Since before Easter, I’ve been experimenting with the Dukan regime. I’ve lost over 10 kilos / 2 stone, and although it has slowed down it’s still dropping off.

There are several books you can buy – it doesn’t matter which one, really, as they do tend to repeat whole chapters. Or websites – the official ones and ones set up by followers / hangers-on / added value sellers. I’d been unsure about whether to try this diet – as a rule I avoid commercial “diet” advice, there are health risks attached to it, friends who’d tried it said it worked brilliantly but could be very restrictive and boring. What convinced me was doing the true weight calculator on the official website. Instead of the constant “9 and a half stone” target I get from the Wii / bmi based systems, Dukan suggested a working target of about 12 and half stone, which actually felt achievable, and a weight I would be happy at.

It is also clear, as is Lighter Life although few people pay attention, that once the weight is off you need a long consolidation / re-education phase to embed new habits.

You start with an Attack, which can vary from a few days to over a week. Doing the calculator will tell you how long yours should be. Low-fat meat or poultry, skimmed or fat-free dairy, fish and seafood, eggs, tofu, aspartame, odd bits of flavouring (garlic, vinegar, mustard, herbs, spices). That’s it. No fruit, veg, nuts, beans, grains, sugar, fat, salt. Plus a spoonful of oat-bran, and at least 1.5 litres of water (which if you’re used to healthy eating advice, is not actually a lot). You can count tea, coffee and diet soda in the water – anything to keep your kidneys as active as possible. Eat as much as you want, at least 3 meals a day. 20 minutes walking.

At first it sounds horrendous, but to a girl brought up in the calorie-fixated 70s, it’s really liberating. Grilled steak flopping off the sides of the plate? check. A tub of sandwich filling without the tiresome bread or salad? check. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast? check. Starbucks skinny latte with extra shots and sugar-free vanilla syrup? YAY.

I got into the habit of mixing my oatbran with a giant pot of fat-free greek yoghourt and some sweetener. Sometimes cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder, mint. Leave it to soften for about half an hour (or as long as you can keep the cat out of it), and it’s a really filling evening pudding. Or using oat bran and egg to coat chicken or fish to bake.

After your initial Attack, you move to the Cruise phase, where I am supposed to spend about 10 months, and during which you are supposed to lose weight slowly but steadily until you hit target. This alternates days from the Attack model with days where you can add foods from a short list of veg. It’s a very stupid and French-centric list.

For me, that’s been part of the fun. Isolating what is French prejudice and habit, and deciding whether to ignore it or not. Lamb is excluded from the protein list as being too fatty – but how much could you reduce by choosing older meat butchered differently? The text of the books waffles on about the Liver, that French health obsession. And it’s very misogynistic – almost any stage of a woman’s life or fertility cycle causes water retention, apparently. Vegetarians are grudgingly allowed to exist, but vegans can just naff off and die.

Rhubarb and tomatoes are on the approved list of veggies, but not strawberries which are relatively low in carbs. I can understand the logic behind not eating bananas, cherries, grapes etc which are very high in sugar, but allowing onions and red peppers which are around the 5/6% mark and not watery fruit which is about the same seems silly. Especially to someone like me who is far more likely to add a handful of allotment strawberries to a spinach salad than mourn a creamy sweet pastry.

There is also the wide variety of veggies / meat that he hasn’t thought of – goat, for example. Chillies, okra, tomatilloes, jicama, virtually anything “ethnic”. Luckily there are forums where people are discussing these – especially where there are halal / kosher issues with traditional French food. And websites publishing recipes adapted to local tastes and ingredients – I particularly like the ideas on DukanItOut but I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet.

So, verdict so far – successful, not boring, actually quite relaxing. Although there are some downsides – see the next post …

These are not the squash you’re looking for

I don’t actually like pumpkin. It’s heresy to say that at this time of year, when my in-tray is full of recipes for cookies, casseroles, pies, cheesecakes, cupcakes, and, heaven help us, trifle. But I think it’s the wateriest of all the squashes, texture-free, and with an unpleasant, almost bitter aftertaste. One of the things that put me off J K Rowling was when she gave the Hogwarts students pumpkin juice to drink as a treat. Ick. For years I thought I liked it, because I had lots of American pumpkin flavoured things, and then I found out that what I liked was pumpkin pie SPICE, which is as close as they come to regular mixed spice in the States. And how could that not be yummy?

