Friday, 31 December 2010

Rum Old-Fashioneds for New Year

It’s Old-Fashioneds tonight. The drink that’s evocative of the turn of the century, America, a manly era. It’s not just the taste of the bourbon with that whiff of orange that laces the lips, but the heavy feel of the glass, the clink of the ice, the demand to be sipped and all-night drinking. A new year requisite, no?

However, the rum in the cupboard just won’t be ignored. It's getting to the point where it's just rude so I'm giving in and making old-fashioneds with rum to see the new year in. It's not how Jack Sparrow would have done it, but I'm sure swigging from the bottle is only a matter of time.

Happy new year, have fun tonight whatever your tipple of choice and we'll meet again in 2011.

You'll need:
3/4 teaspoon brown sugar (The traditional old-fashioned requires a sugar cube, but I think, as it’s rum, it could do with a bit less)
Few drops Angostura bitters
1 slice of orange peel
Aged rum
An old-fashioned tumbler

Add the sugar to the tumbler. Drop in the Angostura bitters, and half a teaspoon of water and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Add the orange peel, and bruise with the spoon to release the oils. Add a measure of rum, keep stirring.

Add as much as ice as you can, top up with more rum - as much to your taste, stir and serve.

I sometimes add a naughty slice of orange to it, which is not the done thing at all. As the ice melts, the rum loosens and tastes heaven.

(Adapted from Victoria Moore’s How to Drink)

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Revival of the Turkey Hash

If anyone's already done their cold turkey slices, turkey pies, turkey soups, and still has some defiantly in the fridge I'd say turkey hash is the business for this kind of leftover meat. We ate this last night with a ridiculous amount of ketchup, which of course, has to be Heinz.

Here's my extremely simple Bostonian turkey hash recipe which I posted earlier this year, or if you fancy a bit more of a spicy one, Simon Schama's recipe from the FT magazine with chipotle for a sprinkle of fire.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas

That's it from Voracious before Christmas, eat lots, drink more and have a thoroughly ace few days.


Sunday, 19 December 2010

Voracious advent Calendar: Dec 20

Dec 20: Marks & Spencer Egg Cups

The boiled egg is a resolute route to childhood breakfasts. It’s such a complete breakfast – to start with, the whole ritual of sawing off the top with a knife, having hot-buttered soldiers primed for a dipping, digging away to discover whether the yolk is wibbly, salting, or as my friend Sonia does it, soy saucing. No wonder wee ones love it, and I become a kid again when I have a boiled-egg breakfast.

So hurrah M&S for coming out with a handpainted Chick stoneware collection to brighten up breakfast with their quirky hen egg cups and egg baskets. And the egg-cups are £4 each, so they're pretty cheep* too.

They may be handpainted, but can withstand the toils of dishwashing and microwaves.

Chick Hen Egg Cup: £4

Chicken Egg Cup: £4

Chicken Egg Basket: £29.50

And if you’re not into your farmyard animals, M&S also have this regal heritage egg cup to wrap round your soft-boileds.

Heritage Egg Cup: £5

*Punny apologies. I don't know what came over me.

Voracious advent Calendar: The Bumper Edition

Yes, it's the last weekend before Christmas. But don't panic, here are five ideas for the week ahead if you've not managed to get all your shopping done...

The Flavour Thesaurus

A brilliantly conceived book - you don’t realise you have needed this all your cooking life until you read it. Niki Segnit’s guide to flavour combinations is far from an exhaustive list of ingredients but a deliciously witty exploration of why certain flavours, such as goats cheese and coffee, work, and why some just don’t.

Worth getting if only for the pithy put down of chocolate and beetroot.

“It’s champions can hardly believe the lusciousness and chocolatiness of the combination. I couldn’t either and.. I still don’t.

“In chocolate beetroot cake...the raw cake mixture was so unpleasant that no one wanted to scrape the bowl clean. Case closed, at least in my kitchen.”

The Flavour Thesaurus: Usually £18.99, but now £10.44 from Amazon

Doughnut Box Canvas Bag

Anything from New House Textiles would be a stockingy treat, but their doughnut canvas bag is a particular favourite.

And thanks to the lovely Katy from Pinch of Salt, who brought them to my attention in her Friday Finds.

Doughnut Box Canvas Bag, £12.95

Le Creuset Bean Pot and Soup Bowls in Cerise

Forgive me for being twee, but this bean pot is adorable. I don’t even like beans. (That much).

I would like a kitchen big enough for these, and I’d probably make soups and stews all day and serve them in these lovely soup bowls which have lids, just because.
Heavy duty, French farmhouse and devilishly practical. I love them.

