Thursday, 25 August 2011

Cobnut, cherry and goats' cheese salad

There's no getting around the fact that I'm an unashamed pedant. Ever since Lynne Truss made it cool to be finicky about spelling and grammar, I wear my pedantry colours with pride. Although, having said that, it's more of a curse than something to be proud of. On the average day I will spot at least ten linguistic or grammatical mistakes in my vicinity, whether I find them on the internet, in a book I'm reading, or on signage. Each one sends a slight shudder down my spine, but I just bristle with suppressed disgust and try to carry on with my day, having realised long ago that it'll take more than Lynne Truss's book to reform the world of language. I used to correct people mid-conversation if they said "faster" instead of "more quickly" - it's possibly my biggest grammatical bugbear - but I since realised that it's not really socially acceptable to do that, and I don't really want to alienate myself and end up with only Lynne Truss's book for a friend.

There's a definite positive correlation between my annoyance and the context of these mistakes; the more high-profile (signs in major supermarket chains, the backs of cereal boxes, magazines), the more likely it is to make me feel slightly sick with the state of humanity. The humble and much-maligned "greengrocer's apostrophe" no longer upsets me, probably because if I'm looking at it, I'm usually about to purchase some tasty fruit and veg, which is a happy enough experience to quell any stirrings of grammar-based rage. But if there's no food involved, it's highly likely that I'll be sent into a very middle-aged mental tirade about the state of the world and what on earth is it all coming to. Et cetera, ad nauseum. 

One culmination of all this suppressed rage was a heavily sarcastic poem I wrote when I was doing A-level English, which I will be kind enough to share with you all here.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Strawberry basil cupcakes

You're looking at a prize-winning recipe. About a month ago I entered Good to Know Recipes' Strawberry Tea competition, which involved designing a strawberry cake or pudding - the winner would receive a lot of beautiful pink Le Creuset, which was my main incentive for entering. Yesterday I received an email telling me my entry had been voted runner-up (you can see it on the Good to Know website in all its glory here). Although I was not to be the proud owner of all that gorgeous kitchenware, I still won a copy of Bake and Decorate by Fiona Cairns, who designed Kate and William's Royal Wedding cake. Which, come to think of it, is far more practical, as I had no idea where I was going to store all that Le Creuset. Also, being pink, it would have clashed with the turquoise Le Creuset collection I am already well on my way to establishing. We couldn't have that.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Apricot and amaretti tart, plus ProCook scales

Scales are a bit of a contentious issue for me and my family. Before you start thinking that any of us are cold-blooded and reptilian, I should probably clarify that I mean weighing scales, the kind you use to measure things for cooking. Until a few years ago, the only scales I knew were the huge, old fashioned ones we have in our kitchen at home, made of heavy black metal with a big brass bowl and a plate that you balance brass weights on. If you wanted to weigh out any quantity of anything, you first had to pile up the right weights and then pour whatever it was into the brass bowl until the scales tipped into a tentative balance.

This is all well and good, until you need to do the opposite - find out how much something weighs. For this, you have to play a ridiculous balancing game, slowly piling up weights until the scales start to level out. It can be done, but it is a bit of a faff. As is weighing out different quantities of ingredients, switching and swapping the piles of weights for every different amount of something. If you're baking a fruit cake, this can be a little bit of a nightmare. Especially if you drop one of the weights on your bare foot or - worse, as far as my mother is concerned - on the wooden kitchen floor.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mackerel, gooseberries, and nostalgia

This dish will always hold a special place in my heart. Not because mackerel is my favourite fish and I'm rather fond of gooseberries, though this is true, but because it was the last dish I ever cooked in my Oxford kitchen.

Those who ever spent time with me in said kitchen will know that it was the subject of numerous rants and tirades. There was the perpetual problem of people using my utensils and not washing them up. There was the horrible fridge that every now and then decided to leak stagnant water. There was the housemate who left the freezer open overnight and lost me my hoard of prized ingredients. There was the cleaner who threw out my silicon baking parchment. There was the issue of having only two square feet of worktop space in the entire kitchen. There was the inexplicable locked filing cabinet in the corner taking up potential worktop space.