I’ve got to be careful with nomenclature here, after an Australian Masterchef episode where I was shouting “That’s not a pumpkin, it’s a butternut squash!” at the telly. To me pumpkins are one type of winter squash, the orange ones that you carve up for Halloween and put candles inside. But apparently there are parts of the world where it’s a more generic term for winter or harder-skinned squash. Butternut squash, on the other hand, is bright, firm, sweet and tasty, and lends itself to far more interesting concoctions. Pizza, risotto, curry, candied …it holds its texture so much better.

We’ve been growing them on the allotment, there’s one of the early ones in the picture, hanging out at the bottom of the apples. The small young ones were lovely just split and baked with oil or butter and some flavourings – even the skin was tender enough to eat. With cheese for a light meal, or as a side dish, or with a rich meat sauce. We tried a crisp pizza with roasted red onions, chunks of squash and baby mozzarellas earlier this week, and I shall do that again – experimenting with different cheeses, both feta and halloumi have come highly recommended.

Spaghetti squash is always fun, that’s on the list to grow next year. Acorns and Hubbards can wait their turn. Meanwhile, I’m off to find things to do with pumpkin seeds. Once you’ve carved a horrid face into it, that’s the best bit.

Gordon Effing Ramsay

There’s a downside to the Use It or Lose It philosophy.

I’m watching Channel 4’s Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, which has got to the semi-finals stage. Two places I really like, and recommend regularly, and get to when I can, have made it through.

One is The Milestone, Sheffield’s up-and-coming Michelin prospect. The other is Prashad’s, the Gujerati vegetarian restaurant/deli in Bradford. Although I’m proud and pleased for both of them, there have already been some unpleasant changes.

I’ve seen the results of Gordon’s handiwork around here before, when he rebranded the Runaway Girl into Silversmiths. I worked on that street,  and he didn’t tell you anywhere near the real story.

It’s a dead end, behind a student pub, and the car park next to it backs onto the Student’s Union and a Spearmint Rhino. Not exactly where you expect to find fine dining. The main thing he did to the menu was to take away the tapas and bring in that gourmet extravaganza – Pie Nights. And I can still hear the screams of laughter when Sheffielders found out that they could get a pie supper for JUST £8.50.

He talked about chain restaurants in the city centre as being the competition, and not about any other independent restaurants. The area he compared it to was Leopold Square, which is a new development surrounding a boutique hotel – not being rude, but it’s the sort of place secretaries go for lunch, or you get pissed in at happy hour before moving on. It’s already on the bogoff and email vouchers skids.

The real competition was Cubanas, which serves tapas with a Caribbean twist, loud, noisy, full of salsa music, clicking heels, smart wooden floors and loads of yellow glossy paint. Bright and vibrant, and Runaway Girl had already managed to get their chef. Ramsay re-branded Silversmiths to go up against our existing award-winning restaurants run by respected professionals serving locally-sourced, organic food – the Walnut Club, Rafters, Thyme, Milestone, up to The Vicarage which has a Michelin star. However, if you are in the city centre at night to eat, chances are you are out on the razz, or grabbing a bite before or after the theatre, and all the places you’re interested in are right in the city centre, not down a side-street on the way to the station.

Everyone went for a bit because Gordon had been there, and it perked up again for a few weeks when the tv show was on. But it doesn’t open regularly at lunchtime, and local views seem to be that the menu is unoriginal and not high quality. Lots of groups of staff going out for Christmas lunch choose places like Cafe Rouge or Ha-Has over Silversmiths. Their own website doesn’t feature any press reviews later than 2008, that’s not good. If he did such a good job, how come Milestone is in this competition, and Silversmiths isn’t?

We went to Milestone a few times back in the early summer, when it had a fine dining restaurant upstairs and a bistro menu downstairs. Now, post-Ramsay, the top end of the menu has gone, and it has settled into being a two-storey gastropub. Although the menu is still good, the progress towards a Michelin star has been set way back. Ramsay was critical on the first-stage show about the coaching / mentoring that they do in the kitchen, as being distracting, and it would be a real shame if that were to get sideswiped too.

