Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

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Maltby Street

With the weekend comes a certain magic. Waking up on Saturday morning without any plans, it stretches out before us like a blank canvas. “The world is our oyster, what shall we do?” Perhaps it’s too cold to go to sit in the park, but too sunny to stay indoors, what then? Wander. Be it London or New York, your downtown district or your village high street. Go catch the sunlight, enjoy the city and another’s company. The key is where you go. Here in our fair city, any Londoner will tell you to avoid the destinations overrun with tourists – obvious instructions in my opinion. That isn’t the only thing. It is essential to know and to seek the best your city has to offer. Life is too short for mediocrity.

7667509358_fcfe9a4570That said, it is reassuring to know that at weekends, tucked away quietly behind Tower Bridge, is the remarkable Maltby Street Market. Londoners have slowly fled there in recent years now that Borough Market has become a bazaar of overpriced vegetables, organic meat and amplified North American accents. Maltby Street is now a place to see, smell, taste, enjoy and listen. A year and a half ago, I first visited on a cold, quiet day in November. There were fewer market stalls on that particular Saturday, and only a handful of people were negotiating their way through the street. We stopped for a glass of wine to warm ourselves, then moved on to buy some marvellous smelly French cheeses and some purple and golden beetroot. The cheese we ate that night with some hearty red wine and crackers. The beetroot I roasted with fresh thyme and garlic; a rainbow of colours served alongside a whole roasted chicken for Sunday lunch. At the time, the place seemed as it if it was on the cusp of becoming great. 40 Maltby Street was already selling incredible food and spectacular wine and the market itself was garnering interest, slowly and confidently. More and more shops, stalls and traders moved in and the place began to come into its own.

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Photo via teacupscupcakes.blogspot.co.uk

A recent pilgrimage there for me was simply because I was on a quest for a doughnut. St John, a restaurant famous for its nose to tail eating, also runs a bakery under the rail arches that run between Druid and Maltby Streets. Self-confessed baking evangelicals – their love of bread is equal to that of offal – these doughnuts are sold from 9am until they disappear. Midday is too late. That particular day’s special chocolate custard doughnuts happened to all be sold by 11am and our mission to taste the famous doughnuts was put on hold for another weekend. Their brownies, slabs of intense, rich and nutty chocolate decadence, would have to act as a temporary salve, and they did, but only just.

Around the corner from St John sees the lunchtime crowd out in full force. The rail arches are filled with sounds and smells of sizzling meat and the buzzing patter of the market traders and customers. We watched as Tozino tapas bar produced plate after plate of appropriately unctuous tomato bread and thick strips of jamón. Small tables filled any available space and wine flowed, it would be a sin if it hadn’t. A stall selling preserves offers samples to a man and his daughter. After a small taste of apricot jam, the little girl smiles and does a little dance, surely the finest praise available. We walk along slowly, enamoured with the sights, lustily eyeing up the patisserie. Another stall sells a brunch-style hash, with eggs and bacon. The cook cracks an egg slowly, carefully sliding it out onto the griddle so the white doesn’t spread too far. The smell of bacon is enough to make a vegetarian blush. Across the way, with a merited love affair with pastrami, Monty’s Jewish deli is serving up matzo ball soup and Reubens with sizeable gherkins and coleslaw. All this we tasted with our eyes.

Too often we put our emphasis on just the action of eating, and, at times, it is completely justified. But the beauty of markets like this existing is that eating becomes more than putting food into our mouths. The mixture of sunlight, the sounds around us, the flavours of the wine and the food, all these things come together to ignite our senses, and we truly taste. Maltby Street is not a place for gastronomic tourism, it is a place to experience the greatness that one facet of being alive offers. Seek and you will find. Wander and you will live.

Undaunted in Private

tumblr_inline_mgmo959C8f1qjcl1qIn A is for Dining Alone (An Alphabet for Gourmets), Fisher writes that there are few with whom she would “care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, and (perhaps most of all, except sleep) share [her] bread and wine.” How true. And yet, the likelihood is that unless your “One” is there to sit and eat with you, silently or not, the prospect of dining alone is one of the few things that can unsettle a body preparing to sit down for a meal. Enforced solitude during mealtimes often leads to setting oneself in front of a television, and watching something mindless whilst mechanically putting unimaginative food into one’s mouth. Of course we are all guilty of this; is there nothing better than a total switching off of mind and body?

Yet choosing to sit at one’s table and quietly eat a thoughtfully prepared solitary meal can be far more valuable. I have heard people say that spending time eating alone can be either a calming respite or a dark pit of loneliness. In younger years, I admit it filled me with dread. But more and more I am beginning to understand why Fisher adapted Hemingway’s old adage “never be daunted in public” to “never be daunted in private” when it came to dining alone.

Since I became a properly self-employed and (penniless) writer, dining alone during the day is now more or less a regular activity for me. In the beginning, I would sit on the sofa watching some crap TV on my laptop whilst wolfing down a bowl of cereal for breakfast. In 10 minutes I’d be finished. Just filling a hole; thoughtlessly performing a perfunctory action. I did all this whilst, for once, having the precious time to make something real.

