Monday, October 31, 2011

The Seeds of Halloween

I really, passionately hate food waste.
It is an irrational passion, which knows no boundaries of time, effort, or money. I will rush around buying ingredients to turn that random packet of dried beans that has sat in the cupboard for years, or that minuscule piece of meat left from last night's dinner into a full meal.

So, when I carved out this year's Halloween pumpkin, I had to toast the seeds. The process takes the best part of an hour, creates lots of washing up, wastes electricity, oil and salt. You have to be passionate.

First, spend a good 15 minutes picking them out of the mush of stringy orange innards ( which, I gather, are inedible).
Then, boil them in salty water for 10 minutes. Drain.
Spread them out on a baking try, spray with oil and put in the oven for about 20 minutes.
Discover that this is slightly too long, and your pumpkin seeds are now on the burnt side.
Place your handful of slightly burnt seeds into a small bowl, which they only half fill.
Sit down and chew them bitterly as you google to discover that a bag of (presumably unburnt) seeds can be yours in the nearest supermarket for about 60 pence.
Decide that it is probably best not to add up how much electricity you spent on producing your offering.
Display your carved pumpkin proudly in your window and hope that some trick-or-treaters show up, so you can get rid of the rest of the seeds. If I was a trick-or-treater after home-made treats though, I'd be heading elsewhere tonight.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lamb Chops with Pea, Feta and Mint Salad

We are in the midst of a house move at the moment, surviving with a few essentials while most of our life possessions snooze in brown boxes.
For the husband, the essentials include half a dozen musical instruments in varying degrees of repair.
For my part, I rushed to unpack the cookbooks - including the thick ring binder of recipes torn from magazines, purloined from friends and stumbled upon on the Internet. This overflowing and messy file is my chief source of culinary inspiration -- including for last night's dinner (which serves two):

2 large lamb chops
200g frozen peas
small pack of fresh mint leaves
100g feta
2 pittas (or any bread, stale will work)

Cook the peas and cool (I rinsed with cold water to speed this up).
Add cubed feta and mint leaves.
Generously pepper the lamb steaks and fry to desired level of done-ness. Leave to rest for a few minutes.
In that time, chop the pitta into large croutons and warm in the pan used for the lamb, thus soaking up any juices.
Mix the croutons into the salad and serve with the lamb.

This would make a good dish for a BBQ, but is also good for pepping up a grey autumn day.

The original recipe, of unknown provenance, also called for cucumber and lemon wedges (which were absent from my fridge) and used twice as much feta as peas.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Strange or unusual dishes beckon me from restaurant menus with an almost irresistible force. In its grip, I have found myself picking at a greyish, mushy plate of brains in a Bulgarian restaurant in Moscow and tucking into a gamey but not entirely pleasant giraffe burger (the animal, not the chain) in Camden Market.
More successful forays have included nettle soup at the now sadly defunct Ambassador in Exmouth Market and, most recently, dandelions at Polpetto.

Polpetto has squashed some dark wooden tables into a small, cosy room above the equally crowded French House pub in the centre of Soho's hustle and bustle. It's been open for a little over a year, receiving praise for the food and taking other criticism on board - the originally tapas-y menu has been split into small and large plates (starters and mains to you and me) and it's now possible to book.

The stalks of dandelions added a delicate, flowery and slightly citrusy crunch to a delicious plate of rigatoni flavoured with "wet walnuts". It turns out that wet walnuts are the super seasonal young fruit of the tree, which dry out into the more familiar variety with age. And very good they were too.

Given that Polpetto means "baby octopus" in Italian, I also felt moved to order the octoped. It came as a carpaccio starter, bejewelled but nor overpowered with fresh red chillies (£6).

The brief, description-free menu gives diners the option of asking the waiters for advice/translation or -- as we did -- going for a lucky dip approach. Tempted by smoked anchovies, we thus took a gamble on its unfamiliar accompaniment, puntarelle. The gamble paid off, with the arrival of some tasty green shoots of the chicory family.

Among the mains, we also sampled the squid (£11.30) - with a delicious if slightly overpowering char grilled tang - and the Italian classic of pork in milk (£10.30). The meat was meltingly tender, with notes of aniseed and chunks of white bread all but dissolved in the juices.

Largely ignorant in Italian wine, we washed down the meal -- one of the best I've had in London since returning -- with carafes of the very drinkable house red, and pledged to come back again soon.

Polpetto, Upstairs at The French House, 49 Dean Street, London, W1D 5BG; Tel. 020 7734 1969
Cost: around £30 a head for two courses with wine

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Secret Garden Salad

We've been back in London for a few months now, rediscovering its tastes and smells. Reading other people's blogs has infected me with a desire to resurrect my own, to chart and share the next chapter of my adventures in the British capital.
There will still be plenty of pigging out, but the arrival of a baby means that now more of it takes place in our kitchen than in restaurants. The baby has further reinforced my love of quick meals, the kind that can be rustled up over a glass of wine once she has gone to sleep and before my stomach implodes from hunger. (I do not cope well with hunger, as my husband will testify. I get very hangry.)
Tonight's dinner was just such a meal -- an easy medley inspired by the plum tomatoes from my vegetable box and the harvest in St Mary's Secret Garden.
I was very excited when, among drab council blocks near the shiny new Hoxton Station I stumbled upon this little oasis of edible plants. The garden was founded a quarter of a century ago and is run by volunteers as a haven for local community. There is even a beehive and a pond full of friendly newts. They sell some of the produce on site, and I was given mini shears to cut my own chard -- my first bit of harvesting since childhood visits to pick-your-own strawberry farms.
Chard is another new discovery for me. Its dark green leaves are reminiscent of spinach, but with a stronger flavour, while its stalks -- deep red or white -- are more akin to beetroot. It's in season for another month, and goes well with egg dishes (like frittatas), as well as in salads.

Baked Camembert with Tomato, Onion and Chard Salad
Serves two as a main, four as a starter.

The hot, baked cheese makes it a nice option for golden, autumnal days, when it seems a shame to completely surrender to the impending winter, but it's clear that this year's salad days are numbered.

6 tomatoes
1 small red onion
small bunch of chard
1 camembert

Chop onions and tomatoes quite finely and place in a salad bowl. If you have time, leave them in the fridge for a couple of hours to soak in each other's juices.
Chop the chard, keeping storks and leave separate. Fry the storks for a couple of minutes, then add the leaves and fry for another minute. Leave to cool (and finish cooking) in the pan. Once cool, add to the tomatoes.
About half an hour before dinner, preheat the oven and pop in the camembert. Leave until its soft to touch on top and runny inside. This took about 20 minutes at 180 degrees in my oven.
Before serving, you could add chopped herbs to the salad (I had some coriander lurking in the fridge). Salad leaves, such as rocket, would also go well.
I don't think this salad requires a dressing, but if you don't like your vegetables naked you could add a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Eat dipping chunks of bread into the runny cheese and interspersing with fork -fulls of the salad.
If you don't add salad leaves or herbs, any leftovers will last in the fridge for a day or two. Probably not ideal for work pack lunches though, given the raw onion....

St Mary's Secret Garden, 50 Pearson Street, London, E2 8EL