Monday, 20 September 2010

Huevos rancheros and avocado stories


Ever since I bought an avocado sandwich from a car park kiosk in Costa Rica about seven years ago, I have been obsessed with anything that involves this luscious fruit. There was nothing fancy about the sandwich – it was made with cheap white sliced bread, and contained nothing but ripe sliced avocado, a squirt of ketchup, some mayo and salt. Costa Rican pop blared out from a loudspeaker somewhere. I hoovered the sandwich up and then went straight back for another one. It was possibly one of the most delicious things I had eaten in my life.

These days, I get through about six avos a week, and am always on the hunt for the best source – recently my market stall man has had the nicest ones, as those bought in the supermarket never seem to ripen up properly.  As a result of my Costa Rican ‘grail moment’, my tastes at breakfast time have really changed – instead of shoving muesli into my gob such as in days of yore, I now often have avocado instead. On crackers, with chilli sauce and coriander, or a mixture of cumin, garam masala and salt. People look at me a bit strangely at work as I’m eating this at my desk while they tuck into Special K, but I promise you it’s to die for!

Here is an example of my dream breakfast - avocado on sourdough toast topped with olive oil, smoky chipotle chilli sauce and chopped coriander – frickin’ amazing!



I’m also a huge fan of Mexican-style breakfast options, such as huevos rancheros. Here’s a little recipe my husband and I conjured up…it’s not strictly authentic, but tastes out of this world.


Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

You will need:

2 tsps ground coriander 
1 tbsp dried oregano or dried mixed herbs (eg herbes de Provence mix)
1 dried smoked chipotle chilli + half a cup of warm water it was soaking in
1 400ml tin tomatoes
1 chopped red pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
3 inch piece of spicy cooking chorizo, chopped into small dice
4 free range organic eggs
Grated mature cheddar (we like the Welsh Collier’s extra mature cheddar)
Chopped fresh coriander

First of all put your dried chipotle chilli in a mug and cover with hot water – let soak for 15 minutes. Then remove it (reserve the soaking liquid) and chop up. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a casserole dish, finely slice your onions and cook for a minute or two on a medium heat. Add the red pepper and diced chorizo, cook for another 2 minutes, then add the chipotle, garlic and dried herbs and cook through for a further minute or so – making sure that you don’t overcook the garlic as this will make everything bitter. Add the tinned tomatoes, tomato puree and the liquid that the chipotle chilli was soaking in. Stir everything a few times.

Let everything simmer away for about 20 minutes, then gently crack the four eggs into the sauce (don’t break them up or stir – you want the tomato mixture to ‘poach’ them) and let them cook through for about 3 to 4 minutes. Dish up and serve sprinkled with freshly chopped coriander and grated mature cheddar. A bit of sliced avocado on the side drizzled with lime juice and smoky chilli sauce makes this an absolute winner.  Muy rico, as they say in Mexico…or f*cking ragga, as I am oft to exclaim…

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Sloe vodka


Ladies and gentlemen: there are wondrous berries lurking in our hedgerows right this instant that are FREE and will enable you to make wonderfully flavoured falling-over drinking booze. The above are sloeberries, which can be used to make sloe gin – or, in my case, sloe vodka, because gin makes me really argumentative, tearful and boring.

Sloes grow, I’m told, just about everywhere, from the skankiest urban wasteland to the prettiest country lanes. This is what you should be looking for: hard dark purple berries that are covered with a bluish bloom, attached to twigs that have very long large thorns. They are a bugger to pick – you might want to wear gloves, but to be honest, you can make do without as you’ll only get a few grazes.



Once you’ve picked as many sloes as  you can find, it’s a good idea to wash them, remove any leaves and woody bits, then shove them in the freezer for a few days. This will soften the berries up so that when you defrost them, they are easier to crush to release the purple juices and aromas.

Here’s what you’ll need:

225g sloe berries
55g Fairtrade caster sugar
50cl vodka

This will fit into a 75cl vodka bottle, with a bit of vodka left over.

Take your sloe berries out of the freezer and leave to defrost and soften. Then put your berries in a bowl and gently pound them with a rolling pin to squash them slightly. This is my mate D’s trusty time-saving trick. (Many people recommend you prick each berry individually with pin, but this is so time consuming, and you’re aiming to slightly release the juices, so the rolling pin method is very effective). Then place a funnel in the top of a clean empty vodka bottle, and push your squashed sloe berries through into it, pushing them down with a wooden spoon for ease. Then pour the sugar through the funnel, followed by the vodka, all the way to the top of the bottle. Screw the cap on tightly and shake the bottle to distribute all the sugar.