Bean pot: £45.60, John Lewis
Soup bowls: Set of 2: £17.60, John Lewis

St. John Hotel

St. John Hotel The opening of St. John Hotel is one of the most anticipated launches. If the restaurants in Spitalfields and Clerkenwell are anything to go by, after playing in Soho, this will be a a homely respite from the cackling bustle of Chinatown.
Writing about the St. John ‘Breakfast Bun’ at breakfast time is unforgiving, so I just beg that it opens soon. Breakfast or a cheeky stay here would be a wonderful present. Prices start at £200 for the post-supper room. For reservations, details below.

1 Leicester St

0203 301 8069

Red Cabbage and Beetroot confit

And finally, a recipe. I’m sure you’ve had your fill of the brilliant ways to cook your bird already (Margot Ferguson’s collection in the OFM last week is a great place to start) so I’ve got a red cabbage one instead to go with it.

This is meant to be a ducky accompaniment, but actually if your meat is fatty, salty and roasty, I’m sure this sweet, rich confit would still work wonderfully well.
Finely slice a red onion, grate three beetroot and finely shred half a cabbage.
Heat up a knob of butter with some oil in a heavy saucepan, and soften the onions for a good ten minutes. Add 100g sugar, two heaped tablespoons of jam (raspberry or strawberry is good), 100ml red wine vinegar. Bring to a bubble, then throw in the beetroot and the cabbage, stir well, cover and keep it on the lowest heat for 30-40 minutes. Add another knob of butter before serving large spoonfuls.

Adapted from Riverford Farm Cookbook

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Esquire Magazine: Hot Cocktails

If the snow carries on like this, I definitely suggest scurrying to the shops to stock up on loads of booze for hot winter cocktails. For Esquire this week I chatted to some top barman from round the country - we have a rich and naughty port cocktail from Tony Conigliaro from 69 Colebrooke Row, and the intriguingly historical Lamb's Wool from Hix's Nick Strangeway. Get your cockles ready for some warming up...

Read the full feature here.

Do pop round tomorrow when there'll be a bumper advent calendar post for the last week before Christmas. x

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Voracious advent Calendar: Dec 14 and 15

Dec 14: Hot pork rolls and rum

Every year full-grown adults engage in fisticuffs to get to the front of the queue for hot roast beef sandwiches at our friend James' house. He invites everyone over for Christmas festivities, carols, mulled wine, but it's the whiff of prime meatiness from the largest piece of beef you'll ever see that bring 40 clamouring friends to his door.

This year, it was controversial. This year James decided to roast pork. Worrying stuff.

But fears were assuaged when he flexed his muscles and lifted out two huge pork shoulders from the oven, crackling golden and glistening, flecked with fennel and rock salt. Perfectly mottled with fat, and basted in cider for eight hours, the pork met with universal approval.

So here is the recipe from James, who also happens to be the director for the toasty Rum sixty-six.

"I just seasoned it with fennel, rock salt and rosemary (controversial but the butcher assured me it worked), blasted it at 350 [conventional oven] to get the crackling for 45 mins and then cooked it for 8 hours at 125 under foil with a load of cider, topping up if it fried out. Served with the rather excellent Rum Sixty Six!

"I think the real key is getting good pork. 3 things make sure its succulent.

1. Obviously the cider and the foil
2. You need a decent sized joint. We had whole shoulders.
3. Decent fat content, which of course also gives you the flavour."

Serve in baps slathered in apple sauce, your favourite salad leaves and, (the equivalent of crisps in your sandwich) a layer of salty crackling.

Thank you James for a perfect crackling evening!

James buys his pork from Moens near Clapham Common, one of Jamie Oliver's favourite butchers too.

Dec 15: How to Drink, by Victoria Moore

This is a slight cheat because it was reading India Knight's posterous that reminded me how deliciously written Victoria Moore's book How to Drink is.

I could read about shot glasses of chilled sauvignon blanc with crabmeat or oysters, how to drink a rose in winter or the way to make your own cranberry vodka all day. I might even make them one day. And it's not all alcoholic, for the proper way to drink tea, hot chocolate, or just ideas for elevenses, it's worth dipping into this gem.

I wrote about it earlier this year.

You can get it for half price (it's usually £15.99) at the moment, and have a peek inside on Amazon.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 13

Dec 13: Marc Quinn Frozen Strawberry Pendant

I remember seeing the head of blood. 'Self' by Marc Quinn, the sculpture of his own face from pints of his own frozen blood. It stood in the Saatchi Gallery in St John's Wood, and terribly striking in the days before the Tate Modern opened. It subsequently melted at the Saatchi home when builders accidently pulled the plug on the fridge it was kept in, but the effect it had on me stayed despite its demise.

