Sunday, 27 May 2012

Review - Pink Giraffe

I have just had a glass of Innocent orange juice. Why would I buy such expensive orange juice? Why would I buy any juice at all? (Juice is one of those things that I really like but resent having to pay so much for. It's a luxury item best saved for home time.) Partly because it was on offer and partly because it's full of vitamin C. While I am usually not one to believe that Berocca or multivitamins will speed up the fighting of a virus, it's two days before my first exam and I am willing to try anything. This has been an absolute nightmare of an exam season. I've had to make four different revision timetables from falling so far behind on the previous one. Not once have I managed to do everything I planned in a day. In case you're tempted to feel sorry for me (you're not) and assume I set myself too much; I didn't. My expectations of myself and my day were very reasonable. The schedule allowed for breaks and fun an adequate sleep yet still I couldn't be a grown up about it. And now I'm ill and I've run out of time and I'm resorting to vitamin C and prayer when I don't really believe the provenance (am I using that in the right context?) of either. I have no work ethic and it is only sheer luck (or God) that has given me the grace of almost making it to twenty one without having realised this before. I've tasted the bitter pill of rejection (lol) a few times over the past year so I knew things were getting harder but even then, I've still been very lucky. NOT ANYMORE. Exams were the one thing that I could count on doing well in but I always suspected that they wouldn't remain lazy and easy. But I never expected this. This is insane. I don't need to be tested this rigorously to do what will in all likelihood be glorified admin for ten years followed by some light creativity and management. Or even to achieve world peace! (I'm going to become fluent in French and join the UN peace corps.) I might have done more work than I've ever done for anything ever but it's still nowhere near enough. I know everyone needs to learn that everything isn't easy at some point but this is a very cruel way to teach someone; dangling the threat of a life where no one will give you a chance because it says 'ii' instead of 'i'. They were going to go terribly anyway, you didn't need to make me ill as well.

My illness meant that yesterday, I woke up very late, spent the majority of the afternoon trying to work but felt too heady and sick and ultimately relinquished to nap. Then I spoke to my parents who told me (kindly) to suck it up and maybe go for a walk to separate 'ill day' from 'two days before exam'. So I did. Then I bumped into this guy. Which would have been horrif in my ill, stressed state except as it turns out, I felt nothin' special except awkwardness. Well done me. Six months to get over four years isn't so bad. And then I did some work and felt very good and pleased but then I went to dinner and felt very inside my own head and thought 'oh hey this wouldn't have happened before' but that's just me and really just a corollary of not being a teenager who doesn't hate people. Plus, to reiterate, sharing food with a non-vegetarian is infinitely more fun. What did we share? Sweet and sour chicken, 'Pink Giraffe' mixed noodles, 'Pink Giraffe' sizzling beef and egg fried rice (with peas and carrots) at the Pink Giraffe.
I was really, really pleasantly surprised. I was expecting it to be awful because it looks like one of those tacky 'catering to Western palettes' Chinese places where all you can taste is MSG and need to drink lots of water to make up for it. This stuff did cater to the Western palette but that's not bad in itself. If the food is good, the food is good. And here, the food was excellent. The noodles were fresh and just coated with soy sauce and filled with lovely crisp vegetables to counter the fatty duck. The chicken and prawns were slightly sweet and just cooked. 'Gourmet'. The beef was similarly tender and surrounded by zingy fresh chillies and green peper and green beans. The sauce had (amongst other things) thai basil running through it and was sweet but not too sweet and savoury and delicious. The sweet and sour chicken was coated with a lovely glaze and looked really, really appetising which is surprising for sweet and sour chicken. But as it turns out, I just don't really like sweet and sour chicken. I could tell that this was well done but it was still much too sweet. I bet at the beginning of this post you never thought I'd be able to connect this with food.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Trimmings

