Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Plenty of Otto love

Hello my name is Filo and I'm a cookbook addict. I can't help myself. The pretty pictures, the promise of new and exciting meals, heading to the shops little scribbled list in hand to hunt out new spices and ingredients... I've run out of space for new ones. I had to buy a new bookcase. Some are, I hate to admit, hardly cooked from. Others well splattered and pretty much cooked out: Gordon Ramsay Cooking for Friends, and my favourite.... Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Ok, so the baking section is pretty much prisine but the meat, the fish and, sigh, the salads have seen me from lunchbox to dinner party.

So, how excited was I when The Guardian (they know that Otto readers are their prime market) ran an extract from his new book Plenty this weekend? I admit, I gave a little squeal in the newsagent. Choux Boy looked at me oddly. The newsagent looked at me even more oddly. I dropped my change. I was hopping with excitement, hopping right into the kitchen. So first up on a sunny Sunday night:

We didn't have quite enough tumeric/saffron to get that intense sunny yellowy glow, but washed down with a couple of bottles of Waitrose English cider it just tasted of pure undiluted summer. Otto that wasn't Plenty at all: must shop, must Amazon, must... buy... new...

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Rolling with the brunches

Sunshine + weekend = only one thing, lazy brunches. Well, before Pimms in the park. And thanks to the lovely people at Heaver magazine I was out and about in the depths of sunny south west London reviewing brunches... how very well timed. Reviews to come with their summer issue but for now, in pictures...

Friday - Eggs Benedict

The French Cafe
16-18 Rittherdon Road
SW17 8QD
020 8767 2660

Saturday - A Classic fry-up with a twist

350 Old York Road
SW18 1SS
020 8870 8280

Sunday - The Fishy One

2 Rookery Road
Clapham Common
020 7720 7787

Monday, 19 April 2010

Dining on Cloud Nine

‘I don’t think I’ve tasted olive oil until this weekend’

Choux Boy’s right. Somehow we find ourselves at the beginning of an eight course tasting menu (well nine we decided it was equivalent to if you counted the olive oil course and petit fours as half a course each) at Castel Monastero in the Tuscan Hills. I’d asked Antonio, the maitre d’, what he’d recommend from the menu. Let me hold it right here and explain something now. Sometimes in my day job I get to go and review 'honeymoon' hotels. Sometimes, I just maaaay make sure these are foodie. And sometimes, just sometimes I hope that we will be offered a tasting menu at one of these stupendously-more-luxurious-than-I-could-ever-afford hotels/restaurants. Well a girl can dream. Dream with her stomach... Don't hate me.

‘Well why don’t we sample? We could do a little of the, ah, salt cod, then, maybe you like to try the polenta, then we maybe do something different each... the saffron risotto with lamb ragout and the veal tortellini...’

Thank you thank you thank you thank you god.

‘... Then do you like fish? How about we do one bream and one meat.’

The Boy had been eyeing up the rabbit confit.

‘Or we could do a main course of the rabbit confit?’

Antonio, this gets better every second.

‘And maybe we could taste some wines together to go with the food?’

Antonio, I think I love you.

But back to the olive oil, we kick off this adventure with the olive oil. Now I’ve always been a fan of the bread and oil and balsamic instead of bread and butter routine (call me pretentious or call me weird) but different types of oil, and olive oil sommeliers? It’s very like tasting wine, we discuss the types of olives, a single olive oil or a blend of olive type, where the olives were grown, the method they were pressed by, the colour, the smell, the taste and the aftertaste. He knows his stuff.

First up a Terre di Siena (a D.O.C) made very near where we were staying and from three types of olive (in the middle of the picture). We were told to look out for the flavours of artichoke and green tomatoes and the distinctly green tinge. Next a Chianti Classico (bottom), made from one type of olive, this was stronger and spicier with the scent and flavour of fresh herbs and a peppery aftertaste. Lastly one called Locanda Rosso (top). This time a blend of two olives which are grown further north by the sea so you could taste the saltiness.

I hadn’t even managed to go 1,2,3 in a lingering fashion before our appetizer arrived: a salad of pecorino cheese, roasted tomatoes, confit duck, olives and pearl barley.

Next up salt cod with a tomato elixir and olive oil foam (though how they get olive oil to ‘foam’ is beyond my culinary imagination) And after a brut rose from Franciacorta to whet our wine appetite, with Antonio’s direction we moved on to a clean, fresh white with the salt cod.

Starters round two and it was potato polenta and ‘pecorino di fossa’ and duck ham. To cut through those hefty flavours, Antonio plumped for a Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Time for the traditional middle pasta course. This is one of my favourite things about dining in Italy – four courses as standard. I admit, I'm a glutton. And Antonio hasn’t let us down with his selection a creamy saffron risotto, not too light, not to heavy, topped with lamb ragout plus my absolute favourite part of the meal so far: melt in the mouth morsels of veal tortellini served with a smear of creamed cauliflower.

Wine change mark four for the main – and to straddle the needs of my light fish and the Boy’s rich confit rabbit leg we have a light and punchy Brunello di Montalcino 2003. The fresh bream comes with a tomato crumble, fennel and dots of aubergine cream – light and bright flavours that are the perfect complement.

