Tuesday, 18 December 2012

learning to QOOQ

A few days ago, on the universal grapevine that is Twitter, I saw a flurry of activity surrounding something called a QOOQ. It turns out that it’s not a new addition to the Star Wars dramatis personae, but a kitchen recipe gadget of the interactive variety.

Now, at this point, a warning or two. I’m about as techno-friendly as a lobster with a migraine. Ergo, I don’t possess any iStuff or equivalent. Nope, not even an iPhone. So if ‘there’s an app for that’, it ain’t no use to me. I AM LUDDITE.

But. But...  the QOOQ (pronounced ‘cook’ – geddit?) is a dedicated recipe thingy, specifically designed for kitchen use, being non slip, wipe clean, splash- and humidity-resistant as it is. And it has a little built-in flip-out stand. So, as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I confess that I am, in fact, mildly interested, despite the above warnings and latent bah humbug tendencies, especially when faced with this sort of blurb:

“Each QOOQ comes preloaded with 1,000 international recipes that can be accessed by cuisine type, difficulty level, preparation time and ingredients, helping to customise the cooking experience to suit the chef and his or her kitchen. At the touch of a button, users are also able to purchase additional recipes, which are available individually or in themed packs and are focused on such topics as a destination, an ingredient or a specific chef. There is a catalogue of over 4,000 exclusive multimedia recipes made for QOOQ by more than 100 chefs.”

“Video speed is controlled by the user, and videos can be paused while the user accesses separate tutorials that explain specific culinary techniques. There is also behind-the-scene footage of the chefs’ restaurants, as well as hundreds of ingredient fact sheets that detail how individual products should be chosen, kept and cooked. For the health-conscious, recipe pages detail the calories contained in a dish and the Meal Planner function allows users to monitor and vary their diets.”

You get the idea.

Anyway, the first test for the QOOQ is, of course, whether I can, y’know, set it up and get it to work without assistance. Since it looks and feels much like an Etch-a-Sketch pad, which I vaguely remember being able to use, I feel dangerously confident.


Plug it in, turn it on, and...   oooh, look, things start happening. So far, surprisingly competent (me, not the QOOQ). Oh. It needs a WPA code to hook up t’interwebs. Cue interval of some minutes while said code is located. But then we’re away.


And I really mean it. It takes absolutely no time at all – literally – to start finding your way around the QOOQ. It’s a touchscreen interface, so you simply poke the screen at anything that seems appealing and take it from there. And appealing, it is. The visuals and text are clear and bright, and even for a techie numpty like me, it’s instinctive and intuitive to use, pretty much along the same lines as iStuff and their ilk. If instruction booklets put the bejasus up you, then you’ll have no such worries here – you simply don’t need one.


There’s not much the makers haven’t thought of. You can access recipes by a number of routes – by ingredient, occasion, chef, cuisine, theme, ‘inspiration’, etc. Once you choose what you want, it tells you (under respective tabs), the method, ingredients, and even the utensils you’ll need. Other information includes skill level, time to prep and cook, cost, and calorific content (yikes). Many recipes also incorporate videos to show you how to do anything remotely tricky – such as boning a fish (and yes, there’s a separate, dedicated techniques section to the QOOQ, should you need it) – and these can be paused and re-started as you flip back to the recipe.


Amongst the other plusses is the ability to scale a recipe up or down at a prod of the screen (I loved this, although it does lead to anomalies – 2 and 5/8 of a tablespoon?), and a weekly meal planner and shopping-list maker. The search facility is fast and accurate should you know what you’re after in the first place. And that’s just for starters. There’s also a whole section on wines, ingredients, ‘food facts’, and much else besides.


The QOOQ, then, has a lot going for it.

Having said that, it’s not entirely without flaws as it stands as the moment.

