Saturday, 31 March 2012

Midnight plane to Georgia: Part One

At Gatwick I squinted at the Aerosvit sign. It was a cheapo airline, an offshoot of International Ukrainian Airways. Groan. My cankles can't handle it, I live in fear of DVT. Channelling my dad (in his day a very cheeky reporter who I'm sure the Leveson enquiry would disapprove of) I shouldered my way to the front of our bloggers troupe.
Clearing my throat, I announced to the Black-haired Slavic cheek-boned check-in hostess "We are the British delegation of press and wine experts come to your country to report on the wine trade. This has been arranged by the agricultural minister who we will be meeting tomorrow morning." A beat. "Can we have an upgrade?"
The woman looked at me very seriously."I vill ask. Please vait." She disappears into a back room.
Fuck me, I thought, it's worked! I wink at the others. She returns."I am sorry but business class is full. But I can give you free pens and note pads with logo."
Leg room. 
The flight was terrible: it should be outlawed to have less than a certain amount of leg room. The air conditioning wasn't working and they had no vegetarian meal for me. I also think they were tight with the oxygen, I could barely breathe. (They cut back on it in Economy as it uses up fuel). They brought around drinks.
"Vot vould you like?" asked the impassive male steward.
"Got anything Ukrainian?" I rally chirpily.
"We have vine."
"Is it Ukrainian?"
"We have beer."
"Is it Ukrainian?"
I spy a carton of apple juice with Cyrillic writing.
"I'll have apple juice."He serves me.
"Delicious!"I announce "Is it Ukrainian?"
He stares at me, not knowing what to think. Eventually he cracks an almost imperceptible smile. "No. It is international. Apple juice like everyvere". And moves on.
Well I had to find something to entertain myself during four hours of plane hell. I suppose I could have tried doodling in the Aerosvit pad with the Aerosvit pen, but my breath was too short.
My food:some kind of fish, carrots, slice of mushroom, broccoli. Carrot/walnut salad with two sticks of celery. Two buns. 1 tube of jam. I triangle of processed cheese. I made a walnut/carrot/processed cheese sandwich. Very nice. Which I seasoned with salt and pepper. Flights diminish your taste buds; you need to flavour food more strongly.
The hostess comes with a cobbled together non-meaty tray.
"No dessert" she states "the dessert is...."she hesitates, looking for a polite way to say inedible..."not food" she shrugs.
We have a three hour stopover in Kiev, Ukraine. Does Chicken Kiev come from Kiev? I ponder for the first time. Possibly.
The flight to Tbilisi is more pleasant, I'm sat in the front row. Again no food, they only have a ham sandwich.
At Tbilisi airport, waiting for my rackety pink suitcase, I sneeze. A man behind me thumps me on the back several times. I look at him.
"In Georgia it is traditional when someone...I don't know what is called"he mimes sneezing.
"This."He nods."We bang on the back three times"
"Thank you".
We drive through the city. There is extraordinary modern architecture: a train station like an armadillo, a strange sparkling bridge. And traditional: churches, mosques, elegant large houses with intricate balconies lit up in different colours. Our hotel, the Radisson, is ultra modern and luxurious.

 You can buy tickets to the Raw Wine Fair in May here:
You can buy tickets for my Georgian meal (aided and abetted by fellow food blogger @foodstories) at the Large Glass Gallery with Natural Wine selected by Isabelle Legeron here:

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Travel and food: Jersey Royals

Jersey Royal potatoes, lightly boiled, paper-thin skins on, then sautéd in butter.
Jersey Royals for sale at the roadside

Potatoes and vegetables are often sold via 'Honesty Box'; 
Farmer Didier holding the first Jersey Royal potatoes in his hands
Jersey, is an island perpetually marooned in the English channel, lassoed to France one way and the UK on the other side. To the delight of its inhabitants, it's always a couple of degrees hotter than the UK. My arrival during a stunning UK March meant that I was faced with what Jess Cartner-Morley, the Guardian fashion editor, calls 'the tights crisis'.
I was invited to find out about the champagne of the potato world, Jersey royals, grown by around 20 farmers on Jersey nowadays, down from several hundred farmers a few years ago.

