Friday, 29 May 2009
Like the time we were housesitting my brother-in-law's flat and I had lovingly prepared a meal for my wife. When it came to plating up, the chicken breast that was perched on the edge of the fish slice I was using had the gall to fall on the floor. In a fit of fury I lashed out at the offending piece of chicken with my foot, missed and firmly planted it into the dishwasher leaving a massive dent. That took some explaining to do.
Our Imperia pasta machine in particular has been a nemesis of mine. On various occasions I have nearly thrown it through the kitchen window, apoplectic with rage as the ravioli attachment ruins yet another batch by bursting my butternut squash and ricotta filling all over the counter top. And even when I do successfully make tagliatelle, you can always guarantee that I don't leave it to dry out for long enough so that when I do plop it into a pan of boiling water it comes out resembling some kind of pasta basketball.
And of course thinking about it I have burned myself, plenty of times. Normally on the handle of the frying pan for instance that I've carefully taken out of the oven with a tea towel, put to the side, turned to chop something up and then returned to the handle sans tea towel. The crazy thing is that it can sometimes take a few seconds to register what is going on. "Hmm this feels strange, what is that sensation? OH GOD MY HAND ON IS FIRE, MY HAND IS ON FIRE!" and then clang, the pan drops to the floor. I really must go to the doctor to see if he can tell whether my neurons are firing fast enough.
More often than not though disasters in the kitchen arise simply because I have neglected to read recipes through and have forgotten to buy key ingredients. I recently bought "A Year in My Kitchen" by Skye Gyngell for an absolute bargain in a bargain bookshop and after skimming through the beautiful photography and mouthwatering recipes, decided that I should try her recipe for Baked Aubergines with Tomatoes, Tarragon and Crème Fraîche so I raced to the shops to get all the stuff I needed. Hopscotching happily into the kitchen, I set everything up and get to work. I take the aubergines and it's slice, slice, slice. Grab the tomatoes, chop, chop, chop. Smell the tarragon, like all the contestants on Masterchef do, hmm what an aroma, sniff, sniff, sniff (I am waiting for the day when they film someone smelling an egg on MC at Borough Market). OK now lets make that crème fraîche sauce. Crème fraîche? Where's the fricking crème fraîche? And so I frantically search through the bags, can't find the crème fraîche, check the receipt and see that despite being a key ingredient and in the title of the recipe, I neglected to pick some up. What an idiot.
However I like to think of myself being the resourceful type and have a rummage through the fridge and find some natural yogurt. "Yes yogurt, that will do, you find it pretty much down the same isle anyway". To make the sauce I need to heat the crème fraîche, sorry yogurt, up to boiling point, reduce and then add chopped herbs including the tarragon, plus some parmesan so I empty the pot into the saucepan. It pretty much splits straight away. "You idiot, why did you use yogurt, I knew that would happen (no I didn't), crap, crap, crap!"
At this point I start to feel all precious and despondent and can barely contain a tear from falling down my face when my wife, ever the voice of reason, pipes up and says "why don't you just make a béchamel sauce and use the herbs in that?". "But that's not how Skye would do it" I whinge. "Go on, I'm sure it will be lovely" she coos and so I duly pull out some flour and butter to make a roux and then slowly add some milk, stir till it thickens up and then add the herbs and cheese. I pour the sauce over the top of aubergines which have been griddled and tomatoes which have been simmered down, which have been placed within a shallow dish and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Of course it tasted delicious especially with lamb steaks as recommended in the book, cooked medium rare.
I suppose the moral of the story here is to keep a calm, clear and improvisational head when cooking as these little incidents in the kitchen will crop up all the time, even to the professionals as Jamie's tale testifies. Although when a fella burns his old chap that's something to really cry about, not the fact that he forgot to buy the fricking crème fraîche in the first place.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Now I may be a Londoner born and bred but if I were to say that I know the streets of London like the back of my hand then I would be lying. In fact lets just say that my own geographical knowledge of our nation's fine capital ain't arf crap and I know this because a couple of weeks ago I decided it would be a good idea to walk from my office in Barbican to a pub in Battersea, all 5 and half miles by Goggle Earth's reckoning. A willingness to kill some time and get some fresh air prompted this exercise as on that particular evening I was on my way to a wine tasting come foodie social event at The Westbridge organised by Niamh of eatlikeagirl and Ryan and Gabriella, the wine bloggers behind the very comprehensive Catavino. I was fine until I got past Westminster but then soon realised that this undertaking was a bit further than I anticipated. Swearing soon commenced at Lambeth Bridge, heavy perspiration at Chelsea Bridge and by the time I reached Battersea Bridge, it felt like my plates of meat were on fire. I was in such a delirious state by then, I started to hope that perhaps there would be barrels of grapes to greet me on arrival and that I could plunge my feet into them, relieving the fires that were tormenting my soles (squish squish, squish squish, aah). Alas, when I finally arrived there were no such barrels to ease my pain. However there was wine, lots and lots of wine.
