Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Stephanie's story

I am sure many of you read Stephanie Nielsons' blog. For those that do not I will give a brief introduction to it:

Stephanie is a young mother of 4, married to a handsome husband named Christian and, until recently, living in Arizona. She is beautiful, creative and shares pictures, recipes and craft tips with her large readership. Her little home was so sweetly decorated that Cookie magazine featured a tour.

Stephanie's husband loved to fly planes. For his birthday she bought him flying lessons and in August '08 the two of them flew off together to pick up boots she had spotted and decided to buy. They were joined by Christians' flight instructor, Doug. 

The small plane crashed on take off and tragically Doug did not survive. Christian and Stephanie both suffered extremely severe burns, with Stephanie's injuries covering 80% of her body.

For a while her readers, myself included, did not know if she would survive. Her sister, Courtney Jane (CJane to those that love her), took in 3 of her children (the youngest went into the care of another sister, Lucy, who lived nearby) and wrote daily about the unfolding tragedy that had shattered her family. CJanes' writing was tender and honest, and thousands of bloggers and blog readers flocked to her site every day. It was a phenomenal response from a world of people who had never met this couple. People from around the world held fundraisers, balloon releases, wrote long and personal comments of support and took Stephanie and her family into their hearts.

Stephanie is now in recovery and has moved to Utah, where her family - including CJane and Lucy - live. She has also started blogging again though the tone and subject matter on the blog has changed. I can tell from her writing that she desperately wants to be the woman she was, the mother she was and to share the same simple stories of a day spent with her children cooking, laughing, smiling and singing.

But for now she cannot, and today she posted the most touching post about the struggles she faces with who she has become. Is she a different person because she looks different? People used to stare at her because she was so beautiful, now they stare at her for other reasons entirely. She reveals for the first time that one of her beloved sons won't go near her.

I wanted to share her post with you because I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have come across on this cyber space we inhabit. Perhaps it is because I have followed Stephanies' story for so long, but I think some of you may agree. For me this came as a much needed reminder to appreciate the little gifts we get everyday.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Oh, hello summer

Well, it was the most fantastically beautiful weekend in London and - thanks to the long awaited arrival of my very own portable hard drive - I was able to go photo crazy without crashing my little laptop. 

Following a few very lazy weekends, in the past 3 days I have managed to squeeze in 3 markets, 3 home cooked meals and 2 very long walks. A few pictures shared below. Particularly exciting for me was Church Street Market, off Edgware Road. I live locally but have never been, and it was great find - with fresh fish and meat, beautiful flowers and plenty of grocers and fruit stalls. Most thrilling of all though was Alfies antique market http://www.alfiesantiques.com/shops.php,
which sold not only amazing antiques but also housed an incredible vintage clothes shop, some amazing furniture sellers and a beautiful rooftop terrace which served great looking fry ups. 
Back to work today and I headed to Worthing for a presentation. Sometimes a couple of hours spent on the train can be therapeutic and much needed - and that was much the case today. I liked the look of this old seaside town - but hate to admit I only saw it as I whizzed to and from my meeting in a cab!

Not much else to report, back tomorrow with a recipe or two.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

London restaurants: Good food, great night

I am coming up to the 5 year anniversary of my residence as a "grown up" in this great Capital of ours. Although I grew up in London, I was whisked off to the lush green hills and sandy beaches of Devon at 7 years old and didn't return until 12 years later.

Over the last 5 years one of the things that has brought me the greatest pleasure is eating out. It is what I spend the majority of my disposable income on, and what I spend most of time thinking about!

As such I wanted to create a list of some of my favourite places to dine out. This is a work in progress, and some of the places on my list may seem surprising to some. Number 5 for example could be seen as too touristy, too busy or not serving sophisticated enough food. But my list is based on a mixture of many things, including the quality of the meal.

Although the food does play a big part in my enjoyment of a place, there are other things that hold equal value. The service is a big part of the success of a restaurant for me, as well as the way a place looks and feels and how you feel about a place as a way to spend an evening.

These are all places I feel genuine excitement about when I know I am going to visit them that evening, and they are places I would take my dearest friends as they feel like a part of my life in this city. I am not promising the best food in the capital, but I hope these places all offer a friendly welcome, delicious food and a very enjoyable dining experience.

So my first top 5...
5) Cafe Pacifico - 5 Langley St, WC2H 9JA
For me this has always been a fabulous start to a good night out in Central London. I love this bustling restaurant, which I think serves some gorgeous Mexican food. It may not be as adventurous as neighboring Wahaca but for cheap, good food in town with the girls this is my favourite place to go.

