Tuesday, 26 May 2009

green goddess

She and I are on a health kick. It came to me this weekend (possibly over cheese and saucission from the French market, or maybe while we were eating rhubarb upside down cake with creme fraiche, or was it while we were making pizza yesterday ...) that an unintended consequence of my love affair with food has been the arrival of love handles. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. I firmly believe is possible to enjoy food, wine and the good life and look good naked. This week is about rebalancing that.

So, the green goddess ... spirulina. Spirulina is a kind of blue green algae which seemingly exists for two reasons - to photosynthesise, and to be packed full of things which are ridiculously good for you. It contains an incredible variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients with everything from vitamin B to magnesium ... protein, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

She and I are tucking in for the energising, cleansing, and immune system boosting qualities, and I'll be whizzing up the following juice for us every day.

300ml pressed apple juice
2 big handfuls berries / soft fruits - I use a frozen mix
2 tsp spirulina powder

The result is an alarming very dark green juice, which looks like it would be absolutely vile. It isn't. It's actually alright, I'd even go so far as to say I'd recommend it.

So apart from the blinding headache from caffeine withdrawal, and the small fortune in Whole Foods yesterday it's not too bad. I'll keep you in the loop.

Friday, 22 May 2009

double rhubarb solution

I've had some folorn looking rhubarb in the fridge this week, waiting for someone to take pity on it. There was a bit more than I thought so I ended up with a double rhubarb solution.
Firstly, I'd been having rhubarb upside-down cake thoughts, as my mother and Lulu are coming up for lunch tomorrow ...

Rhubarb upside-down cake

50g butter
200g soft brown sugar
350g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2cm pieces
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
200ml buttermilk - I used a mixture of sour cream and natural yoghurt as that's what I had around, either will work alone instead of buttermilk if you can't find it
2 medium eggs
80ml vegetable oil
2 tbsp finely chopped crystallised ginger
Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4

Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan over a medium heat. Stir in half the sugar, and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat
Arrange the rhubarb in the bottom of a 24cm springform cake tin, and pour over the melted sugar and butter the rhubarb

Combine the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt

Whisk the remaining sugar with the buttermilk, eggs, oil and ginger. Add the flour mixture and mix well. Pour over the rhubarb and smooth the surface

Bake for 35 minutes or until the cake springs back when pressed in the centre

Cool on a rack for 10 minutes then invert on to a serving plate

As you can see, it's not a thing of great beauty, but I have high hopes in the taste department.

With the rest of the rhubarb, and half an eye on the pork I was cooking for supper (with the other half on the cheese at the French market tomorrow morning) I decided to make a little quick chutney.

Rhubarb chutney

250g rhubarb, chopped into smallish pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped
50ml cider vinegar
1cm fresh ginger, grated
100g soft brown sugar
good pinch salt

Very easy this ... everything but the rhubarb in a thick bottomed pan, bring to a rolling boil for five minutes

Add the rhubarb, take it down a little, and simmer for 20 minutes

This can either got straight into a sterilised glass jar - about 250ml, or into a pot to cool a bit to eat straight away.

Despite an insatiable desire to cut myself a slice, the cake will have to wait for tomorrow's guests. I can however vouch for the chutney, which I am still wiping off my plate with a finger.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

gardener's delight

The squirrel defences are here ... and my goodness it was worth the wait. I have in the past come in for a bit of ribbing for being a princess. In most circumstances I'd say this was wholly inaccurate, but every now and again you get the feeling you're being spoilt - the construction which arrived today was utterly above and beyond the call of duty.

I've spent an entirely pleasurable afternoon with my father assembling and filling our new rodent proof vegetable patch, the photos probably won't do it justice but it's an absolute beauty. To keep the potatoes, garlic, onions, herbs and spinach beets company we now have runner beans, french beans, green and gold courgettes and four different types of tomato including wonderful tumbling toms in a little hanging pot.

I am completely delighted.

great expectations

After forgetting to write She a list of French goodies to bring back from her recent trip, I had thought it might be a little while before we managed to fill our cupboards with Gallic treats. Not so.

