Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Nationwide travel insurance: not free, not insured

This is not about food but about travel. Travel insurance to be precise. Which is really boring. Insurance is boring. But it's necessary. Any of you that have a Nationwide account will have seen that they offer free travel insurance with their card. This covers Europe and Israel. Cool, you think. I also used them because I liked the fact that Nationwide is still a proper building society.
Usually I pay for an annual travel insurance which costs between £80 and £100 a year. This means you are covered for any impromptu trip and is cheaper than getting separate insurance for every trip.
I went to the USA and Mexico this year. This time, rather than getting my usual annual travel insurance, I called Nationwide and asked what the situation was about travelling to the States. They charged me £80 extra to be covered. I wasn't expecting to make any claims so I was happy with that.
I was surprised not to receive any kind of booklet detailing what I could claim for, nor was I told on the phone of the insurance claim limits. I had booked this trip very last minute so I didn't have time to pursue it.
Unfortunately, as will happen in life from time to time, this trip was full of incident.  I was robbed of money, camera, glasses, iphone at my hotel room while I was asleep which wasn't a very nice feeling. I was hospitalised twice with dehydration and sunburn partly due to a reaction with my medication. I dropped my other camera on the concrete floor.
You could say it was a bit disastrous although I had a great time. Still, hey, I was insured. So everything was covered right?
No. My first morning in Mexico, I discovered I'd been robbed in the night. I called the Nationwide travel insurance emergency number to let them know. A hatchet voiced woman spoke harshly and unsympathetically. 'You won't be covered. If they weren't violent then you aren't covered.'
I gaped: 'But thieves...er...they aren't always violent. What do you mean? I have to be attacked?'
'Did they smash the door or window in?'
'Not covered'
I subsequently realised that the thieves had climbed over the balcony, (we found the footprints in the dust), that a workman had left a ladder next door. Unfortunately I'd paid in advance for the hotel so we had to continue to stay in the same place. Creepy.
On the route home I try to buy a present, some perfume, for my daughter at Duty Free. After several tries my Nationwide card is rejected at each turn.
I put some money on my skype on my iPad, because I don't have a phone anymore, and call Nationwide in England. My card is being rejected, why?
The woman says 'We could see that you were using in the United States and Mexico, so we blocked it'.
'But I called you to say I was going away beforehand. I've also taken out your travel insurance so you could see it was me travelling.'
Woman: 'I'll reinstate your card. It may take a while'
I return to the UK. I have no phone. In fact I have no phone for over two months, all the while paying my phone contract.
Taking a deep breath, I call Nationwide insurance.
Another call centre woman 'You aren't covered for most of that. The most you can claim for cash is £250. The most you can claim for stolen goods is £400. And there is a £50 excess on every part of your claim.'
I'm shocked at how little the Nationwide insurance covers and that by paying £80 extra, I was not covered for any more, except for geographically,  than the 'free insurance'. If I'd known, I would certainly have gone to another insurance company. Four hundred pounds to cover your belongings is very little. Most people have a phone that cost more than that. I complain that I wasn't made aware of what I was covered for.
I get a very defensive response, all about they shouldn't have to let people know.
Eventually: 'Would you like to make a complaint?'
The Nationwide complaints guy writes to me several weeks later, complaining that I haven't answered the phone and that they are completely in the right and I am completely in the wrong and that my complaint is dismissed. I still have no phone. So of course I haven't bloody answered the phone.
It takes me, between work and other trips, two months to gather together the extensive paperwork for my claim. I'm not allowed to email anyone, there is no email address, it has to be by letter.
These are the documents:
Proof that I went abroad at all: flight records. (But you know I was abroad, I told you, you blocked my credit card. Nationwide guy: 'Nationwide insurance doesn't collate information with Nationwide'.)
Proof from my phone company that I possessed a phone
Proof that I didn't have phone insurance
Proof that I had a camera.
Proof that I had glasses.
Proof that I had a glasses case.
Proof that I had withdrawn the stolen cash, which was difficult, as some of it was dollars from a previous trip, some was given by my dad.
Proof of the two medical incidents.
I also send the taxi bill to the hospital.
And the local doctor's bill, written on a scrap of paper, who said I should go to hospital.
Proof of the theft.
The police report (for which I had to pay a bribe of 100 pesos)
A repair estimate for the broken camera, they wouldn't replace it. (The repair costs 2/3rds of the replacement value but of course it's actually my time, and the lengthy time for repair, and the travel there and back, that also counts. But in insurance terms, my time counts for nothing)

I send off the claim with detailed explanations. I send it registered.

