Wednesday, 27 July 2011

HOME SMOKING

It's the holidays for me now, a 7-week break from piano teaching, so this week I've decided to have a clear out and a tidy up. I started with the kitchen drawers, at the back of which I found a 'Savu Original Food Smoker Bag', an ingenious 'device' which hails from Finland. I can't remember where or when I purchased it, but I suspect it came from somewhere like Lakeland, which offers a million kitchen gadgets and gizmos you think you can't live without. The Food Smoker Bag is just what is says on the packet - a foil bag containing natural raw wood "specially selected from Finnish forests", which, when heated, creates a delicious smoked flavour. You put the food in the smoker bag, seal it up, place in a pre-heated oven and cook. The end result is a pleasantly smoked flavour. It's particularly good for fish.

There are, of course, more sophisticated ways to achieve a smoked flavour, the most obvious being the barbecue (note: a 'proper' barbecue, with coals, not the ersatz gas variety). Skye Gyngell, chef at Petersham Nursery, has a method for tea smoking in her book A Year in My Kitchen. It helps to use a flavoured tea such as Earl Grey, Jasmine or Lapsang Souchong. I've done this a few times, but it does tend to smoke out the kitchen, which causes my smoke alarm to go into a veritable paroxysm of bleeping and flashing, but the food does have a lovely delicately smoked flavour. Read more about the method here.

Meanwhile, if you're feeling lazy, by all means invest in a Savu smoke bag. They are inexpensive and apparently have a long shelf life, and since I purchased mine, several new "flavours" have been released, including Alder and Hickory Smoked. Given the erratic nature of our English summers, the smoker bag, or the tea smoking method, seem good alternatives to enjoying a proper barbecue in the sunshine.  I defrosted some nice fat salmon steaks after I'd unearthed the smoker bag. I'll probably serve them with a simple yoghurt and dill dressing and some new potatoes for a vaguely Scandinavian twist....

Monday, 25 July 2011

HIDDEN GEMS

As my mother-in-law frequently, and correctly, points out, I am very lucky to live close to the heart of the best city in the world, and have access to all it has to offer, should I desire it. There are specialist food shops, markets like Exmouth Street and Borough, wonderful food halls and a myriad of other retailers purveying wondrous delicacies. Yes, I am really very spoilt.

However, what I do lack is Olives et Al, a wonderful small specialist retailer which started out 18 years ago selling olives, and has since developed into a company which supplies oils and vinegars, pestos and tapenades, wonderful snacks, and other lovely foodie goodies. From humble beginnings, the company now has a well-stocked and friendly factory shop on the edge of Sturminster Newton, a small town in Dorset, where I stayed on my wedding night. Despite living in a leafy suburb of London, which has several good delis on its high street, I cannot buy Olives et Al products locally, so whenever I am in Dorset, I like to call in at the factory shop and stock up. This is fairly easy to organise as the shop is on a small trading estate which is also home to a good bike shop which Other Half likes to visit (to get his fix of "spoke sniffing").

Today I visited Olives et Al on the way back from Shepton Mallet, where we had lunch at Kilver Court, the latest addition to Mulberry founder Roger Saul's empire: a 'designer emporium' with a farm shop and cafe run by Sloaney young men and women with flicked up blonde hair and nice accents, yar. Compared to the designer outlets I visit in and around London, Kilver Court was rather disappointing - and very expensive for what it was - but for I can see that it could become a retail oasis for the moneyed of Dorset and Somerset. It's housed in part of the old Babycham factory, and there are attractive gardens to visit, as well as the Mulberry factory shop, just up the road, which is full of over-priced bling handbags.

Olives et Al is a whole lot less pretentious than Kilver Court, and is run by enthusiastic people who obviously care about the products they are vending. It's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. I have blogged previously about some of the great dining pubs I have discovered in Dorset too - it's a county that values its local producers and farmers, and this is reflected in its foodie outlets, from pubs to specialist food shops. I am sure other counties can boast similar attributes, but Dorset is the place I know best after London and my manor, Teddington, and retailers like Olives et Al deserve our support.

More information about Olives et Al here
The Grand Dorset Chilli Festival
The Bull Inn
The Anchor Inn
The Museum Inn

Sunday, 24 July 2011

AAAAAAAGA SAGA

I'm enjoying a mini break in darkest Dorset (well, Blandford Forum, to be precise, an almost perfectly extant Georgian town, the result of a fire in the 1700s and an extensive rebuilding programme masterminded by the Bastard Brothers. I kid you not.). Apart from having to contend with two dogs - and I'm not good with dogs - who bark ceaselessly just before 9am every morning when it's walkies time, I also have to face off the Aga every time I want a cup of tea or a piece of toast.

