Friday, October 24, 2008

Souper Duper Chestnut Trooper

We experienced an avalanche in Surrey yesterday.

Of sweet chestnuts.

Piles and piles of the things in their bombastic bright green, spiked and rather aggressive jackets, they've covered the road in a number of the places Ma Pea and I have been walking. With our trusty plastic bag to hand, and humming in cheerful anticipation of our FREE edible wares, we got collecting! For MP I think there was an element of childhood glee there, it was clear that she had done this before. Like excited toddlers, we both pounced on the ominous looking spiky bundles and, as I'd never been chestnut-gathering before, she taught me how to gently scuff it with your shoe until the case bursts open to reveal three or four glossy brown chestnuts nestled inside. What treasure!

There is something incredibly satisfying about finding your own lunch. Maybe I'll become one of these outdoor scavengers, shooting squirrels and roasting them over an open fire, with a few choice funghi thrown in for good measure. I can just picture it now...or maybe I'll just stick to the aga.

The glut called for nothing less than a heavenly soup. So here it is.

Chestnut, Bacon and Potato Soup
Serves 4

50g Butter and glug of oil
250g bacon, cut into small cubes
1 onion, diced
3 celery sticks, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 litre of stock
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
300g potato cut into small pieces
400g chestnuts
salt, pepper

If your chestnuts are fresh, wash them and make a small incision in each, putting them on a roasting tin to roast for 20 minutes at high heat, or until they have burst out of their skins. Let them cool and then peel them to remove both the outside and inside skin.
If packaged, pour boiling water over the vacuum pack, and leave for a few minutes until loosened, then cut open the top of the bag to release the chestnuts.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and add a glug of oil, browning the bacon gently until it releases its fatty juices. Add the chopped onion, celery and garlic and soften gently for 15 minutes. Add the stock, thyme and rosemary and season well, bringing the mixture up to the boil.

Chop the chestnuts to small pieces and add them, along with the potatoes into the soup. Simmer for 20 minutes, by which time the potatoes will be butter smooth. Serve with a glug of olive oil and a generous dollop of chopped parsley.

A cracking autumn warmer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

London a la Lex: Part III

Saturday night continued…

For effect, I would normally say that we rolled out of the restaurant groaning and rubbing our bellies, but I would be lying…the main beautiful thing about eating high quality food and savouring it, is that I find you eat slower, you digest better, and all in all you don’t have that awful feeling of ‘being stuffed’ post nosh. So we could continue our night tout suite!

The poor lad was thus dragged across London to Notting Hill and a ‘good old British pub’, to meet two of my best girlfriends, and be subjected to a torrent of girly gossip and giggles. Sorry Chef. The pub though was perfect, with Alice in Wonderland tiny doorways, allowing him the chance of experiencing British ale. When wondering aloud why the ale was so warm he was informed by the Catholic priest (!?) sitting near us that it was ‘cellar temperature’ so that you could better get the flavour of the beer. I think the American was unconvinced, in spite of the fact that the news came on religious authority.

All in all, a thoroughly British day out.


What better way to spend a Sunday than to lounge in fuggy warmth for an entire afternoon with friends, being fed dish after dish of wonderful food. The ideal excuse as well, to showcase yet another brilliantly British brainwave: The Gastropub.

Or, to be more specific the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo. The spawn of our previous night’s feasting, St John, in a flash of wisdom I pre-booked our Sunday lunch, as it is apparently the only day possible to book at A&H, which otherwise experiences hours and hours of queues. We arrived at 12.30, already hungry from a brisk walk along the Thames, and our appetite was curbed with some delightful little crispy tantalisers, anchovy paste, pate and some fresh herb concoction. Nevertheless, by the time the rest of my amigos had arrived and lunch finally commenced at gone 2pm, it is fairly safe to say the group was like a group of thin, mangy lions waiting wild-eyed to pounce on the next passerby.