The recipes themselves show predominantly French and American influence, so will perhaps come across to an English market as a bit left-field. (Me, I happen to like that.)  All the featured chefs, and their recipes, are French, too, so the chances are you won’t find (m)any chefs you recognise on the QOOQ at the moment, although I imagine that will change over time. Other obvious issues include, for example, the spellings, measurements, ingredients being American (cups and sticks; cilantro, not coriander, and so on), worryingly vague in places (e.g. ‘a packet of vanilla sugar’; ‘1 pastry dough’), and the lack of rhyme or reason as to when a technique is explained/demonstrated or not. Vegetarian recipes seem to include fish (I suppose this is a French device, after all), ‘world cuisines’ are rather restricted at the moment, and as for ‘Asian’ recipes, read chiefly Indian or Japanese.

But I’m being picky – all these niggles are eminently fixable, and I’m sure the QOOQ team is busy refining as I write this.

The device isn’t limited purely to being a souped-up recipe ‘book’, either. You can use it to access the internet and your (web)mails, and get instant access via the logo buttons to Facebook, Twitter, Wiki and a few other common favourites. So can you be busy tweeting away while cooking, but not have to stop to give your hands a wipe so as not so spoil your iStuff. The QOOQ’s wipe clean, remember?

So, to the nitty-gritty. The QOOQ retails at a shade under £250.00, and a year’s subscription costs just over £60.00 (alternatively, you can buy pay-as-you-go credits). Is it worth it?

For iStuff die-hards, I suspect the price point isn’t quite right, although I’d still suggest you try to get hold of one and have a play for yourself before making up your mind. But for someone like me, who’s a gadget-free zone, but who uses a computer and social media AND likes to cook, it’s a fun device well worth considering. In my case, it certainly saved on running between the kitchen and my study like a demented chicken, as is my usual mode.

Yup, friends, I LIKED IT.

Now, where’s my list for Father Christmas....?

For more information, follow @QOOQ on Twitter and take a look at their website:  http://www.qooq.com/en/ 

With thanks to QOOQ and Andre Dang PR.


Friday, 7 December 2012

something for Christmas...

No, not in that 'something for the weekend' way. I don't do that kind of thing, thank you very much. No, I mean something that you might buy for someone else, or even for yourself (yes, why not? It's Christmas. That's what it's for). Earlier this year I was sent a couple of books to review. Speaking as someone who happens to have a weak spot for baked sweet things, they could hardly have been more lustworthy - Signe Johansen's Scandilicious: Baking, and Laura Amos's The Dessert Deli. (I'll come on to the pudding basin later.)

Let me explain.

I reviewed Signe's first book last year. I loved it. The news that she was to write a second book, purely on baking, was always going to be food to my ears. Because, in my very humble opinion, the Scandinavians are the vastly underrated geniuses of the baking world, and any book - especially by Sig, who can, y'know, bake a bit - on Scandi baking has therefore to be a VERY GOOD THING indeed.

As for Laura - well, we have 'history'. I've followed her progress ever since she set up a tiny stall in Hildreth Street Market in Balham a few years ago. Her desserts and cakes were insanely good, right from the off. It's been a real pleasure to watch her business grow rapidly since then so that she's now one of the most sought-after independent dessert chefs in London. It's a testament to her huge success that she's now in print - and it's great for fans of her food, like me, to see all her regular stall favourites in her new book.

So - the brief lowdown... For the baked goods glutton in your life, both these books are must-haves. Signe's is the weightier tome, with a greater number and variety of recipes - including breads and savoury bakes as well as cakes and puddings. Laura's is just as you would expect from a book entitled 'The Dessert Deli', and a budding amateur patissier's delight - packed with recipes for luscious cakes, desserts, petits fours, and similar.

I've baked most from Signe's book, if only because I was sent it earlier, and had more time to 'play' with it. As with her first book, it's appealing to use - the gorgeous recipes are laid out clearly, with lots of white space around the text, and there are plenty of colour photographs so that you can see what you're aiming for.

Laura's is a different kettle of, er, cakes, but still another glossy production. The layout of the recipe pages is rather more cluttered (albeit with helpful tips!), and I'm not a fan of the swirly title and sub-title font used. But the photo:recipe ratio is even higher than in Sig's book, with a picture accompanying every single recipe, and the dribble factor is enormous.

Both authors' recipes are evidently much tried and tested - quite simply, they WORK (not a given, in my long baking experience).

