Love and First Bites

when a food philistine fell for a culinary connoisseur and the education that followed…

Keep calm and curry on

I was over ambitious this weekend.  I ran before I could walk and smashed, crashed and trashed the kitchen.  Thankfully Mr H. was out.  Instead my cookery guinea pigs were two old school friends.  One had crossed half the country on rail replacement buses, to eat my food.  More fool her, I may have thought.  She is well aware of my culinary failures and knows me as the fussy eater who can barely put two slices of bread around a filling and call it a sandwich.   But I was determined to make her train battle worth it.  As back up I had plenty of gin to wash away taste and memories of any failures.

I turned to the reliable magic of Madhur Jaffrey.  We have two books sat on our shelves written by the Indian master.  Both packed with more spells and wizardry than a whole library at Hogwarts.  One is her Ultimate Curry Bible.  The other is called Curry Easy.  No prizes for guessing which one belongs to Mr H. and which is mine.  Armed with the elementary version and some sticky tabs I marked out more recipes than I could cook in a month, let alone fit on our kitchen table.

I cheated and rustled up a Kerala chicken curry and a punchy chutney the week before and froze them, but got my come-up-ants when I forgot to take this out of the freezer until midday on d-day.  Without a microwave defrost button to hand, I had to confess my mistake to my friends when they arrived late afternoon to a kitchen covered in little tuperware pots of chicken desperately trying to defrost. 

Luckily, considering my error, to me Indian food is all about the selection.  There should be a rainbow of different vegetables relegating the meat to a side dish and second thought.  We had purple aubergines in a North South Sauce, a kind of simmered down stock packed with spices.  Green beans stir fried in cumin, mustard and sesame seeds.  Some more indulgent lightly fried potatoes.  And Dal packed with refreshing coriander to really lift it.

And here is the other beauty.  The price.  Your first attempt at Indian there is an endless shopping list of unpronounceable spices.  But these are assets with an excellent ROI.  Just a pinch of these magical flavours will transform the humble potato, recession-friendly lentil or poor unloved carrot into the richest dish, fit for a king.

And the sundries are key.  I bought naan, popadoms, mango chutney and lime pickle. But I whizzed up some mint, almonds, peppers, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and dill to make the chutney.  Some yoghurt with cumin, tomatoes, cucumber and seasoning made an excellent mint raita.  Although I the key, title ingredient got left out in the rush. 

But who knew mint raita could taste so good without the mint. I did say Jaffrey is a genius, her recipes even foresee for my errors!

Delia Delights

I’d forgotten about Delia Smith.  Which is sad because she is an old friend.  In as much as you can be friends with someone you have never met through their books.  Even when I had no interest in food, when I was forced to prepare something she would jump to the rescue.  Unforgiving that I had neglected her for so long.  Unforgiving that our friendship was inconsistent.  Unforgiving that it was entirely one-way. 

She was always there. 

From those battered pages of my mother’s book, held together with a slacking elastic band, she would take me under her wing.  Without judgement she would describe exactly what I had to do, in easy simple words, crystal clear to the cooking dunce.

But then after all this benevolence I would show gratitude by dumping her back on the shelf until the next rare occasion that I needed to cook.

That was when I lived with my parents.  Now I am ashamed to say I don’t even own a Delia myself.  I have piles cookery book that are more photo albums, travel journals or poetry books.  They are coffee table books with the odd recipe slipped in amongst all the fanciful art.  Creating food has become trendy and sensual.  A cookery book is no longer something you cover in sticky fingers or bend the spine viciously with one arm to keep it open, while you juggle a mixing bowl in the other.  Instead it is now something you curl up with in a designer hammock among waving daffodils, or lie sprawled across a chaise longue absorbing.   

As a sucker for a description I have fallen foul of these pseudo cookery books.  Their  fluffy words have persaded me to make a dish devoid of flavour or one with pages of obscure ingredients that take a week’s sourcing and a month’s salary. 

I do often go to Delia’s website , but it’s to convert American cups to British ounces http://www.deliaonline.com/conversion-tables.html .  

However when I decided to make the fridge staple of Lasagne, Delia was calling. 

