Feminist cheese

I have an absolutely excellent brother, who sent me a big box of cheese from The Fine Cheese Company in Bath for my birthday. (He’s got the hang of this birthday lark; he sent my Mum a big box of oysters for hers. Go Ben.)

The Fine Cheese Company are great – their cheese is beautifully kept, and the cheeses in the box arrived at a perfect stage of ripeness: the stinky cheeses were stinky, the soft ones meltingly gooey.

This particular selection, called the Sisters in Cheese Box, is all produced by female cheesemakers. My initial reaction on learning this was ‘Out of what?’, but it turns out that the milk in question is actually squirted benignly out of sheep and cows. I think I just have a filthy mind.

You can see the cheeses above. The top cheese, soft and unctuous, was my favourite. It’s a half baby Wigmore, made by Anne Wigmore in Berkshire from ewes’ milk, and it’s a wonderfully sticky little beast. Moving clockwise, the hard cheese with the yellow label is a Curworthy, made to a centuries-old recipe. The next cheese is a delicious unpasturised Brie made by Debbie Mumford in Sharpham, Devon, and was by far the best (and best-kept) English Brie I’ve tasted. Finally, the wedge of cheese is the fruity Keltic Gold, a rind-washed hard cow’s cheese from Cornwall.

A useful card on the proper storage and keeping of cheese for those of us without a lovely cool pantry is included with the box, and this cheesy cornucopia kept us busy after dinner for several days, accompanied by lots of wine, some Bath Oliver biscuits and some digestives. Thanks Ben and Katie!

Watercress soup

A friend tells me that there’s watercress growing in one of the wet bits of fen round here. I’ve been out combing the countryside and can’t find it – and my friend (who will become an ex-friend if this continues) will not tell me exactly where it is so he can eat all of it.

In the meantime, I’ve been buying my watercress in the shops and at the market. There’s plenty on sale at the moment, so head out and buy some. When you make this soup, try to find watercress with plenty of stalk – there’s a lot of flavour in the parts you wouldn’t necessarily use in a salad.

This soup is simple and delicious; it also freezes well, so you can make it in advance and bring it out when you have guests. When reheating, try not to bring it to a rolling boil – you’ll lose some of the lovely green colour if you overcook the watercress.

For a starter for four, you’ll need:

2 large bunches of watercress (about 150g)
1 large knob of butter
2 medium onions
2 medium-sized potatoes
800 ml chicken stock
150 ml double cream
Salt and pepper

Chop the onions roughly and sweat them in the butter until soft, but not coloured. Add the potatoes, chopped into medium dice and unpeeled, and keep everything moving around in the butter for five minutes until the potatoes are glistening. Pour over the stock, put the lid on the pan and bring to a gentle boil for about twenty minutes, until the potatoes are very soft.

Chop the watercress roughly (if you have any stalks left over from salads you’ve made, you can store these in the freezer until you make this soup and add these too) and add it to the pan, stirring for about a minute until the cress has turned a vivid green. Hold a bit of watercress back to garnish the soup with when you’re finished. Remove the pan from the heat and liquidise the soup in a food processor.

Return the soup to the pan and over a low heat add the cream and seasoning. This soup can be served chilled, like a Vichyssoise, but I prefer it hot from the pan with lots of crusty bread.

Hotel Chocolat Easter Egg

Hotel Chocolat sent me their Signature Egg to review a couple of weeks ago. This was excellent news – I am a big fan of Hotel Chocolat, who are my favourite high-street chocolatiers. They currently have 21 shops in the UK, a mail-order chocolate tasting service and some really interesting products – my very favourite thing in the whole shop is the cocoa nibs, which are simply little shards of cocoa bean with no sugar.

The Signature Egg, cleverly, uses milk chocolate for one half of the shell and dark for the other. This was one of the best chocolate shells I’ve tasted – it’s extra-thick, and the dark chocolate in particular is very good; not too sweet, and extremely smooth with a lovely creamy texture. Hotel Chocolat have their own cocoa plantation in the West Indies, which guarantees the quality of the chocolate. I had some Cadbury’s chocolate in the kitchen to taste as a sort of control chocolate,which was granular and tooth-hurtingly sweet by comparison.

