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Archive for August, 2009

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Taste buds are a curious thing, a physical extension of an intangible sense. Science can dissect the tongue along acidic and base lines, marking sections which amplify saltiness or sweetness like continents on a map, but there is an unscientific aspect to taste which is composed of memories and traits unique to every one of us. If your mother forced gristly liver onto your plate every Tuesday for 18 years then there is a chance you will find the rich, pate-like consistency rather unpalatable. Calf’s liver in my mouth tastes wonderful but on another anatomically identical tongue it tastes revolting.

 

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Taste and memories are obviously intrinsically linked, it seems almost a cliché to say it. Coriander reminds me of a walk along a canal where I discovered a plant with some white berries which I squashed between my fingers. The strong, rotten smell which coated my hands reminded me of rancid cheese. When coriander became huge years later (and it really is huge, is there a herb more ubiquitous than coriander?) my first whiff of the innocent looking leaf sent me hurtling back to that canal-side walk. Suffice to say I loathe coriander with every fibre of my being.

 

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Until recently I wasn’t keen on beetroot. You might say that since I now rather like beetroot I was mistaken in my dislike, yet isn’t taste an entirely subjective thing? When I hated beetroot I hated it and now I like it…well…I like it. There is no objective beetroot taste which we can judge to be good or bad, all that matters is your taste in the present moment. Most adults keep trying things because there is nothing more embarrassing than being thought of as a fussy eater. If we didn’t persist with things we don’t like at first then the landscape in the south of France would look very different, there would be no need for Fairtrade coffee and the sea would be swarming with anchovies.

 

Beetroot has been a very exciting discovery. I have moved on from the vacuum-packed, quartered beetroots with spring onion that I tried to avoid when I was younger. Recent experiments produced a raw beetroot salad with pear and feta and, most excitingly, a pearl barley and beetroot ‘risotto’. It’s not a risotto at all of course but it looks a little like one. Anyone traumatised by early memories of chewy little beads of barley in stews will have to be gently coaxed into trying this dish but they may be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Pearl Barley and Beetroot ‘risotto’

 

Serves 2

 

2x small raw beetroot

75g pearl barley (uncooked weight0

1 small red onion

1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp redcurrant jelly

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

3 tbsp oil

A little feta cheese and ½ tbsp chopped mint

Salt and pepper

 

Thoroughly clean the pearl barley in cold water. Place in a saucepan, cover with cold water and simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour.

 

Whilst the pearl barley cooks cut the beetroot into thin strips or half-discs and dice the onion. Gently fry the beetroot and onion in a little oil. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue to fry gently. By the time the pearl barley is cooked the beetroot and onion should have cooked for about 30 minutes. The beetroot will be softened but still have a bite to it.

 

Drain the pearl barley and use the saucepan to melt the redcurrant jelly. Whisk the liquid and add the vinegar and oil until it has emulsified. Return the pearl barley to the pan, there will be quite a bit of liquid but this will reduce down. Add the cooked beetroot and onion to the saucepan and stir.

 

Continue to stir the mixture on the heat until the sauce has reduced. It won’t coat the grains like a risotto but it’s ready when a wooden spoon pulled along the base of the pan leaves a clear path which doesn’t immediately fill with liquid, in the case of this dish it is rather like the parting of the red sea.

 

Stir in most of the chopped mint then serve with the remaining chopped mint and the crumbled feta cheese on top.

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Tomates Farcies

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Another day of British summer equals another pair of my ballet pumps ruined by torrential rain. Sodden shoes and the smell of wet dog aside the recent weather has afforded me the pleasure of indulging in some food that, if not wintry, is certainly more autumnal than I would usually crave in August. There are fleeting windows of opportunity in which to sate these culinary cravings before the humid atmosphere that bookmarks the rain returns to London like a massive damp tea towel.

 

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Tomates farcies is the perfect dish for this weather because it is not so heavy as to be off-putting in the heat but it is warming and hearty enough to contend with some wet and windy weather. I find the preparation very satisfying and reminiscent of the slow cooking undertaken when the days are short and the weather cold. Bright red tomatoes though are enormously summery and if the weather suddenly looks brighter you could serve this with some bread and a salad just as happily as with rice.

