Friday, 29 February 2008

Friday frippery: celeriac fritters with caper and rosemary aioli

Well, I've come down from the book launch now, so it's time to get on with more serious matters.

Or not. I mean, it's Friday, for crying out loud. Whoever gets down to work on a Friday afternoon??

Time to be a little less earnest, methinks. So first, I'll show you a picture of my cellulite-puckered backside.


Oh, come on. You didn't really think I was going to show you my peachy buttocks, did you?

Obviously, it's a celeriac - that most unpretty, underrated, little-loved root vegetable. The one that usually gets left on the shelves, like the sad school geek at the disco.

Well, I have a soft spot for celeriac as it happens. Packed with peppery, dusky flavour, it's one of my highlights over the winter period - great for mashes, gratins, remoulades, and soups and stews.

But with the recent addition of Denis Cotter's 'Wild Garlic...' to my book collection came a new use for celeriac that I just couldn't resist - fritters.

I don't want to get in trouble with either Mr Cotter or his publisher, so I'm not going to give the recipe here - but suffice to say you need to make some rosemary oil, a punchy aioli (the addition of roasted garlic, capers, and Dijon mustard is key) and some parmesan breadcrumbs for the fritter coating. And yes, it does take a wee while, but the results are truly worth it.

celeriac fritters 1

celeriac fritters 3

celeriac fritters 2

I am in lurrrrrve, people. These lovely, light fritters reveal a whole new side of celeriac that I never knew even existed. Forget school geek - this is the full, spinning-around disco champ, complete with spangly bits. Spangly bits, I said. Really.

Would it surprise you to learn that I've already booked a spot at Café Paradiso for later this year?

No, I thought not.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

indulgence for the evening: a dessert to delight

OK, I've got to be out this evening - at a book launch, since you ask.

So I thought I'd leave you with something sweet to savour (see what I did just there?) while I'm away.

Hope this will do the trick:

salted caramel mousse 1

No, not just chocolate - but salted butter caramel AND chocolate mousse, courtesy of nami-nami, who in turn got it from someone else, who in turn got it from... you get the picture.

So try it for yourself, and see why everyone's raving about it.

Go on - off you go. Oh, and here's a spoon. You'll find it helps.

salted caramel mousse 2

Monday, 25 February 2008

promising signs... and a walk on the wild side

I don't know about you, but I've been pleased to see the arrival over the past couple of weeks of plenty of these in gardens, parks, and commons:


Their fantastic burst of colour signals both the end of winter and the promise of new beginnings. Who could possibly resist? I've always found daffodils utterly charming, and they always make me smile.

But I'm also happy to see other plants and flowers, too, and most of all, these...

Spring nettles

Yes, that's right. Young stinging nettles. There are masses of them on the common near my house, and whenever I see them, I think of fabulous meals to come: not just nettle soup (whether in combination with some other vegetable or not), but nettle pesto, nettle gnocchi, nettle risotto, nettle frittata....

The best bit? They're absolutely free.

Wild food. Edgy, free, and wonderfully good for you. Pick some now before I beat you to it!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Irish inspiration

There's not much these days that really makes me sit up and take notice, and pause for thought. Could be because I'm not as young as I used to be, or because I'm a right cynical old moo - or both. Whatever, it's a rare event.

I couldn't help but be intrigued recently by Wendy's enthusiasm at a new book. The recipes she'd tried looked pretty good, too. Oh, and all the recipes were based entirely on vegetables. For someone who's been rather off meat since a nasty dose of the novovirus over Christmas, this looked and sounded particularly promising.

So, in a burst of unusual rashness and abandon, I clicked over to Amazon, ticked the box that says 'yes, take all my money. AGAIN', and waited.

A couple of days later, it arrived.

wild garlic, gooseberries... and me

I know. It looks much like any other book, albeit it has a rather fetching front cover illustration.

It's not. From cover to contents, from start to finish, it's simply quite beautiful. It's a hardback, properly bound, complete with ribbon bookmarker - delightful to hold and use. The font is highly readable, and the photos are utterly sumptuous.

The contents are bewitching. Denis Cotter, chef proprietor of Cafe Paradiso, writes like an angel about his food memories, his fascination for vegetables, the joys of foraging, and the marvels of seasonality. He is lyrical, informative, enthusiastic, and entrancing, all at the same time. What a blessed combination.

And then there are the recipes. Cotter spent time cooking at Cranks, the early bastion of vegetarian cooking. One of the reasons he left, he says, is that he became frustrated at the mundaneness of their dishes, and wanted to explore the very limits of what vegetables could offer. Boy, does he succeed.

