Mountain Eggs

9 Jun

Mountain eggs get their name from my father because they give you the energy and stamina for a long day of cross-country skiing or hiking up mountains. That said, as long as you don’t go crazy with your portion size, I think these make a great breakfast most days, when you’re in the mood for something more savoury and substantial.

The essence of mountain eggs is the fridge forage: whatever leftovers and edibles that you have that would be tasty in a hash – baked potatoes, roast meat or cured, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers – will probably be good in mountain eggs.

(Britons, can we talk about the fact that you have a fine tradition of roast dinners, but no related tradition of making hash for breakfast the next day? Bubble and squeak is tasty, but you are really missing a trick here.)

You cut up your leftovers into fairly equally-sized pieces and fry them off in oil or butter until heated through. You can add spice if you want – cumin and potatoes go especially well together – then add your eggs (two per person usually, three if you’re ravenous) and scramble. That’s it.

Mountain eggs were also my standby when I was cooking brunch for sixty women on Saturday mornings – seriously, who wants to flip sixty people’s worth of pancakes? It also won me the kitchen manager’s appreciation for not blowing out her budget.

What I made today is in the spirit of mountain eggs – a great day-off breakfast when you want something to keep body and soul together, but don’t need quite the same calorie load. This is spiced, flavoursome, and comforting as a granny’s hand-crocheted afghan.

Bhurji/Spicy Scrambled Eggs (adapted from Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian Home Cooking by Maunika Gowardhan)

 Serves two with buttered toast or one on its own.

 A pat of butter (or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)

1/2 a large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 green chili, de-seeded and finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste – my chili powder may be more or less hot than yours)

2 handfuls cherry tomatoes, finely chopped

3 eggs, beaten in a separate bowl

Garnish: a pinch (as in make your hand into a pincer and grab) of chopped fresh coriander/cilantro.

Heat your cooking fat over medium heat in a small frying pan, or a medium saucepan if you only own large frying pans (*raises hand*).

Add onion, and fry until translucent and soft, 6-8 minutes. Add the chopped chili and stirfry for a minute, then add spices and a pinch of salt and stirfry for 30 seconds. (A really good piece of prep: measure all your spices and salt into a small cup/mug before you begin to cook. This saves you from doing the measuring-from-tiny-jars-of-spices-while-cooking-over-high-heat dance.)

Add your tomatoes and stirfry until they start to lose their shape, 2-3 minutes.

Add beaten eggs and stir with a vengeance until they’re cooked. Just so you know, these will not be the light and custardy scrambled eggs that are every French chef’s dream – this recipe makes ugly tatters and rags of egg. This is what you want!

Dish out, sprinkle with fresh coriander, and add a few dashes of your favourite hot sauce if you’d like.

Champagne (Cocktails) for Everyone!

26 Apr

What is the ultimate celebratory beverage? If your answer is “Champagne!” you are only half-correct. The real answer is the classic champagne cocktail.

Champagne cocktails are a Chamberlain Christmas tradition – at the beginning of Christmas dinner, you will always find my father and uncles at a makeshift bar concocting these drinks in my grandparents’ elegant champagne coupes. While other people associate Christmas with mince pies and turkey, I think of the fragrance of bitters and good cognac mixed together. I have come to love this tradition so much that when T and I got married, we served champagne cocktails at our reception.

It did take me a while to come around to them, as it is a very grown-up cocktail: booze flavoured with booze and topped with more booze. But they are a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – the bitters and sugar bring out the fruity and aromatic qualities of the champagne and cognac. Be warned though – this is one of those drinks which you need to consume slowly, no matter how good it tastes!

A technical note; when you make this drink, you have a choice of glasses: coupes or flutes. If you are using flutes, you will need to make a batch of simple syrup for your sweetener. It is dead easy – just put equal weights of water and sugar in a saucepan, heat and stir until all the sugar is dissolved (you will feel the difference in texture on the bottom of the pan), then leave to cool. For a party of 15 people I would dissolve 150g sugar in 150ml water. If you have leftovers, it stays good for ages and is ideal for making lemonade.

And lastly – because you are using booze to flavor other booze, do not use cheap rubbish. I am not saying this as a snob, but because I want to save you being disappointed. I’m not talking about Cristal and Hennessy here, but this is not the time to stint on ingredients. Keep an eye out for name-brand VSOP cognac (supermarkets will put this on sale around Christmastime) and bubbly you’d be very happy to drink on its own.

