Monday, 23 June 2008

We all have our intolerances

Is it just me or does everyone have friends who don’t eat certain things because of allergies, intolerances, principles or just squeamishness (my sister in law will eat meat but can’t face a bone on her plate).

It means that every time I have people over for dinner I seem to be faced with a long list of ingredients I can’t use which, on the one hand, can be a good test of my culinary skills (the inverse of MasterChef’s mystery box challenge), but on the other hand can be highly annoying because it often means I can’t cook dishes I want to try and food I like to eat.

I’ve learned that its easiest to avoid certain guest combinations eg- I don’t invite the lactose intolerant friend with the friend who is allergic to nuts as it makes desert a bit tricky and I don’t ask vegetarian friends at the same time as my celiac friend as a few non-meat staples have wheat in them.

On Friday night I invited some friends for dinner and only had to contend with no wheat and no fish: a walk in the park. I wanted to try a recipe for a slow cooked Spanish lamb stew and I could do a flourless cake for desert and grilled haloumi for starters.

At the last minute I invited a couple I didn’t know very well who were friends of one of the other guests. I was speaking to the mutual friend on Friday afternoon and when I told her what I was cooking she said, ‘Oh I think Nat’s vegetarian’. Ok, no lamb for Nat, but she could eat everything else. My friend then called back to tell me that she’d just checked with Nat and she’s actually a vegan.

Nat’s plate was now looking pretty bare but it was too late to change the menu. Instead, I did some last minute shopping and was a bit vague when she asked about one or two ingredients. That fantastic flavour in the pilaf that you were trying to put your finger on Nat? Well, it was butter. Lots of lovely nutty browned butter. Does that make me a bad person?

Below are pictures are of the leftovers I ate the next night. Although I don’t have a photograph, I promise I made Nat a very tasty baked Portobello mushroom using no meat or dairy products whatsoever.

I did feel slightly less guilty about my butter deception after reading Jay Rayner’s article Eats leaves and shoots ... himself" in the Observer’s Food Monthly yesterday. He says he doesn’t believe you can be genuinely happy and vegan - “…the two are mutually exclusive”. So really I was just trying to spread some happiness.

Pyrenees Lamb with white wine and paprika sauce (serves 8-10)
from the MoVida Cookbook - one of my favourite restaurants in Melbourne


2.5 kg lamb shoulder - ask the butcher to cut into chunky pieces. (You could also use shank, or forequarter chops)
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
150ml olive oil
6 cloves garlic chopped
3 brown onions finely diced
6 bay leaves
7 red capsicums, seed, membrane removed and finely chopped
8 large tomatoes. peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

To make the sauce, heat ¼ cup olive oil in large heavy based saucepan over medium heat and sauté garlic, bay leaves and onion until soft. Reduce heat to low. Add capsicums, cover and cook stirring occasionally for 30 minute or until well softened. Add tomatoes, cover and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add white wine, and cook 10 minutes. Add 5 and a half cups of hot water and increase heat to high. Once the water is boiling add the paprika, reduce water to low and continue cooking the sauce gently for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Trim lamb of any excess fat and put in a roasting tin. Pour in the sauce to just cover the top of the meat (you will have left over sauce). Cook in the oven for about 2½ hours until meat comes easily off bone. As the lamb cooks, some of the sauce will evaporate, allowing the top of the meat to brown.

Eggplant (Aubergine), tomato and herb salad (serves 10)


4 large eggplants sliced into 1 cm rounds
6 tomatoes chopped into 2cm cubes
1 red onion, halved then finely sliced
small bunch flat leaf parsley roughly chopped
small bunch mint roughly chopped
juice of a I/2 lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sumac

To make the dressing put oil, lemon juice, pinch of sea salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper in a jar and shake.

Preheat oven to 220 degrees. Brush both sides of eggplant with olive oil and season with sat and pepper. Roast for 20-30 minutes until golden brown (even better if you can grill them on a barbeque). Allow to cool to room temperature. Gently mix with other ingredients and arrange on a platter. Pour over the dressing and then sprinkle with the sumac.

Pilaf with asparagus (serves 10)


500g basmati rice soaked in water for an hour or 2 (the longer you soak the less cooking time required)
75g unsalted butter
2 brown onions finely sliced
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 bunches asparagus, cut off tips and cut stems cut into 1cm rounds
700ml hot vegetable stock

Heat butter in a medium saucepan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams. Add onion and a pinch of salt and cook over medium heat for 20-25 minutes until the onion is soft and caramelised. Drain rice and add to pan. Stir to coat in butter. Add the asparagus and stock. Cover with a circle of grease proof paper and place lid on saucepan. Bring to boil and then reduce heat and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let it rest for 5 minutes.

