Thursday, 29 October 2009

Eat with your environmentally friendly head

If you read most of the coverage of Lord Stern’s interview in The Times a couple of days ago you’d think he was advocating an immediate and universal switch to veganism.

Really, he’s making the important point that the meat industry has negative effects on our environment and that if we’re to tackle climate change one important area to look at is meat production and consumption.

For we all eat far too much of it. Bacon for breakfast, beef sandwiches for lunch, pepperami at petrol stations and steak for supper. The western and European mantra of meat and two veg is ingrained in most of us from an early age but you only need to look the cuisine of say Kerala, to realise how full and varied a low meat diet can be.

And that’s the key. Stern isn’t advocating a ban on meat as some coverage has interpreted, he’s just suggesting we tweak our protein laden tables. Turn the leftovers from a Sunday roast into soup, try out a mushroom risotto, pasta primavera, asparagus frittata or go crazy and buy a bag of lentils occasionally.

Adopting a regimen based on nut roasts, tofu and soy milk is not what this debate is about. It’s about being abstemious with what we have, making sacrifices for our future and eating with a conscience. Forego a weekly portion of meat and try something from the pages of imaginative fodder in Nigel Slater’s new book Tender or Simon Hopkinson's vegetable creations.

It wasn’t that hard to start recycling, turning off light switches and getting on a bike once in a while and this is just a step along the same path.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Is spaghetti sexy?!

If you were choosing a romantic menu would you really choose spaghetti? In the Times today Alex Renton chose two dishes as classic seduction cuisine. No oysters, chocolate, strawberries or champagne for his lucky date…but instead spicy, garlic spaghetti or devilled kidneys.

The dangers of trying to wind yards of spaghetti round a fork and magically get said fork into your mouth without dropping most of it back on the plate or in your lap are surely too perilous to risk on a date?

Unless of course we’re talking of the famous cartoon scene in Lady in the Tramp when two floppy eared mutts fall for each other over their shared strands of pasta.

It gets worse though – he suggests flavouring it with chilli and garlic - even the Italians know this flavour combo isn’t going to do your sex appeal much good.

And if you were lucky enough to find yourself back at Lord Lucan’s bachelor pad you would have been in for a real treat…kidneys. Just the aphrodisiac every girl has always dreamt of.

I completely get his point though. There is something irresistible about a man who can create a fine plate of food without the kitchen descending into tsunami like chaos.

But please, not garlic and curried offal. Not a hint of it on Ms Marmite Lover's menu.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Parsnip Soup

The parsnip season begins in earnest after the first frost which judging by the plummeting temperature will be soon upon us.

This pale and more intensely flavoured cousin of the carrot develops in flavour as the temperature drops below freezing. Its welcome presence on winter menus at least partly makes up for the iciness of the season.

Before potatoes made their way to European soil in the sixteenth century parsnips often filled their place, their roots even being ground to flour to make bread. As versatile as a spud they can be roast, mashed, boiled or chipped, their distinctive taste complementing a wide array of winter flavours.

Dice and add to stews for a bit of depth or grate and simply fry to make a rosti. My favourite way of using them is in a warming spiced soup or turned into home made crisps…

Parsnip Soup
(makes four large portions or six starter size)

1 medium onion
1 stick celery
3 cloves garlic
600g parsnips
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
salt and pepper
bay leaf
chicken stock
oil for frying

Peel and roughly chop the onion and parsnips. Peel the garlic but leave whole and chop roughly chop the celery.

Heat some vegetable oil in a large sauce pan and when hot add the onions and celery. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally before adding the garlic and parsnips, stirring again and keeping over the heat for about five minutes. Add the garam masala and cumin, mix through the vegetables and cook for a minute or two more. Add the bay leaf and chicken stock to cover the vegetables, bring to the boil and simmer for twenty minutes, adding more stock if needed.

Allow to cool partially, remove the bay leaf and liquidise with a hand blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Parsnip Crisps

raw parsnips
sunflower oil

Peel the parsnips and still using the peeler slice them into strips lengthways. Soak the strips in a large bowl of cold water for twenty minutes or longer which will release some of the starch and mean they curl.