And sculptor Marc Quinn, who is most famous for his Alison Lapper and Kate Moss sculptures, has created a piece of art you can keep for yourselves. It may be called 'Frozen Strawberry', but it won't melt and it won't take up the veg shelf in your fridge.

Quinn apparently removed every pip from a real strawberry, counted them and replaced them with 561 diamonds. Okay, it's probably the time to mention that Frozen Strawberry costs the princely sum of £28,000. While I might not be getting this for Christmas, I'm quite happy to admire for now.

Available from The Louisa Guinness Gallery

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 11 and 12

Dec 11: Warhol Limited Edition Dom Perignon

Collecting is so unnecessary. I once picked up these limited edition Patricia Field Diet Coke bottles on a whimsy trip to Selfridges.

They sat pride of place in my bedroom where they propped up books and pouted at me. But on a desperate search for refreshment a couple of years later, my flatmate sinked a sip from a bottle before spitting the rotten liquid out.

The lesson? Drink first, save later.

Which is exactly what this covetable limited edition Andy Warhol Dom Perignon is for. Admire, sip and admire in that order. This is the thing for not any toast, but the toast to end all toasts. What else embraces market culture more than an Andy Warhol champagne bottle; after all it is so unnecessary and happy-making.

Warhol limited-edition Champagne, 750ml £120

Dec 12: Selfridges Panettone hat box

I have to admit it's all about aesthetics today. I was taken with the hat box for this luxury panettone, and presentation does matter. It might not be the best thing to keep the panettone fresh, but it does look so regal.

However, if you're after taste, which is not unreasonable, today's sterling Observer Food Monthly has chocolatier William Curley remarkably recommend Tesco Finest Panettone which pips panettones from Harrod's Scarpato, M&S and Bosari from Waitrose in the taste test.

Selfridges Panettone, 100g £24.99

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 10

Dec 10: L'Artisan du Chocolat Spiced Fig Salted Caramels

A tweet from Juliet Kinsman, editor of Mr and Mrs Smith, reminded me how L'Artisan du Chocolat leads the way on salted caramels. The original salted caramel was fashioned for Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, and they haven't really looked back since. Their limited edition fig flavour, spiced with ginger, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon is a festive special and one that should be taken advantage of.

If you're not a big fig fan, maybe you can make dogs and cats happy by snapping up this Battersea Dogs and Cats Home 150th Anniversary bar infused with terribly festive mandarin and mulled spices. The bar is £2.75, and £1 of that goes to the charity.

More information here:

Spiced Fig Salted Caramels
£11.99 for 25 salted caramels

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home 150th Anniversary bar £2.75 for 45g

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 9

Dec 9: Charcuterie Bodega Ham Stand and Knife from Quintessentially Gourmand

According to the Guardian word of mouth today, British charcuterie is on the rise. And if that's the case, you could get in on the trend and kit out any charcuterie-obsessed friends or family you might have.

When I think of charcuterie, I think of Brindisa in Borough Market and those fabulous knives and terrifying ham stands that resemble instruments of torture.

I found these from Quintessentially Gourmand. There's only one thing to deduce from its owner. And that is - full on love for meat.

A wonderful ham contraption, £49.95

A scary looking but skilfully wrought knife, £34.90

They're not what you'd call snips, but it's the price you pay for looking as slick and equipped as those hunks at Brindisa.

Click below for more information:

Bodega Ham Stand
Jamon Charcuterie Knife

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Interview: 28°-50°'s Xavier Rousset: a new generation of sommelier

Xavier Rousset can open a bottle of wine 30 different ways. At least, that is what it said on his website. “Ah – that’s bullshit,” he says cheekily, when I mention this at his restaurant 28°-50°, “but you do have to know your wine inside and out, including how to open it”. This is not language, nor an admission I would expect from a refined Master Sommelier. However, he can uncork a bottle armed with a fork and a shoelace; an impressive feat even if it is not one of 30.

On paper, Rousset, 31, is a classic sommelier success story. He quickly rose to head sommelier at Hotel du Vin before moving to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, which has two Michelin stars, and gained the top industry accolade, the Master Sommelier diploma. He counts Gerard Basset (who recently won the title ‘Best Sommelier in the World’) and top chef Raymond Blanc as mentors. His restaurant, Texture, has just been awarded a Michelin star, and his more low-key version, 28°-50°, opened in the City of London to great acclaim in June this year.

