Monday, 30 December 2013

How to look good at a dinner party: beauty tips for hostesses and guests

 Bare shoulders, fake fur and Pat Butcher earrings, now that's hostessing Fanny-style.
I love the combo of the stiff 50s perm with the relaxed 70s pink kaftan with gold accessories. But big sleeves when cooking? What were you thinking Fanny?

My grooming role models are Fanny Cradock and Carol Channing. Find out more on how to look good when hostessing or being a guest at a dinner party by going to my guest post on  beauty site by Guardian beauty columnist Sali Hughes.
As for my rejuvenating skin care regime, chip fat vapour does the job admirably. 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Top ten places for food shopping in London

The entire country is out there, frantically packed into supermarkets, jamming up the car parks, tossing food and drink into their shopping trolleys, for the winter feast that is Christmas. In this post, I want to suggest a few alternatives. As a Londoner, I can only speak for London shops, but I'd love readers to suggest other fantastic shops, in London and elsewhere in the UK in the comments. These are my picks, not just for Christmas but any time of the year.
My advice when visiting these shops is to make a day of it. Have lunch there or nearby. Take big shopping bags and fill them with new exciting bottles and jars, exotic cookware, strange fruits. Generally they are so cheap that if you don't like it, it's no big deal. Talk to the shop keepers, ask questions, hell, I chat to the other customers, especially housewives who look like they have experience of cooking dinner for a large family for several decades. 


Lina stores in Soho. Beautiful shop with pale green tiles, friendly knowledgeable service.
Clerkenwell used to be the Little Italy in London. Between 1880 and the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Italians moved here, including my great grandparents. My great grandfather worked for Carlo Gatti's icecream makers. (My parents still live in Clerkenwell.) The clown Grimaldi also lived in Clerkenwell and has a blue plaque. There is an annual Italian festival in the area, centred around the Italian church, with swaying processions and statues of the Virgin Mary. More Little Italy history here.
In Clerkenwell, I recommend the Italian shop Gazzano's,  known for Puglia bread.The shelves are a treasure trove of Italian foods. My parents shop there every week.
Also the vintage Continental Stores down the road in Kings Cross. Run by an elderly couple, they don't have a great deal of stock by modern day standards, but it's worth visiting just for the shop front. Unfortunately this is now closed. :(
Online Italian shopping:
Try this new company. Delicatezza, they sell fresh UK made burrata, bottarga and unusual stripey tortellini.

Food Halls:

Fortnum and Mason. Piccadilly.
It's 300 years old, started by a royal footman from a spare room in his house, it eventually expanded into the most beautiful food shop, possibly in the world. It is not as expensive as you'd think. I once bought some heritage potatoes at Borough market, then discovered they were cheaper at Fortnums. It's a pleasure to enter this old-fashioned food hall, with exquisitely packaged products, many of which are 'own brand', and frock-coated shop assistants. There is nowhere else like it. Interestingly, they employ an archivist on site and have bee hives on the roof in their company colours.
Selfridges, Oxford st:
It has become more adventurous, food-wise, over the last decade, bringing in people like Bompas and Parr to do food and drink installations on the roof, commissioning stunning foodie window displays and housing boutique restaurants. And of course, a fantastic spread of some of the most interesting food products from all over the world plus an essential selection of American foods.


Broadway market, Saturdays, London Fields
I feel very envious of those living in Hackney having access to this now trendy but authentic street market. It's actually quite recent, in the last five years, that it's become a place to go. When I was squatting in London Fields pool in 2002-5, there wasn't much happening yet. Cheaper than Borough and less corporate, it is the testing ground of many a famed street food producer including banhmi sandwiches, artisanally smoked salmon, Violet cakes to name but a few.
Borough Market, London Bridge
This was the first revival of the artisanal food markets,  but a victim of its success, and far too touristy on Fridays and Saturdays. Best go on a Thursday. Still got Neal's Yard Dairy though, the best place for British cheeses, selling also Irish tea and Maggie Beer's verjuice. Go early to Neal's Yard, the queues at this time of year are horrendous.
Portobello Road Market, Ladbroke grove tube.
Mixed among the tourists and the Notting Hill set, this market remains a true working class street market, with hard as nails women (fake tans, plucked eyebrows, backcombed hair, glamour under their quilted jackets, these ladies are impervious to all weathers) shouting out bargains in authentic cockney. A wonderful mushroom man at the end, good fresh produce, some cheap deals to be had on cheese and chocolates.
Ridley Road Market: Dalston junction.
Turkish, Jewish and Caribbean foods, very cheap, a good bagel shop and a large branch of PartyParty.
Brixton Market:
Not just the market but also the arcades of hip Brixton village, a jumble of inexpensive exotic foreign produce, 'jungle' meat, fresh produce and tiny (in size and menu) restaurants on their first stepping stone from supper club or street food stall to high street domination. It's the other end of London for me, so I rarely go but well worth a visit.

