Saturday, 30 March 2013

Polenta party vegan supper club with Terry Hope Romero

Polenta board
Portrait of the cook, tweeting. 
 I met Terry Hope Romero in Amsterdam at the Dutch Cookbook Awards. She's probably one of the most well known vegan cookbook authors, with Vegan eats World, Veganomicon and the Vegan cupcakes take over the world series under her belt, the latter with co-author Isa Chandra Moscovitz.
Terry let me know she was visiting London 'Lets hang!', to do a talk at the Vitality show, which caters to a Gwyneth Paltrow style clientele, all kale smoothies and pastel yoga gear as day-wear. The Vitality show is as much about not eating as eating healthily, for there has always been a fuzzy line between food disorder and speciality diets.
Lets do a supper club? I suggested, but I was concerned as it was rather late notice. No need to worry, tickets sold out within a day. There are many neglected vegans out there, although it was interesting to see that on the night, half our guests weren't vegan but vegan-curious meat-eaters.
Cooking was both fun and informative with Terry. Firstly, our transatlantic differences caused many a giggle. She says tomayto I say tomahto, she says baysil I say basil, she says pecahn, I say peecanne, she says eggplant I say aubergine. I use grams and a digital scale, she employs cups, really uses them all the time, for tasting, for measuring, for ladling. Left to scavenge around my kitchen while I was off shopping, I returned to find Terry using my laundry soap powder scoop.
Determined to give her a truly English cooking experience, I put on my usual background noise of Radio 4. The Archers in particular sounded surreal to a girl from Queens, New York.
Hers n hers iPads, Terry and I cook with iPads in the kitchen
I learnt new techniques from Terry: how to soak cashews, then grind them in water to make a thick rich animal-free cream. The Vitamix came in useful for that. Nutritional yeast flakes, mixed with walnuts or pecans are delicious as a vegan Parmesan. They do actually taste cheesy.
Almost by accident, our menu turned out to be gluten-free barring the farro in the soup. Our main course was polenta: Terry had recently had a polenta based meal in Italy and I remembered a fantastic 'polenta party' post on TheKitchn. It's all the rage darling!
Chase elderflower vodka with blackberry cordial cocktails
Socca lentil crepe triangles with roasted carrot butter and babaghanoush
Cannelini and farro soup from Vegan eats World, with an avocado and tomato garnish.
Pecan 'parmesan' topping
Polenta boards topped with artichokes, caramelised onions and cepe mushrooms in sherry and cashew cream, plus aragula/rocket salad
Marinated blood oranges slices in bay leaf liqueur with flourless chocolate cake (from Vegan eats World) and Coyo coconut yoghurt. 

I sent guests home with samples of Coyo coconut yoghurt which I highly recommend, being rich, creamy, dairy free, gluten free, but not taste-free.
Marinated blood oranges, flourless chocolate cake, CoYo yoghurt

The supper club went really well, with guests such as fat gay vegan and everybody enjoyed it. Terry is particularly impressed with British vegan 'cheeses' which taste real to her compared to the synthetic American ones.
Her last day in London I took her to Pogo cafe in Clarence Rd in Hackney. Clarence Rd is an experience in itself, a whole different kind of London from where Terry was staying in Sloane Square. Pogo is a fascinating place, a co-op anarchist animal rights restaurant. I have many happy memories of cheffing there, even though I was accused of being somewhat 'hierarchical'  in the kitchen. I wasn't doing things on a consensus basis.
Scenes from Pogos

Polenta recipe:

1 kilo of polenta (I chose fine as opposed to coarse)
(For quick cook use 1.5 litres  of water for 500g)
4.5 litres of water
2 tablespoons of salt
75ml of olive oil or 50g of butter

Choose between the following toppings which you can buy or make homemade:

Napolitana sauce
Fried onions with garlic
Artichokes in oil
Mushrooms in cream
Grilled aubergines
Lots of butter and shaved parmesan
Braised endives, leeks, cardoons
Grilled fennel slices