However, Rousset is anything but a classic case. He was only 23 when he became a Master Sommelier (MS), achieved by most in their thirties. The wine lists he puts together for his restaurants are, by self-admission, “quirky”. His democratic view that “nobody’s got a good palate to start” is a view free from the snobbery associated with wine. And though his role is to offer the best wines for your food, he is “not very convinced about food and wine matching”.

Perhaps his liberal views spring from his upbringing. Raised in Saint-Etienne, France, he was “the only one with any wine knowledge” in his family. Like any 16-year-old, alcohol peaked his curiosity and this landed him his first job; although he was “always passionate about food and wine”, it was reading about cocktails, vodka, gin and wine in economics class which so excited him that he “turned that into a profession” when he was 18.

He wrote to Gerard Basset, by then a successful sommelier in England, asking to be taken on. Successful stints at sommelier school and Hotel du Vin followed and his love for wine was cemented. He was “hooked” and “stayed in London ever since”.

Tasting between 3,000 and 4,000 wines a year, which “sounds a lot, but that’s only ten a day”, it seems being hooked is a necessary attribute. How many is he trying today? He looks sheepish as he turns to a bottle standing tall on his workbench. “Today?” he says, “I’ll have to taste twenty-five wines”.

But then, tasting is the lynchpin of the buying and selling; the most interesting part of the job for Rousset. “To buy well, you have to research; making sure the vintage is good, the producers are good,” he says. And the selling? “It’s about seeing people enjoying themselves.”

“Sommeliers don’t create anything,” he says, “we don’t make wine, we don’t make anything, but what we try to give is pleasure.”

28°-50°, which he co-owns with fellow Le Manoir graduate Agnar Sverrisson, is a comely mixture of urbane function and rustic chic. The restaurant has no cellar and you realise on closer inspection all the worn wooden boxes that decorate the shelves also act as practical storage for his wines, including the £200 Corton Charlemagne star buy, reserved that morning by a customer to be sold tonight.

He chats to the casual lunchers with the bonhomie of a friendly barman, devoid of suit, stuffiness, airs and graces. But he does exude professionalism, a mark of his MS training when he learned everything from the climate of the Loire valley, which wine glasses to use, to the flavour of Havana cigars - a subject that was dropped following the smoking ban.

“But now you need to know about cocktails, spirits, beer, water,” he says. “We adapt to what the demand is and to the reality of the everyday.”

The reality for 28°-50° is an innovative business model which puts wine at its centre. Dependent on relationships with individuals who offer their collections at reduced margins, he explains that “restaurants solely make money on their drinks, so cutting the margin is very risky, especially in a recession.”

He proffers the restaurant’s two wine lists; one priced up to £600 per bottle that “people will travel for” from the collectors, and an accessible everyday drinking list with glasses sold for as little as £2. Mornings are spent by the computer updating what has been sold, and emailing his seven contributing collectors before attending to lunch and dinner service on the restaurant floor. Finding lunch service more functional than dinner, he enjoys the time spent talking to the customer in the evenings to see what they want as “it’s no good serving Riesling, even if it’s perfect with the fish, if the customer doesn’t like Riesling”.

“People [have to] get what we’re doing,” he explains, “With two wine lists I was worried - was I being too sommelier? Will nobody get it?

“When we opened I [made the list] half quirky, half safe. Now people want quirky all the time.”

But why does he feel strongly about quirky wines when many would be happy with a Pinot Grigio?

“I used to have a Sylvaner from Slovenia - I got through 24 bottles in two weeks.” He says proudly. “[Those who] have tried will remember a Sylvaner from Slovenia, but they won’t remember the last time they tried a Pinot Grigio.

“There are no rules. If you’ve got good food and good wine, then you’re covered.”

Rousset knows that London an exciting place for those in wine and the success of 28°-50° shows an appreciation for his exceptional skills. After all, London is a city that attracts young international talent just like him.

“The stuffy sommeliers have gone now - the snooty old classic French who are old and arrogant,” he says brightly. “We are now the new generation.”

140 Fetter Lane, London, EC4A 1BT
020 7242 8877

With thanks to Ruth Ford and Kirsten Bresciani

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 8

Dec 8: Tweet Mass Gathering at The Florence Pub

As fellow blogger @tehbus says, today is full of awesome. And that's because he knows he's going to have a whole lot of booze and and meat at the end of it, in great company. And you could also stuff yourself silly with food from the most esteemed culinary trucks in London if you head down to The Florence tonight in Herne Hill.

If you fancy going, let me know - I'll see you there!