Asian food:

Wing Yip, Cricklewood.
This family run emporium started in Manchester and has a large branch in Cricklewood, near Staples Corner. Hence it's only, realistically, reachable by car but they do also have online shopping. On Sundays this place is buzzing, with food tastings and a crowded restaurant. The prices are fantastically cheap and the staff are helpful. They even pack your bags for you. There is a wholesale section at the back, useful for buying in bulk. They also sell some Chinese cookware and tableware. The whole place smells faintly of Durian fruit, but sweetly not in a stinky-feet way. I love coming here, it's an interesting trip in itself as you'll discover new foods.
There is a whole street of Chinese supermarkets. You find some weird stuff there. I wish they had food demonstrations and more English language explanations of some of the stranger products like the little black nuts (?) that look like vampires.
Mare Street:
After visiting Broadway market, you could graze around the Vietnamese supermarkets such as the Le Mi Supermarket and Video Store on Mare St.
Japan Centre, Shaftesbury Avenue:
Bloody expensive but intriguing with great quality sushi which you can eat in or takeaway. Try the soft texture tofu which is like cream, flown over from Japan. Excellent vegetable peelers for sale and loose leaf Japanese tea.
Natural Natural, Finchley Rd and Ealing Common
I go to this Japanese shop as it's near me. The staff are very sweet and helpful, they have a cartoony notice saying 'How do you eat these things? We are always happy to help you, from the natural natural staff'. On the fruit and veg stall outside, you can buy fresh burdock and lotus root plus everything is very carefully wrapped as if it were precious, even single carrots. In the chiller there is a large selection of fresh tofu in different textures from super silky to extra firm.

Middle Eastern food:

Persepolis, Peckham 
You will most likely be served by a flame haired woman, a cookbook author named Sally Butcher. I spent a day there helping out, which was great fun. Sally will happily talk about the food they sell and  can speak fluent Persian. People travel from all over the UK and Europe to buy their authentic imported Iranian foods, especially the flown-in pastries. A little counter, selling some of Sally's food, is in the back.
Edgware road:
Plenty of fascinating food shops, all very good value, in this area which has become London's Little Arabia. Green Valley supermarket is one good name that is bandied about. Afterwards you can dip into one of the cafés, have a mint tea or strong silty coffee and smoke a fruit tobacco hookah.


V and B supermarket (Wembley and Southall)
I can spend hours here, photographing and taking notes: the sugar loaves, the open vats of pickle, the fresh spices. This whole area is worth a half day of your time: enamel bowls, bargain large saucepans for bulk cooking, chaat stalls, fresh 'tinda' (Indian pumpkins), dirt cheap buckets of creamy yoghurt, green curry leaves, thin wooden chapati rolling pins. You feel like you have travelled to India. Heaven.
Bangladeshi food shopping: find clay pots of date syrup, terracotta dishes of sweet yellow yoghurt, Bengladeshi lemons, big knobbly fragrant green things, large half crescents of green black beans, saffron hued betel nuts are to be found in the stalls and supermarkets just outside of Whitechapel tube.

Eastern European/Kurdish:

Where2save 352-354 Kilburn High Rd and Harlesden.
We used to have Food World in Kilburn, a treasure trove of unusual foods from around the world, crammed into one shabby supermarket. The landlord wanted to triple the rent so this local resource disappeared. Never mind! We now have Where2save a few doors up. Run by Kurds, this small shop is expanding every year. The range of their products, compared to a conventional supermarket, is impressive. How do you compete with the supermarkets? I asked the owner. By making sure that we stock different products to the big four, he replied. Their fruit and veg stall outside has fresh, good quality produce that puts supermarkets to shame. Every time I visit, I try a new Eastern European dairy product, or Brazilian tempera or one of the huge selection of inexpensive nuts. If I want a chowchow, some Georgian-style green plums, Turkish 'sultana' grapes, chervil, some tiny Indian limes for pickling, sour cherry fruit leather, this is where I go.
Speaking of Kilburn, a reader on Twitter has mentioned that Bestco supermarket is good. This is true, I've often found unusual foodstuffs there, including uncured olives. It has a wide selection of Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Brazilian and African foods. It's open 24/7.


Newington Green, Newington Green, Islington.
Not only do they have super fresh, unusual fruit and veg, they use any spoiled or leftover fruit to make their own jams, chutneys and pickles (see comment below however). Extremely helpful staff who will carry to your car. An emotional paean to this shop is written by my fellow blogger Rocket & Squash.
Clifton Greens, owned by the same people but in Maida Vale. I bought some great food there, such as preserved mandarins in jars and fresh jalapeño peppers.
Andreas Veg in Chelsea,  probably the best quality fruit and vegetables in London. This is where the stars shop.

Caribbean food:

Blue Mountain Peak, Harlesden:
My Caribbean friends make the journey to this shop in murder mile in Harlesden to get authentic products. They've just gone online too, so everyone can order from them.
Hackney, Dalston and Brixton are also good areas for Caribbean food.


Casa Mexico is a beautiful shop in the East End run by a friendly older couple who live half the time in Mexico. I spent a small fortune there for my New Year's Eve supper club. Here you can buy packs of corn husks for tamales, pinatas, imported tequila, large packets of dried pasilla chillies, mole, blue masa and giant black stone molcajetes for grinding your corn like a Mexican grandmother. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

That old chestnut

 "According to tradition a chestnut-tree...snared passing travellers in its branches and sucked away their blood".
  The Dream-hunters of Corsica, Dorothy Carrington

The most irritating thing about chestnuts is their two skins: the brown shiny shell and the pellicule, unpleasant, furry and astringent. The outer skin is no problem to remove but the inner skin is a bugger: hours winkling the flesh from the brain-like folds.

