Tuesday, February 28, 2006


My pal, Aussie Nat (she of immense hunger on Thanksgiving) used to always say she was hungry for a dirty Chinese or a dirty Curry- dirty this or dirty that. One day I finally had to ask her what the hell a dirty meal was. Was she eating at a resto with appalling sanitary conditions? Did she eat her food out of a trough in these establishments? I really liked the reply. A dirty (fill in the blank with any cuisine you fancy) was her slang for a super cheap meal. The restaurant would have to be somewhere not glitzy, the kind of place where the service is non-existent, the kind of place you know you'll get a decent meal but you'd only end up there when either broke or drunk. I knew of a lot of those places so the lingo stuck with me.

On the Tube home last night, The Boy, Claire (she of Soul Lemon fame) and myself somehow got into a deep discussion on our dirty little food secrets. Those things that you snack on late at night when you come home after a few too many cocktails, absolutely famished wondering what there is in the house to eat. Or something you've tried making for dinner but you realise too late and have boiled the pasta that the only other thing in the cupboard was a jar of peanut butter. Or one of those odd food combinations that you will never admit to liking. These are foods that you don't eat often but you may keep in the back of the cupboard for that occasion when nothing else will fill that hole.

Now as much as I profess to prefer fresh and healthy meals, I also love my fair share of junk. I mean, come on, I grew up in the States. Land of the free, home of the Flamin' Hot Cheetos! Which I love by the way. I always bring a bag back with me and I keep it for a rainy day and ration it so it seems never ending.

The list of my dirty food secrets is huge. But after much consideration these three things are ones that I don't eat often- I'd be the size of a house if I did. First is a banana with peanut butter but the p.b. has to have a little saltiness to it. The other, which I became incredibly addicted to while a very, very poor student in Paris, a saltine cracker dipped in Nutella. Another salty-sweet combination. My final, and possibly most horrific, admission is packaged ramen. It's another throwback to my Uni days when I was either too broke to afford anything more or I was so hung-over that it could only be cured by the stodge of the noodles and the copious amount of salt. Fortunately I make more money now so I went years without eating it but after a few major hangovers, I have rediscovered it. I somehow manage to justify it because I now buy a 'classier' and pricier version that has Chinese or Japanese writing on it so it must be much better for me.

Ahh. I feel purged of my food demons. I feel clean and pure but that may have more to do with the much healthier Broccoli Soup I had for dinner. So dear friends, I offer you a dirty food secret amnesty. Expel those nasty food demons that you don't admit you really like. Get it off your chest and share it. I promise I won't laugh; nothing can beat pasta with peanut butter.

PS- The p.b. pasta was The Boy not me. I mean I have standards.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


There is something about a bowl of fresh salsa that manages to awaken the taste buds and make you think that guests are on their way. Salsa seems to fall into this category of perennial party foods that you pull out (and often from a jar) when people are coming over. Even though I make my own, it only ever occurs to me to whip some up if the girls are coming over. However, there has been a salsa fest happening in the house for the last two weeks and this party train ain't leaving anytime soon either.

It all started when the Boy requested some to eat with his tortilla chips. For those that don't know my darling husband need to be made aware of the fact that this man hates most veg on the planet. And since I usually tell him that potatoes are starchy and don't count, I'll re-phrase that as he hates vegetables. I'm not kidding. I guess it's the result of eating over-boiled vegetables as a kid and being told that he wasn't leaving the table until he ate it. He used to pass a lot of time at that table. I'll put it another way and in the words of my mother-in-law regarding her son's eating habits, "You've managed to succeed where I failed ." For that, I pat myself on the back but it hasn't been pretty. I tend to look at it as a long term investment in that I don't look forward to the day when I am transformed into a one woman army trying to convince the kids that aubergines and broccoli is good for them while The Boy teases them with his veg free meals.

Back to the present and The Boy. Over Christmas while in the States we stopped by my Tio Meno's Mexican restaurant in San Diego and after years of eating there (and aided by a few beers too), he decided to stick a chip into the salsa bowl. It seemed to happen in slow motion but my jaw hit the floor instantly. Two weeks ago out of the blue, he asked how easy it was to make salsa. Needless to say, I raced to make some up. Since then, I've made a batch twice a week. It's quick, it's easy and it's something that you can do some freestyle cooking with. Play around with different chilis, different tomatoes (I used some yellow cherry ones for colour for my last batch) and different textures.