Get a large good quality saucepan (you don't want a thin bottom, the polenta might burn or stick) and add the water either boiled or heat until boiling. Add the salt. Add the polenta. Keep stirring. Polenta is rather similar to grits, that Southern United States speciality. Good grits, as we learnt from My Cousin Vinny, take a while to cook. Same with polenta.With the slow cook, it can take 90 minutes. The quick cook takes about 2 minutes. What is the difference? The slow cook is a little more 'corny', a little grittier and possibly better for a dinner party in that it stay soft for longer. You want a nice thick soupy polenta which you can spread onto a wooden board. Not too thick but not so thin it runs off the board. I used bread boards but you can buy a dedicated polenta board which I must admit I'm slightly lusting after now.
Add the warm toppings in stripes across the top of your bread boards, line them down the centre of the table and give everyone a spoon to serve themselves. Fun and interactive!

Grilled Polenta Recipe:
Got leftovers? Then pour the polenta into a loaf tin, cut it into slices and grill it. Serve with diced jalapeno, tomatos, onion, and coriander salsa with plenty of lime juice and have it for breakfast the next day.
Clarence Rd, another tragic teen death from a gang, postcode wars,  a London that tourists rarely see. Right: Terry Hope Romero instagramming at Pogos cafe.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Recipe: spaghetti Napolitana

Spaghetti Napoli or Napolitana or, sometimes mistakenly called in the United States, Marinara sauce (wtf, there is no seafood) or more simply spaghetti with tomato sauce is simple and beautiful, a mainstay of my family life.
Does it come from Naples? Yeah, probs. Southern Italy was, is, poorer and hotter than the North and so, not only were they growing ace tomatoes but they could also not afford to add meat to their pasta sauce. Who cares? Who needs meat when great tomatoes provide all the umami oomph you could possibly want? So salsa Bolognese from Bologna, the north of Italy, that is, the classic mincemeat and tomato spaghetti sauce became salsa Napolitana, from the south, an infinitely chicer dish.
Another reason for the popularity of the meat-less sauce is that tomatoes were more acidic before it was bred out of them, and a Napoli sauce was something you could preserve, could conveniently bottle for long journeys, for the winter, for sea voyages.
It's strange to think about the process of 'nation branding' and how misleading it can be. I recently attended a talk where it was explained that the great English breakfast was only about 150 years old, invented, like so much else including Christmas, in the Victorian times. When we think about Italy, it's 'USP', we visualise the colours of their flag: red, white and green. The red is the tomato, the white is the pasta and the green is the basil.
But the tomato is fairly new to Italy, arriving after the discovery of America, via Spain in the 16th century. Furthermore pasta was reserved for feast days, only becoming regularly available to the poor when the manufacturing process was mechanised in the late 19th century.
The medieval Italian peasant was more likely to be eating a vegetable stew with brown bread, much like the British peasant. Except with wine rather than beer.

The first recipe I was ever taught was chocolate butterfly cakes, igniting a passion for cooking, the second recipe was for spaghetti Napoli, a family favourite. I'd decided, at a ridiculously early age, to host a dinner party for 15 people, with three courses. The dinner party was a bit of a disaster: starters went out at 11pm, I got far too drunk and my best friend got off with the boy that this whole shenanigans was constructed for. And she was then invited back to a big swimming pool party at his parents place the next weekend, apparently I was considered "too common". (His dad was a plastic bag manufacturer living in a big house in the suburbs of North London).
In preparation for this dinner party, my mum taught me how to make the main course. She would put diced carrots and celery in, a kind of sofrito. I don't do that now. I regard the addition of carrots, celery, mushrooms as an affectation. I don't even add tomato purée anymore.

