useless kitchen gadgets?

At this time of year, many of us end up laden with things that, to put it one way, we wouldn’t have thought to buy for ourselves. Bejewelled washing-up gloves, anyone? And for those of us with more than an passing interest in food, there tends to be a kitchen gadget or two tucked alongside the gallons of celebrity perfume. I must admit, I am guilty of being more than enough kitchenware for myself – a fact made all too apparent during my recent move.

But of course, many kitchen gadgets have their place. Here’s a run-through of my latest acquisitions.

Camembert Baker

I know, I know. Many people would despair at the idea of such a single-use item taking up valuable kitchen space. But this is actually one I bought, for my boyfriend. I recognise that most people don’t have our bad, bad habit of a camembert-a-week, spiked with rosemary and brushed with white wine.

But for us, this is perfect. No camembert spilling over into the bottom of the oven, causing the house to stink for days (I once attempted a similar feat with an Époisses de Bourgogne. Let’s just say it ruined the rest of the cheese party). No wasteful use of tin foil. And the lid creates a wonderful steaming effect, really getting the flavours into the cheese, particularly the wine.

Kenwood Mini-Chopper

I know many people have already sung its praises, including the Holy Delia, but this is one of those items I don’t know how I’ve done without. I’ve got a food processor already, and although its fantastic for cakes, hollandaise sauce and the like, sometimes it seems it would be more hassle to clean it up afterwards than it would to do a task manually. Not so with this. It sits discreetly on the worktop, and takes approximately three seconds to wash up. I use it almost every day to make curry pastes, pestos, and salsas, or just to chop an onion if I can’t be bothered to do it by hand. I’d highly recommend it.

Ice cream machine

Not the greatest item for January, but for anyone who’s ever tried to make sorbets by hand, the machine is revelatory. If you are an ardent recipe reader like me, and have often dismayed when you reach the part that says ‘put mixture into ice cream machine’, then I recommend you just give up and get one. My boyfriend has just picked up Robin Weir’s epic tome on ice creams, sorbets and gelatos and I’m looking forward to having him make me many when I’m recovering from my tonsillectomy – especially the lemon and basil sorbet. Well, there has to be something to look forward to about an operation.

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Gourmet Guide: Bristol

Today is the day I leave my home city for the last five years, Bristol, and head to the big smoke.

I’m incredibly excited about all the fantastic markets and restaurants London has to offer, but I also think that Bristol deserves more of a reputation for food. Here’s my round-up of the best places to eat and shop.

WHERE TO EAT

Café Maitreya

89 St. Mark’s Road, Easton, BS5 6HY t: 01179 510100

This intimate vegetarian restaurant, tucked away in the vibrant Easton area, really pays attention to the tiny details. They even bake their own bread, with the smell hitting you as you walk in the door. A sophisticated and well-presented approach to food, rather than the bland fare you might expect from an organic, vegetarian restaurant. Menu changes seasonally. Two evening courses are £19.95, or three for £22.95.

Robin’s Hood Retreat

197 Gloucester Road, Bishopston, BS7 8BG t: 01179 244334

In the midst of the busy pubs of Gloucester Road, Robin’s Hood Retreat offers a cosy, romantic atmosphere. In the capable hands of head chef Nathan Muir, this old man’s haunt has been transformed into an unpretentious gastro-pub. The menu changes regularly, but features such delights as braised pork belly, with bacon cabbage and a chocolate red-wine sauce. Two courses cost around £14.50.

Lido

Oakfield Place, Clifton, BS8 2BJ t: 01179 339533

This converted Victorian lido in the heart of the beautiful Clifton village is a truly unique restaurant experience. Swim in the heated pool, or try the sauna or steam room before sitting down to eat. The novelty of sitting beside the water aside, the adventurous menu, heavily inspired by Middle Eastern flavours, is the finest in Bristol. Local food writer Fiona Beckett says “I just love what they do there. The whole dining experience is just totally different, and refreshing.” Sourced partly by the Lido kitchen garden, the menu changes daily and varies by season, but recently included Wood-roast sole with a prawn and mace butter. Mains are around £14.50 each, or, if you’re on a budget, a range of tapas is available at the poolside bar.

Bell’s Diner

1-3 York Road, Montpelier, BS6 5QB t: 01179 240357

Recommended by the Michelin guide, and winning accolades from the likes of Matthew Fort, the food offered here is highly original, and yet affordable at around £28.50 for the a-la-carte menu. An eight-course tasting menu costs £45 per person. Bell’s Diner is best known for its individual take on food, with a daily changing menu including such inspired dishes as a coconut delice with vindaloo ice cream and a poppadom tuile. The wine list is impressively extensive, with punter Bethan Lewis saying: “If you’re as serious about wine as I am, Bell’s Diner is by far the best place to eat in Bristol.”