Cabbage loaves, a traditional Jersey bread, baked with a cabbage leaf on top and underneath to prevent burning.
I spent a memorable morning on Christina and Didier's farm on the raised North side of Jersey; the entire island tilts downwards towards the south, from craggy tall cliffs to wide white sandy bays. For lunch Christina gave us 'cabbage' loaves; refreshing sweet French cider, lightly petillante; Jersey cherry tomatoes; Jersey seafood including lobster and Jersey Royals cooked three different ways. Christina is adamant about "not crushing"; her preferred method of cooking is simple, boiled al dente, leaving on the thin skins, with a large knob of butter and a scattering of chives or fresh mint. The very tiny ones she sautés "Kids love them, I could never make enough of them. They ate them like sweets." Didier sends packs of the new season Jersey Royals to his kids, at university in the UK.  Didier's parents came over from Brittany after the second world war; the next wave of immigrants were from another island, Madeira and today the labour intensive work is done by Eastern Europeans. Jersey Royals are chitted, sorted, graded, planted, ploughed, each and every one, by hand on steep slopes or 'cotils', where it is impossible to use machinery. Jersey 'beans' (the name for the inhabitants, also 'qualies' and 'crappos', toads) are resourceful, every inch of land is cultivated. Each cotil is intimately known by the farmers; which ones suffer from frost, which earth is dry or wet, how sandy or loamy the soil is. The yield is often very low.
Didier looks up towards the sky. The weather is never perfect for the farmer; right now the sun is fantastic, but they are worrying about the dryness. Each 'cotil' has to be watered via pipes where the rainwater reservoir pond at the bottom is pumped. This however is expensive in terms of manpower. "There's nothing like rain", says Didier.
The farmer worries constantly about the weather. Didier even gets up in the night, if there is a chill, to wrap his Jersey Royals in fleece. Christina, despite receiving a tractor for her 25th wedding anniversary as a present, often feels neglected in the marital bed. She didn't want to marry a farmer, but having met Didier on a night out, it was clear he was the one. But her children, she hopes, will do a better paid job, in the 'professions', with shorter hours. Out of the 98,000 population, only half of that is Jersey born and bred. The younger Jersey 'beans' prefer to go to university in the UK, study law and finance amongst other subjects, only returning in their 30s when they decide to have families and settle down. Farming work is done by immigrants. In Jersey they control immigration by granting 'qualifications' giving the right to buy or rent housing, after a certain period of living there. (Hence the nickname 'qualies' for those who possess qualifications to buy a house on the island).
Jersey Royals, in ideal conditions, start at the end of March and last till the end of June. We are now moving from the indoor season to the short outdoor season. It's an important crop for Jersey: fifty percent of Jersey's export market is comprised of the royals. They command a premium price, but the UK is pretty much the only market, although the French market is being worked upon. (I remarked that the skins might be a stumbling block to gaining popularity in France; I once cooked new potatoes, leaving on the skins, for Parisian friends who were horrified by this practice).
Simply cooked à la vapeur, skins removed this time.
A 'seed' potato for Jersey Royals, with the dark shoot (not white as is usual with chits, because these potato seeds are warmed up, not kept in the cool as is the case with normal potatoes, in order that they grow quickly once planted).

If you were to draw a cow for a children's book, it would look like the doe-eyed Jersey cow, world famous for the creaminess of the milk. The first Jersey bull was sold to America for 60k, the equivalent of several million today. Jersey bull sperm is another export for the island.
I love the retro seaside colours on these Jersey cream fudge boxes.
The Jersey pottery makes bowls adorned with their famous spuds.
Jersey uses the British pound, and still has pound notes. You can see the French influence in the words 'Une livre' (a pound), however.
En route to the Jersey Royal cotils, we saw a dolmen where some shrines had been placed. Jersey has a strong Pagan influence.
But, as Michelin star chef Richard Allen remarks, who gave me a virtuoso demonstration of different ways to use the potatoes, the flavour is in the skins. Jersey royals can have a slight coppery flavour just under the skins, which recalls 'newness', freshness and Spring (rather in the way that vinho verde wine does). Their distinctive taste comes from the fact that they are mulched with seaweed or 'vraic'. I was struck by the amount of work that goes into growing Jersey Royals. People don't want to spend much on food, perhaps they regard it as a right, like water or air, but all good food requires many man hours, from growing to picking to storing and then again, in the preparation and cooking. Good food doesn't come cheap.
I will be doing a supper club on the 12th of May in which I'll cook Jersey Royals and explore other delicacies of this island; the seafood, the dairy, the black butter with notes of liquorice and apple and other goodies. Book here:
Clean beaches, white sand.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Events coming up at The Underground Restaurant