I've tried several techniques in my quest to painlessly prepare a fresh chestnut for eating. First you cut the shell on the flat side with an 'x'. Having extensively perused the internet, here are some of the methods suggested:
  • Soaking for 15 minutes then roasting
  • Soaking for 24 hours then roasting
  • Boiling for 7.5 minutes EXACTLY then peeling
  • Soaking for 24 hours then roasting and peeling the outer skin then rubbing the inner skin with a tea towel 
  • Soaking for 12 hours then roasting then microwaving for 3.5 minutes
The last technique worked the best. But a further difficulty lies in retaining the velvety texture of the most delicious sweet chestnuts while avoiding the leathery hide that can so often occur.
Chestnuts, unlike most nuts, have no fat and contain mostly carbohydrate. Again, unlike other nuts, chestnuts contain vitamin C. It also contains minerals such as zinc, potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and phosphorus. You can extract sugar from them, just as you can from beets, you can even extract oil, not that I've ever come across chestnut oil
The difference between horse chestnuts (conkers) and sweet edible chestnuts is the point on the nut. Horse chestnuts are round and smooth without a pointed tip. Horse chestnuts are easily found on the ground precisely because they are toxic and not even animals want to eat them.

Chestnuts can be boiled, roasted, ground into flour, candied and puréed. You can buy them fresh, dried, vacuum packed or whole, in a tin.
The trees grow well around the Mediterranean and are popular in both savoury and sweet European food. Chestnuts and acorns, which I recently bought in Portugal, are some of the oldest foods known to mankind. Acorns are bitter in comparison and require much leaching in order to be digestible and non-toxic.
Chestnuts are also popular in Japan, it is their oldest fruit, used in some classic Japanese dishes. They like to steam them with sushi rice combined with mirin and soy sauce.
Chestnut trees, sometimes known as the 'bread tree', are some of the oldest and largest trees in the world. There are famous chestnut trees such as the one in Amsterdam mentioned in Anne Frank's diary.
"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs," she wrote on February 23rd, 1944. "From my favourite spot on the floor I can look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind."
Her tree rotted and blew down in a storm in 2010. 
There is another in Sicily (note to self: must get to Sicily) called the Hundred Horse chestnut which is about 4000 years old, as wide as a giant's cummerbund and was so-called because a hundred strong horseback Aragonese army took refuge beneath during a storm.
Fresh European chestnuts, dried chestnuts, chestnut flour, smoked chestnut flour. Some of these I bought at the chestnut museum in Alentejo, Portugal
My favourite things to do with chestnuts: 
  • Roast them and eat them, sprinkled with a little sea salt, their cracked skins nestling hotly in a cone of paper
  • Roast them and eat them dipped in a fondue of chocolate, Catalan style
  • Make one of my favourite desserts 'Mont Blanc' whipped cream, meringues and a sweet turd of creme de marrons from Clement Faugier (love their tins) 
  • Chestnut soup
  • Chestnut stuffing
  • Chestnuts with brussel sprouts
  • Chestnut flour cakes, beautifully matched with chocolate
  • and, most of all, marrons glacés
This last week I've been attempting to make marrons glacés. This is not for the faint of heart even for those of us motivated by the sheer cost of shop-bought, which is currently at almost £4 each, yes EACH. But having made them myself I now understand why they are so expensive. Aside from the snail-paced preparations, the double skinning, you must then boil them up in a vanilla and sugar syrup at least four times, once a day.
I tried to make them with ready-peeled tinned chestnuts, this didn't work, the texture was leathery. So fresh sweet chestnuts, Castanea Sativa, is the only option. Choose the largest ones you can find and make more than necessary as some will break up during the glaçage. Make sure the chestnuts are firm, fresh and unmouldy or wormy.
Marrons glacés in vanilla sugar syrup
Marrons Glacé recipe

20 large chestnuts
500g caster sugar
300ml water
1 vanilla bean

Soak the chestnuts in boiling water, letting it cool, overnight. Drain the chestnuts.
Slit a cross, trying to piece both skins but not the chestnuts (I know, impossible) on the flat side.
Then roast the chestnuts in a frying pan, in the oven or on a special chestnut pan until lightly blackened with the 'cross' starting to peel back.
Then remove them from the heat and microwave them for 3.5 minutes.
Then spend a long time peeling both the shell and the skin. Some you get lucky with and can peel in one piece. Others require fingernails and patience.
Prepare your sugar syrup:
You'll need a medium heavy bottomed sauce pan, add the sugar, water and vanilla bean and heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the peeled chestnuts and cook for about five minutes. 
Take the pan off the heat and leave the chestnuts to cool and soak up the syrup until the next day.
Repeat this process four times over four days. 
By the end the chestnuts should have soaked up all the syrup. 
The last time, at the end of the cooking, remove the chestnuts and place them on a baking tin lined with parchment paper or silicone mat. Leave them to dry. 
Then place the chestnuts in a pretty box. This is another Christmas edible gift and it really is a labour of love.

