Storm and a Teacup

January 29, 2009

An off-white mugful of leather-brown brew whilst waiting for the phone to ring. And then another, and another.

The phone rings. Then more tea, after you’ve got the news, in a different, brighter mug this time, made of Cypriot blue-and-white pottery.

What else can it be, but a crisis. Which means, of course, a whole lot of tea.

When I say a lot, I mean even more than normal, which may be itself a lot, by some people’s standards. Being English, I really do opt for tea at every conceivable opportunity. So that’s tea on rainy days. Tea on sparkling wintry afternoons when the sky is ice-blue, like this one. Tea on sweltering summer holidays in Spain when you’re desperate for a cuppa to cool you down.

And when you really need something to hang on to, when you’re waiting for the news to come through, or after it has come, be it good, bad, mediocre, boring or news-less news, what better than tea to pin you down and bring your hyper-active mind back to the here and now.

If it’s a family drama, as it was this time, you sometimes ring the changes with sherry. Just a thimbleful, sweet but not unpleasant. Sherry occurs all the more if there are grandmothers involved. Accompanied by a wedge of heavy fruit cake studded with glace cherries, bought at the church sale the Sunday before. On a plate, with a napkin.

But this week there was only tea. No cake, though there could have been. For the news was very good indeed.

tea with Buddha


Corn and Sweet Potato Soup

January 23, 2009


I’m sure corn must be a sacred vegetable in some part of the world or some ancient civilisation. There’s something intriguing and symbolic about those nuggets of gold nestling within the deep green leaves.

And they taste good too. Best of all is corn roasted on a barbecue, lightly blackened and smoky, lavished with salted butter. There is no way to eat a corn cob delicately. You have to get to get down to it with both hands and you always end up satisfyingly messy, butter dripping onto your chin and down your forearms.

Sweetcorn kernels are formidable in fritters too, making a sweet crunchy heart to the deep-fried batter. Again this is moreish unpretetentious food, something you might buy on a street stall, that demands to be eaten the moment the fritter is ready, hot and crisp, with a scoop of sour cream or a dollop of spicy tomato relish.

Corn also makes the nicest soup I know. It’s not fancy or grand in any way, but it tastes earthy. Perhaps it’s because however much you blend the soup it never loses its grainy texture.

Some cooks add sherry. My preference is for a couple of tablespoons of Ginger Wine (Stone’s Original), not really for the alcoholic kick but for its gentle heat, as if something warm were stroking your throat.

Corn and Sweet Potato soup, for 4
300g sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped, like chips
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, chopped
4 tbs olive oil
25g butter
1 x 340g tin of sweetcorn
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs soya sauce
1 tbs barley miso
1.2 litres stock
200 ml milk
100 ml cream
chopped fresh coriander, to garnish

Melt the butter with the oil over a low heat, stir in the onion and fry gently until it begins to turn translucent.  Add in the garlic, the chilli and the sweet potatoes and fry over a low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often to make sure the potatoes don’t stick nor the garlic blacken.

Add the sweetcorn, sugar, miso and soya sauce, heat them through, and then pour in the stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Add the milk and liquidise the soup in batches. If you are going for the ginger wine add that in now, too. Reheat.

Serve with a little curve of cream on the surface of each thick and hearty bowlful, along with a sprinkling of coriander.

Pass the Port

January 16, 2009

I meant well.

Right up until last night I fully intended to give you something really rather special. At one point I was going to convince you that spring greens with dolcelatte and pine nuts was the only dish worth eating. And that shredded kale was the perfect foil for cumin-roasted potatoes.

The green theme was strong but I wasn’t limited to it. Not limited at all – in fact I would go so far as to say my culinary imagination knew no bounds. It soared. It soared right over that recipe for gingerbread I meant to get round to way back when I had the cranberries. Over iced lemon cup-cakes. Over caramel squares. Over so many unmade and imaginary gems of the cookie jar.

There were even some things I actually did get down to cooking. There was a particularly delicious mountain of hot mashed potato in which butter and milk and tahini (yes, it works!) were heavily involved. There was a frugal but fragrant medley of steamed winter vegetables topped with grilled halloumi.

