Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Cool as a Cucumber

Cucumber Salad

'Cool as a cucumber' (idiom) - calm, self-possessed, imperturbable, unruffled.  This most definitely does not describe my state with the thermometer now pushing 33C in London and humidity touching 90%.  We Brtis are wimps when it comes to heat.  Well, at least this Brit is.  I'm trying every trick I know not to open the oven or heat up the hotplate.  Cooling salads and fruit desserts are all I want right now and I know I'm not alone.  Far be it for me to rain on the parade of you super-sunners out there, but I'm from the cold north and I could do with a bit of respite.

Until then, I'm making the most of cucumber because actually 'cool as a cucumber' is not just an idiom. Scientists have concluded that cucumber is one of the best things you can eat to cool down in a heatwave, largely thanks to its high water content.

So, it's not just that boring *fruit that you slice and use to ease puffy eyes - though at the moment I'm happy to use it that way too.  However you choose to use them,  UK cucumbers are cropping right now.  Early in the season you don't need to peel or salt them to remove excess water content.  They're best served cold and crunchy, straight from the fridge - bliss.

This recipe is my interpretation of a dish I ate recently at 40 Maltby Street.  It makes a great, refreshing and cooling light lunch with little effort expended, and that's exactly what I need.  It's not too far from a cucumber raita and could also be served as an accompaniment to spicy meat or fish.  Cucumbers originated in the Indian sub-continant where they know a thing about turning down the heat.

Cucumber Salad
(less a recipe more an assembly)

Small cucumbers
Plain yogurt
Mint, chopped
Shallot, very thinly sliced
Lemon Juice
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & pepper
Pea shoots

Add the thinly sliced shallots to the lemon juice and leave to 'cook' for 15 minutes.
Whisk olive oil into the lemon juice/shallot mix to make a vinaigrette (I use ratio lemon to oil 1:5)
Thinly slice the cucumbers (peel only if skins are tough).
Mix the chopped mint into the yogurt and place spoonfuls onto individual plates.  Top with slices of cucumber and the pea shoots, followed by the shallot vinaigrette.  Season with salt and pepper.

*As it has an enclosed seed and is developed from a flower, botanically cucumber is classified as an 'accessory fruit'.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Cherries with almonds & Sabayon sauce

Cherries & green almonds

The first English cherries have arrived with early varieties Inga and Merchant making an appearance at market over the weekend.  Warmed in the last few days by a sun we had almost forgotten existed, the Ingas are slightly tarter and firmer than the Merchants.  So, while we're feasting on handfuls of the latter, I decided to make a dessert of the Inga cherries.  With temperatures hovering around 30C in London I had no wish to heat up the kitchen any further, so it had to be something easy and cooling.

Cherries, green almonds, Sabayon

Having picked up a handul of the last of the fresh velour-overcoated green almonds at market and with some elderflower cordial in the larder, I had a head start.  Mature almonds will work fine but if the cherries and the green almonds happen to overlap, it's a nice way of using the early nuts which are milky and fresh tasting.

So far, so easy; but what to add to make it look like I'd made an effort without expending much time or energy at all?  A thin cooled custard perhaps?  Then I thought how long it had been since I'd made a sabayon or zabaglione, whichever you prefer to call it.  Dairy-free and cloud-like, it seemed just right for a hot summer's day.

Cherries, green almonds, Sabayon sauce

Sabayon is so easy to make and I find Jane Grigson's advice the best.  It takes only 2 minutes whisking with an electric whisk if you want a warm frothy sauce to eat immediately, 5 minutes to produce a 'creamier' one. If you want to make it up to an hour ahead (the one in the photographs above), you just need to keep whisking it off the heat until it has cooled.  This stops it separating before you get to eat it.

Cherries with almonds & Sabayon sauce
(Serves 4)

300g cherries
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
1-2 teaspoons caster sugar
4-5 almonds

For the Sabayon:
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons sweet white wine, Marsala or elderflower cordial

Wash, halve and de-stone the cherries over a bowl.  Add the Elderflower cordial and sugar.  Allow to macerate for at least 30 minutes.

