Sunday, 28 February 2010

In a State

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
— James Beard

If you would have told me a year ago that I would be spending my lunch hours circumnavigating the globe via food conversations with people from all over the world, I would have laughed in disbelief, but that is exactly what's happening these days.  

Dorling Kindersley Image

In my weekly pursuit of content, I tapped up Roshel, a colleague originally from Mumbai (the city formerly known as Bombay).  When you talk about the food of India, you don't just learn about the food itself.  You get a lesson in history, geography, and sociology thrown in as well.  


Roshel was born and raised in Mumbai, a mixed metropolitan city in the state of Maharastra.  It's the New York or London equivalent of India.  When it comes to the food culture of Mumbai, people stick to their own traditions they bring with them from their state, which tend to be their mother's tradtions.

There are 26 states in India.  It's a rather large country.  This is important to understanding Indian food because people in a southern state would be unfamiliar with food from a northern state.  For example, curries in Southern India are coconut based while curries in the north are yogurt based - a completely different taste.
Roshel's mother is from the state of Karnataka.  This means Roshel grew up eating lots of coconut-based food; anything and everything had fresh coconut in it - even an omelet!  Rice and daal are staple ingredients in her mother's cooking.  So much so that her mother doesn't feel like she has eaten unless she had rice. 


I asked Roshel if there are any famous Indian cooks and cookbooks like we have here in the U.K.  She said Sanjeev Kapoor is the name everybody knows in India.  He's the Gordon Ramsay of India (he probably doesn't swear, though).  For those of us not in India, we have Madhur Jaffrey to show us the way around Indian food.  She wrote the Curry Bible, an epic collection of curry recipes.

published by Ebury Press, 2003, £25

The main thing to know about Indian food is that the recipes are passed down from generation to generation.  Recipes tend to be passed around verbally and that is how we have arrived at this recipe given to us from Roshel for Barth Cake, a coconut custard cake from Goa.   Prepare to be overwhelmed with deliciousness!

Barth Coconut Cake

1 1/2 cups milk - bring to the boil, keep stirring
250 g (9 oz) caster (granulated) sugar - add to milk, keep stirring until dissolved
150 g (5-1/2 oz) dessicated coconut - add and let boil nicely
150 g (5-1/2 oz) coarse semolina - add and keep stirring until thick
75 g (2-1/2 oz) butter - add and keep stirring for 5-7 minutes (this is where your stirring adds love to the cake)
Remove from the heat and let cool completely.  Once cooled, add: 
3 eggs
1 Tblsp. essence (UK) or 1 tsp. vanilla extract (US)
Color (optional)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
Mix all together and then pour  into a greased 8" square tin, put in the refrigerator and chill overnight.  It should look like this:

Bake for 30 minutes at 180 c/350 f/Gas Mark 4 until a cake tester comes out clean.  Here's what mine looked like:

And here's what it tasted like:

a deliciously rich coconut sensation!

Give yourself a taste of India and give this recipe a try.   Roshel might be from the state of
Maharastra, but I'm in a state of euphoria over the Barth cake! 



Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Poetical Pursuit of Food

In case you haven't noticed by now, cookbooks are rarely just about the recipes.  They celebrate life and history, reveal love and passion, and radiate warmth and hospitality.  What other genre of literature captures so many dimensions of the human spirit?

Nowhere is this more evident than in a cookbook I recently stumbled upon in a Notting Hill charity shop.  The Poetical Pursuit of Food  by Sonoko Kondo is a lovely collection of recipes and thoughts about life from the Japanese perspective.  Sadly it is out of print, but you can still buy second-hand copies.

The author was born in NYC but moved with her family back to Japan to live with her Grandmother while she was still a child.   It was at her Grandmother's side where her pursuit began.  Being a "Grandma's Girl" myself, this book instantly resonated with me.    

While this cookbook is full of tempting recipes, it is the pearls of culinary wisdom that really stand out.  I can't believe I'm getting philosophical over a lettuce leaf, but sometimes I do recognize the importance of being mindful about what I'm doing with food rather than just filling up my gas tank with mindless calories.       