Secret Garden Club: April 15th:  Med Veg: all those lovely nightshade veggies that are so hard to grow in the UK: aubergines and peppers! Then a delicious mediterranean vegetable meal: ratatouille, melanzana parmigiana, baba ganoush and pepperonata? What will I come up with? Book here: £45
April 24th: Postcards from the edge: the Natural Wine revolution. This is a meal inspired by the postcard exhibition  at Large Glass gallery in North London where the meal will be held. I will have returned from Georgia where I will have visited Natural Wine growers. Smell and taste evoke memories and postcards, the popularity of which has declined in the digital age, are a souvenir of a journey as well as a nostalgic look back to an older age. (I remember when travelling, going to Post Restante to collect mail from home. I can remember the excitement of finding a bulging letter, in the dedicated section to the initial of your surname, in a Nepalese post office. It seemed magical, how these letters arrived, marked merely with 'Post Restante, Kathmandu, Nepal'. )
The wine is curated by Natural Wine expert Isabelle Legeron "That crazy French woman" in anticipation of the RAW natural wine fair in London. We will also try unusual natural wines such as 'orange' wine along with the usual sparkling, red and white. 
Tickets £50 including Natural Wine degustation with each course. Book here
Saturday 5th of May: On a Stick! All food on a stick: reminiscent of barbeques and fun fairs, food is always more fun when on a stick. We will be exploring sticks, skewers, hattelets (a favourite cooking style of Careme) in this meal: book here: £40 This may take place in the garden, if the weather is good. 

Saturday 12th of May: Jersey Royals supper club. Get the new crop, slathered in butter. Fresh from my visit to Jersey to see the growers, I'm going to experiment with these gorgeous nutty potatoes. £25

24th May: Talk at the Victoria and Albert museum: Social Media and the anti-restaurant. Details and link soon.

Secret Garden Club: 27th May: The three sisters, Cherokee companion planting. Take away a squash plant, sweet corn plant, climbing bean trio. Plus other companion planting tricks to keep insects at bay and make your plants happy.
£45 workshop and tea, will include cornbread
8th of June: Sainsburys lunch club. Available only to readers of Sainsburys Magazine.  

22nd June: BritMums Live! A two day conference. Keynote speaker: Sarah Brown plus Alison Pearson, Ruby Wax, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Maison Cupcake and me! Tickets here. 
Secret Garden Club: 24th June: Edible flowers: courgette, day lilies, elderflower, nasturtiums, marigolds, hibiscus, roses, learn to grow and cook them.
Class, elderflower cocktail, food and bouquet:£45

The Olympic Dinners:
27th July: Opening Ceremony Supper: Book here.
28th July: Olympic Dinner. Book here

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Book Review: Sweet peas for Summer

Zia and I went to Laetitia Maklouf's book launch on Monday night at Clifton Nursery in Maida Vale. Her book editor Katie Bond tottered on a bench in gold leather dancing shoes talking about "the best discovery of her life". Admiring the plants at a house party, Katie found out they were grown by Laetitia: "Could you write a book on gardening?" she asked.
Turns out the answer is a resounding yes. Sweet Peas for Summer is the story of the creation of a garden in one year. The book is beautifully designed and is approachable for beginners. There are great ideas such as Petunia bombs, growing Santolina to combat moths, making movable herb boxes . Along with the dirty fingernails and the inevitable creepy crawlies, Laetitia bestows glamour on gardening. This is a gardening book for the stylish. (All you proper gardening types, I have to confess, I have a deep horror of slugs, worms and snails, it's taken me years to learn not to shriek when I come across one. I'm not kidding. Every gardening hour you'd hear me screeching and hopping. Far from the peaceful idyll one imagines gardening to be, chez moi it was a tortuous scream fest. I'm better now.).
Sweet Peas for Summer is just my kind of gardening book. In fact I'd quite like to be Laetitia herself; she is beautiful, her husband is steal-worthy, her child is kidnappable, her linen drawer is incredibly organised and her house is no doubt gorgeous. Even her dad is covetable. He spent the launch impishly showering chocolate gold coins into women's handbags. He's an artist, he sculpted the bas-relief of the Queen's head on the pound coin and designed the Gibraltan currency.
As a cook, I loved the recipe for lilac jelly. I have a beautiful lilac tree in my garden and it's just starting to shoot. This book is inspirational.
Lilac buds in my garden

