And now for how it played out… We found the venue without a problem and following a buzzer-related mistake, which led to a brief encounter with a confused neighbor, managed to track down Miss Seasonal Dinner Parties in her beautiful, spacious North London flat.
The fun began as soon as Miss SDP herself opened the door. We were welcomed with our aperitif – iced tea laced with more whisky that is perhaps wise for a Wednesday evening and a dash of bitters to finish. This heady concoction is definitely not one for the faint-hearted, but the iced tea had a wonderfully calming effect on the harsh kick of the spirit.
The mahogany table nestled in the huge bay window was already set for our cosy culinary adventure, complete with an oriental lantern centrepiece. Soft lighting and the mellow strains of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday completed the scene. After the welcome drinks had done their work and the cork was popped on our first bottle of bubbly, we took our seats and were served an amuse bouche as pretty as a picture – paper-thin shards of asparagus drizzled with lemon dressing and a sprinkling of pea flowers. I’d never tried raw asparagus before and this delicious dish had me wondering why I hadn't. The zesty dressing spiked with punchy pink peppercorns and a sweet note of mint honey brought vibrancy to the dish, but without overpowering the fresh, almost cleansing quality of the raw asparagus. It was a perfect pairing for our sherbety fizz. It lasted about 30 seconds.
Next up was the starter. The piquant ceviche featured delicate bream, buttery avocado and fragrant coriander. It was served in chicory boats, which added a satisfying crunch and background bitterness. And the raw rhubarb I hear you ask? Worked a treat.
We then enjoyed a welcome little break while our hostess prepared the main course and we moved on from bubbles to white or red, depending on our preferred poison, while reflecting on our own gastronomic good fortune so far. The main dish when it arrived took us from the spice and zing of sashimi and ceviche down a more traditional route – well, at first glance at least. Velveted turkey and sprouting broccoli were piled atop a silky smooth cauliflower purée packed with pungent garlic and finished with a morel mushroom sauce. Delve a little deeper though and Miss SDP’s trademark twists start to surface. The morel mushroom sauce benefitted from a sweet hit of orange zest and chilli jam, which was in turn undercut by an unexpected, but not unwelcome, wasabi warmth. Mustn’t forget that drizzle of truffle oil either, which lent an ever so subtle overall muskiness. Jersey crisps and wild garlic were more than just pretty garnishes, adding both flavour and texture. I devoured this with the Kosi Bay Sauvignon Blanc, a tart white with topical fruit flavours and a crisp finish that cut through the creaminess of the cauliflower purée and velveted poultry. The red drinkers opted for the Tempranillo. For those not familiar with the term ‘velveting’ by the way, it refers to a tenderising process commonly used in Chinese cooking whereby poultry is marinated in cornflour, egg white and something acidic like sherry or Chinese cooking wine. This is designed to prevent the meat from drying out during cooking, giving it a silky texture and it certainly served its purpose here with our flash-fried strips of turkey breast.
Now for the palate cleanser. I must own to not being the world’s biggest fan of rose – to me, that level of perfume is for skin, not stomach – but this little number was a Turkish Delight lover’s dream. A shot of seductively wobbly soft-set rose jelly studded with crunchy pomegranate seeds and finished with a smattering of dried rose petals. It was delicate, light and fragrant.
Our final course was a beautifully executed espresso mousse finished off with a touch of warming nutmeg. It was rich, unctuous and if anything is going to turn me into a coffee addict, this is. And then, all too soon, we had come to the end of our soirée. And what a soirée it was. I left feeling elated and it wasn’t just the effects of the booze...
More mushrooms please
25th January 2015
Forget flowers, just bring me mushrooms
For anyone who knows me even a little bit, this post won't come as a shock. I am a big fan of mushrooms – huge, in fact. Any types, raw, baked and stewed, a good squiggy mushroom soaking up all the flavours is all I need on a menu to make me happy. And the more unusual the better; I don't care about the almost inevitable bit of dirt and even eat the weird and wonderful looking fungus chicken o' the wood. I know.
It all started looking for puff balls with my mum, gran and cousin on the land by the sewage weir (see, nothing puts me off) in Worcester when I was 7 or 8 years old. We would do it every year, then cook up our findings that night. Puff balls are miraculous when you find them – huge and pure white, they are sturdy to cook with too and great just fried in butter with a cooked breakfast. Anyway, as I went about my working life and a trip to Leckford Mushroom Farm, which supplies Waitrose with its perfect little button mushrooms, grown in traditional darkened sheds in Hampshire, followed by many outings to the mushroom-packed grotto at New Covent Garden Market's Mushroom Man, where you can find every wild and cultivated mushroom throughout the year, helped develop the obsession. Recently, a good uni friend questioned me not answering her tweet – asked if it was definitely me. She said, "it's you: it's all about mushrooms and feminism". I am taking this as a good thing.
