Monday, 12 December 2011

Love Music Love Food: The Rock Star Cookbook


Sing-for-soup days couldn't be further from the minds of the influential contemporary musicians contributing to this impressive rock-food-portraits book.

The brainchild of renowned food photographer Patrice de Villiers, The Rock Star Cookbook was published late last year in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Patrice and the Trust exercised their influence, prompting generous contributions from the legendary, the great, and the good.

This may not be a cook's book (there is no recipe index, and the recipes are somewhat buried), but it is a feast for the eyes. The lavish portraits, comical, outlandish, bold and decadent, show the musicians with their favourite foods, with accompanying interviews exploring their culinary obsessions and spilling the beans on their riders. Concluding each interview is a specially commissioned recipe, based on their favourite dish, created by Sarah Muir, a chef who has spent many years touring with bands and cooking for rock royalty. I tried Sarah's recipe for Goldie' Lookin' Chain's prawn curry - in a hurry, and it was speedy indeed, delicious, and great with chips. I'm betting she has her own book deal in the pipeline.

Music and food are fast becoming best buddies, just check out the posh gourmet fare available at festivals, Alex James making cheese, and - I kid you not - British Sea Power's band-brand fudge. All we need now is a band-brand jam.

However, many of the featured artists admit they're no good in the kitchen, and confess to predictable food weaknesses; curry, chips, sushi, roast dinner, fish and chips, and pizza, which Sarah cleverly transforms into Russell Norman-style instantly desirable recipes. A handful of artists have a more intriguing relationship with food. Just try keeping a straight face when Brian May talks about the cosmic resonance between the sun and a grapefruit, and who'd have thought Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand loves growing beetroot.

This is ultimately a musical portraits book, despite a foreword by Heston Blumenthal. A glossy book of interviews. But get someone talking enthusiastically about food, and they often open up more than they intend to. It's worth buying for the interviews and food-fantasy portraits alone; the opportunity to eat like a pop star is just the icing on the top of a very rock 'n' roll cake.

Many thanks to Quadrille for sending me a review copy.

Read more about Patrice's collaboration with The Teenage Cancer Trust here:
www.lovemusiclovefood.org/
Love Music Love Food

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Nightjar

A second departure from my culinary comfort zone this week, this time to give a shout out to Nightjar.

A classy subterranean speakeasy-style bar, the entrance sits between two cafés just a few yards north of Old St tube, on City Road (look for the nondescript black door).

The cocktails, inspired by Prohibition era blends and their own homespun brews and infusions, are heady, complex, and brilliantly executed by a team of talented mixologists and bartenders (who I fear may be poached by the Royal Ballet given the performance we were treated to).


Be prepared to wait, as it's sitting room only and first come first served, though you can reserve tables for large parties. The queue outside can be considerable. Our 1 hour wait on a frosty Saturday night at 1am was made a little more tolerable by the sweet doorman (yes, there is such a thing, it seems).

I highly recommend the Fog Cutter. Enveloped in dry ice, it is a giddy and seriously damaging combination of rum, cognac, gin and sherry. Inebriated as I was, I can remember it vividly. The Bobby Burns, Benedictine, whisky and vermouth, laced with Absinthe, is a clever concoction, too.

Expect top-notch live music - jazz, honky-tonk, blues - most nights, with a modest cover charge/entrance fee of around £7 on a Friday or Saturday night, less on a week night. Cocktails are priced at around £9.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Christmas gifts: cheap and gorgeous

I don't know about you, but it's unlikely I'm going to be getting a KitchenAid for Christmas (about as unlikely as me being found trotting around Belgravia in bright red Louboutins and a mink shawl). The coveted food mixer has been popping up in the weekend supplements for weeks, as an ideal 'foodie' gift. A gift that costs over £300. Yeah, right.

As a child, I remember giggling as I discovered a hidden stash of Christmas cards my mom sent out to open-minded friends and relatives. The size of a postage stamp, they simply read 'Life is shit, times are hard, here's your fucking Christmas card.' I'm not a scrooge, neither is she, but Christmas is complicated: families, budgeting, cooking for large parties, booze... a toxic mix.

