Wednesday, 31 October 2007

White Bean and Chestnut Soup

One of the few things on which Mr A&N and I disagree is the notion of long walks. I can only presume his parents subjected him to some torturously long walks in horrible weather, over rugged terrain, and with no shoes to protect his delicate, child-sized feet, because the way he reacts to the question "Would you like to go for a walk?" tells me that there are some deep scars that are nowhere near healed. We've recently come to the agreement that if I'm to be successful in getting him to join me for a walk, there needs to be a reward involved in it: a pint of beer at the end, a slice of cake, a bacon sandwich thrust into his hand.

I'm willing to make the compromise because I love going for walks, and using it as time to enjoy the seasons. In autumn, I love finding piles of leaves and kicking and crunching my way through them, or finding shocks of color thrown against the normal landscape, nature's last dramatic gesture before the bareness of winter. Autumnal walks also provide the chance of gathering pocketfuls of edible goodies, which only adds to my joy in being out during this season.

It turns out, rather happily, that Mr A&N will accept as his walking-reward time spent hunting for food. I know, reader, I know - I'm as shocked by this turn of events as you are, but I'll confess that I couldn't be more pleased. So during our recent walk around Hampstead Heath, with our pockets full of chestnuts (and our hands cut and scratched from handling their casings), we both returned home content and thinking of how we could put our bounty to good use.

White Bean and Chestnut Soup (an approximate recipe)
Serves 2 for a main course, 4-6 for a starter

  • 300 g white beans
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
  • 250 g (approx) of unsmoked bacon
  • 200 g / 20 chestnuts, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 litres stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • (optional: milk or cream)
  • (optional: truffle oil)
  1. First, soak the beans over night to soften them. After soaking, drain and rinse the beans.
  2. Heat some olive oil in a stock pot, and add the onions, garlic, and half of the bacon (roughly chopped). Stir occasionally and allow the onions to soften and the bacon to mostly cook.
  3. Add the chestnuts and beans, and stir.
  4. Add in the stock and the bay leaf, and bring to a gentle boil.
  5. Allow to simmer away gently until the beans are well softened, about 45 - 1 hour.
  6. When the beans are near to finished, grill the remaining strips of bacon until crispy and chop up - these will go on top of the soup.
  7. Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaf from the soup, and blend about 3/4 of it.
  8. Return the blended soup to the pot with the rest of the soup, and stir together.
  9. Turn the heat back on to low, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  10. At this point, you may want to add a touch of milk or cream to the mixture if you want to making the consistency creamier; I prefer to leave it as it is since it is naturally quite creamy.
  11. Spoon into bowls and garnish with a handful of the grilled bacon.
  12. If you have truffle oil, you might want to drizzle a bit in each bowl in order to deepen the autumnal flavor of it.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Daring Bakers Bostini Cream Pie: The Pride Cometh Before the Fall

This month's Daring Bakers Challenge was to make Bostini Cream Pie (chosen by Mary at Alpineberry), an orangey, chiffony twist on your regular Boston Cream Pie. It involved home-made custard heavily laden with cream, which we in the A&N home don't really eat since dairy like that doesn't make us feel our best. When we were invited to a friend's for Sunday lunch, and that same friend dared me (yes, dared me) to make the dessert for the day, the Bostini Cream Pie seemed the perfect thing to make - I could off-load some of that dairy onto others, and the existence of a baking dare seemed to flow with the spirit of what the Daring Bakers are about.

I was very proud of how I earned my orange zest: the day before making the cake, I had a fresh orange juice from a local cafe and in a flash of inspiration, asked for the rinds as a donation which they were more than happy to give me (the man next to me tried to then haggle some 'disused bacon' for his dog, but he was less successful). In shopping for the rest of the ingredients, Mr. A&N kept acting like a little devil on my shoulder, trying to discourage me from buying the milk and cream and making the custard as I ought to ('Just buy the powdered stuff - you can use soy milk and no one will ever know...'). I knew I could alter the recipe to go non-dairy if I could find a decent substitute, but I couldn't really find any and knew that powdered custard certainly didn't fall into that category. I stood firm, repeating the no-undue-changes-to-the-recipe rule of the group again (and again, and eventually just ignoring Mr. A&N) and finally reminded him that he wasn't obliged to eat the cake.

And so to the cake making. I decided to make one large pie rather than 8 smaller ramekins-full, mostly for ease of traveling but also because I wanted to actually see the layers resting on top of each other rather than have them hidden inside a small dish. I made the cake-part first since I would put the custard to cool in the same tin; I had it all perfectly timed so that I would be bringing the custard to the boil just as the cake came out of the oven.