There was even a spicy noodle soup – well actually, no, there was the soup but I didn’t make it. It came from Wagamama. Not did I make anything for the children’s birthday tea at which margarita pizza was perfectly complimented with Nigella Lawson’s chocolate brownies (you can see a comment by those children under this recipe).

And at none of these meals, cooked by me or not, did I take photos or write down any ingredients. Perhaps it was because everywhere I turned there was too much of this –


Not just wine either. There was also port. Lethal stuff port and I don’t think anyone could expect even the most dedicated food blogger to function well with the camera after a glass or two of that!

Not that I’m any sort of heavy drinker, though obviously we do try to keep merry here. It was Dave’s fault, my flat-mate. He’s off work this week and keeps foisting the port on me. No, go away! Oh, OK then!

After a bit of port Dave tends to play one of these –


Which is fine. He plays very well. I just wish he didn’t want me to sing. He’s convinced himself that I’m somehow going to metamorphose into the lead singer of his (unformed) blues band. Ain’t gonna happen Dave!

Which all boils down to this (culinary play on words there!). I don’t have a recipe to share. But I will do.

I’ll make it up to you next week, I promise.

Until then, here’s a photo I took in Cyprus. Not for any good reason, no, but a pomegranate is a very nice thing to look at, isn’t it?


Tai all-you-can-eat Buffet

January 14, 2009

Everywhere you go in London people are dishing out flyers. For clubs, bars, restaurants, sales and as likely as not for a Tai (sometimes spelt Thai) all-you-can-eat buffet.

The flyers must work for there are Tai buffets right across the city, from Kentish Town to Islington to Soho. What works even better is the price; it’s a mere £5 to eat in or £3.50 takeaway. Really, at that price you can’t go wrong, can you? It’s also completely vegan, so you get to feel virtuous when you’re shovelling in the stir-fried noodles.

And yet…How can it be so cheap? Is it fresh? Just how long have the Chow Mein and the Green Thai Curry and the spring rolls and the steamed broccoli and the peas (yes plain ordinary boiled unspiced unsalted unbuttered peas) been sitting there in their little metal containers under the sweltering lights?

There is also something uniquely unappetising about the sheer quantity of dishes. It’s impossible to choose between them and in the absence of a menu you haven’t a clue what they are, so you end up having a bit of this and a bit of that and then a bit of everything. You have to go back to try the one you missed and then back again for some more of that really good one you couldn’t cram onto your plate before and then back yet again because – well because it’s free.

And slowly but surely that little stroll along the bain marie becomes a walk of shame. Your jeans stretch, maybe the bottom button of your shirt pops open and all the journey home you berate yourself. Why oh why did I eat so much? Is there in all the world a glutton like me?

So no, I didn’t expect ever to find myself in a Tai buffet again. I’d done one a couple of years back, and that was it as far as I was concerned. Tai buffets – done them. Finished. End of story.

But then, this week, it happened all over again.

And it was exactly the same. No learning from experience whatsoever. The same number of trips to the counter, the same popping button, the same trip home head in hands.

How did it happen? How come I didn’t know better?

Well I was in town to meet my Italian friend Gianluca, who I hadn’t seen for almost six months. I’d worn a jacket and uber-stylish brown boots, because Gianluca loves to berate me (and all the English) for our lack of sartorial oomph. Our trainers, our baggy jeans, our t-shirts, no no no, says Gianluca, where is the elegance, where is the chic?

He noticed and even complemented me on the boots and so perhaps I was feeling a bit careless. Three pints of lager may have had something to do with it too. When Gianluca suggested the Tai buffet, neither of us having much money, it sounded like a great plan. Yeah Tai buffet. Let’s go there!

You couldn’t see through the steamed-up windows as we sidled towards the entrance, and the door flew open and we were virtually dragged in by the effusive staff.

But no, it didn’t look bad inside at all. The decor was rather dull,  assorted frames with nothing in them (you know, so the frame’s the thing) and large mirrors in heavy gilt surrounds, but so what, it had the one essential attribute which I insist on after eating in some dire dives in Chinatown: it was clean.

And the food? Well the food was pretty good. A little luke-warm but hey…And the staff were friendly and very attentive. Again the volume of dishes felt oppressive to me and I’m not a huge fan of that soya fake meat which looks like half-chewed chicken, but I had some very tasty sweet and sour tofu, delicate stir-fried vegetables, and wolfed down at least five types of noodles, thick and thread-thin, fried and steamed. The fresh minced coriander relish and the sweet chilli sauce were things I would even like to cook at home.