To make life just a little easier, I've done some research and found these beautiful, fun and desirable objects - all available online - that will please your wallet as much as they will delight the most hard-to-please recipient. I hope they provide inspiration. (Last year most gifts came from my kitchen, but it didn't prove to be a budget-friendly exercise. A few still will, but canny online shopping is key.)


Under £10
Spectacular Sourdough A loaf of Richard Bertinet's sourdough (Bertinet Kitchen Shop) £5.60
2 Person Paella Pan From the venerable purveyors of Spanish food (Brindisa) £8.95
Tea Towel Creative, fun designer tea towels (ToDryFor) £9.50
Floral and Bird Teapot Dainty tea time fare (Graham and Green) £9.50

London Lunchbox A trendy way to transport your office sandwiches (V&A) £5
Mezzaluna Set Stylish herb chopper, half price at time of writing (The Cook's Kitchen) £7.65
Glass and bone door knobs Add a glam, retro touch to cabinets and drawers (Graham and Green) £2.95-£3.95 each
Salt dish Adorable, totally frivolous; I want one (Anthropologie) £8

Under £20
Sari Measuring Spoons Cute, pretty and useful (John Lewis) £11
WRAP Christmas Goody Bag For design geeks (WRAP) £20
Sweet Shop Jar Nostalgic treats in a retro jar (Hope & Greenwood) £16.99

An English Rose A bare root rose plant for garden lovers (David Austin Roses) From £12 each
Spice Bundle The famous Spice Shop's selection of their favourite spice blends £10.55

Coffee Cup Beautiful, and ageless Scottish pottery (Highland Stoneware) £12.25
Iridescent Glass Jar Add a bit of glamour to your bathroom or vanity desk (Willow and Stone) £17.50

Dr Hauschka Hand Cream This smells intoxicating, and works like a dream, leaving no residue (Look Fantastic) £12.95

Pinchito Tapas

Pinchito Tapas (one of two London branches) sits on an unpromising, scruffy street, a stone's throw from Old Street underground, not exactly asking to be found. But with a relatively healthy reputation online, and the decent Brighton-based Pinxto People as founders, I thought we had little to fear.

Our night got off to a bad start, with a confusion over the booking, and a long wait for a table, but a decent Old Fashioned helped soothe the nerves. It was a Saturday night and the bar was heaving with wannabe Shoreditchers.

Service was laughably crap. We were harassed into ordering the moment the menu arrived, and were attended to by three different waitresses, who were so hurried that our food was literally slam-dunked onto the table without a word.

I can't describe the food in detail, because there was no detail to describe. Absolutely everything - tortilla, pork, calamari, baked chorizo, patatas bravas - was heavy and smothered in, or drowning in grease. I suspect underneath all the butter and oil were some half decent ingredients (the boquerones and chorizo were nice enough), but our experience doesn't compel me to praise them for their sourcing. I'd rather send an appeal to the chefs to be less heavy handed, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.


A special mention must go to the 'pork and mango'. It was horrid. The pork belly fat hadn't rendered properly, and the 'mango' was a slick of greasy sweet orange sauce smeared over the plate.

They claim to offer Basque pintxos, but these cumbersome platefuls bear no resemblance. For a far superior and satisfying experience, head to Barrafina, Moro's bar, Morito (next door to Moro), Salt Yard, Dehesa, or Jose.

Our meal cost around £30 a head (incl. drinks).

Pinchito Tapas on Urbanspoon

Friday, 2 December 2011

At Home: Chicken Pot Soup

For those of you sneezing, snuffling and generally feeling miserable about your lot, let this simple, soothing soup comfort, revive and revitalise you.

Cloves and saffron add a rich, heady note and a satisfying bittersweet edge to the slow-cooked carrots and onion. But you don't need them. There are as many versions of chicken soup as there are cooks who make it, so adapt it to your own taste. Just make sure your chicken is on the bone, and include as many fragrant herbs and root veg as you can get your hands on.

