A Warming Bean Stew For The New Year

The Christmas decorations never last for long after New Year’s Day at X&HTowers. We never see the point in hanging about. Saturnalia is finished for another season, and there are things to be done. Yesterday was spent getting the house straight, and ourselves ready for the return to work.

A busy day, then, and a good meal was needed once the tinsel and tree were back in the loft. The eating would be simple and sustaining. There’s no point in trying to diet in the New Year. There are still too many treats hanging around. We have an untouched panetonne and a cupboard full of sweeties ready and waiting to blow any foolhardy resolutions right out of the water. But the rich dinners can be scaled back to something less epic, a little more nurturing.

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Winter Chill(ies)

My chile plant was very late off the mark this year, flowering merrily all through the summer, but not fruiting until the cusp of Halloween.

I left it as late as I could before harvest, wanting to get as much as I could from this unexpected late bonus. So it was that I gathered them in just two days before the frosts hit.

It’s been my best haul ever, and gave me enough to dry off and last TLC and I through the winter. Bringing a glow and a tingle to winter stews and casseroles.

I took a snap before they went into the oven. I love the waxy brightness of a fresh chili, and I’m happy with these jalapeños. Even if they did leave me hanging around for a while.

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Christmassy colours, doncha think?

Atwomic Pizzas

I’m still trying to get my head around the geography and zoning of Oxford’s fair city. I prefer it to London if I have a spare day off and nothing better to do. But, as someone with heavy links to the Smoke, I can’t help but find parallels between different areas. For example, I think of Jericho as the Islington of Oxford. It’s full of chichi bars and restaurants, a nice little art-house cinema and a general relaxed upscale vibe.

The Cowley Road, on the other hand, is closer to Camden–lively, multicultural, funky and fun. Here’s where you’ll find all the cheap, good-value curry houses, the O2 Academy, and most importantly for greedy old me, the two Atomic restaurants.

Atomic Burger has been a source of simple pleasure for a while. The pop-culture theming is so deliciously over the top that it moves from tack to an art statement. The signature burgers are named after icons from Elvis to Chuck Norris, and they’re remarkably good, generous and flavoursome.

No ice cream for me, thanks.

Now a partner restaurant, Atomic Pizza, has opened a ten minute hike down the way (like Camden High St, you forget just how long the Cowley Road can get, especially when you’re weak with hunger) and it’s a blast. Bigger and brighter than the burger shack on the way back to St. Clement’s, the pizzas are again themed, although you can also build your own. I’m especially intrigued by the burger pizza that they offer. The food is as bold and brash as the setting–eating next to Han Solo in his ROTJ block of carbonite was an experience, I can tell you.

The excuse for the visit (apart from a raging need for a 15″ pizza, the Gambit in case you’re wondering, chicken, bacon and cajun BBQ sauce) was a meet-up with some Twitter pals, @LizUK and @Gergaroth, with Liz’s mate @jowyton along for the ride as well. It’s always a thrill to finally have a face-to-face with people you only know from their online presence, but I’ve always found it works nicely. Gets the tedious small talk out of the way quickly so you can concentrate on the good stuff. Deciding on appropriate T-shirt film quotes for the staff, for example. The boss was up for the game as well. Mind you, he was the one wearing the Inigo Montoya t-shirt that started it off in the first place.

The setting helped the whole session to be silly, uproarious fun, and we’re definitely doing it again after Christmas. Although I shan’t be risking the legendary Godzilla Challenge – a full-size pizza with a triple order of fries, chili, cheese and their weapon-grade Godzilla sauce on top. You get a T-shirt if you finish. Or if you don’t. And hopefully a lift to the hospital afterwards.

You can find both restaurants up and down the Cowley Road. They’re not easy to miss. Links to the menus and videos of a Godzilla Challenge winner below. I don’t think you can go wrong for a fun night out in Oxford.

Atomic Burger

Atomic Pizzas

The Atwomics, replete

Vive Le Burger!

It’s safe to say that I have an on-going and long-lasting love affair with the humble burger. There’s something about the simple mince patty that just works for me on a deep and primal level, far more than a steak would. When I first started working in London, a weekly treat would be a visit to Wimpy for a quarter-pounder meal – still a flavour of childhood, and increasingly difficult to find. The now sadly defunct southwest American chain Santa Fe used to serve theirs in a tortilla that had been seared shut. I still do this at home on occasion when I can’t be bothered with the big bready hit of a bun. Sealed in a light edible package with salsa, guacamole and a good strong cheese, it’s an enduring pleasure.

These days, I have become more enamoured of the French way with a burger – the steak hache. It’s basically a burger without the bells and whistles, so the meat becomes the star. That means, of course, that any old rubbish won’t do. Last night, I had steak mince left over from the cottage pie I’d made earlier in the week. A light went on. For a burger fan, it seems almost shameful to note that I have never made one from scratch. It was time to stretch my culinary boundaries.

