Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Art of the Barbecue...

I have a confession. I am not a fan of the barbecue, per se. The moment the sun comes out the invitations start flooding in to join them for some al fresco fun and my heart sinks a little. Why? What, you may ask, could be nicer than getting back to nature, cooking in the open air?

In theory, nothing whatsoever. In fact, I love the idea. I love it so much that I even dust of my own barbie come May and start concocting elaborate marinades and debating which sort of charcoal to buy. The trouble is, however, that so many people (and I include myself in this) get it terribly, terribly wrong.

To illustrate my point, I'd like to tell you about a truly delicious barbecue I attended on Sunday. The host, an exemplary cook, got it spot on. A couple of nice chickens flattened and cut in half and a decent leg of lamb. Both respectively stuffed with herbs/studded with garlic and rosemary. On the barbecue (a large on, as you'll see above) for a sensible amount of time as we nibbled on smoked salmon on brown bread. Once cooked, the two meats were served simply with a wonderful tomatoey bean stew and/or a fresh-tasting coriander and chilli salsa (coriander, red chilli, olive oil and white wine vinegar). We finished with strawberries and cream.
So - what did this friend do right that so many people do wrong? Firstly, he can cook. Why is it that people who never normally pick up a pan miraculously transform into culinary geniuses once confronted with some hot coals and a set of tongs? What is more, he knows how to cook on a barbecue. Can anyone explain to me what is nice about food which is black and burnt on the outside and raw in the middle?

Secondly, he kept it fairly simple. Just two big bits of meat with lots of herbs. No sign of the usual burger, uncooked chicken leg, sausage medley jostled together on a plate with six different salads, not forgetting the barbecued jacket potatoes, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce. I love a banger in a bun, don't get me wrong, but just not every weekend for the entire summer. This sort of 'everything' barbecue should be saved for the good old British seaside holiday, ideally accompanied by a few spots of rain, when there is nothing so cheering.

Thirdly, there were non barbecued elements to his meal. The starter and pudding were a refreshing contrast to the smoky flavours of the chicken and lamb.

But the key, I think, lies in keeping it simple. The most successful barbecue I have cooked recently consisted of just one meat - a high quality butterflied leg of lamb. I cut slits in it and stuffed it with a whizzed up mix of parma ham, garlic, flat leaf parsley and anchovies. Sounds odd, but it was superb. I then barbecued some corn on the cob which I topped with a chilli and coriander butter, we had a green salad and some baby potatoes on skewers. No burgers. No sausages. No choice. And all so easy - I popped the lamb on and left it. No prodding/guarding required. Though fortunately I had my furry sous-chef to keep an eye on things for me....

The secret of my recent barbecuing success (which followed years of burnt sausage failure) was in purchasing a book entirely dedicated to the subject. And what is more, I have read it. I took notice of how hot the coals should be for the kind of cooking I wanted to do (different depending on the cut of meat, for example) and tips like wiping off excess marinade before placing on the grill to prevent flare-ups and therefore preventing burning. I have been more successful (and more confident) ever since.

The book that I suggest is the following....

'Barbecue', Eric Treuille and Brigit Erath, Dorling Kindersley

Watch this space for tips on barbecue-friendly wines....

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Banana Bread

There is nothing quite like a spot of baking. Saturday night aged 27 and single, I should probably be out flaunting my wares but last night dragged down by work deadlines I decided it would be better to stay in. And work. Working on a Saturday night is all wrong and it didn't take long before I felt the call of the cookery book. I had some over-ripe bananas sitting in the fruit bowl, all speckled and unattractive (not entirely unlike myself aged 13). They were crying out to be made into some delicious sort of cake. I hauled out Nigella's 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' and was delighted to find that I didn't even need a trip to the shop to whip up her very easy banana bread. It is very satisfying recipe to bake requiring very little effort, but enough to make you feel suitably smug as the kitchen fills with a glorious 'aromatic fug' (as Nigella herself describes it). I almost felt the need to invite some friends round so I could bask a little in my domestic glory.

I have been baking a fair bit recently. Living solo and being fairly rotund I felt for some time that I should never bake unless I was entertaining a crowd lest I got carried away and ate the spoils in one sitting. Recently it has come to my attention that nothing is more cheering in the office than a home-baked something-or-other to help us all through Monday morning. One quick e-mail to those seated on my floor and they swoop like hungry gannets, leaving nothing but a few crumbs and words of praise for my domestic prowess...