Denis Cotter recipe 2

Yes, there are still ordinary vegetables in here amongst the recipes, but they are transformed into extraordinary, exquisite plates of food. But Cotter also makes room for more magical, less visited vegetables, such as samphire, sea kale, cime de rapa, Abyssinian cabbage, chanterelles, puffballs, salsify, and many others - again using his unique alchemy to produce food from the realms of dreams.

Denis Cotter recipe 1

Wendy was absolutely right. This is a very special book indeed. If you buy just one book this year, I urge you to make it this one. You won't regret it.

Monday, 18 February 2008

a winter warmer: parsnip and chorizo soup

parsnip and chorizo soup 1

It's been a bit nippy here in London for the past two or three days. Brilliantly sunny, crisp, and clear as well - but nippy, nonetheless. The kind of weather that, if you go out for a walk, you become nicely heated from the inside, but also end up sporting rather fetching red tips to your ears and nose. If you're really lucky, you might also get the benefit of watery eyes and blotchy cheeks to match.

I was hoping we'd left soup weather behind, but clearly not. So here's one I whisked up earlier - parsnip and chorizo soup.

This one serves every purpose - the creamy sweetness of the parsnip is a lovely comforter, while the intense spiciness of the chorizo provides the perfect foil and just the right level of interest.

I didn't follow a recipe for this (although you'll find plenty of variations on the theme on the worldwide interwebby), so you'll have to make your own version and cross fingers and toes that it works out in much the same vein. If it doesn't, please don't come complaining to me. I did warn you.

All I did was to gently saute a couple of shallots, chopped finely, in some olive oil until translucent. I then threw in a medium carrot, diced reasonably small, and sweated it with the onion for a few moments. Finally, I added 3 good-sized parsnips, chopped into chunks of about an inch or so square, plus somewhere between 750 ml and a litre of chicken stock.

I then brought it all to the boil, turned the heat down, and let it simmer away for about 20 mins until the vegetables were tender - at which point, I added seasoning to taste, together with a small pinch of smoked paprika, and got the blender do its magic.

For the chorizo crumbs, simply fine dice some soft chorizo and fry gently until crisp and coloured - a matter of moments. Dry off on some kitchen paper, and then add to the soup.

And Bob's your proverbial uncle.

parsnip and chorizo soup 2

Friday, 15 February 2008

what I gave my Valentine...

No, not chocolate.

Nope, not oysters.

No, not even a slap-up meal of prime steak.

None of those.

Give up?

OK, then - it was...

... crabs.


NO! Not those crabs. (How could you even begin to think that?)


dressed crab 1

dressed crab 2

Sadly, I can't claim to have prepared the crabs myself, but I did at least put them on the plate and make the parsley and lemon dressing to go with them.

And yes, they were very much appreciated. ;)

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

a weekend snack

I would have posted this yesterday, but Flickr seemed to be having 'issues'...

Anyway, continuing on the eating out theme from my last post, this is what I had for a light lunch at the weekend, while out with friends.

First up, some of this:

chicken and truffle crostini 2

That was chicken and truffle pate crostini, in case you're wondering. My, were they good...

Then I had these two salads:

bean and tomato salads

The one at the front is pretty much what it looks like: French beans with sunblush tomatoes, red onion, olives, pine nuts, and Mont Enebro cheese. The other, in case you want to zoom in...

tomato bonconcini salad

... is again what it looks like - tomato and marinated bonconcini salad with basil. It might not sound particularly spectacular, but it was the best of its kind - the tomatoes were amongst the sweetest I've ever tasted, and the bonconcini was meltingly wonderful and delicious.

And no, I didn't stop there. Next up was this dish:

clams in sherry

Shall we zoom in again?

clams in sherry 2

There we go - a dish piled high with big, fat juicy clams, cooked with sherry and jamon, not to mention plenty of garlic. Lip-smackingly good. (Sorry about photo quality. The lighting - or lack thereof - pushed my li'l camera to its very limits.)

I also devoured (I was sharing these things, in case you're a bit aghast) some roast squash with chestnuts and roasted onions with rosemary, but the photo didn't turn out so well. You'll just have to imagine...

Oh, and because we really felt the need to finish on a high note, we rounded all this off with a big fat slice of this...

lemon polenta cake

... lemon polenta cake - complete with cream very unpicturesquely poured over by me. Still, the cake didn't suffer for it. In fact, it had all disappeared within about 30 seconds of the photo being taken... Moist but light, hinting of lemon all the way through without being dominated by it, and with that texture that only polenta can give. Fabulous.