So, when the Mushroom Bureau's Just Add Mushrooms campaign put on a mushroom masterclass with the very experienced food writer, recipe developer and food stylist, Sue Ashworth at cookery school L’Atelier des Chefs, I was there in a second. Ashworth is the hands behind all the Weight Watchers' recipes and puts health first, but says there is no need to cut out foods (apart from reducing your red meat intake) as long as you eat often and well but don't overindulge. "Eat food; mainly plants and not too often," she told us, as she passed round punnets of closed-cup, chestnut, button and Portobello mushrooms picked on a farm in Shropshire that day. We set about cleaning them with our new nifty mushroom-shaped brushes (of which mine, I now have a habit of leaving in the fridge to confuse everyone, including me). Mushrooms are terribly absorbent, so washing them in water will affect how they taste, look and the way they are cooked later.
It was great having them that fresh, which has actually pushed me to another mushroom level (I'll come to that later), and the fresher they are the more of those perk-you-up B2, B3 and B5 vitamins you're going to get out of them. Then we set about making some ridiculously low-fat and quick 15-minute Mushroom, Garlic and Parsley Soup (also tasted great – not always a given with these things) and Oven-baked Cod on Hot Mushroom Salsa.
The Just Add Mushrooms campaign is concentrating on the types closed-cup, chestnut, button and Portobello, because they are the mushrooms mainly grown in the UK, and therefore by the Mushroom Bureau members (one day, I must be part of this almost spy-sounding venture). It seems a shame to me to miss out many of the 50 or so wild and cultivated mushrooms there are out there, to concentrate on what I would call the very run-of-the-mill types. But, according to the campaign's research (of 1,000 people), despite consuming more than 121,000 tonnes a year here, over a third of people can't tell the even basic mushrooms apart. Also, only half of women surveyed and nearly two thirds of men didn’t know that mushrooms count as one of your five a day and almost one in ten believed mushrooms cannot be eaten raw. I guess, until there's a demand for more interesting mushrooms, the likes of the very puff-ball like king oyster (pictured, right, griddled with pink peppercorns and drizzled with white truffle oil) or wild trompettes, the UK producers won't put money into getting them on the shelves. If you are lucky enough to have access to a wholesaler like Mushroom Man or a well-stocked food market, like Borough, the possibilities are endless and all mushrooms are as healthy as the next. But if you're not that lucky, there are ways around it.
Inspired by the freshness of the Shropshire mushrooms, I got onto Sutton's Seeds and ordered a mushroom growing set (about £10 each) for both shiitake and pink oyster mushrooms. I've already had my first crop of shiitake and expect 4-5 more batches, whilst the oysters have been camping out in my bathroom (concealed), as they need a little more incubation. There are lots of companies supplying all sorts of mushroom growing kits – some even in coffee substrate. My next adventure.
In the meantime, this is a healthy but full-of-flavour mushroom recipe to beat those January blues...
Ready in 10 minutes
1 Portabello mushroom
150g fresh spinach
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1-2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (depending on how much you love it)
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Heat a griddle or saucepan until it's very hot on the hob then add the mushroom, cap-side up. Cook for 1 minute, then turn over and sprinkle the mushroom with 1 tsp of cold water. Cook for 2 minutes. Coat the spinach in the lemon juice and nutmeg, in a bowl.
Add the spinach mixture to the mushroom top, and add 1 tbsp of cold water to the pan. Cover with a pan lid. Cook for 3 mins, until the spinach wilts and poach your egg in the meantime in a pan of boiling water until cooked to your liking. Transfer the mushroom to a plate and place the well-drained poached egg on top. Sprinkle with nutmeg and lemon zest, then season with salt and pepper. Serve.
Welcome the year of the buffalo
23rd Dec 2014
News just in: Waitrose is now selling Laverstoke Park Farm's buffalo Brie. I know - just in time for Christmas; when eating as much cheese as your little body can take, even after consuming a three-course meal akin to your usual weekly food intake* is absolutely fine. It’s all very exciting. And the beautiful (it is; it is!) Brie comes in a handy little 100g (£2.39) – all ready for that important cheese board offering.
From the same people who make the creamy-yet-sour buffalo mozzarella you can also get in delis and Waitrose, the Brie is the brainchild of ex-Formula One driver Jody Scheckter, who has become chums with BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show and puts on various events with them, like Car Fest, etc, so that might be where you have heard of him. Scheckter keeps buffalos as part of a biodynamic farm in Hampshire, which basically follows the cycles of the moon to adhere to an organic, holistic ideal, by the way. I went there, once, for a lecture on soil tea compost. They roasted a goat on a spit for us for lunch, which made things better. Anyway, forget the compost, the latest buffalo cheese is a real treat.
Made with organic buffalo milk, this Brie doesn’t have to come up to room temperature for that ripe, soft creaminess Brie fans will love, although it does get even better after being left out the fridge for a bit. It’s kind of named ‘Too good to be called Brie’, which is pretty insulting to all other Brie, but on tasting it, I do get it. It’s quite different. It has that strong, almost woody element the buffalo mozzarella has and each round seems a little different in appearance, in a pleasing artisan way. The rind is moist and on the thin side (suiting me just fine) and doesn’t overpower the creamy cheese inside.
There’s a drink out there for every cheese, but I think this one has two (a bit naughty, but it is Christmas). I first tried it with a little tipple of the last of my Sipsmith Sloe Gin 2012 (£25; 50cl; 29% ABV) – a delightfully sweet and sour sloe gin that is really smooth and isn’t too sickly, and was made by one of the first independent gin houses created in London for 200 years. The gin complements the sweet nature of the brie, whereas, on the other hand, pale ale Badger’s Fursty Ferret (£1.99; 500ml; 4.4%) really brings out the sourness of the rind and it’s good to have a bit of fizz to breakthrough the rich creaminess.
