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Three Treasures is one of our favourite Chinese vegetable dishes: we order it regularly at Lucky Star, which is of course our most favourite Chinese restaurant. It’s a simply and homey dish of braised aubergine, potato and bell pepper and a soothingly mild contrast to their many spicy Sichuan options. When Mr Lemur brought home aubergine and pepper last night, and realising I had a bag of potatoes going spare, I wondered if it might be possible to work out how it’s made. (I am not usually a big potato person but I had bought some in an aborted bacalao experiment and, of course, hadn’t figured out what to do with them instead.) A bit of research got me nowhere: I don’t know if the dish is usually called something else, or if Lucky Star just makes a very particular version, but the interwebs had very little guidance to offer me. So, I decided to try and retrofit the dish just based on the flavour. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ok, I know Thanksgiving was last week but look at it this way – if you’re in Canada it was last month. Being up to date is all relative. It’s been a busy old time here at Lemur HQ and I haven’t been entirely well for all of it. I’m trying to catch up and get back into the swing of things but for now I am a tad behind schedule. However, late as it is, I could not resist posting about this awesome lemur Thanksgiving at the San Francisco zoo. My lovely friend DW posted this story on my Facebook wall and it cheered up what had been an endless long and stressful day no end. It’s like they planned it just for me. Lemurs! Eating holiday food!

There are loads more photos and even (squee!) video over at Laughing Squid, as well as a link to a Flickr set that will melt your shrivelled dry heart. And now is an opportune moment to remember that lemurs are endangered by loss of forest habitat in Madagascar. There are economic and political issues behind this deforestation, which are part of larger global issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. These are not so cute, but I guess if I’m being thankful over this season, I’m thankful for political activists as well as dedicated conservationists. We can keep an eye on the big picture and still find time to create an adorable Thanksgiving dinner for the lemurs.

(Photos by George Nikitin (AP) and Justin Sullivan (Getty Images), via San Francisco Zoo.)

Books on food are one of my favourite things: lots of food lovers read cookbooks for pleasure as much as instruction, and food writing ranges from scholarly to literary, from travel writing to restaurant reviews. Lemur friends D&J gave me a fantastic New Yorker book of food writing last year and I spent happy hours immersed in decades of toothsome prose. And yet, so often food books are where well-meaning gift givers go wrong. I think I understand the psychology. The gifter thinks, ‘oh I know, Ms Lemur likes food and books. I shall buy her a food book!’ And then they buy something that is either the food book of the year and I have it already or something for beginners that I don’t have much use for. Don’t get my wrong, I totally appreciate any and all gifts and it is, ultimately the thought that counts. But as both a gift giver and receiver, I would prefer the money to be well-spent, the present actually cherished and not just what it symbolises. So my suggestions here are books published this year that I think foodies might find intriguing: not so obvious that the recipient will be getting three copies for Christmas and with enough real novelty that your picky eating reader might find something to surprise her jaded palate.

Maria Speck, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £18.90

This handsome book would appeal to health-conscious cooks, but also to anyone interested in sustainable living or just widening their repertoire. It sets out to rescue whole grains from the clichés of stodgy hippie cooking, creating lighter dishes that will appeal to a modern tastes. But for foodies who don’t need to be persuaded of the deliciousness of barley, farro, and millet, there is a wealth of ideas for cooking with these store-cupboard staples. Recipes include salad with kamut, carrot and pomegranate and main dishes such as artichoke and polenta tart. It’s not vegetarian but it has very little meat, and offers suggestions for how to make veggie versions of meat dishes. The photography is gorgeous but it’s not just a coffee-table book. I can imagine loads of my friends cooking from this book.

Luke Nguyen, Indochine. Baguettes and báhn mì: finding France in Vietnam (Murdoch Books, 2011) £17.13

If you’re buying for Asian food lovers (hmm, who might those be?), Luke Nguyen’s new book could be a winner. I haven’t yet caught up with his TV show, in which I’m reliably informed he’s a bit of a twat, but this successful Australian chef undeniably knows his Viet food. I have his one of his previous books, Songs of Sapa, and I’ve found it full of great ideas. I don’t make his exact recipes all that often but I often find myself looking to his techniques and combinations for inspiration. This new book looks to be sumptiously illustrated and maybe a bit food-porny but he’s really passionate about regional Vietnamese cooking. This new book explores the intertwining of French and Vietnamese culinary histories: a politically delicate topic that has produced some of the transnational glories of the Vietnamese kitchen.

