Saturday, 31 October 2009

Where's the A to Z?

I have a profoundly inaccurate sense of direction. Stop and ask me the way to the Liverpool Street and it is highly likely that you'll end up in Uxbridge. Alright, that last statement might be a little over the top but there have been a couple of occasions when I've sent a tourist on their merry way and thought afterwards "oh no I meant to say right". This is terrible but I have actually bumped into a fellow pedestrian who recognised me and stopped to remonstrate the fact that I'd given them the wrong instructions a few days previous. I, in no uncertain terms, argued that I had never seen him before in my life, called him an "idiot" and stormed off before he could register that my beetroot-red face and smell the faint involuntary flatulence emitting from my posterior. He was a big hairy scaffolder and scaffolders can be scary blokes you know. So, the moral of this tale is never listen to or accept advice from me when lost. Ask a community police officer for directions, that's all they're good for anyway.

Also, should you ever arrange to meet me for a WMPC swop, don't expect me to know where Canteen is either. Even if I do suggest that it would be a good place to go and that I would buy you breakfast in there. As Mia from The Urban Foodie found to her cost last week. Although I was off work for the week, using up holiday to do some DIY around the house, I didn't want to cancel our appointment so I suggested that we meet early in the morning. That way I could get back home and still have the rest of day to stand in my front room to scratch my head and ponder. You know, I never did get any painting done. So I met Mia at our designated spot, Embankment at 8:45 sharp and with great strides and purpose, walked across Waterloo Bridge to take her to breakfast, having a good natter along the way. When we reach the other side, Mia then turns to me and says "so whereabouts is it? to which I reply "well it's around here somewhere". Actually all I really knew was that I'd heard they had a branch on South Bank, somewhere. Most likely a geezer in the pub told me. Desperate not to let on that I didn't have a clue where we were going, I decided that the best policy would be to run around like a headless chicken, dragging poor Mia left, right, upstairs and down the myriad of steps, byways and walkways around Royal Festival Hall.

After a short while, Mia decided that perhaps she should get directions off her iPhone. "Bloody hell, marvelous idea" I thought, "I should really get myself one of those". Once she found the Canteen website with a map she then handed it over to me. Which was a mistake. Perhaps Mia was trying to do me the good favour of letting me feel as though I was still in charge of the situation but I am dyslexic when it comes to maps. Hence, the poor directional skills. I am sure alarm bells went ringing off as I pointed at the small screen and asked "what do you think that big blue wavy line is?". She didn't have to tell me it was the Thames, the look she gave was enough. In the end, I admitted defeat and had to go into an Eat establishment to ask where the hell Canteen was. And of course, it was just around the corner. 20 minutes faffing about, running up a puff and it was just behind the bloody Royal Festival Hall. Still, nothing like a bit of exercise to build up an appetite.

Once we finally got in there, I have to say that breakfast in Canteen was very pleasant, despite being served by a waiter who clearly wore a string vest under his shirt. Mia plumped for Eggs Florentine and I had Eggs, Bacon and Bubble n Squeak and it was great to sit there having a chat with an absolute stranger. Even if I had to concede that she made the better choice and sat there quite jealous. It's OK she gave me a little bit of poached egg. But as I was saying, most of the contributors to WMPC I have met before but the only lines of communication I've had with Mia were via email and Twitter so it was nice to meet the face behind the blog. And what a blog too. OK, The Urban Foodie is the product of a MA in Web Design so as a food blog it does go beyond the realms, well compared to mine anyway! I'm not sure but I think the blog is relatively new, it certainly is very comprehensive with lots of information with reviews and recipes, you should check it out. And after spending 45 mins talking with Mia, it was clear that here beats the heart of a true epicurean with a lovely sense of humour. But then she'd have to after putting up with the initial farce of trying to find the place.

So what did Mia give me in exchange for brekkie? Sausages, that's what. Casseroled with butter beans, tomatoes, onion and fennel (you can find the recipe here) and it was fantastic, a super winter warmer. You could tell that the snags were of good quality, very meaty with a slight hint of pepper. The beans were soft and yielding and Mia had cut up the onion into fairly large chunks which had been gently caramelised, nice and sweet. Personally, I think that fennel seed is a great addition to any sausage dish adding a lovely hint of aniseed and frequently pair them up at home so Mia was onto a winner here anyway. She also supplied a side salad which I was very impressed with as the leaves, cucumber and tomato had been produced in Hackney, supplied by Growing Communities' scheme. Mia lives in the area and gets a box from them once a week. There were various leaves in the salad but the mizuna in particular was packed with mustard flavour which went down well with Mia's balsamic dressing. An excellent supper.