This sauce is really simple if you follow my instructions exactly. Do not freestyle it, something I generally give you permission to do in other recipes. No, this is a benign dictatorship when it comes to spaghetti Napoli.
Before we start, a few rules:
  1. On no account add sugar. I will really hate you if you add sugar. The French add sugar, which is why they are shit at pasta even if they are good at everything else. If you want a sweeter Napoli sauce, wait a day before eating it. It will become sweeter. 
  2. Buy the best tomatoes you can afford. This can be fresh tomatoes or tinned tomatoes. If you are buying tinned tomatoes, DO NOT buy those watery cheap cans with three flayed plum shaped tomatoes in and a load of thin red juice. Buy the most expensive. Hell go crazy, save yourself some effort and buy ready chopped. Cirio are good. Organic is good. I used Cosi Com'è bottled tomatoes (yellow and red) in this recipe, the flavour is extraordinary. I don't care how poor you are, I don't care if you have had all your savings seized in a Cypriot bank, you can buy a halfway decent tin of tomatoes.
  3. Buy the best spaghetti you can afford. NOT quick cook. The longer the cooking time on the packet, the better. Buy 11 minute spaghetti. Bronze die preferably (this gives the surface a roughness which means the sauce adheres). If you buy very good pasta it's almost impossible to overcook it. Brands I recommend: Barilla, De Cecco, Garofalo. 
  4. Salt your pasta water. Salt it until it is as salty as the Mediterranean sea. With sea salt. If you have sufficiently seasoned your water, you will not need to add salt at the table. Geddit?

Enough for 6-8 and some leftover

Olive oil
2 brown onions, diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
5 bay leaves, ideally fresh
3-4 tins or jars of tomatoes or a kilo of fresh tomatoes * (a comment below made me realise I hadn't specified how to prepare these. I tend to squeeze the tomatoes, tearing them as I go, into the pan. Fresh tomatoes I will chop up. The jarred tomatoes, both yellow and red, in the pictures, I put in whole as they are so soft and sweet and cook quickly)
1 heaped tablespoon of sea salt
Oregano (optional)
700g good quality spaghetti (I generally work on 100g cooked per person for a starter, 150g cooked for a main). But if it's good, people WILL want seconds.
Handful of sea salt.
Heat up your olive oil.
Cook the brown onions until soft.
Add the garlic and the bay leaves. Stir.
Add the tomatoes and the salt.
I had some fresh oregano so I added that. Don't bother with out-of-date dried oregano. Only use dried herbs that aren't old.
Simmer for 45 minutes on a low heat if you have time. It's pretty good after 20 minutes.
If I'm drinking red wine, I might sling in half a glass if the sauce is getting too concentrated.
The pasta bit:
Get a large/tall saucepan. Don't use a small saucepan. Really. It's the same as salads. Why do people try to squash a salad into a tiny bowl? You can't toss the salad in the dressing! Leaves and pasta need room. So if you haven't got a big pasta saucepan, it's time you invested in one. This Ikea one is good. C'mon...£35 for something you'll probably use every day for the next decade.
Get a big load of salty boiling water on the go. Boil 3 or 4 kettles if necessary and fill it up that way.
Throw in a handful of sea salt. Yes. That's what I said. It's fine, don't worry. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
When it's bubbling, put your spaghetti in, pushing down gradually until it's all submerged. Stir a couple of times during cooking to keep the strands separate. Cook for a minute less than they say on the packet.
Have your colander ready in the sink.
Strain out the pasta quickly then dump it back into the hot saucepan. Splash a large glug of olive oil over the hot pasta, stirring it, to prevent the pasta sticking together.

If you are being mama at the table, take out a stack of bowls, put the lid on the pasta and take both the pasta and the sauce out. Serve into each bowl at the table, pasta first, sauce on top.
Make sure there is a pepper mill at the table, along with a big wedge of parmesan or pecorino which people can grate straight on.

For more information about this entirely tomato based supper club and Secret Garden Club, go to the rest of the post here.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Jar meal number 2

Salad in a jar a box

A couple of years ago I held a supper club in which every course was served in a jar. A couple of weeks ago I did the same thing with canning expert Gloria Nicol. 
Salads are particularly attractive  served in tall glasses or jars. I had a salad in a glass in an Israeli restaurant last year in which the salad was layered in a tall pint glass and then overturned onto your plate whereby the dressing gradually streamed from the bottom of the glass. More ideas and information on food in jars, water bath canning and pressure canning go here to our Secret Garden Club blog. 

