Friday, 30 October 2009

review: Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis

Billed as a ‘book for a resourceful cook in the prudent kitchen’, this latest publication by Tamasin Day-Lewis seems to be another of the current crop tapping into a recession-hit market. The premise is sound, and initial impressions are promising –a cursory flick through the pages suggests that any notions that cooking to a limited budget necessarily means bland and dull meals should be promptly banished. The colourful pictures promise much – feasts of delicious, vibrant food leap out from almost every page.

And, indeed, the book gets off to an appropriate start with a core recipe for a roast chicken, and then a variety of ideas for what to do with any leftovers. Ditto a handful of recipes for using mince (without an initial roast lamb or beef recipe, though). How to get creative with leftover mash follows next (bread, potato apple ‘cake’, and parmesan potato cake, since you ask).

I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind the ordering of the sections (not helped by the lack of a Table of Contents), since next up is ‘The Saturday Bake’. Personally, I would have thought that a chapter on roasts and leftovers would follow more logically after Saturday, but maybe that’s just me. The sequence of the other chapters is equally mystifying. Still, whether you bake on Saturday or some other day, you’ll be spoilt for choice with recipes here, among them many old favourites: carrot cake, chocolate cake, fruit tea loaf, and brownies. But there are also novel versions of familiar cakes, too: wholemeal date scones, banana blondies, and bay, lemon, and honey cake, for example.

From baking, the book launches into one-pot cooking, with plenty of those hearty winter warmers that we’re all so fond of, like stew and dumplings, braised belly pork, sausage casserole, cobbler, and fish pie. Again, there are tasty twists: brisket comes with pickled walnuts, the belly pork with quince, the casserole with chestnuts, and the ‘pudding’ is lamb, rather than steak, and kidney.

If those aren’t enough to make you content, a chapter on ‘Happy food’ follows. As Day-Lewis puts it: ‘When we are broke we need to reward ourselves more than ever, with little luxuries in the absence of large’. Chocolate, unsurprisingly, features largely here – in truffles, a terrine, a truffle cake, little baked custards, and a sorbet. Other treats include a date and coffee sponge, crème caramel, and pannacotta, as well as a comfort-food Victorian nursery pudding, called General Satisfaction – something of a cross between trifle, Eton Mess, and Queen of Puddings.

Next is a fulsome section on bread, and how to use up old loaves. Many of the savoury recipes are Spanish or Italian in origin, while the puddings include old English classics such as Brown Betty and Summer Pudding.

Then it’s the chapter that takes its title from that of the book itself. The concept for Day-Lewis was born out of necessity at university, and even now ‘I still take the greatest pride in inventing suppers for a song’. Any reader following her lead will eat well: from pea, mint, and scallop custards, through stuffed squid, to little John Dory fillets with braised fennel and anchovy butter. A dessert of caramel and cardamom ice cream with Tarocco oranges would certainly have been much appreciated in my student days.

Autumnal gluts of fruit are swiftly despatched through baking, stewing, sun-drying (tomatoes), and jamming, before the book ends with ‘Something-out-of-nothing suppers’ – the kind of meals we might conjure up from our store cupboards. Again, the recipes derive largely from beyond UK shores, with Indian curries, gnocchi, tortilla, paella, pan bagna, Boston baked beans, baked penne, and pizza all appearing on the menu.

In all, it’s a cheery book for hard times. My query, though, is to what extent it will really fulfil readers’ expectations for frugality. The braised belly pork recipe suggests a 1.2kg piece of ‘ideally’ organic Middle White. And the quinces to accompany it aren’t exactly cheap. Other recipes don’t stint on top-notch ingredients, either. Organic Sierra Rica chestnuts? Pheasant? Scallops? Wild salmon? John Dory? Marsala wine? Or that caramel and cardamom ice cream recipe, anyone – requiring, amongst other things, a vanilla pod, 350ml Jersey milk, 284ml thick Jersey cream, 8 (yes, 8) large egg yolks, and 6 Tarocco or blood oranges? Crikey. If this is frugality, then we should all be getting rather more excited about it than we are.