I hadn't done much in the way of actual tasting before apart from participating in the scrum at Vinopolis one Saturday afternoon and a summer holiday in the south of France where we did visit a fair few caves. And of course, I shouldn't forget my experience as a young office bod at a city PR firm where I was invited down to the meeting room to try some interesting reds that were to be served at a function that evening. Call it naivety but I had no reason to suspect the glass handed over to me was in actual fact a sample from the spit bucket. Luckily someone saved me just before taking the first sip, well it didn't occur to me at the time that wine doesn't have a head like beer does. I like to think that since then I know a little bit more about the ol' vino but the prospect of meeting people who really knew their stuff did fill me with some trepidation.
These fears were soon unfounded as I entered our designated private room with a pint of Sleemans I.P.A from the bar and bumped into Gabriella of Catavino. "Ah I suppose this is going to mess up my taste buds isn't it?" I said, holding up the glass sheepishly. "Ah don't worry about it", she replied "I've been drinking cider, it's not going to stop us from enjoying the wine now is it?" and with that I felt totally at ease. Better still, after a few speeches I could see that the emphasis of the evening was that it was to be a friendly, convivial event where people could just mill about and chat about food and wine. Looking over at a table laden with bottles of plonk to one side of the room with cheeses and charcuterie covering another on the other side, I remember thinking to myself "I should really do this kind of thing more often".
I'd spied one fella who was already making notes by the table, tasting with a concentrated look on his face and giving the contents of his glass a thorough examination so I decided that he should be the one to help me get this party started. I hope my tap on the back didn't ruin his train of thought too much but nevertheless Mr Dinner Diary was very helpful and suggested the Cava, a Chozas Carrascal Brut Nature Reserva no less, saying that a bit of fizz would help kick start the palate (had he seen me with the I.P.A I wonder?) It was indeed very refreshing, with tiny little bubbles that twinkled up my nose, causing me to sneeze. Perhaps I was a little overzealous trying to smell its bouquet but I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing. Still I managed to disguise my scrunched up face by morphing into some thoughtful repose as if I was making some mental notes, nodding sagely to myself. Luckily, Mr Dinner Diary had his head back in his notes so probably didn't even notice.
I decided after that to immediately remove myself to the cheese table and try some of the Tête de Moines, a hard alpine cheese from Switzerland which has it's very own twisty turney slicey thing called a "Girole".
A very cool little gadget this, I think the idea being that with one swift turn, you get a lovely delicate thin sliver of sweetness. However after my heavy handed first attempt, I came away with a great fat big wedge and felt quite embarrassed walking away with such a chunk of cheese but then I saw Charlie McVeigh, the owner of The Westbury, stuffing a huge lump of camembert into his mouth so didn't feel too bad. "Perhaps this was to be a bacchanalian feast after all", I thought to myself and with that launched myself back over to the other side of the room to where the wine was.
What followed was basically a montage of glug glug, chat chat, chomp chomp on a continuous loop for 2 hours.
"Ah I can't decide between the Albariño and the Riesling, they're both delicious"
"I can actually feel my arteries clogging after eating this Brillat-Savarin but it goes lovely with the Syrah doesn't it?"
"Holy shit, what kind of white wine is this?" "That's sherry Dan, you're drinking sherry"
My personal favourite of the evening came as a bolt out of the blue actually, a fruity white called Libalis introduced to me by Ricardo of Vintae. I normally stick to dry white wines but this one tasted gorgeous, packing a sweet punch at first before settling down with a more subtle, smooth aftertaste, it was really different to the others that I tried that evening. I think I was even more gobsmacked to have described it just like that back to Ricardo but the smile on his face suggested that I was making all the right noises.
Of course as the evening went on, with all this tasting I was starting to feel quite overwhelmed by it all. OK no scrub that, I was starting to feel quite pissed. The turning point came when I got started on the 5 year old Madeira and Andre Ribeirinho, founder of online wine community Adegga, came up with a warm smile and said "Hey take it easy my friend, that's strong stuff!". Two devils in the shape of Ollie Reed appeared on my shoulders and whispered in my ear, urging me to chuckle back "Really? Fantastic! Have you seen my mighty mallet?" but luckily I found some inner fortitude from somewhere and replied "hmm yeah I suppose I should call it a night". And with that gave my thanks to everybody involved for a super evening and departed without further incident, phew.
