Sunday, May 20, 2007

Questions, questions, questions...

The very lovely Gastronomy Domine has given me five testing questions to answer for this blog (thank you Liz). The answers are quite long so I’m going to split them up into five separate entries. I can never give a straight answer to anything…

1. Have you ever eaten the perfect meal - one where the food, company and surroundings were just spot on?

2. You've mentioned that you're moving to Ireland. Are you finding that a move to a whole different land mass is more challenging than a normal house move? Are you apprehensive? Excited?

3. You are not a friend of the aubergine. What other food loves and hates do you have?

4. Do you have anytips for other book hoarders? How can we save money on shelving space, find our way through the piles of books all over the bedroom floor and deal with our increasing myopia? Do you organise your books alphabetically or by subject, or do they end up shelved haphazardly like mine?

5. Is there a kitchen implement you simply couldn't live without?

Cor. Considering I'm an editor by trade, I'm not very good at cutting my own copy.

Q1 - the perfect meal

Have you ever eaten a perfect meal – one where the food, company and surroundings were just spot on?

Yes, I can think of one and it involves my husband - so anyone of an unromantic disposition should skip to the next blog entry.

Although, at first glance, it’s quite an unlikely one – tapas in Amsterdam. It's a perfect example, I guess, of how circumstance and company can heighten the experience of food.

It was my birthday, about six years ago now when we were still girlfriend/boyfriend, and we’d ended up going away for a long weekend. Lots of wandering around, holding hands, going to museums and finding which tearoom had the best apple cake. (I’m being careful here by not saying ‘cafĂ©’, which would give the wrong impression.)

The night before, we’d strolled past a tapas bar, which looked cosy and full of people having a good time. Yes, that looked perfect for a birthday celebration. And so it turned out to be, with some extra help from the weather gods.

Because my birthday is in August it had been hot, hot, hot every day and kick-off-the-sheets uncomfortable at night. By the time we’d started off for the tapas bar, the ominous-looking thunderclouds has ripped open - Amsterdam was being hammered with rain and lightening was flickering across the sky.

When we got there, we found that the tapas bar was full (and we cleverly hadn’t bothered booking). But we could sit outside if we wanted to.

Uhuh. Right. Had they looked out of the window?

Don’t worry about that, they said. And promptly put out some awning, a couple of heaters, some rickety chairs and wobbly tables, then took our order.

So I ate tapas and drank wine with my favourite person in the universe, outside in the middle of a thunderstorm on my birthday, trying not to fall off my unstable chair. I don’t know how authentic the food really was and I can barely remember what I ate, but I know that it tasted good. And that the combination of the dramatic setting and the love of my life enhanced the enjoyment of the whole experience many times over.

The funny thing was, we tried to find the place the next time we were in Amsterdam and we couldn’t. Of course, it could have shut down, but we decided to believe that the bar had Terry Pratchett-eque properties and so, like one of the shops in his Discworld books, it could disappear and pop up in new locations around the world to make more people happy. Told you this was a soppy post.

Q2 - goodbye Edinburgh, hello Ireland

You’ve mentioned that you’re moving to Ireland. Are you finding that a move to a whole new land mass is more challenging than a normal house move? Are you apprehensive? Excited?

It's all very exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Perhaps this is a good point to provide some background to the big change - something I should have done in my first post, perhaps but I couldn't get my thoughts straight at the time.

Many moons ago, I met my Irish husband-to-be in Edinburgh. And we decided to set up home here, get married, all that kind of boring domestic stuff.

Then work came up for him back in Ireland - about six months before our wedding in Edinburgh last July. So off he went. The idea was that I would join him as soon after the big day as possible, because the work was, er, working out for him. And I can do what I do just about anywhere (fingers crossed), so it made sense for me to move.

Now, it's pretty clear that I'm a little late with the whole moving shebang. This is because I was offered a really good career move job for 10 months... in Edinburgh.

After talking it over with Mr B., I decided to go for it with his full support (he's so fab). It could only help me with finding a job when I finally made the move, I reasoned (we'll find out soon, I guess).

So we got married in July 2006, went on honeymoon to Italy and then came back to our respective countries to get on with work.

What it's meant since then is a lot of pinging back and forth between Dublin and Edinburgh (I know the Ryan Air and Aer Lingus flight times off by heart) and enormous phone bills.

I like to tell people that I keep my husband in a separate country. That may be all very well and good if you've been married for 20 years and can't stand each other. But we're at the beginning of it all and we'd quite like to, you know, see each other every day. It's not an unreasonable expectation, methinks.

Back to the main question... I'm being optimistic (naive?) about the logistics of moving to a different land mass. And I'm hoping that it will be relatively straightforward as the house is ready at the other end, so there's no issue with waiting for people to move out etc that you get with a normal house move. It's probably one of those things where I could tell you afterwards where it went wrong!