I've blogged, and grumbled, before about the Aga. For someone in possession of a 6-burnergas hob atop a professional-style modern range oven, I find the Aga quirky and unsophisticated to cook on. It has only two 'settings': hot and not hot. It loses heat very quickly if one of its lids is left up, and if someone has been using the hot plate before you, you have to wait at least an hour for it to heat up again, just to make a cup of tea. Making toast is a feat in itself: turn your back on it, and it's scorched beyond recognition before you know it. Then you have to prise the burnt offering off the bespoke Aga toasting rack. I usually resort to bashing it with a wooden spoon or picking away at it with a knife.....

People who own Agas absolutely love them, and rave about them, to the point that I wonder if they are simply trying to justify the expense of buying and owning one. "Ooh they are wonderful for slow-cooking" Aga owners croon. Yes, but how about a stir-fry or a flash-fried steak? Their comforting heat and attractive retro look are also much vaunted. In my parents-in-law's previous house, a large, rambling and generally very draughty 17th century farm house, the Aga was a focal point: come back from a cold, wet dog walk and hitch your bum on the Aga rail while you warm up and dry out. Four of us could comfortably loll against the Aga rail. It was also the place where family announcements were made: "hatchings, matchings and despatchings", as my grandfather used to say. Although I actually announced my engagement in front of the (equally hot) Yotel fire, while my parents in law were watching 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' (some bodies had just been discovered up a chimney at that fateful moment).

A few years ago, on holiday on the Balmoral estate thanks to a friend with Royal connections, I had to endure a week cooking on a Rayburn, a sort of cousin to the Aga. It was very old and very quirky, and had only an extremely hot setting and OFF. It took me and the other guest who had volunteered/been volunteered to cook several days to get the hang of the thing, and then it would still catch us out. We did, however, produce a procession of fine meals for 12, from my West African Groundnut Curry to Nick's famous Sausage Casserole. We also made pizzas and cakes, and by the end of the week, I was quite sorry to say goodbye to the Rayburn.

I think if I had to live with an Aga full time, I would probably be able to adapt my cooking style and tastes to suit it, and eventually we might rub along quite happily. But in general it just frustrates me with its lack of refinement. Nor could I live off slow-cooked food forever (much as I like it, especially in the winter). Fortunately, one of the stipulations of my mini break is that I don't have to do much cooking (beyond suggesting dishes and occasionally assembling them), and so I have left the Aga's mistress in charge of its dubious charms - and am enjoying some delicious slow-cooked food as a result......

Saturday, 16 July 2011

EASY SATURDAY SUPPER - LAMB MECHOUI

First, apologies to Demon Cook fans and followers for the lack of posts recently: I have been exceptionally busy in my other life as a piano teacher, with end of term concerts, paperwork (to ensure I get paid next term!) and various other piano admin. The end of term is nigh, at last, and I can look forward to a rest and lots of therapeutic cooking and piano playing (mine - and other people's at Prom concerts this summer).

Now, for tonight's supper. When I asked Other Half what he fancied for dinner, he said "Moroccan style lamb chops, grilled" which I instantly translated at Lamb Mechoui. Hailing from Morocco, mechoui is whole lamb, spit-roasted over the embers of an open fire, basted with a mixture of butter, saffron, cumin, salt and paprika. Translating this to a more domestic setting is simple enough: swap the whole lamb for chops. The spice mixture remains the same. I sometimes do this on the barbecue, which probably lends a more authentic flavour to it, but otherwise I just whack the chops on the cast-iron griddle. Keep the accompaniments simple - some good bread and/or a Moroccan or Greek-style salad and perhaps a yoghurt or garlic sauce.

This recipe comes from Casa Moro, the second of the trio of books by the chef-owners of Moro in London's trendy Hoxton. Worth a visit, if you can face the drive across London.....

Serves 4
2 tbsps whole cumin seeds, freshly ground
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
1/2 tsp hot paprika
1 tbsp sea salt, roughly crumbled
12-16 small lamb chops (rack chops) depending on size
40g butter, melted

Mix the spices together in a bowl. Just before you are ready to cook the chops, brush them with melted butter and dust liberally with half the spice mix. When cooked, serve immediately with some of the remaining spice-salt mixture on the side.

Instead of chops, you could cover a whole shoulder of lamb with the mix and roast it in the oven (or on the barbecue) at 160C for 4-5 hours until the meat is falling off the bone. Keep basting the meat with the buttery, spicy juices that collect in the roasting tin. Serve with extra spice-salt on the side.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

SIMPLE YET ELEGANT SATURDAY SUPPER

Eight for dinner tonight, and I wanted to make something simple and elegant. One of the guests does not eat meat, so rather than make a dish especially for her, everyone will have fish.

I've got a bit of a "thing" for Thai food at the moment, ever since that glorious (and somewhat boozy) supper at Caroline's last month, and my discovery of the local Asian supermarket. Perhaps it has something to do with the change in the weather, for the better, that I crave bright, fresh flavours, rather than sultry stews and slow roasts?

