Saturday, 19 December 2009

Spiced pumpkin and potato soup

So this is what I did with the remaining third of my culinary pumpkin. It was getting towards the time of year when soup weather becomes more common so that seemed the obvious thing to make. This soup is lightly spiced with some Indian flavours and is thick and full-bodied from the vegetables. This isn't something that you need particularly accurately measurements for so everything can be scaled up or down depending on what ingredients you have and you can also increase the spicing if you want to.

Recipe (just about enough for four)

One third of a small pumpkin (peeled and chopped into small pieces)
2-3 medium potatoes (peeled and chopped into small pieces)
1/2 inch piece of ginger (peeled and crushed to a paste)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 fat cloves garlic (crushed)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground corriander
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground chilli
1 pint of vegetable stock (approximately)
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Few tbsp double cream to finish

Warm the oil in a large pan and add the ginger, garlic and spices. Gently fry them for a few minutes and then put in the pumpkin and potato pieces. Stir thoroughly until all the vegetables are coated in the spice mix, and leave them to sweat slowly for around 10minutes.
Add the stock (I use Marigold vegetable bouillon powder) and leave the soup simmering for around 30mins until the pumpkin in tender. Give it a stir every now and then, and if it looks like it's becoming too dry then add some more stock or hot water. When everything is cooked through leave the soup to cool for a while and then check the seasoning. Blend with a stick blender to whatever consistency you like- I prefer my soup with a bit of texture to it rather than super-smooth. I think both the cooking method and blending got over my issues with the texture of this pumpkin that were a bit incongruous in the lasagne in my previous post. But it actually worked really well in soup, with its delicate flavour being complimented by the spices and somehow feeling quite decadent but healthy.

Gently heat the soup up whenever you want to eat it and add a bit of double cream for some extra richness. Serve with crusty bread, while gazing out over a wintery landscape.

Culinary pumpkin
I rate it 8/10 for soup making purposes
Cost: Around £0.70 for a smallish one

Monday, 14 December 2009

Deluxe spinach, mushroom and pumpkin lasagne

So here's another meal that falls into the hearty fare category. I first had a version of this veggie lasagne with butternut squash when it was made by some good friends. Obviously the memory remained strong, and a mere two years later I decided to try my hand at making the dish myself.
This was partly influenced by buying a 'culinary' pumpkin in the supermarket, that was billed as having more flavour and sweetness than a traditional carving pumpkin. And also by the ready availability of fresh pasta sheets, which I hoped would remove past issues with 'crunchy' lasagne.

Recipe (enough for a least six people)
Two thirds of a small pumpkin
Small amount of oil
Around 500g frozen spinach (defrosted)
4 large flat mushrooms
3 large cloves of garlic (crushed)
250g ricotta cheese
Nutmeg for grating
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Around 5 0r 6 sheets of fresh lasagne depending on the dimensions of your baking dish

For the cheese sauce (quantities are approximations as I usually do this by eye)
Around 30g butter
Around 30g plain flour
Around 1/4 pint of milk or enough to make a smooth sauce
Small handful grana padano cheese
Large handful cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Making any lasagne is really pretty simple as it's mostly assembly but it does require preparing the components in advance.
Firstly peel and chop the pumpkin into small pieces, season, drizzle with a little olive oil, and roast in a medium oven (gas mark 6) for around 45minutes or until tender and cooked through. Set to one side to cool.
Cut the field mushrooms into thick slices and fry gently in a little oil. Add in the defrosted spinach (the same sort as used here), and the crushed garlic. When heated through mix in the ricotta cheese, season to taste and grate in some nutmeg (you want to be able to taste it but don't go overboard). Again set to one side to cool.
For the cheese sauce, simply melt the butter in a saucepan, put in the flour, stir and then gradually add in the milk. Beat like hell with a whisk to stop everything going lumpy and stop adding milk when it reaches a thin-ish sauce consistency. Keep stirring on a low heat for around 5mins to cook out the flour. Add in the cheese and then season to taste.
To put it all together I layered pumpkin and spinach, followed by a sheet of pasta, a thin layer of the cheese sauce, more pumpkin, spinach and pasta, finishing with more sauce and final sprinkling of cheddar cheese. Bake in the middle of an oven at around gas mark 6 for about 30-40 minutes or until the top of the lasagne is golden brown. To make this a 70's retro feast serve with garlic bread and salad.

This is a pretty deluxe lasagne with both ricotta and a rich cheese sauce, but the culinary pumpkin was a bit of a let down. It didn't really have much flavour and the texture was strangely watery but still fibre-y. I will be sticking to butternut squash in the future. But the fresh sheets of lasagne worked very well, with no sections left uncooked as I've experienced previously with dried pasta. I'm a fan of Quorn products as meat substitutes but have to say in this case (even with the disappointing pumpkin) the vegetables made for a much more flavoursome final product.
Thank you to A&A for the original inspiration.

