Sunday, 31 July 2011

Recipe - Moroccan Carrot Salad, Zaalouk

A girl can't live off potato lasagne alone.

Moroccan Carrot Salad
400g carrots  cut into sticks. Not matchsticks, just regular sticks.
Handful of coriander
1 green chilli, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves
A handful mixed dried fruit, finely chopped
Juice of half a lemon

Heat 3 tbsp olive oil on a medium heat. Add the cloves of garlic, whole. Cook the carrots with the whole garlic cloves until almost tender (so they still have a bit of crunch to them)

Finely chop the chilli, mixed dried fruit and coriander. 

When the carrots are done, toss with coriander-fruit-chilli mixture and drizzle with the oil it was cooked in. Squeeze lemon juice over it.

Zaalouk
1 aubergine
10 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp chilli powder (preferably from an Asian supermarket, tends to be spicier than that from a regular supermarket. Or maybe it's just because they make it easier to add loads - we have a kilogram bag of chilli powder with one of those spoons that you got with Calpol sticking out of it)
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt (to taste)
A handful of parsley finely chopped
A handful of coriander finely chopped

Chop the aubergine into bitesize piees. Quarter the cherry tomatoes. 
Put the aubergine, tomatoes, cumin, chilli powder, cayenne, salt, and half of the chopped herbs in a big heavy bottomed saucepan. 

Low heat, 45 minutes, occasional stirring (less occasional towards the end of the time, it will start to stick). The aubergine will go all mushy and mmm.

In other news, I'm officially living in London for the next few weeks now. IT IS AWESOME. I went to eat here with one of my new housemates last night after failing to find Daddy Donkey (although I have a suspicion that it was the closed, black, chic-looking place called the Department of Coffee or something) when really, really hungry. The food was comforting and warming without going overboard (hot day, sweaty journey ERGH) and exactly what I needed after Hellish Pendolino Journey no. 2. The only pitfall of the meal is that the roof of my mouth is now swollen because I attacked my shepherd's pie while the lamb shank filling was still piping.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Recipe - Potato Lasagne

Towards the end of term, I was getting a salad for lunch. The person serving me was someone to whom I had previously expressed the view that I was unlikely to feel satisfied by a meal without any meat or fish in it. At the time of ordering this salad, I'd decided to only eat meat 6 months of the year. (It sounds like a bigger commitment than it is phrased like that, all it amounts to is restricting meat to one meal a day, if that.) Vegetarian Friend: 'No no no. I agree that your meat consumption would be the same as if you only ate meat 6 months of the year but it's definitely not the same if you just eat meat every other meal.' Anyway, the person serving me expressed surprise and faint ridicule before deigning to overstuff my salad bowl (my fault - should've asked for more stuff). Yeah, once upon a time I held the view that without meat a meal was incomplete. And what? People change. Now, I admit that was a retarded view to hold and the not feeling full after a vegetarian meal was alllll in my head.

So anyway, this is all a segue. A vegetarian friend came to stay and I made the most of the fact that my parents are away (they try to stop me cooking because they think I can’t use knives and always burn myself) and I have a non-student kitchen at my disposal.

Pesto and Potato Lasagne
It’s a thing. So I was pondering what to make and Smitten Kitchen proffered this simple rocket and potato pasta recipe. But then I was doing some browsing and her squash and caramelised onion galette made me start to crave sweet onions. And then since I was thinking about potatoes and thinking about onions , I looked up some gratin recipes. But all the recipes I saw referenced winter in some way. So I thought about things which are summery which led me to thinking about potato salad and pesto for a while. And then some more browsing led me to pesto and green beans and pasta in one dish, a favourite of the Liguria region. Anyway, all of these different musings led me to decide to try out pesto and potato lasagne. I wanted the layering of a gratin, the starchy plainness of pasta, the summery saltiness of pesto against caramelised onions and the texture of potato. I figured it might work: I know the sweetness of the onions goes with pesto from a quick lunch I frequently make that couples the two with pasta. Surely, changing pasta shape and adding potatoes won’t change things too much..? Also I have great faith in unexpected pesto making things delicious: one time I wanted to use the remnants of the Sacla up so I stuck it in a Spanish omelette. It added a lovely silky wetness to the omelette that I usually get from the patatas bravas on the side.
Plus, I totally have Ottolenghi’s backing on this one.
3 small onions
2 garlic cloves
About 4 lasagne sheets (there were three lasagne layers and I used 1 and a bit sheets for each layer.)
500g new potatoes
(I don’t really know what measures of things I use to make a white sauce but I vaguely remember way back when I first read a recipe for it that it used 50g butter and flour and I think you use about 600ml milk with that. But I didn’t make that much sauce so I guesstimated quantities based on those proportions)
25g butter
25g flour
300ml milk
100g cheddar cheese
Pesto (quantity explained in a min)

Thinly slice the onions and the potatoes. Finely chop the garlic.