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Smoked out

The Secret Garden Club held its second smoking workshop on Sunday March 18: the notes that follow reflect the activities of the day and vary slightly from the blog post following the first smoking day in November 2011.

Smoking is a technique which imparts a distinctive flavour to food and can also change its texture slightly. Our ancestors smoked food for its preservative effect, and while food which has been smoked will take longer to go off, these days, it is for the smoke flavour plus any aromatics that may have been added to the smoke mix, that makes the food so delicious.

We looked at three different methods of smoking food during the afternoon. Tea-smoking uses a mix of sugar, rice and tea leaves which are heated until they smoulder to produce a fragrant smoke which both cooks and flavours food.

Hot-smoking over wood applies heat to wood chips in order to cook food and to flavour it more strongly. Cold smoking involves exposing food to cool smoke for a much longer period of time, from several hours to a couple of days and will both flavour and preserve food without cooking it.

Tea-smoking uses a mix of tea leaves, brown sugar, raw rice and optional aromatics as the smoking medium. With the mix set in a pan under a steamer, the smoke generated infuses foods in the steamer basket with a delicate, elusive tea-smoke flavour.

Secret Garden Club tea-smoking mix:

Half a (US) cup of tea leaves (about 4 tbsp)
Half a (US) cup of brown sugar (about 4 tbsp)
Half a (US) cup of raw long-grain rice (about tbsp)

Mix the ingredients together, then make a foil saucer that fits into the bottom of the base pan. Pour the smoking mixture on to the foil (this is to protect the pan itself from staining), set it over the heat and fit the steamer basket and lid.

The trout fillets were laid on the steamer basket just as the smoke began to curl upwards through the slats, and steamed for around 20 minutes. Times will vary and our fillets were quite chunky. With fish, remove from the smoker as soon as they are opaque all the way through so that they don't overcook. With tea-smoking, less is definitely more: over-smoke the food and you'll be left with a distinct aftertaste of fag packet.

Hot-smoking over wood applies direct heat to soaked woodchips so that they smoulder gently. The wood and the food are both in a sealed unit so that the heat and smoke permeate the food to cook and smoke it at the same time. You can use the same equipment as for tea-smoking, above, ideally on an outdoor cooker. The process will produce much more smoke than with tea-smoking, so if you do have to hot smoke over wood indoors, open all windows and doors first and turn up your extractor fan - although you will probably set off your smoke alarm even so.   

Important: when smoking food with any kind of wood, it is vitally important that the wood is raw, and untreated. Any sort of treatment, coating, glue or varnish will give off potentially toxic fumes when smoked - NOT what you want coating your food. If the wood you want to use has been cut with a chainsaw, beware - there could easily be oil residues on the wood from the chainsaw. It's highly satisfying to use wood that you have chopped or sourced yourself, but you must be 100% certain that the wood is free of any chemicals. 

We used a proprietary hot-smoker - very similar to this one - set up outside on the terrace. 

  • Sweet peppers, sliced in half and with seeds removed;
  • Lemons, cut in half;
  • Tofu, cut into thick slices and marinaded for two hours beforehand in soy sauce and maple syrup;
  • Sweetcorn, on the cob;
  • Halloumi cheese
These were all smoked over hickory chips for 25-30 minutes. It's well worth experimenting with different types of wood, so long as you stick to hardwoods. We were asked on Sunday about smoking with pine to get that distinctive resinated flavour. But pine, and also cedar, contain too much in the way of tars and resins to smoke successfully and can even ruin your smoker. Fruit woods, such as pear, apple, or cherry, are all popularly used for smoking. Oak, beech and hickory are also classic smoking woods.

