Archive for September, 2009

Why hummus has gone mental

On visits to superior supermarkets of late, the darling and I have observed a proliferation of odd hummus flavours. We fell to speculating about the fate of the luckless minions who are in charge of sourcing this stuff.

(Cue twinkly fairydust music as you enter the imagination of TOE.)



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Goodness, isn’t M&S dear?

I’m working on a post about “meat as a condiment”, with which I shall regale my public shortly. In the meantime, I am making shepherd’s pie (about which more in the MaaC post), which necessitated the purchase of some baking potatoes and some feta cheese for salad from M&S on Oxford Street (aka the seventh circle of hell). I nearly bought some cheddar there too but was scared off by the fact that I’d have walked out with no change from a tenner had it been part of my shopping. The organic Greek feta is v v nice, but so it bloody well should be for £3 – that’s even more than the “You can have some hummus too if you sign your first-born daughter’s virginity over to us” olive stall at the farmers’ market.

Still, at least the flagship store sells some actual food in amongst the ready meals.

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Mussels are scary mo’fos. When I lived in South Africa I used to order them in the most insalubrious restaurants with impunity – huge, green-lipped beasts served with great puddles of garlic butter. I was never ill, although I admit to claiming shellfish poisoning when chucking a sickie from work one hungover morning.

Then I moved to London, and the first book I bought (oh, the joy of Waterstones 3 for 2 offers for an antipodean accustomed to hugely expensive paperbacks from Exclusive Books!) was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Reading Bourdain’s comments about how, despite his fearless consumption of street food from deeply dodgy stalls in hot countries, he treats mussels with respect that borders on trepidation, struck fear into my heart. Since then, I have been extremely cautious around these potentially lethal bivalves – especially since reading of an internet friend who was laid up for a week with unstoppable spewing and actual hallucinations. But I love them so (the mussels, not the hallucinations. Though they too have their moments).

I bought the first of the autumn today, at Moxon’s in Clapham South. Although mussels don’t have a season as such, they do go off terribly quickly so they tend not to be sold in the height of summer, and the “buy them in any month with an R in it” rule applies. Moxons had them today, and I got about 40 for £4.50 or so. I sorted through tem with a degree of caution. Any that were gaping obviously or had shattered shells were discarded; any that were slightly open but seemed inclined to close after a bang against the tap and a good squeeze stayed. However, my nerve failed me at the ones that failed to open after steaming – down the rubbish chute with them, the surly bastards.

First I washed, de-barnacled and debearded all my mussels, then left them in the fridge in water while I watched the X Factor. Then I sauteed most of an onion, a couple of sticks of celery, four cloves of garlic and two dried chillies in olive oil and butter. Once everything had softened, I added a peeled tomato and a good glass of white wine. I brought it all to a furious boil and added the mussels. They cook really quickly – all one needs to do is potter around a bit – cut the bread, put the salt and butter on the table, move your sunglasses from one wrong place to another, shake the pan, then go.

My £4 mussels were enough for a feast for one, with leftovers that I’ll turn into a fishy, tomatoey pasta sauce early next week. I had them with delicious onion bread from the Old Post Office Bakery, which has a stall at the Oval farmers market where I buy bread most weeks. They were gorgeous. But I have to admit to a sense of impending doom, thanks to Anthony Bordain. Bloody pessimist.

* Photos to follow. Seems I left a vital piece of cable in sodding Arundel. Belm.

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I’ve been heinously quiet on here for the last couple of weeks as I’ve been away/ill/away/busy/hungover/generally a bit crap. The boyfriend and I have just returned from a week in Arundel, attending the wedding of the lovely Jon and Jo, doing lots of running up hills, chilling out and eating as if our lives depended on it (which of course they do).

Anyway, for visitors to this charming town, here is a precis of our dining experiences.

We did most of our basic shopping at the rather good Co-op (coffee cupcakes, nomnomnom – the Co-op really does seem to have raised its game of late), but for bread, deli stuff and can’t-be-arsed lunches we went to Pallant of Arundel. Very lovely shop, but with a horrid “they saw us coming” feel to it – the prices really are inexcusably high. 60p for ONE FIG <voice rises to hysterical squeak>? They’re four for a quid at Berwick Street market in central London. We wondered whether Pallants issue a 25% discount for Arundel residents. I think what this very good but extortionate shop needs is a competitor.

In sharp contrast, the Arundel butcher next door (01903 882270) is fantastic value for money. A vast piece of rump steak to cook on the barbeque, about 750g and enough for us to eat ouselves to a standstill and still have plenty for a random scorched-earth fry-up on our last morning, was about £11. Friendly staff too.

The sweet shop is worth popping into for tooth-dissolving tablet and fudge in every flavour known to man. An especial highlight for us was watching the lady ahead of us in the queue, who we suspected was going home for a private fudge binge, order flavour after flavour, presumably in order to throw us off the scnet and make us think: “Oh no, it must be for presents, she couldn’t possibly be going to eat all that herself.” Her furtive air make it plain that such was exactly her intention.