For the Sabayon, put all three ingredients in a heatproof bowl.  Place over a pan of just simmering water so that the bowl is not touching the water.  Whisk for about 2 minutes until pale and uniformly frothy - at this point you could serve it immediately as a warm sauce. 
For a 'lightly-whipped single cream' consistency for immediate serving, continue whisking over the pan for another 4-5 minutes.
If you want the sauce to stand for an hour without separating, take the bowl off the heat and continue whisking for a further 4-5 minutes until the mixture has cooled and thickened a little more. 
Drain the fruit and serve - sauce or fruit first is up to you.  Top with slivers of almond and a sprig or two of mint.

The excess juice from the macerated cherries makes a lovely drink topped up with water.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Stockholm Summer

Nacka Strand, Stockholm, around midnight early July

It took me a few hours to get my bearings on my first visit to Stockholm.  Spread out over a series of islands, the task of getting around everywhere on a short visit can seem a little daunting.  That is, until you realise that getting around on foot is great, taxis are expensive and rates vary, but the public transport system is fantastic.  The Arlanda Express train from the airport to the centre of town takes 20 minutes.  It has much in common with our London Heathrow Express - fast, efficient and expensive - but in summer they do a 2 for 1 offer to ease the pain.  Tickets are available at the airport Information Desk where you can also pick up city maps .  You arrive at T-Centralen station.  Do not despair, the areas around railway stations are never good and it gets much better, believe me.

Johan & Nyström

The Swedes, I was told, are obsessed with coffee.  What, more so than Londoners?  After my visit to Sweden last week I can't say I saw any evidence of their capital city out-drinking London in any way, but to 'f'ika' - to spend time having coffee - is certainly an important part of their day.  So, of course, once we'd checked into our hotel we went native.  We had a little help.  'The White Guide Cafe' is an invaluable little book (and there's an App) rating the best of the coffee shops in Sweden.  With only 48 hours in Stockholm we were never going to get around too many of them but we sniffed out the best on Södermalm.  Johan & Nyströat Swedenborgsgatan 7 is a lovely place with skilled and enthusiastic staff.  Yes, the Aeropress, the Chemex and the Siphon are all there, but it was simply great tasting coffee.  In addition to the delicious espressos we  tried what I'm calling a 'cooled brew' as I've never come across it before - coffee brewed hot then put on ice (no not an iced coffee).  The result was beautifully clean-tasting, full-flavoured Kenyan coffee.  Johan & Nyström also won on price, incidentally, and they had the best cinnamon and cardamom buns, which I learned they get from Dessert & Choklad).

Dessert & Choklad

Södermalm, or Söder, by the way, is the island/area we found most interesting.  It's also where you'll find the Terminal Slussen Bus and Metro Station.  We found buying 24 hour SL cards invaluable for getting around by metro, bus and tram.  The various ferries linking the islands are great too but the SL card isn't valid on all of them, so check.

Pärlans Konfektyr

Only on our return to London did I learn that the writer Stieg Larsson took inspiration from Söder in its grittier days.  It's lively with a good mix of rough and smooth, unhip and trendy with small businesses setting up on unprepossessing streets.  One such is Pärlans Konfektyr at Nytorgsgatan 38.  Here you'll find the most delightful toffee shop you could hope to come across.  You feel just like you've walked into a 1940's film with caramel makers beavering away in the workshop to your left and the shop sales conducted by Greer Garson in Mrs Miniver's front parlour.  It's a joy to find such a focused business, run by young staff, making and selling a really good product with such style.  The caramels are hand-made and have just the right degree of chewyness.  Sweets such as 'Salt Likrits' (salt liquorice) and Mandel & Vanilj (almond and vanilla) are subtly flavoured to perfection.  They also sell jars of caramel spread and just a few other sweets.  The finishing touch is the the hand-stamping and wrapping.  Don't miss.

