Melting lamb tagine

I was given this tagine dish for my birthday this year. My boyfriend got it so right.

It sits proudly on our kitchen shelf, all sleek and beautiful and modern. It’s quite different to traditional Moroccan tagines, which are made of terracotta and can be intricately painted (I’d love one of those someday too, but I’m holding out for an authentic one from Marrakech), but what makes mine brilliant is that you can use it on the hob and in the oven  – very convenient, as it means you can fry the onions and spices on the stove, brown the meat, then bung it all straight into the oven for its long, slow cooking.

Lamb tagine is possibly my all-time favourite dish, when it’s done how I like it. I don’t have time for watery ones. It must be thick and textured; oozing with onions; sweet and gooey; fragrant but not too spicy. It must include sticky dates, must be scattered with flaked almonds, must have fresh coriander on top and cool yogurt on the side. The couscous, ideally, is lemony, and on the grainy side rather than soggy or wet. It’s my ‘turn-to’ recipe when we have people for dinner, and a satisfying feast on a Sunday.

I’d always choose it over a roast.

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Sticky Szechwan duck with star anise and dauphinoise potatoes (and abandoned veg)

We’ve decided to save cash by eating in on Friday nights. The rule is that we have to do something fancy, so that we don’t feel cheated out of restaurant-standard food. It also must be a recipe that will teach us both something new. On this occasion I really wanted duck. And Duncan wanted something Oriental. So this recipe satisfied us both.


Buying duck breasts in a supermarket isn’t easy. While they have chicken breasts of every shape and provenance, duck is limited to whole birds, crowns, legs or ready-sauced, ready-to-rip-you-off packs that don’t welcome your own flavours. So we bought a Gressingham crown – pricy but great quality – and Dunc had a bash at jointing off the wings and removing the breast meat from the carcass. New skill number one!

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Gypsy cuisine at a Buenos Aires supper club

(c) Helen Musselwhite

The supper club craze that has taken London and various other cities by storm also has a huge presence in BA, where they are known as puertas cerradas – closed door restaurants. A little info for the uninitiated: it’s a restaurant in somebody’s house. They sit you at their table and cook you food from their kitchen. Really great food. Inspired by interesting things or a clever theme. There are usually lots of courses and sometimes wine to match, for a (normally bargainous) set price. You share table and talk with strangers; interesting folks from all kinds of backgrounds. These dinners tend to be advertised by blog, or via social networking and word of mouth. They aren´t signposted — the only way to discover the address is to book yourself a place. But despite seeming low key, these supper clubs are no secret — in fact the BA puertas cerradas have their own boxed text in my Lonely Planet. And when I logged on, weeks in advance, to make a reservation for Casa Saltshaker, perhaps the best-known puerta cerrada in BA, there was just a single seat remaining for my chosen date.

On the night, having navigated the BA subway alone, I arrived in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Recoleta, armed with a dog-eared printout of my booking confirmation and mild apprehensions. But the initial awkwardness of sitting down to eat with complete strangers was quickly diffused by the novelty of the food, which was at once fascinating, beautiful and delicious. The five matching wines helped too!

It was the international day of the Romany, so our menu was themed around traditional gypsy dishes and hearty peasant food. Continue reading

Sweet Argentina

Argentinians have a very sweet tooth. Correction: a whole mouthful of them. Never have I known a nation more in love with sugar, caramel, chocolate, cake, pastries, icing and anything syrupy, sticky or sickly sweet. Their famous Dulce de Leche caramel sauce can be found in the UK only in the premium aisle at Waitrose, high-end delicatessens and Borough market. But here in Argentina, super-size tubs of it are sold in every supermarket.

If you like sweet things, you needn´t go far here to find them. There´s a confituria on every corner, every third shop is a kiosco brimming with bars of sweetened chocolate and candy, street vendors offer sugar-roasted peanuts, salesmen pace up and down the markets with baskets of churros, and on every long-distance bus ride you´re given complimentary sweets, biscuits and cakes. And meet the Alfajor, a snack consisting of two big fat sweet crumbly biscuits, sandwiched together with gooey Dulce de Leche, before being dipped in chocolate, allowed to harden and then sometimes decorated or dipped again. It´s a beast alright.