Thanks a million Mia and next time, you decide where we go, I'll just follow!

Sausage and Butter Bean Casserole
Autumn Salad from Hackney

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Hell is a place called Power Point

OK, rewind. It is a Friday and I am stuck at my desk and because I have decided last minute to take a week off, I have to tie things up. You know brief colleagues, clear email, tidy my pen holder, that kind of thing. It shouldn't have been any bother at all really. As I've mentioned before you could dress a chimp up in a shirt and tie and sit him at my desk. He'd do just fine in my absence. But there was also the small matter of sorting out a request from a client. Something that I had been putting off for days which was the task of touching up a power point presentation. Throughout the week, I would open the file and audibly groan whilst flicking through the slides, mainly because I had no remit and therefore no idea what to do with it. Mr T had simply plonked it on my lap and said "See what ye cun do w'this, wants tartin' up". So midday, I finally call the client to try and get some input and get told that because of branding that I can't change the format too much, the colours, the font, the images. Oh and the graphs should really be left alone. So feeling frustrated and just a tad impetuous, I ask "what exactly do you want us to do with it?"

"Well we thought you could jazz it up a little".

"Aha, yes of course jazz it up a little, why didn't you say! Well, what if I were to take a picture of my hairy bollocks, animate them and have them dance across the bottom of the screen at regular intervals? That would certainly liven up your AGM next week wouldn't it!"

I didn't say that of course but it would have been fun to hear their response. No I simply sighed and said that I would see what I could do and then naturally buried it in the vain hope that it would be picked up by someone else in the office whilst I was away. It was a Friday for gawds sake, I was about to go on holiday, I was finishing early for a change and I had to meet Euwen of A Rather Unusual Chinaman for WMPC.

This was going to be an interesting meet for the plain reason that Euwen (who will readily admit this) rarely cooks. If you have a look at his blog, it's obvious that he is a gourmand and eats out a fair bit, prompting some serious restaurant envy so I was quite pleased that I press ganged him into this little project and got him behind the stove for a change. I had originally planned another jaunt down Whitecross Street Market for lunch but the power point debacle held me back so it was decided that Euwen and I would meet at Moorgate when I finished at 2:30 and I would grab him a bottle of something for his efforts. As I walked down to meet him, I could feel an aching for a sunshine drink so I was mightily pleased that he had time to join me for a pint of the black stuff in The Globe. Which of course turned into two and could have carried on into three or four, had Mrs Food Urchin not rang and told me to get my drunken bum back home as my parents had popped by to visit. A shame really as we had a great chat that afternoon, shooting the breeze, talking mainly about food and our personal histories, I could have quite happily carried on. And I have to say that I am starting to find the social aspect of WMPC just as gratifying as scoffing the grub I receive. I found an interesting quote the other day by James Beard and I have to admit that knowing nothing else about him but still he said that "food is our common ground, a universal experience". If I wanted to form a base for the idea behind this project, it would be just that. Bring a meal to the table and conversation will follow, and then friendship, marriage, kids, who knows! (Don't worry Euwen this is not a proposal, I am just trying to make a comment on the unifying nature of food, albeit in a very cack-handed manner).

So what did Euwen sweat and slave over and what was the verdict? And further more, will he ever get his sister to clean the kitchen? As I understand it, after some panic and deliberation, Euwen went for recreating his mum's Chicken Rice recipe which can be found here. He also threw in a spring roll for good measure and some sweeties purchased on a recent trip to the States. Euwen need not have worried as the rice was very good indeed, full of meaty, savoury goodness. I feel tempted to use the buzzword 'umami' here when describing the flavours but can only hear in my head, Vic Reeves' rendition of 'uvavu' bounce about so I won't. But still the rice was lovely and tender and extremely moreish. Euwen, your mother would be proud. The chicken drumstick did suffer slightly from a nuking in the microwave, still the spring roll though was pretty good, although I am unsure whether he made this or not. And then we come to the Yankee Doodle Dandy confection which consisted of Twizzlers, Jolly Rogers and Hershey Chocolate. I have to say that I am not used to American sweets but jesus, they were sweet! In fact, they were all a bit too much to be honest, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom after each one to scrub the coating from my teeth. And not to mention the fact that they sent me hyper, buzzing with the artificial flavours and sugar load. Seriously, you could go raving on these sweets. Euwen, does your mother know you eat this crap?

