Top 10 things I ate in 2010

Like most good things in life, you can have enough of reading other people’s blog lists at the end of a calendar year. And there’s only one thing to do then: go and make your own.

So here are some things I ate and liked in 2010. I am not pretending that 70% of my favourite dishes are mine – this is more of a list of my favourite posts. And maybe someone will find a recipe to try or a restaurant to visit and my yet-another-2010-list will be justified. 

1. Stuffed Onions
I do love Greek-style stuffed vegetables – peppers, tomatoes, aubergines. This was the first time I had stuffed onions. A pain to peel off onion layers whole, but worth it. Soft and sweet onions, meaty filling, caramelised- almost burnt- edges. Lovely.

2. Homemade Pita Bread
A revelation not in the taste sense (not the first time I’ve had pita bread!) but because of how easy they were to make. Great effort to result ratio and one of those things I make several times a month. A real keeper.

3. Apple Tarte Tatin
Possibly my favourite pudding ever – maybe I’m biased, but I thought my version was comparable to the one we had at Launceston Place. Take that Tristan Welch.

4. Lamb and Spinach Curry
I thought I preferred chicken curries to lamb ones. What a fool. Can’t wait to try this with goat, like the original recipe suggested.

5. Aubergine in Yoghurt
This blog does love aubergines (maybe even more than steak…) and I’m always happy when I find new ways to cook them. These Indian-style aubergines are spicy and creamy and perfect as a side to a curry. Leftovers make great sandwiches when wrapped in pita bread.

6. Oxtail Ragu
Oxtail makes for a great ragu because you first cook it on the bone and the marrow melts away, creating a rich, thick, flavoursome sauce. When it’s done, the meat will be falling off the bone. Serve with homemade pasta and wear some stretchy trousers.

7. Chinese Pork with Aubergines and Crackling
Maybe not the most authentic recipe – it was a mish mash of the few things I know about Chinese cooking. It worked though. I bloody love aubergines. And crackling should be served with everything.

and a few more I didn’t make myself…

8. Goose Egg and Mushroom at Launceston Place
I loved the whole meal, and in a way it is a bit of a shame that the highlight was something I only had a tiny bite of. I want this egg to myself and I am going to have it soon. First New Year’s resolution, done.

9. Fish Fragrant Aubergines at Chilli Cool
Have I mentioned that I love aubergines? These were silky, soft, sweet and spicy. And there was some pork, which always improves things. The whole place is an absolute bargain too.

10. Game Ragu with Polenta at Alimentum
You know a plate of food is good when you dream about it for months after you’ve had it. Maybe I should ask for a double portion for my main next time I go. And have it for starter too.

So, for 2011, I’m hoping I’ll get to try a few more exciting restaurants, make some more tasty meals and, erm, finish my thesis (because I’ve promised myself a Midsummer House meal when I do so). I’m also hoping for other, more selfless things, like world peace and stuff, but this is my blog so I’ll keep it personal (and selfish).

In short, may 2011 be a new and improved version of 2010, for everyone.

Greek Octopus Stew

Have you not had enough of all this roast turkey/goose/stuffing/cranberries chat? I know I have and without actually eating any of it! Our Christmas tradition involves cockerel stew served with pasta, and a lemony-eggy chicken soup on Boxing Day to help the hangover. But whenever I’m in Greece I also try to take advantage of all the nice seafood here. This octopus stew is one of my favourite dishes – if you don’t fancy a bird anymore then give it a go.

As is the case with quite a lot of seafood, you need to cook octopus either for seconds or hour(s). Anything in between, and it’ll be tough. I normally grill my octopus, and have it drizzled with red wine vinegar and some chips on the side, but this stew is also a great (and very traditional) way of having it. The meaty chunks of octopus cook in the sauce long enough to give the whole dish a strong seafood taste and a thick gravy that you will want to lick off your plate.

To prepare my octopus, I remove most of the skin on the inside of each tentacle (the opposite side from where the suckers are!). I’m sure you could just leave it, but if it’s quite a big octopus the skin tends to be quite thick and I don’t like it. You can (should) of course use the head, but I’d remove the skin from that too.

My normal portions of pasta are bigger than average, but when you cook it in sauce it somehow goes a long way. We had 500gr between 4 of us for dinner and a light lunch the next day. I think that 300gr would be more than enough for dinner for 3. We use short tubes of pasta (kofto) for this dish. If you can’t find them, you could use macaroni or pasta shells.

Greek Octopus Stew

Ingredients (serves 3)

1 medium-sized octopus, chopped in 2 inch pieces
1 medium onion, finely chopped
olive oil

1 small glass of red wine
1 can of good quality tomatoes
4 allspice berries
1 bay leaf

300gr pasta
lots of ground pepper
salt to taste
sprinkling of oregano
fresh chopped parsley (optional)

First, place the octopus pieces in a large pot (it will need to fit the pasta later) and let them simmer over a medium heat. You don’t need any water as they will release a lot of (very red) juices. Reduce until you have a thick red coating all over your octopus. Add the chopped onion and some olive oil, and let it all fry slowly until the onion is soft.

