Sunday, 11 January 2015

Recipe - Easy Peasy Rock Cakes

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK

I've never watched Great British Bake Off before. There, I've said it [runs for cover]. Before last year that is. Last year I watched GBBO for the very first time and realised what everyone else did ages ago, that it’s awesome! I’m not someone who generally enjoys baking, but watching all the drama unfold - those sideways sneaky peaks at neighbouring kitchenettes, the ‘to prove or not to prove’ dilemmas, the show-stopping show-stoppers, coupled with Paul Hollywood stalking his way round each of the contestants’ benches like a lion with its prey - I could barely tear my eyes away.

Seeing all those delicious creations almost sent me running straight for the kitchen to immerse myself in a dust cloud of flour and icing sugar. Not quite though, because I’m simply not a baker at heart – and heart, I think, is required. When it comes to working with food, you have to love what you do.; otherwise that lack of passion will ring through every mouthful.

Though not a natural Mary Berry, I am occasionally tempted to step into the bakery arena and have one little recipe that saves the day every time I fancy something baked, sweet and homemade – the ever so humble Rock Cake.

Five minutes to prepare, then 15-20 minutes in a hot oven and BOOM, instant gratification. The husband loves them, the kids love them, plus they can be made large or small enough for packed lunches, biscuit tins… or simply stuffing straight into your mouth. Now this is home baking I can enjoy.

So as a change to my usual wittering on, and for all you other non-bakers out there, I’m going to share the easiest recipe of all (other than MrF’s ‘cheese on toast rules’), my mother-in-law’s Rock Cakes.

You will need…
8oz/225g self raising flour
3oz/85g sugar (I use golden caster sugar)
3oz/85g margarine (I use unsalted butter)
4oz/115g sultanas
One egg, beaten
Some milk
  • Mix the flour and sugar into a bowl, then rub in the margarine/butter.
  • Mix in sultanas.
  • Mix in the egg and enough milk to form a stiff dough.
  • Form into 10-15 rough heaps and place onto a greased baking tray.
  • Bake in hot oven (425-450°F/220-230°C/Gas 7-8) for approx. 14-20 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out dry.
Pop them on a cooling rack if you have one, until ready to eat – et voila, perfectly formed little handfuls of subtlety sweet, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside cake. Good bake, as the queen of baking might say. Just make sure you get in there early, they go really fast. 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2014 edition of Vale Life

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Hello 2015!

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK

With the festive season full of overindulgence, New Year is a natural time for those all too familiar health related resolutions – stop smoking, start dieting, drink less, hit the treadmill – you know, the ones that last all of a month or two. This year though, I’ve decided not to bother lying to myself that I’ll make use of that annual gym membership.

Though generally not one for resolutions, this year it's about time I set one or two I might actually stand a chance of keeping. So, what of my resolutions for 2015? Well, in order to look forward, we first have to look back.

Having launched a street food collective, Bitten Street, 2014 involved an awful lot of - you guessed it - street food. I've tasted my way through everything from pulled pork, to gourmet burgers, pimped-up hot dogs, numerous varieties of dumpling, American and British bbq, curries from Tibet, Japan, India and Thailand, churros and pizza. I can't even say I'm bored of it yet, street food just keeps on getting better and better.

Pho - Vietnamese noodle soup

But there are some foods in particular that left me wishing I could cook it at home. Vietnamese street food in particular has enthralled my taste buds, with its potent balance of herbs and spices, so this year I’m challenging myself to learn some Vietnamese recipes. Resolution number one sorted!

While resolution number one is all about food pleasure, resolution number two is more about food conscience. Having spent an awful lot of the last two years focussed on food, and given I write about it regularly, it dawned on me that there is still a lot more I need to learn about its ethics.

Great local groups like Good Food Oxford and Cultivate Oxford have been springing up around me, focussed on building local and sustainable food networks and knowledge, whilst finding better solutions for ongoing food issues. 

Good Food Oxford website

This has been making me question things a lot more. Where does my food come from? Is it sustainable? How does it affect our planet? Our community? So my next challenge is to learn about these topics. Think of it an idiot’s guide to food ethics, starting right at the beginning.

So with food for the belly, food for the brain and food for the soul all covered, I think I’ll leave it at that. Whatever your own plans for New Year resolutions, I hope you had a wonderfully delicious Christmas and have a fabulous foodie year ahead. 

Love Foodie x

Published in the Jan/Dec edition of Vale Life Magazine

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Trend Zone - the scary and the cool



When it comes to food, simple is often best. Traditional Victoria Sponge, good old steak and chips, comforting cheese on toast, or early morning bacon sarnies on really good bread – all these things can be perfectly executed with little need for fuss. Every now and then though, I just need something, well, different.

