Sunday, 22 January 2012

New year, new cook books

I'm a huge fan of Notting Hill's Hummingbird Bakery and their original cookbook is my trusted source for cupcakes and banana loaf - a recipe which I know by heart, I've made it so many times.  I asked Santa (aka Mother) for their new Cake Days book, and because I've been such a good girl, I got it, and some fancy new silicon bakeware.

The book is divided into occasions and seasons presumably so that whatever the time of year, there is always a cake or something that you can bake that will fit the mood.  Tellingly, there is nothing between Christmas and Valentine's Day, perhaps they find January as pointless a month as I do.  By happy accident I had lemons and ricotta cheese in the fridge, and packets of poppy seeds were on sale in the supermarket, so I fast-forwarded to the Easter section and made the Lemon & Poppy Seed Loaf.  It's a zingy cake thanks to the lemon syrup and the poppy seeds give it a slightly crunchy texture.  You can almost kid yourself that Spring is on the way, even if there's snow outside.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A smidgen difficult mince pies

Up until last year, I’d made mince pies just once, and was disappointed by the recipe from my usual reliable celeb chef.  I resurrected the search last year after failing to find good mince pies here in Canada. Orlando Murrin’s ‘Unbelievably easy mince pies’ on the BBC Good Food website is now my official mince pie recipe.  Although ‘unbelievably easy’ might be over-egging things a tad Mr Murrin.   I grant you that the ingredient list is scant but bringing the pastry together requires dedication.  With no egg or liquid to bind, it can seem an unsurmountable task to turn the sandy crumbs into pliable dough. I capitulated the first time and added beaten egg.  This year I would achieve the impossible.

This is what you start with
And it can be done.  It will crumble to begin with, but keep moulding it together with both hands as if you were making a freeform sandcastle.  Soon it will be robust enough to begin turning it over and kneading.  It might still crumble, but just press in the bits that fall off and keep going.  After about 5 minutes of pressing, moulding and kneading you’ll get there.  I promise.

Last year's baked ones

Ready to go dough

A footnote:
An oven warm mince pie with double cream and a wodge of rum butter can’t be beat. If you are in London, hot foot it down Piccadilly to Fortnum & Mason, excuse-moi your way past French tourists and pick up a jar of their rum or brandy butter: the perfect mince pie accessory. Rum-buttery scrumptiousness in a jar.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Cheat's Goulash

A new addition to the spice cupboard after my trip back to the UK, is a tin of La Chinata smoked paprika douce (sweet), which I bought from a Spanish deli, Garcia & Sons on Notting Hill’s Portobello Road.  Established in 1958, Garcia’s is the Spanish cook’s reliable source.  The basics of a Spanish larder are all here; olive oils, vinegars, key spices such as paprika and saffron, pulses, beans and paella rice. The store width long deli counter has everything to create an outstanding tapas spread; on-the-bone jamons, chorizos, manchego cheese and quince paste, olives and anchovies. 

I managed to control myself and bought only paprika, knowing that trying to smuggle back my favourite boquerones (anchovies & green olives) to Canada was a foolhardy sport.  In any case, the paprika in our cupboard at home was well past its best.  Faded in flavour and colour, I made goulash with it earlier in the year and it lacked the smoky–bacon pungency that the fresh sangria coloured powder gives.  Determined to put the new tin to good use, I did a quick thirty minute version of a goulash, using pork tenderloin and a couple of roasted red peppers I cooked in the oven earlier that day.  Not only is tenderloin a good value cut of meat which goes a long way, but it is perfect for relatively quick cooking; staying tender and not turning chewy.   

