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Archive for June, 2009

Toast Australia

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Clapham Common is the closest thing I have to a garden. As lovely as it is to have access to a large patch of grass in the midst of south London, the Common is no Richmond Park. When I first moved here I thought it would be enough for me but as time goes by I find myself longing for a bigger patch of pretend countryside.

 

When the temperatures soar as they did this weekend half of south London descends,  strips and lolls en masse. You are never more than a few feet from topless sunbathers, games of Frisbee, children chasing dogs and the occasional couple demonstrating their love for one another.  This is all tolerable beach behaviour but Clapham Common is just a very large lawn encircled, night and day, by cars and their fumes.

 

I have never voiced these dark thoughts since it is the law if you live in Clapham to tell everyone how great the common is but I think perhaps I haven’t been let in on the joke. It’s just a giant roundabout isn’t it?

 

This Sunday the Common beckoned, not for sunbathing but for an event. Toast Australia was described to me as a sort of food festival-cum celebration of Australia with a polo match thrown in for good measure. This was my first food festival and I am going to be totally honest and state for the record that I haven’t been to one before because of the price. I refuse to pay for entrance to what is essentially a very large market. So although I am reviewing Toast Australia I would never have made it through the gates under normal circumstances.

 

I was sent two free tickets to Toast Australia as were many other food bloggers and food blog readers, I think there must have been a lot of tickets going spare. On arrival we were directed to a tent where we purchased a plastic wine glass each, these were £2 a pop. We assumed that this would entitle us to free tasters. Unfortunately as we wound our way around the various barbeque stalls and wine tents we realised that we had just spent £2 each on a plastic cup, an empty plastic cup.

 

Commemorative plastic cups to the left, standard plastic cups to the right.

Commemorative plastic cups to the left, standard plastic cups to the right.

 

One member of staff we approached explained that as complimentary ticket holders we had to pay for this glass. Ok, but that still didn’t explain what they were for since when we bought a glass of sparkling wine the stall holders provided us with their own plastic glasses. Another member of staff spent a few minutes espousing her view that these were commemorative glasses to keep as a momento of the day. I am sorry to say that I laughed in her face when she said this and I think even she agreed with me. 

 

The wine on sale was the same price it would be in a pub and the food was the usual expensive festival food. When Felicity picked up a ‘commemorative’ brochure and saw that the cover price was £10 she expressed her concern that the event was being run by a mad person.

 

It wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. We spent three  lovely minutes watching John Torode cook meat on a barbeque. He was lovely and tanned and much thinner in the flesh so it’s nice to finally be able to say with some certainty that the camera does indeed add 10 pounds.

 

Good old Felicity, who is the best complainer I know, went back to the tent of overpriced plastic cups and brochures and asked for our money back. The lady refunded us with good grace. I took hardly any pictures of the event because I spent most of the time harrumphing around being scandalised by how expensive everything was. Apparently there was a polo match later on but we didn’t stay for that.

 

A full price ticket was advertised at £25. Yes, you heard me right. Of course, £25 includes the commemorative plastic cup and brochure, items which are bound to become collectable. I wonder how many of these we’ll see cropping up on the Antiques Roadshow in 20 years time.

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Graze

full box on my desk

 

This morning I received something a little bit exciting in the post. Nestled amongst the usual bank statements and invoices that comprise my working day was a small box from a company called Graze. The idea is that you receive a box of nibbles to ‘graze’ on throughout the day, this can be done as a diet with no lunch or it can supplement a small lunch.

 

This box costs £2.99 including delivery although the one I received today was free as a trial offer. My first thought on seeing the box was, blimey that’s worryingly small. The box measures about 9”x6” x 1″ which, when one takes into account packaging, does not leave a huge space for food.

 

I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but for what it’s worth the box looks great and it elicited a fair bit of interest from my colleagues who were obviously hoping to try some. A useful leaflet is included with all the nutritional information. The contents of my box were some cashew nuts (unsalted much to my disappointment), japanese cracker mix and cherries. Considering the cost of cherries I do think this box was reasonably priced although if there had been orange slices instead of cherries I would feel swindled.

 

box over view

 

I made a mistake in not eating breakfast since as my hunger increased over the course of the morning so did my excitement at the prospect of the contents of my Graze box. Consequently I have consumed most of the box in about an hour. I don’t think that could even be classified as grazing, it was basically brunch.

