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.

3658392877_4bd296afd3_z

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.

10982008163_2c3bb55bf8_z

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.

8226455954_3ff20a4e5d_z

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…

Advertisements

Go Outside

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 17.57.42The Debt to Pleasure describes the smell of spring air as “more a texture than an odour”. Such an interesting and poetic illustration, yet considering it came from an English writer, I am highly suspect of such a romantic portrayal. It is true, there is a subtle electricity pulsating through the UK in the Springtime. But in reality it’s slow to start and intermittent at best. Here in London, when Spring begins to show itself, an almost visible and vibrating change comes over even the most curmudgeonly of individuals. I suppose that is the “texture” John Lanchester means, although in truth, it is muted and fleeting.

I am in my eleventh year of living in London. When I moved here, it took me many, many months to understand how precious and rare good weather is. I specifically recall a day when I had made arrangements to visit an art museum on a Saturday only to have them completely and emphatically dismissed because the weather had hit 19C (66F). I had never understood that if the weather in Britain decided to comply, all original plans were off and all there was to do is to go outside. It didn’t matter what we did once we got there, we just needed to be outdoors to take advantage of whatever gift the gods were bestowing upon us. There is a reason that the weather is a topic of conversation between most people, every day, all year. It occupies us constantly; its changeability toys with us and forces us to pander to its random and often seemingly obtuse behaviour.

And now we are in March, an awkward month. Some years it is warm and wonderful, others it is miserable. This year, March has chosen to be cold. In fact, it has been so cold that there were blizzards in the Channel Islands last week, an incredible and almost unheard of meteorological occurrence for this time of year. We are still waiting for the hints of Spring to come en force. So far, there has been a day, or an afternoon perhaps, where we can go outside without hats, scarves and gloves. The light is changing and the days are slowly getting longer, but still we wait.

What must it be like to live in a place that is so welcoming to the seasons? Even winter is met with anticipation, knowing that it won’t last too long so can be enjoyed for what it is. What it must be like to be where Spring comes along confidently and with it the colours, tastes and textures it promises. But here, in the UK, all we do is wait. Winter is long and we tolerate it just enough to get by. We hope for the best and keep optimistic when deep down we know we are sure to be disappointed again. Our almost abusive relationship with the weather keeps us hoping one day it’ll change but blizzards in March suggest that no, it probably won’t.

I am tired of eating stodgy food and desperately crave light meals, tomatoes, fresh salads and some other fruit than apples and pears. I’ve extended to Jaffa oranges from Spain because any break from the monotony of British winter fruit is welcome at this point. Forced rhubarb should be crawling into the market soon, which is only a minor respite for the palate. I refuse to purchase fruit and berries imported from Northern Africa or South America; perhaps an ironic decision considering the Spanish oranges. Even if I had no scruples about importing out of season, the fact it’s freezing outside renders eating them incongruous. I want a cool strawberry on a warm day, not a cold one. And so I wait.

London is one of the greatest cities in the world. Those of us privileged to live here know it’s a million things, all specific and idiosyncratic that add up to make it so. Despite this, the weather is always in the background, dictating our actions. What those who live here know is that the few days when the weather actually turns in our favour are like none other. The city becomes blanketed in golden light that glistens off the buildings; the view down the Thames reminds us why London is remarkable. The green of the trees and grass in the parks against the blue skies and the sunshine are almost blinding in their beauty and we dash outside in a frenzy to soak up any rays that we can find.

But until then, we continue to wait and hope for these days. We wait for the magnificent produce to arrive in our markets and continue to hope for consistent warmth. We itch for them to appear soon to sate our sunlight-starved souls with freshness and flavour. We wait for the sparks of Spring in the hope that this year, maybe, will finally be the year we can really, truly, go outside.

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.

Conservatism: Not the Order of the Day

tumblr_m31b87Qe5Y1qjcl1qI turned 32 yesterday. It just sort of snuck up on me. I think with every year I’m more and more resigned to the fact that age cannot be controlled and no matter what I will begin to sag and wrinkle and that is okay, really. And, you know, being “in your thirties” means that you start to do more grown up things. Things you always thought in your 20s sounded a bit lame and boring, but now you enjoy because it means it doesn’t involve queues to get in to late bars with horrendously loud music and subsequently being on the receiving end of an equally horrendous hangover the next day. (Please note, I know how old that makes me sound. I am aware.)

