P E R T E L O T E

Truth compels us to assert our conviction of the superior wholesomeness of bread made in our own homes - Eliza Acton

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Tuesday 31st January

Well, this is nothing to do with food but hey, all the cool kids are doing it. And yes, if a food blogger I trusted told me I could make a delicious dinner by sticking my head in the oven, I certainly would give it a go. So I'm tagged for the Too Much Information meme (following Jeanne, who got it from Viv, who got it from Obachan, who... you get the idea.) Ten random things about me:

  1. I'm mildly obsessive about book-shelving, though thoroughly untidy and disorganised in other areas of my life. We recently moved house and don't yet have shelf space for all our books: but it's ok, the ones still in boxes are also in alphabetical order.
  2. I am currently only allowed to deploy my second-favourite book-ordering mechanism in the children's books section, housed in the spare room. They are shelved by colour. So pretty!
  3. Yes, I have a whole bookcase of children's books. I buy them - second hand - voraciously: my favourites are puffin paperbacks, the sort with occasional pen-and-ink illustrations by Margery Gill, Pauline Baynes or Edward Ardizzone.
  4. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a vicar. I used to tell careers teachers this. I think it's fair to say they weren't sure what to advise, given that I started doing this some time before the church began ordaining women.
  5. My spell checker just suggested that I change advise in the above sentence to advice. Spell checkers drive me insane. Poor spellings and grammar drive me insane. People who are paid to programme spell checkers although they haven't the first idea of English should be sentenced to long periods of imprisonment during which angry, Cambridge-educated pedants hit them over the head with dictionaries. Yes, I know how annoying pedants are. That's why they're part of the punishment.
  6. I faint very easily. Blood, needles, broken bones: I don't need to experience them or even see them to be affected. My most ridiculous faint? It's a toss-up: the time I hit my elbow on an arm-rest, or during a conversation with a medical student.
  7. When I was about 7, I went on holiday to Cornwall with my father, step-mother, brother and step-brother. In one week, I caught measles, got trapped in a fallen wardrobe, and witnessed a car crash.
  8. The latter was while we were eating our picnic lunch in a motorway lay-by (classy!). A car towing a caravan overturned as it drove past us. My father ran up the hard shoulder to check no-one was hurt. Did I report this praise-worthy action in my 'What happened on my holidays' presentation? No. Instead I told the whole school what happened when he got back to us: "daddy said, let's get out of here before the police arrive..."
  9. At college I held the following posts: Students' Union Women's Officer; Chapel Secretary; and the computing society's Token Woman. I still regret not being included in the Secret Plan (If You Can Find It You Can Read It) slightly more than the whole not-really-doing-any-work and getting-a-rubbish-degree thing.
  10. I have never travelled outside of Europe. I consider this to be much the most embarrassing confession in this list. Fortunately, it's also the only one I can do anything about.

Monday 30th January

sugar free chocolate puddings

Oops, this is a bit late for Sugar Low Friday, hosted by Becks & Posh, but they are sugar free desserts. They are both pots au chocolat, made to my usual recipe with chocolate, cream and egg. The recipe doesn't use any additional sugar, so normally it is simply as sweet as the chocolate you use. Good dark chocolate is already fairly low in sugar, but since I suspect the chocolate and cream part of this recipe is already slightly against the spirit of the event, I experiemented with the following alternatives.

#1: On the left, 100% cocoa-solids chocolate, which contains no sugar at all. It isn't very palatable on its own, so I sweetened it with a balsamic vinegar reduction (because although it clearly contains sugars, it doesn't contain Sugar, and thus seemed like a more interesting idea than honey or syrup). This was rather tasty if you like the combination. Although it was very intense and quite bitter, I wouldn't have known it was made with 100% cocoa chocolate.