As we will soon be approaching the salad days of Spring, I will share some of the author's pearls of wisdom about making salads (pp. 61-62):

  • Bring the taste of the seasons to your table.
  • For fresh food, always choose the most perfect.  There is a direct relationship of freshness to both attractiveness and nutritional health.
  • All ingredients must be as dry as possible before they are tossed with dressing.  Wet foods make soggy salad.
  • Dressing is only to complement the natural goodness and tastiness of your ingredients.
Helpful?  I hope so.  Poetic?  Most definitely.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Armchair Travels in Singapore

When the gray of a London winter becomes unbearable, I like to escape to sunnier locations.  Due to the dust collecting in my bank account rather than dollars, I have to travel economically these days.  For me that escape is made possible with a comfortable armchair, a glass of white wine, and a colorful cookbook.  

This past week I had a fascinating lunchtime chat with my colleague, Lay Peng, who hails from Singapore.  We may be from different parts of the globe, but our shared interest in food and cookbooks made for a sweet, sour, spicy and salty conversation.  

Time Books International, 1988

Singapore is an island city-state found at the tip of the Malay Peninsula with an exotic  food history.  If Singapore is ever in need of a food ambassador, Lay Peng is the woman for the job.  Her passion for and knowledge of her homeland's food is impressive. 

Food writing culture in Singapore is still in its infancy, hence very few Singaporean cookbooks. (Thanks Lay Peng for loaning me yours!)  Recipes are passed around verbally between family and friends.  There are no Delia Smith's of Singapore.  

Singapore is a melting pot of flavors.  Because it is the crossroads for Southeast Asia, the food is a fusion of Chinese, Malay, Thai and Indonesian. 

Being from Nebraska, it is difficult for me to wax lyrical about corn or hamburgers.  Although enjoyable, they hardly stir the senses like Lay Peng's descriptions of her native fragrant ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and coconut.  (I think I am getting intoxicated by the very thought of them).

The Best of Singapore Cooking (Time Books International, 1988)

For the sake of brevity,  I will give you the highlights:
  • Singaporeans LOVE their food   
  • Singaporean food is spicy being comprised of strong flavors (not just chilies)
  • Most ingredients are grown regionally or locally
  • Staples are rice and noodles, with 90% of the population being seafood lovers
  • Eating is communal
  • Flavors are balanced - sweet, sour, salty and spicy 
  • There is symbolism to the food (i.e fish means abundance, noodles mean longevity)
  • Curries are a big part of the food culture (Malay curries are more subtle than Indian)
  • Coconut milk is predominantly used due to the Southern Indians who emigrated to Singapore
  • Vegetables such as beans or corn are mashed with sugar for desserts; biscuits and cakes are popular and are made with rice flour; above all - Singaporeans like colorful desserts

See what I mean?
Pulat Tai-Tai (Glutinous Rice Cakes)
from Cook Malaysian, Times Editions, 1980 

But color isn't just for desserts in Singapore; feast your eyes on this - 

(Click on image to enlarge recipe)

Notice the balance of flavor in the recipe - for the sweet (sugar),  sour (lime), salty (soy sauce), spicy (chilies) - what a harmony!

Next time you are looking for a budget holiday, spend some time with a Singaporean cookbook.  It will instantly transport you and your taste buds to a colorful and flavorful destination.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Brills

Every year in February in Britain, the pop industry has its annual music awards called The Brit Awards or better known as The Brits.   

At Culinaria Libris, I am having my own cookbook awards for brilliant British cookbooks from the past year - The first annual Brill Awards or The Brills.  This is not a scientific or straw-poll process.  No accounting firms were used in the calculations.  The winning results are my own personal judgments from having had my nose stuck in loads and loads of cookbooks.  The Englishman can vouch for that.