I was very proud of myself, from the free orange rinds to the precision-timing to the tidy mis en place I set up. The peaking of the eggs for the chiffon went
well, the folding the whites into the batter did too (although folding is always slightly curious to me, as if I'm tricking the batter into thinking I'm not over-mixing it. With each gentle turning over of the spatula, mentally whispering to it 'It's ok, see? I'm not really stirring. There - that was gentle, wasn't it?'). Mr. A&N came into the kitchen at this point to see how I was doing.

"It's pretty easy this month" I said. And then I did the worst possi
ble thing I could do. I laughed in the face of this challenge.
I had become over-confident.
Civilizations have been doomed for smiting the gods in such a wa
y, and like the great societies of old I was about to suffer my fall after all that pride.

The cake went in and around the 20 minute mark I began the custard. I took the cake out at 25 minutes as the recipe called for, and it had risen beautifully
but didn't spring back under my fingers as it ought; it made more of a sighing noise. The top was browning, but I stuck it in for another 10 minutes. I finished the custard, and again took the cake out. Touching it produced still more sighing but also a gentle springing. I was worried about the top getting too brown so I decided it was probably done and let it sit on the side. A few minutes passed and as I went to take the tin away from the cake, I saw that it had fallen and that a crater had grown in the center, revealing a very raw interior.

And it finally made sense: the recipe had called for 8 smaller servings, baked for 25 minutes. I had made one large serving but didn't think of increasing the cooking time.

The cake went back in the oven which by now had been off for 10 minutes. It cooked for another 30 minutes until it really did spring back to the touch. Only now, it wasn't so risen. It was fairly flat, and dense looking. Prying a piece of outer skin off revealed it to be chewy rather than light. From triumph to tragedy in a few easy steps.

The custard tasted fine and I put it into the cake tin (cake now removed) to set. Before leaving for my friend's place, I removed the custard from the fri
dge and set the cake on top. At this point, I discovered the cake had shrunk event further, and that the spring-form cake tin hadn't been entirely even-bottomed when I put it together. The custard hadn't leaked, but it was clear that when the cream pie was placed on a plate, it would be tilting to the side in a Pisa-like fashion.

The list of woes was complete after arriving at my friend's (with sad pie in tow) and in preparing to make the chocolate sauce I discovered that the only butter they had in the house was salted. Cue slightly-salty chocolate sauce, poured on top of the leaning flattened tower of pie.

My Bostini Cream Pie could have been more of a disaster, but only just. True, everyone had a slice, and some of the men went back for seconds. But coming close to producing a good result helped me to see just how much better the pie could have been. I look forward to reading about all the other Daring Bakers and their
successes, and living vicariously through their chatter about how delicious their pies were. Bostini and I clearly aren't meant to be close bed-fellows, but that shouldn't dissuade anyone else from trying it.

Bostini Cream Pie (from Donna Scala & Kurtis Baguley of Bistro Don Giovanni and Scala's Bistro)
(makes 8 generous servings)

Custard (Pastry Cream)

  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 2 3/4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 whole egg, beaten
  • 9 egg yolks, beaten
  • 3 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract)
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
Chiffon Cake
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 3/4 cup superfine sugar
  • 1 1/3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup canola/rapeseed oil
  • 1/3 cup beaten egg yolks (3 to 4 yolks)
  • 3/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup egg whites (about 8 large)
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Chocolate Glaze
  • 8 ounces semi or bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces unsalted butter
To prepare the custard (pastry cream):
  1. Combine the milk and cornstarch in a bowl; blend until smooth.
  2. Whisk in the whole egg and yolks, beating until smooth.
  3. Combine the cream, vanilla bean and sugar in a saucepan and carefully bring to a boil.
  4. When the mixture just boils, whisk a ladleful into the egg mixture to temper it, then whisk this back into the cream mixture.
  5. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
  6. Strain the custard and pour into 8 large custard cups. Refrigerate to chill.
To prepare the chiffon cakes:
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Spray 8 molds with nonstick cooking spray. You may use 7-ounce custard cups, oven-proof wide mugs or even large foil cups. Whatever you use should be the same size as the custard cups.
  3. Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl.
  4. Add the oil, egg yolks, orange juice, zest and vanilla.
  5. Stir until smooth, but do not overbeat.
  6. Beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.
  7. Gently fold the beaten whites into the orange batter.
  8. Fill the sprayed molds nearly to the top with the batter.
  9. Bake approximately 25 minutes, until the cakes bounce back when lightly pressed with your fingertip. Do not overbake. (note: If you're making fewer than 8 molds, you will need to increase the cooking time. My one large Bostini took 50-60 minutes to bake)
  10. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
  11. When completely cool, remove the cakes from the molds. Cover the cakes to keep them moist.
To prepare the glaze:
  1. Chop the chocolate into small pieces.
  2. Place the butter in a saucepan and heat until it is just about to bubble.
  3. Remove from the heat; add the chocolate and stir to melt.
  4. Pour through a strainer and keep warm.
To assemble:
  1. Cut a thin slice from the top of each cake to create a flat surface.
  2. Place a cake flat-side down on top of each custard.
  3. Cover the tops with warm chocolate glaze. Serve immediately.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Canela Cafe