100g sultanas

75ml bourbon or dark rum

175g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarb of soda

1/2 tsp salt

125g unsalted butter

150g sugar

2 large eggs

4 small, very ripe bananas (about 300g without skin)

60g chopped walnuts

1 tsp vanilla extract

23 x 13 x 7cm loaf tin, buttered and floured or with paper insert

1. Place sultanas and rum/bourbon in a small pan, bring to boil and leave covered for an hour, or until sultanas have absorbed most of the liquid. Drain.

2. Preheat oven to 170c.

3. Mix flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt in medium bowl.

4. Melt butter and mix in a large bowl with sugar, until blended. Beat in eggs one at a time.

5. Mash the bananas with a fork and add to the wet mixture along with the drained sultanas, walnuts and vanilla extract.

6. Add flour mixture a third at a time.

7. Pour and scrape into loaf tin and bake for 1 hour/1 1/4 hours until a skewer comes out cleanish.

8. Leave in tin on a rack to cool and then serve sliced.

Notes - Nigella does not specify a type of sugar. I used half caster and half demerara as I love the combination of bananas with darker sugars.

This recipe comes from 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' by Nigella Lawson.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thai Pork Burgers with Sweet Potato Chips

This is an unlikely sounding recipe that is absolutely delicious. I urge you to try it. It is extremely quick and easy. The recipe came from my sister but I am not sure where she found it. The idea of adding soy sauce and nutmeg to the potatoes is from a Sophie Grigson recipe on http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/

Ingredients (for 4 burgers)

500g best quality pork mince (see notes)
1 red onion
1 tablespoon of Thai green chilli paste
1 large beef tomato
Large bunch coriander
Mayonnaise or creme fraiche
Sweet chilli sauce
Burger buns

1 large sweet potato per person
Olive oil
Light soy sauce
Nutmeg (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Scrub the potatoes and cut into large, chunky chips.
3. Toss in olive oil, a drizzle of light soy sauce and nutmeg. The potatoes should be coated but not submerged.
4. Place on baking tray in oven for 30-40 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, finely chop the onion and mix with the pork and green chilli paste. Add more of less depending on how hot you like your food and the strength of the paste - they do vary (see notes).
6. Shape the mixture into patties with floured hands

7. Heat a griddle pan and fry for around15-20 minutes, turning every so often, until the burgers are cooked though and piping hot in the middle.
8. While the burgers are cooking, chop a large handful of coriander and mix together with the mayo or creme fraiche. Slice the tomatoes.

9. Lightly toast the burger buns. Place burgers in buns, top with coriander mayonnaise, a slice of tomato and drizzle with a little sweet chilli sauce.
10. Serve with sweet potato chips and a nice crisp green salad.

Notes -
Use good quality pork mince. Avoid the very lean even if it is better for you - the burgers need some fat to hold together. The same is true for beef burgers - very lean meat will not keep its shape well.
Coriander mayonnaise is most delicious with this, but low fat creme fraiche is healthier and nice and cooling to offset the heat from the chilli.
As for the paste quantities, I use Barts chilli paste - 1 tablespoon was plenty for fairly firey burgers. Other brands are more/less hot so adjust accordingly.
Wine Notes - Spicy food works best with aromatic white wines. An Alsace Gewurztraminer would be excellent here. I didn't have one to hand so enjoyed Tim Adams Riesling, 2005 with this. It costs about £6.99 and is available from Tesco. It has a fresh limey flavour that complements the Thai spices very well and is also wonderfully refreshing. The wine comes from the Clare Valley, Australia - an excellent region for Riesling which favours a coolish climate.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


A strange thing has happened each of the three times I have eaten at Manicomio. It occurs when the bill arrives. The first time I was taken aback, caught unawares as it were. The second visit I had forgotten all about it until I examined the bottom line and recalled the slight sense of horrified confusion. Last night I was expecting it, as was my dining partner who upon sitting down said: 'I love it in here. Though something very strange happens every time the bill comes'. I nodded in sympathy and ordered a couple of glasses of (excellent) Prosecco.

Indeed it does seem inexplicable as to how our bill could possibly have reached the dizzying heights of £107 last night. There were just two of us. I had pasta, she had risotto. Sure, we had some wine. And starters. But really, £107? There must be some mistake.

No, readers, no mistake.

You may now assume that I will not be heading back here again. Ah. Well here is the strange thing - the bill arrived, and whilst baffled, I really didn't care. As with the other 3 occasions (plus one more, where I didn't get to see the bill - my favourite kind of dining), I left thinking what a delightful evening I had had. This is baffling for several reasons. Let me spell them out...