I love Prashad’s food, but I don’t always have the time to stop for a meal when I’m in Bradford. I rely on the deli half of the business – it’s one of the few places I know that does patra, for a start. Or, rather, it was. Last time I popped in, it was to discover the deli vanished, and a poster on the door explaining that due to the Ramsay factor they had closed it to enlarge the restaurant. And expressing a hope that they might be able to open a separate deli nearby in the future.

So although I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone does on the show next week, I really hope they don’t fall for his bullshit. You know your local markets, guys, don’t let him faze you. One of the reasons I love your food is that you both have really strong ethics and ideals, thoughts about what a business should represent to family and community. You already win local and regional awards on a regular basis, and we’re looking forward to how you choose to develop yourselves. But I’d like to be sure that came from your heart, and not Ramsay’s little prejudices.

Use It Or Lose It

“We could go there, we haven’t been for ages.”

“Let’s not go tonight, we’re taking guests there next week.”

“I don’t want to get off the sofa, can we get a delivery from somewhere closer?”

“But we had that kind of food last night, can we have something different?”

“We’ll be taking A there all the time when she comes as a student, wait til then.”

It’s too far, it’s a rough area, where would we park, I’m not hungry for a big meal, there’s this new place we haven’t tried yet …

We’ve been away for a bit, and I only heard yesterday about the “closed until further notice” sign on the door of the Kashmir Curry Centre on Spital Hill. A few minute’s digging found the thread on the Sheffield Forum revealing that yes, it’s gone for good. And the thread is full of people calling it a Sheffield institution, talking about their first visit as a student, about their pride in taking their kids there, how wonderful the staff were, how great the food.

Last time we went we were the only people in there. We talked about it – it was mid-week, it was early – but did we do anything about it? No.

Go more often ourselves. Tell more people about it, even if it did mean it got crowded. Write about it, even if it isn’t new, or you’ve written about it before. The management didn’t want to burden guests with how badly it was doing, which fooled us a bit. But we should have been able to spot it.

When your local institution closes, what will your excuse be?

WTF Fusion?

Sesame Corn Toast in Mumbai

Fusion is such an odd word. It implies a mutual contribution to a final product, almost an Hegelian synthesis. In foodie terms, it’s been going on for ever. Even when you get it all involved with invasion and post-colonial history and politics, in food there’s rarely been an outright victor. Just like language, music and theatre, even if it takes a few hundred years, traditions merge and develop themselves.

“English” food is based on products (animal, vegetable and mineral) imported by waves of invaders / immigrants, along with techniques and processes for preparing them. Even just a simple thing like the fork changes how you do things – now you don’t eat with a dagger, a bit of bread and your fingers, so you can play with the textures and quantities of sauce, shapes and cuts of meat, salads. And the fork came from the French aristocracy, who had it off the Italians courtesy of marrying the Medicis. Some dishes are excellent because of regional quality of the central ingredient, local economies and cooking methods, and ideas about combinations. So when we have great slightly fatty meat, are prepared to cook a huge piece of it in one go, cook over open fires or have big domestic ovens, we evolve the Great British Roast. And we’re far enough north to have root veg to go with it and fill out the tummies of old folk and children, and tart berries to make sauces and jellies to smarten it up for the toffs. Whereas if you have lean meat, no tradition of domestic ovens, not a lot of cooking fuel, grow grains and dry sharp herbs like rosemary and are closer to the source of the Spice Route, you evolve quick cooking dishes like little grilled things on skewers, or complex stews, tagines or pilaffs you can cook in one pot by leaving them all day in the bottom of the village bread oven.

If you read old cookery books, restaurant menus, even novels, you can see that British food for centuries revelled in new produce from all over the Empire (and beyond), new tools and ideas. The Romans had no ideas about quarantine ecology, and brought herbs, vegetables, domestic and game animals that we now think of as typically English. Pheasants, celery, asparagus, bay, mint … And it went on from there. Normans, returning Crusaders, nabobs bringing home chutneys and curry powders, Spanish holiday makers from the 70s wanting paella and sangria.

