Thursday, December 31, 2009

London's best barmen

It's funny that barmen don't have the same reputation as chefs. A great cocktail is just as creative as a dish - often cleverer as they rely on fewer ingredients. The cocktails I've had made for me by three of London's best barmen, two of whom appear in the Independent's feature on New Year cocktails today - have just blown me away.

Salvatore Calabrese who works at the London private members club Fifty, is the ultimate suave Hollywood bartender - the sort of guy you'd want to make you a Martini. He taught me how to make the perfect G & T (crucial tips - fill your glass full of ice and use a freshly opened can of tonic)

Nick Strangeway (above, on right) used to work at my son's steakhouse Hawksmoor and now works at the new basement bar at Hix. He's an absolute genius at reinterpreting cocktail classics. He used to do fabulously kitsch punches in vintage punchbowls at Hawksmoor but I love the sound of his new cocktail Sbagliato, a mixture of Campari, sweet vermouth and Prosecco - easy enough to rustle up for a crowd for New Year's Eve.

And my third is Dick Bradsell, creator of some of the best modern classics - cocktails such as The Cowboy and The Bramble (you can find the recipes and some of his other creations here). I once went on a bizarre bourbon trip to Kentucky with him and Carol Thatcher. I've no idea where he's working now - like most barmen he tends to move around.

Incidentally Salvatore's website has a useful page on hangover cures if you overdo it tonight ;-) A very happy new year to you all.

Do you agree these are London's three best barmen or do you have a favourite of your own?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Vacqueyras - our everyday red

Asking a winewriter what their favourite wine is usually results in a long explanation about how it depends on the mood, the food and the time of year and I'm no exception. But there's one bottle we buy regularly because it pretty well always pleases us and goes with a lot of the food we like to eat (rustic French and Italian)

It's a basic Vacqueyras from the Vignerons de Beaumes de Venise, better known for their sweet wine and sells for £6.99 a bottle in Somerfield. Or at the moment it does. Somerfield converts to the Co-op next Monday so I'm hoping they'll still stock it.

Vacqueyras for those of you who aren't familiar with it is one of the named villages of the Côtes du Rhône appellation which means its quality is generally higher than basic Côtes du Rhône Villages. The splendidly old-fashioned label doesn't indicate the proportions of the grape varieties which are used but it's normally Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault (for more about the area see here) It does however state in rather charming Franglais that it is "perfect with an elaborated cooking such as leg of lamb, games, braised meat and cheese" with which I would concur.

I doubt if it will stay this price beyond the 2008 vintage as it sells direct off the producer's site for 7 euros so get in there quick (but not in my local branch if you don't mind).

What's your favourite everyday drinking?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cooking with hay

One of the most appealing cookbooks I was sent just before Christmas was Pascal Aussignac’s Cuisinier Gascon so when I caught sight of his Christmas Goose stuffed with Hay (also printed here in the Guardian) I had to give it a try. We’d bought an organic goose from a friend who farms in Somerset so it was easy enough to ask him for the hay too. It was wonderfully sweet-smelling - just like a cut summer meadow - so I was sure the experiment was going to be a success.

I stuffed the hay in the carcass as instructed and put the goose in the Aga. The first sign that anything was amiss was when very little fat emerged from the bird - the hay of course had mopped it all up. Then the goose started smelling of hay but not in a nice way . . . more like a compost heap than a meadow. The Aga was also rebelling against the vast amount of food in it and suddenly dropped its temperature so the goose cooking went on and on, getting more hay-y by the moment.

Eventually we got there. The goose didn’t taste as offputting as it smelt though I can’t say it was a great culinary experience. But worst of all we only had just enough fat to cook a couple of batches of potatoes. I was expecting to be in goose fat for weeks.

It’s possible of course that because it was a free-range, grass fed bird it hadn’t accumulated much fat but I certainly resented the hay having it. Next time I’ll stick to my tried and trusted method of stuffing the goose with potatoes and onions, Simon Hopkinson style.

Did you eat goose for Christmas and if so which way? Have you had any comparable cooking failures? Or ever tried cooking with hay?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The perfect breadknife

I can't say I've ever given a great deal of thought to bread knives. Occasionally I get frustrated because they're not sharp enough to cut through a bigger than average loaf but we've soldiered on with our rather pretty antique knives for years.