I had this at a waterfront restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Monday, 11 March 2013

How to make tofu from soy beans Part 1

 Tofu often has the reputation to be bland. But in Asia, particularly Japan, they appreciate this subtle foodstuff, making it in several textures, each with a different cooking purpose. Tofu is healthy, light, full of protein but also a wonderful flavour sponge, soaking up the tastes of anything you cook it in. It can be fried, simmered in soups, baked, smoked, marinated and eaten raw.
From a previous blog I wrote on tofu:

I believe tofu is unjustly maligned as boring, rather it is one of the great undiscovered foods in the west. There are different grades and types of tofu and ways of cooking it.
Inari tofu pockets: this are sweet fried tofu 'envelopes' that can be stuffed with rice. I totally love these and have been eating them by the packet. They should first be rinsed with hot water to remove the grease, then squeezed dry.
Silken tofu: soft, usually it is drained, placed on the palm of the hand and cut gently into squares. Great in soups or as a vegan replacement in desserts. (I make a tofu chocolate mousse).
Firm tofu: tougher and easier to work with, great diced carefully into stir fries, or smoked. It's very versatile.
When I was travelling in Tibet I had an amazing dish in Shigatse: firm tofu cut into rectangles and fried in red chilli sauce and garlic. It was so moreish I went back to the same lunch place every day to have it again. Today I made a smoked sesame tofu and roasted butternut squash with smoked paprika salad. Always have a packet of tofu in the house for unexpected vegans too.

After buying a book 'Asian Tofu' by Andrea Nguyen, I decided to have a go at making it from scratch. The first time, it wasn't a quick process, partly because the instructions in Andrea's book aren't that clear.
Before you start, make sure you can get hold of one of these coagulants:
  • Nigiri (a seaweed/magnesium derivative, apparently available in Japanese supermarkets but I couldn't find it)
  • Gypsum (available, food-grade, at brewing places)
  • Epsom Salts (available in chemists, but tends to make the tofu granular)

It took me quite a bit of research to find them, which slowed down the process of making tofu. These are the coagulants needed to form a tofu 'cake'. 
Also buy good soy beans. Andrea suggests buying organic ones. (Available from Wholefoods and most health food shops). 

Soy Milk recipe: (which can be used to make all the tofu recipes)

We start by soaking 250 grams of the soy beans in filtered/mineral water for 24 hours. (Making tofu is a bit like making cheese, the water is very important, you want it as pure as possible, no hard lime). Then drain them.
Then take the beans and grind them (I used a vitamix), adding 2 cups of mineral water. You want to end up with a lovely milk coloured purée.
Add the beans and another 3 cups of mineral water to a large saucepan. 
Use another half cup of mineral water to rinse out your blender, add this to the saucepan.
Boil this mixture, stirring all the while, for about 5 minutes. When the foam rises, turn the heat down. 
Prepare a sieve with a cheesecloth lining it.
Push through as much of the milk from the pulp as you can. As it cools, eventually you can pull up the sides of the cheesecloth into a bundle or sack and squeeze out the milk. Do this in batches. When it seems pretty dry, put the 'lees', the dry remains, into another dish. Keep, because at the end you will want to do a second pressing. 
(Some people keep the lees at the end, they didn't taste very nice so I wouldn't bother).
You should have a nice pot of soy milk at the end of this.
Now you need to heat up this pot of soy milk a second time, simmer, stirring all the time, for about five minutes.
Making Yuba, soy milk skin.