My pregnant friend Amanda has had remarkably few cravings throughout her pregnancy, and has luckily been fairly free of bouts of sickness. That's lucky for me, too, since she's probably my most faithful dining companion, and this blog would have suffered along with her if her pregnancy had gone differently. When deciding where to eat recently, I tabled the idea of Canela Cafe, a casual Brazilian place in London. This tapped into an as-yet undiscovered craving in Amanda; her mother's family is Brazilian, and the notion of eating home-comfort food made her suddenly realize she urgently needed to have a bit of feijoada.

Feijoada is a black-bean based stew and it's about as traditional a Brazilian dish as you can get. I had never had it before, nor could I really think of any time I'd ever had Brazilian food, so I felt obliged to try the feijoada. It's a hearty, slow-cooked meal in the family of Tuscan bean soups or a cassoulet - the beans are cooked for ages with meat (usually pork - in this case, chorizo) and some flavoring, and is served with rice on the side as well as a bit of cornmeal to top it off.

With all that slow cooking, good flavors should definitely come out, but I was surprised to find my feijoada was fairly bland. There wasn't much richness to the sauce, and the chorizo was very fatty without being flavorsome. More salt added didn't do much to help other than make it more salty. Cheese bread on the side was also non-committal in its flavoring, and although was warm felt like it had been microwaved in order to make it that way.

Dessert was on the cards since there were several to choose from, and Amanda's home-comfort cravings dictated we would try the brigadeiro. She recounted to me, misty eyed, how her mother would make it at home, boiling condensed milk, butter, and cocoa powder and then rolling it into balls and dipping it in sprinkles. I must have let me attention lapse (sorry Amanda) because part of the recipe seemed to include the danger of her mother being hit by an exploding tin of condensed milk; I can't imagine that's a deliberate part of the dessert-making, since that would be either very brave or fool-hardy for the Brazilians to make it so often.

The brigadiero tasted like its ingredients, which meant it tasted like a ball of cake icing. Which is a wonderful thing in small doses, but Amanda and I each had a moment of pregnancy eating (her in reality, me in sympathy) and ordered a brigadiero each. They were big and I was nearly defeated, which doesn't happen to me often except on major holidays and when a large turkey is involved. The journey home was a struggle, and I do believe there was much reclining on the sofa when I got home in order to aid digestion.

Canela Cafe is probably best as a cafe. The coffees were nice, and there was a good variety of pastries to share with friends while you sip your frothy milky drink. Maybe because this coffee-and-cake atmosphere is so obviously appealing the food isn't given the attention it needs, or perhaps the Soho branch isn't up to the standards of the Covent Garden branch. Feijoada is exactly the kind of rich, warming dish that taps into the primal food lover in me; I'd like to sample it again (or maybe make it myself) but if there were a return trip to Canela I'd probably just stick with the cakes.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Rack of Lamb, Port and Cranberry Jus, and Parsnip and Horseradish Mash

I'm sitting in a cold, herb-less, husband-less house. Cold, because now that the evenings are chilly the empty, bricked-up shell of our extension sucks out all the heat from the rest of the house. Herb-less, because all the construction material in the garden has rendered my herbs a) impossible to get to and, more dramatically b) dead. And husband-less since Mr A&N has just started a new contract and is already working long nights and weekends. I tell you, between cooking for one and not having any herbs to make things taste special, sitting on the sofa (under blankets) and eating fish fingers sounds the smart thing to do.

But I persevere, and tonight I have tried to snap myself out of this rut in a grand way. To whit, I have enjoyed a lovely rack of lamb with a bit of port and cranberry jus, with parsnip and horseradish mash on the side. The combination of flavors is one I return to a lot – the rich and flavorful lamb, the slightly fruity and rich jus, and the mash with the astringent horseradish cutting through the starchy and sweet parsnips and potatoes. It did feel silly going to all this effort just for myself, and without a voice of reason I was very tempted to polish off the whole rack of lamb – it was there, I was there, we shared a special moment. But I was an adult and only ate my portion, leaving Mr A&N the chance for cold lamb chops when he got home at 11pm.

It was my first time for several of the things on the menu: first rack of lamb, first time working with fresh horseradish, first time making a real jus. The lamb was wonderfully easy to get right – a bit of quick browning on the stove, a bit of time in the oven, and a bit of time resting. All the recipes I looked at advised letting it rest for 10 minutes; perhaps because I spent a further several minutes setting up my camera and taking pictures it rested a bit longer than intended and it had cooled down by the time I got to it. I’d think of letting it rest for a little less time in the future and seeing what happens.