Thankfully we didn’t need to resort to pack hunting, as our waitress finally approached our table bearing the first of the day’s spoils. We ate our way through a simple yet savoury menu, frolicking joyfully from one dish to the next:
  • Mussels, Cod and Saffron soup – I’m terribly fussy about my soups, as we’re all well aware, but this one, this one passed the stringent interview tests. I could almost hear the soup breathe a sigh of relief as I voiced my approval, and proceeded to revel in its rich flavours. It was creamy, thick and just filling enough to withstand the (leisurely) wait between soup and main, chunky pieces of cod and a generous dose of mussels cavorted playfully together.
  • Braised Ox Cheek with buttered new potatoes and fresh horseradish – one of those occasions when I didn’t quite know what to expect from what I read on the menu, but I managed to glean some clues from our neighbouring tables. It all looked very promising indeed. All hands went eagerly and immediately on deck to clear our table and make way for the descent of an entire dark grey Le Creuset casserole. One of our table (probably, me if I'm completely honest) couldn’t bear the suspense, and grabbed the lid to open it with a flourish. All that was lacking was a drum roll and an applause, as a fragrant steam exploded jubilantly forth. It cleared like a dramatic mist to reveal a huge chunks of what were obviously the mysterious ox cheeks, in a dark, chestnut brown sauce. We tucked in. It was a novelty, this dark, succulent and exquisitely tender meat which wobbled obesely in its cloak of fat and turnip and carrot sauce. Its sidekicks were equally delightful, but in their simplicity rather than their decadence: a gangful of glossy potatoes slick with butter and cocky with their fresh parsley freckles. But it was a small, unobtrusive pot which added the finishing touch: a sneeze-inducing, eye-watering fresh horseradish sauce, made up with a tart crème fraiche.
  • Watercress, St Tola and Pear – crunchy, fresh, bitter watercress; sour sweet smooth goat’s cheese and juicy slivers of pear. What better way to lift the palate post-ox?!
  • Little Chocolate Pot – It was the perfect end to a perfect relationship. Hand me chocolate and it is almost like guaranteeing my undying affections. There was a collective sigh of bliss round the table. I was silent for a full two and a half minutes. Absorb the sheer magnitude of this. And it can’t have been entirely unrelated to its Lex-quietening properties that this little cuddle-in-a-pot earned even more brownie (‘scuse the pun) points from its adoring fans. Tiny and potent, a little jar of just-liquid chocolate with caramel overtones and a slightly toasted honeycomb aftertaste was topped with a thin slug of single cream, laughing in the face of any recommended daily calorie intake. It really was heavenly. Hands down the best (and no doubt one of the simplest) puds I've ever eaten that I've not cooked myself.

This time we really did roll out of the pub, like six tottering bowling pins, very late afternoon, for a much needed post-lunch walk along the South Bank to watch the sun set. London at its best.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

London a la Lex: St John Restaurant

I could barely restrain my excitement as we hopped off the tube at Farringdon on our way to St John restaurant. The restaurant is renowned throughout the land as the place to go for all that is carnivorous, and especially those bits that the butcher doesn’t waste: so the menu consists of game and gizzards, basically. I've wanted to visit for years and now finally, the perfect food 'date' and yet another opportunity to show the American some very British cuisine (more British than I had ever eaten before myself in fact).  My over-eager stomach propelled us to arrive even earlier, at 6pm, than our already obscenely early booking of 6.30pm. Well, you know what they say – the early bird gets the chitterling…

The restaurant and I immediately clicked, as the waiter didn’t bat an eyelid at my slightly cheeky request of being seated early (I appealed to his human side and told him I was ‘absolutely starving’. He smiled, obviously used to dealing with ravenous loons, and showed us to our table.) Needless to say, we were the first seated in the gloriously no-fuss, industrial white dining room, on a table for two. Which wobbled. Yet another love affair commenced as our lovely Swedish waitress waltzed across to deal with the wobble, bearing chopped cork pieces to wedge underneath.

Sitting pretty, ready and raring to go, and flexing my tummy muscles at the prospect of the meat mania ahead, we eagerly scanned the paper menu. I was not disappointed, and was immediately thrown into what I call ‘The Diner's Dilemma’. i.e. I wanted to try absolutely every single thing on the menu.

Not to worry, said Chef, we’ll share some starters, then you can have a bit of a taste of a few things. (He knows me so well). There were numerous weird and wonderful dishes on the menu that I had not experienced or indeed heard of before, and I was anxious to clarify. So it was in the hopes of further polishing my food education that I asked our tall, gauche and terribly sardonic ‘water waiter’ ‘What are sprats?’. He was an amusing and peculiar mixture of the guy that croaks ‘yaaarrp’ in the movie Hot Fuzz and Farmer Bean from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. He didn’t disappoint in living up to these descriptions when he grunted as explanation ‘fish’. Why thank you sir, that is so much clearer. Sold to the lady on the wobbly chair. Not.