I could bleat on about them in lyrical fashion, but really, there's little point. These are highly desirable books, and well worth buying for any keen baker. Even Lorraine Pascale says so (she endorses both of them). For Christmas presents, if I didn't have them already, they'd be top of my wishlist.

The pudding basin? Oh, yes. From Mermaid, maker of many of my baking tins. It's ideal size and shape for your Christmas pudding, and for any steamed puds, come to that. I'd also use it for making ice cream-based desserts, like zuccotto. And, speaking as someone whose wrists can be a bit cream-crackered at this time of year, it's a good lightweight alternative to your traditional ceramic basins. As with other Mermaid products, I highly recommend it.

Right. Christmas Public Service Announcement over. You know what you have to do. Me, I'm off to bake Laura's Christmas cake and Sig's clementine butter biscuits. In case you're interested.

With thanks to Hodder and Stoughton, Legend Press, and Mermaid (via The Lenny Agency).

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

rhubarb and ginger polenta cake

Nothing irritates me more than inaccurate or unreliable recipes. Over the years, therefore, I've created a 'bank' of trustworthy writers whose recipes and cookbooks I use time and time again, and who I'd happily recommend to others

In more recent years, there are many food bloggers who have joined that bank. One of my latest 'finds' is the sage and amenable Carl Legge, who writes his stuff over at carllegge.com (and elsewhere).

I 'met' Carl on Twitter a few months ago, and have tried several of his recipes since. A short while ago, his rhubarb and polenta cake recipe caught my eye, and I've been keenly waiting for the first of the season's rhubarb so that I could give it a whirl.

That time happily came around this past weekend, so off to the kitchen I scampered. Five easy steps later, a big wedge of rhubarb cake was nestling down comfortably in my belly.

I heartily recommend it to you.

rhubarb polenta cake 1

rhubarb polenta cake 2

rhubarb polenta cake 3

rhubarb polenta cake 4

rhubarb polenta cake 5

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

candied and vanilla-salted pecans and walnuts

candied pecans 2

I'm surprising myself here. Two blogposts within a fortnight. Good grief.

Anyway. It's THAT time of year again. Time for a bit of ho ho ho and goodwill to all men. Or something.

Over the past few Christmases, I've been ditching the shop-bought snackage and making more and more festive titbits at home. Frankly, they taste so much better, and usually cost a fraction of the price.

These here nuts are now part of our household's newer Christmas traditions. Every year, I try to find a spare few minutes to have some sticky, nutty fun.

candied pecans

Once they're made, I break them up into manageable bite-sized clusters, and bag them up, ready for tucking into stockings for Christmas morning.

candied pecans 3

Like most of the recipes on this blog, these candied nuts are quick and easy to make, and ridiculously tasty. And, happily, they give a yielding, crumbly, not tooth-shattering crunch, so even Granny can have some. It's also a highly adaptable recipe, so you can add whatever you fancy by way of spices and the like. But I have to say, I like them just as they are. The secret, I think, is good vanilla salt - I use Halen Mon's.

To make them, you'll need (adapted slightly from here):

125g pecans or walnuts, or a mixture
115g unrefined caster sugar
0.25 tsp vanilla salt

First, roast the nuts for 5 minutes or so at 180C/350F/Gas 4, until they're just starting to toast. Keep a close eye on them, because you don't want them to start catching. Once they're done, take them out of the oven and set them aside.

In a heavy-based saucepan, melt the sugar over a gentle heat. Once it's turned liquid, throw in the pecans, and stir quickly to ensure the nuts are covered thoroughly.

Tip the nutty-sugary combo out onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Working as quickly as you can, spread the nuts out - I use a couple of forks. While the sugary syrup is still warm, scatter the vanilla salt over.

Leave the nuts to cool. Once they're completely cold, break into bite-sized clusters and keep in an airtight container or bag them up for presents.

* Want savoury snackage for Christmas as well? Some equally simple-to-make and super-tasty cheese biscuits are over on my other blog, here.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Merry mincemeat morsels

mincemeat squares 1

As aged and commensurately cynical as I am, I do love a spot of Christmas. But preferably not starting until about, oh, Christmas Eve.