Anita Lo, Cooking Without Borders (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011) £19.13

So you’re thinking of buying a cheffy book. Don’t go with the obvious options of Jamie or Nigella or Gordon – why not try the long-awaited book from the chef of Annisa in New York, Anita Lo. Annisa has a reputation for serving top quality fine dining at a slightly more affordable price, as well as for mixing chef Lo’s Chinese and Malaysian background with classical French techniques and new American simplicity. It’s a mix that gives fresh integrity to the oft-abused concept of fusion. As Lo explains, with her background all food is fusion to her and, in fact, culinary histories are stories of cultural mixing. This approach translates into an appealing mixture of recipes, generally on the fancy end, such as Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Savoy Cabbage, or, on the more Asian end, Softshell Crab with Sweetcorn Custard, Chinese Sausage and Garlic Chives. It’s also noteworthy that Lo is not just a woman in a male-dominated field but an out lesbian, so if you support more LGBT representation in the food world, check her book out!

Brad Thomas Parsons, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £13.52

Although I have a degree in Mixology (yes I do! really – I even have a diploma), I don’t make a lot of cocktails these days. However, I know some people who would love this odd little book, packed full of recipes for home-made bitters and things to do with them. Parsons is clearly an enthusiast and this book is the perfect guide either for the beginner who wants to move beyond Angostura or the seasoned cocktail maker on the lookout for more elaborate potions. He starts with recipes such as grapefruit bitters, pear bitters and, weirdly, coffee-pecan bitters. I really want to try that one. Next are a range of old-school cocktails from the famous (Dark and Stormy) to the obscure (Horse’s Neck, anyone?), and another section of new-look drinks. A final section addresses bitters in the kitchen, with recipes from ham glaze to bitters ice cream. It’s a book that probably appeals best to real cocktail enthusiasts, but if you know someone who takes their liquor seriously, it might hit the spot.

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat £15. 34

Food memoirs are a burgeoning genre these days and some of them are insanely cheesy. I’m not mentioning any names, but when you cross Sex and the City with Italian recipes, you can come out with some hilarious literary results. Grant Achatz’s memoir is a whole other ball game. As most foodie readers will know, Achatz was just emerging as one of the top chefs in the USA, his Chicago restaurant Alinea announced as the number one in the country by Gourmet magazine, when he was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer. He was told he’d need to have his tongue cut out, and that the treatment would destroy his sense of taste altogether. It’s a tough story and potentially an inspiring one. The book might be more for the hard-core foodie, since you probably need to care a bit about the restaurant business to enjoy it, but the story of his illness, determination, and luck gives it a real depth.

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef (Chatto and Windus, 2011)  £6.62

Ok, maybe two memoirs by chefs are too many for this list, but I can’t resist pointing out Gabrielle Hamilton’s book because it’s just so different from Achatz’s. Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune, a tiny place in the East Village that became pretty fashionable in the last decade. (Hilariously, although I have eaten there, my strongest memory of the place is a misbegotten attempt to blag my way in with the divine Ms P not long after it opened. We claimed to have a reservation that the hostess had clearly lost. She was not having any of it, sadly, and I didn’t get to eat there for another few months. Anyway.) What’s appealing about this book is that it’s not really about the restaurant business or cutting edge cuisine: it’s an earthy memoir of one woman’s messy and interesting life. By turns funny and emotionally intense, it charts Hamilton’s tomboy youth, illegal adventures, and culinary education. Anthony Bourdain calls it “simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER.” For that chef to be both self-trained and a woman only makes the story more engaging.

