Saturday, 29 September 2012

Autumn arrives with the Brogdale apples - Food Find

You know autumn is truly here when the Brogdale Farm fruit has arrived at Neal's Yard Dairy.  On Thursday the first crates arrived filled with Royal Russett, Laxton Superb and Oaken Pin.  Stacked outside the shops on Shorts Gardens in Covent Garden and Park Street, Bermondsey, for me they signal the arrival of autumn in the City.  The Oaken Pin is particularly fine at the moment.  Small, sweet and crisp.  No pears yet but maybe they'll arrive this Thursday(?).  Varieties change by the week so it's a great opportunity to try some of the hundreds of varieties of apples and pears which Brogdalehome of the UK's National Fruit Collection, does so much to preserve. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ndali Fairtrade Gift Swap - what you missed

If you read my posting on the Ndali Vanilla Fairtrade Gift Swap you'll know that I was so moved by a report on the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme featuring the Ugandan vanilla growers that I asked to attend a Fairtrade event.  The 'Ndali Fairtrade Gift Swap' was organised by food writer and broadcaster Vanessa Kimbell to raise the profile of these growers and get more people to consider buying Ndali vanilla.

A rainy Monday saw 40 of us gather to listen, talk and ask questions about Fairtrade and Ndali vanilla production. We also took along gifts of cakes, biscuits, preserves and sweets, all containing Ndali vanilla, to swap at the end of day. To add a fun element the categories were judged by experts including food writer and journalist Lucas Hollweg and chocolatier Chantal Coady. With some of the best blogger bakers and preserve makers in the room it was a tough task.  The photographs here show a selection of those gifts which caught my eye.

Fortnum and Mason hosted us kindly and elegantly. Kenwood provided handsome prizes for the winners but no-one went away empty handed. Eileen Maybin of the Fairtrade Foundation made sure we all had a few gifts to remind us there are other good Fairtrade products out there.

Apart from regularly buying Fairtrade Windward Isles bananas, mainly because they taste better than any other, I have to admit Fairtrade has not been high on my shopping criteria.  Taste has always come first for me and always will. Another Fair Trade product I routinely buy is Ndali vanilla, because it is better than any other vanilla.  So I've found two foodstuffs which are the best of their kind that happen to be Fairtrade. It's no coincidence that Fairtrade helps small growers/producers and these are often the ones who put the care into distinctive, quality products.   Quite likely there are more out there and I intend to look for them in future rather than picking up the packet of sugar or chocolate, or whatever, I usually pluck from the shelf.  If you are in any doubt, as I was, that Fairtrade makes a difference to the lives of farmers, read about the Ndali vanilla growers for yourself and pay a fair price.

Was the Ndali event a success? I, for one, enjoyed it and learned from it. Already, I have had 2 food businesses wanting to follow up the potential for using Ndali vanilla in their products.  I call that a success!

Here is the recipe for my entry, Pear Vanilla Jam.  I selected pears for seasonality as they are just being harvested now and because the colour would show off the vanilla seeds well.  Pears have only a medium natural pectin content.  Don't do what I did and think you can reduce the amount of pectin in this recipe.  I ended up with a rather looser set than I intended.  Not what you want when you're up against a jam-maker as good as Vivien Lloyd.  It still tastes good, I think, and can be partnered with cheese or spread on toast.

Pear Vanilla Jam

Pear Vanilla Jam

1kg thin-skinned pears, cored and chopped but unpeeled
500g Fairtrade granulated sugar
1 packet powdered pectin, or equivalent liquid (or you can buy FairTrade sugar with added pectin)
1 Ndali Fairtrade vanilla pod, split and de-seeded

Wash and sterilise jars.
Put chopped pears, sugar and vanilla seeds and pod in a heavy-based pan.
Cook over medium heat, stirring to ensure sugar doesn't burn, until it melts and the pear softens.
Remove *vanilla pod and mash pears lightly.
Add pectin (if not already in sugar)
Bring to a rolling boil and cook for 5 minutes to activate the pectin.
Fill the sterilised jars, wipe the rims and apply lids.