On our first night we had the usual Londoners-in-the-provinces moment when we headed out for dinner at about 8.15 and found that most places were closing. Shades Wine Bar let us in, and we had a very good “open burger” – sadly “open” meant sans bun – and a waitress (called Sophie) who managed not to make us feel unwelcome even at that late hour.

The next night, the boyfriend booked a table at The Town House, thinking it was Arundel House. When we turned up at Arundel House, they told us they had no tables, but assured us the Town House would do us proud. Nonetheless,  we trailed up the hill with a deep sense of forboding. Totally unfounded this turned out to be – the Town House was absolutely, totally fab. In spite of its grand interior and the fact that we were the youngest customers by some margin, the place has a really relaxed, fun vibe and is excellent value – two courses, a bottle of wine, aperitifs and a digestif came in at almost exactly £100. The food was outstanding. My pigeon with girolle risotto starter was only just beaten by the boyfriend’s truly outstanding potted crab – served in the dearest little jar. My halibut was lovely, and his only complaint about the beef was that the advertised crispy potatoes were too crispy. What-e-ver.

In contrast, Arundel House, which we visited on our last night, was disappointing. The food was hard to fault in its quality, although the portions were rather too large and the presentation rather too formulaic – our starters were served in an identical blob-of-this-blob-of-that-blob-of-this-blob-of-that-blob-of-this-blob-of-that-pileofstuffinthemiddle style – and the service was clunky, slow and off-hand almost to the point of rudeness. It’s not bad, but I’d have swapped it for another evening at The Town House without hesitation. Despite the little off-menu flourishes: over-chilled cucumber with a beetroot mousse on arrival, and an espresso cup of tomato soup (all tomato soup, however authentic, tastes like Heinz to me – clearly I lack a degree of palate refinement), and the price being the same as the Town House, it just didn’t feel like value to me, partly owing to its much more ambitiously priced wine list.

The apogee (I’ve always wanted to use that word – hurrah!) of cynical small-town restaurant indifference, however, was achieved by The Bay Tree. The visitors book in our cottage was full of praise for it, so along we went on Friday night. Our welcome initially was charming – we were told that a larger table would be available shortly (although we had booked), and we were soon ushered through to a lovely spot by the window, from which we had a great view of a nearby table of eight home-counties rah types flouncing out when their drinks failed to arrive with sufficient alacrity. We should perhaps have taken warning from this, but we didn’t – we ordered a bottle of pink fizz and two courses each, and waited.

Our champagne eventually arrived. We fell upon it thirstily, and upon the very good bread. I watched the staff doing that thing bad waitresses do where they wander in, look bemusedly about, and wander out again. They did this several times. The boyfriend asked for another piece of bread. “Is one enough?” asked our waitress (there is no other word for it), insolently. Finally, our starters arrived. A savoury cheesecake for him; a warm goats’ cheese tart for me. Except it wasn’t warm – its acquaintance with the microwave had been a long and intimate one. We waited; we tried ineffectually to catch a server’s eye. After some time, our patience was exhausted, and I went up to the bar and asked the waitress to cancel our main course order as we were leaving. I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the evening – flouncing out of a restaurant, even when you do pay for what you’ve had, is embarrassing for all concerned.

We soothed our feelings with a couple of drinks at Butlers next door, where the bank of microwaves on open display led us to suspect that this quaint town has embraced technology with rather too much enthusiasm. Thereafter, whenever we walked down Tarrant Street, we entertained ourselves by chorusing: “Wrrrrrrrr… wrrrrrrrrr…. wrrrrrrrrrr…. PING!”

We didn’t try The George and Dragon in nearby Burpham (no, you peasant, it’s pronounced Berfam, natch), but the menu looked excllent. Let me know if you visit, but if you hear any tell-tale pings, do a runner.

And a final, brief footnote: we couldn’t help noticing that almost every restuarant in Arundel has tiger prawns on its menu. Why is this? Are they in season in Sussex? Answers on a postcard or in the comments.

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I make a good tart (hopefully)

apricot 4

Ah, dinner parties. The mess, the stess, the excess. We’re having some friends round tomorrow night for a meal, menu as follows:

Canapes (cocktail sausages, quail’s eggs and these black olive puff things)
Steak tartare
Apricot and almond tart

So tonight I’m getting the pudding out of the way. It’s not going brilliantly so far – I seem to be more than usually flaky, doing things like somehow managing to take five minutes to measure out 200g of sugar and cracking an egg then deciding to wander across the kitchen to switch on the oven before breaking it into the bowl. Anyway, the pastry case is made – I used a bog standard sweet pastry recipe. Normally I rub the butter into the flour by hand on the basis that it’s quicker than washing up the food processor, but tonight I did it the modern way, and the pastry has behaved absolutely beautifully so far. It’s in the fridge resting at the moment.

apricot 2

Although the recipe doesn’t stipulate baking blind, I’m doing so anyway, mostly out of habit.

I’m making a few other tweaks too – I’ve upped the quantities slightly, using 12 apricots instead of eight (and skinning as well as stoning them), and more or less doubling the other ingredients, using two whole eggs instead of an egg and a yolk, and adding a spot of vanilla essence because it makes everything better. We shall see how it turns out.

apricot 3

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