Friday, October 28, 2011

How good are food apps?

If you've got an iPad you've probably been as tempted as me by the avalanche of food apps that you can now download. But how good are they as a way of learning about ingredients, cooking techniques and recipes? I wrote about some shortly after I got my iPad. Here are the apps I've acquired more recently and how I rate them:

Donna Hay ***** (Free - for the moment)
I'd been wondering whether Donna Hay would do an app and now I've seen it can understand why it took so long. this is the most beautiful, sophisticated, mouthwatering on-line magazine around. There are some great interactive sections and some spectacular video effects as a tiered white cake gets covered with pink macarons and a whole ricotta disappears scoop by scoop off a plate. The photography is utterly stunning, the recipes have Hay's trademark style and simplicity. The first issue is free - you're bound to want to buy the second and subsequent ones.

Green Kitchen *** (£2.99)
A very pretty app designed for the iPad with an easy to navigate grid of healthy (and quite hardcore) vegetarian recipes. If I have a criticism it would be that the recipes themselves aren't quite as assured as those from established cookery writers. I like the look of the Baked Pistachio and Herb Felafel and Rustic Potato Pizza, though (rather less so the Bean Brownies . . . ) Green Kitchen also has an equally attractive website.

Baking with Dorie **** £8.99
I'm a big fan of Dorie Greenspan, a baking superstar in the states (and an incredibly nice person) and you can't fault the content of her new app. But with 20 baking lessons and over 100 videos it's a monster to download at the rather sluggish broadband speed we have at home and I lost it altogether when I was updating my iPad software and had to reload it. I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have Dorie in book mode really. (Her best known is Baking: from my home to yours and her latest, which this post has reminded me to order, Around my French Table)

River Cottage Every Day *** (£1.99)
Another iPhone app that doesn't work quite so well on the iPad. It's also annoying that you have to sign up with your personal details once you've downloaded it - presumably so that you get to be on the River Cottage mailing list though if you've paid your money I think you're entitled to instant access to the content. Nice to have ideas for how to use what's in season though and I like the well shot 'how to videos' including how to prepare a pheasant, how to fillet a fish and how to build a wood-fired oven.

My kitchen table * (Free)
A sample selection of recipes from well-loved TV presenters including Mary Berry, Antonio Carluccio and Madhur Jaffrey. Designed for the iPhone and obviously based on their books it doesn't work too well on the iPad and took a fair time to download. Not especially easy to use and there are some weird anomalies like recommending Ainsley's Chilli-glazed mango with yoghurt as a good accompaniment for Antonio's pappardelle with meat sauce. And the shopping lists don't seem to come up yet. Obviously the idea is to get you to buy other apps on the back of it like Mary Berry's My Cakes and Desserts (£1.99) but I'm not sure I'd bother.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 10 best things we ate in Paris

The week we've just spent in Paris was not a great gastronomic pilgrimage. We actually went to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and to check out the flourishing natural wine scene in which we're both interested. We deliberately didn't make advance reservations or hit any two or three star restaurants, preferring the casual informality of bistros and wine bars. But we still ate well and here are - in no particular order - the 10 best dishes we had.

Steak frites at Café des Musées
Every trip to Paris should include a classic steak and chips and this was a cracker. Admittedly there was more fat than the average steak you'd get in a British restaurant but the taste was superb and the accompanying sauce béarnaise and very crisp hand-cut chips just perfect. The only thing that spoilt it were the loud Americans on a neighbouring table.

Radis beurre at Aux Deux Amis
Another French classic given a contemporary twist by including heirloom varieties at Aux Deux Amis, a tiny bistro on the Oberkampf (11e). Beautifully presented - I also love the whipped butter and the smoked sea salt. An ideal light start to a meal

Brandade and salad at Aux Deux Amis
OK, this doesn't look much but you have to trust me. Brandade which is made from salt cod normally comes as a sloppy purée you have with toast but this had been turned into a deconstructed fish pie. The old fashioned lettuce salad with it was the perfect accompaniment. I'm going to try this at home

Hake with crushed jerusalem artichokes, mint and olives at Rino
My husband who is more of a carnivore than I am probably wouldn't agree but this was the best dish at the best meal we had all week - at a tiny modern bistro in the 11th which serves a very short set-price lunch on Fridays and Saturdays for 20€ for two courses. A wonderfully subtle, imaginative combination of flavours. We ate it very slowly to make it last longer.

