Saturday, 31 December 2011

Snapshot: Christmas is over...

Into the bargain bin go the mince pies, brandy cream and fruit cake. No more brandy truffles or turkey until next year. But no need to be sad! You can stock up on Easter eggs instead. It's not even 2012 yet!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Takeaway's to save drunken Londoners

A drink after work turns into a few and then a few more "because its Christmas". For many, the Christmas season is all about indulgence in food and drink but for some, it turns into a serious issue. The festive period sees such a significant rise in drunken kitchen incidents that the London Fire Brigade have launched an ad campaign that specifically targets those who might consider cooking while under the influence. The campaign, which is occupying pages in newspapers as well as billboards around the capital, features a photograph of a burger with the caption "Last night a burger saved my life". Their research shows that a quarter of accidental house fires in the capital are caused by 18 to 35 year olds when attempting to cook at home when drunk. Its hoped that, by encouraging merry makers to opt for a takeaway rather than conjuring up a drunken snack, it will cut the number of fires in the capital. 

It goes without saying that I am in agreement with any campaign that is primarily aimed at saving lives. However, the link with takeaways bothers the health-obsessed part of my brain. Why a takeaway? Why not a sandwich or a bowl of cereal? The Christmas season is generally pretty decadent for the majority of people but surely our society doesn't need any encouragement to turn to their local takeaways?

Still, I would urge you to deny your chip pan cravings after a few too many glasses of vino. Just think of the resulting mess if nothing else!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Snapshot: Blue cheese stuffed figs

The Boy and I spent ten glorious days in Lanzarote back in October and while we explored the sun-soaked scenery, we ate our way around the island. It wasn't just the cacti that caught my eye on our travels but the fig trees that were starting to bare fruit. It was like sweet torture to see the branches covered in immature figs that wouldn't be ready to eat during our holiday. We feasted on dates with bacon (which were amazing - I'll have to work on a recipe!) and dried figs but nothing saited my hunger for the fresh variety.

Now that I'm back home in far less exotic climes, I spotted a carton of figs which was reduced to clear. Fortuitiously, there was also a pack of Danish Blue cheese in the bargain bin that was going for a song. I simply couldn't resist - somethings are just meant to be.

For a lunchtime treat, remove the stalks and quarter ripe fresh figs by cutting nearly all the way to the bottom of the fruit but not quite. Gently pull each one open and crumble blue cheese into the cavity before gently squeezing back together. If you're feeling fancy, you would wrap the whole thing in whisps of parma ham. Serve with a fresh salad of winter leaves.

The intensely savory notes of the cheese are countered by the sweet juices of the fig. If you can't get your hands on fresh ones, try combining blue cheese with fig jam, quince cheese or even bog-standard strawberry jam. Combine the flavours in an up-market canape by topping a bite-sized cracker with a thin slice of fig and a sliver of cheese.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Caramel Convert?

It seems that I'm not the only one who's converted by Nigella Lawson's salted caramel recipe - the Evening Standard is raving about it too! They review Nigella's piece on the "Class A foodstuff" and provide a run down of the best salted caramel confections too. With all of this publicity, I'm betting that anything salty and sweet will be dashing off the shelves so stock up if it's your latest obsession.

Click here for a readable version that you won't need a magnifying glass for.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dark Chocolate and Bitter Cherry Brownies with Salted Caramel Glaze

Now that I’m London-based and taking the train every day, I’ve taken to reading the free papers and after a month, it’s now firmly in my commuting routine. Metro in the morning, Evening Standard during the post-office dash – day in, day out. But on Tuesday evenings, something beautiful happens. For Tuesday’s are the day that Stylist magazine is handed out at choice locations across the UK. It’s a fantastic free women’s weekly magazine aimed at city ladies with, well, style. As one of my lady friends described it, “Stylist rocks. I’d pay for it – it’s that good! But I don’t have to.” Even better.

I don’t pass any of the distribution points on my normal route so I am forced to divert in order to pick up my copy and get my weekly hit. This week, I didn’t manage to detour on my way to a dance class so I ended up coveting a fellow Tube travellers copy for a good twenty minutes – looking lovingly at the cover across the aisle – before she alighted and – RESULT! – left the object of my affections behind. 

This week’s copy was edited by Nigella Lawson and featured a rather emotive image of the lady herself dripping with salted caramel. This would normally be a complete turn-off for me as I can’t really stand the woman (The Boy and I have bonded over our joint disgust of her visibly sexual imagery, la-de-da tones and smug smile) but I turned the page as usual. Surely Stylist wouldn’t fail me, I thought. And I was right.

I liked the entire issue but in particular, it discussed a long-standing point of curiosity for me. Salted caramel. I’ve never been sold on the concept of sweet and savoury combined in this form, which I suppose is pretty strange when you consider that I like sweet chilli sauce, cheese and pineapple on sticks and sweet and sour stir-fries. Nigella wrote some predictably filthy prose about “her obsession” (honestly, the poor girl can’t even write one ‘clean’ page – who else could include “saliva-spurting lips” and “ménage-á-trois” in a food column?) with the stuff but the idea festered with me until I was drawn to try it out. We’d both enjoyed a hint of saltiness in  Source’s Cherry and Salted Caramel Brownie so I thought that I would attempt my own recipe.

Don’t be under any illusion about just how bad these are for you. But the odd occasional indulgence can’t do you any harm. They’re seriously gooey and sticky but can still be eaten with fingers (Nigella-style sultry digit-licking compulsory). Make them a day ahead of time to let the caramel soak in.

Dark Chocolate and Bitter Cherry Brownies with Salted Caramel Glaze
Makes 16 – 20 brownies

For the brownies
100g unsalted butter, softened
150g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
75g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp milk (or cream!)
75g dried sour cherries
50g dark chocolate, chopped

For the caramel (adapted from Nigella's version)
40g unsalted butter
25g soft light brown sugar
25g golden caster sugar
25g honey
60ml double cream
1 tsp sea salt (fleur de sel if you have it) or to taste

-          - Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper
-          - First, it’s time to make the caramel. Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat with the sugars and honey, stirring occasionally to encourage the sugar to dissolve.
-          - Once it is smooth, raise the temperature and let the caramel gently bubble up. Keep a close eye on it at this point as it can burn easily; I like to remove it from the heat every minute or so to and give it a good stir to stop it catching. It’s ready when it starts to thicken and darken.
-          - Remove from the heat and add the cream, stirring constantly to combine into a smooth sauce. Once you have done this, take a little caramel on a spoon and set it to one side to cool – if it completely solidifies, add a splash of milk as you want the caramel to be semi-liquid at room temperature.
-          - Scatter the salt over the caramel and stir well to combine. Taste to check the salt levels and add more if you fancy it. Beware that the caramel may be very hot so don’t burn your mouth! Set aside.
-          - Beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy and then add one egg at a time, whisking well between each addition.
-          - Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder into the bowl and then gently stir in. Add the milk to loosen then fold in half of the cherries and all of the dark chocolate.
-          - Spoon into the prepared tin and level. Using half of your prepared caramel, add dollops to the brownie batter in the tin. Loosely swirl the caramel into the batter but don’t overdo it as it’ll just mix in.
-          - Bake for 25 minutes or until the top has puffed up a little and has set.
-          - Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 15 minutes then stud with the remaining cherries (I like to squidge them right into the soft brownie but be more decorative if you wish) and then glaze with the remaining caramel.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Chocolate Festival, London

You may already be aware of my love affair with chocolate but if you’re not, needless to say that I am a big fan. I won’t go into detail (it’s best not to get me started) but there was a time when I couldn’t go a day without some form of the good stuff. I’m reformed now but it’s still my weak spot. I’m heartened that I’m not as bad as The Boy who can’t sit still if there’s an open box of chocolate on display.

