Archive for September, 2010

The Hummingbird On Stroud Green Road

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

One of my favourite hidden restaurants in London has been for many years, The Humming Bird, at 84 Stroud Green Road, which serves traditional Caribbean cuisine.  Sophie and I visited there on Monday with my brother, getting drenched on the way back in torrential rain.  It is located on an interesting stretch of road that includes Cats for Thai food, Nandos for South African, Venezia for pizza and further down Dotori for Korea/ Japanese.

The Hummingbird is certainly not a place for the squeamish nor those who like their restaurants glamorous and glitzy, falling down on their decor, slow service, lack of ambience and they have had a credit card machine that has been broken for years (I suspect they have never had one).  As for ambience, it has been empty save for us every time I have eaten there, but with a fairly busy take-out traffic.  But I am one of those who likes that sort of decaying ambience, feeling uneasy, uncomfortable and generally becoming a clutz in smart and fancy places.

For me, it seems like traditional homely food like that your granny might make for you, rather than anything innovative.  It is known locally as the roti place, so do not go too clever, but like in many restaurants around the country stick to the middle of the road and you will be fine.

We ordered Jerk Chicken, Sprats and Cheese & Potato Bake for Starters (Sophie had that for her main course) and Barbecue Chicken and Goat Roti for main courses.  These were washed down with Carib beers, while I had a Seven Up.  I then dared to try a couple of the traditional sweets sitting in the take away cabinet at the front. 

The service was quick and we shared and enjoyed the decently spiced Jerk Chicken and Sprats that had the right amount of chilli heat.  However, the Sprats are not done fresh to table as you can see them waiting obediently and prefried in the takeaway counter, so they lack that freshly fried, crisy lightness that I like from sprats or whitebait.  The Cheese & Potato bake was fine, but I was not in the mood for it, as it was what it was – a cheese and potato bake.

The Goat Roti was just what I wanted – simple flatbread wrapped around a delicious goat curry*, which was well spiced in a traditional Trinidadian style curry.  This really was good, family-style cooking.  My brother ate Barbecue Chicken which was a good contrast to the spicy heat of the Jerk Chicken, with a good sweet barbecue sauce, although I would have liked some more smokiness and heat to come through than just straight sweetness.  Overall, I thought these were good, middle of the road dishes.

I then ventured to try to traditional sweets that I had noted in the window over the years, but had always shied away from.  Firstly, there was a garish looking coconut sweet with a bright red centre, and secondly, a 5cm diameter brown ball coated in sugar.  The coconut sweet was tough and sweet and not as nice as having traditional coconut ice, while the ball was an experience.  I was warned that “the tradition is that only pregnant women like these”; they are tamarind balls, where the tamarind is boiled with some sugar, moulded and then coated in sugar.  By ‘eck but it was sour, really bitterly sour and then it was full of the big tamarind seeds; let us put that one down to an experience, but one not to be repeated.

The cost of the whole meal (excluding tip) was £35 for three, which certainly wins on the value for money scale.

As I said at the outset, it still remains a great place for a simple meal.  However, if you want anything extraordinary or to cater for more than a few people, this is not the place.  But I still love it for its faults, because it does what it does well, really well, while it will remain a hidden gem because of its faults.

* Goat curry is often made with mutton in the UK, so do not be put off by the idea of goat.

Where’s the money…for us?

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

In the last couple of weeks, I have been contacted by The Executive Chef magazine and St James’s House on behalf of the Royal Agricultural Society.  Both of them had the most wonderful advertising opportunities and we had been specially selected out of all businesses in the UK.  We really must appreciate the lauded company into which we have been specially allowed to enter. 

I think not; it really must be a deep recession if they are having to scrape the barrel trying to beg money out of me, a tight Northern curmudgeon.

