Sunday, December 21, 2008

Vegging out!

One of the items I’ve had on my list of things to try for way too long is a vegetable box scheme. Well why wouldn’t I? It would be almost like receiving a mini green hamper every week and previous visitors to this little old blog know that ‘hampers are my one weakness’! But my reticence with starting one has always been the age-old ‘how do I deal with the inevitability of being absent when the box arrives?’ It’s not as if I can go to the post office to collect it and the nature of the box demands swift attention.
But my musings were reignited by a terribly kind offer from those lovely people at Abel & Cole to trial one of their legendary vegetable boxes. And on investigating their site and chatting to one of their helpful customer service reps I was given lots of handy suggestions as to where my proposed parcel could lurk in lieu of a handy shed before being lugged to my kitchen. So after informing them that tomatoes mustn’t darken my box, I stood by to give it a go. I knew that Thursday was my delivery day but I wasn’t sure if we’d established which Thursday it would arrive. On returning home I glanced at the couple of sites we’d pondered but there was no box however clearly it had gone into some sort of stealth mode and I didn’t see it until Saturday morning when coincidentally I was on my way to the shops to get some food for my proposed French feast. How I didn’t spot it with one of the bin lids resting jauntily over half of it was a mystery. Perhaps I thought it was rubbish waiting to be collected but there it was lying in wait and eager to be turned into something wonderful.
On revealing the fruit and vegetables therein I was certainly impressed by the bounty. I had a bunch of bananas that MC immediately squirreled away for future snacking knowing that bananas are just yellow tomatoes to me. The mangoes immediately settled what I could make as a light salad tomorrow after the rich excesses of my French feast and the tangerines would add to the festive supplies. The plump firm leeks were immediately pounced on to make a sweet leeks and cider-doused creamy sauce for my Normandy mussel dish; D had designs on the beetroot for their Sunday lunch and I never struggle to find a use for potatoes and even onions, as long as they are finely sliced. The cabbage could accompany the final rashers of smoky bacon or of course, there’s always colcannon. But the earthy mushrooms lurking in their paper bag caught my eye and gave me an idea for properly christening my first vegetable box.
It is Sunday brunch time and there are some leftovers from the lavish French feasting last night and surprisingly some of Harvey Nichol’s finest truffled Brie survived and has been carefully wrapped in waxed paper, perhaps it would like to join forces with my mushrooms and make a heady, highfaluting mushrooms on toast.
Whilst the sliced mushrooms sautéed in some butter and a soupçon of oil, the slice of bread received a slight toasting. The mushrooms are now all lightly bronzed and receive a good few grinds of nutmeg and a little lug of double cream to moisten them. The creamy elixir is tipped onto the slice of toast and topped with a few thick slivers of the truffled Brie and the merest sprinkling of thyme leaves from my sadly very reluctant, shy thyme plant. With a final burnish under the grill to melt the cheese slightly and the fancy-pants mushrooms on toast is ready for its close-up. And as I suspected, it tasted exceedingly good!
Let’s hope I get a chance to do the rest of the box justice before heading off for the Christmas holidays. I regrettably cannot avail myself easily of D and MC’s marvellously abundant allotment so the next best thing will have to a locally sourced, organic vegetable box scheme delivery to my door.
I already have the wonderful “Cooking Outside the Box - the Abel & Cole cookbook” from when it was released a couple of years ago so it’s only seems right and proper that I complement it with the Abel & Cole box, especially now I know that they are experts at dealing with the likelihood of their customers not being around to receive their parcel problem. I guess many of us will be reviewing our dining habits in the inevitable parsimonious months ahead so being creative with spanking fresh vegetables could definitely be a positive and healthy step. Now I know how my box might be camouflaged I wouldn't fail to spot it again.
I think for those of us who aren't vegetable-dodgers (you know who you are) 2009 will have to be the year of embracing the box, I for one am looking forward to it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Family Festive Favourites

I can’t believe it – next week and Christmas will be a pile of torn paper, ribbon and wondering what to do with that leftover turkey, a handful of sprouts and a roastie or two. I’m pretty much on top of the Christmas presents; though I’ve managed to lose one though which is both odd and massively annoying as now I really need to replace it. And of course it would be one that I had delivered from a specialist site! But the cards, I haven’t even started yet, hmm perhaps a tad late again.

This month’s blog party seemed a little like last month with the festive theme but this time with the traditional twist. What are our little family foodie peccadilloes that pepper these holiday feasts? Well as usual a host of varied ideas flooded my brain, some I managed to pull off in time and the others may sadly have to be confined to the food bin. And generally this just means I was too ambitious which exactly coincided with me being just too busy.

So what did I manage to pull off in the nick of time? Breakfast is a crucial meal on Christmas day. Our family tradition is to start passing round the parcels and opening them one by one at the stroke of midnight and this has been known to take a while so breakfast becomes a moveable feast. And what would this possible late breakfast/ brunch consist of? If we’re feeling deeply ‘family favourite’ it would probably be bacon sarnies all round though ideally in a well buttered oven-bottom (now you’re talking!) but smoke salmon lends itself so well to Christmas lunch but as we don’t normally have a prequel to the main event the smoked salmon started appearing earlier in the day. So that’s exactly what my first canapés were about – tasty bacon sandwiches and spoons of smoked salmon laced scramble eggs. And a small pause of appreciation for my wonderful diddy silver cake stand. Though ‘cake stand’ is perhaps too large a concept so instead I’ll call it a ‘tiny tiered podium for petit fours’. And it’s that time of year so the seasonal sequins are out again.