You’ll need to shake the bottle every other day or so for 3 months to ensure everything is moving around properly and the sugar is dissolved. Once the 3 months are up (and if you make this now, you’ll be just in time for drinking this at Christmas) you’ll have to strain the vodka from the berries through muslin to remove any bits, and then you can bottle it up again. The colour of sloe vodka will be a rich, vivid maroon – so pretty, and just luscious to drink chilled.

Great for cheap and original Christmas gifts – how much nicer to give someone a bottle of something homemade and harvested from hedgerows by your own fair hand? It has ‘smug’ written all over it – ha ha! 

Frozen sloes:


Defrosting the sloes:


Clockwise, left to right: pushing the crushed sloes through the funnel into the vodka bottle; adding the sugar; the final mixture; the beautiful coloured vodka embarking on its 3-month voyage.

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Friday, 17 September 2010

Yalla Yalla


Flamin’ heck. I’ve been to Yalla Yalla twice in the space of one week – their food is that good. This tiny little cafe just off Brewer Street in Soho serves delicious Beirut-style street food and makes a baba ghannouj dip that I would walk across hot coals for. Well it’s at least worth queuing up 45 minutes to get a table for…

Last week I had my first taste of their heartstoppingly superior aubergine and yoghurt dip – my husband and I nearly fought over every last drop in the bowl. It was intensely smoky, tangy and smooth, topped with pomegranate seeds and chopped mint, accompanied with a bowl of warm homemade wholemeal pitta breads. Sheer heaven. I followed this with a gorgeous chicken shish taouk – tender chunks of chicken marinated in something lovely, served on a bed of buttery vermicelli rice and a thin bread wrap, with a sumac and onion salad.

I had been daydreaming about this meal all week, and then I had the chance to go back, this time with my lovely my friend S who I never see often enough. I thought she would like Yalla Yalla – she loved it. Again, I ordered the baba ghannouj; it was even better than the first time. (So good, in fact, that I ordered a tub to take away). I followed this with a main course of charcoal grilled sea bass with lemony rice – all very good indeed. S ordered falafel – they were crisp, light and rather pretty, with a lovely smoky cumin taste, accompanied with a garlicky mayonnaise dip and chilli sauce:


Here is my sea bass – not one, but two juicy fillets:


S’s chicken shawarma: phwoar!


That perfect baba ghannouj, again:


The service is friendly and efficient, the staff play energetic house music, and the atmosphere is buzzing with happy chatting diners. People queue outside all night. You will eat like a prince and still barely bust a £20 note, with vino. Such a great little find in Soho, it’s really worth being patient to wait for a table. If I worked around the corner, I would probably buy their baba ghannouj every day for my lunch…and I would be the size of a house.

Yalla Yalla
1 Green’s Court
London W1 0HA

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cook like it’s 1899


What in this day of uber-connected internet-obsessed fast-paced living, clearly what was required by my friends and I to calm down a little was a weekend living as one would have done in the Victorian era. Forsooth! With nary a network signal or electric plug in sight, we spent two days in a picturesque farmhouse cottage near Ludlow in Shropshire for a dose of hardcore Victorian living on the Acton Scott estate. With chamber pots and horsehair mattresses.


Yes, this is the same cottage where they filmed the TV series ‘Victorian Farm’ on BBC2 – so there was no running water, electricity or flushing toilet in the house whatsoever (although we had a little outhouse with a proper loo and shower at the end of the garden), and all floors were linked by very steep rickety wooden stairs. We hung out, chatted, ate and read to the light of a coal fire and oil lamps. We were permanently covered in a dusting of soot, and grew giddy on fumes from the lamps. We extracted water from a well connected to a hand pump. The hardcore among us insisting on washing in the Victorian manner built a fire in the bathhouse to heat a cauldron of water to fill a coffin-shaped tin bath, which took at least two hours from start to finish, but created a magical sauna-like atmosphere. And most of all, we spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing food – everything took five times as long, from lighting the fire to figuring out how slowly or quickly everything was cooking (using Victorian cooking implements) in the dim lamplight. One morning I cheerfully waited for the kettle to boil for a cup of tea on the range; I waited one-and-a-half hours…

The kitchen and its implements were fascinating – much of the tools were similar to what we use now, such as cutlery and enamelware dishes, but some items were very antique and we had great fun using them. For example, the thimble sized wine glasses that had to be refilled over and over, and the pewter tankards to drink water from which had mysterious glass bottoms. The tool for whipping cream was nothing much more than a coil of wire stuck to a wooden stick, while the copper double boiler was an amazing implement in which to make custard.