Red mullet with grains at Rino (top of post)
This was the first course at the same meal - red mullet with what they described as a 'soupe' of grains and lentils and some chard. Again, very clean and pure with a slightly Asian twist I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Joue de veau at Le Baratin
Le Baratin is probably Paris's most famous natural wine bistro - with a reputation for famously rude service as you can read here. But we found them politeness itself and the food was great. There were two main courses involving cheeks - ox cheek and veal cheek - both stellar. The ox cheek was better with the wine we ordered but the veal cheek was the lighter and more elegant dish.

Saucisse en cocotte at Vivant
Vivant, in the rue des Petites Ecuries in the 10th, is the new up and coming rival to Le Baratin. You can read my review here but I particularly liked this dish of robust Toulouse sausage served with all kinds of amazing root veg - beets, radish and turnips - steamed in their own juices en cocotte. Much lighter than the classic sausage and mash.

Oxtail croque at l’Avant Comptoir
We were pretty pleased with ourselves at squeezing into a small corner of the bar at Yves Camdeborde's ultra fashionable L'Avant Comptoir but it took a while for us to work out how to order. You think at first there's just the regulation charcuterie but there are lots of imaginative small dishes or tapas listed on cards that hang from the ceiling. This was my favourite - an oxtail 'croque' (fried sandwich) with horseradish chantilly (whipped cream). Totally delicious.

Poached pear at Philou
As you may have gathered we're not great ones for desserts - and were eating so much it was probably just as well - but this was a really lovely poached pear with salted caramel with some kind of baba-ish thingy we ate at a newish bistro Philou, just off the Canal St Martin.

Pistachio eclairs at Gosselin
And finally we did succumb to the pastry shops just once when we'd had a lighter than usual lunch, picking a pistachio eclair (at the back) from the multi-coloured selection at Gosselin in the rue St Honoré. So much more stylish than a cupcake. Just as well we didn't make patisserie the main focus of the trip . . .

Monday, October 17, 2011

Paris without a reservation

We took a different approach to our latest trip to Paris which was not to make any reservations. Partly because we'd had to cancel two trips here already and didn't want to tempt fate by booking yet another swathe of tables we might have to cancel and partly because the plan was to visit as many small bistros and wine bars as possible. Actually I tell a lie. We booked a table for our first night but we've booked nothing else more than a day ahead. For hard to get reservations like Le Baratin we rang up earlier the same day and still got a table.

So far it's worked like a dream. There's been nowhere we haven't managed to get into including Inaki Aizpitarte's new wine bar Le Dauphin, Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir, Vivant and Rino, a restaurant we'd spent hours trying to get a booking for our last trip without success. A lot of these don't take bookings anyway or are so small that they won't take reservations on the phone especially from tourists

It's made me think that we go about visiting cities quite the wrong way these days, frantically trying to get a reservation at the most sought after restaurants and bars. Committing ourselves to a particular time slot which might not suit us because we're doing something else more interesting at the time. Squeezing in two meals a day when we might only fancy eating one. Stressing because we'll not be able to write up the hottest restaurants on our blog or for a future feature.

What we've done is wander in and have a glass of wine and a plate of charcuterie or couple of small plates then find somewhere else to have a main course or skip that and find a gorgeous cake from some enticing patisserie. We have had some fixed price meals - mainly at lunchtime - but have then eaten lightly in the evening.

Of course it's helped that there are only two of us and that we've been here for the week which removes the sense of urgency from the exercise but even if I was staying 3 to 4 nights another time I think - hope - I'd deploy the same tactics. It's also hugely reduced the cost of eating out.

What you do need so far as Paris is concerned is to come at the right time of the week. And that, unfortunately, is not at the weekend when many restaurants are shut or insanely busy but midweek from Tuesday to Friday (Mondays are also a popular closing day). Even then Parisien restaurants have erratic opening hours so do your homework, find out when the places you might fancy going are open and have a back up plan of a restaurant you could go to nearby if you don't manage to walk in. I admit I'm lucky to have a husband who likes nothing better than devising such strategies.

You also need to be prepared to eat at lunchtime rather than in the evening and earlier than might seem comfortable - the French start lunch at 12 so 12-12.30 is a good time to get a table. The added bonus is that the lunch menu is often cheaper than the dinner one.

There's always the delightful possibility you might walk past somewhere that's not on anyone's radar, where the locals themselves eat and which is a genuine find. One of the main problems these days - and I'm guilty of this myself - is that everyone goes to the same restaurants so your fellow diners are likely to be food critics and bloggers. Is that would you really want when you're exploring a city?

