Monday, 28 September 2009

In which we go a little tomato crazy....

A few ideas on what to do with a glut of tomatoes, be they cherry, small like Sweet Million, or larger like Shirley or Gardener's Delight...

1. A light tomato soup. I was reluctant to make this, as I'm not a massive soup fan and even less of a tomato soup fan. However, it ended up quite well, as I was basing this on a Bloody Mary mix, (it sounded fun to me) even if I say so myself. Roast a roasting tin's worth of tomatoes in the oven until blackened. Meanwhile, sweat a diced onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, crushed and maybe 2-3 sticks of chopped celery in a little olive oil. (NB peel your celery otherwise the stringy bits are horrible). Add some basil stalks and leaves, then tip in your roasted tomatoes and 500ml chicken stock. I cooked it up a bit (I sound like Katharine Hepburn 'we gotta cook it up George') then stirred in a tbsp-ish of horseradish and some Tabasco and some chopped celery leaves. I then whizzed it up with a hand-blender and seasoned. You might want a squeeze of lemon juice or more spice - taste as you go. I then dolloped in creme fraiche for thickening it a little before serving.

This is by no means a thick soup, (and it occurs to me that it would be gorgeous chilled with or without creme fraiche), and you might want some bread - or better perhaps - a toasted cheese sandwich with it....

2. Ketchup. reduce 3kg of tomatoes down to 3 bottles... I am the anti-Jesus. I'm not going to copy it out here, but suffice to say, having perused a few recipes in the collection and ummed and err-ed between Hugh and Jamie, I went for Jamie's recipe in Jamie at Home (which is a good book), but left out the ginger as I felt it wasn't a flavour I wanted in my ketchup. Also, it's worth bearing in mind, although I did double the recipe, it took (and I know this because it was my birthday and this is how I spent it - god damn my dedication) near on 5 hours to make in total. Admittedly, the work involved is pretty minor as you're mostly reducing it down to concentrate flavours, but still it's a pot that needs watching.

3. Pasta sauce. I've given up - for the time being - sweating them in a pan with garlic and oil, as I got bored of the flavour. I now just roast them with lots of seasoning and rosemary and a drizzle of red wine vinegar, then when done to a turn, tipping them over the pasta as they are and drizzling with oil. I notice Nigel last week on t'telly did his with (aargh tinned) black olives and capers - I also like chopped melted anchovies, roasted garlic, lots of basil, etc, etc. Gently torn apart buffalo mozzarella goes well.

4. Roasting them around anything else - tonight grey mullet with cockles, tomatoes, garlic - sort of bouillabaisse flavours....
PS: roasting cockles in a tin like this with everything else makes them more savoury and punchier than you ever might expect. Not one for the faint of heart, but good.

5. Tomato salad - any which way you like, but a sprinkling of chilli flakes does wonders.
6. Green tomatoes - slice thickly, coat in cornmeal/polenta and fry till crisp. What about for breakfast with bacon?

Friday, 25 September 2009

Fact of the Day...

Did you know that Charles Martell, beloved inventor of Stinking Bishop cheese, has no sense of smell. Bless the man.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Le Cassoulet

See these - perfect lovely scallops. As part of a perfect (pretty much), lovely meal last Friday at Le Cassoulet in Croydon.

Now you might not think Croydon a foodie mecca, but once you head down the high street towards South End, you start to hit a small lacuna of restaurants that are worth more than a quick eyeball through the window and a scurry past. We intend to visit them all, including Albert's Table, highly recommended by your Bookseller, and Fish and Grill, run by Malcolm John, part of a small chain that owns Chiswick's Le Vacherin and Le Cassoulet.

Back to the matter in hand: Le Cassoulet was almost extravagantly wonderful - and this in spite of MCD running the first day of a horrific cold, and even through his extreme discomfort, he loved it. We were also the youngest in there by a good 20 years, which indicates that the older denizens of Croydon know a good thing when they see it.

