Monday 17 December 2012

A letter

Dear Father Christmas,

I appreciate that this is a busy time of year for you, so I trust that you do not mind me getting in contact.

I am sure that you receive a great deal of communication dealing with requests, so I thought that I would write you a short note to offer my thanks for all the excellent gifts over the years.  Whilst I cannot say that I have ever recovered from the disappointment of never receiving a Mr Frosty, I must say that you have absolutely nailed it over recent years.  Some people might be baffled by my enthusiasm for some of the items listed below, but not you, Father Christmas, not you.

I must apologise in advance for some of the accreditations below - they have not all hailed from the North Pole, but considering you are well known for your joviality, I made the assumption that you would not mind.

Therefore, I thank you for:

The pink lemonade that tasted just how I hoped it would in The Sound of Music...

...the stroop waffles from Amsterdam - that waffley biscuit with a hidden layer of thick caramel was heavenly...

...the pecan praline from Texas that was like a rich, nutty fudge...

...the Texan peach salsa - I could have drunk this glorious concoction, with just the right amount of chilli...

...the edible gold stars for sprinkling over home-made mince pies (I have already processed your order for this year)...

...the poems about food and Belgian chocolate to eat while reading poems about food...

...and a first ever home-made cake.

My thanks once again, and my best wishes for a calm and efficient present delivery period.

Looking forward to seeing you on the 25th,

Yours sincerely

Jinni, aged 30 years and 7 months

Wednesday 5 December 2012

The Joy of Spelt

There is a theory that there are no lucky and unlucky people in the world, that everyone makes their own luck.  Lucky people do not win competitions, people who enter competitions win competitions.  Well, I'm a sucker for them, ever since that first heady win of a Shakespeare Animated Stories video and book (Macbeth and Twelfth Night respectively) from my first ever entry with a successfully completed wordsearch, courtesy of The Young Telegraph (now sadly defunct, which is a shame, as I always really liked the cartoon lion and unicorn), I have entered competitions left, right and centre.  However, there was a rather lengthy dry spell after that first win - it basically lasted until I joined Twitter last year, but in that year, I have won EIGHT competitions.  EIGHT.  Seven of them have, to my delight, been food-related, and the king of the lot was this massive bounty of spelt products from Sharpham Park:

Just look at them all!  The brownie, flapjack and shortbread biscuits were dealt with almost instantly (and those were definitely some of the best 'bought' shortbreads I've ever had), and the instant speltotto was a boon to have in the cupboard after a long day at my desk without having had time to go out and buy food.  The three (three!) cereal products lasted a bit longer - the berry puffs took a bit of chewing, but the bran flakes were sublime.  Phooey to Kellogg's.  Then it was the turn of the raw spelt products - two bags of flour, one wholegrain, one 'artisan', and a packet of pearled spelt - and in a way, these have been the most interesting in terms of introducing me to spelt and what you can do with it.  Which is basically anything.

I eased myself in with some baking, and as I wanted to try some recipes which specifically called for spelt flour, I turned to 'Scandilicious' by Signe Johansen, most of whose baking recipes seem to contain spelt.  Ideal.  Someone who has already done the testing for me.  First came some birthday Valhalla brownies, rich with chocolate and gooey with booze-soaked dry cherries for a bit of tartness:

These tasted even better after a couple of days in the tin.  Cor, look at that ooze in the middle and that proper brownie flaking on the top.  None of that 'we've made a chocolate sponge cake and called it a brownie' nonsense.

Another Scandilicious recipe soon followed, this time it was plum muffins, or pluffins for short (Signe says it's ok to call them pluffins, I checked):

The thing I noticed here was that the pluffins took a little longer than specified to cook all the way through - now, this could have been the flour, or the juicy fruit, or those silicone muffin cases.  I've been having loads of problems with those, and I've decided to ditch them - everything seems to have a subtle taste of rubber, which is not the nicest of cake flavours.

A soda bread recipe by Sophie Dahl got a look in, to use some of the wholemeal spelt flour for a change, and although I don't have a picture as it was snaffled up immediately, I can confirm that the flavour was superb.  Again though, it could have done with a bit more time in the oven.