Culinary pumpkin
I rate it 5/10
Cost: Around £0.70 for a smallish one

Tesco fresh lasagne sheets
I rate them 8.5/10
Cost: Around £0.80 for 6-8 sheets

PS What to do with a third of a culinary pumpkin left over from making lasagne following soon.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Rice Boat, Cambridge, UK

Despite all my gripes about the lack of non-chain dining options in Cambridge, there is one area in which the independents are going strong- and that's in the Indian restaurant sector. However the majority of these Bangladeshi operated places are generally at the cheap and cheerful end of the spectrum. And though there's nothing wrong with that, generic 'Indian' food is not something I'm particularly impressed by (possibly because I can pop home for something much nicer).

But there are exceptions to this, one of which is the Keralan restaurant Rice Boat. In the UK, 'Indian' food has tended to equate to dishes vaguely from the north of India but the south now seems to be challenging this dominance. The Rice Boat boasts authentic Keralan owners who have put together a menu with a range of south Indian favourites and some Keralan specialities. It has been a firmly established favourite of mine for some time, but as I sat down for dinner last week, I realised that I'd probably not visited it for a year or so. I'm not sure why there had been such a long gap but I hoped that my expectations which had built up over this time would not be disappointed.

And as it turned out there was no need for me to have worried as everything we ordered lived up to my memories of how good it had been on previous occasions. The menu is relatively extensive but not overblown, with lots of vegetable and seafood options (which always suits me).

Myself and the male companion person order a couple of starters to share- the squid pepper fry and and some tuna cutlets. The cutlets were dense with fish and lots of ginger, although I do still prefer my version. And in further insight into the chop/cutlet controvesy, I now think that lots of Indians consider the that the chop should be potato-based with some sort of filling inside, whereas the cutlet is a more homogeneous mix. But back to the meal- the gently sauted squid was also tasty and non-chewy, and though a bit more spice wouldn't have gone astray, they were quickly scoffed.

For mains the male companion person choose Rice Boat's 'signature dish' of Kerala red fish curry, with some coconut rice. This is identified on the menu as very spicy, and after my little taste I can attest to the accuracy of this description. But it also consisted of tender king fish and lots of other aromatic flavours behind the heat of the chillis.

I am a huge fan of the masala dosa and this is inevitably what I order whenever I get the chance. For a little variety I tried the masala dosa platter, which just adds some fried lentil dumplings or vadas on the side. For me the making of a masala dosa is the sambar and coconut chutney that are served with it. The Rice Boat dosa is irreproachable in this regard- not only was the pancake thin and crispy at the edges and packed with decent portion of cooked potatoes, the chutney was a perfect blend of fresh coconut, mustard seeds, curry leaves and whatever else they include to make it so moreish. The sambar, a soup-like hot and spicy mix of lentils and vegetables, added an ideal amount of heat to the mild filled dosa.

In terms of service my previous experiences indicate that it can be a little hit and miss, though on a quiet mid-week night it was perfectly competent with food arriving promptly but not suspiciously quickly (although the luke warm tap water was a bit of an issue).
The bill for all of the above with two beers and one non-alcoholic drink came to just under £40 (not including service), which I think is immensely good value. The overwhelming theme of all the food that I've eaten at the Rice Boat has been that it's fresh and immensely flavoursome, without ever feeling too heavy or rich. I sincerely feel that Cambridge is very lucky to have somewhere serving food like this and I hope to up my masala dosa consumption significantly in the coming year.

Rice Boat
37 Newnham Road
Cambridge CB3 9EY

Monday, 30 November 2009

Pataks tandoori paste disappointment

So following on from the post below, here's the bit on the prawns. Not being minded to make up my own tandoori paste from scratch, I thought I'd utilise the one made by Pataks instead. I've used other pastes made by them before and have been impressed. They've always been very dense, and intensely flavoured with spices and ginger or garlic, with a thin layer of oil to keep everything well preserved. They've proved to be a very useful shortcut when marinating flavourless things like Quorn before cooking. So I thought I was on safe ground with buying a jar of Patak's tandoori paste to marinate my prawns in before grilling them.

But I probably should have exercised caution when I saw the colour of the contents of the jar. Rather than the rich, fiery red of Kashmiri chillis, this paste was more like a deep fuchsia pink. And this was with the assistance of several varieties of colouring. However my faith in Pataks remained strong and I continued with my purchase. On actually opening the jar, the 'paste' turned out to be more of a gloopy sauce, and on adding yoghurt to make the marinade the colour changed to an even more disturbing raspberry tone. I had a quick taste to check levels of spiciness and found these to be approximately none. I know that tandooris are not usually meant to be super-spicy and I am certainly no chilli-head, but this 'paste' really lacked any significant flavour. I went ahead and added some chilli to the marinade and after a couple of hours, the prawns went under a hot grill. They only took a few minutes to cook through so admittedly not much time to take on that slightly charred effect that an authentic tandoor would produce.

