Monday, 30 April 2012

DEMON COOK GOES TO PIMLICO

On Friday evening I cooked away from home, in Pimlico, for my very good friend Jacky, who is recovering from surgery. Jacky is partly responsible for this blog, as she nicknamed me "Demon Cook" because of my ability to rustle up Nigella-ish feasts for friends, ladling out warming tagines and baking "Fran bread", my version of that Italian classic, focaccia. (Jacky also nicknamed me "Demon Shopper" for my habit of seeking out bargains and unusual shops....)

Most Friday evenings, I have a few friends round for an informal supper (what I would call a "kitchen supper" if I had a kitchen big enough to accommodate everyone). Because of the regularity of these suppers, I try to cook something new and interesting each week, though we do have firm favourites, such as kleftiko (Greek lamb stew), chicken-in-a-brick, and various aromatic and comforting tagines.

Since Jacky couldn't travel down to Teddington for supper, it seemed a sensible arrangement to take the food to her. I prepared a curry in advance, made onion and aubergine bhajis, and filled my Habitat tiffin tin with various goodies to be transported to Pimlico. A bottle of Cava and a slab of chocolate brownies completed the provisions. Jacky lives in a rather wonderful enclave of SW1, between Victoria Station and Vauxhall Bridge Road. I admit I'm rather envious of her living "in town", as it's one of my ambitions (when considerations such as schools/sixth-form colleges are no longer important). She can walk to work from her flat, and the streets around are full of caf├ęs and wine bars, all buzzing with activity on Friday evening: it was a mild, fine night and there was a jolly pavement overspill outside the pubs and bars.

It's never that easy cooking in someone else's kitchen: you don't know where equipment is kept, or whether the oven is any good, or the knives are sharp enough (always a problem when I cook at my parents-in-law's home - that, and the quirkiness of the Aga.....), so it was far easier to simply heat up the curry and cook the rice. The naan breads (which I didn't make) and bhajis were warmed in the oven, and we all plonked ourselves on Jacky's sofas and have a very convivial and jolly supper off our knees. Food for friends, amongst friends. My kind of supper!

The curry is Yotam Ottolenghi's take on a Southern Indian curry - fragrant and gently spiced, with a sauce made from roasted garlic and coconut milk. Find the recipe here:


Coconut chicken with roast garlic and lime

You can do a cheffy version and present it like the picture, or, as I did, a rather more 'rustic' version, with lots of sauce to go with fluffy basmati rice.

I made classic chocolate brownies (which we greedily ate with Hagen Daaz ice-cream!), but I also like Nigella Lawson's flourless chocolate brownies, where the flour is replaced with ground almonds.

Flourless chocolate brownies

Onion bhajis are dead easy to make, and can be made in advance and even frozen until you need them. Heat them up in the oven. I tried aubergine and cauliflower bhajis as well. The aubergine ones were more successful. Cook's tip: add soda water to make the batter - gives a lovely crispness when the bhajis are deep-fried.


Onion bhajis

Explore more of Ottolenghi's fabulous recipes on here

Friday, 20 April 2012

PRUE LEITH AT WATERSTONE'S RICHMOND

Last night, renowned cook and writer Prue Leith gave a talk at Waterstone's, Richmond, on the occasion of the publication of her book of memoirs Relish. Prue has enjoyed a rich and varied life, from her childhood in South Africa, to studying in Paris, and moving to London in the swinging sixties, when she first started her catering business. She has gone on to be one of the UK's most respected cooks and businesswomen, and has also published several novels.

When talking about the particular appeal of cooking and food, she said she liked nothing better than "standing at the head of the table, doling out ladlefuls of food" to a group of friends seated round her dining table. This really resonated with me, as this is largely my motivation for cooking (apart from greediness, another trait Prue admitted to!): food, its preparation, serving and eating, is, for me, a convivial, nurturing and sharing activity. It should never be simply about fuelling the body, as far as I'm concerned.

She also highlighted the important of good quality ingredients, simply prepared, and praised the French style of food shopping from specialist shop, rather than grabbing everything in one supermarket.

After her talk, we were invited to put questions to Prue. I could not resist asking her "what's your favourite dish?", to which she replied, without hesitation "Cassoulet!". This is also one of my favourite dishes: the time it takes to make, its delicious aroma as it cooks, and its rustic, meaty wholesomeness make it a perfect dish to share.

Prue's new book is available from Waterstone's and other good booksellers. My post on Cassoulet here.