There was no way I was going to be walking anywhere after my earlier expedition so I hailed a cab before spotting Krista of Londonelicious at the bus stop and so asked if she needed a lift. After hearing the first 5 minutes of rambling, I suspect that she would have been happier taking the bus in the first place but she was very gracious in conversation, I just wish I could remember what we were talking about. When it came to dropping her off, I do remember us squabbling like a pair of grannies at a tea parlour over who should pay the fare. "I'll pay for it", "Noooo I'll pay for it" but like a true gentleman I insisted that I take the fare. When I finally got on the train, it gave me a chance to reflect on the night and make some more of those mental notes before I closed my eyes and began to dream of vineyards and cheese. Of course when I awoke, I had already gone 3 stations past my stop so had to hail another cab to get home. As I jumped in, I distinctly recall two thoughts going through my mind, the first being "crap I should taken Krista's money" with the second bubble repeating "I should really do this kind of thing more often".
Friday, 15 May 2009
"Yes, I was but then I thought we should really start expanding our horizons and thought that we could try some German food, for a change"
"But it's my birthday, you asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I said Thai and you've gone and bought sausages"
"Yes, I know but let me explain...."
"How are you going to do Tom Kha Gai with a bratwurst?
It was at this point I realised that I had really jumped in at the deep end, not only had I agreed to participate in Eating Eurovision at the last minute but now I also had some explaining to do, having to tell my wife that she wouldn't be eating her favourite kind of food last night. On her birthday night.
I had been privy to this idea of 25 food bloggers eating the cuisine of 25 Eurovision countries in 25 hours within the M25 for some time now. It was a project dreamed up by Andrew Webb and looked like a great deal of fun but because of work commitments, I thought that this was one jolly that would have to pass me by. The draw had been made on Thursday night at the Beeb and on Friday morning, numerous excited food bloggers were tweeting on twitter about their nominated countries which got me twitching with envy. However it soon became apparent that there were some countries going spare, namely Germany, Albania, Armenia and Croatia, so without a moments hesitation I made a grab for Deutschland. "Ha ha yes, I am going to get involved, now what do I do?"
Andrew's remit suggested that participants should try to engage in London food life and to research, learn and explore the cuisine of their given country which prompted much head scratching and a slight tinge of panic. I wasn't going to be able to just pluck a recipe off the internet and bomb down to the shops at lunchtime (although let's just say that's exactly what I did). I had to go and find some Germans to talk to at the very least. Lucky for me then, that I found the German Deli and owner Klaus Kuhnke at Borough Market. And luckier still, he was promoting with great fanfare some German white asparagus that came from a small village in the Lower Rhine region called Wahlbeck, regarded as the 'Princess' of it's variety. In Germany, people will travel for miles to get some.
I was very grateful to have met Klaus as he took time out to have a walk around the market and talk about German food, principally the white asparagus, which is grown underground hence the albino appearance. As with the British variety because the season is so short, it really is revered as a vegetable, apparently lots of restaurants in Germany put out a separate menu for asparagus when it arrives. And for the number crunchers out there, Klaus estimated that his country produces 9600 tonnes of the stuff so yes the Germans really really love it, in comparison he reckoned that the UK produces only 2400 tonnes (only!). I asked him about the restaurant scene, whether there were any decent German ones in town and his returning look suggested that they were lacking but he did recommend a pub called Zeitgeist in Vauxhall that did reasonable germanic fare. At this point I remembered the fact that I was meant to be cooking my wife her special birthday meal so I asked Klaus for his advice. Disappointingly, he didn't have a lot to say about Thai cuisine but naturally come back to the asparagus saying I should serve it up "with hollandaise or just melted butter, she'll love it". So we went back to the shop and I got loaded with goodies including some bratwurst, mustard, german potatoes and Rote Gruetze, a berry compote that Germans have for desert, plainly with cream. "It tastes a bit like summer pudding but without the bread" so Klaus says. Although the German Deli does have a license, they didn't have any booze in stock which was a shame but Klaus pointed me in the direction of Utobeer (where Al, the beer punk helped me pick out a selection). So after giving my warm thanks to Klaus for his time, I bombed it back to work feeling quite pleased with myself, some research done, now to get home and cook up an authentic german meal that my wife isn't expecting whatsoever.
After a couple more beers and some wine, I carried on with the mains, an equally simple dish of grilled bratwurst, boiled German potatoes and sauerkraut which in fairness took no amount of effort to do but on putting the plate on the table my wife made an observation that turned the evening on it's head.