In a similar manner to goat’s cheese and milk, buffalo products have that extra earthy element, so I decided to complement that by pairing the Brie with beetroot. It’s always good to have a quick and easy (yet impressive) canapé handy around Christmas and New Year, so with that in mind, here’s what I came up with. It’s more of an idea than a recipe...
Mini beets & Brie canapés
24 small beetroots, topped and tailed
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
100g Laverstoke Park Farm Buffalo Brie, chopped
2 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
Ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 190C/gas 5. Place the beetroot in a large saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Parboil for 10 mins, then drain. Transfer the beetroot to a large baking tin or a couple or so, and drizzle with the oil. Bake for 20 mins.
Cut a small cross on the top each beetroot and push the corners together to fluff them up, then top each with a square of brie. Sprinkle with pepper and the pink peppercorns and serve immediately.
* This is a comment on social eating standards, not an endorsement to gorge. If you're meant to be on a diet, don't eat all the cheese (you know who you are).
Is it really Christmas?
10th Dec 2014
It’s odd, when you’re a food writer, to discover that Christmas is finally here. It’s 10th December and I’ve suddenly realized that I haven’t opened any of the doors on my chocolate advent calendar – my Sainsbury’s Freefrom Advent calendar, just so you know. To be fair to myself, I was given the advent calendar in July when all the media Christmas shows started (did you think we could just see into the future?), but in a mark against me, it has been right in front of me, on top of the microwave ever since…
Giant snow globes are a lot of fun
It very much feels like I have two Christmases a year, as all the supermarkets and various brands and companies go all out in July to show you what’s going to be on our Christmas shelves come December. Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas (see above; thanks Morrisons) and I am excited; but it began in May for me with some very forward planning recipe development, so it all feels a bit surreal now – and I keep doubting that it properly is proper Christmas. So, after checking and re-checking the date, I thought I'd share a few things I liked.
The main stars this year is set to be game (venison particularly; it's the new duck), whisky (that's the new sherry; but sherry is the new wine) and crab and lobster (picture is Tesco and you buy it frozen) take some of the limelight from smoked salmon, at crazy cheap prices.
First things first: the meat. Once that’s sorted – apart from you’re vegetarian – everything else seems to come together, especially if you are feeding the five thousand this Christmas. Game is definitely on the up for 2015, with Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s introducing permanent fresh meat game lines this autumn just gone. Ironically for all those reindeers flying overtime to deliver our presents, venison is the flavour of the month this December. M&S is offering a Venison Rump with a Pickled Cherry & Red Wine Sauce, but most butchers will be able to order in a rump for you to cook from scratch yourself. My butcher (Kilburn High Road, London) charged about £8 for 500g and I coated it in cracked black pepper and cocoa powder, then seared and roast it, eventually serving it with a Prosecco jelly (one of my latest food obsessions) and deep-fried kale. But, if you’re looking for impressive convenience, Asda’s Extra Special Venison Wellington is one to look out for (paired with cherry again – in the stuffing this time). Or you could go way back to basics and go for M&S's rather startling Aberdeen Angus beef Tomahawk joint (below; allow 5 days when ordering), which wouldn't look out of place on the Flintstone's Christmas table.
Turkey-wise, this year, M&S is doing a limited-edition Devonshire free-range dressed bronze turkey, which has been reared on The White Hills Farm and hung for seven days. Personally, a bronze turkey has been my chosen bird at Christmas for the past couple of years since having a chat with Paul Kelly about his three-generation family farm in Danbury, which has been breeding bronze free-range turkeys for 30 years a slow farming method. The bronze birds are bigger and stronger tasting than the white turkeys we have become accustomed to in the UK, but they do have slightly off-putting black feather nips still in their skin. These can easily be removed once cooked, but do look a little like pine needles, and have the same effect on your mouth. If the cook is on the lookout though, it shouldn’t be a problem. You can order one for home delivery here (and they even delivered in May for this Haywards shoot, below).
Toffee cheese, anyone? Toffee is everywhere this year and quite literally. It's on top of your gammon (Tesco) in your cheese (M&S), and basically the Heston Blumenthal effect is slowly trickling down the gastronomy tiers, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is very much down to individual taste. I love M&S's savoury jelly shots with consist of beetroot jelly, horseradish cream and hot smoked salmon or tomato jelly, ricotta cream and pesto – they look great and are in handy little shot glasses you can hand around and pretend you ordered in, but I have quite a few friends who would be stopped in their tracks calling it an affront to their senses and taste buds...
The Creamy Wensleydale with Christmas Cake Fruits in M&S is also a revelation for fruity cheese fans and would make a really interesting cheesecake, if you can stop nibbling on it. My personal favourites this year are Colston Bassett's stilton and Shropshire Blue (available here), Kentish Blue and Appleby's Cheshire. Sainsbury's is also doing a cute and cheap whole mini mature stilton (above, right), which would look great in a gift basket, as would one of my favourite finds, Ouse Valley Elderflower Gold Jelly, which also looks ace on a plate. As to baked Camembert with toppings, the simplicity of The Co-operative's version with pancetta, introduced last year, still does it for me. You can put one together yourself with these pretty camembert bakers from Lakeland (pictured, below) – or you could just envelope it in baking paper.