Niki Segnit suggests, in her wonderful Flavour Thesaurus, adding chicken's feet to give the finished soup 'a pleasantly gelatinous texture'. Go for it, if you have a Chinese supermarket nearby.
Serves 4
  • 1 chicken, cut into portions
  • 1 large onion, studded with 6 cloves
  • 4 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • Bouquet garni of 1 whole bunch of celery tops, bay leaf, and a bunch of parsley
  • Pinch of saffron
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 500g cooked noodles
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced (optional)
  • Toasted slivered almonds (optional)
In a heavy-based casserole or saucepan, place the chicken, onion, carrots, bouquet garni, saffron, seasoning, and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove the cooked chicken from the pan and set aside to cool. Remove the surface fat and bouquet garni, and boil rapidly until the liquid has reduced by half. Add the chilli, if using.

Remove the meat from the cooled chicken pieces, shred, and return to the pan. Warm through, and serve in generous bowls with piping hot noodles, and scatter with toasted almonds and freshly chopped parsley.

Charlotte's Organic Home Baking

If you're a regular visitor, you'll know I seldom promote products, unless I come across something very special. Charlotte Woodbridge's sweet stuffs are just that.

Charlotte started trading earlier this year. Family experience with food allergies and intolerances led her to quickly conclude that not only were there not enough wheat- and gluten-free products out there, but what was on offer often lacked in taste what it lacked in allergens.

A period of illness led her to reevaluate her life, and compelled her to take the plunge and start her own business. After months of kitchen trials and research, and a series of rigorous taste tests, her chocolates, cakes and preserves were ready to sell.

'I love to bake, and nothing makes me happier than to be in the kitchen', she tells me. Her laudable mantra is that her products must be indistinguishable from their gluten-laden counterparts. And I'm delighted to confirm that they are, particularly her delectable chocolate brownies - moist, sticky, and rich - and boozy chocolate truffles. Believe me, you will not taste the difference.

Charlotte's sweets and treats are an ideal gift for anyone with a weakness for sweet things, not just coeliacs, or those with an intolerance to wheat and gluten.

Oh, and all her products are organic, too.

You can order her products direct (contact and sales: c.woodbridge@hotmail.co.uk), find her on Twitter, Facebook (where all new outlets are announced), or visit her on the 9th, 10th and 16th Dec. at The Green House Community Market, Letchworth, HERTS.





Check out these recipe websites for excellent gluten-free savoury and sweet recipes:
La Tartine Gourmand
The Baking Beauties

If you'd like to learn how to make gluten-free bakes, join Sarah Jones who has just set up a baking course.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bacon Jam

The team behind our local Walthamstow grocer, bakery, pizzeria, bar and restaurant, known collectively as Eat 17, are a pretty industrious and ambitious bunch. Brand experts and manufacturer secured, they are branching out into own-brand foodstuffs, starting with this rather clever bacon jam.

I've not always been keen on Eat 17. Admittedly, Walthamstow has benefited from its looming presence and smart facade, but with no competition breathing down its neck, it started to get a bit full of itself. Last year, we boycotted it after a series of visits were ruined by snooty staff, shoddy service, and overpriced mediocre food. Custom was taken for granted, tolerated even. But since noticing their involvement in the local E17 Art Trail, and being impressed by the baked goods, we're prepared to give them another chance.

Infinitely superior to standard savoury relishes, their bacon jam it is a complex sweet-smokey savoury spread. Eat 17 restaurant has been serving it for a while on their burgers and, apparently, it was the enthusiastic clamour from regular customers that urged them to start selling it. It has a dense consistency and resembles the sweet richness of fig jam, but 'with bits in'. Bacon-y bits. Ingredients include smoked bacon (award-winning Denhay's Dry Cured bacon), red onion, maple syrup, bourbon, garlic, coffee, rosemary, and chilli.

