Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas is coming

With little over a week to go until Christmas, I've finally made my Christmas cake today. Yes, I know it's late, but I've been a bit busy moving into a new apartment. I'm also still waiting for all of my recipe books and baking paraphernalia to arrive (apparently our container still hasn't sailed from the UK even though it's nearly two months since some nice men came and packed it all away into boxes - something to do with a little sprinkling of snow...).

Fruit soaking in brandy and orange juice for my Christmas cake.

But whilst Christmas day is coming up shortly, and I'm looking forward to leaving the rather chilly mid-west behind to celebrate with friends in LA, this won't be my first Christmas lunch of the year.

Back in the UK I have a group of girl-friends who I've known for most of my time living in London, and as with all groups who have been friends for a while, certain traditions creep in. One of these was that each year I would organise a pre/post-Christmas lunch for all of us to, well, eat, drink and be merry (some years perhaps a little too merry). As this year I wasn't going to be around I decided Christmas should come early, complete with dinner, paper hats, and secret Santa. But where to have a Christmas feast in autumn? I didn't want any of us to cater the occasion as it would be loads of work and the hostess wouldn't get to relax and enjoy things, and no restaurants were serving Christmas menus yet.

The girls.

So what to do? As i've mentioned in previous posts, I'm very interested in the supperclub movement, and so I contacted Lex of Lex Eats to see if she'd be interested in hosting the occasion for us. Happily she said yes, and along with Nicola from The Shed supperclub, produced a wonderful Christmas for us.

Our very tasty cured salmon starter, which followed a fantastic traditional prawn cocktail amuse bouche.

We arrived at Lex's incredibly cool Shoreditch loft apartment to be greeted by Bucks Fizz, and a fantastic traditional menu of cured salmon (cured by Nicola herself - everyone had seconds), roast ham for the meat eaters, and blackened cod for the pescaterians with all of the traditional trimmings. After a very refreshing mulled wine sorbet, we all attacked the Christmas pudding with vigour, and everyone got a sixpence. And finally, a wonderful cheese course of stichelton (from what I can remember, the original stilton), and Montgomery's cheddar, along with oatcakes and honey.

Christmas pudding served on a rather appropriate Britannia plate. It created several converts to the traditional treat.

Everything about the occasion was fantastic. The brown paper table cloth reminded each of us what we were eating with details of each course, there were newspaper Christmas crowns for everyone to wear, and the ease and calm with which Lex and Nicola produced an incredible Christmas dinner for eight astounded us all. Of course it was a bit emotional saying farewell to a group of wonderful friends, but what a fantastic way to do it!

In between courses we got creative, making our own additions to the menu tablecloth.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Like Christmas, but better...

The first turkey of the day.

Last Thursday was 389 years since the first Thanksgiving celebration when the pilgrims sat down to their harvest supper. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but any holiday that revolves around food is all right by me. As we're currently in a downtown apartment, we thought we should get involved, and so got up bright and early to watch the parade along State Street to Macy's. It only went for about a mile, but was a plethora of marching bands, cheerleaders, enormous character balloons, and generally lots of people looking like they were having a great time, in spite of the cold.

Where are you Scooby Doo? Oh, there you sign of Scrappy though.

After heading home for an hour or so to defrost, we headed off for our very first Thanksgiving lunch. Given the shoebox size of our current kitchen and its lack of equipment, I didn't fancy trying to create even a standard roast dinner, never mind the culinary masterpiece required by Thanksgiving, so we booked lunch at Lockwood, one of the restaurants in the nearby Palmer House Hilton Hotel. And I have to say it was really rather good. Lunch was served as a buffet, which gave us opportunity to try all of the holiday treats on offer, rather than glancing at the next table and wishing you'd ordered what they have (known as 'futterneid' in German - every language should have a word for food-envy).

We started off with butternut squash and apple soup with cinnamon creme fraiche - nothing special, but very nice all the same. The creme fraiche was a nice touch, but the pecans made it a little too sweet for my taste. This was swiftly followed by a trip back for salad, smoked salmon and huge prawns. Prawns were good, the smoked salmon was fairly pedestrian, but okay, and the hot smoked mackerel was lovely. The asparagus however was not. I should know better than to eat such things out of season, and having feasted on English asparagus for a few glorious weeks earlier this year, it was a real disappointment...

The soup was good...but the fish and salad didn't deserve a picture.

The main event was, unsurprisingly, turkey...and ham and fish and squash ravioli and squash purée with marshmallows and roast potatoes and rutabaga (turnips, but the American name is more fun) and cranberry sauce and stuffing and biscuits. And yes, all of those things did find their way onto my plate, all at the same time. Like I said, I didn't want to suffer futterneid. It was all very good, even if some of the sauces didn't exactly complement each other, but that's my own fault for being greedy.