And for the homage to many a past Christmas extravaganza the next nibble is beef wrapped in a Parma ham jacket. This displaced the traditional turkey in our household many Christmases ago. The original D never was a turkey fan and when asked for an alternative it was always beef. This became the time-honoured treatment as it was as good hot or cold the day after. I think the inspiration was from a Jamie Oliver recipe and then it just became the way we ate beef. I’ve never made a miniature version before but it tasted just as fabulous.

And for the drink, amongst the inevitable sweet Muscat wine that we always have, they will be some mulled wine or winter PIMM’s. This delicious concoction is warmed PIMM’s no.3 (which is the brandy version) with three times as much apple juice and finished with a few slices of red apple. It fair warms the cockle of your heart.

The bites that missed the deadline are definitely memories from Christmases gone by. Firstly it would have to be sprouts! The seasonal emergence of sprouts seems to fill many diners with dread but I love them. It is true that many a crime has been committed in the name of sprouts; they are either cooked within an inch of their lives or left a little bitter from lack of cooking. I liked them lightly steamed or boiled and then sautéed in a little butter and then served with bacon lardons and if feeling so very classic Christmas table some chestnuts. Though I’ll never forget the first time I took on the epic Christmas meal preparation for a group of friends. It was probably the first time I’d tackled it but promised a table groaning with everyone’s favourite typical festive fare before we all headed off back to our families for Christmas. WJ and I set off to buy the necessary ingredients, we had no idea how much to buy of everything so grabbed a Family Circle magazine which I remembered flicking through stacks of as a child. It seemed we were in safe hands; we followed the shopping list to the letter including buying chestnuts for roasting. I can’t quite recall how many of us were eventually settled around the table, I think maybe five or possibly six but the big surprise was how much food we actually purchased. Everything was stacked away in their capacious kitchen and then WJ and headed off for some fabulous media party (WJ’s eminent connections I hasten to add, not mine). Due to a mix-up with door keys and some other WJ drama (there was also something) I didn’t finally return to this big house in Shepherd’s Bush until the early morning and be unable to get into the bedrooms thought I’d while away the time until everyone else surfaced prepping the vegetables. And what a mountain there was! I fashioned some tea towel apron over my little black velvet party dress and started the peeling and criss-cross cutting of all the sprouts – well I was following the doctrines of the terribly conventional Family Circle. When I was relieved of my KP duties after a couple of hours I have prepped an allotment worth of vegetable and also popped the scored chestnuts under the grill for roasting. I was sent to bathe and change into something less backless and whilst I surrounded myself in restorative bubbles I ran through the final plan and countdown in the Family Circle magazine. This is when I realised the classic mistake, in all our planning and slavishly following the campaign plan in the magazine, we hadn’t even checked the quantity of guests that this menu was for – so imagine my horror when I realised it was twelve! That immediately explained why they were just so much vegetables to be prepped. Before I even had time to ponder this error I could hear screaming from the kitchen downstairs and ran dripping in to the kitchen to see what drama was unfolding. And I was greeted with WJ and her housemates cowering underneath the kitchen table whilst shards of red-hot chestnut pieces whizzed around the kitchen. I’m not entirely sure if I hadn’t scored them enough or just they’d been left ‘roasting’ too long but they certainly took on a dangerous turn. I think the resultant meal went down rather well but we had about three times more food than required and the explosive chestnuts that were supposed to accompany the sprouts became legendary.

The sprouts I had grown up with were far less perilous; the original D had always insisted that his renowned gravy demanded the water from the boiled sprouts, some beef dripping or lard, corn flour and gravy browning but rather curiously never juices from the roasting meat. And as no Sunday lunch was complete with this much-loved gravy (well at least by the original D as no-one else was that enamoured) so sprouts always featured.

The other canapé I’d planned was involving some ubiquitous Paxo stuffing, I’ve made much more elaborate stuffing with all manner of sausage meats, herbs and fruits but the one M amongst others always hanker for is good old Paxo sage and onion. So curtailing both my desire (according to D) to find the most complicated method to make anything and my abhorrence of strange packets of dehydrated sawdust I have abandoned thoughts of anything more sophisticated. However unfortunately due to a houseful of people and my inability to slip some sort of sprout or Paxo canapé into the French feast I’d planned they will have to remain on the drawing board.

So I hope you are all a little more organised than me, the tree is groaning with shiny intriguing parcels and those cards were written and send a couple of weeks ago.

Festive felicitations to you all! And all those who got their acts together earlier – what did they bring to the party?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not just Goodman but very Goodman