The Executive Chef is running a one-off magazine and we were offered a full page at the heavily discounted price of £12,500 down from £22,000 (I perhaps correctly typed prize first as these really do sound like those spurious competitions you sometimes get rung up about, where you have won a special cruise trip around the Carribbean if only you can get to XYZ venue on a certain day to be flogged time shares).  The St James’s House offer was a mere £5,500 for an entry in some book that will be circulated around politicians and civil servants – not a market that has any particular interest for us.

What annoys me about these hard sell tactics is not actually the wasted time, although that does irritate nor the fact that Steenbergs could never afford these levels of cost – these figures are just not even in a negotiating area as they are so way off the mark.  Rather it is the fact that they need to explain the benefits to me, i.e. how is it going to enrich Steenbergs as a business and not what a privilege it would be to be part of this special magazine or book or event.  I am not interested in privilege or famous people, so that will not move me, nor am I moved by vanity.  Perhaps, the only thing that can ever sway my mind is a well-timed cup of tea.

For advertising and marketing, I am interested in its financial return; I expect to get a provable level of extra sales of 4 times the cost of the advertisement which some think too high a hurdle.  And that is where the sales pitch falls flat as the salesmen (it does always seem to be men) can never explain how much return they would expect Steenbergs to get, nor will they do a deal where, for example, we pay 10% upfront and the remainder on success.

And that’s why old style print advertising is really going to die out, as you cannot track the results as easily as online, plus the costs are way out of kilter with the rates available online.  So yes, it might work if you have a huge budget and are trying to create a general ambience around your brand as for a car or a lifetsyle brand, where you might put adverts in relevant magazines to support your more targetted marketing elsewhere.

So we will not be swayed from our chosen path of search engine optimisation, social networking and general online activity.  It is perhaps less sexy, but we feel much more comfortable with gentle and slow hard graft than fancy one-off jamborees.

A Big Shout Out To Small Business Owners

Monday, September 6th, 2010

We, the small business owners and micro-entrepreneurs, are the forgotten, ignored and trodden upon solid foundation of the British, American and every other economy in the world.  We employ most of the employed people and generate much of the new, ground-breaking discoveries that have shaped the world.  We pay huge amounts of employment taxes, local business rates and tend to have greater loyality to our fellow local businesses, supporting local support services rather than going for the national groups.

However, big Government pays little heed to our plight.  They presume that all business is big business with unlimited amounts of time and deep financial pockets, and so able to consume all the new bits of legislation, digesting and understanding the intricacies of what the legislature has to say for itself, while carrying the financial burdens of increased local and national taxes to pay for quangoes, pensions, sinecures and further layers of bureacratic inefficiency.

Sometimes it feels as if no-one really gives a damn nor that they will ever give useful help or advice.  They criticise; god, isn’t everyone good at telling you what you should have done, what you have done incorrectly and what they would have done better, but practical, helpful, apt advice never seems to be available.  Armchair advisers rarely seem ever to do anything themselves; yes, they have worked for big businesses or government, but actually to have done something starting from scratch and doing it all themselves, those people are really few and far between, then few (if any) of those ever have time to give you any help.

In spite of their best efforts, the lobbyists for small companies are pretty ineffectual as they do not have real, small business entrepreneurs at the centre of government that understand the difficulties of small businesses – what did Alan Sugar know about small business, having built a large empire and so assuming that all small businesses grow like big oaks from a small seed; most of us just run around in a never-ending wheel, getting tired but not much further forward despite our heavy exertions and great, grand schemes.

Nor am I talking about the bright and sparkly, sexy start-ups that find media favour on TV programmes like Dragon’s Den, nor techie startups that can find early stage capital from Enterprise Ventures like Yorkshire Seedcorn and live by cash-burn and flip on to a new buyer, rather than building a profitable, cash-generative business.  Our newspapers are full of these successful, media savvy small companies. 

I mean the small retailers, the pie makers, the painters and tilers, the gardeners and the tea shops, as well as the small butchers, brewers and shoe shops etc etc.

We toil.  We busy ourselves.  We strive.  We have business dreams.