So glass of house Champagne to start with and a peruse of the menu. LC bills itself as French and I would say leaning towards Alsace, with the extensive - and mostly judicious - use of Alsace bacon throughout. We quibbled over starters: MCD eventually going with scallops with a black pudding raviolo and a little schmear of apple puree; I chose the octopis carpaccio with fennel, orange and caper salad. The scallops were to die for, the raviolo perfectly delicately thin, filled with a slightly spicy French-style boudin noir. My octopus was very firm in the mouth, but not tough - textured is the word - with the salad sprightly and refreshing in all the right ways.

Main courses were tougher. We both leaned towards the chateaubriand, but then we were going to be having an awful lot of cow over the weekend, so MCD went with slow-cooked lamb shoulder with haricot beans and a pomme puree (we will not go into his peculiar obsession with chips at every meal out...). This was delicious, but the little pot of haricot beans and goodies was odlly devoid of beans.... I nearly, so very nearly, went for the confit pork cheek with choucroute, but couldn't match a red wine I fancied with it, so ended up with the most amazing roast partridge. This, dear reader, was a work of art...

Firstly, I was presented with the whole partridge, very much dead but possessed of a bronzed goldenness hiterto unseen in St Tropez. We made our acquaintance most cordially. It was then returned to me with more accessories than a WAG in aforementioned St Tropez. The sauces - 4, count 'em -comprised a brown butter for pouring on first (a first for me too, but duly noted as an excellent idea), a creamy bread sauce, a rowan jelly and a deep red wine jus to flood the plate. Not mentioning the warm game chips, the watercress and the side of epinards a la creme... All fabulous, accompanied by a red from their Natural selection - a Cotes de Jura Pinot Noir - not too heavy as to send you to sleep, but more than a match for the lamb and the game.

Desserts - we're still going - were a bit of an oddity. MCD fancied the poached peach (in September...?) with honeycomb ice cream, which he loved, but which apparently last week had been poached pear, but was now peach... I mused over the cheese trolley, decided it might be a tad too much and plumped for madeleines which came with English strawberries (in September... again...?), which were fabulous, but wanted a sabayon-style accompaniment to be perfect, I think. Un petit Muscat pour encourager les autres and we were just about done.... The bill was incredibly reasonable - for all this glorious bounty, plus water, plus a glass of vin de pays de Gers white with my octopus + tip came to about £160. Not a cheap meal out, but not outrageous.

It's worth noting they offer steak deals in the week as well as 3-course deals, all of which are almost ridiculously reasonable (steak + accompaniments + good glass of red for less than a tenner...?). Go, go now. Just make sure you book, cos we'll be beating you to it.

PS: Don't tell me we aren't lucky to live where we live.... Check out Time Out - Exhibition Rooms and Fish and Grill in 1st and 2nd post...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

In which we are violated and the bubble bursts

I have always subscribed to the somewhat hackneyed cliche that an Englishman's home is his castle. I particularly love our own castle and the area in which we live in leafy SE London; I love the big and beautiful houses, the short walk to Crystal Palace and the farmers' market, the green leafiness of it all.

Unfortunately so do potential burglars. I was woken from a solo (MCD was out) semi-slumber at the early hour of 9.50pm (early, but I was knackered from little sleep the night before and trying to ease the sciatica cramp curiously in my leg and foot) by a man apparently of the notion that climbing through my bedroom window would afford him access to all the riches of China. Unfortunately for him, I didn't share the notion and he certainly wasn't expecting a 5ft screaming banshee to shoot out of bed, throw open the window and get in his face yelling 'Get off my fucking roof. I'm calling the police.' Duly alerted to my territorialism, he slid down the roof, back into next door's garden, whence he came and - I have to admit - seemingly sauntered off. At this point I realised I could keep yelling 'I'm calling the police', but it would be more helpful to actually call the police...

I have to say they were amazing. I've never actually seen them swing into action before, but within 10 minutes there were dogs, forensics, welfare officers and a helicopter. They even threw a dog onto the roof to track the scent. They took statements, fed me brandy, waited with me until a very shaken MCD returned, dusted for prints all over. This morning I have had a re-visit to check on me and give me crime prevention tips.