Heat enough sunflower oil for deep frying in a large saucepan. Drain the parsnip strips and drop into the hot oil, separating them with metal tongs. Once golden, remove to some kitchen paper and with salt.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Duck Liver Salad

Having my card declined in the local butcher was the pretty embarrassing tipping point which has since prompted a rethink of my food shopping habits. It seems that if prices continue their ever uphill march I will soon be grouping many previously affordable staples in the luxury category along with precious saffron and caviar.

Not wanting to test the worn plastic of my card on lamb fillets, steak or even a chicken I looked at ingredients I usually bypass. While both lamb and calves liver can be a minefield of unpleasant textures if not prepared or cooked properly, the same of a duck or chicken are more straightforward, delicious and importantly won’t break the bank. In a supermarket you can pick up enough for four people as a starter for less than £3 and in a few minutes turn them into a paté with just butter, brandy and garlic. It seems that in these tight times all sorts of offal is becoming more popular.

Or pan fry them and add them to a salad or pile on top of toast.

Duck Liver Salad (serves four as a starter, two as a main)

400g duck livers
150-200g salad leaves (baby spinach and lambs lettuce are ideal)
1 heaped tsp dijon mustard
4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp red wine
salt and pepper
oil and butter for frying

Trim the livers of any obvious gristle or veins with a sharp knife and cut them in half or thirds to make chunks of roughly the same size.

Heat a little oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan until almost smoking. Fry the livers in batches for about a minute on each side, until sealed and browned, removing them to a warm plate and adding a little more oil and butter in between batches if needed.

Return all of the livers to the hot pan and add the red wine, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the balsamic vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper and simmer for a couple of minutes with a lid.

Dress the spinach and lettuce leaves with a little olive oil and lemon juice in a large bowl and then arrange on four plates. Allow the livers to rest for a few minutes, check the seasoning and then spoon on top of the salad, drizzling with the balsamic sauce.

Either serve as it is or with slices of crusty bread or toast.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Monachyle Mhor

Driving through a meandering Trossachs valley in central Scotland last weekend we started to wonder what would greet us as the winding road narrowed and civilisation faded away. The mirrored watery surface of Loch Voil reflected it’s steep mountainous sides and bright blue skies in mesmeric perfection as we hungrily sped towards our lunch destination, the Monachyle Mhor Hotel.

A family farm and estate since the eighties there has been hospitality on this site for years. Now under the helm of three siblings a small empire has emerged with fifteen bedrooms, a restaurant, farm and two shops in the local town of Callander.

A herd of Tamworth pigs provide pork for the business while devouring the vegetable waste from the kitchen. Eggs come from farmyard chickens and venison from estate deer. Mhor’s website depicts the dream of self sufficient business and having heard so much we were keen to see the results.

Greeted by a friendly border collie and similarly welcoming waitress we sat down at our table, set with colourful discs of Limoges crockery, and gazed through the windows onto the autumnal hillside. From this spot the view became more idyllic with each glance as the dappled afternoon light cast itself over the valley.

The short menu made for easy ordering and our concern over the rich ingredients was short lived.

To start, a frothy rich potato mousse flecked with truffle encircled a perfectly soft egg presumably plucked from underneath one of the chickens clucking not far away. The attention grabbing presentation made the unusual texture and distinctive flavour of the mousse all the more memorable.

And next an equally pretty plate of pigs cheek tortellini, tender monkfish tail, apple and sage sauce. My father had meltingly tender guinea fowl shaped into perfect cylindrical discs and served with wild mushrooms and foie gras.

The food was tantalising, making us wonder at the technical composition of the dishes and admire the combination of such strong flavours which produced such a subtle and balanced result.

By the time we finished with a simple cafetiere and perfectly made tablet our reservations over the hefty price tags had left us. Mhor is not cheap but it is worth the pennies to experience this magical example of all that can be made of Scotland’s ingredients.

Driving back through Callander we stopped at their well stocked bakery and picked up crumbly sweet bannocks and wholemeal bread from another happy Mhor employee. Our breakfast at home was all the better for it, the Mhor baking easily matches up to the standard in their restaurant.

Monachyle Mhor Hotel
FK19 8PQ
01877 384 622