Warm Salsa

Makes 1 bowl


4 tomatoes, left whole
1 onion, cut into quarters
1-2 whole fresh chilis, depending on size
1 bunch of fresh coriander / cilantro

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 3 of the tomatoes, 3/4 of the onion and the chili(s). Allow them to char in the pan for 5-10 minutes moving them occasionally so that all sides cook a little.

While that cooks, rough chop the remaining tomato, onion and two handfuls of coriander/cilantro and put in a bowl.

Once the ingredients in the pan are done and have cooled slightly, trim the stem of the chili off and place in a blender or hand held processor with the charred tomatoes and onion. Blitz until smooth and pour into the bowl with the chopped ingredients.

Stir the chopped and liquidised ingredients together. Add salt if needed.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


The storms that hit the US East Coast have finally worked their way to the UK and crikey is it cold! While it's not like I ever need a reason to hole up in the house and cook, it at least means I can somewhat convince myself that baking pies and tarts is justified. Since it's the middle of winter the selection of reasonably price fruits that are local is rather slim.

Thankfully Bramley apples are available which gave me a few ideas to play around with.

What I settled for in the end was a quick and easy tart that as good fresh out of the oven as it was the cold the next morning. To jazz it up a bit, I added the marzipan that's been in cupboard for ages and that I'd wanted to cook with (I point you in the direction of Memory Lane for more info). Marzipan hasn't been one of my favourite tastes but recently I have been lucky to eat some lovely tasting, non-grainy marzipan. I have therefore come to the conclusion that the cheaper marzipans aren't as nice. The Boy would disagree since he loves marzipan in any shape or form even if that shape is a piggy or some odd animal shape that you find at the bakeries here.

Apple and Marzipan Tart

Serves 4-6


1 Bramley (or other baking) apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
20-25 g. marzipan, grated
Ready made puff pastry, rolled out to measure 18cm x 24cm (approx.)
1 tsp. brown sugar

Optional: lemon juice to squeeze over the apples to prevent them turning brown.

Heat the oven to 210C.

Roll out the pastry onto a baking tray and score a line, while making sure not to cut through the pastry, which is approximately 1-1.5 cm from the edge of the pastry- it should look like a border around the pastry. This will allow the edges to puff around the filling.

Sprinkle the marzipan evenly over the inner square of the pastry.

Layer the apples in tight rows on top of the marzipan. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown.


Living in a city that’s become home to immigrants from every corner of the planet, you’re bound to pass an ethnic market or two along the way. In theory, having these shops at your doorstep should open a world of food possibilities; the reality is that you don’t always know where to start and what to get. After years of shopping at ethnic grocers, I have decided on two rules. Rule one: be prepared for a bit of trial and error with any purchases. Rule two: go shopping with a healthy sense of adventure. You’ll need it for some of the sights and smells you may encounter.

Chinese food has been a part of our food culture for long enough that it would seem easy to know what to get in Chinese markets. Confronted with rows of noodles, aisles of spices and cartons of chicken feet, it’s doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. This is my simplified guide to London’s Chinatown- when to shop, what to buy and where to snack.

First off, know when to shop. Having a weekend lie-in means that I usually get to Chinatown in the afternoon when everyone decides to go too. However, on my last visit, I managed to get there by midmorning. What a difference a few hours makes! At 10:30am some of the shops weren’t yet open but it meant there was time for a cuppa at Far East Chinese Bakery. It was the Boy’s first time there so I ordered two Chinese teas, a Chinese doughnut for me and a Pork and Glutinous Rice Crispy Dough for him. My doughnut dough was like a fried cream puff- a high calorie, sugar coated delight. The Boy’s crispy dough tasted like a savoury doughnut with bits of roast pork and green onion. We found it tough to fight the urge to order more when fresh batches of everything were brought out. Another thing I love about this place are the menu posters behind that counter that offer such delicacies as meet and veg dumpling and deep-fried curry beerf bun. Total damage on the wallet- £4.80.