In the meantime, the American hospital starts hassling me with invoices. I gave the American hospital my insurance details at the time so they could invoice directly. I'm guessing they tried to invoice Nationwide and got no response. This is why many hospitals abroad will not accept your medical insurance folks, because our insurance companies will do everything they can to not pay.

Several weeks later, I get a phone call from a creature called Alex, a guy who works at Nationwide. Alex says he won't pay most of the claim. I complain once more that I was never sent a leaflet, that I was unaware that I was basically not covered for any belongings. He says, I think, none of this is in writing so it's hard to follow, £300 is the largest single claim you can send in, up to £400 and that he will only pay a proportion of that for reasons I cannot remember/understand because each item has it's own exclusion. You need a degree to understand how to claim on insurance.
He absolutely refuses to concede that perhaps Nationwide should explain to people how little they are covered for: 'that would take too much time'.
He absolutely refuses to concede that perhaps Nationwide should send a booklet detailing their travel insurance. 'You have admitted yourself that perhaps you got a booklet when you first took out the account, 20 years ago'. and 'it would be too expensive to send information'.
Every time I try to move on with the conversation, saying that I have a lot of work today, that I don't have time to argue with him, he batters me verbally, refusing to back down. He threatens to hang up if I don't shut up and listen to him yell at me. Because he's the boss right. I'm just the paying customer. He accuses me of yelling at him but I'm raising my voice just to try and finish a sentence without interruption from him.
I try to get him to talk about the rest of the claim. Eventually he says they won't pay the medical bills, he says that I must pay it first then get refunded, minus £50, by Nationwide. They won't pay the Mexican medical bills at all. I'm shocked and frankly, I'm starting to feel very angry. He, on the other hand, is clearly having fun. He's got the upper hand, he's enjoying this.
In the end, the phone call is so stressful and upsetting, I hang up. I can literally feel my blood pressure rising, making me ill, and it's not worth having a stroke to deal with this immoral man.
Because bullying people for a living, as Alex does, is immoral. Yes I'm sure there are many fraudulent claims on insurance but I think it's quite clear that my claim isn't. Nationwide starts from a position in which you are a liar, a cheat, a thief. Nationwide doesn't think, this person is a valued customer who has paid for a service and that this service should be as stress free as possible. The fact that you are making a claim in the first place, means that you have been through something unpleasant.
And actually, I'm sure Alex doesn't think I'm a fraud. He's doing this because he's paid to beat people down, no matter what. He's paid by Nationwide insurance to do this. To argue, to stress people out, to do everything he can to not pay out. He's paid to do this by phone, when you have no time to get away, to think it through, when it would be less stressful and less time consuming to do this by email.
It was like being in court or something but he's the judge and jury and executioner.
As I put the phone down, I burst into tears. I'm not a cry baby by any means but I have so much else to do, I can't cope with this.
I don't have the money to pay £2k medical bills and I certainly don't trust Nationwide insurance to pay me back. So I will ignore the hospital bills. What else can I do?
I paid out, believing that, at the very least, my medical care was covered by Nationwide insurance.
I feel very lucky that this was my first claim since 1989 on travel insurance. I had no idea how bad it was. How you are treated like a criminal even when they have the proof in front of them.
I now have a phone which I bought second hand from someone on Twitter (another nightmare, they didn't mention the phone was locked to Orange who took a leisurely 5 weeks to unlock it).
I still don't have any glasses which were prescription.
I've paid the camera repair bill, because I needed a camera sooner than the 8 to 10 weeks suggested by Nationwide. (It's been longer than that now). He wants proof of this. The estimate for the same amount was not enough. His phonecall to the camera repair people was not enough either.
The moral of this tale is: don't rely on Nationwide travel insurance, you won't be dealt with fairly. And they are not free. Even when they say they are.
This is a time when many people are going on holiday. Has anybody had any good experiences with travel insurance? Who do you recommend? Do you usually get annual travel insurance? Is that better or worse? Call centres are the bane of modern life I believe. They hate their jobs and they hate you the customer. Do you agree? Please let me know in the comments. 

Monday, 29 July 2013

Summer reading: food books

Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey
This is the best cookbook I've ever read. Amanda Cohen runs a well reputed vegetarian/vegan restaurant 'Dirt Candy' in New York. Set in comic strip form, this book talks about the problems setting it up and going on Iron Chef.  She talks about feeling insecure, dealing with staff and she also gives some innovative vegetarian recipes: smoked cauliflower, cheddar powder, coconut poached tofu. This is not high-octane Gordon Ramsay alpha-male style, but a seriously talented female chef who has humour, humility and is completely honest about running a restaurant. So many times I thought: I recognise that, I've had that problem. This is a funny, human book with amazing recipes. Get it.