Riddarholmskyrkhan, Stockholm
Also on Söder: 
Fabrique Bakery, Rosenlundsgatan 28 (bakery and coffee) and Gögatan 24 (bakery) and other branches - Londoners may have come across Fabrique Bakery in Hoxton, which I rate highly.    
Drop Coffee, Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 10 - rated very highly in The White Guide; we had our most expensive (3.60kr) and mostdisappointing espresso - a strange wheaty aroma and flavour, which I'm told could be down to a very light roasting of 'green' beans.  Maybe just not to my taste.
Urban Deli, Nytorget 4 - at this hip restaurant and deli we found the wait long, the wine thin and the food average, but nobody seemed to mind at all.
Saltå Kvarn,  Renstiernas gata 27 is a small grocers which started out milling organic and biodynamic flours. Unfortunately it was closed for the summer break when I visited, denying me the chance not only to see what their products were like but to ogle the rather beautiful packaging.
Fotografiska, Stradsgardshmann 22 is Sweden's Museum of Photography.  They had 3 really good exhibitions on when we visited, and the top floor houses a cafe rated for its coffee and offering a fantastic view across to the main island, Gamla Stan (the old town) and the island of Djurgården.

Snickarbacken 7, Stockholm
Moving to the Östermalm district on the main island, where I would recommend to eat is P.A. & Co, Riddargatan 8 (Metro Östermalmstorez) where we ate a dish close to every Swede's heart - meatballs.  Now, I've been to Berlin and utterly failed to be seduced by their obsession with Currywurst, so it was with some trepidation that I ordered 'the meatballs'.  How wrong could I be, they were fantastic.  Two mains, 2 large glasses of good Cotes du Rhone 560kr plus service.

Östermalms Saluhall is the traditional indoor food market in Stockholm that  has been serving local people since 1888.  It's small and intimate with some very good food stalls - notably J. E. Olsson & Söner - and bars where I wish we'd had time to eat.  Next time we surely will.

Also in Östermalm:
Snickarbacken 7 - P.A. & Co. came recommended by Catti Åman of the retail collective Snickarbacken 7 off Birger Jarlsgatan, central Stockholm. This clothes shop, coffee bar, art space, music store is a great place to 'fika' and browse.

Djurgården is the greenest part of Stockholm and a great place to walk or take a tram.  
Rosendals Trădgård - is a biodynamic garden with an "ecological" cafe and a small deli/gift shop.  I have to say I was underwhelmed by the cafe food on offer but it was after lunchtime.  A plus point is you can take a tray out into the lovely gardens.  They do have a wood-fired oven in the bakery producing delicious bread and they sell excellent conserves, typical of Sweden.   The corner of a field planted with phacelia was a beautiful sight, and the nearby compound of wolves a surprising one.

Rosendals Trădgård, Stockholm

For places to stay, I'd recommend the Hotel J at Nacka Strand.  It's a 20 minute ferry or 10 minute bus ride from central Stockholm.  Usually, I like to be in the centre of town but this proved a good choice.  Apart from the ease of public transport, it's reasonably priced, really peaceful and right by the water. There's an America's Cup theme to the hotel, the 'J' referring to the J Class yachts, and there's a New England feel to it.  The rooms are good and fairly spacious with small balconies.  I'd definitely recommend booking a room with a view.  It serves a great breakfast in an old Villa just below the hotel and the hotel's restaurant is right at the water's edge a 3 minute stroll away.  The staff were lovely, but then everyone we came across in Sweden was.

On my next visit I'd like to get to restaurant Djuret, Lilla Nygatan 5 on the island of Gamla Stan.  It was recommended to me by one of my favourite London chefs.  Disappointingly it closes in July for summer holidays.  One coffe place I would try to get to another time is Mean Coffee at Vasagatan 38, close to Terminal Centralen - mainly because it came recommended by someone from Johan & Nyström.