So from us, we say well done, you are all doing a great job.  It is damn hard and at times soul-destroying, but carry on and you never know we might all become successful one day. 

But do not expect any useful help from Government, bureaucrats and bankers as they do not genuinely have your best interests at heart; you are just there as cannon fodder to win elections, to tax so they can create new jobs, to busy themselves with in inventing mindless regulations to tie you in knots and waste your valuable time and so prevent you growing your sales, and to charge humungous arrangement fees and overdraft rates when you need leaner margins and overextend loans to you on low rates just when you should not be taking them.

This is a big shout out to all small business owners.  You are doing great.

London Restaurants Around Finsbury Park

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Sophie and I have been down in London for the last few days, leaving our children with my parents, while we enjoy the delights of exhibiting at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair trade show at Olympia.  We have been staying at my brother’s house in Finsbury Park, but because he is having some building work done we were forced to eat out of an evening (alack and alas, I hear you cry).

The first night we went to a Thai restaurant called Cats – Café des Artistes.  We ate early as we had failed to have any lunch which did not help the atmosphere of the restaurant which was bright and empty, with customers only beginning to turn up as we left at about 7.30.  As starters, we had BBQ Ribs and Vegetables in Tempura Batter, which were okay at best; the Ribs were a bit indifferent with lots of fat, tough meat and a seasoning that had a hint of chemical about it, while the tempura batter was stodgy and had no lightness to it. 

For the main course, we shared Garlic Beef, Penang Vegetable Curry and Sticky Rice.  The beef was fine but heavy on the garlic, while the vegetable curry needed a hotter curry sauce than it was cooked in, or covered in.  I have had this a number of times recently with prepared food – whether restaurant or from the shops – that vegetables or meat are cooked in one way then all the components are mixed together later and then (sometimes) a sauce added over it, but because the ingredients are cooked separately and a sauce added at the last minute, none of the flavours blend and infuse together, creating a flavourless industrial type of food.  In this case, the vegetables must have been precooked then the sauce added later, so the vegetables did not have any Thai flavours in them and it jarred as a whole. 

My final disappointment was that the food was a bit tame and is not really hot enough for Thai food.  Overall prognosis – okay for food fuel, but not great Thai cuisine.

On Sunday night, it was a wholly different experience.  We went out to Dotori at 3 Stroud Green Road (N4 2DQ).  This is a small restaurant hidden by Finsbury Park Tube Station and opposite the Twelve Pins Pub, none of which seems to bode well until you enter the building.  Inside, it is a hive of activity and has that happy, noisy sound of a busy place with contented and joyful customers.  The decor is simple izakaya style with tables and seats that are a functional dark wood.  The buzz emanated from the kitchen at the back and the tall chef’s hat and brightly coloured shirt of the sushi chef.

Dotori is not full of doctors nor is it a sanctuary to Frankie Dettori (I had misheard the name), but has a half Korean and half Japanese menu.  I had thought it was some type of fusion and was concerned about that, but a mix of two styles with different menus was much more in balance.  We chose a variety of dishes from both menus and they came as they were ready and we shared everything, so the style became Far Eastern rather than Korean or Japanese.  I drank green tea while the others had Hite beer (per the label Korea’s number one selling beer) and white wine.  Between 4 people, we had 7 dishes plus two rounds of drinks that came to a truly amazingly low price of £70.85 (including service) and we were all sated.

As for dishes, we had starters that were a gratis salad, Korean dumplings with a chilli-soy dipping sauce (Ojingeo twigim), squid in a batter and a chilli sauce (Gunmundu), Japanese chicken in crispy batter (chicken karage).  The salad has a lovely sweet dressing with sudden bursts of an umami kick from soya paste and soy sauce that came through in waves.  The dumplings were nicely light and without that glutinous outside that you normally have with these, as they must have been dried fried afterwards rather than simply steamed.  The batters on the squid and chicken were different – the squid was a rich deep fried batter with a spicy chilli coating from a thick sauce, while the chicken was in a light, crispy starch batter (probably corn starch) and was delicious drizzled with lemon juice.  I think that the dumplings were my favourite of those.