Feeds 4:

Olive oil

450g pork tenderloin cut into medium thick strips

2 smallish onions thinly sliced into half moons

2 sticks of celery chopped (not essential, I only added it as I had celery to use up)

250g mushrooms sliced

1½ tbsps smoked sweet paprika (douce not piccante)

1 tbsp tomato puree

250mls chicken stock

2 red peppers roasted* or a jar of roasted red peppers

100mls sour cream

  • Get a pan of water on the boil ready for your pasta/noodles.
  • Start by frying the onions (and celery if using) in a tbsp of olive oil in a large pan over a low-medium heat.  Cook for about 10 minutes until soft and slightly golden. 
  • Turn the heat to high, add the pork and mushrooms and brown for 3-4 minutes. Season with salt & pepper. The mushrooms might give off a bit of liquid so reduce this as much as you can by cooking it off on a high heat before the next step.
  • Add the paprika and stir to cook through for 1-2 minutes.
  • Add the tomato puree and stir through.
  • Pour in the chicken stock, reduce the heat and simmer for 6-8 minutes, until the meat is cooked through.  Whilst it simmers you can add the roasted red peppers which because they are already cooked only need to be heated through.
  • As the pork simmers, start to cook whatever pasta or noodles you are having with it.
  • Before serving stir through the sour cream until it’s blended into a creamy rich sauce.
*Roasted peppers involve nothing more than turning the oven on and putting them in to cook.  Once they are done you can use them in soups, pasta sauces, as bruschetta toppings or draped over a piece of steak.  Heat the oven to 400F/200C.  Chuck the washed & dried peppers onto a baking sheet or dish and put them in the oven for 25 minutes.  You can turn them over half way to ensure even cooking.  Once they are cooked (they will be soft and some of the skin will be black), use tongs to place them into a plastic Ziploc bag – be careful of the juices inside which will be very hot.  Leave them to cool in the bag.  Then you will be able to easily peel the skin away.  Scrape the seeds away and discard the stalk.  Slice them into desired size.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Top Lebanese Ruislip Manor?

‘There are only two kinds of people; Lebanese and Wannabes’ states our waiter's t-shirt at the Cedar Tree, a Lebanese restaurant in Ruislip Manor. Word must have spread as the place was full of willing convertees on a Tuesday evening. According to diners, this is the UK’s 2nd best Lebanese restaurant.  Open for just under 18 months, the award laden restaurant was recently deposed from top spot by Layla in Esher, Surrey. Having grown up in Ruislip, I’m familiar with its mild dining scene; a Harvester, 2 Beefeaters, a handful of passable Indians, a half decent Italian and of course the must-have in any middle class suburb, a Pizza Express.  So you can understand my scepticism that such heavenly Lebanese food could be found by trundling out west on the Metropolitan line to a zone 6 suburb. Perhaps they were the wannabees?
Six of us, an intertwined mix of aunts, sisters, mothers and cousins decided to find out. The £12.50 special (Mon-Thurs) of either 3 hot/cold mezze or a mezze and a main is a bargain.  You get the same deal for a smidgen more (£15 Fri-Sun) with the added bonus, if you see it that way, of a live musician. We made do with Michael Buble burbling in the background as we drank decent Lebanese Rose and designed our mezze spread. Served with warm flatbread, the tahini rich hummous was well dressed with olive oil, but needed a jolt of lemon.  Baba ghanouj maintained good texture from the grilled aubergine with a well balanced garlicky background.  Fried halloumi cheese was honey brown and crispy on the outside, whilst oozing in the middle and the mezze stalwart tabbouleh, a bulgar wheat salad, was verdant with parsley and chopped mint. Lamb Arayes was devoured quickly; two flatbreads charcoal grilled with parchment crisp edges sandwiched together minced spiced lamb and pine nuts. A simple but sprightly dish of soft broad beans dressed in garlic, olive oil, coriander and lemon (foul ma’la) cut through the richness of the creamy dips.

Mains such as kofta style lamb or meshwi (cubed meat) are speared onto skewers, cooked over charcoal and served with a winning thick and tangy tzatziki, a mild sliver thin onion salad and seasoned rice or fries. The meat is smoky from the grill and enriched with earthy cumin and coriander.  Cubed skewered chicken (shish taouk harra) is dressed in spicy tomato sauce and comes with a mayonnaise style garlic sauce.  Sea bass is simply spiced and cooked with a just charred skin from the grill.
Honey soaked nutty baklawa are hoovered up alongside fresh mint teas and cappuccinos. I was tempted by the Cedar Tree tea, a hot drink with fresh mint, lemon, honey and real lemonade.  I didn’t think it through.  It was a hot fizzy drink - basically Lemsip without paracetamol. I should have got the mint leaf tea.

