Category Archives: general food chat

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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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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Cooking Christmas dinner for 16 fussy vegetarians

Apologies for such a long break from blogging – I was rushed off my feet, first with deadlines, and then preparing for Christmas. Cooking a six-course Christmas meal for 16 people is not a feat to be taken lightly. I’ve never cooked under such pressure, as Christmas seems to be the one day a year when a few mistakes will be magnified, rather than glossed over, particularly in a family full of food enthusiasts.

The most stressful course was probably the loveliest – fresh ravioli, stacked openly stuffed with layers of butternut squash, roasted before being mashed with truffle oil, alternating with chestnut mushrooms fried in garlic. The presentation was beautiful, though I must give credit to my brother for this as he  professionally swirled olive oil over the plate, dotting the edges with diced roast beetroot and mushrooms. Lovely idea, lovely food, but 16 plates was definitely ambitious. At times I felt as if Michel Roux Jr was somehow standing behind me, clapping his hands to speed us up, as my family sat round the table chanting ‘Why are we waiting?’. In retrospect, this should have been the first course. Then everyone would have shut up.

One area I definitely feel confident to have excelled in was the cheeseboard. The above-mentioned time pressure meant that my photo doesn’t express quite how beautiful it looked. I managed to get a few of my favourites from the Masterchef food show again – Amber Mist, by the Snowdonia Cheese Company, was a favourite. My seven-year-old nephew even loved it – though I’m not sure he should have been eating it. A smoked brie from Millets Farm Shop in Oxford also went down well. Although, to my slight disappointment, some of the classics from other years were probably the favourites again. Swaledale, a hard ewe’s cheese, was eaten most rapidly, and Cornish Yarg, a highly accessible cheese, managed to impress my Thai relatives. Although I didn’t manage to blow anyone away more than other years, as a whole it was better balanced than before. In other years we’ve gone a bit overboard with dinner – starting off with eight courses – and last year I filled three hampers with £75 of cheese which simply festered away after Christmas. This year dinner was much lighter than before, and I tried to get a good selection of different cheeses, rather than just buying everything I liked. To blow our own trumpet, the whole thing was a huge success – hopefully this year my Mum won’t make a word document to list our failures with over-feeding. It’s just as well too, because having eaten solidly for about three weeks, I need to stay away from cheese for a while. I’m going to try and make low-fat versions of all my favourite foods over the next few weeks, hopefully something nice enough to stop me missing cheese so much. Hope everyone else had a lovely foodie Christmas too.

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