#2: Rococo's sugar-free milk chocolate, which is sweetened with something called maltitol. This is a malt-based sugar substitute which is apparently better than others because it doesn't have their 'mouth-cooling effect'! I'm not sure I'd want to eat very much of it - not that I know of any reason not to, I'm just suspicious of 'replacement' foods and I felt I could tell the difference (no blind test was attempted, though). In this very small quantity, however, it didn't have the unpleasant taste I associate with artificial sweeteners. I did find the dessert sweeter than I would expect a good quality milk chocolate to be, so perhaps an interesting next step would be to use less chocolate in this one - or perhaps replace some of the sugar-free chocolate with a little low-sugar dark chocolate to keep the texture the same whilst rebalancing the sweetness vs cocoa-yness aspect.

Overall, I think my conclusion is that simply reducing sugar is not an intelligent way to cook: it isn't enough to really make a difference to the healthiness of your food, but it is enough to make it slightly unsatisfactory.

Thursday 26th January

haggis haggis

Much as I'd like to persuade you that the haggis is 'a bird with vestigal wings and three legs of uneven lengths', I think you can tell from the above photos that it isn't. It's just a traditional Scottish pudding made from offal and oatmeal. I rather like it, though it doesn't hold the same fond place in my heart as black pudding/boudin noir/morcilla and their ilk. You can only buy it in regular shops in England in January, because Burns Night comes round, and people get all peculiar about celebrating the culinary culture of a poet of whose poems they can recite a line or two in an appalling accent. We had a fairly traditional haggis (at the top in the picture) from the Scottish Haggis Company, and a veggie one from Macsween's. Both are cooked by wrapping well and immersing in boiling water for 45 minutes. The trad was good, perhaps not the best I've had (I think that's the Macsween's meat one, though it's a little hard to remember when you only eat it once a year). It deviated slightly from the traditional recipe in including beef offal as well as the usual lambs' lungs (the lungs are why it's illegal in the US, apparently). And of course the ingredients list the annoyingly secretive 'spices' - I can taste black pepper but not much more. The veggie version adds beans, lentils, carrots, turnips, onions and nuts to the oatmeal, and uses 'non-dairy fats' instead of suet. The consistency is very different, much more crumbly and nubbly. Alongside I glazed some carrots, adding wee dram of whisky for fun. Probably a shocking waste of jolly nice malt whisky, but only a splash was needed to give them that distinctive peaty tang.

Thursday 26th January

cabbage

I didn't manage to join in Euro Blogging By Post this time, much to my regret, but I have been enjoying the accounts of other bloggers' comfort parcels very much. No surprise to find chocolate featuring rather prominently... This stew is the other kind of comfort food, the kind you need first on a cold winter's evening (before settling down on the Sofa of Loveliness with a large bar of chocolate in one hand and a good book in the other). It's warm and tasty and really quite veg-ful and healthy as comfort foods go.

Cabbage and Chorizo Stew

Take six cooking chorizo (from Brindisa or your local supplier: M&S have stopped doing them I think? - anyway, you need the ones like sausages not the ones like salami) and cut into chunks. Fry. Add a roughly chopped onion, and other 'casserole base' veg as your cupboard permits: carrot and celery are standard for me. When the chorizo is looking cooked on the outside, and the onion is soft, add a crushed clove of garlic and a small savoy cabbage, sliced. Stir vigorously to coat the cabbage in the oily, paprika-y goodness, add stock (not quite enough to cover) and simmer. It doesn't need to simmer for more than half an hour, and if you like a little bite left in your cabbage, then 15 minutes is long enough. Add a drained and rinsed tin of cannelloni beans, and you're done. Eat with a spoon and lots of bread.

Monday 23rd January

vacherin

Today, they say, is the most miserable day of the year. There's a complicated formula involving coldness, Mondayness, and being just long enough after New Year that you still hate yourself for breaking your resolutions, but like every journalist in the country I'm going to ignore that and instead use the press release as an arbitrary hook on which to hang that which I was going to write anyway. Namely: how cheering it is to take a whole vacherin monte d'or, splash it with wine, and warm it - still in its wooden box - in the oven. The result is that under the stinky crust you have the easiest, creamiest fondue, to be scooped up with crusty bread, boiled potatoes or just a spoon. Close your eyes, crank up the heating and you could easily imagine yourself in the Alps - who's to say your daily commute doesn't deserve as much reward as a day's skiing? In my case the vacherin was the generous gift of someone I was meeting for the first time, and you can't get a more promising introduction than that... not such a bad day, then, after all.

