Sunday, 31 May 2009

Love it or hate it: Marmite at The Underground Restaurant

Prepping the fish...

Gary Rhodes coffee icecream recipe with liquid glucose, which I've never used before

Prepping the veg

Marmite on linseed toast with crispy seaweed: the caramel flavour of the seaweed and salty Marmite worked well together

Thyme and garlic butter with Marmite baked mushroom

Rocket, spinach and watercress salad with Marmite and lime vinaigrette, plus violas to decorate

A crowded room, summer nights

Empty Bloody 'marmitey' drinks

Welsh rarebit smoked haddock with marmite roasted tomatoes and green parsley, the colours of a Marmite jar

Coffee ice with chocolate Marmite sauce, a kind of deconstructed frappuccino

Vintage shoes

Guest in vintage dress and Porridge lady in shell-like silk

Petra chocstar and her crew. Petra was going to smother herself in fake tan in homage to Marmite...

It had to be done. With a moniker like MsMarmitelover I had to do a Marmite evening (and I didn't even offer the option of Vegemite). But I promise it was a one time thing ...
This evening's dishes probably took more practising than any other night. Marmite is such a strong distinctive taste and I was conscious of one guest writing to me, only half joking, saying that he would bring his high blood pressure medicine just in case...
The menu was rather daunting...Marmite in every course. My approach was to use Marmite as a seasoning, as a replacement for salt. In terms of matching flavours, I thought of Marmite as akin to soy sauce, which is why I conceived the idea of adding lime juice to the Marmite vinaigrette. 
The smoked haddock rarebit needed several goes before I was happy with it. I abandoned Gary Rhodes recipe, too complicated and it looked messy and unappetising. In the end I merely spread English mustard and Marmite on each undyed piece of haddock then grated cheddar cheese on top, adding green pickled peppercorns.
I also, as well as thinking of Marmite as an ingredient, thought of the iconic pot and label design when presenting dishes therefore the main dish was yellow, brown, green and red.
The Bloody Mary Marmite drink went down well, one table asked for seconds.
On another table, one man and his Spanish friend admitted to hating Marmite, but they enjoyed the Marmite on toast appetiser.
Two people cancelled by email at 19.35 pm asking if they could come another time.
"Very sorry but it really is too late" I replied.
A home restaurant has no walk-in business. I've bought and cooked the ingredients already. It's a fixed menu. The theme was posted up weeks ago.
Anna @PorridgeLady did front of house superbly for a first timer. It was an eye-opener for her in many ways. We discussed how it is seen as a profession in France. One has to assume a certain body language, upright and confident. You serve but must remain in control.
"You taught me that I have to focus on getting the dishes out when they are hot and not get waylaid by customers asking for, say, water. As the evening went on, I realised that I must make eye contact and keep my head up, be polite but firm". 
Unlike in a normal restaurant, there isn't a team coordinating things, on this occasion just myself and Porridge lady. We discussed what makes a good team; one element is that while front of house must let the kitchen know if there are problems they should not stress the chef who has enough on their plate.
Paul A Young provided little packets of Marmite truffles for everyone. Calling me over, Paul was convinced that another guest was somebody famous. Peering over,  this guest did resemble Roman Abramovich, the owner of 'Chelski' football team who had just lost at Wembley, up the road. What a coup! I thought. He comes to my living room to drown his sorrows. I sidled up to this guest, but when a posh English accent came out from his mouth rather than a Russian accent, this fond fantasy fell away...
One thing did surprise me...after all those Marmite courses, several guests did in fact want the hot Marmite drink at the end rather than coffee...now that's lovin' it! 
People did drink more water than usual. The weather or the salt?