We got stuck for a bit back there in the 20th century. The urbanisation of the 19th century wasn’t supported by an agriculture or food distribution industry to provide decent raw ingredients into cities, domestic cooks were de-skilled, or just didn’t have the time. Cooking for a smaller family unit in a terraced back-to-back house was completely different to cooking for a whole farmful. People started to rely on pre-made or processed foods – sausages, small chops, pies. Two wars with shortages and rationing, with an economic depression between them, left a mark.

Especially the Second World War and the drop in imported food – not just the things everyone thinks of, like bananas and oranges, but wheat, onions, garlic, olive oil. The Ministry of Food actively encouraged people to use potatoes or oats where they would have used flour, dripping for sauteeing instead of oil, vinegar for citrus. No wonder when Elizabeth David started writing about aubergines oozing oil and garlic it became a kind of soft porn.

So ever since rationing finally ended in the mid-50s, and we gradually re-established supply lines, English Fusion food has almost had to start again. There were traces still – dried fruit stuffings with meats, the ginger and marzipan and luxury fruits for the Christmas holidays, Worcestershire sauce and chutneys. But domestic use of garlic was rare, for example, and olive oil was bought from a chemist, having been filtered until it had no aroma or colour. I remember when the higher end supermarkets started selling fresh ginger, garlic and chillies, in the late 70s.

The English relationship with Indian food has always been odd. The word “curry” has meant several things over the years, with A Forme of Cury being the title of one of the first English cookbooks from the late 14th century. Cury then just meant cooked food, but it was rich with spices and sauces – some of the recipes for stews flavoured with ginger and saffron and thickened with blanched almonds could easily be served with rice as a modern korma – certainly someone raised on “meat and two veg” wouldn’t recognise it as English food. There are arguments going on all over the internet about where the word “curry” came from as meaning Indian food, most usually a sauced spiced dish. Kari is a Tamil word, but what it means now and what it meant back in the 17th century are open to debate – soup, grilled meat, blackened food (as the term is used for Cajun spiced meat). a dish made specifically of lamb or mutton, a spiced sauce … and there’s also Karai which is a pot shaped a bit like a wok and used to cook stews, that’s a more northern Indian tool.

The important thing about it is that it’s never been been perceived as part of regular “English” cuisine. It’s not a Fusion so much as a parellel world. There aren’t “English” dishes that incorporate Indian flavours – even if you’re adding curry powder to your baked beans on toast, you are making it curry-flavoured, not producing something traditionally British. And if you’re going out for a meal, chances are high you’ll go for an Indian or a Chinese – and you’ll call it that even if your local Indian restaurant has been on your High Street for nearly 50 years. Or you’ll go for a Curry, even when you know you’re going to have tandoori and a naan.You’re unlikely to serve spinach methi or tarka dhal as a side with your Sunday roast, or have chilli scrambled eggs with your black pudding.

Historically, there are two fusions between British and Indian food.

The first was Anglo-Indian food, which was the attempts of Indian (or Malay) cooks to prepare local food for English tastes and menu structures. Here’s where we get kedgeree with smoked fish, eggs and rice as a breakfast dish, from the original mixture of rice and dhal. Mulligatawny soup. And that bizarre thing called Country Captain, which is more well-known now in the Southern US as a mild chicken curry. Chutney in English is a thick cooked preserve using sugar and vinegar, spiced, and used for everything from sandwiches to a relish for cold meat and cheese – whereas a chatnai is a relish, whether it’s a freshly-ground herb / spice paste, coconut-based, or a lightly-pickled salad. The great pickles, chutneys, curry powder blends and bottled sauces come from the Anglo-Indian era, as military people and traders returned home to retire and wanted to bring a taste of India with them. There’s a w0nderful scene in Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp tries to eat a curry without her head exploding, and that’s about the time the first Indian restaurants opened in London. I’ve got a little book produced by the American Women’s Club of Bombay in the 1950s, which tells you how to cook some basic Indian dishes for Western palates, and how to use Indian ingredients to make familiar US treats. Lots of dessert dishes using mangoes, for example.

