Monday, 30 November 2009

Happiness is...

I often like to take little snaps of foodie things that have made me content or just laugh out loud. Just quick pix with my crappy mobile phone. They don't really merit a whole blog post on their own, but, being a bit of a food nerd, I think they're worth a quick mention. On the left, you can see a bowl of porridge I ate at the Spitalfields branch of Leon. What made it so special were the Valhrona chocolate flakes and strawberry compote they put on top. Not sickly - simply delicious (and it almost makes me forgive Leon for no longer using free range chicken in their meals...but that's another story.)

Below, observe a blackbird singing from inside a chicken pie my husband made - cute, huh? And yes, the chicken was free range (not sure about the blackbird)!

This handsome cheese plate was set upon by several of us (in the manner of hungry dogs) at Tapas Brindisa in Soho one rainy Saturday afternoon. I had a monstrous hangover - this seemed to help steer me back into normality again:

The toasted sandwich below may not look like much, but believe me, it is mighty. This is one of the best things you can order at Crystal Palace's superlative brunch cafe Domali (a real local fave of mine) in SE London: you can be having the worst possible day and one of these toasties will envelop you like a warm hug. I ask for the exact same filling every time: tuna, cheddar, tomato and home-made pesto. They use enormous, thick slices of farmhouse granary. Beautiful!

Last week, a group of friends and I descended like hungry scavengers on Mien Tay, a Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, East London. The food was sensational - and the star of the show was this amazing crispy sea bream cooked with mango and fish sauce, a real mix of sweet, savoury and crispy:

Last, but not friend Paul recently had his 40th birthday at the aforementioned Domali cafe in Crystal Palace. But instead of a traditional birthday cake, he instead got a massive birthday pork pie. That is genius, is it not?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Spicy lentil dhal

Some nights when I'm traipsing home from work in the dark and the rain, I know exactly what I want for dinner: a comforting spicy bowl of creamy lentil dhal. Perfect for curling up on the sofa with and watching some trashy TV. And when you fry the spices, your house will smell amazing! You would normally eat this as a side dish with other curries, but I think this is good enough to eat on its own in a big bowl as a main meal, garnished with a fistful of fresh choppped coriander.

To make a big pot (about 4 large servings):

1 tsp fennel seeds
1.5tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
30 cardamom pods
2 tsp nigella seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 medium onions
2 small hot chillies
2 fat thumb-sized pieces of peeled fresh ginger root
3 fat cloves garlic
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
3 cups (about 600g) yellow mung dal lentils (you could also use red lentils)
Optional: 1 organic chicken or vegetable stock cube

First up, toast your spices - dry fry the fennel, coriander, cumin seeds together in your large pot until they smell fragrant (one minute on a medium heat should do it) and then grind them up in a pestle and mortar, then put to one side in a bowl. Repeat with the cardamom pods - dry fry until fragrant, then bash the pods in the pestle and mortar and remove the husks. Then grind up the black cardamom seeds and add to the bowl. Dry fry the nigella seeds and cinnamon stick and place them in the bowl of spices - no need to grind.

Thinly slice the onions and fry in a couple of tablespoons of rapeseed (or sunflower) oil and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes until translucent. Chop the chillies and grate the ginger on a cheese grater - add to the onions and fry gently for a few minutes. Add the spices and stir well for a minute. Crush the garlic cloves and add to the mix - take care not to cook the mixure very long so that you don't burn the garlic. Add the tinned chopped tomatoes, stir, and let bubble away for a couple of minutes while you boil a full kettle. Add the lentils to the spice and tomato mixture, mix, and then add about 700ml boiling water - stir everything well. Turn the heat down to a low simmer and put the lid on the pot.

The cooking time depends entirely on the type of lentils you are using, how old they are and where they're from - I find that pulses all have wildly differing cooking times. The yellow mung dhal lentils I used above were cooked after 30 minutes. Take the lid off a few times during cooking and stir, making sure the lentils don't catch on the bottom of the pan. If the lentils look too dry, add more boiling water. The lentils will soften and go creamy. When the lentils are soft, add a chopped chicken or vegetable stock cube to add a bit of saltiness, and cook for a further 10 minutes so that it is absorbed. (Note: never try to cook pulses in salty water or stock - they won't soften.)

Ladle a generous portion of dhal into a large bowl and garnish with chopped fresh coriander. I love my dhal drizzled with a bit of tamari soy sauce - this might seem a bit strange, but it's really delicious!