 Place the onions on a low heat with a sprinkle of salt and sugar until caramelised. Ottolenghi says this should take about 20 minutes but mine took about 25.

Make the white sauce: on a medium heat, melt the butter, add flour, continuously stirring to make a golden brown ‘paste’ (would you call it a paste?). Turn the heat down and slowly add the milk, stirring the mixture constantly to avoid lumps. Keep on the heat for about 7 minutes so the sauce thickens. Add a touch of nutmeg and cayenne pepper and season liberally with pepper. Stir in the cheese.
Toss the sliced potatoes with salt, garlic and enough pesto that it’s not drowning in it but is all nicely, if lightly, coated in it.

I also used Ottolenghi’s layering system: cover the bottom of the dish in lasagne sheets, then a layer of onion, then the potato, then the cheese sauce. Then repeat so the top is cheese sauce covered potato.
Bake, covered in foil, for 45 minutes at 190C. Uncover and bake for a further 15 minutes. Check the potatoes and lasagne sheets are cooked before removing.

Hey, look, my photos are getting better! Imagine what they'll be like in a month! (Probably not that much better but plz keep reading.)

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cheesecake

Apparently the cheesecake is in vogue at the moment. Reading that made me want to gush about the time I ate the best cheesecake ever. Oh look this is the perfect medium to do that.

I was 'working' at a corporate law firm for a few weeks. Part of the ‘experience’ is being taken to eat at fancy restaurants (‘look what you’ll be able to afford if you work here’). If I’d been paying for my own food at Rocket (shares its name with a club I really wanted to go to for my 18th birthday before I found out it was a strip club), I would’ve left feeling like I’d been robbed. I have little recollection what I had for a starter or main but a quick peek at the menu informs me that I had the Thai spiced pork cakes to start. MISTAKE. Should've had the fried baby squid instead, punchy with chilli and coriander, (haters can hate.) The main thing the calzone that followed had going for it was its size - one of the law firm reps taunted my ‘girl’s appetite’ and bet I couldn’t finish it. I proved him wrong but if I wasn't such a competitive wretch, I probably wouldn’t have. Too much mozzarella – almost overpowering the chorizo. And the chorizo and mozzarella together demolished the prawns.

Anyway, I'm just setting the scene. The real event was dessert. Raspberry and vanilla bean cheesecake. I thought I wouldn’t finish it because I was really full (and that’s saying something, I’ve been known to eat a whole Tesco Finest New York cheesecake in one sitting) but I ordered all the same since I wasn’t paying. One taste and all the other errors of the meal were forgiven. It was the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. And I’ve eaten lots of cheesecake – it’s the modal choice of desserts. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but rarely say no to the tang of cheesecake coupled with the not-too-sweetness of a buttery base (base base, buttery biscuit base). This cheesecake was so packed with vanilla that the raspberry was the accompanying flavour rather than the main event, the way it should be but rarely is. And it was all so light and fluffy I swear it felt like the vanilla fairy was dancing on my tongue. But it still had the reigns of tart keeping it in check. Oh man, I wish I was in London already so I could go to Rocket for pudding now.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Houdini?

Before the deluge of vegetarian food forecast for Thursday, I wanted to cook something supermeaty. I was watching Rick Stein’s new programme (there's an absolute dearth of fun activity around these parts) and I saw one of the chefs he met make a rabo de toro. It looked so so good. The recipe was nowhere to be found on BBC food website so I went to other sources for inspiration. However, there was one obstacle between me and those sweet ox cheeks: most recipes I found seemed to require brandy and my parents don’t drink. Papa dearest doesn’t really have any objection to the concept and definitely doesn’t mind the use of alcohol in cooking, however, he would probably hesitate before buying me a bottle of brandy ‘to cook with’. Anyway, the hassle and expense of buying then hiding the brandy for only a few tablespoons meant that the stew wasn’t a viable option. So, motivated by a lack of brandy and having cooked a spate (turns out it’s not spelt –eight, who knew) of oriental inspired dishes of late, I decided to go Italian and make a ragu.