T now no longer GT but more like HT had kindly sent me a message from the wilds of Tanzania to remind me that I owed him a present.
And knowing HT I suspected that the way to satiate his carnivorous heart was a meat-based present. I had already procured a couple of packets of beef jerky from the inimitable Duane Reade in New York. DD and I had actually done the obligatory DR run on returning to our hotels after our wonderful meal at Union Square Café (sadly still not written up, though I certainly haven't forgotten that meal!) So it's well past midnight and we're in our finery, I'm carrying a little beaded Chanel evening bag, fully bejewelled etcetera and we're wandering the aisles of this neon drenched pharmacy cum general store filling our basket with the most eclectic purchases (black safety pins - what a good idea!, the obligatory beef jerky, vivid post-it notes, DD's beloved body washes, intriguing potions not available over the counter in neither Sydney nor London and the usual stash of Advil for P and T leading a sun kissed but gel-capped deprived life in Spain). Our mode of dress did seem somewhat incongruous but some time after returning I finally caught the Sex in the City film and was amused to see Carrie and Miranda shopping in Duane Reade looking rather fabulous. So maybe that's how it's done in New York.
One thing that New York is certainly awash with is fine steak houses whereas London doesn't have the same reputation. We have the various Gaucho Grills which I'd always been a fan of until my last two visits at one of the newer ones near London Bridge where we had shoddy service and for the first time I was distinctly unimpressed by the steak and then had to wait for the so-called accompanying vegetables to materialise. You can't knock the excellent meat at Smiths of Smithfield and I'm sure Mark Hix would do us proud at Hix's Oyster and Chophouse but I wanted the sort of steakhouse that you find in New York.
So what did I do - booked a table for us at Goodman, which is the first UK outpost of a Russian steakhouse chain. And even though I was intrigued by the thought of Russian beef and reservations evaporated when I heard they had their own meat drying room. Mmmm they take their meat very seriously at Goodman. The place is all very masculine with chocolate (or should I say rich gravy) coloured leather clad booths and dark wood tables and the largest steak knives ever. Do Russian oligarchs have particularly large hands? I'm not sure a vegetarian would be entirely happy here, it's all rather beefy and some of the diners looked like they're draped in the pelts of previous dinners. Well it can get very chilly in Moscow!
Our pretty Polish waitress brings us her show-and-tell tray (a little in the style of Gaucho) to explain the provenance and cut of this evenings beasts. We are offered amongst others a New York strip steak, the neat Australian fillet mignon (for ladies), the more marbled American rib-eye steak and the British rib - 800g of pure meaty goodness sliced off the bone for two to share. Or in the case of our resident solid little carnivore a light snack for one. But before we start on the main feature we have to select a few meaty starters.
E (D) goes sensibly for the organic salmon carpaccio with tomato seeds but D, HT and I dive straight in to the meat and whilst HT tucks into the selection of cured meats with spicy mustard D and I opt to split the Goodman beef tartare with avocado and herbs followed by the beef carpaccio, micro-cress, shave parmesan and aged balsamic. I don’t generally go for the avocado but I am partial to a little beef tartare and the key word there is ‘little’.
Every time I have ordered beef tartare in a restaurant I have found it so filling I haven’t been able to do it justice so it’s a perfect sharing platter. And D and I both have already set this precedence in Lille’s Brasserie André with their signature dish of steak tartare and despite several attempts we’ve never been able to finish a portion by ourselves. And in spite of not being a fan of the particular texture of avocado - it was a fine tartare and the carpaccio was not too shabby either.
It is worth pointing out that if you are of the vegetarian persuasion you can still enjoy a meat-free starter at Goodman. As you could have fire roasted aubergine, oven dried tomatoes and feta cheese or velouté of Jerusalem artichoke with white truffle oil. We were very happy with our distinctly non-vegetarian starters however and are looking forward to the main meat banquet.
To herald the imminent arrival of our meaty comestibles the largest steak knives ever are delivered. Clearly nothing is to impede our devouring of their fine meat.
HT isn’t disappointed and I am just able to very quickly ‘pap’ his 800g of grass-fed 28 day dry aged (on site) Rib on the Bone (British) for he starts dispatching it. It may have been a dish designed for two but someone’s been deprived of beef for a while is sure making up for it.
D has opted for the rib-eye steak whereas E(D) and I plumped for the fillet mignons. I choose to anoint my steal with some classic Béarnaise sauce - delicious!
The accompaniment has to be the hand-cut chips which come highly recommended by our waitress. And for the requisite greenness we have some creamed spinach. The steak is just fabulous, melt in the mouth, cuts like butter with our weapons and very fine indeed – this was a good choice, a Goodman choice.
As soon as we start the chips arrive we realise these are award winning chips and our virtuous thought of sharing one portion between the four of us is blown away immediately and we have to order a top up.
When we clean our plates our waitress kindly offers to escort us downstairs to view their aging room. Here we can see the next few week’s dinners maturing and reaching their optimum meatiness. We tear ourselves away quickly in case HT finds a knife and fork and barricades himself in – definitely his idea of a sweet shop!
For dessert they had me at warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream so I didn’t bother looking at the rest of the menu. It transpired that I could have indulged in baked vanilla cheesecake, glazed vanilla crème brulée, iced peanut parfait or caramelised apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. If MC had been dining with us he could have enjoyed a selection of artisan cheeses from the board.
Goodman is given a resounding seal of approval by everyone - they certainly know their meat and deserve their three steak forks. It would have been the perfect evening if London transport hadn’t so systematically disappointed us at every turn; the gloss of our fabulous feast was slightly diminished by the tortuous two hour journey home. Well at least thanks to Goodman we weren’t the tiniest bit hungry!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Going to work on an egg...or four!

The intrepid T (aka my body is a temple) is going through a four-eggs-for-breakfast-a-day diet and as luck would have it my antique silver egg cups, spoons and stand arrived in the post yesterday. So it seemed very fitting to christen it thus – though when this shiny contraption was designed I suspect they thought four people would share in the mutual love of soft boiled eggs not just one lone protein junkie indulging his chicken-bothering habit. Ah well, they look nice anyway!

Monday, December 08, 2008

A-Maze-ing!

