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.

spring-003

On the day that world leaders congratulated themselves on having ‘hit back against recession’ and the narrow streets around the Bank of England were packed with demonstrators hemmed in by a massive police presence, what we really noticed was that spring had come to town.

In the countryside spring is unequivocal: everywhere you look are flowers or at least buds and the trees and hedges are spendthrift with blossom. But in the city where it’s hard to see the skyline,  spring views can only be taken in as fragments round corners, down alleyways, rapid glimpses from the train, a single tree covered in pink in a street of identical terraced houses. You feel spring as much as you see it, in the warmth in the air.

I sat beside the canal in Paddington Basin at lunchtime, under a clear blue sky, eating a Marks and Spencer’s Egg Mayonnaise sandwich. The sun was bright on the water and there were placid barges (Somerset Joy and Frideswid) with their tubs of daffodils and red tulips. It felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything. It was good enough just to be there.

When I got home the cherry blossom was falling on the garden. In Japan when the blossom falls they celebrate. I could see why.

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Snow and Sandwiches

February 2, 2009

Snow coming down on London, all night and all day. On the grey warehouses and chrome-and-glass sky-scrapers and the narrow streets around Liverpool Street Station, on the curry houses of Brick Lane and the Turkish shops towards Stoke Newington with their exhaust infused racks of tired vegetables. Snow on the posh town houses with their white columns and steps, snow on the deer of Clissold Park. Snow on our lawn and six inches of snow on the patio table. Snow on the garden Buddha top-hat-tall.

snow-002

Everything has ground to a halt. It’s so quiet out there too, only a few kids chucking snowballs. The cars are still in their tarpaulins of snow. No buses, no taxis. Apart from the Victoria Line, the Underground is shut. All London is at home, watching re-runs of Kojak and afternoon chat shows. We are in a calm bubble outside of normal time and life.

Today I did a lot of watching snow. And I ate something really good. OK, it was just a sandwich. You might say that was just like a rushed office lunch at your desk. But you would be wrong.

This sandwich was different. Not fancy, just very good, in a tangy, rich, creamy way, to be consumed meditatively and alone when nestled in your favourite armchair.

Crusty white bread. Butter. Mango chutney. Fat slices of succulent Brie.  And then the crowning glory. Completely wrong I suppose but very right. Crisps. Yes crisps, in the sandwich. Crunched up slightly as you slap on the top wedge of white. Thick-cut Cheshire Cheese and Chutney Kettle Chips to be exact.

Actually any old crisps would be good. But the Brie must be oozingly ripe.

snow-004

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.

asked my friend Shaun, for about the fourth time.

He adores Christmas. Yesterday late afternoon, when it was dark, he took me to see the crib in Trafalgar Square.

It was all lit up, a stylised kind of tableau. The characters stood at a distance from each other, gazing sombrely at the infant Jesus, who was far too huge for anyone to pick up and hug. In the size sense the whole thing was out of whack.  Joseph, who was lying down on his side gazing at Jesus, was not much bigger than his son.

But it worked somehow. It looked a bit homemade and rough around the edges, but with something grave and beautiful about it.

There was a choir singing in the square, dressed in white. A vicar gave a reading after that, though I didn’t really follow it because I was so cold.

A crowd had gathered to listen and watch, standing under the huge Christmas tree with its silver lights. The tree’s donated to London every year, so it said on the placard, by the people of Oslo, in gratitude for our help during the Second World War.

‘Aren’t you feeling just a bit festive now?’ said Shaun. ‘Doesn’t it make you feel like a child again?

‘It’s bloody freezing.”

But damn it, I did feel rather Christmassy, I had to admit, at least to myself. And there was I hoping to grouch my way through the season.

And it’s been downhill all the way, as far as successful grouching goes, since then.

I woke up this morning thinking about roasted chestnuts. Then I looked up recipes for marrons glaces. Luckily they were too long-winded and complicated for me to try, at least today.

And then I made this, a chestnut soup. Suitable for any day from now until New Year. But particularly good I would have thought, for Boxing Day.

So pretty damn festive, as far as soups go.

Oh, and it’s also extremely good. And easy.

Let me say that again. This is actually one of the tastiest, and simplest, winter soups, that I have ever eaten.

chestnuts

Chestnut and Sweet Potato Soup, for 4
60g butter
200g peeled and cooked chestnuts
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic, chopped
1 inch ginger, grated
2 sweet potatoes – about 600g – peeled and chopped into chunks
1 litre stock
2-3 tbs double cream
dash lemon juice
cayenne pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and fry the onion, garlic, ginger, chestnuts and potato chunks for about 10 minutes.

Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover the saucepan, and cook for about 10 more minutes until the potatoes are tender. Now add the lemon juice.

Take off the heat and blend the soup.

Stir in the cream and serve sprinkled with cayenne.