Firstly this book is beautifully designed, with great photography, before you even get to the writing. Tim, as always, writes wittily and succinctly. The first chapters talk about meat, charcuterie and cold smoking, subjects upon which Tim has been writing for ages, being a pioneer in urban home smoking. There are many useful DIY food techniques: for instance, pickling, sourdough and a little bit about canning. I couldn't write about this book without mentioning that everybody in the food world is seethingly jealous of Tim's massive advance for this book, over 250k, unheard of for a non-telly chef. (Most people get between 5k and 25k.) You could say he's the male Pippa Middleton (also signed with Penguin for a ridiculous 400k), although I don't know if his arse is as nicely shaped. Although this book has clearly been released to coincide with the barbeque season, this book would be a great Christmas present for dads, husbands and boyfriends too.

This is my toilet book right now, which is not an insult, it means I want a chance to re-read short passages of the book at my regnant leisure. Bee Wilson is a food historian who comes from a good pedigree, her dad is writer A.N.Wilson. There are no photos, so you could download it onto your kindle app on the iPad and read it on the beach. I love the fact that there is a whole, albeit short, chapter on the importance of rice cookers to Asian life. As a kitchenalia freak, who can hardly pass a car boot sale or a cookery shop without buying yet another piece of cookware, this book is right up my street. There is a chapter called 'Measure' which explains why America is frustratingly 'volumetric', and is essential reading for anybody writing recipes. Similar to 'A history of the world in 100 objects', however, in Consider the Fork, those objects all relate to cooking. Which is just as accurate as a record of humanity, for what distinguishes us from animals, is cooking and clothing.

Cooked by Michael Pollan
Written in an accessible way, this book has good pacing, reading like a food adventure story. Pollan never talks down to the reader and seems excited by what he is discovering. Trish Deseine and I have had rows over this book and how to educate people about food. She believes it's unrealistic to talk about cooking from scratch in this way when people are resistant to cooking at all. As a food geek, of course, I love his journey into food, and hope that this approach to cooking will eventually filter through to everyone. The issue of food poverty have been much talked about in the media recently. As a single mum who spent years on benefits, during the previous tory regime, prior to New Labours' more generous benefits, I can honestly say we never went hungry. Apart from cooking from scratch, I skipped food from bins. Lidl is great for that, you get free unopened food in perfectly good condition. I didn't feel humiliated by this, I felt resourceful. It helps that we didn't eat or expect meat and that fish was a rare treat. So, if you are poor, go veggie for gods sake! Buying basic ingredients such as flour, which don't cost much, and learning how to make your own bread, is something anyone, who isn't working full-time, can do.
The real problem is twofold: fuel poverty (you need fuel to cook with and cheap foods often require slow cooking) and lack of food education, and this is what Michael Pollan is giving here. It's great to hear that the government is bringing back cookery classes into schools. We need dozens of Michael Pollans spreading the word about sourdough and other 'from scratch' techniques. We need a whole food programme on the dole, giving people a leg up by helping them start a micro food business.

Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts by Gizzi Erskine
Love the style and pizzaz of this book by Gizzi in which she reunites the 'cook yourself slim' of her early career, her rock n roll image with her genuine interest in street food and Korean food. This book ascribes to the 80/20 theory of healthy eating, which is if you eat fairly low calorie 5 days a week, you can feast 2 days a weeks. Most of the 5:2 diets are the other way around, you eat what you like 5 days a week and fast on 500 calories for 2 days a week. Frankly Gizzi's book makes more sense, otherwise it's just too good to be true. (Mind, I tried the 5:2 diet and by 5pm on my first diet day, felt so hungry I just thought 'screw this' and succumbed to roast potatoes.) However the food in this book, skinny or wicked, looks so delicious it's hard to believe that it might be 'diet food'.

The Forager's Kitchen by Fiona Bird
I first saw this book for sale in Alberquerque in a very chic cafe/bookshop. I haven't heard too much about this book over here, so I'm guessing Fi Bird is big in America. Fiona was a runner up on Masterchef and has been teaching cooking to school children. She's passionate about eating well and education. She has plenty of kids herself, about five I think, and lives with her doctor husband in the outer Hebrides. I've always been interested in foraging and this book demonstrates in depth knowledge while beautifully illustrated with photographs. Although for some reason the photographer is not credited. Fiona forages not just at the hedgerow but at the beach. There are enticing recipes for seaweed popcorn, Douglas fir chocolate pots, minted pea and ramps soup, plus things to do with berries, herbs and flowers. It's inspirational and another way to eat on the cheap: forage! 

