Inside the A&C Deli, Brixton

Save Our Shops

Inside the A&C Deli, BrixtonThey say a workman is only as good as his tools and while I think natural talent and practise play a part too, there’s a lot of truth in that statement. And for people who cook, their tools are the ingredients they use. Great food doesn’t always need specialist equipment but it does need something to create it with, preferably better quality ingredients.

We’ve all tried to cook a meal and been thwarted by our ingredients: the bacon that spewed out white water and refused to crisp at all, the tomatoes that were woolly and flavourless, the pulses that simply wouldn’t soften. Often it’s less about the price of the products and more about where they come from. Those tomatoes might have been Finest or Taste the Difference and still been nothing more than red water while the bag of cheap chickpeas from the corner shop might have been been more velvety than the branded ones.

Learning how and where to shop for your food is as important a part of learning to cook as how to prepare the ingredients once you get them home, but is an element that rarely gets talked about beyond a certain amount of showing off these days. I had a Ladybird book as a child that probably seems incredibly quaint now with a mummy and housewife popping to her greengrocer, butcher, baker and probably candlestick maker. But it acknowledged the link between where the food is farmed and where it is cooked. Good shops matter. Read more

garlic oil

Slow Cooker Fodmap Friendly Garlic Oil

garlic oil

Today is a great day for me. It’s the day I get to combine my two food obsessions and talk about slow cookers and FODMAPs. Basically this is a birthday present to myself. North/South Food is five years old this week and I haven’t had time to make a cake to celebrate, so writing a piece about my two favourite subjects will do instead!

I’ve given a little bit of background on Fodmaps before on this post, but if you don’t have time to read back, I’ll give you a crash course here too (bearing in mind my level of scientific knowledge wouldn’t even make it onto a L’Oreal advert voiceover.) They are a relatively recent discovery and research and knowledge into them is ever evolving so don’t take my word as gospel rather than an overview.

FODMAPs as an acronym stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides Di-saccharides Mono-saccharides And Polyols which are basically a selection of short chain carbohydrates encompassing certain sugars and types of fibre found in foods. They include:

  • lactose in dairy products
  • fructose in fruits, juices, honey and agave syrup
  • polyols such sorbitol which is found in dried fruit and wine and used as an articial sweetener
  • fructans found in onions, garlic, prebiotics and Jerusalem artichokes
  • galacto-oligosaccharides found in legumes and beans
  • galactans found in wheat, rye and barley

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A Slow Cooker Salon


If I could sing or didn’t hate The Sound of Music so much I’ve never managed more than 23 minutes of it in one dose, I’d be tempted to give you an early 2015 burst of some of my favourite things but instead I’ve decided to make a New Year’s Resolution that includes them.

I spent New Year with one of my favourite people. We lazed on the sofa drinking tea and watching Graham Norton in the run up to midnight and talked about our achievements and aspirations of the past and future for hours afterwards. Next day we ate fennel roasted pork belly and drank Prosecco to whet the appetites of the new year even though I burned the potatoes that were to replace the traditional lentils I’d run out of.

In one of our many conversations, she mentioned this wonderful piece on Serious Eats about Friday Night Meatballs and all that sharing food with people you’ve welcomed into your house entails. I thought it was a charming idea but didn’t get round to reading the article until a few days later and seeing all that it had to say beyond the simple power of meatballs.

For a long time because of both physical and mental health problems, I’ve felt like I’ve been waiting for my life start again, as if there would be a magical arbitrary tipping point when I could do things again. I’m not quite sure if I was expecting an actual Fairy Godmother to wave a wand or putting my faith in something else, but reading about Friday Night Meatballs I realised something striking: if I want there to be a moment like that in my life, no one else is going to produce it. I have to do it myself.

And so I decided to do one of my least favourite things in order to be able to do some of my most favourite things. I’d take the risk (eek) of hosting an open house Slow Cooker Salon so that I could meet people and feed those people the food I cooked. Spontaneity scares me so I’m going to set a few rules and see how it goes.

On the last Sunday of the month, I’m going to cook something simple and easy to eat in my slow cooker and I’m going to open an invitation to eat that dish in my flat to up to 10 people. They can be people I know offline, online, via Twitter, friends of friends, who knows. Obviously I’m not going to put my address online and say come on over, so people will need to email me to say they’d like to come and I’ll give them details and directions.

