Tuesday, 29 June 2010

real food

the most interesting thing about the ‘garden’ i described in the last post has been observing the amount of compost we make. we are like one family composting machine, emptying the little caddy kindly donated by clare every few days. when the first flies appeared in the main composting bin in the garden, and the whole thing started to stink a bit, i was pretty pleased.

it is amazing how much waste it generates. apart from the obvious benefit of hopefully being able to use it next year, i also feel inordinately smug that we recycle so much, one way or another.

and - i am not a yoghurt-weaver but there is some satisfaction to be had from not giving money to companies like nestle or kelloggs which peddle all the packaged rubbish purported to be healthy. take cereal bars, a particular hobby horse of mine: it is only advertising and nothing else that has fooled millions of people into believing these are ‘healthy’. it ain’t gonna change any time soon – there is too much money to be made out of processing stuff. conversely, there is little you can do to profit from a carrot, or a strawberry (not to mention a turnip or a kohl rabi). a celebrity endorsement here or a cookery book there but it’s still not special k, is it?

it is funny that we in the west eat so much packaged food. it freaks me out a bit. michael pollan has written about this before, taking as his dictum that you should eat nothing your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. when i think back of what was eaten at my dad’s farm when we were little, very little seemed to come from the shop. come to think of it, i have no idea where the shop was.

perhaps i have rose-tinted spectacles about the whole thing - and i suspect my aunt, whose job it was to feed everyone, wouldn’t have objected to a bit of supermarket help. but you can’t help regretting the demise of ‘real’ food.

i remember bread – huge round ciabatta-style loaves made in a wood-burning stove every two days, with slices so big they didn’t fit into a child’s hand; cheese and ‘kajmak’ in glass jam jars (like clotted cream but sometimes salted to last longer) from their own milk; eggs from the chickens that ran around the garden and that we children would fight to feed corn and seeds every evening; honey from their own bees...not to mention the meat from the sheep, pigs and cows. (actually, that’s a lie – i don’t remember cows being eaten. i can see no reason why they wouldn’t have been but i just don’t.)

mum says everything has changed now, which she illustrates, with horror and dramatic emphasis, with the fact that they buy in ‘yellow’ cheese from a supermarket. the thought of that is pretty weird, i must confess. from a wood-burning stove, pigs killed with a knife under a walnut tree and hens running around the flower beds to plastic cheese and obesity – all in the course of one generation.

i guess i feel i am doing my own little bit by composting - though on an admittedly tiny scale.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

fish in curry sauce

this recipe, or a version thereof, came from a weird book i bought for rich when we first started going out (and when it wouldn't have crossed my mind that we would one day end up married). it must have been for his birthday, or the first christmas together. no idea why i bought it - must have been sufficiently impersonal for him not to think i am a bunny boiler, and inspired enough in that i recognised his love of chilli and thailand.

it's one of those coffee table jobs, all glossy pages, big double spreads of pictures and romantic introductions to different regions. i suspect the thai tourist office had as much to do with it as the recipe contributors.

i don't think i have ever cooked from it - partly because of all of the above, and partly because it is so large as to be unwieldy. it's twice the size or any other book i own. it sat on top of the fridge for years, when that was enough space to hold all my cookery books, and is now covered with a layer of oily grime.

the reason why i looked at it again is because we went to a thai supermarket in hackney. oh, the joy of weird and wonderful things in there! the pigs' trotters in plastic bags, nestling in the fridge like so many plastic chickens in tescos! the weird-looking fruit i've never seen (and some i have - i could smell that durian from a mile off),! the industrial-sized bags of frozen prawns, squid and fish! the fifty seven varieties of chilli sauce! i could have spent a fortune in there it was so amazing.

in the end, we were quite restrained but we came home with a tub of green curry paste, some morning glory (possibly my favourite veg ever), and some incredibly fragrant thai basil. so one night last week, when we had no time to make anything from scratch, we leafed through this monster of a cookery book and - lo and behold, there it was! fish in curry sauce. two minutes to prepare, 20 minutes cooking, some garnish - and you get the nicest meal you can imagine.

the recipe uses red snapper - we used sea bass as that was all we had. you might think it's a waste of bass and ordinarily you'd be right but on this occasion, the fish was a supermarket specimen and a little...well...fishy. you can use what you like, i imagine, as long as it's the whole thing, on the bone.