You can see the very pretty mini-eggs that fill the shell in the photograph. They are all liqueur creams…and this is where the Signature Egg, with its gorgeous, thick shell, falls down. On paper, the flavours looked great; pink Marc de Champagne, Tiramisu, Kirsch, Amaretto and so on. Unfortunately, the lecithin-slippery centres all tasted rather synthetic (the pink Marc being a dead ringer for Angel Delight). Advocaat, a flavour I usually dislike, was by far the best (and appropriately Easterish, being made from egg yolks), but the Kir cream managed to mimic cough mixture. Still – these were sweet, and sufficiently grown-up tasting that you won’t find them being stolen by the kids. Unless the kids happen to like Kirsch.

Hotel Chocolat is currently running an Easter-Egg Hunt competition to win a rather lovely-looking Easter Hamper full of chocolatey goodness. You can enter until April 2. Happy hunting!

Beer can chicken

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you – this is a chicken with a can of Guinness bunged up its how-do-you-say. With a dry rub, it’s a brilliant, if slightly obscene way to cook chicken. The beer, flavoured with some of the spicy rub, steams the chicken from inside, resulting in a juicy, delicate flesh, while the skin cooks to a crackling, caramelised crispness.

My friend Lorna pointed me at this extraordinarily cheap roasting stand from Amazon when I complained that my beer can often threatens to topple when I make this dish. It’s worth spending a couple of pounds on a stand like this (bend one of the wire loops to fit the can onto the little dish; it’ll keep the chicken nice and sturdy along with the can). If you don’t own a stand, just make sure that the chicken is resting levelly on the can. Don’t be fooled into using the chicken’s legs to balance the beast – they’ll shrink and change shape when they cook.

To roast one rude-looking chicken to perfect succulence you’ll need:

1 plump chicken without giblets
1 can of beer
2 heaped tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 heaped teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon chilli powder (I like powdered chipotles for this, but you can use cayenne pepper)
1 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon salt
3 heaped tablespoons soft dark brown sugar

Snip through any strings holding the chicken’s legs neatly together, and spread them out. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl and rub them all over the chicken, then add a tablespoon of the rub to the cavity of the chicken and smear it around a bit with the back of a spoon. Leave for the flavours to penetrate for two hours at room temperature. Meanwhile, open the beer can, pour half of the beer out and drink it. (This is a fun recipe.) Use a metal skewer or a nail and hammer to make a few more holes in the top of the half-full beer can.

Put a tablespoon of the remaining rub in the can with the beer. It will froth and bubble, so add your rub carefully. After the two hours are up, rub any remaining spice mix onto the chicken and push the bird carefully, bottom (that’s the end with the legs) first, onto the upright beer can, as in the picture. Roast the whole apparatus at 180° C (350° F) for 1 hour and 30 minutes, remove the bird carefully from the can without spilling any beer, and rest for ten minutes before serving. (If you are a lucky person with a large and easily controlled barbecue, try cooking the chicken in there over some flavourful wood – it’ll be delicious.)

Don’t be tempted to use the hot beer as a sauce. It’ll taste bitter and revolting, so just pour it down the sink. Let the chicken’s natural juices (there will be plenty, and they’ll come out of the bird as it rests) act as a gravy. This is a great dish with a salad and a pilaf or cous cous. Serve with a couple of nicely chilled cans of whatever beer you used in the cooking.

If you’d like to try a different take on beer can chicken, I’ve come up with a recipe for a slightly Chinese-ified version too – enjoy!


UK readers might not be familiar with blondies, one of my favourite American baking recipes. Imagine a giant, tray-baked, chocolate-chip cookie, or a squashy brownie made from a sweet cookie dough instead of the regular chocolate dough. This is an easy, quick recipe, and it’ll make you a heap of blondies big enough to feed everyone in the house several times over.

I don’t buy chocolate chips or chunks for baking; instead, I use a really good bar of chocolate (Green and Black’s is excellent for cooking) and chop it up with a large knife. It only takes a couple of minutes, and doing it this way means you’ll be able to use a much higher quality chocolate in your baking than you can usually find in ready-chipped chunks.

To make 30 squares, you’ll need:

2 cups plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
1 cup melted butter
2 cups soft light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs
1 cup pecan nuts
A 150g bar of good dark chocolate, chopped into chunks with a large knife

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).

Melt the butter and use a fork to mix it well with the sugar and almond and vanilla extracts, then beat in the eggs with the fork. Add the sieved flour and baking powder, blend well with the fork, then stir in the nuts and chocolate. Spread the mixture evenly into a non-stick baking dish to a depth of about a centimetre, and bake for 30 minutes, until the blondies are coming away from the sides of the dish. They will be crisp at the edges and soft in the middle.