1. I hate being ripped off.
2. My pasta was not at all good.
3. My companion had to send her starter back.
4. The service was poor (although the waiters were not only gorgeous, but charming in a very Italian sort of way). We had to ask for bread 3 times, for example.

So what was so great about it? Well, two of the dishes ordered were sublime. My bresaola was superb. I'm a traditional at heart and asked for it to be served with Parmesan, lemon juice and olive oil rather than the goats' cheese dressing which I just wasn't in the mood for. My requests were accepted with good grace. The bresaola was some of the best I've had - melt-in-the-mouth soft with great flavour. And my friend's asparagus risotto was outrageously good. My food envy was embarrassing as my fork hovered above her dish. This was seasonal food at its very best. The flavour was wonderful, the texture perfection. I can still taste it now. Heaven...

Her starter was good too. Eventually. The very best Mozzarella with anchovies and roasted peppers. The first attempt was dry and rubbery. The second, much better. My pasta was disappointing, but it was my own fault. I ordered badly - it was a bit doughy and involved some rather un-cooked peas, but the overall flavour of the sauce was good.

We ordered a bottle of Gavi de Gavi which was disappointingly flat. But it did not dampen our spirits as we drooled over the risotto and gazed at the dreamy waiters in their smart blue and white checked shirts. We were too full for the dolci, but these looked amazing and not particularly Italian - I am not a particular fan of Italian puddings so plus points for this. Rhubarb tart and chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream caught my eye.

Non-pasta main courses also sounded delicious and change according to the seasons. These are pretty pricey though. You have been warned.

Manicomio succeeds in combining the atmosphere of the 'local Italian' (think shared jokes with the waiters, buzzing atmosphere, fresh ingredients cooked simply) with something altogether more sophisticated and suited to the Chelsea clientele. Outdoor heaters make alfresco dining a possibility on all but the of the dreariest of May days whilst indoors is stylish without being soul-less.

So, plus points and minus points. It is not the place to go for a cheap bite to eat. I think I have made that clear. And don't even bother trying to work out how the bill came to be that high. Just enjoy it. And order that risotto....

Manicomio, 85 Duke of York Square, London SW3
Tel - 0871 0757185

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chicken with a smoky Burgundy bacon sauce

So, it just so happened that we had a big Burgundy tasting at work today. I wasn't involved in this one, but fortunately I did get to benefit from the left overs. I bought home a bottle of Dujac's Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru aux Combottes, 2001. Lucky me. As so often is the case, my meal began with the wine rather than the food. What would I cook to set off the Burgundy? Nothing too complex, I wanted the wine to shine. It was important that the food did not overwhelm.
I got home late, so no time to hunt out anything particularly exciting in terms of ingredients. In other circumstances (and at other times of year), I might have gone for a game bird (!) of some description. Quail, pheasant. Nothing too strong. In the end I selected some good quality chicken breasts and made a delicious sauce to accompany. When I got home, I discovered that my potatoes were sprouting, so opted instead for sweet potato. It wasn't perfect and next time I'll go for normal mash.
2 chicken breasts
1 large red onion, roughly chopped
A large handful of mushrooms, sliced.
3 rashers of smoked bacon, chopped into small pieces
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 and a half large glasses of red Burgundy
1 tablespoon redcurrant jelly
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Herbs (see notes)
1. Pre-heat over to 200C
2. Heat oil in a pan and brown the chicken breasts on either side.
3. Transfer to baking tray, season, add herbs and half glass of wine. Roast in oven for 15-20 minutes (dependent on size of chicken breasts - check that cooked through).
4. Meanwhile, in same frying pan, soften red onions with the garlic - 5 mins.
5. Add the smoked bacon and fry with onions for further 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and fry until soft.
6. Turn up heat and pour over 1 glass of wine. Add redcurrant jelly. Simmer and reduce by one third.
7. Taste and season the sauce.
8. Remove chicken from oven and spoon over the sauce. Serve with mashed potatoes/gratin dauphinoise and green beans or broccoli.
Notes - I used a sprinkling of mixed dried herbs, but fresh thyme would be delicious - add with the wine to the roasting dish.
It is vital to use smoked bacon - the smokiness goes so well with the Burgundy wine.
When cooking with wine, always use wine that you would be happy to drink yourself. The food will only be as good as the wine you use. Do not on any account use out of condition wine/wine that has been sitting around for a week.