With this in mind, you can imagine my frustration about the fact that on a weekend when I’m schlepping oop North (to visit a friend who lives on an organic farm – post to follow) the capital will be hosting a festival devoted to my vice. The Chocolate Festival runs from today until Sunday and will be a melting pot for over 40 mouth-watering exhibitors. There will be demonstrations from some of the world’s best chocolatiers will be taking place throughout the weekend so I’m truly missing out. 

If you’re unlucky enough to already have plans, do not despair. They have already confirmed dates in March next year in Brighton and London to spread the chocolatey goodness.  

The Chocolate Festival runs from Friday 9th until Sunday 11th December 2011 from 11am - 8pm Daily (6pm on Sunday) at Southbank Centre Square, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Honey glazed carrots

A chilly winter breeze has blown in and had me reaching for my thick coat, scarf and gloves. This is the time of year has me craving comfort food in the shape of rich risottos, beautiful bakes and sumptuous soups. In addition, my stomach seems to be gearing itself up for the big day and its legendary roast of epic proportions. Although I adore the meat element of a roast, I am a big fan of the accompaniments too. Crispy potatoes, Yorkshire puddings (not just with beef, I might add) and as many different kinds of vegetables as possible (as the season allows). 

Saying that, I like to keep things simple and, in my tiny kitchen, that means minimising the number of pans on the hob. Glazed roasted roots are a fantastic way to do this as it brings out their natural sweetness while reducing your hob-top saucepans. I’ve jotted down my recipe for carrots but it would work equally as well with parsnips or beetroot depending on your tastes. A little wholegrain mustard swirled through the glaze is a delight too!

Honey glazed carrots
Serves four as a side

250g chantenay carrots
1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste

-          - Preheat the oven to 180C.
-          - Scrape or peel the carrots (top and tail if necessary) and slice in half.  Place in a bowl, drizzle with oil and stir or toss with your fingers to coat them evenly. Season with a little salt and pepper.
-          - Spread out thinly on a baking tray and put in the oven for 30 minutes. Stir them once or twice to ensure that they cook evenly.
-          - Gently melt the butter and honey together over a low heat or in the microwave, stirring until combined.
-          - Remove the carrots from the oven and pour over the glaze.
-          - Return to the oven for another five or ten minutes until the carrots are browned on the outside but are soft enough to cut easily.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Make your own Christmas cake "kit"?

On my adventures in supermarket-land, I’ve noticed that many of them are selling kits for making the traditional Christmas cake. Now, on the one hand, I’m happy that they might encourage festive cake virgins to give the stodgy fruit slabs a try, which has got to be a good thing. One the other hand, the pointless packaging (individual sachets of spices? Really?) immediately gets my back up and leaves me wondering: is it really that hard to weigh out a few ingredients? It seems like commercialised “convenience” to me. It's been quite the cookery conundrum for me.

The kits themselves aren’t cheap – convenience, after all, costs – and aren’t a complete cake package. Each “kit” contains pre-weighed flour, sugar, almonds and spices as well as ready-soaked dried fruit .You’ll need to add butter and eggs which come at an additional cost. The kit itself will set you back anywhere between £7.50 - £15 depending on if you get one when its reduced. Now that the furious run-up to the big day has begun in earnest, they are discounting them left, right and centre. Assuming that you use free range eggs, you’ll need to fork out at least an additional £3. With your average home baked cake coming in around the £7.50 mark, you’d do better to make your own from scratch if you’re watching the pre-Christmas pennies.

The only thing that these kits seem to offer is convenience in the form is pre-weighed and pre-soaked ingredients as well as a tried-and-tested recipe. I suppose it could be helpful if you really don’t know where to start and probably scores highly in the supermarket impulse buy league tables. For a few of my friends, 2011 has been the year of the first Christmas cake. Instead of turning to the supermarkets for assistance, they got together and made a night of it. All newbies together; no pressure to impress, just cake baking at its best.
Let’s face it; we all know how to weigh out ingredients and there’s nothing out of the ordinary in a Christmas cake. The most difficult part is remembering to soak the fruit before you make the cake but this could be done overnight if you’re really running short of time. As far as tried-and-tested recipes, you have the internet at your fingertips! The world is your cakey (Noro-free) oyster. Plus, I’m sure there’s someone – whether it’s a parent, grandparent, friend or kindly colleague – who would lend you their trusty recipe.
So please don’t be fooled into getting one of these kits. Sure it’s probably better than buying one readymade but making one from scratch – which, in this case, basically involved getting the scales out – isn’t much harder.

Complete first-timer? Not sure where to start? The first thing you need to do is soak your fruit!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto

The winter cold season is well and truly upon us and there are people coughing and sneezing wherever I look. I’ve started using my newspaper as a shield during my commute (has covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze gone out of fashion?) in a feeble attempt to avoid the inevitable. So far so good though I’ve probably jinxed myself by saying that! Whether you are currently suffering or if you, like me, are desperately trying to dodge the sniffles that are doing the rounds, you could help yourself by eating right. Butternut nut squash is a fantastic versatile ingredient and it’s packed full of vitamin C (great for boosting your immune system!) and calcium as well as other fantastic vitamins and minerals. Despite its luxuriously silky texture, it’s also low in saturated fat.

We’re coming to the end of the winter squash season but they keep for up to three months in a cool dark environment so there’s still time to squirrel some away under the stairs or in your larder cupboard. I like to buy them up when they’re in season and cheap in the supermarket then peel and roast them when I’ve got the oven on anyway to save on energy. This is a great excuse, if you’re in need of one, to make a cake or maybe some cookies! You can then box or bag it up and freeze it cooked ready for winter salads, warming soups and hearty risottos.

Butternut Squash Risotto with sage
Serves two amply 

½  medium-sized butternut squash, seeds removed
½ onion, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
150g risotto rice
80ml white wine or dry vermouth
500ml vegetable stock
1 small bunch of fresh sage, chopped or 2 tsp dried sage
50g butter
50g parmesan

-          Preheat the oven to 190C. Peel and chop the squash into 1.5cm chunks. Pop them on a non-stick baking tray and stick them in the oven for 30 minutes or so while you make the risotto. Check the squash every so often and turn it with a spoon to ensure that it cooks evenly. The squash is cooked when its soft and slightly golden. If you are using pre-cooked butternut squash, you can obviously skip this step and commend yourself for being well organised.
-          Heat a little oil in a heavy-based saucepan and sweat the onion, carrot and celery until soft and sweet.
-          Tip in the rice and stir until it has absorbed all of the juices of the vegetables in the pan. Pour in the wine and keep stirring while that absorbs to ensure that the rice doesn’t stick.
-          Add the garlic and then the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring until all of the liquid is absorbed before adding more.
-          Check the butternut squash, which should be cooked through. (If it isn’t, cover the risotto and turn off the heat below it.)  Mash half of it to a course purée and stir this into the risotto with the butter, sage and parmesan. Fold in or top with the rest of the roasted squash.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Stir up... Friday!

