Stockings and service not included

I got an email from the BSG last week, asking if he could borrow a pair of my tights. Mildly alarmed, and more than a little intrigued, I agreed to the whole sordid-sounding affair. I’ve already said I’ll marry him, so I suppose at this stage anything goes…

As it turns out, the BSG is a gentleman, and a quince-essential one at that…

Alright, I am sorry about the terrible attempt at a quince-based pun, but honestly, it is a rare breed who sees a Tuesday night stretching ahead of them and thinks it’s a night for jelly-making (he’d already spent the previous week making industrial amounts of membrillo – delicious, we had the first slivers with some manchego on Sunday) I got back after supper with some girlfriends to find him craning over a furiously bubbling mass, checking his watch and occasionally stirring. The tights (not my favourites), now consigned to the bin, had taken one for the team and been essential of the drip-sieving process. What’s that thing they say about a watched pot? Not applicable to this one, which as it turned out had boiled way past quince jelly into the realms of Wonka’s factory. We now have two jars of jaw-sticking boiled sweet and no idea what to make of them. Consequently, a jam thermometer is high on the BSG’s Christmas list, along with a mandolin and a food processor. I am not sure he can wait until then before trying again, and for the sake of the surviving nylon population in my drawer, I sincerely hope that he’s off to a hardware shop first.

quince and cheese

We had been in a state of high excitement for the duration of the week as, having read fantastic reviews from esteemed bloggers such as gastrogeek and various newspaper critics, we had bagged ourselves a table at the spanking new restaurant of the moment, HIX, on Brewer Street. Being rather smitten with all things Mark Hix following a memorable feast at his operation in Smithfield earlier this year, and loving his book, we’d jumped at the chance to sample another fun-filled gorging session…

Perhaps our expectations were just too high, maybe it was just bad luck, who knows, but it was not the night we’d imagined.

Flanked by tables of complete bankers and other inebriated money-movers, initially we struggled to make ourselves heard. Not a problem, we raised the volume too, we were in high spirits, we were at HIX, and all was right with the world. Still menu-less and in need of a drink after ten minutes, the BSG, understandably, was starting to lose his temper. A very nice man saw the problem (and the ear-emitted steam) and gave us both a drink on the house – the BSG was delighted with his pewter mug of Indian pale ale (add one pewter mug to aforementioned list). The bread that turned up was warm and delicious, straight from the oven, the expert crackling and crab-apple sauce huge fun, and it lifted our souls back off the shiny, sound-repellent floor.

After much deliberation (decisive is not my middle name), I opted for Heaven and Earth, a extraordinary combination of velvety black pudding, permeated with winter spices, sitting on a bed of mashed potato and apple so perfectly matched that lightning must have struck when they were introduced. This simple dish set my mind a-wandering through lines of a Dylan Thomas poem called ‘Fern Hill’, and linocuts by Sybil Andrews of harvests and horse-drawn ploughs. In fact each mouthful was so good that it made me think minutely about every flavour that crossed my tongue: the tastebud-to-cranium mainline was in overdrive. The BSG waxed lyrical over his clean-tasting bunny offal and celeriac, and in turn we accepted proffered forkfuls of each. We had started off with a leap and a bound hand-in-hand through the British countryside. The food sings celestial hymns to the British Isles, employing simple down-to-earth ingredients, each one lovingly and carefully sourced.

The bar was busy, the place thoughtfully decorated, there was a party atmosphere throughout – it just felt like we weren’t on the list. The rest of the meal was good, but could not compensate for another interminable wait, this time over plates of empty marrowbone and a red gurnard skeleton. Unwittingly, we had entered a service void – like stars around a black hole the waiters orbited our table, unaware of our existence. From our vacuum we watched helplessly as these stars were sucked into the vortex of paunches and suits, tending to their every want as they became increasingly boisterous.

Having already spent most of the meal waiting, we had neither the time nor the inclination to opt for a pudding, regrettably. That it smarted to pay service on the bill is an understatement, and we left disappointed and a bit frustrated. A one-off hopefully, and not a sign that this shiny place will forever be condemned to sponge up the after-effects of corporate brainstorming sessions in the nearby pubs. Nevertheless, we’ll be sticking to the Smithfield branch.