Porridge lady






One of the best things about having Anna Porridgelady do 'front of house' for me is that, because she lives far away, she stayed the night and therefore, in the morning, she cooked us porridge. I felt privileged: Anna is a finalist in The World Porridge Making Championships, also known as The Golden Spurtle (a kind of porridge stirring stick). 
She used the Rude Health oats 'fruity date' that I got for free at The Real Food festival. She considered the packet with an expert eye:
"Yeees, this is a mix of large and small oats, some rolled and some chopped".
"What does that mean?" 
 I asked, sensing that I was about to get a wealth of insider porridge info.
"It's quicker to cook" she said briskly measuring out a large cup of oats "Use half water and half milk" 
"What is the secret of good porridge?" I delved.
"Keep stirring. People tend to wander off and leave it. Ooh I've never cooked porridge on an Aga before!" she exclaimed.
"How often do you eat porridge?"
"Every morning. When I was doing alot of running I used to eat a bowl in the afternoon as well. It's particularly good with kippers and spinach, all those traditional Scottish recipes" she continued.
"In Japan they eat seaweed and oatmeal. Many cultures have porridges. In Russia Kasha porridge, buckwheat, is very popular, especially with mushrooms. Quinoa (pronounced [keenwa] is a kind of porridge."
"In Thailand they have congee for breakfast, a rice porridge" I remember.
Anna Porridgelady has finished the porridge and dishes it into bowls. 
"I like to put a little milk on top"
"I hate cleaning the pan afterwards" I complain.
"The trick is to give it a quick rinse as soon as possible so it doesn't stick" Anna says, rinsing.
At The Golden Spurtle, a competition which has been running for 15 years, the top Scottish hotels send their chefs to compete. They all want that title. 
"But it's very tongue in cheek, humorous" says Anna"and it attracts the tourists"
Last year there were three competitors from England, one from Canada and the rest were from Scotland.
This Rude Health porridge is flavoured with cinnamon, apples, dates and apricots. It doesn't need any sugar or, my childhood favourite, Golden syrup.
"Cinnamon is good for controlling blood sugar" explains Anna"They call it the diabetic sugar. Cinnamon is naturally sweet but has no hypoglycemic index".
During the competition, Anna got quite nervous, almost hyperventilating at the start. The contestants get half an hour to make two types of porridge: one a speciality, the other using only the traditional Scottish method of water, salt and oats. It's a version of Masterchef, but the only dish is porridge.
Anna spent months foraging in Berkshire for the ingredients in preparation for her speciality porridge; scrumping Bramley and Discovery apples for different purées, making crab apple jelly and rosehip sauce as a side syrup.
"The guy that won it, Ian, his porridge was stunning"enthused Anna.
"What was his speciality?" I asked
"He didn't do one. He just did the traditional recipe.".
"Er, how different can different porridges be?" I put the question.
"A winning porridge has colour, texture, flavour."explained Anna. "The texture should be gloopy but rough at the same time. This one had a mix of colours, yellows and browns. He used salt as a flavouring. It didn't taste salty. The salt merely enhanced the intrinsic taste of the oatmeal. Another woman did one from very fine oats which was more like a grey gravy. There are also pinhead oats which are really coarse, hardly refined at all, tasting nutty. One contestant made that version and barely got it finished in the half hour allotted."

I resolved to eat more porridge.
For any porridge related issues, questions, projects contact Anna on Twitter...@porridgelady.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Guardian canteen

Those letters just itch to be changed around...

My companion's hot fish sandwich 'goujons'

The modern dining room with Arne Jacobson style chairs and brightly coloured lampshades.

Indian curry main course, chutney and rice. Freshly cooked, well spiced.

View of the canal at Kings Cross

And I didn't even have to resort to this...