Are you feeling Christmassy yet? No? Neither am I. But I have a plan! Since I was a little girl, my darling mother has made Christmas cake and pudding for us every year. I have fond memories of watching her weigh out her tried-and-tested mixture of dried fruits before grating in the zest of oranges and lemons and finishing with a generous measure of brandy. The smell of brandy still reminds me of the first rich mouthful of iced cake which I would squeeze in on top of the other sumptuous Christmas fare.

Stir up Sunday may have just passed but it's not too late to start soaking your fruit for your Christmas cake. It's a great way to get into the spirit of things, probably because all the alcohol fumes are enough to make anyone feel at least a little bit merry. You can ease yourself into what can be a marathon cooking season.

First, find a suitable vessel - a large sweet jar with a lid is ideal but a large bowl with a saucepan lid or plate over the top works too. Then pick your fruit; go for whatever you'd like and appeals to you. For a standard size cake and pudding, you'll need around 1.5kg of fruit. I adore dried and glacé cherries so I will be throwing a few of those in along with some plump juicy raisins, some snipped up dried dates, figs and peel. Pop them into your jar or bowl and fetch your chosen tipple. Generally, its sherry or brandy but again, there aren't any rules here and if there are, they are made to be broken. You don't have to go for something alcoholic as tea or fruit juice taste delish too. No matter what you choose, my tip would be to have one of whatever you're giving the fruit yourself - for research purposes, of course. My Mum always added the zest and juice of an orange or two as well. Pour over enough to cover the fruit and you're done! Simply stir the mixture every few days and keep in a cool dark place like your larder cupboard or fridge.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Food on the Brain

An amusing article in the Metro made me snort into my morning cup of tea. Apparently a study in the US has been evaluating the male mind. (Sometimes I toy with chucking in my job and becoming one of these mysterious “researchers” – how do you become one? It sounds like great fun!) I’ll side-step the predictable sexist remarks about there not being much to study, etc  and skip straight to the punch line. According to this study, men think about sex 19 times a day on average. That’s good and all but the interesting bit for me was that this only just trumped food (at 18 times a day) in their thought league table.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m not a boy (really really – verified by medical professionals and everything) which made me wonder a) how often to girls think about food in a day and b) how often to I think about food in a day? I’m tempted to keep a running tally on my hand though I think I’d probably skew the statistics as I tend to think about food rather a lot…

The question that dwarfs all others though, is what do men think about the rest of the time? My suggestions are detailed above!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: Cucina Rustica, Birmingham

Love was in the air and The Boy and I were searching for an impromptu late night meal on a journey up North. Our rendez-vous? Birmingham. Not the most inspiring of romantic settings, admittedly. It’s not exactly our home turf either so, as the train plodded its way from London to Brum, I frantically tapped away on Tripadvisor.

There were various options but I settled on Cucina Rustica for its positive reviews (it was in the top ten restaurants in Birmingham according to Tripadvisor) reasonably priced menu, proximity to the town centre and the fact that it had a table available at just the right time. It was fate! Or so it seemed.

We found the restaurant pretty easily and there’s tons of free street parking dotted around (pay and display before 6pm) which was convenient. We were ushered to a seating area next to the bar for drinks while we waited for our table to be prepared. The bar tender was charming and friendly and astounded me with his range of gins – I lost count but I think you’d need all of your fingers and toes to keep track of the numbers! The restaurant was busy and had a nice buzz to it. We perused the menu and were then shown to our table in the middle of the crowded dining room. It was a nice setting for a romantic meal – the lights were dimmed, there was music playing and the chatter of happy conversation.

I was keen to share a scallop starter involving parsnip mash, which I’d spied other diners enjoying as we were led to our table, as a starter but it was already getting late and we had places to be (and – you guessed it - people to see). Instead, we nibbled on some Pane e aglio - garlic bread but not as we know it. This isn’t your average baguette; instead, a thin and crispy pizza base with a thin topping of tomato and chopped cooked garlic. It was subtle and a great appetizer because, between two, it wasn’t too much. We were given a complimentary dish of marinated olives too which was a nice touch though it would’ve been nice to have had these with our drinks before we got to the table.

Next, I was faced with a rather large dish of Tagliolini con granchio, a rich pasta dish with crab meat, sun-dried tomato, white wine and a chilli kick. It was delicious and the crab claws provided us with some mid-dinner entertainment as The Boy heroically extracted the tasty bits for me (and sent the claw itself into minor orbit). My only sticking point was that the chef had been a little heavy handed with the chilli. The Boy will vouch for my love of spicy food but the chilli was just a little too much and swamped the delicate flavour of the crab.

Meanwhile, The Boy was slurping his way through a special of Monkfish and Mussels alla Genovese which was a seriously meaty meal. The slab of monkfish came complete with chunky backbone, which isn’t a cut that either of us have seen before. It was firm and perfectly cooked; it always amazes me how meaty a fish like this can taste! The mussels were cooked to perfection too and drizzled with a creamy sauce. The whole thing was served with a side dish of fresh vegetables which made it a good value main course, despite being one of the most expensive.

We’d thoroughly enjoyed our meal and were ready to continue our journey. We were shown the dessert menu but both declined regretfully – mainly due to time and already full tummies – and instead asked for the bill. Then began the waiting game. The previously attentive service dropped off a cliff and we were left at our table for forty minutes. We asked several different serving staff numerous times but to no avail. Eventually, we got up and sought out the manager ourselves who explained that they didn’t like to hurry guests out. This makes sense but we’d asked for the bill. Several times.

Cucina Rustica is a great place to go for a tasty Italian meal. It would be a great venue for a party with friends or a romantic dinner for two. The menu is reasonably priced and the quality of ingredients was high. They fell down on service, unfortunately, but I wouldn’t let this stop you if you’re not in a hurry.

Cucina Rustica can be found at 24 Ludgate Hill, Birmingham, B3 1DX. Tel: 0121 233 2277.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Super Soft Chocolate Cherry Cookies

Sometimes, just sometimes, I hate technology. Namely, when it all goes wrong. The only positive of my internet service having a major paddy and me having to spend the best part of two hours glued to the phone was that I got to catch up on some cooking. 

With the phone sandwiched between my ear and my shoulder, I managed to rustle up a huge batch of warming cauliflower soup. As the time ticked over the first hour and with hold music still ringing in my ears, I turned my hands from savoury to sweet. It was a friend’s (who also happens to be my colleague) birthday and I wanted to make something that was easy to transport but would give us a good sugary kick.
I try my best to be healthy most days – I tend to reach for fruit over biscuits and you’re more likely to see me munching through a homemade salad at lunchtimes than a cheesy Panini – but every so often, I get a cookie craving. Biscuits won’t do. I need something sweet, soft and slightly gooey… A birthday seemed like the perfect occasion to flex my cookie-making-muscles.