Where did we have this little ensemble? Fortunately for me, at a place 'in my manor' (as David Beckham would say), called The Fat Delicatessen.

Fat Deli counters

Run by two of the nicest guys around, Simon and Lee, it's fast become the place to eat around here (they opened just over a year ago) if you like good food. Both of the boys are fantastically adept in the kitchen, and turn out great, robust dishes with a deceptively light touch. You won't be surprised to learn that they're both old hands in the industry, having done stints at some of the most well-known restaurants in the country. They really know what they're doing, and it shows in every mouthful of food they serve.

Am I lucky, or what? Happy as a clam, even...

Fat Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 9 February 2008

lunchtime luxury - a review of The Boxwood Cafe, London

OK, I've been asked by a fellow blogger to post more restaurant reviews, so here goes. It's one from a couple of months back, which I posted on my old, now defunct blog, so I thought I'd re-post it here (with the benefit of very slight editing) to give you something to be going on with... Sadly no photos, but I hope the descriptions of the food give you a reasonable idea.

As a unashamed foodie, I love trying new restaurants, particularly those whose reputation goes before them...

And so it was that in December last year I booked in for lunch at one of the Gordon Ramsay stable, The Boxwood Cafe. It's always a treat going out for a good meal, but I always have a special buzz of excitement when going to a restaurant run by a chef whose food I admire hugely. Now, I realise that Gordon isn't in the kitchen much these days, even at his flagship restaurant, but nevertheless, you just know that you can expect a certain standard from one of his places, not least because he seems to install some fantastic executive chefs - in this case, Stuart Gillies.

Well, the Boxwood certainly didn't disappoint. Although we opted simply for the set lunch (a steal at £25 a head), there was nothing remotely 'second best' about it. First, we had a generous serving, for an amuse-bouche, of jerusalem artichoke soup. It was difficult to think how it could be improved - earthy, velvety, with that moreish duskiness all the way through.

And then, onto the main action. We started with a seasonal warmer - braised lentils with salsify (such a treat!) and chestnuts. This was a dreamily, creamily unctuous dish, topped with delicate, crisp ribbons of sweet parsnip. Lentils never EVER tasted this good before....

Next, we opted for duck leg confit, with braised red cabbage and garlic potato crisps. Confit duck appears on a lot of menus these days, but rarely does it fall of the bone with the ease it did here. And the red cabbage? Well, I'm not usually a big fan, but this was delicious - fruity, without being overbearing, and with just the right amount of tartness, without being acidic or vinegary.
So far, so very good, then - as was the wine, a youngish but ready Rhone, at a reasonable £26 for the bottle.

But now for arguably the sternest test - in my book, at least - dessert. Mmm, what to have? I am always tempted by anything chocolate - but, at a restaurant with a reputation, I like to see if they can surprise me by making something I wouldn't normally think of ordering into something I would happily eat for the rest of my days.

So, in this case, I opted for the vanilla and ginger cheesecake with a raspberry sorbet. I can't honestly remember the last time I had cheesecake prior to this meal. And as for raspberries and sorbet - well, my foodie dreams aren't usually made of this.

Until now. I'm not a religious type, but dear Lord, this was something else. The cheesecake - a tall disc of a dessert, about two inches high - was as perfect as one might dare to imagine a cheesecake could be. Vanilla and ginger in perfect harmony - vanilla certainly the dominant taste, but with a whiff of ginger running through it to give it a welcome spiciness. And the sorbet? Raspberries haven't tasted like this for, well, many a long year. In fact, I'd all but given up eating raspberries because they always seemed to be a big let-down. But here, the sorbet was positively bursting with that old-fashioned luscious, ever-so-slightly tart, berry-ness. Lovely, lovely, lovely. And a surprisingly successful match with the cheesecake - I thought it would overpower the latter, but no. They complemented each other absolutely perfectly. In fact, this was a dessert so good that I'd rank it amongst the very best I've ever eaten.

To finish, the coffee (a double espresso) was spot on, and the petits fours (a delicate macaroon and chocolate fudge) were delicious, and a faultess finale to a absolutely cracking meal.

Boxwood Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

calabrese or broccoli? And a calabrese recipe

calabrese floret

I was going to call this ‘Broccoli with....’ etc, but my vegbox provider calls it calabrese, so I thought I’d better educate myself. I thought the two terms were pretty much interchangeable, but there is – according to that venerable font of knowledge, Wiki – an important difference.