Thursday 19th January

We had a teensy weensy housewarming at the weekend, at which I'm afraid I totally failed in my duty as a good blogger to take any photos. Still, I should note that the nibbles which went down best were little lamb patties, flavoured with cinnamon and pomegranate molasses and grilled so they were crisp and juicy. Aubergine slices roasted with cumin and paprika and wrapped around cubes of halloumi (then speared with cocktail sticks and grilled briefly) were the other thing I was pleased with. We had a bit of an eastern mediterranean/moorish Spain theme going, with pomegranate martinis.

Tuesday 17th January

cabbage

Over Christmas I acquired a packet of Salar Flaky Salmon. It's a hot smoked salmon, meaning that the fish cooks in hot smoke - unlike traditional smoked salmon which is cured in cooler smoke. Hence 'flaky', rather than, say, sliceable. It's been sitting around a bit because although I knew it was tasty, and the packet suggested that it was infinitely versatile, it felt as though the logical thing to do with it was salad, and like I say, it was Christmas. Then I was looking up what Nigel Slater had been eating one day (in the Kitchen Diaries - an addictive pastime) and found that he had dined on a bowl of white cabbage, with bacon and caraway seeds. That sounded like the perfect accompaniment to my flaky salmon. The poached egg was possibly superfluous and certainly overdone.

Cabbage

Half a white cabbage, sliced thinly
60g diced pancetta
1/2tsp caraway seeds
1/2tsp caster sugar
tbs cider vinegar

Fry the pancetta until crisp. Add caraway seeds. Add cabbage and stir fry for a couple of minutes until hot and shiny but not limp. Add sugar and vinegar, fry no more than two minutes more.

Friday 13th January

friand

There's not much to say about this, I'm just more pleased with the picture than I have been lately. I made a batch of friands, little french cakes of ground almonds, icing sugar and melted butter. Très chic. I use Jill Dupleix's recipe, which I'm afraid isn't on her website, but is in Simple Food - which I would therefore recommend highly.

Thursday 12th January

panini

While we're on the subject, this is a great story. Yay Signor Digesù! I don't quite follow how his panini are solely responsible for closing down McDonald's - the part of me that lives with a scientist wants to know that all the other variables have been accounted for - but yay anyway. In tribute we - what else? - ate panini. For no particular reason I had a fridge full of lovely Italian goodies (comes of visiting Borough Market in the same week we visited the inlaws, who live nice and close to Olga's, a fantastic little deli on Penton Road), so I was able to try a couple of combinations: scamorza with pancetta and pesto, and salami milano with goat's cheese and sun dried tomatoes. In both cases I toasted the rolls before filling them; wrapped them tightly in foil and warmed them in the oven for ten minutes. We decided on balance we slightly preferred the first version, where the smoked cheese balanced the sweet ham beautifully - and of course mozarella, which this basically is, has that uniquely lovely way of melting. In the other one the goat's cheese was a bit soft and so had a tendency to splurt, and it overwhelmed the salami, which I suppose could have been corrected by slicing the one more thinly and the other more thickly.

Wednesday 11th January

Ready to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time? I do it all the time, it just takes practice. Here goes: Boo hiss to the Murdoch press! And also: good old Sunday Times for making Gordon Ramsay recipes available free online. I can't take much of the chestnut-headed one on screen, but these columns are rather good. He seems to have thought hard about how to make something approximating his much-celebrated food achievable for the home cook. Having said that, the recipe I used to feed the family in Christmas week was only a bastardised version of his Salmon Wellington - I confess I didn't make the crêpes that were supposed to come between the salmon and pastry. Despite that it worked a treat and went down extremely well: the curried risotto stuffing was delicious. With the rice and the pastry I didn't feel it needed any further starch, so just served cumin-glazed carrots and then a green salad. The whole was festive enough for what was effectively our celebration of Christmas, and light enough - and non-traditional enough - to acknowledge that we'd all had at least one already. But hush, don't tell Gordon - the poor lamb thinks women don't cook...