In looking back at the British cookbooks of 2009, I came across some truly unique and innovative books which stood out from the pack.  The categories and winners are as follows:

Best General Cookbook

Step up to the podium, Leon, by Allegra McEvedy.  Although this book was published the latter part of 2008, it didn't come to my attention or collection until early 2009.   Not only has Allegra McEvedy  made the Leon restaurant a favorite lunch destination of mine, but she has created a cookbook par excellence to accompany and go beyond the Leon experience.

published by Conran Octopus, 2008, £20

As this book will tell you, Leon was founded on the principle that food can be both lovely and good for you.  The first half of the book gives you an intense food tutorial with the second half devoted to recipes from the Leon restaurant and more.  The instruction, pictures and ingenuity of recipes have earned this book a prime spot on my bookshelf because it is such a useful body of work to have on the ready.  This book covers everything from breakfast to puddings (desserts).  No stone is left unturned once Allegra McEvedy turns her attention to creating a triumphant cookbook.  

Best Baking Cookbook

And the winner is....Harry Eastwood for her dynamic contribution to baking with Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache .  This inventive author takes vegetables out of the mainstream and elevates them to desserts. 

published by Bantam Press, 2009, £20

Hopefully you read about Harry's fabulous book in her recent Culinaria Libris blog post.  Who would have thought that offerings from the veg patch could be transformed into culinary delights such as cakes, cupcakes, scones, fudge and sticky puddings?  If you like baking but worry about the lasting impression on your hips, fear no more.  This book liberates you from the fat/calorie treadmill of buttery sugary creations and offers healthy alternatives without making sacrifices to flavor!  My waistline and I personally thank you, Harry Eastwood.

Best Newcomer Cookbook

Would the well-heeled Ravinder Bhogal please take a bow?   For the new-kid-on-the-block  to cut her teeth with the book Cook in Boots, she makes her mark with the poignancy of a stiletto heel.   Ms. Bhogal is a fashion and beauty journalist who likes to cook.  Her fashion and food stars have collided to bring us a culinary and visual feast of home cooking. 

published by HarperCollins, 2009, £18.99

 At first glance the recipes seem fairly traditional like shepherd's pie or pavlova,  but on closer inspection of the ingredients you realize you are in for a treat.  It's not just pavlova, it's Raspberry Rose Pavlova (see picture).  That is but one of the many surprises and delights found in this cookbook.  The photos of shoes costing in the triple digits are liberally sprinkled throughout the book and add to the fun and allure of it.  If this is Ravinder Bhogal's freshman debut, I'm greatly looking forward to her sophomore cookbook.        

Lifetime Achievement Award

From the Victorian cookbook author who just keeps on giving, it's Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management.  Originally published as a bound volume in 1861, you may think this tome to be grossly outdated and irrelevant.  You would be wrong on both counts. 

Mrs. Beeton was advocating seasonality in food choices and animal welfare long before today's celebrity chefs. Admittedly, the instructions for the butler or dairy maid might not be needed for my tiny mid-terraced house in the suburbs, but the fact of the matter is, they're there and they're a fascinating read.  This book is like stepping into a time capsule and, quite frankly, I'm hooked.  This small but mighty volume packs a punch of information that will leave you pondering in its wake.

Hopefully you enjoyed The Brills as much as I enjoyed putting the winners circle together for you.  If the 2011 Brills are as interesting as this year's, then we're all winners.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache

Robert Burns says it with poetry. Cupid says it with arrows. But I'm saying it with Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache - Happy Valentine's Day!

This was one of my top 3 favorite cookbooks for 2009. The recipes are unique, the pictures are positively dreamy, and it's a must-have on any baker's bookshelf. Harry Eastwood, the author, first came to light on the Cook Yourself Thin television series here in the UK. When Harry unleashed her beet root cake recipe on the show, I knew we were in presence of a creative force.