 

It’s the time of year when we all start panicking about buying holiday gifts – unless you’re my mother, in which case you finished your holiday shopping weeks ago and have already presented wrapped gifts to your incompetent daughter. There’s something about getting Christmas presents from your Jewish mother in early November that delivers that extra measure of guilt with the festive spirit. Also, I should say that really, this isn’t actually the time of year that I start panicking about present buying. That time is called mid-December. (This is why my mother thinks I’m incompetent. Surprise: she’s right!) However, as Thrifty Gal reminded me, people with blogs have to think about these things early, or early-ish. So I have roused myself from the state of complete denial with which I like to approach the festive season and investigated the delicious world of giftage for the food lover in your life. Read the rest of this entry »

I spent the weekend in Oxford visiting Lemur friends K&L, and we had a lovely time wandering around the colleges. (Luckily for me, they have faculty privileges so we got inside all of the grounds that are usually off-limits to the public.) I have to say that many of them are utterly beautiful, full of elegant architecture and gardens that even in November are breathtaking. The photo above is the quad of Exeter college, which isn’t even the most lovely of those that we saw but was especially exciting to me as it is the basis for Phillip Pullman’s fictional Jordan College. I’m a huge fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy and even named my cat Lyra after its scrappy heroine. As we walked around this quad, I was trying not to look like a tourist gawping at the roof, imagining Lyra climbing around with Pantalaimon, but I don’t imagine I succeeded too well. We did lots of non-literary things too, like checking out the Magdalen College deer park, which was just ridiculously full of adorable Bambis.

Most of the food I ate in Oxford was cooked by K, who made some amazing Italian meals for me that I sadly did not photograph. On our last night, though, we went to the Magdalen Arms, described by K&L as more or less the only good restaurant in Oxford. Now this gastropub has been written up by various national newspapers with highly variable results. Matthew Norman in the Guardian called it one of the finest gastropubs in the country, but Zoe Williams in the Telegraph found it a dreary and bland disappointment. I’m more inclined to believe Norman than Williams for various reasons, but it’s at least interesting that the place has provoked such disparate reactions.

My first impression was positive. We wanted (i.e. were in dire need of) cocktails and the bartender spent ages making me a perfectly judged bramble, strong without tasting offputtingly so, and he made K an equally well-balanced campari aperitivo. The space has elements of an actual pub but I liked its cosy decor and wooden tables. It was neither aggressively traditional Englishy-pubby (a style I have limited patience with) nor too preciously designed. The menu leans toward modern British, with some Italian and Spanish elements. I wanted to order the more British sounding dishes, as it seemed like these would probably be better, but for a starter I couldn’t resist razor clams with chili, garlic and parsley.

The dish was simple but very well made. It was a generous portion of plump and fresh clams, with a properly garlicky dressing. The chilies were very (very) mild, almost imperceptible, but then this is me and I don’t expect to find food spicy in a British food setting. Pretending that chili was not in fact one of the ingredients, the dish worked splendidly as a lemon garlic dressing, and the clams didn’t need much else on them.

For a main course, we shared a whole pot roast pheasant served with bacon, celeriac and chestnuts. There are several dishes on the menu that can only be ordered for two, three or more to share, an indication of the family-style eating that the Magdalen Arms encourages. The table next to us, a family with two children, had ordered venison and beef-suet crust pie, which had us staring rudely and in open jealousy. The pie was enormous – it was made in a large Le Creuset pan, which had been filled with venison and had a suet pastry top draped right across it. You could see the shape of the handles wrapped in lovely golden brown pastry. You’d need at least three or four hungry people to eat it, so we couldn’t have ordered it, but it was definitely an incentive to return with more people. Getting back to our pheasant, it arrived on a platter, surrounded wiith roasted vegetables and a deep reservoir of aromatic roasting liquids.

The picture doesn’t really do it justice but it was a substantial bird, which we rather messily carved on the plate. Pheasant can be dry, but this was juicy and delicious, with lots of flavourful roasting jus, salty bacon, and soft vegetables. I find it hard to resist chestnuts as an autumn ingredient, and as the weather has finally turned chilly and the evenings are getting dark, it was the perfect time to break out the game birds and roasted chestnuts. Carving up the bird ourselves also made for a very casual and cosy dining experience.

