26 August 2006

Almond Macaroons - plain and unmessed with

I've found it impossible to locate in my recipe books a version of macaroons which hasn't been tarted up with orange oil or coconut or pistachios. In my grandmother's copy of Good Simple Cookery by Elizabeth Ayrton we found the following easy-peasy recipe:
3 egg white
Pinch of salt
6 oz ground almonds
8 oz castor sugar
1 tbsp ground rice or fine semolina
18 blanched almonds

Whip egg whites and salt until stiff enough to hold a peak. Fold in the ground almonds, sugar and rice or semolina. Put in little mounds or roll into balls and then flatten on rice paper or a well-greased baking tray. Place an almond on each, bake in a slow oven at 150 degrees C, til crisp, about 30 to 40 minutes. In a fan oven, we found 30 mins worked well, giving a chewy centre and crisp shell.

25 August 2006

Student supper revisited

Remember what you used to eat as a student? I'm thinking of the concoction of greasy tinned tuna and sweetcorn mixed with a ration of Hellman's. Well, this evening I was suffering from Friday syndrome, staring aimlessly into the cupboard and desperately trying to resist the pull of the slightly-above-average Indian takeaway over the road, when I was suddenly taken with inspiration to re-create it. Well, sort of. The tuna was in spring water. The sweetcorn tin had some suspiciously old-fashioned Safeway packaging and closer inspection revealed "Best before September 2002". And the mayonnaise was some fancy fresh stuff made by "Delouis Fils", from Waitrose (the kind of thing you see on the shelf in the supermarket and think "Who the hell's going to buy that?". My wife, that's who.) Testing my "all sell-by dates are bollocks" bravado to the limit, I ploughed on regardless, also adding other random things that previously seemed destined for a slow death in the fridge - what I could salvage from half a red onion, the juice of half a lemon, a couple of cold potatoes and some crumbly Kirkham's Lancashire cheese, plus salt and pepper and a few torn leaves of basil from the garden. I scoffed a whole mound of the stuff, with some lettuce (also straight from the ground) and a couple of sliced tomatoes. Fantastic. And 4 hours later, I feel fine...fingers crossed for tomorrow!

Rasoi Vineet Bhatia - great food, comedy cutlery

Wedding anniversary last Tuesday, one of the better reasons for restaurant profligacy. After mulling over a few options and coming up against the brick wall that is the booking system for some of London's swankier joints, we managed to get a table at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, reputed to be the best Indian restaurant in the capital. I did nearly lose the table mind you, going within a whisker of putting the phone down on the girl who rang to confirm the booking because I thought she was selling insurance.

It didn't disappoint. The welcome was warm, from all staff we passed on the way to our table, and food impeccable. Faced with a menu full of too many treats to choose just two, and a carefree attitude towards budget, only minimal consultation was required before we plumped for the 9-course menu gourmand, plus the full gamut of recommend wines (6 in all). There's no way I could remember everything, and we quickly abandoned attempts to take notes in a bid to actually spend some time talking to each other, but some dishes scaled the highest heights, while the remainder were just excellent. The only drawback was the cutlery - a knife with a good-for-nothing long, thin curvy blade, a spoon that kept turning over in the hand, and a fork where the food kept falling through the prongs, all of which threw themselves suicidally to the floor given the slightest nudge when the waiter collected the plates. Laughable - if you're ever thinking of buying some fancy-looking cutlery made by Guy Degrenne, don't! But nothing could have stopped me enjoying the food - Indians typically eat with their hand, anyway!Highlights included the mushroom khichdi, a fantastic lobster dish on rice and mouli (dyed green) with a wonderfully intense bisque, and a perfect goats cheese samosa, as well as a chocolate one with Indian tea ice cream as one of the two desserts provided. Maybe the crusted scallop lacked a bit of "zing", and the tamarind sauce on the quail was a bit over-intense for my palate, but really I'm scrabbling for faults where there were none. This was simply "modern Indian" cooking at its best - and Nicola was getting quite full by the time the creamy lamb korma arrived (served with idly - more commonly a breakfast item but a interesting match) so I got bumper helping!