The cooking range – Aga, eat your heart out:


Whipping cream with a very effective wire coil:


Drying tea towels by the fire:


Fancy a brew? It might take about 90 minutes…


Victorian washing up implements plus draining racks – everything done by candlelight:


As luck would have it, the three friends we hung out with are all very accomplished chefs, so there was no danger that we would go hungry. Which gave me more time to sit in the corner, dose myself with laudanum and work on my sampler. Hurrah!

Preparation for crumble, in enamelware dishes:


Apple and blackberry (picked from local hedgerows) crumble with Barbados cream (D’s awesome mixture of whipped cream, yoghurt and soft dark brown sugar):


D’s amazing beef stew, with courgettes and runner beans from the outdoor veg patch:


Scrambled eggs and garlicky tomatoes:


My beetroot and cardamom spice cake, brought from home:


M’s braised leeks in local cider:


Victoria plums ready for roasting:


Sausages from Ludlow food festival:


Even though by the end of our two day break we were all slightly sooty with blackened lungs, and a bit crazed from laudanum intake, it was a wonderful way to get away from it all. I never managed to finish my sampler – the lamplight was just too dim. Typically, though, N managed to locate a cupboard where he could charge his iPhone to get the latest footy updates, so it’s not as though we were completely isolated! No matter - we managed to pick enough local sloe berries to fill a Victorian gin palace…so I will be shortly posting something about making lovely booze with the below…


Sunday, 5 September 2010

Fernandez and Leluu

Underground supperclubs are like a little dip into the unknown. Unlike going to a restaurant, where you roughly know how the experience is going to pan out, going to a supperclub requires taking a big leap of faith. You’re essentially paying complete strangers money to eat a meal in their living room, sitting alongside other complete strangers. What could be weird about that?! Well...they could feed you revolting school dinners, bore you with their stamp collection or lock you in the basement. And much other worse things besides.

Thankfully, nothing like this occurred earlier this week when we visited a supperclub called Fernandez and Leluu, run by charismatic couple Uyen and Simon in their artfully decorated Hackney flat. We ate a generous spread of prettily presented and delicious Vietnamese dishes and chattered away to a very nice couple. M did scary sounding things with helicopters and oil rigs in his day job, and H once owned a wedding dress shop which she sold to a crazy woman who immediately burned it down for the insurance money. It's always fascinating meeting new people and hearing their stories – not something that is always easy to do in London.

This is what we ate:

Wide rice noodles with spicy sausage:

Pork terrine and pork spare ribs –ribs flavoured with (I think) star anise, and an interesting Vietnamese-style terrine that contained egg and glass noodles; much lighter than the traditional French version:

Prawn and squid paste on sugar cane – yummy sugar cane juice squirts out when chewed!

Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef noodle soup) – fragrant and light with pieces of tender beef:

Chicken and lemongrass wrapped in vine leaves, with a citrus and fish sauce dip in shot glasses:

Coconut sorbet – absolutely delicious and light, just the right thing to end the meal:

The only slight thing that went wrong, though, was when I drunkenly wobbled out of the door to go home, and only realised the following morning that I had been wearing someone else’s denim jacket. I tried to wear it to work, and several steps out of my front door I realised it just didn't feel right...d’uh!

The rightful owner of the jacket will be reunited with it soon...meanwhile, my cheaper and vastly inferior denim jacket is being posted back by the lovely Uyen, who says that diners have left large quantities of umbrellas and scarves behind in her home. She probably has a special 'lost property' cupboard. Imagine if one day somebody left behind their wooden leg or glass eye - that's not as weird as it sounds, especially since someone lost their prosthetic leg at a music festival my husband N used to work at - it got handed into The Big Chill's Lost Property!

Fernandez and Leluu supperclub