Half an hour or so there will pass enough time until the two main shops open. I recommend starting at New Loon Moon Supermarket (9 Gerrard Street), which offers foodstuffs from all over Asia. Outside the shop is their selection of fresh fruit and veg- mooli, pak choi, persimmon and pear are among the choices. Spices, nuts and noodles are deals at this place. Rice Vermicelli (used for making fresh spring rolls) is a steal at 55p a packet. There is a refrigerated section where you can stock up on char sui buns (those fluffy white buns filled with Chinese barbequed pork), fresh noodles and chicken feet with black bean sauce (if you feel so inclined). You can also pick up Indian curry powders, Korean kimchee and Filipino Nata de Coco too.

Across the way is Loon Fung (42-44 Gerrard Street)- the daddy of the Chinatown markets. Although it mainly sells Chinese items, you will be able to find other Asian goods. Chinese tea drinkers will rejoice at the tea selection; the aisle of loose and bag teas seems endless. Add that to the retro styling of some of the packaging and it makes a great addition to a gift for a foodie. There are also a great selection of alternative flours like rice and potato for those who have allergies to wheat. Dried goods are a feature here with bargains on dried beans and dried mushrooms. Loon Fung has a great selection of frozen goods and has the added benefit of having an in-store meat counter.

If another snack is needed to see you on your way, check out Golden Gate Cake Shop for a pork puff or almond cookie to nibble on or try Oriental Delight located right next door if a packet of crisps is more to your liking. However, if a light meal is more what you’re after stop by Laureate (64 Shaftesbury Avenue) for dim sum. Beat the crowds by arriving when they open. Top picks include Char Sui buns (Chinese BBQ is a recurring theme in my house), beef cheung fun and steamed beef with bamboo shoot dumplings.

Chinatown may feel touristy at times but it shouldn’t be forgotten that at its heart, the focus is still the Chinese community. The markets are vibrant and offer a plethora of new ingredients to experiment with. Whether you choose to stock up on Chinese greens or you decide to play it safe and simply buy a bag of lychees, don’t be afraid to check out Chinatown, you’re sense of adventure (and your wallet) will be rewarded.

If you still feel like you need a starter shopping list, try picking up some of the following to get started:

-Pak choi (or any Chinese green)- steam it and add a dash of soya sauce
-Rice vermicelli - use to make fresh spring rolls
-Char sui buns - yum- little buns of happiness!
-Jasmine tea - just like at the Chinese
-Fresh chilis - can be used in many cuisines
-Lemongrass - give the stalks a bash and add to a bowl of broth
-Galangal - used in Thai curries
-Thai Basil - use this spicy herb in a stir fry
-Soya Sauce - can't beat the bargain prices for basic ingredients like this
-Sesame Oil - another steal to be had in Chinatown
-Pocky Biscuits - these Japanese biscuits sticks are a tasty lunch treat
-Bamboo Steamers - Chinatown has more sizes and better prices!

Monday, February 13, 2006


Trying to get into the mood for Valentine’s Day, I decided to give the Coconut Chocolate Bites recipe from this month’s Gourmet a go. It looked good, looked easy and I conveniently had all the ingredients in the cupboard.

I’ll start with the pluses, as there are many. This was a cinch to do; it really did take about 30 minutes to do (and that includes chilling time). The taste was fantastic and loads better than a Mounds or a Bounty bar. Using a dark chocolate- I used a 78% as I really enjoy bitter chocolate- was the perfect foil for what could easily be a sickly sweet treat. The quantity it yields makes it an easy item for a potluck- a little square goes a long way.

Now for the Could be better ifs- I hesitate to use the word minus because I think that overall it is a great recipe. The coconut quantities in the recipe didn’t quite fill my 9-inch square pan but I figured it would be ok since you sandwich it. As I re-read the recipe I realised that in fact I needed an 8-inch pan so that explains a lot. It calls for an offset spatula to press the mixture in the pan but I found it much easier to use my hands and use the spatula at the end to pack the coconut. These were really very minor niggles since it didn’t affect the taste, it just meant that I needed to trim the halves a bit. My biggest bitch about this is that the sandwiched halves kept coming apart even after some gentle squashing to keep it together.