4) Lucky Sevens - 127 Westbourne Park Road, W2 5QL
I have lost count of the amount of times I have waited at the door of Tom Conrans' West London burger bar, drooling at the thought of my favourite burger (chicken, guacamole, mustard and cheese) and the most delicious fries I have come across in town. Despite the undeniable "trendiness" of this place the staff always seem sweet, the restaurant is decked out in traditional American diner style and the food is always sublime. If you are looking for drinks after head down to the Cow or The Westbourne

3) 32 Great Queen St., WC2B 5AA
This young restaurant in Holborn/Covent Garden has a wonderful French feel to it, aided by the fact that you can dine at the bar. We sipped delicious white wine from little glasses, dined on an entire sea bass cooked perfectly and served with herbs and lemon and were hugely impressed by how delicious everything we ordered was. The food is traditionally British, but cooked very simply and accompanied by a gorgeous array of sides.

2) Lemonia, 89 Regent's Park Road, NW1 8UY
Situated next to my favourite place in London (obvious I know, but the view from Primrose Hill is just so beautiful) this restaurant has never disappointed. Whether it is a family meal, romantic evening or gathering of friends you can be sure (I hope) of excellent food in a bustling yet intimate environment. This place holds a lot of memories for me, being the restaurant my parents took my best friend and I to on our first grown-up visit to London!
The traditional Greek food is fresh, authentic and reasonably priced. Every time I have been the place is busy and yet they make you feel a much-missed part of the family!

1) The Ripe Tomato, 7 All Saint's Road, W11
I have never eaten a bad meal in any of the twenty times I have been here, including a Valentine Day set menu - which is potentially a minefield. The restaurant is intimate, cosy and perfect for a first date or meal with your oldest, dearest friends. Food is neither fussy or expensive and your are guaranteed fresh, traditional and exciting Italian dishes. Once you are settled in at your table you will want to spend your evening whiling away the hours at this wonderful place.

I dream of cuisine

I spend many an evening fantasising about my dream home.

The marble floors, panoramic view of the Thames, light grey cashmere covered corner sofa and Clarissa the pig snuffling around in the back garden (yes, my central London home will have a large garden and a pig named after my teenage girl crush).

Clearly my planning jumps from the location and size and layout to the more minutiae details - mostly inspired by the Toast catalogue and Muji.

The one feature that I might be able to realise in my current home, on my non-existent decorating budget, is a wall of my favourite food photographs. I am currently just in the planning stages but I am planning to take up a large, white, empty wall in our kitchen with my favourite pictures, printed and placed in mis-matched frames.
Here are 3 of my collection so far:

* Pictures found on Frolic

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Interview with Pink of Perfection

When I decided to create this blog I wanted to focus on sharing my own favourite recipes, photographs and food fantasies with you. Of equal importance though is using this blog to hear from others who share my passion, and to steal some of their ideas on how to create amazing dining experiences and why food is so exciting to them.
One of the reasons I love blogging so much is that regardless of geography and time difference and the fact that you may never have met, you can feel like you know someone as you do a friend just by reading their blog.

That is how I feel about Sarah Mccoll who runs Pink of Perfection.

I began reading her blog a couple of years ago, and have checked back in every morning since to hear about her new creations, cosy dinner parties and sweet musings on how food influences our lives.

That is why I asked Sarah to be my first interviewee for this blog. I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I did - I actually squealed when I saw her email this morning (it was prompt as always!)

Thanks Sarah, for sharing this with me.

Name: Sarah McColl Age: 26
Blog address: http://www.pinkofperfection.com/
Where do you live: Brooklyn, NY

Can you remember the first dish you cooked? What was it? Who did you cook with? Is it a long forgotten relic or have you ever cooked it again?
"Stew." Ingredients included sticks, honeysuckle blossoms, leaves, dirt, and hot water. "Making stew" was my favorite childhood game for awhile. In terms of actual edible things, I remember making fruit pizza and brownies with my Girl Scout troop. Still love brownies, though I can't say the same about fruit pizza!

What would be your desert island foods of choice – you can have two, because I am a strong believer in the beauty of a food partnership!
This is too hard! Lettuce and eggs, since both are pretty versatile. But imagining a world without coffee, chocolate, and avocados is just too grim. Next question!

Favourite scene from a film which involves or revolves around food or cooking?
The glorious preparation of the big meal in Babette's Feast or when Amelie tosses a little salad in the kitchen of her Montmartre apartment

Best meal you ever ate – where, when, with who and what does it mean to you when you think of it?
I would have to say the dinner we ate before my fiance, Sebastian, proposed in Paris. It was a totally over-the-top once in a lifetime meal -- champagne, filet of sole with white truffles, foie gras, filet mignon with bone marrow, a slice of ripe Roquefort, petit fours. Thinking of it now, it was a warm, glamorous, epic meal, but the walk we took along the Seine afterwards in the middle of the night with no one else around will always be my favorite part.