Tonight I'm off out to a restaurant near MrF’s hometown, where the menu consists mostly of burgers and steak. Not just any old burgers and steak though, seven different cuts of steak (or a mixed grill if you simply cannot choose) and eighteen, yes EIGHTEEN, variations of burger. There are small plates and salads available, but when online reviews promise the “best burgers” in the local vicinity, which are “to die for & on par (if not better) than high end London restaurants”, well, what’s a Foodie to do – I'll take one of those thank you very much. In fact, I'm currently struggling to decide between “The Frenchie”: topped with pan fried Foie Gras, gingerbread and truffle mayo, and the “Crabby Patty”: a pan fried crab burger with baby herb leaf, tomato and spicy mayo. Decisions, decisions.

The trend for gourmet burgers with endless topping choices clearly isn't a new thing; neither is pulled pork, which seems to be on 90% of all menus these days. But some trends do stick around for a while, ultimately ending up shoehorned on mainstream chain restaurant menus, in a sad kind of ‘child star’ style downward spiral.

How to do pulled pork...
'The Angry Texan' from The Rusty Bicycle

2012 trends predicted by The Telegraph included: cheap cuts of meat, slow roasted and served up with store cupboard essentials; all things pickled, inspired by kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage); meatballs; salt beef; casual dining (think minimal interiors or supper clubs); and doughnuts. All recession-friendly and easy on the pocket.

Jump forward to 2014 and slow cooked meats are still on menus, you'll likely still see kimchi and salt beef kicking around and supper club popularity continues to rise.

According to The Guardian though, future food trends are much scarier. Kale ice lollies? Please God no. Smart knives that can check the levels of harmful bacteria while you're cutting? Too much information.  Alcohol awareness ice cubes, which warn you if you're drinking too fast? No thank you. Sensors embedded in your teeth that report your diet and smoking habits back to your doctor? No. Freaking. Way.

There’s a fine line between genius and crazy, and you sometimes have to go a little crazy to find the genius ideas. Personally, I can’t wait to see what comes next , and I'm all in favour of a little crazy – you just won’t catch me near the kale lollies. 

Published in the Sept/Oct edition of Vale Life Magazine

Friday, 8 August 2014

Restaurant Review - The Old Parsonage, Oxford

Location: 1 Banbury Road, Oxford, Oxford OX2 6NN, UK

After what had been a stressful July, MrF and I decided it was high time to let our hair down. With one MiniF nearing three years old and the other approaching one, we booked our first child-free 24 hours in well over a year and a half. Feeling a little flush and in need of a worthy celebration venue (no kids... for TWENTY FOUR hours!), the shortlist was very short indeed. High Table, an old favourite of ours, was fully booked; so the slightly more grandiose Old Parsonage, part of the Mogford Group and sister to Quod and Gee's, was booked. I'd been for dinner once, years ago, and afternoon tea since, but hadn't stepped foot inside since it's refurb and was eager to visit.

Monkey bag, tiger dummy and Mummy's scarf packed up and kids loaded in Grandad's car, the front door shut and I was enveloped by a quiet quite unfamiliar. The mantel clock ticked by with a loud clattering beat, wind blew threw the open sashes, gently nudging blinds back and forth. I sat. Forty minutes passed and the only thing awakening me from my dreamlike state was a call from my parents reporting safe arrival.


Time to party! OK, that might be a slight exaggeration. 

The night started off with a couple of Havana Clubs at The Royal Oak, before making our way to Old Parsonage. MrF, in his wisdom, had selected an outfit of t-shirt and jeans - albeit with smart shoes - and we were immediately offered the option of sitting in an empty second dining room to one side of the main entrance, separate from the main dining area and directly behind the front terrace. We assumed this was down to MrF's attire, though it turned out to be quite the result for a 'date night', having it all to ourselves for a large part of the evening. 

Our waiter for the evening, a fine young man with an eager presence and professional nature, allowed us space to settle in, offering menus, drinks, table water and subsequently bread - a delicious sourdough sourced, as I understand it, from local baker Natural Bread Company. Surrounding us were portraits of artists, writers and even Mr Mogford himself (prompting me to imagine him standing aside his own image for an instagram shot, #doubleselfie?). Walls and paneling painted with a dark mauve, curtains a rich velvet in deep pink hue, aged wooden doors natural and thick with original metal rivets. You could be fooled into thinking this was a modern day take on a secondary residence for Henry VIII.

MrF may have felt a little out of place, but my inner princess felt really rather at home - fetch my other glass slipper and I'll happily stay a little longer. 