I was going to say it's innovative, but research and a Twitter exchange with Eat like a Girl - who has come up with two recipes; one she's blogged, the other she's saving for her next book - informs me otherwise. It's big in the US (Skillet are the main manufacturer, bloggers love it), and is made of roughly the same ingredients.

I used it in much the same way as fig jam or onion marmalade. The label suggests spreading it on toast, serving it with cheese, adding it to a burger, or a pasta sauce, and here are some other ideas:
  • Smear it over butternut squash before roasting
  • Spread it on corn on the cob before wrapping in tin foil and grilling
  • Pop a bit on top of grilled/baked peach or apricot, with a crumbling of goat's cheese
  • Dot over a tomato-based pizza before adding cheese, baking, and garnishing with basil or rocket
  • Smother an oatcake with it before crumbling liberally with blue cheese or aged gruyere
  • Spread it over a toasted muffin before plopping a poached egg on top
  • Use it to pimp up a BLT, roast chicken, or a simple mustardy dressing
You can buy it online (£3.60 for 110g), or purchase it from the Spar shop on Orford Road, Walthamstow, though I hear rumour that it will be available in outlets across the capital in the next few months. It's a great stocking gift for food lovers.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

At Home: Sticky Toffee Ginger Pud


Proper puds don't come more sublime and decadent than this pimped up gingerbread. When the dark veil of winter descends, I kid myself that my body expends lots more energy to keep itself warm, therefore making gluttony and excess entirely reasonable. Bring it on.

I had friends over for weekend lunch, and a three course meal to prepare. Fortuitously, half a loaf of sticky and fragrant gingerbread I'd made mid-week was happily maturing on the kitchen surface. Job done - a pretty-much instant pud. All I needed was good quality vanilla ice cream (bought), and a speedy butterscotch sauce. You can find recipes for both the gingerbread and butterscotch sauce below (though you could cheat with bought versions of all three components), and all I'd add is:
  • Slice the gingerbread thickly, and give it 10 seconds in the microwave before constructing.
  • Construct at the last moment, heating your sauce in the microwave/on the hob to loosen it to pouring consistency, if it has cooled.
THE CAKE
This gingerbread recipe comes courtesy of Nigella's glorious How To Eat. Do wrap it up and keep it for a day or two before eating. It's worth the wait.

Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 60-90 minutes

230g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground mixed spice
110g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
110g black treacle
110g golden syrup
110g light/dark muscovado sugar
280ml full-fat milk
45g stem ginger (drain off syrup and grate)
1 large egg, beaten

Grease a 900g loaf tin (23cm x 11cm, 6cm), and line the bottom with greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 160C fan/180C/Gas 4.

Sift the flour, bicarb, and spices into a large mixing bowl. Add the diced butter and rub it with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.

In a small saucepan, melt the treacle with the syrup, then leave to cool to blood temperature. Meanwhile, in another pan, dissolve the sugar in the milk over a low heat, stirring occasionally.

Add the grated stem ginger to the flour mixture. Then whisk/beat the milk mixture into the flour mixture, and next whisk in the treacle mixture, followed by the egg. When thoroughly blended, the mixture should be a thin batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 1-1 1/4 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Start checking after 45 minutes. Leave to cool completely in the tin, then turn out and wrap first in greaseproof paper and then foil.


THE SAUCE
This could not be easier to make, and gives Cartmel toffee sauce a run for it's money. Adding a little salt really peps it up.

Prep: none
Cook: 10-15 minutes

55g unsalted butter
140g golden syrup
115ml double cream
125g light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
a small pinch of sea salt

Put all the ingredients in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil over a medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Pour into a jug for serving. It will thicken when cool, and simply needs reheating to reach pouring consistency again.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

At Home: Crispy Duck Pancakes

Nothing for me has that 'mmm' factor - Flake advert porn style - quite like a mouthful of salty crispy fat. Check out Tom Parker Bowles raving about the 'pure, salt and fat soaked pleasure' of the pork scratching in the latest issue of Fire and Knives, a taste - albeit an acquired one - I have a particular weakness for.

