Tapas
I didn’t have time to photograph it all

The people around the mediterranean know what makes a good party. They know the ingredients, the method, what is required and what should happen. They understand that a party only becomes a trues success if it is centred around an event and an entertainment. They have also worked out that the best entertainment, the best event is food.

There is nothing more boring, more mundane and more of a mood killer than the standard British buffet. This abomination, this complete insult to everything that is good about food has been given far too long a life; it should have been kicked out of the house many decades ago because it is, without doubt, a total party pooper.  Since when does a party take on life and joy by the addition of three bowls of crisps, an anemic cold rice dish, a preprocessed slop of egg and salad cream on a pappy roll and those horrendous fake scandinavian tasteless prawn rings?

Compare that to Tapas. Tapas is a rolling adventure that originates in the tiny, local bars of rural spain. These small family run concerns often only have one chef, so Tapas does not happen all at once, it rolls out bit by hot, delicious bit over an entire evening. Every few minutes, platefuls of delicious mouthfulls of food appear on the bar or a large serving table, to be gobbled up enthusiastically by the combined greediness of a crowd constantly hungry for more. The bar may have music and fun and lots of Spanish beer and wine, but it is the food, the Tapas and its imaginative creator that sets the mood and keeps the party going.

This makes it perfect for a party at home, of course since you do not need to have everything ready at once. Indeed, it is far better that you don’t. That does not make it easy – this is hard work – but it makes it a lot of fun. Here is the trick of doing it.

Spend a couple of weeks looking up what you want to cook, taking into account your guests likes and dislikes (Try and invite people who really love food – those who prefer prawn rings should fall off your christmas card list). This is fun in itself; finding the sites with the most genuine advice and recipes and translating that into what you can buy locally. Make sure you have far more dishes ready that you are actually going to make. Don’t worry about variety or whether the food clashes; you want that to happen. The guests need to be surprised, so go as mad as you want/can, have fun and just make sure it is rich, luscious and leaves your guests hungry.

Shop just the day before, as usual, and remember that on the day of the cook you are going to spend THE WHOLE DAY doing it, so if there are any bits that you can prepare the night before to marinate, go for it and get a good nights sleep. There are some set ingredients you will use that you must have – herbs (parsley and oregano), peppers, chorizo, goats cheese, Manchego (hard sheep’s cheese), paprika, garlic, chilli and loads of olive oil.

Most of the cooking will be done the actual night of the party and continuously throughout the party, so during the day you need to create little bags of pre-prepared ingredients ready to go. Somethings you can get halfway done. For instance, Tortilla (Spanish omelette) is based on slow fried potatoes, so get those done earlier so you can do the tortilla much easier. If things need tomato sauce bases (like meat balls) get those cooked and ready to warm an mix in. Get all your peppers stuffed and your squids, get your shell fish cleaned and prepared and fillet your fish. You know the drill.

You will use lots of serving dishes. Remember, this is a spectacular, so no matching. You can use metal baking tins, pottery dishes, old victorian bits, tin foil, baskets – the more variation the better. Nothing formal – rural is the name of the game, this is village fare that has become trendy; honour its origins.

Face it, you will be knackered by the end of the night so think about kidnapping a couple of guests to help you with a little bit of waiting and doing things like sticking cocktail sticks in things. Have fun, buy your selves some really big, proper butcher’s aprons and put on bandanas – it looks right and keeps hair out of the food.

When you bring out dishes, don’t do it quietly. Never expect a good party to run itself – you are the chef, you are in charge and it is your responsibility to make the entire thing an event. Announce each dish, explain what it is and really go for the ooh’s and ahhs and hopefully some applause. You should be showing off like mad – You and Your food ARE the party!

Trust me – if you really break your back, really go for it, people will talk about it for years. People are so expectant of crisps and prawn rings that they won’t know what hit them – they will love it.

So, I did one of these last night for eleven people. The cost of the ingredients came to around £90 and I was on my feet from eight in the morning when I put my dough on, till the early hours. Today I am shattered, but everyone had a great time. Here is what I dished up, more or less:

  • Toasts with olive oil and roasted veg
  • Mini spare ribs
  • Cold tomatoes stuffed with onion, olives and grated Manchego
  • Mussels
  • Long thin pickled peppers
  • Warm olives with warm olive oil, lemon and goats cheese#
  • Deep fried sprats till crunchy
  • chicken kebabs – little ones in the middle of huge wooden skewers
  • Tortilla with potato and peppers
  • Roasted dates wrapped in pancetta
  • Potatoes deep fried and served with a tomato sauce and home made mayonnaise
  • Baked quails eggs with serrano ham and cheese
  • Sardine fillets cooked on toasts with lemon and olive oil and chilli
  • Tiny Meatballs (found in EVERY tapas bar)
  • Plate full of marinated anchovies
  • Big bowl of olives
  • Squid stuffed with rice and tuna
  • Peppers stuffed with salmon and potato (traditionally done with salt cod, but the salmon was cheap)
  • Bowl of dates, nuts and chillis
  • Baby closed mushrooms fried with sherry
  • Rice cooked with saffron and herbs served in cup-cake cases
  • Chorizo cooked in a little wine
  • grilled mackerel fillets
  • Peppers and Serrano ham tossed in hot oil and lots of oregano

And a couple of more I forget now that I made up as I went along.