This recipe has the major upside that it’s very simple to make, especially if you have an electric whisk. Don’t panic if the raw mixture is thick and gooey – that’s perfect! It should stand up by itself when dolloped onto prepared baking trays. The key here is to space your cookie mixture out across your trays – you want at least 5cm gaps between each one – as they spread as they cook. If you don’t, you ‘ll end up with one massive cooking which is cool until you try to get it off the tray. Don’t over-cook them either – keep a close eye on them once they’re in the oven and make sure you whisk them out of the oven before they get brown. The outer edges should be golden and the middle should still be soft so that they are delectably gooey when they cool.

Sometimes, naughty is nice!

Super Soft Chocolate Cherry Cookies
Makes half a dozen large cookies

200g unsalted butter, softened
170g golden caster sugar
1 egg
225g self-raising flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
50g chopped dark chocolate
50g chopped milk chocolate
50g chopped dried sour (or natural glacé) cherries

-          Preheat oven to 190c.
-          Beat butter, sugar and egg together in a bowl until smooth.
-          Sift in the flour and cocoa then mix again until smooth. The mixture will be thick and sticky – I was lucky enough to be able to use an electric whisk for this bit but if you don’t have any machinery at your disposal, get your biceps ready!
-          Fold in the cherries and half of the chocolate until they are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
-          Using a dessert spoon, scoop out spoonful’s of the mixture on to lined baking sheets making sure that they are well spaced as the mixture will spread as they cook.
-          Pop a few pieces of chocolate into each cookie to make them ultra-chunky.
-          Bake for 12 minutes, turning the tray around half way through cooking time to ensure that they are evenly golden around the outside but still pale and soft in the middle. Don’t overcook; remember that they will continue to cook in their own residual heat once out of the oven.
-          Leave to cool for 5 minutes and then remove from the tray onto a wire rack. Nosh any many as you can while they’re warm and then store any leftovers in an airtight tin.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Stall let down

Everywhere I look, I read the unhappy tales of our home grown producers and suppliers here in the UK. The price wars of the major out-of-town supermarkets have milked footfall from our town centres and this, combined with consumers looking for perfect produce available at all times of the day and night, has threatened many small businesses.

Normally, I’m a vocal advocate of small local businesses. As a consumer, I would rather put my money into a small business that will appreciate the income and will be more likely to feed this back into the surrounding community than a huge faceless corporation. Plus, the produce tends to top-notch because the owners take pride in providing great food and the whole buying process is more personal and friendly. I love becoming a “regular”; you get lots of insider information, tailored recommendations (much better than Amazon!) and a big smile to boot.

I’ve recently started a new job in London and, naturally, I set out during my first week to explore the foodie haunts local to my base in Westminster. I was overjoyed to discover the hustle and bustle of Strutton Ground, just minutes from my office, where the maze of Eat and Pret outlets morph into one-off bakeries and stalls groaning with clothes, hot meals and coffee. I was in my element!

I was especially pleased to find a small grocers stall with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I couldn’t resist buying a bag of figs and some late raspberries to go with my post-cycle breakfasts during the rest of the week. Happily rustling my paper bag of treats, I returned to the office with a smile on my face. Unfortunately, my smile quickly faded the next day when I discovered that my beautifully ripe figs had gone bad in less than 24 hours. I opened them up to find that they were rotten from the core – what a waste! The raspberries were better but were right on the cusp of being over-ripe and some were specked with mould. What a waste!

And herein lies the problem. This might have been bad luck. The stall may be a pillar of quality most of time and may have lots of regular custom. However in my mind, in these hard times every company needs to up their game. I know many consumers who, after my experiences, wouldn’t return. They wouldn’t bother to go back and let the seller know (which I will be – feedback is important) as they’re busy people. They’ll use it as another reason to by-pass their local suppliers in favour of schlepping to the nearest Tesco because you know where you are with the big four. It frustrates me that companies are wasting such a prime opportunity to make a great first impression.

You may say that this is simply natural selection in the business world. If a company doesn’t do what they do well, they won’t survive. And I would agree with you but I would appeal to the small business owners out there – please take note. It genuinely amazes me how many shops - both big and small - seem to get the simple things wrong. If you want to survive in these hard times, you need to up your game! Take pride in your produce, be friendly and offer useful advice – these are simple things that will keep people coming back.

Do you prefer swinging your basket around your local market or filling your trolley at your local supermarket? Do you have any thoughts on your local shops to share?

Monday, 21 November 2011

No such thing as a free lunch?

Volunteers in the Feeding 5k kitchen working hard to feed the hungry lunchtime masses

Or so they say. Who are 'they' anyway? Because they are wrong.

Friday saw queues that stretched around Trafalgar Square as many hurried to be one of the lucky 5,000 to be fed with surplus food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The sun shone as speakers instilled the captive audience with the virtues of creating less food waste. I stood in raptures as we were told stories of sorry cauliflowers that grew ‘too big’ for the supermarkets standards (!) and delicious but ‘misshapen’ fruit and vegetables that are turned away by the Big Four.

Beautiful curly carrots!

Producers and chefs alike had turned out to meet and share with their knowledge with the public and it was great to see the number of people that had been drawn to the event. I got my (geeky) thrills by spotting Valentine Warner casually mingling with the crowds before his turn on stage to cook in front of the masses.

We arrived early, just before midday, as we were keen to taste what discarded dishes the huge industrial kitchens had put together. I was slightly staggered by the queue – there must have been about two hundred hungry folks ready and waiting – but this moved extremely quickly when food starting being served. There were plenty of friendly volunteers around to direct us to our free portion of vegan veggie curry and rice, which was flavourful but not at all spicy so it seemed to please everyone from us young professionals in office wear to the under-fives in buggies.

Grabbie, grabbie. Visitors go mad for discarded produce.

Once we’d filled our faces, we explored a little more of what the event had to offer. There was an air of premature January-sale-hysteria as volunteers from the wonderful Fareshare and local school children handed out bags of fruit and vegetables, which would have otherwise gone to waste. Although the odd slightly squishy grape was obviously sub-par (though still perfectly edible), the vast majority was virtually perfect. Between us, my group were given half a dozen bananas, a large bunch of grapes, a teensy pumpkin and four or five pears which were all delicious and apparently unblemished. We also saw curly carrots and small pineapples in the arms of fellow revellers. This prompted a lot of healthy debate about the peculiar standards the supermarkets have developed in response to our demands. Why on earth are the supermarkets throwing perfectly good food like this away?

A mere hour inspired a lot of conversations among my peers, which has got to be a good thing. The most common comment that I overheard was the realisation that we’re so lucky to have food at all and disbelief that, while some are starving, we are turning edible food away because it doesn’t conform to our aesthetic expectations. And all of this is before the food even hits our shelves! We throw away about 4.4 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten. If we stop this blatant waste of resources, our family finances will see the benefits as well as the environment that we live in.

If you’re looking for more information on how to reduce your food wastage, have a look on Love Food Hate Waste. If you’d like to help the amazing efforts of Fareshare in redistributing unwanted food to some of the most needy in our nation, have a look at their website. To find out more about the fantastic Feeding 5k day, have a peek at this year's event website.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Falling food waste and a free lunch

Food prices are rising while salaries are staying stubbornly still and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have successfully found and kept hold of a job in the last year or so. Many households are struggling with rising bills and a new study from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has found that the current economic situation has encouraged everyone to reduce the amount of food that we throw away.