Duck legs have no shortage of fat, which crisps up a treat in a hot oven. This recipe is truthfully no fuss, and it's easy on the wallet too. Many methods for creating homemade versions of the takeaway classic require marinating, steaming, and deep-frying the duck. Don't bother. You will get a perfectly crispy skin by seasoning and roasting the legs, in a fraction of the time.

The roasted duck recipe below is based on James Ramsden's Five Spice Duck Legs recipe. I just added some Sichuan pepper and fresh ginger, and cooked the legs in a roasting dish instead of a frying pan, since I'm not lucky enough to have an oven-friendly pan.

NB. Seek out this brand of five-spice in your local Chinese supermarket. It beats supermarket spice rack versions hands down.







SERVES 2
  • 2 duck legs
  • 1 tsp Chinese five-spice
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, bruised in a pestle and mortar
  • 2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, bashed flat and peeled
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 4 flour tortillas/8 Chinese pancakes
  • Shredded Cos lettuce
  • half a cucumber, cut into thick strips
  • 4 tbsp hoisin sauce
Preheat the oven to 160C fan/180C/Gas mark 4. Rub the skin side of the duck legs with a generous pinch of salt, the five spice, and the Sichuan pepper. Heat a little oil in a roasting dish over a medium heat on the hob and add the legs, skin side down. Fry for 10 minutes until browned and crisp.

Remove the legs and add the onion, garlic and ginger. Prod around the pan until coated in the duck fat, season with salt and pepper and lay the legs on top. Pop in the oven for an hour and a half, until soft and yielding to the advances of a fork.Remove from oven and rest, while you warm through the pancakes in a steamer, dry frying pan, or microwave. Remove the fat from the meat, then tear the meat off the bone with your fingers. Place shreds of meat, pieces of that wonderful crispy skin, the caramelized onions from the roasting pan, the lettuce, cucumber and a drizzle of hoisin down the centre of each pancake, wrap, and guzzle.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

At Home: Feeding baby

I am treading with trepidation into baby food territory. I swore I would spare my blog from our messy journey, but recent conversations have compelled me to do so.

Food and eating come up in every conversation I have with a new parent. At first, it was 'are you going the purée or baby-led-weaning (BLW) way?', and 'when is the right time to start weaning?', then what to eat, and how to eat it: 'what do you make?', 'what do you buy?' and 'when should we introduce cutlery? '. Most of all, parents seek inspiration for fresh, quick dinners, having got stuck in a rut with the usual suspects (pasta, fish fingers, beans...).

I have no answers, but like every parent I have a story to tell, and am using this first post on the subject to share with you how we (try to) feed our child.

Evangelical weaning books were hard to avoid at first. Late nights on Amazon led to a stack of books on my bedside table professing to know just how your child should eat. After some dithering, and a fair dose of confusion, we decided on a combination method: part BLW, part purée. My instinct told me he'd be fine feeding himself, and BLW would make it fun, but I was eager to fill his tummy. Taking advice from both camps meant he could experiment with handling and chewing on solid food, and take in a fair amount on the spoon to satisfy his hunger (alongside milk). Despite the odd phase of pickiness and loss of appetite, it worked. Check out Catherine Phipp's Word of Mouth article here to read more about BLW.

Now 17 months 0ld, he has the biggest drawer in the freezer, which I rely on for at least 80% of his main meals. Nearly every dinner starts with a pot-luck rustle and grab, followed by a steamer filled with carb boiling in the bottom (rice/potatoes/pasta) and veg (broccoli, beans, diced squash etc.) steaming on top, cooked for 10 minutes or so. Along with slicing fruit to go with Greek yogurt for his pud, prep never takes longer than 10-15 minutes. Couscous and peas is the extra-speedy option.