So far there haven't been any problems - although that also worries me as it makes me suspect that there's a big spanner just waiting to clog up the works. Like the ferry with all our possessions might sink on the way over. All fingers and toes crossed for a safe passage.

I'm sad to be leaving behind such all my friends and a fantastic city. That's what upsets me most. And I'm not happy about having to look for a new job and all that entails. ('Basically, I'm a people person but I can work on my own... My greatest fault? Oh, that would be my perfectionist streak...blah blah blah.')

But the flip side is that it's a whole new adventure - lots to find out, lots to explore - and I'm really looking forward to that. Did I say something about wanting to spend time with my wonderful husband? That's quite a plus as well.

I'm also unreasonably excited about living in a country where you don't have to hunt down 284ml cartons of buttermilk - you can get it in big tetrapaks and it's right next to the milk on the shop shelf. Hurray!

Q3 - my nemesis

You are not a friend of the aubergine. What other food loves and hates do you have?

Last year, I tried blogging but gave up pretty quickly when that job I stayed behind in Edinburgh for took over my life.

One of my very few blog entries was about how much I disliked aubergines and that, despite all this, I was going to conquer my repulsion in a way that would make Jeffrey Steingarten proud - by cooking aubergine in as many different ways as possible until I learned to love the damn thing.

Liz saw my post and kindly suggested that I try aubergine caviar. Over the course of the past year I've made both that recipe and several others, and now I can honestly say that I don't dislike it any more. I just don't love it.

Other dislikes... are few and far between really. I'll try most things once or twice - how else are you supposed to find out?

One thing, which is more of a preference really, is that I'd much rather have tea than coffee. I've just never developed the taste for it. Mr B., on the other hand, is a coffee man through and through and would rather drink dishwater than tea. We have a gentleman's agreement that I won't try to make his coffee and he won't attempt to make my tea.

Oh, and I don't like Stilton. Scooping out the centre and filling it with port doesn't make it any better. Just wrong.

I love chocolate but it depends on my mood as to what I want. Sometimes I'll want a couple of squares of something really good with a high cocoa content. Other times I'll want the kind of crud from my childhood - Double Deckers were, and still are, a particular favourite. For some reason though, I don't like mint and chocolate together - perhaps some After Eight trauma inflicted in early youth.

Bread - that's another great love. I would never be able to go on the Atkins diet. In fact, I tried out the Carol Vorderman detox diet once, which was equally disapproving of carbs, and I cracked after 36 hours because I walked past a bakery and all I could smell was warm bread fresh out of the oven... (deliberate self-sabotage?) Love it, love it, love it.

I have some hazy domestic vision of standing around and making a lot of bread after I move. But I suspect the panicky reality of trying to find a job may intefere with that slightly.

Other stuff I love includes... fresh strawberries that actually taste of something (ditto tomatoes), pesto, pickles of all kinds, apples, cinnamon, gingerbread, asparagus, pancakes, chickpeas, anything with some kind of starch element (mmmm starch), coriander, fennel, lemons, chillis, fresh herbs, a really good homemade burger, noodles, a crisp, crunchy apple, earthy soup on a cold winter's day, roasted veggies with Sunday dinner and Yorkshire pudding, puddings in general... God, I'm hungry.

Q4 - the book habit and how to deal with it

Do you have any tips for other book hoarders? How can we save money on shelving space, find our way through piles of books all over the bedroom floor and deal with our increasing myopia? Do you organise your books alphabetically or by subject, or do they end up shelved haphazardly like mine?

I wish I had a good answer to this one, I really do. But I’m already too far into the book addiction to acknowledge the sensible answer of culling them. Maybe we all need some kind of support group.

An ex-boyfriend once told me that I was half girl, half book. I took that as a compliment but apparently he meant it as an insult. We didn’t last long after that.

Fast forward an untold number of years and I’ve found someone else whose DNA also has a good deal of paper in it and we’ve never looked back.

Unfortunately, this has led to a leetle storage problem, which is about to get worse. As I’ve already said, I’m in Edinburgh. This means I have all the books from university onwards (where I studied literature) and several hundred cookbooks. Mr. B has some of his books here too from the time we actually managed to live in the same country for more than five minutes. But he also has a lot of books stashed away at his parents’ house, just waiting to take the 30-minute trip up the road to our new place.

What this means for my current situation is double-stacked shelves, the Edinburgh press is full of my cookbooks, plus the shelves in the hallway and there are innumerable tottering stacks all over the place, as well as the boxes under the bed. There are even cookbooks on the bed at the moment, where Mr. B would normally sleep if he was here or if I was there. A psychologist would have a field day.

Neither of us can throw/give any away because of that nagging fear that you just might need/want it again.

The good news is that we’re moving from a flat to a house. What we think we’re going to do is shelve the back wall of the kitchen/dining room from top to bottom, squeeze in as many books as we can. Consider it an extra layer of insulation for the house.

