Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Chocolate Characters Cont - the Truffler

Champagne Truffle in Milk Chocolate

There is a saying that a soft centre masks a hard heart and this particular truffle certainly proves the rule.

The lovers of champagne chocs verge on the self-indulgent side and exhibit ruthless behaviour – nothing will get in the way of them achieving their goals and pleasures in life.

Although appearing to be connoisseurs, in reality their tastes are fairly pedestrian. The champagne truffler is swayed by brands and labels which they will delight in displaying visibly. These are not people of a complex palate and their slightly selfish streak will lead them to buy a box of their favourite centres for others, even if they know that the recipient prefers brazil nuts, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to polish off the contents themselves.

Beware the milk champagne truffler - these are not people to trifle with.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

At Last - Spring

Spring in this grey town is finally bursting through the curtain of winter and there is an excited anticipation in the newly warm air. People have cast aside their swaddling layers and are smiling at each other in the streets, bathed in the fresh, bright light. Chests are lifted and heads held high as Londoners emerge from their long winter hibernation and eyes are cast skywards like flowers unfurling and nodding towards the sun.

For months I have been waiting for this day, for this moment when the season of new life, new hope rushes into our lives. It may be raining but nothing today can dampen my spring spirits.

I breathe. I smile. I live.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Candida Challenge - Dining Out

Luckily London is awash with quality restaurants (along with those at the opposite end of the spectrum) that serve cuisine from around the globe. We are spoilt for choice - whether one yearns for substantial latkes, elegant dim sum, fragile sashimi, a fragrant biryani or a good old fashioned roast with all the trimmings, this is the place to be. Without having to resort to 'health food' establishments, it is incredibly easy to eat out whilst having to omit a plethora of goodies from one's diet.

So, dinner out with my great friend, A - a confirmed vegetarian, saw us heading for one of the Maroush restaurants.

Lebanese cuisine is one of my favourites. I love their use of lemons, oil, chickpeas, flavourings such as sumac, chili and mint and that there is usually something to suit even the pickiest of palates. J and I often go for a speedy weekend lunch when he can divulge in his lamb shwarma habit (pieces of rather fatty but unctuous meat lovingly enveloped in a soft flour wrap) whilst I breeze my way through a spicy salad.

And happily dinner whilst on the dreaded anti-candida plan proved to be a cinch at Maroush. The rather diffident staff brought us neon-coloured carrot juices, nutty tasting hummus, silky moutabal with it's smoky aubergine flavours, salty halloumi, vibrant salads and stuffed vine leaves with flat bread for A. Flavours to transport one to distant and sultry lands. Food to jolt the tastebuds awake whilst being healthy and, on this occasion, vegetarian and suitable for weird diets.

We left feeling replete, virtuous and with our wallets still mostly in one piece. I think killing the candida isn't going to be quite so hard after all.

Maroush V, 4 Vere Street, London W1G 0DF (off Oxford Street)

The Candida Challenge - Sipping

I've been on the tricksy anti-candida diet for over a week now and I haven't yet perished due to sheer boredom (or hunger). It's amazing how inventive and resourceful one can be when armed with a fruitbowl of lemons, a fridge full of vegetables, an ocean of fish and a cupboard of herbs, spices and pulses.

Forfeiting a relaxing glass or two of wine of an evening is proving to be rather challenging, especially as I decided that if I was going to detox properly then I may as well hurl myself into it with all the energy I can muster and give up smoking. Today I am 10 days nicotine free and wish I could report that I am already feeling the benefit - sadly my chewed fingers tell a rather different tale.

However I have devised a delicious drink to sip (on the nights when I don't allow myself a cheeky vodka). Bursting with lemon zest, ginger and mint, it really does cheer one up and gives a much needed jolt to my tiring tastebuds. Not quite a glass of wine but, by jove, it will do for the remaining fasting fortnight. And it will be delicious on a summer's evening out in the garden. Where oh where is the sun?