It's time for the fish course… Whether it's at breakfast or as a Christmas meal starter, smoked salmon is pretty commonplace now, but as family-run smoked salmon business, Fortman & ield's Lance Forman tells me, there are a lot of cheap copies out there because of that. If your smoked salmon is tasteless and watery, then it may well have been injected with a smoked flavour rather than actually smoked. Go to the East London docks (or online) for Fortman & Field's light, soft and fluffy, delicate smoked salmon – and you can see it all happening in the factory there if you want. There's no flavoured cures or bows to be found, just really good-quality fish, done well. Another great place to look up is the traditional artisan Burren Smokehouse, out in County Clare, Ireland.
In the supermarkets, smoked salmon is getting really fancy, with Asda's Extra Special Buck’s Fizz Smoked Salmon and M&S's Scottish Smoked Black Treacle Cured Salmon, “steeped” in black treacle (pictured) to mention a couple. There are also quite a few whisky-cured smoked salmons around (Morrisons does a nice Scotch one), making for a sweet and smoky pairing.
Cooked whole lobster and lobster tails, as well as crab (pair with Aldi’s white wine Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura), are a standard offering from the supermarkets this year, with Morrisons sporting a particularly impressive fish counter. Of course the most specular fish counter will be at your local fishmonger, which can order most things in if you commit to asking.
Alternatively, if you are looking for something a bit different in your starter, Clonakilty black pudding and white pudding (Waitrose, Tesco and Morrisons) could be for you. Made in Clonakilty, West Cork since 1880, this black pudding has a century of black pudding making behind it. It's light and fluffy, with a real spice kick and fabulous poached. Yes, poached. Just, boil for 15 mins, then cut it out of its sleeve and serve it on a bed of watercress with a mustard and fresh chilli vinaigrette and bread. It's not for everyone, mind – know your Christmas dinner table audience...
Last but absolutely not least… Sherry. A good couple of Sherries at Christmas is essential in my book, and not just mine the sherry pairing book The Perfect Marriage: The Art of Matching Food & Sherry Wines from Jerez (published by Simon & Schuster; buy here) – look up the unlikely deep-fried watercress recipe.
My flatmate and I drink sherry on a daily basis – dry for an aperitif, sweet for after dinner (we pretend it's the 1930s). We couldn't stop drinking this fabulously syrupy, yet refreshing 20-year-aged Fortman & Mason Cream Sherry VOS (£15; 375ml; 18.5% ABV) – it's a real treat for sherry lovers. Although, Morrisons' eight-year-aged Pedro Ximenez was almost as good, yet lighter (£5.99; 375ml; 17% ABV).
More where than came from:
Bought-in nibbles… Asda's Extra Special Steamed Bun Selection – pretty and tasty; red or green Thai marinated chicken filling. Moorish White Bean & Semi Dried Tomato Smoked Dip (Waitrose, Booths, Ocado).
Veggies… Red Brussels sprouts or 'Brusselberry sprouts' grown in Lincolnshire (Asda), a new grape selection from Waitrose with three particularly unknown grapes: Sweet Mayabelle, Sweet Samphire and Sweet Globe. Kale and fennel lines are set to soar, and Morrisons will have salted caramel baby parsnips and some never-seen-before white Chanentay carrots on offer (tasty, but no good for building snowmen, obviously).
Serious charcuterie… Pure iberico breed from Juan Pedro Domecq (Selfridges) is melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Lidl has a slightly less expensive fennel salami in stock and you can find British salami and the likes online at Deli Farm Charcuterie, where its black truffle salami stands out. It also sells cheaper packs of salami “knob ends”, which is great, if only for comic value. In what might be a step too far in a description, Sainsbury's has some 'chestnut-fed' chorizo, this year.
Wines… Delightfully oaky, Hardy’s Eileen Chardonnay (about £20) holds up well to game and turkey – I always feel like it's a red wine hiding in a white wine's body. Aldi is the place to go for interesting and well-priced wines: namely the Malbecs and the Pinot Noir, and The Co-operative has a nicely priced Chilean red, Casillero del Diablo Carmenere 2012, which has a white pepper taste and goes well with smoked salmon and game.
Aperitif... M&S’s completely more-ish Spiced Apple Martini (gone in one night, I’m afraid).
Whisky... Asda is doing a Extra Special Blendy Whisky 25 year old (£30) and 30 year old (£60) – there's only 1,000 bottles throughout the stores though, so keep an eye out. I haven't tried that one, but my favourites at the moment are Glenfiddich Rich Oak (great for cooking with) and the sweeter and vanilla-like Auchentoshan's American Oak, which is good in a hot chocolate and with jelly beans! (All Scotch. Sorry, Dad.)
Beer… O'Hara Irish Red (an amber ale).