One of the things you don't expect in an Indian restaurant is a German sommelier (particular a polite and informative one with a sense of humour). But that's exactly what RVB has, and it's an inspired move, bearing in mind how many wines from German-speaking areas complement the complex flavours of Indian food. Matches were well researched - including Alsace Riesling, Austrian Blaufrankish, Gewurtztraminer from Pfalz, and my personal favourite, a rich, chewy Sauvignon Blanc from the Sud Tyrol.

All told, an outstanding meal, and for once the 12.5% service was really earned. We paid the eye-watering bill (pushing Tom Aikens into 3rd place and only topped by Gordon Ramsey's lunch) and hopped in a cab. The best Indian in London? With outstanding food and wine, near-faultless service (shame he knocked off that table decoration...), understated decor and homely ambience, it's claimed the crown from the Cinnamon Club for me.

20 August 2006

Fleeting memories of strawberry perfection

The large punnet of strawberries that we bought yesterday was one of the most perfectly ripe, balancing perfect levels of acidity and sugar. I put my foot down, and was allowed to "do something" with them, rather than just eat them with cream or in passing.

The recipe is Tamasin Day-Lewis's Strawberry Tart, P. 95 from her Art of the Tart book.

Sitting down with pi r squared, I calculated that a 7" tin would need only a third of the ingredients of the 12" tin in the recipe. I should have done a half, as I always find it difficult to get the pastry to stretch in her recipes. Does Tamasin roll perfect circles which fit the tin exactly with no wastage? Or is her pastry really only 3mm thick?Anyway, I managed with some patchwork to get the pastry to line the tin, blind baked it, and put it back in for a few minutes. Too many - it became dark brown, dangerously close to burnt.

In parallel, I attempted to make the creme patissiere. It was incredibly temperamental, becoming so lumpy as to need mechanical rescuing not once but twice. At the same time, it was difficult to cook it enough to soften the flavour of cornflour. All this was very stressful!

Arranging the strawberries was fun, carefully sorting them into small, medium and large ones before fitting in concentric circles, and basting in melted redcurrant jelly.

We demolished it all in about 15 minutes. I'd love to make another one soon. I think I might be able to avoid both the pastry-scorching and lumpy creme. The fleeting memory of its flavour makes me long for more and more of them.

19 August 2006

The best free music in London?

Pretty much every Thursday night at the River Bar on Tower Bridge Road you can see Allen Beechey's Bright Stars of Jazz, a fantastic jazz/swing band, playing classic tracks from the first half of the last century. Went along last week, and they were as good as ever. They normally start at about 8.30, and play until closing time with half an hour's break. The River Bar does decent pub grub, so you can easily make an evening of it. Really uplifting.

Indulgent Saturday - Rick Stein's brill

Went to Borough market this morning. Didn't have a list so just wandered around and bought interesting things. Fatal.
Spent £16 on a fish. Brill, it was! Also bought some very small courgettes from the most expensive vegetable stall in the world. And they gave us a penny off! Decided to cook ourselves a decent meal on the excuse that it's our anniversary next Tuesday.
Cooked Rick Stein's "grilled scored plaice with roasted red pepper, garlic and oregano" (from his Seafood book, P.178), using brill, of course. The oregano is going wild in the garden, but at least this recipe used a teaspoon of it... The fish looked like a work of art in the pan (see picture). Cooked it under our new grill, which was a bit frightening, as it caught fire quite convincingly at one stage. Then I remembered you could turn it down from setting 6. The cooker is made by Prochef and is an impressive furnace, but the grill pan always buckles, which is a little disconcerting. And turning a 1.1kg brill over is a job for two people (with 8 hands).
Served it with Claudia Roden's "Spinach with tomatoes and almonds" (but without the almonds because you can't eat them with a fork, and we didn't have any blanched ones).
The whole thing turned out really well. The brill took about 18 minutes to cook, turning over at 10 or thereabouts. Proper poncey flavours, could have done with a bit of rosti or similar starch in a tower shape for cheffy presentation. It would have fed 3 comfortably, but we ate it all anyway.
On discovering that nothing that tastes of anything goes with brill (allegedly), we chose a bottle of Luis Pato's Maria Gomes sparkling wine to accompany it. This is a pleasant light fizz, without too many strong flavours. We went to the winery a few years ago. He's an interesting chap, a former chemist, a bit of a maverick on the Portuguese wine scene, and produces some of the country's best wines.