Except this was a ragu with a difference. Since I don’t have a car (parents sent it to the scrapyard while I was away without telling me) and the nearest proper supermarket is a forty minute walk away, I had to make do with the offerings of the Tesco Express and Spar. No parpadelle or even tagliatelle for me. And I, remembering the wisdom of the far more experienced, didn’t want to subject the meaty chunks to rakish spaghetti. Instead, I settled for rigatoni with the intention of coupling it with parmesan breadcrumbs to make a makeshift-ragu pasta bake. Also, since the family eat food of the Indian subcontinent most days, our 'larder' isn't particularly well stocked. You're guaranteed to find rice and a spice drawer that looks like a turmeric quarry but anything else is a surprise. So I set about making a ragu with all of these various constraints and easily-resolved-if-I-wasn't-so-lazy problems. Now you understand the name (do you?) of the recipe.
Escapologist's Ragu (aren't I witty?)
485g casserole steak
2tbsp flour
100g diced carrot
1 ½ small onions, diced
2 cloves garlic
1 can chopped tomatoes
3 OXO stock cubes
200ml merlot
2tsp thyme
1 large bay leaf
Pinch rosemary
Salt and pepper

Brown the onion, carrot and garlic. Toss the meat in seasoned flour. Add to vegetables and brown.
Add herbs and merlot on high heat. Add tomatoes and stock cubes. Season. Simmer for 2 hours.

Amendments I’d make: simmer the meat for 3 hours instead. The meat was soft but not soft enough. And I’d add a liberal handful of basil. Also, better ingredients. I’ve often wondered whether good food is the result of good ingredients or skill. With recipes as simple as ragu, I think it’s the former. Hand on heart, I think I made this taste as good as I possibly could. But I think it would have tasted 23749203284x better with better ingredients. Well, I’ll bear that in mind for Andalusian ox cheek stew. I miss the covered market

Now, you might be wondering why I chose to write up such a pedestrian recipe under the guise of 'hey I was doing the best I could with what I had' followed by a glaringly obvious conclusion/moral. Well, I just think I need practise at writing 'til my style doesn't make me want to claw my skin off. Also, I could do with getting into the habit of updatiing this. Oh, and I need to learn to take photographs of food. I fear there's an analogy to be drawn between trying to turn sub-optimal ingredients into an amazing ragu and trying to take good photographs with my camera.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Pubs

Oxford is full of pubs. Most of those pubs serve food and I was fooled into thinking that because the pubs had unique names and were famed because so-and-so drank there back in the day, their menus would all be unique and they wouldn’t just be chains. Unfortunately, I was wrong on this point. However, in the environs of the city centre there are lots of little villages each which has its own famed gastropub. I hate that term, it makes me think of Twitter and hashtagging and other things which are ‘in’. I get the impression they probably all make a big deal of sourcing their inredients locally. But I got nothin’ against that trend – some trends are good even if it is annoying when Jamie Oliver harps on about them. And also I might be wrong about this, I’m making sweeping assumptions here.

Anyway, I’ve eaten at a fair few of these pubs. The first one I went to was the White Hart. Two friends and I drove there. Initially we thought we were going here and we were a bit worried because the place looked deserted and all we could see in the window was a little sticker saying how microwaved pizzas were served there. Thankfully, our destination was a pub in the next village along. This place looked more like what we were expecting. Still deserted but also quite pretentiously decorated: designed to look homely but in a calculated way. After being ridiculed for ordering a vodka tonic with lunch, I opted for a white wine. It was probably a house white wine and probably vastly similar to all other white wines I’ve had because I have an unsophisticated wine-palate. My friends opted for ales. There’s a lot of that around in Oxfordshire. Soon after came the overpriced, unspectacular bread and olives. Of the three main-courses available, we all went for the Oxford pie served with mash and vegetable
s. It was fine, well-seasoned, and the portion was big (which I like), but just not worth what I paid for it. The problem with pubs like this (and I didn’t think I’d find a problem with pubs which serve much better than average pub food) is that the food all tastes the same boring kind of good. There’s rarely anything that stands out in how it tastes. It’s all fine but very vanilla and difficult to feel enthused about.

The Fishes fared better although that might be because it was a lovely day and a lovely experience. I know the food was good but I can’t remember if it was the generic gastropub good where it wasn’t worth the price I paid or if it was genuinely praiseworthy. The day I spent there was fun all the same and I liked the idea of the ‘picnic boxes’ you can get to enjoy in the ‘playground’ area.
I had a similarly lovely day at the Victoria Arms. To get there, we punted. And by ‘we’ I mean the two men of the group did the hard work while we lay in the boat sunning ourselves. It made for an idyllic birthday (bar the controversy over the Mornington Crescent game) but even despite that I have to say that the food was markedly gastropub average. I had the potato skins and it’s quite damning to say the £4 for 12 Sainsburys potato skins had fuller flavour despite being mass produced. The Puntsman's board (pictured below) which, appropriately, the two puntsmen shared, might have been a better choice.

