Feelin’ Foxy

May 13, 2009

‘The essence of Stoke Newington’ says Time Out. A ‘hub of culinary and imbibing activity’ according to the Fox’s web-site. It’s very red, very cosy and yes, a lot of bottles go down there. Along with games of backgammon, a stack of today’s papers to wade through and some great grub.

the fox

Stoke Newington began to be trendy at least as far back as the early 1980s. Today there’s a picturesque line of independent shops, a pretty church and the green expanse of Clissold Park (where there are deer). Stokie (as I’m sure someone affectionately calls it) is now the home for those trendsetters from the 80s made good. (If you’re a struggling artist now you live on its cheaper shores, in up-and-coming Dalston or Finsbury Park, bask in Stoke Newington’s extended aura of very English Bohemia, and yearn.)

Facts to know about Stoke Newington:

Award winning Indian restaurant Rasa started here and now there are two branches on Church Street, one purely vegetarian. It’s well worth a visit.

The independent DVD shop (can’t recall its name at the moment) is great too. Full of odd titles that sound intriguing and suitably superior staff who chew gum and look like the coolest kids at school but know everything about film.

It’s the epicentre for urban lesbians of a certain age. (Get off your bus at Fresh and Wild, stroll down past the bike shop and towards the bakery and you’ll know I’m right.)

People either love it or hate it. A bit like Maupin’s San Francisco, you’re either an absolute devotee or you just don’t get it (and are secretly hugely jealous of those that do). Walking to the Fox on Sunday night I was accosted by one of the latter. A large very flushed man in a blue jacket with years of brewery on his breath, who wanted to know if I was ‘going back in there?’ He gesticulated, wild-eyed, up Church Street.

I was.

And what was I going to vote in the next election?

I hummed and hawed and then, since that didn’t work and he was standing scarily close and was bigger than me, I walked on fast, while he puffed after me and then began to roar ‘I am a Conservative!’ Here he beat his chest (literally). ‘What is wrong with us?’ he asked (still beating his sweaty white shirt). ‘I am a Conservative!’ he thundered.  I scurried off into the sanctity of liberal London.

And then, the evening’s excitement over, I settled down to a very nice imbibe of  expensive red wine and expensive but delicious bangers and mash, paid for by my wonderful friend B and her girlfriend (yes B used to live in Stoke Newington) and thought I must come here more often. To Stoke. To the Fox. I must learn to play backgammon. I must wear dungarees and a hat. Life can be good.

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Spanish Omelette

March 26, 2009

Why make it?

1. It’s simplicity itself.

2.You can share it with someone you like.

3. It’s a good excuse to drink some red wine, probably Rioja.

4. After the wine, you can say tortilla de patatas in a bad Spanish accent with a silly lisp.

5. It comes from my favourite country in Europe.

Spanish Omelette (Tortilla de Patatas)
for 2

1 medium red onion
12 oz potatoes
3 tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic (not authentic, but good)
4 large eggs

Peel the onion, cut in half width-ways and slice thinly. Peel and slice the garlic. Peel the potato and cut into thin slices. The thinner they are the quicker they will cook.

Heat 2 tbs of the oil in a sturdy frying pan, about 10″ in diameter. Add the vegetables and turn down the heat. Season well. Cook covered for about 10 minutes, stirring every now and then. Breaking up the potatoes slightly with a wooden spoon is also good.

Crack the eggs into a basin and beat lightly. Season. When the potato mixture is done, add to the eggs.

Heat another tbs of oil in the pan, spoon in the tortilla mixture, cover and turn down the heat to the absolute minimum. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes.

spanish-omelette-007

To cook the top of the omelette, cover the pan with a plate, holding it there firmly, and invert so that the omelette lands on the plate. Then slide it back into the frying pan to cook for another couple of minutes.

Serve with salad. And wine of course.

spanish-omelette

Parsley

March 5, 2009

It’s the most versatile herb in the kitchen and the most retro.  We keep thinking we’re too cool for it, but back it comes, never to be forgotten.  And did you know that the Romans used it as a breath freshener before orgies?