Battersea High Street will be home to a French Farmers' Market on Friday and Saturday of this week. I will of course be there, squeezing baguettes and sniffing cheese. I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

guest's eye view

What a lucky girl I am. Not only have I had a wonderful houseful tonight, but unusually for me I haven't had to lift a finger. Coz played guest chef for tonight's ≤ten, cooking up a storm of coconut dhal, marinated lamb chops, veggie curry, rice and chappatis. I spent most of the evening on the terrace with two lovely new guests and the rest of the crowd drinking prosecco and making use of the outdoor tables. And very nice it was too. After such a wonderful supper, Coz had to rush off without divulging her recipes so I'm still left guessing, I'll be sure to prize them out of her and post them up as soon as I can.

On another note, there is very exciting news afoot. Yonsalot and friends are running a private party this year in Malvern. 75 revellers, one acoustic tent, one dance tent ... and two lamb spit-roasts ... what more could you want? They're looking at 11-12th July, and of course I'm there with bells on. The idea is organic food centred around the roasts, good music and a very chilled weekend, it's £40 a ticket, with any profit going to charity. Buoyed by a few glasses of wine I've volunteered to help co-ordinate the food, and at the very least ensure that Saturday night's spent roast becomes spicy lamb and lentil soup for Sunday lunchtime.

Am very excited, holler if you want more details.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

how does your garden grow?

Our little terrace, like thousands of plots of various sizes around the country is starting to spring into life. The potatoes planted on Easter Saturday (one day late, by rights it should be Good Friday) have shot up. You plant them in about seven inches of compost around three inches below the surface, and as the green shoots come poking through you earth them back up so the tops are just showing, raising the surface of the soil, and creating more room for the fruits of your labours. Once the plants flower, you are pretty much ready to harvest.

I am so excited I have actually been dreaming about them. As with everything we plant outside their life began enclosed with a chicken wire cage. If tomatoes and runner beans were interesting enough for our squirrels to vandalise last year, I feel sure that the juicy little tubers of my potatoes are under threat.

My newest project are spinach beets. Growing ordinary spinach is apparently a bit tricky, spinach beets are a good solution to this - as a 'cut and come again' variety, you can harvest the outside leaves and leave the rest of the plant to continue growing. I planted them last weekend, and was delighted to see little yellow green shoots poking through yesterday.
My father has been working on a solution to the squirrel problem. Last year's cursory effort ultimately provided little protection against our furry adversaries but after an advanced viewing at the weekend I can confidently say that this year we are fully armed. We have very kindly been built a cage of such magnitude it will house a grow bag full of beans and two decent sized tomato plants. As with many ambitious creative endeavours, progress is being hampered by boring practicalities - the construction is so large we stand no chance of transporting it with an ordinary vehicle. There are van plans. Watch this space.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

asparagus quiche in a rush ...

So after the craziness of buying and cooking food and finding Estonians for Eating Eurovision, I was up early yesterday morning to make a quiche to take down to the coast for a family get together.

Raynsford's were nearly out of British asparagus - surely the season can't be over just yet - but I managed to pick up a couple of choice bundles, some lovely looking jersey royals and half a dozen eggs amongst other things ... as well as a chat about what I was cooking. Sometimes I feel they think I secretly have a houseful of children with all the produce I buy there.

Anyway, asparagus quiche - my mother's recipe. Pastry isn't something I've ever worried about. I will confess I've never made puff pastry, but shortcrust and to a lesser extent pâte sucrée haven't caused me any problems thus far. As well as fat and flour, you need two other things ... the cold, and an aloof Gallic attitude. The secret to good pastry, especially shortcrust, is to pretend you're not really making it at all.

the pastry

As a general rule, you need half as much flour as fat. So, 8oz flour to 4oz fat, 6:3 etc etc. The kind of fat you use will depend on what kind of thing you're making, but combinations of Stork block margarine, butter and lard are all acceptable. I'm not sure whether using Stork is incredibly plebeian or not, but it makes such easy, really 'short' ie slightly crumbly pastry that in this case I am happy to be down-market. More lard is great for meaty things and true indulgence, butter has a great flavour for lemon, rhubarb or tart apple tarts, but adding Stork will make your life easier and your pastry shorter promise. Also, I'd happily use this savory crust for a sweet flan but you can add sugar a couple of tablespoons of sugar if you like