CB's Lemon Zing
2 unwaxed lemons
large nugget of ginger, peeled
large handful of mint
ice cubes
1 bottle of sparkling mineral water (I've fallen in love with Pellegrino)

Zest your lemon and put it in a jug along with the juice of both fruits. Juice the ginger by grating it on the tiniest holes of a grater and add this to the lemon juice. Roughly tear the mint and add to the jug along with a good handful of ice cubes. Pour in the bottle of water and muddle it all up with a spoon. Delicious.

I have also added slices of peeled cucumber on occasions which adds a subtle freshness to this super drink.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Lemon Saviour

After several months of feeling increasingly ill I finally got round to seeing my wonderful, Austrian homeopathist. Weird and wonderful tests revealed that I've got an overgrowth of candida in my stomach - again.

Candida is a minute microflora - a yeast that lives in everyone's tum. Unfortunately it can get out of control due to all kinds of triggers: stress, antibiotics, too much sugar etc. At best it can cause a whole raft of nasty symptoms and at worse can cause a debilitating illness akin to M.E. Luckily for me it just causes horrid tummy problems, ezcema and feeling so tired it's as if I'm carting a ton of bricks around, rather than my arms and legs.

How does one get rid of this evil demon? By starving the little critters (and the patient) with a strict, controlled diet and flushing those little devils clean away, helped by so many supplements that I swear I rattle as I walk. Basically one has to avoid all sugars, yeasts, cow's dairy, smoked or cured foods and refined grains, none of which really affect me, however the things that I will have to live without are hot spices, fermented things (no balsamic vinegar, no ketchup, pickles or alcohol), nuts (unless they're freshly cracked out of the shell), no chocolate and no fruit. The latter two are killing me although, thank heaven for small mercies, for a bizarre reason I am allowed lemons. Something to do with them actually being an alkaline food rather than acidic. I don't really care why, all I know that my fruit bowl is brimming over with these yellow jewels, waiting to yield their sparkling sunshine to brighten up my barren three week food gloom.

Lemons may prove to be the one thing which preserves my sanity for the next few weeks and will stop my tastebuds from losing the will to live. Oh, and my homeopathist did say that I was allowed the occasional vodka and spoon of apple puree if I really was going slightly round the twist. Vodka with a twist? Now we're talking. I think this is going to be bearable after all......

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Farm, Fulham

I first visited The Farm, a gastropub in South West London, shortly after it opened to much acclaim in 2004, and so was keen to see if standards had been maintained when presented with the opportunity to make a return trip.

We fought our way through the noisy revellers in the bar to get to the restaurant, and to my astonishment, had to find somewhere to hang our coats up ourselves due to a reception which matched the chilly February evening. Sadly, this rather set the tone for the whole experience.

We were proffered the wine list which is divided in a somewhat confusing manner. ‘Spicy fruit’ and ‘Bordeaux’ were the two categories of red wine and yet the latter included wines from Australia and Chile. We opted for a 2000 Chateau la Fleur Carrere from St Emilion having received no help from the indifferent sommelier.

Since my last visit to The Farm, the menu has been changed to ‘French classic favourites’, a theme which is reflected in the starters (although I didn’t spy anyone eating the calves brains in butter), but which fizzles out by the main courses. I chose an artichoke and truffle salad with toasted pinenuts to start and my fellow diner opted for the saffron risottowith rocket and parmesan. These two starters did not sit well together on the table; my salad was tiny - wafer-thin slivers of artichoke sprinkled on a sparse bed of rocket and topped with little rounds of black truffle. Luckily the truffle had a good earthy taste but there was just too little of the artichoke for it to make an impact on one’s palate. Conversely, my partner’s risotto was a huge mound of rice, the saffron flavour of which was killed by a liberal overdose of cheese and an unimaginative presentation. Bland is the word.

