Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Chocolate truffles: Hamper project no. 6

This marks the end of my prolonged sweet-making binge. It's been fun, but January puts a stop to the present giving and long run of social gatherings at which I can share them, so the only excuse would be gratuitous experimentation and greediness. That won't wash with my 7-month-old.

I had to have two goes at these. Chocolate is a tricky customer, and likes being treated gently. I started off by winging it with my own boozy recipe, having picked up tips from the Hope & Greenwood sweet cookbook, but my mixture curdled, and nothing was going to rescue it. I decided to give them another go after watching Ramsay's wince-inducing 'family' Christmas special, featuring a simple recipe for mint choc truffles. It worked, and they went down a storm, though the mint was negligible in the finished truffle. Here's the recipe, adapted from his screen version (I added sea salt to mine, to perk up the chocolate flavour, and used just double cream).
  • 500ml double cream
  • Bunch of mint
  • 500g dark chocolate (about 70% cocoa solids)
  • 130g butter, diced and at room temp.
  • 130g clear honey
  • 1/2 tsp finely ground Maldon sea salt
  • To coat: cocoa powder, crushed roasted hazelnuts
Pour the cream into a medium saucepan. Bash the mint sprigs with a wooden spoon to release their fragrance and add to the pan. Heat very gently for 5–6 minutes to infuse the cream with the mint. Do not let the cream boil. Meanwhile, break up the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl with the diced butter and honey.

Strain the hot cream through a sieve onto the chocolate, butter and honey, stirring constantly as you do so; discard the mint sprigs. Add the sea salt. Continue to stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.

Pour the mixture into a wide, shallow dish, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour or until firm.
Scatter your chosen coating(s) on separate plates. Take the truffle mix from the fridge and, using a teaspoon, scoop out a portion and shape into a sphere by quickly rolling it in your hands. (Do this deftly to avoid the truffle melting with the warmth of your hands.) Toss the truffle in your preferred coating and arrange on a plate. Repeat with the rest.

Place the truffles in a shallow plastic container, seal and refrigerate until firm and ready to serve. Eat within 3–4 days.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Nuts: Hamper project no. 5

To good food
and good friends

and the occasions

that bring them together

A dedication to the convivial nature of eating, elegantly composed by the authors of this little gem, Gifts from the Kitchen. It has seen quite a few grubby hands and busy kitchens in its time, hence looking rather dog-eared. My mother acquired it in the States in the '70s, when she'd decided to embark on homemade treats for Christmas hampers, and recently passed it down to me. You can buy a secondhand copy online. The illustrations on the title page, pictured below, suggest that it was once wrapped in a beautiful retro dust jacket, from which it has sadly long been separated.
We're both fond of these two nut recipes: one sweet and zesty, the other sweet and spicy, and both wonderfully easy to make. If you can resist nibbling them all as they cool, bag them up as gifts in cellophane and ribbon. Both will keep well in sealed containers for a couple of weeks.

Orange sugared nuts
The book suggests walnuts and pecans, but pecans alone seem to better complement the sugary-orange crust, and they caramelize beautifully.
  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp grated orange rind (I use double the amount suggested in the book.)
Put all the ingredients in a heavy-based frying pan, and cook over a medium heat until the water has evaporated (about 8-10 minutes). Pour the nuts onto a greased baking sheet, separating them quickly with a fork, and leave to cool.

Spiced nuts
Adapted from the printed version, using a variety of nuts, and a slightly simpler method.
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 lb mixed nuts (leave out brazil nuts)
Preheat oven to 140C. Whisk the egg white with the water in a clean bowl until foamy, but not stiff. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, allspice, cinnamon and salt together.

Put the nuts in the egg white and stir to coat thoroughly, then add them to the spice and sugar mixture. Toss well.

Pour onto a greased baking sheet, and cook for 20-25 minutes in the middle of the oven, stirring the nuts every 5 minutes to prevent them burning. Leave to cool.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Chilli oil: Hamper project no. 4

A special request from my brother-in-law. Notoriously hard to buy for, an opportunity to cater for his love of chillies was too good to miss. Bung a few fresh chillies in a bottle of oil? I wish it was that easy.

Preserve any herb or spice in oil and you run the risk of paralysing those who consume it with a severe case of food poisoning, known as botulism. As the legendary Harold McGee puts it, in his authoritative tome On Food and Cooking, "Oils encourage the growth of deadly Clostridium botulinum, whose spores can survive brief boiling and germinate when protected from the air." This put the fear of God in me. Clearly, some careful research was in order.

I won't bore you with the details, just summarise my findings:
  • Gently heating the oil helps eliminate bacteria.
  • Don't use fresh chillies if you want to keep it for longer than a week.
  • Use a light olive oil. There's no point splurging on fancy extra virgin: its flavour will be overwhelmed by that of the chilli.
  • Sterilise the bottles you intend to store the oil in.
  • Boil the whole dried ingredients in malt vinegar before adding them to the oil, to help eliminate any lingering bacteria.
  • Shake the flavoured oil, once bottled, to get rid of trapped air bubbles.
  • Don't add garlic to your chilli oil, as garlic provides enough nutrients for botulism to grow.
This is a recipe for Italian-style oil. For Asian chilli oil, substitute olive for flavourless groundnut/sunflower/rapeseed oil.

1 pint malt vinegar
2 cups olive oil
2 tsp crushed dried chillies
4 whole dried chillies (I bought mine - variety unnamed - at the local Chinese supermarket)

Sterilise the bottle(s). I wash mine in hot soapy water, then place them in a cool oven (tops removed if they have rubber seals), turn the oven to 150C and leave the bottles for 20 mins. Remove carefully, ensure they are completely dry, and set aside.