I’m going to start with meatballs in honour of the the idea that inspired this. I’m aware of people having dietary requirements so if anyone who is coming is veggie or gluten free or whatever, let me know and I can tweak things to accommodate them. On other occasions I’ll be keen to cook things that I can’t tweak to suit everyone but I’ll give lots of info in advance so people can decide if it suits them to come to that lunch.

And of course, if you’d really like to come but aren’t sure if you can eat what I’m making, feel free to bring something with you. In fact, anyone who fancies bringing something should. A gathering of people can be an excellent chance to finally bake or cook that creation that makes 12 portions and try it out on a different audience to usual. Or if your love of food extends to eating it, not making it, then bring some wine or buy something someone else has made. There will be no standing on ceremony here.

In fact, there were will be a lot of sitting on mismatching chairs (including the garden ones brought inside) and eating with uncoordinated cutlery and plates. There will probably even be plastic glasses. My entertaining is usually one or two people for a meal or a floor picnic of an afternoon tea so expect something that’s an unholy alliance of both in my living room. For this reason, it will have to be child free. My house is definitely not kid proofed or big enough to cope with small people alongside big people with big appetites. It’ll be a late lunch from about 2pm to allow for my faffing and your travelling.

It won’t be fancy, but it will be fun (and if it isn’t, we’ll simply never speak of this idea again, pretend it didn’t happen and carry on as normal…) So if you feel like trying something new to with food or making friends this year, contact me on the form below, and hopefully see you on January 25th!

Sign up!

sage cooker

Christmas Gift Ideas

sage cooker

Christmas is just round the corner and because few things please me more than Christmas shopping, I’m going to give you all suggestions to keep the fun alive since I’ve finished all mine already. This is a mix of things I own, want or generally recommend but hopefully with a bit more insight than the average Amazon review.

First up is my new toy: the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Risotto Plus. Previously known as the Multi Cooker, this is a slow cooker with bells on. As well the usual high and low settings as a slow cooker, it is also a rice cooker, steamer and risotto maker. You can ever sear and saute directly which is a boon for those who like to brown things before they slow cook.

I was a bit sceptical about the risotto setting so it was the first thing I tried. I made a chicken and mushroom risotto and was pleasantly surprised by the results, especially as the instruction booklet is vague to say the least. There’s no hint of how long making the risotto will take so it was all a bit of a magical mystery tour with carnoroli rice. I was very surprised that it only took about 25 minutes so was very glad I’d also tried the saute function out on the mirepoix and the chicken or it might have gone horribly wrong with raw chicken and crunchy carrots. I think I’d also recommend that you don’t rest the risotto as advised in the booklet as that made it rather too soft for my liking. But all in all, it was good enough to please an Italian friend of mine.

Buoyed by the excitement of successful risotto, I tried out all the other functions over the next day or two. Once I got used to the fact the high and low slow cooker settings have a set timing function rather than the freewheeling I’ve been using on my non digital slow cookers, I was very happy with that side of it. I really really loved the fact this is a rice cooker as well since mine gave up the ghost a few years ago and I couldn’t justify the cost in replacing it despite eating a lot of rice.

I liked the idea of the steamer insert as I think it means I’ll be able to do my standby meal of steamed fish and vegetables with rice with a minimum of effort even when I’m really not well which is the multi cooked icing on the cake with this. I think it’s a great investment if like me you’re a slow cooking fiend with a taste for rice and steamed veg and an aversion to washing up although I must make it clear I’d didn’t pay for mine. It was sent to me courtesy of the company.

I’d give it 10/10 if it wasn’t for the rather lacking booklet. I’m not sure how accurate the recipes are considering they suggest cooking kidney beans from dried in there which is highly dangerous, but since I could recommend you an excellent slow cooker cookbook, I’ll give it 9/10.

Also on the slow cooker front, I was recently introduced to cake tin liners by the fantastic BakingQueen74 which are the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys slow cooking cakes as they mean you can avoid the tell tale oval shape of the crock. Like everything else in my life, I went to Ebay for mine and got a good selection at an excellent price.