18 months ago the menu displayed a touch of flair and imagination, however, unless roast duck, grilled steak, roast lamb and grilled fish are your thing, then you may be hard pushed to find something to your liking. Luckily this is exactly the food my partner loves and he chose the roast rump of lamb with cherry tomatoes with a confit of shallots in a lamb jus with a side order of chips. I plumped for a second starter, peppered tuna with green beans, soft egg and olive sauce with a green salad on the side. No choice was offered as to how the lamb was cooked but happily it was still pink in the middle and very tender. The confit of shallots however was overly sweet as if sugar had been added rather than caramelising the onions. Indeed, the texture of the shallots rather added to this suspicion. The chips were simply awful. Greasy and like something one would expect from a local chippy, not from a gastropub.

My tuna was delicious, two slices of lightly-seared fish with a pepper crust which was complemented beautifully by the salty tapenade. The soft egg was actually hard and only half appeared on my plate, but by then we were no longer surprised, more resigned.

With coffee and water, the bill came to a little over £75. Not the cheapest gastropub I’ve dined in but almost certainly one of the most disappointing. More of a barnyard than a Farm.

The Farm, 18 Farm Lane, London SW6

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Fish for Friends

My great friend Peter was over all to briefly from France (see Le Log Lillois) and so we invited him over for supper. Peter is a pescatarian (or 'pesky vegetarian' as I have heard them referred to) and so obviously this determined dinnertime fare.

One trip to the fishmonger later and I was prepared to make my version of a tomato and fish stew, perfect for a bitterly cold February night. This is also a great dish to make if you not sure what time everyone is expected to arrive as the sauce can be made in advance and then the final stages will only take around 10 mins to perform.

Tomato Fishy Stew (serves 3 hungry people or 4 who are less ravenous)
1 onion, finely sliced
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1tsp ground cumin
3tsp ground coriander
1/2tsp ground ginger
few branches of thyme
400g tin cherry tomatoes in juice (plus 200g tin chopped toms in juice)
tomato ketchup
red wine (a soft pinot noir is ideal)
large pinch of saffron threads
1 tuna steak
1 salmon fillet
1 cod fillet
150g large cooked tiger prawns
flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Soften the onion and celery in olive oil for around 10 minutes and then add the garlic. Tip in the tomatoes with their juices, the herbs and spices, a good splurge of ketchup and bubble away on a medium to high heat for around 10 minutes. Season with a good grinding of pepper.

When the tomatoes have reduced to a pulp, pour in a glass of red wine and bubble again for around another 10 minutes. Taste and season to your liking. Turn off the heat if your guests have not yet arrived and avoid the temptation to keep on tasting (or maybe that's just me!).

Meanwhile, cut the fish fillets into large bite-size chunks and season with ground pepper. Mix in the prawns and put to one side.

Pour a little boiling water over the saffron threads in a saucer and leave to infuse.

When your supper companions are comfortably settled on the sofa with a glass of wine in hand, re-heat the tomato sauce, add the saffron/water mixture and chuck in the fish. Stir, leave over a low to medium heat for approximately 5-10 minutes (depends on how 'done' you like your fish) and then serve, sprinkled with a good pinch or two of the parsley with a bowl of new potatoes and one of greens.

I apologise to friends who recognise this dish - it's become one of those recipes that I can turn out automatically without having to concentrate terribly hard. Still, we all need them and gathering from the clean plates, no-one was disappointed.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lunchtime Antics

Lunching alone is a practice which I often enjoy. Refusing to bury my head in a book or magazine, behaviour often exhibited by other solitary diners, I choose to use it as an excellent opportunity for people watching.

There are the business lunches where an awkward hesitation hovers over the wine list. Will the client imbibe or not? One can audibly hear a breathe of relief exhaled by the hosting agency as the phrase “I think a little glass of wine might be in order” is uttered.

The couple of gentlemen of a certain age who guffaw with added gusto to avoid any confusion as to their sexuality. “Not that there’s anything wrong with queer chaps you understand. Heavens, Cynthia was married to one once.”

The ‘yummy mummies’ whose attention is diverted to their wailing offspring and who only manage to half consume their by-now cold lasagne (“I need the carbs sweetie. I’m breastfeeding.”).