Wild Bilberries at J.E. Olsson & Söner, Ostermalm Saluhall

Dining out can be expensive in Sweden, with hefty taxes on wine, but portions tend to be large so don't over-order, and do go there! I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Gooseberry Polenta Cake

Gooseberry Polenta Cake

I have a taste for tart things.  Seeing a scattering of sacrificial fruits around the base of my green gooseberry bush is all the encouragement I need to start picking.  This year the bush is heavy with fruit and, left to its own devices, it would jettison far too many berries, thereby providing a feast for the slugs, bugs, birds and beasts.  Whilst I don't begrudge the wildlife a living, I jealously guard my green gooseberry bush.  Removing a couple of kilos of fruit now will stop the 'fruit drop' in its tracks and enable the remaining fruit to plump up, turn golden, and sweeten in the summer sun.  I watch out for those thorns though - I have the battle scars to attest to their viciousness.

Gooseberry 'Invicta'

Gooseberries grow best in cool, damp climates so England is excellent.  Arguably, in Scotland they grow even better.  There they are known as 'grosarts', but I grew up knowing them as 'Goosegogs'.  Given a bit of heat and sun, later in the season you can reduce the amount of sugar you need to add to them.  Usually, they are the first fruits of Spring and the bushes can remain productive into August.  I have to confess a liking for the sharp, young, green fruits.  You may have to add a bit more sweetener to the early ones but you can always add a leaf or two of Sweet Cicely (remove it after cooking) instead of extra sugar.  Sweet Cicely shows perfect timing by being around just in time for early gooseberries.  If you want a sweeter gooseberry, wait a few weeks or go for a red variety like Pax. It's worth saying again, in case you don't know it,that gooseberries pair wonderfully with elderflowers. Imparting a muscat flavour, the Elder produces its flowers at just the right time too.

Slice of Gooseberry Polenta Cake

The gooseberry is a versatile fruit with a high level of vitamin C.  Being also high in pectin it makes good jams.  Made into compote or chutney it is great for cutting oily fish such as mackerel, or fatty meats like pork or, indeed, goose.  Gooseberry fool is probably my favourite way of using them, but the fruit is very good served with a syllabub or in a crumble, pie or tart.  I've put some links to recipes at the bottom of this post but here's one for a gooseberry cake.  It uses polenta to soak up the juices in the bottom of the cake tin and to provide a crunchy top layer.  

Gooseberry Polenta Cake
(for an 18-20cm cake - enough for 6-8)

450g (1 lb) green gooseberries
60g (2 oz) caster sugar
1 elderflower head or 1-2 tbsp elderflower cordial (optional)
85g(3 oz) coarse polenta
140g (5 oz) plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
110g (4 oz) caster sugar
110g (4oz) cold butter, diced
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 medium egg mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon demerara sugar

Pre-heat an oven to 180C (160C fan oven).  Wash, top and tail the gooseberries.  Place in a pan with the 60g of caster sugar, (if using; add the elderflower head wrapped in muslin) and cook the fruit until just bursting.  (If you've used the elderflower head, remove it and discard).  (If you're using cordial, add it now).  Allow the gooseberries to cool completely.  
Lightly butter an 18cm round deep or 20cm shallow cake tin (4.5cm deep is ideal), preferably loose-bottomed.  Mix the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt together then rub in the cold, diced butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Stir in the 100g caster sugar and the lemon zest.  Mix in the egg and milk to form a fairly sticky dough.  
Cover the base of the tin with two thirds of the mix forming a slight lip.  If the gooseberry mixture is very wet, drain off the excess liquid.  Spread the softened gooseberries on the top, not quite to the edge.  Top with the remaining soft dough in random blobs so that the fruit isn't completely covered but paying attention to the edges to stop the fruit leaking out and sticking to the tin.  Sprinkle the tablespoon of demerara sugar on top.  Bake for 30-35  minutes until golden brown.  Leave for 10 minutes before turning out.  

The cake is good served warm or cold with cream and with any leftover gooseberry juice poured over it.  The cake keeps well for a couple of days but will inevitably lose its crunchiness.

Other recipes for gooseberries:

Gooseberry Elderflower Syllabub
Gooseberry Meringue Pie

Recipe inspired by Nigel Slater's 'Rhubarb Polenta Cake'