Cor blimey, we’re delicious

September 11, 2007

At the risk of blowing our own trompettes, The MC and myself were honoured and delighted to be featured in last month’s edition of Delicious magazine. I’d like to think the mugshot combines a little bit of the floppy lovableness of Hugh F-W, the steely no-nonsense of Sir Gordon Ramsey and the saintly purity of Delia-le-Smith. We’d like to thank our agents, without whom… against all the odds… boo-hoo blubber blubber…

Delicious Magazine article

Can you kill your dinner?

September 10, 2007

There’s an interesting article about the most humane way to kill a lobster in today’s Gruniad Online.

I’ve tried the ‘boiling from cold water’ method with a very large live crab, thinking the gradually warming water might lull the mighty beast into a painless death-sleep. Alas no, it thrashed around so violently it actually lifted the heavy cast-iron lid off my le creuset pan. I had to pile a number of kitchen appliances on top in order to stop the crabby crustacean escaping and wreaking bloody revenge on my ankles.

A restaurant I used to work in held an annual lobster fest, during which scores of the critters were ritually slaughtered by a knife through the neck, which seemed like a pretty instant, if grizzly, death. While awaiting their fate they were kept in the fridge to make them docile; a pair would occasionally be thawed-out for lobster duels during quiet spells in service. Modest amounts of hard-earned tips were wagered on the outcome of these fights, although generally they showed little interest in either fighting or escaping, appearing more depressed than aggressive. In my experience chefs are pretty hardened/realistic/callous (delete according to point of view) about the welfare of the crustaceans in their care.

Tiny live shrimps, Wimereux, Brittany

I have to admit to having a sharp twinge of guilt when I fried up a plateful of tiny live shrimps in France the other week. Tiny they may have been (too small to even peel as it turned out) but they had a remarkable jump on them. Four or five of them spectacularly leaped out of the frying pan on contact with the hot oil, and I can’t really blame them.

My view on the ethics of cooking live sea-food is, firstly, if you’re going to eat a creature you should be prepared to kill it or watch it be killed and, secondly, you should try and do the ugly deed in the most painless way possible (e.g. not chucking them straight into boiling oil). With lobster, I suspect the old knife in the back of the neck technique might, after all, be the kindest way of despatching them to the Great Rock Pool in the Sky.

Tips for Gourmet Campers

September 6, 2007

Good camping and good cooking don’t have to be mutually exclusive, even when you’ve only a got a small single-burner gas stove and a battered old pan. Here are our 5 top tips for gourmet campers:

1. Take a washing up bowl

Salad in washing up bowl

Great for tossing salads, scaling and gutting fish, marinading roadkill and, er, washing up in.

2. Invest in a no-handled non-stick frying pan

Piperade on a camping stove

The absence of a handle means the pan balances well, the non-stick makes whipping up a quick piperade or omlette a doddle. Check out the orange oven-glove – pretty stylish, huh?

3. Use a frisbee as a chopping board

Chopping onion on a frisbee

This was our most valuable discovery of the holiday – convert a frisbee into a chopping board. It’s light, it has a rim that stops stuff being blown away by that pesky Mistral wind, and the grooves the knife makes in the plastic doesn’t seem to adversely effect the frisbee’s flight.

4. Take advantage of on-site fruit bushes

Figs, Croatia

Virtually every campsite we stayed in provided us with a free dessert (except for the Red Indian-themed site we stayed at in Brittany). Figs and plums in Croatia and Italy, blackberries and elderberries in France – simply poached with some brown sugar and a glug of unidentified brandy-like spirit given to us in Croatia.

5. Take a Riverford veg box

Vegbox on tour

Our trusty veg box did us proud as an all-round booze and cooking equipment container. It even survived a spillage of anchovy oil which would have destroyed a lesser box. We’re still debating whether to return it to our local veg box deliverer for re-use – if you get very fishy-smelling veggies any time soon, you’ll know the reason why.

On the road again

September 2, 2007

3300 miles to go

Maths Chick and I have just returned from an epic 4 week, 3300 mile drive to Croatia to attend my old uni friend Reuben’s barbeque.

Courtyard, Jezera, Croatia

This lucky bloke spends four months a year with his family in a renovated cottage in the fishing village of Jezera on the Dalmation coast.

Reuben and the catch of the day
Here he is with a tuna-type fish he’d prepared for our arrival. It’s quite a hefty beast, but nothing compared to the mammoth 88kg tuna we saw being hauled ashore by big-game fishermen one evening.

6 fat fish on the barbie

Reuben has two courtyards in his cottage, where he whiles away the most part of the summer cooking up smokey fish feasts on his man-sized grill. Unusually for an Englishman, he really knows how to handle his barbie; but then, he did leave the land of charcoal-singed burgers over 15 years ago.