MY ESSENTIAL KIT
Silicone muffin tray, for freezing toddler-sized portions of sauces
Hand blender
Medium-size resealable plastic food bags
3-piece steamer

TYPICAL FREEZER DRAWER CONTENTS
MADE (batch cooked, or left over from family meals)
Mashed potato
Ratatouille
Fish fingers
Chicken goujons (posh name for fingers)
Sweet potato fritters
Chicken and apricot/squash curry
Cauliflower and potato curry
Greek lamb and carrot stew
Macaroni cheese
Ragu
Basic tomato sauce
Lentil and tomato soup
Spiced fruit purée
Meatballs (pork and beef)
Fish pie
BOUGHT
Pittas
Mini corn on the cob
Broad beans
Petits pois
Soft wholemeal rolls
Gnocchi
Corn/wheat wraps

BREAKFAST
I am obsessed about the high sugar and salt levels in our popular cereals, to the point where I will spend 20 minutes scrutinizing the back of cereal packets in the supermarket (to my husband's chagrin). Determined to find something healthy (C won't eat porridge, sadly), I came across Rude Health. Jackpot. Corn flakes made only of toasted corn! And Wheetabix isn't exactly pure wheat, but it's the best of the worst supermarket cereals as far as I can tell, though do correct me if I'm wrong.

LUNCH
Whether C has lunch at home or out and about, it's usually simple fare: a sandwich, grated cheese and apple toastie, frittata, leftovers from the night before, or pitta and dips, and some pieces of fruit, dried or fresh.

DESSERT
I should add that C usually eats fruit and yogurt for dessert, but at weekends I might make a rice pudding, or some apple-oaty muffins. As I write, he's demolishing a bowl of Greek yogurt mixed with mashed banana and a tsp of cashew nut butter. Not a pretty dish, but great for hungry tums.

Here are a few simple recipes:

MIXED VEGETABLE FRITTATA - Nutritious, economical finger food.
Boil 4 new potatoes until tender (you can do this in advance/use leftovers). Beat 4 eggs, and season with black pepper. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil with a knob of unsalted butter in a frying pan, add a small chopped onion/spring onion with half a diced red pepper and half a diced courgette. Cook until soft (5-10 minutes). Throw in the cooked potatoes, chopped, heat through, add a cup full of frozen petits pois, and stir over a medium heat for a minute or two. Stop stirring, pour over the eggs, and turn on your grill. Grate over some Cheddar/Parmesan, and after 5 minutes on the hob over a low heat, transfer to the grill to cook the top. Leave to cool, then turn out and slice into 8-12 pieces. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

SWEET POTATO FRITTERS - Freezable, healthy finger food.
Roast 2 sweet potatoes for 1 hour at 170C fan (you can do this the day before).
Dig out the flesh from the skins once cool, and mix in a bowl with 1 tbsp soy sauce, 3 tbsp plain flour, 3 finely chopped spring onions, 1 beaten egg, and 2-3 tbsp whole milk to loosen the mixture. Add a handful of tinned/fresh sweetcorn if you have some to hand. Melt a small knob of unsalted butter/1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan, and drop spoonfuls of the mixture into the pan. Cook for 5 mins each side, then set aside to cool on a paper towel. Serve immediately, keep in the fridge for a day or two, or freeze until needed.

FISH/CHICKEN GOUJONS - Prepare these one evening, stock the freezer, and you have almost instant homemade fish/chicken fingers when time is short. They take 20 minutes to prepare.
Two boneless and skinless cod/coley/pollack fillets or two chicken thighs/breasts.
Slice the fish/meat into thin finger-long strips. Prepare, on three separate plates:
2 tbsp plain flour
2 beaten eggs
150g breadcrumbs, mixed with 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, a pinch of black pepper, and a heaped tbsp of Parmesan
Piece by piece, dip the fish/meat into the flour, shake off the excess, dip in the egg, then cover with the breadcrumb mixture. Set aside on a plate. Pop the plate in the freezer, then when they are nearly frozen solid, remove them and pop them into freezer bags. They can be cooked straight from frozen, in a frying pan with a little olive oil (5-8 minutes each side).

Please share your own mealtime solutions and feeding stories.

