What ingredient can’t you live without?

That’s the topic we’ll be deciding at The Food Debate.

And, for some insane reason I’ve long since forgotten, I signed up as a contender! Right now, I’m somewhat regretting that decision, and am very very nervous, especially now I know my contenders.

So what is this Food Debate, then?

Five us will argue the merits of our favourite food stuffs – the ingredients we can’t live without. Food journalist, editor and publisher Tim Hayward is shouting out for pork, food writer and blogger Oliver Thring is on the side of salt, food blogger Charlie Nelson is raising the flag for eggs, food blogger Rachel McCormack is giving it up for olive oil.

And me? I’m eulogising cheese!

It’s a balloon debate. Round 1 sees the five of us, with 3 minutes each, try to convince the audience that ours is the winning ingredient. Then the two least convincing candidates will battle for a minute each before one is knocked out. In round 2 the four of us still in the competition spar over a classic dish containing our ingredient. Round 3 opens us up to questions from the audience. Round 4 is a sudden death war between the two finalists!

The judging panel consists of the delectable Katy Salter and the gorgeous Rejina Sabur. I probably ought to get my bribes in quick sharp! ;)

The Food Debate takes place on Friday March 5th, at The Westbridge in Battersea, and the kitchen will be providing fuel for the fire – ox tongue fritters, potted duck, chorizo, ham hock terrine, squid and whitebait.

Tickets cost £10, proceeds go to the Haiti earthquake appeal.
http://thefooddebate.wordpress.com/

Feb 282010
 

We ended up leaving the carrots in the ground far too long, what with the snow and our inherent laziness! But we decided we’d better harvest them (and the parsnips) before we left for the Falklands at the end of January, incase they ended up rotting in the ground.

We got kilos and kilos of both!

Here are a pair of giant entwined carrots:


 

I’m very pleased to share with you the news that the Blaggers Banquet raised a whopping £9,349.49 for the charity Action Against Hunger!

I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a fantastic achievement and all of us involved are very proud of ourselves! We know that AAH will put the funds to very good use.

Many thanks to all those who contributed – from the very generous suppliers who donated auction prizes, items for the goodie bags and food and drink for the banquet, to all the bloggers involved. A huge thank you and well done, us!

 

Taking a sabbatical from working life means that Pete and I have been able to indulge in that most gratifying treat – the long, lingering lunch at somewhere a step above the normal workaday lunch stop.

Last month, one of those we chose to visit was Launceston Place. Not only had I read plenty of glowing reviews (from fellow food bloggers and twitter friends) I was also seduced by the price of their lunch menu – £20 for 3 courses at a restaurant of this calibre seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?

The friendly and helpful staff I spoke to when calling to make a reservation were happy to talk me through the kind of dishes on the menu (there is a sample on their website but I had no idea how up-to-date it was), the lunch time dress code and a couple of other minor questions I had. And they were gracious too when I called to change the time of our booking the night before. (This might not seem worthy of comment but who hasn’t had a supercilious member of staff from one or other high-end restaurant try and put you in your place or make you feel that they are bestowing a great favour just by speaking to you let alone deigning to let you dine with them?)

We were seated at a spacious, bright corner table next to the window. Clever lighting meant that even with deeply dark brown walls, the interior didn’t feel gloomy. It struck an accomplished balance between warm, traditional decor and clean, modern styling.

Our waiters were friendly and quick. We were soon served with water, freshly squeezed orange juice and a bowl of spiced parsnip crisps served tied in a ribbon reading Launceston Place. I love parsnip crisps and these really were superb, though the ribbon was a bit of a fiddle to undo. Just the right amount of spice to add a kick and bring out the natural sweetness of the root and cooked to just the right crisp. Very more-ish!

Butter on a pebble was brought to the table and brown or white bread offered – soft, fresh and with a lovely crunchy crust.