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Graf Your Grub

A little something to bear in mind next time TLC and I have a bite to eat with that damned elusive docoBanksy. German food co-op The Deli Garage has come up with an edible food spray that could add an extra blingy touch to the Christmas dinner. Currently available in gold, silver, red and blue, the manufacturers claim that the colour is both odour-free and tasteless. Which is a bit of a shame. I kinda like the idea of spray-on barbeque flavour in a hot-rod red.

Flavoured spray could also add a whole new dimension to the graffiti shenanigans at Leake Street. Your line and fill might be a bit suspect, but boy does your piece taste good. Why cover up a rival’s graf when you can just lick it off? King Robbo: tastes like chicken. I know you can get spray cheeses and oils already. It wouldn’t take much to make my little dream come true.

It would certainly put a whole different spin on the idea of pepper spray…

Tales Of The Beeranauts: Very Merry Men

The Beeranauts have been pretty quiet this year. The Great British Beer Festival had to manage without us, and it was a minor contingent that made it to the London Drinker gathering back in the spring. Apart from that, nish since Battersea. A bit of a poor show, frankly.

We made up for that on Friday, with a trip up to Nottingham for the Robin Hood Festival. Held in the grounds of lovely Nottingham Castle, it’s perhaps the biggest British Beer Festival after the Earl’s Court spectacular. And it’s far and away the best.

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TLC’s Cauliflower Cheese

My beloved doesn’t cook that much. I am a kitchen hog, and will happily usher her out of the room while I create culinary masterpieces. She’ll happily be ushered. Let the goon do all the work. But just because she doesn’t, don’t mean she can’t. When TLC picks a saucepan up, the results are always delicious. Last night, after I returned bone deep weary from a working weekend, she put together the best cauliflower cheese I have ever tasted.

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Getting A Rise: Why X&HT Didn’t See Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

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I was going to see it. Really, I was. I had the day all mapped out. Chores in the morning, then an amble into town to catch an early afternoon screening. I was quite looking forward to it.

But as the day wore on, my enthusiasm began to dwindle. By the time I got the doors of the Reading Vue, all I could manage was the feeling that there really were better things that I could do with my time. So I went into the Hobgoblin on Broad Street, and over a pint of Mr. Chubb’s Lunchtime Bitter, mused on the reasons why I’d suddenly lost all interest.

First of all, I considered, taking a sip while settling into a cosy snug at the back of the pub, Rise is a blatant attempt at starting a new franchise. Fox have of course been left without a cash cow as the Harry Potter films have finally finished, and have to be hunting around for a new series to start taking up the shortfall. Now, in my exceedingly humble opinion, franchises have turned the summer blockbuster market into an artistic void. Sequelitis has infected Hollywood like a bad case of knobrot, and the movies coming out of that policy are about as palatable. With 32 movies in the next year either based on existing properties, or reboots and remakes, the marketplace is choking on old fumes. Why should I encourage that behaviour? While I accept that my approach to these films is akin to The Pirate Code, I try to steer clear of them. There are many other better films out there that deserve my patronage.

One of them, I mused while enjoying the bright, hoppy fizz of the Lunchtime Bitter on my tongue, is the original Planet Of The Apes. A masterpiece of clever social commentary and solid storytelling, with one of the all-time killer twists. It spawned a raft of sequels, of course. All of which told the story of the fall and rise of apedom in a twisty, timeloopy fashion that made sense and, more importantly, ended in a satisfying way. Hence my concern about a new Ape franchise. The original films pretty much invented the concept in the form that modern audiences would understand, so in some ways it’s natural for Fox to glom onto the property as a moneyspinner. But the new story adds nothing to the canon. Which means, to my mind that there’s a good chance that any sequels will forge a different path. One that leads straight back to the Tim Burton version of events, and the monkey statue in Washington. Now, I could be wrong, but I’d rather not take the risk of encouraging that kind of behaviour.

Speaking of which, I reflected as I tilted the last mouthful of Lunchtime to my lips, it’s about time we stopped enabling Andy Serkis. Now, I mean this in a good way. He is a fine, thoughtful and innovative actor. But he’s been stereotyped. It used to be that when Hollywood needed a clever monkey, they went to effects wizard Rick Baker. Now, it’s all Andy Serkis crawling around a capture volume in a leotard covered in ping-pong balls. To all the smartypants yelling about Lord Of The Rings, I will simply respond with this algorithm: Gollum = shaved orang-utan.

Andy deserves better than this, Readership. It’s disrespectful of his art and talent. A boycott of his mo-cap monkeying is, I feel a harsh but fair measure. I’d rather see the man than a digitised performance any day.

I stepped out of the Hobgob into sunshine, the beer warm in my belly. A walk home along the Kennet beckoned, with perhaps a little visit to a book shop on the way. That somehow seemed like a much more pleasurable way to spend the day.

I love movies as much as anyone. But sometimes a pint of good English beer and a book are all you need to make your day.

Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy

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On a weekend when I’m not working, I love to spend time in the kitchen coming up with a slow-cooked stew or casserole. Something with a bit of improv behind it. Jazz cooking. If it uses up some bits and bobs that are looking a bit sad in the fridge, then so much the better. Yesterday’s pot of love was a fine example of the form, so I thought I should share.

Start off with some chunked-up chorizo and lamb mince in a hot pan. I always use my deep saute pan for this sort of thing. It’s got a lid, and the all-metal build means it’ll happily go in the oven. We bought it with some of our wedding money, and it shows no signs of tiredness. Unlike it’s owner. I digress.

The chorizo and lamb will exude their own oil, so once they’re hot and sizzling, decant them to a warm bowl and use that paprika-spiked bounty to cook the veg. In this case, the cajun trinity of onion, celery and green pepper. I usually add some carrots to this as well. Give it five minutes. If you don’t have a beer or a glass of wine in hand by now, go pour yourself one. You’ve done some chopping. You deserve it.

Once the veg have softened a bit and taken on some colour, throw the meat back in, along with a couple of cloves of garlic and the slightly over-done sausage that was left over from breakfast. Let everything get acquainted. Now add a can of mixed beans (usually called three-bean salad or something like that) that’s been drained. After that, tomatoes. A good and lazy tip is to use a posh tomatoey pasta sauce instead. Most of the TV chefs do them, and they’re a good storecupboard standby. The supermarket/ Finest/Best/Taste The Difference ranges are all worth exploring too. I used one with cherry tomatoes and a hint of chilli. It was a very subtle hint. Too subtle for my liking, so I threw in a couple of my dried chilis, pierced but otherwise left whole so I could fish them out when everything was singing from the same hymn sheet.

The mix is smelling great, but it’s pretty dry, so I let it down with some chicken stock. I make my own, but a stock cube is fine. Just watch the salt. About half a pint, I reckon. Hard to tell. It was in a ziploc bag. Enough to cover the meat and veg, anyway.

Let that bubble gently for half an hour with the lid on, then half an hour with the lid off until the stew has thickened to your liking. Taste a few times along the way, and season as you feel the need. Keep an eye on those chilis. Crank up the music. Have another glass. If the weather’s anything like it was yesterday, watch the rain hammering the roof of the conservatory, and listen to the thunder.

When your stew is thick and glossy and delicious looking, fish out the chilis and serve over rice, and a freezer-burned peshwari naan if one happens to be kicking around. TLC thinks they’d be nice with some fruit and yoghurt, and who am I to argue with a girl that’s officially twice as smart as I am? I should have garnished it with some lovage from the herb patch, but buggered if I was going out in that weather.

If you’re lucky, clever and not too greedy, there’s enough stew left over for your dinner tomorrow too. Sometimes, improv is the way to go.

The soundtrack for the meal should really be the OST to season one of Treme. Lots of groovy N’Awlins jazziness. Perfect when you’re cooking up a storm. Or in a storm.

The Green Stuff

Many people extol the virtues of red sauce. Others prefer their sauces brown. I’ve always been partial to a spot of green.

This is the stuff that you can’t get in bottles. The best name for it is the Spanish shorthand – salsa verde. Unlike your red or brown condiments, this sauce doesn’t have a secret recipe handed down from father to son, locked in a safe somewhere. It’s an open source, open to interpretation kind of a deal. It also doesn’t last that long – certainly never long enough to form a crust round the top of the bottle. But as it takes so little time to whip up, that’s not such a big deal.

In basic terms, salsa verde is a herb and oil suspension, livened up with lemon juice and salt. You need a blender or mixer with a bit of grunt to it, unless you’re feeling prehistoric and prefer pounding your food into submission in a mortar and pestle. Which’ll work fine, but you know, 21st century and all that, the machines are our friends.

Green, leafy herbs are the order of the day. My preference is for lots of parsley, mint, basil and fennel or dill. My salsas are heavy on the fennel nowadays as I have a monster of a plant in the herb patch and I have to tame the bugger somehow.

Get yourself a decent handful of fennel and flat-leaf parsley, and about half as much basil and mint. Blitz, along with a few cloves of garlic, then pour in olive oil until you have something with a decently sloppy but spoonable consistency. Add the juice of a lemon, and some salt. You’ll probably need more than you think of each. I’ve taken to throwing in a couple of preserved lemons instead, which do the job in one hit. Taste, and taste again. You want something loud, tart and green, sharp and bright and grassy as the first sip of a gin and tonic on a hot summer day.

Fish and chicken are perfect for this stuff, although I’ve dolloped it on a burger with good effect. In fact, most barbecued meats will snuggle up happily to the salsa. It’ll keep in the fridge for a few days, although it will thicken up. Once it’s at that stage, stir it into mayo, yoghurt or sour cream to keep the salsa useful as a chippy dip, or a creamy side for lamb chops. In short, this is my go-to accompaniment for the warm months, and one of my principal reasons for growing herbs. A spoonful of summer.