Category Archives: Food

A great way to spend a Sunday evening: Dylan’s, Criccieth

There were rumours this was happening for some time. Whispers, vague speculations, gossip. But if we believed everything we heard, all sorts of things would be true that patently are – well, rubbish. However, these rumours became more concrete – almost literally. Dylan’s, the restaurant beloved of those lucky people in Menai Bridge, was coming to Criccieth.

And in what a building.

Dylan's Criccieth

It looks Art Deco, but it was actually built in 1954 – it’s a typical Clough Williams-Ellis design, in that it’s a classy pastiche. It was built as a cafe, but not one like Dylan’s; in fact one of the owners in the early days was Billy Butlin, and people staying in his holiday camps would come for tea dances; after that, it was rented out. It’s listed (grade II), and it is indeed made of concrete.

As soon as we knew Dylan’s were taking bookings, we rang and got in as early as we could – you’ve got to test these exciting developments – and so we piled into the car yesterday evening and set off for our supper. An hour’s drive, yes, but we knew it would be worth it (the Menai Bridge branch has been well, er, researched).

ready and waitingWe were booked in quite early, and when we arrived the place was almost empty, allowing us to have a good look around. It’s a delightful, airy space, with full-height windows giving an magnificent view of the sea and lots of light. The restaurant seems very spacious and I suspect it will continue to do so, however frantic it gets at the height of the season.

Almost empty though it might have been when we arrived, it soon filled up – it was fully booked, in fact, as a few speculative ‘walk-ins’ were being told. The service was – no surprises, given past experience – great: efficient, friendly, chatty without being intrusive. The major problem was deciding what to have. Pizzas (such as the Menai Strait, with lobster and scallops)? A burger (maybe the felafel burger, with its sourdough bun, chunky chips, relishes and pickle)? Mussels (perhaps the Drunken Mussels, steamed in Welsh cider, with leeks and bacon)? A lobster salad?

We eventually went for other things. After all, we can come back and check out the pizzas and burgers – and indeed everything else – quite easily now. So I started with Gravadlax, salmon which had been cured for 48 hours in beetroot and gin, and which was served with a potato salad, including lots of fennel (I thought I detected dill instead, but it may just have been very strong fennel). Beautiful.

I follDylansowed this with a Ceasar Salad. I know it may seem boring, but I reckon that’s a good test: the dressing, the quality of the chicken and the Parmesan, even the lettuce – I’ve had some horrors over the past few years. This was a good one. In fact, this was a very good one. The chicken was perfect, and there was plenty of it – another good test: one anaemic, tasteless slice doth not a Caesar Salad make.

I decided to test their chunky chips too (someone has to do these things), and can report back that they were delicious, and I can also say that the house white was a perfectly respectable Sauvignon Blanc. The others had roast halibut and a hake fillet with a herb and parmesan crust, and were equally impressed – but we were too happily full to test the dessert menu. One for another visit…

Finally – the setting:

Dylan's boardwalk

Imagine this in a winter storm, with a warm and welcoming restaurant to watch it from. Perfect.

Dylan’s Restaurant, Maes Y Mor, Criccieth, Gwynedd, LL52 0HU;
01766 522773 – open 11a.m to 11p.m

 

 

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chickens for soup...

On comfort food and chicken soup

I have not been very well and, while I haven’t felt an awful lot like eating, it takes more than a nasty virus to stop me thinking about food.

The Sick Lady(This is me. Oh, all right, it isn’t. I’m in jeans. And I’m not getting any sympathy at all.)

I have had a horrible cold, followed by bronchitis. OK, none of it’s very serious when compared to what some of my friends are going through, but it’s thoroughly unpleasant. And of course the infectious nature means I’m steering clear of people, particularly a couple of friends who are immuno-supressed at the mo.

I have been distracting myself with thoughts of comfort food. Not, until recently, eating that much of it, and I admit my interpretation might be a little eccentric: for some reason taramasalata doesn’t often crop up on lists of foods that make you feel better. I’ve been having a lot of mashed potato and chicken soup – not together, eeeugh – which is possibly unsurprising, as I clearly remember someone once describing mashed potato to me as the gentile equivalent of chicken soup. Comfort food. But chicken soup also does you good. Mashed potato? Not the same. Nobody ever called mashed potato ‘gentile penicillin’.

Chicken soup helps – and this is really true, backed up by some serious science which must have been fun to do if the researchers were allowed to taste – with colds and coughs. It is not a myth; it’s reality. It has anti-inflammatory properties. Yes, it improves hydration; yes, it helps your ‘nutritional balance’ – but, and more significantly, yes, it accelerates ‘mucosal clearance’. Perhaps doing the research wasn’t so pleasant after all…

chickens for soup...Over the years I’ve had a bash at all sorts of variations on the chicken soup theme, from great chunks of chicken in cock-a-leekie (yum) to home-made chicken stock in an avgolemono (also yum). Oh, yum to the lot of them – well, except from some rather bizarre-tasting tinned things, that is.

But when I talk to some of my friends about making chicken soup, the general consensus – and there are some very honourable exceptions – is that it’s too much faff. But it doesn’t have to be, unless you want to go into overdrive and Eastern-European shtetl-based stereotypes and boil up a raggedy old fowl for several hours first while playing the fiddle on a roof.

So here are a couple of simple chicken soup suggestions with some variations – written out generally as most of them are designed to be riffed on, as it were. And both of them involve the remains of a roast chicken (you can bake a couple of chicken thighs if the two-legged mice have been at your cold chicken while you weren’t looking). Both are designed to serve two, though they can easily be stretched further.

First, my simple roast chicken soup:
Strip all the meat from a roast chicken carcass; there are usually some pieces left over which nobody quite fancies. Remove the skin and any bits of gristle from these, and put them to one side – ending up with a small pudding-bowl full of meat. Put a little oil in a pan over a medium heat. Peel and finely chop a medium onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery. Add to the pan and cook gently until transparent – do not brown. Peel a medium-sized potato and add that, then add the chicken and enough chicken stock (ideally, but good vegetable stock also works) to cover. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Check for seasoning, adjust the thickness by adding some boiling water if necessary, then blend the soup. Serve and start feeling better.

Variations:
• Omit the carrots;
• Use a couple of slim leeks instead of the onion;
• Add two chopped cloves of garlic in the last minute or so of cooking the onion, carrot and celery;
• Add a little smoked paprika at this stage (but not with the garlic: hmm? Nope, too much – for me, anyway);
• Don’t blend the soup, or blend some of it and then return it to the pan to reheat.

And a quick Chinese-style chicken soup:
You need some good-quality chicken stock for this – about 600ml – as well as the bowl of chicken bits. Put the stock in a pan and bring it to the boil (skim if necessary). While it is coming to the boil, finely chop about 150g mushrooms, a clove of garlic and a piece of fresh ginger about 2cm square. Cut four thick spring onions into fine diagonal slices, and shred a couple of small pak choi. Add the garlic, ginger, mushrooms and chicken to the boiling stock and cook for five minutes. Then add the spring onions and pak choi. Simmer for a couple more minutes, check the seasoning, and serve.

Variations:
• Add finely chopped chillies. Or chilli. As many and as hot as you dare (that will scare the cold bugs away). Add with the mushrooms, garlic etc.
• Add a dash of Tabasco.
• Try using Chinese dried mushrooms – about 25g, rehydrated in boiling water for 20 mins, then drained and chopped.
• You can add a beaten egg for the ‘egg flower’ effect and some extra nutritional oomph. When there’s barely a minute to go, beat an egg well and drizzle it into the cooking soup over an upturned fork. Don’t stir; remove from the heat and serve.
• Or add a few noodles. A few.

You can freeze the first one – beautifully. Not the second, though; it needs to be fresh.

Interestingly, the chemical composition of a good chicken soup is remarkably close to that of a drug (acetylcysteine) which is sometimes used to treat bronchitis. I have bronchitis. I clearly need chicken soup. NOW. I’m off to get some chicken thighs and get stuck into making more.

Jan Steen, Fat Kitchen
Jan Steen – Fat Kitchen

 

 

Farewell then, broad beans

I’ve just dug up the last of the broad bean plants. It’s something I’ve been putting off – they get chopped up and added to the compost bin which is a bit hard on the (injured but recovering) hands – but it is done now, and that’s it until late spring next year. Sigh.

beansBroad beans are normally my first serious crop, my first seasonal treat (and usually my first brush with excess). When you grow a lot of your own veg, seasonality – inevitably – plays an enormous part: and that’s an enormous part of my enjoyment in growing vegetables. I find I really look forward to the first baby broad beans, the slim courgettes, the crunchy mangetout, in a way I wouldn’t if I went down to the Co-op and took them out of the freezers or picked them off the shelf.

If you can have anything, any time, do you really value it in the same way? I’m not sure, but for me the answer is ‘no, not so much’. As the year starts, I plant up my seeds and wait for the little shoots to appear, watching for hints of green in an ever-so-slightly obsessive manner. I coddle them along, let them spend time outside the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be allowed out all night, then plant them out… You definitely don’t get that level of anticipation from Bird’s Eye.

In preparation for my normal – and quite ridiculous – level of overproduction I drew up a master list of recipes. Hm – that sounds rather more preplanned than it was in reality. When I totted up the surviving plants and realised I’d got over thirty, all of which would produce pod after pod, beans after beans after beans, I trawled through my old notes, my cuttings and part of the first section of one of the bookcases (I lost the will to live after I’d found broad beans + bacon to the power n) and wrote down some ideas.

The very first were eaten raw, at the prompting of an Italian neighbour. Delicious, and I’d not tried that before. She said that as a child she’d never have dreamed of eating a raw pea though her family ate broad beans raw all the time, and that she’d been quite disconcerted to find it was the other way round in the UK. We stood by the plants and chomped on raw beans while she told me all about her early life. You don’t get that with Bird’s Eye, either.

After that, I went into salads. Broad beans do have a stunning affinity with piggy products, and a spinach salad with broad beans and crispy bacon can be a real treat, despite almost every book including a version of it. Keep it simple, and it’s stunning. But I rather overdid that one last year, as I did a chorizo version, so this year I branched out and made salads with warm baby broad beans and salame finocchiona from Lidl (pretty good, not surprised it won an award last year). Goat’s cheese made another delicious companion, a change from feta.

After I’d had so many salabeans 2ds that I could barely face a lettuce leaf, I branched out into risottos (yum), pastas, toppings for bruschetta – great for the bigger ones; the ones I missed because they were lurking at the back – and, star upon star, a wonderful frittata.

That was an accident; it was just supposed to be an ordinary omelette but I needed to make room for another egg box and therefore used more eggs than I normally would. Served with a tomato salsa and some sauté potatoes – by that time the spuds were beginning to come on stream too – it was one of the simplest and best BB dishes I’ve ever cooked.

Another absolute hit was meatballs with broad beans and lemon, from one of my favourite recipe books of all time, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (you can find the recipe here, as it was also published in the Guardian). I particularly loved the mixture of skinned and unskinned beans, and the lemony tang. The recipe worked beautifully; my one quibble was that the cooking time was a bit too long for my just-picked beans; when I made it again – it was that good – I added the unskinned ones at the end of cooking.

Ah yes: shelling broad beans. I always, but always, unless specifically told not to, skin my broad beans unless they are the size of my little finger nail. Get fresh beans. Pan of boiling water. Broad beans out of the pods into bowl. Empty bowl into water. Boil a minute or so. Drain into sieve. Run cold water over beans; skins pucker. Easy to pop the bright green, tender, appetizing, succulent beans out of their skins, which do just fine in the compost bin.

And at the end of the season, when I’m left with monster beans – well, not too monstrous, because I don’t let that happen – it’s time for a BB purée with lots of garlic. Great on sourdough – back to bruschetta – or with pitta, like a hummous.

But now – nothing. Niente. Rien. Zilch. Diddly squat. Because yet again I got carried away. Yet again I have failed to freeze any; yet again I have forgotten to save some for next year’s seed. There’s an upside to that though – I can try another variety. I’m going to try a heritage bean, one with red flowers, and see how it compares to my beloved Aquadulce Claudia. Roll on next May – and now for the courgettes.

Optimism, vegetables and the gardening gods

Every year it’s the same. I plant more of almost everything than I need for the veg garden and give some of it away. Then the rest of it weakens or gets a terrible disease or is eaten by slugs or just keels over for no apparent reason – rather like sheep, incidentally, though sheep are less likely to be eaten by slugs – and I have to find replacements from elsewhere.

This year, it’s the tomatoes: my first lot developed early blight. Astonishingly early blight. Straight into the bin; wash everything in sight – and no tomatoes. Due to a mixture of friends’ generosity and some swift ecological elbowing at a Green Fair and plant swap, I now have replacements. Seven Gardener’s Delights, one Marmande, one Alicante and two complete mysteries because the person who brought them to the plant swap didn’t bother to label them. Hey, it’s an adventure.

veg patch waitingThen there’s the weather. All my plants have come on beautifully in the last couple of weeks, and it was time to put the windbreak up around the veg patch, put it up again after it blew down the first time, put it up a third time with new stakes and more swearing, accept that ground-in dirt doesn’t come off hands easily and that all jeans have muddy knees. I was a bit late, and it had to be done.

The yellow mangetout were muscling the lid off the cold frame and the beans were making a bid for freedom. The dill and flat-leaved parsley suddenly decided to behave like strange herby versions of Jack’s beanstalk and all the spuds burst out of the ground at once. The spring onions put on a couple of inch in growth overnight and the kale I’d been prevailed to take at the plant swap broke its pot. I swear I can hear the garlic growing. Everything which wasn’t already out got planted out over the weekend. I was chuffed; the veg patch looked good. But the gardening gods were watching out for horticultural hubris. Yesterday was a day of one thunderstorm after another, as if they hadn’t made their point with the first one, and today looks set to be the same. Damn.

So why do I bother?

Simply, because I’d hate myself if I didn’t, given that I have the space and (sometimes) the ability. I can grow the varieties I want and I can make economic decisions which make sense. Take, for instance, the humble onion. I can buy decent onions at a reasonable price, but decent shallots are a different matter (as, given some spectacular recent price hikes, are spring onions). So I grow them instead. I’m picky about potatoes, and my favourites are Ratte. Used to get them at Borough Market; Borough Market now 250 miles away and 12 years in the past. So I grow them.

And when you grow your own, you make the decisions about when to harvest. No cricket-ball-sized beetroot here; no giant furry broad beans that taste of cardboard. Oh yes, the beans. I do like beans – even if I always overdo it – and there are some delicious varieties out there which never see a shop. Until recently I grew Borlottis, but I’ve stopped now; instead the space is devoted to Cosse Violette, a new gold bean (called ‘Gold Bean’ – hm, wonder what colour it is, and could it be – shh – a bean?) and the small and sweet Cherokee Trail of Tears. Try asking for that in the Co-op…

tomato parentsAnd then there are happy accidents. I save seed and sometimes this can produce interesting things, like the year I produced the Costoluto Russian – or possibly a Black Fiorentino – tomato. They were delicious, but further attempts at deliberately crossing Black Russians and Costoluto Fiorentinos produced nothing exciting. Or, indeed, edible. Fluff. Not good. But you never know; I could have made tomato-breeding history.

These, by the way, are the parents, separated by a plant pot, and the unintended cross had all sorts of advantages. The plants were not as temperamental as the CFs and the fruit not as vine-breakingly enormous as the BRs, though I did miss the opportunity to repeat silencing the pub with a single 500g tomato, as I had the previous year. Again, you can’t recreate that experience in Tesco.

But I’m missing the most obvious advantage: taste. A warm tomato, fresh off the plant, eaten on the quiet when you’re supposed to be harvesting for the pot – nothing beats it. Those baby broad beans are packed with nuttiness; the potatoes actually taste of something; the beans each have a different feel and flavour. OK, so I may be picking caterpillars off the Cavalo Nero for ages but it’s worth it to have a ribollita with real punch. And when it comes to furtive picking, you have to go a long way to beat the sneaked pea. Or several. Now all I have to do is work out how to protect an entire veg patch from the vagaries of the weather.

Unseasonably cold? That means soup!

As a gardener, I do keep a sort of record – and so I know that it’s often chilly and stormy at this time of year, here on the west coast of Wales. I’ve often ended up having to replant things which I was rash enough to put in the veg beds, and I generally have the last fire in the woodburner about now. This year, however, I seem to have forgotten all that and have been taken by surprise. My immediate reaction, though, wasn’t to go out and chop logs. It was to make soup.

I don’t tend to have soups in summer; it seems wrong, on some sort of fundamental level. Don’t get me wrong; I like cold soups but it seldom occurs to me to make one. Whereas it’s almost the first thing I consider for lunch on a cold, rainy, windy day – in May. Grumble.

So I hit the recipe books and notes in search of inspiration, given that I’d also just come back from Aldi with a supply of veggie bargains. No more shopping; time to adapt and improvise and come up with something which would work. Because it is, ostensibly, spring I went to various Italian recipes – Italian food somehow seems less depressingly wintry than what’s happening outside – and ended up with a variation on an old favourite…

One word: I usually have home-made tomato and herb passata in the freezer; it’s a godsend if you grow too many tomatoes, as I always do (they’re as bad as the beans). By now I’m gearing up for the new growing year, and am keen to use what’s in stock; I’ve got another three boxes of this to go. But a bottle will do just as well, though adding a little basil would be good.

Emergency Minestra di Ceci
serves 4

Soup yum1 small red onion
1 banana shallot
5g butter
1 tsp olive oil
3 sticks of celery
2 small carrots
1 red pepper
350ml tomato passata
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme

Peel and finely chop the red onion and the shallot. Put the butter and oil in a heavy pan or casserole and heat them gently, then add the chopped onion and shallot. Sweat them over a low heat for 5 minutes or so, making sure that they don’t catch. Chop the celery and carrots finely while the onions are cooking, and then add them to the pan too. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the onion and shallot are transparent and softening. De-seed and chop the red pepper, also finely, and then add it to the pan as well. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, still making sure that nothing is burning by stirring regularly (and keeping an eye on the pan, of course).

Add the tomato passata and increase the temperature; add some water to bring the level of the liquid up to cover the veg. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Put the bay leaf in the soup and pull the leaves off the thyme and scatter them in as well. Bring the soup almost up to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer it for about 10 minutes, or until the carrot and pepper are beginning to get nice and soft. Tip in the chickpeas and cook for a further 5 minutes or so – longer if you want the chickpeas to disintegrate slightly; you may need also to add a little more water to get the soup to the consistency you prefer, but it should be thick. (If intending to freeze portions, bear in mind that they will be cooked more when reheated and don’t overcook the chickpeas at this stage.) Add seasoning to taste and serve as soon as the vegetables are done to your satisfaction, accompanied by chunks of bread.

not a good ideaNow I have the freezer bulging again. Nothing better than soup for freezing. And nothing better for freezing gardeners than a bowl of hot soup.

But there’s a lot that’s better for cameras than trying to photograph soup while it’s actually cooking… happily the new camera seems to have recovered. Not sure about me, but there you go.

In the hungry gap…

Every year I end up in this position come April and May. Nothing to eat. Er, except for a huge stash of frozen green beans, and they’re beginning to pall a little.

dig for victoryIt may seem surprising to anyone who doesn’t grow vegetables – though obviously we all should (!) and this is an accurate depiction of me, by the way – but this is the time of year when home-grown produce is thin on the ground. Traditionally, it’s the season when labourers and peasants’ resources were at their most stretched and starvation was a real possibility.

Happily that’s not (quite) the case now, but it can still be an issue for anyone who likes to grow as much of their own veg as possible. There just isn’t that much available. Brassicas and the like are mostly over by now, going to seed as the temperature increases, and nothing else has yet come on stream.

Admittedly there is a variety of kale which fills the gap – introduced to Britain in 1941, when it was most desperately needed – but I’ve lived on kale at this time of year before now and I’m not keep to repeat the experience. And that’s what it does: repeat. I shall say no more, but my decision has been a popular one. If you’d like to test it for yourself, Chiltern Seeds usually have Hungry Gap Kale. It’s frost resistant (not a problem for me), and it does have a good flavour, but… oh, yes; I said I would say no more. Instead I’m just going to stand in the garden and sigh.

We are still lucky though. Not only can we garden without the risk of enemy parachutists landing in the potato plot, we can supplement our stock with food from the shops. And even if we try not to fall back on that to any great extent, we do not have to actually can anything, though apparently one in five US households still do. Listen to Betty MacDonald on the perils of home canning in the late 1920s:

First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so it won’t be wasted. Frankly I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all of my spare time reading up on botulism…

That risk still exists today: between 1996 and 2008 there were 48 outbreaks of botulism in the US that were directly linked to home-canned food, and botulism kills – nastily. To me, this doesn’t sound like something I should be doing; I’m thinking the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, but with a jar of home-canned cauliflower.

beans dryingThank goodness we have freezers now (admittedly freezers full of french beans). Incidentally, the same over-production addiction – Betty MacD. noted that her neighbours were eating the season before the season before’s produce, and were still planting and planning on canning the current season’s stuff – applies today. I know I don’t need quite so many climbing beans this year, but guess what’s in the cold frame, ready to go out?

And in a few months time they’ll have been blanched and be drying off, ready for packing and putting in the freezer…

I’ve seen all sorts of alternative suggestions for things to fill the hungry gap but I’m not sure I could live on asparagus – and though I wouldn’t mind trying the season is short and doesn’t actually fill the gap. However, these ‘options’ mostly come down to other brassicas – purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, and more kales – and in my experience most of these are already bolting. Squashes, if seasoned well in a good autumn (and that’s a big ‘if’ for me here in Snowdonia) will keep, but even they are failing now, going a little squishy at the base or stalk or, alternatively, getting so hard you have to take an axe to them. Leeks can stay in the ground so they’ve been recommended, but by late April they’re generally sending up spectacular seed heads or are so woody as to be unusable. It’s that HG kale or diddly squat. Diddly squat, then.

Despite this, I rather like the hungry gap in a perverse way, even if I am fed up to the back teeth of frozen beans. It connects me one of the main reasons I bought a house with a decent garden: feeding myself. It reminds me that food should never be taken for granted, and that seasonality should be a factor in my diet. The more I rely on out of season foodstuff from a supermarket, the greater the negative impact on the environment. I know it’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a bigger thing. And in my case, a giant vegetable soup. Or Spanish green beans. Or green beans with tomato. Or a green Thai curry featuring – you guessed – green beans. Or just plain green beans with tomato sauce and fish fingers (getting desperate here). Green bean terrine?

Hang on a second – there is something other than frozen beans, though I’m not quite sure it’s a substitute for tomatoes, spuds, onions, beetroot, courgettes. The rhubarb looks promising…

Ooo matron (or the love of sausages)

What is it with Brits? When it comes to humour, most of us dearly love a double-entendre or anything scatalogical. When I was doing stand-up I sometimes felt that I could abandon my act and say ‘bottom’ for 20 minutes, and get the same hysterical response. Mind you, I was never brave enough to try it, not even at the midnight show at the Comedy Store.

So it’s probably best to confront all the Carry-On style double entendres immediately. This post is about sausages. That’s right, sausages: ‘An item of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork or other meat encased in a skin, typically sold raw to be grilled or fried before eating’, to quote the OED, and absolutely nothing else. OK?

We’re very lucky round here in that many of the butchers take pride in their ‘item[s] of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork’. Perhaps it’s not surprising; there’s a long-established tradition in Britain of local pig-rearing and smaller-scale butchery. Admittedly the small-scale butchery nearly disappeared, but, like some other food traditions – decent breadmaking, for instance – care and attention are again being given to pork products, and on a satisfyingly artisan basis.

Bewick cottagerAnd, even if we haven’t all quite got back to the point where there are piglets playing about while we hang out the washing, the tradition of small-scale pig-rearing is also beginning to reappear.

Some of my friends, for instance, have a pig-sharing thing going on – one rears the pig, the rest share the expenses and will get a share of the haul. But it’s not for me, despite the fact that I do have an old pigsty available. First, the neighbours would probably object, especially the Chapel next door; second, the pigsty is now a garden store and I’d have to clear it out if I wanted to keep a pig. Third, I must admit to being a bit nervous around pigs: I’m no Lord Emsworth, and they are big. One farmer I know had an enormous evil-tempered sow straight out of Celtic myth, and she scared even him (the sausage maker got her in the end; while it would be exaggerating to say that his village put the bunting out, many people were relieved – she’d been prone to escaping).

And, of course there’s that other reason: I can get good sausages and bacon easily, and  without all the fuss, bother or inevitable deterioration in neighbourly relations. The Spar shop in my village houses an award-winning sausage maker; there are multiple delicious choices at the local farmers’ markets and even the local Co-op does a good selection in their premium range. I’ve tried many of the flavouring options available and am currently coming down in favour of cracked black pepper sausages, either from local producers Oinc Oink (a happily bilingual name – there’s no ‘k’ in modern Welsh) or Ynysgyffylog. They’ve got enough punch to stand up to all sorts of other ingredients and are perfect for when I want exactly that impact but without the garlic of my local butcher’s best Toulouse-style sausage (itself ideal in cassoulet). And when I can’t get any of those, largely down to bad planning on my part, I get the Co-op’s Lincolnshires. Very good, very sage-y, as a good Lincolnshire sausage should be.

Ever since I discovered a tasty recipe in an old copy of Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter I’ve done much more than simply bake / fry / grill sausages and serve them neat, as it were (I did adapt the recipe, which was from 1974 – tinned carrots? I think not…). A good sausage is a good sausage, no matter how you cook it – and a bad one will always be a disgrace, much more appropriately found – and left – in CMOT Dibbler’s tray in Ankh Morpork than in my sandwich / bake / ragout / salad. Their potential is enormous, as indicated by all the /// alternatives. So here’s my latest recipe, a warm salad. The weather isn’t summery enough for a cold one. Yet.

saladWarm potato and sausage salad
Serves 2

The recipe uses cooked sausages. I bake mine, while I’m cooking something else, at about 180 degrees, 160 degrees fan / GM 4 for approximately 30 minutes (depending on their thickness). I then let them cool completely. It’s the spuds that are warm, not the bangers…

200 – 250g new potatoes
6 well-flavoured sausages, baked, chilled
3 sticks of celery
2 banana shallots or 1 small red onion
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
a little salt
lots of black pepper
a large sprig of parsley, chopped

Chop the potatoes into chunks no bigger than 2cm, and put them in a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the cold sausages into slices and put them in a large bowl. De-string the celery sticks and chop them up too, then add to the bowl as well. Cut the shallots in half and remove any greenish centres which can be bitter, then slice them into rings and add to the bowl as well.

Test the potatoes and check that they are just tender, then drain them well. Add them to the bowl and then quickly add the mayo, yoghurt and mustard. Add a little salt and turn the salad over carefully with a wooden spoon; the potatoes should not break up, but everything does need to be covered in the dressing. Add lots of black pepper and a good handful of chopped parsley and stir gently once more, then put it onto warmed serving plates. Serve immediately, with chunks of bread.

(And then steal any left-overs…)

 

 

There are more than two coffee shops in Wales…

Way back in January of last year, one national – hah, allegedly – newspaper published a list of the fifty best independent coffee shops in the UK. Wales, apparently, has – wait for it – two. Both in Cardiff. At least they restricted their choice of London coffee shops to ten, but there were still more in the EC postcode area than in the whole of Wales. Hello?

Now this might have been acceptable, or even vaguely accurate, about twenty years ago (then again no, it wouldn’t have been either) but today it is merely lazy and complacent. There are plenty of good independents. Plenty. Even in small towns like those near me. OK, there are some bad ones and some which are merely indifferent. But there are some which are stonkingly good.

I’ve had a bit of a rant about coffee shops here before, where I contrasted a bad experience and a good one. Just to show that there’s more than one good coffee shop in Gwynedd, despite what what the Daily X might think, I’m going to have a quiet rave about another favourite: the Llew Glas Delicatessen in Harlech. It’s just had its second birthday (as it were), but it’s already hard to remember what Harlech was like without it.

Sigh. What’s not to like?

cakes at Freya'sEvery time I go in I’m reminded of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

OK, Rick’s featured a casino and not cake. And it’s not the gambling, the diamond dealing, the Nazis or Bogart in a tuxedo, either: it’s the fact that everyone ends up here. As Rene says in the film, ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’. I have seldom been in the Llew Glas and not known anybody there, but it’s not just a local haunt – some friends of mine popped in recently, complete strangers to the area, and were made to feel just as much part of the scene.

I came up with several pointers for a decent coffee shop in that earlier post – good coffee, good alternatives, good food and good service were, predictably, my top four (the others were a little more, um, idiosyncratic, including a complete absence of religious quotes and seats you can actually sit on).

The Llew Glas wins on all those; the coffee is good, as are the non-coffs, the herb tea (me), the hot chocolate (not for lactose-intolerant moi but for almost all of my friends). The food is great. There are light lunches – soups, sandwiches, a choice of scrumptious quiches – which are freshly cooked and not bought in, as well as the usual staples of gorgeous cakes and, as the sign outside says, ‘probably the best scones in Harlech’.

But for me it’s the service which shines out. An Irish friend of mine used to do a splendid act as a waitress in a newly-flash, Celtic Tiger, Dublin eaterie. She slouched up, got too close, sniffed juicily and then said, loudly and in tones of deep boredom, ‘y’aright?’. Once upon a time service like this was the norm; customers were a nuisance who got in the way. Unfortunately there are some places which haven’t realised that times have changed (another friend of mine was asked recently whether he could ‘take down’ the – accurate – reports of bad service which a restaurant had received on TripAdvisor, and was berated when he explained that this was impossible). But fake, we’re-afraid-of-TripAdvisor, service is one thing. Genuinely good service is another, and that is what you get at the Llew Glas.

Many years ago, some friends and I had a drunken conversation about something that was missing in Harlech. There were pubs (two, then, in the upper town) and a couple of very traditional cafés, but we didn’t feel that they catered for us or our friends. A wine bar was our conclusion, then. The main reason we felt we needed one was that it would provide a place for us to socialise without going to one of the pubs – no reflection on them, but they were quite a male preserve. To an extent, and a very considerable extent, the Llew Glas has filled this niche – and it’s a tribute to how good it is that it has done so without selling alcohol or being open in the evenings. After all, ‘everybody comes to Rick’s’ or, in this case, Freya’s…

harlech castleDetails? Well, the Llew Glas Delicatessen is at 3, Plas y Goits, Harlech – just opposite the Plas restaurant, in what is often known as Blue Lion (Llew Glas) Courtyard.

It’s open 10-5, Monday to Saturday; Sundays in the season, and if there’s only one piece of raspberry and coconut slice left, you won’t like it. Honest. Leave it.

Pre-ferment bread perfection

This blog shouldn’t, strictly speaking, be called ‘twelve miles from a lemon’. Things have moved on since Sydney Smith’s day, and I’m about 500 metres from a lemon (about 3 metres if you count the ones in the fridge). No, strictly speaking it should be ‘fifty-five miles or several clicks and an interminable wait for the postie from fresh yeast’. Gripping, huh?

Yup, I ran out.

I’ve ordered some now, of course, but in the meantime I had to find a solution to my immediate bread-free problem that didn’t either involve buying boiled baby’s blankets from the Co-op, waiting a few days to revive my sourdough starter or purchasing some dried yeast which would get used once and languish in the back of the cupboard until I threw it out. I’ve been corrupted, you see, by the delights of using fresh yeast. Unfortunately it can be a pig to get.

But I remembered a friend of mine, a man who has recently returned to breadmaking, telling me about his overnight pre-ferment which used very little yeast. There were some broken bits in the container, and I weighed them out – about 5g.

So I set to. And it worked, and it worked WONDERFULLY. I make no apologies for the sudden appearance of caps; the end result justifies them. In fact, I may take to pre-fermenting my bread on a regular basis. It’s a version of the sponge method, for any other bread nuts out there.

This is what I did. And thanks, Jon!

Basic bread – with an overnight pre-ferment
Makes one large loaf

pre-ferment 1For the pre-ferment:
100g wholemeal flour
250g strong white flour
a small pinch of sugar
5g fresh yeast – a teaspoon, roughly
425ml tepid water

Mix the flours and sugar together in a large bowl. Put the yeast in a jug with the water and stir until it is blended in, then add the liquid to the flour. Stir until you have something that looks attractively like wallpaper paste. Ignore its appearance, cover the bowl with cling film and pop it in the fridge overnight.

pre-ferment 2You might think this would kill the yeasts, but no; the following morning there should be plenty of bubble action going on. Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it to come up to room temperature.

Now for the rest of the process.

350g strong white flour
1.5 tsp salt

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, then add the bubbly pre-ferment. Stir everything together well, using a spoon at first if you don’t want to get too messy but hands are easier. When the mixture has begun to come together as a dough, tip it out onto a lightly floured work surface.

Start kneading, firmly pushing the dough away, bringing it back towards you and turning it as you go, and do so for 10 minutes; I set a timer or I give up too early. The texture of the dough will change – it starts to feel silky – and it should become much warmer to the touch.  Roll it into a ball, put it in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Set it aside to prove (aka rise) for about an hour or so, until approximately doubled in size.

dough in bannetonThen take the dough out of the bowl and knead it lightly once more, shaping it into a round ball (or in my case, a sort of oval ball; perhaps I was influenced in my choice by the rugby that was going on at the time).

I use French bannetons – linen-lined proving baskets which are old, well floured and were dirt cheap in Carrefour – for the next stage, but the bread can also be put into an oiled and floured tin. (Personally, I find it spreads a bit much sideways if I just put it on a baking sheet, but I am the Queen of Sloppy Dough.)

Put the dough in the basket (or whatever), untidy side uppermost. Cover it with a clear plastic bag, pulling the bag up so there is no danger of the rising dough touching the bag.*

banneton 2Leave it in a warm place to rise until doubled in size again. This may take less time, possibly about 45 minutes. In the meanwhile preheat the oven to at least 220 degrees C, GM7 – you want it as hot as you can get it, really.

Put a lightly-oiled baking tray over the top of the basket and turn it over, carefully holding the basket in place; the dough will drop down and the basket can be easily lifted off. Slash the loaf three or four times with a really sharp knife – a sharp bread knife is good, or a purpose-made blade known as a lame or grignette – and put it in the oven quickly.

bread yumBake for 30-35 minutes – until the base sounds hollow when rapped, and the top looks golden-brown and delicious.

Cool the loaf on a rack, and resist the temptation to eat the lot. Like all loaves, it slices more easily the following day, but it did have to be sampled yesterday. Especially the crust. With raspberry jam. Might have been poisoned or tasted vile. You never know…This was, after all, an experiment.

And?

Well, I have to say that I found this loaf every bit as good as my normal loaf – in fact, possibly even more flavoursome. And, of course, it is much more economical with the yeast, certainly something to consider when the fresh stuff can be so fiddly to obtain.

bread

Note:
I love Bakery Bits for potential supplies – but it’s not cheap and I tend to use it for drooling and idle speculation. On the other hand, if I find myself in a perfectly ordinary French supermarket I automatically head for the homewares section. I’ve found round bannetons, long bannetons, oval bannetons – and all linen-lined and costing a fraction of what I’d pay online or in a posh kitchen supplies shop. Sometimes they are evidently intended to have a decorative purpose, but even those which lurk among the cushions and tablecloths are usually perfectly practical. And are just a few euros.

*Plastic bag + sticky dough = unbelieveable mess. Ectoplasm. Something from Withnail’s sink – matter. Worse. Ergh.

Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…