Last year I was set on doing Christmas in term time after eating fish fingers on Christmas day because my dad failed to go Christmas food shopping until Christmas eve. (Four times in a sentence, gosh.) As with so many of my ideas, it didn't happen. Sigh. But it kind of happened last night. Well, the food did. That's because I had leftover mash from the duck because when I went to the market, the vegetable boy who always compliments my appearance but is also like sixteen dropped a potato and so I said 'I'll have that one too thanks'. Silly me. Anyway, leftover mash and thinking about how good the stuffing was and also STILL having leftover thyme meant that I decided to cook a Christmas dinner in late May. Well, all the trimmings of Christmas dinner without the silly turkey. (I love turkey but it would've been excessive.) So, stuffing, honeyed parsnips, pigs in blankets, mash and roasted sprouts. Except that as usual, the oven was ridiculous, I got really hungry when dinner was almost an hour late so ended up pouring all the sprouts and parsnips and honey-oil in the pan which was going to make the gravy and let them soften there. That also meant that all the gravy condiments (garlic, remaining thyme and bay) were poured into the salvage operation. Leaving the wine for drinking. Which led to stressful altercation followed by ridiculously early bedtime. Exams beyond salvage (unlike the parsnips). The lump of mash on top sort of ruins this otherwise OK picture. Sigh.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Repeats - Duck Legs

I have no time to look up nice recipes, read blogs, find new music, get old music, read fiction or watch TV. Bad because I really like doing all of those things and am resentful towards these stupid exams for stopping me doing them. (I'm also resentful because they've made my skin deteriorate. As someone's who's never had bad skin despite eating and drinking and smoking lots of unhealthy things, this is the worst thing about them.) But good because that means I'm cooking old recipes again meaning that they usually improve. Most recently, I cooked ragu. Much more successful this time and totally worth carrying around a half empty bottle of wine in my bag of clean laundry to stop mama finding it and irrationally objecting despite the fact she doesn't object when I use chinese cooking wine even though that's MORE alcoholic. Whatever. Anyway, unfortunately, I didn't photograph it. But that's OK because it's basically this recipe except done with a little more care. Or, if you prefer, the ragu part of this recipe but with beef shin instead of mince. Or, this. And this. You get the idea. I've made lots of similar things before. I've only slow roasted duck legs once before though. It was really good (although the best part of the meal was the stuffing, not the duck) but I forgot to photograph it. So, here's the photograph. With mash and cabbage and caraway and red wine 'jus' (duck fat, red onion, garlic, capers) and none of the delicious stuffing this time. Bye.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Review - Georgina's

It's horrific. So I decided to make my last few hours extra special. I planned to go for a nice pub lunch at the Head of the River just before leaving. Except then I ended up being naughtier than expected in the few hours before the last few hours which led to me getting up much later than anticipated with little to no appetite. Also I was snappy and in my usual serotonin low mean and sad state so I wasn't quite the sweet tempered village girl befitting of the idyllic backdrop. So really it was a blessing in disguise that papa called to say he was an hour early leading to lunch relocation to the much less ceremonious Georgina's. The Head of the River is to be a glorious birthday treat. That's another problem with my exam attitude: as well as making way too big a deal about the minor sacrifices I've had to make before they start, I'm expending far more energy on planning stuff for after they're over than I am on the main event. I'm even having post exam dreams instead of the more appropriate panicked 'oh no I've run out of time and they've asked questions about Bagshaw's sock choices instead of torts and also all my teeth have fallen out oh no' nightmares. I've lost a lot of focus with the point of this blog post. I blame the biphasic sleep cycle. Georgina's.
The best bacon sandwich I've had was one provided by a law firm at training for its trainees which I was sitting on on during work experience. The second best bacon sandwich I've had is one I got from round the corner of law firm A's biggest rival while waiting to interview there for work experience. The third best sandwich I've had is the one my companion ordered at Georgina's. I ordered the tuna ciabatta. I thought I wanted something fresh a d vegetably but they'd run out of their salads (at only 2, poor form) so I went for the first thing I saw which happened to be the tuna thing. When our food came, I immediately had such food envy that I asked that we share our sandwiches despite being able to hear a voice screeching 'the ball and chain' in my head. It was so worth it. Gloriously crisp yet still just coated with the remnants of fat. Plentiful but in handy strips so gorging it was easy. Nice cold balsamic salad alongside. I don't know how I feel about the tuna since it was so underwhelming in comparison. I think they should have either used less mustard in the sandwich or not dressed the side salad with mustard, it was a bit much.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Recipe - Jerk Marinade

