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New Orleans – a humid Harvester

20 Jun

Work took me to New Orleans last week. I had some pretty romantic pre-trip notions about what the city and its cuisine would be like. In the end none of those notions turned out to be true.

Creole cooking, at least the version we get in the UK, is not subtle at the best of times, but it’s flavoursome and unique. This was not a budget trip, so I expected I might be surprised about what the real thing presented.

My first exposure was ‘biscuits in sausage gravy’. This was not a dish that I was queueing up for. Actually technically speaking I was, but I was intending to skip the biscuits and go for the stack of pancakes at the end of the buffet. A US colleague had no intention of letting me play safe. ‘You gotta try the biscuits,” he said. “It’s a Louisiana tradition.”

I noted that he was not loading up on this dish himself, but as a good guest I obliged.

The biscuits in question are actually a fairly tasteless scone. It’s a good job that they are tasteless because the ‘gravy’ is not. Salty and sausagy, this stuff was a breakfast nightmare – a real heart attack on a plate. I honestly could see no appeal in this stodgy mess. Oh, how I wished I had stuck to my guns and hit the pancakes.

I’m aware that McDonalds incorporates local specialities into its menus around the world (it draws the line at roast pudding burgers in the UK) but I didn’t expect to be walking past a Lousiana MickeyD’s the next day and see the dreaded biscuits and gravy advertised for a dollar fifty. I didn’t drop by.

So, breakfast was hit and miss. Global breakfast conventions one, Southern specialities nil.

Later that day I had the opportunity to visit a New Orleans institution – K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme,this place is a fine dining introduction to Creole and Cajun. It has a waiting list. It has a dress code. When I told people where I was going there were gasps of jealousy.

Before I get to grips with the food, I need to make a few points.

1) I was pleased to get the chance to visit K Paul’s

2) I loved the atmosphere

3) The service was fantastic

4) Perhaps I just don’t get it

The starter I ordered was popcorn battered crab fingers. I was used to US sized portions. I offered to share it with my dining companions, fully expecting that I would struggle to finish it.

Where on earth did they dig up these crabs? You know the soldier crab, the one with one huge claw and one tiny one? K Paul’s crab fingers have left a huge number of soldier crabs wandering around with one large claw left attached. They really were tiny. (Disclaimer – I have no idea what type of crab it was. K Paul’s is not mutilating soldier crabs and then abandoning them to their fate.).

They were tasty, although the dipping sauce helped, but I was ready for my main course. I would have been ready even if I hadn’t given half my dish to my colleagues.

I chose blackened fillet and sweet potato mash. The waitress sold me on this in no uncertain terms. “It’s just….oh. Just….oh.”

I asked for it rare which was possibly a mistake. It was rare to the point of bleu. However, what distinguished it from your average rare steak was the thick layer of charcoal that encased the raw meat. This was blackened fillet after all, but had I been served this in any other environment I would have been unimpressed with the contrast. This could only be achieved by a grill set to nuclear.

Having said those uncharitable things there was a lot to like about this dish – notably the obscene amounts of beef on the plate, but in particular the delicious sweet potato mash. Yams are rapidly becoming my favourite vegetable.

I obviously hadn’t had enough of them because I ordered a sweet potato and pecan pie for dessert. I expected a large portion and I got a large portion. My dining companions looked on in pity and I struggled to down this monster slice of pie. Every bite was great, but the sheer volume created an ordeal. This was Man Versus Food, UK style.

Food in New Orleans is like the city itself. Exuberant, slightly sleazy and something you either love or hate. I was much closer to hating both than I expected. Spending a few days there was like being trapped in a giant US version of Harvester, only without the salad bar.

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Mexican squash and chorizo salad

22 May

Squash and Chorizo salad

With a recently diagnosed coeliac daughter it’s all too easy to forget that the rest of the family can eat gluten to their heart’s content. I even found myself dusting a plate of courgette cakes that the children would never be touching with gluten-free flour instead of the real thing. My creativity seems to be reserved for making suitable gluten-free meals instead of delicious new meals for me to enjoy. So here’s an exception.

This salad was not trivial to prepare, but it was delicious – moreish, spicy and filling (if something can be moreish and filling all at once).

It’s based on a recipe from Thomasina Miers Mexican Food Made Easy – fast becoming my culinary bible, but I did go a little off-piste. This food is so simple it’s wonderfully easy to improvise and adjust.

I turned it into a one-pot dish, roasting all the ingredient together, although I staggered them a little to avoid burning.