I was expecting something good, something fail safe, something that even I couldn’t get wrong.  What I didn’t anticipate was something this good.

http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/italian/pasta/lasagne-al-forno.html

I put it down to the chicken livers.  This was a new experience for me and the preparation was not altogether a pleasurable one.   Little balls of flesh stick to your hands and under your finger nails in a fairy liquid defying way.  But the taste is worth it.  It adds a wonderful, powerful richness to the slow cooked mince.  Combined with the pasta and cream sauce, the final product is a dreamy silky dish, with the perfect amount of comforting stodge and mind blowing flavour mixed in.  Plus there are plenty of those chewy, crispy edges for everyone to fight over.   

As for the chicken livers, I hadn’t had to trek across London and they were cheap.  My local Asda had three times what I needed for a pound.

And what to do with the remains?

Mr H expertly fried them in a bit of garlic, then whizzed them up in the blender with some melted butter, a splash of cream and a dribble of port.  Et voila, Chicken liver pâté.  Simple.  And from what I could tell from the blissful expression on his face (I am yet to find my inner liver pâté lover), divinely good scooped warm from the blender using toast as your utensil.

So here’s to Delia, thanks for your patience and I promise to pay you more attention in the future!

Pho: Amusing pun to come…when I learn how to pronounce it

It’s never good when your meal resembles an episode of CSI.  There was meat everywhere, splintered bones, greasy finger prints smeared across the table cloth.  I even had sauce on my nose-what a waste!

When trying new cuisine it is always advisable, not only to learn the pronunciation of the dish you have been eyeing up on the online menu, but also to arrive late. 

This way you can follow the regulars’ lead on table manners.  And if this fails, when your quail starter morphs into a murder scene you can hide among the crowd of contented diners .

We had arrived at Mien Tay early.  Its popularity is well documented across the internet and our angrily rumbling bellies would not have taken well to disappointment.  We were among the first and had no one to look to for eating etiquette.

The starters came.  First up, tender quail with a punchy sticky sauce. This was a job for our hands.  Lancing it with a chopstick seemed even more dangerous.  Chaos still ensued, but the finger licking was worth it. 

Frustratingly, towards the end of our second course a Vietnamese woman sat on the table next to us.  The quail, along with a selection of knowledgably chosen starters, appeared in front of her.  We willed her to tuck in and show us how it is done.  But despite clinging to our table longer than it was polite, she did not.  Clearly leaving the best to last.

Second starter, the papaya salad was wolfed down with far more ease, but no less pleasure. 

Our beef pho arrived before we had finished the first course.  A gentle nudge to stop us publically massacring the poor quail perhaps?

I had never thought it possible for something mellow to smack you round the face and leave you speechless.  I was proved wrong.  The taste was quite remarkable and entirely unexpected.  A contrast to the spicy starters. This was deeply comforting.  The onesie of Vietnamese cuisine.  It warmed me from head to toe with cosy memories in a way I never dreamed a new food could.

But it was not to be underestimated.  Warm fuzzy feelings aside, it was powerful and complex.  Shockingly so for something that resembled a thin watery consommé.  Just a sip had all the richness of a whole joint of perfectly cooked roast beef.  Taste and textures played havoc with my mind, while flavours made love to my stomach.

For this dish we successfully played Sherlock on the other diners.  It seems you take chopsticks in right hand, to put the bean sprouts, coriander, chillies and basil into the steaming pho, and later lift the meat and noodles out.  The spoon in your left hand  ladles up that wonderful soupy elixir.

The theatre is wonderful.  We just need to work on dealing with those quails…but as they say practice makes perfect.  And I am more than happy to put in the training at Mien Tay.

<a href=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/52/1481340/restaurant/London/Battersea/Mien-Tay-Wandsworth”><img alt=”Mien Tay on Urbanspoon” src=”http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/logo/1481340/minilogo.gif” style=”border:none;width:104px;height:15px” /></a>

Try it yourself:

http://www.mientay.co.uk/

Feliz Ano Nuevo

The New Year arrived, or to be more accurate 2011 ended, with a Latin flavour, a messy kitchen and a lot of chocolate.

We were invited to a Mexican themed dinner and had the tricky task of producing an appropriate dessert.  Fajitas, Burritos, Tacos, the country certainly packs a powerful punch when it comes to savoury courses.  But sweets? I was stumped.  And as when it comes to desserts Mr H’s kitchen competencies fall as flat as a cold soufflé, it was up to me to rise to the challenge.