Maze has been on my list of must-visit restaurant since its opening but Jason Atherton’s artistry and brilliance as demonstrated on the Great British Menu Gherkin escapade in May this year totally clinched it for me. For Heston Blumenthal and a bevy (I did wonder if there was a collective term for chefs and I found various suggestions ranging from ‘spoilbroth’ to ‘drizzle’ though I prefer my own – ‘a sauté’) of the world’s supreme exponents of culinary excellence he whipped up his unusual Bacon, lettuce and tomato with Croque Monsieur followed by the utterly delicious sounding Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrow bone. And I had to admit that I was secretly hoping to see the words Dexter beef and smoked potato purée on tonight’s menu. But I did bump into Jason Atherton at the Taste of Christmas event at Excel last week and he gave me a preview of the tasting menu so I was already prepared for a beefless evening.
Maze is probably the most casual of the Gordon Ramsay’s stable, Narrow and the other pubs notwithstanding (though I haven’t been to Boxwood yet) so gone were the acres of white linen and sparkling crystal replaced with more contemporary dark wood and American styling. Though we do have the quirky French touch of knife rests, well actually our entire place setting rests. I guess these are often deployed to eke out the cutlery and not to get the dirty knife on the lace and linen in between courses. Though I suspect we will have new cutlery for each course. Sadly for me and seemingly in the mode of so many wonderful restaurants nowadays, there is nowhere near enough light. I know I shouldn’t complain but I want my photographs to look as delicious as the food - not murky, grainy and entirely lacking the wow factor I’d like. Contrast the immaculate sculptural marinated beetroot dish at the top of this post captured by a professional photographer and flooded with some genuine light with my sad sepia rather flat lurking-in-the-shadows version above. Thank goodness it tasted like it does in the expert’s image not like it does in mine!
So whilst sipping the now completely obligatory Kir Imperial, E and I had a quick glance at the menus and immediately plump for the seven course Chef’s Menu. We also decide to split the alternative options between us so we can experience the entire wonderful menu.

Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche
~

Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Ca
bernet Sauvignon dressing
~

Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur

or

Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinega
r
~
Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable

or

Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint
~

Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s hea
d, quince confiture, parsnips
or

Roasted rack of lamb, winter veg
etable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie
~

Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut

~

Floating island, ‘
pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet
or

Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité


We asked the sommelier for some advice for a red and white wine to accompany the Chef’s Menu and she was probably the only mild disappointment of the night as she didn’t instil us with confidence that she really knew what she was doing. It felt like she had a price in mine as by incredible fluke every bottle she recommended was that precise amount but the style of the wine we wanted didn’t really enter into it. Anyway we picked a couple of our own and they seemed to do the trick very nicely.
Our first taste is the truly scrumptious (despite my unassuming photo) Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche. The bowl of frothy pumpkin soup is delivered with a little nodule of duck goodness with more duck lurking in the foamy depths. The waiter drizzles the enticing black truffle syrup into our bowl and we tuck in and it is a revelation. In fact when we’ve scraped our little bowls clean we’d quite happily polish off another bowl or six, it is that fabulous!
Next we come down to earth with the pretty Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing. Not that it isn’t delicate, tasty, a pleasing bite of the slivers of beetroot Carpaccio wrapped round the softest of creamy ricotta and beautiful to look at also but it can’t quite equal the heady heights of the soup!
After our two little amuse gueules we take different directions. And wait for this, drum roll…gasp of breath…without being strong armed into the decision I chose the Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur and yes, I am completely aware what the ‘T’ in BLT stands for. This was my rationale; as much as I detest tomatoes in any shape or form I have a scale of degrees of tomato-ey evilness. At joint top are raw fleshy lumps of flaccid tomato (sometimes dressed up by calling it ‘concasse’) and thick, gloopy and frankly plain nasty tomato sauce. Tomato ketchup is very close behind; it’s no coincidence that sometimes it’s smeared on amateur dramatists to designate some dreadful catastrophic accident. At the ever so slightly less heinous end of the tomato scale are sun-dried tomatoes (in very small doses) and tomato essence. Obviously they still have the tomato taste that I really can’t get my head around (and yes, I’ve tried!) but the texture is not so abhorrent to me. So having watched Jason construct his witty Michelin take on sandwiches on the Great British Menu I knew that tomato pulp has been dripped through muslin over a period of hours leaving a pale liquid behind which then has gelatine added to make the bottom tomato jelly layer of the dish. The jelly is topped with bacon and onion cream with in turn is crowned with the most delicate of deep fried onion rings and miniature bacon lardons. As the martini glass is delivered to me the waiter floods it with an extremely verdant lettuce soup and instructs me to eat by spooning through the three BLT layers. I am probably more tentative about delving too deeply into the scary jelly layer but the lettuce and bacon are strong anyway. Actually I could have never guessed than mere lettuce could be so powerful. I didn’t really get hit round the head with tomato and I really loved the bacon-y cream and feisty lettuce soup.
To accompany the homage to an American sandwich I had a ‘soldier’ of the archetypal French sandwich a croque monsieur. The croque monsieur was soft and unusually made from brioche so I really only got a tiniest hint of the ham and cheese amongst all that buttery fluffy brioche.
E had the Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinegar. I got to taste a little quail, the unctuous foie gras with the fruity sauce and it was also delicious and very accomplished.
For the fish course I’d chosen the Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint, as the sauce diable sounded a little alarming. I am also not so crazy about pimento (yes, I am constantly told I am a nightmare) but E seemed to be much keener about the pepper family than I and after enjoying his Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable polished off the purée. The roasted hake is perfect though, firm and flavoursome and really almost everything is improved by wrapping it in Parma ham or bacon, so full points there!
I think we both fancy the pork but I have had first dibs on all the other courses and lamb sounds pretty fine also so it’s the Roasted rack of lamb, winter vegetable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie for me whilst E has the Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s head, quince confiture, parsnips. My lamb is succulent and tasty with the sweet and fruity additions of parsnips and quince.
And if that isn’t enough I have a diminutive little shepherd’s pie as a side dish. It is all just excellent and even though I struggle to finish all the shepherd’s pie E helps me and also declares it to be comfort food at its finest.
I’m just getting to the stage when I feel pleasantly full but we’ve closed the savoury door and have the sweet stuff coming and I’m pretty sure I can cope with that.
Firstly we have a wonderful palate cleanser of Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut. It has that pert sharp taste of crunchy apples with the fabulous accoutrement of a flawless dinky doughnut. The whole thing is a miniature orchard feast with the cider, cinnamon and apple.
I’ve opted for the girlier of the two desserts which is the Floating island, ‘pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet. It is light, downy and hugely refreshing – definitely a pink and girlie way to end a meal. E had another one of Maze’s signature dishes Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité. Jason is a fan of contrasting salt and sugar hence the unusual combination of olive and caramel.
The final flourish is the petits fours, we have lollipops, rosewater jelly, dark chocolate cubes, white chocolate covered pistachios and raspberries. The lollipops are iced pineapple chunks smothered in very far from the Girl Guide campfire marshmallow, deliciously singed around the edges and perfectly gooey in the middle. Almost makes you want to tell a ghost story!
It seems that E just like another E – Edmund who succumbs to enchanted rose-flavoured sweets courtesy of the White Witch of Narnia is an aficionado of Turkish Delight, and seems pretty delighted with Jason’s interpretation of his favourite. The other chocolates have a wonderful intense flavour as well; we are being truly spoilt for sure! The couple on the next table don’t seem to have room for their tiny chocolates so we kindly assist them!
Jason Atherton is a seriously talented chef; I know he has the accolade of the first British chef to hang out with Ferran Adrià of the best restaurant in the world fame El Bulli and has also worked for Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, his fellow finalist on the Great British Menu Stephen Terry and then Gordon Ramsay in Dubai. When Jason opened Maze to great acclaim in 2005 the idea was to serve a menu of small tapas-style dishes of contemporary French food with an Asian twist and all the menus seem to follow that premise. When interviewed about his tasting dishes, Jason said 'You've got more chances to express yourself and it's much more creative.' It’s a pleasurable surprise to see this alchemist in the restaurant tonight, often when you see a chef on television you might think that he’s hung up his chef whites in favour of a media career. But Jason has been slaving over a hot chopping board this service and is now doing the rounds chatting to some of the diners. I guess being part of the Ramsay clan you are used to having Gordon’s name above the door and not having your own and deserved name in lights and is possibly the reason Marcus Wareing made a bid for freedom earlier this year. But despite Jason’s many awards and accolades I hope he gets even more. Michelin do so love their classic old-school style of restaurant but I think he definitely deserves another star.
I’ll give Jason Atherton at Maze three forks, the diamond fork (it’s about time it was awarded to another restaurant) but I still think that someone should give that man another star – we've had a superb evening and his food is truly amazing!
And thanks to E for helping me tick another one off my restaurants of my heart’s desire list and your ever so handy torch incorporated in your Swiss Army watch that gave a glimmer of light to the shadowy table. I went for miniscule diamonds in my watch but then I’m not a bloke and just not as practical, and that just shows how wrong I am! Imagine if I needed to remove a stone from a horse's hoof, what would I have done?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lifting the lid on more hampers...

Just when I thought I’d fantasised about the perfect hamper enough over the last couple of weeks, what do I spy on the printer at work today but a Selfridges voucher with the magic words ‘exclusive Anya Hindmarch-designed Christmas Hampers’ catching my eye. Well, I thought it was worth a little glance at their website!
And on checking it out I was struck by Anya’s quote:

“I have always been fascinated by hampers, their history and Britishness, but am always disappointed by yet another basket whose contents I don’t actually want to keep. When Selfridges asked if I wanted to design a hamper, I leapt at the idea of not only designing a hamper but choosing what I would really like to receive in one. The sort of ‘hamper you would really like hamper'”.

And she has really gone to town on the humble hamper. The yellow accents are very Selfridges for those not in the know and the big bow and A and H and so very Anya Hindmarch, generally emblazoned across her handbags. The range start with ‘Mother’s Ruin’ a tongue-in-cheek one for the mother-in-law containing a bottle of gin and a little cakes iced with the letters H I and C!

The top of the range is the £1000 Ultimate Girl’s, which contains amongst other things, forty bottles of nail varnish. Sadly it seems I can’t be anywhere near being the ‘ultimate girl’ because as much as I always have painted nails, they are always painted in the same colour – black! Well, it keeps things simple! There is also an iPod Nano, a Dolly Parton CD (?), Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pretty Woman DVDs and the rather wonderful little Luxe travel guides. But surprisingly the only edible thing nestling amongst all the nail varnish, cleansers and tweezers are the (obligatory frankly) Charbonnel et Walker pink champagne truffles and hot chocolate, Anya Hindmarch designed Biscuiteers biscuit tin (with one hopes some biscuits contained therein) and raspberry marshmallow fluff. So the ultimate girl likes to tweeze, anoint and polish, entertain herself by reading etcetera but doesn’t really like to eat! However as Anya Hindmarch is the legendary handbag designer there is also a yellow cracker which well pulled could turn into a designer handbag – bonus! You can even customise your gift with an especially engraved yellow leather luggage tag.