I had to send myself to finals prison. That's like debtors' prison in that it's a bit nicer than actual prison/Australia but still isn't very nice. I have only myself to blame. In the car driving back, I was filled with a stillness not unlike what I imagine the aunt felt in the last book in the Noughts and Crosses trilogy. Don't bother reading it. The first book was excellent but each sequel got slightly worse. Anyway, as Stompy pointed out, that made the dinner I cooked on Friday evening something of a last supper. I'm so melodramatic. It wasn't really at all. It came to be because I cooked some jerk salmon with rice and peas a few days before for friends who've been taking exams more seriously than me resulting in me feeling a little out of touch them. Then I had jerk marinade left over so decided to jerk some pork because cooking is one of the few ways I know to show I care. (Others include throwing money at the problem and putting my coat awkwardly around the shoulders of an upset person.) Then it occurred to me that this might be a dish that the Scott 'picky eater' Mcbeanie (in joke which I'm not even in on) would enjoy. But pork belly for three is a little silly since it's only marginally more effort to do pork belly for six. Then the morning after my drunken 'hey let me cook for you' offers I saw some more people on a lawn and asked them too. So that's how I came to be struggling to turn a piece of meat almost too heavy for me to carry in a too small pan. This story was dull.

Jerk Marinade 
1 tbsp ground all spice
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 bunch fresh thyme, leaves only
1 inch galangal (maverick but it worked)
1 inch ginger
6 cloves garlic
2 limes, juice only
Large handful fresh coriander
1 tsp pepper
4 scotch bonnet chillies
100ml olive oil

Blend the ingredients together using a food processor.

Jerk salmon
Half quantity marinade
4 salmon fillets, skinless
Salt

Cover the skinless salmon pieces (season with salt first) in half a quantity of jerk marinade and grill on a high heat until the salmon is opaque and cooked through and the jerk is crispy and starting to blacken.
I served this with rice and peas (see below) and roasted baby sweetcorn and yellow pepper.

Jerk pork belly
2kg pork belly
2 tsp salt
Half quantity jerk marinade with 1tbsp dark brown sugar
4 shallots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
A pint of chicken stock

Rub the pork belly with salt and the marinade.
Heat a little olive oil on a high heat and brown the belly all over.
Lower the heat and add the shallots, garlic and vinegar, stirring and scraping the crispy bits from the bottom of the pan.
When very soft and starting to colour, add the stock, bay and thyme.
Return the pork belly to the pan.
Place in an oven, covered, at 180 for 3 hours.
After that time, increase the heat to 220 and let the pork crisp, uncovered.
If after that time the sauce hadn't reduced to your liking, remove the irk and cover with foil to keep warm and reduce the sauce on a high heat on the stove.
I served this with buttery sweet potato mash and peas. It was pretty good but I think next time, I'd make it with double the quantity of marinade (or with a significantly smaller joint).

Rice and peas (for four and a bit)
2 shallots, chopped
250g long rain rice
1 can kidney beans
1 can coconut milk
1 can water
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme, leaves only
Handful fresh coriander, finely chopped.
Zest of a lime

Fry shallot.
Add rice, coconut milk, thyme, bay, undrained kidney beans and water. Cook, covered, until rice cooked. Season with salt and pepper and stir in fresh coriander and a little lime zest.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Recipe - One Pot Chicken

Remember when I started this blog? I did it to get better at both writing and cooking. I think my writing style has become better and more consistent. (Although I still have trouble with how brackets fit into the whole punctuation matrix.) I would probably say my cooking has improved as well. My cooking is rarely perfect. I think it could be if I did the same recipes over and over. I make mean pasta sauces now since I always make them for lunch but of course that would make for boring blogging. I like to try new recipes and rarely are they perfect first time. They're always edible, usually quite good and occasionally disastrous. Like my lasagne. I've made that ten times at least now. It's not perfect since the layering and finding lasagne dishes is a bit tricky but the flavouring is there. Which leads me handily to what I've learnt about cooking. My lasagne (and so many other recipes) have significantly improved from one small thing. Frying the onions for longer on a lower heat. Still no colouring but until they're ridiculously translucent and deliciously sweet. It's the single thing (apart from salt) that most improves the flavouring of a dish. God, I feel like one of those ads which is like 'one single tip' ads that indicate it'd be really simple to get a flat stomach. I bet it's always something really inane. 'Eat less'. I would but this article encompasses well why I don't think a flat stomach would be worth it. I was originally going to post that link as part of a post about the Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed crust pizza. But then it was sold out. But then it wasn't a week later and we got it, large, one side beef sizzler and one side chicken supreme. And dipped the crust in reggae reggae sauce. Oh baby. Anyway, I digress. Basically, I'm better at cooking than I was when I started. General consensus is that this was the best meal I cooked for the guests who ate this meal.