Now, savoury.  Let's do this, with the help of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'Veg Every Day', as he goes nuts for the stuff in there, mostly in its wholegrain, pearled form.  I did a bit of an experiment with a bean and veg soup, which called for spelt or barley:

I used spelt one day (as in the picture) and then made exactly the same soup, but with barley, the next day: spelt won by a long shot.  Not so much in terms of flavour, as both were delicious, but in terms of texture - the spelt was much lighter, filling but not heavy, while I struggled to finish the same quantity of barley.

The joy continued with a kale and goat's cheese speltotto:

Marginally quicker to cook than risotto, and with an autumnally nutty flavour.  

However, the real tests have happened in the last week, where I substituted spelt flour where a recipe called for wheat flour.  First was an apple and blackberry scrumble, which is basically a crumble but with a scone dough topping.  No picture here, which was stupid of me, as it was just beautiful, all golden brown in the middle and with purple juices bubbling up around the edge.  The taste was heaven too and again, the texture was a winner - a really light sponge that didn't sit in the stomach.  

I fancied doing some Christmas baking at the weekend, got out the mincemeat and then realised it was still too early - I'm just not ready to commit yet, goddammit.  So I eased myself into the season with some snickerdoodles from Nigella's 'Domestic Goddess' - she doesn't know why they're called that either, but they are sort of like oven-baked mini doughnuts:

Again, I think they could have baked them for a bit longer, so I think that is something to bear in mind when swapping wheat for spelt, but the flavour was really full and matched the cinnamon and nutmeg perfectly.

So, in short, spelt is ace, and if I could enter the lottery with a retweet, I might stand a chance of winning that too...

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Work in progress

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I can sometimes find this whole food business rather intimidating.  It is fairly obvious that there has been something of a food revolution over the past few years, with a wealth of cookbooks, cookery programmes, food blogs and food photography apps mushrooming into the public conscious.  I think that this is brilliant - clearly, as I would be a hypocrite otherwise, what with this here burble that I pretend is a food blog, and my penchant for taking pictures of food and prettifying them on Instagram.  However, I do have one concern about all this - the pursuit of perfection.

It seems to me that so many articles, programmes, how-to videos and all that jazz are all about one thing -  how to make the perfect whatever. Which I find puts really rather a lot of pressure on the would-be cook.  What if it doesn't come out perfect?  Am I a failure?  My grandmother makes amazing roast potatoes, which I adore, but this recipe says it's the 'ultimate' roast potato recipe, so does that make my previous opinion of my grandmother's potatoes wrong?  What if I don't like one of the ingredients in this 'perfect x' recipe, does that mean that if I make it without it, it will be imperfect?  Even if I prefer the taste?

Have a pootle around the world of food blogs too, and it seems as though as no-one ever has any problems.  Everything seems to have gone smoothly, no confusion, no burnt bits, no muddling up recipe stages.  And the end result is always perfect.

Am I the only one who struggles with new techniques?  Am I the only one who is willing to admit in the public sphere that sometimes you can spend hours on making something for the first time, only to end up in tears and having a boiled egg for supper instead?  (Which of course, as everyone should be able to confess, is NOT the easy thing it pretends to be and that it actually takes loads of practice to get a soft-boiled egg  with a white that isn't still viscous or a yolk that hasn't turned to powder.)

It is a well-established notion that we learn from mistakes.  Mistakes provoke chance discoveries and new creations, or at the very least, help us to form our tastes.  I am willing to admit to mine, and I hereby present a couple of my recent disasters:

Cornish pasty - look, wasn't I organised?  Didn't that bode well?

Ah, all ready to be tucked up and baked.  Shame that the swede stayed rock-hard and the pastry turned to hot dust.

My first (and only to date) attempt at making bagels.  This is after about ten minutes of kneading the dough.

A further half an hour of kneading, and it looks like I'm trying to make a model solar system.  This all went in the bin and I went to try and not cry in the shower.

There was also the memorable fish risotto I made five years ago - its over-salted, pungent hideousness still lingers in my tastebuds' memory.

So, there you have it.  I have a food blog and I am not an expert on food.  Now, I'm off to make some scrambled egg for lunch - fingers crossed that I don't overcook it and it doesn't just all end up caked to the pan.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Feta, or, one cheese's quest for greatness

The eponymous hero of this post starts off, like all good protagonists, with a humble beginning -as a smooth, clean character to be moulded according to the whim of its creator.