Pear, maple and almond cake

Here is the recipe of the pear cake I made last weekend - the one that sent me into a rage because the River Cottage recipe I was using as a guideline was wrong. Anyway, after all the angst and swearing, the resulting amended version was absolutely bloody delicious with a really buttery sweetness and wonderful mellow flavour from the maple syrup, pears and vanilla. I actually managed to eat three slices in quick succession, it tasted that good - I would make this again in a heartbeat!

Based loosely on two recipes by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigel Slater.

Serves 12

You will need:

For the pear filling:
3 pears peeled and quartered - not rock hard but not too soft either. (I used UK Comice pears in this recipe)
25g butter
3 tbsp maple syrup
2 pinches cinnamon

For the cake mix:
375g butter
315g caster sugar
5 organic medium-sized eggs
190g organic wholemeal spelt flour (I used the Dove's Farm brand)
190g ground almonds
2 tsps vanilla extract
2 tsps baking powder

Line a 23cm springform tin with greaseproof baking parchment. Then you need to cook the pears. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a frying pan, add the pears, maple syrup and cinnamon and bring everything to a simmer - let the mixture bubble away for about 10 mins, and turn the pears occasionally to make sure they caramelise a little. When the pears have browned, turn the heat off and leave to cool down.

Preheat your oven to 180C.

Now to make the cake mix. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale, with an electric mixer. Add the vanilla extract and then beat in one egg at a time, mixing in a little of the flour with each egg. Add the rest of the flour, the baking powder and the almonds, and fold them in.

Pour the cake mix into the tin and arrange the pears on top, like this:

Bake in the oven for about one hour, until a skewer comes out clean when you poke it into the cake.

Delicious on its own or with a dab of creme fraiche.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Kitchen rage

Yesterday I had a day where everything went so wrong in the kitchen that I wanted to stab a fork in somebody's eye. I was taken over with Kitchen Rage. My blog is called Tales of the Tiny Kitchen because that's what I have: my kitchen is minuscule, and the problem is worsened because my husband and I are total gourmand foodies and own just about every single bit of kitchen kit known to man* - every time you want to take something out of the oven and set it down, you either have to put it on the floor or lift up a very heavy juicer off the work surface and put it down in its place. Every square inch of worktop or cupboard is bursting full. We are thinking of starting to hoist kitchen implements from the ceiling. And the luxury of owning a dishwasher (I have dreams about this) is totally off the cards - one handyman came to look and see if anything could be done, and bar blocking out the only window or building outwards into next door's flat, there is nothing to be done.

Anyway, yesterday I had planned a lovely day's baking and relaxation, after a mammothly stressful week at work. For me, a real treat is to have the luxury of time to bake a loaf of bread or make a cake that I've not tried before. I had been looking forward to this day all week. Maybe there was too much anticipation. Anyway, everything seemed to go wrong from the word go. I failed to read the instructions properly when putting my white loaf in the oven, and turned the temperature up too high and didn't cut slashes in the loaf so the dough could expand properly. What emerged was this bulbous thing, burnt on one side and with a strange protrusion on the other.

The texture of the bread was like lead on the inside. "Never mind, it'll be good for toasting," remonstrated my husband. I felt like weeping, as the dough had taken 20 minutes to knead and several hours to prove and rest - it's not like you can whip this thing up in a few minutes, it takes the whole day! Plus I'd had amazing breadmaking lessons at The Lighthouse Bakery School last year, to make this very same loaf. If only the tutors could see me now...

The second disaster was trying to make a pear and almond cake. I had wanted to make one of these all week, after watching Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall whip up this cake in the rustic prettiness of his country kitchen on the new TV series of River Cottage Winter. How I drooled as he tucked into a huge cake with caramelised pears and cream. Lucky bugger. So I wanted to do the same, and found his recipe on the Channel 4 website. I also added a few tweaks of my own (maple syrup to cook the pears instead of sugar, a dash of vanilla), but it soon became apparent that the cake mix that I had assembled was just enough to fill...a tea mug. I scratched my head in disbelief and read the recipe again. Sure enough, I'd followed it correctly. I called my husband in.

Me: "Look at this cake mix. Does it look small to you?"
N: "Um...just a bit tiny. You'll have to make more, I think..."

Cue liberal amounts of sailor-strength swearing and shouting (me, not him). I wanted to throw the sodding cake tin out of the window. Gah!

N persuaded me to take a few deep breaths. I was inconsolable with fury. He helped me whip up more cake mix. We had to increase the amounts a further one-and-a-half times. I hurled the damn thing in the oven...and realised too late that I'd forgotten to add any baking powder to the second round of mixture. Guess what, Hugh's cooking time was wrong too. (Logical, I suppose - you add more mixture, it takes longer). Then the pears started to leak caramel all over the oven. I was almost past caring at this stage.