Champagne… Champagne Venua Monsigny by Philizot & Fils from Aldi. It's the best Champagne on the block supermarket-wise at the moment and it's £9.99 (12% ABV; whilst stock lasts). A part of its 'buy it while you can' push, Lidl has the lovely Spansh sparkle, Cava Gran Cuvée from Catalonia (11.5% ABV) for £7.49, which tastes of apricots and is crisp and clear enough to go with anything.
Minced pie… Riverside Lifestyle Christmas Mincemeat with Lavender.
Shocking filler… Sainsbury’s Chocolate Scottie Dogs; not sure about the reasoning behind the theme, but they are chunky and satifying and go well with the Spiced apple Martini... And Heston Blumenthal Precision Digital Instant Read Thermometer by Salters at around a tenner (you won;t get if you don't ask...).
What I'd like for Christmas... Make Your Own Marshmallows Kit (Sainsbury's, again).
Book to buy... Well, mine, of course: The Great British Pepper Cookbook. It's very good, honest.
When Marmite and stonefruit collide
12th Feb 2014
Well, you’re in for a treat, really. Let’s start with the important stuff…
To drink: A peach nectarine bellini cocktail, in original Babysham glasses
Mushroom and tofu gyoza, steamed with plum sauce
Plum ‘sushi’ with smoked salmon and wasabi roe (using plum slices as a base instead of bread or biscuits)
Burrata and white nectarine salad
Mini bunny chow with peach curry
Cod with Bengali lime, dill and Georgian Tkemali yellow plum sauce on a bed of plum soba noodles
Cheese: Goat’s cheese, brie and blue with nectarine chutney and Flavour King bubblebum plumfruit leather
Towering stonefruit pavlova
Yellow nectarine tart
Chocolate galette tart
And Purple plum clafoutis
The giraffe's favourite as well
The wine: NV Langlois Brut Crémant, Loire Valley, France; 2011 Reserve Chenin Blanc, Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch; 2010 Chakalaka, Spice Route, Swartland*; 2011 Kika, Miles Mossop, Stellenbosch; 2008 Vin de Constance, Klein Constantia, Constantia*
The setting: Down a very normal-looking, well-turned-out north London street, awaits Ms Marmite Lover’s fabulously kooky supper club set up The Underground Restaurant. The subtle ornate doorbell with only a post-it note indication of the supper club’s existence and the residential house-like exterior make you feel as if you may have got the wrong end of the stick and you’re about to impose on some random family’s dinner, but once the door opens you’re invited into a world the white rabbit would be jealous of.
The guests: A mix of journalists, stonefruit growers and exporters and PRs, including Anna Sbuttoni, Anton Kruger, Gregor Mcmaster, Charlotte Morgan, Leon Smith and Nina Pullman.
Dinner party topics: International women’s day (good or bad thing?); apricots; Nelson Mandela; Marie Antoinette's glass-like breasts; pickled umeboshi plum; Twitter; Ostrich meat; dessert wine; kitchen item hording according to gender (collecting 1930s bread bins is very masculine, apparently...).
Entering the rabbit hole
The best thing about the Underground Restaurant is that
everything – from the menu to the table setting, the décor to the cocktail handed to you as someone takes your coat – is devised by Ms Marmite Lover, aka Kerstin Rodgers (pictured, right).
The supper club chef has opened out the ground floor of her north London home to sit around 20 people for dinner in her spacious, open fire-donned living room, which opens out to an art deco (I think everything is art deco, so don’t quote me) garden patio.
And it’s not just dinner – it’s the whole supper club experience. As Marmite says herself, this is not a Michelin restaurant, it’s a supper club – if you want some more wine, pour yourself some more! My type of host, to be sure.
Just pouring a couple of drinks for myself...
The supper club set out to show us how veratile South African stonefruit are. And, after cocktails and canapés by the fire, it was time to find out where our name places were on the long table, decorated with mismatch candlesticks, goblet glasses, explorer-themed napkins and a wild animal figures (which we were allowed to take home!*) and find out more – all to the backdrop of an eclectic mix of South African and stonefruit-related music.
*Okay, well, that’s what I thought and I came home with three in my bag. Considering it may have been a Chinese whisper now – apologies to Ms Marmite.
Our first course was what Marmite described as “organismic” burrata cheese salad with a tangy sweet and sour combination of white nectarines, almonds, fresh mint and rocket, black and golden sesame seeds, Japanese picked umeboshi plum and umeboshi vinaigrette. Although, thankfully, we didn’t have to witness scenes akin to When Harry Met Sally, it was as good as Marmite intended. In an amalgamation of usual flavours that really worked, the salad’s main draw was the combination of the sharp umeboshi plum and whole burrata ball that had the texture of mozzarella with a rich, sour yoghurt-like cream centre that cascaded out when cut into. Here, any kind of post-Christmas detox hit the dust, thankfully.
In true supper club style, we were all told to keep our plates and cutlery and it went a bit street food, with a mid-course mini bunny chow filled with a peach curry my mum would have been proud of, just to keep our energy levels up.