We’re pretty full, but nowhere near defeated in our quest to taste every last bit of Tuscany. Round, where are we now, five, six? Cheese. All pecorino – 18 weeks, 24 weeks and 38 weeks. Served with fig, citrus and red berry jams/chutneys plus white honey. Plus not one but two wines – a sweet from Umbria (Antinori produced Muffato della Sala) and a classic Chianti. I love the tender almost rubbery 18 week cheese. I love all of them. I have to stop myself from eating myself into a cheese coma.

A pause... and then a plate. A sliver of pistachio parfait and a Chinese gooseberry.

Mmmm. But that’s not even dessert. More sweet wine? Yes, please. The real thing is here. For me, a hazelnut tower and pistachio ice cream. Nutty crunchy creamy heaven. The Boy gets three tiny espresso cups housing tiramisu three ways – classic, with cherries and with amoretti biscuits instead of sponge.

We’re done, well, a couple of macchiatos and petit fours? Oh go on then, in for a penny in for the pounds. And after three hours, nine courses and six wines we were done. Thank you Antonio. Thank you.

If you can get yourself there dear reader do say hello to Antonio. Say hello very nicely...

Monday, 12 April 2010

A taster of Tuscany

Nine courses, Chianti, gelato and fast cars. Under Tuscan sun (and rain). Full post to come but for now... tuck in.

A room with a view

A midnight snack

Milling about Siena

Ice, ice baby

Food, glorious food

Pizza: thin, crispy, perfect

The wine list

Beef carpaccio and artichoke

And that's just for starters. Your main course will be out shortly...

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Out of Africa

In this old cultural-melting pot that is London, even in this yummy mummy corner of South West London, you can eat the world without even leaving your postcode. I mean within walking distance on my flat you have French, Indian, Morrocan, Thai, Vietnamese, Spanish, Caribbean, Italian, er... Spur Native American Steak and Grill. Some world cuisines are always going to get the star billing (ol' Michelin fav French) or the mass vote (anything with batter or MSG) but what about the more obscure? Hello South Africa.

As I've mentioned before I love a trip I do. But usually it is my stomach that leads me. This time however the draw of animals, and not just the ones on my plate, was to strong to resist: safari.

Don't worry this isn't going to be a checklist of which animals I saw. I was quickly back to the game plan: food. South African and African food in general, sidestepping the North African tagine-fest, is oft overlooked, hitting the news more often for the lack of, rather than the quality of the produce. You might argue that there are bigger concerns. My hosts &Beyond at Phinda has a policy of conserving the people, the wildlife and the land. So during our time there we visited the work of the &Beyond Foundation - the school, where some children walk two hours each way to attend; the clinic treating a population where around a third of the population is infected with HIV - you can see how gastronomy isn't top of the list. But that doesn't mean there isn't a passion for food. Good, simple, local food. Pineapples sold at the side of the road by the people who picked them. Local game. Juicy avocados. There's nothing quite like eating fresh food outside.

Our lodge The Homestead was readily homely with its 'interactive kitchen' (aka walk in help yourself or nosy around) and chef, the lovely and local, Faith Gina.

The lodge itself was insanely beautiful.

However, the thing they don't tell you about safari is that you have to get up at 5.30 in the morning. After 12 hours on a full overnight flight from London with only THIS for company...

... I was going to need some convincing. First up perfect Faith steak for dinner (she told me it was marinated  for three hours in soy sauce, wholegrain mustard, worcester sauce and red wine) and me and my fellow journos were packed off to bed happy tummed. Mornings, if you can call 5.30am morning, started with African coffee, 'crunchies' (oaty flapjacky biscuits) and South African rusks. A few animals later and it was time for a bush breakfast picnic. Now this was almost worth the 5.30 start. Animals? Oh yeah those too...

Give that boy a pineapple.

But, you're thinking, what about the South African food? Apart from biltong (for those not familar - it's a dried meat snack kind of like beef jerky to Americans) I was after some local flavour and Faith agreed to rustle me up some things to try. Unfortunately this was the precise point I started to feel ill, very ill. Thank you Malarone (my not so friendly anti-malarials).
Now I'm not one to let a little vomiting to stand in the way of gastronomic discovery. I'm made of sterner, and greedier, stock than that. Oh no, throwing up in the bush behind a landrover, oh yes, that classy, was a mere temporary setback. However, my stomach had also shrunk to about the size of a crum of biltong... and it was a South African feast.

Morogo - a kind of South African spinach, fried with onion, chunky peanut butter and tomato

Pap - a starchy blend of cornmeal which is pretty tastless but served with everything and especially...
Tomato and onion sauce...
and roasted butternut squash

Oh and meat, lots of meat...

All together now... yum.

Plus the apparently ubiquitous South African dessert: malva pudding

My biltong-crum tum wasn't quite up to pud but my keen tasters pinpointed it as kind of like sticky toffee pudding.

Biltong crum or no I couldn't leave without a market and, although I decided customs might not appreciate my efforts to transport a bag full of South African chillis back off a 12 hour flight into Heathrow, it was a feast... though just for the eyes this time. They were definitely bigger than my stomach still.


So I had to make do with some salad tossers and my own &Beyond African recipe book... watch out Wandsworth.