Monday, 30 August 2010

The Great British Waste Menu

Tips and recipes to reduce food waste - Love Food Hate Waste

If you care at all about what's on your plate and feel that we waste too much food in this country, I am seriously nagging you to watch 'The Great British Waste Menu' on the BBC iPlayer. It's essential viewing, illustrating the scary fact that one fifth of all food in the UK ends up in the bin because we've become a nation of picky consumers. One fifth!!! And given that we're in the middle of a recession and that millions worldwide are underfed, this makes my blood boil. I am furious...

The programme charts the progress of four top chefs (Angela Hartnett, Richard Corrigan, Matt Tebbutt and Simon Rimmer) who have each been given the challenge to assemble the very best restaurant dishes for a banquet of 60 diners using waste ingredients only. They have to scavenge perfectly edible food from supermarket bins and beg for other produce from farms, fishermen and dairies that are forced to throw away mountains of food because the supermarkets won't accept it for cosmetic reasons.

It makes very sobering and fascinating viewing. Three point six million tonnes of food each year in England and Wales is binned - and most of it is totally fine to eat. When the chefs embark on their task, they are all horrified by how much waste food they have access to. Matt Tebbutt visits a lettuce farm where the farmer tells him that any lettuce that isn't the correct size or slighly blemished has to be discarded and ploughed back into the field - on one day alone 30,000 'non uniform' lettuces are shredded and composted, most of which are beautiful specimens but demmed too large or small for the supermarkets. Richard Corrigan visits a fisherman who can't sell his catch of slip soles because they are considered 'too small' and 'too fiddly' to cook and have to be discarded or sold abroad. He also visits an egg farmer who has to throw away thousands of eggs every week because they are slightly smaller than average - the supermarkets tell him that people apparently only want to buy big eggs. What total madness!

(Unrelated to this programme, my husband recently met a farmer who had such a bumper crop of potatoes last year that he couldn't sell them due to the glut and was forced to re-compost them, costing him £200,000. I think it's outrageous - people are going hungry and food isn't sold or distributed in the right way.)

Anyway, I don't want to give away what happens in The Great British Waste Menu - so make sure you watch it. It's available on the iPlayer for two more days until Wednesday this week. Watch it here.

C'mon people - I want to hear your thoughts on food waste...are you a sell-by-date junkie? Are you fussy about the size and shape of fruits and vegetables? Do you throw away food because you buy too much? Would you buy a smaller egg?

Love Food Hate Waste : useful tips on how to waste less food. Get involved!

Why I love bin-diving
- Alex Renton, The Guardian

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Choc Air flies back to Wales!

If you happened to be at last weekend's Green Man music festival mucking around in the Welsh mud, you might have purchased a delicious chocolate brownie from a lady dressed up as a retro-style 1980s air hostess. She was glowing with very orange fake tan and frosted eye makeup, and carried an usherette box and an oxygen mask. That person was me - thanks to all of you who tapped me on the shoulder(pad) and bought dark chocolate or salted caramel brownies, and white chocolate blondies with pecan nuts...and Choc Air salutes all of you who came over and bought all three flavours in one go!

This year was Choc Air's second flight (last year's Green Man festival having been my debut) and it was even more fun because lots of festival-goers recognised my garish get-up from last year's event. Nothing quite like a gimmick to shift those cakes, that's what I say!

Yet again, I had a lot of requests for brownies containing hash - sorry I had to disappoint y'all! Quite frankly, who in their right mind would sell hash cakes dressed so conspicuously? Especially since a lot of my customers were nine-year-old kids demonstrating pester power...although I'm sure that this might have calmed them down instead of my 'non-special' brownies whipping them up into a sugar-induced frenzy.

Choc Air will be flying again soon...I have a potential invite to take my usherette box to a friend's warehouse party in September, which am I very excited about...he might even let me loose on the decks!

Is your seat in the upright facing position? Would you like any duty free? Want the brownie recipes? Find them here.

The legendary Paula Deen

Image courtesy of Good Housekeeping

Oh mah gawd, girl-freyends. Have you seen the rootin' tootin' Texan version of The Two Fat Ladies? Paula Deen is actually just one fat laydee from the deep South, and she is possibly responsible for the obesity epidemic over the pond, y'all. She wraps cheesecake in pastry, deep fries it, tops it with cream and slathers it with sugar. She eats massive slices of lasagna sandwiched between two bodaciously buttered loaves of bread. She cackles in the face of the normal-sized portion.

Watch the Paula Deen collection here...

Paula deep fries a store-bought cheesecake: super fast track to gout! You might want to wear a heart monitor if you adopt her method.

Paula Eats a lasagna sandwich the size of a Jack Russell. Shee-it!

Paula 'makes love to my tater' (sic) - i.e. serves a mammoth baked potato, smothers it in creamy cheesy mushrooms, and gets a little flustered...

Yeee haaah! I'm fascinated and I think I like her...