This is not, then, a book that will square with everyone’s idea of managing on a limited budget. Neither is Day-Lewis someone to stint on quality, even in parsimonious times. She exhorts readers to buy the best they can afford, and organic wherever possible. I’ve already cited the Middle White example, and there are several similar instances. That sort of quality doesn’t exactly come cheap. She does, however, point out that those recipes using expensive main ingredients are frequently ‘balanced’ by cheaper minor ones, and there are also plenty of recipes which are genuinely cheap (and easy) to make – but the net effect is only to throw the extravagant items into sharper and more alarming relief.

In fairness, none of this – balancing expense, buying the best produce affordable – should be particularly controversial. We all deserve to eat well, and to eat good food. To a degree, Day-Lewis is right – it’s about learning to make prudent choices, and evening out expense with moderation in order to arrive at a happy status quo. Recycling a roast chicken, making the most of mince, learning how to make bread and use up stale ends imaginatively are all things that make a plenty of economic as well as culinary sense (not to mention environmental sense), and Jamie O and Huge F-W would surely approve.

It’s just that Ms Day-Lewis’ starting budget appears to be set at a rather higher level than that of the average punter. As does her expectation regarding access to good butchers, fishmongers, and supermarkets and delis. Sadly, the reality is that many of these recipes simply won’t deliver on taste and texture if lesser and cheaper substitutes are used in place of the ingredients she lists. Even the simple fried mozzarella sandwich won’t be half as good with mozzarella that is anything other than bufala campana, and anything other than ‘spanking fresh’ mackerel could render a pickled mackerel and potato salad near inedible. But then, I strongly suspect that Ms Day-Lewis’ regular audience have access to all these things and more, and can readily afford them. And so long as everyone is aware of that, then I’m sure this book will find its market.

(With thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the review copy.)

Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (2 Oct 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 184400743X
ISBN-13: 978-1844007431
RRP: £19.99

Saturday, 24 October 2009

a little piece of Love: Scandinavian Kitchen

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be aware that I've been helping to organise short food photography workshops with Chris Windsor.

Chris has been a photographer for many years, and more recently has been doing a lot of food photography projects for various clients, and for Jenny Linford's The London Cookbook and Food Lovers' London.

Not surprisingly, then, he knows a few eateries and their owners. So when we were cooking up the workshops, he suggested the Scandinavian Kitchen, just off Oxford Circus. I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I hadn't been there. It was yet another of those places that had been on my radar for a while (I defy any London foodie not to have a list of such places the length of a rather long arm), but somehow I'd never got around to going.

But now I have. And I very much liked what I saw, from the unmissable exterior...

Scandinavian Kitchen exterior

... and equally vibrant interior...

Scandinavian Kitchen interior

and, more to the point, I liked what I tasted... from a huge range of open sandwiches...

sandwich selection 1, Scandinavian Kitchen

sandwich selection 2, Scandinavian Kitchen

open egg sandwich, Scandinavian Kitchen

blue cheese open sandwich, Scandinavian Kitchen

sandwich selection 3, Scandinavian Kitchen

... to the best hot dog I've ever come across...

hot dog with relish, Scandinavian Kitchen

... and then there are the cakes... including the famous Love Cake (aptly named) ...

Love Cake label, Scandinavian Kitchen

Love Cake, Scandinavian Kitchen

... and Kladdkaka ('a bit like a brownie, but more gooey', as their label says)...

Kladdkakka, Scandinavian Kitchen

a forkful of Kladdkakka, Scandinavian Kitchen

Will I be going back? Absolutely. Except in future I think I'll leave the camera behind so I can concentrate more on the important stuff - the eating...

Scandinavian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

review: My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

Who would have predicted the television success of Julia Child? Over six feet all, already into her fifties (BBC, please note), and with a voice that irritated some as much as it enchanted others, the late TV chef’s success must surely have been as much as a surprise to her as it was to everyone else. In addition, by the time she hit the small screen in the US, she had spent almost as much time living outside of her native country as she had in it. On the face of it, then, her rise to prominence as a TV star was, to say the least, an unlikely one.