This is considered a delicacy in Japan and you can make a few portions from your simmering pot of fresh soy milk. It's fairly similar to milk skin, it just forms on the top when the milk is cooling. To get 'yuba', stop stirring and let it cool, then carefully lift off the skin with a rubber spatula.
Then I dried the 'yuba' by draping it over the spatula handle. 
Once it has dried for a few minutes, not long, you can fold it in quarters and eat it with some ponzu (soy sauce with yuzu citrus) and wasabi. It is a delicate subtle taste but very nice if you like Japanese food. All the posh restaurants and chefs use this, like Nuno Mendes of Viajante. 
You can keep going if you like until you end up with lots of sheets. I did about 4 sheets, leaving a few minutes in between batches, waiting for skin to form on my soy milk. 
The rest of the milk I saved to make tofu, which will be in Part 2.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Recipe: Marmite French Onion Soup

It seems like Spring has started, finally, but nights are still chilly. May I suggest French onion soup? I recently had one at Brasserie Zedel, an enormous gorgeous French-style brasserie near Piccadilly Circus where I managed to have a tasty three course meal for £10.50p. The Maitre d' didn't want to let me in for some reason "you can go upstairs and have a cake" he sniffed dismissively, but it was bitterly cold outside and I needed French onion soup dammit. I gazed upon an almost empty restaurant, with a live piano player tinkling in the background reading music from an iPad. "May I see the menu?" I asked him. Reluctantly, from underneath his desk, he pulled out a large sheet of card, all in French. I then proceeded to trill, airily, in fluent French, about what I felt like eating, snapped the menu shut and confronted him with a steely-toned arch-eyebrowed"So you won't allow me to eat here?" 
He smiled tightly through gritted teeth and said "Of course Madam, but I'll need the table back by 6".
It was 4.30pm.
Maybe he was tired. The rest of the waiting staff were lovely. They gave me an English menu. I think the French one is kept at the front to put people off. So almost a decade living in France and consecutively shagging approximately four French boyfriends over a number of years were well worth it after all.
At home, my Riverford Organic box delivery had left me with a full basket of onions, built up week by week. Once I'd fished out and chucked all the soft ones at the bottom, plenty remained.
Do not listen to those that suggest French onion soup only authentic with a beef stock. That is complete couilles. A spoonful of Marmite, (appropriately the word 'marmite' in French, means a pot-bellied casserole dish) plenty of white wine and softly cooked good quality onions is all that you need. In fact it's so rich that it's an entire meal in a bowl: soup, bread, cheese.
Enough for 6-8

1.5 kilos of good brown onions, sliced thinly, into rounds or half rounds
Olive oil to cover the bottom of your pot
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large tablespoon of Marmite
3 fresh bay leaves
1 bottle white wine
1 litre of vegetable stock
1 loaf of French baguette or French pain de campagne or sourdough bread
300g of Cheddar, Gruyere or Emmental cheese, grated
1 tablespoon of freshly ground pepper or a sprinkle of pickled green peppercorns

Simmer the onions until soft in the pan containing olive oil. Add the garlic, Marmite and bay leaves.
Add the white wine, let the onions soak it up.
Then add the vegetable stock.
Simmer for 30 minutes. Serve into oven proof bowls, ceramic or enamel.
Add 2 slices of bread to each bowl and scatter the grated cheese all over the bread, overlapping until it cover the bowl.
Put under the grill for 10 minutes. (Aga instructions, leave on the top shelf of your hottest oven for 15 minutes)
Grind on the pepper. Serve with a green salad and a good bottle of red (this soup is rich enough for red) or white wine.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Breakfast with Malcolm Eggs and recipe for Portuguese custard tarts

One of the oldest (virtually prehistoric in blog terms, 2005!) and best written blogs is The London Review of Breakfasts. The suitably pseudonymed Malcolm Eggs (or his doppelganger Seb Emina)  after a particularly bad breakfast, started crisis meetings over a monthly Full English, a secret breakfast club if you like, with hand-picked co-conspirators, whose entrance exam consisted of coming up with a similarly punning breakfasty pen name. These breakfast 'agents' then spread all over. Mission: review the best breakfasts, be they amongst the posh movers and shakers at The Wolseley, or elbow-deep in grease and condiments at working mens caffs. 
Breakfast is a neglected meal in terms of cookery books, until the twin-headed Seb/Malcolm wrote the recently released and rather brilliant 'The Breakfast Bible'. Written in customary witty style, with great research into the origins of breakfast food stuffs, musings on the philosophy of the first meal, this book reminds me of Schotts Miscellaney, lots of fun facts but with recipes. 
The cover of The Breakfast Bible: it took me a couple of days to notice that the cover depicted rashers of bacon.