Not any more. This week I was sent an Opinel Couteau à Pain no. 116 by Richard and Jo Bertinet of Bertinet Kitchen as a thankyou for doing a cheese and wine tasting for them last week. (To promote my cheese book so I hadn't expected to be paid). It arrived with a large homebaked sourdough loaf so I could immediately try it out and it was just perfect. Wooden-handled, satisfyingly chunky to hold, beautifully balanced and razor sharp it was the most perfect tool for the job you could imagine

Of course it was great business. I was smitten by both the bread and the knife and being a writer they must have known there was a fair chance I'd blog about them. But it was such an imaginative and perfect present that I really wanted to share it with you.

You can buy both from their cookery school and also online. The knife costs £25 and the loaf (which is 1.2kg) £5 (£6.50 by mail order) The bread is also available from several Bath restaurants including Marlborough Tavern, King William and Beaujolais.

That might sound a lot for a loaf - it is - but with this demon knife you can cut it thinly and it has so much taste you don't need to eat a lot (though I undoubtedly will).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What kind of wine to mull

I've been looking out for a wine to mull and think I've found the perfect candidate. Not that it looks or sounds promising. It's called La Maison de Michel and is basically the sort of wine you'd pick up if you went to the local co-op in a French village with a 5 litre 'cubi' and filled up at the pump. It's only 11.5%, quite dry but sufficiently full-flavoured to carry a fair amount of spicing and costs just £10 for 2 bottles in Tesco - or slightly less if you buy a case of six.

For one bottle* I'd add a small glass of inexpensive ruby port (like Vintage character), a couple of tablespoons of soft brown sugar, a cinnamon stick, a piece of star anise, a few cloves and a finely pared slice of orange peel, bring the whole lot slowly to the boil then immediately take the pan off the heat and infuse the spices for 20-30 minutes. Then remove the spices and reheat it carefully without boiling. Makes around 6 cups or glasses.

Other good bets for mulling are inexpensive unoaked Portuguese and Spanish reds (oak aged wines can taste bitter when they're mulled). And as with with cooking with wine never mull a wine you wouldn't be prepared to drink on it's own!

What sort of wine do you like to mull? Do you have a favourite recipe?

* If you use more than one bottle increase the amount of port and sugar proportionately but you don't need to double or treble the spices.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The croissant that thinks it's a pretzel

I don't want you to think I'm fixated by carbs or anything (the truth is I am) but it's hard to avoid them in New York. And my second great find, introduced to me by the wonderful Dorie Greenspan, is the Pretzel croissant at City Bakery.

Actually Dorie's not alone. There are so many people obsessed with this croissant that the City Bakery has a dedicated website for it. (There's also a rather bizarre black and white YouTube video of them making it - or maybe another croissant - inexplicably backed by the soundtrack from My Fair Lady. But persevere through 'The Rain in Spain'. There's a great sequence of them rolling them out.)

Anyway the croissant is just heavenly. Less fatty and flakier than a typical French croissant with salt and sesame seeds sprinkled over the top it has the sweet-salty-crunchy appeal of salted caramels. I also loved their apple sauce cakes with bourbon raisins (below). Dorie and I both felt though that their celebrated chocolate chip cookies were a touch too sweet, an almost heretical view in New York. But Dorie can get away with it because she is a Baking Goddess. You should check out her lovely blog.

City Bakery is at 3 West 18th Street, just off 5th Avenue. If you're visiting New York you must go there for breakfast.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is this the greatest bread roll in New York?

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I've been in New York for the past six days with little time to breathe let alone blog but here's the first of my top New York food finds - the guanciale pecorino rolls at Danny Meyer's new restaurant Maialino in the Gramercy Hotel.

They arrived warm and flaky with something of the consistency of a Bath bun though obviously savoury - dusted with herbs, dotted with bacon and oozing with cheese. (Guanciale is a pancetta-like product made with pigs cheek. You can find a good description on Maialino's rival Babbo's website here)

As former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl tweeted the other day: "Woke up thinking about Maialino rolls: rich little puffs of guanciale and pecorino. Utterly irresistible. Why didn't I bring some home?" Wish I could have done too . . .