Despite a 13 per cent drop in usable food waste, as a nation we still generate 7.2 million tonnes of household food waste every year of which around 60% could have been eaten. This is crazy – when money is tight, we should be watching the (compost) bin as well as our wallets. I don’t think that the confusion over sell by dates helps though hopefully the recent shake-up of regulations will make things clearer for everyone. However, I think many people (and many of my twenty-something-old peers are particularly guilty of this one) need good ways to use-up leftovers.

If you’re London-based and interested in reducing your food waste, you might want to check out Feeding 5k in Trafalgar Square tomorrow. With plenty of inspiration by way of living cooking demos from the likes of Valentine Warner and Thomasina Miers, you can find out great ways to cut the amount of edible stuff that you might otherwise throw away. If you're not London-based, fear not as I'll be schlepping over to capture the best bits (and bites) so that you're not left out.

As well as highlighting clever cooking, the event is championing the work of fantastic charities like Fare Share, a national charity who redistribute surplus food, that would otherwise be discarded, to the most needy. They also provide training on nutrition and safe food preparation. What lovely people!

So head on over to see the waste-eating pigs and flex your muscles while having a go at surplus apple pressing. Oh and you get a free lunch to boot! What more could you want?

Feeding 5k will be taking place on Friday 18th November in Trafalgar Square, London between 12 and 2pm. First come first served!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Journal Lust

“Let me pencil that into my diary” isn’t a statement that rings true anymore as most people I know don’t keep a paper diary anymore. Generally, the dates in question will be tapped into a mobile phone, i-pad or computer rather than whipping out a pencil and jotting down the information. I’m old fashioned and keep a hard copy that goes everywhere with me – it’s a big factor in organising my increasingly hectic life. The end of the year isn’t all that far away and I’ve already started making plans for 2012 (scary stuff!) so I’m in dire need of another diary.

While perusing new notebooks, I came across this elegant recipe journal made by Moleskine which looks an absolute delight for those who love design and food. It’s designed to be a vessel for your culinary thoughts and has sections waiting to be filled with recipes and ideas. I love the little icons on the pages and the way the blank pages sing with potential. I have a recipe folder where I keep snippets from magazines and where I write down my tried-and-tested recipes for another day but I don’t tend to sketch or jot down ideas. The Moleskine journal makes my recipe folder look really rather sterile in comparison!

I’ve made my own sketchbooks and journals in the past and I wonder if I could better this. I do find the paper that Moleskine favour for their bog-standard notebooks tends to be a little thin for my liking. The format and page size (21cm by 13cm) is slightly narrower than A5 (21cm by 14.8cm) but it’s a nice compromise as its large enough to get a recipe (unless it’s really complicated) on to one page without being too big to prop up in the kitchen.

To buy or not to buy, that is the question! Maybe I should add it to my wish list in the hope that someone will be inspired to pop it in my stocking just before 2012 rolls around!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fat-Free Gloop

Fat free yogurt. When will I ever learn? One word. Bleugh! Okay, so maybe it’s an onomatopoeia. Either way, it was grim and I couldn’t bring myself to finish. This was mainly down to the strangely chalky and bitter aftertaste which crept in after the (equally bitter) disappointment at the lack of any kind of flavour had subsided. I double-checked the packaging and confirmed to myself that, logically, there should be at least three flavours present – yogurt, vanilla and chocolate. Alas, all that my taste buds found was an assault of sickly sweetness as the gloop covered my tongue. I’ve said it once but I’ll say it again: bleugh.

My bad experience drew me to consider the ingredients listed on the side of the offending tub. I’m assuming that vanilla comes under the blanket term “flavourings” but I was pretty bewildered by some of the other (alien) components catalogued in micro-lettering.

Acesulfame K and Aspartame are both artificial calorie-free sweeteners which is 180-200 times sweeter than table sugar which, individually, can have a bitter aftertaste. In combination with the other sweetener listed, Aspartame, it takes on a more sugar-like taste where each one masks the others aftertaste and tastes sweeter than the sum of its component sweeteners. Clever but a little Franken-food to me! Especially as it obviously hasn't worked in this case. Both sweeteners have obviously been approved for general used by the powers that be but some critics claim that they haven’t been tested adequately enough. Some suggest that artificial sweeteners of this ilk may be carcinogenic but this has been dismissed by the governing bodies.

You may recognise pectin on the list which will, I think, have been used as a thickening agent. Pectin is the lovely stuff that makes your jam set and occurs naturally in varying amounts in fruits like apples and oranges. In Europe, you'll sometimes see pectin on ingredients lists as E440 (or E440(i) or E440(ii). Strangely, the yogurt also contains gelatin, which would also act as a thickener. Animal skin and bone with your yogurt? Mm-mm! Tastes like mammal! Needless to say, this "delicious dessert" isn't vegetarian.

There's a little note saying “A source of phenylalanine” too which after some quick research tells me that the yogurt is fortified with an essential amino acid which acts as a building block for proteins in the body. Our bodies break aspartame down into its components including phenylalanine. This is good for the majority (as it is an essential amino acid which our bodies can’t make and we have to find through our food) but bad news for people with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder which means that the body can’t metabolise phenylalanine.

I don’t like my food to be fooled around with though I'm aware that the only reason many of us are here today is simply the fact that we can process and keep food for distribution around the country or even world. I like to limit my processed food intake and generally make most things from scratch (as you can probably tell!). I haven't taken this to the level of my parents - my Dad makes his own yogurt! Maybe this is the kick start that I need to try it! Next time, I'll definitely be going for full fat yogurt and adding my own chocolate sprinkles (more than 0.5% too!). No matter what you eat, take the time to become familiar with what's actually in it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Autumnal Tomato & Marrow Soup

It definitely feels like autumn. The days are starting to draw in and I'm getting forgetful... If you're part of the Facebook revolution, you'll already know that we went away to enjoy some time on our friend's narrowboat this weekend. I'd prepared a warming casserole for our first meal on the boat and promised to share more details with you on my return. Now, I can be rather forgetful at times so I wrote a list for myself. Toothbrush? Check. A little light reading? Check. Camera? Check. All set. Or maybe not because, when I packed away my faithful camera, I didn't check that it had a memory card in it. School girl error! So I had a camera but no way of recording what turned out to be a lovely meal (though I do say so myself). I gave myself a stern talking to, I can tell you. That aside, we had a fantastic weekend with lots of picnic lunching on the roof.

For now, please warm your cockles with another marrow recipe. Come rain or shine - blustery chilling showers or crisp icy sunshine - this soup is rich, flavoursome and easily prepared in far less than thirty minutes. I made it first thing in the morning so that the only thing that stood in our way of a tasty hot dinner was a little heating up. I even took a serving to work for my lunch, which went down a treat.

This recipe was great for using up some of the marrow that I've recently been given by a colleague however there's still half left in the fridge so there's sure to be another marrow recipe popping up on here in the next few days!