Feel free to experiment a bit with these – use milk chocolate, a different kind of nut, more chocolate, dried fruits and whatever you feel like.

Slice into thirty pieces and serve as soon as the blondies are cool. These keep well in an airtight box, although my guess is that you’ll have eaten them all before you get a chance to test how well they keep.

Picasso, Bellagio, Las Vegas

Update, October 2009: we went back to Picasso for a return match last month, about two and a half years after our first visit. A good meal, but nowhere near as great as it was back in 2007 – and somewhat alarmingly, the tasting menu hasn’t changed at all, which speaks to me of an over-laid-back kitchen. Service this time was pushier and more obtrusive, the wine pairings weren’t as good as I’d have hoped (a couple of the whites in particular were simply too young), and the prix fixe we settled on was surprisingly tame. The room itself is still fabulous, but I suspect we won’t visit again – a lousy shame, because in 2007, they were absolutely at the top of their game. For nostalgia’s sake, read on…

I’ve held off writing about Picasso for a few weeks because I feel moved to empty the bank account and run away to live at the Bellagio casino resort every time I sit down and think about the meal. It was near-perfect; it’s almost intimidating to write about the place, because I simply don’t have a bad word to say about the experience…and that makes me look like an unthinking, uncritical sort of eater. I’m not; really I’m not – this was just quite simply the very best meal I’ve eaten in my life.

Even if Picasso weren’t serving spectacularly good food, the room itself would be reason enough to visit. Right next to the Bellagio fountains (one of my favourite free Las Vegas attractions – they’re 60ft tall and they dance to a playlist of showtunes, classical music and opera), the restaurant is filled with original Picasso ceramics and paintings, and decked out with vase upon vase upon vase of fresh flowers. Between the fountains, the still-life on the wall opposite me and the enormous jugs of freesias and tulips, even the ravishingly handsome Dr Weasel was having trouble holding my attention. Despite all this grandeur, the room is designed to be very intimate, with little nooks and crannies of seating to make you feel you’re almost eating on your own.

Even if the room were not filled with art and flowers, and even if those fountains weren’t swaying outside the window, the service alone would be reason enough to visit. Perfectly unobtrusive, the waiters changed dirty napkins with such skill you didn’t notice them doing it, poured exactly the right amount of wine, kept the water glasses brimming – there’s a reason the Zagat guide gives this restaurant its top score for service. I am allergic to lobster (as far as I am concerned, one of the worst things that you could choose to be allergic to – I used to love the stuff), and mentioned to the waiter that I would prefer something different for the first course of our degustation menu. Other restaurants have left me without a course when this happens, or with a portion of whatever came to hand in the kitchen (nothing is so galling as sitting there with a small bowl of pumpkin soup while the rest of the table is ripping a couple of lobsters to shreds). Not Picasso. The waiter beamed, told me I could have anything I wanted from the menu…so I took him at his word and selected poached oysters in a delicate beurre blanc, each dressed with a teaspoon of wonderful, wonderful Oscietra caviar. Heaven.

If you visit Picasso, the tasting menu is fit for a king. Lobster terrine (‘totally yum’ according to Dr Weasel – bet you’re glad he doesn’t write this blog) and those aromatic, vermouth-spiked oysters came after an amuse bouche of soupe de poivrons with a truffled potato croquette to dip into the little soup pot. Scallops were sauced with a veal jus, gloriously savoury against their fresh sweetness. An escalope of seared foie gras was prepared perfectly; glass-crisp on the outside with a silky soft interior, with figs and sweet walnuts alongside. Halibut was moist and toothsome, and it seems almost churlish to call my lamb chop a lamb chop – it was one of the best pieces of meat that’s ever been past my teeth. Dessert was a lychee bavarois with one of the most ridiculous and delicious items I’ve seen on a dessert plate – a giant, chocolate-dipped fresh coconut popsicle. And the petits fours with my coffee were delicate and delightful. They even brought a set for Dr Weasel, who wasn’t drinking coffee.

The wine list is large and thoughtful. On another occasion I might choose to have the wine pairing with each course, but this time we chose a Russian River unoaked Chardonnay (a wine that’s extremely difficult to find in the UK, so we tend to order it whenever possible in America), which was absolutely delicious. I love it when the wine waiter ensures he’s not pouring so fast you’ll move through the bottle before you’re really ready; at Picasso our wine was poured carefully so it lasted us until we had finished our main course.