For my 28cm non-stick, loose-bottomed flan tin I use the following

7oz plain flour
3 1/2 oz fat - half butter, half Stork ... straight from the fridge
good pinch salt
a little water

Put the sifted flour and the salt in a large mixing bowl, then add the cold fat in little cubes

Using just your finger tips, rub the fat into the flour gently, it should end up have a consistency like breadcrumbs. If you are one of those people with perpetually cold hands like my mother, you have found your calling in making pastry. If you have warm hands, run them under a cold tap and pat them dry before you start, open a window ... just keep it cold. If the fat melts you don't have all those tiny little pockets of air which are the reason for the crumbliness

Once you have your bread crumbs, mix in a tiny bit of cold water - maybe 2 tbsp - with a metal fork. Keep adding the water a tiny tiny bit at a time, adding just enough to bring the pastry into a ball. At this stage it should only just be sticking together. Touch it as little as possible, working pastry activates the gluten in the flour ... good for bread and pizza, bad for light crumbly pastry

Wrap your pastry in clingfilm, and stick it in the fridge to relax for at least half an hour

Preheat the oven to gas mark 5, 190 degrees C, 375 degrees F, and grease your flan tin, even if it's non-stick

When your pastry is ready, roll it out on a floured surface to the circumference of the tin plus one inch all the way round. I use a wooden rolling pin, but I have been eyeing marble ones lately for pastry making purposes

Line the tin with pastry, then roll the rolling pin over the edge of the tin, taking away the excess

Line the pastry case with foil taking care to cover all the edges so they don't catch in the oven, then fill with dried haricot beans or ceramic baking beans before placing in the centre of the oven for 10-15 minutes - I go for 10 in my fan oven

Baking the pastry case 'blind' in this way prevents your crust from ending up too moist and helps the bottom cook. The baking beans or haricot beans prevent the pastry from rising up into bubbles, providing a smooth evenly cooked surface for your filling

the filling

2 bunches slim asparagus spears lightly steamed
4 eggs, one separated
100ml milk or cream
1 cup grated cheese
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
salt and pepper

Brush the inside of the flan all over with egg white to seal it and stop it going soggy, and leave it to dry

Mix the eggs, including the remaining white and yolk with milk and seasonings then stir in the grated cheese

Arrange the spears artfully in the pastry case. My mother's tradition is to lay them like spokes on a wheel. The spears will probably be a little long so snip the ends off with scissors and either use the bits to fill in the gaps or sneak to one side for cook's perks, or more virtuously for risotto

Pour the egg mixture over the spears, and bake for 30 mins, checking after 20 to see if it needs a spin around to brown evenly

As a quick aside, I also made an Estonian salad from a recipe given to me by one of the many Eesti I bothered on Friday ...

3/4 cucumber cubed
two large ripe tomatoes, chopped into 1.5cm cubes (ish)
6 radishes thinly sliced
a few sprigs of dill finely chopped
sour cream

Put everything bar the sour cream and salt into a bowl and mix well .. then add enough sour cream to coat it, and salt to taste

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Estonia, how hard can it be?

Many many things happened to me yesterday.

I made several Estonian friends over the internet, including the lovely Pille Petersoo (http://www.nami-nami.blogspot.com/ - more on her later). I discovered that there isn't a single Estonian restaurant or cafe in London, I lost a carefully written list of ingredients, got lost on my bike and visited two closed shops. I was been rained on.

I also shared a homecooked meal around my dinner table with two lovely Estonians, Evelin and Helena ... for which I am truly thankful.

Estonian cuisine is similar to what you'll find in many other Eastern European countries ... Pille Petersoo, Estonian food blogger mentioned above describes it as 'a mixture of Scandinavian, Russian and Germanic influences. Rather rustic, but also seasonal and tasty. Pork & potatoes, rye bread, forest fruits and wild mushrooms, etc etc. Dill, parsley, chives for herbs, caraway seeds, cinnamon for seasonings'.

The challenge then is to end up eating Estonian food, rather than something like Estonian food. For this reason Baltic near Southwark tube was out, though I did swing by there and pick up a few bottles of Estonian beer Viru on my food buying odyssey.