Marinade for tofu
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp maple syrup
2 tsps olive oil

Half a teasp of English mustard 

Whisk all ingredients well together. This was also used to glaze the sweetcorn immediately prior to smoking.

Cold-smoking is the technique we associate most with fish (smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, smoked haddock) and meat (smoked bacon). However, it's also used to smoke cheese (such as applewood-smoked cheddar) and bulbs of garlic. When you expose food to cold, or cool, smoke, the food does not cook, although the smoke will penetrate the food more thoroughly than when hot-smoked. 

Fish (and meat) will need to be salted, or brined, before it is cold-smoked. To salt, say, a side of salmon, find a baking tray on which the salmon will fit  comfortably. Spread a layer of rock salt on the base of the tray.  Lay the salmon, skin side down on the rock salt, and cover completely with more salt. Other aromatics can be added as well: lemon slices, herbs, beetroot, some gin or vidka maybe. Now place a second baking tray on top of the salmon and salt, and weight it down by placing tins or full jars on the top. Slide the whole lot into the fridge and leave for 12-24 hours. 

Remove the salmon, reserving the salt mixture and drain away any liquid generated during this first salting. Turn the fish over on the rock salt base, so that it's now skin side up. Cover again with salt and aromatics (you may need more). Weight down again as before. Put the tray and salmon combo back in the fridge for another 12-24 hours.

Brining it creates a sweeter cure: make up a salt/sugar solution in cold water, completely immerse the fish in this and store, covered, in the fridge for around 8-12 hours. (Smaller fillets may take less time.)

Simple brine
100g brown sugar
75g salt
1 litre water

Plenty of other flavours can be added to this, eg, fennel, onions, garlic, herbs. Or go Asian with star anise, cinnamon, lemongrass or lime.

Once salted/brined, rinse the fish well to get rid of excess salt, then dry it, ideally for a couple of hours or so, in a cool, well-ventilated place. Only then it is ready to smoke. We also smoked Camembert cheese, salt, aubergines and garlic bulbs – these do not need brining or curing but can go straight into the cold smoker.

With cold-smoking, the challenge is to generate smoke that is cool when it reaches your food. The ideal temperature range in the smoker is between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit). If the temperature exceeds 37 degrees C (100 F), then the fish will get too warm. It will lose moisture and may start to cook.

An obvious way to do this is to burn your wood in one place, channel the smoke through piping so that it cools as it goes, and direct it into a smokehouse. But if you just want to try out some cold-smoking, this is quite a cumbersome operation. Remember also, your fire needs to burn wood only (see warnings about wood-burning, above), and your piping and smokehouse should be lined with non-reactive material.

A second solution is to generate the smoke from as small a heat source as possible. We used a ProQ smoke generator, available online from Mac's BBQ, and Amazon among other places, placed in the bottom of an ordinary kettle barbecue. If you don't have a deep barbecue, you could try making a smokehouse out of an old fridge, or a discarded filing cabinet (popular because the file rods are handy to hang fish fillets from), or even a cardboard box (while the smoke should be cool when it reaches the box, place the smoke generator itself on foil or something non-reactive and fireproof).

The ProQ is filled with smoke dust in a spiral pattern. The outer ring of the spiral is heated by a  small tealight which can then be removed when the wood dust starts to smoulder. It will continue to smoulder for up to ten hours. It's an effective, tidy way to generate cool smoke, although we found that it didn't always produce very much smoke. Two ProQ smoke generators would probably be ideal, but expensive.

If you don't want to shell out for commercial kit straightaway, try the tin + soldering iron method instead. For this you need a deep container, again such as a kettle barbecue, a soldering iron, an empty 400g food tin, and your woodchips. For this method you'll also need access to a power supply.

Important: the soldering iron must have no solder on it AT ALL. You do not want smouldering lead contaminating your woodsmoke. Ideally, buy a new soldering iron for about a tenner and use it exclusively for cold-smoking.
Also note: many food tins these days, especially supermarket own-brand cans, are lined with a plastic coating. You should use an unlined tin - Baxter's soup cans are unlined, for example.