I picked the brains of a colleague who had lived there for a year, emails flew across the Atlantic to family in the tex-mex loving States.  Plenty of ideas came flooding back, but no one seemed to have a trusted recipe.  So I planned a team of deserts in the hope the one might hit a home run.

Like today’s Chocoholics, the Aztecs and Mayans deemed cocoa sacred.  So it was only right that it should an integral part of a Mexican dessert selection. 

I once worked with a chef who swore that chocolate was the key ingredient in chilli so I decided to try it the other way and made Sam Stern’s Chilli-Chocolate Orange cake http://tinyurl.com/4th3rl  .  Go for the bitter icing and team it with cream, lightly whipped with a pinch of cinnamon.   It was rich, moist and not for the faint hearted.  Those Mesoamerican chocoholics would have approved. 

For something a little lighter (it was after all only a matter of days since I removed myself from my parents cheese platter, and that was only because the return to work forced me to put 100 miles between me and the oozing brie) I opted for chocolate meringues. Now I am a sucker for a descriptive recipe and the one in my Aunt’s recipe book claimed the name Suspiros came from the contented sighs of the nuns who made them.  Unfortunately words exceeded the reality.  The chocolate sat bitterly in the centre where chewy, swirls of sticky meringue should have been.  A recipe to be reworked…watch this space.

The unexpected champion of the Mexican medley was the wedding cakes http://tinyurl.com/6367st .  These are in fact crumbly, melty, shortbread-like biscuits rolled in drifts of snowy icing sugar. 

In the end, as is the problem with New Year, the margaritas were the real winners of the night and food became a hazy afterthought.  But the array of leftovers has proved the perfect annectote to a 1st January sore head. 

So the verdict on Mexican deserts…no hay problema!  Now where are those paracetamols…

Learning to love lamb

Lamb has always been a sticking point in my education.  As an ex-vegetarian, the transformation from Quorn to chicken was an easy one.  Textures are similar and with a bit more attention to food poisoning the cooking process is much the same.  Mycoprotein also puts in a good effort masquerading as red meat.  So without too many battles Mr H. had me eating sausages, mince and roast beef. 

The same can not be said for lamb. Yes there has been the occasional taste of Mr Hospitality’s dishes.  And times when as a guest I have politely eaten it. But I can’t seem to get past the powerful taste, strong and ever so slightly tainted by images of frolicking bundles of wool in springtime.

This weekend an unmistakable rich smell was wafting through the flat.  Mr H had lamb shanks on the go.  Slowly bubbling away for 3 hours in sweet gravy of ale, raisins, rosemary and marmalade (inspired by a Jamie Oliver recipe http://tinyurl.com/dynrheh), I can’t say I was excited. 

I was to be surprised.  The meat was tender, juicy and slipped off the bone more easily than clothes at a strip club.  It was a beautiful dish.  The embodiment of something truly British.  Executed with aplomb. 

Did I like it?  More than I thought.

Did I finish it? Not exactly. 

There are some foods where you are willing to sacrifice a few notches on your belt.  Dishes that are so divine that you ignore your full stomach groaning with greed.   Courses that tastes so good that you power through the pain.  

This was not one of them. 

I did, however, go back for more gravy which packed serious lamby punch.  Small steps.  The process from enduring to enjoying it is not always immediate, so watch this space.

Mulling over the red stuff

December has arrived and so has my first mulled wine of the season.  The heady warm spiced aroma transports me back to various Ghosts of Christmases past quicker than you can say Ebenezer Scrooge.  Most are pleasant: boxing day races, vin chaud on slope side cafes, country pubs, friends, family and warm bellies.  

Some are less than pleasant.

As a student I once let my German neighbours hold a Gluhwein party in my halls room. It was so thick and pungent with cloves, citrus and raisins that after filtering a couple of glasses through the gap in my front teeth I moved onto something easier, and regrettably stronger.  Awaking the next morning to floors and walls coated with sticky red mush was no comfort to my raging hangover.

This weekend was a rather more civilized event.  A warm flat, steamed up wine glasses and a distinct smell of Christmas.  Like any good house party punch bowl the strength varied through the night.  Additional bottles went in, too much alcohol boiled off, whisky was added and more cloves spiced up the mix. 

Although a welcome introduction to the festive season, the main problem was the comfortable setting.  When it comes to mulled wine, vin chaud or whatever you call it there is no doubt that it tastes best drunk out of a plastic cupwedged between mittens outside on a freezing winters day.

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