The amuse-bouche, served in a tiny glass bowl, was a thin cauliflower soup with a crème fraiche foam or mousse on top and truffle oil drizzled over. In truth, I didn’t love this, though I found the flavours intriguing. The usual thick, creamy richness of cauliflower was absent, or perhaps just neutered by the tartness of the crème fraiche. Still, it did it’s job of waking up my palate and it did have me screwing up my brow in concentration as I tried to find the words to describe it’s curious overall taste. (I failed, so best go in and try for yourself!)

I find it almost impossible to resist the allure of foie gras and I didn’t resist this time. My Potted foie gras, Maldon sea salt was delicious. Unable to identify the extra flavour, I asked our waiter if it was paprika. He checked and told us madeira and cinammon, I think. Whatever it was, it was subtle and added only the most delicate hint of spice. The foie gras was as rich and unctuous and delicious as I’d expect. The salt was superfluous as the liver was well seasoned. It was served with toasted slices of that same delicious bread we had been served earlier.

Pete was equally delighted with Cep risotto, Spenwood cheese. Served in a little copper pan (I alarmed Pete by looking at it and asking “oooh, is that Mauviel?”, especially when it turned out to be the case) it was wonderfully creamy and had the most fantastic mushroom umami depth of flavour. The cheese worked wonderfully well and the single slice of cep was, I’m told, “awfully tasty”!

Both of us selected the Crispy suckling pig, parsnips and parsley. Whilst I can understand why those expecting a traditional, British style crackling might be disappointed, I absolutely loved the crunchy and yet chewy texture of the skin. It was crispy, yes but had an underlying elasticity that made it stick like glue to one’s teeth, a texture I most commonly associate with Chinese cuisine. The meat was succulent and tasty, though with not quite the intensity of flavour of the recent St John Restaurant suckling pig (though in that case, the skin wasn’t as good). The pork was served on a cauliflower puree, the mild sweetness of which worked well against the meat, the deeply savoury, thick gravy and the tiny slices of raw onion.

After our main courses we were served a second amuse-bouche of mulled red wine mousse, pear sorbet and tiny slivers of crisp orange. Not a fan of red wine, I didn’t enjoy the mousse, though the sorbet was bursting with fresh fruit flavour. Pete really enjoyed the combination of the two eaten together, as no doubt intended.

The choices for dessert disappointed me. Not because all three didn’t appeal – they did. But because, if you’re trying to lunch on a budget and you don’t happen to share the tastes of your dining companion, your are left with only one choice. The apple tart, home made clotted cream must be ordered for two and cheese from the trolley carries a £6.00 supplement.

I would much rather the base price of the menu were raised by £2 or £3 to allow supplements to be scrapped, or that a fixed choice cheese plate were offered in place of the cheese trolley, which should allow costs to be lowered. But then, supplements on limited-choice, fixed-price menus are a huge bug bear of mine!

So both of us opted for the Banana sticky toffee pudding, Guinness ice cream. I couldn’t discern any banana in the pudding itself, though it was a tasty enough sticky toffee pudding. It could have done with some toffee sauce – that elegantly drawn curved line of plate decoration doesn’t count. The taste of stout came through clearly in the Guiness ice cream and worked well with the other elements in the dish. The thin slice of banana with it’s neat topping of crisp, caramelised sugar was fantastic, not least in the way the banana remained uncooked beneath it’s lid. The only flavour that didn’t work for me was the aniseedy and mildly astringent splosh of cream. Our waiter said it was a vanilla cream but to me, it tasted like sour cream and I couldn’t escape the (unwelcome) hint of liquorice.

With coffee we were served this sweet little stoppered jar of chocolate coated nuts.

To sum up, we very much enjoyed the meal and the service and surroundings too. When one takes the price into account, I think the Launceston Place lunch deal really is a steal. Thanks to food blogger and twitter friends for the recommendation!

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon
Feb 152010
 

We’ve been growing veg in our back garden for several years, increasing the varieties and volumes each year. In 2009 we ended up with an unexpectedly large number of tomato plants. Tomato plants which need sun to ripen. In a summer which didn’t really give us much sun. At all!


Having had such lovely feedback on the first batch of spicy tomato ketchup I made back in July (to my grandfather’s recipe, for sale on my one-off Covent Garden stall) I figured it would be even better (psychologically, if not taste-wise) if I made it with tomatoes grown by our own fair hands!