I’ll let them off for the tea.  It’s the meat that matters, and here they excel.  There’s a take-away kiosk at the front, serving most items from the restaurant menu.  I suspect (ok maybe I hope) it may well be the death of Manor Kebabs further up the road.  I’m not sure I want to become a Lebanese citizen, but I wannabee in their gang.

Cedar Tree Restaurant
80 Victoria Road
Ruislip Manor

Sunday, 31 July 2011

By Royal Appointment

7 days back on British soil and I've chomped my way through the culinary to-do list with gusto.  Bacon sandwiches on white bread, lamb dhansak, naan bread and onion bhajis at the Curry Mahal in South Harrow, and fish & chips by the Hampshire coast have all been consumed. A pub lunch, preferably in a leafy beer garden was also on the list, and within 24 hours of touching tarmac at Heathrow we arrived in Windsor - my parents default day trip of choice for any out-of-towners.  The castle is still standing and Eton College is awash with foreign summer school students.  It's a squashed summer Sunday in Windsor.  The tourist trap restaurants clamour for custom, with 'real pubs' and 'old-fashioned' tea rooms pushing fish and chips, afternoon teas and assorted British fayre (spelling it with a 'y' makes it more British you see) on unsuspecting tourists.  Floundering to recall Windsor's hidden treasures amongst the fakes the Royal Oak was the best non-boasty option, and it had a beer garden.

The Royal Oak's new month-old menu has royal pedigree.  Meats are supplied exclusively by the Royal Farm Shop at Windsor.  Lamb is reared at Sophie & Eddie's  (aka Prince Edward and Countess of Wessex) Bagshot Park pad, and Gloucester Old Spot and Landrace pigs roll in mud in the Queen's Windsor Castle private back garden, Home Park.  The Sussex herd beef in the puff pastry topped beef & ale pie, is hung for 20 days, and master butchers at the farm shop, hand raise the cold pies for the ploughmans plate which comes with wedges of stilton and cheddar and homemade royal chutney. You can even get a pint of the Windsor & Eton Brewery Windsor Knot beer to commemorate Will & Kate's wedding. If only the tourists realised.

The Royal Oak, Datchet Road, Windsor, SL4 1QD.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Strawberries & Cream at SW19

The view from Henman Hill-Murray Mount
Wimbledon is with us, and as I write, it’s piddling down in SW19 and Venus Williams, is flapping around in a disco-toga ensemble under the very sensible glass roof.  I make the pilgrimage every year (sob…sniff) except this one, and instead have to make do with the TV, whilst receiving texts from my sister who has bagged Centre Court seats so close to the celebrity box (ok sorry Royal box) that she can see the Duchess of Cornwall’s crow’s feet.
Sister & I slurping Pimms in the sunshine
What I love most about Wimbledon is how polite and well coordinated everything is.  It has manners.  Players in pressed white outfits on top of precisely trimmed grass, all against the seemingly garish but oddly demure purple and green backdrop.  You can't (well you could, but be prepared for frowns) turn up in cut off denim shorts and a ripped to the navel vintage Cure t-shirt.  Summer dresses and floppy hats with plenty of sunblock for when the sun shines.  You also have to consider the standard of your sustenance.  A Wimbledon picnic is not a ham sandwich and a bag of crisps transported in a carrier bag, even if it is from Waitrose.  Think breadsticks, crudités and olives with a good tub of hummus or sushi.  Go for salads in stackable boxes, try couscous with roasted vegetables and crumbled feta or a tomato laden pasta salad with a swirl of pesto.  If you really must have something between two slices of bread, try smoked salmon on a grainy, nutty loaf.  Strawberries are compulsory, so do all the prep work at home, bring a small pot of cream and a bag of crushed up pre-made meringues.  Plonk the lot into a bowl and you have your very own portable Eton Mess. Just remember the spoons.

