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Fennel salad

After almost a six month hiatus I am returning to my blog. I have no excuse.

Fennel is not only delicious but also quite beautiful with its crisp pale green flesh and delicate fronds. Flesh seems wholly the wrong word to describe it but I can’t think of an alternative.

I love fennel and eat it often but I tend to have it either as a salad or simply blanched then roasted in the oven. I never fail to cut out fennel recipes from newspapers and I even have one clipping sent from a friend who was lovely enough to remember amongst my many drunken student ramblings a professed love for this particular veg. I still have the clipping I just haven’t ever attempted the recipe.

In the summer I cannot imagine wanting to cook a fennel. Thinly sliced and served with a citrus dressing it is the most lovely thing. All it needs is some crusty bread and as a mid-week supper it is virtuous enough to justify at least two glasses of wine on the side.

For the pictured salad I thinly sliced a fennel by hand. A mandolin makes it too thin and I have Luddite-like belief in my own hands at times. The fennel was immediately dressed with some freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper. I added raisins which had been soaked in hot water and lemon juice, and chopped hazelnuts. Finally a little simple dressing (honey, mustard, white wine vinegar and oil) and the fronds from the fennel were added.

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I woke up this morning with a burning desire to make Chilli con Carne.

This isn’t a dish I have ever made before or eaten many times so the sudden impulse was surprising. Sure, I’ve had plenty of average chilli slopped over rapidly softening nachos but it has never been more than a bar snack or an overly heavy starter in a naff Mexican restaurant. Chilli has not meant a great deal to me and I have not meant a great deal to chilli.

The only reason I suddenly needed to make chilli, I realised as I ran my finger down the index of my Good Housekeeping 101 simple suppers (thanks Grandma), is because I stayed up until three in the morning reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and at about the point where I could keep my eyes open no longer Tom Rath ate a bowl of Mexican chilli in a dingy restaurant on Sixth Avenue. Better food bloggers than I eat according to the seasons but I eat according to my bookshelf.

It all started with Enid Blyton and a passion for tinned fruit, if not tongue, that I have never managed to shake off. I am ashamed to say I prefer tinned fruit to fresh and I am sure one day my supplies of peaches will sustain me through an adventure on an island frequented by smugglers.

My long and at times rather serious adolescence was characterised by fixations with certain authors, the most sombre of which was Zola. The epic French feasts described were really the only high points in what was otherwise a bit of a misery-fest. Sure, these peasants were trapped in prisons of despair but when they took a break from prostitution, murder and falling off roofs they knew how to eat.

Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is the reason I drink to excess frequently. Patrick Hamilton introduced me to the joys of Gin and French. I didn’t know what Plovers’ eggs were until I read Brideshead Revisited. Turkish Delight, well that’s a bit of an obvious one.

Maybe this could be my overarching narrative: books and food. I eat my way through the classics. Right, chilli’s ready and I need to fix myself a martini.

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Craft work

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There is a niggling pain that darts up my fingers and between the knuckles of my right hand. It is the sort of unidentifiable pain which would send a hypochondriac straight to Google for a symptom check and self-diagnosis. Perhaps it is the early stages of arthritis or some yet-to-be-discovered skeletal abnormality which will afflict my generation. I’m convinced that the pain is a result of the huge amount of typing, texting and mouse-clicking my right-hand is expected to undertake every working day. My left-hand helps out when it can but responsibilities are largely managed by my dominant right. The repetitive twinge is a symptom of my working life and I often find myself looking despairingly at my pale, desk-bound hand. 

 

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Under normal circumstances this would be a good picture for me but, considering I had just had a two hour lesson and there was a professional photographer on call to help me, it ain't great.

 

Outside the office I frequently attempt activities that are a 9-5 antidote. Like most Guardian-reading Londoners in the 20-40 age bracket  I have recently taken up knitting, made my own Christmas cards and even foraged.* I’m searching for an elusive feeling of satisfaction and completeness that my job can’t provide. Why else do people make their own soap? I don’t knit or stencil for the same practical reasons that my Grandmother did but because I have a convoluted idea that there is something wholesome and good intrinsic to these activities and pursuing them will eradicate my ennui. My Grandmother probably looked down at the knitting needles with the same emotions that I feel when I look at my hand clasping onto the mouse. 