But I’m not sure that the best answer to the book/space problem is to move house every time your book collection gets out of hand. Back to Terry Pratchett again - someone else who I suspect has a book habit, although I can’t prove it. But who else would have invented L-space? We need some brainy scientists to prove that L-space really exists and then we can buy/store as many books. Until then, we may need to start mapping the stacks in this dimension and leave instructions for loved ones to come and find us if we’re not back by nightfall.

Nothing is ever, ever in alphabetical order. That would be scary – and would give me flashbacks to that ex-boyfriend again. He used to lovingly alphabetise all his CDs. It was never really going to work out, was it?

Q5 - kitchen essentials

Is there a kitchen implement you simply couldn’t live without?

After scrutinising the jumbled contents of my little blue kitchen, I’d probably have to say my American measuring cups.

A good number of the cookbooks piled up around the flat are from America – a nation which had the absolutely brillant idea to ditch the cumbersome scales and use cups instead. I’d say that I cook from these recipes at least two or three times a week at the moment, maybe more. So having the right measuring cups is pretty essential.

It’s quicker, there’s less fiddling around and, because it’s a measure of volume not weight, I find it easier to guess-timate what a ‘cup’ of anything would look like if I’m buying ingredients, rather than, say, 200 grams. That’s just the way my brain works.

The kitchen implement that I don’t have but intend to make my next purchase is a microplane grater. Anyone I know who has one says it’s fantastic/something they can’t live without. Goodbye to trying to chop ginger into tiny pieces but being thwarted by its pesky fibres. Ditto crappy dicing of garlic. Hello to effortless prep.

Friday, May 18, 2007


'Are you enjoying your meal?' asked Victor.

'Yes - I am. I really am,' came my slightly tipsy reply. 'I've had a cr@p day at work, perhaps the cr@ppiest ever. But this meal is making up for it beautifully, thank you.'

Victor looked at me. He doesn't know me from Adam but I was quite clearly telling the truth. So he decided to take pity on me.

'Well, seeing as it's been that bad... What do you prefer? Red or white?'

'Uuuurm. Red' (I said I was a bit tipsy - it took a little longer than usual to remember.)

At this point, I was digging my way happily through dessert - a large slab of cassata siciliana, a sponge cake/ricotta/dried fruit combination, soaked in Maraschino liqueur (you'd think I'd had enough alcohol, but no) and topped off with bright green marzipan and creme fraiche on the side. It satisfied both my love of kitsch (bright green marzipan? c'mon...) and delicious puddings.

Back came Victor from the bar with a glass containing what has to be the best red dessert wine I have ever tasted in my life. Although that wouldn't take much. Red dessert wine normally means port and that's a bit too heavy for me, so I tend to avoid it. But this stuff...

'It tastes like raisins... Or cherries! It's so smooth! What is it?' (That's about as Jilly Goulden as I get.)

The wine that was dancing around on my tastebuds (Casa Roma - Rabosa Piave) turned out to have been produced by the Peruzzetto brothers in the Piave region of Italy - and they're one of the very few left who use that particular grape (rabosa nero). It's been aged in oak for a couple of years, which means that the tanins have mellowed out (according to Victor) and given it that smooth, rounded taste. If you're a wine buff then this won't be news but it really was the first time that I 'got' what that last sentence means.

The brothers Peruzzetto mainly supply America and just one restaurant in the UK - the one I was sitting in.

Centotre opened on George Street, Edinburgh a couple of years ago and has been busy ever since to much acclaim. Victor is Victor Contini, who you'll usually find chatting away to old friends and strangers alike, making everyone feel welcome and comfortable. He runs the place with his wife Carina, and together they set out to provide Italian food made from the best possible produce. They're so committed to doing it properly that they take a weekly delivery of goods from Milan and they know all their producers well. It probably also helps that they're part of the family which runs the famous Valvona and Crolla delicatessen on Leith Walk. They know their onions. They know their pasta. And they certainly know how to run a successful restaurant.

So the quality of that dessert wine and the support of the small producer was no suprise - it completely fits in with the Contini ethos that runs through everything they do. But it's not about swanky pretentious 'oooh daaaarling, you must simply try this fabulous little wine I picked up in the Veneto, very exclusive'. It's about 'there you go, try this - we think you'll like it because it tastes good.' And if you ask where it came from, they'll tell you, without any faff or snobbery. I'm so glad I asked. It turns out Luigi Peruzzetto is more than happy to show visitors around his vineyard, if you're in the area. Personally, that's unlikely to be any time soon but I'm filing that information away under 'one day when I win the lottery'.