I guess if nails aren’t your thing you could plump for the ‘Glutton’s hamper instead. Here you’ll find the more standard hamper fare, mint thins and chocolate coins, panettone, afternoon tea bags, Gentleman's Relish, coffee, Christmas pudding , brandy butter, ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' DVD and A.A. Gill’s ‘Breakfast at the Wolseley’. And there is still the opportunity to win a fine handbag to go with your hamper.

There’s also a rather quirky Best of British hamper containing such iconic treats as Black Jacks, marmalade, Harrogate Toffee in a tin, Marmite (ughhh!), a tin of Colman's mustard powder, golden syrup, HP sauce, Monty Python 'The Meaning of Life' DVD and even a little Selfridges black taxi.

I thought before I closed the hamper catalogues for this year I should also check out Harrods though. Their top-of-the-shop most extravagant is the Chairman’s Choice at £5000. This is most exclusive as only eight have been made and in the handmade basket you’ll find a side of salmon, Brie de Meaux, truffle ham and Beluga caviar. And rare gems like a 30-year-old single cask Macallan 30 from Douglas Laing and a bottle of the dry Y de Château Y’quem. The seem to be a very distinct lack of nail polish and the cashmere fripperies so adorned by Snow Queens but there’s plenty of gourmet tuck! It seems that Harrods like to add to the air of mystery – lucky dip approach to hamper buying as they don’t like all the components. For example an individual item you can purchase is a box of luxury silver Pear Tree crackers which for the princely sum of £299 you can delight your guests with “a handmade crown for him or her, a booklet brimming with humour and trivia, a superb individually wrapped gift and a traditional snap”. But what sort of gifts could you expect; I guess there’s only one way to find out. Though I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be one of those little metal puzzles or a cloth tape measure.

After due consideration I am still firmly in the Harvey Nichols’ and Fortnum and Mason’s camp and would just adore a few choice Harvey Nix goodies with a touch of F&M Snow Queen magic applied. If you haven’t seen the verbal drooling over their hamper offerings this year click here. But to be frank, as I have been privy to several conversations on this subject; especially regarding the wanton excess of the Snow Queen hamper – a princessly £25,000 don’t you know (and that’s not too many noughts!) If I had a spare £25k, one would assume I would live in a place palatial enough to house such enormously plump hampers but if by some extraordinary incredible and totally unlikely luck I was to be suddenly a proud possessor of such a fine assortment of magnificence, I’d probably have to move out. I don’t think there’s room for both me and a Snow Queen in my current abode. But a diva can dream can’t she?

And Fortnum’s if you are reading this, well done for just so fabulously trouncing all the other hampers providers in the unashamed luxury and sheer unadulterated opulence stakes this year with your Snow Queen - you are spoiling us. The Harrods’ Chairman Choice just isn’t even a contender.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Holiday, celebrate...

Yes again, it’s a crazy finish to get my plates together for the blog party, but it seems to be a regular occurrence now and if I not tearing in at the last minute, and quickly slipping off my coat and sneaking my dishes amongst all the early birds' offerings it almost seems wrong!
When the ever brilliant Stephanie set this month's blog party as 'holiday' I did wonder if that meant Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other holiday you fancied - am I the only one who celebrates Coco Chanel's birthday? But that's August 19th so she can't have possible had that particular 'holiday' in mind! It seems too early to be thinking festive (D would probably say December 24th is too soon to be in ‘that’ frame of mind) and I don’t really do Thanksgiving but I love a holiday so I’m sure I can conjure up something sparkly. I guess my fellow bloggers from across the pond will be doing the Thanksgiving thing in anticipation of the special feast next Thursday but apart from if our favourite Texan brings us in her fabulous pumpkin pies (hint, hint) I don’t indulge so I thought I’d think ahead to next month.
My first thought was a bit of smoked salmon, as so many of our festive meals have started with smoked salmon. And for the holiday twist I thought I’d cut the granary bread bases in a Christmas tree shape, however once topped with cream cheese, curls of pale rosy salmon and then chives, they lost their form a little. So I left a tiny unadorned tree to show they were indeed Christmas tree shaped under all that tastiness. It did cross my mind to try and cut the salmon into the tree shapes but honestly, that would have meant I was another week getting this posted and would have missed the evening all together!
Next I was determined that some beautiful rare beef fillets would form one of the holiday canapés and the wonderful sea salt and cracked black pepper Crips I bought from the Good Food show last week made the perfect vehicle. Crips are as it says on the packet ‘lovingly baked’ in the oven so are more like crackers than crisps and considerably lower in fat, but more importantly taste really good.
These salt and pepper Crips I topped with a little feisty horseradish cream, stacked with the slices of the rare just seared at the edges beef and then dolloped with a little fresh pesto. Well, maybe the pesto wasn’t as fresh as it should have been and delicious as it was didn’t make me feel too hot later, but let’s not dwell on that slight error!
It didn’t seem right to not do something with turkey but I can’t really get my head around turkey pieces. Yes if you put some effort into a turkey, buy a good one, brine it à la Nigella and carefully lift up the skin from the flesh and stuff full of yummy goodies you can end up with a dish to be proud of. But let’s be honest, so many turkeys are sadly bred for quantity and not for quality and turkey breasts, I think they exist solely to bulk out the egg whites for the ‘body is my temple’ types. So some happy, organic chicken got stuffed with soft cheese and chopped jewels of cranberries to make these hot nibbles spiked with the diamond cocktail sticks to keep them under control.
Okay that’s the savoury corner dealt with, next the sweet treats. I have never really got Christmas pudding but I thought I might be able to scale them right down to make quintessential festive bites with balls of warm Christmas pudding, anointed with icing and topped with a little more sparkly gems of dried cranberries. And I thought they were the nicest Christmas pudding I’d tasted.
And for the drink I was inspired by the Olive festive drink clementine fizz and decided to continue with the theme by dipping some clementine segments in the deepest darkest Valrhona chocolate.
So that’s my first throws of holiday contemplations. I picked up a wonderfully sparkly mat to set of the diamond studded martini glass I made for my birthday celebrations. I spotted this bit of silver loveliness in an elaborate table display in John Lewis but I couldn’t find them for sale. There were stacks of gold ones but the only silver I could find was in the display, so the elegant table setting got slightly rearranged – sorry John Lewis, but it’s gone to a grateful home. And I am hoping if the inimitable Coco Chanel helping me celebrate a holiday tonight, she would approve of the glamorous styling.
Happy holidays everyone - whichever holiday you want to celebrate! And see how the other earlier partygoers make the occasion here when posted...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hamper Heaven!