The Classic Champagne Cocktail

Place 1 sugar cube (coupe) or a half-tablespoon simple syrup (flute) at the bottom of the glass.

Add 4-5 dashes Angostura bitters.

Add 1 tablespoon cognac.

If using the sugar cube, use a spoon or a small muddler to crush it into the cognac.

Top with champagne. (If using flutes, you will need to tilt the glass and pour slowly to ensure all ingredients combine.)

Eating and Reading at the Same Time

20 Apr

When people ask me the two questions “You like eating out alone?” and “How do you get so much reading done?”, I don’t think they quite understand how the two questions answer each other.

Ever since I was a lonely boarding school kid, books have been my refuge. From romance novels to biographies to food memoirs, I can submerge myself somewhere else, blind and deaf to what surrounds me. I enjoy socializing (and am required to do a substantial amount of it for my job), but at the end of a long night of sweet smiles and small talk, all I want to is to wrap myself in one of my mother’s quilts and go travelling into another world.

But on a day-to-day basis, my prime reading time is on my lunch breaks. The hour strikes one and off I go with my trusty paperback or magazine in hand, to empty my brain of petty concerns about emails and spreadsheets.

After months of experimentation, I have found that certain meals are more suitable than others for reading and eating at the same time. Anything requiring two hands is out. Dirty burgers and books just don’t go together. On the other end of the spectrum, sushi doesn’t really work either – its simplicity demands more concentration than I want to give. Plus starchy, sticky fingers aren’t compatible with turning pages. Steak and meals of that kind are manageable if you channel your six-year-old self and cut your food into edible chunks before you start eating. Pasta and noodles are fine if eaten carefully, so as not to spit and spray sauce on your pages.

But I think the best kind of meal is something braised – stews, curries, that sort of thing. There is something very calming about eating a plate of cozy, long-cooked stew and sinking into your reading.

That said, the steak tartare at the Delaunay makes an excellent companion for any book…

P.S. If you want know what I am eating and reading at the same time, check me out on Instagram. I am @eatatthebar.

So Fresh!

16 Mar

It is currently 18 degrees Celsius in London (that’s 65 degrees for you Neanderthals using Fahrenheit). In March. The winter is over! Hurray! But rather than concentrating here and now, this weather makes me think of a trip to Spain T and I took nearly three years ago, a big tour of Spain from Barcelona to Madrid and down to Andalucia to visit Cordoba, Granada, and Seville. 

We both loved Spain. The weather was gloriously hot, the people were friendly but not overwhelmingly gregarious, and the scenery was just stunning. We were having pleasant fantasies of a pied-à-terre in Madrid, where we could go to museums whenever we wanted and have long afternoon strolls in the Retiro…

But there had been been one lingering issue through our trip – the food. And specifically, the vegetables. I could eat my body-weight in seafood if you let me, and the Spanish do lovely things with potatoes and lamb. But after several days of meat-and-carb indulgence T and I were feeling distinctly unwell. So, being sensible, we tried to eat more fruit and veg. But the dishes served in restaurants bore about as much resemblance to plants as a mackerel does to a Goldfish cracker. It seemed the Spanish had never met a vegetable they couldn’t cook to mush and garnish with slivers of ham. Salads were mounds of iceberg lettuce served with corn, cheap tuna, and hard-boiled eggs. They were dishes from decades, before scientists learned that vitamins existed. 

But towards the end of our trip, after a visit to the Alhambra, we decided to forget about Spanish food and went to a pizzeria for lunch instead. And there it was on the menu: ensalada de tomate y aguacate. We couldn’t believe our luck, and were still shaking our heads when it arrived at our table: wedges of tomato tossed with chunks of avocado and whole basil leaves, dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. It was refreshing and intensely vegetal and exactly what we needed. Pizzas forgotten, we demolished the entire bowl. 

Ensalada de Granada

I’ve tinkered slightly with the original concept, giving it more zest with lemon juice, extra herbs, and a generous sprinkling of spring onion. I understand that there are people that can’t stand raw allium of any kind, but I really, really like the piquancy in salads. 

Serves 2 for lunch

3-4 big tomatoes/1-2 punnets cherry tomatoes, cut into chunks or in half

2-3 spring onions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced (you can sub in chopped shallots or red onion, just soak them in iced water for 10 minutes to take away the sulfur burn before draining and adding to the salad)

1 big handful chopped soft herbs (I really love mint and coriander, but you could also play with tarragon, basil, chervil…)

1 Hass avocado (UK readers: DO NOT buy the green-skinned ones from your local supermarket! They are watery and unripenable and generally a crime against the name of avocado. Go to a greengrocer or farmer’s market and look for big plump specimens with black skins. They will be more expensive but they are a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.)