2 sea bass or red snappers
2 tbs green curry sauce
500 ml coconut milk
25 ml fish sauce
4-5 lime leaves
a small bunch of thai or ordinary basil
a handful of morning glory
olive oil

heat the oil in a lidded pan sufficiently large to accommodate both fish. fry the curry paste for a minute, then add the coconut milk and the fish sauce, and stir to mix. next, add the fish laying them side by side, bring to the boil and reduce the heat to simmer. put on the lid and cook for ten minutes.

turn the fish - good luck with that - and add the morning glory. cook for another ten minutes or a bit less.

if the sauce is still runny - and much will depend on the consistency of your coconut milk - take the fish out and keep warm, then reduce the sauce so it's thick.

add the torn basil and spoon over the fish. sprinkle with crushed or torn lime leaves and, if you really love chilli, some chopped up small red ones.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

sea bream with tomatoes and basil

it’s all gone a bit good life around here.

or as good life as you can get when you live in a one-bed ex-council flat in islington.

a few months ago, at the suggestion of lovely clare from downstairs, we applied for a grant from the council to build some raised beds and grow food. this admirable idea is all about improving shared spaces, getting neighbours together and, of course, planting some stuff to eat. not bad considering the last time we got together was to go to court to kick out a bunch of scratty junkies from the crack den downstairs.

so, we have our raised beds (i still feel guilty for not helping to build them but it was in the run up to the wedding), we bought some seeds and, after a few weeks, stuff started...you know...GROWING. like green stuff. lots of it.

people have gone for different things in their beds – there are lots of strawberries, vast quantities of salad, and one brave soul is growing aubergines. i’ve gone for the simple approach, not wishing to see stuff die on me in my first attempt at gardening – half a bed for carrots, spring onions and radishes - just to see what happens, half for a courgette (and one in a pot – blackfly permitting, i’m determined to eat those damn flowers this year and not pay £2 for a paltry little tray from the farmer’s market), leaving two beds free to indulge in my obsession for leafy green stuff. so we have spinach, lettuce, swiss chard, curly kale and purple sprouting broccoli. and why not – it’s good for you and it costs a fortune in shops. plus, considering the amount of effort involved in growing it, i don’t understand why anyone with a bit of space doesn’t do it.

we’ve had spinach whizzed into a soup, we’ve had a nicely dressed lettuce and radish salad, we’ve had some curly kale stirred through an amazing tomato sauce...i know all of this amounts to about four dinners but the pleasure i’ve had out of it is immense.

anyway, in honour of that curly kale, here is the recipe for something i called the best dinner i’ve ever eaten the other day. we’ve made it twice in the last month, and i’d happily eat it again. it’s a bastardisation of a gennaro contaldo recipe – we’ve added more chilli (just because one chilli is never enough), and used passata rather than water for that extra sweet tomato kick.

don't be tempted to skimp on the olive oil - you need LOTS of it to give it a silky mouthfeel. it makes all the difference.

for two

two whole sea bream, cleaned
125ml olive oil
around 25 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped
500ml passata
a big bunch of basil
salt and pepper

get the biggest frying pan you have and put it on medium heat. it needs to hold both fish, plus all the other stuff, unless you want to do this in two batches. which you don’t. a small frying pan will ensure your kitchen looks like the somme.

heat the oil with the garlic and chilli – don’t burn the garlic as it will taste rubbish. don’t burn the chilli either, or you won’t be able to breathe. trust me on this.

after a couple of minutes, add the fish and fry for a minute, then add the passata, the cherry tomatoes and half of your basil bunch, torn. season and leave to cook for around five minutes. turn the fish carefully and continue to cook for another five or ten minutes. check the fish is cooked – the flesh should be opaque. as it’s on the bone, it will take a little longer to cook.

if your sauce is too runny at the end of the cooking time, take the fish out and reduce the sauce for a few minutes. we don’t bother normally. stir in the greens until wilted (or serve on the side as on the picture – this has been made more than once) and the rest of the basil, check for seasoning and serve.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

wedding, and hind's head

ooooh look, a blog post. my first since february. what’s brought this on, you ask? well, i have felt a little sorry that i have abandoned the blog less than a year after its inception. and i have realised, in the months i’ve not been writing, that the discipline of keeping a record of what i cook is a useful one. it seems a shame, cooking all these things and then letting them all disappear without trace.

as a greedy person, i rarely look back when it comes to food – i am only looking forward to the next meal. i am unlikely to sit around reminiscing about memorable dinners – the promise of meals to come is much more exciting. the flipside of this is that i forgot meals almost as soon as i have cooked them. then the next time all i have in the fridge is some chicken and it’s half seven on a tuesday night, i have to waste time looking for a suitable recipe.

it’s because of this that i thought i’d carry on cataloguing things i like. of course, the more time passes the more i repeat myself in the kitchen and the chances of me cooking something blog-worthy recede. but still...

anyway, a lot has happened over the past six months.

we got married, for one. which was ace. i recommend getting married – apart from the obvious benefit of doing so, it’s a way of spending a weekend with people you like, eating good food, drinking nice wine and just generally having fun. think party but one where no one minds you burn the main course or run out of ice. the amount of goodwill you get from people is touching. oh, and if you’re a girl, you also get to spend two hours having your hair and make up done so you look pretty good at the end of it.