Any other rolls you'd like to champion - in New York, London or anywhere else for that matter?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chestnut and fig couscous stuffing

I was agonising over the weekend what sort of stuffing to serve with roast guineafowl and remembered a dish I'd invented for veggies in my student cookbook Beyond Baked Beans Green. It worked perfectly and I think I might well do it with the Christmas goose. What I like about it is that it's much lighter than a conventional bread stuffing, especially if you don't actually use it to stuff the bird (which I suppose makes it technically no longer a stuffing). It also gets over the problem of what to serve any veggies in the party.

Serves 4-6 (obviously double it for a larger party)

3 tbsp sunflower or light olive oil
25g pinenuts
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, finely sliced
100g pre-prepared chestnuts (the French or Spanish ones in jars are best)
5-6 ready to eat figs
1 tsp garam masala or ground mixed spice
100g instant couscous
175ml hot vegetable stock made with 1 tsp vegetable bouillon powder or half an organic vegetable stock cube
Salt (though go easy if the stock is salty)
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley

Heat a casserole or large frying pan, add the oil and briefly fry the pinenuts until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on kitchen towel. Add the chopped onion, carrot and celery to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes over a low heat until beginning to brown. Meanwhile finely chop the chestnuts and the figs then add them to the vegetables and cook for a minute or two more. Sprinkle over the spice and stir again. Add the couscous, stir, then add the stock. Take the pan off the heat and leave for about 5 minutes for the couscous to absorb the liquid. Fork the couscous through, check the seasoning, adding salt if you think it needs it and stir in the reserved pinenuts and chopped parsley. (You can make this ahead and heat it through in a moderate oven with a little extra oil drizzled over the top.)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Making tasteless tomatoes tasty

I know as a cookery writer I shouldn't be advocating using produce out of season and by and large I don't. I don't want strawberries or broad beans in December or parsnips in June. But I do crave fresh tomatoes and judging by how many are available even at this time of year I suspect I'm not alone.

The problem is they don't really taste of anything much - except the vastly expensive imported ones so what is a tomato lover to do?

The other day I bought a reduced pack in our local Co-op and decided to see how good I could make them taste. I halved them horizontally and put them in a tray with a good glug of olive oil and 3-4 smashed cloves of garlic. I seasoned them with salt, pepper and some herbes de Provence, bunged them in the top AGA oven till they got going (5 minutes) then transferred them to the slow oven for just over an hour. (You could of course do this on a low setting in a conventional oven.)

We had them on sourdough toast but you could equally well use them for a pasta sauce or a soup. They would have caramelised even better with a pinch of sugar and/or another 15 minutes or so in the oven.

An alternative and even quicker strategy is to use cherry tomatoes and simply tip them into a frying pan in which you've heated some olive oil and cook them for a couple of minutes shaking the pan until the skins start to burst. Turn the heat down, give them another 5 minutes or so then season as above with salt and pepper. You could also stir in some chopped fresh thyme or parsley or, even better, wilt in a handful of fresh basil leaves but that's obviously out of season during these dark days too. It does recapture just that little bit of summer . . .

Where do you stand on eating produce like tomatoes out of season? Do you do it or eschew it?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The discreet charm of Topsham

There aren't many places you can go to these days which are unspoiled and I almost hesitate about telling you about this one. It's a small historic town called Topsham on the mouth of the River Exe in Devon. Its character has been preserved by the fact that it's only about 4 miles from Exeter and that there are much better known (though far less salubrious) resorts nearby such as Exmouth, Dawlish and Teignmouth.

I first went there eons ago when I was at university in Exeter but must confess we never got much beyond the Bridge Inn. Nowadays I appreciate its more old-fashioned virtues - the fact that it has its own butcher, greengrocer, baker and (very good) cheese shop Country Cheeses, a three-storey antiquea centre and a disproportionate number of charity shops (Devon Air Ambulance being a particular favourite). True there are a fair amount of chi-chi boutiques and home furnishing shops but it doesn't seem to pack the place with 4 x 4s.

There isn't anywhere remarkable to eat but there is somewhere to stay - an unreconstructed inn (inn not a gastropub, note) called The Globe. You can also stay - as we did last night - in their newly renovated apartments which look over the estuary (and, it must be said, the antiques centre car park) but which would be a good hideaway if you wanted to escape from the world for a couple of days and immerse yourself in second hand books.

There's a lovely walk along the strand at the end of the town which has some enviable Dutch-style houses with gardens that run down to the water (below). I fantasise about living there but I know I'm too much of a townie to contemplate it seriously . . .