It sets off on its journey to greatness with some easy tasks.  First, to enliven the lunchtime of a bored office worker.  Before I went freelance, one of my favourite packed lunches in winter was a lentil, roasted red pepper and feta salad.  Pah, this task is almost too easy though - a forgotten stale biscuit in a desk drawer can cheer up a cog in the corporate machine.

So, our hero moves on to slightly more ambitious salads, for example, this one with pomegranate and couscous from Jo Pratt's In the Mood for Food:

Summer, innit.

Yeah, that's still too easy for feta though.  You can put anything in a salad (although see my 'Warning' post for a caveat to this wild statement).  

Onwards our hero strives, striking forward into the more dangerous lands of dinnertime.  Still not wishing to push his luck, as all good heroes are reluctant ones after all, he allows himself simply to be crumbled over roasted aubergine:

Also with softened onions, chilli and mint - another Diana Henry job.

Well, this is working ok, he thinks to himself, what if I marinate myself with some garlic and chilli and get sprinkled over baked sweet potato?

Oh, and just a little bit of coriander too.

Getting a little more comfortable in his role as saviour of tastebuds, he realises he has barely been stretching himself.  What must his loyal followers think of him, he hasn't even moved away from being eaten cold!  Time to warm up then, and to join forces with that most compliant of compatriots - pasta.  First, he tries an alliance with mint and peas, which results in a refreshing, yet comforting partnership.  But now our hero is getting tired of being comforting - he wants the world on a plate, and goes crazy with some prawns and lemon:

Cheese and fish?!  What is this madness?!  It's genius, he cries, genius I tell you!  Heady with success, our hero seeks out more and more outrageous comrades - feta can do anything, it's the champion of the cheese world, it can work with any foodstuff!  

But oh, the horror - baked beetroot, chickpeas, dressing.  How the mighty are fallen, what oily slime is this, even without the orange?  (And we all know how that turned out before.)

Then, as in all good stories, a wise old sage appears (in this tale, the sage is played by Nigel Slater).  Back to your roots, feta, says the sage.  But I still want to prove myself, still want to show what I can do!  Ok, feta, one last chance - take some thyme and go somewhere warm for a bit.

And so, as the oven cools and the wholemeal wrap tucks feta up in a bed of lettuce, he knows he has done the right thing.  Experimentation is a fine thing when you're learning, but stay true to your calling and you will always have a happy ending.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Turning 30

This time last week, the sun was shining down upon a breakfast table laid out in the garden, decorated with pink roses, a gingham tea towel and floral crockery. Croissants were piled on a plate with warm bread rolls, butter and milk hid in the shade and berries looked perky in a little bowl.

A few hours later, multi-coloured lanterns on strings were lit by fairy lights, ropes of lights wound around tree trunks, music played, corks popped seemingly endlessly and barbecue smoke settled in everyone's hair. There was a precarious hammock that luckily nobody climbed, there were bananas that were baked with chocolate and there were prawns on elegant antique skewers, with chorizo and pepper.

There was even a man who drunkenly let someone paint his nails bright coral.

It was a good day.

It is apparently customary to have a, how do I put it, total freak-out upon turning thirty, to worry about all the things that you haven't done yet, to be concerned about your place in society and whether you are keeping up with all your friends. I have no such worries. I am content. I didn't think about it at the time, it has only been upon looking back that I realised that I accidentally achieved a life-goal before my thirtieth birthday.

I have done it. I baked my first Victoria Sandwich.

I don't mind that it is practically crenellated by the not-quite-smooth greaseproof paper, that I should have turned the tins halfway through cooking so that our wonky oven didn't bake them on a slope, nor that I have broken with tradition and filled it with whipped cream instead of jam.  The important thing is that I have done it, I have passed this milestone without even thinking about it.  So it would seem that it is just as important to look back at what you have achieved, most of it probably without noticing, as it is to look forward to the future.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Cara Italia - A love letter in pictures

In March, which I can barely believe was two months ago already, I was quite the lucky so-and-so and was whisked to Italy for a week to take part in an international improvisation competition.  That's a fairly nuts sentence to be able to write.  Although I was unfeasibly nervous about the whole thing, improvising in Italian and all that, there was one thing that I was looking forward to without any reservations - the food, natch.  Pizza.  Ice cream.  Coffee.  These were the three comestibles that I was determined to have, the three that I could still remember the taste of from when I lived in Padua for a few months back in 2004.  I'm not going to burble very much here, but let the glorious, glorious food speak for itself.