However, there is one festive frippery I'll happily indulge in before the Christmas holiday period, and that's mince pies. Mmmmm, mince pies. There's something so very right about them at this time of year.

I've never really been one to make my own, not least because when I lived in London, our nearest deli - all of 30 yards down the road - supplied some exceedingly good ones from 1 December through to the end of January. By which time, I was pretty much mince-pied out for another season.

And... *whispers this quietly* .... I was also partial to the odd Crimble Crumble from a well-known takeout store.

But now, living out in the rural wilds of Kent as I have done for the past few months, the above options are, sadly, no longer open to me.

What to do?

Embracing the spirit of self-sufficiency (the damson voddie is rather nice, thank you), I've taken it upon myself this year to make my own mincemeat thingies. And, since tasting the results, I'm confident in declaring that I'll be doing so from hereon in for a very long time to come. They are, if I may say so, rather wonderful. And I can say that, because the recipe's not mine.

Really, they're dead quick and easy to make (oh, and cheap - about £3 max), and a fantastic alternative to mince pies and those Pret versions... They're also utterly addictive, so don't bake them unless you have company.

And, because it's Christmas, they're obviously best served with a glass of something appropriately boozy. Failing that, a good ol' cuppa.

mincemeat squares 2

The recipe is taken from the excellent Joy of Baking, and is very slightly edited/adapted here.

260 g plain flour
20 g corn flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
225 g unsalted butter, room temperature
70 g light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
400 g good quality mincemeat

Preheat oven to 375F/190 C and place the wire oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Grease a 20 cm x 20 cm square baking tin.

In a separate bowl whisk the flour, cornflour, and the salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the butter until smooth (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat until smooth (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated.

Evenly press two-thirds of the shortbread into the bottom of the prepared pan. Then evenly spread the mincemeat over the shortbread base, leaving a 1/4 inch border.

With the remaining shortbread dough, using your fingers, crumble it over the top of the mincemeat. Then lightly press the dough into the mincemeat.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Remove from oven, place on a wire rack, and while still hot, cut into 16 squares. Allow to cool completely in pan.

Makes about 16 bars.

My tips:

  • I mixed in the flour using my hands. I simply find it easier to make the dough come together that way.

  • pastry and shortbread bakes better from cold. I therefore put the shortbread base in the freezer for 5 mins (once pressed into the baking tin), and put the remaining crumble mix in the fridge while I was waiting.

  • I found the crumble mix just a little on the claggy side, so I added some icing sugar (about a tablespoon) to the mix to make it lighter and more crumbly.

  • as you can see from the photos, I finished the squares with a light dusting of icing sugar, too. Well, it is Christmas.

  • for my next batch, I'll be substituting some darker sugar and a pinch of cinnamon to the pastry.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Allotment, Dover

Dover. Hmmm. Fair to say that it's probably not the first place that comes to mind for a 'decent weekend nosh' destination. Unless, that is, you happen to remember a Jay Rayner review of a couple of years ago or so, live a short train ride away, and like the idea of a restaurant championing uber-local and seasonal produce. In which case, Dover doesn't seem such a bonkers idea after all. (And, while we're at it, the Michelin-starred Marquis at Alkham is just a short trip out of the centre.)

So, one chilly but cheeringly sunny October afternoon, we rolled up outside the rather splendid Town Hall (worth a visit in itself, honest). And there, across the road, and largely obscured by a million speeding cars, was our modest little venue:

The Allotment 1

If outside was traffic madness, The Allotment's interior was - thankfully - a haven of calm and warmth.

The Allotment interior

And, er, a certain degree of worrying emptiness. Yikes. A glass of Chapel Down's Flint Dry was swiftly ordered - and brought to the table - as a nerve steadier.

Still, everything seemed broadly encouraging. Wonderful decor (tongue and groove panelling everywhere, high ceiling, groovy retro-nod lighting, suitably aged wooden flooring), decent tableware, friendly waiting staff. Menu? Well, ish:

The Allotment menu

It's not that there was anything wrong with it - it just wasn't the kind of menu to get me positively dribbling with excitement. Some might regard that as a good thing, not least of whom my dining companion.