Ingredients

1 butternut squash, de-seeded and cut into chunks
2 red onions, sliced
1 handful of baby tomatoes (red looks best)
10cm of chorizo sausage
1 handful of baby spinach
Grated parmesan
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pinch of flaked chilli
1 tablespoon of chopped oregano or marjoram
Bunch of coriander leaves

Preparation

Heat the oven to 190°C.

Roast the chilli, cumin, oregano and squash in a tin for 15 minutes with a large splash of oil.

Add the onion and continue to roast for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and chorizo and roast for 10 more minutes.

Meanwhile pound the coriander in a pestle and mortar with some salt and olive oil until it makes a chunky paste.

When the roasting is complete, assemble the salad on each plate – a serving of the roasted vegetables, some spinach, a drizzle of the coriander paste and some shavings or gratings of parmesan.

No wheat please, she’s Coeliac

3 May

One of the missions of this blog is to promote frugal, yet good, eating. I don’t always hit the frugal mark – I just can’t resist spending money on great ingredients – but that ambition is soon to face a challenge I couldn’t have anticipated when I started writing at the beginning of the year.

My youngest daughter – MicroGast as she’s called here – has just been diagnosed with coeliac disease – a complete intolerance to gluten. This is not your common or garden wheat intolerance. This is the real deal. Ever since she was weaned nearly 18 months ago it turns out that a lot of the food she loves has been doing terrible things to her insides resulting in what we thought was a distinctly dodgy digestive system and that eventually we realised was just not normal.

So, in a few weeks time she will have a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and when that happens she must go gluten-free. Forever. Even so, it will take several months, and possibly even a year, before her guts recover and the symptoms disappear.

The irony is that before that biopsy she must continue to eat wheat like it’s going out of fashion in order not to skew the test results. We have been feeding her all manner of wheat-based delights that will probably never grace her plate again in the years to come. It feels wrong to be poisoning your baby by design, but that’s what the doctors tell us we must do.

Introducing a gluten-free diet into the family is pretty low down the list of things I planned to achieve in food this year. I know that the rest of us can eat what we like (for now – we will probably all need testing as the disease has a genetic link) but we want to make sure that we adjust our lifestyles to accommodate where possible.

It’s a challenge to be sure, not least because there seems to be gluten in a lot of foodstuffs you would never expect. And if it doesn’t contain gluten it might have been made in a factory that also handles wheat, so is it worth the risk?

There’s going to be even more home cooking than normal.

Last night, in an attempt to lighten the mood and to normalise the situation I brought home a pack of gluten-free wholemeal  ‘flour’ to bake a loaf.  This was exciting – a whole new world of baking to enjoy!

For the first attempt I decided to go for a bread machine baked loaf. There was a recipe on the back of the flour pack and so I decided to go with that. This was no normal bread recipe. It had eggs in it. And vinegar.

The bread machine was fired into life. It churned and kneaded for a while, then paused to allow the dough (if I can call it that – it was a distinctly grey-looking slop) to rise.

An hour later, my yeast curse appeared to be striking again. There was not a whole lot of rising going on. Hopes of cheering ourselves up by proving to ourselves that this gluten-free lark was going to fun were looking unlikely.

The beauty of the breadmaker is that even if you have lost interest in the whole idea, and I’m known for throwing my toys out the pram when cooking goes wrong, you can just walk away and let the beast do its stuff.

An hour of grumpiness later, the loaf was ready. It was with a fairly heavy heart that I tipped it out of the tin. It was grey and the crust looked plastic.  Suddenly I felt even sorrier for my poor daughter who was going to have to eat this muck for the rest of her life.

I tried to tear off a chunk, but it didn’t really behave like bread. It crumbled, more like a cake. Come to think of it, it smelt a lot like a cake as well. Not surprising with all those eggs.

Did it taste like a cake?

Not exactly, but it was surprisingly good. The closest thing I can compare it to is the brioche muffins that Mrs G made a couple of months ago. This is a compliment indeed as Mrs G’s muffins are a wonder of the modern age.

“Not bad is it?” I said to Mrs G, or more accurately “Mmmf baf ifih?” as I was enjoying it so much I didn’t stop eating.

“Snoff reog breh oh,” said Mrs G which I think meant “it’s not really bread though”. This was true, but it’s was a pretty fine substitute and one that I was already imagining toasted, buttered or turned into stuffing.

The next morning I slipped some into the kids’ breakfast. “Try this bread,” I smiled.

There were suspicious looks, after all no one wants to eat grey food. After a few seconds of cautious sniffing a few nibbles took place, then a smile, and then it was all gone. It wasn’t quite so successful on the lady of the moment who threw hers on the floor, but as that fate can befall even the nicest of food without any warning I didn’t take this as a bad sign.