Roasted red pepper and chestnut soup recipe

Serves 4

3 red peppers
1 large brown onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Olive oil for frying
15 chestnuts, soaked, roasted, peeled
750ml of hot vegetable stock
A squeeze of lemon juice
Smoked salt to garnish (optional)
A drizzle of truffle oil (optional)

Preheat your oven to 180ºc.
Dice the onion and mince the garlic.
Put the red peppers on a baking tin in the oven, whole, and leave to roast until the skins are puffy and blackened. This takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
Using a frying pan on a medium heat, soften the onion and garlic in the olive oil, don't allow them to get burnt. Once these are cooked, take off the heat and set aside until the peppers are roasted.
Once the peppers are sufficiently roasted (this means that all the skin will come off easily), take the red peppers out of the oven and carefully, with asbestos fingers, remove all the skin, the stalk and the seeds.
Using a powerful blender, I used a Vitamix, put in the onion/garlic mix with the oil from the pan, the red peppers with their cooking juices, the hot vegetable stock and the chestnuts. Whizz on high until it is a thick soft soup.
Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice, some smoked salt and some truffle oil, if you have it.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Homemade Christmas recipes which can be given as gifts

When it comes to adults at Christmas, you rather feel, what present can I give this person that they don't already have? Unless you have lots of money and can give them a car, a computer or a holiday, it's difficult. If they like cooking then you can look at my Christmas gift lists for foodies: kitchen items or books.But if you have less money and more time, people will appreciate home-made food gifts. I usually make up a hamper from my pantry along with some freshly made Christmas treats. This year I will give my parents, for instance, home-made preserved lemons, some Marmite Christmas tree biscuits, home-made Creme de Cassis (recipe in my next book), poached pears in white wine and saffron and home-made sweets, all beribboned and labelled in attractive jars.
To present these recipes below, you'll need packaging materials such as coloured tissue paper or parchment paper, a box and some ribbon or pretty coloured twine.
Learn how to make these confectioneries and more at the 'patisserie fine' class at Madame Gautier's Cookery school 'La Technique' in West London (near Willesden Junction). They have classes in Christmas cookery 'Fete de Noel' and other classical French techniques. Prices range from £45 to £120 per class including all ingredients. You take home a generous bag of your creations.

Chocolate truffles
These couldn't be easier and frankly taste nicer than many of the mass-produced chocolate selections you find in the supermarkets. (My pet Christmas hate, those enormous crates boxes of chocolates you find in France, all of which have the same praliné centre. Yawn). This is a nice morning activity to do with children, they will enjoy getting mucky (and I'm sure quite a bit of finger licking will take place). Make one or all of the centres, let them set then prepare several bowls of different coverings.

For the chocolate truffle centres you'll need a shallow Tupperware/plastic container approximately 20cm x 10cm for setting the ganache.
Here are dark, white and milk chocolate ganaches mixed with different flavourings but feel free to mix and match, replace orange with lemon zest, or Baileys with Kahlua, ginger with finely grated lemon grass.

Dark Chocolate and Ginger:

300ml double cream
100g stem ginger, chopped finely
300g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
30g unsalted butter, cubed

Add the ginger to the cream.
Bring the cream to the boil, remove the pan from the heat and, whisking briskly, add the chocolate to the cream. Stir until all the chocolate is melted, smooth and shiny.
Whisk in the butter until amalgamated.
Pour into your Tupperware container and allow to set in the fridge, for approximately three hours.

White chocolate and Baileys:

100ml double cream
40ml Baileys
300g white chocolate, good quality, broken into small pieces
15g unsalted butter, diced

Heat the cream and the Baileys in a small heavy bottomed saucepan. Once hot, remove from the stove and whisk in all of the chocolate until melted. Then add the butter and whisk in until completely incorporated. Pour into the plastic container, allow to set in the fridge, for approximately three hours.

Milk chocolate and Orange:

Zest of 1 orange
200ml double cream
325g milk chocolate, good quality, broken into small pieces
25g unsalted butter, diced

Zest the orange, avoiding the white pitch which is the bitter part. Add the zest to the cream and bring to the boil. Once hot, remove the pan from the stove and briskly whisk the chocolate into the cream, until it is melted. Then whisk in the butter until melted. Pour into the plastic container, allow to set in the fridge, for approximately three hours.

Prepare your coverings for your truffles. I used edible glitter, dessicated coconut, ground pink peppercorns, powdered dehydrated raspberry, chocolate sprinkles, icing sugar and cocoa powder. You could also use ground nuts such as hazelnuts or almonds, or nibbed pistachios.
Prepare several bowls with the powders, remove the chocolate ganaches from the fridge.
Using a sharp teaspoon, small ice cream scoop or melon baller, scoop out a 2cm sphere from your ganache. You could use your hands (keep them cool and dry) to pat the ganache into a round shape. Then roll the truffle into the powdered covering of your choice.
Have a box ready, lined with pretty paper or a doily, and tuck in your home-made chocolates once they are rolled and dusted.

A marshmallow is basically an Italian meringue set with gelatine. It used to be made from the sap of the mallow plant, considered to be medicinal. One of these days I'm going to try to make them with mallow root. Here is a recipe with honey and mallow. You can cut these into squares or use sharp biscuit cutters in star shapes, Christmas tree shapes or snowflake shapes to cut them out. Dust liberally with icing sugar.
20cm x 40cm baking tray or plastic container.
Parchment paper/silicone paper
Digital thermometer
Electric whisk or stand mixer with whisk attachment.

400g caster sugar
13 platinum or bronze leaves of gelatine
(or 6 level teaspoons of gelatine powder, I tend to use leaves however)
Water to cover the gelatine leaves
2 egg whites
2 tsp rose water
A dab of pink food colouring paste

1 tsp vanilla extract for plain vanilla
40g cocoa powder for chocolate ones
1 tsp lemon extract plus yellow food colouring
other flavourings plus food colouring, the possibilities are endless.