For main courses, we had the Tokyo sushi selection (8 slices of a big roll and 3 pieces of sushi fish on rice), chicken noodles (chicken yaki soba), salmon teriyaki and bulgoggi beef.  I am certainly no connoisseur of sushi, but this was really something else – fresh, clean tasting and full of an almost meaty umami taste without any overload of fishiness ruining the palette.  The big rolls included vegetables as well as fish rolled in seaweed with an outer layer of rice, which was then sprinkled with false caviar and flecks of wasabi; these really balanced well against the meaty fish tastes of the fish.  The fish was tuna, salmon and prawn.  The salmon teriyaki was perhaps a little overcooked, but was in a decent sweet teriyaki sauce, while the soba noodles were a good everyday noodle dish that filled the stomach.  The bulgoggi beef was really interesting, as it had a tenderized texture to it that gave it an almost liver-like smoothness of bite, which was then balanced by rolling it into a crispy lettuce leaf.

Overall, Dotori was an unexpected pleasure.  Good value, great food and interesting flavours and textures.  I would really recommend hunting it down if you are in this part of North London, but prepare to queue or book ahead as it is popular.

Food Blogs Round Up – August 2010

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

It is the height of European Summer so a number of the food blogs are in holiday mode.  In spite, or perhaps because of the summer, Julia Parsons at A Slice Of Cherry Pie has been making Tuscan Style Soup.

Aran of Cannelle et Vanille fame has been holidaying in her native Basque country in Northern Spain.  She has posted some gorgeous photographs of her family and of just over the border into France

At Chocolate and Zucchini, Clotilde Dusoulier has been baking sourdough bread; I am not a great bread baker, nor a big fan of bread itself, but I do like sourdough, so perhaps I should give this a go.  She has also baked an Apricot Blueberry Cobbler which is so classic American that it evokes a homely feeling of on the range, plus I like the idea of using orange flower water.  Cobblers are not something I have come across until I started reading food blogs, but will definitely get an outing sometime over this winter to check out whether these fruit puddings with a sort of biscuity dough will enter the family repertoire.  At Orangette this month, there is a great looking recipe for Berry Cobbler.

At Cooksister, Jeanne has been enjoying lots of exquisite looking restaurants in London and South Africa, plus quaffing wines at an exclusive wine tasting event in London town.  I liked the simplicity of the recipe for Pan-Fried Fish Fillets With Capers On Pesto Mash, as I imagine the capes nicely offset the fish tastes, and the slightly old fashioned charm of Gammon Steaks With Spicy Caramelized Pineapple and Crispy Duck Breasts In Wild Cherry Balsamic Reduction.

David Lebovitz has been enjoying the protests by the Communists in France for local food, while offering up a great recipe for that classic – Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Helen at Fuss Free Flavours has baked some amazing looking Brioche, fittingly while holidaying in France, as well as a healthy looking version of Coronation Chicken – much healthier than the full on version we tried from Xanthe Clay recipe earlier this month.

At Lemonpi, Y Lee has been spending her staycation baking cakes like this delicious looking Carrot Cake and some intriguing Skillet Cakes, i.e. cakes baked in a pan. At Mahanandi, I am nervously lusting after making the Red Chilli Pickle as it looks mindblowingly hot, as well as the wonderfully simple Semiya Upma which is an Indian vermicelli-based vegetable stir fry.  There is also an intriguing recipe for Badam Beerikaya, which is a vegetarian dish based around Chinese okra or beerikaya which can probably be done with any smallish gourd.

