Friday 18 January 2008

Life on The Wagon....

......isn't at all the experience that I thought it would be. Two weeks of abstinence, and I can happily bypass the drinks tray and ignore the wine-rack in the kitchen with no sense whatsoever of a longing denied. Having observed various friends over the years go through the agonies of giving up smoking, I'd assumed that to go cold-turkey on the intake of alcohol would require similar strength of character. Let's face it, I'd always harboured a sneaking suspicion that, like most people, my daily 'moderate' consumption in fact probably represented a mild form of addiction (which would only truly manifest itself at the point when I denied it in practice) - and I could be forgiven for thinking so: in the past thirty years , I doubt there'd been a single day when I hadn't partaken in some form or another.......

But, not a bit of it.

If anything, I'd say my system reacted more with a sense of surprise than with any feeling that I craved something that was suddenly missing from my life. For the first few evenings, I'd find myself instinctively recognising the 'time for a glass of Prosecco', around seven o'clock, and then, when I remembered that we weren't doing that at the moment, I'd feel slightly flat, perhaps even a little disappointed - but not in the least tempted to reach for the bottle. And in fact, when the Technical Department replaced Prosecco as the evening tipple with a glass of iced tonic-water (slimline) to which half a dozen drops of Angostura Bitters had been added, then even the slight sense of disappointment was entirely dissipated. It's a delicious drink!

And in fact, I've concluded that for me that's essentially what it's about. The flavour. I like the flavour of wine. Mineral water - iced, frizzante, refreshing - is alright in its own way - but ultimately it is extremely dull stuff. And it does absolutely nothing for the Roast Duck or the baked Sea Bass that it dispiritedly accompanies; last night, we started dinner with salmon and tarragon tarts, with a lemon-butter sauce.......and from the first mouthful, the dish was crying our for a glass of chilled Pouilly-Fumé. Which it didn't get. We weren't even tempted - although, that isn't to say there weren't some comments made with regard to probable future consumption.

What else? Well, none of that stuff they'd have you believe is true, that you feel skippier and brim-ful of energy, and can't wait to throw off the covers in the morning to greet the bright new day. Quite the opposite, in fact. Much to my surprise, I discovered that absence of alcohol gives rise to nights of deep and unbroken slumber, and the only thing that wakes me in the morning is the junior four-footed sitting on my head to indicate that he thinks it's time for breakfast Bonio! Now that - the nights of unbroken sleep, I mean - is quite blissful! And I quite like the fact that I can actually get things done after dinner, each evening, whereas previously the most that would happen would be to slump over a book and a glass of grappa, beside the fire.

So, all in all, the 'experiment' hasn't at all been a hardship - and I've concluded that for me alcohol is far from being an addiction, but had instead become merely an unthinking habit. And like all unthinking habits, requires serious consideration. The current period of abstinence doesn't have a precise end-date - which again is something of a surprise; when we started, I expected to have the 31st of the month ringed in red on the calendar, with corkscrews at the ready. No, I think alcohol will be re-introduced, but it will be on the basis of positively deciding that a glass of something would particularly complement whatever we happen to be eating, rather than opening a bottle just because it's that time of the evening. So, what began as the equivalent of that fat bloke's new year's resolution to join a gymn, buy a new tracksuit and take up jogging (for at least a week and a half), looks set to take root. Who'd have thought there could be so little involved in regime change?

And what was the other thing? Oh yes - the avoir du poids has been dematerialising, too, at a rate of knots!

Tonight's Dinner:

Beef Salad.

Seared fillet of Salmon, with Lardon Sauce, served on sautéed Endive and Leek.

Cherry Tarts.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Recipe: Moussaka

My preferred version. It seems that there are as many ways of making Moussaka as there are people available to question on the subject. In my research on the history of the dish, I came across references to it with and without Béchamel sauce, with Zucchini, or Potatoes, instead of with Aubergine (or in some instances, with a combination of any or all of them); most recipes specify Lamb, some will allow the option of Beef, and I found one, which I rather liked, which merely referred to 'any red meat' (shades of the restaurant in Nairobi, probably apocryphally famous for suggesting that their signature dish of roast Wildebeest would go well with 'any brown wine...').
As a child, I recall we generally had a version of Moussaka made with Beef and Potatoes (Aubergine hadn't really made it to rural Kent in those days, except as a dinner party indulgence) and a crisp crust of cheese, reminiscent of the most delicious bits of a Croque Monsieur.........

For years, Beoty's, in Wright's Lane, featured an excellent Moussaka on their menu - always baked as an individual portion, and formally unmoulded at table with the aid of two serving spoons. The secret to its quality, they maintained, was the fact that the meat was never minced, but always finely chopped by hand.

For Six:

Ingredients: 1 Onion, finely chopped; 1 large clove of Garlic, chopped; 1 lb of Lamb, finely diced (you can use leftover roast lamb for this, although I think you probably get a better result if you start with fresh meat); 1/2 lb Mushrooms, chopped; 1 tin of chopped Tomatoes; 2 tablespoons of fresh Parsley; 2 tablespoons of Tomato purée; 5 fl oz of dark Stock (Beef or Duck); 6 medium Aubergines; 6 tablespoons of grated Parmesan; Salt & Pepper; Olive Oil.