But succeed she did, and now, five years after her death at the age of 91 (she also successfully predicted her longevity), interest in her life has been reignited once more, if indeed it can be said to have been extinguished in the first place.

‘Julie and Julia’ is the film responsible, a film chronicling a period in the life of a food blogger who decided –on the verge of marital breakdown – to reinvent and challenge herself by cooking her way through Child’s famous tome, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Child’s own life, particularly her life in France, which is when she wrote ‘Mastering...’, forms the parallel tale.

Luckily for those of us who are interested in the making of ‘Mastering...’, Child wrote her own memoir of that time, aided by her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme. Called, simply, ‘My Life in France’, it takes as its starting point the moment she and her husband first moved to France in late 1948. The majority of the book concentrates on the ten years immediately following Child’s first visit to the country – the years in which ‘Mastering...’ was born – and effectively ends in 1974, with Paul’s death and her work on ‘From Julia Child’s Kitchen’.

As Child tells it, it was her first meal in France that spawned the hitherto unknown cook within her. Unfamiliar with much of the food (she didn’t even know what a shallot was), never mind drinking wine at lunchtime, her eyes were opened to a very different kind of dining experience from that with which she was familiar: “Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.” It was, as she put it, her epiphany.

From that point on, Child gobbled up all things French, particularly anything to do with eating, revelling in it all like a small child in a toyshop. As her gastronomic experiences quickly widened (escargots, and even more so, truffles “quickly became an obsession”), so too did her appetite for learning how to cook. Spurred on and enthused by Paul’s gift to her of Larousse Gastronomique on her thirty-seventh birthday, she attended a demonstration session at the nearby L’École du Cordon Bleu, and swiftly signed up to a six-week course.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Child soon decided she was in the wrong class, and badgered the owner of L’École to let her enrol in another. It seems to have set the tone for a difficult relationship, punctuated with somewhat wilful stubbornness on both sides. What emerges from the narrative is Child’s forceful resolve, supported by impressive self-discipline. Often frustrated by the lack of individual attention in class, she carried on regardless, and indeed, classtime neglect simply “had the effect of making me work even harder”. Becoming totally absorbed by cooking as she was, it wasn’t long before she “could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen”.

And so began the quest for culinary perfection. Mayonnaise was the subject of one early mission, by the end of which Child was of the belief that she “had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history”. She was undaunted by others’ lack of interest: when family and friends failed to respond to her foolproof new recipe for mayonnaise, Child simply reports “I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged.” By this point in the book, her reaction comes as little surprise.

Still, her tenacity saw her finally take her Cordon Bleu diploma (although not before one last stand-off with the owner). With new-found confidence, she teamed up shortly afterwards with two fellow ‘Gourmettes’ (members of an exclusively-female dining club in Paris) with an ambitious new project – to write a cookbook of French recipes for the American home cook. This itself segued into another venture between the three women, a new cookery school to counter the perceived stuffiness and archaism of the L’École.

What followed was, by Child’s account, a tortuous period of writing, editing, and persuading. Various publishing houses showed interest, only to lose it at the sight of the huge tome laid at their feet. What had, in her words, been conceived as a “modest little book” had in fact become an unwieldy behemoth of over 700 pages, as the authors – and Child in particular, one imagines – chased after every detail in their quest for recipe perfection. More than once, it seemed that it would never see the light of day. But, once again, it was Child’s sheer bloody-mindedness and determination that ensured the book finally saw the light of day, a full ten years after it had been first started. Moreover, her underlying optimism proved well placed – as we now know, the book became a huge success, and a veritable culinary bible for readers all over the world.

And so, nearly fifty years on from the date of its first publication, it is still inspires – as it did the blogger who made her own fame and fortune by cooking her way through it all (much to Child’s disgust, apparently).