Boil the whole dried chillies in malt vinegar, fully submerged, for 10 mins. Drain on kitchen paper. Open the windows - boiling vinegar stinks! Those of you familiar with chutney-making will know what I'm talking about.

Place the olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat, and add the crushed and whole dried chillies. Warm through for 5 minutes (do not boil), remove from the heat, and leave to cool before bottling.

The longer you keep it, the hotter it will get. If you don't want it to get any hotter, after testing it a couple of weeks after making, strain out the chillies and re-bottle.

Store in a cool, dark place.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Vanilla fudge: Hamper project no. 3

The cute little 'Life is Sweet' Hope and Greenwood confectionary cookbook has been leaning idly against a pile of Observer Food Monthly magazines for over a year. To busy myself in the kitchen making sweets just seemed too extravagant a notion. That is, until the Christmas hamper project began, and my 6-month-old found contentment in his high chair. Fudge seemed a safe bet, and all the ingredients are available in your local supermarket. I polled friends on Facebook to decide which flavour to make - vanilla, ginger, or chocolate - and the feedback was overwhelming. Traditional vanilla came top.

Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood are a couple of sweet makers who set up shop in London, and now have over 10 Victorian-style outlets across the capital, offering traditional handmade British confectionary in covetable retro packaging. The book's 'characterful' recipe chatter is a bit too cutesy for me, and step-by-step photographs for each type of sweet would be useful, but the method text is fuss free and easy to follow. There is also a useful storing section at the front, which informed me that my fudge would keep well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, and freeze for 2 months.

A quick summary of my sweet-making experience, before I quote the recipe verbatim:

Pros Only one pan to clean; cheap ingredients
Cons Full and constant attention required; takes at least an hour to make anything
Tip Leave yourself lots of time - the recipe quoted '30 mins to make', it took an hour; make sure you have a radio close by, as there's lots of standing and stirring involved.

Makes 25-30 squares.
  • 700g (1lb 7oz) granulated sugar
  • 75g (3oz) unsalted butter
  • 200ml (7fl oz) evaporated milk
  • 200ml (7fl oz) double cream
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod
Line a 20cm (8in) square baking tin, 4cm (1 1/2in) deep, with baking parchment.

Place the sugar, butter, evaporated milk and cream into a deep, heavy-bottomed pan and gently heat until all the sugar has dissolved, stirring with a wooden spoon. This takes 3-5 minutes. (You can check the sugar has dissolved by running a metal spoon through the mixture and looking on the back of the spoon for sugar crystals.)
Now, turn up the heat to medium and place your sugar thermometer in the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally just to make sure the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan. After 15 minutes the mixture should have reached 100C (212F), now turn down the heat to a simmer, as it is at this point that the fudge is most likely to burn.
Keep heating until the mixture has reached 115C (240F). Take the pan off the heat. Using an electric whisk or food mixer, beat the mixture for 10 minutes. Add the vanilla seeds and beat for a further 10 minutes until the fudge loses its gloss and goes quite grainy around the edges.
Pour into the prepared tin. After an hour or so, score the fudge with a knife to create squares. Once set, snap the fudge into rough squares.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Indian aubergine pickle: Hamper project no.2

This is a real delight, a Claudia Roden recipe which first appeared in her classic Book of Jewish Food. I discovered it in the recently published Leon Book 2, as I was looking for Christmas hamper inspiration. Intense, rich, fragrant and juicy, it's perfect with cold meats, a curry, or use it like Branston's in a doorstop Cheddar cheese/roast beef sandwich (as I did with the leftovers that didn't make the jar, pictured above).

In retrospect, I might have used the smaller, thinner Middle Eastern aubergines, rather than our big fat European ones. The slices are just enormous! And, there are just a few air bubbles in my jar. I'm sure this won't be a problem in the short term, but if you were looking to store the pickle for 3-6 months, it would be advisable to prod the aubergine slices with a skewer/fork to drive away the bubbles before sealing.

It will keep for a few months, refrigerated.

Here's the recipe, lifted shamelessly from the (very good) Leon cookbook:

Makes: 1 large jar
Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 40 mins
  • 1kg aubergines
  • 1 fresh red chilli, deseeded
  • 5cm piece fresh ginger
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 250ml wine vinegar
  • 250ml toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 6 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 100g sugar
  • sea salt
Sterilise your jar(s).

Cut the aubergines into 1.5cm slices. Blend the chilli, ginger, garlic and cumin with a little of the vinegar in a food processor.

Heat 3 tbsp of the oil in a large pan and add the mustard and fenugreek seeds. When they start to crackle, add the curry leaves along with the ginger and chilli paste. Cook until the mixture becomes a golden colour.

Add the turmeric, sugar, and remaining vinegar and stir well. Add the aubergines, season with salt, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes.

Allow the mixture to cool, then pour it into a jar. Cover with the remaining oil.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bea's of Bloomsbury (One New Change)

Nothing about the entrance says 'cake' to me. You have to squint through the window to discover it's Bea's new place. Once inside however, the minimalist display of cupcakes, sitting elegantly like Manolos in grey geometric cubbyholes, leaves you in no doubt. The famous Bea's of Bloomsbury is expanding, with its first little offshoot emerging in the heart of the City, at One New Change. The City folk may well be having to tighten their belts and wean themselves off habitual overindulgence, but that leaves all the more for us, and the odd fortunate tourist (it's next to St Paul's).