Instead we went for three starters, which were positively heartstopping in their gloriousness. These were:

  • Roast Marrow with parsley salad – a classic and well-known St John dish which I wanted to experience for myself. Four chunks of bone several inches long served upright on the plate, roasted and filled to brimming with their pleasurably guilty jelly-like insides. The spoonfuls of, let’s face it, fat, are whittled out of the bone, using a lobster pick, and spread on crisped, oiled sourdough bread, and topped with a crunch of sea salt. The marrow takes me right back to eating dinner with my grandad who, being a war kid, passed the lesson of ‘eating everything on one’s plate’ onto me. I blame him for my voracious eating – and slurping marrow from bones was one of our favourite joint activities! I realise I may have been a somewhat strange child... The heady richness of the marrow however is beautifully cut through by the sharp parsley salad - crunchy bitter flat parsley, finely diced shallots, capers and a biting lemon dressing. One word: scrumptious.
  • Halibut, potatoes and aioli – a creamy, sumptuous fish salad. The simplicity of the dish is key, as in combination its ingredients have the potential to be overly heavy. Not this ‘un. No siree. Tender white chunks of steamed halibut mingle with new potatoes, in a light garlic, crème fraiche aioli. Whisps of rocket tease and flit whimsically throughout, like young ballet dancers in a serious ballet, lending nuttiness to the ensemble; a few artfully placed capers tweak at the end of a mouthful, balancing the creaminess of the dish. Unexpectedly good (I confess when the boy chose this I was secretly unconvinced – but all credit to him it was tasty).
  • Grilled Puffball with green sauce – this was one of those points at which dining out with an experienced Chef was really useful. These guys are just so practical. Which was good as my dreamy, impractical side emerged upon tasting the first mouthful of this dish and I was, quite literally, rendered speechless. For a few seconds. Oh goodness, this was unreal. I couldn’t come up with words. I had never eaten puffball before, and I had no idea it was going to be so good. I’d seen them, these ballooning marshmallow mushrooms, both growing wild in fields and for sale at Borough Market. Being a firm advocate of quality over quantity, I was astounded that something the size of a large football can retain such an intensely pungent and earthy taste of rehydrated funghi. The boy brought me back to earth with his culinary knowledge. According to him, the half-inch thick slice of ‘shroom had been coated either side with melted butter, then grilled – hence the mesh of seared flesh across the light grey-white. The verdant sauce it was served with was an exuberant burst of fresh herbs: an intense blend of parsley, caper, lemon and fennel fronds. I had an adventure playground going on in my mouth.
I’ve ranted long enough about the starters but it is safe to say that, in spite of the delightful mains which followed, it is the starters which will forever remain hallowed in my memory. I think the joy radiating from my face was only too apparent to the rest of the world passing by my table, and even Mick Hucknell (from Simply Red) did a double take when he saw me, and went to take his place at his own table behind me. ‘I’ll have what she’s having’, I heard him say to the waitress when she came to take his order.*

And so to mains.

Chef chose Roast Lamb with white beans, and then suffered dinner envy as my perfectly petite package of Teal with Turnips (don’t worry, I didn’t know what Teal was either – it is a wild duck) paraded in front of me. He was being silly – the lamb was moist, tender and juicy pink, and the beans a comforting side. But I confess I did prefer my Teal, which was gamey rich. Being so small it requires a mere flash at the flame, to avoid drying out, which meant that as I cut in, blood spurted into the jus. Not one for the faint hearted!  The turnips were cooked to butter-like tenderness, alongside whole shallots and sinful entire garlic cloves. I ate the lot, mopping the sauce up with the green tops we’d ordered on the side and muttering incoherent appreciation.

St John and I parted company a little like reluctant lovers. I know the restaurant feels the same way about me – it can’t wait to wrap me in its comforting arms and whisper sweet nothings into my ear again…’smoked eel…pheasant pie…venison offal…’ it will say. ‘Ok, I’ll do whatever you want’, I will whisper back helplessly, head over heels. I only hope we meet again soon, and I've already planned how. Half way through our meal an awed silence descended upon the by now bustling dining room. A waiter walked through, carrying aloft an entire roast suckling pig, fit for a feast and a meal for a party of sixteen or more. Watch this space, my darling St John, I'll be back.

*well, not really, but allow me a little poetic licence would you?!

London a la Lex: Part II

Saturday Morning

Frankly, London was showing off this weekend. The day broke with unashamedly glorious sunshine, almost as if the city were saying ‘right, I’m darned if another American is going to head home thinking England is gloomy, let’s put on a jolly good show’. Which meant that the whole city was out basking in the rays and chilling with cold beers, with the crowds unusually cheerful for Brits. Lucky Chef.

I can be a fairly hard tourist taskmaster, but honestly, it is purely with their best interests in mind. I’m not the sort to drag a visitor to the Tower of London, or the London Eye (yawn), but instead want them to experience some of my favourite bits of the city, which just happen to centre around the importance of some item of food or drink in hand.