It transpires that broccoli is more properly the name for the sprouting stuff, whereas calabrese is the more correct term for the densely-headed green variety. So now I know. I blame years of shopping at supermarkets where it’s been labelled it ‘broccoli’. You see, not my fault at all. Really.

What I did already know, however, is that calabrese is one of life’s ‘superfoods’, packed with all things good and nutritious. Which is pretty lucky, since we eat it at least once a week here when it’s in season, and sometimes more.

This is my favourite way of using it – served with pasta, and coated with a piquant blend of anchovies, chilli and pine nuts, with some saffron to give it all an underlying dusky note (as well as an appealing golden hue to the pasta). It’s not a novel recipe by any means – you’ll find numerous variations on the internet and in recipe books – but this is my particular version.

Serves 2

500g calabrese, cut into small bite-sized pieces
3 cloves garlic, chopped
pinch of chilli flakes to taste
6 anchovy fillets
approx. 30 strands of saffron
2-3 tbsps olive oil
freshly grated parmesan
450g pasta – I use penne

1. Blanch the calabrese for about 3 minutes. Don’t overcook – it should still retain a healthy green colour. Drain and plunge into ice-cold water, and set aside.
2. Cook your pasta according to instructions.
2. Cover the saffron threads in hot water – about 2 to 3 tbsps.
3. Cook the garlic and chilli in olive oil for a few minutes over a low heat. Don’t let the garlic brown.
4. Add the anchovies, and stir until ‘melted’.
5. Drain the calabrese thoroughly, and add it to the anchovy sauce.
6. Turn the heat up to medium, and pour the saffron liquid over, and let most – but not all – of it bubble off.
7. When there’s still a little liquid left, add the cooked and drained pasta. This way, the pasta gets to soak up some of the saffron, and will turn a gorgeous yellow colour.
8. Add seasoning to taste, and check consistency. If it all looks a little dry, add a generous drizzle of the best quality olive oil you can lay your hands on. You want this to feel lovely in your mouth, as well as taste good. Keep the pan on the heat just long enough for the olive oil to warm through. Serve with parmesan.

calabrese with anchovies, chili, pine nuts and saffron

(Edited - I forgot the pine nuts! Aaagh! Anyway, if you like pine nuts, add 1-2 tbsps of pine nuts right at the end of cooking, when you've added the pasta to the calabrese mixture. They're great for added texture and taste - and even better if you toast them lightly beforehand.)

Friday, 1 February 2008

rhubarb, rhubarb...

blah, blah, blah...

Except forced rhubarb isn't just any old rhubarb. Nope, it's super special rhubarb, available only for a short time during the year so as to give us a little taste of summer in the gloomy depths of winter.

For anyone who's not sure exactly what forced rhubarb is, the dear old BBC (hey, Wiki - wake up!) has all the answers:

"The roots, or crowns, of outdoor rhubarb are left in the fields for two to three years and are then lifted, by hand, from November through to Christmas and replanted into low, dark forcing sheds where they are kept warm and moist as the shoots form. The forcefulness of the shoots is such that you can hear the buds bursting, practically crying out as they strain upwards.

In a matter of a few weeks the rhubarb stalks are ready to be harvested. As with every other stage of this weird and wonderful plant, nothing is, or can be, mechanised. Nimble fingers pick the luscious pink stalks in true Victorian fashion - by candlelight - to protect the younger stems that are still growing. The telltale sign of forced rhubarb is its incredible colour: a particularly eye-pleasing vibrant pink with curled mustard-yellow leaves. The plants grow in the sheds right up to the end of March, when the outdoor variety becomes available."

OK? Still with me?

The real point about the forced stuff as far as any foodie is concerned is that it retains its fabulous pink colour even after cooking - unlike the outdoor variety, which tends to go a rather sludgy greeny-brown. Tasty, yes, but not that pleasing aesthetically. Forced rhubarb is quite a show-stealer by comparison...

So - what to do with it?

I say keep it simple, and let it speak for itself. So here I roasted it (with the zest and juice of an orange, a vanilla pod, a little cinnamon, and sugar to taste) at 180C for about 20 mins or until it starts to collapse a little. Then I buttered a slice of brioche, and 'toasted' it quickly over a high heat in a fry-pan until golden brown - just a couple of minutes each side, at most.

Then, unable to wait any longer, I put the brioche slice on a plate, piled on the rhubarb, and then topped the lot with a generous dollop of creamy Greek yogurt and a casual tangle of orange zest for even more colour.

It was wooooonderful.... A real hit of zingy fruit, made blissful with the yogurt and brioche. Go on, you know you need some...

forced rhubarb

forced rhubarb and orange zest

forced rhubarb on brioche