Not a great lover of cupcakes, I find the Hummingbird Bakery chain's obese concoctions a waste of calories: the Big Macs of the cake world. But Bea's are altogether finer, more delicate, creations, made to taste as good as they look.

I say delicate... but this slice of triple chocolate cake was a whopper. A doorstop of incredibly rich buttercream and moist dark chocolate sponge. Finishing it was a (pleasurable) challenge.

It being the day after Thanksgiving, we also had to try Bea's pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Soft, indulgent, and perfectly pumpkin-y.

I know I've done this back to front, but Bea's is known for its cakes, so I've sidelined the lunch dish. It might not look pretty, but the generous plate of belated Thanksgiving turkey (an unusual offering for Bea's, where savouries are usually more along the salad line), a steal at £6, was spot on: lashings of gravy, surprisingly tasty turkey, and moreish morsels of cornbread stuffing.

See Kang Leong's London Eater blog for a mouthwatering sequence of pics of the main Theobald's Road shop and cafe, Bea's lair and the hub of this fast-expanding baking empire, where I'll be heading next to try their famous high tea.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Home-dried tomatoes: Hamper project no. 1

Damn Kirstie Allsopp. Come November, she pops her cheery head through all media outlets to remind us to "get our skates on", and prepare our homes for the festivities. Presumably she has a nanny, cleaner, and PA... For those of us who struggle to find time to run a bath, let alone recline in one whilst stitching a patchwork cushion, making gifts is a major undertaking. So, everything I'm making for this year's Christmas hampers has to be a delicious 'treat', but must also be cheap and quick to make.

Oven-dried tomatoes are first on the list, as they keep well. I've always wondered why sun-dried tomatoes are so expensive when bought in jars and tubs in the supermarket, as they are incredibly cheap and easy to make at home (and the oven mimicking the heat of the sun doesn't appear to impair the flavour). The 2nd Leon cook book has a lovely recipe, but it involved a long cooking time. Better still was the Riverford Farm Cook Book's recipe: the prep takes 5-10 mins, and the cooking just 45 mins, creating tomatoes that are juicy rather than chewy (preferable, in my opinion).

Attach a gift label to the jar with instructions for storing on one side, and suggestions for use on the other, such as 'Toss in a salad, use in tarts, or mix with pasta'.

These quantities will fill one 1/2 pint Le Parfait jar.
  • 4 tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 16 tomatoes (I used regular round 'on the vine' tomatoes from the supermarket)
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • sea salt
Drizzle half the olive oil over 2 baking trays. Cut the tomatoes lengthways in half, then slide the knife around the inside of each one and remove the pulp and pips. Arrange the tomato halves on the trays so that they are close but not touching. Drizzle the remaining oil over the top and sprinkle with the sugar and a little salt.

Put the trays in an oven preheated to 150C/Gas 2 and cook for about 45 mins; the tomatoes should look shrunken and slightly coloured when they are done. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

To store, pack the tomatoes into jars and cover completely with good-quality olive oil. Add a sprig of thyme and some thinly sliced garlic to the jars if you like. They will keep for 4-6 months without refrigeration.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Viet-Anh Cafe

Nothing cures a sore head better than a steaming bowl of Vietnamese Pho.

Viet-Anh Cafe on Parkway, Camden, was a frequent weekend pit stop when we lived in NW3, back in the day when bar crawls and night buses were a regular feature of the working week. Four years later we returned with baby in tow, curious to see if it still worked its magic.

To my relief, nothing had changed. The same staff run the place, condensation runs down the pale blue walls, and every table is full. A good start.

For me, every Vietnamese meal must start with fresh vegetable spring rolls (goi cuon). Light and aromatic, and stuffed with herbs, they are the antithesis of greasy fried spring rolls filled with unidentifiable vegetable matter that you frequently find in Chinese restaurants. Accompanied by a rich peanut dipping sauce, they hit the mark, and vanished as quickly as they'd arrived.

The menu is enormous, featuring over a hundred soup, noodle and rice dishes at around £5 each. It takes considerable effort to uncover the authentic Vietnamese dishes amongst the generic Oriental stuff, but if hunger overcomes concerns of authenticity, you'd be hard pressed to choose badly.

The braised and fried duck with peppers, onions, and crispy noodles was hot, sour, salty, and sweet. A blast of umami goodness.
Pho is the classic Vietnamese noodle broth, and - some argue - their national dish. Served with a bowl of lime, herbs and chilli for you to add to taste, you can choose to have it plain or spicy, and with beef or chicken. Seeking something of a more ethereal than earthy nature, I had the lighter chicken version. Ethereal it was. Sublimely fragrant and restorative, with slippery noodles lurking under the clear surface making it a substantial meal.

With two pots of jasmine tea, our bill for two came to less than £20.

There's nothing challenging or pretentious about this caff, just generous plates of noodles and rice, with your protein of choice. Cheap and cheerful. I intend to return and explore the menu more thoroughly, seeking out the more unusual suspects, and in the meantime head to Mien Tay in Battersea, a newish Vietnamese caff that's been garnering enthusiastic write-ups over the past year (see Lizzie's - aka 'Hollow Legs' - blog post here).

Thursday, 4 November 2010

At Home: Carrot Cake

'Foolproof' is one of the most overused words in cookery book publishing, alongside the rather empty 'delicious'. You'll find it scattered thoughtlessly in myriad back cover blurbs. Seldom do recipes in recently published cookbooks stand up to the claim, though I've found the Riverford Farm Cookbook to be a welcome exception. The recipes are well written, and turn out consistently great dishes. It has earned its place on my 'classics' shelf, alongside Richard Corrigan's The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, the Moro series, and Nigel Slater, the only modern books to share space with older trusted classics.