 

The cherries are perfectly ripe and delicious. The Japanese crackers are horrible like they always are but I ate them anyway, why on earth did I ask for these? Japanese crackers are linked inextricably in my mind to Christmas day as a child when after Mass in the morning we were forced to attend drinks at a family friend’s house. It was a real torment for me to be held against my will in a sitting room full of dull adults when I wanted to go home and open presents. I strongly felt that Mass had been punishment enough, wasn’t Christmas Day meant to be an annual reward for 364 days of unremitting guilt. I recall the bowls of Japanese crackers which littered the room, mocking me. I would force myself to eat handfuls of the dry, slightly pongy snacks in the hope that this would speed our departure.

 

box with plastic still on

 

The Graze box is now completely finished and the prospect of not eating again until 7.30 this evening is not filling me with delight. Plus my breath smells from the Japanese crackers. The good thing is that I can now log onto the Graze website and further refine my choices so that the box they deliver tomorrow includes better nibbles. My only reservation about this company is that they do not offer different prices depending on the contents, for example a luxury box including the cherries and cashew nuts but a slightly reduced cost for a basic box containing orange slices and peanuts.

 

I am still fairly hungry.

I am still fairly hungry.

I like to think there are plenty of Londoners who won’t think twice about spending the money on this serivce, if not then the recession is even worse than I thought. If you would like to receive a free box and your second box half price then just visit the Graze website and enter the promotional code 6R4VPWTG.

 

www.graze.com

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America

pancakes

 

Yesterday morning I arrived at Heathrow at 7am. It had taken just 5 hours and 51 minutes to fly from Boston to London, a journey of over 3,300 miles. To get from the airport, through immigration and home to Clapham took almost 2 hours despite the distance being just 15 miles. I am going to fight against all my natural instincts to moan about this since whilst on holiday I experienced first hand the horror of taking a bus in America and I swore I would never again complain about London’s fantastic public transport.

Our stateside bus ride started out agreeably enough with a coach from Boston to Hyannis in Cape Cod. Things took a turn for the worse when we approached the information desk at the bus terminal and were advised by a woman who can only be described as part-troll that there wasn’t another bus to Chatham for an hour and a half. We were forced to wait in the bus terminal with all the other Americans who make use of public transport, the vast majority were crazy people.

 

Blueberry pancakes with lashings of maple syrup...drools

Blueberry pancakes with lashings of maple syrup...drools

 

We finally understood why our friends had urged us to hire a car. When the bus did arrive it was tiny and there were too many people: the arrival of me, Ruth and four Eastern European girls looking for work had pretty much quadrupled the usual number of passengers on this tiny bus. The journey from Hyannis to Chatham is a 30 minute drive but we took the questionably scenic route through every Dunkin’ Donuts car park on the Cape. It took over two hours and there were no seats free.

 

Steve's amazing carrot cake.  And yes, that is one portion cut into three smaller slices. It was that big!

Steve's amazing carrot cake. And yes, that is one portion cut into three smaller slices. It was that big!

 

Delicious calamari salad served at the Impudent Oyster in Chatham

Delicious calamari salad served at the Impudent Oyster in Chatham

 

The bus stop and bell ringing system we have going on in London is hopelessly sophisticated compared to that of the Hyannis – Chatham Green line route. In order to get off the bus it seemed fairly essential to know the driver who would shout back something along the lines of ‘are you getting off here Mabel?’ whilst pulling up besides the North Dennis remodelling store and letting Mabel off.

 

More of Steve's baked goods

More of Steve's baked goods

 

As we approached Chatham I plucked up the courage to ask a friendly looking lady where the Chatham Bar Inn hotel was. She asked if we were working there since obviously only migrant workers and the insane take this bus, I don’t think she really believed that we were guests at one of the swankiest hotels on Cape Cod. The driver very kindly dropped us off as close to the hotel as she could. We pulled our cases up the gravel drive, probably the first guests to arrive at the Chatham Bar Inn by foot.

 

Morning Glory cookies made by Sticky Fingers, found in a shop in Chatham. He he he.

Morning Glory muffins made by Sticky Fingers, found in a shop in Chatham. He he he.

 

I spent most of the trip eating ever increasing portions of burger, clam chowder, fried calamari, shrimp and ice cream. You can see in the photos some of the food we enjoyed.

 

The best meal of the trip was made by our friend Sarah’s aunt and uncle who welcomed us into their beautiful home in Orleans and fed us twice-baked potatoes, asparagus, chicken and a delicious spinach salad which I hope to recreate and post later on. I don’t have any photos of this meal but suffice to say it was incredibly welcome and restoring after the gluttony of Boston where a breakfast of three huge pancakes doused in maple syrup was a regular occurrence.

 

Chinese noodle box...not nearly as cool as they look in the movies.