Orange and pine nut cake (serves 8-10)
from Tamasin Day Lewis’s cookbook All you can eat: 1000 Recipes


190 g castor sugar
6 eggs separated
175 g flaked almonds toasted and roughly ground
275g pine nuts
zest and juice of 2 oranges (keep separate)
2 tablespoons runny honey

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Grease and line a round springform cake tin.

In a bowl, beat 85g of the sugar with the egg yolks until pale and golden. Fold in the ground almonds, whole pine nuts and orange zest.

In another bowl whisk the remaining sugar with the egg white to a thick, glossy meringue. Fold, a third at a time, into the orange zest and nut mixture, then pour into cake in.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour until skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool 15 minutes. Warm the honey until it thins and mix with strained orange juice. Pour this mixture over the cake in the tin.

When cool, remove from tin and serve with cream and berries. The vegan just gets the berries.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Everywhere I look….

I see reminders of you.

Never never never leave your bike unlocked. Not even for I minute.

Bye Bye bike,

Missing you already.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

360 reviews: customers do the darndest things

In my old life, working for the government, we used to have 360-degree performance reviews where everybody in the organization, from management to the mailroom, got feedback on how well they were doing their job. In hospitality, however, it’s a one-way street.

Customers can tell the waiters what they think of their performance through the tipping system and restaurant critics are allowed to say whatever they want about the talents of the chef and the standard of the service when they review a restaurant. But what about the views of the shop assistants, chefs and waiters: the ones earning £5.50 an hour, on their feet for 10 hours, and expected to accept that the customer is always right despite everyone knowing that claim is statistically impossible?

I’d like to see customers receive a score, given by the staff, for how well they performed: were they polite and appreciative, were they adventurous in their meal choices, did they overstay their welcome...

If you want to score highly you should avoid the following:
Talking loudly on your mobile phone while being served and then whispering to the person serving you as though they are the person you shouldn’t really be having a conversation with.

Asking for some jam, watching the waiter run up and down the stairs to get it, then asking for a glass of tap water, watching the waiter run up and down the stairs to get it, then asking for a new knife because you’ve just dropped yours…And don’t preface the request with “I hate to make you run up the stairs again but…” Clearly you are enjoying being waited on hand and foot. I know I do.

Ignoring the meals listed on the menu, which have been carefully thought out by someone who is trained and skilled in this area, and asking if you can order something that you have created. That’s what your own kitchen is for.

Losing perspective: On an insanely busy Saturday I was told by one irate customer that I had ruined his day because he and his friend’s breakfast had not arrived at the same time. Annoying, sure, but hardly worthy of ruining your day. It’s only breakfast and you have the whole day ahead of you sunshine.
After nearly twelve months working at Tom’s Deli I’m finally leaving so I can focus on getting the café started. For the next few weeks I’m going to enjoy being the customer, safe in the knowledge that I will not be shamed by a low score even if I behave like a complete twat.

Bye bye Tom’s. Missing you already.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Never never never give up

Another lesson I'm learning in the process of trying to open the café is that perseverance is key. A lot of Antipodeans I’ve spoken to in London say they had also thought of opening a café, or knew of someone who wanted to, but had never gone ahead with it.

Perhaps there are only so many disappointments, knock backs and unreturned phone calls that these people can take before they say, ‘I give up’. But if there is one thing I’m not, it’s a quitter. Like Winston, I never give up.

The other week I saw that Tamasin Day-Lewis was speaking at a lunch at Books for Cooks. Now, I have to explain that my sister is infatuated with Tamasin. She feels that she and Tamasin are kindred spirits: both involved in high pressure jobs in creative industries, both mothers of three, and both passionate about food and cooking. If only they could meet, she is sure they’d become best friends.

When I went to Books for Cooks to arrange this meeting I was told that the event had sold out, they couldn’t possibly take any extras and already had a waiting list. A thin lipped assistant assured me that my chances of attending were “doomed I’m afraid”.

The following week I was serving in the deli at Tom’s when I looked up to see Tamasin at the cheese counter. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t seize this opportunity. Caught completely off guard all I could think to say was “My sister is completely obsessed with you”. She laughed a little nervously and said “In a good way I hope”. I blundered on and by the time she was walking out the door with her bag full of cheeses she had secured me seats at her lunch: “Call Eric and tell him that Tamasin said its ok for you and your sister to come”.

The phone call was made and on the day of the event we were the first to arrive. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, non” said Eric Treuille, the French proprietor of Books for Cooks, “I thought it was just you. One of you can come but two is impossible”. Despite my pleading and offers to stand and not eat, Eric is also a man who does not give up and I was left pacing downstairs waiting to see if a ticket holder didn’t turn up. 30 agonising minutes later I was allowed in, giving Eric and Tamasin a triumphant smile as I sat down to lunch.

We chatted, we laughed, we ate, we bonded and my sister left with her arm around her new bestie. Well almost – a copy of Tamasin’s new cook book with a personal inscription.