* Wash the vanilla pod in water, leave to dry thoroughly.  Add to a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar.

This event coincided rather neatly with the Fairtrade Big Fair Bake taking place this week and next.  Why not join in and bake for someone else, I did.

 Fairtrade Organisation

Sunday, 23 September 2012

'Jerusalem' by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka cooked from 'Jerusalem'

It was the bold flavours of Levantine cuisine that brought together Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi when they found themselves working together in London.  Living only 2km apart but never meeting, they separately left Jewish West and Palestinian East Jerusalem for London, via Tel Aviv, in the 1990's. With Italian and German parentage Ottolenghi was used to eating both European food and the Arab food familiar to Tamimi when both were growing up.  This mix of cuisines has informed the cooking at their four cafe/shops and new restaurant, NOPI, in London.  Their signature is bright, fresh, spicy flavours; sometimes surprising and sometimes challenging.

A nostalgia for the food of Jerusalem finally drew them back to research this handsome, heavyweight book.  The food of Jerusalem is informed by its mix of Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants and there are many debates over the origins of dishes in this book.  Not all the food of Jerusalem is a visual feast, so some of the recipes are loose interpretations of traditional dishes. With 'Jerusalem" they hope they have succeeded in "distilling the spirit of the place ....." by "... relying on our impulses for what feels right, looks beautiful and tastes delicious to us".

I have to say I ignored the fish dishes in this book.  I prefer my fish almost flapping and none of the recipes fit the bill for me, but the authors do own that "Jerusalem is not a city of fish".  Instead what caught my attention were dishes such as Mejadra (sweetly spiced rice and lentils with fried onions), a dish of Braised eggs with lamb, tahini & sumac, the Ashkenazi Hanukkah speciality Latkes and the syrup-laced pudding Mutabbaq.

Stuffed aubergine
with lamb & pine nuts cooked

from 'Jerusalem'
Stuffed aubergine with lamb and pine nuts was easy to prepare and soon popped in the oven.  After an hour and a half and a couple of bastings the aromas were sweet, smokey and intense. I really wanted to get it out of the oven and tuck in.  The dish needs, as the recipe points out, to cool  to allow full appreciation of the flavours of the spice combination.  Rice was good to mop up the juices and I used mango chutney for the suggested 'pickle', to balance the flavours.

Shakshuka is my kind of food.  Originally of Tunisian origin, it's a simple and comforting dish of red peppers, tomatoes and eggs spiced up with cumin and an intense chilli and garlic Pilpelchuma sauce (or harissa).  Served with a cooling spoonful of yoghurt and a good flatbread it made a great lunch and I can see myself following the suggestion to "play around with different ingredients" according to the time of year.

At first reading I felt daunted by the number of ingredients for many of the recipes in 'Jerusalem'.  However, I relaxed once I realised I had most of the spices in my store cupboard.  Dukkah, Baharat and Zhoug mixes were new to me and if you have difficulty buying them there is a useful condiment section at the back of the book for making your own.

'Jerusalem' has introduced me to a part of the world with a myriad of cultural food influences of which I had only a hazy notion.  There are many recipes in here - such as Saffron rice with barberries, pistachio and mixed herbs and Cardamom rice pudding with pistachios & rose water - which have caught my imagination and what more could you wish for in a cookery book?

Book courtesy of Ebury Press

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Ndali Vanilla Fair Trade Gift Swap

Ndali Vanilla pods & Costa Rica cane sugar

Next Monday I'll be enjoying myself at a Gift Swap with a serious purpose. Along with cakes, biscuits, sweets and jams, we'll be exchanging baking tips and experiences of using that most heady of spices, vanilla.  It will be a social occasion but there's a serious point to our get-together.  We won't all know each other but we will all have something in common, beside an interest in cooking.  We've all been moved by the lives of the vanilla growers of Uganda and this is a chance to get involved and try to help raise their profile.