Autumnal Tomato & Marrow Soup
Serves 4

½ onion, sliced
½ large marrow, cubed (my whole marrow was about 40cm by 15cm - a whopper!)
1 green pepper, sliced
1 tin of plum tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp of vegetable stock powder
1 sprig of thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 sprig of oregano or 1 tsp of dried oregano
1 clove garlic, sliced

- Sweat the onion in a large saucepan for a few minutes until soft and slightly translucent.
- Throw in the marrow and cook over a medium heat. It will soften, break down and become a little watery in the pan.
- Add the tomatoes, pepper, stock and herbs to the pan. If the juice from the tomatoes doesn’t cover the marrow, top up with boiling water. Bring to a simmer and add the garlic.
- Simmer for 10 minutes or until all of the vegetables are soft.
- Serve with grated cheddar or crumbled goats cheese and a hunk of crusty bread.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hearty Healthy Pizza Stuffed Marrow

It's not often that I get déjá vu however this particular incidence is unique because it revolves around vegetables. Marrows, in fact. Around this time last year, we had been gifted tons of courgettes and marrows through The Boy's workmates. This year, it's my workmates that are donating their vegetables to us. I've turned to my trusty stuffing technique for the ginormous marrow that's been taking up the best part of an entire shelf in our fridge for the last few days.

Admittedly not my best photograph for this very reason and I very nearly didn't post it for that very reason but I couldn't let vanity get in the way of showing you just how big this beast was! I decided to go for a combination of tomatoes and herbs to bring out the sweet roasted marrow flavour. Topping the whole lot with a little cheese made it quite reminiscent of pizza! The trick with this recipe is to reduce the filling down until it's almost dry; that way, the marrow doesn't go soggy when you stuff it. Slice it up and serve it with wilted swiss chard and wild rice or crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Pizza Stuffed Marrow
Serves 4 - 6

1 marrow (30cm or so long)
1 onion, chopped
1 stick of celery, chopped
1 can of plum tomatoes
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tsp vegetable stock powder
50g mature cheddar cheese

 - Preheat the oven to 190c.
 - Rinse the marrow and cut it lengthways. Scoop out the insides, leaving a 1cm (or so) strip of flesh around the skin. Place the empty halves on a baking tray and put in the oven for 20 minutes.
 - Meanwhile, sweat the onion and celery in a little oil over a medium heat while you chop the marrow innards into chunks. Add them to the pan and let them cook down. They'll express a lot of watery liquid and when they do, turn up the heat to simmer it off. Sprinkle the herbs and garlic into the pan.
 - While the marrow simmers, drain the tomatoes (keep the juices for something else) and roughly chop. Add them into saucepan and stir. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally to ensure that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
 - When the mixture has reduced down so that there's no remaining liquid, remove the marrow halves from the oven and spoon the mixture into it until it is level. Top with cheese and pop back into the oven for 15 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

'Sell By' Dates set to expire?

There's a lot of hoo-ha going around the newspapers today regarding the dates that appear on the packaging of boxes, cartons and wrappers that go in our baskets and trolleys. You know how those reporters like to make mountains out of molehills! Some of the headlines make my blood boil - "Sell-by dates to be scrapped to cut food waste" is a prime example from the BBC News website today - as they don't make it clear enough that, although some of the advisory dates are changing, there will still be dates on food wrappings.

Headlines aside, there seems to be a tug of war going on between the government who wants to cut the amount of edible food that we throw away and the food companies and supermarkets who are petrified of getting sued after consumers eating gone off produce. I can see where both are coming from - as a nation, we throw away the equivalent of £12 million a year in food which we've bought but don't eat and during 2010, there were over 84,500 cases of food poisoning in England and Wales. We need to find a happy medium that, at the end of the day, benefits us 'normal folk' as consumers.

Dates on food packaging can be useful; they're used by the supermarkets for stock rotation (whereby the seller takes measures to ensure that the oldest stock is sold first which in itself reduces waste) and many consumers use them as a guide when planning how to use the contents of their fridge or larder. Having a 'Used by' date on packaging for food which is deemed perishable (foods which need to be kept refrigerated) is actually a legal requirement in the UK in order to ensure that the food that we buy is 'safe' to eat.

The change in guidelines which are being publicised will banish 'Expiry' dates on items which won't actually become hazardous to health after a certain date and replace it with a 'Best Before' date. This would apply to things like vegetables, dried pasta or jam and it's like saying "you'd like to enjoy this item to the max, you're better off eating it before Tuesday when it won't make you ill but might not taste quite as good".

Any changes to the way we perceive food is a positive in my book but, to me, this doesn't go quite far enough. Although some bacteria that is present in food that has 'gone off' doesn't change the smell or appearance of the food, I do think that a little common sense and knowledge does go a long way. I feel like this needs to be taught, along with nutrition and cost effective cooking measures, in schools while children are still developing their relationship with food and their ideas about meals. There are a few ways that I would test an apple, onion or cucumber, for example, to see if they were past their best.

Craving more information about cutting down your food waste? Check out Love Food Hate Waste for hints and tips on everything from cutting down the amount that you buy to canny uses of those pesky leftovers.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Healthy Sin-Free Fruit Flapjacks

Looking for a way to use up your egg whites after making mayonnaise or custard? You could make meringues but for a sturdier snack, try these delicious flapjacks. The great news is that these can be whipped up using store cupboard ingredients combined with glorious in-season apples. The combination of egg whites and apple purée aren't detectable in the finished flapjacks but do away with the need for butter and oil like your usual recipes resulting in a guilt-free snack.

We have tons of apples at this time of year, for which we're indebted to to our generous families and neighbours, but I do know that Sainsburys are currently selling big bags of British Bramley apples for a mere £1. One bag will do you well for this recipe as well as crumbles and cakes galore. I've taken to stewing batches in the microwave for a few minutes and then freezing batches ready for later in the year when we're craving hot apple pies when the tree branches are bare. Throw in a few hedgerow blackberries too!

Another idea for freezing or using your gluts is apple sauce or purée. Peel, core and chop your apples, stew for a few minutes until softened and either keep chunky or mash/blitz in a food processor. Add sugar and/or salt to taste and serve with roasted pork or cold cuts. This freezes really well so that you can have a tasty, healthy condiment all year round. Alternatively, make a large batch, freeze half of it and use the rest in this tasty recipe! I tend to leave out the sugar when I'm using it for baking but it depends how much of a sweet tooth you have. They're pretty sturdy bars so they're ideal for throwing into school lunch boxes and into your rucksac for a mid-ride/walk energy boost.

Healthy Sin-Free Fruit Flapjacks
Makes 16 flapjacks

175g rolled oats
85g muesli
100g dried fruit (I used apricots and raisins)
50g mixed seeds or nuts (I used pumpkin, sesame and sunflower)
5 tbsp honey
2 egg whites
175g apple purée or sauce

- Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm x 20cm baking tin with greaseproof paper.
- Gently warm the honey in a saucepan or in the microwave until runny.
- Combine the oats, muesli, dried fruit and seeds in a bowl and pour in honey, egg whites and apple purée. Stir until completely combined.
- Press the mixture into the tin and bake for 20 minutes or until firm.
- Leave to cool and slice into squares.

Fancy flapjacks in with your cuppa but don't fancy these ones? Keep it fruity with Apple & Blackcurrant Crumble Flapjacks but substitute with any seasonal fresh berries that you have such as blackberries. Or maybe you'd prefer sublimely soft Banana Flapjacks which you could top with melted chocolate if you're freely really sinful!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Summer Fruit Crumble and Homemade Spiced Custard

Autumn commeth. I can feel it in the air; there's a chill breeze (or gale, as it's been in the last few days!), the leaves are starting to turn from lush green to crisp yellows and oranges and every so often you get the faintest whiff of mulching leaves and drying conkers. I must admit that I struggle to keep warm at the best of times so as the weather turns colder, I'm looking forward to warming my cockles with some lovely home cooking.