Turn the heat up, add the glass of wine and let the alcohol evaporate. Add the tomatoes, enough water to cover the octopus and the allspice and bay leaf. Let it simmer slowly for an hour.

Add the pasta and some more water (but not too much, you don’t want to end up with a soup). While the pasta is cooking, keep an eye on it and add more water if it’s getting dry. You want to end up with a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with the oregano. Enjoy.

Alimentum, Cambridge

Most of Cambridge restaurants offer mediocre food and try to make up for it with the pretty surroundings. Most of them are chains, since they are the only ones that can afford the ridiculously high rent for a spot in the town centre.

Alimentum does it the other way round. Situated on the side of a main road, with a Travelodge opposite, it uses the quality of its food to attract customers. It’s probably not the most popular dining establishment for students; I always found it easier to pop across the street to a Pizza Express. But, with a set lunch/early dinner menu priced at £16.50, it is not just affordable, but a bargain.

Quite a few of us went there for lunch recently to try their Christmas menu. We started with a complimentary “Beer and Onion” amuse bouche. A white froth was poured over little cubes of beer jelly and bits of onions and the whole thing ended up tasting a lot more complex than we expected.

I had of course already decided what I was ordering, days before our lunch! The game ragu with polenta is exactly my kind of food: rich and meaty, with creamy polenta and a grating of salty parmesan to top it off. Absolutely delicious.

My main was a soy braised pork belly, salty and fatty. If I can fault this somewhere I would say that the sauce could be a bit too salty for some, but luckily I tend to overseason my food anyway. It was served with the creamiest sweet potato puree and some refreshing pak choi to cut through the richness.

We of course wanted to try the dessert too, and I chose the white chocolate delice with passion fruit jelly and ice cream. The white chocolate delice was a sweet and airy mousse and the jelly provided texture and sharpness. Even tangier was the the smooth passion fruit sorbet which was face-blowing by itself but balanced the white chocolate perfectly.

Coffee was served with petits fours and both the marshmallow and the mini sticky toffee pudding that I tried were excellent. Three hours after we had arrived, we left happy, full and just a little bit tipsy. That’s what lunch should always be like.

High point: The pudding? The starter? Can’t choose.

Low point: The location I suppose. But it’s a short walk from the train station. All you Londoners can hop down for a great lunch and a spot of sightseeing.

The money: Just over £30 for 3 courses, a couple of glasses of wine and coffee.

Go with: Friends. A date. Your parents. Everyone.

Chinese Pork with Aubergines and Crackling

It turns out I love Chinese food. And although there is a place and a time for the sickly, bright red, sweet and sour sauce at the all-you-can-eat buffet (say, Sunday lunch somewhere in Zone 7), it doesn’t come close to making your own sweet and sour at home.

This is not quite it I suppose. Maybe somewhere in between a sweet and sour and the fish fragrant aubergine I had at Chilli Cool a few weeks back. I’ve been wanted to make something similar since then. And just in case that wasn’t exciting enough, I thought I’d use the skin to make some crackling. I don’t like waste, you see.

Please don’t get angry at me for the generic name I’ve given this dish. I didn’t follow a specific recipe and didn’t want to call it something that it isn’t. If you have any better suggestions I’d love to hear them!

The crackling was amazing, properly puffed up and with soft bits every here and there. It was in fact so good that we ended up eating it all before I could take a picture of it. I’ll be making this again.

Chinese Pork with Aubergines and Crackling

For the sauce
a small pork joint
3 tbsp chinese rice vinegar
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp red wine

Chop the pork in inch thick cubes and add all the ingredients in a bowl. Let it marinate for half an hour (or longer if possible – you can do it overnight in the fridge). Reserving the marinade, fry the pieces of pork over high heat until browned. If they are releasing too much liquid you can add that to the marinade. You don’t want them to simmer. When browned and with crisped edges, take out of the pan and set aside.

2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 onions, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves, grated
3 dried birds-eye chillies, chopped
2 aubergines, sliced in fingers*
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp soft brown sugar
extra soy sauce or rice vinegar, to taste

* I threw in some courgettes and peppers because I had them in my fridge, but the aubergines were by far my favourite – no surprises there!

In the same pot used to brown the meat, add the oil and soften the onions. Add the garlic and chilli, fry for a couple of minutes and then add the aubergines (or any other vegetable you’re using). When they’ve browned a bit, add the meat pieces, the reserved marinade, the ketchup and sugar and enough water to cover everything. Let it simmer until the sauce thickens and the pork is tender. Taste and add more soy sauce or vinegar if you want it saltier/more sour. If the sauce is too thin you can use some cornflour to thicken it.

For the crackling

the skin of the pork, in one piece
vinegar (use some of the chinese rice vinegar from before)
salt

Score the skin and place it on a rack over the sink. Poor boiling water over it, pat dry and rub with the salt and vinegar. Roast in a preheated oven at 200 Celsius for about an hour. When it’s looking crispy, pop it under a hot grill to puff up. Make sure you keep an eye on it as it can go from puffy to burnt in seconds!

Serve the pork with some plain rice and a bit of crackling on the side.