Turkey with lots of trimmings.

Sadly there was no pumpkin pie for dessert, so I'll have to wait until next year to try that American staple, but the other miniature puddings were all pretty good. Again I had to try everything, and they were all very nice. I was tempted to save the sugar turkey off one of the little cakes, but once again my greed got the better of me.

We finished off the day with a walk in the park. I expected it to be deserted, but the ice rink was packed and there were plenty of people around walking off their festive lunch. All in all it strikes me as a pretty good holiday - good food with family and friends, without the commercial pressures of Christmas. And as an added bonus, there wasn't even any washing up to deal with this year.

Well, I guess that's it for big feasts until Christmas, but if you're in the UK this weekend you might want to start preparing with a trip to Ms Marmite Lovers Underground Christmas Market. I sold my wares at the first market earlier this year, and so have been following the preparations for the festive market with interest. It sounds like it's going to be a great day - you can see more details and how to get tickets here. Amongst other things there's going to be Christmas puddings, cookery demonstrations and an ironing board cocktail bar!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Down on the farm

Before we left the UK for the land of deep dish pizzas, Thanksgiving turkeys and no - I repeat no - Marmite (any visitors from the UK will be required to bring a jar in exchange for board and lodging), I had a few great food experiences. One of the most notable was when in early September we went to River Cottage in Dorset for the River Cottage Autumn Fair. It was a fantastic celebration of growing your own fruit and veg and raising your own meat, while treading as lightly as possible on the earth.

Suffice to say I loved every second of it, particularly the lamb butchery demonstration which was a fantastic display of skill that produced some very tasty results - especially the neck fillets I was given at the end which made a wonderful rich stew a few days later.

Everything that we ate during the weekend whilst staying on nearby Trill Farm, dinner at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster, and on the day of the fair itself was fresh and incredibly tasty. Fine dining it wasn't, but smoked mackerel sandwiches with home made mayonnaise and peppery salad leaves, or a creamy, rich courgette frittata take some beating.

It's Thanksgiving here next week, so we're going out for a traditional turkey lunch after watching the parade - I'll report back on the day soon. I'm also going to be trying out a few 'traditional' American foods and ingredients in the next few weeks, and I'm planning on jumping in at the deep end with spray on cheese. Yummy.

River Cottage HQ - aka Park Farm. I don't think Hugh actually lives here, but even for the end of the growing season, the kitchen garden looked great

River Cottage butcher Ray showing us how to butcher a lamb - he's on the TV!

Mackerel being smoked...

...and then becoming lunch.

And finally, a spot of ferret racing to finish a day out in the country.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

An update

Okay, so it's been a little while since my last post and a lot has happened, so I'll try and keep this update brief, and then get things going properly again.

To cut a long story short, Kitchen Confidential (the beta issue) had its first and so far only outing at Ms Marmite Lover's Underground Farmer's Market back in March. We pretty much sold out of marmalade, and sold plenty of cakes, soups and other lovely bits and pieces. It was a fantastic day and we met some great people, including the lovely Lex of Lex Eat (but more on her later), Mama Lan who made the most amazing traditional Chinese stuffed pancakes, and Scarlett the Heavenly Healer. Okay so we didn't make our fortune, but we covered our costs for the day, and then (proving our love of good food if not our business sense), decided to spend our takings on a fabulous blow-out at Wild Honey. I would tell you about what we ate, but the quantities of Champagne and rather good wine have made it all a bit blurry - although the wonderful honeycomb ice cream with which we ended the meal stands out as a memory even now.

So, that's what happened with the marmalade from the last post, but why nothing since, and why haven't we taken part in the other farmers' markets run by Miss Marmite Lover? Well, in late April my husband returned home slightly tipsy one evening and asked how I felt about moving to Chicago. At the time I dismissed it as the ramblings of a drunk, but six months later I got on a plane without a return ticket in my pocket for the first time ever, and I'm now trying to become a Chicagoan. I'm learning cook and eat in a new country, and I'm looking forward to sharing my experiences with you. I'm also going to be investigating the supper club movement over here, which on first inspection seems a bit more like pop-up restaurants than actually visiting people's homes as I've done in the UK, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they've got to offer.

I'll sign off for now, but there's a few other interim stories to tell you, such as our visit to River Cottage, and my fabulous going away Christmas dinner. I've also already managed a couple of pretty good meals out in Chicago, despite only having been here for four weeks, and with the major culinary event of Thanksgiving fast approaching, I'll have plenty of other tales to tell soon...