In mid August, we harvested our small offering of corn grown in the garden.  We ate them boiled lightly, then sprinkled with fleur de sel and drizzled with melted butter.  However, I wish I had noted the recipe for Sweet Corn Pancakes at Smitten Kitchen as that looks a luxurious take on a morning pancake; I love the idea of riching up the batter with buttermilk, which is not something I use although my mum loves her buttermilch.  And Deb’s Fresh Tomato Sauce is one of those labours of love of harvest time; homemade tomato sauce really does taste so much better than shop bought tomato pastes, although the time and effort to make them is a huge barrier to wanting to do it too often, as I have found as your yields are so tiny.  I have to confess to usually making my own tomato sauces and salsas etc using a tin of chopped tomatoes as the starting point as it is much less depressing on the effort front.  And all can be rounded off with a really satisfying American Blueberry Muffin – love them, but I still call them a bilberry here in England even though strictly they are a different plant, but closely related.

Ree Drummond at The Pioneer Woman Cooks has modern takes on classic recipes like Burgers, Raspberry Crisp, Fried Round Steak and homely Cinnamon Bread.  Plus the Mushroom Burgers that this superlady has been trying on the meat eating husband.

And finally, I am tempted by the recipe for Sweet Portuguese Bread at Wildyeast.  I would like to try it alongside the Brioche recipe at FussFreeFlavours, as I am intrigued by what the differences in flavour and texture will be.

Recipe For Luxury Chocolate Gateaux Or Pavé

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

This is another recipe that I have followed from Pierre Hermé’s inspirational cookbook “Chocolate“, which I have reinterpreted for a British audience.  The only tweak I have made to it was in the use of edible gold as a garnish on top of the chocolate ganache.

While a long drawn out process to make, this is a real cake that you might expect from a top restaurant or bakery in Paris, so make it for an indulgent occasion rather than expecting to rush this one out day-in-day-out.  It is a truly rich and luxurious cake that should be savoured with a calm cup of tea or a rich coffee; it’s not finger food mind you, but needs a cake fork or a spoon to savour the flavour.

Stage 1 – baking the cocoa cake

40g 1(½ oz /1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp) organic cocoa powder
35g (1¼ oz / ¼ cup) organic plain flour
3½ tbsp organic potato starch
75g (5½ tbsp / 2¾ oz) unsalted butter
9 large egg yolks, at room temperature
150g  (5¼oz / 1¼ cups) organic Fairtrade caster sugar
5 large egg whites, at room temperature

1.  Preheat the oven to 180oC (350oF).  Butter two 18 x 9 cm (7½ inch x 3½ inch) loaf tins and line with baking paper.

2.  Sieve together the organic cocoa powder, plain flour and potato starch into a mixing bowl and set aside.  Melt the butter and set aside to cool until it is barely warm to the touch.

Sieving Together Cocoa, Flour And Potato Starch

Sieving Together Cocoa, Flour And Potato Starch

3.  Using a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment or in a food processor, beat the egg yolks plus 75g (2½ oz) of the caster sugar on a medium speed.  Scrape down the sides as you go along, and the mix should be thick and pale after about 5 minutes.  Scrape the thickened egg yolks into a large bowl, wash and dry the mixer.

Mixing The Egg Yolks And Sugar

Mixing The Egg Yolks And Sugar

4.  In a new or cleaned bowl, whisk and whip the egg whites at a medium speed until they form soft peaks.  Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until the peaks are firm and shiny.

Whipping Up The Egg Whites

Whipping Up The Egg Whites

5.  Working with a large rubber spatula and a light hand, fold the sieved dry ingredients and a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture.  Stir a few tablespoons of this mixture into the cooled and melted butter, stirring to incorporate as much as possible, then add the butter and the remaining whites to the yolk mix. Working quickly and yet gently, fold everything together.

Mixing In The Whipped Egg Whites

Mixing In The Whipped Egg Whites

6.  Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tins, then bake for 25 to 30 minutes.  They are done when a slender knife or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

7.  Leave the cakes to cool in the loaf tins for about 3 minutes, then gently remove them from the tins, remove the parchment paper and leave to cool on a cooling rack.