The Spanish have a saying, “Me casa es su casa.” My house is your house. Prove it by giving your guests an evening they will remember.

Hungry Horse
Double Heart Attack Burger

Why do retailers produce incredibly high calorie food?

Well, it is simple really. They know that modern society loves over the top food and they know that high calorie food eaten on a regular basis makes us hungrier both physically and psychologically. So, why not? As a retailer you would be stupid to worry about health issues in case they got in the way of fat profits. After all, tobacco companies have been trading on that ideal for years.

In the race to be more gross than anyone else, enter Hungry Horse, a chain of pub restaurants in the UK owned by the old Green King brewery. The chain has been going since 1995 and serves value offerings – a sort of modern, fast food version of a gastro pub.

They have imported an idea from the US of multi layered burger sandwiched between two glazed doughnut rings and come up with a product that kicks in at 1900 plus calories – that is more than the entire daily allowance for a female and pretty much all of it for a male. It is 500 calories more than my current diet!

According to the BBC, Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in Applied Physiology at Birmingham City University, said: “To me, this is simply ludicrous and irresponsible. I am no killjoy but why is this sort of food available?”

But this is not about being irresponsible. That makes it sound like they are not really bothered about whether something is fattening or not. Of course they care. They know well that the selling of this kind of food over a couple of generations has made us hungrier, greedier, perhaps, and more likely to buy more. This kind of food makes a fortune and Hungry Horse are jumping on a well known bandwagon.

They go further too – one of their dishes clocks up over 3000 calories.

Hungry Horse themselves make the point that they cater for a range of tastes and appetites and print the nutritional information on the menu.

However true that might be, no business sells something because they don’t think they can make a profit out of it. They do it because they see pound signs. That is the only reason they are selling this lump of fat, sugar and salt.

 

They need better photos
They need better photos

There is a reason why this blog is not stuffed with Restaurant reviews, well a couple actually. Firstly, I find the restaurant food available within a normal budget is often disappointing, so I simply do not eat out often. The other reason is when I do I am very rarely surprised, at least nicely.

The other week I had the opportunity to visit the China Brasserie in a new district of Aylesbury. Aylesbury has a large and diverse community from many parts of the world, which opens up the opportunity for some interesting food. Despite that, my experience of other similar communities has shown that much ethnic food is in the hands of the opportunist and the best of it is still to be found in their home countries. Indian restaurants are a prime example and however much people in the UK might enjoy popping out for “an Indian,” trust me – that is not how great food from the Indian Subcontinent is meant to taste!

Chinese food has a similar problem. I suspect the majority of Chinese food in the UK is eaten via a take-away and that really is the worst possible punishment for the humble Chinese dish. Chinese food is distinctive in its freshness. The people of the various provinces of China enjoy very different approaches to their food, but they are united by both the wok and a love of steaming. Sadly, steaming is something we see far too little of in the West. The food in Beijing, both in the street and in their noisy, competitive restaurants, is cooked right there, right at the time you want it. It has lightness and subtlety and great love. In many of the takeaways in the UK, the food has the weight of a whale and probably most of it’s oil to boot.  It is thick, sticky and every dish tastes pretty much the same.

The China Brasserie is, happily, trying to buck this trend and we had a thoroughly enjoyable meal the other night. Being midweek, and me being lazy, we chose a set menu. I admit this was completely unfair since the set menus were pretty much the same as you get every where else, and we ignored any original and inspiring unique dishes they might well serve. But then, I did not go in order to review; this was just a pleasant evening out!

This was a Wednesday and the restaurant was very quite, so the service, as you can imagine was prompt. The Thai lady that served us was friendly and chatty, yet polite and efficient. The food, when it arrived, was fresh, generous and quite delightful. It is rare I stop talking to mention something is nice, but I did several times.

It was made up of pretty predictable dishes including satay chicken, crispy seaweed (!) and crispy aromatic duck, but it was well cooked, properly seasoned, and had some subtlety, which was very much appreciated. Reading through the rest of the menu on their dreadful website (please contact me for a nice new one!) there is not a lot on there that cannot be found elsewhere and I would really like to see less dishes and more originality. But the chef, who I suspect might be Thai, can cook properly and I am sure if he or she decided to move away from the predictable and venture into interesting they would make a very good job of it.

The restaurant itself is very modern, large and sited on a new square in the Fairford Leys village, which is a new, well noted development within Aylesbury. Not actually a village then.  Pricing is fairly typical for the menu style and is generally affordable. Checking through the public reviews, the restaurant is well liked and popular and I have no reason to disagree with any of those reviewers.

