Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chocolate Characters Continued....The Hot One

At first glance, combining chili with chocolate may appear to be a rather modern phenomena. However a more authentic combo would be hard to find. The ancient Mayans (A.D. 250 to 900) and possibly the Olmecs before them, flavoured their highly valued chocolate drink with a number of delicacies including honey, vanilla and also chili. It was only when the Spanish conquistadors introduced cocoa to Europe that sugar was added and chocolate was not eaten in anything resembling the bar format that we know today until the 19th century.

OK, history lesson over. Let's get to the nub of the matter. What does a predilection for the piquancy and kick that chili adds to chocolate, reveal about one's character?

Chili in Dark Chocolate
The consumer of this particular combination is one of the pleasure seekers of the chocolate world. Verging on being a worrier, they are searching for something in life, even if they are not quite sure what that elusive 'thing' is.

Usually high achievers, they tend to display a cautious adventurousness which can appear to others as a sense of bravado and gung-ho, however this really belies a certain hesitancy.

These creatures with their love of strong flavours, possess a warm personality who will give deeply to those they love but can adversely be politely cool with those that they don't take to. These are all or nothing animals.

Chili chocolate lovers seek stimulation, both of their tastebuds and their intellect. They abhor being bored and in extreme cases can become quite destructive unless their attention is diverted and engaged elsewhere. They find it hard to relax and will push themselves until forced to stop, either by others or by sheer exhaustion.

They are passionate about the issues and people they care about. On the occasions when they allow themselves to cut loose and to let their wild emotions and desires come to the fore, they can be quite a force to be reckoned with.

Just as chilies add a kick and vibrancy to a dish, so can the chili chocolate eater enrich one's life. However, a word of caution. Handle with care.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sushi Heaven

Japanese food is my absolute favourite. Clean and clearly defined flavours, delicate portions, spankingly fresh fare and an absolute joy for those of us who are dairy and gluten free (just go easy on the soy sauce). Sushi and all things fishy seem to have gained a lot of press attention in recent weeks as hot on the tails of the successful 'French Women Don't Get Fat' comes a Japanese version which also claims to delay the signs of ageing. Hmmm.

So, when my very slim and amazingly youthful-looking friend, C, emailed to suggest a catch-up, sushi seemed to be the obvious choice. I had previously initiated C into food of the Land of the Rising Sun at a kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt) joint to ease her and her nerves in gently. Having not only survived but thorougly enjoyed that experience, C was now ready for the next stage. A full on Japanese restaurant. And so we skipped to Kisso in South Kensington, my favourite.
As ever at this wonderful little local, the service was erratic at best, tediously slow at worse however the waiting staff are so delightfully sweet and the food is beyond comparison at its reasonable price that one can't help but be happy to bide one's time.
We shared a bowl of steamed edamame beans sprinkled with sea salt, the beans feeling like pearls in comparison to their hairy pods when prised apart with one's teeth. The puckering of one's lips should be an indication that enough salt has been consumed, however I can never heed such warnings as I just cannot get enough of these little jewels. I fail to understand why some lesser-quality restaurants insist on serving edamame cold as the heat is needed to transform these soy beans from hard pellets to silky buttons.
I chose scallop sashimi - the sweetest, most tender savoury food that I have ever experienced. And such freshness. I could happily eat this everyday for the rest of my life although I didn't dare ask if the scallops had been diver caught in case my conscience didn't like the reply.

I followed the sashimi with unagi (grilled eel) and cucumber rolls, the coolness of the cucumber proving to be the perfect foil to the oily eel fresh and all wrapped in perfectly vinegared sushi rice which was so freshly prepared that it was still slightly warm. Combined with a sinus-clearing dab of wasabi these rolls were a big hit.
C's cod on a bed of ginger and mushroom rice was wonderfully perfumed, the ginger adding to rather than masking the delicate flavour of the fish.
Two glasses of wine and a small bottle of water later, the whole thing came to under £40. And we felt safe in the knowledge that our waistlines and wrinkles were safe.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Chocolate Characters

Chocolate holds a singular position in life. A power it has yielded for thousands of years and shows no signs of relinquishing. Few legally obtained substances arouse a similar level of passion and one is hard-pressed to find an individual who is indifferent to the stuff - most have a favourite centre, brand or even bean whilst others claim that they cannot stand it.

Whether an advocate of a mass produced, sugar laden 'fix' or a connoisseur of the single plantation, single bean slab, we rely on cocoa to give us a small measure of unbridled pleasure. Sadly for some this is tinged with guilt ("I really shouldn't....") whilst others relish the unfurling of desire as little piece of dark heaven melts on their tounge and the ensuing flavours envelop them.

Whilst working in the chocolate shop I often wondered if each individual's reaction to chocolate is different, does their choice of flavours reveal anything about them? For example, are there characteristics which are common to those who love a milk hard caramel and do they differ from those who prefer a cherry wrapped in dark chocolate?

Having observed customers and conducting a survey amongst my friends I have come to some silly conclusions, the first of which follows:

Violet cream enrobed in dark chocolate

Those that delight in this floral delicacy is of a complex character. Often overlooked as the granny's choice, these little fondants belie a sophistication and subtle air of the eater in question. Often those that choose flowery creams have a certain sense of tradition, a classic style being sure about what suits them and what they like. They will have a strength of character and a quiet confidence of their convictions. They appreciate the finer things in life and often have exquisite taste. These are not guzzlers, instead choosing to savour experiences in life and beneath that romantic exterior, there is a passionate soul waiting to be discovered.