It is, of course, a book largely about Child and food, and is thus a veritable literary feast for foodies. But there is plenty else of interest in here for non-food lovers – the respective backdrops of post-war France and Europe, the McCarthy era (she and Paul came under investigation at one stage), not to mention the uncertain and nomadic life of being the wife of an American civil servant.

In many ways, this is an indulgent book – Child gets to pick out her own highlights and darker times, and to pass judgement on others without restraint. Neither she nor Alex Prud’homme makes any apology for that, and why should they? Child is (or was) what she is, and by living to the venerable age of 91 and still holding court, she was surely entitled to tell it her way.

Somewhat ironically, though, through her accounts of her dealings with others, Child also lays herself bare. What emerges – strangely enough, given her success – is arguably a certain naivety, an underlying insecurity, a lack of self-confidence. Her early days in France, especially, found her plagued with feelings of inadequacy and frustration at what she perceived to be her shortcomings - most notably, when amongst (Paul’s) intellectual friends.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining not only her insatiable appetite for knowledge, but her own impatience and intolerance of those who didn’t subscribe to her views. Several family members (her father and mother in particular), as well as friends, seem often to be little more than an irritation to Child, although in fairness, such moments are just as frequently countered by moments of frank self-realisation (for example, “I could at times be overly emotional”; and of her father, “I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous to him...”). It is no surprise, then, that by the time ‘Mastering...’ was finished, one of her co-authors had vanished from the picture almost entirely, while Child’s relationship with the other was, shall we say, ‘difficult’. By contrast, those she loved, she loved unswervingly – the saintly Paul, and her younger sister, Dort, were clearly both the focus of almost unquestioning admiration and loyalty.

Whatever you may end up thinking of Child herself, ‘My Life in France’ is an engaging read. And perhaps it’s precisely because of her very human frailties – it’s almost impossible not to find yourself cheering her on in one moment, and then despairing at her lack of empathy, or at her apparent ruthlessness, the next. Just as mesmerising is her obvious energy – no one could ever accuse her of having simply stumbled upon fame. Everything that came her way did so as a direct result of colossal (some might say obsessive) hard work and force of will.

There’s also plenty of photographic evidence throughout the book, reproduced in black and white, documenting both her life and work in France – ranging from snaps from the family album to photographs (littered with Child’s numerous additions and amendments) of her ‘top secret’ recipes sent to Dort while ‘Mastering...’ was still a work in progress. They are themselves testament to Child’s scrupulous record keeping and attention to detail.

By her own admission in ‘My Life in France’, Child was not the easiest person to live or work with. But those traits responsible are undoubtedly the very same that lie behind the dynamism and sheer joie de vivre of this book. If you are a fan of hers, or of French life and cuisine, or if you’re curious to find out more about the inspiration for ‘Julie and Julia’, then this is a must-read. If you’re none of those things, read it anyway. As Julia Child puts it herself, “one learns by doing”.

(with thanks to Duckworth for the review copy)

My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (11 Sep 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0715639005
ISBN-13: 978-0715639009
RRP: £7.99

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Pierre Koffman's Restaurant on the Roof at Selfridges

I live an ordinary life. Some ups, some downs, and plenty of routine daily stuff inbetween. I have no complaints, and I’m more than happy with my lot.

But once every so often, I have moments of realisation – moments of thankfulness, even, for the sheer wonder of life and the pleasures it brings. It is not overstating things to say that my meal on Tuesday evening at Pierre Koffman’s ‘pop-up’ restaurant on the roof at Selfridges was one such moment.

I don’t want to sully the memory by giving a detailed blow-by-blow account of each course. I’m a food blogger, not a master of culinary wizardry, and I doubt I could find the words, frankly, or accurately identify all the ingredients or technical skill which comprised the taste extravaganza. In any case, others have already done that task for me and taken the photographic evidence, too.