With this in mind, we set off as early as was decent along the South Bank to Borough Market, arriving at 11am, and just, just in time to avoid that point at which BM becomes a seething mass of food tourists, and therefore unmoveable (/unbearable). I wasted no time in injecting Chef with a serious dose of caffeine - outstandingly good coffee from the Monmouth Coffee Company, where the mere aroma of ground beans instantly perk a tired/jetlagged/hungover (delete as appropriate) soul up. Chef chose a delightful Indonesian bean from Sumatra. I took a few sips (I’m laying off the caffeine temporarily) and I have to say it lived up to its reputation: earthy, potent, rich and roasted, and without the cloying bitter aftertaste I find I get from most coffees. Served also, I might add, in a very decent sized, small cup. Quality over quantity every day.

We lost track of time as we wandered in a state of bliss around the different market stalls, stroking beautiful glossy tomatoes, and eying up pies at Pieminister, the vast array of cheeses at Neal's Yard Dairy, olives, pasties, apples, and indulging in the various tasters that are strategically scattered about.

Borough Market is without doubt one of my favourite world markets, and I particularly showing it off to unsuspecting tourists, because of the sheer hum and buzz of energy in the air. Laughter and jokes mingle with mouthwatering wafts of baked bread, heady fumes of mulled wine and the earthy smell of mushrooms. Shopkeepers selling their carefully crafted wares – whether smooth, silky cheese or great hunks of dark chocolate, rich, spicy sausages or meaty British pies – are deep in conversation with eager customers, each party gesticulating wildly, facial expressions bursting with the excitement of potential. I find the passion in these interchanges completely contagious, and I never fail to leave without a big grin on my face (and generally a bellyful of tasters). However, keeping in mind our various eating ‘dates’ later on that day, we resisted spoiling our appetites and opted instead for one single indulgence: a scandalously good cranberry brownie from Konditor & Cook - exquisitely moist, ever-so-slightly tart, and smoothly sweet chocolatey goodness, savoured with eyes shut. A must for any brownie fiend.

Saturday Lunch

Dragging ourselves away from the market, we hitched a ride up to Spitalfields on a real live gen-ew-ine London bus, heading straight for one of the many ‘typically British’ meals on my weekend menu: Sausage & Mash (aka S&M). Cor blimey but it’s good. We had walked up an appetite and the juicy, meaty sausages with creamy mash (me) and a delightful bubble and squeak (him) with very British gravy (i.e. slightly gloopy), were the ideal antidote to a growling belly. All topped off with very hot English mustard and served up in a classic London diner. Nice guv.

Saturday Afternoon

Thank goodness we stocked up on the calories, as the afternoon was a whirlwind of walking. I have no doubt that this will have come as a bit of a shock to an American, but he kept up with barely a peep of complaint! We window shopped around the kooky nooks and crannies of Spitalfields, wandering up into eclectic Brick Lane where we stopped at yet another favourite – Cha Lounge (halfway up BL on the left) – for some digestive aid in the shape of Peppermint Tea. Ooh La. People watching a-plenty, so we were able to sit back and relax for a bit, catching our breath before…

The Horrors of Oxford Circus – ugh, let’s not even talk about this atrocity. On to…

Carnaby Street – well, it’s gotta be done, right? Give him a bit of the ol’ 60s swingin' history.

Through the Soho sex shops and onto Old Compton Street where, as per usual on a beautiful sunny day, the streets were lined with gorgeous gay men showing off their buff biceps. Good meandering, and perfect connection to…

…Covent Garden…Trafalgar Square…St James’s Park…and…a much needed REST! Ready for dinner.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

London a la Lex: Part I

What better combination than food and love? Anyone who’s read my previous entries will know about my perfect food find: my very own Chef.

He popped over to London for a spontaneous weekend away from the States, and for his first visit to the UK. A very exciting event for many reasons, not least because I intended to set about proving to him what a culinary adventure London can be for one in the know. I spent a week in furious planning mode, conjuring up food memories of one of my favourite cities from the peace and quiet of the country, and concocting the perfect recipe for London a la Lex. I threw in a handful of food markets, a few romantic walks, my favourite London view, half a dozen ‘very British’ meals, and some friends, for seasoning.

The resulting food fest can only be digested in chunks, and so I will break it down for you, to allow you to savour the flavour.

Bon Appetit mon cheri!

Ready and raring for a weekend in the city, I headed up to London from t' countryside.

7pm - Emotional Reunion as Chef and I are reunited at Heathrow following a month's separation. I do not waste a single chance to start impressing upon him how great Britain is, and thrust M&S's finest, and two of my particular faves - Percy Pigs and Grape & Raspberry juice carton - into Chef's travel-weary paws.