"It's the wavy building up on the right" a guy told me. I didn't have my glasses on so I couldn't see what he meant. Drawing closer to The Guardian and Observer headquarters I noted that it was indeed wavy and silver. 
Through the shopfront window you can see letters spelling The Guardian and The Observer, each letter on a stand. 
"Somebody working nights changed the stands around so it spelt Grauniad(Private Eye's name for this paper due to it's typos) my companion explained "so they glued all the posts down on the floor".
There was a chic sandwich and tea bar but I preferred to check out the canteen. I was impressed. Guardian journalists eat much better than BBC staff. I didn't even have to resort to my little plastic box (containing anchovies, pickled green peppercorns, capers and fresh basil leaves and a lemon) that I carry around in order to perform a bit of table-top cuisine when the food threatens to be unpalatable.
The vegetarian main was curry, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, a sort of curried ratatouille, slick with oil and spices. The mango chutney was no doubt ready-made but it made a change to be offered some, you usually don't get that in a canteen. With the rice and the salad, it only cost £3. 
Leaving to go down to the wine bar, I saw a striking skinny woman with tanned bare legs, tiny shorts (verging on 'batty riders') and towering butter yellow high-heeled shoes.
"Wow" I couldn't help remarking "she must be from the fashion department surely"
"No she's..." my companion waited till the woman, teetering, turned her head "yes it's Polly Vernon. She sometimes writes about food for us".
"She writes about food?" I exclaimed.
"Mostly about cocktails".
If you get a chance to eat there, take it. It's the journalistic equivalent of eating at the' stars commissary' at Paramount studios where, in the old days, you'd see Lana Turner with a tray, Ava Gardner picking at salad, her hair bound up in a turban, Clark Gable asking for a refill of coffee.
At the Guardian canteen, star columnists, who you recognise from photos on mastheads, are refuelling during lunch,  just like ordinary mortals. Admittedly, against all hopes, I did not spot Jay Rayner, the Observer's restaurant reviewer, toying with a tuna and sweetcorn sarnie. 


Marlene Dietrich, eating at the Paramount commissary

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

tongue piercing

I haven't been spending much time with my daughter recently. I've been busy. One night, when I was going out, I'd been out several nights that week already, she said to me:
"I feel like I live alone".
Last night, I catered a gig. It was work. Badly paid. But work. I got home at midnight and, as usual, went into my daughter's bedroom. I saw her sleeping form, the soft pale skin, her little head of tumbled blonde hair, the slender hands ...I kissed her, breathing in her still child-like smell. I love her I thought. This is all that counts. I must spend more time with her. And more importantly, be present when I'm with her. Because even when I'm home, I'm not. My mind is elsewhere or I'm on the computer. Or I'm worrying. Or thinking. Or planning.
She asks me questions nowadays, interesting questions...
"Explain proportional representation."
We go through it. At first sight it looks like a good idea.
"Der" she announces, in her teenage way "of course it's better. Der. Why don't we just do it?"
And then I explain further. That with PR you also get the BNP...and the Greens and lots of little parties. They then have to form coalitions to be able to wield any power. So you end up with a big messy compromising party anyway.
Then, switching subjects rapidly she asks:
"Can I have my tongue pierced?"
I look at her. I feel stupidly anxious. I don't want her to have her tongue pierced. I want her to have brown long hair again, untouched by hair dye. I want to see her in her ballet outfit again. I want her to curl up in my arms at night. I want her to think I am the bestest most important fantastic loveable human being in the world again. Like she used to. I want to be called 'mummy' rather than 'muuuuum' or when she's annoyed, 'mother'. 
I say lightly, a little cruelly: "If you let your hair go back to it's natural colour, you can have your tongue pierced."
It was a joke. I then attempt a weak excuse like:
"Isn't it dangerous? Can't you get an infection?"
And even more weakly, grasping at straws...
"What if you get in a fight? They could, like, rip your tongue out".
She laughs:
"You said that about my pierced ears mum. And I've never been in a fight".
This morning she was leaving for school.
"Right Saturday afternoon my mate and I are dying my hair brown."
I'm still only half awake.
"Is it a good idea to keep dying it?" I ask gently "it will end up frizzy".
"Well I'm doing what you said."
I look non-plussed.
"I'm dying my hair brown so I can have my tongue pierced".
I gasp. "What? That was a joke".
Her expression changes. She mutters something. It sounds like 'bitch'. 
"What did you say?"
I'm thinking I've got to put a stop to this. The disrespectful way she talks to me. 
She explodes:
"You are TOTALLY evil. Oh my god you are a LIAR. You said I could have my tongue pierced. LIAR"
"It was a joke. You knew it was a joke!" 
She slams out of the front door, cursing, upset. She's got GSCE tests today. I'm worried. I don't want her to be upset. I'm also thinking, why do I want to control her appearance? You are only young once. Let her experiment. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Marmite Menu


Marmite Menu 


(some dishes inspired by Gary Rhodes recipes)


 Bloody Marmitey cocktail

Marmite cashews



Marmite on linseed toast  topped with fried seaweed



 Thyme flower mushrooms with Marmite creme fraiche



Marmite, mustard and cheese encrusted smoked haddock



Mixed leaf Salad with Marmite vinaigrette



Coffee Icecream with marmite chocolate sauce



Marmite truffles by Paul. A. Young


Coffee or ...hot Marmite drink



This menu is subject to change depending on inspiration and availability of ingredients



Giant silver topped Marmite jar at Jewellers Theo Fennell 

Australian versions....