Bordeaux Quay

V-Shed, Canon’s Way, BS1 5UH

Situated on the busy Bristol waterfront, Bordeaux Quay gives fine dining an unexpected twist, trying its best to be as environmentally friendly as possible. From sourcing local, organic ingredients to harvesting rain water to flush the toilets, their dedication to sustainability in no way impinges on the quality of the food. The menu noticeably uses the finest possible ingredients, down to Périgord black truffle in the risotto. Mains cost around £18.50. An in-house bakery and delicatessen offer goodies to take home with you, and if you have some free time, Bordeaux Quay also offer cookery workshops on anything from French provincial cookery (£85), to the perfect steak (£35), to cupcakes (£70).

WHERE TO SHOP

Papadeli

84 Alma Road, Clifton, BS8 2DJ t: 01179 736569

This is a delicatessen of a quality rare off the continent, a veritable treasure trove of fine produce. Take away a picnic of chicken and chorizo stew or salmon en croute, and a side, for only £10. It’s also perfect for tracking down hard-to-find quality ingredients, especially Spanish items – enjoy a slice of Manchego with basil biscuits and membrillo.

The Olive Shed Shop

123 Gloucester Road, Bishopston, BS7 8AX t: 01179 240572

Originating with the Olive Shed on Bristol harbour, itself a fine place to eat on a sunny day, the new branch of The Olive Shed Shop on Gloucester Road offers a range of artisan breads, antipasti, and, as the name suggests, an unrivalled selection of olives.

Tovey’s Seafood Ltd.

198 Stapleton Road, Easton, BS5 0NY t: 01179 510987

If you don’t have to travel too far home, it’s definitely worth visiting this amazing fishmonger before you leave. Although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, Tovey’s Seafood supply a lot of the catering trade in the area and this family-run business match top-quality produce with fantastic service and down-to-earth prices.

Trethowan’s Dairy Shop

St Nicholas Market, 33-34 The Glass Arcade, BS1 1JW t: 01179 020332

The hard work of co-owner Jess Trethowan has helped make this dairy highly visible in the Bristol food scene, and with good reason. On top of their own award-winning Gorwydd Caerphilly, produced in west Wales, they stock a host of fine cheeses including the Irish Adrahan and the renowned unpasteurised Stilton, Stichelton. Cheese lovers can even order their own cheese wedding cake.

Scoopaway

113 Gloucester Road, Bishopston, Bristol BS7 8AT t: 01179 827199

It would be easy to dismiss this as a rather down-market health food shop in a rather drab part of Gloucester Road, but that would be a huge mistake. Inside, jars of spices, tea and other dried goods cover the walls, making this rather like a spice-lover’s version of a sweetshop.  Just scoop out the amount you want and pay pittance to take home all your favourite spices. “I can’t remember the last time I needed some obscure spice no-one had ever heard of and Scoopaway didn’t have it,” says punter Abbi Baker, “and you only need to pay for what you need, so it’s the cheapest way to do it.”

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Restaurant review: Rockfish Grill

The main problem I encountered while eating at Rockfish Grill is that now I want to eat there every day for the rest of my life. I’m sure it’s obvious from my previous reviews how much of a big seafood fan I really am, but I have never had fish so fresh, so perfectly-cooked, so imbued with flavour as I have here.

From the moment we stepped in the door, we were struck with the exceptional service. When spending this sort of money – mid-range for some, expensive for recent graduates – you want the service to make you feel special, and it did. A waiter came to our table with a silver platter of the fish available that day. A simple touch, but one that really made a difference to our experience, demonstrating not only the freshness of the fish but also the passion of the producer (Rockfish Grill is also a fishmongers). The fact that we felt like we were learning something was a bonus, and the wall charts of fish splashed around the stylishly decorated room added to that.

For my starter I felt as if I’d somehow cheated by ordering one of my favourite dirty snacks, calamari, described on the menu as ‘Devon squid fried crisp with aioli.’ When it came, however, my guilt faded away. It had little in common with their typical greasy, rubbery pub counterparts, but instead had a delicate freshness, a light batter and a lovely aioli. My boyfriend had a generous portion of mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and parsley, which were amply sized and well-seasoned.

I’ve been told by others that they don’t order fish in restaurants as the cooking of it is so simple, which may be so, but it was worth it for the freshness and flavour of my main, a John Dory grilled over charcoal, coated with a special herb blend of parsley and garlic. The outstanding quality of the fish was evident. Hake, cooked in paper with cider and chanterelle mushrooms, had absorbed a richness of flavour I haven’t encountered before in fish. All this along with a wonderful wine selection, I honestly couldn’t recommend Rockfish Grill any more.