1 quarter of a lemon/splash of red wine vinegar

1 big slug of the best olive oil you can get

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Optional but tasty: protein of some variety (I’ve had this with really good Ortiz tinned tuna and hot smoked salmon. But you could also add shredded cooked chicken, or fresh mozzarella for a veggie option, or even just good canned chickpeas if you’re vegan, though I’d season more generously with the chickpeas because they’re quite earthy.)

Put the tomatoes, spring onion and herbs in a salad bowl. Add your protein of choice Cut the avocado into fat chunks and put it in too. Add your acid, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Mix, check for seasoning, serve! 

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Praise and a Side of Curry

30 Oct

A confession: I spend an embarrassing amount of time every day reading about food, mainly on Twitter and on blogs. I’m not going to give you an exact number, because if I write it down, I will be forced take my laptop and throw it off my fourth-floor balcony onto the footpath below my building. And I don’t want to kill some poor, innocent pedestrian because I can’t cope with my internet habit.

But anyway. With the sheer volume of food-related information being produced on the web these days, sometimes it’s a little hard to get excited about the latest hamburger joint in Soho or the best pizza in Queens. But there are a few blogs where I always perk up when I see a new post. One of them is Eat Like a Girl, written by Niamh Shields.

Eat Like a Girl is largely a recipe blog, with restaurant reviews and travel writing mixed in here and there. The prose is evocative without being florid, and she writes recipes clearly and logically. She also has similar tastes to me – big flavours and influences from around the world. And even though she has an undying love for all things piggy, I can still read those recipes and appreciate her joy in experimenting with new combinations, even if I can’t partake in the results. I’m booked on to a class with her to learn to make different kinds of candy, and I’m sure I will come away with both good understanding and some very tasty treats!

So I was sold on her butternut squash-chickpea-spinach curry before I even made it. Butternut squash is a special favourite of mine at this time of year – it’s just so sweet and tender and ORANGE. It also takes especially well to spicy, bold flavours, which this curry has in spades. The cumin and coriander seeds especially give it serious oomph. The method is straightforward as for all relatives of stew and soup: sauté aromatics, add solids, add liquids, simmer until reduced and/or tender. And as with stew, it’s better after some aging time in the fridge.

The end result! And a bonus hand.

My only change this time around was to use a red chili in place of green, because that’s what my greengrocer had. It’s milder with a red chili, but you lose that herbal, citrusy note that green ones give. Next time I also might tinker with the spices and try it with some fennel or brown mustard seeds.

(You can find the recipe on Eat Like a Girl. Niamh also has a terrific cookbook called Comfort and Spice, which you should also check out!)

Slowdown

28 Oct

One of the few pleasures of unemployment is always having time. Time to read. Time to go for very long walks, dallying in front of shop windows, meandering down untrodden paths. And if you’re me, time to cook a Bolognese sauce that takes over four hours, start to finish.

Now, I can see some of you furrowing your brows, with a fairly distant memory poking up its head. Yes, I’ve already got a recipe for spag bol in this blog. A mighty fine one it is, too. But I was feeling the urge to make something long and labour-intensive, and I had a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking languishing on my shelf.  And why not try the be-all and end-all recipe for something which is a standard in any cook’s repertoire?

And so I went off on a long walk, down the market, along the canal, through Victoria Park. I dawdled on the park’s paths, inhaling the autumn aromas of earth and smoke, watched the magpies and wood pigeons dig in the ground. When I got to south Hackney, I bought mince from the Ginger Pig, wine from Bottle Apostle, carrots and onion from the greengrocer, proper Italian tinned tomatoes from the posh deli.

When I got home, I put on some opera and set about my vegetables. Twenty minutes later (yes, I’m slow, but how quickly can you chop three sticks of celery and four carrots into small pieces?), they and the mince fried in the pan, then simmered with white wine, milk, and a little nutmeg . The tomatoes joined them shortly afterwards, and they all settled down for their three-hour simmer. I added water every 30 minutes to keep everything buoyant.  