This carrot cake recipe, adapted from the Riverford Farm Cookbook, is a winner. Nuts and spices don't feature, and I think the finished cake is better for it (having a feather-light, clean taste). The original recipe suggests sultanas, but I prefer to use chewy currants, and booze it up a bit.
  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 75g light soft brown sugar
  • 75g dark soft brown sugar
  • 100g currants, soaked in 2 tbsp Cognac/brandy for a few hours, preferably overnight
  • 200g grated carrots
  • 150ml sunflower oil
  • 2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
For the icing:
  • 125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • 250g cream cheese
Preheat oven to 160C/Gas 3.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the sugars. Add the currants and grated carrots. Beat the oil and eggs together and add to the bowl. Combine with either a wooden spoon or an electric mixer.

Spoon the mixture into a greased and lined 20cm springform cake tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours, until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Albion café

In 2008 Tracey MacLeod gave Terence Conran's Boundary Project in Shoreditch, and its menagerie of outlets stacked in an impressive converted warehouse, a glowing review, saying of the ground floor Albion café, 'the food is great: well-made versions of traditional British caff grub'. So, with the positive write-up in mind, and ringing endorsements from friends, even though I'd been let down by food at Boundary rooftop last summer, I popped in for lunch.

Strategic design places a food shop and bakery up front, whetting the tastebuds and drawing in hungry mouths before even a glance at the 'posh caff' menu, which promises to deliver all the heart-stopping British classics: Welsh rarebit, devilled kidneys, Full English, fish and chips...

I'm no snob when it comes to a cooked breakfast. Nothing beats the no-frills local caff on East Finchley high street for its bottomless mugs of milky PG, endless rounds of toast, and hilariously nonchalant service. A perfect greasy-spoon fry up to soothe a booze-addled head. And, if I crave an upmarket breakfast, Lantana Cafe always delivers.

Albion cafe certainly looks the part. The space is airy and welcoming, staff delightful, and the bread top notch. However, as soon as the plates hit the table, our hearts sank.

Pint of prawns £8.50. Pricey, and not particularly fresh (I could name a dozen gastropubs that make a better fist of this simple dish).

Beetroot soup £4.75. Boring and insipid. Lacked bite, and seasoning. Again, not a hard dish to get right.

And, finally, the £10 fry up. Bloody miserable. One soggy tasteless tomato, the worst hash-brown/bubble and squeak we'd ever come across (raw potato), mediocre rubbery sausage, measly portion of beans, toast!

Beauty is clearly only skin deep at Conran's caff. As Luiz, The London Foodie, says, 'another classic example of style over substance' (read his review here).

We left feeling short changed, annoyed, and still hungry, so headed to Brick Lane for a satisfying record trawl at Rough Trade, picking up a brownie from the Albion bakery on the way, a vast improvement on what the cafe kitchen had to offer.

Next time I'm in the area I'll return to the old faithful, St. John Bread & Wine.

The Hamper Project

Time to dig out the old winter coat (yes, that's sadly singular), and think about what I'll be putting in this year's Christmas hampers.

Convincing myself every year that creating hampers of homemade edible goodies is a thrifty gift idea, I blindly purchase ingredients and packaging (who can resist the Le Parfait jars?), only to find each hamper has cost me about £40. Nevertheless, I carry on regardless.

Preserving is the first task that springs to mind, though how keen is everyone on chutneys? I have at least half a dozen unopened jars gathering dust from Christmases past. Perhaps jellies are closer to the mark: cranberry, damson, redcurrant, or mint.

Ideas so far are tending towards crowd-pleasers: fudge, chocolate brownies, pesto, shortbread, spiced nuts, chocolate truffles/salt caramels, pickled shallots, and parmesan crisps.

I'd like to add a few shop-bought treats too, maybe some Neal's Yard Dairy cheese, a small bag of Monmouth coffee, a chunk of Parmesan wrapped in greaseproof paper, a pretty bottle of chilli oil from the local Chinese supermarket, or a good salami.

I'll follow up with more 'Hamper Project' posts as we near C Day and I get cooking.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Street Kitchen

I wrote this post yesterday, then lost it. After a fierce bout of cursing, nearly throwing my Mac out into the street, and damning technology for all eternity, I went out, had a few glasses of champagne to celebrate a 1st birthday, and returned wondering what all the fuss was about. Here's a truncated version of the original.

The London Restaurant Festival, in its second year, is coming to a close. Bigger and better than ever, it brought together hundreds of the capital's restaurants, each of which offered a special discounted 'festival' menu, and a stellar stream of chefs collaborated, popped up temporary residencies, and emerged from their subterranean sweaty kitchens to lure in the hungry public and tout their wares. Celebrating eating out: Fay Maschler (the festival's founder) hit gold.

One such culinary collaboration brought a silver Airstream caravan filled with seasonal British food to the city's streets, courtesy of two of London's finest chefs, Pearl restaurant's Jun Tanaka and Mark Jankel, chef and founder of The Food Initiative. Aptly named Street Kitchen, it offered a small but perfectly formed selection of dishes, for all tastes and appetites: soup, fish, meat, salad, and sweet, all keenly priced at between £4.50 and £6.50. Visiting them at their final parking spot - Spitalfields Market - we picked up three of their savoury dishes for lunch.