Three week's ago I listened to a Radio 4 Food & Drink Programme on vanilla.  Writer and broadcaster Vanessa Kimbell painted a vivid audio picture of her walk from field to production plant on a plantation in Western Uganda. The name of the estate, Ndali, was familiar to me.  In fact I had some of their Fair Trade vanilla pods in my store cupboard.  After listening to the programme I went on-line to learn a little more of the difficulties the small farmers on neighbouring estates faced in growing vanilla.

Lulu Sturdy inherited a former tea plantation and, after experimenting with other crops, settled on vanilla.    She now grows premium quality Fair Trade vanilla on her organic 1,000 acre mixed tropical farm, Ndali.  She also processes the individual vanilla crops of hundreds of small farmers who she has helped to gain Fair Trade deals.  Growing, pollinating (by hand), harvesting and processing are all highly labour intensive.  The cream of the crop is packaged under the Fair Trade 'Ndali' brand for retail.  There are still a lot of farmers in the area who do not have Fair Trade deals.  Personally, in the past I've wondered about how much difference Fair Trade makes to the lives of producers.  Learning about the situation of these growers has convinced me that these deals make a huge difference to the lives of the farmers and their families.  Many are subject to exploitation by unscrupulous traders.  Vanessa Kimbell tells some of their story, and the effect the visit to Uganda had on her, eloquently and passionately here 

If you heard the programme, or read Vanessa Kimbell's blog you couldn't fail to be moved by one farmer's dignified statement  "We don't want charity, we just want a fair price for what we have grown"  

Demand for vanilla far outstrips the supply of vanilla beans and most vanilla flavouring used in the UK is synthetic, the vast majority of it going into manufactured foods.  For home baking, thankfully, we can avoid this 'vanilla essence' and buy pure vanilla in pods, extract and powder form.  It's more expensive of course but then you don't get those notes of dates, honey and butterscotch in synthetic vanilla or lesser grades of natural vanilla.  Next time you shop for vanilla to flavour that custard tart or plum compote, spare a thought for the Ugandan vanilla growers and pay a fair price.

Our Gift Swap, organised by Vanessa Kimbell, is taking place at Fortnum & Mason who have been kind enough to host the gathering.  So what to bake?  Well there's a long list of foods which pair beautifully with vanilla - sweet and savoury - so there's no difficulty there.  I haven't yet decided what I will make.  I just want it to be something which does justice to the effort that has gone into producing Ndali Fair Trade vanilla.

Fair Trade Foundation

Vanilla for the Gift Swap courtesy of Ndali 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Lardo, London

Courgette, goats' curd & anchovy pizza

Any place where nobody raises an eyebrow at someone knocking back a gin cocktail with a slice of  Melanzane alla Parmigiana is my type of place.  Lardo is the kind of restaurant where you can just relax and enjoy simple, good food. The cooking is consistent and confident, service is knowledgable and kindly, everyone knows what they're doing and they give every impression that they're happy to be there.  In short, it's very hard to find a bad word for Lardo.

Opened by Eliza Flanagan, formerly general manager of Bistrotheque, and Young British Foodie, Matt Bedell, in July this year, the menu is short and not too stretching.  Head Chef Damian Currie, formerly at Zucca and St John Bread & Wine should ensure a keen following.