Friday, 26 July 2013

How to create the perfect cheese board

In my last post I talked of visiting the Castello cheese dairies in Denmark. I was given the guided tour and along the way, picked up several tips about cheese. I thought it would be useful to write up these tips in a post on how to put together a great cheeseboard. 

Yes good cheese is expensive but think! You don't have to cook anything! It's the ultimate lazy arse way of entertaining. If you ask guests at the end of a meal 'what did you like best about the meal' they will almost always say 'the cheeseboard'. 

Creating a Cheese board:

• Start from weak to strong: start with a mild creamy cheese and end up with a strong blue cheese such as Danish Blue, one of the strongest.

• Do explain or even label the cheeses. People love food stories, they'd love to know where their food comes from, what it goes with...

• Include a variety: say 1 goat, 1 cows, 1 hard, 1 soft, 1 blue.

• Think also about shapes and colours of cheeses: a triangular wedge, a soft semi circle, a round truckle, an oozing slab… wrapped in leaves, or veined with blue, or with an washed orange-hued rind...

• Accompany your cheese board with a scattering of nuts, some sliced and/or whole fruit such as pears or apples, chunks of honeycomb, (blue cheese matches especially well with a drizzle of honey), chutneys, fruit 'cheeses', or pungent Italian 'mustard' fruits (mostarda di frutta, available in Italian shops and delis).

• You can eat cheese with bread or crackers. The French tend to eat cheese with bread whereas we use crackers. Try making your own seed crackers! Use a mix of types of bread and cheese biscuits, of different grains, shapes and colours, it will make your table look very attractive.

• Make sure you cut the cheese correctly. Never just shave off the point, for instance, with a triangular cheese. With a square or circular cheese, cut in slices like a cake, using your knife tip to find the centre point of the cheese. With a blue cheese, cut in triangles radiating from center of the lower end of the wedge, the first cut will be a corner. 

• Cut from the rind to the tip to get the full flavour. In general, the rind of soft cheeses is edible and the rind of hard cheese isn't. The cheese nearer to the rind has more tang. 

• A proper cheese knife has an edge for cutting and two tips for lifting up the cheese onto your plate.  

• If not serving as a cheese board but plated, give each guest about 15 to 25g of each cheese depending on how many you are serving. Cheese is very rich, you don't need too much.

• Cheese is great for the digestion, the teeth and for counteracting acids in the meal. This is why the French eat cheese at most meals. The French are experts on digestion. French wives use poor digestion, not headaches, as an excuse not to have sex.

• You can serve cheese French style, that is, directly after the main course, or British style, after pudding. People tend to linger over cheese, so it depends how long you want your guests to stay!

• You don’t have to serve cheese with wine; a dessert wine, port, Madeira, beer or even champagne can go very well with cheese

How to keep and serve your cheese:

• Castello blue cheese leaves the dairy at 5 weeks old so it arrives in the shops at its peak, around 5 to 6 weeks, although it's fine up to 3 months.

• Danish Blue cheese lasts up a year if kept well.

• The longer you keep blue cheese, the stronger it becomes, so if you like it strong, you can mature it yourself.

• Keep at 4ºC in the fridge for optimum preservation. Fridge temperature gages are cheap and worth having in the fridge, for food safety reasons.

• Take it out of the fridge 1 hour 30 minutes before serving to bring it to room temperature. The flavours really come out.

• Cheese from the soft cheese range should be taken out of the fridge 30 minutes before serving.

• Once taken out of the packet, wrap any blue cheese leftovers back in foil and return to fridge.

 Cream cheese can be wrapped in cling film. Hard cheeses must be freshly wrapped in greaseproof paper every time they are used.

• Leftovers can also be crumbled into pasta, salads, used in salad dressing. Make the most of your blue cheese.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Discovering Danish cheese in Aarhus

Innoculating the cheese curds with the P. roqueforti bacteria at the Castello dairy
Left: A very proud Bent Hanson who manages the Gjesing dairy. Right: Elise Borregaard, a female cheese maker at Castello.
Bang in the geographic centre of Denmark, on the Jutland peninsula, lies a city called Aarhus. It's the smallest place that can still be called a city. Shortly after Denmark won a historic victory at the Eurovision song contest earlier this year, I went there to visit dairies and to find out more about Danish cheese, particularly Danish blue, the Castello range of soft blue and white cheeses, and the Castello range of decorated cream cheeses. I was impressed by the dedication of the guys that ran the dairies. They are ruthless about quality; every day each batch of cheese is tasted and if it isn't up to scratch, it's binned. Good cheese is expensive to make: in general it takes around six to ten litres of milk to make one kilo of cheese. For Danish blue it takes 515 litres of milk to make 66 kilos of cheese. 
Every 2 or 3 days the entire dairy is cleaned, from the ceiling down. Cleanliness and hygiene is paramount when dealing with dairy.
What is cheese?