As I’ve mentioned before here, I am very susceptible to a fine hamper. And it’s not just the wicker ones, with several china (and they do have to be china) plates strapped inside their lid, folded red napkins, chequered table cloth, a battery of corkscrews, cheese and bread knives and a dinky salt and pepper mill. But I also love the baskets crammed with all manner of exotic cans, packets and bottles nestling amongst straw or heaven forbid those infuriating polystyrene chips that the moment the basket/box is open my natural static electricity tendencies causes them to leap out of the box and adhere to every available surface. I’ve had this fascination with hampers as long as I can remember; from my first doll sized hampers to the fine specimens I have today. And I have to admit to owning more than one.
Many years ago I received a couple of hampers from my then employers with a heartfelt handwritten note from the chairman thanking me for some arduous task I’d completed. And I was just beside myself. To be honest the scarily lurid green basket immediately became the property to one of my more appreciative neighbours and the goodies therein were occasionally curious and ill advised, but it was a hamper and a lucky dip and just filled me with a strange joy.
Each year when the purveyors of such wicker goodies start plying their wares, I do take a particular fascination in their extensive catalogue and pour over them making the choice of which I’d like to receive most for myself. So last week when both the elegant Harvey Nichols’ and Fortnum and Mason Christmas hamper catalogues plopped on to my doormat much studying was needed and virtual hampers were constructed.
In the pale blue corner there is Fortnum & Mason, they have a stylish slightly remiscent of flock wallpaper fronted catalogue the iconic F&M stencilled on to the exterior of their wicker hampers. They have classic baskets stuffed with sides of smoked salmon, oozy cheeses and cooked hams. They have names like Windsor, St James’, Imperial, Connoisseur, Burlington and the Glorious Three Hundred (a nod to the impressive age of the pale blue foodie emporium). The pinnacle of their hamper menu this year is the Snow Queen at the eye watering price of £25,000 – no your eyes aren’t deceiving you. It may have been a long time ago, but I paid less than that for a house, well strictly half a house as it was a maisonette! And if you’re wondering how you can get your hands on one for the Snow Queen in your life, sadly it’s only available from the UK site, perhaps it would require its own private jet.
But just in case you are wondering how much extravagant food one can fill a single hamper with, the Snow Queen seems to be an array of white hampers just oozing with glamorous items. As well as every epicurean delight you can possibly think of - (think foie gras en croûte for 25, truffles both Champagne laced and chocolate dusted and also rooted out by an obliging dog (I hear pigs are so passé) from around Perigold, Beluga caviar, lashings of bubbly, Snow Queen vodka (naturally) huge meringues and even chocolate mice), there are softer treats. There are cashmere doodads to envelop every part of a snow queen, from slippers to robes, wraps, scarves, gloves and even a hot water bottle cover. There are silver picture frames, candlesticks, plump satin cushions, Champagne flutes, a Champagne jug and leather knick-knacks; it's just a bounty of diva-tastic adornments. Those Snow Queens certainly know how to live it up, check the full contents here.