First London tube ride straight into Central London for Fish & Chips at my favourite: Seafresh in Pimlico. A bright and breezy, cheerful place which sells the best F&C I have ever tasted. The American (who normally doesn't like fried foods) was bowled over. A beautifully fresh, crispy golden batter jacket lovingly encased equally fresh white fish, steamed to perfection inside, and flaking obligingly at the touch of an inquisitive fork. The accompanying chips are satisfying and chunky, just crisp on the outside, soft and tender inside, and smothered with indecent quantities of the obligatory salt and vinegar. Mushy peas complete the picture, naturally. Green, minty and filling comfort food.

Chef was already loving London. I had barely begun...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Simple Sustaining Supper

With barely a moment’s breather between soup and main, Ma Pea and I got cooking the next course, a very satisfying Haddock Kedgeree. The recipe is one we’ve used in the family for a long while, but which initially came from dear ol’ Delia. I refer to her with such affection because well, we all know and love her don’t we, us Brits. She’s held many a hand through a Roast Lunch or entire Christmas dinner, and taught many a novice how to boil an egg.  All of this recent hoo ha about her new cheats aside (seriously, who is so lazy that they use pre-packed chopped onion?!), her old classics really do methodically demonstrate to the novice cook how to yield results in the kitchen, confidently and efficiently, 100% of the time. 

So, let's talk Kedgeree.

Buttery Haddock Kedgeree
Serves 4 generously portioned suppers

1 onion
1 teaspoon curry powder
8fl oz long-grained white rice
16fl oz water
1.5 lb smoked haddock fillets
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
3 heaped tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt, pepper

Place the haddock in a pan with the water, bringing them to the boil and simmering gently for 8 minutes. Drain off the water into a measuring jug. Transfer the haddock into another dish and cover with foil.
In the same saucepan, melt a generous knob of butter, and soften the onion in it for 5 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, cook for half a minute and then stir in the measured rice and 16 fl oz of Haddock water. When simmering, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook very gently for 15 minutes or until the rice is tender.
Remove the fish skin and flake the meat. When the rice mixture is ready fork in the flaked fish, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, lemon juice and the remaining couple ounces of butter. Season and serve.

Again, another tres simple, cheap and simple supper. Stellar.

Soup - basic adaptable recipe

I have spent my entire life watching my mother, known throughout the land as Soup Queen (by friends, family members, my father in particular, ex-boyfriends, and even strangers), producing delicious, nutritious, steaming great bowls of soupy goodness. It is a rare talent and, frankly, she’s spoilt me for life. None of those cartons of Covent Garden soups, or particularly those tins of Heinz, will ever, ever quite cut it (bar Heinz tomato soup, which, for nostalgia’s sake, will always hold a special place in my heart). I have ordered soups from fancy restaurants – they’ve disappointed. I’ve ordered soups from little cafes – let’s not even talk about it. Suffice to say that as a result of her heavenly concoctions, the humble soup will always remain on a lofty, and practically unattainable, pedestal.

It is therefore about time I learnt her secrets for myself (after all, it is hardly a secret that dad married her for her soups…). I have made soups before, but I think that learning the adaptable basics from mum is a lesson well overdue.

Drumroll, then, for….our first soup lesson together. Lacking in pictures, en ce moment, but rest assured I will be rectifying this situation shortly.

Chickpea & Bacon Soup
Makes 8-10 hearty helpings of slurpy wonderment

Olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
4-5 rashers smoky bacon, chopped small
2 small onions, diced
3 small carrots, diced
2 celery sticks, diced
generous quantity of parsley, chopped fine
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 chicken/ham/vegetable stock cube
1 tin chickpeas, drained
salt, pepper

In a large saucepan sweat the bacon with the garlic and a couple tablespoons olive oil, until lightly browned, remove into a bowl.
Again in a couple tablespoons olive oil sweat the onions, and add the carrot and celery to soften.
Stir the bacon back in and add the tin of chopped tomatoes, plus one tin of water (using the empty tomato tin), and the tin of chickpeas. Crumble in a stock cube and, if still lacking for liquid, add a little extra water. Add in a couple of handfuls of chopped parsley, and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Whiz 2-3 ladlefuls of the mixture up in a blender to thicken, and stir back into the soup. Taste for seasoning and add salt/pepper accordingly (bearing in mind that the stock cube and the bacon will automatically make the soup quite salty).
Serve with a generous amount of parsley.

