Sunday, 31 January 2010

Recipe: Scrambled duck eggs

When I was little and I lived in the sticks, the farmer who lived nearby would leave pheasants hanging at our backdoor, and his wife would leave duck eggs.

If we got to them before the dogs did, Mum would make scrambled egg.

I turned my nose up at it - the lurid yellow scramble just didn't look right.

Oh how wrong I was.

Now I realise, there's nothing worse than pallid scrambled egg, over-whisked to a dull, mucousy hue and served pitifully on some sorry-looking piece of toast. I'd sooner scrape it off and reach for the Marmite.

But oh, the sunflower yellow of duck eggs, so rich and so delicious.

Sadly I don't find mine on the doorstep any more, but from farmer's markets stalls, and Waitrose does a good line in unusual eggs. These were Clarence Court free range eggs - Gladys May's Braddock Whites. They're not as yellow as some duck eggs, but still flavoursome, and by all accounts they are happy ducks - left to roam and swim in the great outdoors.

If the happy hens are anything to go by on the farm's hen cam, these birds are ladies of leisure...

How to make my scramble: break two eggs per person into a jug, whisk with a fork to just about break up the yolks, chase around a warmed buttery pan on medium heat with a wooden spatula and finally dump onto some toasted Whole Foods sourdough spread with lightly salted butter (or in this case, multi seed Paul). Top with cracked pepper. Dive in.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The wrong kind of sugar

Yes. Just like snow, there is good sugar and there is bad sugar.

To my mind, white=bad, brown=slightly better, honey/fruit sugar/agave=better still.

But that was before my sugar re-education at the hands of this nifty tasting kit.

Now, getting an amateur like me to do blind tasting is pretty bold, but Billington's clearly thinks it is up to the job... and you know what? It is... almost.

I tasted and smelt five sugars and was told to identify the ones with the best aroma and taste. I picked two I liked.

Turned out there were three Billington's in the kit, but two out of three ain't bad. It was just the Unrefined Dark Muscovado that betrayed my new-found sugar palette.

How did I know about the other two? The unrefined one taste more of molasses, are more fragrant and are richer in colour.

What I hadn't realised previously is that some "brown sugar" is white sugar under a coat of paint. Yes, according to Billington's, some refined sugars are coated brown, but the refining process strips out the natural goodness.

Perhaps I'm a little late to this discovery, but I'm not the only one talking sugar. Just today I was reading Alex Renton's column in the Times' T2.

On how to make perfect porridge, he said: "I use half milk and half water, but I sweeten it with good dark sugar — muscovado or molasses sugar from Billington’s."

Either they've got to him, or I'm in good company with this sugar snobbery.

From now on, when I'm not reaching for the honey or agave, I'll be reaching for the unrefined sugar, Billington's or not, and Fairtrade of course.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Breakfast included: Hotel du Vin Winchester

Surroundings: a series of intimate dining rooms with huge sash windows, wood panelled walls with distressed earthy paint finish, dark-stained wide floorboards, and a smattering of wine paraphernalia left here and there, French bistro style. The best tables overlooked the fountain in the pretty walled garden.

Buffet: my eye was drawn first to the whole poached pears next to some fragrant stewed prunes and a bowl groaning with crunchy granola (pumpkin seeds, oats, apricots, raisins, cashews and, cleverly, flaked bran with honey and sugar).

There was also plain yoghurt, a thick, and just-sharp-enough berry compote, La Fermiere yoghurts in their cute terracotta pots on ice, and an excellent fruit salad of apple, melons, kiwi, grapefruit and mango.

The seed bar and gingerbread were certainly homemade and the basket of pastries looked (and tasted) like they'd come out of an oven moments before we'd sat down.

Hot stuff: Bacon was crisp and came in meaty, wide rashers, and the Portobello sausage was chunky, well seasoned and slightly crisp on the edges - perfect. The kippers were fresh, hot and came without backbone so were easy to eat.

The porridge wasn't bad - sloppy (how I like it), but lacking in imaginative toppings (just sweet or savoury).

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Best cafes: Flat White, Soho, London

There's been much hype about this little caff thanks to Time Out, Twitter and the much-welcomed trend among the capital's coffee connoisseurs to hunt down independent coffee shops.

Antipodean coffee, it seems, is enjoying something of a renaissance in London.

Flat White also does a mean breakfast, but first, the black stuff.

For starters, don't ask stupid questions about the coffee - as I did, because you're supposed to be a coffee pro if you're going get your caffeine hit from here.

I asked the difference between a cappuccino and the eponymous coffee that gave the establishment its name. "A flat white is stronger coffee and is superior, we just serve cappuccinos for ill-educated faux-epicureans like you, now bog off to Starbucks," was roughly the response I got from the harassed Aussie behind the counter.