1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the Oil in a large pan, and cook the Onion and Garlic in it for several minutes until softened; add the diced Lamb, stir to incorporate, and cook for about five minutes until the meat has lost its pinkness.

2. Add Mushrooms, Tomatoes, and Parsley. Season, to taste, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes.

3. Dilute the Tomato purée in the Stock, add to the pan, stir in well, and cook for a further ten minutes.

4. Meanwhile, slice the Aubergines thinly, and fry the slices in batches in Oil in a large frying pan; the slices should be well coloured on both sides, and as each batch is finished, remove it from the frying pan and set it to drain on kitchen paper.

5. Heat the oven, at 180 degrees C.

6. Line the base and sides of a deep oven dish with slices of fried Aubergine. Check the seasoning in the Lamb mixture, and adjust if necessary. Put one third of the mixture into the bottom of the aubergine-lined dish; top with a quarter of the grated Parmesan, and cover with a layer of Aubergine slices. Repeat this process twice more, and use the last of the Parmesan to sprinkle over the top layer of slices of Aubergine.

7. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes, or until the top has browned thoroughly.

Best left for a day or two, and re-heated in the oven, before serving.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Moussaka: A Meander.....

It's January.

Cold, dreary, grey.......... and if it isn't actually tipping down outside, then it's either just finished or is just about to start again. Definitely weather for keeping close to the fire, and contemplating important issues like the why and wherefore of Moussaka. The subject came up over dinner the other day - as is so often the case - when the Technical Department opined that Aubergine is post-Columbian and came from South America (it isn't and doesn't - in fact, it comes from India, and so is easily pre-Columbian.....) and that therefore Moussaka can only date from the fifteenth century, at the earliest.

The sort of statement that acts as a red rag to a research bull. And so.....

Most people think of Moussaka as a Greek dish, but like so many Mediterranean dishes, its precise origins are difficult to pin down. The word and the dish crop up in all the surrounding regions of the Balkans, Turkey and Arabia; there's even a version of it in the famous 13th century cookbook, The Royal Dishes of Baghdad. In Greece, if you leave the meat out and omit the béchamel topping, the dish becomes a Briami, or in Turkish Biryan, or the Indian Biryani, not to mention the Provencale Tian get the picture.

In fact, the béchamel topping for Moussaka is only a 20th century addition, believed to be the idea of Nicholas Tselementes who, in 1910, wrote the 'definitive' cookbook on Greek food, Odigos Mageirikis - to be found still in every Greek grandmothers' kitchen. I use the inverted commas on purpose: Mr T had actually been trained in France and on his return to Greece, he set about 'frenchifying' Greek cooking by adding sauces and butter etc - to the delight of the wildly francophile Greek bourgeoisie. His - and now the definitive - Moussaka, is really only a variation on the standard French Gratin. Greek chefs these days are busy trying to remove the Tselementes influence and get back to their real (or imagined) roots, preparing food from the freshest ingredients, and with the minimum of sauce, and as simply as possible - the fact that this looks extremely similar to Italian food is a technicality that shouldn't detain us. My preferred recipe for Moussaka is an authentic 1960's, pre-tourist boom, version which doesn't have a béchamel topping...and without the meat would be a lot like Melanzane alla Parmigiana - which of course is from Naples.......

I love these cultural sleights of hand that litter kitchen history: greek food is actually italian (or turkish); Crême Brulée comes from Cambridge; Vichyssoise was devised in the kitchens of The Plaza Hotel in New York; french croissants (which the french do have the grace to include within the term viennoisérie) are in fact austrian.........

Never mind the history: properly made, it's all delicious!

Interestingly, most recipes for Moussaka invariably call for minced or chopped lamb, but in Greece everyone uses κιμά (kima) because it is cheap. Kima is what comes out of the butcher's mincer. It is not always precisely clear what actually goes into the the butcher's mincer, but it definitely isn't lamb and it definitely isn't chunks of lean meat of any sort; it is mostly beef offcuts - and I use the word 'offcuts' in the very broadest sense. These 'offcuts' lurk, out of sight, in the high-sided tray on top of the mincer which is invariably at the back of the shop. When one asks for 1kg of kima the butcher will ostentatiously select a piece of, say, skirt weighing less than half the amount ordered, cut it up and run it through the mincer while also shoveling bits of the invisible 'offcuts' into the chute with a large wooden pusher. Miraculously, when he weighs the result it will come to just over the kilo, so that nothing remains but to pay the lady at the door. Smiles are exchanged all round and one is on one's way. What one doesn't do - on pain of being served inferior meat for life - is to ask what else went in.

Kαλή όρεξη!

Tonight's Dinner:

Scallops, with Almonds and Parsley Sauce.

Flash Fried Beef, with Caramelised Mushrooms.

Pineapple roast with Rum.

Monday 14 January 2008

Recipe: Roast Papaya

Yet another of those fruits the name of which conjures up images of tropical paradise and exotic lushness, but where the reality is that they are practically tasteless, and at best serve as a make-weight in a fresh fruit salad (where they get points simply for being unusual) and their lack of personality gets lost amongst the flavours of all the other fruit.