Honestly, this soup was to die for. In fact, I’m just about to have some of the leftovers for lunch! Dead cheap to make and very economical as it goes such a long way, packed with taste, high in protein – with the pulses and the bacon – and with a hefty whack of your daily five. What more could you want?!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monstruous Meat Mania - mmm

The Mighty Muffuletta. Woah there. Slow down. Backtrack a little. Some of you (Brits) maybe instantly thrown upon hearing this foreign, and faintly rude-sounding term. ‘What can she be talking about?’ I hear you cry. Well, fear not. It is my mission to educate you. It’s not a celebrity, it’s not a band, it is, in fact, a sandwich (although by the end of this piece, you'll be forgiven for assuming otherwise). But this is no ordinary sandwich, this is the King of sandwiches. I am a fully fledged member of the fan club, a bona fide member of the Muffuletta mafia. I first learnt of The King when, on my plane from Mexico to Boston, I picked up the in-flight magazine and read the finest piece of food writing I’ve ever clapped eyes upon. This was three whole pages dedicated to full-blown, unapologetic nosh-centric nostalgia: one woman’s life-long obsession with a sandwich which hails from hungry Sicilian farmers in New Orleans.

I’m always keen for a good bit of food porn, but this was obscene! This had me drooling in my plane seat (much to my neighbour’s alarm). I wanted one. I wanted one now, and the plastic-wrapped anaemic plane fare just didn’t cut it. Sadly there was no other choice, and I had to snap myself out of my wistful reveries of floating sandwiches, garlicky salami, a parade of cheesy characters, and a cascade of olive salad. I resolved one day to experience first hand the object of this wonderful writer’s obsession.

Fast forward a couple of months, and I was soon to experience the real deal – no impersonations for me! This was Monster Meat Mania in Mornington Crescent. It was a weekend was crammed full of food odyssies, from Marmite tasting, to Muffuletta with Malcolm Monteiro (I know, I know, I couldn’t have asked for more perfect alliteration, but honestly it wasn’t planned!). My dear friend Malcs - undoubtedly feeling pity for me jangling around a great big house all on my lonesome in Surrey, away from civilisation and elbow deep in job applications - sent me the newsletter from EatDrinkTalk, a marvellous cook school in London, run by UrbanJunkies contributor and chef, Jennifer. A quick scan down the list of recipes and I instantly clocked the Muffuletta. Amused of the coincidence, I told Malcolm about the aforementioned ode to sandwichdom. Ever the host, he invited me up to London for a Sunday sarnie-fest. I was hungry already (which really was just as well, I warn all makers now that you really need to have prepped your stomach for the onslaught of sheer protein power – forgo breakfast, as well as all of the previous day’s meals).

I’m not sure if I’ve ever travelled 2.5 hours (hideous Sunday traffic, and a poor little car heaving three grown women up the motorway) purely to eat a sandwich. First time for everything. Of course, I wouldn’t just travel miles and miles for a few bits of meat and bread, I was looking forward to seeing my dear friend Malcolm as well… Freezing cold, I entered the fug of his little one-bedroom den in great anticipation, only just managing to stop myself licking my lips and salivating onto his lovely sofa set. Quite the closet foodie, he had already risen admirably to the challenge of assembling the ingredients – obscene, and I really do mean OBSCENE, quantities of meat (salami, parma ham, cooked ham) per head, mozzarella, provolone, ciabatta and various bits and bobs for the olive salad. We rolled up our sleeves, divvied up the tasks, and got going.

The below recipe is taken from Jennifer from EDT’s newsletter:

The key to a good muffuletta is to combine a mix of cooked ham, cured ham and salami. If you have the willpower to wait 2-3 hours after making your sandwich while it is 'pressed' under something heavy, you'll be rewarded with a slightly better flavour as the pressing helps the olive salad permeate the bread and surrounding layers. Lesser-mortals however, can eat it straightaway.

Makes 2 ENORMOUS sandwiches

1 large ciabatta or other Italian round white loaf, sliced in half widthwise and lengthwise to make 2 sandwich tops and bottoms
150 grams porchetta or other cooked Italian charcuterie like prosciutto cotto
150 grams prosciutto or other cured Italian ham like lonza or speck
150 grams salami
1 ball of buffalo mozzarella, drained and patted dry with kitchen roll
several slices of provolone cheese

Olive Salad
1/4 head of cauliflower
150 grams juicy green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
200 mls extra virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, minced
small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp of chile flakes, or more to taste
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper


To make the olive salad, trim the cauliflower into fine florets (they should be very small) and place them in a pot of salted, boiling water for 5 minutes or until tender but still crisp. Drain the cauliflower and place in a small mixing bowl with the olives.

Mix together the remaining salad ingredients and pour them over the cauliflower-olive mixture while the cauliflower is still warm. Season generously with salt and pepper and toss well to coat the salad in the mixture. Set aside at room temperature.