In an attempt to win her over, I ordered a flat white with a piece of prune and walnut "cake" (above - it's flourless, egg-less and butter-less, so it is pretty much just softened prunes and walnut pieces). My mate had a macchiato.

Both were superb - nutty, rich coffee and thick, milk, foamy with fine bubbles and a pretty leaf pattern on top. The cake was tasty, but a little too virtuous to be called "cake".

Breakfast items at Flat White include Turkish toast with spreads (£2.25), bircher muesli (£3.50), porridge with sultanas (£3.00) and toasted banana bread (£2.25), which got rave reviews from one user on WeLoveLocal.

The cafe also supports local artists by displaying and selling artwork and music. It's open from 8am weekdays (9am weekends and Bank Holidays), so it's a perfect pre-office pit stop if you work in town. Just don't ask for a cappuccino.

Flat White, 17 Berwick St, Soho, London,, tel. 020 7734 0370

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Recipe: Mexican-style Sunday brunch

Brunch: the best meal of the day. Why? Firstly, it means it's the weekend; secondly, you can eat things like chilli and chorizo for breakfast; thirdly, it is often accompanied by the ultimate indulgence - pre-midday boozing (Bloody Mary or Buck's Fizz made with freshly squeezed orange juice, in particular); and fourthly, it's a meal to take time over, instead of the oft-rushed practice of breakfast.

This is what I ate for brunch today - it took around 30 minutes to prepare and twice that time to enjoy, thanks to a huge stack of weekend papers.

I love tortillas - they're delicious hot or cold (in the unlikely event there is some left) and they are great for using up leftovers. Another one of my favourite tortilla recipes is with sweet potato, red onion, goat's cheese and baby spinach. But today, I had some chorizo and a red pepper in the fridge, so Mexican it was.

It's a wonderful hangover cure and works really well with an Aga as you can simultaneously bake, fry and warm ingredients while you're putting it together.

Mexican-style brunch tortilla (serves 4 moderately hungry people or 2 greedy people)

2 large Desiree potatoes (diced into 1-2cm squares)
2 medium red onions (sliced)
1 red pepper (sliced)
2 red chillies (chopped into thin strips)
half a handful of cubed chorizo
two large handfuls of baby spinach
6 eggs (I got that rich dark yellow by using Waitrose Burford Browns)
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (or use the roasting oven of a two-oven Aga or baking oven of a three-oven model).

Drizzle the diced potato with Rapeseed or olive oil and roast for around 20 minutes, until cooked. (Put the beetroot for the warm winter salad in the other end of the roasting tin and roast for around 15 minutes, until cooked)

In the meantime, warm more oil in a 10cm-odd frying pan over a medium heat and soften the onion for around 10 minutes.

Once softened, put to one side in a large bowl and soften the pepper and chillies in the same frying pan, adding more oil if necessary.

Add these to the bowl with the onions on one side and finally, seal the chorizo in the frying pan. It should give out lots of tasty oil as it cooks.

While it's cooking, put the spinach in a saucepan with the lid on and steam in a little water over a high heat for a couple of minutes, then drain and leave to one side with the saucepan lid on. It should be wilted but not mushy.

Once you've coloured all the chorizo pieces on both sides, add the onions, peppers, chillies and peppers to the frying pan, and fry up in the chorizo oil. Make sure you reserve around two tablespoons of potatoes and onion for the warm winter salad.

Arrange the items evenly in the pan (you don't want all your chorizo in one slice of tortilla), and distribute the spinach evenly throughout the pan.

Whisk the eggs with a fork and season liberally with salt and pepper.

Add to the pan, pouring evenly over the mixture, and lightly shake the pan so the egg works it's way to the bottom. Do not stir because you will start scrambling the egg.

Leave this on the hob for around 5-8 minutes to cook, then transfer to a grill or the bottom of the Aga roasting oven/top of the Aga baking oven to cook and brown the top of the tortilla. Make sure your frying pan handle can take the heat of the oven.

Warm winter salad (serves 2)

4 mini or 2 normal beetroots (cut into 2cm-odd cubes and roasted)
two large handfuls of baby spinach
handful of baby plum tomatoes
1 large carrot
drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar syrup
2 tablespoons of mixed seeds

Put a handful each of spinach into two bowls to serve. Slice the tomatoes in two and sprinkle over the spinach. Grate half a carrot into each bowl, drizzle with the oil and syrup and sprinkle with seeds.

Top with the warm roasted beetroot and the divide the extra warm Desiree potato and red onion between the two bowls.

I served with a Portobello Mushroom each, drizzled with oil and roasted for 7-10 minutes, and a glass of freshly squeezed sun blush orange juice (the pretty juicer is from Anthropolgie).

Friday, 15 January 2010

Best cafes: Wild and Wood, Holborn, London

This tiny wooden cranny is all but lost on the ugly New Oxford Street, not quite close enough to the residues of theatreland and its meal-deal Italian joints to grab the attention of tourists, or near enough to Holborn to catch the 9-5 brigade.