4 chicken legs, skin on, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 large carrots, each peeled and cut into 6
2 large parsnips, each peeled and cut into 4
6 small shallots, halved
5 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
2 tbsp honey
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves only
2 bay leaves
1 cup chicken stock
80g unsalted butter, cut into cubes

Brown the chicken legs on a high heat in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.
Remove the chicken and fry the vegetables until just softening.
Season the vegetables and then add the honey and thyme.
Add the chicken stock, butter and bay.
Place the chicken in the pan, skin side up.
Cover with greaseproof paper and cook for about thirty to forty minutes until cooked through and the sauce is a sticky glaze.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Review - Chez Gaston

My family and I aren't very good at affection. Our traditional mode of showing affection for one another is being mean but in a friendly way. Examples: 'You're not as clever as your sister', 'That lipstick really brings out your menopausal moustache', 'I don't understand why your friends like you'. Both a demonstration and product of stellar parenting. Anyway, this has two consequences. Firstly, it means when we're actually mean, we're really, really 'the line is a dot to you' horrible. Secondly, it means that sometimes in groups of people, I'm 'cold' and 'dismissive' and 'indifferent to the point of non-acknowledgment'. I'm improving (or trying to) though. Yesterday we even went out in public. Mental. Luna Caprese was closed so we went elsewhere on North Parade Avenue. After some dithering (Rose and Crown? Gardeners' Arms?), we settled on Chez Gaston. We shared a Gaston Mama crepe, four seasons pizza and seafood spaghetti. In the lady and tramp way. (Not really.) Please ignore my leg, I've recently become incapable of not sitting cross-legged.
Pizza had too much cheese and poorly distributed toppings. The mushrooms were perfectly cooked though. It's hard to say what I liked best of the crepe and the pasta. I tried a bit of everything for the purpose of saving the best til last but I just couldn't choose between these two. The sauce for the pasta was gloriously rich with just cooked seafood. And the pasta felt fresh and homemade. The crepe had markedly different flavours - tarragon and cream and chicken - but they were just as well balanced. Simple and moreish with a nice honey mustard dressing cutting through the crisp side salad. It's nice sharing meals with non-vegetarians who sort of let you order collectively.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Review - Oxford Thai Restaurant

Clearly, I have mine all wrong. Here's a list of things I ought not to have done just before my finals:
Worked for two weeks at a company in an industry I might not want to work in anymore;
Started smoking everything all the time;
Started smoking everything in my room all the time;
Acquired a pal who a) lives on my corridor, b) never has anything to do and c) tires of my company less quickly than other pals;
Lied about skipping class because of wisdom teeth pain resulting in karmic growth;
Trained for a catering company six months in advance of when I'll be able to work;
Tried to buy a house;
Planned my birthday jaunt to the very last detail over two months in advance;
Started buying things as though I have limitless funds;
Planned a trip to Cuba for which I have not-enough money;
Ceased to work in the mornings when I'd definitely be most productive;
Become active on Twitter again;
Got two piercings which still haven't healed;
Spent an evening eating this meal and drinking wine despite having done no work for the previous two days because I gallivanted on May Eve. Ergh.
Mixed starters which included vegetable tempura, steamed dumplings, chicken wings and chicken satay. The tempura batter was a bit too heavy for the vegetables to carry. The mushroom was a disaster and the baby corn was just sweet enough to carry it. The only filling strong enough to carry it was the salty, addictive cabbage ball. That was good. The steamed dumpling was glorious. Soft and perfectly seasoned with that meatiness that makes you keep wanting to lick your lips. Seriously good. The chicken satay was tender and flavoursome but the shredded carrot and lettuce below was a bit swimming in the satay sauce. It would have been nicer for those to provide a fresh interlude from the rest of the heavy flavours. Chicken wings were out of place and reminded me of some crap I used to eat from Iceland. I do love junk food from Iceland but I don't want to be reminded that I eat it, ever. Beef massamam was fatty (in a good way) with the meat falling apart in your mouth, not at all stringy. The potato had soaked up all the flavour of the sauce in that way I love. Unfortunately, the sauce itself was a little too coarse. It was good but a bit unbalanced and overly tangy. The whisky noodles with chicken, basil and chilli had the punchiness of the beef but without being unbalanced. Or maybe it was the little pockets of respite provided by the juicy green beans and fresh bursts of chilli. Who knows. Anyway, that dish was amazing. Oxford Thai is not particularly refined but instead of providing bog standard MSG heavy crap, it provides home cooking style dishes. Lovely.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Recipe - Beef rendang

