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.

Monday, 3 September 2007


Mecca and Lourdes are the usual destinations for a pilgrimage but I recently went on a religious visit to that holy centre of all things gluten and dairy-free, Babycakes. I sought out Babycakes when I went to New York for the first time last summer. On a hot June afternoon my boyfriend and I trekked across from Greenwich to the shabby heart of the East Village to seek out my cake nirvana. After walking down a particularly unpleasant and seemingly unending street (steaming garbage cans, dodgy doorways on all sides) we finally found Babycakes, the ultimate oasis for cake-starved food intolerant.

The shop itself is small and slightly rundown, with a nod to retro kitsch. The girl serving us wore a pink 1950s pinafore, as did Babycake's owner Erin, who was busy knocking up some cakes in the shop's open kitchen. On my first visit last summer we bought cakes, lots of dreamy cakes, and left. This time, on my honeymoon in July, we went, we saw, we ate and we bought some more. My usual discipline, which has probably grown out of the knowledge that lots of foods must be avoided, went out the window. We settled in at the small counter and had brownies, followed by apple cake, followed by chocolate and banana cake, followed by double chocolate cake. And then we bought some more apple cake and chocolate cake to take home. The cakes were, without exception, moist, delicious and decidedly moreish. To say I left with a big smile and a heavy take-out bag would be to underestimate Babycakes' importance for any dairy or gluten intolerant. The cakes are not a mealy, flavourless substitute for the real thing. Babycakes is the real thing.

Babycakes, 248 Broome Street, New York

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Lager lout meets trucker

In the two 24 hours I have stepped into the shoes of the lager lout and the truck driver, luckily without vomiting and and standard issue arse cleavage. On Friday night, in common with fans of Stella Artois across Britain, we decided to go for a curry. The main difference between me and the hoards of drunken City boys who fall out of the Tube stations after midnight (I'm hoping there are many but this is the most obvious) is that I didn't stagger into any old curryhouse willing to serve patronising middle class boys rogan josh at 2am. Instead, we went to Eriki on Finchley Road. Eriki sits in an uninspiring 1950s sweep of tatty restaurants, saunas and sports shops, just beside the dual carriage way nightmare at Swiss Cottage. Unless you're looking for a kebab, a takeaway curry or a happy finish, you're not going to be walk past Eriki. Which is a shame because inside it couldn't be further from a generic Indian restaurant. The hot orange facade belies a tasteful interiors more akin to an exotic furniture shop - dark wood tables and chairs, carved screens and weighty cutlery imported from Rajasthan (no kidding - check out their website). As usual I was seduced by the squid cooked with South Indian spices. It was tender and surprisingly delicate. I followed that impressive opened with Goosht Aloo Simla Mirch - lamb and potatoes cooked in paprika, peppers and garam masala - and a yellow lentil dal. For a butter-free option the lamb was rich and succulent. When I tried the dal I had call the waiter back to check for the sneaky presence of butter. It was so creamy and smooth that I couldn't quite believe my luck. The husband, however, proved that dairy and gluten don't always guarantee you the best dishes on the menu. Straying from his usual fish curry, he opted for the biriyiani. Suffice to say that he's going to play it safe next time. The fish is back on.
We found the same pattern asserting itself the next day en route to a family gathering. With time on our side and a rising hunger we decided to stop for lunch. The Fourwentways roundabout off the A11 isn't exactly known for its Michelin stars but it did boast the 'world famous Comfort cafe'. I'm not sure which world the Comfort cafe is referring to but it can't be this one. I'd never heard of it and after his slightly stale cheese and ham sandwich (Mother's Pride bread, three days old, sweaty packet) the husband doesn't want to hear the name mentioned again. I, on the other hand, with my limited choices, did well with the backed potato. I did, however, leave the accompanying salad untouched, despite the flourish of strawberries. Having seen the salad man picking a particularly stubborn spot on the back of his neck while we stood in the queue, the salad went straight back to kitchen and probably reappeared on another plate later. Still, the website says World War II veteran fighter pilot Douglas Bader and Beirut hostage Terry Waite 'have been known to pop in for a cuppa' (though I'm guessing Douglas hasn't been in for a while) so it can't all be bad.
As a picture of modern Britain, the Comfort cafe paints a depressing picture. Lone fathers shovelling chips into their reluctant children's mouths, lone truck drivers shovelling chips into their more than receptive mouths. And then the middle class father snapping at his kids for playing with their food. Frankly, faced with their food, I would have played with it too. You could have fashioned some bid church candles out of the coagulated lard on their plates. Needless to say we ate and left. Little did we know that things could get worse so quickly. With the call of nature urgent and a snaking queue of mothers and children staring pointedly at the single toilet door, we dropped into the Little Chef round the corner. It was my first visit, and hitting the wall of fry-up fumes as we nonchalantly tried to make our way to the toilets (unhelpfully situated right at the back of the room), I won't be going back soon. The Little Chef might be many people's guilty pleasure but I'm sticking to the chocolate.