Chinese noodle box...not nearly as cool as they look in the movies.

 

My culinary experience of America always seems to be one of overindulgence. We were eating out a lot and that can get tiring in any country but I do think the American portions and the amount of dairy and sugar included in all the dishes is excessive. By the end of the trip I felt as if I was just topping up, never becoming hungry again between meals.

 

American bar snacks...kicks UK bar snacks ass.

American bar snacks...kicks UK bar snacks' ass.

 

As I have said, the home cooked meal in Orleans was wonderful as was the carrot cake and cookies made by Sarah’s boyfriend Steve. Steve owns his own bakery called Fusion in Hartford, Connecticut. His cakes are divine, all made on the premises in front of the customers.

 

I had a great deal of fun looking around the bakery and I can only dream of achieving something like Steve one day. He is doing what he loves and is surrounded by cakes.

 

raspberry cupcakes

 

America does good baking without question. It’s only right that an infrequent treat should be naughty and decadent but in terms of the food that we eat every day, the soups, stews and salads, America seems to me to be a little gross in its excess and ultimately in adding so much it can ruin the basic ingredients which is a shame.

 

Never mind the food, one thing America does really well is manicures and pedicures. We had two in the week we were there; the massage chairs are a little brutal at first but so good once the initial bruising fades. Ruth pointed out that if only Britain had invaded Vietnam then there would be nail bars on every street corner in London too. Right now as I type I can’t help but sneak a peek at my talons which are painted a fantastic shade of bubble-gum pink. Whilst I may be a boring Zara-clad Londoner most of the time my nails are currently pure Las Vegas hooker, I love it.

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Lemon tart

lemon tart with knife

 

Yesterday was Father’s Day but having been awake for over 27 hours travelling I wasn’t up to cooking anything. I bought my father a bottle of the new Beefeater 24 gin infused with Japanese Sencha tea. Gin has had a bad rap over the years, getting the blame for all sorts of terrible behaviour. It reached its nadir in the 18th century when Hogarth did some serious damage to gin’s image with his famous Gin Lane print. The 1751 Gin Act did a lot to curtail excessive gin drinking by eradicating small sellers.

 

Despite all this bad PR gin stuck around and these days things couldn’t be more different. There are many smaller producers such as Hendricks and Plymouth who use subtle infusions to enhance the spirit. I love the many variations on elderflower and cucumber gin-based cocktails that are around at the moment but at the end of a long day I am an unabashed traditionalist and only a gin and tonic will do. Ideally with lime but a lemon slice works too. I find the best tonic is by Waitrose, something to do with the quinine I think*

 lemon tart

My sister made a divine lemon tart for Father’s day. Really, really delicious. Lemon tarts have a great look going on. Of all the tarts out there the lemon tart nails it every time, being tarty but not too tarty. The filling, which is canary yellow on top and custard-hued beneath, sits in the pastry case where nothing can interfere with its delicious, creamy, lemoneyness.

 

 lemon tart slice 1

 

Lemon tarts are quite chic and French something I don’t particularly crave in a pudding.  On closer inspection though I find there is something very English about the buttery yellow filling that is only just set and wobbles like a blancmange if you shake it. I think Felicity’s pastry crust has a nice rustic look which makes it less Paris and more Poole.  That’s the perfect lemon tart as far as I am concerned.

 lemon slice 2

A very rough summary of the recipe is to make a pastry by rubbing butter with flour then adding icing sugar and binding with two egg yolks and cold water. The quantities are 175g butter, 250g flour and 75g icing sugar.  Chill the pastry for half an hour before rolling out and lining your tart tin.  Prick the pastry base with a fork then put it back in the fridge for another 30 minutes. Bake the pastry blind for 20 minutes in a hot oven then remove from the oven and turn the temperature right down.

 

Meanwhile, mix 5 whole eggs, 150 ml double cream, zest of a lemon and 85 ml lemon juice together then heat it ever so gently until it’s lukewarm. Pour this mixture into the pastry case and cook in the low oven for 25 minutes until the cream is set but still wobbly. Once cool place in the fridge for an hour or so but let it come to room temperature before eating. You could infuse the cream with thyme, that’s what I am going to try when I get around to making it.

 lemon tart head on

* Before people start telling me about Fever Tree I know it’s meant to be the best tonic in the world and all that but it’s expensive and sold in glass bottles which are heavy so I haven’t got round to lugging it home and trying it yet. Once I do I am sure I’ll never be able to look normal tonic in the face again and my world outlook will be fundamentally changed.