Tuesday 10th January

roast chicken in a casserole

Moving into our new home has, I confess, done a lot to satisfy the relentless acquisitor within me. We needed everything, and had been saving our pennies in anticipation; so I was allowed - nay, required - to shop, for stuff, for my own home, to suit my own taste. And it isn't over yet. To my joy this shameless splurge reduced the thrill of Christmas not one whit (yes, I am actually five years old. You got me), as evidenced by my squeals of delight when I found this baby under the tree. No, not the chicken. The casserole! My very own le creuset, at last. As solid as an aircraft carrier and as elegant as a yacht, and a beautiful dark, glossy red. Love it.

I have made a casserole or two already, but this weekend it occured to me to cook a whole chicken in it. I haven't found a totally foolproof method for roasting a supermarket chicken yet, so to be able to cook it as poule en pot is a great advantage. This recipe uses a lot of oil to create an almost creamy emulsion with the wine - the frying stage is scary but I fear nothing with my creuset to hand.

Olive chicken in a pot

Put a deep layer of olive oil in a casserole dish and heat it up. Really, two centimetres or so. Put a whole chicken in the hot oil; give it five minutes on each side - you will need a utensil in each hand to turn it over, and to hold it up if it is reluctant to balance on its side, but be careful, because it will spit. Add whole, peeled garlic cloves, at least one per person, and a whole onion, sliced. When the onion starts to brown, pour in 200ml of white wine. Add a bay leaf, some thyme and a lemon, cut into thin wedges. Leave to simmer for 50 minutes (if your chicken is very large, give it longer, obviously, and check for doneness). At the end of that time, add a handful of green olives (I had some stuffed with lemon, which worked very well) and boil to reduce the liquid. Serve with rice.

Monday 9th January

So, 2006, eh? How're you liking it? I'm easing myself in gently - Christmas shows a marked disinclination to end, which suits me fine. We've eaten out three times in nine days, which may not quite put me in the frequent-flyer class, but, again, I'm not complaining either. I even feel pleased that none of the experiences has been particularly exciting: it would be depressing to feel at this stage that one had eaten the meal of the year and could only go downhill from here. Instead we started with two mass-catered meals of average quality: at The Old Star pub in Westminster, who deserve credit for handling a large group of us at lunchtime on New Year's Day when they'd surely rather have been in bed; and in the Crypt of St Martin in the Fields, which is a sociable place to find a bowl of soup in central London without remortgaging.

Then this weekend we ate at Maghreb, a Moroccan restaurant on Upper Street. The owner/manager greeted us at the door - I'd say 'warmly', but he was wearing a huge coat, scarf, gloves, and hat, so warmth wasn't the first impression conveyed. His first words were that we would only be able to pay cash; his second that the table he showed us to 'ought to warm up soon'. Not a very auspicious start... could there really be a restaurant on this street (where about one establishment in three serves food) that didn't accept plastic? Or had the till gone the way of the central heating, and if so, what did that suggest about the kitchens? It was dark, too... so it was with some trepidation that we ordered, but it was fine. No better than that, admittedly - nothing to write home about, especially - but having set our expectations low, the fact that the food was cooked, even hot, was a bonus. Mixed mezze had two kinds of filo thingies, a cheese one and a fish one, which would have been easier to share had there been any visual difference between them. A house special of mixed lamb was probably the best main and certainly the most generous, consisting of a whole slowly braised lamb shank, shish kebab and merguez sausage. Chicken pastilla was crisp and sugary as it should be, but a little dry and lacking enough spice to balance the sweetness. With a bottle of house red this was all sufficiently ok not to impinge upon the main purpose of the evening - catching up with an old friend currently working over the pond - with any comment on the food. 18 a head including service likewise elicited neither complaint nor enthusiasm. There are several better places to eat on Upper Street, and there are probably dozens of better Moroccan restaurants in London - but if you want to combine the two, Maghreb is friendly and perfectly ok. Just visit a cashpoint on the way.