I expected the horseradish to be pungent in its raw form: Horseradish is in the mustard family, and I'm familiar with the sensation of eating too much horseradish or wasabi and feeling like someone has punched you between the eyes. However, I didn’t expect working with it to feel like I’d taken a piece of wool scouring pad and rubbed it on the inside of my eyelid. I’m delicate to begin with (onions always make me cry), but grating the horseradish made me weep in a way I don’t recall weeping since we put my childhood dog to sleep. I concluded I would have liked to taste a touch more horseradish in the mash, but to get it in there would have pushed me to the edge and beyond. May all of you not be as disfigured by it as I was. For my feat of daring-do with the horseradish, I'm submitting this post to Weekend Herb Blogging, this week hosted by Pille at Nami-Nami.

Rack of Lamb with Port and Cranberry Jus and Parsnip and Horseradish Mash
Serves 2

Tip: you should get the jus cooking first, since this takes the longest

Port and Cranberry Jus

  • 1 ½ C port
  • 2 tsp brown or muscovado sugar
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp dried cranberries
  • 1 ½ C chicken stock
  • Knob of butter
  1. Combine the port, brown sugar, shallot, garlic, and cranberries over a medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to the boil.
  2. Allow to boil until the mixture is almost syrupy or is almost reduced, about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the stock to the mix, and stir well. If stock is already salted, you may need to add more sugar in order to balance out the salty taste.
  4. Allow to continue boiling, again until mixture is thick and just about halved – another 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  5. Once nicely thickened and reduced, turn off heat and stir in a knob of butter.
  6. Strain to remove onions and cranberries if you would like a smooth sauce, leave rustic if not.

Simple Rack of Lamb

  • 1 rack of lamb (about 8 chops)
  • Oil
  1. Pre-heat oven to 170
  2. Heat up a bit of oil in a heavy pot or frying pan
  3. Brown rack of lamb for a minute or two on all sides, although don’t brown the ends
  4. Transfer to an oven-proof dish and cook for around 20 minutes; a thermometer should read 120 when it’s done
  5. [de-glaze the pan the lamb was browned in by pouring in a bit of the jus, and then returning this mixture to the pot where the jus is simmering]
  6. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes

Parsnip and Horseradish Mash

  • 4-5 parsnips (depending on their size)
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • Fresh horseradish
  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Boil a medium-sized sacepan full of water
  2. Peel and roughly slice up the parsnips and the potatoes to prepare for boiling.
  3. The parsnips will take slightly longer to boil than the potatoes will, so either place the parsnips in the boiling water a few minutes before you put the potatoes in, or cut up the parsnips into smaller pieces than the potatoes.
  4. Boil for 10-15 minutes or until the largest pieces are tender enough to stick a fork in.
  5. Drain the parsnips and potatoes and transfer to a large bowl for mashing.
  6. Make as you would normal mash, although with a bit less milk since the parsnips tend to take on more water.
  7. Peel some of the skin off the fresh horseradish, and using the fine side of the grater, grate about a tablespoon of horseradish into the mash (you might want more than this, or you might find yourself incapable of achieving the 1 Tbs because of the agony to your eyes).
  8. Stir thoroughly, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Dinner at Jill's

My great dream, if I had enough energy to quit the day job and follow the beat of my own drummer, would be to open a home-style bakery. Plump and chintzy cushions, the scent of vanilla always hanging in the air, and an endless supply of brownies, cupcakes, cookies, and pies. If I wanted a partner in this caravan of baked dreams, I could turn to my friend Jill, who aside from being a talented cook is a fervent baker.

We were recently treated to both Jill's cooking and baking as something of a house-warming dinner. Jill has moved to a new apartment alo
ng the Thames in London, in what I have always labeled one of my top 3 dream living locations. Her local grocer has become Borough Market, and she can have a cup of tea while looking out at one of London's more inspiring views (more on that in a bit). I'd admit to twinges of jealous (or, vast, huge, rolling floods of it) if I weren't above that sort of thing.

We ate asian-style tuna fish cakes, Italian-style pork loin rolled in fennel seeds, and then a lovely English plum and ginger crumble; truly global cuisine. It was hard to chose a favorite of the three, but based on group reaction I'd say the tuna fish cakes were the winner of the night; fresh meaty tuna, still just a touch on the side of rare, mixed in with horseradish and coriander and dipped into soya sauce for saltiness. A nice twis
t on white-meat fish cakes, and a bit healthier for not being deep fried.