And here's the thing. I have always felt, if not inviolable in the house, at least well-protected. We have great neighbours, we recently installed a fuck-off massive gate and fence at the back and had new security double-glazing. And frankly it makes not the slightest bit of difference if an opportunistic son-of-a-bitch decides that he can pop the neighbour's fence, swing up a tree and in through an open bedroom window (this in itself makes me mad - his presumption that we would be stupid enough to go out for the night, leaving the windows open. Certainly the house was in darkness with only the porch light on, but really - he thought we were that stupid...?).

But now I'm severely shaken. Granted I'm writing this on no sleep, much coffee, races of adrenaline and no breakfast, but now my home doesn't feel quite so safe any more and I hate this man for that. I hate that he has - in part - tarnished a little of the dream of living here. I hate, that by his audacity and lack of morals and downright execrable way of life, he has destroyed my illusion of inviolability, of feeling protected, of making my husband worry about leaving me in the house alone - and making me anxious about it too.

I am obscurely and pervertedly pleased that the police labelled me a 'fighter' not a 'flighter'; that I - in sheer naive and incredulous outrage - stood up and yelled him off my roof (my head refuses to determine all the possiblities for damage and death that may have afforded), but at 4am this morning, patrolling because I couldn't sleep and there were noises, I felt small and afraid and worried.

We're extremely lucky this bastard (I must apologise for the swearing, but I am so mad) just ran off, but it could have been different. So lesson for today is: Install the security lights you've been putting off because of course you always shut your windows when you're out. Install a burglar alarm. Put gripper rods along your fence because they will always find a way in. And I hate that it has come to making our beautiful lovely lovable house a fortress; that we have to actively defend rather than enjoy. But if it stops some madman trying to crawl in through your window in the evening with the express intention of destroying your life, do it.

Monday, 7 September 2009

A touch of retro...

I don't know if I'm not instinctively retro - even the thought of getting a new phone brings me out in hives (all I want is a radio for dear old Terry (oh god can I bear his passing...?) and soon-to-be-even-dearer Radio 4), but then again, I can bang on about good old SEO till the cows come home - and look at me, I'm a blogger - though not yet a tweeter (the time it takes)... But I do wonder where I stand on food.

Were there really good old days in the food world? Yes, yes the government wants to get us all growing potatoes and putting carrots where they really have no business being - and I'm not saying this is a bad thing, devoted as I am to our vegetable plot - but rations weren't all health-a-go-go and bringing a bunny home for the pot. It was hard, hard work to make food that was nutritious and tasted good - it still is - on practically no money and families to feed or else they starve.

Go back even 30 years and the great stampede of convenience food was rearing its plastically-moulded head and we're still living in its apocalyptic shadow even now. But other things have moved on - thank goodness we've gotten away from nouvelle cuisine, or the hideous nightmarish creations of Fanny Cradock or ... or... oh, we've kept everything else, even Smash. We do love our foodie kitsch, it seems.

Restaurants are a shining example of keeping on top of food trends. There's still a chasm in this country I think. Some restaurants take pride in serving good food at decent prices (a relatively recent invention) and their customers recognise it and everyone's a winner; some prefer to serve utter shit and then any money you pay is too much, but they thrive because they are cheap and who bothers complaining... (another can of worms and one for another day). Some restaurants are slowly looking dated - Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, anyone? A genius of his day and probably still a genius chef, but someone change that menu from 1999 to 2009 - and charge the earth, but you're in the hands of a cooking god, don'tcha know? And some places keep steadily doing what they've been doing for 20 or 30 years and because the food is good and well-cooked and sweetly served, because the atmosphere is welcoming and the owner takes care in saying hello and goodbye, they survive even when a glance at the menu makes you wonder why in this racing age of foams and sherberts and clever ideas on cocktail sticks.

All this is a terribly long-winded way of saying Luigi's in Gipsy Hill (no link - there's no website - look at the post-modern retroism) is a rather fabulous place to spend a Friday night. Just on the junction of Gipsy Hill, opposite The Mansion (one to visit - see 1st category), they're quietly going about serving food that wouldn't have been out of place 35 years ago and yet it's still doing a roaring trade. Bruschetta, for the non-cognoscenti, is still described as roast toast. That alone endears it to me. There's even butter curls.