The taste was acceptable but definitely bland. Maybe using the product with meat (or possibly fish) and it's concurrent longer cooking times would improve the finished product, but I remain pretty skeptical. I very sincerely hope that this is a one off failure by Pataks and the rest of their proper pastes remain as good as I remember them being.

Pataks tandoori paste
I rate it 5/10
Cost: Around £1.80

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Bengali ful kofi and North Indian saag paneer with methi

There is something about the onset of autumn and winter that makes me crave Indian food. Which is strange really as it comes from completely the opposite climate to the UK's grey and dull weather. On the menu last weekend were Bengali-style cauliflower with ginger and cumin, North Indian/Punjabi spinach with paneer and fenugreek seeds, and tandoori-style prawns. More on the prawns later, but this post focusses on the vegetables. Oh and before I forget kudos to my mother for the recipes.

So traditional Bengali Hindu cooking generally doesn't use onions or garlic when cooking vegetables, instead mostly favouring ginger and a variety of different spices. This ful kofi (cauliflower) recipe is incredibly simple and can be eaten with either rice or an Indian bread like naan or chapattis.

Recipe (enough for 2-4 depending on what else you're eating)
1 tbsp oil
1 medium cauliflower
1 dried bay leaf
1.5 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 green chilli
0.5 inch piece of ginger
About 0.5 tsp salt or enough to season

Peel and crush the ginger into a paste and fry gently in the oil for a minute or two. Add the bay leaf. Pierce the chilli a couple of times with the tip of a knife, and add to the other ingredients to achieve flavour without heat. If you do want more heat, slice the chilli up, and leave the seeds in for extra hotness. Chop the cauliflower into medium florets and add to the pan with the cumin seeds and salt. Stir everything well and cover with a lid. I like my cauliflower au naturel, but if you'd prefer some colour add a little tumeric too. This should take around 10-15minutes to cook through on a low heat, but give it a stir every now and again. If it looks like things are sticking to the pan, pour in a spoon or two of water.

The Punjab region of India is known for its fondness for all things dairy, including paneer, but the combination of green leaves with this plain 'cheese' is something that is popular across North India. If you find them you could use fresh methi leaves instead of spinach in this dish, but I much prefer cooking with the uniquely fragranced methi or fenugreek seeds. I remember my mother making paneer from scratch back in the day, a process involving cheese cloths and various stages of boiling and straining milk. Luckily (as I don't own any cheese cloths) ready made paneer is pretty widely available in supermarkets these days.

I also use frozen spinach for this recipe. It comes blanched in little blocks so it's much easier to see how much you're getting, compared to bags of the fresh stuff which always seem to shrink down to about a teaspoon's worth no matter how much you start with.

Recipe (also enough for 2-4 depending on what else you're eating)
1 block of paneer (c.225g)
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp ground cumin
0.5 tbsp oil for frying

500g frozen chopped spinach (defrost overnight or in the microwave)
3-4 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
1.5 tsp whole methi (fenugreek) seeds
1 green chilli
0.5 tbsp oil
About 0.5 tsp salt or enough to season

Cut the paneer into smallish pieces (as in the above picture), and combine the tumeric and ground cumin. Lightly dust the paneer pieces with this coating and fry until they're slightly browned. Once this is done set the paneer to one side.
Heat the remaining oil and put the fenugreek seeds in. Stir and cook gently until they just begin to colour and then add the spinach. Also add the whole green chilli, following the same procedure as with the cauliflower dish above to adjust the amount of heat. Stir everything well and then add the crushed garlic. Cook on a low heat for around 10minutes, add the paneer back in, mix well and return to the heat for another 10minutes or so. Scoff with rice or an Indian bread, ideally with some Bengali cauliflower on the side too.

Clawson Dairy paneer
I rate it 8/10
Cost: Around £2.00 per block

Chopped frozen spinach
I rate it 8/10
Cost: Around £1.00 for 1kg

Saturday, 14 November 2009

World's simplest nectarine crumble

I can't really remember if I read this recipe in a book, saw it on television or randomly devised it myself. But it is something I have been making for quite a few years now, and is always a winner. It's one of those light puddings that's fresh enough to have during summer but also warming enough for winter. It is also incredibly quick and simple as it's essentially some baked fruit with a crushed biscuit topping.
To make the world's simplest crumble halve one nectarine per person, and scoop out the stone with a teaspoon to leave a little hollow in the middle. For the topping, melt around 1 tablespoon of butter for every two pieces of fruit and roughly crush a big handful of amaretti or ratafia biscuits. Mix these together and add a little orange juice (or another fruit juice) so that the 'crumble' topping can be lightly molded over the cut fruit, but not so much that the biscuit crumbs are totally saturated. You could also use peaches for this or apricots for mini versions, as these fruits all go well with almond flavours.
Bake in the middle of a moderately hot oven at gas mark 6, for around 15 to 20 minutes, or until the fruit is soft and the topping is starting to darken. Serve with cream or ice cream, savour the contrast of crunchy crumble and juicy, giving fruit, and start contemplating making some more!