Using your hands, hollow out the insides of each bread half. Brush the insides of the top halves with some of the oil from the olive salad and fill the bottom half with the olive salad. Lay the meat and cheese one variety at a time over the olive salad so that it forms layers and cover with the top half of the bread.

If eating right away, press down firmly on the sandwich to help it keep its shape and then slice each sandwich in half. If eating later, wrap each sandwich tightly in cling film and press down firmly. Place the sandwiches on a baking tray or roasting dish and cover with heavy books or other objects to act as weights.

Place the sandwiches in the fridge under the weights and chill until ready to eat. The pressing will help the olive salad to permeate the bread and the sandwich layers.

To serve, remove the cling film and cut each sandwich into halves.

Note the lesser mortals comment. Malcs and I fall firmly into that category. By the time we had made up the sandwiches it was 3pm and we were both ravenous post-Saturday night outs. I think we managed to restrain ourselves for a full 45 minutes, before doing some jaw stretches, and getting our chops around the monstrosity that was the Muffuletta.

It was well worth the wait, and the effort, although I’m not sure if I will be cruel enough to put my poor tum through that sort of digestive effort again. The ciabatta - at once crispy, and with what little dough was left soaked in the tangy lemon-garlic juices of the crunchy, flavoursome olive/cauliflower salad - was the perfect bodyguard for the sought after celebrity protein tucked (or should I say crammed) inside. Garlic was undeniably one of the biggest players throughout, pungent, spicy and raw in the olive salad, mellower but just as boisterous in the thin, meaty salami slices. A chewy, flavoursome duo of cooked and smoked hams jostled their way in, desperate for a bit of the glory. The more delicate cheeses – Lady Mozzarella and wafer thin Provolone – minced and pouted in the background, serving as the girly relief to the testosterone-filled meat. Nevertheless they made their presence known, salty and tender. All in all it was quite a spectacular, star-studded show. Well worth the eager anticipation, and almost worth hanging around afterwards for an autograph. Except, post show, and after leaving some time for moans, groans, and belly rubs, I callously left the stars to do their thing – all that attention was going to their heads. Instead I wafted strong garlic fumes onto the tube and the train home to Surrey. Pity my poor fellow passengers.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Practising Patriotism: Marmite vs. Vegemite Blind Tasting

The time for talking was through. An ongoing argument had to be settled. Travelling through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize with an Australian boy and two other British girls for over a month, conversation inevitably turned to the merits of Marmite vs. Vegemite. The debate got rather heated. This was no ‘love it or hate it’ argument, this was strictly love marmite, love vegemite.

I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly patriotic, and yet for some reason when people I barely know insult British food – particularly when they have absolutely no experience of it whatsoever – I’ve been known to get quite vocal (or rather, more vocal). When my Ecuadorian family on my gap year tried to tell me that ‘all your food comes from tins’ (er, wot?), or when some Japanese I met with decried British food as appalling – each time I set about firmly proving to them that whilst yes, if you just stop anywhere in the UK you won’t necessarily be treated to gourmet fare, not all British food is repulsive. My mother for one cooks glorious British dishes (roasts, pies and puddings, stews, not to mention the soups), there are hundreds of stellar gastropubs around and about, if you know where to find them, and things have been looking up since the war-time rationing of spam and powdered egg.

So the Marmite vs. Vegemite debate was yet another juicy argument I could sink my teeth into. Back safe and sound in our glorious homeland, and almost a month after saying our goodbyes, the three English lasses gathered at my home in Surrey, where we carried out a rigorous and, surprisingly even to us, entirely unbiased taste test. The results were quite, quite fascinating.

Ellie and Lauren were up first – with each donning a blindfold and being handed a random piece of toast with one or other of either Marmite or Vegemite spread. Lauren’s responses were swift and unequivocal – marmite was tangy and satisfying, vegemite was strangely stale, with and overwhelming yeast taste. There was not a moment of hesitation. Ellie, going second, nearly let the side down, umming and ahhing for a while. This, however, was before she tasted the second toast (Vegemite), whereupon she firmly laid down her – marmite was salty and satisfying, vegemite tasted like it had gone off. The results were duly recorded.

The moment of truth – my tasting – was filmed for prosterity. I have to say, the film has had me in fits of giggles since. It is 100% straight-down-the-line tasting. No cheating. Blindfolded, I readied myself for the onslaught of tastes, genuinely unsure what to expect. At the first taste of salty flavoured toast, I was momentarily floored, riddled with self-doubt. Until the aftertaste hit me...and I realised that this wasn’t the good old marmite I’d grown up with and loved. It was an imposter. The aftertaste was cloying, musty and clogged the tastebuds. Lauren and Ellie were right, it tasted slightly off. Ugh. I cleansed my palette with a handy glass of water, ready for the genuine article. The marmite-laden toast was sumptuous and, mixed with the rich, creamy butter, was delicious salty succulence on my tongue. I was taken straight back to my eight year old self being fed an afternoon snack of buttery soldiers glistening with this odd, black gooey concoction.

