Monday, 27 July 2009

The Settler's Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

We rely on food to give us a sense of place, of home. Nowhere is this more true than in the cooking of Britain’s immigrant population, where the rituals of familiar, native dishes re-affirm life’s rhythms and structures, when all else is lost.

In her memoir, The Settler’s Cookbook, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown traces the history of her ancestors, settlers from India brought to East Africa to build the railways, or lured by the promise of a flourishing wealthy society under British colonial rule in independent Uganda. The early chapters describe a ‘land of milk and honey’ – a riot of colour and sensory riches where the Asians found a life of some status, yet never quite letting go of their roots, culinary and otherwise. The tension, however, simmers under the surface, like a slow-cooking dhal, exploding every now and then as the three populations – British, Asian and African – struggle to define their own roles in a convoluted, pressurised system, clashing as they do so.

Idi Amin’s expulsion of many thousands of East African Asians from Uganda in the 1970s forced them to flee to an imperial ‘homeland’ many of them had never been to. Yasmin describes how once again the Asians became settlers, struggling to adjust to yet another culture struggle, another way of life where they were again de-valued, place-less in society and how – once more – food became the anchor as they found their feet.

Her recipes, passed down, thread their way through the book, binding the narrative, lending evocative colour, flavour and aroma. The recipes themselves are gorgeous and demand to be cooked, but a word of warning: the ingredients are not written in user order and it pays to read the whole recipe through first as little things might catch you out, like turning on the oven, or suddenly needing something finely chopped and quickly...
I love the idea of the wonderful combination of Zanzibari Prawns and Spinach Dhal, in fact I've copied so many recipes into my books, I don't know quite where to start, but I will be blogging as I go. There'll be no stopping me once I know my moong from my channa dhal...
Anyway, go buy. It's brilliant and has induced an almost insatiable need to get cooking.

Galvin at Windows

It has to be said, I am not a big fan of the Hilton group. Their progeny notwithstanding, I have had the misfortune to stay regularly at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham (is this different) and the experience hasn't left me thinking kindly towards them.

So when we started collecting vouchers from The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago to eat in any one of a massive number of Michelin-recommended restaurants, MCD was more than surprised when I announced my first choice was Galvin at Windows, on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane. I have longed to eat at their brasserie near Baker Street and never managed it, so this was potentially a gift from the gods.

The offer entitled us to a three course menu for £25 - not bad, not bad... We deliberately arrived early for cocktails at Trader Vic's in the basement - in homage to Ma and her swinging London days, before launching ourselves up to the 28th floor. (Not literally, I mean, we didn't have rocket backpacks or anything - we took the conventional lift route).

Our table was right on the podium, bathed in the evening sun. The views over the Serpentine were just spectacular - stunning in the light. Dragging our eyes away from the view (there'll be no romantic gazing into each other's eyes here...) we ordered from the menu - four choices per course. For starters, I chose the red mullet escabeche with mackerel brandade and coriander cress, MCD the ham hock terrine with gribiche sauce, sourdough and an unexpectedly generous roundel of foie gras in the centre.

While we waited for our wine - a bottle of Gigondas, a weakness of mine whenever I see it - we had an amuse-bouche of lightly jellied tomato consomme with a gazpacho of vegetables on the top. Light, refreshing, essentially tomato-ey, it was a good start.

Then the starters, The red mullet was excellent, my only quibble not enough of the brandade (a mere teaspoon on some melba-style olive bread). Matt's terrine was equally good, and I managed to nick a bit of his foie gras (in training for later).

For main, we had both chosen the duck with peach tart fine, Bigarade sauce and carrot and ginger puree which came with some slightly incongruous pak choi. I have to say, the main course choices inspired me less - risotto primavera (why? It's summer), pork belly with lentils (my default dish) and steamed cod with squid which would have tempted me apart from the fact I don't like cod... It was delicious, I'm always a sucker for meat-fruit combinations and there was more than the usual smear of sauce which makes me happy.

Desserts are always a tricky one. I don't have a sweet tooth at all, so my usual option is cheese (£5 supplement). But I was prepared - like the trooper I am - to have the creme brulee if required. 'No,' said MCD. 'I'll do it - I'll be a man, wade into the breach and order the brulee, damn it. You have the cheese, my sweet.' Reader, this generosity of spirit is one of the many reasons I married him. And then, joy of joys, there was a cheese trolley. Yes to Epoisses, Camembert with Calvvados, a particularly pungent Gorgonzola, a little goats cheese and something else I'd never had before but the waiter insisted I tried. God, it was good. I was happy, content, snuffling round my cheese wheel.

And then MCD's dessert arrived. Now - what-ever, as they say - to the creme brulee. I make them at home, I love them, but they're not that interesting to me unless every other option has been exhausted. And then I noticed the napkin at the side of the plate, with something lightly golden peeking shyly out from beneath the folds. 'What's that?' I queried, as my hand wandered over. 'Nothing. Get off. GET OFF.' came the stern reply. 'No, really, what is it?' 'Mine'. Faced with such opposition I employed guerilla tactics got to the napkin and whipped it off to reveal - much like the clams in the Walrus and the Carpenter I always think - 2 golden madeleines crouching there.