I had to sit down with a glass or three of wine while it cooked. My mood was moribund. Then the cake was ready. It smelt delicious, didn't look too bad (amazingly it had risen), but by then it was too late in the day to try it. I'll be trying it today. With cream. And ice cream.

So what I want to know, lovely readers, is how angry you get in the kitchen? Do you have tantrums when things go wrong? Is the size of your kitchen driving you nuts? Do you have to stack everything on top of each itself to get to the other side? Please tell me I'm not alone - write below and share your kitchen angst. I need y'all to make me feel better!

* But still no Kitchen Aid mixer - we could hoist one from the ceiling, no trouble! :o)

Friday, 13 November 2009

I heart Vietnamese food

My obsession with Vietnam and Vietnamese food began about six years ago when I read 'A Cook's Tour' by chef Anthony Bourdain. As I read his fervent descriptions of his culinary road trip through Vietnam, detailing the vibrancy of the food and its and eye-popping flavours, spices and marinades, I just knew I had to go there. So about a year later my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I packed our rucksacks and headed to South East Asia for a six-month trip visiting several countries, and we devoted one month of it to discovering Vietnam. Once we were there, we simply couldn't stop eating - great bowlfuls of beef Pho noodle soup decorated with herbs, chopped noodle salads doused in zingy marinades, fragrant stews, jewel-like fresh summer rolls, crispy spring rolls adorned with salads...oh God we were hooked. We had to extend our visas to stay a second month. Just to fit all the meals in. And we still didn't want to leave at the end...

Mid-way through our two month stay, we met an amazing chef in the picturesque town of Hoi An called Duc Tran. He ran a tiny neat cafe called the Hoai River Restaurant along a narrow backstreet, and we ate at his place for six days on the trot because he cooked like a god. We persuaded him to give us cooking lessons - he wasn't sure at first, but after twisting his arm we became his first ever students. For just $5 each, he spent the whole morning taking us around the local market to pick out produce, and then we made three dishes together: a squid and watercress salad, lemongrass, chilli and chicken stir fry and a crab soup. He wouldn't divulge the secret of how to make Vietnam's national dish of Pho, the legendary beef noodle soup with its aromatic broth of star anise and other magical ingredients - every family has its own secret way of making the broth. But no matter; we were totally bewitched with Vietnam's style of cooking, and we left the country determined to eat Vietnamese food as often as possible back in England.

The things that this style of cuisine so special to me are the liberal use of fresh herbs - mint, coriander, holy basil, sawtooth - and the abundance of fish sauce and aromatics such as lemongrass, garlic and chilli. Vietnamese cuisine is light and fresh, never making you feel bloated or heavy, even when you're as greedy as I am! I would be happy to eat this way every single day, and luckily in London we are blessed with 'The Vietnamese Mile' - a long stretch of Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, East London. My favourite one (of many) is Loong Kee, where you can feast on a veritable banquet of wonderful dishes for roughly £12 a head. No kidding!

Last weekend we took our very good pals S and C to Loong Kee - they are our ideal partners in greed as they also love to cook and eat as much as we do. And we knew they'd be impressed with the spread...

Crispy soft shell crab (left), fresh summer rolls, crispy squid with chilli and salt (right):

Beef in betel leaves:

Beef 'loc lac' (front) and king prawn rice noodles with lemongrass:

The magnificent 'cha ca la vong': Hanoi-style monkfish with turmeric and dill...

...and its accoutrements:

The carnage:

The happy diners at the end:

The thing that I love about Loong Kee is that it's totally unpretentious and the food is always good. You sit at formica tables and you can bring your own booze. The staff are efficient and friendly. The tantalising smells of fish sauce, garlic and anise waft out from the kitchen. There are absolutely no frills, and you will struggle to spend more than £15 per head even if you are a total uninhibited glutton. If you can't make it to Loong Kee, you will still eat very well at a number of the other Vietnamese restaurants along the Kingsland Road - Cay Tre and Viet Grill are two other great places to try out.

If any of you happen to go to Hoi An in Vietnam do go and see if Duc still has his restaurant there - here is the address:

Hoai River Restaurant
44 Nguyen Thai Hoc St
Hoi An
Tel: 0510 910 809

And when in London:

Loong Kee
134G Kingsland Road
London E2 8DY
Tel: 020 7729 8344

Get some preservation!