It's basically preserved milk; the only way of keeping milk for travelling purposes. Michael Pollan in 'Cooked' says: "...like many other fermentations, cheese was from the beginning, a boon to mankind: a perishable foodstuff that has been processed in such a way as to render it more digestible, more nutritious, more durable and more flavorful, than the original."

Rasmus Tholstrup himself.
A brief history of Castello cheeses:

In the blue cheese family tree, Danish blue or Danablu as it's known in Denmark, is one of the more recent members of the blue veined dynasty. The earliest is probably Roquefort, of which there are references in literature (Pliny) from AD 79. The British Stilton was created much later, in the 18th century. Danish Blue was invented by Marius Boel in the 1920s when he was trying to make a Roquefort cheese, made out of ewe's milk, but from cows milk. Production started in 1949 and became part of Arla foods in 1986. It's now one of the best known and most popular blue cheeses in the world. 

Castello Creamy Blue, born in 1893, on the other hand, is more the descendant of the softer, creamier Gorgonzola Dolce (800AD). It was developed by the glamorous Tholstrup family (one of the descendents is married to Roger Moore of James Bond fame) from Denmark who were adventurous travellers. Inspired by Italian cheeses, Rasmus Tholstrup returned to Denmark to make Castello blue cheese. 
Left: the amount of P. roqueforti needed for one of these huge tanks of curds.

What are the blue veins on blue cheese?

It's a kind of mould, but a good mould from the blue mould culture. Just a tiny amount is enough to turn  a huge vat of cheese curds into blue cheese after ageing. To aid the process, the cheeses are pierced with stainless steel needles. This ensures a good spread of the blue veins.

You know the white furry 'skin' around Brie or Camembert? That's a kind of mould too. 
Mould can be very good for you. It's the process behind all fermented foods, such as sourdough culture, which is helpful for the flora and fauna of your gut. 
Penicillin is a mould and it is said, prior to the discovery of penicillin, that shepherds in the Roquefort area used to pack wounds with blue cheese to deter infection.
Moulds, however, in the production of Blue Castello, need controlling. For that reason there is strict quarantine between sections of the Gjesing dairy. The whole factory is air pressured to prevent outside moulds and workers must change clothes when they go from a blue mould area to a white mould area.
One of the hardest things when making blue cheese, is to ensure that the veining is evenly distributed; it starts from the interior and spreads outwards. People are disappointed if they get a wedge without some blue veins.  Each type of blue cheese has its signature piercing, for instance, Creamy Blue has a star shape piercing.
Left: The ø which means this batch is Organic. Right: rich and creamy Castello Jersey blue cheese. 

What kind of milk do they use?

Castello uses cows milk and produces both organic cheeses and non-organic. The milk is homogenised, which is a method of boiling milk. This breaks down the fat globules into smaller more regular cells which improves the texture of cheese. Goats' and sheeps' milk naturally have smaller fat globules. Homogenisation also whitens and strengthens the cheese. 

Most of the milk is from local dairies in Denmark but the Jersey blue and Jersey white cheeses use the fattier rich milk from Jersey cows. 
Some of the 'Unika' range of artisan cheeses that Castello make, in collaboration with chefs such as Noma's René Redzepi, use raw milk. These aren't yet available in the UK, but I'm hoping!
Left: A notice board in the dairy where employees can say whether they had a good day or a bad day. Cute, eh? Right: mini blue cheeses.
When should I eat blue cheese?

The Danish, Germans and Norwegians are the only nations that eat blue cheese for breakfast. Hardcore! They love it on crispbread and in open-faced sandwiches. But the biggest blue cheese scoffers are the Finns.