For dessert, we shared a pear and almond tart and a Muscat caramel custard. The tart was fine, but a bit too heavy on the almond paste for me. The custard, though, was sublime. Thicker than a crème caramel or a Latin American flan, it had more of a cheesecake texture to the spoon. This was a bit surprising to me, and I feared it would be stodgy, but it turned out to be perfect; more creamily substantial than a flan but not in the least bit heavy. And the Muscat caramel was a revelation. It had a slight bitterness that cut the rich custard beautifully, but the flavour was delicate and not at all winey. I’m not really a dessert person but this one hit all my buttons.

I think Zoe Williams must have come here on a very bad night, as I really can’t imagine anyone finding this food to be anything less than rather good. It’s not doing anything too inventive, I’ll grant you. Modern British food, with some European influences, served in a low-key atmosphere is hardly a novel concept but here it is done well and with what feels like a genuine concern for quality. Service was friendly if occasionally a bit haphazard. For instance, the menu is written on a board that waiters prop on a chair next to your table. We’d had it for all of five seconds when a different waiter tried to take it away to show another table. In an ideal world, they’d have more blackboards or, since they also brought paper menus, integrate regular menu and specials. This is a pretty small complaint though and overall the Magdalen Arms made for a warm and delicious autumnal evening.

Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Road  Oxford OX4 1SJ

I’m not generally a fan of specialist kitchen equipment. Mostly, this is because I’ve spent my life cooking in tiny kitchens where finding a place to plug in both a coffee maker and a toaster is a stretch, never mind room for juice extractors, cherry stoners and the like. Urban cooking tends to focus your attention on basic kit: good knives, chopping boards and as many Le Creuset pots as can be stuffed in the cupboard without undermining the floor. I also tend to agree with Alton Brown’s rule of thumb that if a device can only be used for one thing – aka the unitasker – then it doesn’t deserve a place in your kitchen. (I should note the less well-known but equally valuable theory of my friend P, who applies this swiss-army knife rule to men.) People who don’t cook much tend to fetishise these uber-specialist devices whereas those of us who do are more likely to shrug our shoulders and attack the task with a knife or a rolling pin. But all that said, there are some objects that are so beautiful, so perfectly adapted to their culinary task, that they cannot be denied. These are not objects invented to fill the shelves of bougie culinary stores and provide unwanted Christmas gifts for foodies, but rather created to do a specific and important job in a particular food culture. These are objects that resonate, and recently, two of them appeared in my life.

The first is the device in the photograph above. Can you guess what it is? It’s a coconut scraper, a very simple thing made of metal and plastic, and it came to me from half-way across the world. Recently, I met up with inspirational food writer Naomi Duguid in London. You might know Naomi from her wonderful books on Asian food, cowritten with Jeffrey Alford, such as Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet and Mangoes and Curry Leaves. I’ve long been a fan of her writing, which combines delicious recipes with an infectious curiosity about cultures and foodways, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time with her on her trip to the UK. We poked around some East London markets, which didn’t turn out to have as much in the way of food as we’d hoped, but it was a beautiful day and the markets were full of flowers and books and interesting stuff. Naomi arrived with the coconut scraper, which she brought for me as a gift from her recent travels in Burma. How wonderful is that? It’s a humble tool but a remarkably effective one for scraping the meat out of fresh coconuts, and a really beautiful gift.

The second object is this gorgeous Thai somtam mortar and pestle. I had been reading about somtam – you know that I’m mildly obsessed with the stuff – and noted that Thai cooks use a special conical shaped mortar and pestle to create the distinctive pounded effect. I’ve also made it many a time in my standard European mortar and pestle and it is, to be honest, a bit of a faff. For one thing, my mortar and pestle isn’t nearly big enough, and for another you don’t really want to do the swirling around the bottom of the bowl hand movement when pounding somtam, so the mortar isn’t really the right shape. Then, one day we went grocery shopping in one of the Asian stores in town, and I noticed on a low shelf what looked exactly like the Thai conical mortar and pestles I’d been reading about. Holy synchronicity, Batman! They were wrapped up in newspaper and as I pulled one out and unwrapped it, I could see it was exactly that: a beautiful earthenware mortar with carved wooden pestle, carefully wrapped in Thai-language newsprint. Clearly, this lovely object had appeared in my life for a reason.