This book carries on from the ingenuity of the beet root cake and gives us further recipes for delicious baking made from courgettes (zucchini), aubergines (eggplant), parsnips and other bounty from our vegetable plots. This book allows you to have your cake and eat it, too. I have to add that all of the frosting recipes I have tried so far from her book are divine.

published by Bantam Press, 2009

But because we are closing in on Valentine's Day, you're in for a HUGE treat. You're getting more than a recipe today, lovely readers - you're getting an interview with the author herself. Harry Eastwood has agreed to a Question and Answer session for you. (I'll give you a moment to catch your breath.)

Here she is...Harry Eastwood

Let's give a warm welcome to Harry Eastwood!

What inspired you to write Red Chocolate and Velvet Heartache?

I wrote Red Velvet for my brother in law, Max. He has no gallbladder and is therefore one of the unfortunate ones amongst us who should stay away from wheat, dairy, fat and sugar- basically, all the FUN food! The look of torture on his face when chocolate cake (his favourite food in the world) was passed around and he had to say ‘no’, was heart breaking to me. I therefore started writing cake recipes that tasted of CAKE, that he could eat because they are low in fat and sugar and contain no dairy. That’s how it all began.

The other half of the story is that once I began to write the recipes, I realized that these cakes had empathy. One of the first recipes I wrote was ‘Heartache Chocolate Cake’. This recipe helped me to mend a two year old broken heart.

Who are your favourite cookbook authors?

I adore the passion and depth of knowledge that Georgio Locatelli has in his books, and his food. His London restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, is life-changing.

Jamie Oliver’s great for straight forward good food that’s stylish and quick.

I love the American writer David Tanis. His food to me is perfect.

Elizabeth David is unavoidable: her voice and relationship with her ingredients is inspiring. I highly recommend her book of essays: An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine.

What is your desert island cookbook - the one you just couldn't be without?

Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course! She’s great for all the basics. This will come in handy if the sun erodes my memory and robs me of good sense. Plus, she’s so British and comforting that her book would mentally transport me back home.

Do you have a favourite recipe from your book you would like to share with the readers of this blog?

Nobody should live without a slice of ‘Heartache Chocolate Cake’… it’s medicine for the soul.

Are there anymore Harry Eastwood cookbooks on the horizon? What's next?

I moved back to Paris (I left France when I was 16) and I’m writing a book on French Cuisine. When I’m not writing from my little garret under the eves, I’m mostly to be found with my nose pressed up against the windows of ‘Boulangeries’ (bakeries) all over the city, or eating snails and profiteroles in dusty old Parisian brasseries.

And, lastly, any relation to Clint?

I don’t think so… but you never can be sure!

And now for Harry's Heartache Chocolate Cake, get ready to cry tears of joy because it's just that delicious!

Heartache Chocolate Cake

No flour, sugar or butter in sight - Gadzooks, Batman!

2 small whole aubergines (weighing roughly 400 g)
300 g best dark chocolate you can find (min. 70% cocoa solids essential), broken into squares
50 g good quality cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting (I used Green & Black's)
60 g ground almonds
3 medium eggs
200 g clear honey
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 Tblsp. brandy (for moral support, as Harry says)

Preheat the oven to 180 c/350 f/Gas 4. Grease and dust a springform pan (23 cm x 7 cm loose-bottomed tin) or line it with parchment paper.

Prepare the aubergines in one of two ways:
  • put on a baking tray and cover the aubergines with foil; bake at 190 c/375 f/ Gas 5 for 30 minutes (this was the method I used and it worked very well)
  • randomly puncture the aubergines with a skewer and microwave on high for 8 minutes in a bowl covered with cling film
Skin the aubergines and purée them in a blender or with a stick blender. Once the purée is warm and smooth, add to the chocolate squares and blend them to melt the chocolate. If the squares don't melt completely, give them a zap in the microwave or finish melting them in a bain-marie. You don't want chunky chocolate for this recipe.

In a large bowl, briefly whisk up the rest of the ingredients. Give them a good introduction to each other until the mixture is a bit bubbly. Fold in the chocolate/aubergine mixture.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and place in the bottom of the oven for 30 minutes. (You will be intoxicated by the chocolate aroma. You have been warned). Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool. This is what it will look like:

To finish, sieve a bit of cocoa powder over the top to dust (if you can even wait that long - I couldn't).