"What is it with the Germans and penises?"
I spluttered at this and asked "where the hell did that come from?" to which she responded that both dishes so far could be interpreted as well, fairly phallic. Looking back down at the plate, I could see she had a point but tried to navigate the conversation back to the authenticity of the meal. And then she asked.
"Who is singing for Germany in this year's Eurovision anyway?".
I said I didn't know but that we could find out and duly switched the laptop on, headed for the website and found that this year's entry for Germany was 'Miss Kiss Kiss Bang' sung by two blokes called Alex Swings Oscar Sings!
"See what I mean, they're all sex mad"
With that the meal descended into more of a debate over the permissiveness of the German people with juvenile giggles, lots of waving of sausages in the air and stupid accents, not something that I think Andrew had in mind really. I can testify that the bratwurst was indeed flavoursome but perhaps we were starting to get too much into the German beer rather than the food and by 10 o'clock we were feeling quite wasted. The fruit compote in the end had to wait until morning for breakfast and was really perhaps a little too sickly sweet to be eating first thing, the kids liked it though.
As far as projects go this really has been good fun especially as it forced me to actually go out and talk to someone about food. We get actively encouraged these days to enquire about the provenance of produce we eat but (and this will come as a shock to some) I can be a bit of a shrinking violet when it comes to asking the questions when I'm out shopping. Talking to Klaus though was really interesting and I felt that in the space of 10 mins chat I learned a lot, well a lot more than what I knew about German cuisine in the first place. If I ever bump into him again, I will happily wax lyrical about his asparagus, just so long as he doesn't ask what I thought of his sausage.
Roundhead or Cavalier?
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
After reading this call to arms, I immediately thought Alford's of Farringdon, a delicatessen situated funnily enough on Farringdon Road which is close to where I work and a rare jewel in an otherwise desolate thoroughfare. There are several things I like about this place, the first being that at lunchtimes it's always busy which is a good sign and because it's busy, you get to oggle loads of foodie goodies whilst queuing up. As well as selling freshly made sandwiches, meats and cheeses, they have a great selection of pickles and preserves, I've often found myself jumping out the line to pick up some jar of strange chutney before leaping back in. The service is also very good, speedy and efficient. The proprietor in particular, Mr Keith Alford is always very polite and addresses you as "Sir" or "Madam" which is slightly at odds with his appearance as he sports impressive tattoos completely covering his arms and could easily pass as a Hell's Angel (maybe he is, at the weekends).
So I popped down there yesterday, a man on a mission to get myself a typically British sandwich to review. Whilst marching down, I was trying to think of different combinations but kept coming up with fairly run of the mill stuff, the aforementioned ham and tomato, egg and watercress, cheese and piccallily before stumbling across the idea of a haslet and Branston pickle sandwich. "Yes haslet", I thought whilst waiting in line, "that'll be good, made from the leftover bits of pig like the entrails, cooked and compressed into a faggot-type meatloaf and sliced, that appeals to the British appetite." Except when I came to be served, I was told that they hadn't any in that day so I had to make a snap decision and asked for the Sandwich of the Week instead. When you've got the weight of hunger from people behind bearing down, you don't want to mess about at the counter gibbering like a fool. Which is how I ended up with a very Italian inspired Roast Ham, Mozzarella, Tomato and Pesto in Herb Focaccia. Not very British at all, bugger.
Sandwich of the Week
On leaving the shop, I was quite disappointed with myself but as I walked back to work, I had flash of genius, why not take the sandwich down to the river so that I can photographise it using the London skyline as a backdrop. "That will give it some context won't it?" I thought, after all London is the capital of Britain*, surely such an image will highlight the majesty of the sanger! And so I hot footed it off down to Blackfriars Bridge. When I got there, I proceeded to set up my shot, placing the sandwich tentatively on the bridge wall and took a step back to try and get a decent panoramic shot. And that's where my idea immediately fell to pieces as out of nowhere, like a scene from 'The Birds', dozens of pigeons came flying in to take a piece of Mediterranean bap. After much screaming and frantic waving of arms, I managed to retrieve my sandwich unscathed and feeling rather foolish decided just to go find somewhere quiet, sit down and eat the damn thing. And of course it was delicious, there was a generous helping of ham, the mozzarella was soft and creamy and the pesto gave a nice streak of garlic and salt. I must admit the tomatoes themselves were a bit tasteless but the bread was nice and not overly oily.