This is my armchair homage to Wimbledon.  A little like scones, these strawberry shortcakes are a little cakier, due to the addition of cream to the mixture.  I followed Nigella Lawson’s version from How to be a Domestic Goddess. 

325g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
5 tbsps caster sugar
125g unsalted butter, frozen
1 large egg
125ml single cream (or half & half will work if you are in US or Canada)
1 large egg white

1 punnet strawberries
1 tbsp caster sugar
250ml double cream/whipping or heavy cream

Pre-heat oven to 220c/425f/gas mark 7
Mix flour, salt, baking powder & 3 tbsps of the caster sugar altogether in one bowl.  Grate the butter into the same bowl and crumble it into the flour mixture with your fingers.

In a separate bowl (I use a measuring jug) pour in the cream and crack in one whole egg, then whisk.  Pour this into the flour mixture, a little at a time, using a fork to mix in.

Bring the dough together and tip out onto a floured board.  Roll it out to a thickness of 2cm.  Using a 6.5cm round cutter, dip it in flour and then cut out rounds.  You will need to keep re-rolling it, and will get 8 shortcakes.

Place the rounds on a baking sheet with at least 2.5cm between them.  Brush the tops with egg white, sprinkle with remaining sugar and bake for 10-15 minutes until they are golden brown.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool after cooking.

For the filling just whip up the cream with a tbsp of sugar.  Split a shortcake in two and fill it with sliced strawberries and a dollop of cream.

Come on Andy Murray!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Smoked Meat Sandwiches at Schwartz's Montreal

‘Oh it’s just like Paris’, everyone said, when I told people I was going to Montreal.  Curiously instead of bistros and brasseries, they implored me to try Schwartz’s, a Jewish smoked meat deli, more akin to New York I thought, than Paris.  So after a morning scaling the Parc du Mont Royal, our appetites slowly building as the gradient increased, Jerry and I lined up with other Schwartz devotees, sunglasses on, noses upwards, breathing in the beefy air with mouth-watering anticipation.   

After a swift thirty minutes of feet shuffling, spent mainly eavesdropping on the excitable bachelor party ahead of us, we were ushered in.  There’s no doubting this place is a Montreal institution, and in case you weren’t aware, there are reminders all about you.  Walls are papered with articles all agreed in their devotion to this 80 year old institution. Someone was so moved by the meat, they wrote a musical about it.  A place with such longevity doesn’t need 21st century décor.  It’s elbows close dining at shared tables or a high stool at the counter.  Pop comes in cans and place mats double as menus.  Napkins are pulled from spring loaded dispensers and ketchup is squirted from a squeezy bottle. 

The food comes out in a teasing trickle, first pickles, with a crisp crunch and vinegar hit, then homemade frites, fluffy and sweet insides with nut brown skins.  The kitchen door swings open and an imaginary fanfare goes off in my head heralding the arrival of the sandwiches.  Hand sliced, medium-thick, the meat is layered at least eight storeys high between warm rye bread that balances precariously.  Such a mound might normally dictate the use of cutlery, but hunger triumphs over etiquette and we delve in with our hands.  The meat is gently smoked, not overly salty and beautifully moist and tender.  A generous squirt of bright yellow mustard, alternating bites of pickle and pinchfuls of fries is all that is needed.

I know it’s a good meal, if apart from the odd appreciative grunt or ‘oooh that’s good’, neither of us can face making conversation, since doing so, would slow down the flow of food.  I love a thriving friends and family dinner, but sometimes when the food deserves my full attention, I need a companion who understands I don’t really want to talk, I just want to inhale.  Save for the giggly bachelors (I assume something really funny must have happened last night), most diners adopt a similar semi-mute state, using hand gestures and eye rolling where applicable.

The best part? We feasted for just over $10 each. There’s nothing more satisfying than having a great meal when I don’t dread the arrival of the bill.