Speaking of baking, my first book choice has to be fellow Ebury author Ruby Tandoh with her fantastic book Crumb. I loved her on the Great British Bake Off and felt she was treated harshly by many people at the time. I’ve baked quite a few things from her Guardian column and enjoyed them all. I like her writing style and her recipes and hope to see more from her in the future.

I’m also keen for more from the fantastic Diana Henry. Her book A Change of Appetite is about to become my go to to while I readjust to watching my fat levels again but with none of the misery and deprivation of previous gallbladder related diets. The good news is that this is Diana’s eighth book so I can simply go back and buy some of the others to satisfy my lust for beautiful photography and great food.

I’m very much hoping there will be a second (and third) book from Mimi Aye after how much I’ve enjoyed Noodle! this year. I have always been absolutely terrible at cooking noodles and after a year of eating almost nothing but instant ramen when I was extremely poor and had no kitchen, I’d fallen out of love with them until I got this book. The Fish Ball Noodle soup has become a massive favourite and I can’t wait to try some of the Burmese dishes in the future as Mimi writes particularly well about the cuisine of her heritage. My days of cooking noodles badly are over after her guidance! Mimi has signed copies at her site currently.

Entirely coincidentally my other two book recommendations are also by women. Meera Sodha’s Made in India is a a glorious book that thoroughly deserves its nomination for the Andre Simon Award. I was lucky to eat Meera’s cooking at a dinner at The Draper’s Arms a few months ago and it was one of my favourite meals of the year.

I also heartily recommend Salmagundi by Sally Butcher. Some of you might know her from the wonderful Peckham based shop Persepolis or you may have seen her previous books including Veggiestan and Persia in Peckham. Sally’s books are especially good for getting you out of a rut of what to do with seasonal veg which can become a bit repetitive at times despite being so delicious.

If you already have all those books or fancy something slightly different, don’t forget about magazines as a great source of food writing and photography. My choice of the year is Toast with their beautiful annual edition but I’ve also been enjoying The Gourmand and Cherry Bombe.

And don’t forget that Recipes from Brixton Village is still available from all good retailers and independent bookshops. I’ll also be signing copies through Herne Hill Books on Saturday 13th at the Christmas Fair.

NHS Menu

Health Food

NHS MenueNo blog at the weekend because I had an unexpected trip to hospital with an attack of my old foe, biliary colic and ended up admitted for four days to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious than some seering pain. Luckily it wasn’t, although since I haven’t had a gallbladder since 1997, it’s a tad alarming that I’m getting pain in the area. I foresee even more medical appointments in my future.

Being a chronically ill person I am a bit of an expert on NHS appointments and by extension, since I think of little else, the food associated with the NHS. I attend no less than four hospitals in South London as an outpatient and have long since jokingly thought about blogging their lunch options for other who will be visiting too.

I haven’t had to be an inpatient since I moved to London and the last few times I was in hospital in Belfast, I’m not sure I was well enough to actually eat anything so I’ve not been sure if the unflattering comments about hospital food are still true.

At one point over the weekend, I wasn’t sure if I’d get to test the theory as I was both nil by mouth for three days and had zero appetite. I studied the five page hospital food menu in the abstract way you might with a guidebook for somewhere you’ll never visit and dreamed of a glass of ice cold Diet Coke with lots of lemon instead to quench my thirst.

However eventually I was allowed to start eating again and I started paying attention. King’s College Hospital offers the above five page menu to all patients, along with halal, kosher, Caribbean, gluten free and dairy free options, low residue and renal safe diets. They feed thousands of people a day, most of whom are homesick, ill and in need of some cheer as well as nutrition.

The menu was surprisingly comprehensive and packed with choice. There were no less than 7 vegetarian options and at least 3 that were vegan. There was curry, roast dinners, lots of fish and a mix of the light and easy to eat and the heartier for building people back up again. They’d tried to sign post everything possible to help you make good choices as they need you to eat no matter what it is.

They’d thought of pretty much everything in fact. Except what to do if someone came in and needed a low fat Fodmap friendly option like I did. Onions and garlic are my current kryptonite and I didn’t wish to aggravate issues further by risking them. But my inner Brit came out and I felt really awkward stopping a busy nurse to ask her to help pick out allium free options.