I gave the aforementioned the task of choosing a starter for us to share. The result? 'Vegetable quesilladas.' Right. I won't be making that mistake again.

Or will I? Y'know, they were really rather good. I'm no expert on Mexican food, and I wouldn't mind betting these would have offended the authenticity hunters, but these prim little quesilladas ticked our boxes for kick-off. Beautifully light, gently crisped, filled with spicy (if unspecified) veggie goodness, and accompanied by a convincing guacamole. And, thankfully, not drowned with sour cream. Relief all round.

The Allotment vegetable quesilladas

Onwards, to mains. For no particular reason, it's been a while since I've eaten sea bass, so that was precisely what grabbed my fancy here. With a buerre blanc? Oh go on, then.

The Allotment sea bass

Sea bass? Check. Buerre blanc? Check. Melty mash? Check. But, um, braised red cabbage? I don't know whether the chef was recovering from a big night out, or whether cabbage was all they had to work with that day, but I wasn't wowed by the prospect. Mildly alarmed would be rather nearer the mark.

But, dang it, The Allotment tricked to deceive again. It might not have been the most seamless match ever, but I ate it all, as did The Other Diner, so what does that tell you? Perhaps it says most about the cooking here - it's assured, light of touch, and all about the yum factor. The bass was superbly flavoursome, the buerre blanc spot on, and the mash was a winner for butter lovers everywhere. And that cabbage - whether as a mouthful on its own, or scooped up with the bass and everything else - was actually a pleasure to eat. That'll teach me.

By this time, I'm happy to report, the place was filling up. Some, like us, were late lunchers, but it seems that this is also the local 'go to' place for some serious indulgence of the carbohydrate kind. Generous cakes and tarts with rustic eye appeal occupy the deli-style counter by front door, so perhaps that's no surprise.

The pudding menu was equally big on comfort factor - apple crumble, double chocolate mousse, baked blueberry cheesecake, raspberry and almond tart, and meringue with poached plums.

The Other Diner opted for the plums:

The Allotment meringue

And I decided on the tart:

The Allotment raspberry almond tart

If I use the word 'light' again, this time for the tart, you'll probably shoot me, won't you? But it was. And moist. And liberal with both ground almonds and raspberries. Most tarts like this tend to be a tad on the dry or claggy side, but not this one. Not a soggy bottom in sight, either. Pure tart joy. With a dollop of excellent vanilla-flecked ice cream on the side.

The Other Diner's meringue and plums were lapped up, although there was a minor whimper along the lines of more fruit required.

While we nursed our coffees, our bill arrived. £53 for a 2.5 course lunch, with wine and coffee. Not cheap, but not horrifically spenny, either, for food like this - tasty, well cooked and portioned, and served with care and plenty of charm. Whether The Allotment can keep going in a not especially prepossessing part of Dover through this particularly vicious recession remains to be seen. But, based on our visit, I'd certainly say it deserves to do so. So next time you're on your way through Dover, I suggest you do yourself and a little local resto a good turn, and stop a while at The Allotment.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Sportsman, Seasalter

No, this isn't going to be a review of every single thing I ate. If you want a blow-by-blow account, see e.g. the excellent reviews by fellow bloggers EssexEating, CheeseandBiscuits, FoodStories, or HollowLegs, which cover much of the same territory (the tasting menu doesn't change a great deal, it seems).

I'm far too lazy to do all that. So I'm just going to stick up some photos, identify them (as far as my memory serves me), add a few comments as I go along, and then finish off with a few thoughts at the end. OK?

Here goes:

Sportsman exterior

Not going to win awards for stunning exterior facade, but...

Sportsman interior

...inside, it's cosy but airy, comfortable, and relaxed.

Sportsman bread

The breads: sourdough, soda, and focaccia. The dark, treacly soda was particularly amazing, but they were all fantastic. The butter is made on the premises from raw cream.

Sportsman pickled herring

Pickled herring (a sweet cure) on rye, with gooseberry jam. And lighter-than-light pork scratchings. A great way to start.

Sportsman oyster

Poached oyster, with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar. Not mine (after a nasty incident involving oysters a couple of years ago), but The Other Diner's. Reported to be 'delicious'.