I realise I've completely ignored my starter and main course so far, which isn't right as they were both excellent. Bruschetta with a winning combination of creamy mozzarella, salty/spiky anchovies and peppery rocket. I wolfed that down in a very unlady-like way - but rocket is very difficult to eat politely, so I just got stuck in. Toothsome orecchiette pasta with peppercorn-studded Italian sausage, broccoli, Provola di Bufula, chillies and garlic. Simple ingredients put together with little fuss. What's not to like?

Rolling home happily starched-up and sated, I found out that Victor and Carina are going to open another Edinburgh restaurant soon - Zanzero in the New Town - thank you trusty eating and drinking guide from The List. Apparently, it's going to be up and running in late May 2007. Hmmmm. Hope I get a chance to try it before moving to Ireland... If not, what a great excuse to come back.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Lazy days

A rare opportunity to curl up on the sofa on a hazy spring morning and eat breakfast while watching what’s going on in the park across the road.

Kids setting up the posts for their Saturday football practice, some hanging around on the sidelines and not looking quite so keen (I can sympathise). Joggers cracking a fair pace across the square in ones and twos. A toddler running at full pelt across the grass, his arms bouncing up and down, his smile broad – he hasn’t quite worked out how to stop without falling over. And it looks like a bit of a shock when he does (but dad comes to the rescue). Cherry and apple blossom slowly falling off the trees dotted around the park - white and pink petals drifting gently in the breeze to land across the street in the tiny scruffy strip of garden around our flat. People wandering past with the papers and a pint of milk from the corner shop – off to do the same thing as me and watch the world go by.

It’s a beautiful place and I’m going to miss it so much.

Yes, I was starting to fall into my own navel with introspection. So I scarfed down the rest of my breakfast and retreated to the boxroom kitchen (no window = no chance of depressing thoughts) to make muffins for Veggie Kate and D, who were coming round for a cuppa.

Veggie Kate is a slight misnomer as she's actually vegan. I looked at what was lurking in the fridge and what Isa Chandra recommended in her fantastic book Vegan with a Vengance. Recently published in a UK edition, it’s a sign of the times that you can find it readily available in any good bookshop near you. (And it’s doing quite nicely on the veggie page at Amazon.)

The fridge rummage turned up some carrots, so…

Carrot and raisin muffins
From Vegan with a Vengance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

You'll need:

75g raisins - soaked in hot water to plump them up
175g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground/freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
250ml of rice or soy milk
4 tablespoons of rapeseed oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
4 medium carrots, grated.

1. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 4. Spray a 12-hole muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray or lightly grease with oil.

2. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour. baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and salt.

3. Create a well in the centre and add the milk, oil and vanilla. Mix until just combined. Fold in the grated carrots and raisins.

4. Fill the muffin tins three quarters full. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes until a cocktail stick/knife inserted in the centre of one comes out clean. Let cool on a cooling rack.

Cook's notes

Of all the things I was expecting a vegan muffin to taste like, it wasn't eggy. I think it was the brand of soya milk I used, so I'm going to experiment with some others to see. But it wasn't overpowering-ly eggy - just a background taste. Mainly just lots of lovely cinnamon and carrots. Mmmmm.

Also, it only made enough batter to fill six large muffins holes in my tins (mini carrot cakes really) - the alternative was 12 small wide pancakes. So I need to get some cupcake tins or double the recipe. Either way it's a winner.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

innocent or naive?

This will have all the branding/marketing students frothing away in their bedsits. Innocent has struck up a trial deal to supply some branches McDonalds with fresh and delicious vitamin-packed kids smoothies.

It’s an interesting one – innocent’s whole thing is projecting an (eco)friendly home-spun image without anything so filthy as money tainting the brand. They make those drinks because they love us and want us to be happy, don’t they? Well yes, they probably do – but they don’t give them away for free either. Hooking up with McD’s just highlights the more commercial side of things – perhaps that’s what’s upsetting people so much.

If it means that kids will drink something instead of fizzy crap… But no, even though I realise that innocent already sell through big names like Tesco’s and Starbucks, this deal with the Golden Arches feels different. Kinda grubby.

I’ve argued it round in my head a few times and all I can come up with is that innocent is very likely to be damaged by its association with McD’s (and definitely not vice versa). It’s a real shame – I’ve been a big fan of fruity happiness in little bottles for a long time. Those clever labels that make you smile, the strong ethical values and friendly persona… They’ve not put a foot wrong until now, which is pretty impressive really.

Unfortunately, whatever ‘good’ innocent thinks it can do for people with this deal, whatever its best intentions, it will all be far outweighed by the general perception (rightly or wrongly) of the company as a sell-out. And it’s always harder to undo bad publicity, so they say.

Guess it will be interesting to see what happens next – it’s certainly generated a lot of comment on the innocent blog.

And, to counteract the gloom, here's an interview with the first lady of organic food and just plain good eating - Alice Waters, we are not worthy. Although that's a bit of a scary photo.