Monday, February 25, 2013


When I moved back to London, I knew which things I would miss the most, so I made sure that those very things were the first to get packed away and shipped overseas. Others were left behind or distributed amongst friends and family, thinking that I could just buy new once I had settled in. Little did I know that many of my old haunts would have disappeared in the 6 years I was away, and things I had expected to find upon my return were no longer within easy reach.

I am talking about food of course, more specifically Japanese foods. I didn't think I would miss it so much, but a recent interminable bout of the cold has turned me into a blubbering homesick mess, and I want nothing more than my mum's cooking.

The next best thing to flying my mother over here is to recreate her dishes myself. And to do so, I need a few basic ingredients, like a proper chili oil, also known as rayu in Japanese. You can buy rayu in most Asian food stores, but I find them pretty flavourless: all heat, and little else. A good chili oil is very difficult to find, but oh so easy to make yourself: you'll need some toasted sesame oil, a bit of neutral vegetable oil and some dried chilies. Combine no more than 50%vegetable to the sesame oil. Add a few chopped dried chilies, and gently heat until it comes to a slow simmer: you should be able to count to at least ten in between each blurp. Leave to simmer for about 30 minutes, and then let cool completely before pouring into a clean bottle.

The resulting rayu will be darker in colour than anything you can find in the shops, but the flavour will be incredible: nutty and toasty, followed by heat. Sesame oil has a high smoke point so it is perfectly suited for stir frying, and is ideal to use in a kimpira, but you needn't keep it strictly for Asian cooking: rayu ould be just as nice drizzled on a pizza or some pasta. The oil is ready to use immediately, but its flavour will improve over the next few weeks, so make sure you make enough to last a month or two.

Bon app'!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Spring... Or Something Like

February is a two-faced beast: it lulls you into thinking that the doom and gloom of winter is over with a welcome warm spell, and then hits you with a snow storm. But worry not, even though winter is likely to be with us for a few more weeks yet, the thaw will come. Eventually.

While home gardeners and farmers alike are already gearing up for a new season, the land still seems to be in a deep sleep. New appearances are rare and far between at markets and shops, and many of us are experiencing root vegetable fatigue. And yet, whatever the weather where you live, there are seasonal goodies during this manic month, just to keep you going until the glut arrives.

Jerusalem artichokes usually have a first run in the fall, after the first hard frost. However, they keep very poorly in storage, so growers will only harvest as much as they can sell immediately, leaving a good part of the haul in the ground for a second run come February. If you've never had Jerusalem artichokes before, this is one of the few vegetables that I would recommend tasting in little bites: these roots contain a starch that can be highly indigestible to many, so you need to get used to it before you can indulge in its silky texture and wonderful flavour.

The climate in the UK is considerably milder than that in Canada, so there are a few seasonal crops available in before the onslaught of spring. However, even though January King cabbages and purple Brussels sprouts may not be (easily) available in North America, there are other cabbages that are making their way to shop stalls straight from the fields, albeit from warmer North American climes. Fresh greens such are collards (also known as spring greens in the UK) and kale easily survive winter in Southern US, and just might make it in the North with a little protection. Obviously, protecting winter crops is not always economically feasible for farmers, but home growers can easily take advantage of this option. 

The rest of us will just have to wait out this winter.

Bon app'!

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