Monday, 18 April 2011

Eating 'abroad'

Having just got back from a weekend in London I've learned a couple of things about their restaurants based on two things that ‘make’ London: multiculturalism and creativity.

1. Multiculturalism.

London’s cultural diversity is one of its major attractions and provides constant opportunities to shoot the shit with a plethora of earth's inhabitants. This is what makes it such a great place to escape to when the mundane becomes mundane.

That said, when eating out if you dare step away from ordering anything other than something you can point to on the menu you're screwed…

Some pals and I headed to a Chinese restaurant in Balham yesterday evening. I really fancied ‘something’ in black bean sauce so I asked the waiter for tofu, stating I was a vegetarian; he shook his head and offered me chicken or beef and this is when my heart sank. After a lot of gesturing and pigeon English I thought I'd succeeded. 20 minutes later, my food arrived: a plate of vegetables in black bean sauce with an explanation of 'we've sold out of tofu'. We were the only ones there and they had only been open for an hour. Really it was 'I'm not sure what you were on about so, here, eat something you didn't order'.

2. Creativity

Food, cooking and creativity, to my mind, must co-exist. In terms of my experience in London the three are clearly interchangeable.

The example here came from a visit to an Italian restaurant in East London. The creative side being the menu only. The menu scriber clearly had talent, the food sounded amazing. I opted for tagliatelle in a tomato pesto with chilli, almonds and pine nuts topped with smoked ricotta. 'Wow', huh?

That was where the magic ended, I got a plate of tepid pasta in an insipid sauce with a few bits of chopped almonds and chilli flakes. It could have been so good! Now I'm all for well executed food writing, obviously, but at the end of the day it is the food that matters - the writing is just there as a means of describing how great something was or is going to be. In this instance the creativity ended when the writer hit 'print' and I was forced to douse my plate in salt and pepper and nick a slice of pizza from my friends.

And to finish, some humorous menu misspells:

- Tomato and chilly sauce

- Sweat and Sour Vegetable

- Steamed white rise

…lovely stuff!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

I should... writing a short fiction piece as part of my creative writing portfolio for Uni. I should have also showered, put some washing on and be making my way to my parents’ house to wait on my mama. However food, the little minx, is distracting me again.

Each Sunday the cursed cursor on the screen of my laptop clicks the web-address box (I dunno what it's called!) and insists I check out the recipes and reviews featured on The Guardian's website. I hold two men responsible for this: Jay Rayner and Yottam Ottolenghi. The former is (alongside Nigel, Nigella and Tamasin) responsible for my obsession with food writing, the latter: cooking and eating. Imagine my excitement this Sunday morning when I find that Rayner has reviewed Ottolenghi's new London restaurant, Nopi.

Jay, Yotam and Lucy, the perfect threesome - in the context of scribing and eating that is.

In the review one of Rayner's main points is one I am already aware of, Ottolenghi is a vegetarian food wizard! The things this guy can do without meat are astounding! As Rayner put it in his review: 'Ottolenghi is brilliant at arguing against the imperative to eat meat'. Being someone who has prepared many of the recipes featured in Ottolenghi's 'The New Vegetarian' series in The Observer I agree with Rayner here. To borrow a term from one of my creative writing lecturers: 'show, don't tell'. Ottolenghi does not, now I need to tread carefully here, 'preach' about the virtues of eating veggie but instead provides stunning examples of why it is not essential to eat meat in the search for great food. This is my sentiment exactly and one of the reasons I started the blog. I am not here to convert anyone, I am not here to provide statistics and 'horror stories' regarding intensive farming and the environment but I am here to offer insight into what it really is, or can be, to eat veggie. It really isn't all nut roasts and lentils.

I visited London 2 weeks ago and intended to visit Nopi or any of Ottolenghi's deli-cafes but, alas, Camden would not release me. In honour of Ottolenghi, though, I cooked myself one of the recipes taken from 'The New Vegetarian' on Friday. In my previous post I prattled on about not eating exciting foods until my Uni. work was done; that lasted a few days. We all have our vices.

Don't let the grimace-inducing word 'tofu' put you off here, I don't like it in its natural state it either. However, in this recipe it is cooked in a way that makes most things desirable: it's deep-fried.