What would I change? The Boy wanted more coconut and well, what the hell do you do with two bags of coconut and half a can of condensed milk left over? So I made batch number two in which I doubled the coconut and condensed milk quantities and found that it did fill the pan better but it would be thicker (especially when sandwiched). When it came time to do the chocolate I decided not to sandwich it and instead to leave it as one layer with chocolate on both sides. If you decide to do it this way, follow the recipe through to step three (where one side get covered with chocolate). Let it chill for 10 minutes, melt the another 4 oz of chocolate, flip the coconut over and pour it on the other side. Let chill another 10 minutes, cut into 1-inch squares and you’re done.

Would I make this again? Absolutely. Everyone at work loved it and it was a nice change for the people allergic to gluten who usually get denied the tasty baked goods that are brought in. I probably won’t be making it too soon as I have quite possibly eaten my weight in coconut bites and have a sudden aversion to coconut!

Friday, February 10, 2006


I'd forgotten how much time this working thing takes up out of your day. Fortunately I still manage to cook half decent meals most nights but it is taking me longer to get it up on the blog. So I apologise now for a short and sweet blurb. It's tough to balance experimenting with dishes and getting dinner on the table too. I'm not complaining though- it's what I signed myself up for in starting this thing. Fortunately I had an early night this week and managed to make a quasi-Moroccan tagine supper. I stewed it for an hour but you could probably do it for less time- as long as the meat is cooked. Serve it with couscous with a handful of pine nuts and raisins thrown in. The leftovers warm up well for lunch the next day.

A quick note on a couple of the ingredients: harissa and pickled lemons. From Tunisia, harissa is a chili paste that traditionally accompanies couscous but can be used to add a kick to anything. It can be found in Middle Eastern markets and increasingly in supermarkets (at least in the UK; I hope the same can be said for the US because it is a great ingredient. If not, try substituting another type of chili paste for an experiment of your own.) The other ingredient is pickled lemons. These lemons have been preserved with a salt/lemon juice mixture. They are used a lot in Moroccan cooking and have a tangy smooth taste. Again I hope that it isn't too difficult to find; there are DIY recipes out there. I recommend Casa Moro cookbook not only for a preserved lemon recipe but also for additional uses for them (and they aren't just for stews). Sorry that the link takes you to Amazon but it was the best link about the book.

Moroccan Style Stew

Serves 4

4 chicken thighs
1 tsp of each of the following spices: hot paprika, sweet paprika, ground coriander, cumin seeds
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
2 pickled lemons
14 oz tin of tomatoes (I hope I have the right US measurement- you'll need a standard size tin)
1 tsp harissa
2 tbsp olive oil
optional: two handfuls of chopped button mushrooms

Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the dry spices and fry for 30 seconds or so (you want the spices to warm through and flavour the oil). Add the chicken and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon and onion. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 a tin of water and the harissa. Stir and bring to a boil.

Turn it down to a simmer, cover and cook for 50 minutes. After this time, remove lid and bring back to a boil for 10 minutes to reduce the sauce.

Serve with couscous.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


It was a lazy Sunday where I actually managed to get out of bed before noon. Since I missed all the Saturday Farmer's Markets, I thought I would ask my chauffeur, The Boy, to drive me over to Marylebone for one on Sunday. I really wanted farm fresh, seasonal fruit and veg- a little something to inspire me in the kitchen. I always get a bit frustrated with myself whenever I go to these markets because I can never make up my mind who I should buy produce from. I feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes, especially when there's huge crowds to contend with too (one reason why I try to avoid Borough Market on a Saturday- it's smaller but you can actually move). In the end one of the bits I picked up some leeks. The Boy reminded me that I had some potatoes so why not whip up some soup.

Leek and Potato Soup


5 medium size potatoes, cut into quarters
2 leeks, washed, trimmed and cut into chunks
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked off
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns, preferably white
500 ml stock (or bouillon made up to same amount)

In a stockpot, pour enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pot and heat over medium heat. Add a small knob of butter; once it melts and begins to foam, add the vegetables and herbs. Sauté until the leeks cook down- about 5 minutes.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft- about 15 minutes.

Remove the bay leaf. Puree with a hand blender. If the soup is too thick for your liking, add more stock until it is the consistency you prefer.

Add salt and pepper if needed.