Before you empty the contents of the tin, make a hole in it at the top end (we used a sharpening steel and a hammer), opposite the ring-pull if there is one. The hole needs to be just big enough to fit the tip and arm of the soldering iron. This is much easier to do when the tin is full; the lid tends to buckle and collapse if you empty the contents first. Wash out the tin, and let it dry.

Using the ring-pull, carefully peel back the lid of the tin about half way. Fill just over half the tin with your wood chips. Close the lid as far as possible, then push the soldering iron through the hole so that it’s fully inserted in the tin and the arm is in direct contact with the woodchips. 

Put the tin with the soldering iron inserted in the bottom of the barbecue. Lay the food to be smoked on silver foil on the top rack. Carefull trail the soldering iron's cable out of the barbecue and plug into the power supply. Place the lid on the barbecue as tightly as possible allowing for the fact that the soldering iron cable will prevent it from closing fully. Switch on the power to the extension cable. You should start to see wisps of smoke emerge from under the lid within 5 mins.

With the soldering iron and tin at the bottom of the barbecue and the food laid out at the top, the smoke around the food should stay cool enough to cold smoke properly. If you have an outdoor thermometer, it's a good idea to place it on the rack next to the food, so that you can check the temperature regularly. On a sunny day, the outside temperature may heat up the interior of the barbecue. If you do see the temperature rising much above 30 degrees, slide a bag of ice into the bottom of the barbecue next to the tin of woodchips. This should bring the temperature down to the safe range and keep it there.

While the woodchip tin is smoking, prepare a second one. The tins will last about 90 mins to 2 hours, so, when the first is exhausted, unplug the soldering iron, remove it and the tin from the barbecue, and switch the soldering iron from tin 1 to tin 2. Tin 1 can now be emptied and reused.

Smoking workshop March 2012

Rum punch with smoked lemons

Smoked trout salad
Halloumi salad with tomatoes
Smoked marinaded tofu
Smoked red peppers
Smoked sweetcorn
Smoked aubergine curry
Selection of smoked cheeses

Conversation, Catherine and the Caribbean

Catherine gave me this rustic nutmeg grater from Dominica. I have a fetish for foreign kitchenalia.
Catherine Phipps in the kitchen
Prep list

My supper club with Catherine Phipps, cooking Dominican food, proved that Caribbean cookery is about more than jerk chicken. I discovered Bread Fruit, which, when roasted till blackened on the outside, infused the house with the signature smell of Dominica, a mixture of charcoal and marijuana. I also discovered Christophene, a fresh tasting gourd family plant, also known as the Chayote or Cho-Cho, which can be eaten raw or cooked. Catherine decided to prepare a gratin from Christophene, par-boiled then sliced into an oven dish, dotted with ginger butter then baked. I already knew salt fish, and the fritters were popular with the guests, along with a dipping sauce of Scotch Bonnet jelly with red wine. I must confess, I'm still not keen on salt fish however.
Bread fruit being roasted on top of the Aga. Ideally it would be done over a fire.
Salt fish fritters
My contribution amounted to trying to remember two Caribbean dishes. The first, a coconut and ginger sphere the size of a tennis ball, bought for a pound at Notting Hill carnival years ago. The stallholder who made and sold these, I never found her again, despite repeated searches each year. I remember the sweet gingery fudge around the gleaming half moons of fresh sticky coconut flesh. Catherine knew this dish as Coconut Ginger Candy Drops, as did one of the guests who originated in Montserrat, another Caribbean island, where the coconut was grated finely. It's funny the tricks that memory can play when trying to reproduce a souvenir of flavour and texture. I also tried to make caramel from brown sugar. Usually the thermometer must reach 160º to achieve caramel, just after the hard crack stage. Brown sugar, however, and I tried twice, would burn, literally in an instant, at 150º, remaining at the hard crack stage. Brown and white sugar clearly cook differently. Any readers with technical knowledge of sugar please add your comments below. It's time like this I wish I could afford cookery school.
My other 'recovered memory' dish, from an old friend and Hackney squatter who was a brilliant cook, who I have lost touch with, was plantain fritters with green chillies. Catherine suggested unripe plantains and we duly peeled, chopped, boiled and mashed the fruit. The resulting fritters however were lumpen, dull and tasteless. I didn't serve them. I will try them again with ripe plantains.
Diced plantain
Catherine and I, being good friends, decided to sit down on Saturday afternoon for a bit of lunch and a natter. Our talk ranged from the curious fact that both of us have the surname 'Cook' in our family tree to the links between incest and osteoporosis. Mistake! Next thing we knew it was 6 o'clock and we were running late. It meant that when the first guests arrived, the cocktails weren't ready, Catherine had no makeup on, I smelt of chip oil and wore crocs for the night. I also realised, not for the first time, that I am not numerate. I counted 17 guests and in fact there were 18. The last two arrived late and they would have had to sit apart from each other. One of them objected and walked out, even after I had persuaded all the seated guests to move down one place to fit her in. 
The rum cocktails were a hit; along with hibiscus juice, and a traditional Planters punch, we served a lime, cinnamon and nutmeg punch. Caribbean tonic water is much sweeter than British so we hit upon the perfect recipe: half tonic, half lemonade. Catherine plans to write a Caribbean cookery book so this kind of on the job testing that a supper club makes possible is helpful.
Lime, cinnamon rum punch with a grating of nutmeg on top. 
The traditional Planter's Punch is with Seville oranges (which are more bitter) but I used blood oranges. It was perhaps not as accurate but it was darn good. You feel like you are on holiday just drinking it.
For the coconut callaloo (spinach) and plantain soup, we added something strange: palm nut purée, used in soups in Ghanaian cookery. It was more of a texture than a taste but not unpleasant. 
Stuffed crab back with parmesan and breadcrumbs
The crab backs were raved about by the guests, as was the soup and the trio of desserts (mini pavlovas with ginger marinated mango, ginger cake and home-made rum and raisin icecream). 