Black Pepper Tofu by Yotam Ottolenghi

800g firm, fresh tofu Cornflour, to dust the tofu

Vegetable oil, for frying

150g butter

12 small shallots (350g), peeled and thinly sliced

8 red chillies, thinly sliced

12 garlic cloves, crushed

3 tbsp chopped ginger

5 tbsp crushed black peppercorns

3 tbsp sweet soy sauce

3 tbsp light soy sauce

4 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp sugar

16 small, thin spring onions, cut into segments 3cm long

Cut the tofu into 3cm x 2cm blocks and toss them in cornflour, shaking off the excess. Pour in enough oil to come 0.5cm up the sides of a large frying pan, and bring up to frying heat. Fry the tofu in batches in the oil, turning the pieces as you go. Once they are golden all around, and have a thin crust, transfer to a paper towel.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan and throw in the butter. Once it has melted, add the shallots, chillies, garlic and ginger, and sauté for about 15 minutes on low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the contents of the pan are shiny and totally soft. While you wait, crush the peppercorns, using a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. They should be quite coarse.

When the shallots and chillies are soft, add the soy sauces and the sugar, stir, then stir in the crushed pepper. Warm the tofu in the sauce for about a minute, then add the spring onion and stir through. Serve hot with steamed rice.

If the words 'deep fried' did not persuade you then here are some more:

The crisp yet tender tofu grips onto the flavourings with both hands. The spicing is interesting too, the red chilli is keen and racy, the crushed black pepper has a resonant haunting depth; whilst eating you are intermittently hit by both. Nigel Slater refers to eating something spicy, such as chilli, with something cooling, like yogurt, as a 'whip and kiss'. This recipe could be described as a 'whip and whack'. It is bawdy but if you eat it with some steamed rice then you may be afforded a little smooch.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

What's Up?

I am 'off' food, specifically, eating. I still have shimmers of interest in reading and writing about it. However, preparing it/watching it being prepared (on one of my usually beloved T.V shows) and eating it? Not so much.

When I go off my food it is usually symptomatic of something more sinister than simply not being hungry. I use the word sinister because I enjoy drama, not because there is something seriously wrong (maybe). However, I am wondering where my food lust has I said to a friend the other day: 'I feel hunger, yet have no desire to sate it'.


Through the mass media we now all know about emotions and the link they have to food and our 'relationship' with it. You no longer need to be a psychiatrist to say that someone who eats when they are sad is 'filling the emotional void with food' or that someone who starves them self is 'looking for control amidst feelings of chaos'. You just need to pick up a copy of Cosmo. or Marie Claire for that kind of psycho-analysis these days.

I do have a history of controlling 'chaos' via my diet so can definitely identify with that. If you can't fix your life then don't fix yourself some supper - at least you had a say in the latter. It can be comforting. So I guess there must be some kind of power struggle afoot between myself and my seems the latter controls me - more so than me 'it' - at the moment due to University and work. This could go some way to explaining the lack of interest in eating.

I think, for me, it is because I see food as sensual escapism, a transporter. Not 'mere fuel' as I once raged in a blog-gone-by. At this point in my life, however, I need to avoid basking in food's light and instead plonk myself in one of three places: the library, in front of my laptop or the office. It's as if I know food will want to whisk me away somewhere romantic and whimsical but I cannot accept it's offer and so I am residing myself to 'boring' food for sustenance rather than stimulation.

And so I have no recipes to post, except maybe:

200g dried spaghetti
1 x jar of tomato sauce

Boil pasta until al dente. Stir in sauce.


2 slices of bread
2 tsp of butter
1 can of beans

If I need to tell you what to do with these then I'd worry if I were you.

This does not mean that I do not want to 'talk' to you; no, no. I still want to interact with food mentally, it's my 'thing', what makes me tick; hence me still posting despite my apparent hunger strike.

On the topic of food, I am completing a Literature Review on the link between food and sex by checking out what other academics are saying about it. So far? Stuff we are acutely aware of anyway: food is used a metaphor for sexual organs/food is an aphrodisiac /food as 'sin'...I like the last one, makes me think of dark chocolate and ruby wine next to a trance inducing fire. That previous sentence, in a nutshell, is why I am not eating anything that may arouse anything more than an 'urge to study' (sexy, huh?). I ALMOST 'carried' myself to Montpellier to drink wine with something handsome - in my mind, of course. Clearly I need to exercise restraint when it comes to my food/word dynamic, until the end of the Semester anyway.

And so, I am off to complete yet another essay and eat 'something'...roll on summer.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Take me away

A friend and I have been discussing the finer qualities of European living. So much so that I am aching to pack up and head off tomorrow. There is, however, a catch in my romantic notion. Now I'm not sure if I've mentioned this, I am financially bereft at this particular point in my life so indulging such dreams is not something I'm afforded.

And so, food shall rescue me once again, not only as nourishment but my passport to other worlds that are shamefully out of my reach.