Typical food diary for a “good day” and for an “indulgent day” i.e. (how much difference is there between what you actually eat and what you would if we had no concept of good vs. bad body image)
The difference between normal eating and indulgent eating for me usually just depends whether or not I go to a restaurant. In restaurants, all bets are off, and I will usually go for the richest, fattiest things -- nachos, rich curries, ribs, burgers. Thankfully, in the past few months I haven't been eating out very much.

As long as there is a cup of super strong coffee with milk at breakfast, I am happy. Whether it's accompaniment is a scone at the coffee shop where I write or a strawberry-banana-peanut butter-flax smoothie, doesn't really matter. Lunch will be leftovers from the night before, usually soup. You wouldn't know it from my blog, but I eat a lot of stir-fry, a lot of grain+veggies+legumes combinations. Simple stuff.

For dinner I try to cook something that I can blog about, pasta, soup, maybe a nice chop with veggies.

And on a really good day, the day would be capped off by getting in bed early with a cup of the best hot chocolate and reading for a couple hours.

In terms of body image, I try very hard not to think about eating in terms of "good" or "bad." I've got an hourglass figure and I love good food and am not particularly adept at restraint -- but I also think good food is very often healthy food. I try to have a balanced outlook about it, which is certainly not always easy. But I try.

What gets you out of bed in the morning on a bad day?
Coffee! There is a line in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in which a character says he lies awake in bed at night unable to sleep because he is so looking forward to his first morning coffee. That's me.

But truthfully, I am a very big fan of holing up in bed on the bad days and consoling myself with movies, magazines, vintage 90210, and Chinese delivery.

Can you share with me your foolproof dish for a night in, on your own on a cold and windy night tucked up in your little home?
On my own, on a cold and windy night at home, my foolproof "dish" is a cup of tea with lots of milk and triscuits (whole wheat wafer crackers for us in UK - Ed!) with mayonnaise and extra sharp New York cheddar cheese. The mayo-phobes are surely shuddering, but there are few things as comforting and cozy to me. Reminds me of sitting in my mom's kitchen.

Do you think that young women, who have the importance of their weight and the way they look stressed to them from an increasingly young age, will cook and eat in a different way to previous generations?
If we all cooked more like our grandmothers, we'd probably be better off. Even if things are rich with butter and cream, there is a certain wholesomeness to everything cooked from scratch, I think, much more so than zapping something in the microwave or opening up a can or box from a fast food restaurant and not knowing where the ingredients came from or how the food was prepared.

I honestly don't think cooking is the culprit to obesity -- it's everything else: the convenience foods, the restaurant portions, the fake, processed crap that we eat. But don't get me wrong -- I love Cheetos as much as the next person and eat my fair share.

How, if at all, do you think the recession will affect the blogging community, and particularly people who like to blog about food and dining in/out?
People seem to be cooking at home more, which might mean that there is a new audience turning to blogs as a recipe resource and increasing traffic for food blogs.

As for the content of the blogs themselves, I know I have been eating out less, which means I've been getting less inspiration for meals to invent from something I ate at a restaurant.

But it also means I've been making things at home that I've never really made before -- like breakfast! -- and focusing on how to make a really great dinner out of humble, low-cost ingredients. Bloggers or not, I certainly home that the recession helps shift people's values to how wonderful the small details of life -- like a simple homemade soup shared with a friend or family -- can be.

In the UK, as in the USA I believe, the recession has meant increased business for fast food chains like KFC and pizza delivery companies like Pizza Hut. Can you see a way to educate people about creating cost effective and healthy food at home – and is anyone trying to do it in the US? Contentiously, is it possible to compete with a meal for 4 people for $10 which KFC offers?
It's funny you should bring up KFC because just this weekend my sister and I were talking about this ad and I said, "anyone who thinks this is a good deal has never made beans!" I love this blogger's story about beating the price of the KFC meal and having, as she says, "three extra pieces of chicken and a carcass to use for soup." http://www.grist.org/advice/chef/2008/10/30/index.html

But how to educate people that they can cook good, quality food for themselves at a cheaper price than fast food? I wish I knew -- maybe we need a reprisal of home ec. The thing is, a lot of people don't know how to cook really basic, economical things, like a roast chicken, and I worry that the act of cooking -- because of blogs, epicurean magazines, and cooking shows -- has started to look like the rarified art of "gourmands." It's not, of course -- at its most base, it's about feeding a hunger.

But something else to consider is that people who are struggling are sometimes working two or three jobs. If I were in that position, I would probably opt for the KFC meal. It's a really tough situation. If you're electricity is about to be turned off, you're really not concerned whether or not your meal has trans fats or factory farm chicken.

What’s your idea of the perfect night in? Who would be there and what would you eat and do?
A dinner party for six with my fiance, my sister and her husband, my dear friend Alison and her boyfriend. There would be lots of wine, hysterics, charades, long-winded stories, pate with quince jam, pork tenderloin, roasted potatoes, and a beautiful tart, followed by nibbles of chocolate and port. Everyone would get home very late, very drunk, and very happy.

Got any handy food related facts or tips for us?
How about a quote from Beethoven: " Only the pure of heart can make good soup."

What cooking utensil or tool do you think everyone should invest in?
Tongs. They really come in handy, more often than you might think.

Finally, because I am nosy and think you’re cool, what is your favourite film of all time?
When Harry Met Sally. I could watch it a thousand times and never tire of it.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Treasures from Paris

If there are greater things in the world than champagne, cheese and pancakes then I look forward to being enlightened...

All of the food above was enjoyed on my last trip to Paris, almost a year ago. Thanks to the offer in the Sunday Times I am planning a couple more trips this year and plan to gorge on all of thee above as well as macaroons, croque monsieur and croissants.

If anyone wants details of the offer which gives you 2 return tickets for £90, just leave a comment with your contact details. You need the voucher and 5 code words which I have and am happy to share. As long as you don't eat all the valençay!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Recipe: Spaghetti, sweet onion, tomato and cruncy pancetta

This is one of those dishes that I often cook when I am enjoying a rare night in on my own. Living in a sociable flat with two housemates it is not often that I get to cook for myself and myself only and when I do I like to create something that is just to my liking. No worrying about one persons dislike for onions or another preference for garlic. And as much as I like cooking for other people, and particuarly for Elliott and Alex, when I know I am going to be home alone I do look forward to it.

This meal can be cooked for 1 just as easily as it can for 20. It is extremely simple, quick, cheap and can be tweaked to just the way you like it. It is also a good base for other ingredients; perhaps some fried aubergines (crunchy but not too oily) or some cavolo nero piled on top. But when it is just me I like it just the way it is.

Spaghetti, sweet onion, tomato and cruncy pancetta

Serves 1 - increase as desired for more diners
Cooking time: 50 minutes
Approx cost: £5

A small packet cherry tomatoes (15-20)
3 strips of pancetta (or parma ham if you can't get it)
5 shallots
1 clove of garlic
1 teaspoon chilli powder
Pasta (ideally fresh spaghetti, but dry will will fine)
Olive oil

Heat a medium size roasting dish in oven (Gas mark 6) for 10 minutes with a generous amount of olive oil (a thin layer covering the bottom).
Chop shallots into thin slices
Chop garlic
Throw the cherry tomatoes, shallots and garlic into the dish and toss around to make sure they are covered in olive oil. Season with salt.
Place in oven at gas mark 6 for 30 minutes, until shallots are starting to soften and tomatoes pop. If tomatoes need help softening then use the back of a fork to push in the middle - it's fun!
Create space in the dish for pancetta strips so you can lay each strip in the hot oil. If no space available then lay them on top of tomatoes/shallots.
Sprinkle chilli powder over dish evenly.
Return to oven for 15-2o minutes.
Cook spaghetti
Take out when pancetta is cruncy and tomatoes are soft and cooked through.
Drain spaghetti and then add it to roasting dish and cover with the sauce.

Serve and top with parmesan shavings. Pour yourself
a glass of wine and enjoy.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Recipe: Bulgur salad for a sunny day

I have to give my mum complete and utter credit for this, my first recipe post. Tonight I am going to cook a roast lemon and chicken dish - which would be the perfect accompaniment. I will post recipe and pictures tomorrow.

This picture is of one of my all time favourite meals. It was eaten in Sardinia, on the porch of a rented villa, and consisted of tomatoes, avocado, bread, lemon and cheese. It was so simple, all completely fresh and was one of those perfectly messy meals where hands and clothes and tablecloth were all stained with olive oil and white wine and crumbs by the end of the night. Bliss.

Lemony Bulgur Salad
Serves 4-6 as side dish

Half packet of bulgur wheat
Cherry tomatoes,
Lemon and lime juice
Capers or olives

Soak the bulgur in hot water, change water two times until the bulgur almost doubles in size and is soft.
Rinse well in cold water.
Chop the tomatoes into quarters or even smaller.
Add to bulgur.
Half the cucumber lengthwise and then half each half. Take out the pips and squidgy middle.
Chop the quarter of cucumber into sugar cube size pieces. Add to bulgur.
Add lemon and lime juice, olive oil, finely chopped parsley lots of salt and pepper and chopped olives or capers.

Eat with pitta bread, or with Roast Lemon and Chicken.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Making the alarm clock less painful

When I first moved to my current flat I was brought a fresh fruit plate every morning by my new flatmate Elliott.

Elliott is a food snob, and proud of it. He earns little, for which he works very hard, and he likes to spend his wages on the finer things in life.

As such my morning plate would offer the ripest and sweetest fruits that Waitrose had to offer! Elliott, and my other flatmate Alex, are both very particular about preparing food and all ingredients are sliced and diced and organised in the most meticulous way. It is a joy to watch, and very shaming for a messy cook like me.

Below you will see a much less healthy breakfast that we like to indulge in on a Saturday morning. There are fresh bagels toasting on the grill, and Elliott has carefully prepared the chorizo and cucumber that will atop a thick layer of cream cheese.

I have made fresh coffee and am probably somewhere close by turning the kitchen upside down looking for a bit of magazine to read. Meanwhile Elliott has created his little orderly corner and, at the same time, the perfect start to the day.

My mother's daughter

Day 1 of this blog and I have a real desire to get some old photos up which I have been meaning to return to for a while. These were taken on Boxing Day 07, a day of cold turkey and goats cheese sandwiches wedged full of cranberry sauce and dipped in bread sauce (a person preference I think). 

We had friends over and family staying and we played charades long into the evening, getting too merry on red wine (white in my case, more on that another time) and making sure Danny the dog was getting his fair share of leftovers. 

I must assure you this is normally a much more rustic and laid back meal than the pictures show. We wanted to get some pictures for the parents' B&B, so my Dad and I spent hours snapping away with our new cameras - and then the assembled mob promptly devoured. Just as it should be.

These meals, and the memories that they come hand in hand with, are what food and cookery are all about for me. The kitchen has been the hub of my home, and the warmth, tears, laughter and delight that have taken place there will be remembered only as the backdrop to a mouthwatering meal. That is thanks to my parents, in particular my mum who is a truly amazing cook 

After much nagging I have finally persuaded the mother to put pen to paper and make me a recipe book of her best dishes. These include spaghetti covered in the thickest,  richest tomato sauce with lamb and mint meatballs, a sharp but sweet carrot salad for a sunny day and my favourite creamy chicken pie with peas. Simple, much loved dishes which I will share with you over time. 

Cake: Having it and eating it

Not much in life makes me happier than devouring a huge piece of a chocolate cake with the help of a good friend. The sweet, soft texture of a perfectly creamy piece (like the one pictured below) is pretty hard to beat. However I am sure I am not alone in allowing myself this delightful experience increasingly rarely as I fight to keep a trim figure and pour myself into my skinny(ish) jeans.

Being a food lover, devourer, obsessive and fiend I do constantly battle with ordering/cooking what I really WANT to eat and what I really "should". A salad is all well and good when watching the calories, but on a rainy day in a cosy pub a glass of wine with a big bowl of sweet and creamy risotto - well the two are just incomparable. And yes I get that celery and carrots and oatcakes are pleasant snacks for dieters. But without their perfect partners of stilton, hummus and brie with grapes respectively...they just seem a little disappointing.

I have recently begun working out, 3 times a week and hating every single second, and I do feel it has meant I can order puddings, select the cheese plate, have a big old bagel with cream cheese and chorizo for breakfast without the all consuming guilt that comes minutes after. My beloved mother has been on a diet for as long as I remember. The Cabbage Soup, the Cambridge, the Atkins - all of them lasting just a few days and resulting in a sharp weight loss followed by a return to her original weight within days (which, for the record, is perfect!). Being a wonderful chef, who cooks for a living, she must find it hard spending her day preparing delicious dishes for her lucky guests.
I have always wondered if I were in the privileged position of cooking for a living, how would I cope with the temptation?
This is just part 1 of my musings on the issue of absolute food freedom vs. staying slim and feeling confident. Would love to hear your opinion...

Pictures cropped

Apologies to readers (as of yet precisely 0) that pictures are being cropped slightly on the right. If anyone has solutions to offer I would be most grateful for them.

A few of my favourite things

Celery run through a block of stilton. Potatoes doused in olive oil, bay leaves and salt cooked for two hours in a ceramic dish. Perfectly ripe avocado spread on white toast with french butter, a squeeze of lemon and cracked black pepper.


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