The days may be getting shorter and darker but, thankfully, Summer's not completely gone (truthfully, I'm not sure if it ever arrived in the UK). The limited amounts of watery British sunshine haven't limited the supply of fruit and vegetables in the garden's, allotments and veggie patches of my family and friends. We've been gifted boxes and bags full of delicious home grown goodies; most recently, my Mother-in-Love filled a box with apples, pears, rainbow chard, mangetout, runner beans and a carton of home-grown home-juiced apple juice. Unfortunately, after a busy weekend, I put the box on top of the car to rearrange the mess on my passenger seat only to forget about it completely. I promptly remembered it after driving a third of a mile and hearing it slide across the roof and land, with a thunk, in the middle of the road. Whoops. Luckily, the produce were a little worse for wear but still edible.

Our bruised and bashed apples and pears were combined with some plums to make a delish crumble. Crumble, for me, is up there with mashed potato and hearty soups as possibly the best comfort foods of all time. It's versatile, quick and easy (prerequisites of pretty much all of my recipes). This time, I decided to challenge myself and try making custard. We often keep a can of the ready made stuff in the larder for emergencies (emergency apple pie, emergency pineapple-upside-down cake...) but I've never tried making it from scratch. Now that I've given it a go, I can say with some confidence that it's amazingly easy. It takes about 10 minutes to make - no more than microwaving a can of the ready made gloop.

Summer Fruit Crumble
Serves 6

For the filling
450g prepared summer fruits of your choice
or 2 cooking apples, cored and chopped
    4 plums, stones removed and chopped
    4 pears, cored and chopped
2 tbsp sugar

For the topping
50g plain flour
50g rolled oats
50g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
50g caster sugar

 - Preheat the oven to 180c.
 - Place the prepared fruit in a baking dish and sprinkle with the sugar.
 - Pulse the topping ingredients in food processor, or rub together with your fingers, until it resembles bread crumbs.
 - Pile on top of the fruit and pop into the oven for 30 - 40 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden.

Spiced Homemade Custard
Serves 2 - 4

330ml milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 cardamom pod, crushed
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
2 egg yolks*
15g caster sugar
1 level tsp cornflour
grated nutmeg to taste

 - Split the vanilla pod length ways and scrape out the seeds. If you're using vanilla extract, hold your horses - you add this later. Add the seeds, pod and other spices to a saucepan and pour in the milk. Cover and gently bring to the simmer. Keep a close eye on it as milk has a mischievous tendency to boil over as soon as you turn your back. When it's warmed through, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little. This stage can be done in advance - the longer the better as the spices will infuse the milk.
 - When you're ready to serve, whisk the yolks, sugar and cornflower together in a bowl until nicely blended and creamy.
 - Remove the vanilla pod (if using) and the spices and pour the milk over the egg yolk mixture, whisking all the time so that the mixture is lump-free.
 - Return the mixture to the pan (with the vanilla extract if using) and stir gently over a very low heat until it is thickened to your liking.

*Not sure what to do with your leftover egg whites? Make meringues or pop them in a mug in the fridge until tomorrow when I'll be putting up a new recipe that will use them up!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Succulent Baked Plaice with Olives

Plaice isn’t necessarily the prettiest of fish. As a flat fish, it can look (as the name suggests…) a little squished and it’s dull grey skin with violent orange spots wouldn’t be a great advert for the latest face cream. Despite the fact that it won’t be winning any beauty pageants any time soon, it is totally delicious and a great base for flavours.

It’s a pretty fiddly fish so unless your fishmonger is willing to fillet it for you, I would recommend baking it whole. I like to pop it in the oven with some herbs to infuse the flesh while it cooks. Go for woody herbs as a base which will withstand the fierce heat of the oven without wilting into nothing. Their flavour will survive but their structure is hardy too so they’ll stay bushy and hold the fish away from the baking tray – this will encourage heat to circulate around the fish and allow it to cook evenly. Keep any softer herbs – like parsley and dill – for sprinkling on top just before serving.

I paired our plaice with fresh tomatoes and black olives but you could add a few anchovies or capers if you've got them knocking about. If you're not feeling the lemony hint, try a combination of sliced orange and fennel.

Succulent Baked Plaice with olives
Serves 2

1 whole plaice
1 bunch/handful of oregano, thyme or rosemary (or a mixture)
1 handful of parsley or dill (or a mixture)
½ lemon, sliced
12 or so black olives
1 handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
Drizzle of olive oil
25g butter

- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Rub both the sides of the fish and a baking tray with a little olive oil.
- Place the herbs in an oval in the middle of the baking tray and scatter with lemon slices.
- Put the plaice on top and surround with the olives and tomatoes.
- Bake for 15 - 20 minutes depending on the size of the fish – it should be white and opaque all the way through.
- To serve, cut along the centre line of the fish and gently peel the skin back. Add a knob or two of butter, the chopped parsley/dill and a little seasoning. The flesh can be pushed off the bones by placing the flat side of a fork against the spine and brushing outwards.
- Plate up with sauté potatoes and fresh summery salad.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: The Rough Guide to Food

If, like me, you thought that the people behind the popular Rough Guides only did Travel Guides, think again. They may be known for highlighting the best drinking holes in Melbourne and the most sacred areas of Istanbul (they currently cover over 200 destinations) but they also have a vast selection of 'Reference Guides' to choose from. Their 'Rough Guide to Food' jumped off the shelf (visually, not literally) and into my hands during my last trip to my trusty local library.

I must admit that I was curious about how they would pitch a basic guide to food. The book touches upon most of the basic issues and topics, weighing up the positives and negatives of the common options. It's relatively balanced and even though its biased towards organic produce, it is sympathetic to those (like me) who can't afford to go completely organic for their regular shop.

It's a good all round book to challenge your thoughts on food, the ingredients we cook with and the places that we buy from. From the money we spend with the Big Four (our major out-of-town supermarkets) to the trials and tribulations of growing your own, there's certainly food (ho ho) for thought within its pages. It's a great starting point if you're interested in food but don't know where to start.

Published in 2009, the book could already do with an update as it covers such topical issues, it seems a little behind the times. It has a wealth of stats and graphs but these seem a little irrelevant even though they're only 2 years old. It doesn't cover Waitrose recent growth in the marketplace, for example. I suppose anything that covers the retail market is almost out of date before its published.

The layout isn't the easiest to read as the main text is interupted by fact boxes, quotes and facts which distracted me. I'm not the most dedicated of factual readers, I must admit, but the layout doesn't help. Saying that, it does break up the bulk of the text which, I imagine, makes it more appealing to first-time non-fiction readers.

There's a fantastic stockists and suppliers list at the back of the book which is split into regions. The 'South West' section suggests some familiar names but also has some new suggestions. An interesting further reading list follows with more specific resources if you'd like to find out more about a particular area. Each section has links to websites and services relevant to the passage that you've just read. It can be used as a reference book though I think it's possibly a little basic to make it on to my bookshelf. Saying that, I've already made notes of some of its suggestions.