And the result? It was good, and I imagine it’ll be even better after a day or two in the fridge. But was it worth all the effort? I’m not sure. It’s possible I’m so used to lashings of herbs and garlic in my food that I can’t appreciate something more subtle. But I also think that if I ever take three hours over pasta sauce again, I’ll use a cut of beef that benefits more from slower cooking, like shin.  The mince on its own doesn’t give enough depth – there’s a reason I put beef stock into my faster recipe.  I’d also cut the vegetables smaller than I did, as even after three hours of cooking they remained a little al dente.

But despite my mixed feelings, I did learn some new tricks for my own recipe. I preferred the white wine in the sauce over the red I’d used before, and simmering the meat and vegetables in milk first did a lot to balance the acidity from the tomatoes and wine.

So it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Though these days, I have so much time that a mildly successful cooking project seems a valid way to spend it.

P.S. I just had the leftovers for lunch today, and it tasted so much better. So if you’re going to make this, I would suggest brewing it up a day or two ahead.

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DIY Jam

13 Aug

After extended empirical study, I have determined that this recession has been very good for food. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities in more traditional careers, many people my age have turned to DIY food as an alternative option. You only have to walk around my neighborhood to see the results: Broadway Market on a Saturday is full of people making their own ice lollies (popsicles for my fellow Yanks) and hot chocolate mixes, and down the road from me is a bakery run by escaped academics which makes some of the best bread I’ve ever had.

Those of you awaiting my announcement that I’m about to start my own business will be disappointed for the moment. But I do find all of this foodie creativity really inspiring, and this past weekend I scratched the itch by making jam.

A crimson sea, or blackberry jam in progress.

Now, you’re probably wondering why anyone would bother standing over a hot stove cooking fruit and sugar when I could just walk around the corner and buy a really nice jar of conserve instead? Well, partially because the process is fun, especially when you do it with friends. Though you might end up sprawled out on the couch afterwards from all the sugar you’ve consumed.

Before the crash.

Also, homemade jam reaches levels of deliciousness of which store-bought stuff can only dream, especially when you’ve got fruit at its peak. Observe the below:

Blackberry on the left, strawberry on the right.

I mean, would you look at the color of that blackberry jam! That stuff is crimson. And the taste: sweet and rich, but with enough tanginess to keep you wanting more. Don’t get me wrong – blackberry jam from the store is perfectly nice, but this stuff is in another league entirely.

If I’ve convinced you and you want to start making your own jam, the best guide is the River Cottage Handbook on Preserves by Pam Corbin. All the recipes work exactly as they’re written, but she also gives plenty of information about technique so that you can wing it if you are so inclined.

Speaking of winging it, the proportions I tried made a jam that was very thick (though still fine for spreading). If you like a runnier jam, I’d suggest replacing 400g/14.5oz of the jam sugar with regular granulated sugar, and also performing the set test after only a minute or two at the rolling boil.

Result!

Berko Blackberry Jam (thanks to Sophie G for the name, and for hosting our jam-making afternoon)

Makes 3 454g/1lb jars

1kg/2.2lbs blackberries
1.15kg/2.5lbs jam sugar
120ml/ 0.5 cup fresh lemon juice

1. Rinse your berries, then in a big bowl thoroughly crush them to a pulp using a potato masher.

2. Using a spoon with a flat-ish bottom, push the blackberry pulp through a fine sieve into your jam pan. It’s best to do this in 3-4 goes, scraping the remaining seeds out of the sieve each time. (This may seem like a real faff, but if you leave the seeds in, the jam will be crunchier than a hippie eating granola.)

3. Put the jam pan over low heat on the hob until the blackberry puree comes to a gentle simmer. Add the jam sugar, and stir it into the blackberries until it dissolves completely.

4. Add the lemon juice, then whack the heat up to high and bring the mixture up to a rolling boil.

5. Leave to boil for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and do the set test.*

6. Pour into sterilised jars, then put the lids on and leave to cool.

*Methods vary wildly for how to test when your jam is set. The best method I have found is the following:

1. When you’re starting to make your jam, put 3-4 saucers in the freezer to get really good and cold.

2.Once you’ve got your jam to a rolling boil and kept it there for 5 minutes, or however long your recipe suggests, grab one of the cold saucers, plop a little jam on it, then turn the heat off under the pan.

3. Stick the plate back in the freezer, count to 60, then take it out again. When you push it with your finger, it should form little bumps/crinkles.

4. If it doesn’t, crinkle put the plate aside, whack the heat back up to high under the jam, count to 60, then repeat with another cold saucer.