Delicious sourdough from local baker,
The Natural Bread Company

Back to the job at hand, our regal feast began with fish soup, served with rouille and croutons (£8). Having told MrF in advance I would definitely be partaking in three courses, we both opted for fairly light starters and mains, selecting a luxurious sounding lobster salad for main (£18.50 - sometimes available as a starter for £9.50). On arrival, the soup matched in quality with others I'd sampled at equally high end restaurants - velvety as the drapes, rich as the clientele - though in need of a tad more seasoning. The salad of lobster, avocado, fennel, radish and little gem was tasty, though a little underwhelming. I'd have possibly preferred a more exciting leaf, possibly frisee, to add a more interesting dimension and greater elevation of the dish. Little gem felt a tad too common for it's classy crustacean partner. The lobster itself was delicious though and generous enough in portion, plump and sweet with freshness. 

Tasty but underwhelming, lobster salad

The pace of the meal flowed naturally and calmly, allowing us to savour the evening. We were joined by this point by another couple. With tables spaced comfortably apart there was no feeling of crowding or lack of privacy, impressive given the diminutive size of our 'private' dining space.

Dessert glided in, crème brûlée (£6.50) for me, raspberry ripple ice cream (£6) for MrF. MrF really does love his ice cream, if it's on the menu in a restaurant, you can guarantee that he'll choose it. But raspberry ripple? In a posh restaurant? Seemed like an odd choice, even for him. His predictability did him no favours on this occasion, as he wasn't impressed with his ice cream - bordering on crumbly with ice particles throughout. My crème brûlée on the other hand, well that was divine. Rather than a deep ramekin, this brûlée was served low and wide, in a small gratin-style dish, allowing for a greater proportion of sugar crust to soft underbelly. Delicious. The caramelised sugar topping was perfectly executed - just thin enough, just caramelised enough, with a satisfying crack upon meeting the spoon.

Perfectly executed crème brûlée

With 12.5% service automatically added to the bill, no extra thought was required on paying. After an experience of this quality, I have no objection to that. Ask me about automatic service charges after a solitary sandwich or crêpe though and my answer will differ.

Including drinks (lager, wine, rum, dessert wine and mint tea!) and service, the bill totalled just under £110. Pretty impressive given the expensive perception of Old Parsonage. Certainly we'd ordered light for main, but without consideration to price, so it was pleasing to see a posh meal out in Oxford can be obtained without having to break the bank.

Overall Score: 8

Old Parsonage
1 Banbury Road
Oxford
OX2 6HT
Twitter: @OldParsonageOx
Facebook: @OldParsonageHotel
Website: www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk
Phone: 
01865 310210

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Bring back the buffet!

Photo credit: University of Exeter

As I write this I'm three days away from being bridesmaid at one of my best friend’s weddings. I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was about twelve and never particularly enjoyed it then. With five of us as bridesmaids this weekend, you might be surprised to hear I'm one of the tallest – especially given I’m about 5’3”. I'm not massively excited at the prospect of towering over most of the wedding party on the bride’s side, nor am I excited about teetering around on a risky pair of 4” heels. What I am looking forward to however, is seeing my friend getting married; she’s kissed her fair share of frogs and has finally met one who isn't a complete pillock.

BUT, all that pales by comparison, to what I'm most excited about… the food of course!

You see I love a bit of wedding catering. A little bubbly here, some banquet food there, table wine, wedding favours, canapés, maybe even a buffet if I'm lucky.

Wait, what? Yes, the B-word is a little out of favour these days, but as a natural grazer I like nothing more than a sea of tasty treats stretching from one end of a room to the other.  I am very partial to the odd prawn vol au vent (who am I kidding, I’d happily clear a plate by myself), but I'm not talking cheese and pineapple on sticks or frozen sausage rolls. I’m talking big beautiful salads, crostini, gourmet quiches and tarts, really good sausage rolls, salmon, prawns, terrines, cheeses, plus platter after platter of meat. And puddings, think of all those puddings! From the obligatory trifle, to pavlovas, cheesecakes, wedding cake... profiteroles!

I'm literally like a kid in a sweet shop. My knees go weak, my pulse races, my eyes widen. And as much as a try not to leg it to the buffet table as fast as my little legs will carry me, in my head I've already dived straight for the cold cuts, rolled around in the meringues and landed in a happy heap amongst the cupcakes.

Photo credit: Alpha

We may have moved on from buffets to more formal sit down meals or street food fun these days, but I'm sure that if I just wait long enough, the buffet will come back round again - eventually.

If, however, my fiend went a bit 80’s and I do spot my beloved prawn vol au vents this weekend, don’t be surprised if I lose all sense of dignity after one too many glass of fizz and end up head first in the crustacean canapés. Just look the other way, nothing to see here. 

Published in the Jun/Jul edition of Vale Life Magazine.
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