However, with a friend’s dinner at Roussillon on the horizon, we weren’t to be down in the mouth for long.

Next time.

Ps: the BSG’s just walked in with a brand new jam thermometer…

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Egg in a cup.

(for Dave who is running around like a headless chicken setting up his show)

I am sure that every family has a hybridised recipe using these exact same ingredients, but this is ours, and it comes from my Granny Scraggs*. She and my mum have made it a signature dish in our family, ensuring that it will run through generations to come.

When we were small, this was what we ate for tea most often, when the four of us had been out playing too late or were overtired and not up for much else. Nevertheless, it always elicited squeals of excitement, usually preceded by a race down to Gran’s henhouse to collect the star ingredients.

Did everyone have those enormous china tea cups at the back of the kitchen cupboard, that no-one ever seemed to drink tea out of? Well, as far as we were concerned, they had this one extremely important purpose. Even now, using a substitute, a bowl, feels like cheating…

I have altered the volumes, for grown-ups (and I suppose the more responsible adults might want to use brown bread, which works too). It all depends on your appetite.

For a very quick and easy supper, you need

2 eggs
2 slices of soft white bread
Lightly salted butter, out of the fridge for a bit
Salt and pepper

Put the eggs in a pan of boiling water and cook for four and a half minutes or so. Meanwhile, butter your bread – if it tears, then all the better – fold in half and rip apart into chunks, about bite-sized. Place the bread in a wide cup (a bowl is more practical I suppose, but far less fun), then once the eggs are ready, take their lids off and scoop out the soft-boiled egg with a teaspoon, into the cup. Mash up all together with a fork, adding salt and pepper to taste.

You get lots of different bites in this cup, some yolky, some buttery. I would have thought that you could add Marmite, Tabasco, bits of cooked bacon, to your liking, but it is wonderful as it is – an enormous hug – in a cup.

* so-named after the place she lives rather than her lovely Christian name (I am responsible), and who makes the best fish pie in the world.

Picture this if you will

Typos: the bane of many office emails but sometimes rather useful. On Friday, the BSG emailed to say that he was off to Bodean’s (I hasten to add that this was not of his choosing), but that he wasn’t even remotely hungary.

At the very same moment in an office across London I was in fact ravenous, so this random error led me to a favourite Hungarian food-daydream, goulash, and the extraordinary version that Jamie Oliver does using a pork shoulder, cooked slowly in a lidded pot with a mountain of sliced peppers and paprika until it falls apart at a mere glance. Clouds of fluffy rice and sour cream are all this needs to complete it, and if you are feeding many, it is relatively cheap. I am sure that the recipe wouldn’t be hard to find on the internet and it is well worth looking.

Having met our very pregnant but completely relaxed friend for a convincing – yet thankfully not labour-inducing – curry at the brilliant Mirch Masala in Tooting last week, thoughts are turning to core-warming foods. Indeed, central heating is essential at this time of year, when the temperature can plummet or rise sharply in a matter of hours. And I don’t mean the skin-desiccating, global warming stuff – though that can be rather helpful too – I mean these kinds of soul-filling, oven-and-pot-cooked dishes that lead you away from the watery crunch of summer salads and into the deep stew-ladle of winter.

Arriving in Norfolk on Friday and faced with a cold, dark house, the only thing for it was a warm fix, pure and simple – spaghetti and meatballs. A blend of minced beef and pork (the insides of good sausages, we were in a hurry), they were squished in our hands and rolled together with some thyme, browned off in a pan and added to some chopped tomatoes, port and garlic, before we even took our coats off. Left to stew for about an hour their brownness seeped into the tomato sauce, reducing it to a wonderfully jammy consistency, into which we mixed our cooked linguine and feasted, each mouthful inching up the internal thermostat.

Trout, usually a fish I associate with summer, was the cameo in our yellow-curry-laksa-type-thing last week, and we were surprised that this sweet delicate flesh stood up amongst all the spices and ginger – we’ll definitely repeating that recipe, over thread-thin rice noodles.