So, gluten-free experiment number one was a success of sorts. Since then I’ve had a slice with some butter (nice) and turned the rest into a sage and onion stuffing (indistinguishable from the real thing). Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about this after all. There’s a long way to go and the organisation that will have to be put into keeping a wheat-free environment is yet to be comprehended.

Being a lazy gastronome is going to be a whole lot harder, but no less fun.

A dollop of Mexico fresh from the jar

27 Mar

Mexican accompaniments

Ten years ago Mrs G and I travelled to Mexico on a decidedly budget trip to Baja California. What lead us to this bit of the country that we christened Bognor-on-Pacific because of its being packed full of American package holiday-makers is a story for another day. The food we encountered was also not worthy of a blog post.

It seemed that the restauranteurs we encountered, partly because of our tiny daily budget, subscribed to the view that Mexican food should contain cheese, cheese and more cheese. Buritos, empanadas, chimichangas, tortillas – all indistinguishable cheese and flour-based stodge. Those were the good days. On bad days we couldn’t afford to eat out and just ate cheese. On a weekend in Paris eating nothing but cheese is an indulgence. In Baja where the cheese is all Monterey Jack, it’s disgusting.

With this lurking in my memory I visited Mexican restaurants in New York expecting a cheese-fest. Nothing could be further from the truth. I discovered a vibrant, fresh, light and subtle cuisine that is miles away from the Tex-Mex horrors that lurk in the aisles of British supermarkets.

Mexican Food Made SimpleSo, the recent gift to Mrs G of Thomasina Miers Mexican Food Made Simple has allowed us to indulge a burgeoning love of this type of food. It’s the sort of book where every turn of the page has another recipe you are dying to try out.

This weekend, to accompany a Mexican meal crafted from the pages of the book, I created several delicious condiments, including Pink Onion Relish and Fresh Tomato Salsa.

The Pink Onion Relish was designed to top off a range of taco fillings, but it was so good I wanted to eat it on its own – and have been doing from the fridge ever since. The red onions provided such a vivid colour that it was hard to believe that there wasn’t food colouring in there somewhere. Making it was simple  – blanche some sliced red onions in boiling water for 10 minutes, followed by marinading them in the juice of a lime, an onion and a sliced chilli. Easy.

The tomato salsa was much better than the shop-bought variety and even improved microwaved nachos. The ingredients were no surprise – tomatoes, chili, coriander, lime, onions and sugar, but the depth of taste certainly was.

I am falling in love with authentic Mexican food and when you read about the new wave of gourmet Mexican chefs it’s hard not to imagine what the culinary landscape in the UK might be like if only we could get over our obsession with Italian, Indian, Chinese and more recently Thai.

 

Not-so-good Italian lentils

22 Mar

Italian lentils and sausageOh the joys of being ill. It’s been a while since my last post and that’s entirely down to a low-grade stomach bug that although it hasn’t laid me up, had completely scuppered any desire to eat good food. Strangely it left me with a desire to eat no-so-good food, or at least food that probably isn’t worthy of a food blog – burgers, crisps, anything quick, fatty and preferably salty.

Fortunately though I seem to be coming out the other side and I’m starting to get excited in the kitchen again. Rather worryingly though my palate still seems to be shot to pieces.

Sausages were on the menu, again, a few nights ago. Normally I would have these with chips, or a slightly healthier salad. This time I fancied recreating one of my favourite dishes – Italian lentils and sausage. The best example of this I’ve come across is served at an Italian restaurant not far from one of my company’s office in Ealing, London.

Osteria del portico is a lovely, authentic Italian, set back from the road near Ealing Broadway tube. It describes itself as an ideal place to forget the stresses of London life. I don’t doubt this because it can be genuinely idyllic, but unfortunately I only tend to eat there over working lunches, so it’s anything but a release from stress.

Fortunately the food is great and my favourite dish is one of their starters –  Lucanica e Fagioli – Italian farmed sausages, cannellini beans, basil & tomato with little chillies.

Armed with the memories of this perfect little plate of food, I set about creating something similar – or at least, inspired by it.

The result was what I hoped I could christen Italian lentils. I slowed fried some garlic and onions, adding some green pepper once they were softened. I tossed in a can of green lentils and some chicken stock, leaving it to cook down for 30 minutes or so.

When topped with some Sainsbury’s Pork and Parmesan sausages this looked like a pretty faithful ( in spirit) recreation of Osteria’s Lucanica e Fagioli. I’m afraid to say though that appearances weren’t everything. It’s remarkable how tasteless the lentils were. It wasn’t inedible, just dull to an extreme. Mrs G couldn’t manage more than a few mouthfuls. I did a little better.