Friday, 14 October 2011

At Home: Apple cake




I am disheartened by the continued absence of British apples in our supermarkets. Living in the city, the glut of fragrant fruit harvested from our precious and ancient orchards rarely makes its way to my local greengrocers', and I want to know why. Surely uniformity of shape and size are no longer key indicators of quality for the Big Four? Of the hundreds of traditional British varieties, are none of them commercially viable? I despair. That is until good fortune, and the cool breath of autumn, bestows on us the annual Apple Day. Only once a year do I get the opportunity to sample an abundance of the real deal. Engorged, tasteless, floury imported fruit have no place here.

Fenton House in Hampstead holds a wonderful celebration, and I used to be a regular visitor until our move east. Fortunately, Walthamstow's Vestry House Museum has a similarly reverential event, at which I bought a handbag-full of fragrant, sweet, gnarled russets and tangy pippins.

I wanted to make a simple cake, and Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries offered inspiration. His English apple cake - adapted recipe below - is much like the Dutch version: simple sponge baked with a topping of chopped apples and a touch of spice. Seraphic fruity loveliness, its light and moist consistency called for instant consumption. If you have any left, it will keep for a day or two in a sealed container, and will need reheating in a warm oven before serving.

Serves 8

130g unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
130g unrefined caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 dessert apples, peeled
the juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
small pinch ground cloves
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 large eggs
130g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs, combined with 2 crushed Amaretti biscuits

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Line the base of a 24cm cake tin (round or square), about 6cm deep, with a piece of greased baking parchment. Let the ends of the parchment come up over the sides of the tin so that the cake is easy to release when cooked.

Put the butter and caster sugar into a food mixer and beat until light and fluffy. Whilst this is happening, cut the apples into small chunks, removing the cores as you go, and dropping the fruit into a bowl withe juice of the half lemon. Toss the apples with the cinnamon, ground cloves and demerara sugar.

Break the eggs, beat them with a fork, then gradually add them to the butter and sugar. (Don't worry if the mixture splits, the addition of the flour will bind it together again.) Sift the flour and baking powder together and fold them gently into the mixture. Scrape into the lined cake tin. Put the spiced apples on top of the cake mixture, then scatter with the Amaretti breadcrumbs and, if you wish, a little more demerara sugar.

Bake for 50 minutes to an hour. The edges should be browning nicely, and the centre firm. Leave to cool for ten minutes or so before removing from the tin. Eat warm.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Panorama Taverna, Kefalonia

My sister Helena chose our holiday this year, as she had suggested a family trip and we were distinctly lacking in imagination. Fiscardo, on the Greek island of Kefalonia, was our destination.

Kefalonia satisfies all the beach holiday 'must haves': crystal clear water, beautiful beaches, quaint harbours, and a predictable climate. It also wipes you out. I'm not talking waves, but wallets. Fiscardo harbour's summer takings (€7 frappe, anyone?) will most likely solve the nation's debt crisis.

We followed the flocks to the harbour, and ate mediocre food at £30 a head for a few nights (chewy stifado, and enough Greek salads to put me off feta for life), before we decided to turn away from the harbour, dragged ourselves up the hill, and came across this beautiful place overlooking the bay.



The 83 year old owner and chef, Hrodotos, has been running his business, Panorama Taverna, for over 40 years. He'll offer you a laminated menu, but there's little point reading it. He makes 2 or 3 slow-cook dishes early every morning, and has a fresh selection of fish, meat, and vegetables for grilling or deep frying. Every day the menu changes: just as it should be. 'Let me tell you what we've got', followed by mouthwatering descriptions of the components of each dish, was music to our ears.

This was the beautifully rich feta (used judiciously) and tomato saganaki.

This murky Greek version of 'bouillabaisse' won't win any beauty contests. Hrodotos described it as 'special bouillabaisse', and it didn't disappoint on flavour: delicate and soft flakes of cod and red mullet in a light and herby vegetable-based stock, a refreshing change to the heavy greasy dishes Greece has earned a dubious reputation for.

Fried calamari. Not a hint of chewiness to these deep-fried and perfectly seasoned cephalopods - a hard trick to pull off.