Icing sugar to dust

Line a small baking tray or Tupperware box (approximately 20 x 40cms) with parchment paper/silicone paper.
Pour the sugar into a medium heavy bottomed saucepan. Add enough water so that the sugar has a wet sand consistency. Heat until the sugar turns into syrup, shake the pan rather than stir. Place the lid on (condensation) or brush the sides with water so that the sugar does not crystallise. When your syrup reaches 125ºc, it will be ready. This will take about 10 minutes but keep an eye.
Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water. They will take a few minutes to soften.
Start to whisk your egg whites until stiff then add the softened gelatine leaves until they are entirely incorporated, no lumpy bits.
The syrup should be ready so add the rose water or other flavouring. Then pour it into the egg whites but not directly in, direct it to the sides of the bowl with the whisk still going, you don't want the egg whites to cook.
Add the food colouring if using until you achieve the colour you would like. Keep whisking until the mixture is thick and glossy then pour it into the prepared baking tray or plastic container.
Chill it in the fridge for two hours.
Once firm and cool, cut it up with a well oiled knife or use oiled cutters for shapes.
Put your icing sugar or say, cocoa powder into a shallow dish and coat the marshmallows well.
These will last a couple of weeks.

Paté de fruits

I've never made these before and can see myself experimenting with all kinds of flavours and alcohols. These are vegan. There are some unusual ingredients here (pectin, glucose syrup and citric acid) but it's worth buying them for future use, as they don't cost much, don't go off and you can use them for many other recipes.
A digital thermometer
A plastic container 10 x 20cm

12g yellow pectin (available online at uk or at Melbury and Appleton)
50g caster sugar
500g blackcurrant purée (you can either buy this ready-made or make your own) or other flavour
500g caster sugar
70g glucose syrup (Dr Oetker liquid glucose is available from the baking section of most supermarkets)
3g citric acid (available at Lakeland or Asian food stores)

100g granulated sugar to dust.

Mix the pectin and the 50g of caster sugar together in a small bowl or cup. Have this next to your hob.
Heat the puree in a heavy bottomed medium saucepan to medium hot then whisk in the pectin and sugar. Bring to the boil and tip in the 500g of caster sugar and the glucose syrup. Bring to 107ºc and continue to boil at that temperature for a few minutes, until the mixture appears to be thicker than jam.
Turn off the heat and add the citric acid, then pour into your prepared plastic container to set. Chill in the fridge, then unmould from the box and cut into cubes.
Pour granulated sugar into a shallow dish and dust the cubes liberally with the sugar.

To make fruit purée, such as blackcurrant puree, blend 500g of clean blackcurrants (frozen if not in season) with 100g caster sugar and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. Then push through a sieve to remove all the seeds. This will keep in the freezer for three months.

With thanks to Madame Gautier cookery school.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Food books to buy this christmas

Here are my annual christmas picks. Click on the title for a link to buy online. May I also draw your attention to my summer list of food books that I recommend? 
Books for fans of Vietnamese cooking:
My Vietnamese Kitchen by Uyen Luu (Ryland, Peters)
This is possibly the prettiest book of the year. Uyen Luu, a supper club hostess of Vietnamese origin, came here as a boat refugee and settled in Hackney where her supper club is located. Interesting, detailed recipes and a vivid insight into Vietnamese culture and family. She styled the photos in this book so she is multi-talented. Props also to photographer Clare Winfield. RRP: £16.99
Things I'd like to cook:
Mustard greens and tofu broth
Fresh rolls with mackerel ceviche

The Vietnamese market cookbook by Van Tran and Anh Vu (Square Peg)

This book is quite good, but doesn't have the soul and depth of Uyen's book. In contrast to Uyen's hard-scrabble upbringing, the girls that wrote this are clearly extremely privileged, studying in New York and at Oxford University before dabbling in food. To give them credit though, they did kick off the Bahn Mi sarnie trend from their street food stall in Hackney, London. The look: not a great cover, and quite sparse, boring photos by Yuki Suguira, having a bit of an off-day. RRP: £20
Things I'd like to cook:
Watercress, clam and ginger soup
Temple tofu

Books for thinkers: 
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (Penguin)
Not a new book, but a must-read for everyone that actually gives a toss about what they eat. Shocking. Disgusting. Funny. Well-written and pacey. Enough to make you sob and take stock, even if you aren't a rabid animal lover. Factory farming of livestock is just plain fucking immoral. Shame on us. RRP: £9.99
Things I'm already trying:
Eating more ethically

Cooked by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane)
Great read. Back to your roots approach to food and cooking and why you should do this too. RRP: £20
Things I've already cooked:
My own sourdough
Smoking my own food
Book I've used the most to cook from:
Smitten Kitchen by Debs Perelman (Random House)
Someone said to me recently that this book was derivative. Well I don't care. Every single recipe works a treat, having been tested numerous times by Debs. Lovely writing style, clear photos, great food.
Things I've already cooked:
Her gnocci
Other stuff, can't remember, but it all worked.