The greatest Indian / British fusion is the menu of a your bog-standard Indian restaurant in any small British town. Some things will be dependent on the regional cuisine the restaurant founder is familiar with – Bangladeshi is very common, with some Punjabi. But there are certain standard dishes that are particularly British in origin. The most well-known is Chicken Tikka Masala, supposedly created by an Indian chef in Glasgow, which is at its most basic some boneless spiced grilled chicken reheated in a mild creamy sauce. It’s become a British icon, one of our top ready-meals. You can get Chicken Tikka Lasagne from Iceland, a frozen meal-for-one for a quid, and if you ever wanted to explore the shallow end of the fusion pool, there’s where to start. Chicken Tikka crisps, dips, sandwiches, wraps, pot noodles. There are others – the onion bhaji is a classic restaurant starter. But bhajis are vegetable side dishes, not deep-fried things in batter, those are pakoras. And onion isn’t a typical pakora ingredient. Where that one sprang from is anyone’s guess. And only the British could put it in a sandwich, cold with gooseberry chutney. There are also rumours about the British origins of butter chicken, and now there’s the Glaswegian Chicken Chasni. That’s yet to make it south of the border as a standard dish, but it’s a magnificent chicken dish with a sauce made mainly from tomato ketchup and sweet mango chutney, with lemon and mint. I refuse to get started on the Balti discussion.

But these are NOT modern British dishes, in any way, shape or form. If I ate at the Benares in London, ran by Atul Kochhar, I would be sure I was eating Indian food, with a contemporary twist. The Press Club, where we ate the other night here in Melbourne, describes its cuisine as “modern Greek. It takes the best of centuries of Hellenic gastronomy and melds modern techniques, contemporary style and the finest ingredients.” yet to me it felt like modern Australian food, albeit with a Greek provenance.

There’s also a whole world out there of international junk fusion. In Bertha Brown’s bar / restaurant on Flinders Street last night we had an Athenian pizza with lamb, tzatziki and feta, and a Taj pizza with tandoori chicken, red onion and mango raita. You could have had one with Peking Duck on it (personally, for me that’s a fuse too far). Back home in Sheffield I get a constant stream of leaflets through the door advertising kebab houses that do doner pizza, or chinese takeaways that do curry sauce and chips. This is where the Chicken Tikka Lasagne comes in, the Breakfast Burrito, nachos where the tortilla chips are replaced with pork scratchings. In the UK the California Roll is seen as just another sushi format, but it’s just another classic car-crash. There’s a whole community on Live Journal dedicated to trashy food, and the stoners on there will mix anything they can find in their fridges at 3 a.m. and post photographs of it.

Although we’re in Australia, one of the current hot hot hot melting-pots for Fusion cuisine, the one that has fascinated me most so far on this trip was the Chinese food in Mumbai. Our hotel’s restaurant menu got a bit eclectic. There was an English breakfast (cooked eggs), an Indian breakfast (aloo paratha or puri and lassi), or a Continental breakfast (also known as toastbutterjam). For lunch and dinner there were Tandoori, Indian or Chinese menus. The Indian menu featured some “international” dishes (Chicken Tikka Masala was one).  Lots of vegetarian options, with fresh paneer cheese. Meat usually chicken or lamb.

Then there was the Chinese section. There’s an old immigrant Chinese community in India, mostly Cantonese and Hakka boat people. A cuisine has evolved in the same way the British Indian one has – if you were an Indian going out to eat a Chinese meal, what would you eat / not eat? and what could be developed that would retain the Chinese elements, yet appeal to you? This is a world that has a lot of vegetarians in it, and most of the meat eaters don’t eat beef or pork, so chicken, fish and prawns feature strongly. Noodles are foreign, and therefore exciting, so there are lots of Hakka dishes with noodles, prawn and egg. Tofu is a bit odd, why not use paneer? The strangest thing was that although you would think Indians would love spicy food, something about the mixture used in Szechuan food is determined to be “too hot, be careful”. So when I ordered Szechuan Paneer, I was warned several times. Was I sure? This little bowl has the Szechuan sauce, you’ll only need a little bit. I think it’s some combination of the dried red chillies and the smokiness, it hits a different part of your mouth to a fresh green chilli, and it doesn’t have the sourness of, say, a lime pickle, to counteract the oil. It was like going to an Indian restaurant and having them make sure you understood what you were getting if you ordered a vindaloo or a phall.