Ah yes, and the views; I won't let words get in the way of the picture, but I will say that we could have been fed sawdust and still thought we ate like kings. I don't believe we were fed sawdust, though - you can sample the tuna fish cakes and see for yourself.

Tuna Fish Cakes (an approximate recipe)
Serves 6 as a starter

  • 1/2 lb of fresh tuna, roughly chopped into cubes
  • 1 Tbs fresh horseradish, roughly chopped (or same amount of horseradish sauce or about 1/2 Tbs wasabi paste)
  • 1 1/2 Tbs coriander, roughly chopped
  • 1 red chili, chopped (more, if you like it spicy)
  • 2 spring onions, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • sesame oil
  • soya sauce
  1. Combine the tuna, horseradish, coriander, chili, spring onions and salt in a bowl, stirring together so it is all well mixed.
  2. Form the tuna mixture into little burgers, patting together fairly well so the burgers stay together. Size is up to you, but flattened cakes about the size of the middle of your palm give each person a few cakes and cook quickly.
  3. Heat some sesame oil in a frying pan. When hot, place fish cakes into the pan. Don't overcrowd them, and leave enough room for flipping; you might need to cook the cakes in batches.
  4. Cook about 2 minutes on each side if the cakes are palm-sized.
  5. Serve immediately, with soya sauce on the side and a bit of salad leaves underneath.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Tapas at Meson Los Barilles

Ah, tapas. I have found people get very excited about the notion of 'tapas' (or perhaps it's just the word) - they enthuse about finding tapas restaurants, and the idea of tapas can now be extended into other cuisines than just Spanish (Japanese tapas, Indian tapas, and Mexican tapas are all themes I've seen about lately). Yet I often find tapas is just an excuse to serve small portions at relatively high prices for food that is just average. Occasionally, a place like Tapas Brindisia will come along and you'll understand what all the fuss is about, but I find there are more disappointingly average tapas places around London than there are excellent ones, and I always approach with caution.

And so to Meson Los Barilles around Liverpool Street. It's very exposed-brick-and-Spanishy (wine barrels abound in the bar area, on top of which you and your drink can perch if you're feel a shade continental). A basket of bread and some olive oil are quickly brought to your table; the bread and oil won't change your world, nor will the bulk of the menu with its well-rehearsed listing - spicy prawns pil pil, patatas bravas, albondigas. We ordered a mix of the predictable (albondigas) and less so (white wine, bean, and chorizo stew). The prawns pil pil were down right tiny and oily, which was the most disappointing item. The stew was good - decent chorizo but I couldn't taste the white wine - and the octopus with smokey paprika and sea salt was very good but would have been better if the paprika had been blanketing some bits octopus and not others. The bacalao, for me, was the stand out: the batter was light and crispy, and the fish was moist and meaty.

For wine and beers and enough bread and tapas to fill you up, it cost around £20 a head. Meson Los Barilles doesn't compare in quality to Tapas Brindisia, but you're also likely to spend twise as much at Brindisia. Meson Los Barilles has helped rescue the notion that tapas can be both cheap and flavorful, though I still think those places are a bit of a rarity and that Meson has pulled off the feat where many others fail.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Pumpkin and Sage Risotto

Autumn has definitely arrived in the produce section. From romanesco broccoli to the veg box full of squashes given us by Mr A&N’s mother (who runs such a formidable home vegetable garden she can just about sustain their two-person household all year) – as much as summer delights with its sweet berries and fresh greens, autumn holds a cornucopia of delights.

I like the fact that in the UK most of the pumpkins you'll find are intended to be eaten. Coming from America, I’m used to carving a pumpkin at Halloween or magically finding a pumpkin transformed into pie-state at Thanksgiving, but the pumpkin is never quite taken seriously as a food. Pumpkin can be fantastic roasted or made into soup, and home-roasted pumpkin seeds are as delicious to me as a big bowl of popcorn (and I rank that high on the deliciousness scale).

The petite pumpkin I picked up was designated in my mind to become a risotto; I had never tried it before, but the creaminess of a risotto seemed right to be paired with the pumpkin. It was also conveniently timed to let me join in the risotto relay event held at The Baker and the Curry Maker.
I really wanted to include sage in my risotto (that, too, just felt right) but sage is a very hard herb to find fresh. After going to 3 grocery stores I had to admit defeat (and I also had, I vowed again, to grow a hearty sage plant in the garden once our building works are done). We have emergency dried whole sage leaves in the cupboard which are little more than a sad gesture but I used them in the risotto anyway.

I roasted the pumpkin seeds with a bit of olive oil, salt, and plenty of pepper, and sprinkled the seeds on the top. The pumpkin was probably not as flavorful as it could have been, so along with the lack of real sage the risotto on the whole lacked a bit of a punch. Stoked up by generous amounts of parmesan, it was still a properly creamy and tasty risotto, and with an autumn full of pumpkins ahead I will probably be eating this again (if, please someone, I can find some fresh sage).