Carnivores could be disappointed unless they make the most of the charcuterie, though I hear there is suckling pig to be had some days.  With carefully sourced pork from Graham Waddington of Native Breeds, and a preference for the rare, curly-haired, Mangalitza pig, the team spent a year working to perfect their own charcuterie.  The resultant coppa, cured loin, salami and lardo are served up as small plates and sometimes used on pizzas. Charcuterie and Pizza pretty much sums up Lardo.  A madly glitzy disco ball oven squats in the corner of the open kitchen, its gaping jaws hungry for wood throughout service.  Thin, crispy disks of dough are draped with thoughtful seasonal toppings.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana
There are a few non-meat small plates too - with an emphasis on the small.  On two separate visits we ate a good slice of Melanzane alla Parmigiana served at just the right temperature to appreciate the flavours; a beautifully fresh plate of Broad beans, pea shoots, pecorino and mint served with pretty good focaccia; and three of the pizzas - Courgette, goats' cheese, and anchovy; a Lardo with rocket; and a classic Margherita.  All the pizzas were good but it was the most beautiful to look at, courgette (pictured above), which became a little dry and boring towards the end.  Nothing a slug of good olive oil wouldn't have fixed.  As yet I've failed to get as far as the puddings.

Housed in the ground floor of the warehouse-like Arthaus building, it's a 5 minute walk from London Fields railway station.  Come December, that lovely disco ball of fire in the corner is going to make Lardo the cosiest winter spot in Hackney.

You can expect to pay around £4-7 for small plates and £8 or £9 for pizzas, so it makes for a very reasonable meal.  There's a decent range of European wines on the drinks list plus freshly squeezed juices, but so far I'm afraid I've failed to progress beyond those Limonade and Bitter Lemon Sipsmith gin cocktails.

197-205 Richmond Road
London  E8 3NJ
Tel: 020 8985 2683
Open 7 days a week

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Le Coq Rico, Paris - Classy Chicken & Chips

Le Coq Rico

Given the fact you can eat your way around the globe in London, it's surprising how difficult it is to find a good plate of chicken and chips.  Not that we don't have an abundance of unfortunate 'Chicken Shops', but these I will gloss over.  What I'm looking for is top quality chicken, expertly roasted, served with its precious juice and a little garlic with a cone of perfectly cooked chips alongside.  Maybe with a simple, fresh properly dressed green salad.  I'm looking for a place that honours the bird and knows how to use every morsel to best effect.

Le Cafe Anglais  in Bayswater and Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden both do a pretty good job of roasting a chicken, and then there is Mark Hix's Tramshed in Shoreditch.  I can't comment on the Tramshed.  When Hix removes the Damien Hirst cow with a chicken on its back I'll give it a go.  There are one or two new openings in London but they look to the American way rather than the French - and if you want marinades, BBQ, onion rings and Philly cheese that's fine.  I don't.  What I'm looking for is focus, somewhere that makes poultry the star, not something to carry a myriad of flavours.

In Paris they know how to do this, though it's not as easy to find a good one as you might think.  Good butchers sometimes have a small rotisserie outside.  Anyone who's been to Paris has experienced that  aroma of roasting chicken drawing you down the street.  You can take home a roasted Poulet Fermier and, if you are lucky, some potatoes which have been cooked under the spit in the Lèchefrite.  There are plenty of restaurants serving Poulet Frites but, until now, a really good one celebrating the chicken has eluded me.

Montmartre is not where I would normally head in Paris.  I prefer to catch glimpsed views of Le Sacré Coeur by glancing up the steep streets of the 9th Arrondissement, but on a late summer's day it proved the ideal place to be.  A beautiful day, quiet streets and a perfect lunch spot on rue Lepic.  Le Coq Rico came recommended by a Parisian who knows, and he was right.

The restaurant is small and intimate without that tight-squeeze feeling you so often find in Paris.  The bar - always my first choice - provides a sleek, black granite topped view of the kitchen action.   A full- on view of the rotisserie is a wonderful thing.  Add to that a chance to observe Chef Thierry Lébé and his young team running a thoroughly professional kitchen and it's perfection.  There's focus, attention to detail and pride here.