Book for boys: 
Food DIY by Tim Hayward (Penguin)
This is for manly men who smell of wood smoke, have hairy chests and reek of testosterone. They may never make anything in it, but you will be appealing to their reptile brain, their hunter-but-not-gatherer side. Something to keep on their shed bookshelf. Witty knowledgeable passionate writing, brilliant photos, well designed layout. Love the photography by Chris Terry.
Things I've already cooked: 
Smoking my own salmon (encouraged by Tim)

Do ahead dinners by James Ramsden (Pavilion Books)
How to prepare ahead for a dinner party. Yeah cos men host dinner parties ALL the time. Perhaps they will now? Well presented and beautifully photographed (Yuki Sugiura again) book. RRP: £20.00
Things I'd like to cook:
Salted caramel chocolate

Book for vegetarians/ vegans:

Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey (Clarkson Potter)
Original veggie and vegan recipes by New York chef. Funny wry stories from the culinary trenches. Comic book layout. Original. RRP: £15.99
Things I'd like to make: 
Radish ravioli.

Vegan slow cooking for two or just for you by Kathy Hester (Fair Winds Press)
Apparently slow cookers are not very environmentally friendly. Myself, I have the ultimate slow cooker, an Aga. But I'm interested in vegan cooking at the moment so this is a good addition to the repertoire. The portions are ideal for the increasing amount of people living on their own (now 38% of people in the UK, up from 7%). A cheap looking book at the price however RRP: £14.99p
Things I'd like to make:
White bean delicata soup

The Great British Vegetable cookbook by Sybil Kapoor (National Trust Books)

A large tome, not entirely vegetarian but centred-upon-vegetables recipes. The photo on the cover doesn't do it any favours, the colour balance is wrong. Something grand about this book, a bit remote in tone but efficient. RRP: £25
Things I'd like to make:
Cliveden spinach and summer herb roulade
Orange cooked endives
Books for cooks:
The Ethicurean (Ebury Press)
Beautiful book, lovely cover, laid out well. Great photos, for some reason uncredited. The authors are uncredited also, but I imagine the recipes are by the chefs, Matthew and Iain Pennington and forager Jack Adair-Bevan. This book ticks all the boxes that intelligent modern chefs are working on: seasonality, foraging, growing your own, pretty plating, interesting use of vegetables rather than just relying on meat and fish. I like the fact that they have included drinks and liqueurs, something I'm very keen on making myself. RRP: £25
Things I'd like to make:
Salt baked celeriac, portobello mushroom and apple soup.
Ewe's curd stuffed courgette flowers with fennel sherbet.

Smashing Plates by Maria Elia (Kyle Cathie)
I'd heard good things about her book on vegetarian food, 'Modern vegetarian'. 'Smashing Plates' (smashing title!) is my kind of food; a little bit cheffy but basically rustic; recipes you actually cook rather than just look at the pictures admiringly. It's also an overdue fresh look at Greek food. Nice styling and photographs by Jenny Zarins although the quality of the paper and printing by Kyle books appears cheaper than the book merits. There are recipes I will definitely be trying. I love the fact that she has a recipe for kebab-shop-style chips, made from Cypriot potatoes, red-soiled little muthas, which I've worked with and were absolutely superb. RRP: £19.99
Things I'd like to make: 
Ouzo and lemon cured salmon
Fig leafed wrapped feta
Peachy Greek panzanella

Books for grazers: 
Snackistan by Sally Butcher (Pavilion)
I've got all her books and I love them. She's actually married to an Iranian, speaks Iranian, deals with Iranian in-laws, run a Persian food shop. So she knows her stuff, she's not some sleb chef who has been on a two week vacation there. Great recipes, which she says 'pour out of her'. Great cover and photos by Yuki Sugiura who is clearly le photographe du jour. RRP: £20
Things I'd like to make: 
Fried watermelon with halloumi
Sweet tabouleh

101 Sandwiches by Helen Graves (Cico)
One of the top food bloggers in this country, Helen Graves is a talented writer and cook. She's created classic sandwiches from all over the world as well as unusual ones. I reckon this makes a good present for men too. Somehow, making a sandwich, even though many of them are quite gourmet, seems less poncey than cooking. I love the anti-snobbery of the subject matter. Most people eat a sandwich everyday, it's literally one of the most common foods. Photography: sandwiches are really hard to photograph well so I reckon the photographer Stephen Conroy did a good job.  RRP: £12.99
Things I'd like to make:
Vada Pav
Trini double

Book for bakers: 
Meringue Girls by Alex Hoffler and Stacey O'Gorman (Square Peg)
As a meringue addict and as someone who considers the giant pavlova as one of my signature dishes, I've enjoyed the candy-striped meringue kisses in many flavours that I have tasted at various launches and trendy parties this year. These Hackney based girls are definitely 'with it' as my nan would say, being young, beautiful and talented. I like their book, full of brightly coloured meringue recipes, telling you how to achieve weep-free bakes, containing many original ideas within their chosen theme. Fun. Great pix by David Loftus as per usual. And it's got a ribbon. LOVE ribbons in books. They are pretty and der, it acts as a book mark. RRP: £15.00p
Things I'd like to make:
Meringue rainbow cake

The Little book of Scones by Liam D'arcy and Grace Hall (Square Peg)
More graduates of the Hackney street food scene, this is a charming gift book, specialising in scones. The recipes are cleverly laid out, and the book has quirky surreal line drawings. RRP: £9.99p
Things I've already made:

How to make bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou (Ryland, Peters & Small)
Brilliantly illustrated with photography by Steve Painter, this book won the GFW's award for best first book the same year (2012) that my book Supper Club was entered, so it's not a new book. (I narrowly missed the shortlist, the judges preferring a ghost-written book in 3rd place, after being assured by the fibbing publisher that it was all the chefs' own work. What crap, I even know the ghost writer. Bitter, moi? Only a little.) This was a worthy winner however, I took a class with Emmanuel earlier this year and it was fantastic. Kid knows his shit. £19.99
Things I've already made:
Sourdough loaves

Book for history nuts:
At the King's Table by Susanne Groom (Merrell Publishers)
Glossy but slightly old-fashioned looking book but a very accessible and interesting read about royal dining and historical food, which I've always been into. Heston does the foreword. This is a great buy for history geeks and food geeks. For example: a meal at the Brighton Pavilion for the Prince Regent and the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia contained 8 soups, 8 removes of fish, 40 entrées served around the fish, 15 platters after the fish, 8 pièce montées of meat, 8 pièces montées of patisserie, 8 roasts, 32 desserts and savoury entremets, 12 'great round' including 4 fondues. I will be dipping in regularly for supper club inspiration. RRP: £24.95
Things I'd like to cook that are even more over the top:
More extravagant meals with more outrageous pièce montées.

Books for travellers:
The Paris Gourmet by Trish Deseine and Christian Sarramon (Flammarion)
I know Trish, she's lived in Paris for decades, is bang in the centre of the food scene, and like Sally Butcher, has been married to a native, had kids there, dealt with the bureaucracy there and flourished, becoming one of the best known names in French food. Which is no mean feat. I lived in Paris for 6 years and that place is tough. This 'carnet' guide to Paris is therefore coming from someone who knows their way around. Fantastic recommendations, some of which I used in my blog post about Paris bread. If you are planning a trip there, or know someone who is, or need a jolt to get you there, buy this book for Christmas. RRP: £22.50p
From India, food, family, tradition by Kumar and Suba Mahadevan (Murdoch Books)
Beautiful plush fabric cover, design and photos, like so many of Murdochs books. (You may dislike the man, but the publishers do some fab books). It is interestingly divided into tastes, salt, sweet, bitter, sour and spice. (When you divise a cookbook, how to structure it? Usually it's by course, or by season. Great to see something original). RRP: £25
Things I'd like to cook:
Tomato, pepper and tamarind soup
Bitter melon curry

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gastronauts at the Royal Court Theatre

'The future is flavoursome' Gastronauts at The Royal Court Theatre
A great dinner always has something of the theatre about it, as does a restaurant. The dance of the waiters, the choreography of chefs, the costumes of staff and the 'going out to dinner' outfits of the customers, the pantomime of who pays the bill, the special lighting, the background music as soundtrack, all contribute to the theatrical even farcical atmosphere. And the dramas, lets not forget them, both back and front of house. I've had tears, laughter, spanking, dancing, breaking up, snogging, boasting and confessions at my supper club over the years.
Since I started the pop up/supper club/ underground restaurant movement five years ago, the restaurant experience has become even more theatrical. These events are often site-specific, very visual, themed, with sets and props and front of house enacting a part, but with the added bonus of taste and smell. The emphasis should ultimately be on the food rather than the spectacle, although I have been to pop ups that get this wrong: dishes delayed and served cold because of a bit of dramatic business out front. Food is even more ephemeral than acting, food should always come first.
Many of my events have been like little theatrical productions, especially at Bestival, where I had costumes made, spent a long time on props and dressing the tent, and had my sister Imogen, who is a professional actor and musician, and particularly known for physical theatre, perform front of house. We'd like to do more of this.
A couple of years ago I worked with Punchdrunk, an 'immersive' theatre company which has had great success both here and in the States. As in a restaurant, the audience is not obliged to remain seated at all times, facing the same direction, but in a Punchdrunk production, they are positively encouraged to wander about and find their own narrative, for there are multiple storylines. Their latest production 'Drowned Man' in conjunction with the National Theatre, got rave reviews but caused some controversy within the acting world: two publicly-funded companies, paid for by taxpayers money, but the tickets were so expensive (£50 and a 'premium' £80) that the average-waged punter could not attend.
I was hired by Punchdrunk to 'act' as a hostess and cook at an Isle of Wight house. The audience would arrive and was supposed to believe that I lived there. The worst bit for me, as I'm not a professional actress, was having to pretend that I was married to another actor. We were supposed to be intimate and affectionate with each other. They even wanted us to stay in the same bedroom together overnight! This is when I realised the life of an actress is not all glamour. Imagine having to kiss and cuddle a complete stranger who you met the day before!
I could do the cooking and the hostessing but not the wifey bit. Frankly I was miscast. I was disappointed that, while Punchdrunk is known for set dressing, glamour and theatricality, I supposed to be a dowdy badly-dressed housewife. Soooo NOT me darlings. But I remain interested in performance and would like more opportunities.
This last weekend I went to see Gastronauts, a play at the Royal Court Theatre, which pretends to be a restaurant. You enter and sit down at a table of five, facing other members of the audience. This immediately changes the dynamic from one of passive receiver of performance to participant. You start to get to know your fellow audience members and even start to form a kind of team with the rest of your table.
Food and drink are also actors at this production: you are served good sourdough bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and salt, and good red wine. You can eat and drink. This is heaven for me as my mouth basically always likes to have something in it. (Being empty-mouthed for longer than 15 minutes means I'm asleep.) We are given soup plus an airline type tray of deceptive foods which look like one thing but taste of another. Clever.
There is a minor culinary shock towards the end of the meal which I will not reveal.
The actors, while enticing and skillful performers, were disappointingly cast as one type: all of similar ages and slim, missing a trick if we are talking about food. Just like on food TV, in the theatre everybody has to be conventionally attractive it seems. The actors served as waiters and performers, serving the food and playing out cameo scenarios, based on our dystopian food landscape. All the relevant food issues were touched upon: animal rights, greed, food as indicator of status, vegetarianism, extreme dieting. The playwrights, April de Angelis, Nessah Muthy and director Wils Wilson, have done their research and showed knowledge of what we in the foodie world talk about.
One of my favourite aspects of the production was the musical interludes, which were witty, melodic and well-performed, often in a bossa nova style. 
My only problem with visual theatre, is, as always, same with Punchdrunk stuff, the disconnected narrative, the lack of emotional involvement. I also felt they could have used the audience/customers more: you have an instant and unpredictable cast there, with all the repartee that could involve, but maybe that is too experimental for the Royal Court. You weren't allowed to tweet or instagram during the performance, again theatrical convention, but not terribly authentic for a current restaurant meal where people are busier photographing and hashtagging their food than eating it or talking to their fellow guests.
All in all, I definitely recommend going to see this interesting play. It's the price of a good meal with thought-provoking entertainment thrown in.