For this swap, I grabbed a bottle of Rioja from Marks and Sparks when we left the pub. Thank you Mr Teh, top stuff.

Mum's Chicken Rice

Hallucinogens disguised as sweeties

Going back to Romford shouting "Lager Lager Lager"

Friday, 23 October 2009

Can I Play With Madness?

Have you ever been in the scenario when you're sitting on a bus with an empty seat next to you? There you are happily going about your own business, reading a book, listening to music or simply staring out the window daydreaming. But then you come to a request stop and another passenger gets on, a passenger who at first glace you know straight away isn't quite right. It's the way they bounce onto the bus and thrust their money violently at the driver before making some bird-like chirp, a whistle and then launch off down the gangway with eyes has wide as saucers. Invariably their trousers are too short, the hair is severely clipped at the side with a plume of madness on top and they carry a blue plastic shopping bag crammed with newspapers and other detritus by their side. You crane your head and look out the window, square on and you are thinking "oh please, oh no, please please don't sit next to me." Naturally, just by emitting that very thought, you become a magnet. The person whips their neck around, focuses, jerks their head to one side, barks and move towards you with great big strides. They plonk right down next to you and introduce themself, saying something like "I've got Bisto in my pants, it makes my bum itchy". Oh dearest headcase, out on day release, why do you aways find me?

I was thinking these same thoughts after I bought Sarah from finger and toes lunch from Whitecross Street market a couple of weeks ago for WMPC. But first some background. As the market has become quite a bustling centre for the local lunchtime crowd, I thought it would be nice to take Sarah down there and sample some of the finest street food that this city has to offer. Funny concept that though, street food, in London or the UK for that matter. Even funnier is the fact that there has been a lot of song and dance recently about the burgeoning pavement catering scene that seems to be developing across the land. Some mad hatter has even come up with the British Street Food Awards which was launched at Whitecross Street a few weeks ago, fully endorsed by Messrs Pierre-White and Worrell-Thompson. Brilliant. Except if you take a walk down this otherwise unassuming street in EC1 on market day, the food varies from Thai to Indian, Italian to Greek, Mexican to Brazilian and is hardly British at all. Let alone street. And what is British street food anyway? Hot chestnuts are all I can think of.

Of course, I am ranting here. Excuse me but I am finding all this hoohah slightly confusing. Nevertheless, Whitecross Street is still a great place to get grub and I left it to Sarah to decide where we should go for lunch. She settled for one of the Thai stalls going for ginger tofu and rice and I took a plastic tray of chicken massaman curry. There is quite a nice pub called The Two Brewers, the proprietors of which let you bring in your food from the market as long as you buy a pint but alas it was rather busy so we had to make do with the adjacent park. No matter, we soon found a bench with table and settled down, having a good chat as we ate. We were then joined by another luncher however, who asked if he could sit with us. Sure no problem. But shortly after getting his tupperware box out which seemed to contain nothing but dark cabbage leaves, he proceeded to start pad out a rhythm with his hands on the table surface. The alarm bells started ringing when he picked up a stick from the floor and asked "is this your stick?" and began to drum with it whilst throwing chunks of green matter into his mouth. His mobile then rang which he answered and had a conversation that went along the lines of "yeah I feel so much calmer today, the sun is shining, I don't feel angry at all". At this point, becoming slightly paranoid that I was sat opposite Jeffrey Dahmer, I started to wolf my massaman down with brute force. I don't know if Sarah was really aware of the guy sitting with us and what he was doing but I had a bad feeling about the situation so I ate my food quickly and wanted to get the hell out of there. To cover things up, I explained that the speed eating was a family thing which she accepted with good grace. Call me shallow, call me a coward, call me idiotic. I don't care, I have had my fair share of nutters on the bus so sorry Sarah if you felt that lunch was rushed somewhat, I did what I had to do. Still I bet I got your blood boiling at the start of the second paragraph though eh! ; )

Thankfully come dinner time, the office was devoid of madmen as my boss was off for the day so I was able to enjoy my meal in peace and quiet. Sarah's contribution of leek quiche with lentils went down a treat. Although Sarah had misgivings about the pastry, I felt that it looked and tasted fine. The leeks were lovely and sweet which were surrounded by a luxuriant cheesy cardigan but I must admit that the pink facon (fake bacon) didn't fool me. Not a bad substitute but not quite the same for this carnivore I'm afraid. The lentils were also very good, with creamy goats cheese, sweet roasted peppers and parsley to give them extra lift. And the balsamic vinegar still hit the spot! A really good combination.