As the main cod dish was served, my neighbour to the left, South African stonefruit exporter Anton Kruger revealed that not only had he met Nelson Mandela, but spent a whole day with him showing him around his company. In other unrelated Anton information, he also used to export ostrich meat, before stonefruit. Deputy food editor for Asda Magazine, Gregor (sat to my left) seemed intrigued in the possibility of an ostrich Scotch egg (watch out world). The equivalent of 24 hen eggs, it would be a pretty mean feat – and that’s just in the eating… But chat didn’t distract us from the main for long – the cod, firm and fleshy, and the dill and yellow plum sauce, heavy and fragrant, made for a great pairing.
Cheese was then served before dessert – along with delightful-to-behold plum bubblegum fruit rolls and visually spectacular savoury beetroot biscuits, which went particularly well with the creamy rinded goat’s cheese (Waitrose). And then the dessert wine! Now, I may be a little biased, as due to being missed out of the pouring first time round, I received the biggest glass of all, but the dessert wine was absolutely perfect.
Like all of the different bottles on the table, the 2008 Vin de Constance was provided by WineTrust100. It had a warming and sweet apricot taste, and was syrupy without being too thick. It really brought out the flavours of the rich chocolate galette tart, which was made with tonka bean and tangy, acidic yellow plums.
After trying a little of all of the desserts – never fear, I leave no stone unturned – it was time to go, indicated by an applause for a Langlois Brut Crémant bottle-swigging Ms Marmite Lover. Happy, full to the brim and, obviously by this point a little bit pissed, we all left clutching a jar of homemade yellow nectarine chutney and miles of stonefruit inspiration.
Follow... @MsMarmiteLover @SAFruits @WIneTrust100
Stir up Sunday and beyond...
Whether you've been cringing every time a Christmas advert comes on or you've merrily (albeit crazily) put up your tree already, you have to admit that from Stir Up Sunday, the lead up to Christmas is officially here.
It seems to go against everything we've been taught in the kitchen, to keep a cooked pudding mixture for four weeks or more in a dark corner and then happily serve it up to our families. But that's what Christmas is all about, after all - doing all the things we shouldn't (eating and drinking a week's food in a day; horticulture in the living room, etc). The real Christmas message.
However, thankfully, by the time we cook it again and eat it on the big day, the Christmas pudding will be as drunk as most of us, having been 'fed' whichever liquor of choice every week to make it nice and strong.
I'm a big fan of the mini - it's the solution to the Christmas pudding dilemma (to serve or not to serve). Admittedly, it's not groundbreaking as dilemmas go, but in need of attention, if only to stop either mass wastage or poor, little disappointed faces crying: 'But we're not having Christmas pudding?'.
If you make mini Christmas puddings you can cook them to order, serve only the people who want it and offer different kinds of pudding, including an alternative for the tradition-dodgers. I've gone for a Heston-inspired Candied satsuma and cinnamon pud plied with sherry, as well as a Cherry, chocolate and kirsch number. I'm making both of them together for a dinner party, but you could choose to do either one or swap some ingredients to make various different flavours.
Oh, and don't worry if you've missed Stir Up Sunday (24th November this year), you can make them a week or so later, but I'd give it at least a week between the first steam and the second.
Mini candied satsuma and cinnamon & cherry, chocolate and kirsch Christmas puddings
(Takes 3 hours & 15 mins, plus standing overnight, to make 12 puddings)
450ml boiling water
300g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
10 chestnuts, roasted*, shelled and food processed finely
Zest and juice of 1 orange
100g dried cranberries
50g Opies black cherries in kirsch, using 90ml of the Kirsch
100g dried berries and cherries
10 dates, stoned and chopped v finely
1 Bramley apple, cored and grated
2 tsp grated whole nutmeg
130g breadcrumbs (3/4 of a half baton, food processed finely)
150g vegetable suet
150g Fairtrade dark brown soft sugar
100g plain flour
2 tbsp honey
20g piece of fresh root ginger, peeled, half in thin strips**, half grated
6 squares of dark chocolate
12 x 11cm ramekins
2 large, high-rimmed frying pan
In a small saucepan, boil up 400ml of the water, turn the heat to medium and pour in the sugar. Stir continually until the sugar dissolves, adding the cinnamon stick, then keep on a rolling boil until the bubbles take on a slight golden colour. Add the satsumas and turn the heat down to a low-medium bubble. Simmer for 1 hour, turning the satsumas around occasionally and adding 50ml boiling water to the pan halfway through.
After an hour, the syrupy water will have reduced down. Take the satsumas out to cool completely (this will take about half an hour), then boil up in water for 30 mins. Drain and leave to dry, then refrigerate for tomorrow.
Get two, medium-sized bowls, preferably different colours, so it's easier to tell which is which. In the first, put the chestnuts, orange zest and cranberries, and in the second put the black cherries and dried berries and cherries, then divide the dates, apple, raisins and nutmeg equally between the two bowls. Add the sherry to the first bowl and the kirsch to the second and thoroughly mix both with separate wooden spoons. Cover each with cling film and leave overnight, in a dark, cold place.
The next day, in two large bowls, again different colours, divide the breadcrumbs, vegetable suet, dark brown soft sugar, plain flour and honey equally. Add the strips of ginger to one bowl, along with the soaked chestnut mixture, and the grated ginger and the soaked cherry mixture to the Other. Add a beaten egg to each bowl and mix each thoroughly.