Now is it’s time.

Actually, any time is its time what with supermarkets, but now is the time to get your own seeds, bung them in a pot of compost and leave the pot on a windowsill to germinate. Then plant the seedlings out and you’ve got your very own crop.

Or if you’re too lazy for that, as I am, do what everyone else does. Buy a bunch down the corner shop. But please, please, don’t keep the parsley in a glass of water on your kitchen window. The water ends up green and smells vile  (though not as bad as daffodil water, that really does smell of sewers) and the parsley stems go soggy and the whole thing is absolutely disgusting. No. Don’t do that. Put the glass of water in your fridge, or wrap the fronds of parsley in foil or clingfilm and put them in the fridge like that. They’ll keep so much longer and stay crisp and fresh. After a week they shouldn’t be there anyway; you should have used them up.

Parsley works with everything. It goes in soups, stews, stocks,  and salads. If it’s cooked food, then the parsley is added right at the very end, so that it keeps its nutrients (vitamins C and A and iron) and the kitchen is full of that fresh scent, like beech woods after rain.

Put it in Tabbouleh. Put it in Italian Salsa Verde. Put it in Baba Ghanoush. Or best yet and most retro of all, put it in Parsley Sauce.

You remember parsley sauce, don’t you? You must have had it at school. It made the driest fishcake almost edible and you could drown the lumps in your mashed potato in the thick creamy stuff, flecked with pale green. I predict a big return through 2009 for parsley sauce: it’s nostalgic, reminiscent of the nursery, simple and cheap to make.

Here’s how. It’s basically like any white sauce, but the one essential thing is to totally pulverise the parsley before you add it in, so that any ghost of shape has been hammered out of it and it lies on your kitchen surface like damp aromatic moss.

Parsley Sauce (enough for about 4 people)
2 tbs butter
2 tbs plain flour
400ml milk
4tbs parsley, finely chopped (you can use some of the stalk too)
salt, pepper

Gently melt the butter over as low heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a pale yellow paste and let that heat for a minute or two. The flour gets cooked, but not browned.

Then the fun part. Begin to add the milk, little by little, slowly does it, stirring all the time. At some point, when the paste is becoming the consistency of sauce, you may want to move over from a spoon to a whisk.

Once all the milk is added, let the sauce come to the boil and simmer gently for up to 5 minutes, by which time it will be thick and creamy. If it’s too thick for pouring, add in a little more milk.

Take off the heat. Stir in the parsley, the salt and pepper, and then inundate those boiled potatoes.

NB. You can ring the changes with any or all of these: grated nutmeg; a teaspoon of Dijon mustard; lemon juice, just a dash; cream, about a tablespoonful.

Very Nice Recipe

February 20, 2009

Well here we are again. At least, here I am, and you are too, hopefully. In fact I’ve sat here 10 minutes and I still don’t know how to begin. Which is new to me.

I do have a recipe to share, no problems there. But how to present it so that you realise its true deliciousness? How not to put you off at the very first hurdle?

Its the name I’m worried about. I fear it will bring back memories from childhood of something pale and soggy, watery even, to be shunted to the side of the plate when nobody’s looking and hidden under a lettuce leaf.

So maybe I’ll write about something completely different. How ab0ut Nightime in London. Did you know that it isn’t the ever-present roar of traffic that keeps me awake at night? It isn’t the wail of police sirens every two minutes or the raucous laughter of urban youth.

It’s animals.

Actually the grunts and shrieks are positively blood-curdling. I thought someone was dying last night. The same mad cry over and over for about 10 minutes. And y0u know what it was? Foxes, mating.

London is completely overrun with them. And that’s not to mention the owl with his torpedo of a hoot and the little unknown animals who rustle through the undergrowth and squeal incessantly.

Maybe they’re about to be eaten.