 

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I do not exaggerate when I say that this recipe is award-winning. In the 90s my father entered one of the food contests held at The Wettern Tree Garden Royal Horticultural Society Summer Show (if you are from South Croydon this is kind of a big deal). Actually he insisted that everyone in the family enter something and I remember vividly my mortification when my name was announced as the winner of the under 16s coconut ice category (only other contender: my sister Felicity). My father also won with his stuffed tomatoes. Admittedly there was just one other challenger in the stuffed vegetable category, a man who had filled raw tomatoes with pate. He didn’t stand a chance against this wonderful dish.

 

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Tomates farcies

 

10 tomatoes

1 onion finely chopped

2 garlic cloves minced

1 tbsp honey

450g sausage meat stuffing or just buy sausages and remove the skins

Sprig of rosemary finely chopped

Tomato puree

Splash of red wine

1 tin of tomatoes

 

Cut the tops off the tomatoes to make lids and remove the pulp from the tomatoes so they are hollow and ready to be stuffed. Place them in an oven dish with some olive oil in the base.

 

To make the stuffing for the tomatoes fry the onion, rosemary and garlic in a wide saucepan in some oil to soften and then add the honey to caramelise slightly. Add the sausage meat to the pan when the onions are softened and break it down with a wooden spoon so it doesn’t all fry in one clump.

 

When the sausage meat is cooked add a heaped tablespoon of tomatoe puree and a glug of red wine. Stir and then add the tin of chopped tomatoes. Season. If you have any leftover rind from a hard cheese like parmesan throw it in too as it imparts a lovely flavour to sauces, just remember to fish it out at the end.

 

Cook this sauce down for as long as you have, at least 45 minutes though to give it real flavour and ideally a couple of hours. You will probably need to add more liquid as it cooks: stock or just plain water. I fill the used tin of tomatoes with water which has the added benefit of cleaning the can. Taste the sauce as you cook it and add any seasoning or herbs you think it might need, even a splash of lemon juice might be nice.

 

Fill the tomato shells with the sauce, place the lids on top and cook this in a medium oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Serve with rice or just bread and salad if you want something a little lighter.

 

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I wonder if anyone else has noticed the recent appearance of recession TV, a development that is fantastic news for my flat mate but anathema to me. The return of home improvement shows, re-runs of Midsomer Murders and heaps of quiz shows is pure budget television and I believe the only logical explanation for Charlie Brooker getting his own TV show.

 

As well as being annoyed by Charlie Brooker’s impotent rage I am irritated by a host of other apparently recession-motivated trends including recession cooking. If I relied entirely on food magazines and programmes to inform my culinary decisions my reaction to economic turmoil would be to start making frequent use of the Waitrose forgotten cuts range and dine on nothing but Pollock and brisket. Don’t get me wrong, these are economical alternatives to cod and rib of beef but they aren’t exactly 10p a head dishes.

 

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I remember a number of recipes which were the leitmotif of my father’s sporadic cooking when I was growing up. Potatoes in bacon fat was always a particularly welcome dish as it was outwardly so unappealing but utterly delicious. We used to have students staying with us from all over Europe and I remember the look of terror etched onto their faces when the pressure cook full of potatoes in a slick, thick white sauce punctuated by rose pink shots of bacon was placed in front of them. Their parents had warned them about English cooking but nothing could have prepared them for this. On tasting this most unattractive of dishes the students visibly relaxed. I can’t say that this meal is something one would serve at a dinner party but it is tasty and filling and it comes into its own in the winter.

 

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Below I have typed out the original recipe from the Tefal pressure cooker book. My father had the French version of this but I managed to find an English copy quite by chance as I was rooting around the second hand book shop in Lyme Regis a couple of years ago. This is a great book that I plan to make much use of as soon as I have a pressure cooker.

 

If like most people under the age of 60 you don’t have a pressure cooker, yet, fear not for I have experimented with the recipe and come up with my own version that doesn’t require it. I find a bit of vinegar cuts through the fat and makes it more suitable for summer.

 

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Sophie’s no pressure potatoes in bacon fat

 

1 lb potatoes

1 onion diced

3 thick slices of back bacon with plenty of fat still on

½ tbsp honey or sugar

1 tbsp white wine vinegar (optional)

2 heaped tbsp flour

Salt and pepper

Parsley

 

Cut the potatoes into large quarters if they are big potatoes or half if they are small. Boil the potatoes until they are just cooked.