They are a stalwart of the store-cupboard, unlimited by the seasons, but in our house puy lentils don’t really come out in the summer months – I can’t imagine why, these nutty green pulses are completely wonderful. With them, the BSG made us a great supper; they were boiled, tossed immediately with chopped roasted peppers, paper-thin sliced red onions, and cherry tomatoes. These were dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and parsley, and topped with pan fried mackerel fillets, though you could easily use cold tinned/jarred fillets and stir them through the warmth. It is a perfect one-dish supper full of vibrant colours and fresh salt-sweet flavours; there was plenty so we discussed taking some for lunch the next day. Unfortunately we chomped the lot in one sitting. I defy you not to.

This week I find myself without my camera, my trusty sidekick, so words without pictures will have to do. Tell me this: would Postman Pat ever leave Jess behind on Mrs Goggins’ Post Office counter? No. (I’m not sure he’d go on strike either, but that’s for another blog…) For this careless act, I am rather ashamed.

However, I blame a triumph of taste over all other senses, as usual.

You know that it’s autumn when weekend lunches with friends get later, flirting with the dusk, and the red wine is already open when you arrive and unwrap yourselves. Our host on Sunday had warned us that, as there was an imminent inspection at her school this week, we weren’t to expect too much. Knowing Anna as we do, we didn’t believe her – as a cook and general host (and teacher I don’t doubt) she is of the most generous and caring variety, every bit of the feast she laid on for us smacked of this kindness, from the beautifully constructed canapés of toasted bruschetta topped with variations of avocado, bacon, goats cheese, tomatoes and peppers, the delicious roasted chickens surrounded by salads of every kind, through to the cakes warm from the oven; banana and walnut, drizzled with chocolate, and a crisp-edged apple cake, unbelievable. Unable to choose between accompaniments, I have to confess that my end of the table might have had custard (Bird’s, naturally,) cream AND Ben & Jerry’s with ours. In a nutshell, Anna lovingly fed and wined us into blissful submission, the day disappeared, and my camera was forgotten (yes, forgotten) in the postprandial haze.

No matter I suppose, meatballs, albeit delicious ones, aren’t very photogenic…

A Moveable Feast

We had sped across the flat countryside, the black throat of the tunnel fast receding, the drizzle we smugly thought we’d left at home catching up with us. As G had put it, this part of Northern France, arguably good for tank warfare, was perhaps less successful in terms of window-gazing. No matter, our minds were already feet-up, drinking and watching the world in a Paris bar. Somewhat prematurely, I had sung the praises of the new high-speed rail link to the BSG, telling him how astounded he’d be at the shorter journey. However, two coffees, a KitKat and several murderous glances at the chatterbox across the aisle later, after almost an hour’s delay, we were stopped a matter of 100 befuddling metres from our platform. Needless to say, we were parched.

The Paris we arrived in was humid and grey, the closeness of the impending storm mirroring our excitement at the weekend ahead. We were here for the wedding of a very elegant and sophisticated friend of ours, so of course I had vastly over-packed with outfits for every eventuality. Luckily, we were staying in Rosie’s sister Kate’s beautiful apartment only a stones’ throw from the Gare du Nord, and it was high time for an aperitif, so we got to her local bar and ordered some drinks, just in time to miss the opening of the heavens. Kate wasn’t so lucky, but still managed to turn up for her pre-ordered Viognier looking the kind of rainswept chic only a Paris-dweller can carry off.Then on to supper at Chez l’Ami Jean, a bastion of Basque cuisine in the heart of the 7th arrondissement. Sparkly new sister-in-law Rosie had told of the wonders produced within, so we were excited (un grand understatement) at the prospect. Charging through the downpour from taxi to door we were met by a flood of welcoming light and noise, kissed by the maître’d, and presented with boards invisible under delicate petals of saucisson sec and chorizo – now that’s what I call a welcome. There was only one thing for it: a generous glass of buttery champagne to kick off the weekend.