I was genuinely surprised. I thought it would work, but it didn’t. In retrospect it needed tomatoes, or possibly just a hint of thyme.

None of this occurred to me at the time. My palate was way out of line.I’m not convinced it is yet back in sync. Stay tuned to find out if this is the end of the Last Gastronome!

When the appetite deserts you

14 Mar

If you love food, and love eating, finding that the love has gone can be a distressing thing. You can remember what the passion felt like. At a logical level, it’s still there. Emotionally you just don’t fancy food right now.

This is what happens when you are recovering from a stomach bug.

Actually, during the recovery stage, things are a little different. You are so glad that you don’t feel awful that the desire to eat suddenly becomes all-consuming, but what you want to eat is comforting and probably salty to boot. Toast, chips, crisps, pasta.

But then the recovery is over and you are back to normal. Your head is telling you that you are better. Your stomach is confirming this. For some reason though, you just can’t be bothered to cook.

Recipe books no longer hold any appeal. Being inspired in the kitchen is just a distant memory. Every night the fridge is opened and you stare inside, thinking that today might be the day when you can suddenly sense that a few ingredients are going to work well together. It doesn’t seem to flow though and you have to fall back on old favourites, or even just the easy options.

When you love food, but you lose it, the kitchen becomes a lonely place. The only consolation is knowing that it will be back  – it always comes back.

 

Brioche scone muffins

4 Mar

image

These no-knead buns almost defy description. A friend who I shared them with this morning described them as a cross between a scone and a muffin, but the original recipe from Olive magazine calls them brioche, so they have to be ‘brioche scone muffins’!

They aren’t particularly sweet which make them a perfect vehicle for whatever you want to put on them. They taste great with nothing more than butter, but jam and honey are pretty good too. With their scone-like taste I wouldn’t be surprised if they went great with cream as well, but it feels like the wrong time of year to be experimenting with that.

The buns are fairly filling so you won’t have to many of them, but you also won’t want to stop, so a straining stomach is the inevitable result.

The only downside is that you have to make the dough the day before you want them so it’s not a spur of the moment decision.

What I love about…Fondue

15 Feb

Cheese fondueIf I ever had to choose a final meal, there would not be any competition.

It would be cheese fondue.

Nothing can compare to it. It resonates emotionally, for reasons I’ll go into shortly, tastes fantastic (cheese and booze – what is there not to like?) and preparation is lightning fast to  boot.

Let me dig a little more into the ‘prepare’ part of that statement. It’s a cheat, but cheese fondue is one of those dishes where the version you get out of the packet is so good, so authentic, so easy to work with, that I have never, ever seen the reason to start from scratch.

There is a ritual to the fondue preparation.

You chunk up the bread. The purists say it should be a stale baguette. I say, why stale? Yes, it needs some solidity to hold the gorgeous, gooey cheese, but it doesn’t need to threaten your fillings.

Chunked bread, ready for dipping

When this is complete, you remove the fondue from its box. At this point it will still be in its foil vacuum-packed sheath. It will feel colder than it has any right to and when you squeeze the packet you can feel the cheese giving slightly under your fingers like an edible stress relieving toy.

Taking a pair of scissors you snip the top off the packet. Immediately your senses are caressed by the aroma of cheese – Emmental and Gruyère –  and Kirsch. The fondue slips out of the pack easily, dropping into the fondue pot and immediately settling into the bottom of the pan, assuming its shape and waiting to be brought to life.

Fill the fondue burner with your fuel of choice and light, gently warming the fondue through. It takes time. The anticipation becomes almost unbearable, but it’s worth the wait. Half-melted fondue is no one’s idea of a good time.

When it starts to bubble the fun begins. Dipping your bread into the pot you remove as much of the cheese in one go as you possibly can. The strings extend from pot to bread becoming impossibly long as they stretch down to the plate. You spin the bread on your fork, twirling the cheese around and around until suddenly it snaps and you hurriedly scope it up onto to your plate to avoid losing any of it.

Cheese fondue, on the fork

Then the eating. It’s like the best cheese you have ever tasted, but with a kick of alcohol that sends your tastebuds into a spiral. You immediately want more, but in your haste you fumble the bread onto your fork and then into the pot. It sinks below the surface like a man in quicksand and you think “what a way to go!” You scrabble to find it, accompanied by chants of “into the lake with weights tied to his feet” from your fellow diners. And when you do fish it out, it is coated. Fully. It cannot be topped.

Yes, fondue is beyond compare.

It’s become the food background to so many special evenings – skiing trips, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas Eve – whenever I want it.