The Indian Chinese equivalent of the Chicken Tikka Masala is Manchurian sauce, which at it’s most basic is a vinegar, tomato and soy sauce mix thickened with cornflour. You can make it as you would start a typical Indian sauce, frying a garlic, ginger and chilli paste with some chopped onion. It goes over vegetable dumplings, deep-fried vegetable balls, or chicken, and fills the deep-seated Indian need for gravy. You can buy a ready-mix version if you want.

One delicious thing that we tried, which I really need to re-create at home, is the Sesame Corn Toasts in the picture. Just like Prawn Toasts, except the prawn paste was replaced with a thick sweet creamed corn, with the occasional crisp kernel, and sprinkled with chopped green onion. Served with a dipping bowl of the “very spicy, be careful” Chinese chilli oil.

What I need to do now is find somewhere nearer home that does Hakka / Indian food – apparently it is spreading with Indian migrant communities, just like the British took curry houses and afternoon tea, and the Americans took McDonalds. And not be so racist about Fusion. It doesn’t have to be “ethnic” meets “classic European”. Remember the Surinamese food I had in Amsterdam that merged Chinese and Indian migrant labour food with local South American. Remember the Hakka food in India. Look for the boundaries, the frontiers, and don’t forget to Boldly Go.

Mmmmm, Masala Chai …

Mumbai Masala Chai

When we were young, Laura used to call this “rice pudding tea”. You only really found it in the cheaper Indian caffs, or you had to make it yourself. Boiling together water, sugar, milk, tea leaves and spices. Mostly cinnamon and cloves, maybe some powdered ginger for heat, and cardamom pods if you could afford them. Deliciously warming and sweet. I wasn’t a tea-drinker, really, yet I loved it.

Then we finished university, real coffee became easier to get and a bit more affordable, life got in the way. And what with one thing and another, chai became a nostalgic treat. One of the things was diabetes, so it became a bit risky to have in a restaurant with the sugar overload involved.

In the past couple of years, Chai has surfaced into popular cafe culture, although most of it is a cruel parody. Caterers can buy a syrup or powder, which they use in a variety of ways. Starbucks make their own, of course, and I think that might have been the first one I tasted. You can just stir the mix into hot water and add milk, or make it with steamed milk from the coffee machine. Chai Tea Latte has become a standard. One of the problems with it is that the mixes are sugar-based, so you can’t control the level of sweetness – unless, of course, you want to add more. The other easy option for the consumer is to buy spiced Chai tea and make it at home. Twinings do a Chai teabag, which is widely available. Recently I’ve started drinking a tea flavoured just with cardamom, from Ahmad Teas, which I get from my local Persian supermarket.

Once you refine your personal preferences down in terms of spices, some of the commercial ones are like being kicked in the head. The Starbucks one in particular has way too much black pepper in it – John says it reminds him of the coltsfoot cough sweets he used to have as a child.

On our recent trip to Mumbai, I had masala chai regularly. The one in the hotel (in the picture) came in smallish vacuum flasks, was fairly bland, and had the gritty crushed spices lurking in the bottom. You could get chai anywhere, on the street from guys wandering round with flasks, and in cafes. I was surprised by the street vendors and some of the cafes who served it in tiny little paper cups, like you get the mouthwash in at the dentist. Until I tried it and realised it was the chai version of a double shot espresso, with a wham that kept you going through the muggiest monsoon afternoon. Well worth 7 rupees. Most areas of India have their own preferred blends of masala for the chai, some with an aniseedy background from fennel, some more hot with fresh ginger, and it was the regional variations surfacing in the different kitchens. Our hotel chefs had a strong Malay background, and used cloves for the peppery constituent, and a softer hand with the cinnamon.

As we journeyed through airports on our way to Australia, I found a lot of international coffee bars doing the Starbucks thing, and offering a Chai Latte. Most were, well, tolerable, if oversweet. When we got to Port Douglas and went shopping for supplies for the apartment kitchen, I could only get Twinings Australian blend of Chai with Vanilla, which is fine for when you want a vanilla flavoured drink that tastes vaguely of tea, but not otherwise. Bleugh.