18 August 2006

Phrases you don't often hear......

In the pub last night, I asked for a mineral water. The response was "it's spring water, is that okay?" I was astonished. Never, ever, in years of ordering water in restaurants and bars has anyone pointed out that what they were serving wasn't mineral water. There are Indian restaurants in London that charge £4.50 a bottle for spring water. Sometimes it is only filtered water served in fancy bottles, still charged at a horrendous rate. There doesn't seem to be any price differential between filtered, spring or mineral water, only on the amount of fancy design on the bottle, or the gall of the restaurant.
Full marks to the barmaid at the Riverside Bar, Tower Bridge Road for her honesty and knowledge!

13 August 2006

Merlonay - brilliant!

Trying to find a web link for Hungerpang's sardine entry below, I came across this lovely April fool on Jamie Oliver's website!

A good thing to do with sardines

A few weeks ago I spent a fruitless morning going round the fish stalls of Borough Market trying to find sardines. I didn't know sardines had a "season", but maybe they do. Anyway, Furness Fish and Game had piles of lovely fresh ones on Friday, so I bought half a dozen. Typically, I can't now remember the recipe I wanted to cook with them! So after a bit of searching I went for Jamie Oliver's "Stuffed, Rolled and Baked Sardines with Pine Nuts and Fresh Herbs", from his "Naked Chef" book (his first, with him looking impossibly young on the cover, when "pukka" was only associated with grotty pies and before we realised that he was going to take over the world and become prime minister). You'll find it on pages 98-99, and it's a cracking recipe. A bit fiddly, admittedly - lots of "finely chopped" things and boning raw sardines, but once you've put it together you're eating it within 10 minutes, and the succulent fish and explosion of herby flavours is fantastic. Well worth the 40 minutes of prep. I finely chopped the garlic, too, even though it doesn't say this in the recipe. Seemed strange to have a whole clove floating around. We ate it with home grown green salad and some left over "farro semiperlato" (see separate post on this blog), the latter not being much of a match. Some tomato salad would have been better. Washed down with a bottle of Lagar de Cervera Albarino from Spain's Rias Baixas region, an excellent wine typically available for about a tenner which we've had on several occasions. The 2003 is just going over a bit, but it's a great example of the lemony, fruity, floral flavours of the Alborino grape. We've always bought it from Laymont and Shaw, a specialist Iberian and South American importer based in Truro, Cornwall, but I've seen it in several other vintners.

12 August 2006

Arbutus - a mixed bag

Any regular readers of restaurant reviews in recent months are unlikely to have been able to avoid a glowing appraisal of Arbutus, in Frith Street in the heart of London's West End. One exception was arch-cynic Matthew Norman in the Guardian (how those previous five words must pain long-term Telegraph readers - "Stella" magazine, what were they thinking of in the Canary Wharf tower?), who said it left him cold, or words to that effect. And after a pre-theatre trip last week, I find myself agreeing with him.

We arrived right on 6.30, our table time, and met up with two friends who had happily sat in the restaurant's bar area (also laid up for dinner) for about ten minutes. My initial reaction of "I booked a table, not a bar stool" were quickly assuaged as we were led through the premises to the starkly decorated main dining area. Already largely full with other pre-threatre diners, the white paint-dark wood decor, long bench and militarily aligned tables provide a conveyor belt feel. For me they also bought back memories of our dreadful "Club Gascon experience", where the French couple's ashtray on the next table could have comfortably doubled as a home for my olive stones. The only time I've had smoked sorbet...

I'm a bit loathed to judge Arbutus purely on it's pre-theatre, but then, if they can't get that right, what chance the more complex dishes on the a la carte? Two choices at each course is fair enough, though if one of the starters is gazpacho, it's a fair bet they might run out of the other at some point. "The other" was a rabbit terrine, a splendidly intense concoction which turned out to be the highlight of the meal. The gazpacho provided the "oh my god what have I ordered" moment of the evening, when Nicola was presented with a small pile of finely chopped salad vegetables in the middle of a soup bowl, the soup following shortly in a flask for you to pour yourself, in the kind of pretentious way so many of London's restaurants specialise in. I was given a flask like that in hospital once...the soup itself was pleasant, without ever making you think "so that's how I should have made it".