Monday, 18 January 2010

Lady Marmalade

So ahead of my first ever foray into selling my wares at the Underground Farmers' Market on 28 March, this weekend I have mostly been making marmalade. I really enjoyed making my own jams and chutneys with a glut of plums last year, but marmalade was much more labour intensive, particularly as my food processor couldn't manage to shred the orange shells, so several kilos were done by hand, improving my knife skills vastly along the way. I also now have stronger hands than I've ever had, having squeezed and pummelled a muslin bag full of orange pith and pips to within an inch of its life to get all of the natural pectin out and into the marmalade…arm wrestle, anyone?

I wanted to try my hand at making my own marmalade, as I was amazed how many ingredients are used in mass-produced versions, whilst my own has used just three ingredients – Seville oranges, water and sugar (plus some of my husband's 10 year old Talisker single malt for the whisky version). I've just used ordinary granulated sugar rather than jam sugar with added pectin, and no other gelling agents or odd preservatives that you find in the supermarket. I've always thought adding preservatives to a preserve was a rather odd idea – surely the clue is in the name? Anyway, the first jars of Kitchen Confidential marmalade should last for about a year unopened, and a month or so in the fridge once you do crack into it. I'm hoping it won't be around for that long though – the results taste pretty good if I do say so myself, and I think it's quite a grown-up marmalade that's not too sweet and has just the right amount of shred (some fine and some slightly thicker depending on at what stage I was in the shredding process).

Halfway through the process...

I do hope some of you can come along to the market and give it a try. As we get closer to the date I'll be practising some of my other creations that I'm hoping to take along with me, hopefully including some marmalade bread and butter pudding for people to take away. I've also noticed that 'This is me (part one)' could do with the addition of part two soon, so I'll be trying to update this a bit more regularly from now on. I'm trying to work out the balance between not boring people with the minutiae of my efforts, whilst not taking so long between posts that people forget who I am. Let me know if you want more or less, or, like Baby Bear's porridge, you think it's just right.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

This is me (part one)

So, here it is. My first ever post on my shiny new blog. Where should I begin? I'm hoping that this will become a record of the trials and tribulations (and hopefully successes) of my attempts this year to make some pocket money from my love of food, and try my hand making food people might want to buy from my north London kitchen. I'm keen to get feedback from people on my food and my writing, so please add your comments or email me: My ideas are still very much only half formed, so my focus may change along the way, but stay tuned folks – I'm hoping that it will be a fun journey…

Who am I? Well I'd like to think that I'm not a 'foodie'. I dislike the term as it often implies some kind of food snobbery: "Dahhhling, you really must get hold of this exquisite olive oil hand pressed by mice in the prettiest little village in Tuscany. It's £300 a bottle (hand blown glass of course), but it tastes so much better than the stuff you get from those common supermarkets." But I do like good quality, fresh ingredients, and in the last couple of years have taken a few tentative steps towards growing my own, more on that another time. I've also been lucky enough to eat in some fabulous restaurants, including the legendary Fat Duck and Alexis Gauthier's Rousillon in Belgravia. I've eaten equally good, if somewhat less refined, meals at bistros in the back streets of Montmartre, burritos in San Francisco that are just about rivalled by one of my cheap eat staples, Wahaca in Covent Garden, and almost unidentifiable but mostly delicious food in a monastery in Japan. Recently I've tried a new eating experience and have visited a couple of London's secret restaurants in people's homes. Nuno Mendes' 'Loft' was an incredible experience, and Ms Marmite Lover's New Year's Eve feast was a real treat.

Tea time at a Mount Koyasan monastery in Japan

I'm not sure what all of the above information makes me, other than someone who loves good, ethically produced food, no matter where it comes from – my husband is now used to my requests for "happy eggs from happy hens" when we do the shopping, and I'd much rather buy an organic chicken and use it to feed us for a week, rather than eat a different cheap meat every day. I like small producers such as 'The Giggly Pig' who are a weekly fixture at our local farmers' market, and I was given a supply of Willie's Chocolate (as opposed to chocolate shaped willies) for Christmas which has so far made a wonderful chocolate cake, and I'm looking forward to trying some more in some savoury recipes.

Alexandra Palace farmers' market - great after a Sunday morning swim

What will I be doing in this little venture? Probably making the food that you wished you had time for, but can't squeeze in when life gets that little bit too busy. I'm going to start off with soups, stews, and maybe a few ready meals at local farmers' markets and anywhere else I can get them distributed. I also started making my own pickles and preserves last year from the glut of tomatoes and plums in the garden, so I'm going to try my hand at marmalade (if I can find anywhere that sells Seville oranges), and later on in the year, following rave reviews from the family at last year's attempts, perhaps home made Christmas puds, cranberry sauce and other seasonal trimmings.

But I've got a long way to go yet – first stop getting registered with the local council, and figuring out all of the red tape I need to comply with to get going. It could take a while, but please bear with me, and I'll try and make it all sound entertaining.