Squid salad came with prawns and mussels and that curiously-texture squid which implies bottled but might not be with a pungent dressing. Mussels with their winey tomato sauce came heaped with garlic roast toast for dipping. Veal osso bucho (sic) was a mammoth piece of cow shin with the marrow still within the bone (more bread please) and a timbale of risotto. Side dishes included carrot batons, hot and crisp deep-fried courgettes, spinach redolent of garlic and turned and impeccably scraped new potatoes. Duck, curiously with lemon and honey, was cooked to a turn, the legs well done but the meat falling from them.

There's a dessert trolley with tiramisu - ask for cheesecake and you'll get what looked distinctly like a quarter of the whole - MCD tried his best, bless him. Espresso is a shot to the heart after the behemoth portions.

And it's the small touches. The fact our chosen wine wasn't available, but a more expensive one recommended but sold at the cheaper price; the flood of Italian from the owner when he thought I knew more than how to order in a restaurant (my graduation cert has a lot to answer for); the fact he dines there, interrupting his dinner to welcome and wave farewell to all the guests - not customers, but guests. The slightly creaking courtesy, the green tiles reminiscent of a Greek taverna - It all made you want to order a Dubonnet and wish the 70s had never left.

But back then it might not have felt half as clever as it does now.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

A dilly of a pickle...

... which happens to be my favourite bon mot at the moment... Anyway, green beans - nightmare - they get out of control running rampant within the confines of their wigwam (so not very out of control at all, in fact), get too long, too twisty, too pale to look any good. So, dear reader, we pickle them.

I've never really been into making jams and pickles and things - never had to deal before with an own-grown glut of things, so this was actually my first attempt. I have been driven for some years, however, to look out for a pickled green bean recipe - when I was in Boston a few years ago we went for the most awesome brunch and my Bloody Mary was served not with a celery stick, but with a pickled green bean. I thought the combination magical and have been on the lookout ever since, but nothing quite hit the mark until this. The base of the recipe comes from Christine McFadden's Farm Shop Cookbook.

So... with my notes...

Makes 4 x 600ml jars (I halved the recipe as I only had 2 jars).

850g green beans, stalks removed (I had as many as I could pick but that seemed to pack into 2 Kilner jars, but I did have to cut them in half to fit them in.)
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled
8 sprigs dill
1.25 L distilled (malt) vinegar (careful halving this as you may need more than half. I can't explain that - I failed Physics over and over)
280g sugar
2 1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp dill seeds (in lieu of which I used fennel seeds)

Plunge the beans into boiling water for 3 minutes, then drain and refresh under cold running water. I did this as it's supposed to keep their viridian colour, but mucked it up later - see below. Pack vertically - or anyway you can - or layering into the kilner jars with the onion, garlic and dill sprigs.

Heat the vinegar, sugar, salt and dill/fennel seeds in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil briefly, then remove from the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes. I recommend cooling almost completely, as pouring it over the beans when hot renders them khaki rather than appetisingly bright green, as you're continuing the cooking somewhat. Ideally the liquid should come to the top. Seal and store in a cool place for at least a week.

I left these 9 days, then cracked a jar open. The beans had retained their crunch, which I had been worried about and tasted fabulous. A little on the short side, perhaps, but then, aren't we all...?

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Ultimate Burger

You need a few things to make up the perfect burger:
1. The right meat.
Just now I favour chuck, carefully de-sinewed and coarsely minced.
2. The right bun.
Supermarket ones are ridiculous in every sense; I like the idea of brioche buns but haven't yet found one to convince me and an old-fashioned floury bun somehow doesn't hit the right note for a thick own-made rare-cooked piece of beef. Try these - Tortano rolls from The Flour Station.
3. The right topping.
Hmm... tricky one. I dithered for years between the mayo-ketchup combo with fresh sliced tomatoes and a little lettuce, gherkin and melted cheese and blue cheese-mustard-with a tad of onion marmalade occasionally. Both are/were good. The one below's better.
4. Inspiration.
It's not enough to just fancy a burger - for it to be good, you've got to put love, effort, quality into it, otherwise you may as well bugger off to McB King. And occasionally it's enough to read something completely drool-inducingly inspiring - Let me introduce the Bobcat Burger from Helen Graves' Food Stories blog. People, this is our model.