Picasso’s chef, Julian Serrano, has the James Beard award for Best South-Western Chef, five AAA diamonds, and a vast array of Zagat awards. Obviously, a meal of this quality comes at a price, and currently the degustation menu is $115. (This is a positive bargain for those of us used to European prices.) If you visit Picasso, you will need to book at least a month in advance, and make sure you dress well – there were people wearing less smart clothes in there and they looked immensely uncomfortable. I promise you that the meal you eat will be worth the dressing up, the advance booking and at least three times what you’re paying – this is something really special.

Welsh Rarebit

If you’re feeling lazy, just lay some cheese on some toast, and grill it. I won’t judge you. But if you’ve ten extra minutes to spend on your supper tonight, you might want to make this deliciously savoury rarebit, flavoured with beer and shallots.

Welsh rarebit (called Welsh rabbit in some versions) used to be served by the Edwardians as a savoury – a course to be tucked under the straining waistband just after pudding. If you cool this rarebit on a cake rack (to keep the toast crisp), remove the crusts and slice the rarebit into little squares, it also makes a great canapé when speared on a toothpick with a cherry tomato.

To make three generous slices you’ll need:

3 slices seedy bread
400g sharp cheddar cheese (for extra cheesy bite, use a mixture of cheddar and parmesan)
1 shallot
5 sun-dried tomatoes in oil
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 level teaspoon mustard powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (use less if you want your rarebit to be less spicy)
2 tablespoons beer (use something strongly flavoured, like a real ale)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few twists of the pepper grinder

Toast the bread lightly until just golden. Grate the cheese and the shallot finely, chop the tomatoes into tiny dice, and mix with the other ingredients. (The mustard will not taste aggressively mustardy, but reinforces the cheesiness of the cheese.)

Spread the mixture evenly on the pieces of toast, making sure you cover the whole slice right to the edges. Be careful to make the covering a little thicker in the centre of the slice to avoid run-off. The cornflour will stop the beer from making the cheesy paste too wet. Place the slices of bread under the grill for five minutes or until golden. Garnish with more of the sun-dried tomatoes, and serve immediately with a glass of the beer.

Chris ‘Oggie’ Lightfoot, 1978-2007

My very dear friend Oggie died unexpectedly last month. I know several of you read his weblog, and his friends have put an announcement there today; there may be a newspaper obituary later this week.

Oggie was a wonderful friend. He was one of the most incisive, funniest people I’ve met, and I feel very privileged to have known him. We all miss him dreadfully.

There is a pig in my garden

I don’t normally post non-food trivia, but this was much too good to not share – there is a pig in my garden. I have no idea where he came from, but messages have been left at all the farms in the village, so hopefully someone will pick him up soon.

He’s a very splendid, fat, hairy pig. I’m starting to think we should pignap and keep him, although it should be noted that Dr Weasel has started talking in dark tones about bacon.

***Pig update***
George the Pig (for this is his name – he is a Kune Kune pig) is safely installed in his field again. George is friends with a goat who managed to break through their fencing, and being a gregarious sort of pig decided to follow his goat friend; unfortunately, the goat skipped off into the distance leaving George, who has short legs and is rather fat, to wander into my garden and rootle around a bit until somebody noticed.

I was expecting George’s owner to come with some kind of pig harness, or perhaps a shepherd’s crook, but it transpired that all that was needed to get George to follow him home was a banana waved just out of reach of his snout. I hope he was allowed to eat it when they got back.

Dining in Las Vegas

Update, Jan 2008 – there are now a lot more reviews of Las Vegas restaurants on this site. Click here to read them all.

I’m back from a couple of weeks’ holiday. Regular readers will notice that I’m a frequent visitor to Las Vegas. Being a neophobe, I decided to squeeze four days of Vegas into the start of the trip. Las Vegas wins my favourite city prize even though I don’t gamble – it has a remarkable concentration of world-class restaurants, some of America’s strangest visitor attractions and some amazingly good bars, clubs, shows and other night-time diversions for the jetlagged.