So one of these implements is definitely much more practically useful than the other. If I’m being honest, I still prefer to do my fresh coconut in the Cuisinart than by hand. The Burmese scraper does produce a fluffier result but it would take a long-ass time to scrape a whole coconut by hand. The somtam mortar and pestle, meanwhile, is just a joy to use, the shape perfect for pounding and the wooden pestle light enough not to destroy the delicate vegetables. All the same, they are both objects to treasure. I made a meal this week to celebrate both of them: Indonesian lamb shanks cooked with fresh coconut, coconut water, and coconut milk, and Thai green papaya, tomato and green bean somtam. We shared it with lovely visitors from Croatia D&I – it seemed apt to celebrate Naomi’s gift from abroad with new friends from yet another part of the world.

The lamb shanks I adapted from one of James Oseland’s recipes. It’s peppery rather than chili hot, and the three types of coconut offset the spiciness. It was a lovely long-cooked dish somewhat in the manner of a rendang, although saucier as you add in a bunch more coconut milk at the end.

The somtam was a quick papaya somtam, something fresh to counter the richness of the lamb shanks. A bit fusion mixing Indonesian and Thai, perhaps, but I tend to think somtam is never inappropriate as a vegetable dish. I dialed down the chilies because the lamb was quite peppery and because I wanted to showcase the light new Vietnamese fish sauce I bought in London.

Last time in was in Los Angeles, I bought several pounds of dried chilies from a Mexican market. It was kind of hilarious as a pound of chilies is a lot and I ended up with two grocery bags stuffed full to cram into my suitcase. Luckily, I hadn’t brought many clothes since I had sensibly predicted the food shopping potential of LA before I left. I used up the anchos and pasillas relatively quickly, but I still have quite a few chile californias left, partly because I’m never quite sure what to do with them. They’re milder in both spice and flavour than the others and thus they often end up last picked for Mexican chile-oriented meals. But when Mr Lemur brought home a pork loin in one of his many Ready Steady Cook-style shopping excursions, it hit me that the mild flavour of the pork might be nicely matched with a chile california sauce.

I don’t usually (read: ever) cook with pork loin. Regular readers will know that I like longer cooking cuts with succulent meaty flavour. I can honestly say that I’ve cooked more pig cheeks than pork chops in the last year, so I had to do some research on how to cook the loin. That said, while delicacy is not my main focus in the world of meat, pork loin can be delicious if you get enough flavour into it and don’t overcook the damn thing. I started by marinading it in achiote paste and lime juice for a good 8 hours, then served it with a chile california and blood orange sauce and a big bowl of avocado salad. You could almost pretend it wasn’t November…

Chile california pork loin

For the pork:

  • 1 pork loin
  • 1 tbsp achiote powder
  • 1 tsp white or cider vinegar
  • enough water to make a paste
  • juice of 1 lime

For the sauce:

  • 8 chiles california
  • juice of 1 blood orange, or regular orange
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 small tomatoes

To make the marinade, mix the achiote powder with the vinegar and as much water as you need to make a paste, then add the lime juice. It should be thick enough to coat the meat but liquidy enough to spoon out easily. Cover the meat and refrigerate for 8 hours.

When you’re ready to cook, open the chilies out lengthways, remove seeds and membranes, fry them quickly on both sides in a cast-iron skillet and then soak for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to gas mark 7 / 425F / 220C and put in the pork. Cook pork for between 30-45 minutes – your oven will hopefully be different from mine, which is on the crappity side, but in any case it’s hard to predict how long exactly it will take to be juicy and pink rather than grey and dry. An oven thermometer is probably the best way to do it – you want to take it to about 145F. I think we overcooked ours marginally but it was at least still nicely pink.

While the meat is cooking, make the sauce. Take the chilies out of the water and blend them to a paste in a mini-prep. Push the paste through a sieve into a bowl. Put the tomatoes under a grill/broiler until blistered and blackened, then peel and dump them into a food processor and whizz until mushed up but not totally smooth. Chop the onions and sauté in a medium sized pan until turning brown. Turn the heat up to high and add the tomatoes and puréed chilies. Fry on medium-high heat for a couple of minutes till the sauce thickens, then turn the heat down and add orange and lime juice. Salt generously.

Pour the sauce over the pork, and serve with rice and a generous green salad.

Serves 2.

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