Then I realised the Australian shopping mantra: Do Not Buy Things In Supermarkets. We travelled from Port Douglas north onto the area around the Daintree River, where they grow lots of interesting things including sugarcane and tropical fruits and tea. A packet of Daintree Original Chai is coming home with me (I bought it from the Daintree Ice Cream Company shop but I also saw it in the Australian Product Shop at Cairns airport). The sample pot we had was rich but delicate and light, very fresh tasting. The spices are crushed rather than ground, with recognisable pieces of cinnamon and dried ginger. There is a star anise element, which replaces the fennel and gives an almost Chinese overlay.

In the hotel coffee shop in Melbourne this morning I came across Tea Drop Malabar Chai, which was even more fragrant, due to the inclusion of rose petals. That’s a Northern India / Kashmiri / Pakistani element, and I’ve not really come across it before. It was a bit too elegant for a morning wake-up call, but it would be a beautiful after-dinner or late summer afternoon drink. I was particularly pleased that they offered the option of having it as a plain pot of tea with cold milk on the side, or made up with hot milk as a latte. Most places it’s one or the other, and usually the latte. This blend was too delicate to stand up to that, the sweet tones would have predominated and it would have lost its balance.

Yesterday we did a tour of the Victoria Market, and there was a tea specialist shop in with the delis. I might go back tomorrow and see what I can find … and if anyone has suggestions of blends I should look out for in the next week, please let me know!

2008 Christmas magazine roundup

I always get a good selection of the foodie magazines at this time of year, and look at what the trends are. This year was fascinating. Although a lot of these feature spreads are planned months ago, the credit crunch was obviously in the air already. There's a definite seventies feel about the recipes – retro without being fashionable, just what 50-year-olds remember as being celebration food without expensive frills. There is no new exotic cuisine – some Thai noodle salads but those are almost domestic standards now. Lots of cheap and seasonal fruit and vegetables, fish and meat. The treats use classic Christmas treat foods – glace fruit, chocolate, smoked salmon, booze.

The main recipes were almost all:

  • Smoked salmon parcels for starters (the one that bucked the trend had prawn and avocado cocktail)
  • Plain turkey with plain veg – roast potatoes, sprouts, parsnips, red cabbage
  • Celeriac gratin
  • Jerusalem artichoke soup
  • Roast root veg with different spices and coatings
  • Roast pork as the alternative big joint
  • Nut roasts for vegetarians, especially en croute
  • Old fashioned desserts – date pudding, fruit crumble, ginger sponge, apple tart
  • Yule logs / sweet roulades – mostly chocolate, some with cherries (Black Forest, yay!)
  • Baked Alaskas – especially individual ones, or with special fillings (orange and chocolate)
  • Cocktails
  • Home made things – including a recipe for home-made "Irish Cream Liqueur", haven't seen one of those for about thirty years

There were some minor things that seemed to pop up whenever the opportunity arose:

  • Parsnip crisps – bought (M&S, Waitrose), or home-made – for soup garnishes, mostly
  • White chocolate / cranberry mix – cookies, squares, cheesecakes, even trifle
  • Leeks (in soups, pies, stews, and risottos)
  • Hot griddled slices of pear – with pate, as a soup garnish, with sauce as dessert

The winner of the chef who's everywhere is Anjum Anand – and the recipes are simple and homely. We're trying her spiced lambshank with chestnuts tonight, although with rice rather than the official side of parsnip mash.


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Planning Ahead

Now I've gone back to work, I'm finding it diffcult to guarantee enough energy to cook properly in the evenings. Plus it's COLD, and we want the sort of food that takes ages and ages. And we're poor. So I've been cooking several stews or similar over the weekend, that can just be finished off and reheated. Today I've made:

  • red cabbage in red wine, with onions, bacon, goose dripping, thyme, bay and lots of pepper – to be finished with vacuum packed chestnuts and to eat with gammon steaks and baked potato if we're really hungry
  • beef braised with fresh ginger, star anise, slices of mandarin orange, lots of carrots, beef stock and sake

I've got something with celeriac and blue cheese in the pipeline, but that will have to be last minute. There's a curry sauce and veg waiting to be stir-fried with some chicken. Which makes four huge meals and puts me ahead of the game. In the past few weeks we've had:

  • goose legs cooked in fat with garlic and thyme in the slow-cooker, fished out and flashroasted
  • venison liver braised with bacon and lots of red onion in stock and redcurrant jelly
  • soft tortillas stuffed with beans, or veg, or chilli, coated with spicy tomato sauce, topped with cheese and baked
  • giant suet herb dumplings cooked in thin veg soup

The larger Christmas meats are beginning to show up now, especially in freezers, and I'm thinking about how to do those and then portion them up.