With them revealed to the world, and not for hiding, MCD let me have a bite. As I say, I don't have a sweet tooth, but reader those were the best damn madeleines this side of the 20th century. A la recherche du plus des madeleines, as I believe Proust did not say. Warm, slightly eggy but in a good way, light.... well I'm ashamed to say we fought. It got ugly. There was creme brulee and bribery involved. We're friends again, but you know... it was close.

We finished with the world's most expensive espresso (£4.75 - the same as MCD's pot of tea) and petits fours from L'artisan du chocolat. The bill was a rather excessive £140 inc service, but with nearly a tenner for tea and coffee, £5 on cheese and lots of bottled water and a treaty bottle of wine, it's not too bad. And there was the view. And the madeleines...

Friday, 24 July 2009

A taste of Thai for a rainy night

Monsoon rains and all this soggy dampness make me long for something zingy and refreshing to cheer up my tastebuds. Thai really fits the bill when this hits and I think tamarind and lime has to rate as one of my favourite flavour combinations of all time.
First catch your plate - it has to be large. I had some pork mince hanging around (or rather, it was the only thing I could see in the freezer, most other things obscured by a massive side of smoked salmon and 2 frozen lobsters - a haul from Costco courtesy of lobster-lover and bargain-hunter MCD - don't ask). I added some chopped spring onions and lime zest, salt and pepper and fashioned it into small patties, like flattened meatballs.
I made a dressing from Thai fish sauce, lime juice, more chopped spring onions, sugar and chilli - it's hard to be accurate about quantities as it's down to personal taste, but start off with a tsp of each and work from there.
I peeled courgette ribbons and dropped them on a plate with some chopped mint, torn basil and a few halved cherry tomatoes. Then blanched some green beans (this wasn't at all using up veggies from the garden...). I carefully separated some lettuce leaves, keeping the whole and added them to the plate. The patties were seared until golden brown on each side and cooked through then I squeezed over a little lime juice and some salt.
Each patty was then wrapped in a lettuce leaf with some of the herby vegetable mixture, using the lettuce like a tortilla. I spooned some of the dressing over the patty and devoured. Hot pork, crunchy cool vegetables and a spicy, sour, salty dressing. The beans benefited from a little of the dressing too, or you could keep them plain or not have them at all, depending on whether you're relying on someone to pick them at more regular intervals...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Too high a price to pay?

Too often we simply feed our faces without thinking of what it took - and what price was paid - to put the food on our plate. Melanie Reid's article on the tragic case of the Aquila - where 3 fishermen lost their lives this week - and what it actually means to be a scallop fisherman is both fascinating and disturbing.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A lazy Sunday

I spent three days last week at Borough Market promoting CherryAid - my work's campaign to promote the British cherry - and it was knackering. Brilliant, fun and thank you to everyone who signed up, bought cherries and came along to the CherryBake, but still - knackering. So when Sunday rolled around, I was too tired to really think about cooking up a storm; rather, watching the storms outside while reading books upon books with a dog on my lap.

So what did I end up with? Breakfast was utterly wonderful and plagiarised from Val Warner's new book. I dared to eat - not a peach - but a nectarine, halved and de-stoned, which I placed on a large white plate and sprinkled with a little dried oregano. I then toasted a tsp of fennel seeds in a pan. While toasting, I spooned some Greek yoghurt next to the nectarine and trickled over some heather honey. I topped it with the fennel seeds. A feast on the lighter side, but with a couple of croissants on the side, warmed through, and a large pot of black Columbian coffee from Union Roasted, all it lacked was the sunshine to eat it in.

Sunday dinner was even lazier. I had defrosted a couple of thin venison steaks but lost the urge and energy to eat a meal of separate components. So I fried them for 1 1/2 minutes per side, then rested them in foil. I deglazed the pan with red wine and added a small amount of a curious Italian fruit jelly (blackberry...?). I split some warmed ciabatta and piled in thinly sliced venison, rocket leaves (from our new diminutive crop) and a couple of cherry tomatoes (straight from the vine). The only other thing I added was a schmear of wild mushroom pate underneath the venison.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A moment of reflection

Last night I watched one of the most moving - and pride-inducing - things I have seen this year. The sight of literally thousands and thousands of people, from babies to war veterans lining the route at the repatriation ceremony in Wootton Bassett was both heartbreaking and wonderful. Those 8 boys - for boys they were with not one of them over 30 - deserved their heroes' homecoming. Their names were William Aldridge (18), James Backhouse (18), Joseph Murphy (18), Daniel Simpson (20), Daniel Hume (22), Jonathan Horne (28), Lee Scott (26) and John Brackpool (27). All died within 24 hours of each other. As India Knight commented on Sunday, we thought the age of cannon-fodder had passed; it seems not. We should remember them and think perhaps the youth today is not quite as bad as we like to make out.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Glorious Technicolour