Two Chocolate Cakes

Two Chocolate Cakes

8.  You can wrap these in airtight plastic and store frozen for up to a month.  This is what I did, making the cakes during the week and finishing them off at the weekend.

Stage 2 – creating the elements for the gateaux or pavé

The soaking syrup:
40g (¼ cup) organic granulated sugar
10g (2tsp) salted butter
100g (6tbsp) warm water

Put the sugar in a saucepan and over a medium heat, melt the sugar.  When it starts to melt, stir it with a wooden spoon.  Keep heating and stirring the sugar until it turns a rich brown.  Then standing away from the pan, drop the butter into the pan, then as it melts, stir it into the caramelised sugar.  Stand back again and add the water.  When the mixture comes to the boil, pull the pan from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Caramel Syrup

Caramel Syrup

The apricots:
170g (6oz) organic unsulphured apricots
250g (1 cup) water
Juice of ½ lemon
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Put the apricots and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 4 minutes.  Drain and let apricots cool.  When cooled down, chop the plumped up apricots into a small dice.  Toss the apricots with the lemon juice and black pepper and set aside until needed.

The Apricots

The Apricots

The ganache:
185g (6½ oz) dark or bittersweet chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces
120g (4½ oz) milk chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces
140g (2/3 cup) caster sugar
20g (¾oz) salted butter
275 grams (1 cup plus 2 tbsp) double cream (or heavy cream in USA)
335g (12oz) unsalted butter

1.  Mix the two types of chocolate together in a heatproof bowl.

2.  Put a heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat and sprinkle a third of the sugar over the bottom of the pan.  As soon as the sugar starts to melt, stir it with a wooden spoon until it melts and caramelises.  Sprinkle over half the remaining sugar and, as soon as it starts to melt, stir it into the caramelised sugar in the pan.  Repeat with the last bit of sugar and cook until it all has a nice deep brown colour.  Stand away from the pan and, still stirring, add salted butter and then, when the butter is incorporated, add the cream.  The caramel might seize up but do not worry as the stirring and heating will even it out.  Bring the cream to the boil, then remove the pan from the heat straight away.

3.  Pour half of the hot caramel over the chopped chocolate and using a rubber spatula, stir gently to melt the chocolate through.  When the chocolate is melted, add the remaining caramel and stir through.  Set the ganache aside to cool for about 10 minutes.

4.  While the ganache is cooling, beat the unsalted butter until it has the soft consitency of mayonnaise, using a spatula or mixer.  Then with a rubber spatula or whisk, gently stir the butter into the cooled ganache.  You will need to cool it down further so put it into the fridge, checking it regularly, until it reaches a soft butter consitency.

Stage 3 – building the pavé

1.  Get one of the cakes made in the first stage.  Working with a sharp serrated knife, cut each cake loaf into three even layers, removing any doming on the top and slice any uneven bits of the edges. Place the bottom layer onto a cake plate.

2.  Using a pastry brush, moisten the bottom layer with the caramel syrup (remember that the syrup needs to be used for each layer so do not overdo it at this stage).  Spread a thin layer of ganache over the top, then dot some of the apricots over the ganche and press them in (once again remember these will be used in each layer).  Place another cake layer on top of this and press down firmly.  Repeat the assembling of the filling and place the final layer on top of that.  Moisten the top layer with caramel syrup.  Check the shape of the cake and move it around to straighten if necessary.  Spread a thin layer of ganache over the top and sides of the cake and put into the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Building The Layers Of The Pavé

Building The Layers Of The Pavé

3.  Remove the cake from the fridge and spread another thin layer of ganache all over the cake.  Try and get the top as smooth as possible, then you could use a fork to striate the sides.

4.  Sprinkle some edible gold over the top of the cake.

Chocolate Pavé

Chocolate Pavé

5.  Repeat the process for the other cake or do it at the same time.  We actually wrapped the second cake tightly in film, froze it, then ate it a couple of weeks later and it was still delicious.