Doria Italian ratafia biscuits
I rate them 9/10
Cost: Around £1.30 for 150g

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Japanese style noodle soup

So first the honesty declaration- my knowledge of Japanese cuisine is very limited so this recipe is completely non-authentic but does use some Japanese ingredients. It is also very quick, super-tasty and feels like it's very good for you.
The soup uses dashi stock as a base, and since the chances of me boiling some edible kelp to make my own are highly limited, I use a powder made by Shimaya. I am really not sure if this is a 'good' brand or not (it is made in Japan), but it is the only one I could find in Cambridge. It does contain MSG, which I guess is the seaweed/umami substitute, but I don't know if this is standard practice in ready-made dashi or not.
The other components of this soup are whatever you want really. I gently fried some thinly sliced garlic, mild chilli and spring onions in as little vegetable oil as possible, added a sachet of dashi stock powder and a bit less than a litre of water and brought it up to a simmer. Chinese leaf, sugar snap peas, baby sweetcorn and oyster mushrooms then went into the stock to poach for around five minutes, rapidly followed by some raw prawns and thin egg noodles. After another five minutes or so, when the prawns were cooked through, I finished the soup off with a tablespoon or so of dark soy sauce. The resulting soup was full of tender vegetables and soft noodles in a stock which is intensely savoury with a hint of chilli, and was more than enough for two hungry people.
This is a soup that can be made with any vegetables or type of noodle, with as much heat as you like, and for me it manages to tick all the comfort food boxes without being at all stodgy.

Shimaya dashi no moto stock powder
I rate it 8.5/10 (though would probably prefer an MSG-free version)
Cost: Around £1.80 for 50g box containing 5 sachets

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Sea Tree, Cambridge, UK

There is something about fish and chips that makes it truly irresistable; fried potatoes=good, fried fish=good, crispy batter coating=good. How could it possibly go wrong? But the fact of the matter is that it does go wrong, frequently. I have had numerous plates of soggy chips, tasteless fish and flabby batter all oozing out vast amounts of oil, and yet am ever hopeful that the next meal will be better and will contain all the requisite elements of great fish and chips. And there have been a few times when it has. Recent experiences in Southwold and Aldeburgh seem to indicate that the coast, with presumably better access to fresh fish, is the place to be. But what of us land-locked sorts?
Well, at least in Cambridge there may be a solution in sight. The Sea Tree on Mill Road bills itself as an alternative fish bar, and apparently brings in its fish from suppliers on the east coast and Billingsgate rather than from a freezer round the back. And it thus varies its menu based on availability and seasonality. The Sea Tree not only does your traditional fish and chips but also offers pan-fried or grilled fish, with everything cooked to order rather than sitting around desicating under heat lamps. And finally, it also sells fresh fish too!

When we went last Friday it had only been open for a week or two at most, but was already doing a steady trade in both eat-in and takeway customers. Although I was rather dazzled by the unexpected choice of fish and cooking options, myself and the male companion person both chose the battered plaice with chips in order to test out the basics, and a portion of fried calimari for something a bit different. Once it had been cooked for us we were back at home and on the sofa within about 10minutes with plates of hot, lightly battered calimari (no wallpaper paste-esque coating on frozen squid here), well-cooked, non-greasy fish and fluffy yet crispy chips, all served up with big wedges of lemon.
The male companion person declared them the best fish and chips he'd ever had, and although I possibly wouldn't go quite that far they were undoubtly the best fish and chips I've ever eaten in Cambridge.
I had to be restrained from returning the next day, so am very much looking forward to going back and trying some of their other offerings. I spotted wild sea trout and bream on their menu board (I might even try those without any batter), as well as various home-made sauces and salad type things that I'd be interested to see work in a takeway context.
Based on this initial visit The Sea Tree seems to hold great potential for becoming a Cambridge favourite, and is an excellent addition to the less exotic end of Mill Road.

The Sea Tree
13/14 The Broadway
Mill Road
Cambridge CB1 3AH

Monday, 26 October 2009

Blueberry and lemon muffins

It's blog confession time- I am not a baker. I have made loaves which could probably have been used as offensive weapons such was their weight, and pizza bases which somehow remained raw in the middle despite hours of cooking. I think this is probably because baking is quite a precise art and I am not a natural recipe follower.
However one of the few baked things that I can usually manage reasonably well is cakes (phew). This muffin recipe is from 500 Cupcakes and Muffins by Fergal Connolly, and the reason for their somewhat non-muffin like appearance is due to the fact that I cooked them in a cupcake tray and nothing to do with the recipe itself.