Mostly people eat blue cheese after dinner, although it's also wonderful as a sauce, a salad dressing or crumbled on salads. 
It matches very well with sweet wines, champagne and honey.
It's served as royal weddings... maybe they will serve it to contestants at the Eurovision song contest next year?
Left: Korsvej Dairy produces: chive covered cream cheese. Right: my favourite - pineapple, papaya and almond cream cheese! 
Decorated Cream Cheeses:

The popularity of cream cheese varies geographically: for instance Northern Germans won't eat it but Southern Germans can't get enough.  And cottage cheese sales are going up thanks to the Dukan diet. 
I've always loved cream cheese but I was shocked to find out that there is virtually no dairy and mostly stabilisers in Philadelphia cream cheese. A cheesemaker in London once told me: "It should be sold in a pharmacy not a food shop". 
I tasted several of the decorated cream cheeses made by Arla. I sneered at the Castello Pineapple Halo, dismissing it as 'seventies'. But, after tasting it, I loved its unusual flavour and so did my family when I served it on a cheese board, for it disappeared within minutes. The chive encrusted and black pepper encrusted cream cheeses were also good and work well with smoked salmon for instance.

Cheese globally:

There are vast parts of the world that don't eat cheese at all. China is a huge future market as they start to adopt Western diets in addition to their native diets. Like with the discovery of the New World, cultural assimilation goes both ways. They bring us sushi and dim sum, we give them cheese, bread and wine.

Cheeses from Arla are shipped abroad, as opposed to flown, to America, Mexico and Australia.
You may have seen 'Puck' in glass jars in the chilled section of ethnic food stores, which is made by Arla; it sells well in the Middle East as it doesn't need refrigeration. Puck makes a fantastic dip.
The UK is the biggest market for Danish blue cheese after Scandinavia. We have a sophisticated palette for strong cheese. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Super Freekeh

In my ongoing project to 'vary my grains' I picked up a box of the brilliantly named freekeh in my local ethnic shop.
Freekeh, when cooked, tastes nutty and new. But this green grain, fresh wheat, from Arabia, is as old as the hills and mentioned in the bible. It's good for diabetes and has more protein than rice or couscous. I fried it in olive oil and onions, then studded it with red barberries and nibbed pistachios, topped with gremolata.
1 brown onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 stick of cinnamon
200g of freekeh (whole grain)
1 tbsp of sumac
250ml of hot vegetable stock
Salt to taste
A handful of barberries
A handful of green nibbed pistachios (I store mine in the fridge, along with the pine nuts, to keep them fresh)

2 handfuls of fresh curly parsley
1-2 cloves of garlic
Zest of 1 lemon

Fry the onions until soft then add the garlic, cinnamon and freekeh, stirring all the while.
Add the sumac and the hot vegetable stock. Simmer for around 20 minutes. The freekeh still has a slight al dente bite to it, but is soft enough to eat.
Make the gremolata in the food processor or with a hand blender.
Add the barberies and pistachios to the freekeh.

Tastes just as good cold, so great for a barbeque or picnic too.

5 years ago: Never cook at a rave
4 years ago: Travels in Dorset my loverr 
3 years ago: My home bakery 
2 years ago: Edible flowers: Day lilies
1 year ago: All about hummus 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

On the barbeque: fish in newspaper

I always imagine a fisherman invented this technique. You are next to a river, dusk falls, you have a bunch of fish and you are hungry. You have no pan to cook anything on, but you light a fire with a newspaper. Eureka! 
You dip the newspaper in the river, wrap the fish in it, put it in the embers. When the newspaper is dry, the fish is cooked.
It's that easy. 
Last night my stoner friend Jim from Manchester came over. Yes him who got me in so much trouble with Kirstie Allsopp.*
I sent the teen to get a large sea bass from the local fishmongers, we have two in Kilburn, one was closed for Ramadan.  Turns out they only had two small ones, one wild, one farmed. They were a bit floppy without the rigor mortis you associate with really fresh fish. I normally get my fish from @chelseafish whose supplies are spanking fresh but I need to do this in advance and in large quantities. 

For four

1 newspaper
1 large (1 kilo) sea bass, gutted and scaled
1 orange, sliced finely
Pink peppercorns
1 campfire or BBQ, burnt down to embers

Wet the newspaper thoroughly in cold water. Wash the fish and place it on top of the folded out newspaper. Put the orange slices, salt and pink peppercorns in the cavity of the belly. Wrap the fish in the newspaper, folding over the ends.
Put the wet newspaper fish bundle on the ember part of the fire. Leave till the paper is yellow and dry, about 20 minutes.
Lift the paper out of the fire onto a tray or plate and carefully unwrap. The skin will come off onto the paper most likely. Serve half each of the upper side to two people. Cut the spine at the neck with a sharp knife, lift it out and back, exposing the bottom half of the fish. Cut this in half and serve to the other guests.
Nice with a Portuguese white from @winetrust100, avocado and spinach salad and fresh home-baked bread. If you want a different flavour, use a different newspaper, say a broadsheet rather than a red top.