soup

Furnished with these goodies, it was an absolute pleasure to wait at the tiny wooden bar, the place was rammed but nonetheless ran with clockwork precision. From the tiny and fully exposed kitchen, surrounded by copper pans of all shapes and sizes (not a microwave in sight), the chef Stephane Jego skipped about in his headband, quick on his toes like a prize fighter, insisting upon and attaining perfection in every dish that left the kitchen. There were some re-calls and reprimands for dishes that had eluded his eagle eye, and boy, did you hear them – the temper was as fiery as the busy stovetops.

pate 1

The menu read like an inventory of the autumn countryside: game birds of every kind, chestnuts, mushrooms, root vegetables, and beautiful creatures plucked from the sea. Keen to try as much as possible, the seven of us opted for the tasting menu, a palette predominantly of burnt siennas and umbers, punctuated with the odd shot of electric green, not in leafy vegetal form (you don’t see many of those on Paris plates), but in the surprising yet hugely flavoursome granny smith sorbet served with our hare stew. A lifelong Marmite lover, I was in heaven, the stocks employed were rich and intense reductions, the jelly lacing my delicate pork and foie gras terrine the essence of the purest mushroom, the soup we started with transported me straight to the forest floor. Like a contented truffle pig foraging amongst the leaf-litter, I am sure my nose didn’t come out of the bowl, though I would like to hope I lent a touch more elegance to the process…

hare stew

The atmosphere in this tiny buzzing place was one of camaraderie, everyone eager to see what others had chosen, and to hear it being vociferously enjoyed. It was the perfect place for a group of friends to be, just like having supper at a friend’s house, the eponymous Jean, for example. The pudding was in fact a trio of puddings, which followed the cheese course; yup – there was cheese too. This was Act 5, the denouement , and we weren’t sure we had anything left to give. That changed, however, when we tried the riz au lait. Yes, the minty chocolate thing and the pear tatin were all very well (read absolutely delicious), but there was something about this rice pudding that made you want to eat it for the rest of your life, even though you were already full. The rice was plump and silky, enrobed in unctuous cream swirled with constellations of tiny vanilla seeds. It was so enticing that I took one look at the wooden serving spoon and wondered if anyone would mind if I used that instead of my rather mean-looking spoon. As we all fell silent at this miraculous finale of cream and rice, our French friends on the table behind became more and more animated, excited at the prospect that we rosbifs were sharing in their adulation of this humble-sounding yet utterly celestial pudding. I will be back for many reasons, but mostly to taste this again. Joyous.

The following morning, after a breakfast (what fast, exactly?) of boiled eggs fresh from a farm in Emmanuel’s parents’ village, with copious amounts of torn baguette and yellow Normandy butter (ok, a bit of pain au chocolat too – this was France), we headed out for an amble up the hill towards Montmartre, to breathe in a bit of this wonderful city. It seemed that everyone was out, it was the most beautiful shimmering October day, the leaves on the chestnut trees had burned bronze but not yet dropped. I found myself wishing that we had an extra day to wander. But it’s Paris; we’ll be back.

The wedding was perfect, and the beautiful bride, being a foodie herself, had made sure that we were fed and watered to the highest standard. She was exposed as a fellow bedtime-cookbook-reader by her new husband. “At least we know that there are other food nerds around”, the BSG had delightedly whispered. There are some things that you remember being good, and there are others so good that you remember the taste of them. The canapés played out like French hits; tiny tartes à l’oignon and croque-monsieurs amongst the favourites we munched on at the reception between sips of champagne, the top of the Eiffel Tower twinkling above the trees. For the main course, fillet of beef, flawlessly cooked, yielding like warm butter under the slightest touch of the knife – tremendous. The BSG is still talking about the late-night cheese board, adamant that we will go some way to a reverent nod at it for our wedding next May….on a vraiment jeté le gant.