Recipe for one dozen large muffins (or a lot of cupcakes):

125g caster sugar
1 tbsp lemon zest
265g plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
2 beaten eggs
225ml milk
115g unsalted butter, melted
225g blueberries

Beat the melted butter (make sure it's cooled a bit), milk and eggs together until smooth, add the dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in the blueberries and then spoon the batter into cases. Bake in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 6 for around twenty minutes or until golden on top.
I used half the above recipe to make around 15 cupcakes, and used up some blueberries that had been hanging about in the fridge for a little to long. The combination of berries and lemon kept things tasting nice and fruity and vaguely like something that might be consumed at breakfast. And surely cake for breakfast can only be a good thing?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Memories of summer- tomato tarts

So with the nights drawing in, the last of the summer's crop of tomatoes are becoming a bit of a distant memory. I only actually made these simple individual tomato tarts about six weeks ago, but it somehow seems a lot longer than that. These rosada tomatoes were homegrown and quite small but incredibly sweet, and will definitely be grown again. They were halved, mixed with a generous amount of feta cheese (for some reason I'd drawn a blank on what to put with them so thanks to MangoCheeks at Allotment2Kitchen for inspiration) and some torn basil leaves, and piled into some puff pastry 'cases'.
I used ready-rolled Jus Rol puff pastry which has never let me down over several episodes of tart making. Due to a lack of pastry cutter a medium sized bowl served as a template for each round tart, and then a smaller plate to lightly score an inner circle leaving an edge of around half an inch. I pricked this inner area several times with a fork (to stop it rising too much) and then baked the pastry circles for around 10minutes in a medium oven until they were slightly coloured. I'm not sure if this is strictly necessary, but there's nothing worse than raw pastry and as the filling for these tarts didn't really require much cooking, I thought I'd give the cases a head start. Once the pastry had cooled enough to handle I spooned in as much of the filling as I could fit in and returned the tarts to a hot oven for around 15minutes, until the pastry turned golden and the contents were starting to brown on top.
Warming the tomatoes through in the oven seemed to increase their sweetness, and thus the contrast with the salty feta cheese, and with a bit of salad this was a perfect summer dish. I think this could easily work in more autumnal conditions too (as long as you're not a stickler for seasonality) with some steamed vegetables and boiled potatoes. Serving on a retro 1960's plate not essential.

Jus Rol chilled puff pastry sheet
I rate it 9/10
Cost: Around £1.55 for 375g

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Beans on toast

So I've always thought I didn't like broad beans. As a child my parents would cook them whole, pods and all, as an approximation of the Indian vegetable sheem. They would chew through them and then just delicately spit out the really indigestible, fibrous bits. As with their chomping through fish bones, this was just something that I could never manage to do, and therefore broad beans in an Bengali-stylee were pretty much off the menu for me.
However even when the beans had been podded I found these tough, grey bullet-like objects rather off-putting. It's only quite recently that I've come across the revelatory knowledge that post-cooking the unappealing grey skin of the broad bean can be removed to leave a tender, bright green bean. This might seem a bit of a pain but it is so worth it. This recipe for crushed broad beans on toasted ciabatta is based on how I'd normally serve any whole beans or peas, but converted into a more spreadable form. It works well at room temperature or slightly warm, and would also make a nice side dish for fish. If you're having it on toast, a grating of cheese adds a little salty tang to the sweet crushed beans.

Recipe (enough for two):
Broad beans from approximately twenty pods
1 fat clove of garlic (or increase according to taste)
Enough olive to create a loose-ish paste
Plenty of salt and pepper
Grana padano cheese, grated

Cook the podded broad beans in boiling water for around eight minutes or until tender. Drain and then while still hot, peel off the outer grey skins. Combine the beans and the rest of the ingredients in a mini-processor, or crush by hand, until they are as coarse or fine as you like. Serve on toasted ciabatta (or crackers or anything else you'd like), and top with some of the grated cheese.
You can also use rapeseed oil instead of olive oil, and moderate the amount of garlic depending on taste and possibly how much company you have.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cooking a la Levi Roots

I have pretty much zilch experience of Jamaican or Caribbean food, so was recently rather chuffed to win a copy of Levi Roots' new cookery book (thanks @Octopus_Books) which ties-in with his BBC tv show. There's something about Levi Roots that's very likable. Despite the risk of coming across like a parody of a Jamaican person with his blinged up style, frequent proclamations of 'respec' and calling food 'deliciosious', he is in fact a very articulate champion of Caribbean cooking, a pretty astute businessman and a natural television presenter.
The book begins with an introduction to basic Caribbean ingredients, most of which I'd heard of even if I wasn't sure what they actually were. The rest of the book covers both classic dishes from a number of the Caribbean islands, as well as recipes which are not traditional but give a Jamaican twist to familiar ingredients.
I decided to give the lime, chilli and coriander butter with salmon and lobster a go. Levi describes it as one of his favourite creations and it certainly sounded good.

75g butter, slightly softened
1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped, fresh coriander
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
zest and juice of 1/2 lime
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
salt and pepper

(Levi's recipe serves the above with 4 salmon steaks, and I've found it makes more than enough for 1 lobster, two small salmon fillets, and six large prawns).