So to mains. Nicola's pollock with dauphinoise and minted pea was simple, perfectly executed and enjoyable. The "slow-cooked lamb" was none of these. Neither was it slow-cooked. The joys of succulent concentrated meat flavours I was craving were replaced with a pallid, and sinewy pan-fried offering, almost raw in places. Could have sent it back, but decided against due to the time pressure of pre-theatre. Could have done with a decent serving of vegetables, too.

Desserts yet again managed to scale the heights and plumb the depths in equal measure. The pannacotta was close to perfect. "Cheeses" were the other option. Like a mug, I chose it, largely based on the plurality of the word and because I could see the names of 3 cheeses on the a la carte. What I received was a disgrace. ONE slice of cheese, 25x50x5mm, a tiny blob of chutney and a few poncily arranged salad leaves and fine slices of Granny Smith. Scandalous. What is it about (London) restaurants and cheese, anyway? How many times do you see cheese available as an extra course on a menu for a ludicrous price? Far too frequently. Eight quid for a few slivers, or whatever. It's not as though we're still living in the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when cheddar tasted like plastic slime and Edam was a treat. Good cheese is everywhere, and every cheese-lover knows how much it costs. Even at Neal's Yard, the stratospheric end of the market, 20 quid buys you a lot of good cheese. Chuck in trade discounts, economies of scale and the fact that the dish can be put together by the kid on youth training, and the extent of the rip-off becomes clear. So stop taking the piss and give me my cheese!!

So all told, we left Arbutus with a sense of disappointment, while accepting it's not that far away from being a really good restaurant. The pre-theatre was, after all, only £17.50 a head, and they do have an excellent, innovative approach to serving wine. A good range is available not only by the glass and bottle, but also by the 250ml carafe - even the good stuff! Both our South African Chenin Blanc and Portuguese Douro were faultless examples of type. But I can't end on a positive...if I tell a restaurant doing pre-theatre I have 8 o'clock tickets, I expect a bit of urgency to ensure I get there on time. Arbutus's staff provided none (service 12.5%, naturally....). There's too much competition on the restaurant scene for it to get a second chance.

Huong Viet - heaven in North London!

Should I start ranting about Ikea on a blog which is largely devoted to food? Perhaps a better way of looking at it is "is any blog complete if it doesn't include a rant against Ikea?" Like most of the nation, we've had one of their "Billy" design bookcases for several years, been impressed by its durability, and when we recently moved house decided we wanted one of their "Billy corner bookcases" to attach to the existing one. As ever with Ikea, whatever you want, you can't have (think how many things you own from Ikea, then think how many of them you actually wanted when you walked into the store, against how many you bought because they didn't have what you wanted or because you were hopelessly lost in their warehouse and grabbed something in a random panic attack and made a run for it...) Anyway, it turns out the wretched Billy corner bookcase is being discontinued, and the search had already taken us on fruitless visits to Lakeside and Croydon (not in the same evening, naturally - even Colleen couldn't bear that) before we resorted to eBay. I find eBay particularly sadistic - "you have "won" this bookcase that you've been looking for for weeks......and your reward is nice Tuesday evening drive to Enfield to collect it". Great. A quick glance of the map brought salvation. The route between Rotherhithe (home) and Enfield is straight up the A10, and just off the A10 is, in my opinion, the best value restaurant in the whole of the capital. Huong Viet, on Englefield Road, offers Vietnamese food of such quality at ludicrously low prices to put the whole of Chinatown to shame. If you don't live nearby, then you probably don't have much call to visit this part of London, but it's well worth going out of your way for. And don't be put off by the exterior. Set in the Vietnamese cultural centre and with only a small black and white sign to identify it, it has, quite possibly, the most unappealing exterior of any restaurant in London (the first time I went I did a double-take because I thought the building was derelict). Even when you cross the threshold you're met with closely-packed tables, a random assortment of plastic chairs and paper tablecloths bearing the spillages of the previous customer. Smoking is still permitted (well, it prides itself on its authenticity...), but the moment you get your first dish from the lengthy menu, you'll forget it all. We had 3 starters between two of us, then shared a sea bass (I seem to remember Matthew Norman waxing lyrical about this a while back) and finished off with a palate-cleansing salad. All were superb, with fresh herbal and spicy flavours to the fore - starters were "zingy" crab cakes, a wonderfully fresh cold "spring roll"-type offering, with prawns , basil and beansprouts wrapped in a rice-flour pancake, and beef wrapped in betel leaves, all served with different, complementary sauces. The bill? About 33 quid, including drinks. Service charge? Nope. Did they get one? You bet they did.