So how do you handle weekends - or midweek trips - to major destinations like Paris or New York? Plan ahead, leave things to chance or a bit of both?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lahloo Pantry: a thoroughly modern tearoom

I'd better get the disclaimer out of the way first. Kate and Neil of Lahloo Tea live practically opposite me so I'm hardly likely to diss their new venture, Lahloo Pantry which opened in Bristol yesterday. But having been there at lunchtime today I can honestly say that it's brilliant - an all day café where you can drink really good tea and eat (and this is what worries me) wickedly delicious cake.

It's in a former Asian deli on Kings Road just off Boyces Avenue in Clifton village. Upstairs there's a communal table which would be fabulous for someone coming in on their own to sit and read. Downstairs, a cosy cafe with tables outside when it's fine.

You can have breakfast, lunch or tea so at 12.30 my daughter and I had lunch and breakfast respectively. A perfectly wobbly smoked haddock tart with a range of salads in her case; soft boiled eggs and soldiers in mine. Or soft boiled in theory. The kitchen was struggling with an induction hob which was turning out one egg uncooked and one hard (ironic when they'd produced cakes as perfect as these chai brulée tarts). They may have given up and be serving scrambled eggs by the time you read this.

They will apparently be doing takeaway (takeaway cake!) once the containers arrive (another glitch) and you can, of course, buy one of the very beautiful tins of tea you can see lining the walls.

If you're familiar with smart London cafés like Peyton and Byrne or Konditor and Cook you'll feel quite at home. This is a great addition to the Bristol eating out scene.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Zucca: an affordable smart London Italian

Zucca’s been around for a good few months now so it’s hardly a find but because it’s off the beaten track for many London visitors - down the far end of Bermondsey Street, about a 10 minute walk from London Bridge - it might have escaped your notice.

It’s worth the detour, as Michelin says. It’s a cool contemporary restaurant serving immaculately cooked modern Italian food at more than fair prices. It's also just been listed in the top 3 Italian restaurants in Europe by the World's 50 Best - a somewhat hyperbolic accolade but one which underlines that it is something special.

We kicked off while we were waiting for the rest of our party with what must be a signature dish of ‘Zucca’ fritti (above) - perfectly cooked squash fritters intermingled with sage leaves which added a nice bitter note to what can be an oversweet and slightly bland veg.

We then grazed through a few more antipasti - carpaccio of sea bass (above - stellar), bruschetta of smoked eel, mozzarella, yellow courgettes and sorrel (yum) and san daniele, ventricina and lardo (the least interesting of the four) - all of which were under a fiver.

I wished for a moment I’d had my son’s pappardelle with hare ragu (above) which looked - and tasted - fabulous (pasta is one of the highspots at Zucca) but was more than happy with my cacciucco, a Tuscan-style fish stew with couscous. And my husband, who always orders rabbit if it’s on the menu rated his slow cooked sweet and sour rabbit as good as his own - high praise indeed ;-).

We shared a delicious crumbly walnut cake (below), an Italian spin on bakewell tart and some icecreams which were all top drawer and not too sweet.

With a bottle of Falanghina and a couple of glasses of red the bill came to £136 for 4 of us and a baby (my grandson!) who tucked heartily into his own plate of pasta. That included service for which, they make a point of stressing, they don't charge. You could easily spend that much in Jamie’s Italian and eat half as well.

This week they have a pig week which I’m sorry to be missing. Follow their tweets @SamZucca to find out what else they have on.

* Oh, and a footnote. Bermondsey Street, which is an up and coming London food destination (it's not far from Maltby street market) also houses the excellent José tapas bar so you could call in there for a sherry first. José's own restaurant, Pizarro, opens down the road next month.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nigel Slater's seasalt chocolate snaps

One of the things I like to do when I'm unwell (nothing serious, just a heavy cold) is catch up with all the food programmes I've missed on iPlayer. I didn't even realise Nigel Slater had a new series but I've just been watching him make some incredibly pretty chocolate discs topped with caramelised almonds, chopped pistachios, crushed crystallised rose petals and rubbed flakes of seasalt. Like all Nigel's recipes it's an inspired combination of ingredients and incredibly easy.

It would make a show stopping end to a dinner party, with perhaps a glass of off-dry pink sparkling wine (champagne is too dry) or - admittedly slightly kitsch - a glass of very cold pink port. You can find the recipe here.

Although I don't think Nigel is a TV natural like (unexpectedly) Simon Hopkinson he always makes food I want to eat and the idea of basing a series on complementary tastes and flavours is a great one. (The first episode was on sweet and sour, this one on surf and turf (though not quite sure how chocolate fits into that) and the next spicy and cool. There must be a book in this.