And of course, no musing on lunchers would be complete without mentioning those legendary ladies-who-lunch. The mineral water sipping, Silk Cut Slim puffing, Chanel encrusted brigade are not just an urban myth. Fearful of not fitting into next season’s Manolos if their weight creeps over seven stone, they appear to exist on greens and the occasional prawn. Oh, and a glass of champagne on a Friday.

The couple whom have been married forever, for whom food is solely fuel and whose only conversation is “I hope that’s not salt Geoffrey, you know what Dr Hughes said.” The young lovers who are caught in the heady whirlwind of fresh passion and whom devour more of each other than their shared fruit de mer (she daren’t tell him that shellfish might just make her eyes swell to the size of gobstoppers).

Yes, lunchtime offers a fascinating insight into human behaviour and relationships. Don’t even get me started on dinnertime!

Baking Therapy

I have long found great comfort in baking; from the collating of ingredients, the creaming of butter and sugar to anticipating the satisfaction gained from turning out a light and fluffy cake. It is a kind of everyday alchemy that cannot be beaten for its soothing qualities. And yet I never realised that it could also teach one a salutary lesson about confidence and not taking oneself quite so seriously.

I had oodles of chocolate and so a choccie cake of some description seemed the obvious solution to the question of what to take to friends (as well as wine, clearly). I chanced across Nigella Lawson's recipe for a chocolate orange cake but I have to admit what really sold me was that it involved marmalade. Probably not the content of many people's guilty secrets but here goes....... I have a deep-seated passion for this orangey, orgasmic sweetness, the gooier the better with so much peel that there's barely any room in-between for the amber nectar. I could blame my mother - she craved marmalade sandwiches (aka Paddington Bear) when pregnant and I'm convinced that the sticky, sweet stuff is in my blood.

I don't often buy marmalade as, once opened, a jar mysteriously evaporates within days, however when I saw that Nigella's recipe would use 3/4 a jar, my tastebuds prickled with anticipation. So, with apologies to the mighty Nigella, here is the recipe, tweaked slightly.
Chocolate Orange Cake

125g unsalted butter
100g dark chocolate, broken up (I used Barry Callebaut couverture pellets)
300g medium-cut marmalade (make it a good one!)
150g unrefined caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, beaten
150g self raising flour
slug of Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Butter and flour an 8inch round cake tin.
Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat. When it's liquid, stir in the chocolate and when softened, take the pan off the heat and stir until the butter and choc make a smooth, melted mixture. Add the marmalade, sugar, salt, eggs and a generous slug of Grand Marnier. Stir until well mixed and then beat in the flour, bit by bit. Pour into the cake tin and pop in the oven for approximately one hour or until a skewer comes out clean when poked into the cake. Cool in the pan for 15mins and then turn out.

Now comes the lesson. The cake was baked and it slid out of the tin with ease however when I tried to prise away the base, disaster fell and the cake split down the middle - a yawning chocolate chasm which sent me into despair. I was a complete failure. Call it tiredness (call it stupid if you will) but my fragile culinary confidence was shattered.
Desperate to avoid the evidence of my failings I escaped the flat and walked.......and walked. As ever, my clearest thinking is always done in the fresh air and I finally realised what a Charlie I was being. The day before I'd attended a civil ceremony where over 100 guests had tucked into a three-tiered, brandy-laced cake made by my own fair hand. Not exactly the work of a complete cooking chump. Good grief. I'm sure even Saint Delia has been exasperated by the odd sunken souffle or the occasional curdled mayonnaise.
Heartened by such thoughts I skipped to the grocery shop to buy some plump oranges and creme fraiche and lo, a new dessert was born - choc orange surprise.
So that is the rather long-winded explanation of how baking taught me to have a little faith in my own abilities, that the glass (indeed the marmalade pot) is not half empty and that with a bit of creativity, a collapsed cake can be spirited into a chorus of 'mmmmm' from friends.