Gastronauts, on until the 21st of December

The Royal Court Theatre
Sloane Square, London

Monday, 2 December 2013

20 Christmas gifts for cooks

All year I bookmark things I like, saving them up for my annual foodie Christmas list. Men, Women, this is what your WAGS (wives and girlfriends) want. There are some blokey, butch-in-the-kitchen, gifts towards the end of this post.
I lust after Sophie Conran's range for Portmeirion pottery. White, hand-made looking, simply designed but a twist on the classic white china. I like the fact that it's slightly irregular and that despite the fineness of the china, it is oven to table. I'm looking forward to using the tajine. 
A great big sugar-pink mixing bowl for £17 with hearts on it
Jars are another of my fetishes. Vintage Ball jars came in blue/turquoise and are a collectors item. Kilner are doing new blue, pink and green jars. Useful and pretty.
A gorgeous carbon steel knife with boxwood handle from Catalan craft producers Pallares Solsona. Available from this classy American website QuitoKeeto ($44)or directly from Spain: Pallares Solsona.
The New Craftsmen is promoting exactly that, beautifully made British products. This bowl (£70) may look ordinary in the photo, but in the 'flesh' it has character and refinement, made from Sycamore wood by Robin Wood (good name!)You can even microwave food in it.
Again from The New Craftsmen, this apple Storage Chest by Arne Maynard. Cost a bunch at over 2k though. Imagine having the kind of place/money to spend that on storing your apples stylishly! Big treat, lovely gift.

I love enamel. Light, unbreakable and portable for popups, camping, picnics. This is a Polish site  Emalia Olkusz, where you can buy it online. 
This pink enamel candle stick costs 23 zloty, about £4.50p
This sunflower yellow coffee pot costs 52 zloty, about ten pounds. 

Creamware with inscriptions from Doris & Co. Cheeseboard and mug
Or, super useful for parties these removable glass stickers so you can recognise your own glass. 

Nice homeware at Rigby& like this glass cake stand only £4.95
Handpainted signs by Button and Jewels. Reasonably priced and charming. She'll make any sign you want. The 'beach hut' sign above costs a mere £25
 Peza, smooth and fruity                                          Viannos, fruity and peppery

Olive oil.  This Greek extra virgin olive oil from Crete, cold pressed from Koroneiki olives, comes in pretty tins, a good stocking filler for the keen cook. 
Frank has a nice selection of British-made gifts, like this hand-carved 'trook'. 
Foodie jewellery: a Marmite bracelet  (£12.45) from but there are custard creams rings and other food related jewellery. You can even create your own via their site.
More wrapping materials or ways to decorate your foodie gifts: food ribbons from Like this cherry ribbon.
 Baker's Twine to wrap your gifts or, of course your baked goods

For men and WAGS with an outdoor bent: I've always wanted a good canvas tent, like a teepee or a medieval marquee tent. Panther Primitives make them in different styles, often historically accurate, which they provide to movies. They have a charming and fascinating catalogue with camp kitchen items too: good strong cast iron bbq grills, dutch ovens in different sizes, wooden canteens, boneware, copper kettles, barrel drinking cups. Hours of fun. (Note: they are based in Virginia, USA).
In the UK you can go to Wild Stoves to order tripods and pots. 

S Hooks. I use these everywhere, in the kitchen, in the shed. I don't think you can have enough hooks. Not girly, not glam, but useful. From Labour & Wait. (£4.80)

You know what I've asked for this christmas? A decent pastry brush, that doesn't shed hairs and properly bastes, by Rosle. £15.20p for pastry happiness. 

Other ideas: hampers, why not make your own? But you can buy gift vouchers and hampers for specialist food shops like the Italian Lina Stores from  £35 to £100
Check through my recent post on essential items for the kitchen.