So in this civilised vein of adulthood, my other half took me to dinner at St John in Farringdon to celebrate being “in my thirties”. I have never been to St John, despite lusting after it and its sister restaurant on Commercial Street, St John Bread and Wine, for several years. For me, it is one of those places which the gastroworld always seems to return to; a beacon of solidarity against new faddish restaurants which come and go as quickly as they start. So, now, 10 years of lusting later, I am sat in the dining room and perusing the menu with maybe a little too much excitement for someone my age.

With its reputation for nose to tail eating, I really want to go for the offal because I pride myself on being adventurous and completely unfunny about less-than-popular foods, but I seem to be unable to get over the idea of eating brains or intestines. I think it is partly because I have never made them myself so I cannot really visualise the process. So, I settle for the Roasted Bone Marrow to start. My boyfriend, who is feeling far more adventurous than I, goes for the Chitterlings and Dandelion.

The bone marrow was phenomenal. Served with toast, grey salt, and parsley, the flavours sang together in unctuous harmony. The amount of marrow perfectly matched the amount of bread served, unlike an unfortunate pâté order, when you are left looking for something to accompany the remaining slab on your plate after your single slice of toast has been exhausted. This attention to detail was really appreciated. Chitterlings, despite sounding a bit twee and like something out of a Disney cartoon, are, for those of us who are unsure, pig intestines and in fact were delightful. Served with chopped up dandelion and cornichons, they were lovely and piggy, slightly sweet and very tender.

tumblr_m31bd3IFLF1qjcl1q

For mains, I went for Smoked Haddock, Saffron and Parsnips, and Boyf went for one of the specials, Blood Cake, with a side of Greens. I had heard good things about the Blood Cake, but still, despite the amazingness of the Chitterlings, I couldn’t commit to something so off piste! Even so, the haddock was firm, not hard or dry, and perfectly cooked. It came with a buttery saffron sauce, which heightened the taste, albeit made it a tad on the salty side. The parsnips were a salve for the salt, and amalgamated the flavours in a wonderful balance of savoury, sweet, and buttery goodness. Delightful, but a conservative choice.

tumblr_m31bdl0xUU1qjcl1q

The Blood Cake was like black pudding with an Ivy League education. Bigger, richer, more refined.  Served with two fried eggs on top, in a manner similar to the parsnips, these eggs tempered the flavour, giving it a deeper, smoother and more rounded taste. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The Greens were cooked well, but incredibly salty, and with my haddock already being on the top end of the salt spectrum, it was a bit much as an accompanying side.

And finally, we moved on to the puddings. Again, I am now kicking myself with my pansy ordering. I ended with chocolate mousse and a single of Auchentoshan with some ice. A safe bet. An easy bet. But dammit! It was nothing compared to Boyf’s Apple Sorbet and Polish Vodka. This, people, could easily have been the most amazing thing I have ever tasted. The sorbet was clean, fresh, light, smooth, and then, with a little sip of the vodka whilst the sorbet taste was still in my mouth, the flavours turned to perfume and my whole nose and mouth became an explosion of flowers and fruit. Wonderful.

I wish that I had been a bit more brave at St John. My meal was wonderful, but I wish that I had really grown a pair of balls and gone for what they do best at St John: blood and guts. Perhaps now that I’m a little older, and a little wiser, the next time I go, the calves brains and lamb sweetbreads will seem a little less daunting and I will jump on the nose to tail bandwagon a little more readily than I did last night. Until then, black pudding anyone?

Three course meal for two including wine, not including service, £112.90.

http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/

Comfort Us with Matzo: A visit to Mishkins

tumblr_m007ndMIxr1qjcl1qWhen I arrived, I ended up waiting for him about 15 minutes. I had wanted to try Mishkins since it opened but the anticipation for the meal was also met with trepidation as a meeting with my ex is never the easiest thing. We are not, however, here to thrash anything out. We are the poster children of divorces.  We are amicable towards each other, our new partners are amicable towards each other and amicable to the other respective ex, it’s just all very amicable, amicable, amicable.