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Afternoon tea

Ricotta cookies

Ricotta cookies

 

I am sitting in my kitchen eating lettuce from my father’s garden in a vain attempt to undo the excess of the weekend. 

 

On Friday evening I ate at Ping Pong which I love even though it is possibly the Wimpy of dim sum.  On Saturday I dined at the Sofra in Shepherd Market. I had the healthy menu which I always do because it saves me having to commit myself to one dish and seems like a good deal, currently at £12.95 for lunch.  This gives you many little dishes, 11 altogether, including parsley salad, a tabouleh and hazelnut dish, various savoury pastry things, lamb and chicken kebabs.  Lots of stuff basically, enough to fill the tiny tables and then some.  I am sure the price has gone up and the portions decreased over the years but I have always left stuffed.

 

Chocolate caramel cookies

Chocolate caramel cookies

 

On Sunday I rose early as I had invited some family for tea. I do tend to over-cater whenever we have people over.  At this year’s Eurovision I made enough European-themed canapés to feed 25 but with only 4 guests coming. It fills my heart with joy to see a welcoming table heaving with food.

 

 Table of things I made

 

So on Sunday, after a week drooling over some of the wonderful recipes on The Canadian Baker’s website I got up at 8am to start making my own cack-handed attempts.  I am a reasonable baker but one usually beset by my disorganised approach to cooking.  A missing ingredient or unsuitable cake tin is so much more important in baking than in the cooking I usually do. 

 

 Ball of chocolate dough

 

The problem I encountered this time round was that I neglected to buy any greaseproof paper so all my cookies were ever so slightly charred underneath.  I spent a relaxing, contemplative hour scrapping this off which is what all the top chefs do I’m sure.

 

 cookie close up 3

 

Ricotta cookies were not cookies in any way that I am used to.  They looked like rock cakes but were not nearly as dry.  The cream cheese icing was delicious, when is cream cheese icing not delicious? They last a day in the fridge apparently but I still have 4 left, it’s a day later and my flat mate doesn’t appear interested in them so I guess I’m going to be eating gone-off cake for the rest of the week. I think these cookies are so much more tasty and grown-up than they look.  I admit I was drawn to them by the pastel colours.

 

I forgot to sieve the icing sugar first, hence the lumps...

I forgot to sieve the icing sugar first, hence the lumps...

 

Chocolate caramel cookies were a perfectly nice biscuit. I did leave them in the oven one minute too long which resulted in the caramel bit in the middle being more chewy than runny when they cooled.  If I made them again I would use an entire chunk or segment of a well known caramel chocolate bar (you all know the one I mean) and I would only leave them in the oven for 10 minutes so they would be properly fudgy and gooey.

 

 Pesto spread on pastry

 

I made pesto palmiers which I base on a recipe I saw in the Telegraph Stella magazine.  These are really easy to make, great for parties.  Just buy ready made puff pastry, roll it out, spread it with pesto (red or green) then roll it up on either side like a swiss roll.  This gives you the palmier shape.  Cut into slices and cook in a hot oven for 10 minutes or so, until they are cooked and turning golden brown. They taste nicer hot than cold. It would probably be much easier to slice if you chilled it in the fridge for 30 minutes first.  That has only just occurred to me and I will definitely try it next time.

 

 Pastry rolled up

 

I also made marmite and cucumber sandwiches but had to improvise at the last minute when I realised I had no white bread.  I used pitta bread instead.  It was a lovely, if unorthodox, anglo-grecian sandwich.

 

 Palmiers before cooking

 

Sylvie contributed scones with clotted cream and jam since my cousin Jean Louis is not a fan of cakes or biscuits, only scones.  They were delicious so I can see his point but I am far to greedy to restrict myself to one baked product.

 

Top Nigella tip, via MsMarmiteLover, combine the marmite and the butter to make a spread.

Top Nigella tip, via MsMarmiteLover, combine the marmite and the butter to make a spread.

 

My sister brought along her first attempt at cake decorating.  It was great although the pink coils at the base did look a little like intestines in close-up. Really I just can’t get enough of edible glitter. I think I need to invest in some and start sprinkling it on unexpected dishes like cheese on toast.

 

 Felicity's cake

 

Just writing this has made me feel full all over again. I’m off on holiday on Friday so this will be my last post for a couple of weeks.  When I return I will hopefully have lots of foodie pictures from New England and ideas for new recipes.

 

Finally, I just read about a website called www.frenchclick.co.uk which offers UK-based Francophiles the chance to purchase French groceries.  Delivery in London is free if your order is over £35. I think that would be well worth it to stock up on tins of confit de canard and Chamonix biscuits.