The carrot and rosemary soup with brioche was silky smooth and heavenly, the earthiness of the carrot lifted by the pungent yet fragrant rosemary. An imaginative combination: this is definitely one I'll attempt at home.

The hot smoked salmon was a hefty chunk of tender flaky fish (incredibly generous for £6.50 - it must be the absence of restaurant overheads that makes such pricing possible), sitting on sweet roast beetroot and crushed potatoes. Simple yet refined.

Braised featherblade beef with carrots and celeriac. This dish had already made itself known to me, courtesy of Giles Coren's enthusiastic write-up in last Saturday's Times Magazine. Ripe, rich, and gamey, the meat was outstanding. I haven't had a piece of beef that impressive since my last visit to Hawksmoor. Needless to say, its pedigree was impeccable. The celeriac and carrots complemented it perfectly and made it the standout dish on the menu.

To give my digestive system a final kick in the balls, having overindulged on two main courses, I stopped at the Caravan restaurant stall nearby (their permanent base is on Exmouth Market) to pick up some of their own-blend coffee with a free Anzac biscuit. Both were perfectly made, and being coffee lovers that is not a term we use lightly.

I'd like to appeal to the festival organisers for less high end events in 2011, and more frontline crowd-pleasers such as Street Kitchen, as only those already enmeshed in London's food 'scene' are quick enough off the mark to book the hottest restaurants or buy tickets to the events, leaving the rest of London leering hungrily through restaurant windows, and salivating at enthusiastic blog posts.

It's a shame we don't see more gourmet food vans in the UK. They're a big hit in the States, so perhaps the trend will rub off. London needs decent street food. We are well catered for when it comes to the finery and frippery of fine dining, but finding decent takeaway food is still a challenge (unless you're lucky enough to be near a branch of Leon or Ottolenghi). Word has it that the runaway success of Street Kitchen has made Jun and Mark think about making their temporary venture more permanent. Keep an eye on their website and @streetkitchen to be the first to know, or hot-foot it to Spitalfields before the close of the festival on Monday 18th Oct.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Morelli's ice cream parlour

Drizzly, chilly October: not ideal conditions for tasting ice cream at one of Britain's hottest gelato spots. But visits to this south-east corner of Kent aren't frequent enough to be picky about the weather.

Morelli's has been causing a buzz lately, as the independent family-run business is fast expanding, opening branches in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Dubai, and Monte Carlo, adding to their (rather overpriced) Harrods outlet. Broadstairs is home to the original seafront parlour, which opened in 1932.

As soon as you step over the threshold, overlooking the picturesque harbour, you are hit by a kitsch 50's sensory overload: the jukebox playing Del Shannon and Billy Fury, formica tabletops, pink leather booths and gloriously tacky Italian wall friezes.
The day we visited they were selling just 6 flavours, not the 20 they promise on their website, though given that they make ice cream daily on site, and the seaside village had a rather desolate air, you can understand why they wouldn't bother. True to Italian tradition, the gelato are milk-based rather than cream-based, making it much easier to overindulge.

I had been craving the famed lemon sorbet (which Sheila Dillon recently waxed lyrical about on Radio 4's Food Programme - listen again), but we weren't in luck. Instead, we shared mint choc chip, chocolate, biscuit, and strawberry, all equally impressive. Smooth, just sweet enough, with bright, fresh and intense flavours. Not a hint of the synthetic aftertaste you find with anything from the supermarket freezer chests.

I hope the expansion doesn't dilute the passion and dedication to quality over quantity that keeps lovers of all things cold and sweet faithfully returning. Marine Ices, another famous Italian ice cream parlour, based in Chalk Farm, London, has resolutely and perhaps wisely resisted the lure of franchise: their product remains consistently gorgeous.

NB: Enter Morelli's competition by inventing a new ice cream flavour.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

At Home: Cracking Crackling

Crackling. One of the many joys of being a vociferous carnivore.

Pork was a meat I discovered later in life, as bland pork chops were all I'd been accustomed to as a child. Fortunately, a taste of rilette in Provence, and barbecue ribs in the Midwest, got me hooked, and I'm now a sucker for anything porcine.

There's an art to creating perfect crackling, and everyone claims their way is the best way. And methods are multitudinous: to baste or not to baste. Fry? Remove the rind from meat and cook separately? Dry skin with a hair dryer? Blast of heat at beginning or end of cooking, or both?

For me, the best crackling still has a bit of soft unctuous fat underneath, the crunchy skin finely blistered and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. This method never fails to create gorgeous crispy crackling (for me, that is! Please tell me if you've discovered another failsafe method).
  • Ask your butcher to score the belly, or do it yourself with a Stanley knife, cutting right through the skin and fat to the meat, but not through the meat.
  • The belly must be left at room temperature, uncovered (to help the skin dry out), for a few hours before cooking.
  • Rub fine sea salt into the skin, dabbing off any beads of moisture that appear on the surface with kitchen towel.
  • Preheat your oven to its highest temperature (about 220C).
  • Grind a tbsp of sea salt to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar with a tbsp of fennel seeds. Rub thoroughly into the dry skin with a tbsp of light olive oil, right into the scored crevices, then sprinkle over another tbsp of coarse sea salt (not ground).
  • Place the belly in a roasting dish on top of a trivet of onions and apples, peeled, and quartered, seasoned and doused in olive oil, and tossed with a handful of thyme sprigs.
  • Roast on the highest oven shelf at 220C for 20 minutes, to give the skin a good blast of heat, then turn the heat down to 160C and cook for a further hour and 15 mins.
  • Turn the heat up to 200C (this would be a good time to put the roast pots in the oven if you're being indulgent), and cook for a further 40 mins.
  • Your belly is ready.
For a perfect gravy/sauce: remove the pork from the roasting tray to a serving dish, save any onion/apple that has miraculously not turned to mush in the cooking process (serve with the pork), and pour off the oodles of fat. Place the roasting dish on the hob, pour in a generous glass of dry cider, and let it bubble away for a few minutes, scraping the bottom of the dish to release all the gooey bits. Thicken with arrowroot/flour if you like - we prefer it thinner, so it gets easily soaked up by the belly meat.