I began to make an effort. A couple strips of crisp streaky bacon, a wobbly egg fried in a little leftover bacon fat, with a sliced tomato, lightly sprinkled with salt, complete with a cup of tea. Or maybe a tranche of homemade banana bread, coffee and some sliced fruit. I sit in my dining room, next to the window where I can see the towers of Brixton Prison and our overgrown back garden, and I eat in contented silence, alone with my own thoughts quietly meandering through my brain. It is wonderful, this kind of solitude. It is not lonely; in truth, it is meditative.

Fisher preferred to dine with herself rather than with “hit-or-miss congeniality” and I darest say that I don’t blame her. As a writer in Hollywood, there must have been many dull and superficial dining companions available to her. London is not much different. I am sure there are many versions of shallow and sycophantic dinner conversations occurring nightly at the many restaurants dotted around town. It is true that eating with others, or just your “One”, can be nourishment for the mind, body and spirit, but faced with the possibility of a facile and weak counterpart for dinner surely suggests that one’s own company is probably the best bet.

In an article in The Guardian in April 2012, Diane Shipley asks what’s the problem with eating solo.  She says, “Surely it’s more tragic to spend time with someone just because you can’t face being alone than to chew a caesar salad on your lonesome?” I can’t think of a better way to put it. For those that dine alone regularly, do not be disheartened by it. Treat it as an opportunity to enjoy your own thoughts or a good book, but never the TV. Whether you stay in to eat or dine out alone, avoid feeling as if you are missing out on something better, because in reality, you probably aren’t.

Photo: “Table for One Scene from Anna Karenina”. Image courtesy of Jennie Ottinger 

Gastronomic Purgatory

tumblr_inline_mg20doobeu1qjcl1q2013 has begun and I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to this year. Finally, I have a respite from living in a weird foodie limbo called early pregnancy. For now, at 14 weeks, the tricky times are almost past and I’m at liberty to talk about it. But fear not, I won’t bombard you with saccharine tales of how thrilling it is to have motherhood on the horizon. The truth is, the first three months suck and the daunting task of becoming a parent is met with extreme emotions that range from trepidation to tentative excitement, but mostly total and utter terror. If you’re one of the rare lucky ones not to really experience the weirdness that occurs when hormones take over your body during this time, you may have no idea what I’m talking about, and you probably deserve a slap for being so smug.

The reality for me was that I spent almost 3 months in a state of complete gastronomic disarray. My appetite ranged from non-existent to insatiable, and spent a fair portion of time afraid of food, a quality in others that normally irritates the hell out of me. As someone who spends perhaps far too much time thinking about the next meal, I now went to panic mode when it came to eating and lived completely at the whim of nausea and odd unseasonal cravings.

First, I became obsessed with tomatoes in mid-November. So much so that I had to shove aside my guilt at purchasing imported out-of-season tomatoes and avocados so I could sate an irrational desire for bruschetta and caprese salads. I drank hot chocolate obsessively. For a week all I could eat were buttered rolls with ham. Then, I became preoccupied with textures of food. During a particular week I must have eaten Mexican food about 3 or 4 times: crunchy tacos or soft burritos, with warm ground beef, cool crème fraîche and guacamole. I discovered that if you opt for vegetarian options at Chipotle or Tortilla, you got the guacamole for free – an added bonus, especially because carnitas gave me the fear.

I developed an irrational hatred of the soy sauce, MSG and cabbage odour of Asian noodle bars; the smell of which still makes me feel nauseous. I spent a lunchtime wandering aimlessly around Soho desperate to find a sausage roll, but only after eating two slices of pizza from Maletti. Most other lunchtimes I would worry about what I could eat that wouldn’t make me feel sick. I couldn’t bear the taste or smell of chicken, even the organic, free-range plump beauty I bought from the farmers’ market.

This was not okay. I had lost control of one of the things central to my being. A melodramatic response perhaps, but when I have chosen to spend my life dedicated to the pleasures of the table, I was utterly lost. Not only was I was eating things I would normally avoid like the plague, I was unable to enjoy the food I could actually eat. An undercurrent of dread and nausea infiltrated every meal, and I began to wonder if, at the crucial time I had made a career change into food, my hormones had now thwarted me permanently.

But then, in a matter of days, it vanished. Like…that. I am myself again, but with an ever-expanding belly and a hunger that is impatient and punishing. How strange it is to be tossed between these two gastronomic realities indiscriminately! The good news is, of course, that I can eat again. As I type, my collection of cooking and cookery reference books are sending me come hither looks. So bring on 2013, and let me eat my way through the next six months. And of course, pretend that Tesco sausage rolls no longer call to me.

Why I refuse to jump on the Gourmet Fast Food bandwagon

tumblr_mdbp1pA3qN1qjcl1qWishbone in Brixton has recently opened; another notch in the bedpost of the gourmet fast food trend that has become so prevalent in the last two or three years. They serve fried chicken and drinks, and pretty much nothing else and I suppose I am rather grudgingly looking forward to trying it.