Slow-cooked veal with lemon, carrot and potato. I rarely add potato to stews, rather cook them separately. If you do too, break the habit. It's easier to chuck them in a stew, requires fewer pans, and they take on the taste of the rich stock. Our 1-year-old boy couldn't get enough of this. The lemon and carrots gave it a fresh and sweet lift, and the veal could not have been more tender. A simple yet artful dish.


The homemade crème caramel. These little beauties were still setting, so I didn't get a chance to try them. I was reliably informed that they are worth waiting for.

Here's the man himself, gamely giving our boy a lift.

Should you find yourself homing in on one of Greece's most beautiful islands, please resist the overpriced harbour and head here. Hrodotos will welcome you with open arms, and the most spectacular home cooked Greek food you have ever eaten.

Spuntino

Russell Norman knows how to roll out a successful establishment. His easy-please small plates have had (primarily) young and hungry Londoners salivating and swooning for the last two years as he has opened, in quick succession, Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino, and now da Polpo.

The informality of his brand (I think I'm safe in saying he has a little empire on the go) is key: osterias and bacaros featuring bare brick walls, sparse decor, no reservations, friendly and relaxed staff - if your tattoo is impressive enough you're in, apparently - serving at a prominent bar, and food for sharing.

Lunch at Spuntino ticked off three of his four joints.


The anonymous entrance is slap bang in the middle of porn central, Soho, and it fits right in. A good kind of seedy, its intimate subterranean vibe and bare walls exude NY cool. More a bar with food than a diner, the menu veers from Italian-style cicchetti, crostini, and pizzette to petite versions of American diner classics: mac & cheese, cheddar grits, sliders, chopped salad, and steak and eggs. Basically, anything that pairs well with a stiff drink.


Truffled egg toast £6. Click here to read Helen Graves in raptures over this now-near-mythical creation. I could smell it before I could see it. 'What's that horrid smell?', were my exact words, I believe. But like great cheese, you can't let one sense fool you, especially when it comes to truffles. This is a masterpiece, a brick of artery-tickling greatness: soft bread holding a molten egg yolk, smothered in truffle-infused melted cheese.

Eggplant chips with fennel yogurt £3.50. Good idea, but I couldn't taste the aubergine (the crunchy coating was too dense), or the fennel. Perfectly edible, and moreish, just not impressive.

Fennel, radicchio, hazelnut and truffle salad £5.50. This was very lovely: crunchy leaves smothered in a mustardy smooth dressing, spiked with a dash of truffle oil.

Baked figs, prosciutto, gorgonzola and walnuts £7. For me, the only let down. It was just a bit boring: heavy, and too sweet and sickly.

Zucchini pizzetta £6.50. A favourite from Polpo: I love these pizzettas. A thin, crispy base, with a perfectly judged topping decorated with chilli and mint. A refreshing pizza, and an obvious oximoron, in one.

We also found room for two of the four "sliders" (£4.50-£5 each), mini burgers in soft mini buns. The best burger meat I've eaten in London, though I have yet to try Meatwagon, Byron, or Bar Boulud. Let me put you in the safe hands of Burgerac to take you through these mini meaty delights in salivating detail. They vanished the moment they were served, hence no pic.

Shoestring fries £3.50. Addictive. Light as air, they practically evaporated on the tongue after that satisfying first crunch.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich £6.50. This was a sight to behold: two layers of peanut butter ice cream (more butter than ice, I'm guessing, as it was set but not freezing cold - hello heart attack...), sandwiched with raspberry jam. Sinful, and well worth a short stay in hell.


Lunch bill for 3: £69 incl. service at 12.5% and two glasses of Trebbiano at £7 each.

Spuntino offers good value, great food, and a hip place to prop yourself up at the end of a long night. I'm pretty sure I'm the last person in the capital to have made it there, and you're all probably seasoned regulars, but just in case... go!

Norman's opening a Jewish deli in Covent Garden soon. God help us, he'll be running for Mayor next.

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