If you’re a first-time visitor, the sheer choice of restaurants can be overwhelming. These are just a few of the Vegas restaurants that will make your toes curl with gustatory pleasure.

is a new Michael Mina venture at the Mandalay Bay resort and casino (my favourite place to stay in Las Vegas – it’s at the very southern end of the strip, so you can get away from the crowds in some degree of style). Mina is known for his Californian-inspired fine cuisine, and was named Bon Appetit’s chef of the year in 2005. Stripsteak is a bit of a departure for Mina, whose other restaurants tend to be very exclusive, with menus specialising in seafood; at first glance Stripsteak looks like yet another Vegas steakhouse. What a steakhouse, though. The menu is overflowing with Kobe beef, truffles, duck fat and other riches. I can recommend the obscenely good duck fat fries, the perfectly tender and flavourful American Kobe ribeye, the truffled mac and cheese and the carpaccio (potently but not aggressively flavoured with Thai spices) wholeheartedly. (How long the arteries surrounding that heart are going to hold up at this rate is a matter of opinion.)

Red Square, also at Mandalay Bay, is best known as a bar and nightclub. It’s almost intimidatingly hip: there’s an ice bar; a frozen vodka locker where you’re provided with fur coats and hats for tastings; a headless statue of Lenin; and a air of decayed Imperialism. The restaurant, in the face of all this coolness, is often overlooked by guidebooks which are overwhelmed by the excellent bar. This makes this place one of the best-kept secrets in Vegas. Don’t go expecting traditional Russian cooking – Red Square has a high-class but decidedly modern American menu with the occasional twist like Siberian Nachos (won ton crisps with smoked salmon and wasabi tobiko). Try the farmed America sturgeon caviar, which is a fraction of the price of the Iranian stuff also on offer, but just as good. It’s served with a mother-of-pearl spoon, with your choice of blinis or toast points and all the traditional accompaniments. The Roquefort-crusted steak is one of the best in town – and the Martinis and other vodka cocktails are to die for.

Shibuya, a Japanese restaurant at MGM Grand, serves glorious food and gilds the lily with its enormous sake list, employing a specialised somellier. The staff couldn’t be more helpful; last time I visited we asked to move tables when the restaurant was full to escape from some obnoxious neighbours, and were accommodated immediately and without fuss. Toro tartar was glorious, and the miso snow crab legs were fresh, sweet and tender.

Chinois, a Wolfgang Puck property at the Forum Shops, is another restaurant which transforms into a club at night. The upstairs club area is beautiful, but I prefer to visit at lunchtime, when the restaurant is quieter. (Felicity Huffman from Desperate Housewives decided to have lunch there on the same day I did, which I found quite stupidly exciting.) There’s one overarching reason to visit Chinois, and that’s the Chinois Chicken Salad, a light, crisp confection which I would happily sell my own grandmother for. The restaurant is perfectly happy for you to only order appetisers if you want a lighter lunch.

Jean-Philippe Patisserie at Bellagio is not only host to the world’s largest chocolate fountain, it’s also the most consistently excellent patisserie I’ve found anywhere in the world (this after a stint living in Paris and a late twenties spent searching London for the perfect macaroon). Jean-Philippe Maury won the Gold Medal from the 2002 World Pastry Team Championship, and if you are up for afternoon tea or a stellar breakfast, you should drop in. If you can avoid being seduced by the fresh crepes or the gorgeous ice-cream made on the premises, try the Strawberry (made from a slice of crisp macaroon, an almond paste and fresh glazed strawberries), the Exotic (a prize-winning tropical fruit and coconut confection) or the Rose Macaron (raspberry and rose macaroon).

For a savoury breakfast, I’ve found nothing in the city as good as the Stage Deli at the Forum Shops – it’s much, much better than other places serving breakfast mid-strip, so if you’re staying at Caesar’s, the Mirage or TI…or anywhere else, for that matter, head on over. Stage Deli is a branch of the well-known New York deli, but fortunately they have managed not to import the famous New York attitude along with the corned beef. Try the pastrami hash or smoked fish and bagel for breakfast, and any of the giant sandwiches for lunch.

Las Vegas is, of course, famous for its buffets. The food at the buffets is never as good as you’ll get at a restaurant with service, but some of the casino buffets stand out – Le Village Buffet at Paris is one of the better ones, but my very favourite is at Bellagio, where the breakfast boasts an excellent Asian station with congee and pork floss. The slab-carved salmon is smoked in-house – it’s excellent and is served with all the trimmings. Quality remains high across the spread. At weekends, the casino offers a champagne brunch and gourmet dinner at the buffet.

I’m saving our visit to Picasso for another post, simply because it was completely outstanding: absolutely the best meal I’ve ever had, even after years of chasing tables with Michelin stars in France. Watch this space. **Update – the whole review is here.**