Friday, 30 October 2009

Come Dine With Me: the conclusion

I posted earlier about the Come Dine With Me 'competition' that some of my friends and I were doing. In total there were four teams, hosting four meals. To recap:

The first couple's meal took place in June. Their theme was Salon de Versailles (think: Marie Antionette era France). This is their summer fruit and prosecco terrine.

My partner and I were up next, in early August. Our theme was modern Scandinavian. I think our star turn was our Smörgåsbord, pictured below.

At the beginning of September, the theme was Glamorous Gourmet. Unfortunately, I was all fluey and had barely functional tastebuds. Luckily, the flavours was strong! We started with a cassis/cava cocktail that had real flowers in, and then went on wheat-free blinis topped with goats cheese, aubergine, and med veg. Next up was slow cooked cherry tomatoes topped with a creamy concoction. The meaty main was duck in a cassis sauce served with mashed potatoes.

This was followed by a lemon tarte with a pine nut crust - sumptuous. Next up was a 'modern cheese board', with plum, Camembert and drizzled with clove oil. We finished with homemade chocolate peanut truffles. Yum.

The final Come Dine With Me was a fortnight ago and the theme was Alice in Wonderland: Mad Hatter's Teaparty. The event took place at my friends' massive warehouse apartment in Dalston, which is in a maze like building. Playing cards lead the way through the corridors to their apartment where we were greeted with an Alice and Wonderland cocktail: an Amaretto sour. Next we took to the picnic tables for a mini meal of blackberry tart, custard tart, buttered toast, turkey sandwich and a toffee. This was chased up with a cocktail contained in a miniature bottle with a 'Drink me' tag attached.

Introduced as starter, we then had a tomato and vodka consommé with a heart shaped ice cube. And next was what we thought was the main course, a freshly made fish and chips and mushy peas wrapped in that day's tabloids. That's where things started getting a bit more zany - the portion was small so everyone asked for more and duly ate more - but the course was followed by another starter: a leek and feta terrine. And THEN we had the main course: pies and salad. By this stage everyone was totally stuffed.

But there was still plenty of eating to be done! A whole pool table covered in desserts - boozy chocolate mousses, cupcakes, jam tarts, chocolate brownies. And even a cheeseboard. Not that anyone had any capacity left!

The results of the competition were announced at the end - all parties' scores were very close, but my team won! Woohoo!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Shroom safari

After a hectic week the last thing you'd want to do is get up at 8 O'clock on Saturday morning, travel for 1.5 hours across north and east London to get to Hainault in Essex and spend the morning getting drizzled on in muddy woodland. But yesterday was different.

I was, in fact, on a fungal foray; mushroom-picking. A friend from work who is also an avid foodie had been banging on since last October about the wonders of this mushroom walk lead by a local self-confessed mushroom anorak. Some of my fondest foodie memories are of walking through fields in the Scottish borders with my Grandad, picking massive, delicious field mushrooms. How could I say no?

About 30 other people also decided to spend this drizzly, but mild, Saturday morning in Hainault Forest in the pursuit of mushroom knowledge and mushroom. The guide knew almost every mushroom we found by site and advised on their edibility. This was my only consideration. We found fungi of all varieties, growing on trees, bright red, prickly, slimy, waxy, aniseedy. I was with six people I knew, so had to restrain my hunter-gather instincts and share my finds, but I ended up with a sizeable haul, including one oyster mushroom, one big parasol mushroom, one puffball, lots of butter caps and quite a few jews' ears.

They made for a tasty cooked breakfast this morning, sautéed with butter, garlic and parsley and then with a splash of calvados and some sour cream. Served on toast, it was a hearty, herby start to a day about town.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Baked happiness

When it comes to comfort food, nothing beats a spicy, Italian style tomato sauce. If, like me, you always have tinned tomatoes, olive oil, chilli flakes and garlic in, you can have it whenever you want, whatever the weather. I could eat it by the spoonful, without accompaniment. Sometimes I like to have it with penne, topped with basil and parmesan. Other times it is the making of a sausage bake.

But one of my all time favourites is the baked aubergine parmigiana. Gorgeous smoky aubergines, chargrilled, combined with this most sumptuous of sauces and heavenly expanses of parmesan cheese. And topped with mozzarella crispy breadcrumbs. Could you get any more comforting?!

It's an incredibly simple dish to make. For 4 people, you'll need two tins of tomatoes, one onion, three aubergine, one packet of mozzarella, garlic, parmesan, breadcrumbs, wine vinegar and basil.

First, chop the aubergine into 1cm slices across the way. Heat up a griddle pan with a little oil and cook the aubergines in batches so they have nice chargrill marks.

Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic and onion and, with a teaspoon of chilli flakes, allow to sizzle for a while in olive oil. Add the two tins of chopped tomatoes and allow to cook, uncovered for about fifteen minutes. Put a little wine vinegar at the end and tear up some basil leaves and stir in.

Once the aubergines are all done and the sauce has thickened put a thin layer of tomato sauce across the bottom of a lasagne kinda dish, then a smattering of parmesan, followed by a single layer of aubergines. Repeat these layers until you’ve used all the ingredients up, finishing with a little sauce and then cover in grated mozzarella. Top this with a scattering of breadcrumbs and put in the oven for about 20 minutes.