It is now up to other restaurants in Aylesbury to up their game and present their food, whether that is Asian, European, American or African with as much style and care as the China Brasserie.

Website: http://www.chinabrasserie.co.uk/

 

 

Lentil and Vegetable Soup
Warm, spicy and filling

There is something gratifying about returning home on a blustery autumnal day and warming up your tunny with a big bowl of thick, spicy soup. The only let down is that this is still August and it is not meant to be autumnal at all!

But, through fair weather and foul, as they say….

This is an easy dish and low priced so there is precious little excuse. I have made this with red lentils since that was what was in the cupboard. Likewise, the vegetables chosen are what happened to be in the fridge. So, this is very much a larder recipe – vary it according to what you have in stock.

 Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons ground nut oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 small lump ginger
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 4 cups chicken stock (or veggie stock if you prefer)
  • 1 chili
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup chopped coriander
  • Salt and black pepper

Cook it!

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil and gently fry the spices. Make sure they do not burn!

Add finely chopped onion, garlic, ginger and chili and cook till the onion is just turning colour – do not brown it too much as that wont work as well.

Stir in the lentils, carrots, celery and stock. Bring to the boil and turn down to simmer till the lentils are properly cooked. You might need to add more stock if it is too thick.

Add the peas and the coriander and cook for a couple of minutes more.

Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

If you want it spicier, increase the spice levels and you might want to drizzel some chili oil over the bowls of soup.

A bunch of fresh Spring Onions
A bunch of fresh Spring Onions

There is always a change at this time of year that is like a change of seasons, even though we are only halfway through summer.

Up to this point, the allotment has been focused on the early crops of peas and broad beans, onions, early lettuces and pak choi and the first crop of carrots. Now, the peas and broad beans have finished (though I have more peas on the way) and the ground has been cleared. In other allotments, the first and second early potatoes are all dug up and the ground cleared. So in some ways the allotments are less bushy than they were!

But now other plants are taking over. Turnips and Swedes are starting to swell, though they have a long journey yet to travel, and tomatoes, peppers and the squashes, cucumbers and melons are busy climbing their frames.

Some of these will be giving me a headache. We have had a long and welcome period of warmth and my outdoor cucumbers are producing as much as they would have indoors, so I will have a glut. Vinegar will be required, no doubt!

It is too early to see what will happen with the tomatoes, but the plants them selves are full and healthy. All mine are out side this year, so there will be no early crop.

Back at the house, the patio is looking wonderful with the begonias going bloomin’ mad. The peas and cucumbers are looking good too and make an interesting addition to the flowers. In a month or more they will be joined by chillies, which will be nice.

Apples and Pears are beginning to break the trees, so I am getting imaginative with supports. The sweetcorn plants are smaller than I was expecting, so I hope the corns are not too small!

And the trombone squash are everywhere, which is a touch of a surprise. Seems like some of them weren’t courgettes after all…

Fattening Peas
Fattening Peas

So, it is not the most inspiring song title ever, but today it was raining and yet, today I was also weeding; well, in bits, between the heavier downfalls!

Watering certainly has not been a major issue at the back end of this month; the allotment is not yet floating off down the hill, but the plants are beginning to shout, “Enough, already!” (Yes, I seem to have a totally Yiddishe crop!)

In fact, it is all looking fairly healthy at the moment.  I have started cropping broad beans (so, I should probably put up some recipes soon, if I can think of something new) and the peas are on the verge of being plump and ready. My normal beans are being a bit slow to get going as are a couple of other veg, but the peppers are now ready to be transplanted into their final pots as are the aubergines.

I think my first crop of garlic is going to be a failure. The plants got infected with rust, all in one go, and it looks like the resulting garlic bulbs are going to be tiny. Lets hope my second crop does not suffer the same fate. I will have to find a new location for the winter planting this year as once you have had rust the ground is contaminated for up to 5 years. I won’t be able to plant onions there either.

The peaches are reddening up so I hope they will be edible and not just fall off. The greenhouse grape vine has recovered this year, though the early signs of grapes look a little underwhelming; the outdoor vine is doing better.

My six melon plants (various types) are all looking healthy and are beginning to climb up their shelves, and the strawberries are doing well. Next year I think I am going to build a strawberry rack out of heavy duty canes and grow the strawberries in little pots on it. The system, if you get it right, produces lots of very clean strawberries since the fruit hang rather than lie on the ground.

Back at the house, the tomatoes are sturdy and growing well, and I have planted a couple of patio pots with blue peas and cucumbers. These will be joined later by 6 pepper plants which should make a nice display. I am moving the growing of lettuce, rocket and pak choi to the garden as I am losing to flea beetle at the allotment.

So, it is a a bit mixed – some good, some not so good, but it looked rather nice today, despite the rain.