Monday, 25 May 2009

Ripailles by Stephane Reynaud



I lived in Paris from 1990-96. I'd wanted to live there since I read 'A moveable feast' by Hemingway. Seemingly he spent his whole time in Paris moving from café to restaurant scribbling works of art on napkins. My dad loves his writing but I've never been a fan. 'A moveable feast' however is different. It's full of heart. The prose is not terse, pared down, modern. He writes naturally, sensually, clearly influenced by his gastronomic surroundings.
On Sunday mornings, my daughter's father and I would travel by metro (I love the smell of the metro in the mornings, an assault of damp fur coat and stale expensive perfume) to Porte de Clignancourt. From there it is a short walk to the flea market, les puces de Saint Ouen, passing the 'merguez' vendors, tall blue black men holding long thin sausages over charcoal. 
Inside the labyrinthine market there was a little restaurant with oilcloth red and white checked tablecloths, Chez Louisette. We would order wine in Duralex beakers. A kids game in France is to see if the number on the bottom of the glass corresponds to your age, a lucky thing. (I've just discovered there is even a facebook group 'Quand j'etais petit, je regardais mon age sous les verres Duralex'  dedicated to this).
I'd generally order 'soupe à l'onion' or 'moules marinieres'. Baguette would arrive guillotined into slices.
A lady of indeterminate age, with auburn curls, would get up and sing 'Piaf', accompanied by someone on an accordion
I would breath a sigh of relief.  This restaurant, a 'guinguette', a bar or restaurant with musical entertainment, incarnated the elusive Paris I was trying to capture when I moved there.
For the reality of Paris is very different: hostile bureaucrats, staring men on the metro, endless paperwork, no green spaces, no gardens, tiny flats, hissing neighbours, armed police. There is a typical Parisian, who interferes and snoops, enjoys regulations and rules, that I grew to loathe...'collabo' I called them, the slang word for collaborators, those who sided with the Germans in the war. On a depressingly regular basis I would have to queue at the 'mairie' for my 'fiche d'etat civile', a form that they have now done away with in this era of biometric data. It was a piece of paper which did nothing more that state that you exist. You needed this piece of paper for everything. It could not be more than three months old. So you had to renew it. You needed this to pay a bill, book a place at a nursery, go to school, apply for an evening class, get a flat, get a telephone, get medical treatment, everything...
The women at the 'mairie' were horrible harsh creatures.
'Ripailles' by chef Stephane Reynaud is a 'guinguette' in book form. A hefty piece of work, worthy of pride of place on the bookshelf, it has typical French brasserie recipes, witty drawings and evocative food photography presented on enamel plates, earthenware, cast iron pans, heavy spoons, the kind of French tableware I lust over in 'vide-greniers'. The memories of France this book evokes are textural, tangible. 
Certainly there is a preponderance of meat dishes but we will forgive that. After all, France is a country where, if you announce that you don't eat meat, they say "just a little bit of chicken then?"
One page is very funny: drawings of different ways you can order your eggs. There is a drawing of two tiny flat eggs called 'Jane Birkin eggs' after the flat chested English singer who was married to Serge Gainsbourg, and who become a French institution. I remember her once on a French tv show talking about her breasts...
"Excuse me" she defended herself laughingly "when I had my children I had lots of milk from these tiny breasts. Gallons! Sophia Loren..."she holds  her hands further away from her body, imitating large breasts "she had nothing, not a drop, pas une goutte!!!"

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Food Packaging I like

Adore this 'Six Photo' snuff tin box with pictures of a Sikh man. It is of course made in the Punjab.