*He made me get stoned the night before an appearance on the Kirstie Allsopp show where I was showing how to make gingerbread houses. The roof of my house wouldn't stick on and I got the giggles. Perfect goodie goodie class prefect Kirstie of course got her roof on. The whole piece was cut down to a couple of minutes, barely featuring me. Despite the fact I'd spent literally days, in a heatwave, making 7 gingerbread houses, 2 complete, several in different stages of construction, you'd think she'd made the bloody gingerbread houses!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Cool jerk: artisanal soda

I was sent a Soda Stream machine this week, a 1970s relic which has been re-branded and updated, and boy have I had fun! Plus it couldn't have come at a better time with the hot weather. 
Sodas or 'fizzy drinks' as we call them in the UK, were sold in drugstores in the USA because of a belief in the health properties of carbonated water. 
Artisanal sodas are bubbling up over in the states: Brooklyn, with its thriving food culture seems to be the epicentre of the home made fizz (www.brooklynsodaworks.com and  www.NonaBrooklyn.com to name but two companies)
Back in 2011, I visited the Brooklyn Farmacy at their stall at Brooklyn flea, now they own an actual drugstore. So cool!
Soda Stream comes with ready-made sachets of flavoured syrups but I thought I'd prefer to make my own artisanal syrups.

Obviously the great thing about making your own syrups is that you can reduce the sugar if you wish, you know it has no nasties in it like aspartame, and you can make unusual flavours.

You fill the bottle that comes with the machine with ordinary water then carbonate it in the Soda Stream. Then you add your syrup. It's like having your own home soda fountain. Even the teen is impressed. Now all I need to do is pull on a tight sweater and hope to get discovered like Lana Turner.

Rosemary, Bay and Hibiscus syrup

Makes one small bottle, enough for two bottles of soda stream carbonated water.

A few sprigs of rosemary

5/6 fresh Bay leaves
5/6 hibiscus flowers
440ml (2 cups) water
400g (2 cups) sugar

Put the ingredients in a heavy bottomed sauce pan and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Keep on a low heat for 20 minutes. Then strain the syrup (with a cheesecloth and funnel or through a chinois) into a bottle.
Make 1 bottle of soda stream water, using their special bottle then add half the quantity of syrup. Or just add fizzy water.

One year ago: Spaghetti in a bag 
Two years ago: Tutti frutti mustard ice cream 
Three years ago: A revolutionary bouillon and a collapsing ancien regime croquembouche 
Four years ago: Dinner with Ravinder Bhogal and Hardeep Singh Kholi 
Five years ago: The wizards 40th birthday party 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Mexico: tropical fruit with chilli and lime in a watermelon bowl

 tropical fruit with chilli and lime in a watermelon bowl

 We have a rare patch of hot weather here in the UK, it feels like another country. Let's take a tip from hotter climates on how to eat. No cook recipes are what you want, begone slaving over a hot stove.
The Mexicans have it right, with their light and refreshing beach snacks. Every day on the beach at Sayulita, near Puerta Vallarte, a series of vendors would stomp up and down the hot sands, big pot on their heads, cool box banging against their knees, calling out what they were selling, a repetitive loop that merged into a song. What was particularly brilliant, if you were staying a few days, is that you could put in orders. Like, meet me here on this patch of sand tomorrow at 5pm with a vegetarian tamale, no make that two, type thing. And if you weren't on that patch of sand, they'd find you, wherever you were. Because they all chat to each other, the vendors, and they say, oh no, that gringa with the red hair is a bit further up.
My fruit guy would bring me a large plastic beer glass studded with spears of pineapple, mango and watermelon. Over the fruit, he'd squeeze of bottle of chilli sauce, add lime and salt. Try it, it's both savoury and sweet, cooling and heating.
In India they use sulphuric black salt and lime over fruit which is also very good. The salt, obtainable in most Indian shops as Kala Nemak, smells a bit farty but tastes wonderful and gives that authentic Indian sour taste.
This is also a great recipe to add to a barbeque spread.

Tropical fruit with chilli and lime in a watermelon bowl recipe

For two

1 small watermelon
1 papaya
1 mango
1 lime
Your favourite chilli sauce
or grind together some dried chillis

You could also add a small pineapple. If you want to make this dish for more people, buy a large watermelon. Make sure the fruit is ripe then chill in the fridge. Cold fruit is even more refreshing.