 

Cut the bacon into slices and fry until browned.

 

Add the chopped onion to the bacon and gently fry until they are softened. Add some honey or sugar to sweeten and caramelise at this stage.

 

Add the flour and stir to coat. Pour in a mug of water and the vinegar.

 

Cook this until it thickens and then return the potatoes to the pan and coat in the sauce.

 

Season and sprinkle with parsley before serving.

 

I know you are eating a dish comprised of mostly potatoes but you need at least a small piece of bread to mop up the sauce.

 

The original and the best Tefal potatoes in bacon fat

 

Ingredients

 

2lb. potatoes

4 tbsp. butter

5 slices bacon

2 onions

¾ tbsp flour

chopped parsley

1 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

 

Dice the bacon and peel the onions. Lightly fry the bacon and onions in 4 tablespoons of butter in the super cooker.

 

Peel and quarter the potatoes. Put them in the cooker. Add salt and pepper. Sprinkle with flour; stir. Pour in a glass of water – or better still, meat broth.

 

Close the lid and cook for 10 minutes after the valve begins to turn. Serve the potatoes sprinkled with chopped parsley or other aromatic herbs.

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On Friday evening I attended my second underground restaurant, Lara Newman’s Sheen Suppers. We arrived 10 minutes early and thought about waiting in the car until the allotted 7.30pm but I was too fidgety so we were the first to arrive. Early arrival is the hallmark of the hopelessly unsophisticated and over eager as I am all too aware.

 

Tim welcomed us in and immediately I was besieged by strong feelings of house-envy. Lara’s home is beautiful and crammed full of curious trinkets and beautiful art. Sitting in Lara’s living room was so much more interesting then going to a pine-clad minimalist restaurant. Most importantly Lara’s house is pink. I grew up in a pink house and I can say with certainty that there is no better colour for a house.

 

We waited in the sitting room alone for 10 minutes until the other guests arrived. A lady in a fascinator swept in at about 7.45pm which was probably the perfect time to arrive and further evidence that fascinators are awesome. Seriously, check out some of the fascinators people are making and selling on Etsy.

 

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We started with braised ribs, a dish that I was apprehensive about because I have a problem with bones. My mother is the most lady-like woman I have ever met. She is so lady-like she goes to the loo in secret and she certainly doesn’t eat meat off the bone. As a result there is a gap in my childhood where eating ribs and chicken drumsticks should have been. I did my best and ate them with my fingers. The delivery of a finger bowl by Lara confirmed that thankfully we had been right to eat in the manner of a rabid animal. The ribs were delicious and sticky, given a bit extra sauce I could happily spend some alone-time with a bowl of these.

 

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The main course was a lightly spiced curry of monk fish with arancini and peas. I would say this was the most sophisticated dish, I wouldn’t be shocked to pay £15 or more for this in a restaurant. As soon as it arrived my Aunt clocked the creamy broth and started fussing that there was no bread. Our family is half French and the thought of no bread to mop up the sauce can send one of our clan into a blind panic. As it turned out no bread was needed as the arancini soaked up all the sauce and the dish was very filling, bread would have been too much.

 

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Pudding was a a real pick and mix of emotions for me. I’m not much of a dessert person but I adore ginger. The first mouthful of ginger cream and ginger blondie was heaven. It was the sort of dessert where you just stop talking, it required concentration.

 

Maybe I ate too fast, maybe I should have saved the white chocolate truffle for my coffee or maybe I shouldn’t have been drinking dessert wine. All I know is that by the time I had scrapped the last bit of cream from my plate wave upon wave of sugar-induced euphoria was coursing through my body and when our waiter Tim came to see how we were getting along there were polka dots in front of my eyes. Totally worth it though.

 

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Cheese followed dessert in the English style which I can’t understand as sugar makes me feel replete just like cigarettes did for years. This was a fantastic cheese selection though, really generous and served with a fruity chutney. Did I mention that wine was served with the meal? Seen Suppers is exceptionally good value for money at £25 a head providing food that is exciting and better than many restaurants I have been to.