For more details on venue click here

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 7

Dec 7: The Etiquette Collection from Liberty

During my amble in Liberty’s off Regent Street yesterday (I had to duck in from the unforgiving cold), I came across these gems from the ‘Etiquette’ series - Etiquette for Wine Lovers, Chocolate Lovers and Recipes for an English Tea.

Of course they are as necessary as Debretts, containing handy hints such as ‘A Guide for the Butler’ (who will know ‘that the condition of his glass and decanter is as necessary for fine wines as the brightness of his boots is for the morning appearance of a gentleman’.) The recipes for an English tea have the delights of Marrow Jam and Parkin, and I know quite a few tea-lovers who would love to brush up their marrow-jam making skills.

But most of all, they have pretty pictures.

In the ‘Etiquette’ series, there are also booklets for coffee-lovers, gentlemen (apparently sold out, I’m guessing as many want to be gentleman, or want their men to be gentlemen), and politeness.

At £4.95 a pop, I don’t think that’s a bad deal for a life-changing stocking filler...

For more detail go to Liberty, or Amazon. If sold out online, Liberty have plenty in-store.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 6

Dec 6: Dickens and Cognac

What the Dickens? Literature and booze?

Yes, when the Dickens-Courvoisier tour popped up in my Urban Junkies daily email dose I got rather excited. For me, Dickens is old London - the grime, the nooks and crannies, the pubs. And cuddling up on a dark walking tour of London with a hot punch waiting at the end makes me want to go ooh. In fact, it does.

I'd say this would be great for a date. And it's only a tenner, so it's a cheap date.

It runs until the 19th December, so get in quick! It begins and ends at the Covent Garden Cocktail Club.

Click here for more info.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 5

Dec 5: Cool Yule Chocolate Slab

A visit from Santa is in order, and begging to be unearthed from a Christmas day stocking is this chocolate slab - a glorious mix of milk chocolate, caramel and white chocolate. I used to work near the King’s Road near Hotel Chocolat, and would amble a few too many times past to try whatever they had out that day. I'd love a nibble of this cute thing.

For more info, go to Hotel Chocolat: Cool Yule Chocolate Slab

It's £13.50 which may seem steep but it's a big slab of a lotta choca.

Their tasting kits are also fantastic. I’ve been giving them as gifts for the last seven years, they’re a treat and a half for anyone. Prices start from £49 for a subscription for three months.
Tasting Kits

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 3 and 4

Dec 3: St John Doughnut

Behold the St John doughnut. Defiantly cricket-ball shaped (none of that ring-with-a-hole business), deep-fried, rolled in sugar, overstuffed with cream. I was given a box for my birthday last week by our very own wine-botherer Ruth Ford. She had hurried down to the bakery in Bermondsey that morning, and, that evening, secretly hunched over the box, we wolfed them down there and then in the bar of fifty guests, guilty only because we couldn't quite bring ourselves to share.

Any host would love you if you brought a box. I know I would.

St John Bakery
Open from 9am - 4pm, Saturdays only

Dec 4: Alessi Parrot Sommelier Corkscrew

With bread must come wine. Well, something to get to it anyway. Here is a delightful corkscrew that looks like a parrot. Nice, eh? Alessi have done it again, a cheeky and useful present for the gamely sum of £27.

Alessi Parrot Sommelier Corkscrew in 'Proust'

You can buy them from A White Room

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Voracious Advent Calendar: Dec 1 and 2

I can be rather Scrooge at Christmas, but when I trudged home in the snow yesterday, someone had clearly risked frostbite to erect hundreds of glittery Christmas trees all along the road. I actually had to stop in the road for a rare heartstopping moment. It was all very Miracle on 34th Street.

Anyway, to get you in the mood, if you're not already, I'm launching the Voracious advent calendar - nothing dodgy, just culinary present ideas every day up until Christmas. And as I missed out on Dec 1, here are two present ideas. Enjoy.

Dec 1

I've been guilty of losing my notes in the ridiculous number of Moleskines I have on the go, but with this little beauty, at least you have your recipes all in one place.

Moleskine recipe journal

Dec 2

Irresistible Beano flask from John Lewis for those snowy days. Nostalgia, guffaws and hot sweet tea all in one go.

Beano Flask

Or if alcohol is more your thing (and for me, it very often is) Charlotte's drinks advent calendar is definitely worth a visit:
Concerning Cocktails blog

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Recipe: Angry Flapjacks

Outrage drove me to make flapjacks. It’s a strange irony that affects all parts of life - that a whole chicken will cost less than two sad slabs of breast, teeny tampons more than big... and thongs? Well, you could buy a pack of three-pack big pants for a thong. And yet I was still shocked when I saw the price of five cereal bars almost twice of a big pack of Sultana Bran.