 

Ps: We dined at the old Arsenal Stadium on Thursday – a shrine for the BSG and many other nutcases devoted to the game of two halves, now converted into some very sleek flats. It was really rather impressive, but the Spanish-themed banquet that awaited us eclipsed even this wrapping; a lovingly made tortilla with asparagus, padron peppers (I got 3 hot ones in a row – a tastebud-searing record,) chorizo and manchego were just a few of the wonders on offer. I think it’s got to be Barcelona next for the BSG….

‘s Gone

Hmmm. They’ve put the Christmas lights up on Oxford Street. I know it’s because retailers want to get cracking with their festive trade and good luck to them, but the arrival of these lights heralds the willing away of such a great season, and the start of the ‘Christmas Rush’. Do we have to rush it? It seems that as soon as summer is behind us, it must be time to count down to Christmas, which is faintly ridiculous as surely the autumn gives us more satisfactorily seasonal weather than both.

So, in retort, here is a metaphorical kick in the baubles (not in a Scrooge-like manner, you understand – I love Christmas): a recipe for the scones the BSG and I made on a whim last Sunday. I in no way associate them with December, but rather the summer and the autumn, when jams really come into their own, and a time of day that we are often too busy rushing around to consider.

Makes 6 scones

225g self raising flour

½ teaspoon salt

55g butter

¼ pint milk

1 beaten egg or some milk (to brush on as a glaze)

Preheat the oven to 220°C and flour a baking sheet.

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, and then using the tips of your fingers, very lightly but swiftly rub in the butter until the mixture is like breadcrumbs. Make a crater in this, and pour in the milk, mixing to soft dough, this time with a knife.

Shape the dough out onto the baking sheet, so that it is smooth, then either roll or press to about an inch thick and cut into round using a cutter or, even easier to hand, an upturned glass from the cupboard, and lay them our on the baking sheet.

Glaze depending on how you like your scone – egg for golden glossy crust, or milk for a lighter, softer one.

Bake in the top of the oven for about 7 minutes, until they have gone golden and risen.

You can leave them to cool but good luck with the wait: they are irresistible warm.

Ps: According to the BSG, the most important part is the lightness in the fingertips, you then get a satisfactory golden cloud of crumbly scone on which you can slather your favourite jam (and perhaps some cream…)

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Food fast!

The BSG’s favourite place to indulge after we have, erm, indulged in a little too much wine of an evening (it has been known…) is a magical and very reasonable place on Upper Street called Tortilla. It does a quarterback of a burrito, with a choice of pulled slow-cooked pork, chicken, beef or veggies, different rices, glossy black beans, salsas and guacamole, not to mention the various dairy hits; sour cream, cheese…. Wow.

Everything is heaped onto a deceptively flimsy-looking flour tortilla, then neatly but firmly rolled (I don’t know where these people train, but they are pros) into a bundle of pure joy. With all the food groups literally rolled into one, we skip (run) the four minutes home, unwrap the foil and special paper, (which for some reason makes it even more delightful), and inhale it. It is a great treat, inevitably eaten too fast every time, and there are two branches in London, which has come over all Mexican of late. I suppose that this is more California-Mex, but it’s worth a try all the same.

The only problem with Tortilla is that it closes at 11pm – how very wise of them, keeping the rabble out – so when we missed it the other night, the BSG alarmingly close to tears, there was one solution: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio.

It is called aliolio in our house as there is usually no time to waste, and this is the quickest homemade fix imaginable (and far less expensive than the kebab you’ll find trailing up to your front door in the morning). This was just one of the joys that the Captain – a real-life aviator – brought into our lives while he was living with us. Apart from a good braai – he’s South African, they win at barbeques – other fine lessons he taught us include; what the many peculiar noises in planes are (I hated flying before), not to be scared of biltong, and that men can be chocoholics too. This recipe is brilliant for when you come home and there is nothing in the fridge. All you need is a clove of garlic, some chilli, dried or fresh, some olive oil and some spaghetti. We put chopped parsley in it too for a nod to greenery, and some grated parmesan at the end. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, leaving it to slick in a bit of its cooking water, whilst in a pan you heat up the chopped garlic and chilli in the olive oil to break out the flavours. Then throw in the pasta and parsley, mix up and serve. The flavours are intense – so perhaps not one for a romantic first date.