Monday, 9 August 2010

Regency Cafe

Imagine the following words being belted from the small mouth of a slender, bespectacled woman with fair hair, looking as though she would usually whisper and work in a libary:




Here is the lady in question, manning the counter at the Regency Cafe in London's Pimlico area:

She has a voice like a Cockney docker. It is gravelly, rich and booming, as though she used to be some kind of bullring commentator in a previous life. It cuts though the cafe like a hurricane. She could command army troops. Her body doesn't look large enough to house the kind of lungs needed for such a voice. Woe betide you if you somehow manage to miss the name of your dish being called out, as she only shouts it out twice. I think you'd have to be wearing silicone earplugs and have your head stuck in some kind of vacuumed astronaut helmet to succeed.

The food is good, old-fashioned British greasy spoon fare, but done rather well. You can have the usual range of fry-ups, fish 'n chips, pies, pasta dishes and even salads. The portions are really generous. I don't really see the point of coming here for a salad, though. Why would you?

I think people come not only for the unpretentious good food, but for the amazing decor. The cafe is built into the base of a block of a 1930s block of mansion flats and its exterior is decorated with old black Deco tiles. Inside you can lap up the wonderful retro atmosphere. There are gingham curtains and the white tiled walls have black and white portraits and old posters of boxing legends. Inside the booths, you sit at green formica tables; the salt cellars and vinegar bottles are all of the old-school. You can even order a glass milk pint bottle of cloudy apple juice to have instead of the industrial-strength tea. The danish pastries look a bit over-frosted and formidable. I usually go 'vegetarian' here as I'm not sure where the meat comes from, but I can't resist the fish and chips on a Friday which are super-fresh, hefty and rather excellent - you can adorn them with a ladleful of special tartar sauce and lemon wedges from the counter.

And on the days when the Very Loud Lady isn't working? There is a man with an almost-as-deafening voice, belting out the orders. Not quite as impressive, but almost as terrifying. I wonder if they're married?

Regency Cafe
17-19 Regency Street
London SW1P 4BY
Tel: 020 7821 6596

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Guilt-free eating out

Last time you went out for dinner, did you worry at all about whether your meal was sustainably sourced and whether the restaurant had any kind of ecological business practices? Chances are that you didn't: the majority of us are usually too distracted choosing something good on the menu, gossiping and worrying about the price of the wine mark-up to really pay this much attention. Or, being British, we're usually too self-conscious to ask whether the pork chops are outdoor-reared.

Did you know that, according to the Environment Agency, the hotel and restaurant industry has the lowest environmental awareness of all business sectors? It’s pretty sobering to learn that food services and restaurant industries chuck out a horrifying three million tonnes of food waste annually, and that restaurants bin a massive 600,000 tonnes of glass bottles every year! It’s enough to make anyone choke, Queen Mother-style, on whatever they are eating, and ask for a doggy bag to take home all leftovers - something which I do often (no, not the choking part!)

But hope is on hand for all restaurateurs in the form of the superheroes at the Sustainable Restaurant Association (otherwise know as the SRA). Founded by restaurateur Mark Sainsbury and ethical business consultant Giles Gibbons, they have made it their mission to get restaurants to behave more responsibly – whether it’s getting their meat from farms with good welfare standards, sourcing ethical fish, reducing food miles and cutting their waste and energy use. It's a pretty tall order.

For an annual fee, restaurants can sign up with the SRA and get all kinds of support in tackling these tricky issues. Many have joined already – I was interested to know that it’s not just trailblazing independents that have become members (such as The Duke of Cambridge, Moro and The Clerkenwell Kitchen) but larger more well-known restaurants or chains such as Carluccio's, Canteen, Leon and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. (I now am forced to hate Carluccio's a little less...even though I find their branches as charmless as a punch in the face, with bland food and deafening acoustics!)

Recently the SRA put on a foodie evening out and bravely invited a motley crew of food bloggers (including me) to demonstrate to us how restaurants in the Clerkenwell area of London are all getting on board with the sustainability message. Our first stop was The Clerkenwell Kitchen for a starter, where they treated us to summery loveliness in the form of courgette and goats' curd canapes, and a salad of mixed leaves, peas and eggs with homemade salad cream (see above). Then we hopped over the road and ate a divine main course of sustainably-fished sea bass with chermoula and quinoa at The Modern Pantry (who I might have now forgiven for a previously lacklustre brunch). Finally, we heaved our rotund selves onwards to The Zetter to eat a delectable raspberry and passionfruit sable, with fresh mint teas and chocolate truffles. All three of these restaurants demonstrated clearly that you can still serve wonderful, luxurious food that tastes exciting, while still staying true to ethical ideals without forcing people to wear hair shirts, stroke their beards and eat lentils.

The Clerkenwell Kitchen's impeccably-sourced sweet peas:

If you'd like to know more about the SRA and its noble aims, all the info is here. If you happen to be padding about Clerkenwell, I'd recommend a meal at any of the three restaurants above. Perhaps some of you could be persuaded (if you don't already) to ask a few more questions when you eat out - remember all it takes is a few people nagging to see small things start to change for the better. Ask where the mystery meat comes from. Don't be afraid to find out if the restaurant recycles. And if you can't finish that whopping steak, always ask for a doggy bag, the absolute epitome of foodie chic!