The recipe actually recommends the butter be served with a barbecued lobster, but due to the lack of barbecue and indeed a raw lobster, I used a cooked one instead. This was split and once I'd made up the butter, I daubed it generously over the lobster and the salmon fillets. I also included about half a dozen large, shell-on raw prawns which were de-veined and also had butter stuffed in them. The whole lot went into a really hot oven for around 10mins, or until the prawns and fish had cooked (which was enough time for the lobster to warm through).
I also cooked a couple of side dishes which were inspired by reading the book and watching the tv show, rather than specific recipes. I roasted some sweet potato wedges in the oven with lots of thyme, plenty of seasoning and little oil. I also cooked some spinach as a callaloo substitute. I started by gently frying some crushed garlic, and after a few minutes I added a chilli that I'd pierced a couple of times with the tip of a knife (to add flavour without too much heat). After another minute or so, about 250g of chopped fresh spinach leaves went in. This was all cooked down with a bit of seasoning until all the liquid from the spinach had evaporated. Having (in retrospect perhaps wrongly!) decided that this would not be enough food, I also made some aromatic rice. This is something I'd usually have with Indian food, but as Caribbean food has been influenced by the Indian diaspora that settled there, I thought it might work here too. So into a saucepan went a knob of butter with a bay leaf and a stick of cinnamon. Once these were sizzling I dropped in a cup of rinsed basmati rice, after a couple of quick stirs to coat the grains in the butter, I added double the quantity of water. When the rice had come up to the boil, I reduced the heat to the lowest possible, covered the pan and left the rice to absorb all the liquid. And so all of the above resulted in all of the below.

Although myself and the male companion person feared we had cooked way too much food, it was so lovely that we managed to devour most of it. I was slightly concerned that all the different herbs and spices might clash with each other, but in fact this was not the case at all. The simple side dishes were a great accompaniment to the rich seafood. The butter mellowed the strong flavours of coriander and chilli, and the lime added a hint of freshness. We got stuck in pulling the prawns and lobster apart, and using the rice and potato to mop up the lovely buttery juices.
This was definitely one of the nicest (and most extravagent) meals I have cooked recently, and confirms my view that Levi Roots rocks!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Aldeburgh Food Festival

I was slightly apprehensive about asking the male companion person to accompany me to the Aldeburgh Food Festival on Saturday. I had recently persuaded him to join me and other friends at Jimmy's Harvest Festival, which was allegedly a festival of food and music. My comments on that can be found on my regular blog if you're interested, but let's just say that 'disappointing' was the major theme of the day. However any fears of a repeat experience at the Aldeburgh Food Festival were completed unfounded, even with me accidentally adopting a somewhat, ahem, scenic B-road route to get us there.
Despite the name, the festival actually takes place in Snape, which is a few miles from Aldeburgh. The Maltings by the River Alde is a lovely setting, with lots of things to look at in addition to the festival activities. A large marquee housed the cookery theatre and most of the local and independent producers showcasing their wares. Luckily for visitors 'showcasing' means having lots of samples available to try, a marketing strategy heartily endorsed by the male companion person. There was a good variety of meat and fish-based products, as well as cakes, juices, beer, oils and some fruit and veg. I did notice that there did seem to be an awful lot of 'preserved' foods like jams, jellies, chutneys and pickles but in fact these also came in a micro-range of sweet, savoury and spicy options. I was a little surprised there weren't more cheese producers there (I only spotted one stall) but you can't have everything.

The courtyard area housed more independent retailers (including lots of very friendly fishmongers), another demonstration stage, most of the stalls selling hot food (we bought a plate of freshly cooked scallops from one), an Adnans bar, and importantly the ChocStar van. I have been reading Petra ChocStar's blog for a while and had an occasional Twitter exchange but have never actually manged to sample any of her amazing sounding chocolate creations. This was corrected on Saturday when I not only scoffed her most decadent sounding offering- the chocolate brownie fudge sundae, but also had a little chat with the lady herself. Suffice to say that Petra is lovely, and the sundae was fantastic. The balance of dense brownie, rich ice cream and a sauce that tasted like pure melted chocolate was perfect, and importantly not at all sickly sweet. I really hope to sample more ChocStar delights in the future.

I didn't really plan ahead enough to see any specific cookery demonstrations (although Fergus Henderson was doing something meat-related when I passed through), but it was very nice to see Thomasina Miers, Mark Hix, Tom Parker Bowles and Tom Aitkens wandering around the place and queuing up for things along with everyone else (if cookery really is the new rock and roll these people need to seriously increase their entourages).