Which reminds me, in a rather unpleasant and unvegetarian way, that I’m actually here to tell you a recipe.

Oh alright then, here goes. It’s Cauliflower Cheese.

There, I’ve done it. You still here? If you bear with me, I’ll try and explain why this version is nothing like the insipid morass you ate all those years ago.

For a start it doesn’t have cauliflower in it, but broccoli and potatoes. (And it could have slices of celeriac in it, was going to in fact, but I couldn’t find any in the local shops).

Secondly it’s not bland, but rich and tangy in a mature-cheddar kind of way.

And it’s simple. Just lightly cooked vegetables inundated with a creamy cheesy sauce, topped with more cheese and breadcrumbs and bunged in the oven for 25 minutes.

In fact the only possible stumbling block, as far as I can foresee, is the calorie count. There sure is a load of cream in here! Then again, you don’t get a meal this rich, sticky and crisp on the top and warmly  succulent in the middle, without adding a millimetre or so to your waistline.

Broccoli and Potato Gratin
for 4

500g potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
250g broccoli florets
50g butter
50g plain flour
salt
400ml milk
150ml cream
150g grated cheddar – or Parmesan
25g oats

Set the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Parboil the potatoes for 5 minutes, add the broccoli and simmer until just cooked: 8-10 more minutes. Drain well.

In a medium saucepan melt the butter, stir in the flour and heat for a minute. Then, ever so slowly, add in the milk, little by little to avoid any lumps. Gradually bring to the boil, by which time the sauce will have thickened. Mix in the cream, half the cheese and some salt.

Half the sauce goes into a 2 litre oven dish, dollop in the vegetables and pour the rest of the sauce over the top. Scatter on the remaining cheese and the breadcrumbs and cook for 25 minutes, or until the top of the gratin is golden-brown.

gratin

When we were snowed in recently and I was at a loose end, my thoughts turned, inevitably, to food, and I began to wonder why so many people think vegetarian food is bland and heavy.

It can be, of course, judging by what’s dished up in many restaurants, where anything vegetarian is a poor second cousin to the real deal, meat. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t go down the road of stodgy vegetarian lasagne or gloopy mushroom stroganoff, or any other excuses for a meal that you’ll find in your local pub.

1. Depth of flavour
You have to work much harder to create full sensuous tastes when you don’t have meat. This comes partly from using herbs and good stock, but also from the cooking processes themselves. Lightly frying vegetables, from broccoli to potatoes, before you make them into a soup or stew, will bring out their flavour like nothing else can. Or slow roast aubergines, peppers or cherry tomatoes, with olive oil and herbs, before you add them to a casserole. Combining different cooking methods like this gives variety and adds fullness of taste and texture.

2. You don’t need fancy ingredients.
This is not what we’re taught I know, but good cooking is more about how you do what you do in the kitchen, than splashing out on expensive and exotic ingredients.

If your corner shop is anything like mine, you won’t always be able to get the crispest of lettuces, the plumpest of tomatoes, or even good potatoes.

What matters is what you do with what you buy. Make a good dressing and that lettuce will perk up magically. Mash those potatoes with lots of butter and pepper and they turn into wonderful comfort food. Cover tired cooked vegetables with dressing as you would a salad and they transform – that’s what they do in the Mediterranean and their food is revered all over the world.

3. Be simple.
It’s fun to go to town on some ornate dessert, but you don’t need to, even for guests who you want to impress. Simple is good too – what better pudding can there be than fresh strawberries with cream?

For the best fast lunch go for ripe cheese, pickle and bread (though here I am fussy and I do think that the bread must be really good, crumbly on the crust and warm and fresh within. Perk up suspect bread with a few drops of water and ten minutes in the oven.)

Above all, be imaginative and don’t sweat. Don’t let TV chefs make you believe it’s all about tears and heated tempers. It really isn’t. Good vegetarian food, like all culinary delights, is born out of having fun in the kitchen.

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 –

wine

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 –

guitar-eve-007

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?

pomegranate

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.