I never mix it up. Chocolate and meat fondue are OK (and I had a fantastic meat fondue in New Jersey a couple of years ago) but they are not the same.

Cheese fondue is special and it always will be.

Adventures in baking – part one

11 Feb

Cake ingredientsI’m not a baker. I never have been. I had beginner’s luck a few years ago when I made a cake for the oldest miniGast’s birthday in the shape of Nemo (the fish, not the Jules Verne character – although that would have been exceptionally cool) which engendered gasps of admiration from fellow parents.

“Wow! You didn’t make that?” they asked.

“Well, yes,” I replied, assuming the air of a man for whom a cake tin is a trusted friend, not an enemy. “Actually, it wasn’t so hard.”

Subsequent cake attempts have seen my success rate drop alarmingly, to the point where I now go out of my way not to bake. They could use my standard sponge output in the discus event at the Olympics, or possibly as the base of a traffic cone.

So, it was a surprise to me as much as anyone when I was hit by the urge to bake a coffee cake this morning.

I planned carefully, researching recipes, checking that I had the required ingredients and priming my helpful assistant (daughter number one) that baking would occur before the rugby, and icing sometime around halftime, or whenever England were playing  badly – whichever came first (in actual fact these two events roughly coincided).

I toyed with Nigella, but most of the comments were vaguely negative. BBC Good Food had a user submitted recipe, but I wasn’t keen. In the end I settled on one from a fellow blogger – I place great faith in the advice of those like me.

It was undoubtably an easy recipe to follow. With my lovely assistant in tow, we had the mixture ready in a matter of minutes and it was into a cake tin and into the oven before you could say “should have sieved the flour”.

There followed a nervous half an hour, waiting for the cooker to work its magic. I followed the suggested cooking time, but the knife test showed it was a little wet inside. Another 10 minutes and I gambled, removing it from the oven. So far so good.

Mixing cake ingredients like marble

One half of rugby later it had cooled sufficiently to consider the icing. This is where things went off the rails a little.

Nine years of parenting have never prepared me for how valued the act of cake icing is with children. For them, the baking is a mere warm up to the moment when you slap on the buttercream and top with hundreds and thousands. I was not playing ball, determined to make this, my first serious cake in a long time, my masterpiece.

“What sweets will you put on it?” I was asked.

“None,” I laughed. “This cake doesn’t need sweets.”

“Can I spread the icing?” was the next request.

“No,” I replied, a little grumpily. “I want this to be a nice cake.”

It didn’t get better. I took control of the cake situation by jealously guarding it from anyone who might want to help. There was a degree of storming out of the kitchen and slamming of doors. It was not my finest parenting hour.

But of course, the cake was wonderful?

Not really no. My icing was abysmal. It ran off the cake in torrents, washing up the sides of the plate like wallpaper paste. Nemo seemed a lifetime ago.

In fairness, the cake itself was lovely. Light and airy, it brushed aside memories of heavy sponge cakes gone. It was a valiant first attempt. In retrospect I should have made a couple and stacked them as it was a little small, but most of all I should have graciously accepted icing assistance. I am not Jane Asher and never will be. A few sweets wouldn’t have hurt and frankly, no one could have done a worse spreading job than me.

Lazy Gastronome will return in ‘The Cake Who Loved Me’.

Coffee cake

Soy sauce glazed tuna with sweet potato mash and red onions

10 Feb

Soy sauce glazed tuna with sweet potato mashSince I started this blog several people have been kind enough to comment on the photography, which is lovely of them. I can’t really accept these compliments for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, my camera (Olympus Pen for those of you who care about such things) is so good that until recently I thought it was impossible to take a bad picture. It had convinced me that food photography was simply a case of holding it at a low and jaunty angle to the plate and opening the shutter. Apologies to food photographers everywhere – I realise that does the art no justice whatsoever.

Secondly, the photo at the top of this page will shatter all your illusions about my being a slightly hungry version of David Bailey as it is truly atrocious.

The sad thing about this is that the dish it shows was delicious and if it puts any of you off giving it a try it would be a crying shame.

I feel the need to tell you that what you are looking at is a perfect, moist soy-glazed tuna steak, topped with red onions, similarly glazed and served on a bed of sweet potato and garlic mash. It all combines to make a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Have my words painted a thousand…er…pictures? Have you recovered from my mangling of that phrase?

If you are interested in this recipe I must refrain from reproducing it as it’s in this month’s Olive magazine, admittedly with spring, not red, onions. So, I’m afraid you will have to wait a while for the recipe to appear on the BBC Good Food site, but in the meanwhile, here is something similar and probably equally delicious. And here is a recipe for Sweet Potato Mash. I’m sure that you can put two and two together.