Sportsman liver pate

Liver pâté. Probably the lightest, smoothest, and most flavoursome liver pâté I've ever eaten, on the most exquisitely thin Melba toast.

Sportsman beetroot tartlet

Dainty beetroot tartlets. Made with super-delicate, friable pastry and punchy roasted beetroot.

Sportsman beetroot soup

Chilled beetroot soup. I am not the greatest fan of soup, and the idea of this one - prior to its arrival - didn't thrill me. Oh, how I ate my words. The flavours sang as brightly as the colour. My word, it was good. So, so good.

Sportsman slip sole

Slip sole in seaweed butter. It had both of us licking our plates for every last morsel, every last droplet of molten butter. So simple, but utterly stunning.

Sportsman crab risotto

The Other Diner's crab risotto. Made from the brown meat, with the white meat atop. Pronounced 'gorgeous.'

Sportsman salmagundi

My Salmagundi. In times gone by, this was a sort of random leftovers salad mashup. At The Sportsman, it was elevated to the realms of salady godliness. All manner of vegetables were crammed into it, in one form or other - raw, pureed, pickled, blanched... (carrot, aubergine, tomato, cauliflower, cucumber, courgette, broad beans...) And underneath the leafiness was a perfectly poached egg. Joy unconfined.

Sportsman own ham

Courgette 'spaghetti' with parmesan, topped with The Sportsman's home-cured ham. As beautiful as it looked, I wasn't madly wowed by the ham. The courgette creation, however - YES. Made from raw courgettes, it was soft, moist (ooer), melty in the mouth, and with just the right proportion of cheese to make it umami-ly moreish.

Sportsman turbot

The King of Fish - braised turbot with sea beet from the shoreline 'out the back', baby sage leaves, and smoked roe velouté. Turbot is a rare treat at the best of times, and on the odd occasion I've eaten it previously, I've sometimes been left a little disappointed. Not here. It was every bit as wonderful as it should have been. Stephen Harris really, really knows how to cook fish.

Sportsman lamb mint sauce

Breadcrumbed and fried lamb breast with the ultimate mint sauce. Comfort food of the highest order. With a mint sauce far, far removed from any mint sauce you can find elsewhere on this planet. Scrummy.

Sportsman lamb

Roast lamb from the farm across the road. It doesn't get any fresher or any more locally sourced than this. Tender and tasty. The only meat dish on the menu. And, strangely, perhaps the least compelling. But still, by anyone's standards, very good indeed.

Sportsman cherry lolly

Cherry ice lolly with Madeira cake milk. Exactly what it says on the tin. Take Madeira cake, soak it in milk for a wee while. Strain off milk. Eat with luscious cherry lolly. Run out of superlatives. The fruitiest fruity lolly I've ever had the pleasure of eating. I have no idea how many cherries went into it. Possibly an entire orchard. Even the Other Diner, who professes not to like cherries, was groaning with ecstasy.

Sportsman stawberry cream cheese ice cream

Cream cheese ice cream 'with strawberry'. And crunchy meringue crumbled over. The strawberry element was somewhere between a soup and a light jam. It captured all the essence of strawberry, and without any undue sweetness. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Sportsman petits fours

And just when you think it's all over, the 'petits' (!) fours arrive... My. God. Assorted indulgences - chocolate mousse with salted caramel, jasmine tea junket with rosehip syrup, shortbread, truffle, summer fruit tartlets. Note to self: wear elasticated-waist slacks next time.

Sportsman fruit tartlet

A close-up of that tartlet. Isn't it pretty?

Sportsman Seasalter

THE END. The fresh air outside. Which you will need. Not that you'll be able to walk.

The overall verdict? Probably the finest meal I've eaten on these shores. I went with unfeasibly high expectations and they were blown out of the water. It was stupendously good, and words can't express just how fantastic all the flavours were - a real all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the ingredients. Here, I felt, was a chef who cares about his food in a way quite unlike any other whose food I've eaten, and who absolutely revels in it, too. It wasn't poncified food, it was extraordinarily joyous food, and the wonderful thing is that you can taste every single ounce of that delight. I will dream about it for a very, very long time.