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Have blogrolls had their day?

Remember when we all started our blogs (those of you who have them) we accumulated these enormous long lists of blogs we liked? Did you check them out regularly? Me neither. Occasionally I would dip into them but these days I’m far more likely to look at a post someone has mentioned on Twitter.

The length of the list was, of course, because we hoped people would link back to us and that would improve our Google ranking. Now I know nothing about SEO but my website has consistently ranked top of searches for matching food and wine despite the fact I’ve almost totally ignored incoming links. (Presumably because it does what it says on the tin. It’s a site about - ta taaaa - food and wine matching.)

Then there is the question of friendships and loyalties, anxieties about who might be put out if you don’t include them. That’s understandable but it’s not a good reason for adding someone to your blogroll.

The only instance where I think it works is if your blog is dedicated to a specialist subject and you can pretty well cover all the interesting sites without forcing someone to scroll endlessly down the page. I do that on my cheese blog but even then I must confess weeks go by and I don’t check my own links.

So for Food and Wine Finds I’ve come up with a new strategy which is to select 4 or 5 blogs each month. I’ll also write a few lines about each which I hope will whet your appetite. Maybe you emarketeers will tell me that this is a lousy idea and I could build my traffic much more effectively by soliciting strategic blog links. But you know what? I don’t care.

Here’s December’s list.

The Pioneer Woman
The pioneer woman aka Ree Drummond seems to be some kind of superwoman. She abandoned a promising career in LA and went off with a cowboy. She has reinvented herself as a modern Fannie Farmer guiding the nation through her recipes step by beautifully photographed step. She even homeschools her kids. Every blogger will gnash their teeth with envy at her 13 million page views each month. Cult reading.

Pete Brown’s Beer Blog
OK. Let me declare an interest here. I know Pete (a former adman) and he’s a good bloke. But more important than that he’s a cracking writer - so good that it matters not a jot that he seldom posts any pictures. He also has robustly articulated views. Read this perfect send-up of a Daily Mail article.

Food Stories
I know how hard it is to keep up a blog let alone make it consistently varied and interesting so hats off to Helen Graves for regularly posting such sharply written content. from the intricacies of Sichuan cooking (her current obsession) to musings on the cultural significance of her local café.

The British Larder
This is the kind of blog I would create if I had the talent and time. It’s run and stunningly photographed by a former chef called Madalene Bonvini who writes with endearing seriousness about her art. Sheer class.

More food porn. Exquisite desserts from a young french pastry chef, Helen Dujardin (her real name? too good to be true) living in Charleston, South Carolina. Her recently published pumpkin semi-freddo with a side of gingerbread houses is as fairytale a creation as anyone could wish for in the run up to Christmas. Grapefruit and pomegranate in white tea jelly is even prettier.

So that’s your lot this month - more in January.

Do you read other people's blogrolls - or even your own?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My quest for the perfect Earl Grey

My favourite cuppa since I can’t remember when is Earl Grey. It’s the tea I start the day with and the tea, up to now, I’ve invariably enjoyed. But recently I’ve bought two packets that have really let me down - one from a company called Miles, the other from the ubiquitous Twinings. Both smelt like Earl Grey but tasted like black tea of the dullest kind.

Fortunately help was at hand in the form of a neighbour, Kate Gover of Lahloo Tea (right at Lido in Bristol) who predictably pointed out I’d get a better result if I used a leaf tea. (Advice, of course, I'm aware of but choose to ignore first thing in the morning.) Most Earl Greys, she told me, are made from pretty low grade teas sprayed with artificial bergamot flavouring - not even real bergamot oil. (Bergamot is a type of orange btw.) Hers is made from second flush Darjeeling, ‘a little bit’ of Assam and ‘the best cold-pressed Bergamot oil I could find'. It certainly smelt heavenly in the tin.

She went through the ritual of heating the pot and steeping the leaves (2 teaspoons for the two of us) for 3-3 1/2 minutes then removed the infuser and poured the tea which she drank without milk and I drank with a splash.

It was very different from the Earl Grey I’m used to - much more delicate and subtle and to be honest I was slightly disappointed at first sip (she says many EG aficionados initially feel the same - I suspect because our palates have been denatured by the artifical flavouring). But it grew on me, especially with an elegant Earl Grey chocolate on which Kate has collaborated with London chocolatier Damian Allsop. And it had a much longer finish and was much more refreshing and invigorating than my usual brew. The problem is that it’s a meditative kind of tea rather than a restorative quick fix which is what you - or rather I - want at 7am.