The trouble comes when you’ve had enough sugar and you´re craving something — anything — savoury or plain. Bad news, the sweet stuff just cannot be avoided. Order a black coffee and a hefty sugar lump gets dropped in as standard. The French would be horrified by the way their croissants are doused in thick gloopy syrup. A loaf of bread tastes suspiciously saccharine. I was served chicken and tuna empanadas with a bizarre frosting of what could only be icing sugar.

So it´s a sweet way of life here (especially for dentists, I imagine). If you want to rid yourself of the sticky residue of Argentinian cuisine, wetwipes and a toothbrush are essential.

A rather modest alfajor…they get far crazier

Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

The best croquettas in Madrid?

Dinnertime was fast approaching in Madrid. Never mind that we were still sat in 100 Montaditos after a novelty-but-actually-pretty-edible afternoon snack, it was already time to consider restaurant options for the evening ahead. Running my finger down the entries in Lonely Planet, I found a wealth of cuisine types at our disposal, with no shortage of local food: Tapas…Tapas…More Tapas…Thai (“No, we’re in Spain”)…Tapas…Tapas…Italian (“Ditto”)…Modern Spanish…Croquettas…Tapas…Tap—WOAH THERE!!!
A whole restaurant devoted to croquettas? This I had to visit.

So now, to satisfy my croquetta obsession, we were venturing into new territory, heading along Gran Via towards Malasaňa, a barrio (neighbourhood) that the book describes as “the stuff of Madrid legend … pushing hedonism to new limits.” Perhaps we were asking a bit much from a Tuesday night at the tail-end of December, but after reading such praise we had expected Calle Madera to be more than the dark and isolated alley on which we found ourselves. After some fruitless wandering, I was all for giving up. No way could there be good croquettas here. Muggings, more like. Or dead cats. Perhaps we would become croquettas? But The Warren had faith. “Let’s go a little further” turned out to be the wisest remark of the night (closely followed by “Dos mas, por favour”, a phrase that would be repeated a good few times). Suddenly, out of the darkness there was light, glowing softly through narrow, red, partially graffitied double-doors. Casa Julio. You could easily miss it or dismiss it, destined never to join the throng of happy Spaniards just visible behind the steamed-up glass.

Casa Julio's far-from-glamorous entrance

Casa Julio is a sweet and simple little bar, a family business, passed down the generations since 1921. We squeezed into the warm, crowded room, quite noticeably the only English in a sea of jabbering locals: a little bit daunting, but an obvious sign that the food must be good. Also very promising were the framed press-clippings on the wall and the photos of celebs who had deigned to rub shoulders with commoners in pursuit of the perfect croquetta. (Presumably these ‘celebs’ were all Spanish, as the only ones we recognised were U2; I guess Bono and I share a passion.)

Getting a spot at the bar was like an Olympic sport. The Warren proved very skilful at it (as one of five siblings, his mealtime reflexes have had a lot of practice) and after just one cerveza we gained an advantageous corner position. We were ready to do serious damage to the menu. And damage we did. Croqetta frenzy. Queso and jamón as standard. Then a couple of wildcards: atun con huevo (tuna with egg) and espinacas, pasas y gorgonzola (spinach with raisins and gorgonzola). The spinach ones took surprise gold. We also polished off a portion of albóndigas: chubby meatballs and hefts of potato in a delicious sauce, a basket of pane, and patatas bravas muy, MUY picante. I lifted that first chunk of potato in trepidation. Hmmm – one can only assume the Spanish are cowardly when it comes to spice, as I barely batted an eyelid, let alone broke a sweat. All of the above was washed down with the local cerveza – Mahou – and then, for just €9, a bottle of Spanish Cava (The Warren loves his Cava).

Croquettas a-go-go

We are definitely Casa Julio fans. The staff were friendly, the clientele was an interesting cross-section of ages and types, the place was cosy and welcoming. And the croquettas didn’t let me down. In true Walder-Warren fashion, we stayed on until closing time.