Yet despite all that, I became attached to that kitchen. Unfortunately, as so often in life, I didn't realise quite how much until I had to leave.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My first Michelin-starred meal

"Michelin". It's funny how one word can possess the power to make or break a career, to spell the beginning or the end of business, to bring boom or bust. As an avid follower of everything gastronomic, it's a word I find myself reading a lot, to the point where it really means very little. "Michelin star" is bandied around so much these days (numerous friends of mine in Oxford are adamant that their college is the only one with a "Michelin-starred chef" - apparently one lone chef bearing this accolade has been doing the rounds, pinched from Christ Church by Univ before being passed on to Trinity, etc. etc.) that I bet few people realise that the original Michelin guide, published over a hundred years ago, was designed by the Michelin tyre company to help drivers maintain their cars, find accommodation, and eat well whilst touring France. It wasn't all about restaurants back then: the guide included listings for filling stations, mechanics and tyre dealers, along with local prices for fuel, tyres and repairs. It wasn't until 1926 that the guide started to mark outstanding restaurants with a star, and the 1930s that two- and three-star listings came into being. I won't bore you for too long on the history, though - if you're interested, click here. Essentially, one Michelin star means "very good cuisine in its category"; two mean cuisine worth a detour, and three, "exceptional cuisine worth a special journey". 

I don't think I quite played by the rules here, because the first Michelin-starred restaurant I attended was approximately two hundred miles from my house, thereby definitely involving a "special journey", yet it only had one star, not three. I hasten to add that I didn't travel two hundred miles simply for a good eating experience (though knowing me, it's not out of the question); I happened to be on holiday only five miles from the delightful Yorke Arms in north Yorkshire. My culinary radar was going mad, obviously sensing the wealth of edible potential in its vicinity, and I couldn't leave without seeing what all the fuss was about. I've read and heard so much about Michelin-starred chefs and their food (in fact, I even worked for one once) that I found it a bit hard to believe I'd never tried it before. The Yorke Arms, having recently had a great review in the Telegraph, seemed a good place to start, set in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside rather than some grim, smog-saturated highway in London.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Apple and blackberry crumble squares

I don't eat a lot of butter. This may, perhaps, come as a surprise, as this blog has seen rather an influx of baking recipes lately, mainly due to the onslaught of delicious summer fruit that just begs to be folded into cake batters, rippled into ice cream or used to top a creamy cheesecake. I am continually captivated by the displays of cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, mangoes and berries that adorn the market, constantly thinking of new and delicious ways to incorporate them into as many parts of a meal as possible. However, if you look carefully at most of my baking and dessert recipes, you'll find very little butter or cream. Instead, I prefer to make cakes and desserts that give a starring role to the fruit, without relying on an overload of saturated fat to tickle the tastebuds. I tend to make cakes that use yoghurt to replace a lot of the fat, cheesecakes that use just cream cheese and a little creme fraiche rather than buckets of double cream, and - possibly my favourite - a cobbler topping that tastes unbelievably delicious yet has hardly any butter in at all. 

I guess over the years I've just become good at recognising which baking recipes will still taste amazing despite a relative lack of butter. I'd never advertise my baking as "low fat" or "healthy" (if you read my rant regarding 'skinny' muffins, you'll know this already) because this makes it sound like it'll taste bland and sad. If I ever do mention to someone who's just eaten a hefty slice of a cake I've baked that it's actually relatively low-fat, the reaction is normally one of surprise, which I see as a positive thing. It also usually encourages them to have another slice, which is definitely a positive thing.