Apart from the motivation of a good chow-down with friends, we also went on this roadtrip in order to learn more about this strange continent called Europe, which we’d been told lay just across the English channel from Dover. And here, in short, is what we learned:

1. European Service Stations

Service station of death, Croatia

During almost four weeks of driving through France, Italy, Slovenia and Crotia we’ve become authorities on the relative quality of European service stations. These can be rated as follows:

Quality and price of a cup of coffee:

  1. Italy 9/10
  2. France 7/10
  3. Croatia 4/10
  4. Slovenia N/A (no service stations en route)

Pleasantness of toilet experience:

  1. Croatia 9/10 (law requires all public toilets cleaned every two hours)
  2. France 8/10 (on toll roads)
  3. Italy 7.5/10 (lose half a point for having to leave a tip to toilet attendants)
  4. France 4/10 (on non-toll roads)
  5. Slovenia 3/10 (Glastonbury-style portaloos in layby)

2. European Mechanics

Another day, another mechanics, Croatia

During the trip our long-suffering Fiesta (aka Felicity) suffered two punctures and a busted starter motor and we had to take her to visit the car doctor in three different countries. Here Maths Chick vainly looks for “Please can you check the tracking?” in our ‘Fast-talk Croatian’ phrasebook.

We can therefore also rate European mechanics in the following order:

  1. Slovenia : 9/10 (15 minutes, new tyre, service with a smile, perfect English, nice overalls)
  2. Italy: 6/10 (5 days, new starter motor, 3 hour lunchbreak, service with a Latin shrug)
  3. Croatia: 3/10 (30 minutes, attempt at mending puncture leading to second puncture 10 miles down the road, service with a Slavic scowl)

3. European Camping Styles

Camping in Croatia

We camped 21 nights in 14 different campsites and learned about differing national styles of camping, which can be classified as follows:

  1. British – ‘Ghetto camping’ – low-fi, small tents, single gas stoves, head torches
  2. Italian – ‘Domestic camping’ – lampshades, oak tables and chairs, guttering systems rigged up around vast 5-room tents, have the family over for Sunday lunch
  3. France – ‘Paradise camping’ – Eden-like campsite reception, tropical plants and birds in cages, idyllic position by a river or lake, Edith Piaf playing through hi-fi system in toilets
  4. Croatia – ‘Tourist board cultural camping’ – on-site local cheese festivals, peasant folklore recitals in campsite restaurant…

Invented tradition, Croatia

4. European Roads

Tailback

If there’s one thing this trip made clear is that Europe has too many people trying to drive too many cars to too many towns, too fast on too few roads. By comparison the driving experience in the US is polite, sedate and civilised. How many areas of life can you say that about? Anyway, here’s our ratings:

  1. France 8/10 – generally pleasant driving experience, deduct 1 point for expense (100 euros + in tolls) and 1 for driving on the wrong side.
  2. Croatia 7/10 – brand new motorway and tunnel system currently being built, deduct 2 points for failure to finish this system in time for our arrival and 1 point for driving on the wrong side
  3. Italy 2/10 – deduct 7 points for horrific, bullying, macho driving on absurdly narrow and fast 2 lane motorways and 1 extra point for driving on the wrong side.

Conclusion

Many European countries make great cheese, but Croatia isn’t one of them.

vinegar.jpg

I sing the praises of Toffs, the greatest fish’n’chippe in north London – probably in Britain, and therefore, by default, the world. What makes it so special? The thin, crisp batter; the spanking fresh fish; the endless supply of perfect chips; the cheeky grinning staff. The owner who resembles a baby diplodocus and always tries to flog you the expensive halibut fillet, when all you want is the bog-standard haddock.

The old-fashioned, wood-panelled and mirrored interior. The pleasure of eating in a restaurant where they concentrate on cooking one dish to perfection, without fuss or frills, over and over again, for decades. The low-key buzz of an unpretentious local establishment, a pillar of the community. The third-hand glamour of framed and autographed c-list celebrity photos – Minty from Eastenders, Les Denis, Victoria Wood, Norman Wisdom.

peas.jpg

Is there a more satisfying colour combination than mushy peas, ketchup and chips, laid out generously on pure white tablecloth and sparkling white plates? These should be the colours of our national flag; I’d happily pledge allegiance to the green, red and yellow.

batter.jpg

Even the mauled remains of a plate of f’n’c is a pleasure to behold. The pattern of silvery fish scales on the inside of the discarded batter, sacrificed in the hope of leaving enough room for Spotted Dick and custard. The small puddle of congealing mushie peas, left aside as an offering to the patron saint of the chippy.

toffs.jpg

There are three things which, for a contented existence, should be within staggering distance of the front door – a cinema with comfy seats; a boozer with a cuckoo clock and gurning locals; and a chippie like Toffs.

