Monday, 15 October 2007


A good food shop should be like a good bookshop. Every item on the shelves should be able to propel you into a whole different world, whether it’s a creamy nata that transports you straight back to a cafĂ© in Lisbon or a fragrant lemon that teleports you to an Amalfi hillside. A deli should be a whole sensory education about the world’s best cuisines. Often, however, delis have the same tired line-up of olive oil, middle of the road French cheeses and dry panettone. Health food shops are even worse. Between the bags of soya mince and cartons of rice milk, there’s little to get your taste buds going. It takes a truly visionary cook to see the culinary gems amid the high fibre and low sugar. This is particularly true for the gluten and dairy intolerant. Walk into a shop and automatically at least half of its contents are out of bounds. That leaves you to rustle up an endless conveyor belt of meals with a relatively small basket of food.

So shops like Bumblebee in North London are a real find. It’s a whole food store that gives you options. Or I should say a string of shops dotted along Brecknock Road at the far reaches of Tufnell Park. There’s the natural remedy shop, the bakery and two food stores (one for tinned and bottled produce and the other for fresh). With only five minutes to kill before a visit to the dentist across the road, I headed into the nearest of the Bumblebee empire and came out slightly poorer but infinitely richer in ingredients. Along with the extensive ranges of olive oil and soy sauce (where I found the Holy Grail of stir fries - wheat-free tamari) I found something called amazake. Not only did Bumblebee stock amazake but they had about three or four varieties of the stuff. From the outside it looked like anaemic peanut butter. As I was looking for a substitute for sugar and butter icing, I thought I'd give it a go. I picked up the millet variety (it looked the lightest of the lot and could therefore pass as icing) and headed off for my brush with dental hygiene across the road.
It turned out that amazake is not suited to soft icing. It's incredibly dense and sticky. I would however like to find a use for it so if you have any ideas please let me know.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

White bean and chorizo soup

Dinner at a friend's home is usually tricky if you have any kind of allergy or intolerance. People forget which particular things you can't eat or can't conceive of cooking without something as fundamental as pasta or butter. So when friends not only cook for you but remember what you can't eat without a battery of questions and produce a fantastic three course meal, it's a very rare and enjoyable thing. And so it was last night. A couple we know invited us round for dinner and served up white bean and chorizo soup, roasted duck and meringue sitting on a vanilla infused rhubarb compote. The soup came from a recipe by Australian chef Bill Grainger and it produced a soft, creamy soup.

1 tsp olive oil
1 chorizo sausage (about 150g/5½oz),chopped
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp paprika
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 litre/2 pints chicken stock
2 x 400g/14oz tins cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over high heat and cook the chorizo for 3-4 minutes until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onion and celery to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 minutes until softened. Add the garlic, thyme and paprika and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cook for another minute.
3. Return 3/4 of the chorizo to the pan with the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for ten minutes. Add the beans and cook for another five minutes.
4. Blitz the soup in the blender and then season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5. Scatter the remaining chorizo on the soup before serving. A drizzle of olive oil finishes it off nicely.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Comptoir Gascon