Rockfish Grill & Seafood Market, 128 Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2RS t: 0117 973 7384

Photo: Flikr cc PaddyMurphy

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The Great British Problem

I have just returned to Bristol a lot poorer, and about a stone heavier, from weeks of holidaying – and eating – in Croatia, Italy and the Scottish highlands.

Quite all the culinary experiences I’ve had would be too much for one blog post, but there’s been a few things that particularly struck me, and made me think about the problems with British food.

Gnocchi with a truffle oil-infused cheese sauce. Gnocchi has been my take-home obsession of the holiday, along with high-quality olive oil.

In recent years much has been said about the resurgence in British food, with a few top chefs leading the top-down revolution from their fancy Mayfair establishments. Few can argue about the quality available in many British restaurants.

When it comes down to grabbing a quick bite on the run, however, we are still embarrassingly lagging behind our European counterparts. What surprised me about Italian food was not the quality – this was hardly a surprise – but the consistency of this quality. It was less a case of a few amazing restaurant meals, and more that every single thing I ate I would regard high quality. We can hardly say that here.

Panzanella - Tuscan bread and tomato salad - less like croutons, and more like an almost-couscous texture absorbed with seasonal, fresh tomato juices and oregano

In Croatia, the influence of coastal Italian food was everywhere. I was less struck with the consistent quality than in Florence, but they were particularly good at street food. Everywhere, even news-stands, seemed to carry a huge array of fresh pastries – not dense, like the English pasty, but flakey and light, while still substantial. The best example of this was a börek and as soon as I find a recipe that looks accurate I’m going to try and recreate this.

Turkish-inspired spinach börek: flikr cc avlxyz

It seems to me – and I found this in Thailand, too – that in England the quality of food is too often caught up in class and pretension. Italian food, particulary Tuscan ‘peasant’ food, is about high-quality ingredients (albeit widely available) cooked simply to accentuate the flavours. Some of the nicest food we had we found at the back of the market, on plastic plates, or in dingy-looking trattorias with noisy fly-killing machines.

Can anything be done to help our cause? To replace the greasy kebab joints and fast food places, the over-salted soggy sandwiches sold in petrol garages? Richard Johnson, a food journalist, has established the first annual British Street Food Awards, to be judged at Ludlow Marches Food and Drink Awards in September. He’s hoping to revolutionise British street food and make it something we can be proud of – read about his mission here, and nominate anyone you feel worthy of the prize.

Beth tucking into a sloppily presented - and delicious - aubergine parmigiana at Mercato Centrale

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A cook’s ‘instinct’; and asparagus and feta tarts

I think one of the most satisfying moments in cooking is when you realise you can customise a dish and make it better, or, at least, more suited to our palette at that moment in time. I mentioned in a previous post the bold experimentalism of my younger years, including halloumi soup, and an everything-in-my-fridge pasty. But with the first steps of food knowledge come an excessive caution, at least for me.

Aside from minor ad-hoc spicing, I was for a long time afraid to differ from a recipe – at all. I didn’t trust my natural instinct for matching flavours and was to scared to attempt it. Of course, I see now that is these experiments – sometimes delicious and sometimes inedible – that help you gain a sense of what flavours work and what don’t. Instead, I went for the Julie Powell style of teaching myself to cook, slavishly following recipes and setting little to-do lists of things I want to try (I still have plenty of these lists).

Still, though, I feel at a loss with the idea of creating recipes ‘from scratch’. When I asked Fiona Beckett how she did it, she told me it was from those little moments of adaption in the kitchen, perhaps when you’re lacking an ingredient and substitute something else, only to find it infinitely better in flavour. Creativity in cookery is different from artistic creativity, and plagarism, even in its most minor forms, is inevitable. A good cook brings together all their experiences of food, from old stained cookbooks, from their mother’s cooking, from favourite restaurants and from foreign cuisines. Combine this with the ingredients that are available to you and you have the basis of a cook’s ‘natural instinct’.

asparagus and feta creme fraiche tarts with fresh mint and lemon zest

This Nigel Slater recipe was a useful one as it suddenly dawned on my how simple it is to make a delicious puff pastry tart – simply create a creamy filling of any ingredients you fancy, pile them in the middle of a circle of puff pastry, then brush the edges with egg. The messy puffed sides are a mile away from the primness of some pastry cooking, and all the better for it. This time all I did was skip the parmesan, mash some barrel-aged feta into the mixture with a fork, and substitute the parsley for mint, to create asparagus, feta and creme fraiche tarts with lemon zest and fresh mint. So perfect for the season and so light and delicious.