Pumpkin and Sage Risotto

Enough for 4 adults as a main course

  • 1 small pumpkin (up to 1 kilo)
  • 500 grams of risotto rice
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Handful of fresh sage, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 - 2 litres soup stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • Knob of butter
  • Parmesan, salt, and pepper to taste
  1. Skin and dice the pumpkin into small cubes (about 1 cm square is ideal)
  2. Chop the onion and garlic into small pieces
  3. Heat a bit of olive oil in a large pan or good cast-iron pot, and sautee the onions until soft
  4. Add the garlic and sage and stir
  5. Add the risotto and pumpkin and stir to coat
  6. Add the stock a cupful or two at a time so that the pumpkin and rice are covered
  7. Stir the dish constantly, only adding more liquid when the stock added has been absorbed.
  8. Keep stirring and adding stock until the rice and pumpkin are soft; about 20/25 minutes.
  9. Turn off the heat and add a knob of butter, and stir through the risotto.
  10. Add parmesean, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, with pumpkin seeds on top or on the side for a bit of crunch.

Friday, 12 October 2007

An Evening of Italian Cheeses

I was invited by the lovely Sarah Maternini (a passionate foodie by day, working for San Lorenzo to spread the word about Italian food, and a fellow daring baker and blogger by night) to a tasting evening hosted by San Lorenzo and focusing on Italian cheeses and wines. Now, anyone who knows me knows that cheese holds a drug-like sway on my psyche so an evening devoted to cheeses was bound to excite. What they also might not know is that Italian food is very precious to me, since it was during my semester abroad in Italy that I really learned how to eat for the first time (and that it wasn't by using a microwave that you'd make a great dinner). Good Italian food, and authentic Italian ingredients, are my equivalent of mother's milk, and there is no quicker route to making me happy.

As part of the tasting evening, we got to try 5 cheeses (paired with different honey) and 5 wines, along with a meal using the cheese and honey as part of their ingredients. Stand-out cheeses included a strong bagoss, and a very interesting testun al barolo, a cheese matured in the casks that formerly housed barolo wine, giving the cheese a rind coated in crunchy grape bits. I was also very happy to taste a chestnut honey, which produced a wave of autumnal Tuscany nostalgia in me and which tasted of rich, sweet chestnut essence.

In the meal, I most enjoyed the beef fillet with balsamic reduction, and rocket and parmigiano on the side - the beef was very tender and perfectly cooked, and the balsamic sauce was a good balance between sharp and sweet. The dessert was a pound cake made with chestnut honey, and I ate several slices on to which I drizzled even more honey on top (since more of a good thing is a wonderful, wonderful thing).

I've looked around San Lorenzo's website since going to their tasting evening, and it is full of food bits that would tempt any fan of Italian produce. The aged parmigiano can be difficult to find outside of special cheese shops and markets (such as La Fromagerie or Borough Market) and San Lorenzo is selling it in a generous half-kilo size (a half-filo of cheese - swoon). There are also some Italian wines that can be hard to find in main-stream shops (such as a Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and a Nebbiolo which I got to taste on the evening), and of course, plenty of hams, olive oils, and balsamic vinegars. And that chestnut honey does call to me...

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Romanseco Broccoli

I'm not generally a shallow person, but I can be persuaded to buy certain foods based on how much they appeal to me visually (Prestat chocolates is a good case in point). At my humble weekend food market, I had a stunning little green number catch my eye, labeled as a romanseco broccoli. I had no ambition other than to own it and photograph it, so I bought it and figured I'd put together plans on how to cook it later.

Part of the reason it caught my eye, I will confess, is because it immediatly made my mind shout "Fibonacci sequence!". The fibonacci sequence is a mathematical sequence of numbers that occurs in nature in many instances - in the swirl of pine cones or sunflower seeds, in the shell of a nautilus, in patterns of reproduction - and also makes an appearance in architecture (where it's dubbed 'the golden ratio') to produce some of our more eye-pleasing buildings (like the Pantheon). I remember hearing about this at 16 in my calculus math class, and thinking it was the first interesting thing I had been told during the year - that a series of numbers that never altered wasn't just produced by mathematicians for fun adding purposes but could be seen in nature and was physically pleasing to boot. Unfortunately the class moved on and we had to begin solving equations and things, and I returned to my stupor, but the stunning notion of the Fibonacci sequence has stayed with me - and excited me - ever since.