Berry's Good Ordinary Claret

Once upon a time, the British used to drink a lot blended non-vintage wine. Before we joined the EEC, "authentic" wines were regular doctored to the detriment of their authenticity, but perhaps to make them more drinkable. In champagne and port, it is still normal to blend different years to give a consistent flavour. For table wine, the practice seemed to die out as wine became more popular, as one of the easiest things to grasp was that wine without a date on the front was less fancy than "vintage".

Of course, I've no idea whether Berry's GOC is a blend from different years or vineyards. It just doesn't have a date on the front, and is reputedly very consistent. It's their best-selling wine.

We were very favourably impressed. For £5.50 a bottle, it has a reasonably rich nose, and good depth of flavour. It had a delicious, sensational start, but didn't seem to develop as we went through the bottle, not being particularly complex. You could see why they've recently brought out an Extraordinary Claret at £11, but that is for a different purpose.

We'll be getting through the remaining 2 bottles pretty quickly, and going back for more.

Farro semiperlato - a type of "spelt" risotto, and successful experiment

This risked being a high-fibre, low fat, nearly veggie meal, so we accompanied with a bottle of Berry's Good Ordinary Claret to level things up.
While looking for something else, I saw an interesting picture in a recipe book, and thought it might be nice to make something with barley-type grains in. This was followed by a rare trip to Sainsbury's, where I picked up a packet of something called farro semiperlato in their special selection, thinking it was pearl barley. Of course, it wasn't pearl barley, nor does it seem to be spelt, although often translated as such (see Food of the Legions http://italianfood.about.com/library/rec/blr0002.htm). And there's no sign of the interesting recipe I wanted to do!
So I followed the instructions for Farro all'antica on the back of the packet:
200g farro, olive oil, 100g minced meat (beef in this case), celery, carrot, onion, salt, pepper, diced tomatoes, meat broth, parmesan cheese. Fry the finely chopped vegetables together with the minced meat and season with oil, salt and pepper, add the tomato and cook for 15 minutes. Put the farro in cold water and bring to boil for 10 minutes. Drain and add to the meat sauce, cook for 20 minutes, adding broth if necessary.
The farro needed rinsing after boiling, as there was some starch scum, and I found I needed to add quite a bit of stock, ending up with some risotto-type results. Having not twigged it was going to be risotto, I hadn't put enough effort into the beef-stock-from-a-bottle, so added a smidgeon of worcester sauce and mushroom ketchup. I also added a bayleaf and some parsley.
The result was very pleasant. The grain has an interesting meaty texture, which doesn't break up on cooking, and had a decent but not outstanding flavour. Apparently it's terribly good for you, so we could feel very smug.

It tastes good cold, too. We might serve the leftovers as an accompaniment to sardines. Or it will reheat or freeze much more successfully than risotto.

07 August 2006

Ode to making your own pesto

Today was a watershed in growing things to eat: the first, slightly-unripe red strawberry, and the first plateful of pasta made with pesto from basil we've grown. We don't have a large or established garden. Our "kitchen garden" is three 1-metre square raised bins. For the first time, we've planted seeds, and succeeded in raising a host of basil plants outside. Okay, there's not much left of the basil plants now, but they will survive the slaughter. The result was stunning. Picked straight from the garden (30g), and mashed in the pestle & mortar with garlic (a half clove was slightly too much), and pine nuts (15g), we used sicilian olive oil and borough market parmesan, and a squeeze of lemon juice, served with properly-long spaghetti. It trumped anything we've ever bought. I tried to find a photo on-line to accompany this, but they all had finely-chopped basil leaves, and looked less honest than our supper.