Ravioli Tuesday

June 16, 2007

ravioli_dish.jpg

So what happened to the (predicted) hottest summer since records began? Here I sit at the kitchen table on a wet Saturday afternoon, looking out into a damp, bedraggled, snooker-table-sized London back garden. A short, crackling thunderstorm has just passed over, and everything is still.

Maths chick is spending her weekends marking GCSE exams online, and so I’m left to my own devices again, which normally involves me staring at the wall, rocking backwards and forwards in a semi-catatonic state. But at the moment I’m reflecting back on an eventful week.

The Facebook phenomenon has hit my social group with a vengeance. Me and MC were introduced to this social networking site last weekend at a party, and within the space of three or four days almost everyone I know has registered on the site and become instantly, shamefully, addicted.

Yesterday as I walked through the offices I’m currently freelancing in I noticed every second or third person surreptitiously checking their profile to see how many new Facebook friends they’d acquired in the last 10 minutes. As a site, it’s better looking and more usable than mySpace, less blatantly self-serving than LinkdIn, less nostalgic than Friends Reunited. The site promises to arrange your entire social life for you, while keeping the psychotic orĀ  predatory at arm’s length.

The impact of these social networking sites on your life can be hard to predict. Already I’ve met up with a long-lost school friend who I’d hardly seen since he dropped out of the 6th form and dissappeared into the Madchester club scene during the second summer of love in 1989. He’s now re-surfaced as an IT project manager in the City by day, a keyboard player with the legendary Manchester band ACR by night, and an all round good bloke. He had some great stories to tell, impressing me most by the fact he’d been personally given the nickname ‘Acid House Pixie’ by one of my personal heroes, the great Mark e Smith.

In between squabbling over who had the most Facebook friends, the MC and me managed to squeeze in a pasta-making session on Tuesday night. I’d had a go at making linguine on Monday night and it had ended up a large, globby mess, drowned in a flash flood of aubergine and ricotta sauce. This time we tried to keep it simple, in conception if not execution – we decided to make ricotta ravioli.

The MC worried this was too ambitious for a Tuesday night, and that we wouldn’t be sitting down to eat until the early hours of Thursday morning. In the end, with the two of us working in blissful harmony, we managed to crank out a couple of servings of misshapen but deliciously melting ravioli in about 40 minutes.

The filling was very simple – Ricotta, drained of excess moisture, seasoned well with nutmeg, salt, pepper and parmesan. Although they’d have been great served just with butter and parmesan, we decided to serve them with thinly sliced cabbage fried with fatty cubes of bacon, which turned out to be a good contrast between the subtle, velvety ravioli and the salty, crisp accompaniment.

I wouldn’t even start trying to describe how you make ravioli. The instructions in the Marcella Hazan book we used run to at least four pages. It’s a black art, but well worth the effort, if you can tear yourself away from Facebook for long enough. Otherwise, just open a tin of the old 70’s school canteen ravioli in the sickly sweet red sauce and see if you can track down that well-endowed lass you used to lust after in double French.

ravioli_tray.jpg

Capital Ring revisited

April 9, 2007

After Friday’s jaunt, and in the interests of getting a balanced view of our home city, we set out yesterday for a ramble along a western section of the Capital Ring. From the World City of east London we headed for the Little England of the prosperous west.

Richmond

We started from Richmond, with its quaint pubs and village greens, snoozing comfortably by the banks of the Surrey Thames.

While north London is home of the hill tribes, the west is populated by the water people – house-boat dwellers, ex-varsity rowers, pleasure cruisers, the ghosts of Victorian dredgers. We trotted along river-side paths beside the grand old Thames, the muddy Brent and the slumbering Grand Union canal.

And along the banks of watery west London we came upon…

Canalside developments, Brentford

…miles of swanky new water-side developments, fresh out of their bubble-wrapping…

Rusty barge, Isleworth

Mud'n'dinghies, Isleworth

…rusty reminders of a time when the Thames was a working river, the main artery of an empire…

GSK building, Brentford

…the beautiful-brutal glass and steel monuments of 21st century capitalism…

Allotment Sheds, Hanwell

…acres of municipal allotments where earthy folk could be seen sipping flasks of tea and dreaming of prize-winning pumpkins…

A40, Greenford

…finally arriving in the vast suburban widerness of Greenford, where blank-faced 1930’s semis stretch to the horizon in every direction.

Abandon hope all ye who enter, for truly this is the 7th level of hell…