Photo: courtesy of Oliver Rowe of Konstam

So the autumn leaves are whipping about your feet, the weather's gone moody...what to do? Stay at home, bolt the door and hide under a pile of blankets? Or perhaps make some nice tasty preserves? I've managed to snaffle a couple of killer recipes from Konstam and The Duke of Cambridge organic gastropub (both very fine London dining institutions) and have a written a feature on chutney and pickles for Channel 4 Food - take a look...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Hospital 'food'

My poor friend K was unlucky enough to be admitted to Cambridge’s Addenbrookes Hospital recently for an op, and this is what they fed her (she was lucky to escape with her life, quite frankly):

Cheese pie - note the luminosity of the radioactive cheese and powdery mash:

Strawberry jelly: or is it ectoplasm retrieved from a Victorian seance?

Ready brek oatmeal cereal: please Sir, I don't want any more.

Tinned pear and custard: shoot me now...

Vegetable curry: Nurse, pass the sickbucket…

Note the complete absence of fresh food. Everything is processed, microwaved to within an inch of its life, suffocated in plastic wrap. If you’re recovering from any illness or op, the first thing you need is crisp, fresh fruit and veg bursting with minerals – my friend had to beg her boyfriend to bring fresh apples to the hospital. I know that none of these pictures will be news to anyone because hospital food has been crap for eternity: but not having been in hospital myself for a while, I didn’t remember just how brown and beige - and neon - it all is.

A hospital stay is usually made more bearable if you have relatives and friends who can bring you in supplies of fresh food so that you’re not relying on the hospital muck. But what if you’re on your own without visitors? I can imagine people getting much sicker eating this junk. It's ludicrous: you’re ill, so why not eat something totally inedible, devoid of nutrition? It defies logic. So even though the NHS might think it’s cheaper to serve up this toxic muck, it would actually save money spending a little more on fresh ingredients and training people to cook, saving tonnes of money in the long run because people would get better faster. C’mon Jamie Oliver – what are you waiting for?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Smoky butterbean dip & pitta chips

This is a really easy-to-make and delicious dip that is a life saver if you’ve got people piling round in 10 minutes, and haven’t had time to run out and buy some houmous. Not that this is like houmous at all: it’s a butterbean dip flavoured with lemon and smoky paprika. It’s really moreish and stupefyingly healthy, too.

Serves 4 as an appetiser with drinks

You will need:

1 400g tin butterbeans in water, drained and rinsed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 heaped tsp smoked hot paprika (I use the La Chinata brand, available in most supermarkets)
1 lemon
Dash of tamari or soy sauce
Extra virgin olive oil or organic rapeseed oil – about 3 tablespoons
Salt and pepper
Optional: a few shakes of smoky chipotle Tabasco, chopped coriander to garnish.

You can either use a stick hand blender or a food processor to whizz this up. Place the butterbeans and crushed garlic in the blending receptacle, then drizzle over the oil and a shake of tamari or soy. Take your lemon and grate off its zest and add to the mixture. Cut the lemon in half and juice it, add the juice to the mix along with the smoked paprika and chipotle Tabasco (if you have it). Blend everything together until creamy. If the mixture is a little dry, add a bit more oil or a tablespoon or two of water until it comes together. Taste it then season with salt and pepper as you wish. Serve in a bowl, drizzle over a bit of oil onto the top and sprinkle on some more smoked paprika or chopped coriander. Great with pitta chips - see below:

Pitta chips

These are awesome! I got the idea from Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe for Zaatar Pita Chips and have adapted it slightly. You basically need pitta breads or flatbreads, oil and herbs. They are crispy, chewy and delicious – and make a nice change to regular crisps.

To serve about 4 people, you will need:

1 packet 6 pitta breads (both wholemeal and white work well)/flatbreads
Extra virgin olive oil or organic rapeseed oil
Zataar herb mix (delicious Middle Eastern thyme/sumac/sesame mixture) or any herb mix you like (Herbes de Provence work well, or you could even use a mixture of curry spices)
Salt and pepper

Chop up the pitta breads into small crisp-sized pieces, pulling the double layer of bread apart into single bits. Plonk them in a large salad bowl. Drizzle over a few good shakes of oil and toss with salad servers so that all the pieces are lightly coated. Sprinkle over a handful of herbs and toss them through. If your herb mix is pre-salted (Zataar sometimes is) you don’t need to add salt, but if not, grind over some seasoning and toss once more. Tip the mixture into a large oven tray and bake for 20 mins in an oven preheated to 200C. Serve with the dip above. Yum!