English Asparagus

Possibly the best thing about May (along with the two bank holidays and improving weather) is the fact that English asparagus is in season. I have yet to taste better and am invariably disappointed with out of season offerings and the thick, white asparagus that one finds readily 'on the continent' simply does not float my boat in the same way that the the beautifully vibrant green variety does. Incidentally, I spotted some purple asparagus in Marks and Spencer today... Must give it a try.

I've not much further to say about asparagus. Tonight I treated myself to an asparagus starter of the simplest kind. I love to roast fresh stems with a little olive oil and sea salt for around 15 minutes at 200C. Then I drizzle over a touch of balsamic vinegar and top with shavings of really good Parmesan. No balsamic vinegar? A squeeze of lemon juice always works a treat too. I prefer this simple dish to the more traditional hollandaise sauce, though perhaps this is because I am inherently lazy and favour the simple and speedy...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The best chicken salad (with honey and mustard)

This is one of my favourite late spring/early summer suppers. It is summery in that it is a salad, but substantial enough that you don't feel like you've been short-changed when you are hungry. I've even served this for supper to strapping young men and they too seem satisfied (...but maybe they are just being polite).

It doesn't actually matter what you put into it. Whatever is in the fridge will do. But there are certain key elements. The chicken with its honey and mustard marinade. Roasted red onions or shallots. Smoked bacon. Avocado. I include here the basic recipe that I put together for my mother and I on Monday night. I haven't included quantities - you'll know how much to throw in depending on the numbers! If you are weighing things out then you are defeating the object of an easy, throw-it-all-together supper.

1 chicken breast per person
Runny honey
Lemon juice
Dijon mustard
Wholegrain mustard

Baby new potatoes
Red onions or shallots (1 per person, if small)
Smoked bacon
Sugar snap peas
Green asparagus (English, when in season, is hugely preferable)
Pine nuts
Mixed leaves (I favour a mix of rocket, watercress and spinach)
Tomatoes (take your pick - I like sweet baby ones with lots of flavour)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 200C. Place a baking tray in the oven with some olive oil in the base to heat up. Roughly chop red onions into wedges. Roast in the oven for 30-40 minutes, seasoned with salt and pepper. Drizzle over a little balsamic vinegar towards the end. ace
2. Slice chicken breasts into strips. Place into a bowl and drizzle over runny honey, equal quantities of Dijon and wholegrain mustard and a good squeeze of lemon juice. For 2, I would suggest a tablespoon of honey, a teaspoon of each mustard and half a lemon. Cover with film and put in fridge for half an hour.

3. Par-boil the new potatoes until just tender. Chop in half any large ones.
4. Whilst potatoes are cooking, sprinkle the pine nuts into a dry, non-stick frying pan and dry fry with no fat. When they start to brown, they are ready - remove them from heat. Keep a close eye on them as they turn from lightly bronzed to burnt in a matter of seconds!
5. Steam or boil both the asparagus tips and the sugar snap peas until just tender (al dente). Set to one side to cool a little.
6. Chop or snip the bacon into small pieces and fry in its own fat (add a little oil or butter if bacon very lean). When bacon nearly cooked, add a little fat and fry the potatoes.
7. Start to build the salad - leaves, cucumber, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, bacon, pine nuts....

8. Finally heat a little oil in a non-stick pan, slop in the chicken and cook gently until thoroughly cooked. Spoon over the salad and top with the asparagus as per the first picture.

Notes -
No dressing is needed due to the juices from the marinade, but a little balsamic vinegar may enhance the salad.

English asparagus is, in my mind, vastly superior to any other type. It is one of the things we do well. Let's celebrate it! The season is criminally short, so make the most of it. I also love it roasted and finished with olive oil, lemon juice and shavings of Parmesan.

Wine suggestions -

There are lots of flavours here. I'd be inclined to go with a fairly crisp white with no oak. Asparagus is the trickiest ingredient - it has a strong flavour which can make some wines taste unpleasantly metallic. The best match is sauvignon blanc. We drank Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc, 2006 from Marlborough, New Zealand.

