Great Taste Awards

Awards season is underway here in London – and I don’t mean for film, theatre or song – but for food! The Great Taste judging just wrapped up after several months of tasting. Over 500 judges in two locations tried some 12,0000 products in a wide spectrum of categories; one, two and three stars were awarded to the very best tasting products.  The awards were established by the Guild of Fine Food in 1993 and have become a touchstone of quality for specialty food and drink throughout the UK.

I was honored to participate in the judging this year. Each session consisted of blind tasting about 20 products over the course of 3 hours.  Here’s a few shots from one day:

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From amazing halibut, juicy pork with perfect crackling, moreish meat pie and weird pureed mystery to

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luscious cheese, crunchy pecan brittle, lemony cake and velvet gelato – my palate was dazzled. Not everything was yummy but the judges and their coordinator worked together to provide ample feedback on each entry to their producer. The finalists will be announced in August.

So when you see this logo:

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you know the product is bound to be of GREAT TASTE!

EAT THIS BREAD

Here’s a shout out to my friend Alex Sumner who’s Well-Bread bakery was mentioned in a piece in the London Times on best places to live in London. She fashions crusty loaves using organic flour with loving hands then delivers to customers in Teddington and Kingston. You can also arrange to pick up bread from her home. Check out the website for all the varieties as well as the weekly special.

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Home Sweet Home

What is home? Is it a place or a person, a feeling or an emotion, a smell or a taste? Sometimes living this expat life it can be hard to determine what is home. Even though I have one here in London I get homesick for the people, places, smells, tastes and comforts of California.

After a recent visit there, I returned to London feeling decidedly homesick. The trip had been lovely in every way: wonderful weather, visits with friends and family and gorgeous scenery, making my return to this gray, chilly city even more difficult.

Around this time I had a chance meeting with a perpetual traveller – someone who roams the world as a professional pet sitter trying on different countries as home for brief periods before moving on to the next doggie in another town. I asked him how he made a place feel like home when the bed, the street and the city weren’t his. He mentioned that the smell of a chicken roasting often created the ambience of home and I could immediately relate: the aroma, taste and process of creating a favorite food can evoke the feeling of a cozy nest.

I remembered that one of the best things during my California trip was visiting the Meyer lemon tree in the garden of our house in San Rafael. As usual, it was bursting with sweet blossoms and laden with golden fruits ready for any cooking task.  I went on a hunt for lemons to cook some California sunshine with and found gorgeous beauties from the bright coast of Italy. They were plump and juicy with big green leaves still attached, perfect for a microwave version of lemon curd that I had cut out of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

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This is an intriguing recipe that caught my attention because it uses olive oil as the fat and honey as the sweetener.

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The method is way easier than the usual curd recipe, which involves lots of whisking in a double boiler set- up and fretting about the egg getting scrambled! Was it all too good to be true?

I simply whisked the juice and zest of those tart and tangy Sorrento lemons with the honey, olive oil and an egg then popped it in the microwave for short bursts at 50% power. After each burst of 30 seconds or so, I stirred and then took the temperature of the mixture until it reached 170F/77C and coated a spoon.

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The process was fun and easy and the result was very good. I used the curd for a dynamite lemon cheesecake and for petite lemon tarts to go with afternoon tea, and still have some left for toast.

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If a simple custard like this can bring me back to California, at least in my mouth and mind, then I’ll keep making it – at least until I can get comfortable with where my feet are planted right now.

Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Curd
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Speck from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat

2-3 lemons (any type will do), about 250 grams

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons mild honey, 50 grams

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 40 grams

1 large egg at room temperature

Finely grate the yellow part of the lemon skin until you have 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of zest. Juice the fruits, straining the seeds, until you have 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon juice. Whisk together the honey and oil in a medium microwave-safe bowl then whisk in the egg, zest, juice and a pinch of salt until smooth. Don’t worry if the honey hasn’t completely dissolved at this point. Set your microwave at 50% power. Heat the mixture for 1 minute, then stop to whisk and scrape around the sides of the bowl. Repeat, then continue heating and checking every 30 seconds, whisking and scraping in between; the mixture will foam and gradually thicken. The custard is done once it coats the back of a spoon and a path remains when you slide your finger across. This should take about 3 minutes total, depending on the power of your microwave. The temperature of the custard should register at least 170 degrees F on an instant read thermometer. Let cool in the bowl for about 15 minutes, whisking a few times. Strain the zest out if you wish for a silkier texture or leave as is if you like the golden bits of skin. Spoon the curd into an 8 oz. glass jar. Chill until completely cool then seal with the lid.

 

A Flower by Any Other Name

My current produce obsession is with sprout flowers, a.k.a. kalettes or kale sprouts. This hybrid of Brussels sprouts and kale was introduced to England in 2010; each adorable flower is the size of a sprout with ruffly leaves surrounding a tightly closed bud.

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They grow on stalks like Brussels sprouts but the ruffles give them a completely different appearance, kind of like an exotic tulip. They have a mild, nutty taste that is similar but less strong than kale or sprouts.

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My favorite way to cook them is roasting in a hot oven so they get as crisp as a potato chip with slightly burned edges. They are terrific to eat just like this but also make a great addition to salads, entrees or even as a topper for a creamy soup.

Simply toss the kalettes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If some are very large, halve them from stem to top. Roast in a 400F/220C oven for about 15-20 minutes until they are browned all over and the edges are crunchy.

For a hearty winter salad, toss the kalettes with the same portion of peeled, cubed sweet potatoes, olive oil to coat, a pinch of chopped rosemary and salt and pepper. Roast at 400F/220C for 15-20 minutes. The last 7 minutes add halved cherry tomatoes to the baking pan and turn the sweet potatoes and sprout flowers. Remove from the oven when the tomatoes are jammy, the sweet potatoes are tender and golden and the kalettes are crisp and browned. Allow to cool slightly then toss with a garlicky balsamic dressing, a handful of torn fresh basil leaves and some toasted hazelnuts.

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For brunch or light supper, render the fat from some chopped cooking chorizo in a medium saute pan over medium low heat. Add layers of finely sliced potatoes and season well with salt and pepper. Allow the potatoes to cook without moving until they get crusty and golden then turn them over and repeat on the other side. Meanwhile, roast the sprout flowers as per the main recipe above. Once the potatoes are nicely browned and tender, make a couple indentations in the layers and crack in eggs (1 per person). Cook to desired doneness then put ample portions of potatoes on each plate along with the crispy kalettes and top it all with an egg.

For a sprout flower salad with an Italian accent, blanch cauliflower florets, trimmed green beans and slices of carrot until tender. Cool to room temperature. Make a creamy dressing with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, top-quality mayonnaise and chopped fresh basil. Toss the cooked vegetables with roasted kale flowers, thinly sliced radicchio and enough dressing to just coat all the ingredients.

Sprout flowers aren’t readily available at typical supermarkets. I get mine from a vendor at the local farmers market here in my neighborhood; ask your green grocer or farmers market if they have them. Their season ends in April so try and get your hands on some before it’s too late.

 

Sustainable Fish

It all started with a pack of wild Alaskan salmon I bought at my local Waitrose grocery store. My first reaction was shock at seeing sockeye from the U.S. west coast way over here in London. My second reaction was surprise at how cheap the price was – a bargain at 6.99GBP for two portions. In the U.S. I would pay $20/lb and up. There were a lot of unanswered questions in my mind about how the fish got here and whether it was a better choice than farmed salmon, which is omnipresent throughout the UK.

This lead me to a class on sustainable seafood at the Billingsgate Seafood School in Canary Wharf. It started at an eye watering 6 a.m. and was headed up by the bubbly C.J. Jackson, Chief Executive of the school. We started off with a tour of the market, which was bustling at that time in the morning.

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C.J. gave us the lowdown on sustainability and origin of product at every stop. Asian distributors are bringing in more exotic varieties, like these parrot fish.

