Tuesday 26 February 2013

Bad food + beer = good food

Last week it was the excellent Chelmsford CAMRA winter beer festival, even more excellent since a move to bigger and better premises. After the first five pints of beer and cider (never a smart mix) it was food time, and the choice for me was a burger and chips. Cheese and bacon in the burger and a very generous dash of both BBQ sauce and burger sauce, and some mustard on the chips.

If you had asked me at about 8pm I would have told you that this burger was the best thing I have eaten for a long time, and even now I remember it as something great. I’m sure it wasn’t, it can only have been the beer talking. This got me thinking…

What is the best thing to eat, to accompany a drinking session?

There are many options here : kebab, curry, fish & chips, burger or McDonald’s being the most common for me. All things considered, I think it just has to be a kebab. But never, ever a doner kebab, this is not an acceptable choice. A chicken shish or lamb kofte are my personal favourites.

Any thoughts? Disagree? Even care? Thought not!

Sunday 24 February 2013

These aren’t just scotch eggs… these are M&S scotch eggs!

Scotch eggs are the best picnic food ever. Fact. They have seen something of a revival recently and the once humble picnic fare are nowadays very commonly found as a starter on restaurant menus. This can only be a good thing, as any opportunity to have another scotch egg should be encouraged. M&S have a new product in their (generally very good) Gastropub range, runny poached scotch eggs.

I just had to buy a pack and try these on the day I saw them. Just me and my daughter at home so thought that these would make a great lunch, served with some chunky chips and a side salad. I’ve made scotch eggs many times before, generally an easy thing to make, if you aren’t worried about consistency. However, I don’t see how you can cook a scotch egg and keep the egg yolk runny? Well, it is…

You cut it open and the yolk pours straight out. Given that it has essentially been cooked three times (the egg is poached and then deep fried when encased in sausage meat before I heat it up in the oven) this is surely almost impossible? I can only assume that the first two cooking stages take place before the middle is retrospectively injected with the runny yolk. Either way, it doesn’t matter, because it tastes great! A super-super-super epic lunch or starter! Seek them out.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Parsnip wine stage one (brewing)

Remember a TV show called ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ from the 1970s, starring Leonard Rossiter? Reggie’s son-in-law in the show, Tom, is very much a new-age sort of chap who makes his own vegetable wines (which everybody agrees are awful)! Ever since watching this show, I’ve wanted to make my own vegetable wine, and I know from experience that such wines can in fact be absolutely delicious.

So I’ve done a lot of research. I brought what appears to be the definitive book on the subject and have read many, many recipes on the internet. I decided to start with parsnip wine as this is one of my favourite vegetables, it was either this or beetroot (which will be next). I decided on an amalgam of the various recipes I encountered, which is basic and supposedly fool proof.

Essentially, the grated parsnip is simmered in boiling water for five minutes. It is then strained through a muslin cloth and the sugar and orange juice is added. When cool, add the yeast (it will obviously die if you don’t cool it) and then seal in the fermenting vessel, which is essentially a plastic bucket. You have to sterilise all of the equipment used, so I boiled the small bits and used a sterilising solution in the bucket.

In two weeks it will be bottled. I’m going to try and find some very small bottles so that I can open these periodically to assess the taste, and because I didn’t want to produce too much on my first try. I don’t really want to wait for months and tasting before brewing some more, so now I know that the method isn’t too daunting (albeit I will make a few changes) I am going to produce some greater volume and keep my fingers crossed!

Haddock… too much effort for breakfast? Never!

It is half term so I’m off work. And today it is just me and my daughter so we can be a little more adventurous with what we eat than we could be with the other half of the family. We’ve started as we meant to go on and had a lovely bit of haddock for breakfast.

Method: Melt plenty of butter (as much as you think is decent, plus 50% more) and a little splash of oil in the pan and toss in some capers. Add the haddock, which will need two minutes each side at the most to cook. Plate the haddock and add half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard to the juices in the pan and stir. Add a glug of white wine and swirl around to deglaze and pour onto the haddock. Serve with some crusty bread.

Such a super simple little recipe and absolutely delicious. Its worth noting that whilst the haddock is the focus of this dish, the quality of the bread can easily make or break it. We are lucky in that we have a nice local bakery (Dorringtons, with 15 branches in Essex and Cambridgeshire) that bake excellent crusty bloomers (oo-er)!

Monday 18 February 2013

Valentine’s cheese feast!

My boyfriend cooked me a gorgeous beef wellington on valentine’s day, washed down by a delicious bottle of red wine. I would recommend the wine, Château La Martre from Bordeaux; it was bought from a wine merchants called Dalling & Co. in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire.

The meal was finished off by a massive cheese board. The cheeses on offer were just from Sainsbury’s but he found a blue that I’ve never tried before. It was called Blackstick Premier Cru. It’s a British blue with a soft texture and is slightly creamier than stilton. It was amazing.