So I bought my vegetable for superficial reasons (though perhaps not shallow ones, if it made me dig into the recesses of my mathematical mind), and thoroughly enjoyed photographing it and looking and how many fractal levels the little green nubs went down to. I gave it a nice sending off of cooking it au gratin, and enjoyed the eating of it too (mainly because I could coo over each stem and its bizarre yet beautiful repition). It did, indeed, taste like broccoli mixed with a touch of cauliflower (covered in cheese). But surely you wouldn't buy a romanesco just for its taste, would you?

Saturday, 6 October 2007


Spanish food sometimes seems to me a better idea than it is an actuality - eating it outside Spain usually doesn't quite taste right, perhaps due to the ingredients, or perhaps because it always tastes better when you're in the country, relaxing in the sun, with your biggest worry being whether or not to embrace the concept of siesta. One of my favorite restaurants in London is Moro, which serves Spanish/Moroccan food. I like it because it delivers wonderfully flavored but non-fussy food, and delivers on the notion that Spanish-style cooking can be just as good outside the country as it can within. I recently had a chance to eat at Moro and have part of the meal for free. Through a site called We Love Local (which gathers user reviews on local shops/services), I won a £30 voucher for writing their review of the week, and opted to have that voucher spent at Moro. Lucky, lucky me, and so far, the most exciting winning-something experiences I've had (since this involved winning FOOD).

Aside from cooking with good ingredients in interesting combinations, there is a wood burning oven and a fair amount of charcoal grilling at Moro, which just increases the chance of the food being delicious. The sourdough bread is wonderful - pillowy soft with great big air pockets, and a good crunchy crust; bless that wood burning oven. The menu changes seasonaly, so my starter of grilled sweetbreads with girolles mushrooms won't always be making an appearance, but more's the pity; the charcoal grilling of the sweetbreads gave them a meaty, rich flavor, and a good balance of seasoning and the chewiness of the mushrooms really moved them into the realm of excellent. More than one person at the table (Mr. A&N, I'm talking about you) tried to surreptitiously grab a hunk of bread and mop up anything left on my plate, but I I'm to quick to fall for that 'Hey, look over there!' trick when food's around.

Lamb also features heavily on the menu, and we all wound up having lamb in some form for our mains. Desserts, being of the Spanish/Moroccan variety, weren't overly sweet but produced some really intriguing combinations - the rosewater and cardamom ice cream was a big hit with Jules, since it pulled through each of those flavors without subjecting them to a cloying sweetness.

One of the other things I appreciate about Moro is that their cookbooks are really accessible. The dishes sound good and the steps are described well enough to let you get a great result at home. Of course, if you have a charcoal grill and wood burning oven at home, you'd be able to re-create things perfectly; if not, paying a visit to the restaurant is a very good investment of your time and money.

Carrot and Corainder Seed Soup

This is one of my favorite soups. That's a big claim - during the non-summer months, we tend to have home-made soups at least once a week. Adding to my pleasure in eating soup is the fact that my stomach has an ability to take in liquid in volumes unseen in most humans. And camels. It's a unique gustatory talent to have, and I try to use it well.

Carrot and coriander seed soup is a wonderful soup for the autumn; I found it in a Delia Smith cookbook and she recommends it as a spring dish, but I couldn't disagree more. The coriander seeds, which are toasted and then ground into powder, create a fragrant warming vein lacing through the carrots, and help to bring on a suffuse warmth. This balances beautifully with the delicate sweetness of the carrots. Since I have the soup as my main meal, I like to eat it with a thick wholemeal bread slathered in butter, like an Irish soda bread.

This time making the soup, I experimented by cutting the kernels off a couple of ears of corn, and toasting half while including the other half in the soup. I liked the toasted corn sprinkled on top of the soup, but found the extra corn pureed within it upset the balance of the other flavors and added to much sweetness overall.

Carrot and Coriander Seed Soup, from Delia Smith
Seres 6 as a starter, 3-4 as a main

  • 2 lb of carrots
  • 1 Tbs coriander seeds (I normally tend to double this, but you might want to start as suggested)
  • 1 oz / 25 g butter
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 2 pints / 1.2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
  • 3 Tbs chopped coriander (I sometimes leave this out to no ill effect)
  • 3 Tbs creme fraiche
  • salt and pepper
  1. Peel and chop the carrots
  2. Dry-roast the coriander seeds in a pan, shaking gently throughout; roast for 1-2 minutes until the seeds start browning and jumping around the pan. Transfer the seeds to a mortar and pestle and crush
  3. Melt the butter in a large pot, then add the carrots, garlic, and 3/4 of the coriander seeds
  4. Stir, and let sweat for about 10 minutes until the carrots begin to soften
  5. Add the stock and salt and pepper, and bring to the boil
  6. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 15-20 minutes or until the carrots are tender
  7. Liquidize the soup in batches, then return to the pot and add the chopped fresh coriander and the creme fraiche
  8. Re-heat the soup gently, tasting for flavor, and sprinkle each bowlful with the remaining toasted coriander seeds

Thursday, 4 October 2007

A Gift of Brownies

I'm not sure where this instinct in me originates from, but whenever I feel stuck for a little gift to give someone, I give food. For example, when I feel Mr. A&N deserves a bit of attention, I'll go off and buy him some nice sausages or a pork pie. If we're going around to a friend's for dinner, I'll bring homemade jam or some cake. I've lost all perspective on whether or not this is normal. Today's situation is that an environmentally-conscious pregnant friend is about to have a special event; flowers are out, booze is out, but brownies, I've determined, are very, very in.