For the record, we (two of us) ate our way through fricassee of wild mushrooms with snails and bone marrow, and pressed leeks and langoustines with a truffle vinaigrette to start; followed by Koffmann’s legendary pig’s trotter stuffed with veal sweetbreads and morel mushrooms, and royale de lièvre; and to finish, a warm chocolate mousse with malt ice cream, and Toscano dark chocolate mousse layered with hazelnut dacquoise, served with orange yogurt ice cream and Yuzu jelly. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the meal was prefaced by a langoustine bisque with a herb crème Chantilly, and tailed with a generous plate of assorted petits fours.

From start to finish, and without exception, the food was exquisite. If I had to pick my personal highlight, my epiphany, then I’d single out the pig’s trotter. Why? Because it was infinitely more pleasurable than I could ever have imagined, and quite possibly the most wonderful thing I have ever eaten (and I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at some rather special places over the years). I’ve had trotter several times before, but nothing could have prepared me for just how exceptional Koffman’s version was. I can’t improve on the adjectives others have already used: unctuous, silken, gelatinous, rich, intense, delicate, elegant, creamy, ambrosial. It was all those, and still more, as was the ‘mash’ which accompanied it. Never, in my experience, has the humble mashed potato tasted so utterly divine.

Suffice to say this was a meal that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Added to that, the service was friendly to a fault, immaculate throughout, and enhanced by the warm and attentive presence of Claire, Koffman’s partner. A more welcoming host you’d be very hard pushed to find.

The actual restaurant structure, too, completely surpassed expectations – sumptuously and imaginatively decorated and furnished (all Selfridges’ own work, apparently), with only the somewhat bouncy floors betraying its impermanence.

In short, I all but gave thanks to God while I was there (and I speak as someone who havers between atheism and agnosticism). I gave them instead to Claire. And no, I haven’t taken leave of my senses or critical faculties. I’m aware, too, that not everybody has been wholly ecstatic, and that there have been a few inconsistencies and niggles along the way.

All I can say is my own experience was flawless and memorable for all the best reasons, and for that I am truly grateful. What’s more, I’m happy to report that there IS a god, and he’s alive, well, and currently cooking majestic food in a restaurant touching the heavens above Selfridges.

Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the Roof on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

review: Sauces by Michel Roux (Snr)

If there can be said to be trends in cookbook publishing, then we are certainly going through one now. As I’ve noted previously, every second new book at the moment seems to be something to do with ‘basic’ ‘frugal’ or ‘simple’, or similar variations on those themes.

At first sight, then, it’s not the obvious time for a former holder of 3 Michelin stars to be launching a new edition of a book on preparing sauces. I mean – sauces? Lots of time and effort, surely, just for a bit of extra something on the plate? And do they really qualify for the current vogue for simplicity and thrift?

First, a sauce shouldn’t really be regarded as an optional ‘extra’. A meal without a sauce, or an appropriate sauce, lacks its cornerstone. It’s unthinkable, incomplete, a half-meal. As M Roux himself insisted when I spoke to him, ‘Sauces are a must, the top priority’. Any viewer of Masterchef (particularly the ‘professionals’ version) will have seen many a young chef die a culinary death as a result of a sauce no-show, or by serving a misjudged one. Get it right, and the simplest meal can be elevated into something memorable; get it wrong, and perfectly good food can be made unpalatable. So, sauces are, in fact, very much a case of ‘back to basics’.

Roux’s book makes sauce preparation look straightforward and appealing. Many of the recipes are reasonably quick and inexpensive to make. However, if you fancy using more luxurious ingredients and taking your time over making something particularly special, there are sauces to tick that box, too. All the classics are in here, but so are more novel and more intriguing creations, too (parmesan water, anyone? parsley nage with lemongrass? sea spray sauce? Arabica fig sauce?). In short, this is a book which makes you wonder why on earth you haven’t been making sauces regularly before.