Sainsbury’s new cheese collection range is really good value (they had a promotion, 4 for £10) and I’m not sure whether it’s the packaging that makes me feel like the cheese is more premium or, the fact that they really are? The standard stilton and camembert were as good as any I’ve ever tasted.

Sunday 17 February 2013

New Mexico, Sawbridgeworth

Over the years, I must have eaten here at least twenty times. It’s always been what I like to call a ‘banker’, somewhere that can be consistently relied upon to provide great food, great service and a great atmosphere. However, the last few visits have been distinctly average so a visit last night was something I was looking forward to, a chance for redemption? No.

To start with, mixed platter. Chicken wings, stuffed peppers, mozzarella sticks, loaded potato skins and nachos. All OK and inoffensive but nothing special. The nachos were the best bit, which is saying something!

Main course was a chorizo and cheese burger, not something I have chosen before. Again, it was OK and again, it was nothing special. I did wonder if I ordered badly (normally I would have fajitas or ribs) but the four people I shared the meal with all said something similar. The best bit was the side portion of re-fried beans, which remain excellent.

It’s a real shame, but the whole experience was as per my recent disappointments. A few years ago the restaurant increased its capacity twofold and maybe it has just bitten off more than it can chew? The service was very slow also, we had to chase our drinks and they missed out on at least an extra round from us due to being inattentive.

A real shame. Not going to give up on New Mexico permanently, from past experience it deserves at least one more chance.

Thursday 14 February 2013

The King’s Arms PH, Berkhamstead

This is my second visit to this pub; I was slightly apprehensive as the first experience was unfortunately mostly disappointing. This is a large pub and is lovely, warm and inviting. There is a great selection of local ale on tap. When I visited in December the food didn’t match the quality of the location at all.

Second visit, course by course…

Starter was a simple smoked salmon dish with a rocket salad and a light dressing. The salmon was very good and only needed some granary or brown bread to complete it. The main menu shows that this is normally Gravad Lax and served with horseradish and crème fraiche, as this was from a set menu it was regular smoked salmon… I wish I hadn’t read that as it sounded better still.

Main course was excellent. Classic Sage stuffed chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto, served with scallion mashed potato and beautiful roasted winter vegetables. Beurre blanc really brought this dish to life and I could have eaten a double portion with ease!

Dessert was the only disappointing part of the meal, and this may have been my fault. I changed my order at the eleventh hour to cheese. The cheese (cheddar and stilton) was fridge-cold and really needed some time to breathe. The biscuits were good but this dish was served without any chutney or quince accompaniment, which it desperately needed.

I really enjoyed the meal and blame myself for the dessert. I would imagine that the reason for the bad experience the first time was simply that I was part of a large Christmas party crowd where the quality tends to match the assumed-to-be-less-discerning-and-probably-drunk clientele! Will visit again for sure, and really want to order off of the ‘normal’ menu next time.

Hollywood Bowl, Watford

So, this week I went bowling for the first time in literally years. Actually, it was really good fun and something I would want to do more often. The food choice for dinner was limited: beef burger, chicken burger or vegetable burger.

I ordered a beef burger and chips, in a cardboard box. I was very hungry and really looking forward to this, as (in some sort of weird postmodern world) a burger in a box in a bowling hall has the potential to be be good and honest.

It wasn’t, it was awful. The worst beef burger I have eaten for a very, very long time. Small, tasteless and dry. The chips were average French fries which needed some serious seasoning to make palatable. Unfortunately the condiments were of a low quality, and were watered down. This is my first TOTAL STINKER of 2013 and I am going to add a SNAIL SERVICE because the dude with the dreadlocks took forever to fix the bowling machine when it went wrong, which happened often! Go, but don’t eat!

Sunday 10 February 2013

When is a vending machine not a vending machine?

Febo (many other brands are available) is the best thing about food in the Netherlands.

The concept is simple, and something we desperately need in our lives in the UK. Essentially a shop of vending machines, which are called ‘automats’. Except they aren't vending machines, they are just little windows behind which you'll find a snack. You put your €1.50 in the slot, open a door and take out some food. Your window is opened the other end and replaced fresh. Freshly cooked food, generally deep-fried, and delicious.

What will you find behind these doors? Burgers and frinkanellen hot dogs, which are good but not great. But the croquettes are brilliant and delicious; shrimp, pork and beef. And little spicy rice balls in breadcrumbs, equally delicious. On Thursday I had a croquette on the way from a meeting back to my hotel (picture above), and the next morning I had three for breakfast on the way to the airport.

These places are everywhere (22 Febo automats in Amsterdam alone) and are simply the coolest thing about snacking in Amsterdam, and something we need in London. As fast food goes, possibly a close second to Taco Bell. Yes, its that good!

Saturday 9 February 2013

New Dorrius, nr. Centraal Station, Amsterdam

I was in Amsterdam on business for a couple of days this week and wanted to have something traditionally Dutch. A quick walk around the city centre didn't reveal anything especially interesting; therefore 'plan b' was enacted, a re-visit to somewhere I had previously had lunch.