 

Here are the recipes for the chocolate caramel cookies and the ricotta cookies.

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Years ago I went to Zurich with my father and I remember we had an amazing meal at an Italian restaurant which made quite an impression on me as a hopelessly unsophisticated teenager from Croydon. My memory is very hazy, I’m not even 100% sure it was Zurich, could have been Geneva. The point is that I have built up and added to this memory over the years, given it substance, all because of a single dish which completely amazed me, the chilled melon soup.

 

Photo0142

 

This was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted, it was just the purest essence of those incredibly sweet melons you find in the south of France.  I adore melon ice cream and sorbet but something about this soup was exceptional, possibly because it was not sweetened. 

 

I mention this because I have spent the last few days wondering how I could create something similar and then, as if it were a sign from the Gods, I saw a link to Vicky Bhogal’s Three is the Magic Number article.  Clearly I was destined to try and make melon soup this week.

 

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I spent my lunch hour thinking about how I could make my own version and what changes I might make.  For a start it would have to contain ginger and pepper since those were the other two ingredients called for under the rules of the competition.  I also decided to add some vermouth and to finish the soup with some parma ham.

 

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The problem I came up against was finding a melon in the supermarket that came even close to being ripe let alone as sweet smelling as the ones that must have gone into the soup I had in Zurich.  With an underwhelming melon I would be forced to add more flavours and seasoning, I thought mint would be a good choice.

 

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At home I made the soup as follows, to serve 2.  I scooped the seeds out of one cantaloupe melon and then scooped out all the flesh into a food processor.  I reserved a large chunk of the flesh to use later. I added a small piece of sliced fresh ginger to the food processor, about the size of 2 sugar lumps.  With a tablespoon of vermouth I blitzed this until it was a liquid.  You could probably use some other booze instead of vermouth, like any white fortified wine or even a dessert wine.

 

I then pushed the liquid through a sieve to make sure it was super smooth, like restaurant soup.  This was then put into the fridge to chill. It needs at least an hour, preferably more.

 

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Whilst the soup is chilling if you wish you can cook a slice of Parma ham per person in the oven.  Pre-heat the oven to 200c and cook the ham slices in-between two baking trays so that they stay totally flat.  Remove them from the oven when they are crispy.

 

Once the soup was icy cold (I started it off in the freezer to save time) season it with black pepper.  Pour into bowls and arrange the reserved chunks of melon in the middle, these then act as a little melon table on which to balance your crisp piece of Parma ham.  I also served an uncooked piece of the ham on some crusty bread, it was a lovely contrasting texture and taste.

 

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Crucially, if you are using a fairly flavourless melon (more than likely if you are making this in the UK) you will need to add some fresh mint to give it a kick.  Do not make the mistake I did and forget all about adding this. My flatmate and I spent ages wondering what the dish was missing until I recovered from my temporary amnesia and added the chopped mint.

 

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All in all I still like this dish but it is one to save for when you find an impossibly sweet melon. I wonder if it would be possible to make something like a tomato consommé but with melon as a way to get maximum flavour out of the lacklustre melons on sale in London.  Of course it is still early in the season to be complaining about this, by August everything will be much sweeter.

Last minute addition of the mint!

Last minute addition of the mint!

 

*apologies for the poor picture quality, I am still stuck with using my camera phone at the moment but in a couple of week’s time I will be the proud owner of a shiny new camera.

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Parma ham bundles

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Where did the sun go? Please dear Lord I hope that wasn’t the end of the British Summer.  I have been walking around telling anyone that will listen that we are about to experience a veritable scorcher of a summer, permanent French Riviera weather.  This is not based on any meteorological knowledge mind you, just a general ‘feeling in my waters’ which I find is usually just as reliable as the BBC weather forecast, if not more so.

 

Photo0118

 

As Boo in London  pointed out, the lack of sun called for some meat. I didn’t have time to cook anything but I had some ham left over from lunch so I decided to make parma ham bundles a la Nigella Lawson.

 

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Nigella’s recipe calls for parma ham, goats cheese and dried figs. I think I saw this on one of her Christmas programmes. Whilst they are a lovely idea I would have to win the lottery before I started offering these around as nibbles at a party.

 

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I used a St Marcellin cheese instead of goats cheese and sundried tomato instead of fig. I also stuffed some pine kernels in for no other reason than that I recently bought a bag and I’m kind of obsessed with using them at the moment.

 

Also had a sausage sandwich and finished it all off with some left-over yoghurt with honey and raisins. I swear if I didn’t eat so much I’d have a physique to rival Scarlett Johansson.

 

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