Cut the chilled satsumas into three each, then divide the first mixture into six of the ramekins, adding a satsuma piece to middle of each and smoothing down the tops to level. Repeat with the second (cherry) mixture, but add a square of dark chocolate to the centres instead of the satsuma quarters.
Cover each ramekin with foil and divide between the large frying pans with boiling water filled up to just below their tops (keep the different types separate). Simmer, covered, for 2 hours, checking regularly to see if more water is needed. The pan mustn't dry out.
Let the puddings cool, then unwrap and discard the tin foil. Rewrap in clean tin foil and store in a couple of cake tins (again, keep the different types separate).
Grab a glass of sherry. Christmas is officially here.
Each week, carefully unwrap them, pierce the tops a couple of times with a fork and sprinkle 1 tsp of sherry or kirsch over each.
To cook on Christmas Day, steam in the same way as before but for 1 hour. Turn out onto a plate each and serve with Sloe gin cream (recipe to come).
* If you can't find an open fire, roast the chestnuts on a flat tray in an oven set to 200C/gas 6 for 30 mins
** Use a vegetable peeler to get the ginger into fine strips
Spring: Please remember to eat responsibly
There's been quite a few headlines created about pork production and the treatment of pigs just lately. Like a lot of the different sectors or food groups within the food industry in the UK, cheaper and on-the-surface more efficient producers and ways of producing food have be sought outside of the UK. But as we take on the stance of 'out of sight, out of mind' of course issues like animal welfare, sustainability and the upkeep of the local economy and British farmers come back and slap us in our weary faces.
The image they prefer to put on sausage packets
Not a great start to the season
As Spring kick-started, a video emerged of alleged violence and cruelty towards pregnant and adult pigs at award-winning farm El Escobar in Murcia, Spain, with the workers, unknown to the owner of the farm, using iron bars to beat the animals, stabbing them to death with swords and torturing pregnant pigs to death – and then boasting about it.
Another video nasty came to light the month before in February, implicating Walmart, whose people bring us our "Asda price". The Humane Society of the United States' film appears to show one of the supermarket's pork supplier's facilities with pigs bleeding or suffering from injuries in cages so small they could barely move. We have been informed that the video also shows a newborn piglet having its tail and testicles cut off, apparently without any anaesthetic.
But there is good news
Unfortunately there are many more examples and these include some UK firms as well. But, thankfully, there are some normal people left in the world and they are actually influencing corporate businesses. Hooray! In what seemed like a massive Valentine's message to sows everywhere McDonalds – one of the world's biggest purchasers of piggie products – announced on 13th February 2012 that it will require its pork suppliers to get rid of gestation pens (metal cages typically two by seven feet, where full-grown pigs can't even turn around) by May 2012.
And Compassion in World Farming – the campaign that aims to peacefully end all cruel factory farming practices – has introduced a new award to its suite of Good Farm Animal Welfare Awards called The Good Pig Award.
Award winners must have a policy, or a five-year welfare commitment, for their sows and meat pigs to achieve a full Good Pig Award. The criteria address issues of confinement, lack of “manipulable materials”, tail docking, teeth clipping/grinding and surgical castration. Try not thinking about that the next time you bite into that sausage.
Though, although cruelty can never be justified, it's hard to adhere to various regulations as a producer battling against cheaper sources, while facing the pressure we, as their customers, put on them to produce cheap food with a value.
"Looking after animals requires competence, consistency and dedication," says David Woolfall, farming director Brydock Farms, which was awarded a Leadership in Good Pig Welfare Award in 2011. "Our team has delivered on all fronts, 52 weeks per year for the last 10 years, in developing and operating this system, sometimes in the face of severe Scottish winter conditions. We look forward to working on future projects with the Food Business team at Compassion in World Farming."
Compassion says it recognises that and offers resources to help at every step of the way to achieve the award status. Resources include a series of information sheets on each criterion of the award, case studies of producers demonstrating best practice in high welfare systems and ongoing support and advice.
In 2011, Compassion awarded eight producers that are making tangible benefits to pig welfare with a ‘Leadership in Pig Welfare’ award and more than 248 thousand sows and meat pigs are set to benefit each year as a result of these award winners’ policies alone. Compassion is looking forward to awarding those taking even further steps with a Good Sow Commendation, a Good Pig Commendation or a full Good Pig Award for being both sow and meat pig friendly.
And so, although this Spring blog was looking a little depressing, here we have our positive new beginning. But it's important that we all remember this is just the start towards a new way of thinking when it comes to all kinds of food and how it is produced. Producers feel the pinch as much as we do and we must realise that as we squeeze them for lower prices – prices that are sometimes so unrealistic that they are below production cost – as part of this keenly felt right for cheap food that eventually something's got to give. We are all responsible and our food and producers both deserve respect. So, Happy Spring – please eat responsibly.
Autumn: My neighbour the fox
It’s turned out to be a funny old year for the seasons. There have been quite a few record early starts especially for strawberries, apples and asparagus, and as you would expect seasons have been cut short as well, making it a particularly bad year for some. It is a real reminder that we rely on the weather to provide our food, even if it is a covered crop or animals reared indoors. The cattle and crops still recognise the weather patterns and follow the natural order of things. And if it’s sunny in March, then that asparagus spear is going to rear its head.