 

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Last Monday I embarked on a busy afternoon in which I was to attend a food photography course (organised by Helen of a forkful of spaghetti and held at the Scandinavian Kitchen) and a lino-cutting and fabric printing class hosted by Becky and Fiona of Finishing School.  

 

At the Scandinavian Kitchen our teacher Chris Windsor started with the absolute basics like ‘don’t forget to charge your batteries’. Just as I started to wonder if I’d signed up for a remedial photography class my camera went dead. There was a good two minutes where I considered keeping quiet. I wondered if I could manage to get through my photography class with a camera that wouldn’t switch on so as to avoid making a fuss. I decided against it and instead ran across the road and bought some new batteries.

 

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The course was very helpful. I now know how to operate my camera and make full use of all the functions. It is quite amazing how many things modern cameras can do, even basic models like my Canon Powershot which I purchased on the basis that it was on special offer at £49.99. If any more of these classes are planned I would recommend it to food bloggers and other people who enjoy photographing food in a recreational capacity. It’s only two hours and you are not going to be transformed into Man Ray in that time but you will have all the information you need to go away and practice.

 

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The challenge to take a mouth-watering shot of a Scandi hotdog was testing indeed. As you can see my photos are very realistic; this is exactly what the hot dog looked like. It’s a huge phallic sausage covered in goo. Tastes amazing but looks like something made of meat derivitive and gherkin mulch. I’ll definitely go back to the Scandinavian Kitchen to try one of these again but without the pressure of photography.

 

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This is the corner of my new tote bag. I also made a tea towel with the same border. If you like what you see I am now accepting commissions.

 

From the Scandinavian Kitchen I headed north to Islington and Finishing School. Becky and Fiona are lovely hosts. They wear vintage, listen to Vampire Weekend and have set up their own craft club. Prepare to feel a little jealous of how incredibly on message they are. Lino-cutting is just like wood cutting but less time-consuming and difficult, apparently. I wouldn’t know as within seconds of making my first incision I sliced through two of my fingers. There was a lot of blood which was all very undignified and put a bit of a dampener on things for me. I even got blood on my lino square. 3 plasters later I commenced work on a space invader design having realised that a bunch of grapes was too demanding with only one operational hand. The results, well you can see the results. This does look a lot like the product of a young child’s first day at school.  

So what did I learn at the end of this rather long day? Firstly, don’t book two classes on one day as it’s too much. Secondly, always carry batteries and plasters. Thirdly, I should probably just stick to cooking and admin.

 

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* I don’t actually read the Guardian but I am so obviously a Guardian reader in every capacity besides actually purchasing it. Maybe this is why they’re having problems; people like me who are spirtually Guardian but still take The Times out of habit.

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Plum tart

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Celebrity chefs might be the frequent subject of ridicule and debate amongst food fanatics but there is no escaping the fact that they are our rock stars. The woman sitting opposite me on the train might be day dreaming about a dazzling turn at a karaoke competition leading in quick succession to a pop career to rival Tina Turners, I however am imagining myself clad in a Vivienne Westwood gown seductively licking whipped cream off my fingers for the edification of BBC viewers. Sadly I couldn’t do this in reality on account of the fact that I have an involuntary facial twitch when photographed.

 

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It may seem as if the idolisation of our culinary Gods is a recent development yet I was pleased to discover a superb piece of hyperbole on the back of Raymond Blanc’s Cooking for Friends, a cookery book published in 1991. Someone from The Times declares Blanc to be no less than ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of cooking’. Now Raymond seems to be a lovely chap beaming affably from the pages of this excellent book but da Vinci, for serious? Being compared to the original Renaissance man should surely imply mastery of more than one skill: say cookery, formula one racing and mime. Raymond Blanc might be an incredibly accomplished chef but let’s just wait for 500 years and see if Dan Brown writes a book about him before we rush in with the comparisons.

 

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The following plum tart doesn’t look like something Nigella or Jamie would make. I suppose if I were being generous I would say it’s more something Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall or maybe on of the Two Fat Ladies might produce. It’s an amazing tart, my favourite of all the tarts, but on the day I made it I used some plums that were very much on the turn. Consequently the plums, despite still being delicious, did pulverise slightly in the baking. Please don’t let this put you off. This tart is one my Aunt has been cooking frequently in recent months; she adores it. It’s a 1978 recipe from an old French magazine apparently. I like it because you get to smother the plums in icing sugar and it looks like a mini snow storm. The recipe below is my Aunt’s version with icing sugar substituted for granulated, a big improvement so she says.