I should thank Not for Tourists London for spotting it.

It doesn't help that the small window is steamed up and the discreet wooden sign is a little to subtle. Finding this place is an achievement, and judging by the grins on the faces of the chilly caffeine-hunters who walked in while I was there, most people had found the gold pot at the end of a wild goose chase of a rainbow.

Word-of-mouth, Time Out, and peer recommendation sites have done much to help little gems like this, and long may it continue.

The decor is lovely - tons of wood textures, colours and vintages, odd pots, wooden boxes, newspaper cuttings and well-worn furniture.

Of course, it's the coffee you come for - we had a punchy macchiato with thick foamy cap (£1) and smooth flat white with perfect creamy top (£1.90). Perfect coffee.

The accouterments include flaky croissants, chocolate and banana loaf and some sinful-looking truffles piled in a wooden box.

It's a cute cafe and a perfect escape from the bustle that surrounds it in every direction.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Best cafes: Berber pancakes in Del'Aziz, Swiss Cottage

The burgeoning Del'Aziz chain is none the worse for its popularity. The chain may now be five-strong in London (Swiss Cottage, Fulham, Westfield, Bermondsey and Bankside), but it still carves a niche.

Breakfast at Del'Aziz is original, colourful and affordable.

Top right is Berber pancakes (£6) - fluffy thick pancakes dusted in icing sugar with honey and roasted almonds, served with optional fruit salad and yoghurt. Then there's apricot and walnut toast (£3), which comes in a generous heap (bottom left picture) and has the sourdough quality of a crispy bite with doughy finish.

There's also options like scrambled egg with confit Portobello mushroom (£7.25), Moroccan muffin with scrambled egg, homemade salmon gravadlax, rocket salad and granary toast (£8.50), plus the lighter Southern Alps muesli (£4.75) or fruit salad and yoghurt (£5.75) if that all sounds too much.

The juices are worth mention - my carrot, beetroot, lemon and ginger (£3.80) was delicate with just a hint of beetroot and was perfectly palatable given the this-is-doing-you-good taste.

There's smoothies too, and sumptuous coffee, the largest serving of which is served in vast pottery mugs, which you can take home with you alongside jewel-coloured Moroccan tea glasses, tagine pots and a host of luxurious store cupboard goodies.

Del'Aziz is next to the Swiss Cottage leisure centre if you need reason to go... in fact exercise is probably a wise move given the towering cakes and baskets groaning with meringues that radiate siren-like enticement as you walk through the doors. One piece of iced lemon loaf = an hour's spinning class? Something to mull over on that punishing hill climb...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Recipe: dairy-free pumpkin muffins

The wonderful Muffins cookbook by Susan Reimer has taken me through many a food fad - it's versatile recipes offer replacements for many ingredients so it's easy to make muffins that are gluten free, low fat, or dairy free.

I chose this recipe because I've had a can of pumpkin in my cupboard for months and this struck me as a perfect way to use it up. That, coupled with my non-dairy January and February diet (ok, so I overindulged a little over Christmas and New Year) makes it the perfect January breakfast for me.

Makes 5 large muffins

120g plain flour
1/2 tspn baking powder
1/2 tspn bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tspn salt
1/2 tspn ground cinnamon
1/4 tspn each of ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves
60g fine white granulated sugar
1 egg
80ml water
1 1/2 tbspn honey
Half 425g tin of pumpkin
45ml vegetable oil
40g chopped walnut

Grease muffins tins. Preheat over to 200 degrees C.
Sift together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, spice and sugar.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg with a fork. Add water, honey, pumpkin and oil. Stir well.
Pour liquid mixture into the dry and stir until just combined. Add walnuts.
Spoon better into tins. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the the tops spring back and a knife comes out of the muffins clean.

If using an Aga bake in the baking oven for 25-25 minutes or in a two-oven model, bake in the roasting oven using a baking sheet.

They are best served warm with sliced banana and a dollop of yoghurt if you're on the dairy.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

New breakfast bowls for 2010

The sales offer little temptation for me. My elbows aren't sharp enough and I'm a sucker for a bargain, whether I need it, or indeed like it.

It's perhaps a relief then, that my local high street offers little in the way of sales. One exception is Whittards, which I visit annually, at this time of year, to top up on tea balls, crockery, posh coffee, or whatever else takes my fancy...

This year it was these lovely breakfast bowls, at a bargain £2.25, down from £4 each, so I snapped up four.

They are that classic monochrome cream and ebony design with thematic lettering (with apologies to Emma Bridgewater, or whichever potter it was that made that design famous).

Rather like buying new gym kit encourages one to hit the treadmill with new vigour, these will inspire me to get creative over breakfast. Hence, I look forward to many a sumptuous breakfast from these bowls in 2010...