This recipe is from the Sainted Delia, her 'Summer Collection', a book I return to fairly frequently, as it does contain a lovely selection of summery food (the homemade lemonade recipe is hard to beat). Like many of the dishes I cook, this can be easily made in advance and set aside until you are ready to cook. For a starter, I'm doing my take on Chinese pancakes: instead of crispy aromatic duck, I'll fill them with a mixture of crab meat, flavoured with lime zest, lemon grass, ginger and fresh mint, and thinly sliced spring onions, cucumber and baby corn. I've never made this before, but the crab mixture smells delicious, as it happily steeps in the fridge..... Audrey is bringing the pudding.

This recipe is for two, but it's dead easy to double, or treble, up the ingredients. Find filo pastry in the freezer at the supermarket.


Delia's Thai Salmon Filo Parcels

2 thick-cut salmon fillets
4 sheets of Filo pastry
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
1 small spring onion, finely sliced
grated zest and juice of a lime
1 oz butter, melted
salt and pepper

Delia says: "First of all, in a small bowl, mix together the ginger, lime zest, garlic, coriander and spring onion, then stir in the lime juice. Now melt the butter in a small saucepan, then lay 1 sheet of filo pastry out on a flat surface, brush it all over with some of the melted butter, spread another sheet of filo on top and brush this lightly with melted butter as well. Now position one of the salmon fillets near to one end of the filo, season it and sprinkle half the lime and herb mixture on top (picture 1). Next, fold the short end of pastry over the salmon, then fold the long sides inwards (picture 2), roll the salmon over twice more and trim any surplus pastry (it's important not to end up with great wedges of pastry at each end). Wrap the other piece of salmon in exactly the same way and, when you're ready to cook, brush the parcels all over with melted butter, place them on a lightly greased baking sheet (picture 3), and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is brown and crisp. Serve, garnished with sprigs of coriander and wedges of lime to squeeze over."

I'm serving this with boiled new potatoes and a salad garnished with edible flowers (available from Waitrose and M&S).

Picture 1. Place the salmon at one end of the pastry sheet....

Picture 2. Fold over the short end and the sides of the pastry

Picture 3. Place the parcels on a prepared baking sheet

Friday, 1 July 2011

THE FISH FINGER FILES

I've borrowed the title of this post from the back page of the Waitrose food magazine, where each month a celebrity reveals something about him- or herself through a series of food-related questions.

Who taught you to cook? I am largely self-taught, and have always enjoyed experimenting and tinkering with food. I learnt the tricks of pastry-making from my mother ("keep it cold"). I hated domestic science lessons at school because everything had to be so tidy, but I still use the basic roux sauce recipe that I learnt in school.

Is there a dish you've never really mastered? Less "mastered" and more "attempted". I haven't tried Baked Alaska yet, nor Beef Wellington, though neither is particularly daunting for me. Watching 'Masterchef: the Professionals' last winter taught me a lot: food that appears complicated is not always what it seems. Often, it is in the construction and presentation of a dish, rather than the actual ingredients or cooking process.

Do you eat breakfast? Yes, I do, but I'm not very good in the mornings and tend only to have a bowl of yoghurt and a cup of tea (Redbush or Lapsang Souchong). At the weekend, I do like breakfast in bed, preferably lightly scrambled eggs with fried mushrooms. A proper "full English" is mandatory when camping.

What's your biggest food vice? Chocolate and cheese. I love a good, runny Camembert or piquant Gorgonzola spread on some chewy sourdough bread. I don't buy cheese that often because I will just graze off it if it's in the fridge. Ditto chocolate!

Favourite TV supper? Chakchouka (see previous post). Quick, tasty and fairly easy to manage off the knees!

Any food you really can't stand? I can't see the point of oysters, and I detest celery. Oh, and all dried fruits, particularly raisins, currants, sultanas. Can't stand Christmas food either.

Favourite kitchen gadgets? My trusty Kitchenaid mixer and my Ikea garlic press.


Whose food writing do you admire? I've always liked Nigella Lawson's writing on food, long before she became famous, when she was food writer for Vogue. Also, Nigel Slater, who, like Nigella, shows a healthy disregard for fussy food fads. Sometimes you just gotta use double cream and butter!

Favourite cookbooks? How to Eat (Nigella Lawson), The Ottolenghi Cookbook (Yotam Ottolenghi), Moro (Sam and Sam Clark).


Favourite restaurant? My own kitchen! I rarely eat out, but some memorable meals have been at Petersham Nursery (Skye Gyngell) and a couple of gastropubs I've discovered in the wilds of Dorset. The 12-course tasting menu at Ca'n Mea in Liguria last September was amazing, not least for the sheer volume of food: I'm going back there this autumn for another round.


Signature dish? 'Fran Bread' - my focaccia is hard to beat and very popular with supper guests!


What will you be cooking tonight? As I'm on my own tonight, I'll probably make spaghetti Carbonara, or maybe cook myself a nice piece of steak....