The weather on the day was also lovely, which obviously helped a lot. But this was just a really well organised event which meant that although there were lots of people on the site, nothing was too crowded, there were lots of places to sit down for a break and eat, and nowhere had horrendous queues. Even little details like placing the cookery stages in areas where you didn't have to be sitting right at the front to see what was going on, but could just wander around or stand at the back for a bit, indicated how well thought-out this weekend had been.
And seeing as all this was for the bargain price of £5 a ticket (which also got you a programme and canvas bag too), Aldeburgh seemed to have set a really high standard, and as a food festival novice I'd be interested to see how others compare.

As it was such a nice day we decided to continue on to the coast proper and Aldeburgh itself. Having visited Southwold recently, I would say that Aldeburgh had a less immediate seaside-y feel too it and was more like a town that just happened to be by the sea. It was still lovely though, with lots of quirky cottages and a wide shingle beach housing many little huts selling fresh fish (though by the time we arrived they were all closing up).

I had heard much internet talk of Aldeburgh's Fish and Chip Shop, where people were prepared to queue for hours to get their portions of deep fried goodness. Even though we were both pretty stuffed from our festival indulgences, it seemed inappropriate to come this far and not make an attempt to sample some of this famed fish and chips too. So after a bracing walk along the sea-front, we joined a queue that did snake out of the shop a bit, but wasn't immensely long (I guess late September is not peak holiday season though).

After a fifteen minute wait we came out clutching our open bags of plaice and chips. So the verdict- ummm, well they were quite nice but if I'd had to wait an hour and a half for them I think I would have been rather disappointed. My fish was fine but slightly overcooked and the batter was verging on becoming a bit flabby. The chips were adequate but nothing special, although on the positive side everything was pleasantly oil free, piping hot, and quite reasonably priced for somewhere that is so popular.

Perhaps they were having and off day but I definitely preferred the fish and chips I sampled recently in Southwold, where the plaice was really moist and had been coated in a light but super crispy shell. However the Aldeburgh version was still perfectly edible, and to be honest there is something about fish and chips at the seaside that make it hard to go to far wrong.
So all in all a lovely day, and I can't believe it took me so long to discover the Suffolk coast.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Veggie chilli and salsa a.k.a. the tomato fest dinner

So the male companion person and top tomato fan has been harvesting a generous crop of several varieties of home-grown tomatoes every few days for the past month of so. Although he is happy to consume dozens (of the cherry sized ones) raw as a snack, even he hasn't managed to keep pace with the amount of fruit produced from his fifteen or so plants. So I decided to use up a fair chunk of the tomato backlog by making a veggie chilli and a tomato salsa.
As a non-meat eater I use Quorn products quite a lot, and used Quorn mince in this chilli. I think the key thing to remember with Quorn is that it is basically a protein substitute, and those fungal mycelium are not going to replicate the flavour or fat content that meat adds to food. So you need to make sure that whatever recipe you're using it in has plenty of other strong flavours that are sufficient to carry the dish, i.e. that you'd be happy to eat it without any actual Quorn in it.
Due to some uncertainty about what spices were present in the kitchen of the male companion person, I opted to use a sachet of Old El Paso chilli spice mix in this meal. It proved to be a perfectly adequate combination of paprika, cumin, etc, but was majorly lacking in heat- and this is coming from a chilli-wuss. However the addition of a few fresh chillis solved this problem quite easily.
The tomato salsa was essentially a selection of chopped up tomatoes, red onion and chopped basil which was a cooling contrast to the (actually not too spicy) chilli. I have started using basil rather than fresh corriander in salsas as I really like the almost astringent taste it has, and in this context I decided not to add any chopped chilli either.
Full recipes below, but tinned tomatoes can be substituted for fresh when not enjoying a tomato glut and freshly ground spices can be used if preferred. And obviously if you eat meat you can use this instead of Quorn.

Veggie chilli (enough for two with sufficient left over for lunch the next day)

350g Quorn mince
1 large white onion, chopped
4 big cloves of garlic, crushed
1 sachet Old El Paso chilli spice mix
2 tblsp tomato puree
About 500g fresh tomatoes, chopped
1-2 fresh chillis, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like your chilli)
1 yellow (or any other colour) pepper, chopped
1 tin cooked kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Generous amount of olive oil
Small glass of water, or enough to create appropriate chilli consistency
Salt and pepper to season (if needed)

Tomato salsa

As many tomatoes as you want, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
Small handful of basil, torn
Lime juice and olive oil to dress
Salt and pepper to season

To make the chilli sweat down the onion in plenty of olive oil, then add the crushed garlic and cook gently without colouring. Drop in the chopped pepper, chillis and spice mix and fry gently for a few minutes. Add the Quorn mince, stir in and continue to cook slowly. Next add in the chopped tomatoes, the tomato puree and a little water. The tomatoes will release their juices as they cook down, and you can leave the pan on a low heat, stirring occasionally, as they do this. Add more water if the chilli looks too dry. I'd cook this for around 20mins on a low heat or until the tomatoes form a sauce for the mince, then add the kidney beans and continue to cook for another five minutes or so.
The ingredients for the salsa just need to be mixed together.
Serve the chilli with a handful of grated cheese on top, and the salsa and corn tortillas on the side.