weirdly, getting married didn’t feel like just a pointless ceremony which results in the proverbial ‘piece of paper’. i guess the fact that we decided to do it in the first place means that we didn’t think that but weddings are often about what families and others expect rather than fundamentally about how you feel. i think i knew from the start that this was it, or at least it never crossed my mind that it might not be so it’s not like i thought being married would change things.

i am sure others have written about this a lot more eloquently, but basically it boiled down to the fact that, for me, saying yes in front of friends and family genuinely felt like more of a commitment than getting a joint mortgage or writing a will where i leave lots of morose indie music to him (and books, don’t forget the books!). maybe it is because all relationships are so fragile – based on people’s feelings for each other which, as well all know, can change so easily and so irreversibly – that we try and formalise them in some way and make marriage a public acknowledgement of a private decision. of course, no amount of paperwork will make a marriage work and that’s not what being together is about. but i can see why this hugely prevalent – geographically and historically – social convention has managed to survive against all odds. in any case, there are lots of social conventions that make sense and are probably pretty useful - otherwise we might still be walking around in the nud or killing each other.

i also became an auntie, which was fun. actually, more than anything, it was quite overwhelming: never before have i had the feeling of being perfectly capable of ripping someone’s head off to protect someone. baby sasha is very small and very cute. i am looking forward to her growing up. unless she develops a taste for R&B or something, in which case all bets are off and she can forget about having an auntie in london.

my pesky back is slowly getting better – though when i say slowly, i mean slowly. i can just about sit down at work for a day but planes, trains and automobiles remain hell on earth. don’t ask me to go to the cinema either.

but back to the wedding! we are having our honeymoon in africa in september so we decided to spend a couple of days just wondering about the countryside around henley, doing things we wouldn’t normally do. this largely involved eating and drinking, as well as driving around looking at wildlife. red kites and wallabies (really) were pretty exciting but – oh, the naughty thrill of of having a lunchtime pie and a pint! the freedom and the illicitness of ordering yet another glass of wine on a sunday night and not caring! the possibility of eating steak three days in a row!

the highlight of the eating experience was going to bray. (i say eating, because we stayed in the monkey island hotel which was like being in a particularly glum episode of faulty towers. you know the place: lots of apricot walls and table cloths, broken shower heads and rusty taps, thin polyester sheets and soaps that you could strip paint with). and no, we didn’t go to the fat duck. god knows why – you’d think getting married would be a perfect excuse to blow loads of cash on a posh dinner. we faffed for ages, thinking it’s too much money and it would hurt after just having spent loads on the wedding. when it got to two weeks before, we suddenly concluded we must go. obviously, it was too late to get a table.

but we went to hind’s head instead and i have to say, i wish we hadn’t. it’s ruined all other gastropubs for me, forever. anyone with gastropub pretentions (that’s you, the house on canonbury road, and a few others) should go and eat there to see how it’s done. unpretentious, most definitely still a pub, with real beer, lovely atmosphere, great service, modest prices and, of course, great food. that, and a subsequent trip to l’autre pied in marylebone, made me realise yet again the same thing i thought when we went to eat at pierre koffman’s pop up last year. i am basically not interested in poncey food that much. give me the hind’s head menu any day and you can keep your michelin stars, your foams and your microherbs carefully placed by tweezers.

it’s partly because there’s never enough food on the plate in those places. it makes me anxious that i won’t get enough. (this is also why i dislike tasting menus and sharing food – there are few words i dread more than: shall we order both and we can share). so, i guess that despite my interest in food and my willingness to spend ridiculous amounts of money on it (£7.50 takeaway lunches from manicomio, anyone?), food to me is not a fetish. it’s a way of sating hunger. chef are not rock stars, cooking is not astrophysics and food is not some weirdly sensual and orgasmic experience. it’s just nice stuff to eat. done well, it can be brilliant and that’s why i loved hind’s head.

rich’s crab on toast was a proper, thick slice of crusty bread with a lot of crab on top. i thought it was mixed with chervil but i might have made that up. my asparagus with ham and hollandaise consisted of a lot more than 2 spears and a bit of yellow air: a few slices of lovely ham topped with perfectly cooked asparagus and hollandaise so good it made me make my own for the first time (which tasted nothing like it, naturellement). i then had a proper stodgy pie with oxtail and kidneys and rich had a steak with bone marrow sauce – both were like someone extracted an essence of a happy cow. it was the kind of thing that makes me weep for vegetarians.

we even had dessert – which was nice but nothing special. weirdly, the only thing that wasn’t particularly nice was coffee. no idea why and perhaps it was just an accident.

so, my conclusion is – forget fat duck and go to hind’s head to see what you’re missing in all those poor eagle and anchor and hope clones scattered around london. okay, bray is one of those funny villages in the commuter belt where people talk about bond dealing while having a pint, but honestly, you’ll enjoy it.
ps the pictures are of a bluebell field around henley, and of some wild flowers i picked on the last day before coming home.