Friday, 24 September 2010

At Home: Daube of Oxtail

As autumn fills the air and winter looms, as the whiff of dusty radiators creaking back to life makes us long for log fires, the casserole dish is recovered from the back of the cupboard and I get slow cooking.

Cheap cuts of meat are what's called for: pig's cheeks, trotters, belly...beef shin and oxtail. Supermarkets are starting to meet consumer demand and stock these treasures, so if you're not lucky enough to have a decent local butcher, check out your nearest supermarket's meat counter.

In a bid to be more frugal, I'm strongly resisting the urge to buy new cookbooks, instead plundering the dozens that are gathering greasy dust on the kitchen bookshelves (not the ideal place to keep precious tomes, I know). Adapted from a recipe in 'More Taste Than Money', a wonderful American 1970's cookbook by Harriet Hands, now out of print, this oxtail stew will thaw, soothe and coddle the chilliest of souls.

  • 4 large pieces of oxtail (don't let the butcher palm you off with the small bony pieces, go for the thickest meatiest chunks you can find)
  • 3 red onions, quartered
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • cooled beef stock
  • 2 cups red wine
  • generous splash of brandy (optional, but nice)
  • 5 slices streaky smoked bacon/pancetta, diced
  • 2 tbsp vegetable/light olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 5 whole allspice berries
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • grated rind of half an orange
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the oxtail in a deep stainless steel or glass bowl with the onions, carrots, garlic, stock, wine and brandy (if using). Cover, and let marinate for 4-5 hours in the fridge.

Dice the bacon and fry, stirring, in a deep, heavy casserole with the oil until brown. Remove the oxtail from the marinade with a slotted spoon and fry with the bacon, turning until brown on all sides. Do this in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding the meat (making it steam and braise instead of fry), removing each piece to a plate.

Add the drained vegetables from the marinade to the casserole dish, cook with the bacon until softened, then return the meat and the marinade. If the marinade doesn't cover the meat, add a cup or two of water. Add the remaining ingredients, season generously, and stir.

Cover and simmer over a very low heat, or place in a preheated 120C oven, and cook for 4-5 hours until the meat is tender.

Harriet Hands suggests serving the daube in a bowl with noodles and chopped parsley, without reducing the sauce. For a more traditional version of the dish, remove the meat, reduce the sauce to thicken, and serve with a steaming jacket potato or mashed potato.

Monday, 30 August 2010

At Home: Blackberry and Rosemary Cheesecake

Made with a pound and a half of cream cheese (it has to be full fat) and lashings of sugar, this baked cheesecake - adapted from a recipe in the Soil Association's Grown in Britain Cookbook - is not a light dessert, but unless you're planning to demolish the whole thing yourself, it's an indulgence worth every mouthful. Adding rosemary to the biscuit base adds a welcome fragrant note.

Sweet, tart, and rich, this crowd-pleaser is perfect for a dinner party and will serve 8-10.

  • 200g (7oz) digestive biscuits, crushed
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
  • 85g (3oz) unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
  • 675 (1 1/2lb) cream cheese
  • 225g (8oz) caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp natural vanilla extract
  • 225g (8oz) blackberries
  • granulated sugar, to taste
  • 1 tsp arrowroot
Mix the crushed biscuits with the chopped rosemary and stir in the melted butter. Press the mixture into the base and about 2.5cm (1in) up the sides of a buttered 20cm (8in) springform tin. Preheat the oven to 150C (300F/Gas 2).

Beat the cheese with the sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract. Spoon into the prepared tin. Level the surface. Bake for 1-1 1/4 hours until set. Turn off the oven and leave until cold.

Stew the fruit in 4 tbsp water until the juices run. Sweeten to taste. Blend the arrowroot with 1 tsp water and stir in. Cook, stirring, until thickened and clear. Leave to cool.

Remove the cheesecake from the tin and place on a serving plate. Spoon the fruit topping over, and top the cake with fresh berries.

  • Try using blueberries, stoned cherries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, or strawberries. Adjust the added sugar accordingly.
  • Add 80g crushed nuts - roasted pecans or hazelnuts are ideal - to the biscuit base (reducing the quantity of biscuit to 120g).
  • Instead of cooking down the berries to cover the cheesecake, mix the fresh berries gently into the cream mixture before baking. Top with fresh berries and icing sugar to serve.
  • Add 1 tbsp of lemon juice to the cream cheese mixture if you'd like to temper the sweetness.
  • Add the zest of an orange to the cream cheese mixture.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

At Home: Apple and Amaretti Tart

Another simple autumnal dessert that takes only 10 minutes to prepare. No pastry to chill, roll, and blind bake. Just an easy biscuity crust. This recipe comes from my well-thumbed copy of Riverford farm's brilliant Riverford Farm Cook Book.

The book states this serves 8, but you'll find 4 will polish it off. For 8, use a 28in loose-bottomed tart tin, and the quantities in brackets.