Let's begin.

Getting up at 2.30 am to go the airport, I didn't really fancy brekkie first thing, so a stop for a surprisingly nice veggie fry-up at Frankie & Benny's was first on the agenda:

(Weren't expecting that in a blog about Italy, were you?)

The day got a bit weirder when, upon arriving in Bergamo, we had to wait for another improviser to arrive and so killed some time with our hosts by going round the local shopping mall.  

Ace looking food hall.

I liked the sheer imagined volume of Kinder chocolate in this 'display'.

First Italian coffee - a cappuccino for elevenses.  In the food court. Starting to feel a bit surreal now.

For non-coffee drinkers, Prince of Wales tea - where am I?

First bite of Italian food - good ol' tomato bruschetta for elevenses.  Puts British food courts to shame.

On the three-hour trip to Florence, we stopped off at a service station.  THIS was just part of the service station.  A SERVICE STATION.  

Oops, nearly forgot to photograph the first Italian dinner - pasta al pomodoro (pasta in tomato sauce) at a little deli near our hotel in Florence.  I bought some great coffee from there too.

First actual Italian breakfast - basically cake.  I chickened out of the chocolate spread, I couldn't face it first thing.

Lunch at a trattoria - the only place in the piazza that didn't try to hassle us in by waving English menus in our faces.  AND it was one of the cheapest.

I know, I know, it's just a glass of orange juice - but look!  A spoon!  Sugar!  What for?!

Ah, pizza.  Shouldn't be doing this when I haven't had lunch yet.

When I was last in Italy, in Rome in 2007, the gelaterie (ice-cream shops) arranged their wares in pillowy mounds.  Now it's all about the towers.  Fashion, eh, can't keep track of it.

Coffee, tick.  Pizza, tick.  Ice cream, tick.  Pistachio and nocciola (hazelnut) gelato, my favourite combination, and eaten with one of those lovely little plastic shovels.

On our wanderings, we found this little deli near the Ponte Vecchio.  I don't know if you can tell, but I'm quite happy in this picture.  I've just bought some saba, which is cooked grape must, a bit like balsamic vinegar but sweeter.  I'm crouching so that you can see more of the shop.

Excellent espresso: €1.  Good way to use up your coins.

Dinner in Florence - this was our centrepiece.  Are we supposed to eat it?  In front are some delicious crispbread, very salty and flavoured with rosemary.  Very more-ish.

Starter - meat in various forms.  There's a slice of pink grapefruit as a garnish.  Are we supposed to eat it?

Main course - meat.  Beef that has said hello to a grill, then been sliced, dressed in balsamic and piled on rocket.  Delicious.  There's another slice of pink grapefruit.  Are we supposed to eat it?

Look, grapefruit everywhere!

Lunch the next day - we picked up some stuff from a market, wanted to go in some public gardens, entry cost as much as our lunch had, ate it on some steps instead.  More meat, buffalo mozzarella, bread, tomatoes, strawberries.  Poifect.

After the semi-final, we celebrated a bit.

It's not all incredible.

Katy and I had a date night, deciding to have a sit-down and a bit of a chill.  We ate in our hotel in Brescia, and after ordering, were discussing just how much ham we had eaten on the trip, how maybe it was good that we were having a break from ham.  Then this starter arrived.  I'd accidentally ordered two of them as well.

Pasta course - I genuinely can't remember what's inside, but look at those lovely crispy lardons, sage butter and parmesan.  Yeah, I really need some lunch now.

Yep, can't remember what this is either.  Although I do know that I ordered it for the polenta, a regional speciality - and it was pretty special, definitely the nicest I've had.

One morning at our hotel, there was an organic food market.  How ace is that?  I bought a kilo of honey.  Yep.  A kilo.

Last dinner in Italy, and of course there could be no other choice.  Absolutely huge and absolutely delicious.

Until next time, arriverderci la mia cara Italia...