We used dark orange mangos(probably from Pakistan) and marinated them in grated ginger and sugar syrup. It's best to use a non-fibrous kind if possible. There are different kinds of mango; each one has a distinct flavour and texture.
It's worth making your own rum and raisin icecream. I only had currants, which I marinated in a whole bottle of dark rum until they were bulging with alcohol and syrup.
Coconut is so good for you, even though it contains saturated fats, but the good sort. We added the fresh milk to the black-eyed peas, one of my favourite dishes of the night. You don't need to soak black-eyed peas plus, tip from Catherine Phipps whose book on pressure cooking will be out in September, they only take 12 minutes to cook in the pressure cooker. During this meal I also discovered coconut oil which is marvellous for frying. The next day I made a smoked aubergine and tomato curry, starting it off with coconut oil.

Kerstin/MsMarmite: Well, we managed to pull that off. How are you feeling?

Catherine Phipps: Relieved! I'd forgotten how nerve-wracking it can be, cooking for people who are actually *paying*. Brought back memories of the first time I had sole charge of the kitchen when I was working in Dominica - part of me just wanted to burst into tears/run away and hide! However, there's nothing like getting through service, knowing everyone's enjoyed their food and are happy. After a while, you just get into the rhythm of it, must be quite different from running a supperclub, when you are doing weekly/bi weekly meals. 

What do you feel was the most successful dish?

The crab backs I think, despite the lack of basil! Most people seemed to enjoy them and they're so easy to make. My personal favourite was the salad though. People associate green papaya salad with the Far East, but they're just as popular in the Caribbean. We had so many, we were always looking for ways to use them up so adapting Som Tam made a lot of sense - it's still distinctively Caribbean because the heat comes from Scotch Bonnets.What did you think worked best?

Sorry about the basil! I loved the christophene gratin with ginger butter and the black eyed peas in coconut. 
What was the least successful? Or one you'd like to tweak? I'm thinking of how our cocktail testing resulted in honing the recipe for the lime, cinnamon punch when made in Britain.