I came across food blogs about a year and a half ago. I was reading a Guardian word of mouth article about how to make perfect pasta and followed a link to Food Stories' ragu and gremolata. Then I found others and started using those in my recipe searches. I usually 'make up' recipes by looking up various versions and taking the bits I like from each. Like a colonialist. Except not. I have colonialists on the mind. Before my recipe search was confined to BBC Food and C4 recipes. Also Google. Actually, I'd definitely come across food blogs before but didn't quite think through what they are. I suppose I should clarify that the beginning of the post was probably when I started using food blogs for inspiration. Anyway, on one of my inspiration days, I came across beef rendang on Hollow Legs. Doesn't it look delicious? I both wanted to cook it and eat it at a restaurant so I could gauge if it tasted as it looks. So you can see how I might get excited to learn that Rasa Sayang Express at the Tottenham Court road end of Oxford Street provides it for about £6. I discovered this when I was staying near there for legal work experience mark one. But I never got to eat there. Oh, at this point I should mention I love walking around in London with my little A to Z. So when I made the journey from Oxford to see the Farringdon flat, I used my little A to Z to plan to walk between Marble Arch and Farringdon Road. And then get that for dinner on the walk back. It did not disappoint. Fiery and hot and packed full of unctuous umami. I almost dropped it all when the bus jerked. That's what happened to the sushi of the woman in front of me. Then a few months later, I tried to recreate it. I went to great lengths to get some galangal. Mine was disappointing. I lamented and asked someone for advice on how to make things taste. Almost like I was asking someone how to feel. But not, obviously. But it was very dramatic. You should be imagining me with a wide-eyed look of despair and exasperation. Anyway, you can see how much beef rendang has featured in my food history (ha, ha). So I was telling someone all about it because it was on my mind because I'd already planned to go there on the way back from Prague to Oxford (Stansted - Liverpool Street - Rasa Sayang Express - Marble Arch - Oxford). But unfortunately it was closed. I was so disappointed. And so hungry. And tired. But it's OK because McDonalds had its Big Tasty burger in and my God, I know Maccy Ds is shit but the Big Tasty is amazing. I described it as the burger in Plato's world of perfect forms. I've definitely talked about that before in this blog. I think I've also talked enough in this particular blog post. Basically, I'm mad for rendang and was telling someone about how mad I am for rendang then mentioned that I'd cook it for them. I've had to reassess what the first time reference should be several times over the course of this post. I should take more care with my photos.
Beef Rendang
1 onion
5 small shallots
4 stalks lemongrass
1 inch galangal
2 inches ginger
6 cloves garlic
2 hot red chillies

Blend all the ingredients together in a food processor or chop finely and pound to a paste.

1 tsp coriander
2 bay leaves
5 kaffir lime leaves
3 cloves
2 star anise
1kg diced beef braising steak
1 tsp tamarind purée
1 tin coconut milk

Fry the onion mixture in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil on a low heat.
Once very fragrant and soft, after about ten minutes, add the spices and beef and one teaspoon of salt and fry at a medium simmer.
Add the tamarind purée, coconut milk and heat at a low simmer for an hour and a twenty minutes.
Put the heat up to a high simmer and stir frequently for about forty minutes.
Towards the end, the beef will darken and flake and the liquid will mostly evaporate.

I served this with chappati and rice and some caramelised red onion and chopped green finger chilli.