Starters and mains revolve around chicken, guinea fowl, duck, goose and pigeon, all with detailed provenance, sourced from the regions of France that raise the very best of each kind of fowl.   Hearts are seared, gizzards confited, wings lacquered and terrines and rillettes produced for starters.  You can even have a luscious take on the boiled egg.  The rotisserie takes care of most of the mains but there's a dish of Poule au Pot too.

This being our first visit we played it safe with the quarter Challans chicken and frights with an impeccable vinaigrette-dressed salad.  The chicken was tender, moist, crispy-skinned and full of flavour - everything a rotisserie chicken should be.  Served with chicken gravy and roast garlic, it was perfect, as was the large cone of twice, or thrice, fried chips.  The one dessert we tried was good but when I order Clafoutis Peche I expect more of a batter pudding than a sponge - far be it for me to tell the French how to cook Clafoutis, it was delicious anyway.  The Verbena ice cream which came with it was fantastic.  A glass of Brouilly each and mineral water brought the bill to 72 Euros for two, though you can eat much more expensively.

Le Coq Rico only opened in January this year and is from the same stable as the highly regarded Drouant and Mon Vieil Ami.  All three are overseen by Alsatian chef Antoine Westerman.

Back in London, I hear Nick Jones of Soho House is set to open "Chicken Shop' in Kentish Town.  Maybe that will push my buttons but if, once again, I'm disappointed I'll just have to keep taking the Eurostar to Le Coq Rico where they know how to do this sort of thing.

Le Coq Rico
98 rue Lepic
75018 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)1 42 59 82 89
Open 7 days a week

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Classic Pasta Carbonara

Classic Pasta Carbonara

I've eaten many versions of the classic pasta dish 'Carbonara'.  Given how few ingredients it takes to make the sauce it's amazing how different they have each been.  Although carbonara is regarded as a classic, there's no recorded recipe before the 1940's.  Certainly there's no mention of it in Pellegrino Artusi's opus La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene published in 1891, nor in Ada Boni's La Cucina Romana published in 1927, so it's a relative newcomer in pasta sauces.  The name is generally attributed to the charcoal workers in the Lazio region of Italy - Carbonari - so it's mostly found in and around Rome.

This recipe is based on Jacob Kenedy's which is in his book The Geometry of Pasta.  The recipe caught my attention because it calls for guanciale, cured pig's cheek, rather than pancetta.  Having recently found a source of this hard to find cured pork, I wanted to make the most of it.  Guanciale has a lovely piggy flavour and a particular fattiness which emulsifies beautifully with the other ingredients the recipe calls for.  Carbonara is a rich sauce so you may as well go the whole hog, so to speak.  This is not a dish for the calorie conscious, or as Kenedy puts it, it's " ... almost a heart attack on a plate" but it is "surely a good way to go ..."

Obviously the shape of dried pasta chosen makes a difference too.  Opinion is divided as to which is best.  Personally, I like to use spaghetti or linguine. Jacob Kenedy prefers bucatini.  I've adjusted the quantities to suit the appetite of my family and, because I don't like pasta with too much sauce, but essentially this is Kenedy's recipe and method.  For me, it's the best - so far.

Pasta Carbonara
(Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main)

175g spaghetti/linguine (or other dried pasta)
100g guanciale (or pancetta) in a 3mm thick slice, then cut into lardons 
1 dessertspoon olive oil
2 small eggs
60g grated Pecorino Romano or parmesan, plus extra to serve
Lots of freshly crushed black pepper 

While you cook the dried pasta, fry the guanciale in the olive oil over a high heat until the fat blisters and browns but is still soft (being fatty, it will smoke).  Take the pan off the heat.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the cheese and add the pepper.  Warm the bowl just a little over the boiling pasta water.  
Once cooked, drain the pasta and add to the guanciale, tossing to coat it in the fat.  Pour into the the bowl and stir well for a minute to partially thicken the egg.  Check the seasoning and serve with extra cheese on top.

My source of guanciale is The Ham & Cheese Co