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Restaurant review: Bordeaux Quay

Bristol harbourside, Flikr cc: Larkery

I feel like I should make a disclaimer about the fact that this review was written entirely without setting foot in the restaurant. My recommendation can therefore only extend to the outdoor seating. But sitting here, next to the river, on a beautiful sunny evening, was what made the atmosphere so magical.

You may already know that the waterfront is one of the best places to appreciate the beauty of the city. From the pastel-coloured houses of hotwells hills, to boats and the old industrial cranes of the docklands, the view gives a snapshot of Bristol life that it is very easy to become absorbed in. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants and bars on the bars on the waterfront have inexplicably become associated with budget prices and rowdy hen nights.

Not so with Bordeaux Quay. They are refreshingly different from the norm, and not just for the Bristol waterfront. Along with other recently-acclaimed British restaurants they cook simple European dishes with seasonal, locally-sourced produce. This  depends on high-quality ingredients and a skillful style of cooking, with no fancy gimmicks to hide behind.

Bordeaux Quay are proudly dedicated to environmental sustainability, and, perhaps more importantly for a mid-range restaurant, to good food. Their menu is dotted with Great Taste Award products, and they also run a cookery school, teaching cookery skills to any enthusiast willing to pay for the privilege.

Line-caught pollack, cooked to perfection, with crushed potatoes

Due to their reputation as a cookery school I definitely had high expectations for the food. If there is a nice-sounding fish on the menu I struggle to order anything else, and I do think that a dish of simply-cooked fish is a perfect test for a restaurant that prides itself on quality ingredients and skillful, simple preparation. The dish was simple, but the taste was exquisite, the skin crispy, and the flesh that wonderful combination of flaky and firm that indicates perfect cooking. The potatoes kept their shape just enough, and added a saltiness that greatly complimented the plain cooking of the fish. On top of this, the roasted cherry tomatoes in the salad added a flavour of sweet juiciness that pervaded the rest of the dish.

The only slight criticism would be our dessert of local cheese – my sister and I are huge cheese fanatics and were laughingly wondering how little cheese we were going to end up with for £5.  Bizarrely enough, this wasn’t the problem. Instead it was the oatcakes that were rationed, so we had to either pile the cheese on to a tiny bit of oatcake. Or just eat it on it’s own. Not that we minded.

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Restaurant Review: Lido

As the first formal meal we’ve eaten together, you can imagine the agonising I went through choosing the right restaurant for my boyfriend’s birthday. I spent hours of my life poring over restaurant menus and online reviews, starting to feel nervous at any mention of an under-seasoned salad, or too much noise from the next table. A brief moment of disappointment I knew would weigh heavily on me as a personal failure. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never put any restaurant under so much pressure.

It was getting dark as we arrived, following a little lostness in Clifton, and the lighting from the pool outside created a wonderful atmosphere, special while feeling relaxed and unintimidating. Originally an old Victorian lido, the building has now been converted into a spa, restaurant and bar, and seems like it would work well for any function.

The only moment of almost-crushing disappointment came from the boy’s starter of beef carpaccio with hazelnuts and marinated green beans. It was a mild complaint that the richness of the hazelnuts made the flavour of the dish slightly overwhelming, easily solved by pushing them to one side. My starter was absolutely delicious – scallops in a herby butter sauce, with a subtle heat. If I’m honest, for around £10 a starter, I could have done with more than two scallops, but they were so well-cooked that I feel ungrateful complaining.

With the main course, however, it was the other way round, as the boy exclaimed over his wood-roasted poussin and I felt slightly underwhelmed by sea trout and escalivada. I had been warned that the sea trout wouldn’t be hot, but when it arrived, it made little sense to me as the dish would have been so much nicer hot. The escalivada surprised me with its strong yet fresh flavours, and the aubergines had a wonderful smokiness to them – the most flavourful I’ve had in Europe. As a starter, it would have been lovely, but I didn’t expect it to be over-shadowing the sea trout.

The prices weren’t ridiculous, however, and despite the minor points, there were so many flavours to my dishes that still come to mind now. The richness of the buttery scallops, and the delicateness of the perfectly cooked (albeit under-warm) sea trout. Watching people calmly pace the swimming pool made for a more unusual view than the usual Georgian buildings of Clifton. Somehow, too, it made the place feel more contemporary, which fitted perfectly with the modern European menu and the laid back atmosphere. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who wants the evening to feel special, without bothering with the pretensions.

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