There's a simple reason for my reticence where butter is concerned: I went to an all-girls school. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Lamb köfte with cherries

The first time I ate köfte was in Istanbul. I'd tracked down, using the magical wisdom of Lonely Planet, a restaurant that was meant to serve the best in town. I dragged my travelling companions through the sweltering city, to find a gaggle of locals swarming around the door. We joined the disorderly queue, but for some reason, minutes later, were pulled to the front and shown to a table in the restaurant, despite there still being many unseated Turks left outside the door. We were then slightly puzzled to see that the restaurant was almost full of people, all sitting at their tables surveying the food that had already been served. There was salad, plates of peppers, a big basket of bread, and bowls awaiting soup. None of it had been touched, by anyone. It was then that we remembered it was the start of Ramadan, and that we were witnessing the last few minutes of the locals' fasting. The tension, hunger and relief in the air were almost palpable as everyone waited silently, eyeing the morsels of bread and inhaling the tempting barbecue aromas emanating from the kitchen. 

Monday, 8 August 2011

Oxford college catering: behind the scenes

Those of you who watched the most recent series of Masterchef may remember the episode where the contestants went to cook for formal hall at New College, Oxford. I certainly do, largely because it was especially dear to my heart, being an Oxford University graduate (twice) who has had formal hall at New College on several occasions, and who has spent the last three years keeping time by the New College bells, my last two houses no more than a stone's throw away from the magnificent building. I was fascinated to see what went on behind the scenes, as I expected catering for over a hundred hungry students and academics to be far more frenetic and far more difficult than a busy service in a top restaurant. This was proven to be the case, if the amount of sweat pouring down the brows of the hapless contestants was anything to go by. I remember in particular Jackie and Tom being presented with an entire vat of rabbit legs that needed stripping of meat, and desperately attempting to calculate in their heads how long each leg would take and whether that would fit within the impossibly short time limit (it didn't, naturally, which of course made for extra-compelling viewing). Perhaps the entire experience was more stressful than your average Masterchef challenge because of the exacting demands of the clientele; I remember a young, coiffured young man pompously lambasting his starter, because it lacked the promised Oxford chutney element. Of course, it was not pointed out to him that the reason said chutney was not present on his plate was because some of the contestants had accidentally got broken glass in it.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Avocado mango ripple ice cream

I'm not feeling well. The last couple of days I've been nursing some weird stomach bug, and it has done bizarre things to my appetite. I haven't exactly lost said appetite, which is how I know that this isn't life-threatening. Things are seriously wrong when I can't stomach food. I think the only time it has ever happened was last November when I spent a week in bed with flu. I've now joined the ranks of those who have lost their flu virginity, and will simply not tolerate those ignorant plebs who turn up to work with a slight sniffle and a packet of lemsip complaining that they've "got flu". Chances are, if you've actually got flu, you probably can't even summon up the energy to announce that you've got it, let alone turn up to work or muster the presence of mind to get some lemsip. After my week of flu, I marvelled that I hadn't got bedsores, so much time had I spent rolling around pitifully in my stagnant bed of pain, listening to the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading a Harry Potter audiobook on repeat. The book started to seep into my dreams, strange montages of Horcruxes and house-elves and evil Slytherins that dispersed only when I woke for long enough to marvel inwardly at how utterly crap my life was at that moment and how I wished someone would come along and put me into a coma until it was over.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Plum and damson cobbler

This week Simona from Briciole is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I'm exploring the culinary potential of damsons, a quintessentially English fruit.

I may have mentioned my habit of obsessively hoarding fruit in season. The other day I woke up with a faint sense of panic. It took me an entire morning to realise its cause; I had a vague inkling that cherries were slowly disappearing, steadily growing in price which no doubt signalled an upcoming dearth. Slightly maddened by this, thinking of all those cherry recipes I had yet to try, I rushed to the market and the supermarket and stockpiled a kilo and a half of the little red fruits. I spent a pleasant twenty minutes (apron-clad, of course) pitting them before methodically placing them into freezer bags and consigning them to the icy depths of the deep freeze. Suddenly I became sadly aware of their multiple sweet and savoury possibilities, painfully conscious of the fact that a mere one and a half kilos would not be enough to satisfy my creative culinary requirements. I spent a difficult day in this state before reminding myself that actually, I don't even like cherries all that much. I now just feel slightly ashamed at my ridiculous, child-like nature, wanting something just as I realise I might not be able to have it for much longer.