The Marmite website perfectly describes my feelings for this innocuous-looking, yet intensely flavoured spread: 'Eat Marmite? You don't just want to eat it, you want to bathe in it, wallow in it like a hippo in mud, slather yourself from head to toe and wrap yourself in bread and butter... And you know what? That's fine. Just fine. Completely normal in fact...' Thank goodness. At last some actual written proof that I am normal.

There is no doubt about it, Marmite and Vegemite may come from a similar source (the yeasty residue that comes from the beer-making process), and they may each be as odd a concept as the other, but for this British girl there is no doubting the superior: my mate, Marmite.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I do.......................enjoy a good piece of wedding cake.

I hit a terrifying landmark in my life this weekend. My friends have now started to get married. I am ‘of the age’. Good grief, how it creeps up on you. I swear it was only a few years ago that I was on my very first dinner date when, aged one, my first boyfriend Theodore and I shared a toilet freshener between us. That hospital trip with our mothers was so romantic. So how is it that my cronies have started to get hitched?! Spot the girl in denial.

A big bunch of us headed back up to Cambridge on an astonishingly glorious Saturday, to tread once again on Queens' College's neat lawns. We may have been reliving our days as sleep-deprived, responsibility-free students but the harsh reality was that we were about to become grown ups! Still, I may sound like the cynical old bag but, and don’t tell too many people this, even hard-hearted old me welled up when the vows were said, and the rings exchanged. I really enjoyed my very first wedding! I sang my heart out during all the hymns (my neighbours may not have enjoyed this quite as much), and listened carefully to every word the vicar had to say. It wasn't just me getting emotional either - a few of the boys were spotted getting a little, shall we say, ‘soggy’ round the eyes as James and Katy, who have been together since freshers’ week seven years ago, became Mr and Mrs Adams.

Of course there’s nothing like a marriage ceremony to make you ponder life, love, and…food. Having not eaten since I left London very early that morning, by the mid-afternoon sermon my tum was whinging like a toddler on the verge of a rather nasty tantrum. The roars, gurgles and growls sang almost as loudly as I did during the hymns, but then it was time for the serious stuff. I begged and pleaded with it to keep itself under control - these were the wedding vows for goodness’ sake! My stomach rumbles echoing around the church would be almost as taboo as a phone going off. I held my breath. And we made it. Just.

Post church service, I hit the tea and biscuits stands, hard. I gulped down the caffeine gratefully, and filled my poor - and by now sobbing - belly with a couple of crumbly biccies. Then the alcohol was brought in stage left. My hunch is that the large stash of bubbly, not to mention wedding cakes and reception dinners, are a deliberate and dastardly ploy to keep your mind off the truth. Of course it worked for a bit. Nothing like the joy of champagne bubbles flitting across one’s tongue and flirting with one’s tonsils, and the accompanying inebriation thrilling through one’s veins, to ensure that one’s hungry tummy, and one’s fast-approaching age and responsibility, is at least temporarily forgotten.

Dinner was not too far round the corner, and we were treated to Queens’ College’s finest dining pleasures, in the very beautiful, and very old, Old Hall. When Queens’ caters, it really goes for it. Delicious whisps of smoked salmon with capers, blinis and sour cream followed by a succulent and tasty tiny Roast poussin with steamed veg. Dessert, a splendid sticky toffee pudding, gave my own version a run for its money - though, Queens’, I’ll take you on any time, you just say the word. Wine by this time was a-flowin’, and the very striking, three-tiered, multi-flavoured wedding cake was cut with a flourish. By an officer’s sword no less (Doug, the officer in the crowd, will no doubt be receiving more wedding invitations than his sword will be able to cope with). The wedding cake was a triumph – baked by Clarice, one of our own domestic goddesses! I opted for the vanilla flavoured piece, smothered, like the other flavours, with a vanilla meringue icing which was fluffy and terribly more-ish. So I tested out the chocolate layer, just for good measure…

It was only the next morning, post party and with the old gang polishing off an alarming mountain of sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, toast and tea, that I realised we’d momentarily had the wool pulled over our eyes. But you can’t fool me – no amount of feasting and merry-making could disguise what was really going on. I will blame the Adamses for what will no doubt be a knock-on effect. Bets are already on as to the next lot to get hitched. For wedding no.2, however, I’ll be better prepared, and have a snack to hand for the ceremony.