Next time you see someone select a violet or rose cream from a mixed selection, bear in mind that this quiet, seemingly unassuming person is truly a tiger!

Lemon Chill

Today is a perfect winter's day in London. The sky is a vivid shade of blue with not even the threat of a rain cloud and the biting wind manages to find a way through one's layers of clothing to poke its cruel, cloud fingers into one's flesh. Just the conditions to make one yearn for soul food - food that will make one feel cossetted and thankful to escape the wicked wind outside. To me this doesn't mean a creamy risotto, a roasted joint or a school dinner type pud (as it does to some of my friends), but rather simple vegetables, laced with zingy flavours redolent of summer months to awaken my dullened tastebuds.

Having been rather buffeted by the weather I raided the fridge to emerge with a bunch of purple sprouting broccoli and a red chilli. First I prepared the dressing. I fried a clove of garlic and the chopped chilli in a glug of olive oil and then added the juice of half a lemon, its zest and also some curls of the peel and let it bubble away to create a warm dressing. Meanwhile I shaved the thick stems of the broccoli and steamed it over a pan of water to which I'd added some fennel seeds, for about five minutes. I then threw the broccoli into the pan with the dressing and tossed it to ensure it was thoroughly coated.

Devoured with a simple salad this was exactly the medicine I needed to counter my February blues.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Chocolate Tasters......or Scoffers

At the end of last year I finished my 'serious job' to try my hand at entering the world of food. As I have a sort of chocolate qualification (and more relevantly, a passion for the stuff) I grabbed the opportunity to work at what is possibly one of London's quirkiest chocolate shops. Although I'd hoped for a marketing or pr job, thus using my prior experience and skills, I decided to plummet into the deep end, to go back to basics and to be a 'shopgirl' in the mad pre-Christmas rush. An eye-opener indeed! Christmas is the chocolate world's second busiest time of the year (Easter is the bonkers time, what else do people exchange other than chocolate eggs?) and so a baptism of fire was undertaken, but my goodness, apart from anything else, what an insight into people, both their characters and habits. Take for example, attitudes to free samples. I soon realised that when faced with a tantalizing tray of cocoa titbits, people tend to fall into one of three camps.

The first, the 'sidler', edges rather nervously up to the counter and rather furtively, their hand will slide its way up to the proffered plate. A morsel will be snatched, popped into the receiving mouth and hurriedly chewed, without stopping to consider what they are hastily munching. And this entire procedure (lasting approximately 30 seconds) is performed without making eye contact with the chocolate vendor. I wonder that the sidler derives any pleasure from this exercise as one needs to savour chocolate, to let it melt in one's mouth as it yields its subtle aromas and flavours in waves that caress one's tastebuds before culminating in a crescendo of 'wow'.

Then there are the 'scoffers'. These creatures blatantly grab large fistfuls and stuff them unceremoniously into their (I'm sad to say) equally large mouths. These people, often having consumed their afternoon tea at the shop's pleasure, rarely continue to actually make a purchase. Indeed their is something of a sense of proud about them as they swagger out of the door. Interestingly the scoffers often hunt in packs and although I hate to point the finger, no matter how chocolatey, they are usually upper-middle class, loudly spoken and rather brusque. Money and privilege does not necessarily imbue one with charming manners or taste. The scoffers share a lack of interest in what they are tasting with the sidlers.

The third type are every chocolate-seller's favourite. The 'tasters'. These pleasant individuals are actually interested in what they are putting into their mouths and one imagines that they rarely let inferior goods make their way past their lips. They take pleasure in letting the cocoa butter melt and in letting the flavours unfurl in their mouths and in gauging the intensity which each sample contains. These sweet people allow one to talk about the sample, in return for which, we hopefully have helped the customer to have discovered a new delight or to widen their taste memory-bank a little.

As my time at the chocolate shop comes to an end (the need to make money is calling me back temporarily to grown-up work) I realise that I have learnt an awful lot about people. Their choice of chocolates is even more of an character insight.........................

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lemon Soul

Welcome to my little world of culinary experiences. This blog is purely an outlet for my passion for food and for my new-found joy of writing. Also it’s a simple means of keeping in touch with my friends and family abroad – if I can’t cook for them at least I can show them what I’ve been up to.

My approach to food has changed quite significantly in the last few years. I used to be afraid of it and of experimenting with ingredients, however years of avidly reading every published article about food, collecting recipes and of living with a terribly accomplished and instinctive cook (my boyfriend, J) has given me a confidence that is still growing. A stint in the wine trade and an in-depth course about chocolate (another passion of mine) introduced me to the heady world of flavours and their nuances and now I find that playing with combinations is such fun, even if they don’t always work.

Lemons are my favourite fruit as they have the power to release their wonderful juice and by doing so, bring a little taste of sunshine to gloomy London. I start each day with the juice of half a lemon and it never fails to lift my spirits. I try to eat very healthily, mainly as I am dairy and gluten intolerant. Instead of letting this be a burden I view it as a daily opportunity to cook a meal from fresh ingredients without ever being able to fall back on nasty processed foods. I adore baking and yet don’t have a sweet tooth (apart from chocolate but that’s another story) however fortunately my boyfriend and friends do and so my tinkerings with flour, eggs and sugar usually find a welcome home. However I am no domestic goddess.

Basically I am fascinated by food and everything appertaining to it be it restaurants, ingredients and their provenance, people’s eating habits etc: the list is endless and rather than boring you with my rantings, I hope that you find this blog of mild interest and if nothing else, that it may inspire you to get out your saucepans and to prove that you are a better cook than me. Trust me, it’s really not that much of a challenge!