I still have faith that some gastropubs stay true to their aim and produce actually exceptional food. I’ll write in detail about the Magdalen Arms again when I go there again (hopefully very soon) but I had to mention it because it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten in Oxford. The Magdalen Arms is the one pub spoken of in this entry which I don’t think is a jot overpriced. The food is both less expensive and a great deal better quality than that of the other pubs mentioned. The menu is constantly changing and I think on this particular day I had the coq au vin and I want to say that my companion had pigeon. Or was it pheasant? It was definitely a game bird that wasn’t duck.
What I remember of the food is that its rich, buttery, glossy and exactly what I want from ‘Modern British Cuisine’.

Cowley

This is the bohemian, multicultural, ‘rough’ area full of student houses which isn’t really that bohemian or rough at all by normal standards. It also happens to hold some of the best eateries in Oxford at very reasonable prices. After all, the costs of overheads must be cheaper in such a ‘rough’ area, right? I will mention SantoriniArbat and Atomic Burger. Firstly, because they’re the most notable restaurants there and secondly, because I happen to have photos of some of the meals I’ve enjoyed there.
The first time I went to eat at Santorini, I went with my then-boyfriend, the girl he eventually cheated on me with, her best friend, her brother (who eventually ended up coming to my college) and a couple of other awkward individuals. But still what shines in my mind from that first trip is the kleftiko. A tender, juicy lamb shank in a source they claim to be made of olive oil, oregano and thyme but I’m sure must include some sort of addictive substance/witchcraft. And my only regrets of the evening are that I was too full to finish it. Santorini does generous portions. I was only too thrilled to have set up the loop that I did: I mentioned how good ‘Greek place’ was to people, they insisted that we should go, I went there again and ate more and then talked to other people about it. The second time I went, I ordered the kleftiko again but it wasn’t as good. But it still retained some of that moreish richness of the first visit. On subsequent visits, I sampled the meze menu. My favourites are the meatballs, the chicken filo pie (which I never ordered myself because something about the combination of chicken, leek and filo pastry just didn’t do it for me but I got to eat another’s, the glory of shared plates…) and the tuna steak. But in all honesty, it’s difficult to order wrongly here. Greek place, for now, is safe in my top five restaurants.


Arbat is a garish yellow building with a menu outside that doesn’t really invite people to enter. But I, ever curious, wanting to taste what Russian food is (I wasn’t fooled by the myths of cabbage and potatoes), entered all the same. Both cabbage and potatoes do feature on the menu but it’s doing the cuisine an injustice to say it’s JUST cabbage and potatoes. Although I wouldn’t be too annoyed if it was – I love both cabbage and potatoes. My friend and I went for the appetisingly titled ‘Manty’ and ‘Plov’ (I’m being unfair – they might sound very appetising in Russian). When my Manty (dumplings) arrived, they reminded me of how I’d felt from looking at the exterior of the restaurant. They looked rather pallid.


But I, the intrepid food lover (lol), went forth and thrust my knife square into the middle of one of those spaceships. Inside was delicately spiced, perfectly seasoned lamb, a happy companion to the sweet, almost smoky pumpkin. I don’t know what herbs they used to season the filling but by Jove, it worked. My one criticism was that the sour cream was unnecessary. I understand that they added it because otherwise there would be no wet on the dish but I think the sour cream detracted from the flavour. So I ignored it. Despite my satisfaction at my own meal, after trying some of my friend’s I felt as though I’d ordered badly.


Plov was a lamb and rice dish not unlike a lamb biryani. The spicing reminded me of that of a curry (except without the chilli-hot) and the rice was fluffy and moist. It was like my dream-biryani. Anyway, I don’t know if Arbat is authentic but the Russians are lucky if it is.
I love Atomic Burger. It’s the Oxonian home of pop culture kitsch from the 80s. The place is filled with action figures, cool posters and toys which at some point had kids willing to sacrifice a limb. There’s also a projector hanging from the ceiling playing various 80s sci-fi videos. The burgers are all named to match the theme as well. As much as I might love the place for its décor and general milieu, the food is pretty good too. It’s cheap, filling and I have to give them props for offering actually-interestingnot GBK-interesting toppings. The sci fries (chilli garlic fries) in particular deserve a mention: they’re designed to give your lips a pleasant sting. Most students around the area will have visited at some point and left not-disappointed. But not many will have experienced the breakfast menu. I went for a birthday breakfast which I had been contemplating skipping because I was feeling tired and livery after the night before. I’m glad I went, the juevos rancheros are something else. Two eggs with pleasingly gooey yolks and salty refried beansall covered in a tangy tomato sauce and scattered with chilli flakes and jalapenos. This wasn’t OK food mitigated by the company and the environment, this was potentially the best breakfast in Oxford. The chilli kick really wakes you up and it has its merits as a hangover cure too.