I would seriously recommend this book if you're curious about food, its production or the environment but don't know where to start. I've felt a little lost when it comes to making a balance between eating healthy, nutritious food that's frugal, tasty and ethically sourced. This book gives you a good starting point and suggests further reading to boot.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Emergency Mushroom Pasta

Everything is relative. When I first started cycling to work about a year ago, I thought that sixteen miles was a long way to cycle. Now, it feels reasonable. A little wimp-ish even. It might be something to do with having friends who are seasoned road cyclists and will do a hundred miles in a weekend without batting an eyelid. I now cycle between 30 and 50 miles a week and am hoping to up it as the weather improves (it’s going improve, right? Right??). Anyway, on a similar vein, time is also relative. Half an hour might not be very long to wait for a meal in the grand scheme of things but when you’ve just finished a sixteen mile ride in the rain, it seems like an eternity. My tummy isn’t very big either but it can feel like an echo-y cavern when it’s not been filled with tasty things.

This particular trick of time and space was my quandry just the other day. And once again the cupboard was bare. Our fridge sported a pack of mushrooms, a little butter, some milk and a wizened nugget of parmesan. Oh great. My hunger was starting to peak after my ride and my stomach was making it clear that it was very unhappy indeed. Thankfully, my windowsill herbs have been flourishing so I had fresh parsley and basil at my disposal.

Cue, the crisis food. This dish would probably be lovely with cream cheese, crème fraiche or even cream if you have it knocking around but we didn’t. A roux (butter and flour) thickens the milky mushroom-y mixture so that’s its deliciously warm and satisfying. Just what I needed.

Emergency Mushroom Pasta
Feeds two hungry people

1 onion, sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
1 clove of garlic, minced
150g pasta or spaghetti
100ml semi-skimmed milk (or whatever you have)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
50g parmesan cheese, finely grated
Small handful of parsley or basil, chopped
Sunflower or Olive oil

- Sweat the onions and garlic in a large saucepan over a low heat in a little oil for around five minutes or until they are completely softened and sweet.
- Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until tender.
- Put your pasta on to boil.
- Pour in the milk and stir until it is just off simmering.
- In a bowl, cream the butter and flour together into a paste.
- Take a ladle or two of milk from the mushrooms and whisk into the flour/butter paste until smooth. Add this into the saucepan and gently heat through, stirring as you do so, until the sauce starts to thicken.
- Add the grated parmesan and continue to stir until its mostly dissolved
- Once your pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it, reserving the cooking water, and add to the saucepan of sauce.
- Loosen the mixture with a little cooking water until it’s to your preferred consistency – I was in the mood for a light sauce so I made it relatively thin.
- Throw in the herbs, stir through and serve immediately with extra parmesan shavings and a whole lot of gratitude.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Review: Goodfellow’s, Wells

Photo from a fellow visitor, Tripadvisor

Walking along the main shopping street in Somerset’s prettiest of towns Wells, my ears rang with the sound of tyres screeching and police sirens wailing.

“Cornetto?” The Boy turned to me and said, in his best West Country accent with a hint of a smirk. Anyone who has seen Hot Fuzz, which was filmed in and around Wells, will understand. Anyone who hasn’t seen it... Where’ve you been? Watch it now.

Just off the Market Place and across from the beautiful sandstone arch, you will find Goodfellow’s Restaurant. Consisting of the patisserie-by-day/brasserie-by-night and fish restaurant within the same establishment, their website describes the ground floor dining room, which also houses their kitchen, as having a 'theatre in the round' atmosphere though I wasn't so sure. The ground floor is a little cramped but, despite my reservations, it was really interesting to watch the chefs at work.

We were led to our table by Martine who runs front of house and - we later found out - is married to Adam Fellow, head chef and name sake of the enterprise. I was impressed that we were asked if we had any allergies or preferences in terms of our food when we sat down. Both The Boy and I will eat pretty much anything as a rule but for my Mum, who is at pains to explain to every eatery she attends that she has a gluten intolerance, this would be a refreshing start to a meal.

We'd gone for the tasting menu which started with a glass of Prosecco while we perused the wine list. The fizz was great - not overly bubbly or dry and very drinkable. A good start. Next, we were presented with a gorgeous selection of homemade breads to munch on, which were delicious if a little dense. The tasting menu consisted of six "smaller in size, delicate in construction but intense in flavour" dishes. I couldn't wait to give it a try.

It wasn't long before our first course of chilled gazpacho with crayfish tails and pesto arrived. I must admit that I don't think I've tried gazpacho before but cold soup didn't really float my boat. It was nice enough but I wondered if their interpretation of "intense in flavour" actually meant "seasoned within an inch of its life". Oh dear. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Our next course was a Seared Tuna Carpaccio with Nicoise salad which was very pretty on the plate. The tuna was perfectly cooked and very flavoursome while the juicy fresh tomatoes contrasted well with the salty olives and anchovy fillet. When this course arrived, I was chastising myself for not bringing a camera but I often worry that taking photographs of my food will be a bit conspicuous and/or makes me look like a mental case. Since then, I read Em's review of Berwick Lodge and their tasting menu on Bristol Bites where she was able to take a photograph of every beautifully presented dish. I'll have to work on my covert snapping skills.

Next up on our culinary adventure was Smoked haddock brandade with pea purée. Again the fish was perfectly cooked and fell apart as you brushed it with your fork. This was a close contender for our favourite dish but then the Sea bream with cucumber spaghetti and a champagne sauce arrived. Wow. The sauce had a spice to it that I wasn't expecting and the ribbons of cucumber were surprisingly refreshing. The Boy and I were both quiet for the first time that evening while we devoured our respective portions before we erupted into praise.

Our final savory dish was a pan fried scallop with black pudding, honey-roast bacon and a red wine and star anise reduction. The scallop was beautifully cooked, as was the black pudding which was still moist and slightly crumbly. Scallop and black pudding is a tried-and-tested winning combination so, although it was enjoyable, it didn't blow our minds. The honey-roast back was a fantastic morsel - sweet and salty, crisp and yielding. The plate was decorated with, what we thought was, a purée of scallop coral which was an interesting use for it and nice to see that there was very little wasted.

Finally, we were presented with our dessert, a trio of Sicilian lemon desserts. This made for a nice palate cleanser at the end of a rather gargantuan meal though it hasn't stuck in my memory. Our menu included a hot drink with homemade chocolates to end the meal but neither of us were in need of a caffeine fix so we passed. I was curious to see what their homemade chocolates were like so next time, I'd definitely leave space.

Each dish was announced to us as it was served and we were topped up on bread and water throughout the meal. As my first tasting menu experience, I'd recommend it. I was surprised that I didn't walk away feeling too full despite the large meal we'd just enjoyed. All in all, the service was friendly and attentive but unobtrusive. The fish, as you'd expect from a speciality restaurant, was all beautifully cooked though some of our dishes were over seasoned for our tastes. If you're planning a romantic meal without any distractions, I'd ask for a table in the upstairs dining room but if you're interested in seeing a professional kitchen at work, go for a table downstairs. I would certainly recommend them to our friends who live locally and feel its something of a hidden gem.

Goodfellows can be found on 5 Sadlers Street, Wells, Somerset BA5 2RR. Tel: 01749 673866. The tasting menu is £55 per person.
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