Once it's nicely browned and crispy on top, take it out the oven, let it cool a little, and serve in nice big wedges with salad and garlic bread. Ah!

Belissima! So simple, so easy, so happy-making.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

What a Turkey!

Deciding where I want to holiday is always tough. Cuisine is the primary consideration, but that's got to be weighed against authenticity, value, climate, language, etc. My trip to Portugal earlier in the year ticked all of those boxes, but the time spent planning it to make sure that it did tick those boxes was inordinate. To recuperate from the party conference season I wanted an easy, quick fix and decided on Turkey.

The WHERE was the tricky bit. Istanbul was the penultimate destination on my inter rail trip in 2004. I remember the excitement of the 23 hour train journey there from Bucharest, drinking tea and eating salted cucumbers with the conductor, and then arriving in the scorching July heat to find myself, as I had hoped, in another world. I have ideas about travelling through Turkey by train and bus and being very thorough and authentic, so I didn't want to use up too many Turkey credits with this one. In the end, I decided on Oludeniz, on Turkey's south western coast. From my research, it was beautiful, accessible (via package holidays), affordable and still warm and sunny in mid-October.

Oludeniz was indeed beautiful, accessible, affordable and still warm and sunny in mid-October, but it was also full of Brits Abroad. Brits Abroad are not especially keen to immerse themselves in local cultures and cuisines, and the vast majority of the restaurants served full English breakfasts, apple crumble, egg and chips and all those clichéd favourites. There were, however, three great restaurants in the town serving very nice, typical Turkish cuisine, so all was not lost.

The Oba Motel is the last remaining of the hippy settlements that were in Oludeniz long before the asphalt blocks, neon cocktail bars and Turkish delight shops. It still has tree house style huts to stay in, but also features a large, mostly outdoor restaurant service up tasty Turkish cuisine and genial service.

We visited a couple of times, and on both occasions we started with a freebie mini mezze plate, with burnt aubergine, a yoghurt and garlic dip, spiced hummus and a tomato and pepper dip. This was served with the customary so-freshly-baked-it's-all-puffed-up-with-steam pita breads, which are a million miles from those dry pitas you get all vacuum packed from the supermarket.

On my first visit, I had a tasty vegetable casserole, cooked and served in a clay pot. Yummy squash, aubergine, carrots, peas and peppers featured in this simple but satisfying dish.

The other time we visited the Oba Motel, we treated ourselves to a whopping fish platter, with swordfish, calamari, prawns, white tuna and lake trout. All freshly grilled over coals and served simply with the usual sides of rice, chips, salads and green bean stew. The fish was so, so fresh and juicy and laced with just the right amount of char taste.

Desserts in restaurants are seemingly not too big a deal in Turkey, the only dish consistently on menus was baklava, obviously. At Oba we tried a dish, which was warm bananas with (warm) honey, cream and cinnamon. It was really nice, but I'm not sure how traditional it is. Any ideas?

I'll write about the rest of my Turkish culinary experiences later...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Fig and Fennel salad

Not a great start to blogging to take another two week break. But I've been busy guvna, honest! I actually have. My job involves going to each political party's annual conference, staying for about 3 or 4 days at each, putting on an event, meeting politicians and other bigwigs, going to lots of events for interest, to ask questions and live off the endless spreads of canapes, fingerfoods and run-of-the-mill wines. I'm going to blog about all that jazz later. The super-extra time pressure is a self-inflicted part-time Masters which I've signed up to do alongside my full-time job. It's all going to get crazy!

Today, however, I'm going to tell you about a tasty meal I cooked a couple of weeks back before it slips my mind.

I was walking past the fruit'n'veg stall at Kentish Town tube when I was grabbed by a scrawled notice: "4 figs for £1". I picked up 4. Then I saw another scrawled notice: "2 fennel for 50p". I bought 2. I halved and griddled the figs, then sliced top-down the fennels and griddled them too. Meanwhile I roasted quickly some chopped walnuts, prepared some rocket, chopped some manchego cheese, threw the lot together and whisked up a sherry vinegar dressing. was delicious, smoky, earthy. It looked like this:

I have a thing for 'posh' sausages. When I lived in Berlin, you'd think I'd have had plenty of brilliant sausages. But once you've tried the exciting sausages available in farmers' markets and better supermarkets in Britain, German sausages don't cut it. The sausages you get in the supermarket and from street stalls in Germany are so processed you'd hardly know there was meat in them.

While there are clearly many better sausages to be had than the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range, my biggest weakness in sausages has always been their Parmesan and Pancetta blend. Any guest that came to visit me would ask "can I bring anything from Britain? Cheddar cheese? Irn Bru?". No. Parmesan and Pancetta sausages from Sainsbury's. I hadn't seen them in Sainsbury's for about a year and then spotted them at the big 'un in Camden and had to buy a pack. I cooked them and served them with the fig'n'fennel salad and some zingy potato salad too:

All in all, a lovely end of summer meal.