You must excuse the self-indulgence of this particular post, but I simply had to show off our sudden brilliant corner of wildflowers.
For much of the year so far our garden has been a determined, thriving, but rather steadfast and dull green. There was a burst of lilac from the clematis and the fuchsia contributed perfect teardrops of white and pink, but for the main, it was green. We scattered - more in hope than expectation - a corner with wildflower seeds, as much for the butterflies and bees as for us and a way to break up the verdant monotony. Nothing happened. For months all we had were more green weeds. We had no way of knowing if they were even the wildflowers or whether we should get on top of this sudden weedy outbreak. Then, last week, a few daisies started to come through, and from then on there's no stopping them. There are poppies and cornflowers, daisies and some rather nice yellowy ones, all next to a sudden sunburst of nasturtiums - and now there's more colour than quite seems seemly. Even the miniature hydrangea is blossoming pink and perky. So this is my indulgence. A positively Jackson Pollock-esque splotch of colour - just from weeds.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Wings and other things

It's been a while since my last post and Summer seems to be sadly settling down into something more normal. But we soldier on - and I have to admit the garden is loving the rain - next post I promise some pictures of our curiously sudden Wildflower Corner with a plethora of brightest orange nasturtiums - suddenly, suddenly we have colour in the garden and it's ultimately cheering.

Anyway, back to what's been going on... The garden is springing along, with the second crop of rocket and spinach coming along. We're now digging up potatoes, cropping cavolo nero and picking green beans. The kale looks almost ready too. The pak choi sits there dispiritedly wondering if we're ever going to release it from its bed of pain. Sad, but we still can't get to it. Ooh and we have lots of orange tomatoes, which will stay thus and so could adorn a bacon sandwich on Sunday morning.

So, I'm still not buying any veg but I have made a discovery of a Farmers market in Penge just down the road from the Sibling (new character everyone - brace yourselves...). And whatever you can't get there, there is a really excellent butchers just round the corner. I bought some truly good chicken liver pate from Tom's Chickens as well as the most enormous wings you have ever seen - almost pterodactyl in size, but meatier and obviously less leathery... 8 to a pack and barely a couple of quid.

So what did I do with them? Well, for a start we could only manage 3 each but I heartily recommend them for lunch the next day so cook as many as you can fit in a tin. Cover with hearty amounts of olive oil, salt and paprika and roast for 40-45 mins at about 200C. Meanwhile, make a dressing of handful of parsley and sprig of rosemary, finely chopped with garlic. Stir in juice of a lemon, a drizzle of sherry (dry please) and enough olive oil to make it pourable. Chopped chilli, (about a tsp, but as much as you like, bearing in mind the paprika), salt and pepper and leave to sit. When the wings are golden and sticky, spoon over the dressing and leave for 5-10 minutes to cool. (I say this in retrospect - I have no fear of molten food but MCD squeals like a girl if anything is above room temperature, so burnt fingers were a minor issue last night).

With it: runner beans cut into aesthetically pleasing diamond shapes, lightly cooked, then turned in a dressing of finely chopped shallots, red wine vinegar and olive oil, all piled on top of shredded sorrel.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Reasons to be grateful...

It is summer. Yes it's hot but if it wasn't, we would be living somewhat more north than here. It would be much colder and we wouldn't have roses, bbqs, daisies, broad beans or a childish love for a paddling pool, be it in inflatable form or a mere bucket.

Yes it's sweaty and goodness, how can one sleep at night, but at least we're not shivering under a double duvet and 2 blankets rubbing our chilblains and dreading the morning stumble around in the pitch darkness of a gloomy chilly morning with a trenchant, icy swirl of wind and rain to look forward to.

We can:
1. Get up earlier and have so much more day.
2. Leave the house in roughly what we're wearing.
3. Eat outside, enjoying the greedy wheezes of the baby blackbirds while sipping a cool drink and eating something fabulously crisp and refreshing.
4. Enjoy salad - my preference is for a Thai dressing. Cooling in the extreme.
5. Sleep naked - so much sexier than having to devolve oneself of cumbersome pyjamas, socks and diving into bed, teeth chattering before getting warm.
6. Have seemingly endless evenings - how far the possibilities stretch when there's a golden sunset.
7. Drink rosé without scrunching up your face or feeling out of kilter.
8. Every weekend feels like a mini-break - no matter what you're doing, it's better with sunshine and even better horizontal in a chair with a bikini on.
9. Not worry about BO because everyone has it. Unless they're botoxed - and what is wrong with a good musky sweat up (this from the girl with no sense of smell...)
10. The colours, people, the colours. The sky is so endlessly blue, you could be anywhere in the world, but you're here, it's Wimbledon and could it be any better?

Let's be grateful we've got a summer. Now if they'd just cancel Glastonbury, we might get rid of torrential monsoons as well.