I know you didn't like the salt fish fritters - they're a bit love/hate! I'll try you on a couple of other salt fish recipes before I give up on you....ever tried saltfish and ackee? Or in a soup - it softens much more.....Talking about the cocktails - they have an extremely sweet tooth in the Caribbean. Their tonic water is so sweet you'd be hard pressed distinguishing it from lemonade. I once bought a pile of Schweppes on one of the rare occasions it was available in a Roseau supermarket, only to realise it was made on one of the islands to a completely different, much sweeter recipe. So our tonic makes the cinnamon/lime punch very sour. I like it, but combining tonic and lemonade made it much more authentic. It didn't occur to me that it was a hot weather drink! 

Do you feel that we managed to change perceptions of Caribbean food?

I was surprised at the number of people who said they were eating food completely unfamiliar to them, so I suppose we must have done. I don't see the flavours as being unusual - ginger, lime, garlic, scotch bonnet and thyme, all the spices, are all common here, I suppose it's what I did with them. I know you said the ginger butter was a new one for you....I guess a lot of people here equate Caribbean food with Jamaican - lots of jerk, curry goat etc., saltfish and ackee - lovely food when done well, but there's a lot more to Caribbean food than that. We've barely scratched the surface. 

Highlight of the evening?

The lovely man from Jamaica/Montserrat whispering that it was better than his mother's and grandmother's food! 

He was a sweetheart and very stylish too. Any thoughts on the experience of doing a supper club? 

I like the creative aspect of it - all your different themed dinners, how far you can push your ideas - completely different from a restaurant. I don't think I'd find it easy opening up my own home. We were talking about shyness, weren't we? The more I do this job, the more I realise I need to be more extravert and can't hide in the kitchen for ever. If I had to go out and do a talk for the guests before starting on the food as you do, I don't think the food would ever be up to scratch because I'd be too stressed and worried!

It's funny, at first I just thought I could hide in the kitchen but then I realised people want to meet the hosts/cooks. Now I really enjoy the talk at the beginning, where I explain the creative process behind the menu. It's been good practice for public speaking in general.
For me I loved learning about Caribbean food and exotic vegetables such as breadfruit and christophene. The palmnut puree was pretty freaky too, although that is more Ghanaian. I can't resist, when I see something new in a shop, checking it out.

I know - I'm in total agreement with you about how you learn more about a country/culture by visiting its markets and supermarkets - it's my favourite thing to do when I'm away, and London has rich pickings too.
Thanks Catherine, for sharing your love of Caribbean food with myself and my guests. I'm looking forward to your cookbook!

Mango painting by Margaret Rodgers

Friday, 16 March 2012

Take up smoking - again!

Sunday’s Secret Garden Club afternoon sees us return to the subject of smoking. Adding smoke to food gives it a delicious flavour and aroma, redolent of barbecues and the great outdoors. It doesn’t need specialist equipment: if you barbecue, you can smoke.

We’ll look at three different ways to smoke food  - from delicate tea-smoked fish, to a range of vegetables hot-smoked over wood chips, to cold smoking and how to rig up a cold smoker in your own back garden for a very small outlay.
MsMarmiteLover has promised to mix her acclaimed smoked lemon cocktails again to kick-start the afternoon, and we’ll finish with an afternoon tea inspired by our smoky ventures.

There will be plenty of time to chat and discuss the best way to set up a smoker and various techniques and foods to try.
Some of the food we’ll be smoking include:

  • Aubergines – hot-smoked for a distinctive char-grilled flavour;
  • Cheese – different varieties can be smoked with some very distinctive effects;
  • Garlic –smoked garlic can be used in place of ordinary cloves to add smoky notes;
  • Jalapeno chillies – smoked and dried chillies are known as chipotles and are used in Mexican cuisine;
  • Lemons – you haven’t lived until you’ve tried one of MsMarmiteLover’s smoked lemon cocktails;
  • Peppers – smoking brings out their sweetness;
  • Salmon – once you’ve tried your own home-cured, home-smoked salmon, you’ll never want shop-bought again;
  • Salt - gourmet seasoning;
  • Sweetcorn – marinaded and hot-smoked for a barbecue style dish;
  • Tofu – marinaded first for sweetness and to retain its softness, then hot-smoked ;
  • Tomatoes – tea-smoked to bring out their essential flavours;
  • Trout fillets – smoked over leaves of Lapsang Souchong tea for a delicate, elusive taste.

 Join us on Sunday March 18th, starting at 2.00pm. Booking details are here.