Fish Tea and Cock Flavour soup. In Brixton market.

Bolst's curry powder. Made in Bangalore. Does what it says on the tin style packaging. Bold primary colour, large graphics. Suggests dependability and big flavours? 
Indian Head white corn meal. I like the dusty colours, the slightly recycled look paper. Like something you'd buy in a general store. American.

Alaska condensed milk is made by a Philipino company. The boy doesn't look very Philipino.

Foska Oats. This was in the Jamaican section. The cheery blonde boy and the primary colours are very 50s. Both the boy and the name sound Scandinavian. Again why blondes to advertise in a non-blonde nation?

Pink turbans and rose petals


Cava with rocket flower

Asparagus mimosa, served with chives and sage butter, decorated with violas

Crystallised roses drying

The edible flowers from FirstLeaf in Wales. The flowers came with an explanatory sheet.

The flower and herb butter

Bombay mix, salt and pink peppercorns, flower butter

Smoked aubergine and pea curry and saffron basmati rice


Baby plum tomatoes, red onions pickled in green chilli and red wine vinegar, calendula petals and geranium leaves

Hardeep Singh Koli 

I think he's done this before

Rosewater kulfi, crystallised rose petals, violet and lavender shortbread, gold leaf

Paul. a. Young's Indian coriander chocolates.

Where have all the flowers gone? The icebowl melteth.

Hardeep arrived in his Jag on Friday morning, smelling of musk, jasmine...something exotic and touchyfeely.
"You smell great" I say "What is it?" 
"Very expensive Tom Ford aftershave" 
Just like on TV, Hardeep has a warmth about him and a certain amount of bravery. He has the balls to turn up at a strange woman's house and get stuck into cooking.
"This feels....sexy" he says.
He works quickly and efficiently, all the while juggling constant phone calls from agents, friends, business contacts. 
"It's always better to make curry the day before. This way the spices are really infused into the dish"
His curry secret? "Use whole spices first of all then add ground spices later. You need both to get that authentic flavour".
Hardeep negotiating while cooking a curry

Fry onions and whole spices in vegetable oil. Afterwards add plum tomatoes quartered.

To smoke your aubergines, put them in the oven until the skins are crispy. Then strip off the skins and whizz them up in the food processor. You will end up with the 'caviar' of the aubergine. You add this to your base sauce and leave overnight. 
30 minutes before you serve the curry, add frozen petit pois and chopped coriander.
Hardeep also, in double quick time, made a tomato, onion, green chilli and coriander salad as well as a green apple chutney
The tomato salad, almost a salsa, Hardeep described as
"It's more of a room temperature type salad in which the tomatoes meld with the rest of the ingredients." 
He marinated the red onions and green chillis in an entire bottle of red wine vinegar which gave it a lovely rosy hue. This was left overnight. Just before service, we garnished this salad with petals from Chrysanthemums and Calendulas, bestowing the final dish with a rich deep saffron and ochre colour scheme, so popular in India.
For the green apple chutney, I was asked to get these ingredients:

White wine or cider vinegar

Yet more coriander

Granny smith apples

Green chillies


Core the apples, then whizz all the ingredients up in a food processor, leave overnight. It couldn't have been easier or it emerged, tastier. This was served in the rose icebowls. The green complemented the colour of the iced roses perfectly. We decorated with Rose geranium leaves and Borage flowers.


To make Bombay mix: the authentic version contains 'sev' a mix of gram flour and water pushed through a ricer to make small vermicelli strands which are then deep fried. I omitted the 'sev' not having the equipment. However you can make a very tasty Bombay mix without the 'sev'. 
Fry separately in ghee or vegetable oil, absorbing the excess on kitchen roll, the following ingredients: 
cashews
peanuts
almonds
pine nuts
pistachios
pumpkin seeds
green chillis
curry leaves
fresh coriander leaves...until they are crispy.

Then chop up dates, add to the mix with green sultanas, turmeric, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, date sugar, ground coriander, cumin.
Mix together, season to taste.

Fry coriander, curry leaves, fennel seeds.