Some Disparate Pictures

Since I first decided I wanted to start the blog, I started taking pictures of the food I was eating or making when I remembered. Most of them are not very good pictures and do not make the food look very appetising. Also since the genesis took such a long time, I’ve since forgotten the details of the meals and won’t be able to describe anything adequately. And the photos certainly won’t.  But I wanted to mention a few of these things so the photos don’t go to waste.

Mexican Night
My friends had already created a culture of eating together because it’s cheaper and easier to cook for big groups and also just more fun. But then one of them decided to step it up a notch which led to Noche Mexicana. We had decorations and a piñata and lots of tequila.

The meal was a bog standard chilli con carne (with pinto bean chilli for the vegetarians) with guacamole (just the right kick of lemon, mm) and the night captured exactly how I think a good dinner party should be: simple food, well executed with good chatter and terrible alcohol free flowing.

Italian Night
What was notable about Italian night was that I was not ‘head chef’ and was actually doing another’s bitch work for them. Usually, I take the role of queen which lets me take all the credit, delegate things I don’t want to do and shirk the washing up. But on Italian night all of that changed – I was the house elf.

The menu was tomato and basil bruschetta followed by meatballs (or vegetable ragout for the vegetarians) and tiramisu. The bruschetta was the standout course. I initially thought I wanted to opt out of the starter since I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it very much. I was so wrong. The tomatoes had a lovely acidity to them but they were balanced with enough sweet basil to make it pleasant and cooling rather than eye-watering. To make enough for 8 people I think we used four cloves of garlic, twelve tomatoes (maybe?), half a Tesco bag of basil, some quantity of olive oil (quite I lot I think) and two loafs of ciabatta sliced and rubbed with garlic and fried. I think. Also we played Mafia after dinner. Lotsa fun.

Pomegranate Molasses Roasted Lamb
One of the first recipes I ever tried from a food blog. I’ve cooked it three times (because the molasses bottle I bought yielded enough for three attempts.) The first time, I didn’t add enough water and the onions weren’t so much caramelised and burnt to a crisp. I did some rice cooked with turmeric and cauliflower to go with it. Underseasoned. Classic Ari.

The second time I cooked it I thought it would be a good idea to add a can of chopped tomatoes and a little less of the molasses. This was a mistake. The sauce was the tartest thing. It almost gave me a headache. The accompanying lentils and rice were OK but all I can remember from the meal was the feeling of my eyes rolling back in my head with sour. Although this was definitely the worst attempt, it was the only attempt I photographed.

Third time lucky: enough water, enough salt and abandoning the turmeric-rice concoctions of the previous times (although they weren’t so bad, just sort of bland). I served it with cous cous embellished with peppers, onion, garlic and chilli.

Another Lamb, this time in Cornwall
Roast lamb, dauphinoise potatoes, skin on squash with chilli flakes and the best carrots I’ve ever eaten (jealous that I can’t take credit for them)

The lesson to be learnt from this meal is DON’T put the burnt onions that you discarded from the lamb pan in the gravy, however much you hate waste.

As if from nowhere, a blog appeared

So I’ve been thinking about starting this blog for about a year but lots of things got in the way. Well, actually only two things. Firstly, lack of a good name. Secondly, lack of a ‘USP’. One of my good friends puts an inordinate amount of stress on everyone and everything having a USP (apparently mine is ‘callousness’.) But anyway, a combination of she and the Apprentice made me think that having a USP was imperative. After many months and a failure at making the blog a combined venture (‘The Ravioli Supper’ - don’t ask, I was sorry I did) I thought of a USP. An illustrated food blog. However, it turned out that I find drawing food trying, not at all relaxing and am actually not very good at it. So that failed. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that this blog does not have a unique selling point or a good name. And the recipes might be a bit amateur because I’m more amateur than most bloggers - I’ve only been cooking frequently for about two years. Before that it was all under-seasoned Bolognese and other Pasta Sauces (but growing up in a house where rice is the s
taple, pasta is a treat). And the restaurant reviews for now will be very much localised to the Oxford area. But I started it all the same because I love talking about food. This will indulge that and I hope you’ll forgive me and maybe enjoy it.

Vaguely interesting aside – both people who I asked to proof read this before putting it on the Internet (I wasn’t going to put this up without any feedback - I’ve read the Guardian comment boxes below articles) linked me to this in their replies.

Anyway, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.