I must admit the thought of a Snow Queen always seemed a little alluring, I know she’s the baddie but she gets to swan around in fabulous fur trimmed hats and cloaks tended by minions, permanently surrounded by snowflakes and sat regally in her chic white sleigh whilst plying young boys with Turkish Delight (oh no that might be white witch cavorting around Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) and then swooping off to her icy palace near the North Pole. The bad ones always get the best lairs!
Such an indulgent, extravagant, aspirational and entirely unattainable hamper it may but I bet whoever put it all together had a ball. Hmmm I wonder if hamper consultants need a new recruit.
Then in the black and white corner we have Harvey Nichols. Firstly Harvey Nix doesn’t favour the large wicker basket, fastened with leather strap as Fortnum’s do. Not that these are not really lovely but I do ponder as to what the serial hamper receiver would do with all that wicker. Maybe there’s one to take the cat to the vet, one to house all those food magazines they haven’t brought themselves to recycle yet or of course replenished with picnic sweetmeats and hoisted to the nearest grassy knoll. But if you truly did receive one every year, and frankly I am enormously jealous, what would you do with them all? My town is very aggressive with recycling, we have the paper, cardboard, glass, cans, plastic and food waste collected, but no one has ever mentioned what to do with a surplus of wicker baskets. Maybe Harvey Nix considered that or more likely wanted to continue their sleek photographic image theme onto the packaging and eschewed the basket, instead a glossy box adorned with ladies feasting on spaghetti or old Italian men looking a little grumpy will protect the enticing goodies therein.
This time the hampers (some say boxes) are called Epicurean, Connoisseur again, Fashionista, Festive, Contemporary, Indulgence and their top prize – the Ultimate at £2,500. I actually read the Harvey Nix catalogue first so was thinking of the wild excess that is until I turned the pages of the F&M booklet.
The Ultimate is not chock full of cashmere and crystal fripperies but instead has every distinctively designed packet, tin and box you can think of. There's the infamous image of the pig's snout on the mushroom and truffle sauce, the large operatic diva on the pandorinos, the chocolate besmirched boy on the coasters, the beach bums on some biscuits and my favourite the Baci woman on placemats, cups and sweet treats. There are also some rather fetching Peugeot salt and pepper mills, the obligatory Champagne flutes with some fabulous Krug rosé to christen them with, a spice grinder, truffle slicer and a rather splendid Wusthof knife block set. For the full list, click here. Though out of the twenty four hampers I am not sure if this is what I would plump for, if pushed to select a favourite as for example I has some wonderful knifes already and how many knife blocks does one very compact kitchen need? No I’d picked 'Indulgence' – not just because I love the name but as I’m fully knifed-up but don’t yet possess the espresso cup and saucer set that frankly every coffee hater needs. And there still an abundance of little goodies to admire, and I do so adore their packaging – I know it shouldn’t matter but it just does!

To compare the hampers from Fortnum and Mason with those from Harvey Nichols is almost not possible as they are just so different, but if I was selecting my own ingredients for my perfect hamper – The Diva let’s call it, I would have a mixture from both. In the Fortnum’s one you have the making of a full gourmet meal, I’d want the foie gras en croûte and the fresh white truffle of course, the Beluga just because and the smoked salmon. I would have to have the sublime truffly cheese Boschetto al Tartufo and the crab terrine. Now Harvey Nichols speciality is all the great store cupboard ingredients to accompany the above so I’d want plenty of risotto rice, aged Balsamic vinegars, the aforementioned mushroom and truffle sauce, white truffle oil, lemon oil and all the other wonderful little condiments they do so very well in their fifth floor gourmand paradise. Maybe the espresso cups, though Baci di Dama is my favourite image so I’d maybe just have all of those. I’d have the olive wood cheese board to top with the cheeses and any sundry cheese knives they have. As the moths have been merrily making my cashmere their personal playground perhaps I fill the corners of my hamper not filled with some ginger chocolates, macaroons and pink Champagne with some silver of cashmere loveliness. Oh and the whole lot could go in one of the white F&M hampers as I suspect I am part Snow Queen.
I realise not many probably share my fascination for 'hamper porn', but they make me very happy and I just can't help but be drawn to those shiny catalogues, hmmmm hampers!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A well travelled parcel

It might be a terribly gloomy, rain swept Autumnal day but it has been brightened considerably by the postman delivering a box full of goodies from the extraordinarily well travelled E in Belgium. Though her actual location has little bearing on the contents of my blogging by mail parcel as the contents origins are wonderfully eclectic and cover a wide range of exotic countries.
So where do I start? Well I think at the first thing I tasted – the Petits Trésors, dark chocolate biscuits with lemon and ginger from France. And they are incredibly moreish, I adore dark chocolate and ginger already but the lemon gives it an extra zing. A firm favourite already!
The next thing I tried was a square of Chocolat Noir au Thym – more dark chocolate but this time with thyme. It’s fabulously aromatic and definitely different – and from Belgium. What E has done that I am so grateful for is included thoughtful notes for those with woeful language skills (me for instance) and identified the intriguing extra to the chocolate and thyme which I could translate as linseed (which I most certainly couldn’t translate).
Staying on the chocolate theme are chocolate hagelsag or sprinkles from Holland. The seem to be for scattering on bread or toast but as E says they are much better dusted over ice cream and I think I would have to agree.
From E’s native Sweden there are Djungelvrål (which she helpfully translates as ‘cries from the jungle’) which is salty liquorice. E says they ‘are not for the faint hearted’ and they are madly salty I must concede. Though being a fan of liquorice I like the taste after the salty wave has passed. Coincidentally my last blogging by mail parcel courtesy of Anna from Sweden acquainted me with such delights.
There’s a little blue tin of Galangal from Thailand, smoked white peppercorns from Cameroon and an intriguing test tube of wild black peppercorns from Madagascar. I do like a good grind of peppercorns and so many dishes so am looking forward to trying something a little more interesting.
From a little closer to home is a jar of dried mushroom and parsley from Italy. E always stocks up when she’s in Italy and this will absolutely be featured next time I whip up some pasta.
I’ve also got some tea made from grape pits from South Korea and mulberry tea from Laos which E became addicted to whilst travelling there. E’s most recent trip took her to the Dominican Republic and she picked up a macadamia nut wafer and a dinky little pink pestle and mortar.
Thank you again E for my wonderful little parcel, I have many more exciting foodstuffs to explore. And thanks to Stephanie’s latest Blogging by Mail event, now I really must finish off my parcel to another food blogger and find a post office to send it from – my local one sadly being no more.