Try Braeburns or Granny Smiths for a tarter finish, but Bramleys hold their shape surprisingly well. Plums or apricots are a great alternative to apples.

700g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and sliced (900g)
1 tbsp melted butter (2tbsp)
2 tbsp caster sugar (3 tbsp)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (1 tsp)
Optional: 2 tbsp warmed apricot jam

For the base:
100g plain flour (150g)
50g unsalted butter (75g)
50g caster sugar (75g)
40g amaretti biscuits (60g)
  • To make the base, put all the ingredients in a food processor and process to a fine breadcrumb consistency. Press into a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin.
  • Arrange the apples in an attractive pattern on top. Brush them with the melted butter (and brush over some apricot jam if you like, to give the tart a sticky glaze), and sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar.
  • Place in an oven preheated to 200C/Gas Mark 6 and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the apples are golden brown. Serve at room temperature.
Serve with a generous dollop of clotted cream, ice cream, or creme fraiche.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

At Home: Cherry Clafoutis

4 kilos of plump juicy cherries landed on our doorstep, the bounty from a neighbour's garden. Devouring them in one sitting was not an option, even for the most gluttonous. So, to other uses...

Surprisingly, most cherry recipes in classic cookbooks - Leiths for example - feature only the canned variety. Inevitably, cherry pie came to mind, but it seemed too obvious, so I trawled the Web and found this lovely clafoutis recipe, by the venerable Diana Henry. The rest will be preserved as cherry sorbet, perfect spiked with a dash of ice-cold kirsch or vodka and served in little glasses on a hot summer evening.

If you can be bothered, stone the cherries. I didn't. And remember to grease your dish before filling it with the cherries and batter.

150ml (5fl oz) double cream
150ml (5fl oz) milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp kirsch or amaretto
3 large eggs
125g (4½oz) caster sugar
pinch of salt
25g (1oz) plain flour
600g (1lb 4oz) cherries
toasted flaked almonds (optional) and icing sugar, to serve
  • To make the batter, mix the cream, milk, vanilla and alcohol. Whisk the eggs, sugar and salt in a separate bowl until the mixture triples in volume and is pale and fluffy. Fold in the flour and then the milk mixture.
  • Arrange the cherries in a copper, cast-iron or ceramic gratin dish about 24cm (9½in) in diameter, and pour over the batter. Cook in an oven preheated to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for 30 minutes, or until the batter is set (it may take an extra five or so minutes if you’re using a ceramic dish). Scatter on the toasted almonds if you’re using them and sift a little icing sugar over the top. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes then serve warm with crème fraîche or pouring cream.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Back soon...

Due to the happy distraction that is my 5-week-old son Charlie, I've been neglecting my blog. I intend to return, though, before long, with more London restaurant reviews and the odd bit of home cooking.

Monday, 31 May 2010

At Home: Slow-cooked beef

Drizzly Bank Holiday Monday. Grey limbo, and ripe ground for spiritual malaise. Days like these call for a soothing soulful slow-cooked beef stew. Nothing heavy about this stew, though. It's a vibrant dish, no thickening agents or heavy stocks required. The orange peel and fresh thyme add a zesty Mediterranean note, perfect for a cool May evening. Serve with new potatoes and braised lettuce with minted peas.

Slow-cooked beef
Serves 3-4
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 500g chuck/stewing steak, cut into generous bite-sized pieces
  • 10-12 shallots, peeled but left whole
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 3 ripe salad tomatoes, or 10 cherry tomatoes
  • half a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or similar hearty red wine
  • 350ml chicken stock (Marigold or Kallo brand is fine, if you don't have fresh)
  • 5in strip of orange peel
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based casserole. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper, and brown it in two batches over a high heat. Remove each batch of browned meat to a plate. Place the whole shallots, bay leaves and bacon in the hot casserole, and fry until the bacon has rendered its fat and the shallots are golden, about 5 minutes.

Add the celery, carrot, bay leaves, garlic, rosemary, and thyme, and fry for a couple of minutes before adding the tomatoes, followed by the browned meat and its released juices, the wine, and the stock.

Simmer over a very gentle heat for 3-4 hours, covered with a lid on the hob (or in a preheated 150C oven). Stir once in a while, to make sure the meat isn't sticking to the bottom of the pan. In the last 30-40 minutes of cooking, add the orange peel. Remove the bay leaves and herb sprigs before serving.

Monday, 24 May 2010

At Home: Cheat Macarons

This isn't typical Corrigan fare. More commonly associated with earthy uncomplicated meat, game, and fish dishes, Richard Corrigan has been a key player in the revival of British and Irish food over the past 15 years, his seasonal ingredients-led cooking elevating comfort food to glittering Michelin heights (at Lyndsay House, now sadly closed). Visit Corrigan's Mayfair, I urge you. Or, the lovely Bentley's Oyster Bar and Grill.

I discovered this jewel of a recipe buried at the back of the beautiful and accomplished The Clatter of Forks and Spoons. Corrigan doesn't churn out lazy over-illustrated ghostwritten cookbooks like so many of his contemporaries. His first cookbook - now out of print and highly sought after, grab it if you see it - was published in 2000.

Faithful to his 'keep it simple' mantra, these moreish, chewy treats (I call them 'cheat macarons') are quick and easy, and impossible to mess up.

Almond Biscuits
Makes 20-25
  • 500g ground almonds
  • 300g caster sugar
  • seeds from 1 vanilla pod
  • 4 egg whites
  • 50ml Amaretto
Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas 3.