Demon Cook with Prue Leith

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A NEW COOK BOOK

I used to buy cook books all the time, with a tendency to collect the entire oeuvre of a particular cook or food writer, such as Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson. Many books were purchased on a whim, for one or two recipes and a collection of sumptuous photos, which amount to "food porn". Then I realised many of my cook books were lying idle on my bookshelves, gathering dust from neglect. These days, I tend to cook from a handful of favourite books, and various recipes culled from websites, friends and magazines.

I think the last cook book I purchased was Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty, an enjoyable and imaginative collection of vegetarian recipes, and a follow up to his excellent Ottolenghi Cookbook. Lately, I seem to be buying sheet music compulsively, gaining an almost childish pleasure from receiving new parcels from Amazon and browsing through the heavy, creamy pages of a new Henle or Weiner urtext edition: I even read music scores in bed these days....

Claudia Roden is a food writer and cultural anthropologist who I have admired for a long time. Her Mediterranean Cookey is a staple on my bookshelf and a recipe book to which I return time and time again. It contains many classic recipes from the Mediterranean, as well some unusual, lesser-known ones too. One of my favourites is the Greek Walnut Cake, which I make and adapt fairly regularly. Her Book of Jewish Food is a fascinating cultural and culinary tour of the Jewish diaspora. She has also written on the food of Italy and Morocca (Arabesque); her latest book is The Food of Spain. Like her previous books, this has a comprehensive introduction to the regions of Spain and their distinctive cuisine, ingredients and cooking utensils. The recipes themselves include classics such as Gazpacho and Duck with Pears, as well as more unusual, regional dishes. I'm looking forward to trying some of the meat and fish recipes, and will blog any that are successful/delicious. At the end of the book is an interesting section on the cakes and pastries made in monasteries and convents.

I've always liked the food of Spain, and feel it is often overshadowed by the food of Spain's neighbours - France, Italy and Morocco. This book restates the importance of Spanish regional cooking. It's not for lovers of "food porn" - there are illustrations and photographs, but not on every page, but the text is lively, informative, and well-researched. A 'proper' book for cooks.

Friday, 6 April 2012

A MANGO LASSI AND A MASALA DOSA

An enjoyable morning at the wonderful, quirky, treasure-trove museum at Sir John Soane's house ended with lunch at the India Club at the Hotel Strand Continental. This may sound very glamorous, the word "club" adding a certain cachet. In fact, the hotel and the restaurant are rather shabby, redolent of the cheap hotels I stayed in when I was travelling through northern India as a student in the 1980s. Yet, there is a certain faded charm too; indeed, both restaurant and hotel have hardly changed since they opened in 1946. The hotel and restaurant were a hub of political activity in the late 1940s, where discussions about the newly-independent India took place.

The restaurant is hidden away on the second floor. You access the hotel from a small door on the southern side of the Strand, east of Waterloo bridge. Curling paper signs promise "an authentic experience of 1940s India". When I first ate at the India Club, way back in the late 1980s when I was in my first job at Macmillan Publishers on the Strand, the restaurant was lit with harsh fluorescent tubes and the formica tables were chipped. The waiters wore grubby white jackets and served you silently. But what I do remember were the delicious Masala Dosas, giant pancakes made from fermented rice and urad dal flour, filled with a mixture of potatoes, onions and spices, and other south Indian specialities.

The restaurant hasn't changed that much, though the strident strip-lighting has been replaced by rather elegant pierced-metal lanterns. And the waiters' jackets were cleaner. My husband takes visiting colleagues from India to the India Club for dinner and they say it is most authentic. They are also surprised that such a place exists in central London, a stone's throw from the Savoy.

Mango Lassis, Coconut Sambal & Chilli Bhajis
A word of caution before you go: the restaurant does not accept credit cards, and there was a moment of panic as we read the menu to check we had some cash with us (we did). We ordered "mixed bhajis", Masala Dosas and mango lassis to drink (a sweet "milkshake" made from mango pulp and yoghurt). The food arrived quickly: the bhajis were clearly cooked to order, and were served with a sambal (relish) made from coconut and spices. It came as something of a surprise to discover that the bhajis were actually whole chillis, deep-fried. The mango lassi was deliciously cooling. The Masala Dosas were as good as I remembered, again freshly made, a crisp tasty pancake with its spicy filling. We were the first customers (hungry, at 12 noon, after our forays around the Soane Museum) but the restaurant soon filled up, employees from the Indian Embassy (on Aldwych) coming in for their lunch.

The India Club is open for lunch from 12-2.30pm, and for dinner from 6-10.50pm. Guests are permitted to bring their own alcohol, though a small selection of Indian beers is available off the menu.

Mango lassi recipe

Hotel Strand Continental website