Nowhere is abstinence from bread and cheese more painful than in a French restaurant. As your fellow diners tuck into warm, stretchy baguette, yeasty pain de campagne or a nice slice of chewy walnut and raisin bread, you can only pick at a small bowl of olives. While there's nothing wrong with olives - in fact there's a lot right with a big creamy green olive - there's nothing like a slice of fresh bread coated in a thick layer of salted butter. Luckily the two courses I tucked into at Comptoir Gascon last night steered my attention away from an obvious lack of cheese and bread-based treats, which is no mean feat as our table nuzzled right up to an open topped fridge full of cheese on one side and another full of patisserie on the other.
Comptoir Gascon is the informal little brother of Club Gascon, chef Pascal Aussignac's heavyweight gastronome's paradise just across Smithfield meat market in London. While Club Gascon and its wine offshoot Cellar Gascon nestle in a quiet, distinctly upmarket corner of Smithfield, Comptoir sits in an unprepossessing row of bars and nightclubs. Last night this corner of Smithfield was jostling with clubbers gearing up for a long and heavy night on the pills. The fanbase for Comptoir Gascon, a cross between a bistro and delicatessen dedicated to the food of South Western France, couldn't be more different. Testament to its moneyed weekday clientele from the city and surrounding media enclave, the bistro slowly filled with thirtysomethings hoping for Aussignac's meticulous unfussy cooking without Club Gascon's hefty price tag.
The stripped brick and steel interior couldn't be more different from the hushed tones and lashings of marble across the square. A big refectory table sat next to round tables for twos and fours. This mix-and-match approach to seating makes the place more casual but also means that your neighbours could easily eat from your plate or top up your glass.
Apart from this intrusive level of intimacy with other diners, Comptoir Gascon gets everything else right, especially for the intolerant eater. After a quick consultation with the kitchen via the head waiter, I started with a tartare of sea bass with tomato. The sea bass arrived on a rectangular piece of flint. The Flintstone crockery aside, the fish was decidedly meaty but delicate. Chopped into small cubes and mixed with equally small pieces of tomato, the sea bass was presented in a generous quenelle, which sat on one side of the Stone Age plate. A couple of generous slices of a beefy tomato sat on the other with a few fronds of rocket for company. The combination was hardly straight from the peasant tables of Gascony (apart from the plates, perhaps) but the tomato and rocket gave the Japanese-style fish more than a hint of Mediterranean.
If the starter was a nod to South Europe, then the main course had more nods to that region than a Metallica concert. Chunks of seared tuna and roasted fennel arrived under a wave of citrus foam. Again the presentation was rustic (a rusty oven dish left over from the Iron Age) but the flavours were anything but unsophisticated. The fennel was subtle and the fish was tender. The whole thing sat bathing in the sea of orange sauce, which revealed itself once the foam had cleared. And the chunky French fries cooked in duck fat didn't exactly disappoint either.
Okay, I didn't get the slate of cheese to finish (and yes, it really is served on a slate) but so what? I got subtlety, balance and a whiff of my Southern European roots. Oh, and I didn't get the indigestion which kept my husband awake all night. There's something to be said for laying off three kinds of bread and four types of cheese (and, it has to be said, foie gras, red wine and beef in bordelaise sauce) after all.

Comptoir Gascon, 63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HA

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Banana and coconut cupcakes

Unless you're going to disguise your dairy and gluten-free cakes with chocolate, sweets and icing, four year-olds aren't going to be the easiest audience to please. My nephew turned four yesterday and I wanted to bake him some little cakes to share with his home education group. As his mother is keen for him to avoid too much sugar and fat, the chocolate/sweets/icing option was out. In the end I opted for banana and coconut cupcakes. Most kids love bananas and the coconut milk makes the cakes very moist and incredibly moreish. My nephew ate three cupcakes so I guess they were a hit.

Makes 16 cakes

200g of gluten-free flour
3 bananas, mashed with a fork
2/3 cup of coconut milk
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon of baking powder
pinch of salt
160g of unrefined caster sugar
160g of dairy-free margarine
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1. Set your oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the margarine and the sugar.
3. Add the flour, baking powder and salt to the mixture.
4. Then add the egg yolks, followed by the coconut milk and vanilla extract.
5. Once this is all mixed together add the mashed banana.
6. Finally, whisk the egg whites together and then fold into the mixture.
7. Pour the mixture into cupcake cases. Each case should be 3/4 full.
8. Bake for twenty minutes.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Going Japanese