Brownies are my go-to baked product. During my time as a graduate student several years back, I would spend evenings in the pub (over the year, I studiously worked my way up to 4 pints a night without being completely annihilated), skipping food since that was too pricey, and then stumble my way home, whip up a batch of brownies, and eat half the pan before drunkenly falling into bed. I'm still sometimes amazed my body survived that year of nutritional deprivation. I've tweaked the brownie recipe slightly over the years, but the basic recipe has stayed the same due to their slightly-crispy-crust-with-slightly-gooey insides that many other brownies just fail to deliver on and which I can't get enough of. So in my book of ideas that might-or-might-not be normal, they're an excellent special-event-run-by-a-pregnant-friend gift.

Fits comfortably in an 8x8in baking tin, or equivalent

  • 1/2 C / 110 g unsalted butter
  • 1 C granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 shot of espresso or 1 spoonful of instant coffee, dissolved in a bit of hot water
  • 1/2 C cake flour
  • 1/3 C + 1 Tbs cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  1. Pre-heat oven to 175 C.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium low heat, taking care not to sizzle it.
  3. When melted, turn off heat and let sit for a minute or so to cool. Stir in the sugar.
  4. Add both eggs, vanilla extract, and coffee, and stir well.
  5. Sift together the dry ingredients, and add to the wet ingredients.
  6. Grease and flour the baking pan, and pour the brownie batter into it.
  7. Cook in the middle of the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer emerges mostly clean (there will be a bit of goo on it since these are slightly fudgey brownies).
  8. Allow to cool in the pan for a ouple of minutes, then cool on a cooling rack.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Walthamstow Farmer's Market and Shoulder of Venison

Last Thursday, I began spotting a flurry of announcements - in London newspapers, on local flyers, on some bright signs dotted around the area - stating that this Sunday would be the first farmer's market in my area of London, Walthamstow. For anyone who knows Walthamstow, it is an area whose main claims to fame are an art deco dog track and Europe's longest daily street market (where my favorite stall is The Banana Man, who specializes in selling bags of bananas for £1). The start of the farmer's market was well timed for the British Food Fortnight, and I went armed with bags and backpacks, unsure of what I would find but prepared to bring it all back.

The market opened at 10am, and when I got there at 11.30 most of the goods were sold out. I was left to pick over the remaining bits (and quickly - you could almost smell the competition), and over at the game stall I spotted a nice shoulder of venison among not much else. That venison was mine, and after a quick chat with the seller about his recommendations for cooking it, we were off to look for juniper berries. Which was a long search, because though it may have a farmer's market now, Walthamstow still isn't a juniper berry type of place.

We compromised with dried sour cherries, and the menu was set: roasted venison with a cherry and red wine gravy, parsnip mash, roasted onions and green beans. A quick consult of Hugh Fernely-Whittingstall helped guide us in our venison cooking (cooked briefly and at a high heat, like you would a lamb leg), and after little more than an hour, we were ready to enjoy our rather Britishly reared, locally bought, farmer's market meal.

Shoulder of Venison with Cherry and Red Wine (an approximate recipe)
Serves 4

  • Shoulder of venison (bone in or out), 2-5 kilos, depending
  • 4 cloves of garlic, each clove sliced into about 3 large chunks
  • 3-4 onions
  • 1 1/2 Tbs dried cherries or cranberries
  • 1 wine glass of wine
  • olive oil
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200 C.
  2. Pour the red wine over the dried fruit, and allow to soak for at least an hour.
  3. Prepare the venison by cutting into the meat and inserting the slices of garlic in it.
  4. Rub a fair amount of olive oil all over the skin and meat.
  5. Skin the onions, and cut into quarters.
  6. Place the venison in a roasting tray with the onions at the bottom, and cover with foil. Roast for about an hour - meat is happy to be served pink in the middle.
  7. When meat is done, set it aside to rest for around 10 minutes.
  8. Pour out juices from the pan into a small pot, and add the red wine and soaking fruit, a bit of flour, and salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Stir the gravy until it's nicely thickened. Remove the dried fruit, roughly chop, and serve on the side.