I need not have worried. The nurse was fantastic and we had a bit of a giggle about my digestive diva-dom and she then took the time to phone catering to ask them about the ingredients. They then went through ALL the options to let me know what was safe. We established all the soups had onions and that the fish dishes were all without and I was able to order cod in parsley sauce with carrot and swede mash with potatoes as my first meal in nearly 4 days and they brought it to me two hours early since I was so faint feeling at this point.

And you know what? It really wasn’t bad. Yes, it was the tiniest piece of fish I’ve seen in a long time, but it was hot, fresh and actually tasted of its component parts. The potato was real mash not reconstituted and the carrot and swede had just enough of that catering texture to be oddly comforting.

Both King’s and St Thomas’s Hospital are distinctly old fashioned these days and don’t have any fast food outlets on the premises, running central kitchens and a daily canteen for staff, visitors and patients where everyone eats the same food. I’ve been attending regular appointments weekly at St Thomas’s and eating lunch in their canteen and the price of a central London sandwich meal deal have been able to have a proper fresh hot meal rather than a limp sarnie.

There’s a touch of the school dinners about it as there’s vast portions of custard and crumble available everyday, but beyond that, it’s actually pretty good. You can have freshly cooked omelettes with your choice of filling, use the salad bar or soup or have one of five hot options which range from Cornish pastie and chips to fish or noodles.

Aside from the food, my favourite bit is that you can sit in the dining room overlooking the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Thames in possibly the finest view in London and watch a vast mix of people eating. Few things sum up London’s multiculturalism better to me than watching people of all races eat jollof rice with baked beans on the side and apple crumble for afters or a halal British roast dinner without batting an eyelid about it. Food here makes everyone the same and the atmosphere in both the dining room and the hospital is calmer than at a hospital like Guy’s where everyone has to go to McDonalds for lunch.

I understand the NHS has had to try and make money from commercial outlets coming to them and there’s many time I’ve been grateful for a branch of AMT or an M&S cafe to grab a coffee or tea when the canteen is shut, compared to the vending machines at the Maudsley. Yet I do worry that by turning food into a business transaction in a hospital or solely a nutritional aim like with the Eatwell plate the NHS promotes, it misses a crucial point of how food nourishes us. We need to combine it with being sociable and comforting and filling for it to have the best effect.

Choice within a structure here actually makes that easier to achieve so that people can seek out what they need at that time. Hospitals can take away independence so the highlight of the day is choosing your own lunch, but there’s something comforting to me about the NHS offering you options within reason like your parents did when you were a kid. Yes, sometimes you could stuff yourself on cake but other times, you had to choose which vegetable you were going to have.

The old fashioned centralised catering idea I’ve been eating at recently provides this caring choice perfectly and made me feel like someone was looking after me. I might have felt less so if I’d been eating poor quality slop dumped on a plate and wheeled round miles of wards before it got to me so it was cold and congealed like much hospital food still is. King’s steams all the food on the wards so it’s hot and fresh and they clearly use identifiable ingredients rather leaving you wondering if you’re eating horse in everything.

I think this style of cooking and eating is healthier in all senses of the word. All but one woman on my ward was very happy to eat the food provided, and frankly I’ve never met anyone so hard to please in my entire life. The nursing and catering staff attempted to answer every question and encourage you to eat, making tea and coffee to exact specifications, offering you several types of jam with your toast and providing biscuits from a local bakery for afternoon tea. They then ate the same things as we did.

I hope this experience wasn’t an outlying one and that more hospitals are starting to see the value rather just the costs of food for both staff and patients rather than simply renting their lobby out to Maccy D’s and Starbucks. I know the staff struggle to find more than lattes and biscuits on nightshifts and welcome the communal spaces with microwaves that St Thomas’s  offers everyone for their use.

Ironically now I’m home, I’m probably not going to be eating quite as well as I’m mainly existing on toast and microwaveable rice as I don’t have much appetite and have to be low fat and bland for a week or so. I think the slow cooker will be pressed into action tomorrow when I feel a bit more like getting out bed. My friends have been terrific, but sadly none of them has an extensive menu of tinned fruit about their person like the NHS offered me thinking it’s still 1972….