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Lots of native species were front and center, such as these pretty lobsters.

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A dresser full of live eels gave me the quivers!

Seaweed harvested around the U.K. is becoming more and more popular.

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Gorgeous farmed oysters from the island of Jersey.

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After the tour we reconvened above the market. There are conference rooms, a comfortable dining room and a full-on professional kitchen. Kippers, buttered toast and coffee were served. For those new to kippers, the cook said, “They taste just like bacon” , which they did, if a tad bonier!

Presenters from some of the biggest wholesalers were up next. Direct Seafood, New England Seafood and the head of the Norwegian Seafood Council all gave background and updates on sustainability in the marketplace.

There are several certification organizations and watch dog groups that share information on wild fish as well as oversee farmed seafood. The most noteworthy for the consumer are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC certifies through a third party rating system what wild seafood is sustainable; in 2017 just 12 % of wild caught seafood was certified. Therefore farmed fish and shellfish is important to the future supply of protein to feed the world. The ASC oversees the operation of seafood farms verifying they are environmentally and sustainably managed. The MCS produces “The Good Fish Guide“, a valuable tool that consumers can use to determine which fish are the most sustainable, both farmed and wild caught.

It is ultimately up to the consumer, however, to make sure they are getting a fully sustainable product. If the packaging is labelled with an MSC or ASC sticker then you can be assured you are getting the most sustainable seafood on the market. If there is no label then you need to ask questions. For wild fish, find out where the fish comes from and how it was caught. For farmed seafood, ask where the farm is, what type of food the fish is fed and if any antibiotics are part of the diet. Download the Good Fish Guide app to your phone so you can refer to it.

The listings for what is sustainable are shifting constantly so it’s more imperative than ever to be informed. By voting with your pocketbook you can reduce the negative impact on the environment and contribute to healthy oceans while enjoying wonderful fish and shellfish.

By the way, that wild Alaskan salmon I get from Waitrose, is labelled with the MSC label. The carbon footprint is high for getting it to London from Alaska but it may just be more sustainable than farmed salmon and to my palate, it tastes better.

 

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Garlic and Herb Butter Oysters

1 dozen ASC certified oysters

75 grams salted butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 200C. Shuck the oysters and sit each one in the cup of a muffin tin to keep the liquor in tact. Mash the butter with the garlic and parsley and divide the mixture between the oysters. Roast in the oven until the butter melts and the oysters are just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Serve with fresh lemon for squeezing.

Cheese for Dinner

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It’s the season for Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, a gooey, buttery round of cheese from the Jura region of France. It’s made in the winter months when the cows come down from the high mountain pastures and don’t produce as much milk. During the spring and summer the milk is used to make Comte cheese but with the decrease in production volume in winter, the unpasteurised milk goes into the delicious washed rind wonder Vacherin.

I was introduced to this cheese by Jared Wybrow at the London Cheesemongers, where it was sitting in the midst of a table laden with cheeses for a progressive tasting. It looked intriguing – all wrinkly and white in it’s wooden box. The box is made from thin strips of spruce, which contributes a subtle piney flavor to the cheese, by the way.

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The exterior is squidgy and, when barely pushed with a spoon, reveals a lovely, golden paste that is fondue-like in texture. My first taste at London Cheesemongers was so luscious and captivating that I had to buy one to bring home.

IMG_3532It made for an indulgent dinner when paired with green salad, bread, crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruit. That is how I enjoyed mine and I highly recommend it to you. I heated it briefly in the oven in it’s box, which made the inside even more delightfully runny.

IMG_3535Vacherin Mont D’or is the perfect cheese for autumnal and holiday celebrations. It partners wonderfully with sparkling and red wine, cider and seasonal craft beer and would be a worthy addition to a cheese board for Thanksgiving or the December holidays.

So put it down on your shopping list. If you are in London, by all means go visit Jared at London Cheesemongers for the cream of the crop of Vacherin. The season for this heavenly cheese runs all the way through spring so you have some time to get your hands on a lovely round of it.