So I’m still looking. The best teabags I’ve found so far are from Sainsbury’s and a Fair Trade Earl Grey in grey packaging whose name I can’t recall but will post when I next spot it. And Taylor’s of Harrogate, which I’m currently drinking, isn’t bad though even that has ‘natural Bergamot flavour’ which usually means a natural flavouring that tastes of Bergamot rather than one that is derived from it.

Any fellow Earl Grey fans out there? Which brand do you drink or can anyone else recommend another early morning cuppa? And do you use teabags (be honest!)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cynical champagne ‘deals’

Having been to a champagne tasting this week I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought as to how good these headline-grabbing half-price champagne offers are.

Initally I got quite excited about them myself - Moet for £14, Bollinger for £18 (both at Morrisons, if they’ve not run out) sound like the deal of the decade. Certainly the visitors to the popular money site think so. Traffic has peaked at 1 million visitors a day this week with champagne being the most regularly viewed subject

But you need to pause a moment and ask how much these bottles are worth in the first place. The best known names like Bollinger and Louis Roederer now have a recommended retail price of around £37-£40 a bottle. Forty pounds a bottle. That’s ludicrously over-priced even allowing for the exchange rate.

The standard price for Averys Special Cuvee Brut which is blended in the Bollinger house style is £21.99 (and they’re bound to do some kind of an offer on it before Christmas). Sainsbury’s very decent Blanc de Noirs, which was recently only narrowly pipped at the post by Veuve Clicquot in a recent Which? tasting is currently selling for £14. (Moet incidentally only came 13th out of the 14 champagnes tested.) OK Avery’s and Sainsbury’s don’t have the cachet of a Bolly but are you prepared to spend an extra 15 quid a bottle for a label?

The champagne producers are not alone in these cynical pricing practices. Most leading brands of sparkling wine are also priced on the basis that they are going to be discounted. The standard price for Cordoniu Cava now is £11.99 enabling supermarkets to ‘slash the price’ to £5.99 (at which it’s a pretty good buy it’s fair to say) But consumers aren’t stupid as the recent demise of Wine Rack which routinely overcharged for wine in order to be able to discount it shows.

What the champagne houses offer - and have been immensely skilled at exploiting - is glamour and a sense of special occasion but don’t let the deals lure you into the idea that they're doing you any favours. If you merely want some simple party fizz I’d head to Majestic and buy the Underraga Brut from Chile at £4.99 or order some Lindauer Brut for £39.90 a case of six from Tesco (Oddbins has a few bottles of the even better rosé if you can track it down)

Have you succumbed any of the champagne offers yet? Will you? Or are you perfectly happy to serve a cheaper sparkling wine to your family and friends?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Welcome to Food & Wine Finds!

Well, it didn’t take me long to get back into blogging! As those of you who followed my previous blog The Frugal Cook will know my reason for giving up was that I’d run out of steam and felt I was beginning to repeat myself. But once I stopped I realised I had so many things to share that didn’t really fit in to my existing websites or the papers and magazines I write for and which I wanted to write about at greater length than the 140 characters offered by Twitter. So here I am at it again . . .

What will you find on this blog? Well, a bit of everything but mainly things that are not already heavily promoted and which you might not otherwise come across:

* Great raw ingredients and products and snippets of advice about what to do with them. (Though most of the stuff I write about cheese will be on my dedicated cheese blog The Cheeselover)

* Restaurants, pubs and cafés that don’t merit a major review but which are worth seeking out. (And dishes from restaurants I’m inspired by)

* Interesting bits of kitchen kit (I am, I confess, a gadget freak)

* Wines that are off the beaten track (and probably the odd beer and spirit too)

* Bargains: good deals I spot that are worth taking advantage of - and ones that aren’t quite as good as they seem . . .

* Books - not the big name glossy chef books but interesting byways like the book I’ve just published with Bristol chef Stephen Markwick. Old books too.

Interesting websites and blogs - on top of my regular links

Turkeys - most of the blog will be about things I'm really enthusiastic about but there will be an occasional brickbat . . .

So I look forward to having you with me - enjoy the ride!