If I had to be stranded on a desert island with an endless supply of just one cuisine, it would have to be Japanese. And if I could have one restaurant on speed dial from my island, it would have to be Japonica in New York. With its innate neatness and almost mathematical precision, sashimi, and sushi, usually inspire restraint. It's all carefully meted out and presented so I always feel compelled to consume with equal care. Not at Japonica. Restraint and moderation went right out the window. The quality and sheer quantity of food was such that we couldn't finish the sashimi selection we'd ordered. For $40 we were treated to the freshest, most beautifully arranged fish we had ever eaten. Sitting at the bar, we scoffed and watched the sushi chefs turn out visually exciting plates (or more accurately, boards) of food without any of the theatricality and attitude often associated with high-end cooking. Although I couldn't dip the end product in soy sauce or wasabi (damn that lactose) or even sip the miso soup, Japonica's food still outstripped any other sushi or sashimi I've ever eaten.
I wish I could say the same for Benihana in London's Swiss Cottage. There was plenty of theatricality - the chefs working at each individual grill brought more than a touch of Cocktail to their cooking, flipping bowls of rice and salt shakers like Tom Cruise in whites - but no excellence. After choosing sea bass and prawns from the seven course menu, our chef promptly cooked them in front of us at our table. Mine were cooked without butter or soy on request and didn't come off the worse for it. Neither did the asparagus and onions. I wish I could say the same about the rice. It was precooked in butter and left me with a serious case of the lactose bloat.
The best you can say about Benihana is that it's a performance. You get averagely cooked food with dramatics, and unfortunately lactose, thrown in. For the all round package though, it has to be Japonica every time.

Japonica, 100 University Pl, New York, NY 10003, USA Tel: +1 212-243-7752

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Mango curry

When you have a couple of food intolerances, you often worry that you'll be unable to eat other foods too. Spices have always concerned me; if my stomach doesn't like milk or bread, why would it like curry? Luckily my fears have been unfounded and, since meeting my intrepid husband, I've been experimenting with spice. Last night I tried my hand at a mango curry with fish. I didn't have a recipe but I did have a cupboard full of spices brought back from Indian so the end result was good. If you are vegetarian or want to lay off fish for an evening, you could add more sweet potato to bulk it out.

Ingredients (Serves four)
One can of organic coconut milk
One celery stem chopped
One large onion finely chopped
Three cloves of garlic chopped
One large sweet potato cubed
Five tomatoes, cut in half
A large handful (or half a punnet) of chesnut mushrooms sliced
One large ripe mango, cubed
A bunch of fresh coriander
One teaspoon of cumin seeds
Half a teaspoon of grounder coriander
Half a teaspoon of tumeric
Half a teaspoon of cinnamon
One teaspoon of Indian chili powder
750g of white fish. cut into thick strips

First fry the onions in oil. I would avoid a strong oil like olive and opt for groundnut or sunflower oil instead.
When they start to soften add the garlic and then add the cumin seeds. Mix well into the onions and garlic and fry for two minutes.
Then add the other spices and fry for two more minutes.
Then the mushrooms and the celery for cook a further three or four minutes. Once the celery has started to soften add the sweet potato and the tomatoes.
Give it a couple more minutes and then pour in the can of coconut milk and half a cup of water. Add half the fresh coriander, cover and lower the heat. Let it simmer for 15 minutes.
Then slip in the mango and, five minutes later the fish.
Once the fish has turned white, it's ready to serve. You don't want to cook the fish for too long otherwise it will fall apart.
Serve with rice and some more chopped coriander on top.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Food porn

Watching cookery shows makes you realise just how ignored food allergies/intolerances are. Last night I sat through Nigella Express, a half hour paean to dairy and gluten (and, frankly, heart failure). Her recipe for deep fried squid could have been tweaked - substituting wheat flour for something else more palatable - for us gluten intolerants but everything else was a menu dedicated to the twin evils. A Cheltenham Ladies' version of Robbie Williams, an immaculately coiffed Nigella gurned, winked and dazzled for the camera while she poured a succession of pork chops in a cream sauce and a caramel croissant bread pudding down her throat. The bread pudding already featured double cream but, unsatisfied with the paucity of fat in the dish, Nigella then drowned the thing with half a carton more. All while swathed in a black silk dressing gown.
By now you should get the picture. Nigella Express is short on proper cooking and long on food porn. She called her pudding 'darling' as she lovingly slipped it into the hot oven and then later took it to bed with her. Accompanied by a very large cooking spoon. If you weren't overwhelmed by the Carry On Cooking innuedo, then Nigella's house should have had you choking on the sofa. The Regency facade concealed a kitchen being slowly killed by overdesign. It's the mark of a bad programme when you are less struck by the food than by background. Instead of flaunting her lifestyle (endless black cabs, glittering nights out, horsey friends over for dinner), Nigella should make something that we can all eat rather than just devour with our eyes. It was all flavour and no substance. Come back Rick Stein.