Up until the point of meeting I’m truly looking forward to catching up. We were together for 8 years so when we split up, it was not only losing a partner, but a friend as well. As I sat waiting, and the apprehension began to carve its way into my mind, I scrolled through the menu for some distraction: pastrami sandwiches, meatballs, matzo ball soup, beigels with lox, various other options described with words like ‘schmaltzed’ and ‘schmear’ thrown in for a bit of Yiddish authenticity. I realise that this is the perfect place for us to eat. The food being served here has tradition behind it. A tradition with the power to heal as well has to comfort. The only thing it lacked was an authentic spraying of Jewish guilt, but being that it was a meeting between to people who used to be in love, there was plenty of guilt anyway.

He finally arrived, a bit awkward as he always is at the beginning when we see each other.  We exchanged pleasantries and sat down at our table. I always find it strange when we are together now that we were ever together then. We are such different people. Or maybe our differences weren’t so glaringly obvious when we were together. I don’t know. But it is testament to our (attempts at) maturity and our mutual respect for each other that we try to continue a relationship of sorts, despite the painful memories that are so intertwined in the dissolution of a marriage.

We order. He has a Reuben with a Half and Half (half onion rings and half French fries); I ask for matzo ball soup and meatloaf and mash. We talk about our respective current relationships. His seems good. He worries sometimes, but generally, he is happy. I am happy too. Extremely happy. I downplay it to some extent because I don’t want him to feel bad. We gossip about our friends and their latest dramas.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.ukOur food begins to arrive. The Reuben is a dream; it is juicy, meaty, served on lightly toasted rye. The sauerkraut that comes on it is perfectly spiced too. It is a marriage made in heaven. My matzo ball soup arrives too. It is a rich chicken broth, with one matzo ball and lots of shredded chicken and carrots and celery sitting at the bottom. As I eat it, I can almost feel myself being hugged by a Jewish grandmother (not my own sadly), who pats my head and says “There, there, everything will be fine, eat this.”

Next comes the meatloaf and mash. The meatloaf comes in its own individual mini-loaf tin, and is complete with a soft-boiled egg nestled within it; it’s yolk runny and golden. The mashed potatoes are creamy, buttery, smooth. I could have licked the bowl.  We both agree it is delicious. I reminisce to him about the one time I made meatloaf for him and he didn’t like it. He says, “Well, it didn’t taste like this.”

We move on to other topics. We order more wine, and puddings. I have a chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream and he orders the special chocolate bread and butter pudding.  He comments on how hot the waitress is. We talk about work.

I am going through a career crisis of sorts, whilst he continues to rise up the corporate ladder. He says I’m brave for changing gears but I am not sure how much I believe him. I can almost hear his sensible brain saying, are you crazy? You’re considering giving up a well-paid job to write? About food? But he knows from previous history that I am not afraid to take risks, and I know he is supportive.

The puddings arrive. We are too full to finish them but we keep powering through. I eat half my cookie, which does no more and no less than what it is supposed to. It is a great chocolate chip cookie, and the vanilla ice cream is pretty good, but that is all. It won’t win any awards, and it doesn’t expect to. His bread and butter pudding arrives. It is wonderful, but heavy, and after a meal like the one we’ve just had, we are able to eat only half of it.

The bill arrives and it is time to head home. We’ve managed to rack up a rather pricey bill for a mid-week dinner, but it was worth it. I feel nourished, not overly full, just happily satisfied, which considering the peaks and troughs of the previous couple hours, is not too bad.

We part ways and I am left to walk to the Tube to ponder the night. I am thoughtful but hopeful in the knowledge that we are slowly rebuilding a friendship where there was only hurt and anger. I arrive home to the warm arms of my other half and I am content and comforted.

www.mishkins.co.uk

photography by Paul Winch-Furness