 

MsMarmiteLover, the Giles Coren of the underground restaurant scene, was also there but sadly I didn’t get the chance to meet her. She has written a review of the evening which was equally flattering however she does raise the question that it might have been better if Lara came out in between each course and if the tables were mixed so you could meet the other diners. This is a fair point but I think Sheen Suppers is appealing because with its location, its attention to the food and the intimate atmosphere it might appeal to many people who would not usually go to an underground restaurant. It’s exactly the sort of underground restaurant you would expect to find in salubrious Sheen and an interesting evolution of the secret supper phenomenon. You could easily go for a quiet meal with a lover or you could take family. I’d quite like to take my Mum, as long as there are no ribs on the menu.

 

If you would like to try Sheen Suppers just follow Lara on twitter here.

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I was recently offered a chance to receive some Abel & Cole food free of charge in exchange for a review on my blog. The PR lady who contacted me clearly had no idea that my readership is composed almost entirely of people I am related to or friends with, my mother being my most avid follower.

 

Since my flat mate and I both work we needed to have a delivery slot outside working hours but this unfortunately wasn’t possible. The PR lady helpfully suggested that the box could be left with one of our neighbours but I am ashamed to say I laughed heartily at this proposition. I’m a Londoner; I couldn’t recognise my neighbours in a line-up so I’m hardly going to pop over and ask them to look after my organic produce for me. I decided that since the delivery was such a hassle I might as well retain a shred of integrity and cancel the order.

 

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The organic Gods intervened, creating an administrative error that meant on a sunny Friday morning I received a phone call advising me that a box of mixed fruit and vegetables had been left by my front door. Fortunately I was in the area and able to pop home but this would not usually have been the case. Perhaps I am cynical but I am sure the box would have been stolen if I hadn’t dashed home as soon as I could. The box was placed quite openly by our front door and was so jam-packed that a leafy bunch of beetroots was bursting from the top. Who wouldn’t be tempted by that?

 

Inside there were broad beans in the pod, clementines, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, rhubarb, courgettes, a mini watermelon and loads of earth. Literally clumps of mud. I think it’s not unfair to say you are probably paying quite a premium for the earth and the associated feelings of organic superiority. My carrots are not generic EU carrots but muddy, earthy Jamie Oliver carrots. This veg is very ‘now’ just like the M&S regimented batons sheathed in plastic were quite the thing a few years ago.

 

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So anyway, it’s all lovely stuff and I was very pleased to have it but if I was paying the £15.95 price tag I would prefer some earth to be brushed of as I ended up with a muddy floor. There was no one around to see me covered in my aspirational veggie mud so I felt it was a little wasted.

 

For the next week I existed in a state of perpetual panic about all this food since I was totally unprepared for its arrival and there was so much of it. I quite enjoyed adapting recipes to use up what was in the box. I sent the broad beans and half the beetroot and carrots to my parents. My sister used all the onions to make an onion tart with lardons that was delicious. I used the beetroot raw, cut julienne with some pear and served as a salad with feta cheese. My sister stayed with me and placed an order for Eton Mess. I improvised and used rhubarb instead of strawberries, much to her annoyance. I have managed to use almost everything a week and one day later. Only the watermelon remains sitting rather forlornly in its fruit bowl for one.

 

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If you work from home and have a family to feed then I would recommend Abel & Cole. Unfortunately the delivery didn’t work for me and in any case shopping for food is on of my great pleasures which I am not in any rush to relinquish to a third party.

 

www.abel&cole.com

 

Rhubarb & Rose Water Eton Mess

Serves 4

 

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1. Make some meringue for the mess. Whisk 2 egg whites to stiff peaks. Gradually whisk in 4 oz caster sugar about one tablespoon at a time. At this point I added 1 tsp of rose water and some pink food colouring because, God damn it, I wanted pink meringues. I cooked the meringues in an oven pre-heated to 180c for an hour and then left them in the oven to cool with the door slightly ajar.

2. Cook some rhubarb in rose water syrup. Make the syrup with equal quantities water and sugar and a teaspoon of rose water.

3. When you are ready to assemble the dish whisk 250 ml double cream with 2 tablespoons of icing sugar to make chantilly cream. Break the meringue into the cream and stir through the poached rhubarb.

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