Homegrown tomatoes
I rate them 10/10
Cost: Yet to be calculated

Old El Paso chilli spice mix
I rate it 6.5/10
Cost: Around £0.65

Friday, 11 September 2009

Al fresco Pizza Express, Cambridge, UK

So while the dregs of summer remain (just), here's a quick post about Pizza Express in Cambridge. This chain may be in danger of becoming ubiquitous but at least it's a freshly prepared and quite tasty sort of ubiquitous.
The branch on Regent Street is hardly a big secret as it's on one of the main roads into the centre of the city, but what you may not immediately realise is that it has a really nice first floor roof terrace. They don't actually seem to keep the terrace a secret on purpose but it's definitely not obvious that it's up there. And on a nice sunny day it's a lovely little escape from the noise and clatter of the open kitchen and frenetic service downstairs as well as avoiding passers-by peering at your food (often a risk with al fresco street eating). You also get to enjoy great views over Downing College while waiting for your pizza.
I may be wrong, but I still think of it as a little local secret (though backed by a national chain), and a good spot for coffe and cake while soaking up the last few photons of summer.

Pizza Express
Regent Street
Cambridge CB2 1DB

Monday, 31 August 2009

Southwold eating

I've had a hankering to go to the seaside for a while now, and took advantage of last weekend's lovely weather to head down to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. I'd never been before but had heard a lot of talk about beach huts. Luckily due to the power of Twitter (thanks to @EssexEating) and a blog post by Around Britain with a Paunch I also had some top food tips, which proved to be excellent- I do love the internet.

Southwold is a little bit of a trek from my patch of East Anglia but it was definitely worth it. This little town does indeed have a lot of beach huts but it also has a lot of lovely beach, quaint little streets with funny houses and lots of places to have a cream tea.

During a wander around we stopped off at Munchies for an ice cream. My strawberry ice cream was some of the nicest that I've had- lovely and fruity but with a rich creaminess and not too sweet. The male companion person had a toffee crunch cone that also disappeared very rapidly, and there was serious consideration about going back for seconds.

An ice cream-powered stroll along the beach all the way to the harbour followed, with sand dunes gradually evolving into families crabbing from the rocks, and eventually lots of little boats moored in the estury. As you walk further into the harbour area there are various ramshackle huts that would normally be selling fresh fish, though as we were there quite late on a Sunday afternoon they were mainly closed or on the verge of shutting. Luckily we were just in time to join the end of the queue for the fish and chip shop (phew) and as we were waiting felt a little smug as various latecomers tried to get in only to leave disppointed when they realised it had already shut.

Mrs T's was run by possibly the poshest ever fish and chip shop proprietor that I have ever encountered. A request from one customer for a battered sausage was given a disdainful response, as she pointed out (quite reasonably actually) that they specialised in seafood. There was no sign of any battered fish sitting around here and everything seemed to be freshly cooked. This did involve a bit of waiting around, taking of tickets and checking of numbers but the final outcome was definitely worth it. My plaice came in an amazingly crisp batter that required some concerted effort to break into. The fish inside was soft and moist, and there was barely a trace of grease present. The chips were nice if unremarkable but the portion size was just right, which meant that the walk back along the beach was an enjoyable one rather then an over-stuffed waddle.

I would happily spend a lot more time in Southwold as I'm sure there are many more foodie spots and other things to see and do. In fact I'd be happy just to go back and laze about on the beach (and eat more ice cream and fish and chips of course).

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Spaghetti with crab and rocket

I only started cooking this relatively recently when fresh picked crab meat started appearing in my local supermarket but it has undoubtedly become one of my favourite speedy recipes. It's light enough to eat in the summer, especially with the rocket leaves which act like an integrated salad, but is also lovely in the winter when you're in need of some hearty fare. The brown crab meat forms an instant sauce so additional ingredients like cream aren't required, and it's so quick the thing that takes longest to cook is the pasta.

There seem to be lots of variants of this recipe but this is my version (probably initially inspired by Nigella or someone else off the telly though). For enough for two you'll need:

100g picked crab meat (white and brown)
2 or 3 spring onions (finely sliced)
1 fat clove of garlic (finely chopped)
1 medium red chilli (finely chopped; remove seeds if you don't want too much heat)
Large handful of rocket
Plenty of olive oil
Enough spaghetti for two (about 200g)
Plenty of seasoning

Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the spaghetti. At the same time gently sweat the spring onions in a generous amount of olive oil until they've softened without colouring. Add the garlic and chilli, stir for a couple of minutes and then add the crab meat and cook until it's heated through. Remove from the heat and then stir through the cooked pasta. Season to taste and add an extra splash of olive oil if you want. Either add the rocket directly to the crab and pasta and mix or serve on top (and eat immediately).

It has also been known for all of the above to be combined with enough pasta for one and eaten solo. But definitely not by me, no definitely not.......