Forget all the trappings of Valentine's Day - this cake will make an indelible impression on the lucky recipient.   If there are any marriage proposals because of this cake, I want to know about them! 

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Wok and Roll

Raise your chopsticks and break out the plum wine - it's time to celebrate the Chinese New Year!  The Year of the Tiger begins on February 14, 2010. 

If you want to celebrate with more than a Chinese take away, then spend some time with the UK rising star of Chinese cookery.  Her name is Ching-He Huang.  Her cookbooks seem to rocket to the top of the book charts whenever they are released, so I don't think I'm the only one filling my shelves with her titles.  

published by Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2006

Her website is full of tips and recipes and is well worth having a look.  Chinese food tends to get a bad wrap for the MSG, but Ching's books are full of fresh and vibrant recipes and no MSG in sight. 
Due to her international upbringing, her recipes tend toward the fusion side of Chinese food (as opposed to traditional) which is what makes her books so interesting.

published by HarperCollins, 2008

Or if you're in a hurry, try this one:

published by HarperCollins, 2009

Put down the pot stickers, get out your wok, and roll through the Chinese New Year with Chinese fusion food from Ching.   

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Don't Sweat the Onions

Winter still has us in its grip in the UK, which means it's too early to give up the comfort food.   My German colleague, Andreas, made winter a bit more bearable recently by making homemade käsespätzle (cheesy egg noodles) for a few of us worker bees after work.

Two things conspired to make the käsespätzle evening happen - Andreas had been itching to give his new spätzle maker a work out.  And me? I had been itching to find out how he properly browns onions after he smugly told me how easy they are to do.   Somewhere along the way in life I flunked "Onion Browning 101" and I have been determined to overcome this.

For those of you who don't have a German foodie named Andreas in your circle of friends, you can turn to Dr. Oetker's German Cooking Today to find wonderfully comforting German recipes.  Dr. Oetker is the go-to book for everyday German cooking.

So here is Andreas' tutorial of onion browning:

1. Use butter (not oil) for browning onions.  Cook on a lower temperature because butter can't be cooked at as high of a temperature as oil.  Let the butter melt, but don't let it brown.

2. All the onions need to be covered in butter, so use lots of butter and lots of movement.  Add extra butter to coat.

3. Patience is a virtue.  Proper cooking needs patience, it is never done quickly.  So saith Andreas. This exercise in patience took around 20 minutes and the results were worth it.

These might look a bit jaundiced, but that's down to my camera and the lighting, not the onions.

Here is the spätzle process in action:

To recap browning onions:
  • cook them on a lower temperature
  • use lots of butter
  • keep it moving
  • be patient
And he gave me one of my favorite new tips: use white pepper for cooking and black pepper at the table for eating.

Now how do I feel about browning onions?   No sweat.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Quelle Surprise!

The nice thing about having younger colleagues with a rampant social life is that they have a lot to talk about on Monday mornings at work when we compare our weekends.

My colleague, Young Jess, is one such example. She had an intriguing dinner party last weekend and has very kindly agreed to be a guest blogger and tell us all about her French-themed party which revolved around her new French cookbook. Jess, it's over to you -

published by Phaidon Press, 2009

When I saw this French cooking bible, I Know How to Cook, at the Phaidon store in Piccadilly I knew I had to have it. It's not surprising I was attracted to this 2.5kg tome, as I have a life-long passion for all things French - the language, the art, the fashion, not to mention the food! It is the equivalent of the Italian must-have classic, The Silver Spoon, which is also published by Phaidon.

You've probably never heard of 'Je Sais Cuisiner' by Ginette Mathiot even though it's been around since the 1930s. Previously only available in French, it has been lovingly translated into English by blogger and food writer, Clotilde Dusoulier, of Chocolate and Zuchinni. As if the 1400 recopies aren't enough encouragement to buy this, there are also the pages of gorgeous illustrations by French illustrator, Blexbolex, which are pretty enough to frame.