I met Seb/Malcolm for a MsMarmite/Malcolm Eggs breakfast summit at Caravan in Kings Cross, a cavernous warehouse with open kitchen, right next to Saint Martin's art school. I ordered toast and marmite ("I'd never order that, so much cheaper and better at home" said Seb). Seb/Malcolm went for eggs, naturellement. 
Within the book is an essay about class at breakfast time, by Blake Pudding, the writer suggests that Marmite is a working class condiment whereas marmalade is upper class. If Marmite is working class then it is probably white working class. At a recent event I was speaking to several ethnic minority Britons (Caribbean, African, Indian) who said they would never eat Marmite at home, that only white people ate Marmite. One mum even said that she would feel 'pretentious' if she had it in her cupboard. 
Full English ingredients are underpinned by breakfast biblical commandments known as 'the magic 9':  eggs, bacon, black or white pudding, sausages, beans, potatoes, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes: in that order of importance. (I disagree, how can black or white pudding be more essential for breakfast than toast? )
Another chapter tackles why cake is never acceptable for breakfast but Seb/Malcolm delves into the pancake pantheon (waffles, Staffordshire oat cakes, crumpets), judging it to be a version of cake.
A breakfast sweet food is represented by a recipe for 'pasteis de belem', the light custard tart from Portugal, ideally served with a 'gallao' milky coffee. I've wanted to try this recipe for a long time. I was delighted with them, the custardy additions of lemon and cinnamon only increased the pleasure. As soon as I made them however, a visiting expert sniffed at the lack of spirally pastry and caramelised top as specified in this post. Must try harder. 

Pasteis de Belem/ Portuguese Custard Tart recipe from The Breakfast Bible. 
Makes 12 tarts:

250g of all butter puff pastry
Unsalted butter, for greasing

2 tablespoons of whole milk
2 tablespoons of plain flour
340ml of whole milk
50ml of double cream (I used creme fraiche)
4 large egg yolks
150g caster sugar
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 strips lemon peel
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Mix the custard ingredients together, gradually, in the order suggested, a little milk, flour, the rest of the milk, the cream, egg yolks, sugar, until they are smooth. Heat slowly, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon, adding the rest of the ingredients; cinnamon, lemon peel, vanilla extract. When you can draw a distinct line upon your wooden spoon, the custard is thick enough. Remove from heat.
Butter your muffin tray and roll out the puff pastry, 3mm thick. 
Now the proper way is to then roll your puff pastry and cut horizontal slices from your role. This forms the basis of your spirally custard tart. Tuck each one into a muffin indent. The slice should be large enough to go up the sides of the indent.
I haven't tried this yet myself though. I've got some spare puff pastry so I'll have another go this week and update this blog.
Or, just roll it out, take a saucer slightly larger than the muffin indent, and cut around the saucer on the pastry, push it into the muffin 'hole'. 
Pour the custard, now cooled, into each muffin hole.
Put the tray into the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Gas mark 7 or 220º.
Aga instructions: I baked these for 20 minutes on the bottom shelf of my baking oven. 
Check that the custard has set.
Then for the authentic caramelised tops, place the muffin tray under the grill for 5-10 minutes until brown. 
Aga instructions: place the muffin tray on the top shelf of the roasting oven for 5-10 minutes.
Eat immediately or that day with a large milky coffee.

Do you think Marmite is working class? Or a 'white' condiment? What is your 'Magic 9'? Is toast more important than 'black or white pudding'? Do you eat cake for breakfast?