I didn’t take any photos of the two batches I made in September, one red and one green.

But I made another really large batch with the several kilos of green tomatoes I finally accepted were never going to ripen and harvested in early October.

For some reason I forgot to blog it, but as I just found the photos and really like the recipe, I decided late is better than never!

I think I worked a little too hard when mashing the tomato through the sieve as the ketchup ended up with tiny but visible fragments of tomato seeds through it. These don’t spoil the taste, or even the texture, on eating, but make it look less visually appealing than the two earlier batches.


The actual colour is greener, but I’ve messed up the white balance on these and didn’t
manage to correct it properly when processing the images. Sorry!

The recipe I followed is my grandfather’s one for spicy tomato ketchup, on Mamta’s Kitchen. This recipe uses ripe red tomatoes. For green tomato ketchup, omit the optional red peppers and add extra sugar, to taste.

Feb 102010
 

Somehow, in the space of less than a year, I’ve transformed into an earnest WI type before my own eyes. That’s not an insult to Women’s Institute members – I think local social clubs offering talks, cookery demonstrations, craft workshops and cake cook-offs are actually pretty cool*. But I have in mind here the (no doubt very out-of-date) stereotype of the diligent and industrious jam and cake maker.

It’s a shock. Who’d ever have thought I’d become so addicted that I’d start to feel the itch of withdrawal if I didn’t preserve anything for a few weeks? Not me! But that’s what’s happened!

In June last year, excluding childhood days in the kitchen helping mum make strawberry jam after a day at the PYO farm (approximately 30 years ago and I really wasn’t much help!) I had never made my own jam or chutney or marmalade or ketchup or pickle! But I started with a bang when my mum, my cousin and I got to work making a marvellous selection of goodies for my one-off market stall. And then I made numerous pickles, chutneys, ketchups and jams, mainly from produce in the garden (and a gift box of mangoes). I only blogged a couple of those!

So, now, even though market day has long since come and gone I still have a larder full of jars! Pete has reached a point where he glares at me if I suggest making anything else, especially since I tend to rope him in to help me!

But when a fellow food blogger friend of mine tweeted about making clementine and rosewater marmalade, I couldn’t help but sigh wistfully and wish I were joining her. And to my delight, Carla (who canbebribedwithfood) invited me over to hers for a Sunday of making jam and flapjacks together. Bliss! Instead of deciding in advance exactly what jams we’d make I went fruit shopping the day before to buy whatever looked lovely and was well-priced. Carla would provide brunch and the makings of (some very good) flapjacks!

On a bit of a whim, I bought a 2 kilo box of fresh lychees (thinking they’d go ever so nicely with Carla’s rosewater, even though I’d never heard of lychee jam and had no idea whether it would work). And I bought 2 kilos of apricots, seduced by the idea of a traditional French confiture d’abricot which I do so love on fresh crusty white baguette with slatherings of good butter!

After a very fine brunch indeed of freshly baked, home-made parmesan cheese muffins (it was Cheese Sunday!) and oeufs en cocotte with smoked salmon, leeks and crème fraiche we got to work.

Peeling lychees to eat is quick. I know this because I can sit and go through a bag of them in next to no time, peeling the skin in seconds, popping the whole fruit into my mouth and evicting the little brown stone moments later. Peeling and chopping lychees to go into jam, and trying to remove that dark brown tough little bit of skin on the inside, is a pain in the proverbial! But before too long we had a kilo of chopped lychee plus the juice from our chopping boards that we also poured into the pan.

Slightly alarmed, the night before Jam Sunday, by the lack of lychee jam recipes I could find on the interwebs, I’d twittered for help tracking down more recipes and gratefully received the advice to search in French on confiture de litchis, as this is a very popular jam in French-speaking places such as Réunion. Bingo! Carla and I cobbled together amounts from reading a few of the recipes I’d bookmarked and got cooking (see below for weights/ ingredients). The lychee fruits took a long time to soften, and never broke down as much as some fruits do, but the mass of fruit and sugar did, eventually, produce 4 jars of rather tasty lychee and rosewater jam. We added the rosewater in right at the end, just before bottling.