Mix together the almonds, sugar and vanilla seeds.

Fold the egg whites (don't whisk them) into the mixture along with the Amaretto.

Have ready a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Take small spoonfuls of the mixture and dot over the sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden. Transfer to a cooling rack and leave to cool.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

2010 destination wish-list update

Back in January, I listed all the London restaurants and bars I want to try out this year. Well, with some ticked off, and some struck off, it's time for an update. What's on your list?
  • Koya
  • Viajante
  • Dock Kitchen
  • Gauthier Soho
  • Bistrot Bruno Loubet
  • The Draft House
  • The Summerhouse
  • Harwood Arms
  • Barrica
  • L'Anima
  • Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental
  • Wild Honey
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Wolseley for breakfast
  • Quo Vadis
  • Hibiscus
  • Dinings
  • The Ledbury
  • Eastside Inn
  • Hunan
  • Franco Manca
  • Chilli Cool
  • Savoy's American Bar, reopening this summer
  • new St. John hotel and restaurant, opening in Leicester Sq this summer
  • Cay Tre
  • return visit to Rules
  • Umu
  • Downstairs at Terroirs
  • Pollen St.
  • Galvin La Chapelle
  • Dean Street Townhouse

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Hawksmoor steakhouse

This East London steakhouse and cocktail bar has had bloggers buzzing, posting, and tweeting for years. Hawksmoor has a venerable reputation as one of the few places in the capital that knows how to grill a decent steak, but for some reason it took me 4 years to get myself through the door.

A juicy steak is a rare treat, as I refuse to cook it at home. I like my meat bloody on the inside, charred on the outside, and no domestic grill or oven will do the job. Most professional kitchens in London get it badly wrong, too (the Gaucho all-style-no-content chain for one), but word of mouth made me confident that we were on to a good thing at Hawksmoor. The last great steak I had was over a year ago in NYC: a hanger steak salad at Bourdain's lovely Brasserie Les Halles, so I'd had a long wait.

A simple sparsely-furnished space on Commercial Road, the restaurant clearly focuses all its creative and financial efforts on pleasing punters palates. The brunch menu is a celebration of meat, most notably meat from the traditional and noble Yorkshire longhorn cattle bred by The Ginger Pig. They offer 7 dry-aged steak cuts, the house favourites being Bone-in prime rib, Porterhouse (similar to T-bone), and Chateaubriand. LondonEater, a rather wonderful food blogger, recently posted a 'study' on steak cuts and London's grills, so I'll hand you over to him to elucidate on the nature of each cut.

On cuts, it would have been helpful to see the cuts before choosing them. They bring the slabs of meat out on a board to help you choose at the much-lauded Goodman steakhouse (Mayfair) and Hix's Oyster & Chop House.

Seated and served excellent pale ale, red wine, and a refreshing virgin cocktail (I left the components up to them: suffice to say their creation was as exciting as a non-alcoholic beverage can get) on a rainy Sunday we wasted no time, skipped starters and headed straight for the protein fix. I've been getting a few concerned looks - being 38-weeks pregnant - when ordering meat 'rare', but Hawksmoor staff didn't bat an eyelid, clearly confident in the superior quality of their meat.

I shared an 800g rare Porterhouse with N, while the boys - averse to the concept of sharing food (naturally) - did their own thing, ordering a 600g bone-in sirloin and a hefty 750g Porterhouse. Sides: chips, steamed spinach, piquant tomato salad, a beautiful fluffy-soft bearnaise.

This 750g Porterhouse was immense. My greedy companion topped it off with an order of two fried eggs, and bone marrow, as if setting out on a collision course with his gut, not a pleasurable gustatory experience. I eat my words: he ate and loved every morsel.

My shared Porterhouse was a beautiful sight, the fierce heat having seared the bone as well as the thick, juicy, and intense strips of meat. With bone marrow alongside, it pushed every carnivorous button. I seem to remember the table going quiet for a few minutes, as the pleasure of eating overcame us (this is all beginning to sound a bit erotic, forgive me. It's been a while...).

The triple-cooked chips were light, fluffy, and crispy, as they should be. We ordered two servings to share between four of us, believing that would leave us satisfied, but ended up with four. All sides were £4 each.

Energised by the protein rush, bones chewed, and plates clean, we dived headlong into the dessert menu. Don't expect sorbets, foams, or fruit salads here: they do proper classic puds, and do them well.

Chocolate brownie with salt caramel ice cream. £6.50. I'll leave the picture to do the talking.

Rhubarb trifle, £6. This was devoured by the 750g Porterhouse + marrow + eggs companion, ordering lunch as if this was his last meal on earth.

Scoops of cornflake ice cream (a clever nostalgia hit, made from milk that has had cornflakes soaked in it overnight, apparently) and rich, dark, salted caramel ice cream hit all the right notes, and brought the meal to a suitably decadent conclusion.

The savvy duo behind the restaurant, Will Beckett and Huw Gott, are opening a second branch in Covent Garden in the autumn, bringing to life what is currently a culinary wasteland between Soho and the Thames (save for the exceptional Terroirs and Rules, and serviceable Wahaca).

It wasn't cheap (£239, incl. great service, for 4. Yes, ouch.), but I'd have worried if it was. A small price to pay for a month's protein quota, top quality produce, and a memorable meat-fest. Next on the list is Goodman, currently jostling with Hawksmoor for London's top 'steak' spot.

Hawksmoor Steakhouse
157 Commercial Street
E1 6BJ
Tel: 02072477392