So I thought - hold on. I’ll make my own cereal bars. That’ll show them.

And actually my flapjacks were so easy to make and so deliciously rewarding that I urge everyone who is a flapjack virgin (as I was until yesterday) to follow this recipe and donate that 15 minutes of toil to yield a week or two’s break-time pleasure.

Okay, so I haven't really shown them. But I do have a certain sense of so there. And more to the point I do have amazing bejewelled flapjacks. So there.

Angry flapjacks

Preheat an oven to 170 degrees (fan oven). Gently heat 100g butter, 4 tablespoons of golden syrup and 50g golden caster sugar together until all melted.

Mix with 225g of rolled oats, 50g mixed nuts (chopped pecans, cashews, walnuts are good) and dried berries (anything like raisins, cranberries, blueberries are gorgeous).

Spread into lined and buttered baking tin. Stick into the oven for 20 minutes until the oats have a satisfying golden sheen, and the berries glisten and take out. It should be smelling ridiculously homely. Slice into 10 portions.

Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then slice through again. They are crispy yet yielding with surprising bursts of dried fruit. Delicious over yogurt.

Note: Use baking parchment not foil to line the baking tin as in the picture above.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Café Boheme - the Friday Night Steak Frites

There’s a dizzying flurry of incredible restaurant openings in London this year. Providores’ Gopapa and Hawksmoor in Covent Garden, St John Hotel in Chinatown, Bar Boulud, Les Deux Salons, Polpetto...

Quite frankly, I can’t keep up.

You know if you want to eat at these places (and I do) there will be months of ‘fully booked’ or two-hour-long waits amidst the hype. And now that it’s pretty much winter and the temperature has plunged to an unsociable degree, most nights I’m happy to nurse a bottle of red wine and sit staunchly in front of the X Factor/Downton Abbey/The Apprentice.

But it’s reassuring to know when you are out post-pub you can still stumble into the depths of Soho on a Friday night and get a no-frills humble dinner without the pressure of knowing what you should order, how you should order it, snaking queues, and above all, waiting.

Seeing the pulsing bar of Café Boheme in Soho is like catching sight of the golden arches. Yes it’s busy, crammed and London Underground-esque; but push through the bottleneck of Old Compton street crowds and you reach the oasis of a familiar faux French brasserie. You tentatively ask if there’s a table on the busiest night of the week, you begin to wince as you expect that no. And then... and then... relief! They say yes.

Perhaps it’s the relief that makes the food so good. I only ever order the steak frites with a simple side salad here. The steak is a good ol’ ribeye marbled with a wonderfully unfashionable amount of fat. It’s meaty and beefy and begging to be ordered rare. The frites are almost matchstick - crispy and even better with a coat of béarnaise. It’s not the best I’ve ever had. But it’s pretty damn good.

You can tell Café Boheme is the same stock as the Shoreditch and Soho Houses, same banquettes and French tiling, impeccable service, amazing drinks. The place is reminiscent of the upmarket Cafe Rouge feel of Pastis and Balthazar in New York, but with that London crowd piling in from GAY and the throb of Bar Soho, this is something unique. The lack of pints is an oddity (only halfs, two pint jugs or bottles sold here), but it’s just an excuse to down a G&T instead.

Boheme shouldn’t be your destination. It should be the place to go when you don’t want to end the night. It should be your golden arches because it is there, just when you need it most.

Café Boheme
13 Old Compton Street

London W1D 5J
020 7734 0623

Cafe Boheme on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Wolseley: The Art of Breakfasting

Mr Random has breakfasting at The Wolseley in Piccadilly down to a fine art.

The staff have his direct line. He skips through the door confidently as he exhibits the mutual love and respect between them. A breakfast without at least three unplanned fortuitous meetings would be unthinkable; The Wolseley is his office and his playground.

I had previously eaten at The Wolseley approximately two and a half times. The half because I had been taken for dinner with a good friend, a vegetarian, who unreasonably banned me from eating fois gras and meat. The other two times had been forgettable, not because The Wolseley had underperformed, but because I had - by suffering from drinks-related ailments.

So when Mr Random, a stalwart of the advertising industry (who coined his own name on account of bumping into me randomly three times), invited me to The Wolseley, I knew this was going to be the real thing; the Pixie to my Katie Waissel, the Coke to my Pepsi.

There are a few things to the art of breakfasting:

Sitting at the right table
"It used to be a car showroom, now it's a people showroom,” my companion says. “You can have that one," he adds mischievously. And indeed it is. We sit in a banquette intimate enough for good conversation, but open to see and be seen. Normally I would object to this sort of behaviour, but his working of the room as streams of people who knew him came to our table, made fascinating viewing.