New Dorrius is more of a modern Dutch restaurant so didn't quite fit the brief, however the food on my first visit was very nice. It is attached to the Crowne Plaza just opposite the Centraal Station.

Course by course...

My colleague and I chose the tasting board for our starter. This was a big slab of slate with carpaccio of beef, a traditional pea and ham soup, cheese with rye bread and some Dutch smoked salmon. These were great, great but too small, good and satisfactory respectively. The best bit was the truffle sauce which was delicious; the attentive waiter could see I was enjoying this so brought an extra bit of bread dribbled in the sauce!

Main course was veal (proper veal, not British quasi-veal) served three ways. These were simmered loin, bitterballen and a sort of confit canapé. This was well presented and delicious, it really had the appearance of something special and tasted as good as it looked. The veal confit (melting like duck confit would) was the best bit and a perfect little SUPER-DISH within a bigger SUPER-DISH. Unfortunately you will have to take my word for this as my BlackBerry managed to corrupt the picture I took, sorry!

Cheese for dessert. There was the ever-present brie but also a couple of traditional Dutch cheeses which were lovely. The homemade crackers and bread were also excellent, as was the mustard sauce which seems to be traditionally served with cheese in the Netherlands.

I've spent quite a lot of time in Amsterdam and often complain that the stark choice to be made is cheap bad food or expensive good food, with nothing in between. I think this is much more obvious in Amsterdam than anywhere else I visit regularly. Actually, New Dorrius is a good halfway house and somewhere I will no doubt visit again. A very reliable 'plan b' with the only complaint being the bright lighting. Recommended.

Monday 4 February 2013

The takeaway cycle

Tired? Bad day at work? Have a takeaway, the perfect pick-me-up and best mood-enhancer I can think of. Everyone loves a takeaway, for me (as per a previous post) it has to be an Indian. However, over the years I have noticed a worrying pattern; I have seen it over and over again, I’m going to call it ‘the takeaway cycle’.

A new takeaway or restaurant opening is big news in my house, and something that needs to be sampled as soon as possible. From the moment the first delivery leaves the shiny new kitchen, a takeaway is in one of three distinct phases.

Let’s cover each of them…


The first order from a new takeaway is oftentimes a little disappointing, I reckon it takes a takeaway six weeks to get its act together and become a well-oiled machine. In this time the food will improve noticeably with each new order. Incidentally, KFC have opened a new restaurant near where I live and this too very obviously went through this first stage. After six weeks we reach the…


The takeaway is at the top of its game, delivering consistently high quality food week after week. I have found that this can last as long as two years on a rare occasion, but inevitably this phase seems to last until the takeaway has been open approximately six months or so. After this six month period it enters a phase of…


It’s hard to make money from serving food. For a takeaway (especially one without a restaurant) the only way you can do this really is through driving economies of scale, getting as many punters served as possible. As business slows down (as it inevitably will after initial opening excitement) it becomes harder to use the best ingredients so the quality will gradually reduce over time until a point when even your die hard punters will drop out. I think for me that this is most often about 18 months after opening. At that point, I’m searching for somewhere new.

Unfortunately I don’t think I can think of a single takeaway anywhere that hasn’t entered the decline phase eventually. As far as I can tell, only two strategies appear to work. Firstly, reduce your overheads by sharing premises with another business, which is what my favourite chippie has done by moving in with a Chinese takeaway business. Secondly, it seems sensible to re-launch the restaurant every two or three years or so and re-kindle that excitement you get (well I do!) when a new takeaway opens. Same people, same menu, different name.

I’m not sure I’m really making any sort of point here, it’s just an observation really and one that is relevant to me right now because one of my favourite takeaway restaurants appears to be at the end of the peak phase and entering the long, slow decline. I hope I am wrong, but I fear not, very disappointing.

Saturday 2 February 2013

The most important meal of the day

During the week I very rarely have anything for breakfast. Never at the office and almost never at home. Only when overseas do I have a proper breakfast, and only then to try something a little different. This year I have decided that I am going to make every effort to have breakfast at the weekend whatever happens, as I miss it. The first thing I ate in 2013 was a McDonald's breakfast.

This morning I had soft boiled eggs and soldiers. I love eggs but don't remember the last time I had them soft boiled, possibly not for two or three years? Scrambled, fried (over-easy), poached and in an omelette at least once a month each but never soft boiled. This is a little odd as I love hard boiled eggs and have them all the time, for me the hard boiled egg beats the banana as natures perfect snack-in-a-box. I'd forgotten how nice a runny egg with soldiers can be, possibly the best breakfast you can have* and certainly the breakfast most likely to put a smile on your face!

If you are reading this, I bet you can't remember the last time you had a soft boiled egg and soldiers? No? Put it back on your breakfast table.

* Whilst writing this I realised that Eggs Benedict is obviously the best breakfast you can have (although must be with ham, not bacon) but didn't want to say so as I felt that it diluted the article and was unfair to the sadly neglected soft boiled egg. Or possibly kippers are best, or kedgeree?