Cut the watermelon in half then on one half, cut a thin slice from the bottom so that it will stand up like a bowl. Carefully, with a knife, cut around the inside edge, and then, without cutting through the skin, cut each half into pie type slices. Use a spoon to pull out the wedges and set them aside.
Cut the papaya in half, scoop out the black seeds, then like an avocado, use a thin knife to cut inside the  skin, then cut slices lengthways. Peel off the skin.
Mangos are always a bugger to cut because of the stone in the middle. Here is a great link which will explain perfectly how to do it. Rather than cutting the hedgehog pattern at the end however (although that's great for salsa or a fruit salad), I cut the mango into spears, lengthwise.
Put all your fruit into the watermelon bowl.
Squeeze the lime juice onto the fruit, scatter some good sea salt on it, then add the chilli sauce.
 tropical fruit with chilli and lime in a watermelon bowl with tajin seasoning

In Mexico they sell Tajin, ready-made small packs of a chilli lime and salt mixture, for school lunch boxes and picnics!
If you haven't got a chilli sauce you like you could also grind up a dried chilli with some salt and sprinkle that.

 tropical fruit with chilli and lime in a watermelon bowl

Friday, 12 July 2013


A lovely lady from Twitter, living in Norfolk, met me at Kings Cross station, platform 9 3/4, near where Boudicca is reputed to be buried, to do a secret handover of a large bag of gooseberries. I couldn't be more thrilled. A recent order of gooseberry punnets from my supplier cost £3.14p for 100g! I made a gooseberry fool, parsimoniously eking out the fruit.
So this weekend, armed with my bounty, I went mad on gooseberries: curd and jam. Gooseberry pies are in the offing too...
In my mum and dad's old house in Highgate, there was a gooseberry bush at the bottom of the garden and as a child, I was disappointed by the sour taste of the bright green fruit. Gooseberry is another name for the devil and eating them was the punishment for losing games.
Today, sour flavours such as pomegranate, hibiscus, lemon and lime are my favourite. A few weeks ago I made passionfruit curd which I injected into doughnuts. I've now got a bit of a curd obsession.

Gooseberry curd

450g of gooseberries topped and tailed
2 tblsp water
100g sugar
30g unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 egg yolk

Sterilise two jars by rinsing them in hot water then putting them in the oven at 180ºC for half an hour. (I stand them, open side up, spaced so they aren't touching, on a baking tray lined with a tea towel or newspaper). If you haven't got new lids then have cellophane or wax seals for the tops of the jars.
Rinse the gooseberries and cook them with the water on a low heat until the gooseberries have burst and become soft.
Push the gooseberries through a chinoise or sieve with a wooden spoon or spatula into another pan.
Add the sugar and butter into the gooseberry mixture while it's still hot, stirring until it is incorporated. Working quickly, whisk the eggs and add them into the mix.
Put the pan back on a low heat and stir continuously until the mixture is thick and custard like. This can take about 20 minutes.
Take off the heat and let it cool. Transfer to your jars. Put on a pretty label and you can keep these in the fridge for at least two weeks.
This mixture can be spooned into tartlets, spread on toast or scones or yes, piped into doughnuts. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Quick summer starter: melon with smoked salmon

I had this at the house of cookbook writer Trish Deseine. Normally melon is paired with parma ham but as you know, I don't eat meat, so good quality smoked salmon was wrapped around each slice. Drizzle with basil or dill chopped finely into olive oil. Fast, refreshing, effective. After all, today is the hottest day of the year and the last thing you want to be doing is cooking.

1 melon
1 packet smoked salmon, torn into strips
A handful of basil or dill
Olive oil
Pink peppercorn on top (optional)

Cut up the melon, drape a piece of smoked salmon around each piece. Top with the herb oil.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Summer recipe: blueberry soup with forest fruits sorbet

After their long dark winters, the colours of a Scandinavian summer are really something; map blue skies, leaf green countryside, enviable white-gold hair with improbably tanned skin, flashing metal rainbow bicycles and brick red holiday huts. 
The collective vernal joy is reflected in what they eat; clean fresh food. The Danes eat buttermilk soup while the Swedes like to make fruit soup, from berries and rosehips.
This is a dish I discovered on a trip to Sweden. As well as the usual blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, the Swedes can forage for cloudberries, bilberries, lingonberries and seabuckthorn berries. Berries are considered a superfood, full of anti-oxidants and vitamin C, as week as anti-ageing properties. 

This version is made from blueberries and topped with a quick berry sorbet. Perfect for summer menus, as an unusual dessert. This version is chilled, but you could also have it warm, perhaps with a slick of yoghurt, for a unique dinner party starter.
See the recipe here on the Good Food Channel site.