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Smoothie, Lassi, Whatever

Forty years ago, one of our great treats was my Dad's homemade milk shake. Milk, ice-cream if we had it, and a splash out of one of those sticky bottles of brightly coloured syrup. Especially once we got a blender, and you could make it go all bubbly without having to whisk it by hand.

Thirty years ago, we had a popular hangover drink of natural yoghourt mixed with grapefruit juice, with a dash of Tabasco for the hardier souls. Then as we started hanging out at the corner caff end of the Indian restaurant market, we discovered lassi – diluted yoghourt drink, sometimes salt, sometimes sweet with palm sugar and fruit juices and purees. Mango, lime, orange. In time, lassi got more well known, and it's on most restaurant menus now. You can get it ready-mixed in some supermarkets, even. And the smoothie has reared its head, full of your five-a-day and active superfoods and general gubbins. Sugar, mostly. Some of them are just thick fruit juices, but some have the dairy component as well.

I made a Thing at home the other day – a ripe banana, some organic greek thick yoghourt, some oldish blueberries and some mango chunks out of the freezer. Whizz whizz, two half pint glasses full, really rich and heavy, bursting with fruity oopmh, cold from the mango. It would have made a quick meal, and was much much more than a drink.

You can go all the way from thin drink (juice, or squash at a pinch, cheap thin yoghourt, lots of ice and some lime and salt to sharpen it up) to something more like a fool, with purees and yoghourt and soft ice-cream. Waitrose has a recipe card for a mango lassi fool, which is mango puree mixed with yoghourt and whipped cream, lime juice, honey and cardamom, and decorated with strips of dried mango. Last time we were in Amsterdam I had a saffron yoghourt, a cross between a drink and a dessert, sweet and thick and darkly yellow.

I've never been sure about spices in Drink Things, they tend to turn gritty or taste raw. They certainly have their place in Indian spiced tea, where they've had a chance to infuse. Maybe I need to look at making home-made yoghourt again, adding cardamom pods and cinnamon and cloves and fennel to the warm milk at the start.

In the early days, we had to chop fresh mangoes or buy mango nectar, which was oversweet and overpriced. But Waitrose now kindly provide me with fresh peeled cubed mango, or the same thing frozen, which is cheaper. And if you look among the tinned fruit, there are plastic pots with tropical fruit mixes in juice, including one with mango slices. There are frozen blueberries, raspberries, papaya, all sorts. And you could freeze your own fruits from the pick-your-own for the winter, and reduce those icky food miles.

Summer will bring strawberries, and beneath the mango lassi fool card, I found one for stawberries baked in foil parcels on the barbie, with Pimms and sugar, served with clotted cream. Now, that would make a WARM smoothie to ease the chills on a late summer night …

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Discoveries – Spring 08

My grandfather didn't smoke and didn't drink (until after his militantly temperance wife died), but had his own ideas about what constituted an illicit treat. He and my dad used to let me stay up late with them watching old films on the telly – Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre -  raiding the pantry for snacks of strong cheese and crunchy pickled onions.  People now can't understand why that was such a treat, the spread of the Ploughman's Lunch and supermarket Snack Box has created a terrible acceptance of plastic cheese and bland pickles. We put that right yesterday with a crusty brown loaf, a wedge of Collier's cheddar and some Barry Norman Pickled Onions. The cheese has that slightly gritty mouthfeel, strong and salty flavour, and not too crumbly but definitely not plasticine texture. The onions are magnificent, the closest to home-made I think I've bought (in a regular store, anyway). Dark brown, spicy, crunchy, those little green flecks that look like some poisonous metallic deposit. Brilliant. Just the thing to eat with a classic movie. Barry Norman understands.

Champagne Marmite – not sure about this. The Guinness one is yummy, quite sweet. This one is sourer, and sharper, like dry white wine left open for a day or two. Pleasant enough, but not one to search out.

The iron_trash community over on LiveJournal.

Konnyaku noodles, little bundles with appendages, boingy and springy.

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