Roast Ham, Mozzarella, Tomato and Pesto in Herb Focaccia
At the end of the day, even best handmade efforts from home don't beat proper freshly made sandwiches and really you're only going to get that from an independent shop like Alford's of Farringdon. So next time when you set off for lunch break, give those cardboard wrapped rubbery excuses a miss and get down to a proper sandwich shop. Just watch out if a pigeon starts following you back.
* OK it wasn't genius, I was flying blind
Monday, 4 May 2009
I've been commuting from my particular train station for 5 years now and over that period of time, have slowly come to recognise some of the other faces who make the daily sheep run into and out of London. As I walk down the platform, sometimes I might exchange a nod, a smile and sometimes but very rarely, a hello before my fellow commuter would bury their heads back into a book or paper, or turn up their iPod. And you know what? That suits me just fine, I mean the last thing you want to do is actually engage with another worker drone, heaven forbid. It can be quite funny though when you actually bump into someone who you once knew at school or college but don't really know any more and have to run that painful gamut of pleasantries. "So what are you doing these days? Where are you working? Where do you live? Are you married?", you say before coming to an uncomfortable pause and shuffle off awkwardly to the other end of the platform. I remember bumping into an old school friend about a year ago and signed off with "well I suppose I'll see you around then" and then continued to sit next to him for the rest of the 20 minute journey, staring blankly out of the window. Quite sad really.
However, after some of my latest adventures, it would be interesting to know what's been going through my fellow passenger's minds as I've walked down the platform, swinging carrier bags filled with pots of wild garlic. Most people have kept their stoic expressions fixed bar a few wondering eyes but once I've boarded the train, the wafts of Allium ursinum wondering throughout the carriage have definitely been drawing attention.
"Wassat mate? Facking stinks"
"Ah it's wild garlic ", I reply.
"You a gardenah?"
"Er, no" I squeak.
Good question but really you should be asking who is it for, not what? You see, through the magic of the superinformationhighwayweb, I have been distributing wild garlic plants to members of London's foodie community you prink! (By the way this was not my response as the inquisitive gentleman may well have lifted his knuckle off the floor and brought it down heavily on my head).
It all started with our visit to the Underground Restaurant back in March. In the days running up to our Astrological feast in Kilburn, I got wind from MsMarmitelover's blog that she was on the lookout for some wild garlic. As I had plenty of the stuff growing in my garden I emailed her with the offer of a plant and with the response of "oooh yes please", duly lumped a pot over to her place on the night of our dinner date. Making the handover was amusing as I thrust the bag into the front of house's hands saying "this is a gift for the chef from me, Food Urchin". The bewildered stare he gave back suggested that he thought I was quite mad or had hippy parents at the very least but it provided a great ice-breaker as MsMarmitelover came out from her kitchen to see us, busy as she was, to have a quick chat.
I felt like a did a good deed that night but didn't really give it any more thought until about a month later when Niamh from the very excellent Eat Like A Girl tweeted me on Twitter. I'm still trying to figure exactly what purpose Twitter serves, I mean why would anyone in their right mind want to keep updating the minutiae of their lives online every 10 minutes using only 140 characters? Never mind the fact that this is exactly what I've been doing for the past few weeks, I am still trying to figure its purpose out. But anyway, Niamh was enquiring as to where I got my garlic from as she was having trouble finding some. So in the spirit of altruism I said that she was more than welcome to one of my plants and arranged to meet her at Borough Market. Again it was a pleasure to meet another foodie and have a natter before skipping off having done a good turn for the day. I was starting to feel like Haley Joel Osment but I didn't care.
Since then via the magic of Twitter, I have also met Linda of With Knife and Fork and Helen of Food Stories, who both write equally excellent food blogs . The homemade sloe vodka that Linda gave me was delicious and Helen sprung a photo shoot with Mario Cacciottolo of SOTM fame on me, all elements which make for memorable moments and stories and all for the exchange of an invasive but tasty herb.
So what to make of my adventures so far? Well first and foremost it has been refreshing to engage with fellow foodies both online and in the flesh. I must say here hats off to my lovely wife, as not many spouses would approve of their husbands meeting strange women of the net baring gifts of flowering plants but she's been pretty cool about it all. Maybe if it had been someone that I had met on the train then she would have been really worried. On a second point though, some friends and family members have suggested that I should start to sell the stuff, which is an attractive idea, it's always nice to earn extra cash but it wouldn't be the same somehow. It's just my personal opinion but I believe a love of food with all it's entities, is closely connected to the act of giving. When I cook a big meal, say a dinner party for instance, I want to give people a good time and have them enjoy the dishes I make. When giving away pots of wild garlic, its just the same, I want people to enjoy it. It's a simple philosophy really although I couldn't tell you where it came from. Maybe it was from those hippy parents of mine.