I use about 120g per burger and add simply salt and pepper before rounding it to a thick patty. The reason I like my burgers thicker rather than flatter is that I like them rare and this gives you more margin for error what with the essential resting period.

Cook the burgers preferably in a heavy-based sauteuse, until done to just under your liking. Probably about 2-3 mins per side if rare. Take them out, cover with foil and leave to rest. Then melt a knob of butter in the pan and add a green chilli, sliced and de-seeded (if like me, you want a little heat but more flavour) and about 100ml hot chicken stock. Fry the little chillies in the mixture until the liquid has reduced a bit. Tip in any resting juices from the burgers.

Tip this mixture carefully over the burgers, making sure the chillies perch on the burger, then cover with lots of finely-sliced cheese - I had Jarlsberg, because that's what I could find, but try Gruyere - point is, you want something relatively mild, but that sticks the chillies to the burger. Flash under a hot grill to make the cheese ooze.

Manoeuvre into a split Tortano bun and devour. The buns themselves are very filling so you might not need the handful of home-made potato wedges I made to accompany this. We are simply piggies.

As Helen points out, these come courtesy of The Meat Wagon who tours around, but he's in The States at the mo, learning more on the perfect burger - experiment with this while he's refining his dark arts.

Frank's Cafe & Campari Bar or A Night Out in Peckham

Ok, so it would take a lot to make me go to Peckham, voluntarily, for dinner on a weeknight. A lot. A whole staff outing and someone else paying, is what it would take, more or less... Luckily that was what was on offer last Thursday when we decided to venture to Frank's Cafe and Campari Bar, a pop-up restaurant cunningly situated on the 10th floor of the multi-storey car park.

Finding it is not an issue. It's the car park. Getting to it, you run the gauntlet of the kids on bikes doing death-defying speed stunts around the unsurprisingly empty car park, up and down the ramps, avoiding - but only just - unexpected vehicles that have the temerity to be parked there. In the car park. Anyway, once you're out of the car on the 8th floor and you've made it up the next two up to the roof, your next challenge is to make it across the roof without the winds actually sent from hell blowing you over to a splattery death on the high street below. A second's hesitation and you're just another statistic - albeit rather a novel one and a great foodie-challenge way to go.

Having done so, you can then aim for one of the communal benches; people will be accommodating and shove up if you ask nicely. Once you've clocked your surroundings and ordered a drink - the campari list includes bicyclettes (see below) negronis, etc but look out for a light rose which lends a touch of summer to the blackening skies - you're good to go on ordering.

The menu's great - something for everyone and designed as dishes to share rather than hog, though I recommend if you're ordering the vegetables with anchoiade, order two. If you're ordering the ox heart, it comes salad-style so make it three. You might like the sound of crab on toast, charcuterie platters, salads, more vegetables with hummus, grilled sardines. It's all good, quickly cooked and arriving at will with nothing really overstepping the £5 plate. And you can keep it coming until the food actually runs out. That's my kind of restaurant.

With the darkness really setting in, the skyline does start to look quite beautiful; people milling trendily at the outer walls, drinking sophisticated drinks and smirting - you can see why it's a huge hit. There's nothing quite like it, certainly not in Peckham (hardly Food Central, if it doesn't mind me saying so) and people are packing in.

If you fancy going, make it sharp-ish as it closes from 30 September. And two tips - wrap up warm and for God's sake, whatever you do, take the lift down to the bottom on the right hand side of the building. The shiny silver one that goes up and down like Eeyore's balloon - not the old, crappy one that's liable to send you screaming for the wee-soaked stairwell, which in turn will send you screaming back to the elevator. It was eventful, that's all I'm saying...