So I’m not saying never again. In a year or two. And if you want somewhere very cheap and filling it’s a better place than many. But never go with someone you actually want to talk to. You’ll be so busy eating, heads sinking down nearer and nearer to your plates, and then so turgid under the weight of your swollen stomach, that anything more than a mumbled ‘This ‘s goo’ will be out of the question.

leeks-with-roquefort-0131The ice is melting though it’s still bitterly cold in London (and for a great ice pic have a look at this.) There has been drilling out there all morning and the water’s been cut off, which feels like an ominous sign, in these times of redundancy and recession, too redolent of the 70s.

But the sky remains flawless eggshell blue. And with all talk of leftovers and New Year’s resolutions well behind us, we can move on to some some serious eating. Nothing too heavy, only a side-dish, but one which is rich and succulent, oozing with tangy Roquefort married with the fragrant bitterness of almonds.

I first made this with flaked almonds, but they don’t hold the fully-fledged almond flavour of Mediterranean hill-sides covered in tiny white flowers, and they’re way too ‘bitty’. Whole almonds, lightly toasted are so much better here. As for the cheese, well it’s what I happened to have in stock and very good it is too, but you could use another crumbly veined cheese, if you prefer.

Leeks with Roquefort and Almonds, for 4 as a side-dish
500g leeks, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
50 – 100g almonds, lightly toasted under the grill, or dry-fried for a few minutes
100g Roquefort
a few black olives
25g butter
1 tbs olive oil
dash or two of lemon juice

Melt the butter with the oil in a large frying-pan and scatter in the garlic and then the leeks. Continue to heat them gently until the leeks are beginning to become translucent. Add the almonds and cook for a couple more minutes.

Stir in the olives and Roquefort and squeeze in a little fresh lemon juice. Season well and serve.

When it comes to fancy kitchen tools I’ve always been very superior.  Blini pans and nutmeg graters seemed simply more clutter to fill up cupboards already jam-packed with pans, wooden spoons, a select but not excessive range of sharp knives, a hand-held blender. I knew I needed a sieve, but that was a basic, must-have item, not show-off luxury goods.

I’ve always enjoyed the ingenuity involved in making do. The old vodka bottle instead of a rolling pin; a plastic Christmas pudding container in a pan of water for melting chocolate; a colander on top of a saucepan instead of a proper steamer.

Likewise with the latest gadgets and hi-tech toys. Down-loaded ring-tones, phones that wake you up with a cup of tea and a kiss, really who needs them? I admit I do like new books, but I’m equally happy with used ones ferreted out from a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I like the way they smell of the past, and that little puff of dust they exhale when you close them shut.

I like things with history. I like clothes from vintage shops in Camden. I like old jeans with patches and crew-neck sweaters that are darned at the elbows.

And I’m not the only one. There is precedent. A friend told me she’d seen our new mayor, Boris Johnson himself, at a Saturday morning school football match; their sons play on the same team, I think.  She said Boris wore the clothes of the aristocracy; that is, shapeless jumpers, shirts with frayed collars, cords much washed and faded, patched jackets…

I sympathise. My wardrobe, like my book shelves and kitchen cupboards, is full of things too much loved to be thrown out.

So it was quite a surprise for me when I received this for Christmas and noticed my reaction; a pronounced interior skip. Small but absolutely definitely there, kind of a happy second cousin to butterflies in the stomach.


In case you don’t know what it is – and I know it does look frighteningly medical – it’s a pastry brush. Or a basting and brushing brush, to be exact  That’s einfetten und pinseln in German, apparently. Now doesn’t that sound super-efficient?

‘Easy to use. Includes measuring cup  for mixing your own recipe sauces.’ Etc etc.

So is the the first step on the way to conspicuous consumerism? Am I going to fall by the wayside into a slough of the very latest food processors and waffle irons? Have I lost sight of the New Thrift, just when it’s becoming trendy?

Well the short answer is no, for there’s always my limited bank balance to consider. But you will be seeing this brush again, so make friends with it, as I have.

Oh, and I’m setting up a new pay-pal account. Any donations to my blini pan fund gratefully received. All major credit cards accepted.