Friday, May 04, 2007

City Merchant, Glasgow

On Tuesday work took me to Glasgow and I was disappointed when one of my favourite Glasgow eateries (The Babbity Bowster) had taken final food orders by the time we arrived. I had been looking forward to it. The next contender would have to be seriously good to haul me out of my well of disappointment. We stumbled upon the City Merchant. It looked busy. Always a good sign late on a Tuesday.
The restaurant is so named as it is located in the area where wealthy merchants once built their mansions and opened up fruit and fish markets. Their website informs me that the area also housed many inns, some of 'notorious ill repute'.
The City Merchant is essentially a seafood restaurant, specialising in local, typically Scottish produce. On being shown to our table we passed a large fish counter housing a dazzling display of dressed crabs, gleaming lobsters and bright-eyed fish. Promising. As I am unable to eat shellfish, I selected a rather conventional starter - smoked salmon with home-pickled cucumber and granary bread. It was the best I have had in some time. Mildly smoked with a wonderful melt-in-the-mouth texture quite unlike the shiny, fluorescent variety so often found in even the best supermarket ranges. And the pickled cucumber was the perfect accompaniment. My colleague opted for the crab which was good, but not as good as the salmon.
The restaurant also caters for the carnivore with a tempting selection of Scottish beef and game. We had both had our heart set on something meaty. I opted for the duck with was served with a marmalade sauce and potatoes 'seasoned with prunes and ginger'. This was less successful. Quite how one can 'season' potatoes with prunes, I have no idea! The duck itself was delicious - flavoursome, tender, a little pink. But it was completely overwhelmed by the sauce which was just too... marmaladey. Sweet, sticky and cloying. Not at all good. It would have been improved if the duck skin had been crispy too. My colleague's venison with herb and black pudding dumpling and a rowan jus was, however, 'just the trick'. The venison was meltingly tender and cooked to perfection. I was sorry that he was a colleague. If not, I would have had a serious case of 'wandering fork syndrome'. It looked excellent.
Puddings were traditional and good. We sampled 'selection' including cranachan ice cream, clootie dumpling and chocolate mousse. This time I was allowed to sample the clootie dumpling. It was very good indeed, reminding me somewhat of a spicy and slightly lighter version of bread pudding. I opted for the baked cranachan Alaska. This impressive creation featured a fresh berry tartlet topped with the aforementioned cranachan ice cream and smothered in a just-baked meringue. Superb. Although I would have preferred a traditional sponge base rather than the rather try pastry case.
The wine list was fairly comprehensive although the selection by the glass was a little uninspired. We started with a very mediocre Chardonnay from Argentina and then moved on to a slightly better red from Spain's Priorat region. The oak seemed a bit clumsy but it was reasonably good.
The restaurant has an irritatingly naff tagline 'Discover the value of good eating'. Good eating - yes. On the whole it was good. However, I wouldn't say it was especially good value. Our bill came to £105 for two, including wine. Not astronomical by any means, but certainly not a bargain. I'll settle on a fair price for some good Scottish favourites.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Breakfast Rant...

I have just returned from a work-related 'jaunt' to Scotland where I was hosting wine tastings in Perth and Glasgow. I travel a fair bit with work and am fairly well-versed in the grottiest hotels in the UK. In fact, I feel another blog coming on...
When staying away from home on a regular basis for business you reach a stage where you develop a mental checklist of requirements for your hotel room/facilities. Sadly most of the hotels that fall within the work budget do not meet my exacting standards (!). Actually, I think my needs are fairly simple - a spotless room, a bath as well as a shower, an iron, tea-making facilites and somewhere to put my suitcase.
Clearly I have a few items on the checklist relating to breakfast. Again, I am a simple soul. I do not need the 'full works' (I am round enough as it is, I can assure you. Never trust a skinny cook!). Just some toast, fruit and perhaps a yoghurt. Surely you can't go wrong here? Unfortunately, dear reader, you can. Jam. It all boils down to jam. Why oh why oh why do certain establishments insist on those horrendous plastic individual portions of jam/marmalade? So awful. I judge a place almost entirely on the jam containers. A small individual glass jar - perfect. A horrible plastic excuse for a pot - urgh.
The next problem is Marmite. Or rather, the lack of it. I would hazard that a high proportion of the British population enjoy a slice of toast with Marmite for breakfast. So why do no hotels serve Marmite amongst their plastic containers of jam/honey/marmalade? What about those of us who prefer a savoury spread in the morning? I am even prepared to eat it out of one of the aforementioned plastic containers (do you know the ones I mean? They have nasty plastic film that you peel back to reveal the lurid shimmering artificial jam that has never been acquainted with a raspberry).
Why the picture at the top of this post? This is the breakfast menu from my otherwise charming Perth hotel. My question is this. What on earth would happen if I wanted - god forbid - to have sausage and scrambled egg for breakfast? Would all hell break loose in the kitchen?