This way of dealing with Papaya, though, raises them to a whole different level - and, if nothing else, justifies the time spent on the moral dilemma re whether to buy them and support the third world economy, or to boycott them on the basis of their questionable food-miles rating!

There are two ways of preparing this dish - the diet-conscious way, and the devil-may-care way......the end result is pretty close whichever version you choose..

For two (indulgent) or four (restrained).

Ingredients: Two Papaya (medium sized, and ripe, but not too soft); the juice of two medium-sized Limes; one generous teaspoon of Curry Powder; six tablespoons of soft, dark brown Sugar - something like muscovado (for the dietarily-sound version, replace this with six tablespoons of Splenda, and two tablespoons of Dark Rum); chilled double Cream, for serving (or Greek Yoghurt, for a low-fat alternative).


1. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees C.

2. Cut the Papaya in half, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Then, using a small, sharp knife, separate the flesh of the Papaya from its skin, and score it through, as if preparing a melon quarter; leave the scored flesh in place within the Papaya skin. Place the Papaya halves cut-side up on a baking tray

3. Mix together the Lime juice, Sugar (or Splenda with Rum) and Curry Powder; stir with a fork for half a minute or so, to dissolve the Sugar in the liquid, then divide this between the Papaya halves, spooning it into each cavity.

4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for twelve minutes (test with a skewer at the end of this time, to ensure the flesh is properly cooked; if the skewer encounters resistance, return the Papaya to the oven for a few more minutes).

Fill the cavity in each half with chilled Cream (or Yoghurt) and serve.

Sunday 13 January 2008

New Bits of Kit.......

Finally, I succumbed. For several weeks before Christmas I'd been circling the gadget counter in WFM in Kensington High Street, contemplating the array of goodies on display. The Mango Pitter, in particular. Removing the stones from Mangoes is a skill I've never satisfactorily mastered, and the poor fruit tends to look more like roadkill then anything else by the time I've finished hacking with increasing frustration at it! In fact, if the aesthetic quality of the pitted fruit is at all important, then I merely hand it to the Technical Department to deal with (and why not? It's a technical process, after all....) which is generally, a reliable way of dealing with the problem.

As with all such things, though, I finally had an 'Oh, what the Hell' moment, and gave in. For something like the princely sum of eight pounds........I'm not quite sure why I dithered for so long....... the Mango Pitter was mine!

Anyway, I can now report that it works, perfectly. Resembling some kind of arcane surgical appliance, it is in fact designed to slice the flesh faultlessly from around the central stone, leaving you with two perfect halves of fruit, with absolutely minimal wastage. In practice, I discovered that you need to help the process a little at the start by scoring the skin of the fruit in the places where the cutter is first going to bite - which the makers don't suggest anywhere, but which turned out to be necessary on fruit which were absolutely at the right stage of ripeness for eating. I can imagine that if your mangoes are over-ripe, you risk squashing them as you press down on the fruit with the pitter - but, then, if they're over-ripe, you're going to end up with a mess in any event!

Highly recommended - and I can see it will revolutionise the use of mangoes in my kitchen hereafter. Much as the discovery several years ago of the pineapple corer did for pineapple consumption. Previously, the process of cleanly removing the skin of fresh pineapples had been a fiddly and tedious and time-consuming chore, which in practice meant that I didn't often bother with it. Then I came across a pineapple corer, in Filenes in New York (same place and time that I first discovered Microplane graters, in fact), and life was never the same again. I'm not sure how widely known and used these things are these days - they certainly deserve to be in every kitchen, if they aren't already - so it may be that everybody out there already knows about them. Suffice it to say, then, that with one of these things, it becomes possible to core and perfectly peel a ripe, fresh, pineapple inside a minute. Fantastic! One can't help but be impressed by the boffins who invent these sorts of things - and particularly without a battery or an electrical flex in evidence......

Slightly cheekier as a piece of marketing blurb was the claim for the new Zyliss garlic press that I've just bought for Italy (where the old one has just about given up the ghost, having done stalwart service for many years). The new garlic press is smart and stylish, looks very sleek, and does indeed do what the makers claim, and which persuaded me to buy it in the first place: it presses garlic cloves without the need to peel them first. Which, is great, of course. Except that I couldn't see in what way it differed as a piece of engineering from my other garlic press. So......for the first time ever, I tried to press un-peeled garlic with the other press that I've been using in London for decades. It worked! It always would have done - I just hadn't ever thought to try it......In fact, I imagine any garlic press in the land would be equally capable of performing this feat.
You have to give the Zyliss people points for their marketing chutzpah, though!

Oh, should you wish to track one down, the Mango Pitter was made by Oxo Good Grips, I suppose I shouldn't ever have doubted the fact that it would work. Their stuff always does.

Tonight's Dinner:

Asparagus Mousse, steamed.

Duck Confit, served with Carrots cooked in Bristol Cream.

Baked Apples, stuffed with ratafia biscuits in Hazelnut Syrup.