Estonia is by no means a bleak Baltic state, my dinner guests reassured me that peasants in headscarves and in your face poverty featured minimally. Instead there are good jobs, swimming pools and nice cars ... at least for some. The trouble it appears is a lack of things for young people to do, and comparatively low wages. Evelin and Helena came here for a year. In 2004.

I found my guests via Facebook through putting out a plea to anyone connected with the Estonian community, and messaging countless 'Eesti'. They seem a friendly bunch, and knew only too well how much trouble I'd have with the challenge ...

'I've been trying to find an Estonian restaurant or shop for the last four years that I've been in London, but to no avail, so if you discover something yourself, let me know. :-)'

'The national food is weird to say the least. Also rather burdensome to cook. Meat jelly i.e. sült, pea soup, i.e hernesupp - I'm sure you won't get your hands on that'

'Well, it would have been easier if you had drafted Sweden or Spain, for sure ...'

The only solution was to cook it myself, and invite some Estonians for supper. So after work there was a flurry of e-mailing, tweeting, cycling, face-booking, shopping and cooking. Topped off by the arrival of my guests at gone 9pm.

We ate ...

Cabbage rolls (I was advised that green cabbage was more authentic so made the switch)

... mushroom loaf

... Estonian potato salad and cucumber salad brought by Evelin, and beetroot, sauerkraut, sour cream and rye bread. Evelin's goodies were doubtless the winners. The potato salad is made with tiny cubes of pork sausage, organic white potatoes, Estonian pickles, sour cream, egg, a little mayo and salt. The cucumber salad is simply cucumber, tomato, salt and sour cream.

So, what was it like? Well, the photos clearly don't do it justice, so many apologies on that score.

It was good. I've never been a fan of dill, but it's addition to the cabbage rolls gave a slightly aniseedy spiced flavour, and the mushroom loaf was sticky (my bad?), stodgy and savory. I tend to use a lot of lemon to lift dishes when I'm cooking off piste, the acid of the sauerkraut and the sourness of the cream have the same effect here ... cutting through the heavy carbs and as Tetley might say, letting the flavour flood out.

Conversation round the table covered cycling, food shopping, living in Battersea (Evelin is round the corner), and of course Estonia. I must again say thanks so much to our lovely dinner guests, who I hope will come to ≤ten day, to Pille Petersoo for her lovely blog and tips, and to the long suffering She ... who had an e-mail at 6pm the day before going on holiday saying 'I think we have some Estonians coming to dinner'.

Evelin has promised to help me cook more Estonian food for everyone involved in the challenge if her home nation win tonight ...

... suddenly the Eurovision song contest has become a lot more interesting.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Eating Eurovision

Just a quick note. This weekend I’m teaming up with a few other people who quite like cooking in a challenge run by a journalist and food blogger Andrew Webb where 25 food bloggers try to eat the cuisine of all 25 finalists of the Eurovision Song Contest, in 25 hours within the confines of the M25.

The plan is this … tonight we’re heading to BBC TV Centre to hear the details of the remaining Eurovision finalists, then drawing lots to decide which country we’re assigned … tomorrow night we’ll scatter, seeking out our chosen cuisine and eating our fill … then each of us will try and find something intelligent to say about it via our blogs before midday on Saturday.

More details here - http://eatingeurovision.co.uk/

I'm not above eating alone, but if anyone fancies dinner tomorrow night, location tbc, get in touch.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

pandemic party

Never one to pass up an excuse for a theme tonight's ≤ten was all about celebrating Mexico. On the menu was pork with lentils, salsa, guacamole, tortillas, rice and watercress and orange salad with tequila dressing.

My lovely guests bought wine, good conversation, and opened my eyes to the wonders of the After Eight game. It's pretty simple - remove After Eight from packet, tilt head back 45 degrees, place After Eight on forehead and then attempt to move After Eight down face and into mouth using only facial expressions ... no head shaking allowed. Amazing.

Back to the food. Mexican isn't really my forte, so I turned to the internet for inspiration and found the below. The salad is pinched directly from the wonderfully named 'Cooking with booze', but the pork is half me half 'Recipes 4U' ...