“So is that how you spell it then?” the BSG asked me, scratching his head as we gazed up at the white plastic fascia. I must admit, I thought I was on the verge of one of those epiphanies of long-held ignorance, like the flush one feels at discovering that after many years you have been singing the wrong words to a favourite pop song. Surely not, I had seen it spelt otherwise, pretty much everywhere else. B-A-G-E-L. Not here, here on Brick Lane it is beigel, and apparently has been since they started selling them in the vicinity in the mid 19th century. Cool.

bagels

We had shuffled along the bricks on the idle tide of Sunday strollers, weaving our way past stalls selling some lovely things, juxtaposed with the latest stolen bikes, and what looked to be the contents of peoples’ houses. 24 Hour Beigel Bake does not look like much from the outside, but if queues are anything to go by, this was going to be as memorable as the BSG had told me it would. Don’t be daunted by the snake of people out of the door (and round the shop), it moves fast; the uber-efficient team make sure that the orders fly out. While we waited, we watched men carry slatted wooden trays of the doughy rings to and fro between boiler and oven in the busy back room. You can buy them plain to take home, with smoked salmon and cream cheese, tuna, salt-beef and other fillings. Before we knew it we were back out and blinking in the bright sunshine, paper parcels in hand. Packed with warm slabs of salt beef, gargantuan crunchy gherkins and the must-have slick of mustard these beigels made a delicious lunch on the go. They were wonderfully dense, chewy from their boiling, a little crisp on the outside from their baking – the gnashers really had to work. The glutton in me was screaming out for a second.

salt beef bagel

Off we trotted happily for a velvety coffee in a small yard off Columbia Road, surrounded by lovely materials and antiques, all at peace with the world. Little prepared were we for the tragic scene that was about to unfold. A contented tourist (and shouldn’t we be encouraging them to come back time and time again?), eager for his late breakfast after a busy morning negotiating the flower stalls had ordered scrambled eggs on toast, a fantastic choice I hear you say, high in soul-filling protein. SCRAMBLED EGGS – a choice of champions. Some mornings they sing with yellow joy atop crunchy buttered toast, others you know that, like a good friend, a good dollop of these will see you through until lunch at least…

Stop right there: this was something very different. A dry insipid mass, overcooked, pale alien-green – the pain in the man’s expression was palpable as he attempted to keep it down. I am not sure what those eggs had been through to get to the plate, but the ‘chef’ could have done with the same treatment. Collectively we gaped in horror as he soldiered on, having rashly refused both ketchup and brown sauce, which would no doubt have aided him in his ordeal. We left, so I never did see if he made it to the other side, but I should think that he took a taxi straight to the nearest airport.

back room bagels

Something warm, for a rainy day

Last weekend, in the late golden September sunlight, we kicked off the hot autumn pudding season with a fragrant, fruity crumble, made by my brother Har, and of course, the BSG.

Here’s the recipe…

This can be pretty much any fruit you like, (and quantities really depend on what crumble to fruit ratio you prefer.)

Makes enough for 6

8 good-sized plums, purple, red or yellow
4 large cooking apples
2 tablespoons of water
Caster sugar, a couple of good shakes from the bag

For the topping:
200g plain flour, or mix half and half porridge oats
100g cold butter, cubed
125g demerara sugar
Ground cinnamon

Wash the fruit, stone and quarter the plums, peel core and chop the apples. Put them in a heavy based pan sprinkled with the water and sugar to start them off, only for a few minutes (you can even put a star anise or two in with the fruit to spice it up a bit; it works well with plums, and cardamom pods suit rhubarb very well). Put the fruit in a buttered oven-proof dish.
In a food processor blend oats/flour, butter and sugar, until you have something the texture of builder’s sand – but taste it! If you like, sprinkle in some cinnamon and blend again. Then spread evenly over the fruit, don’t pat it down, and put in the oven at 180C for 35 minutes or so, until light brown on the top and bubbling at the edges.

Serve with crème fraiche, ice cream, yoghurt, custard: whatever’s your favourite.