The Clerkenwell Kitchen
The Modern Pantry
The Zetter

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Urban Orient

I am so very excited. Why? Crystal Palace finally has a superb Vietnamese cafe/restaurant, just a stone's throw from my house. Hurrah! And the whole neighbourhood seems thrilled to be able to say 'welcome' to Urban Orient, which has been packed to the rafters ever since it opened its doors. It houses a once-unloved site that used to be a drab, smelly kebab joint, and has filled the place with happy vibes and delicious food.

I have travelled to Vietnam and so of course am biaised when I say that I believe Vietnamese food to be the best in all of South East Asia. I am always hooked by the crisp and zingy flavours, the subtle mixtures of sourness and zestiness in the dipping sauces, the abundance of fragrant fresh herbs, pungent 'umami' of the fish sauce and soothing flavours of anise and caramel. It's less sweet and heavy than Thai food, and to my palate much more exciting.

The cafe offers a bewitching atmosphere that is reminiscent of some of the arty cafes I went to when I was in Hanoi's old town several years ago. (Pretentious? Moi?) The owners have tastefully decorated the space with a huge carved wooden mural filling up one entire wall, and eclectic touches such as old typewriters, tea chests and standard lamps. Vietnamese music burbles away gently in the background, and the menu is simple and unpretentious. Oddly, the owners choose not display the menu in the window, so you have to go inside and ask what's good to eat that day - which might deter some customers - but on a Saturday night the place is full.

You can buy special 'banh mi' Vietnamese baguette sandwiches until 5pm, and the evening menu comprises staples such as noodle soups, chopped noodle salads and Chinese dim sum. It's simple, good and flavoursome. The quality of the food isn't as bombastic as that served in the Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in East London, but Urban Orient have definite skill in the kitchen and I'm sure that once they have been open longer they will have refined their dishes a little. The food is a little light on the fresh herbs that are commonplace in Vietnamese dishes, and condiments such as fish sauce and chopped chillies could be offered on all the tables so you don't keep having to ask for top-ups. But these are small details, and essentially the food is really good.

This is what we ate:

Steamed Dim sum - packed with pork and prawns, really delicious:

'Bun' noodles with lemongrass beef, salad, fresh herbs and fish sauce dressing - could have done with a few more fresh herbs, more fish sauce and less raw onion:

The eclectic decor - what a lovely space for chilling out!

The restaurant currently doesn't have an alcohol license, and neither does it allow BYO, which they reassured me they'll be changing soon. (Not least because London is a city of drunkards!) But you can grab a lovely Vietnamese-style coffee, complete with its unique cup filtering system and splash of caramelly condensed milk. I find the name 'Urban Orient' a rather strange choice for this laid back cafe because it sounds a little more suited to a generic fast food noodle chain. If I had my way, I would call it something more befitting its bohemian atmosphere, such as 'Old Hanoi' or something. No matter - I will be returning to try the fresh summer rolls, the squid and lemongrass salad, the banh mi baguette sandwiches, the pho noodle soup and the Vietnamese curries...

Urban Orient
74 Westow Street
Crytal Palace
London SE19 3AF

Want to try a really special Vietnamese pork stew? Make this delicious Pork Stew in Clay Pot recipe.

Vietnamese pork stew in clay pot

Pork stew in clay pot is one of my favourite dishes from Vietnam. It takes a few hours to simmer away on the stove top, and has really aromatic and comforting flavours - star anise, ginger and chilli all combine with caramel to create a warming and savoury mixture that is great with greens and rice. This recipe has been conjured up by my handsome hubby N. You don't need a clay pot - you can use any type of lidded casserole suitable for long, slow cooking. If you've had a rough day, this stew will make everything feel better.

The type of clay pot that we use is a Columbian Tierra Negra one:

Serves 4

You will need:

500g diced pork
1 tbsp annato seeds (optional)
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp palm sugar (or 3 tbsp golden caster sugar)
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
500 ml chicken stock
2 sticks lemongrass, bashed and cut into 3 large sections
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 whole star anise
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 thumbs fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
2 Bird's eye or half a Scotch Bonnet chilli, finely chopped
Fresh chopped coriander to garnish

First you need to colour your oil. Put a tablespoon of annato seeds into vegetable oil over a medium heat, let them bubble for a minute or two, then remove from the heat and discard the seeds. You are left with a lovely red-coloured oil. Use this oil to cook with - brown the pork in it.

While the pork is browning, make the caramel. Heat the palm sugar (or caster sugar) in a saucepan on its own over a medium flame and wait for it to go dark brown. As soon as this happens, take it off the heat and add a tablespoon of water: be careful as it will spit. Don't stir it, it will just come together naturally to form caramel.

Add all the rest of the ingredients to the pork, add the caramel, put the pot lid on and simmer slowly on your stove top on the lowest possible heat for a minimum of two hours - any less and the meat will be tough.

The ingredients prior to slow cooking:

Srinkle with chopped coriander and serve with steamed greens and basmati rice. The finished dish: