Arcimboldo’s Summer

Arcimboldo’s Summer
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was the master of these pre-surrealist paintings of figures formed of grouped objects (not always food).

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Banana Bread with Chocolate

I became fed up with the bananas in my kitchen spoiling before I could eat them, so for the first time in my life I've begun baking banana bread — just to use up the little yellow devils. (Actually, by the time I get around to dealing with them, they're mottled black and brown little devils.) I went through a large number of recipes before I found one that I thought was suitable, and then I tweaked it until I was happy with it.

Result? Banana bread dining pleasure. But the other day I had a devilish little impulse to tweak the recipe again by adding chocolate chips to it. However, being my snobbish self, I wasn't about to settle for any old standard chocolate chips... Instead, I went off in search of a suitably high end gourmet alternative.

And, to my delight, I found the perfect product right away — on the shelves of my little local Sainsbury's (Putney). There beside the mundane mainstream choc chips were these 70% cocoa Belgian dark chocolate beauties. Absolutely superb, and they worked brilliantly in the recipe. (As a more health-conscious alternative you can use organic sultanas, also delicious.)

I was really pleased that Sainsbury's had exactly the ingredient I needed, and the resulting loaf that emerged warm and fragrant from the oven is absolutely the Rolls Royce of banana breads. Here is the Betty Crocker recipe I use, although NB — I reduce the amount of sugar from two cups to half a cup (!). The result is still perfectly sweet and you'll live longer... And be able to enjoy more banana bread.

(Image credit: thank you My Supermarket for the pack shot.)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Nuñez de Prado Olive Oil

Nuñez de Prado is a legendary Spanish organic extra virgin olive oil which has long been a favourite of mine. It's lovely stuff and it only has one drawback — okay, two. The first is the red sealing wax you get as a kind of cap on the cork in the half litre bottle, which is a bit messy to remove. The second is the cost. It's a premium product, and has a commensurate price tag.

Well, Marks & Spencer has dispensed with both of these objections. Since they're selling the oil in one litre tins the whole sealing wax issue is a non-issue. And the litre tins are — astonishingly — selling for about the same price as I used to pay for a half litre bottle.

Consequently, I bought some Nuñez de Prado for the first time in years, and now I'm stockpiling the stuff from my local M&S. Such a great offer is bound to vanish like the too-good-to-be-true dream that it is. So, let's make the most of it while we can.

I did a little taste comparison when I opened my first tin (i now own several) of Nuñez de Prado. I put it up against Ecoato, which is another Spanish organic oil, similar in colour and packaged in similar livery, right down to the red sealing wax (imitation is the sincerest, etc...). 

Ecoato is a nice extra virgin olive oil. It has the buttery character of a Spanish oil, but with the slightly throat-burning finish of an Italian specimen. Perfectly fine. But then I tried the Nuñez de Prado.

Straight out of the tin the Nuñez de Prado was stunning. There was an immediate, complex burst of flavours and fragrances. I experienced apples, almonds and a whiff of fresh growing lavender.

Tremendous stuff, and available at an amazing price. Buy as many tins as you can carry.

(Image credits. I searched long and hard for an image of Nuñez de Prado oilve oil in the litre tin at a Marks & Spence website, but could find none. Indeed if you go to the M&S site and search for "olive oil" you are told there is no such product. Anyway, I eventually borrowed the pic from another food blog, Frolic 72 where it's reviewed. It's a nice little blog even if they do think Nuñez de Prado is a Sicilian oil. The 500ml Nuñez de Prado bottle image is from Brindisa. And the Ecoato picture is from Kuzzina, although the bottle I actually have features a somewhat different (older?) label design.)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Tesco Sweet Emerald Tomatoes

The search continues for edible tomatoes. Oh, there's no trouble finding tomatoes that look beautiful, but as I've bemoaned before, they generally have all the flavour of wet tissue paper. 

So when I saw Tesco's Finest Sweet Emerald (you have to laugh at these names) green tomatoes on special, I thought I'd give them a whirl. Even though they are green.

I've bought speciality tomatoes before, including ones which claimed to be deliciously sweet. And, more often than not, I've been disappointed. But not this time. These tomatoes have an excellent flavour and, yes, considerable sweetness. I'm accustomed to using tomatoes to provide a bit of bright (red) colour to dishes, sliced on top as decoration as much as an additional vegetable. So using green tomatoes required a bit of a rethink. 

I found they were at their best served thinly sliced on top of a nice chunk of smoked salmon in an open sandwich. (Mmm, I'm making myself hungry just thinking about it... Is it time for lunch yet?) But I'm sure you'll find plenty of uses for these Sweet Emeralds.

They're not cheap, but at least they are an example of a product that  actually does what it says on the label.

(Image credits: Both shots are from Tesco's own site.)

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Butter Bean Conundrum

I reckon that if you get one good recipe out of a cook book, then it's worth having. By this criterion, Paola Gavin's Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking makes the grade. The one recipe I've adopted so far is a simple and tasty butter bean salad. Here is my variation on it: You soften thinly sliced red onions (3 medium) and crushed garlic cloves (4) in extra virgin olive oil for about ten minutes. Add drained butter beans (one 420g tin) and cook gently for another ten minutes. Two minutes before you take it off the heat, add finely chopped fresh coriander. About three tablespoons.

My main innovation here, besides using red onions for the colour, is to use canned butter beans. Life is too short to endure the soaking and cooking of dried beans which Paola Gavin suggests. And the results are, I suspect, every bit as good.

But what are butter beans? When my brother in Canada said he'd never heard of them, his first question was whether they were the same as lima beans. I firmly told him no way. Lima beans are green and have an asringent alum-like taste. Butter beans are a pale whitish-yellow and, as their name suggests, have a creamy taste. I never liked limas but I find butter beans very palatable.
Yet a quick search online suggests that the beans are related, if not the same thing. There are at least three competing theories: lima and butter beans are exactly the same; they are the same thing at different stages of development; they are different. Confusion reigns. My taste bud tells me the third option is the correct one.

(Image credits: the general butter bean shot is from IFNG. The Waitrose tin is from Ocado. The book cover is from the Great British Book Shop.)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Edible Broccoli Shocker!

Public health advice on food and diet is as changeable as the wind. Remember when eggs were public enemy number one? Until the experts did a 180 degree policy turn on them. Or butter, which was considered lethal, and people were encouraged to eat cruddy industrial margarine instead. Similar reversals have been visited on coconut oil and palm oil.

The only consistent piece of advice, and one I trust, is that we should eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. And there does seem evidence that one particularly beneficial vegetable is broccoli. (When no less an authority than New Scientist recommends the stuff, I pay attention.)

The trouble is, I hated eating broccoli. It was difficult to chop the damn stuff up, it stunk the place out during cooking (even when I added a bay leaf to the boiling water I used to steam the broccoli) and unless it was absolutely fresh it could taste disgusting — sulphurous.

But then two things happened. I discovered tender stem broccoli (a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese Kale which involves no tedious chopping) and my ingenious brother James recommended eating the stuff raw. No troublesome cooking, no objectionable smell, and absolutely no loss of nutrients (even steaming must lose a few).

So now all I do is wash the stems, then use them to dip into humous. Delicious. And I'm getting my greens. My preferred broccoli is Tesco's Organic Tender Stems, but it's been out of stock recently so I've been eating the Waitrose version. Both are fine, though it may not shock you to learn that the Tesco's product is often more competitively price.

 (Image credits: the Tesco broccoli is from My Supermarket. The Waitrose image is from Ocado.)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Sandwich of the Month

Okay, I admit that this is virtually identical to an earlier Meal of the Week post, right down to the manufacturer of the bread. But this time it's the Crosta & Mollica Focaccia Pugliese which I used for the base of this mozzarella-tomato-and-basil treat.

And, good lord, what a base it was. This gorgeous, spongy, salty bread easily outclassed its ciabatta stablemate. It's the perfect vehicle for this Italian style sandwich and might well be unbeatable.

Anyway, it was such a great sandwich I just want to eat it all over again, right now. Besides the bread upgrade, there were other differences, too, compared to the Meal of the Week version. I used a different mozzarella and olive oil this time. The cheese was Sainbsury's Basic, since I'd run out of my favourite Tesco mozza (for a discussion of the budget mozzarellas, see here).

But the oil was the most notable variation. This time I used a glorious organic olive oil which some Spanish friends gave me (Hi Joan! Hi Gemma!). It's called Baronia de Cabacés and, holy moley, it's delicious. Tear the basil leaves, slice the tomatoes, chop the mozzarella, stack on the (warmed and sliced through the middle) focaccia, grind on some black pepper — and drizzle that fantastic oil. No, on second thoughts don't drizzle. Pour it on.

The most intriguing thing about the Baronia de Cabacés oil is that I'd put it at the back of the cupboard to save for a special occasion. Then, when I finally pulled it out, I was mortified to discover that it was several month is past its "best before" date. So I opened it and sampled it with trepidation. And it's just glorious, with a fresh, green, fruity taste. Somehow citric with being acidic, very light and refreshing.

All this is in stark contrast with a certain famous big brand "fruity" oil which was still a few months within its best before date and basically tasted — to me — like liquid cardboard.

(Image credits: The bread is from Waitrose. The olive oil bottle label, which for some reason — brand update? — isn't quite the same as the one on my bottle, is from Agrícola Cabacés. The other, somewhat dodgy, photos are by my own fair hand.)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Beetroot Casserole

In last week's post I promised to provide you with my wonderful beetroot recipe. Well, here it is. Simple and delicious. Not to mention inexpensive.

Take a large casserole and pour some good quality extra virgin olive oil into it. Chop half a dozen spring onions (I call them green onions) into one centimetre lengths and sprinkle them into the casserole. Take an anchovy fillet in olive oil and chop it finely (I use kitchen scissors). Scatter that around the casserole, too.

Add a couple of grinds of black pepper. Slice 500g of cooked beetroot and layer over the top of the onions and anchovy. (The thinner you slice the beetroot the quicker it cooks.) Add some more olive oil. Do not cover the casserole. Bake at a high-ish temperature, about 170˚C, for around 45 minutes. But your nose will tell you when it's done. Don't overcook. Carbonised beetroot isn't fun.

Served as a side dish (it's excellent with cheese and sourdough bread) this is very tasty and will accommodate 2 or 3 people. Doubling the quantities won't do you any harm though. The leftovers will be tasty straight from the fridge.

(Image credit: I confess. This is not my recipe. In fact the photo is of layered beetroot used to cover a beef hotpot. It's pinched from an excellent site called A Glug of Oil.)

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Eat to the Beet

I like beetroot but it will be a cold day in hell when I cook one from scratch. So ever since I came up with a wonderful beetroot recipe I've been looking for bargain beetroot to buy. (Apologies for the alliteration.) And the bargain beetroot buy to beat (okay, that's enough) is Lidl's Oakland Cooked Beetroot.

I was delighted to find that this cost close to half the price of beetroot at other supermarkets — 59p (44p when on special recently) per pack. But then I realised that the Lidl beetroot came in 500g packs. In other words, twice the size of the other supermarket's beetroot. A huge saving and an incredible bargain. 

What's more, the Lidl beetroot, if anything, has a superior flavour to its competitors. considerably sweeter. Unbeatable — Or should I say "unbeetable"? No, I won't say that, and as an apology for all the alliteration and appalling puns I will post my wonderful beetroot recipe next week.

(Image credits: One reason that Lidl is so cheap — sorry, inexpensive — may be that their web presence is close to non existent. They have a website, but you can't search it for products and no search engine would disgorge a photo of the Oakland Cooked Beetroot they sell. So what you've got here instead is a beautiful photograph of the lovely Chioggia stripey beetroot from a delightful blog about gardening in London, Out of My Shed. Many thanks to Naomi Schillinger.)

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Budget Mozzarella Shoot-Out

There is no question about my favourite mozzarella — it's Laverstoke Park Farm Buffalo Mozzarella. And it's my first choice, when price is no object. However, price is usually an object. And the Laverstoke Park, tasty as it is, costs about six times as much as the budget mozzarellas I tend to buy.

I recently sampled Tesco Everyday Value Mozzarella (44p for 125g versus £2.50 for the Laverstoke Park) and I thought it was excellent. Not in the same league as the expensive buffalo mozzarella, but genuinely a cut above the other budget mozzarellas I'd tried.

So I set out to test this, doing a comparison tasting with two other contenders, Lidl's Lovilio at 44p for 125g and Sainsbury's Basics, also at 44p for 125g (do you get the impression that these supermarkets are aware of each others' pricing policies?).

All of these budget mozzarellas were perfectly acceptably but I confirmed my initial impression about the superiority of the Tesco product. It has a buttery complexity of flavour that the others lack. It's texture is also better, having some of that feathery quality when you break it open that is the mark of a good mozzarella.

The Tesco Everyday Value Mozzarella is a clear winner and a genuine bargain.

(Image credits: The Tesco pack shot is from My Supermarket. As is the Sainsury's. The Lidl Lovilio is from FDDB.)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Tesco Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I've discovered that Tesco has a competitively priced own-brand extra virgin olive. I'd like to include it my comparison tasting against the current leader, Sainsbury's, and others. But no branch of Tesco nearby stocks it. While I'm waiting to obtain a bottle I decided to try their Greek Extra Virgin.

This oil is currently on offer at a reduced price — down from £3.25 to £2.50 for a 500ml bottle. Rocket scientists will swiftly realise that this is five quid a litre, which puts it well out of our comparison tasting sweepstakes (where we're looking at four quid or less) but I couldn't resist trying it, not least because I've been wanting to try some Greek oils for a while.

Tesco's Greek extra virgin is pleasant, tasty, and distinctive. It has the interesting characteristic of combining buttery smoothness (which I think of as a Spanish trait) with an herbaceous bitterness (which I associate with Italian oils). Very nice. I compared it with the Sainsbury's own brand, which is also agreeably bitter. The Sainsbury's doesn't have any of that buttery flavour and its bitterness is more complex, with a longer finish, tasting of green grass and dark chocolate.

Which you prefer is of course a matter of personal taste, but the Sainsbury's is remarkably classy and sophisticated for a cheap oil — £1.15 a litre cheaper than the Teso Greek, even when it's on special. And when you consider that the Tesco Greek is almost twice as costly as the cheapest oil in our recent tastings (Lidl's Primadonna at £2.79 a litre) it doesn't seem like a contender for we gourmet cheapskates.

(Image credits: the Tesco Greek is from My Supermarket. And the Sainsbury's one too.)

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Sainsbury’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I'm continuing my quest for the finest budget extra virgin olive oil. Recent notable purchases from Asda and Lidl were both well under three quid a litre, so when I splashed out £3.85 for a litre bottle of Sainsbury's own brand extra virgin olive oil, it felt like an almost obscene act of profligacy.

But the Sainsbury's extra virgin is a classy product. There is a wrapper around the lid which you have to peel away, like on a bottle of wine. And once you remove the screw top you find there is a  plastic pull-top seal which you have to remove before you can pour the oil. This has to help protect the freshness of the product. And the bottle is made of dark green glass, which also helps, by cutting down on the degradation caused by light reaching the oil.

So what did it taste like? Well, it is delicious — with an intense, pleasant, aromatic bitterness. It is much sharper, and to my taste, more appealing than the excellent and rather buttery Asda extra virgin.

I'll have to compare it with Lidl's Primadonna as well. Once I've arranged a blind tasting of the three oils I will report back. In the meantime I am going to go in search of other extra virgin olive oils for £4 or less. Coverage of products on the internet is so poor for all the major supermarkets that the only way to really find out what they sell is to visit a large branch. 

So I need to investigate Tesco's and Morrison's and perhaps even Waitrose, though they are probably too posh and expensive to meet our price point. My spies have only been able to find ordinary (non extra virgin, non mechanically extracted) olive oil at Audi's, which is odd because at Lidl's, in contrast, they only sell extra virgin. One day I'll have to try the more expensive Italian-only extra virgin oil at Lidl. But at well over five quid a litre that will have to wait another and more affluent survey.

But back to Sainsbury's extra virgin. This is a strong contender for the best tasting of the budget supermarket olive oils. I love it. Keep up the good work, folks.

(The Sainsbury's oil bottle shot is from My Supermarket. Regretably, I couldn't find a suitable photo on Sainsbury's own website. The Asda shot is also from My Supermarket, although it's an out of date image — as far as I can tell, it's the only one available.)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Asda Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In our continuing search for the best budget extra virgin olive oil, I have to tell you that there's a new kid in town. Now, I have nothing against Lidl's excellent Primadonna, which I've written about here. Indeed when I was in their store the other day I noticed the price had dropped from around three quid a litre to about £2.79.

And I think I know why. I visited Asda the same day I discovered that their own brand extra virgin was on sale for £2.89 a litre (it's normally £3.75). I took a bottle home to try and it was first rate. Perhaps a little more spicy/peppery than the Primadonna.

I got a lift with a friend (thanks, Matt!) and bought half a dozen more litre bottles from Asda. This is going to be my standard oil for a while.

One word of warning though, that picture doesn't accurately depict the oil I bought. It appears to be an old design, but it's the only one available. Once again I'm surprised at how out of date the websites of the major supermarkets are.

Still a great oil, though. And a terrific bargain. Try some.

(Image credits: the erroneous pic, but the only one I could find on the net, comes from My Supermarket.)

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Borges Fruity Taste Extra Virgin Olive Oil

As you know, I'm always on the look out for interesting new olive oils, particularly at budget prices, so when I saw a promotion at Tesco on Borges oils I was immediately intrigued. I'm normally wary of big internationally successful brands of olive oil — I prefer obscure makes, or supermarket own brands. 

But in this case I couldn't resist the promise of a "Fruity Taste" extra virgin olive oil. And the description of it being 100% arbequina olives suggested it would be a cut above the usual. And, crucially, the price was down from five quid a bottle to three quid (in other words, it cost £6 a litre). I hesitated, counted my pennies... but the fruity taste claim and the arbequina olives had seduced me. I bought a bottle.

So I imagine my horror on the bus going home when I checked the bottle and saw the expiry date on the oil was a mere four months away. The oil had already been in the bottle for 14 months. No surprise, then, when I got it home and found that it tasted flat and uninteresting. I took it back to Tesco's and returned it, telling them it was stale, which I felt it was.

I exchanged it for another bottle. Unfortunately every bottle in the store was on the same dates. This second bottle actually tasted slightly better — I think it might have been a different batch, or stored under better conditions. It was pleasant and buttery. 

But a comparison with my current standard baseline extra virgin olive oil, Lidl's Prima Donna immediately showed how insipid the Borges was. The Prima Donna was complex, spicy and flavourful. The Borges simply tasted flat. Given that result, and the fact the Prima Donna is half the price of the Borges — even when the Borges is at a reduced price — I won't be buying this Fruity Taste again any time soon.

I don't think Tesco or Borges are doing the brand any favours by selling such old stock.

(Image credits: the dark green image is from the Borges website — sorry chaps, I'm sure you do some fine oils. This specimen just was not one of them. The light green picture is from Tesco, who are a bit naughty to be selling such an uninspiring and late-dated product on promotion and pretending it's some kind of bargain.)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Duchy All Butter Organic Scones

I'm currently addicted to these. They're utterly delicious. Fortunately I've been able to limit my addiction to the breakfast hours...

I slice the scone into two or three segments, toast them and then spread them with coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature and a superb butter substitute — I figured these All Butter scones probably had enough butter in them already. 

Plus the coconut oil is simply delicious. I've got nothing against butter, but it's sensible to limit consumption of animal fats and coconut oil is a tasty and healthy alternative. And in some cases tastes better than butter.

These scones also freeze supremely well. The ones I'm currently tucking into were in the freezer for months and only got dug out because I needed to make room for some Poilane bread. They still taste fantastic.The only consequence of freezing is that they're perhaps a bit more crumbly... So use a sharp knife.

(Image credit: the pack shot is from Waitrose, where indeed I bought the scones.) 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Primadonna Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I was in the budget supermarket Lidl last night buying tomatoes to make my favourite pizza sauce this weekend. The tomatoes are £1.19 a kilo since you asked, fairly unbeatable and though variable in flavour and quality, often deliciously sweet. As I ran through the recipe in my head I realised I'd run out of olive oil.

Well, I hadn't actually run out. I had plenty of bottles of tasty, classy and high end oils of various kinds. But I'd run out of my standard 'house' oil I use for cooking — Sainsbury's organic unfiltered, a strongly flavoured, peppery and yummy olive oil which I also use for everything else. But it's my 'cheap' oil and in a recipe like this that requires lots, it's the one to use rather the high end oils.

Since I wasn't going to be at Sainsbury's in the next few days I considered gambling on trying some olive oil from Lidl. What the hell, I was already here... and when I saw the price of their oil I was sorely tempted. I noticed a guy wearing headphones picking up a bottle and I asked him what it was like. He politely removed his headphones and said he used it all the time and it was great. So, not without trepidation, I bought a bottle...

Just now, again not without trepidation, I tried it. And was relieved to discover it's very good. Just fine in fact. Good clean, buttery taste. Rather like a Spanish oil in character. I'm going to start using it regularly. At this price, how can I resist?

The price: £2.39 for a 750cl bottle. Or, just under £3.20 a litre. In fact, you can buy litre bottles of it — though not at my branch of Lidl — for £2.99. This makes it less than half the price of the Sainsbury's organic unfiltered. So now the Primadonna is going to become my house oil. And the Sainsbury's organic unfiltered gets promoted to a place among the high end oils

So everybody's happy.

(Image credits: The main picture is from The Eurofood website, which looks interesting but is all Greek to me. The litre bottle is from Lidl's own site.)

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Chaource versus Chaource

I can't remember where I first tasted Chaource. Possibly it was an expensive purchase from Waitrose's high end cheese selection. But I remember that I loved it — meltingly soft, with a slightly mushroomy flavour and a yummy rind — and I have a dynamite recipe for it which I will post soon.

Recently I was delighted to discover that this traditional French village cheese (it's named after the village of origin) has become more widely available. It turned up, quite reasonably priced, at both Tesco and Sainsbury's. So this is my comparison of the two.

The Sainsbury's one (£3.30) was, ahem, simply divine. The Tesco example (£3) was, initially, disappointing. 

More sour than Sainsbury's and with a less appetising texture. But, in fairness, the Sainsbury's Chaource was vastly riper — to be honest, I forgot it was in the fridge and only discovered it weeks later, after the blur that was Christmas.

And as the Tesco Chaource grew more ripe and runny, its flavour improved dramatically.

I will have to get two more samples, and age them for exactly the same length of time, eat them both and report back with the results.

It will be hell, but I'm willing to make the sacrifice for you.

Update: I've now had another sample of the Tesco Chaource (thanks, Chuck) and it was simply delicious. 

(Mind you, it's time I tried all the other ones again, too. It's such a hard life. Sigh.)

(Image credits: the Tesco's pack shot is from All About You. The Sainsbury's one is from My Supermarket.)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Genesis Crafty Pancakes

As so often happens, a special offer at Waitrose tempted me to check out a novel food item. This week, "Genesis Crafty Pancakes". These comes in a pack of four and are small to medium sized pancakes — you could hold them in one hand.

The flavours I selected were Blueberry and (Belgian) Chocolate Chip. You're supposed to warm them/toast them under a grill, but in my house that was never going to happen. Straight into the toaster with them — their small size making them ideal for this.

I started with the blueberry ones. Warm from the toaster I then treated them just as I would home made — spread them with coconut oil instead of butter (great, you should try it) and sprinkled them with brown sugar. The texture and flavour of the pancakes was generally excellent — indistinguishable from home made, really.

Where they fell down was on the blueberries. Because of the thinness of the pancakes I suppose whole blueberries were never a possibility, but what blueberry fragments were present were few and far between. Just occasional little brownish splotches. Disappointing, although there was some blueberry flavour throughout the pancake.

The chocolate chip ones on the other hand were jam packed with those chocolate chips (careful they don't melt in your toaster!).

I prefer the blueberry pancakes in principle, but if chocolate is your thing these will go down a treat. They're too rich to need butter (or coconut oil) spread on them. Although I do have a devilish little notion to try them with peanut butter...

(Image credits: I got both the blueberry and chocolate pack shots from Waitrose.)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Burgers: Five Guys

I try to avoid writing disparaging commentary about restaurants, so when I had a disappointing experience in Miami a few months ago — I fancied a burger, a friend recommended a chain with a high reputation, I went there and was decidedly unimpressed — I decided to just let it go. 

But now I've discovered that this US burger chain is opening up in London. So I can no longer remain silent.

The chain is called Five Guys and they've just opened a branch in Covent Garden. I paid them a visit — the place was bustling, busy and obviously already a considerable success — and asked the pleasant and helpful staff there about their cooking policy, which it turns out is the same as in the States. So I can confidently assure you the end result will be the same as I experienced in Miami. And it was not good.

There are many things to commend Five Guys. The restaurants are inviting, nice design, friendly service, the chips are tasty, the toppings are free... but my praise ends there. The burgers are not, in my humble and purely personal opinion, worth eating.

Because they insist on cooking them well done. The customer doesn't get any other options. It's well done or no burger. And the result? 

A tasteless, colourless, overcooked slab of dry meat at the centre of your bun. You have to stuff the damn thing with those free toppings in a desperate attempt to get some moisture into your meal. But it's no use...

Why boast of your "certified stamped prime fresh beef" if you're just going to cremate the stuff? I know some people prefer their burgers well done, and some go even further, way beyond the Five Guys burger, and devour it burnt (but isn't burnt food a potential health risk?) However, many other people don't want a cremation-burger. Give us rare, medium rare, or medium...

It's also true that in some places, burger joints have to cook their meat well done by law. Luckily, in the UK, that isn't a nation-wide situation.

And that being the case, Five Guys doesn't stand a chance as far as my taste buds are concerned. Not when there are other burger joints like Byron or the mighty wonderful GBK out there.

Make mine medium rare, please.

(Image credit: The — admittedly delicious looking — burger & fries shot is from Battle of California's post about Five Guys versus another US burger chain. The fries pic is from a review on the blog Ink and Paper (Napkins).)

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bowled Over by Bowland Cheese

There's been a recent wave of British cheeses with added fruit — and I have to say I heartily endorse them. Some are better than others, though — and I've just encountered one of the best.

Bowland is a Lancashire cheese with apples and sultanas and a coating of cinammon. It's available at Waitrose — I bought some purely on impulse and I'm very glad I did. It's excellent, and the combined flavours of the cheese, fruit and spice has a synergy which is usually lacking in these fruit cheeses.

The whole is definitely greater than the parts. Give it a try.

(Image credit: the picture of the Bowland cheese in its wrapper is from Michael Lee Fine Cheeses, a tasty little site.)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Meal of the Week: Gran Duro Ciabatta, Mozzarella and Tomato

This splendid ciabatta, made with golden durum wheat, comes with a recipe on the label. More of a serving suggestion than a recipe — very simple, and very familiar. Indeed, an old favourite. But I hadn't had it for a while, so it was with my mouth watering that I warmed the bread for 10 minutes in a hot oven, then sliced it in half down the middle and spilt one half lengthwise.

I then layered the cut quarter loaf with sliced tomatoes (using the other quarter loaf as a surface for slicing the tomatoes, to catch the juice) and slices of mozzarella and ground some black pepper over it. Then I added torn basil leaves and repeated the whole process until the quarter loaf was stacked high.

Then I poured olive oil on it ('drizzle' is the official word, but this was a generous drizzle) and stuck the other quarter loaf back on top to make a big fat sandwich. Then I devoured it.

It was outstandingly delicious. The olive oil I used was a top Spanish number called Picualia Aove 1. It's a classy oil and one of my favourites. There is a hint of agreeable, aromatic rankness to it which at first suggested fresh garlic to me. But it's more accurately compared (as it is in the company's literature) to truffles.

This oil has a strong character of its own and next time I might try a blander, simpler oil which instead of asserting itself merely brings out the flavour of the other ingredients.I can hardly wait to attempt this experiment (I still have half the loaf, remember?). And I can only begin to imagine what it would be like with real buffalo mozzarella instead of the cheap stuff I used...

But in the meantime, this is the meal of the week.

(PS: Tried the blander oil but Picualia made for a noticeably superior sandwich.) 

(PPS: Bought another loaf and tried it with buffalo mozzarella — Laverstoke Farms Buffalo Mozzarella — and it was superb. Which it should be, considering it cost three times as much as my usual mozzarella; but only because it was on special. Normally it's five times as much.) 

(Image credit: the pack shot of the bread is from Waitrose, which is indeed where I bought it. The Picualia olive oil bottle is from the Evoo Gourmet website.)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Aura Chilean Olive Oil

I'm always keenly interested in olive oil, so when I had a chance to try a posh-looking specimen of a Chilean extra virgin oil from Tesco, I was keen. Aura Limited Edition (I'm a sucker for that) Estate Bottled (ditto) is a blend of Arbosana and Picual olives. It was also on special, about a third off its full price at Tesco's (as I write this it's still on discount there for a couple of days), so that was the clincher.

Disappointing to report, then, that at a Supper Club blind tasting of extra virgin olive oils (dipped with pieces of bread) the Aura didn't stand out. I decided not to buy it again. In fact, I decided to get rid of the rest of it in cooking. So I used it in the legendary Jim Harrison Pizza Sauce.

But the results were so fabulous that I actually went out and bought another bottle. There was something about the synergy of the oil with this recipe which was devastatingly delicious. Well worth a try.

(Image credit: The bottle shot is taken from Aura's own rather groovy FaceBook page.)

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Testin' Heston 2: Ham Hocks

As Part 2 of my great Christmas Heston Experiment I sampled his Mini Ham Hock and Piccallili Terrine Slices. 

(Ham hocks were until recently a cheap and unfashionable cut of meat. Suddenly they're trendy.) And these Mini Slices were very nice. As much as I enjoy his more spicy and exotic creations, I do prefer Heston to be straightforward. 

These slices don't require any cooking or other preparation — I immediately and decisively disregarded the suggestion to serve them with piccallili mayonnaise and micro herbs, whatever the hell those are — and simply dished them up on pieces of decent quality bread with some salading, maybe a sliced tomato and either ordinary Hellmann's mayo or a drizzle of olive oil. Tasty, wholesome and simple.

This confirms my impressions in an earlier post. Heston is at his best when providing simple food from straightforward ingredients of high quality. 

I still feel sorry for the pigs, though.

(Image credit: The picture is from Ocado, Waitrose's online sales site.)

Monday, 6 January 2014

Supper Club Christmas Panettone Tasting

The Supper Club meets most Thursdays at my house in London. The founder members are myself, Naomi Moore and John Tygier. Other early attenders include Chuck Cartmel and Keith Temple

For this year's Grand Christmas Supper Club all these worthies were present, plus special guests Ben Aaronovitch and John's son Sam Tygier.

To mark the time of year we indulged in a special panettone comparison. This was a 'blind tasting' — a slightly alarming term that means that no one (except me) knew which panettone was which before we'd finished tasting them all.

My shortlist of panettones was taken from this excellent review at Italy Travel & Life where they tasted a total of seven.

The three contenders I selected (I didn't think we could stuff down more than three) were Sainsbury's Drunken Panettone (so called because it is drenched in sweet wine), the Arden & Amici Classi Panettone from Waitrose and the Favorina Panettone from Lidl.

The results? The Drunken Panettone and Arden & Amici tied for first place, with my personal preference being for the Drunk. The Favorina was somewhat drier and had less fruit than the others, but still tasted very agreeable. 

And when you consider the Favorina cost £4 per kilo versus over £10.50 per kilo for Arden & Amici, and over £13 per kilo for the Drunken one, then it becomes a serious contender.

Well done Lidl. And since it's the season of goodwill I'll even forgive you for your mis-labelled prawns. For now.

(Image credits: the main picture, of the wreckage after the meal, is courtesy of my brother Chuck. The individual panettone pack shots come from the aforementioned Italy Travel & Life panettone review.)