So when some of my friends and I got talking about having our own version of the British television show Come Dine with Me, I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to put my new book into action. I love having lots of different dishes to try so I decided on a dégustation menu - as if cooking for 8 people wasn't enough of a challenge!

Another hurdle was a very fussy eater amongst the group who doesn't eat anything with fruit, tomatoes (yes, I know it's a fruit) or "slimy vegetables" so I really had my work cut out for me.
To tackle this head on I decided to also employ yet another French theme (yes another) Dans le Noir, a.k.a the restaurant where you eat in pitch darkness. That way at least he at least had to try the first bite!

After much deliberation, I used three recipes from the book, Scallop Gratin (p278), Four Berry Jelly (p677) and Potatoes Dauphinoise (p421). Being a visual type who likes to know what I am aiming for, I chose the recipes with pictures, though the majority of the recipes don't have them.

After an entire weekend of shopping (including a trip to Borough Market), preparing and cooking, the event itself went very smoothly. The recipes were reasonable to follow, though probably not for the absolute beginner as they are a little light on instruction.

The prettiest and most successful of the recipes was Scallop Gratin – why don’t you give it a shot!?!

Scallop Gratin (adapted from I know how to cook)

24 scallops in the shell (at least 8 in the shell)

4 Tblsp. butter

2 shallots, chopped finely

Small handful of flat leaf parsley

160g mushrooms chopped

2 Tblsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup white wine

300ml of any stock

1 egg yolk

Dried breadcrumbs to sprinkle


Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C/425 degrees F/Gas Mark 7. Remove the scallops from the shells removing the back muscle and wash the meat and the corals. Scrub the shells to clean and blanch them in a pan of boiling water. Allow to cool and dry.

Arrange the cleaned shells on a baking dish. Bring 200ml of salted water to the boil; add the scallops and poach for 1 minute. Drain, dry and set aside. In 2T Butter in a frying pan over a medium high heat, add the shallot, parsley and mushrooms and cook until the shallot is softened, off the heat and set aside.

Melt the remaining 2T butter, when it is at the point of smoking add the flour and stir until it is a light fawn colour. Gradually add the wine and stock stirring constantly. Reduce the temperature to a low heat and whisk in the egg yolk to bind everything together then add the scallops and the mushroom mixture. Spoon the mixture into the shells, 3 scallops per shell, sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and bake for 10 minutes.

Serves 8

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Cheese Face

My past weekend of singledom spawned a little project to soften you. If winter is plaguing you with dry skin, like me, you will want to know about this.

I read about a cheese treatment for younger looking skin in the Metro (the free commuter newspaper that distracts commuters from hurling obscenities at one another in the morning crush). It seemed bonkers, so naturally I had to try it.

There is never a better time to undertake a beauty regime than when the significant other is out of town. So out came the wine, up went the radio volume, and the beautification commenced.

The ingredients consisted of nothing more than crumbly Cheshire cheese and double cream (use heavy cream or whipping cream in the US). Just remember this is going on your face, not your hips.

I put 2 ounces of crumbly cheese and 4 Tablespoons of cream together and whizzed them in a blender. The outcome looked like this:

I realize this looks like a chunk of the moon, but don't be afraid to try it. I gingerly put this on my face due to the crumbly nature of the paste. It's best to have a drip pan under your face as you apply this to catch the fall out. I let it work its magic for 20 minutes - at that point I could no longer endure the whiff of the cheese.

To be honest, there aren't words to describe how silly I looked with chunks of cheese clinging to me, but I pushed vanity aside in the name of research. All for you, dear readers. The downside to this treatment is that it's rather smelly and messy. The upshot is that when my face was finally free of cheese and cream, it felt amazingly moisturized even beneath the surface. Better than even my high-tech moisturizers can do.

Winter is the ideal time for a treatment like this when the bitter cold and wind makes our skin look like a road map. It's natural, it's cheap, and it works!

Love your cheese, love your skin.