Wearing statement attire
My companion was encased in top-to-toe purple. A peacock designed to be looked at, with the fabulous addition of striking cufflinks fashioned from Viagra pills. If you’re a girl, Louboutins help.

Ordering unembarrassing food
Think carefully before ordering the fully stuffed bacon roll. This is akin to ordering spaghetti on a first date. Don’t do it. The expectation is that you eat as you talk. Be ready to jump up and greet. To say I have been caught out on occasion is a huge understatement. AA Gill once wrote an ode to porridge for his first review of The Wolseley. Now I know why.

And so to the food.

My companion ordered classic eggs benedict with coffee.

I had scrambled eggs on white toast with slats of bacon.

The scrambled eggs were perfectly set, with that slight creamy wibble (and you know how I like wibble). The bacon had edges of crispness. If I wasn't in a people showroom, I would have shovelled the clouds of scrambled eggs with a rasher in my mouth. But I didn't want to embarrass my companion, so I resisted.

Some English Breakfast tea, fresh orange juice and fruity chat washed the breakfast down - a breakfast elegant but hearty helped by the impeccable service.

I could write a whole other post on the art of conversation, but shall leave that for another time when the artist, Mr Random, next decides to exhibit.

The Wolseley
160 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EB
020 7449 6996

The Wolseley on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The lemon, ginger and honey effect

My half drunk steeper

So, with a wave of coughing and sniffing and spluttering striking down my fellow postgraduates (and, it seems half of twitter), this post is for all those who have suffered this week.

Last Monday I was sandwiched between two coldy sniffers for four hours, and lo and behold, by the evening I was a wreck, gibbering and crabby, and from then on unceremoniously adorned permanently with tissues.

I have a steeper to share with you - a most heartening tonic to drink day or night - that makes you feel that little bit better. It beats hot Ribena, it beats Berocca and it beats feeling crap all day.

Take a loved mug and stick the kettle on. Drop in 2 tablespoons of runny honey, 2 slices of unpeeled ginger, preferably bashed once with the handle of the knife. Pour the boiling water over and stir in. Leave for a minute to steep before adding a satisfying squeeze of lemon.

And for a frisky Lemsip which really greets your sinuses, I like to add a slug of whisky. A gentleman's measure, if you please.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Fuchsia Dunlop Interview at Bar Shu

Chinese food authority and writer Fuchsia Dunlop talks junk food, women chefs and the cookery school back in her heartland of Chengdu

Photograph by Patrizia Benvenuti

“Average Chinese takeaway contains equivalent of a glass of fat”: the Daily Mirror headline informatively tells us in August. This is the backdrop that Fuchsia Dunlop, award-winning food writer, is working against. Easy slurs on the reputation of Chinese food, preconceptions of artery-clogging meals, a historical association with fast food and junk that has been difficult to shake off.

Despite these perceptions, Dunlop is still lauded as one of the main ambassadors and heroes of authentic Chinese cooking. Both academic and accessible in her approach, her journey from novice to expert becomes ours when reading her acclaimed book Sichuan Cookery which sits proudly in Observer Food Monthly’s top 10 best cookbooks and more recently into The Independent’s 50 best cookbooks.

So, why is Chinese food so ubiquitous yet so misunderstood? Dunlop believes this is down to being one of the earliest immigrant cuisines in the country.

“Chinese restaurants were starting to pop up more than 100 years ago.” Dunlop explains, “But Brits were very conservative in their tastes so [the Chinese] adapted the food and dumbed it down.

“Chinese food was handicapped from coming very early and I don’t think the community has been historically very good at communicating their food. I never understood why they weren’t they giving the good stuff to westerners, and that was because westerners weren’t used to it.”

Dunlop has been partly responsible for an exciting development in recent years - the regionalisation of Chinese food, and restaurants specialising in cuisine from Sichuan or Hunan have been appearing among unvarying Cantonese restaurants and takeaways. As consultant to Soho restaurant, Bar Shu, which in its success has spin off sisters Baozi Inn and Ba Shan (which has just launched its new Hunan menu) she has seen London embracing this regionality.

“When Bar Shu opened, we knew that the Chinese community were dying for a Sichuanese restaurant and had a guaranteed market of Chinese people. And that so many people are going on business to Shanghai, going on holiday to China, makes it easier.”

The audience she writes for may be well travelled and keen to try new things, but there’s no point being too adventurous. “The recipes have to be able to work outside of China so there’s no point writing recipes for bamboo shoots that you can’t get here.”