Thanks Sarah.

Leek Quiche and Lentils with Goats Cheese, Peppers and Parsley


Friday, 9 October 2009

Food Terrorists

I'm beginning to think that regular normal folk might not be ready for WMPC yet. Of course, all great ideas take time to filter through into the mainstream before they accepted, I realise that. And I expected some some set backs along the way but I never considered to be met with with such a ferocious level of incredulity, confusion and mistrust. I now know how the likes of Darwin, Einstein and Emo Phillips must have felt. Genius is often misunderstood at first. However, I must stay true to the cause. People will eventually see the light. We were rumbled you see, Biggest Jim and I that is. Our exchange of food goods was witnessed in the cold light of day.


I suppose the scene was fairly innocuous at first. Two blokes sitting there by East India Dock DLR, having a coffee and a chat. We could have been work colleagues on a break. Of course, we then delve into our bags and start explaining to each other what we had brought for the exchange. The look on the third bloke's face sitting on the table next to us was a picture. OK maybe ferocious incredulity is taking it a bit too far but as he looked over blankly, with a paper cup poised just below his open mouth, you could tell that he was definitely having a "what the f....?" moment. It was even funnier when I handed over Vivienne, the fourth daughter of Veronica and said to Jim "be careful when you open the lid, it may explode". As he switched from perplexed frown to nervous glare, you could tell that the poor chap really didn't know what to make of it all. I very nearly went all Michael Winner on him, saying "calm down dear, this just a commercial" but thought better of it. It was far better to have him think that we were some kind of epicurean splinter cell getting ready to terrorise London with sourdough starters and hazelnut biscuits than tell him the truth. So we just got up and left confused guy there. Jim walked off with a variety of spuds from my allotment and the aforementioned Vivienne and I jumped back on the DLR with a tub of jambalaya and said nutty treats.

When it came down to tucking into Jim's cajun speciality in the evening, I very nearly got rumbled again, this time by my boss. As I have made mention on here before I am trying to keep this project under the radar so to speak, primarily as it would just create hassle and I wouldn't be able to speak as freely as I like. So when Mr T (no relation to "ain'tgettingnoplanefoo") came bowling in at 8PM after his usual evening preprandials, I was just setting up the plate on my desk to take some shots. Fortunately for me, he's a four bottles of wine a day man and was pretty oblivious to what I was doing, so I snuck the plate back into the kitchen in the corner of the office. Also Mr T had bigger things on his mind like the fact that the office telephone system had gone up the swanny that day and with alcoholic bravado, was bellowing down his mobile to BT. So from the safety of the kitchen I was able to tuck into my jambalaya without recourse. Just as long as I kept popping my head out and shouting things like "you tell 'em!", "damn right!" and "boy, aren't BT bastards!" with rice spraying out my mouth with each exclamation.

So what was James' jambalaya like? Well, despite the fact that I was wolfing it down as fast I could and spitting half of it back out, goading my boss on, I thought it was very good. With moist pieces of chicken thigh, plump prawns and chunks of spicy chorizo, it was certainly filling. The peppers and onions had been softened thoroughly and took on a delectable caramel sweetness which worked well against the chilli. Saying that, maybe Jim could have been a bit braver and slung some more heat into the mix but that's personal preference speaking out here. He had been worried that the rice, now a day old wasn't up to scratch but the technique of sprinkling some water over the grains before warming back up in the microwave, perked them up just fine. And whilst we're on the subject, the whole nuking of meals in the microwave really hasn't been too bad so far. A lot of contributors have expressed concern before with this method of reheating but I think that's down to memories sticking in the mind of supermarket ready-meals perhaps? If you want my opinion, proper home-made grub doesn't really suffer in the same way as mass produced trays of slop in the ping machine. Just a bit of food for thought there. I had Jim's hazelnut and sesame biscuits once Mr T thundered off for the night and they were also very good too. I could even get the hint of sherry that he added, ususual but still very good.

Thanks big fella, lets hope that the flying squad doesn't come swooping in when you go out for a coffee in the near future.

Biggest Jim's recipe for Jamabalaya can be found here.

Biggest Jim's Jamabalaya (snarfed in the kitchen)

Hazelnut and Sesame biscuit (with a hint of sherry)