, you don't get to see how much nicer her dessert looks than mine. My blog, my rules.
 Yesterday we went to a Jubilee barbecue. Massive amounts of booze and food and red, white and blue themed stuff and no embarrassing shows of patriotism or monarchist fervour. Perfect! And very, very British, as it ended with all of us huddled under a gazebo with blankets wrapped around us while the rain pelted down.

I had to consult a picture for the positioning of the crosses on the Union Jack, which was a bit disgraceful
My contribution was a berry tiramisu. Basically this recipe from Jill Dupleix, but with blueberries as well as strawberries. I went through a period about 6 years ago when I made this dessert quite often, but I'd shelved it for no good reason - I'm pleased to be reminded of it! I use marsala as my "sweet dessert wine", and I think for the first time ever I was a bit too sparing with it. It certainly wasn't dry, but it didn't have quite the luscious, creamy, boozy punch that I remember from the last time I made this. I might pour a little extra slosh of marsala over the leftovers. It'll help preserve them. Much like Her Majesty's mother and the gin.

I wanted a picture of me showing my awesome hair and excellent t-shirt, along with the dessert, but by the time I convinced Paul to wield the camera we'd missed the light and the dessert was mangled and it all lacks the charm I was aiming for.


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