I come from the nation of fast food. I grew up with it everywhere. I was lucky enough to have parents who chose to feed me properly instead of using burgers and fried chicken as quick and easy meals. And frankly one of the great things, or so I thought, about living in the UK was the sort of middle class British mindset that fast food was not considered really that acceptable. Or at least, it was treated as a bit of a guilt-laden treat, which you ate when you were so hungover that you needed fat, stodge, salt and Coke to bring you back to a semi-normal state. Kebabs and chicken burgers were usually reserved for late nights, when you were so pissed and hungry that there was nothing that could or would hit the spot, and any regrets were saved for the morning.

But somewhere along the way, there became a difference between the dirty burger and Dirty Burger. Now it almost seems that gourmet cheeseburgers, fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, mac ‘n’ cheese, and burritos the size of a small cat are now deemed acceptable and cool, when in reality, they are the same heart-attack inducing, cholesterol-inflating food that has made my homeland synonymous with obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease.

We eat at the Rita’s, the Lucky Chips, the Meat Liquors and we think, “sure, it’s not good for me, but hey, it’s just this once, so it’s probably fine.” But it’s not. The overriding popularity of this kind of food will one day make it part of our vernacular. Those in the know treat this type of dining as interesting and trendy, until it becomes mainstream, when it will then be deemed uncool and the very same food bloggers and elitists will turn to yet another food craze to fawn over. But the damage has been done. The average punters will jump on the bandwagon and assume this type of eating is decent dining. It will trickle down through the masses and “gourmet” fast food will expand into the day-to-day.

Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Looking at the offerings of late in this genre of cooking suggests an indiscriminate obviousness and a strange desire to enjoy American foods that for years have been taken for granted as uncouth. This food tastes good; of course it does. Anything deep-fried or smothered in cheese is going to taste good and it doesn’t matter if you tart it up with free-range chicken and organic beef either. It is still the culinary equivalent of a one-night stand. Eating such clichéd foods as these won’t make us any more ironically cool, it’ll just make us extraordinarily fat, and no free-range, deep fried chicken wing is going to change that. Ever.

Photo courtesy of Serious Eats

Review: Bamboula, Brixton

tumblr_maa1wsEQIz1qjcl1qLow lighting, beach hut interiors, fantastic reggae and warm tropical air being pushed around by ceiling fans on full blast: if it weren’t for the Town Hall looming outside, with your fruity rum punch in hand, it might be easy to forget you’re in Brixton.

Actually getting into the place is another matter, however. You can’t be sure if you book online because they don’t respond. Calling seems even more pointless because despite confirming my booking over the phone, we arrived to still no reservation. In any case, the staff happily seated us at a small table in the corner, near the bar.

The whole vibe of the place is mellow, chilled-out and totally Caribbean. I won’t get snippy about service taking too long as I’d feel a little ridiculous and overly Londonish, but once we did eventually order our drinks and food, we settled in, taking in the lovely smells and the warm air.

For starters, we ordered Codfish Fritters, served with love apple in tomato sauce. The love apple has a flavour similar to an Asian pear, and the subtle sweetness of this sauce complimented the crunchiness of the fritters; their texture like little savoury doughnuts. Served with a nicely dressed bit of salad, they were a happy promise of things to come.

For mains, my dining partner had the Guava Glazed Jerk Lamb, after reading unanimous support for it online; I ordered an obvious classic, Jerk Chicken. With a side of rice and peas and plantains, this had the makings of a seriously awesome dinner.

The lamb was tender and spicy, with a subtle meaty sweet-smokiness that danced perfectly with the accompanying fried plantains. It was covered in a dark rich jerk sauce and served off the bone. In the dim lighting it took a little effort with our knife and fork to separate the meat from the bone, but regardless it lived up to its reputation.

The jerk chicken came slathered in sauce, as opposed to a spice rub or paste, which I usually prefer. It had the right amount of heat and underneath its heady spiciness, mild citrus flavours made it totally moreish. Despite Bamboula’s claim it is marinated in the jerk sauce, I found the chicken a little dry for my liking, but the sauce recovered any missing moisture, and on the whole it was quite delicious; the rice and peas soaking up whatever leftover sauce remained perfectly.

We finished with their famous Rum Bread Pudding. A take on the traditional bread and butter pudding, the hard dough bread is soaked in Wray and Nephew spiced rum, and served warm with melting vanilla ice cream. Despite its denseness, the rum’s vanilla, ginger and caramelised Demerara sugar flavours made it a perfect ending to the meal.

We left chilled out and sated. Full of spice and rum punch, Bamboula, if just for an evening, with its soothing reggae beats and wonderful food, gave us a nice little taste of Jamaican London. Slightly away from the most fashionable bit of Brixton, it has remained a fixture in the local food scene since 1997 for a reason. Go and eat there. You won’t regret it. Just be sure to make the booking in person.

Dinner for two, including service and rum punch £47.71

A version of this can be found in the September issue of the Brixton Bugle.