With this book to hand, you have all you need to become a maestro. Every aspect of preparation is covered, with all the explanation and help you could ask for: equipment, ingredients, flavourings, whisking, blending, thickening, reducing, enriching, straining, and even how to keep sauces warm properly. And then, onto the real ‘meat’, so to speak – sections devoted to different types of sauces, including all the classics: stocks and marinades, infusions and nages, white sauces, emulsion sauces, vinaigrettes, flavoured oils and butters, salsas and other piquant sauces, vegetable coulis, sauces for fish, and for meat. And then, for the sweet tooths, savoury fruity sauces and chutneys, coulis and other fruity dessert sauces, custards and sabayons, chocolate and other rich creamy sauces.

All the way through are tips, hints, and suggestions aplenty – ranging from how best to keep a sauce (and whether it will freeze, what ingredient substitutes can be used successfully, through how to vary the core recipe, and what foods the sauce best accompanies. The reader is, for example, warned against overcooking a stock: ‘With long cooking, a stock becomes heavy and loses its savour; this applies particularly to fish stocks, which can also acquire a bitter taint’. Béchamel sauce will apparently keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days, and should be reheated in a bain-marie. Cumberland sauces tastes best the day after it is made. Grapefruit coulis with mint goes well with blackcurrant sorbet. And so on – a veritable food geek’s delight.

There are over 200 recipes to try. Twenty new ones have been added since the original edition, reflecting changes in tastes since 1996 (the date of the first edition) and Roux’s own current interest in lighter food – salsas and nages occupy more space this time around, for example. By far the majority of recipes are under a page long (including the list of ingredients), and broken down into simple, short steps, so even the most easily scared or novice of cooks shouldn’t be daunted.

No expense has been spared in the publication of ‘Sauces’, either, which is just as it should be, really, when the author is as esteemed as M Roux Snr. It’s printed on premium quality paper, making it joyous to handle. The text is set out so that there’s plenty of white space around it, and the font is a good size, making the recipes easy to read. The high production standards don’t stop there, either – the photography is both exquisite and inspiring.

And just to complete the book properly, there’s a comprehensive food/sauce matching section at the end, together with a thorough index.

All in all, it’s no surprise that the first edition is revered as a classic, both in France and in the UK. I see no reason why the second won’t be just as successful, and appeal to a whole new audience, too. For anyone wanting to master sauces, it’s an absolute must.

(With thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the review copy.)

Sauces, by Michel Roux
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (2 Oct 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1844006972
ISBN-13: 978-1844006977
RRP: £14.99
Available now.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

want to cook with Theo Randall at The InterContinental Hotel?

Theo prides himself on using the freshest ingredients sourced daily to create dishes inspired by northern Italian cuisine. On Saturday 5th December, Theo will be sharing his culinary skills in his monthly cookery class, which will focus on fish dishes. Traditionally, Italians abstain from meat on Christmas Eve in celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day and some serve the ‘Feast of the 7 Fishes’. Keen cooks can learn how to re-create at home some of the fish dishes available from Theo’s menu, depending on which ingredients are available on the day. These could include Spaghetti con Aragosta (spaghetti with Dorset blue lobster, plum tomatoes, parsley and chilli), Insalata do granchio (fresh Devon crab with rocket, fennel, aioli and bruschetta), Cape Sante (Scottish scallops with chilli, capers, parsley and lentils di Castelluccio) or Branzino al cartoccio (sea bass baked in foil with porcini mushrooms, thyme, vermouth and Italian spinach. Priced at £150 per person the class takes place from 9:30am until 3pm, including a wine tasting with head sommelier Cristian Fusco and a three-course lunch.

To make a reservation at Theo Randall at The InterContinental or book a place at the cookery class please call 020 7318 8747 or email

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

something for all aspiring food writers... Simon Seeks YOU

I KNOW there are loads of you out there, otherwise you wouldn't have a blog in the first place, would you?

Well, here's another site to which you can devote your energies, and maybe earn yourself some money for your efforts, too: Simon Seeks travel guides.

Dedicated to travel and food, it's a foodie's delight. So why don't you offer up your knowledge of hidden gems and the like, and then we can all benefit?

C'mon - stop reading this, and get writing!