 

 

 

The River Cafe Still Has It

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The River Cafe is a classic that has withstood the test of time by championing a seasonal manifesto, serving top quality ingredients and having great leadership at the top.

It was originally opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray as the employee cafe for Rogers’ husband’s architectural practice. The location was an old oil storage facility right on the river Thames that was turned into a handsome office building with the restaurant at its heart.

A courtyard faces the river with dining tables for al fresco eating during nice weather surrounded by garden boxes filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s quite an idyllic spot.

Many now-famous chefs have honed their culinary chops under the tutelage of Gray and Rogers including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall and April Bloomfield, to name just a few. Gray passed away in 2010, but Rogers carries on the foundations they started together. The restaurant remains dedicated to Italian cuisine in all its simplicity, from fresh homemade pasta to whole fish roasted in the watermelon pink wood oven that’s finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a squirt of fresh lemon.

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The wood oven anchors the space and many of the standard dishes the restaurant is known are cooked in it – such as that whole roasted fish. But the kitchen is proficient at bringing optimum flavor out of seasonal ingredients and uses many techniques to achieve that.

One example was a starter of creamy burrata, juicy, roasted cherry tomatoes, cracked olives and wilted swiss chard that hit sweet, bitter, salty and creamy on the taste buds. A drizzle of olive oil pulled it all together. Another starter of chargrilled squid was topped with a tiny dice of spicy red pepper so the elements of chewy ocean interplayed with a piquant heat. Lemon, olive oil and a pile of raw autumn leaves completed the dish.

The mains were also examples of simple ingredients brought to the peak of flavor. The kitchen was using many varieties of chicories, both raw and cooked. The bitter bite of  treviso alongside a pan roasted loin of monkfish accentuated the buttery moist fish. Slices of rosy lamb were accompanied by cicoria which contrasted with the meat and a luscious, wood roasted artichoke. A refreshing minty garlic sauce snapped it all to attention. A plate of homemade ravioli stuffed with girolles mushrooms and cheese was the weakest link of the meal, not because it wasn’t done well but more because it seemed boring compared with the flashes of brilliance and color on the other plates.

Prices are high but I would say you get what you pay for. The chance to enjoy a fantastic meal at this gorgeous place that is still going strong after 31 years was worth every pound.

Bountiful Harvests at PYO Farms

This summer I’ve had the chance to visit two farms outside London. We went by train and walked from the station a short distance to acres of brilliant orchards, fields and bushes laden with the bounty of the season. It was so inspiring to walk around picking gorgeous produce from the earth where it was grown – instead of mediocre stuff packaged in too much plastic in the grocery bin!

The first time was on one of the hotter-than-hades days we had this summer in London. Dripping with sweat, my pal Therese and I picked buckets of raspberries, oozing, ripe strawberries, corn and beets. It was a bit of a hateful trek back to the station with bags heaving on our shoulders, drenched from the heat but I made the best strawberry pie and tucked raspberries in the freezer for later. The corn was the best I’ve eaten in England ever.

As summer faded into fall, the farm was beckoning again. This time ripe plums weighed down branches like jewels, apples perfumed the orchards and fields of pumpkins colored the landscape.

The relief and joy of being out of the city and in fields of produce ready for the picking could be the reason why I came home with about 40 pounds of stuff – everything from cooking and eating apples to plums and quince to green beans and more corn. Yikes!

It’s been fun exploring recipes and plotting how to use all of it. Like a squirrel putting away nuts for winter, I’ve been canning, making jam and freezing the harvest for the cold months ahead.

The PYO farms are open until the end of October and many of them have family activities on the weekends like corn mazes, hayrides and pumpkin picking. Check out www.pyo.co.uk to get a list of farms in your area. You can also filter your search by type of produce. The farms I went to were Secrett’s in Surrey and Hewitt’s in Kent, both about 1.5 hours from central London by train and foot.

It’s well worth the effort to get your hands on the freshest fruit and veg out there and it soothes the soul too.

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