Pork with Green Lentils and Chilli

1.25kg diced pork shoulder (1 inch cubes)
400g green lentils
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 inch cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1 medium onion chopped
2 fat cloves garlic minced
1/2 pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks
2 plantains sliced
1/2 tsp dried oregano
tsp dried chilli flakes

Put the diced pork in a big pan, cover with boiling water, salt, and simmer for 25 minutes - DON'T THROW THE STOCK AWAY!

In the meantime, stick half the tomatoes, the chilli, oregano, cinnamon and cloves in a blender and whizz into a smooth paste

When the pork is nearly done, start browning the onion in another heavy based pan with a pinch of salt to stop it catching. Then add the tomato paste, and cook for a few mins to reduce it down a bit

Add the pork, stock, lentils, plantains, pineapple and extra tomatoes, then simmer covered for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Season to taste

I'd never cooked with plantains before, and I did have a shocking moment of doubt about half an hour before I was going to serve this, but it was pretty good. The salsa and guacamole were pretty standard - the guacamole was a Nigella Express I think, and the salsa from Simon Hopkinson's 'Roast Chicken and Other Stories'

Watercress and orange salad with tequila dressing

for the salad ...
2 bags of watercress
4 spring onions sliced
6-8 radishes finely sliced
2 oranges, peeled and cut into segments

for the dressing ...
50ml orange juice
50ml vegetable oil
juice one lime
2 tsp honey
1 clove of garlic crushed
2 tbsp gold tequila

Put all the dressing ingredients in a jam jar, and shake well

Toss the watercress in most of the dressing, sprinkle the rest of the elements oer the top, and then drizzle on a bit more of the dressing

Monday, 4 May 2009

ice cream revisited

Okay ... so it was good. Arguably had I not given up at 2.15am it would have been a touch smoother, but I am happy to report that we have a litre or so of homemade vanilla ice-cream in the freezer. And rather nice it is too.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

at times, life is too short

I'm sure I'm doing it wrong. I have been making ice cream this evening. All evening. The infusing of the milk, the cooling, the making the custard, more cooling ... I am now on the freezing and hourly stirring (I am paranoid about ice crystals) ... at 1.30am I will confess to being tempted to throw the damn bowl out of the window.

We each have our own threshold where some things in the kitchen (or indeed in life in general) cease to offer a sufficient return on investment. There are also a few things which you will only make once or twice, just to be sure you can. I suspect ice cream will shortly come into this latter category. The one thing I really do think is worth it is pastry, no doubt with the warmer weather I'll be getting into quiches and tarts imminently, and will of course let you know how I get on.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

the asparagus rush ...

Tis the season. Asparagus prospectors can be seen at weekend farmers markets and making illicit lunchtime trips to the grocer, scouring stalls for the purple-green glint of the spears. I am no exception. The British asparagus season begins, by tradition, on the 23rd April. Having been marathoning last weekend, today was my first opportunity to join in the fun. Rather than jostling with the bugaboos on Northcote Road I headed to Raynsford's on Battersea High Street who didn't disappoint.

As with peas, the longer you leave between picking and eating asparagus, the more of the sugars will have turned to starch. This is one of the many reasons to buy British asparagus, and an excellent excuse for eating it as quickly as possible.

There are many wonderful things you can do with asparagus, usually the simpler the better. The below was today's chosen route. River cobbler is a sustainable white fish from Vietnam. I'm well aware that for someone who refused to buy Spanish tomatoes the other day fish all the way from Asia is faintly ridiculous. Little by little I am trying, I promise.

Grilled asparagus with prosciutto and river cobbler

big bunch of asparagus
2 fillets river cobbler (or one large one cut in half)

Asparagus spears are sold longer than you need them, the woody ends should be taken off before cooking. There is a lovely trick here which enables you to remove just the right amount - just bend them and the spears snap in the right place. Magic.

Once you've finished being delighted by the simple beauty of snapping each spear, wrap little bundles of them with a strip of prosciutto, three or four stalks in each.

The next steps aren't rocket science ... hot griddle pan, about 7 minutes on each side. I made a little tent of foil over the top to enable the asparagus to steam a little as well as grill, grilling the fish in the other side of the same pan. We ate this with lovely Maltese new potatoes.

I love it when a plan comes together.