When I meet her over a pot of chrysanthemum tea in Bar Shu, she is very much the English lady and Cambridge graduate who grew up in Oxford, casually elegant in long white skirt and pearls, graciously apologetic for being slightly late. I’m only slightly put out that she can speak better Chinese than me and read better Chinese than me - the only thing she can’t trump me on is looking more Chinese than me, but then - she has used that to her advantage. As the first Westerner to be taken on by the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, she has often said that being an outsider gave her the “license to do anything”.

“But there was such a stultifying system in China; nothing would happen unless you made it happen.”

Unafraid by the bureaucracy and layers presented by the Chinese when she was there, she soldiered on with the course, as recounted in her autobiography Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, learning to read and write Chinese so she could understand the theory behind the cooking, and was only one of two women on the course among 50 men. In a system where women did not generally become chefs in kitchens, and where the provincial government would not let her take her final chef exams, these circumstances have not held her back.

She doesn’t think the number of women chefs in China will change and recounts the time she interviewed a head chef who told her women were just not strong enough. “I said 'HA!' and he said ‘come on then!’ and I made a complete fool of myself. I’ve only really met one female chef running a large kitchen and she’s a really tough cookie.”

She is now collaborating with businesswoman Diane Drey in designing the program for a cookery school back in her alma mater in Chengdu. It’s a project that lets her pass on the knowledge she so obsessively learnt when she was out there over fifteen years ago.

“I’m committed to the writing and communicating so it’s very complimentary to be working with Diane who loves the organising side of things.”

The school runs over two weeks, and mimics the intensity she originally experienced. The students are shown key skills and classic Sichuanese dishes to cook in the morning, and recreate them in the afternoon. And it’s a huge immersion into the culture - not just in the learning but eating at the local restaurants and spending time in the Chengdu so evoked in Shark’s Fin.

With more interest in real Chinese food Dunlop may well see those headlines change for the better. “What’s so completely mad is that most people in this country think that Chinese food is unhealthy and junky.

“One of the things that occurred to me more than anything else in China was how healthily people ate. The Mediterranean diet is held up as the ideal. Why not the Chinese diet?”

Cooking School in China
Course dates for Autumn: 24th October 2010 - November 5th 2010
Course dates for Spring: March 13th 2011 - March 25th 2011

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese Restaurant picks in London

"When I was reviewing for Time Out I use to go to lots of places but now I’ve just got my favourites. Chinatown is not always the best place to eat."

Hunan: 51 Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8NE
“It’s lovely, very good, although I haven’t been for a while.”

Phoenix Palace: 5 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG

Bar Shu: 28 Frith St, London W1D 5LF
Baozi Inn: 25 Newport Court, Chinatown, London, WC2H 7JS
“I come to Bar Shu. And Baozi Inn, obviously. I LOVE that place.”

Royal China: 30 Westferry Circus, London, E14 8RR
“My favourite place for Dim Sum. The food is heavenly.”

Royal China Club: 40-42 Baker Street, London, W1U 7AJ
“A good place to splash out. I don’t often go because the ordinary Royal China is so damn good.”

Sunday, 17 October 2010

What I did with my Romanesco

Carl Warner makes art with his. The lovely people at Riverford Farm are reminded of “Madonna’s aggressively brassiered breasts” by theirs. When I see those intricate peaks I think of exotic Cambodian temples.

Carl Warner's Coralscape

It’s the season of the romanesco broccoli. With its luminous green colour and other-worldly appearance, this is a broccoli that alarms as much as it impresses.

The texture is similar to broccoli as you know it - the calabrese. Romanesco is as crunchy, but the flavour is not as nutty. Riverford are right when they say it’s “somewhere between cauliflower and calabrese”.

It was difficult not to stir-fry this, which is what I would normally have done with broccoli, but I decided to see what it was like pared down, so just littered it with a silly amount of garlic and adapted a recipe from the brilliant Riverford cookbook. And the broccoli was clean and delicious, and a lovely accompaniment to a good meat dish.

Romanesco with garlic and chilli

Start by making a hot dressing. Gently heat a few slugs of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Slice three fat cloves of garlic and pop the slices in the pan. Crumble two dried chillis in and fry for about two minutes to soften. Don’t let the garlic brown.

Cut one romanesco broccoli into florets. I urge you to use the stalk too. Blanch in boiling salted water.

Drain the romanesco and mix immediately with the flavoured oil. Squeeze some lemon, sprinkle some salt and serve.

It’s also a happy partner with some fried off lardons and pasta for a quick supper.