Italian food is a common feature in my repertoire in the form of pastas, soups and homemade pizzas and so I am packing up and heading to France.

The best of France? Beef bourguignon, charcuterie, offal...this is somewhat problematic given my dietary persuasion unless (shudder) I consider a meat substitute. I could enjoy a feast of desserts but I want to prepare and eat something that transports me to a quaint, romantic bistro in Provence where I can linger over supper with a glass of wine next to someone special. All accompanied by music of love and torment, by candlelight...

Here's a recipe stolen from Ina Garten's appropriately named 'memory lane' collection of recipes. This recipe transports Ina and her beloved Jeffrey to the streets of Paris following a trip around Europe as poor youngsters rich in love.

Eggplant (aubergine) Gratin

  • Good olive oil, for frying
  • 3/4 pound eggplant, unpeeled, sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • 1/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 1/4 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan (a good vegetarian hard cheese will be fine here)
  • salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup good bottled marinara sauce


Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Heat about 1/8-inch of olive oil in a very large frying pan over medium heat. When the oil is almost smoking, add several slices of eggplant and cook, turning once, until they are evenly browned on both sides and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Be careful, it splatters! Transfer the cooked eggplant slices to paper towels todrain. Add more oil, heat, and add more eggplant until all the slices are cooked.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg, half-and-half, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.

In each of 2 individual gratin dishes, place a layer of eggplant slices, then sprinkle with Parmesan, salt and pepper and spoon 1/2 of the marinara sauce. Next, add a second layer of eggplant, more salt and pepper, half the ricotta mixture, and finally 1 tablespoon of grated Parmesan on top.

Place the gratins on a baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the custard sets and the top is browned. Serve warm.

This post is your plane ticket and it's on me.

Saturday, 26 February 2011


I am skint. Skint.

I'm not unhappy about this really I just have to adjust to life as student/part-time employee/writer. It seems as the number of 'roles' I have increase my income takes a southern route...irony can be cruel.

Like I said, though, I don't feel hard-done-by or the slightest bit tempted to jack it all in and return to maximum pay, minimum satisfaction. Tougher times build character and, most importantly, inspire us.

A few Thursday's back I was tired and (you guessed it) skint. After a hungry rummage through my fridge I only really had bits and bobs that could be picked at alongside jars of jams, mustard, pickled onions and nowt much else. However, what emerged from half hour in the kitchen that evening turned out to be a special little something that was satisfying and made me feel like I was really treating myself. It was at this moment I realised the greatest thing about being financially bereft: simple pleasures. Pleasure is at its best unadorned: a warm bath, a good book, supper at the end of a long day – it’s cliché but I don’t care. The need to do something different, something new, crazy and exciting can render you anxious and unfulfilled.

The best way to illustrate it would be a New Years Eve equation: too much money + too much pressure = disappointment the antidote to this would be buying the Sunday papers, reading them with a cup of coffee and realising how good you already had it. The latter never disappoints as it's not trying to be anything other than what it is, it's not over complicated or marred by high expectations that often stem from little more than the amount of cash you've had to part with.

The recipe from that Thursday evening is a take on a goats cheese and onion tart - one of the vegetarian's most familiar restaurant/dinner party offerings - yet replaces the pastry with a seeded pitta base: sounds like 'diet food', it's not. I wouldn’t recommend the well known oval white flour pittas here, the bread needs to be damp and dense, the brand suggested in the recipe below was ideal.

Goats cheese & onion pitta tartelette with mustard dressed leaves

Serves One


1 round seeded pitta (I used Food Doctor multi seeded)

1 tbl sp Dijon Mustard

1 tbl sp oil, (olive, vegetable etc)

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked (optional)

1 tsp sugar



1 x tomato, thinly sliced into rounds

50g goats cheese (the type with a rind), thinly sliced

For the salad:

Salad leaves (rocket, watercress etc)

1 tbl sp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbl sp lemon juice

1/2 tsp sugar

1/2 tbl sp dijon mustard




Preheat oven to 200c.

Spread the mustard on the pitta bread, leaving out approximately 1cm around the edge, and place to one side.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the onion, thyme, sugar and salt and cook until they soften and become 'jammy', season to taste.

Add the onions to the pitta and arrange the tomato and then the goats cheese on top, season.

Place on a baking tray in the oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and golden.

Whilst the tartelette is cooking make the dressing for the salad: add the oil, lemon juice and sugar to a bowl and whisk in the mustard, season to taste adding more sugar or lemon if needed. Dress the salad leaves just before serving alongside the tartlette, finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil over the tartelette.