06 August 2006

Marks & Spencer's Oudinot champagne

This is an exciting new discovery for us. For some reason, we don't often buy wine from M & S, but this is a good reason to change our habits. We were given it last week by visitors from Hong Kong, and opened it in celebration at possibly never having to go to Ikea ever again. The surprise was how much we liked the style. It wasn't aiming at the toasty notes we usually prefer, but really impressed with its creaminess, balance, and to be honest, moreishness. One of those occasions when a bottle between two of you definitely isn't enough. And they're selling it for about 13 quid at the moment!

Royal China and other Canary Wharfisms

We may have a brand new kitchen, but the combination of busy times at work and bone idleness have led to us eating out even more than usual in the last few days. First up was a trip to the Royal China in Canary Wharf, totally on a whim one Friday night on the way home from the office. I've tried a fair few Chinese restaurants in London in recent years, and this is up there with the best, even if they do have slightly mercenary tendencies. Little gems in have included the most aggressive topping up of wine and water glasses on the planet (we once ran up about 12 quid on water as a result), a mysterious extra bottle of wine appearing on the bill and one or two other items of sharp practice (aka "creative billing"), so you need to be on your toes (I wasn't, to my cost, with the extra wine...). But the food is consistently good, and at 6.30 on a sunny Friday evening their outside tables overlooking the river are often too good resist. Being of an adventurous disposition, we went for a couple of items from the chef's specials, which can be found on the inside cover of the menu. This is normal ordering tactics - we're bound to end up there with more conservatives eaters in the near future, so there'll be plenty of opportunities to try the duck and black bean sauce, or whatever. It's not for the faint hearted, though, and on this occasion was only moderately successful... one excellent dish of dover sole pieces in lime and ginger was offset by a much more gloopy belly pork with winter melon (an idiotic choice for a summer's evening, I accept, but we were influenced by the known quality of one of their standard belly pork dishes (with preserved vegetables), which is outstanding). We got through it, more out of stubbornness than enjoyment (15 quid for a plate of pork stew has that effect), then coughed up their 13% service charge, didn't cough up for their offer to add service to service charge (how to piss off your customer rule 1), and headed home. This probably sounds like a pretty grim experience, but on average, the plusses outweigh the minuses (otherwise we wouldn't keep going back). One final word on Royal China is that, in my view, it does the best dim sum in London. They don't take bookings, so if you don't want to wait for an hour or more you usually need to turn up by noon, and if you can find a Chinese-speaking friend to make up a trio all the better. Having someone who can converse clearly with the staff yielded all sorts of delights among the things we'd never ordered as a result of limited, or confusing, menu descriptions, and it also means you don't find yourself trying to cut up the third hot soup dumpling with chopsticks to share between two of you. Well worth a go.

Where do you go in Canary Wharf if you want to grab a quick supper at 5.3o and then head back into the office for a couple of hours to catch up with all the things you can't do in normal hours because some bloke in Bangalore spends his whole day bombarding you with stupid questions? This was the dilemma faced by Nicola and I on Monday, and what a dilemma it is. Jubillee Place offers Nando's (average chicken in a pointlessly hot sauce), the overrated Tiffinbites and the ever-deteriorating Wagamama, and few other equally uninspiring offerings. The bars are generally too loud; the food too awful. Carluccio's is packed with people from the office. We'd done Itsu a few days earlier, and anyway wanted something more substantial. Chilles looked appalling, Burger King is worse, and so we ended up in Pizza Express. First time for about a year, and it's not getting any better. It's still functional and served the purpose on this occasion, but you still get the feeling that someone's counted the number of olives on the top your pizza, and they're at least an inch smaller than they were a few back. A few days later we had better home-delivered pizza with some friends in Bristol, which says it all really. One plus is that they were serving a really nice Sicilian lemonade, but I expect it'll be several months before I try it again.