 

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This is one Christine made, it looks better than mine!

 

The recipe follows.

(more…)

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Why I hate cupcakes

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14th – 19th of September is National Cupcake Week. While cherries only warrant one day (19th July) cupcakes get a whole week. This places the Yank impostor on a culinary par with sandwiches (10th – 16th May). Sandwiches! Which loony organisation or shadowy governmental body charged with the task of allocating food birthdays decided that cupcakes should be elevated to the sovereign-like status of a week-long celebration?

 

If you are anything like me you will have found the slow and steady rise of the cupcake to the summit of Baked Goods Mountain incredibly irritating. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with cupcakes but for the love of God why are they so popular? Sadly I can’t imagine there will ever be a similar surge in the popularity of, say, ribs. So that’s no three-tiered wedding cake made of ribs, no knitted ribs and no giant rib served up to bemused tourists in Covent Garden. That’s a shame.

 

The cupcake is essentially just a fairy cake on steroids. Someone clever at the Telegraph compared the arrival of the cupcake in this country to that of the grey squirrel but I feel this does not sufficiently convey the extent to which fairy cakes have been sidelined. It’s cake genocide. Cupcakes make the grey squirrel look like a charmingly apologetic interloper.

 

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that both cupcakes and fairy cakes are primarily meant for children. There is nothing wrong with indulging in a nostalgic treat every now and then. I know people who still like the odd party ring or bowl of angel delight and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. What frustrates me is the way cupcakes have been so completely embraced by otherwise sensible adult women. Glitter, heart shaped sprinkles, pink frosting: this is the most infantilised baked good imaginable.

 

Sex and the City has a lot to answer for the cupcakes current status as a fashion accessory. Eating a cupcake will not make you more like Carrie. Move to New York, start dressing like Zandra Rhodes, become utterly self-absorbed: all this will help but eating cupcakes isn’t going to do it. Realistically how many of these Sex and the City-style cupcakes are actually digested by their fashionable consumers?

 

Cupcakes are too big, there is far too much icing on them and they have usurped the already perfectly fine fairy cake. Come the 14th September I plan to make something that is the antithesis of a cupcake. Something simple and economical like a rock cake, a cake so ugly there is no mention of it on the British Baker Magazine website. This John Merrick of cakes deserves more recognition. I don’t expect the cupcake industry to fall over night but perhaps a National Rock Cake day in 2010 is an achievable goal.

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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.

 

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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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It is the eve of our family garden party. Forget Henley, Ascot or even Bestival. For me this is THE summer event by which all other summer events will be judged and found wanting. This year my dad is even putting up a gazebo.

 

Unlike most people I relish the prospect of a large family event. It brings together many of the things I love: food in vast quantities, flowing booze and my family.

 

 

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Years of seething resentment, suppressed emotions and bizarre complexes combined with a good spread makes for a fantastic day out. This year my little sister’s boyfriend will be attending for the first time and this only make me more excited. How will we come across to this outsider and will he have as much fun as me? Unlikely considering he will be surrounded by mainly hostile faces some of whom look and sound strangely similar to his girlfriend.

 

I have been put in charge of nuts, cocktail sausages and mayonnaise. Quite a strange remit. Almost as if I was an afterthought. I shall probably bring that up tomorrow.

 

 

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This is based on a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa. I often get confused and call her the Barefaced Contessa which is clearly a much better name. She must be kicking herself for going with Barefoot.

 

To make these nibbles select a mixture of nuts, I used roughly 700 grams of cashew and almonds. Melt 90 grams of butter to make a glaze and add 2 tbsp of brown sugar and cayenne pepper to taste. You’ll need plenty of pepper to cut through all the sugar so don’t be a wimp. Cut up about 2 large handfuls of fresh rosemary very finely and add this to the glaze. Coat the nuts with the mixture stirring thoroughly.

 

Annoyingly the nuts could not all fit in one jar.

Annoyingly the nuts could not all fit into one jar.

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