Stoning, halving and dicing the apricots was far, far quicker work. We left the skin on as it was so soft. The apricots were quite sharp – just right for jam making as we both like apricot jam with a good balance between sweet and sharp. Again, we amalgamated a number of online recipes and it wasn’t long before apricots, sugar, lemon juice and pectin were cooking away on the stove top. (Again, see below for weights/ ingredients).

Whilst the apricot jam cooked, Carla made the flapjacks and popped them into the oven. As she bottled the finished jam (which tasted just like the traditional french jam I had been dreaming of) I screwed on the lids. Unfortunately, one popped open on me just as I’d closed it, the burning jam spilled out and lead to my dropping the open jar onto the floor. Whilst it landed almost upright, globules of hot jam shot into the air and all over Carla’s worktop and washing machine, splattered my hair, my apron, my (dry-clean) cardigan sleeves, my jeans and the floor and Carla’s arms too. I was shocked to find so much jam still in the jar when I rescued it back up onto the worktop! Gah! How embarassing – first time visiting a friend’s house, being invited to share her kitchen, and splashing hot jam all over it! As anyone who has met Carla will know, she’s very sweet and gracious and she completely took it in her stride and we’d soon finished filling the rest of the jars, a whopping 14 of them!

Still, sitting in the living room and eating hot, freshly baked flapjacks made from burnt honey and dark brown sugar… oh that was wonderful! And even better, I went home with a bag of flapjacks, 7 jars of apricot jam, 2 of lychee and rosewater jam and one of Carla’s clementine and rosewater marmalade, swapped for a jar of my nectarine and amaretto jam!

Thank you, Carla, for a lovely day!

Lychee & Rosewater Jam

1 kilo lychee
600 grams sugar
juice of one orange
pectin
rosewater (to taste)

Apricot Jam

2 kilos apricot flesh
1800 grams sugar (or to taste, depending on ripeness of apricots)
juice of 2 lemons (or to taste, depending on ripeness of apricots)
pectin

*During the writing of this blog post, I’ve actually visited the WI website. I’d like to find out more with a view to potentially joining!

Feb 052010
 

Not long after the girls’ steak club was born, the ladies pigfest was germinated. Who knew there were so many women desperate to consume an entire suckling pig, St John Restaurant style?!

Given the cost (and size) of the pig, a suitably sized group of eager women was quickly assembled. Groups are encouraged to order a feasting menu, where the entire group shares two starters, the suckling pig and vegetables and two desserts, all served family style.



We chose the famous St John roast marrow bones and fresh, whole crab with mayonnaise to enjoy before the pig. And eccles cake with Lancashire cheese and spotted dick and custard to have after.



The food itself was fabulous. The crab was fantastically fresh and served with a tangy mustardy mayonnaise. The portion of marrow bones (with parsley salad and toast) was a little small (and there weren’t nearly enough toasts for one each) but it was good and fatty and full of flavour.


The pork was meltingly tender and so delicious, though the crackling wasn’t as crispy as many of us had hoped. I tried pig tongue for the first time, others had the cheeks. The buttered greens and potatoes served alongside were excellent.


I can’t comment on the puddings as I had to leave before they arrived. And that leads me to the crux of the matter. All the good food in the world couldn’t entirely make up for a bit of a service fiasco.

Despite having ordered the menu in advance (and it being served in large communal dishes, family style) and made an early evening 7.30 pm booking the starter didn’t arrive for 50 minutes and the pig for more than an hour after that. Some of the girls had to leave to catch last trains. I simply found that, by 10.40 pm and with dessert still not in sight, I was crashing and set off for home too.

Those that stayed report that dessert was good, when it finally arrived.

To their absolute credit, the management of St John were quick to notice our disappointment (twitter was full of it!) and have been in touch to apologise sincerely, investigate what went wrong with a view to ensuring it doesn’t happen again and, best of all, have invited us to return for a champagne and dessert party on the house! Vive la Pigfest!

St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon
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