It was the beginning of September and the pear tree in my garden was literally so laden with pears that they were dropping from the branches and on to the gravel. I could almost hear the tones of disapproval filtering in from my next-door neighbour.
Yes, it is a waste to let the pears rot on the ground and no, my fantasy land where the cute urban foxes get to have a midnight feast with them is only ever going to have a shred of truth to it (replace pears with chicken carcasses). But it’s a busy life, I reason away to myself. I don’t have the time (or the stomach for heights) to get a ladder (which I also do not have) to go pick the pears at the top of the tree and so they fall. Plus, Eastenders is on.
Then I start to lament (obviously a poor episode). The unfortunate pears: a year of surviving the elements, the pests and the predators, to come from a delicate flower to a fully ripe pear, and now to rot on the ground.
So I decided to take a stand (for all the pears out there) and start preserving. It was touch and go from the start, balancing a couple of crates together (and you thought I was going to buy a set of ladders) and reaching on tiptoes to grab the pear bounty*. After getting most of the leaves from the tree along with various forms of bug life down my top – I think my neighbour would have preferred me to leave her to the sounds of the pears thudding on the ground – I had more than enough to start the jelly trials.
At first, it does seem like such a lot of effort (and sugar) to put into something you can pop down the road and pick up in a shop for a couple of quid, and when you realise that the fruit needs pectin to set and turns out to look more like a urine sample (albeit a very worrying one) than something you’d offer your neighbour as a peace offering, you just want to give up. And well, it is an effort. But when you get used to everything, everywhere being sticky, and the satisfying golden bubbles rise from the pan like a witch’s cauldron, it’s all worth it.
If more of us made the most of our food – from using up every part of the animal, including cheeks, ears and brain, as they do in a lot of other countries, to making the most of our harvests and using the weirder sized fruit and vegetables – there would be a lot more to go round, and it’d be cheaper. Same thing with preserving. After various dubious concoctions, I made four good jars of Pear & Ginger Jelly from my £1 odd bag of sugar. Not only is it your own way to make the seasons last, it's a unique product on your dinner table. Try out my recipe below**.
* Do not try this method at home, and more importantly, if you do and it goes wrong, do not blame me. ** Don't worry, it's not the one that looks like a sample.
Pear & Ginger Jelly (for the foxes to eat with cold meats or cheese)
500g pears, cored and quartered, with enough water to cover
500g granulated sugar
5cm piece of fresh root ginger (half to be chopped into two; the other half to be grated into thin pieces with a vegetable peeler)
60ml liquid pectin
Juice of a quarter of a pink grapefruit
- Prepare ingredients as described above and place two clean empty jars in the oven preheated to gas mark 2.
- Place the pears and boiling water in a large pan (with room for that amount of mixture again so it can get all bubbly) and add half of the root ginger in two blocks (you will remove this later so no need to peel, etc). Simmer for 15 minutes or until the pears become soft and then mash with a potato masher away from the hob.
- When the mixture is all mashed up, pass it through a sieve, making sure all the juice that can come out of the mixture has and discard the remains in the sieve.
- Put the remaining liquid back into the pan (make sure if this is the same one, that it has been thoroughly washed out) and simmer along with the remaining grated ginger and the sugar.
- Bring to the boil, add the pectin and grapefruit juice and stir continuously. Keep the mixture at boiling point or just under (considering the size of the pan) for 10 minutes, still stirring.
- Allow jelly to cool for a couple of minutes and then pour into the jars, sealing the jars shut with lids. The jelly will keep for six months in a cool cupboard.
Winter: The season is here...
Seasonal Dinner Parties is here to guide all sorts of budding cooks, from the reluctant to the experienced, through the UK seasons in the art of the dinner party. Dinner parties are meant to be enjoyable for everyone involved – yes, even the host – but sometimes it gets a bit much for even the most knowledgeable of home cooks.
It’s a common scene: you haven’t had time to whisk the meringues, the entrées are nowhere near ready, you’ve just realised the red wine for the Coq au vin is still in the shop and then the doorbell goes. You end up resenting your oldest friends/in-laws/work colleagues (delete where applicable) eating your half assembled nibbles and drinking your wine, while you shut yourself in the kitchen, trying to talk yourself out of a nervous breakdown.
Well, the agony is over. With SDP you can take as much or as little advice as you please to guide you through. On SDP you will find a SDP Menu for each season, along with a SDP Shopping List compiling all the ingredients you need to buy. There’s also a SDP Dinner Party Plan giving you the time to prepare and cook step by step – allowing time to welcome your guests and that all-important mingling time – as well as the individual corresponding SDP Recipes.
As most will know, cooking by each season’s rules is crucial. Eating seasonally makes the most of what our food producers in the UK and further afield have to offer and supports the local economies. What’s more, the food is more likely to be fresh and it brings us back to the way the food chain should be - making food reasonably priced, more convenient and accessible. Combining some of the newest ingredients with some of the old-time favourites and cookery methods, SDP will refresh your nights in and impress your guests without you having to spend a fortune. It will also offer you a little insight into the many important producers there are in this country, keeping your tables full of food. Take a look at the SDP Producer Spotlights for extra bits and pieces to interest your guests with.