Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The reason I spent my childhood wishing I'd been brutally and relentlessly trained to be an Olympic champion

OK, so there are cult films, and then there are straight-to-video films from the early 1980s whose target audience is girls under 10 – we’re talking really niche audience. Nadia, the 1984 biopic about Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, falls into the latter category. The film traces her gymnastics career from the age of six, when she begins training in earnest under her coach/guru/dictator Bela Karoyli; to her triumph at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, subsequent struggles with form and then – of course – epic comeback before the 1980 Olympics.

Here’s some background: Gymnastics routines used to be judged on criteria that added up to 10, but noone actually ever scored 10. Then 14-year-old Nadia cartwheels into Montreal in 1976 and SEVEN of her routines score 10*. It was way more significant than breaking a world record when you consider the competition score boards couldn’t even display it, only having space for a single digit and two decimal places. (This also makes for the most highly-charged scene in the film…)

I’m pretty confident that every late 20s/early 30s woman who was obsessed with gymnastics was OBSESSED with Nadia. My mate Ange informed me of its availability on the internets, so I recently eschewed my usual ‘Friday night online’ of True Blood fan fiction and strangers’ Facebook wedding photos (I jest… or do I?) to instead watch all 10 dodgy chapters on YouTube. I’ll be diplomatic: the script reads like it’s been translated from English to Romanian and back to English, and the performances are about as wooden as a balance beam. As a sidenote, I now realise my entire grasp of communism came from this movie – think hardened peasants wearing headscarves and drinking cherry brandy during a perpetual winter, with only one black and white TV in each village.

But, refreshingly, it’s free of those distracting love stories that siderail the main narrative (a la Ralph Macchio-Elisabeth Shue in Karate Kid) and there are more retro leotards than an 80s party in Shoreditch. Most importantly, I was inspired to bust out some handstands and a walkover the other night as soon as the credits had rolled – and we all know that’s the requisite response to watching an ultimate sports movie.

* I only just discovered footage of Nadia Comaneci's actual routines from the 1976 Olympics - they're a damn sight more impressive than the watered-down versions in the movie.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mothershuckin' Oysters: A Beginner's Tale

I put oysters top of the list of all those things that demand an acquired taste. The more patronising of us might call them ‘adult’ foods; I don’t, I just silently judge you when you say you don’t like the texture or aftertaste (philistine!!). Also on this list are any mollusc or shell fish that hasn’t been smoked or pureed, coffee, rum and raison ice cream, mango and avocado. (Ok, so these are all the foods that I used to hate and now enjoy, but we’ll just keep pretending I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and a can of Beluga caviar in my tiny hand…). I've got to admit I felt pretty triumphant the day I gleefully realised that slurping down ‘sea water snot’ could actually be quite enjoyable.

Because I’m a fiend for anything with spicy Asian flavours, my preferred dressing is a dipping sauce spooned onto the half shells, containing grated ginger, chopped Thai chilli and coriander stalks, soy sauce, lime juice and a dash of sesame oil. But really, you can’t go wrong with cracked pepper, sea salt and a wedge of lemon.

So anyhoo, last week was old mate Clare’s actual birthday so, rather than have her spend the night commiserating in the bath with a bottle of wine, or trying to reserve a table for nine at Trullo when they’d said eight was their limit, we decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed and collaborate on a dinner party to end all dinner parties. We came, we cooked, we cleaned, we conquered.

I was allocated that very important responsibility of nibblies, which was definitely a step up from my last dinner party contribution, green salad – “really Megs, some lettuce and a cucumber will be FINE” (I choose to believe that I’m never given a bigger task because everyone’s scared of the bar being lifted to irretrievable heights, amirite?). I could have rocked up with some hummus and a packet of crackers, but being a competitive overachiever I decided to do a mad closing-time dash around Brixton market, charming the white wellies off tens of fishmongers, and arrive at Clare’s with an assortment of Scottish oysters on ice. And some lemons. The fact that the oysters were unshucked was no biggie until all the kitchen hands realised noone else had ever actually shucked an oyster – I mean, we’d all seen Rick, Jamie, and Bill do it during many seaside cooking shows, and you just had to jam a screwdriver into that hinge bit and shuck it open, so it wasn’t too involved, right? (See below for imagined technique*)

Because noone other than an OCD utensil hoarder or a Sapphire Coast resident would actually own an oyster shucker (short stubby knife with protective handle), I’d recommend a super-sturdy slotted screwdriver (not a Phillips head!) on a leatherman or a short handle, so the head is easier to manipulate. Knives, forks, spoons and scissors do NOT work.

My job on the shucking production line was to prise the oysters open enough to hear that ‘shuck!’ sound, and then pass them on. Despite initial estimations, we managed to get all 27 oysters open, halved, plated up and eaten. Everyone agreed that the occasional gritty shard in the mouth added a truly fresh and authentic effect. I think they were just being polite because they’d seen the bloody hands and the array of sharp, discarded and broken metal implements lying at close range in the kitchen.

* Image courtesy of Guardian.co.uk. Today’s ‘How to Cook’ section on the Guardian website had a step-by-step photo guide which *might* have been useful last week. But they failed to include the icy Tom Collins which I found to be crucial in navigating the process (and a delicious match when we finally ate them).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tramping and Glamping for a weekend in Wales

Enough of this inner-city London lifestyle of foodie snobbery and hipster diversions! It was high time go back to basics and get some fresh country air – and I must admit the prospect of wearing the same clothes and barely bathing for two days was kinda enticing (I can’t lie - I’m a closet grot)

To mark two impending 30th birthdays we decided a weekend of verdant walks in the great outdoors was in order. Not to do things by halves – e.g. a leisurely car tour of the Cotswalds or a B&B in Dorset, for example – we squashed six adults and a pile of untested camping equipment and hard liquor into a VW Touran (only slightly bigger than a VW Golf) and hightailed it to Northern Wales to hike the country’s tallest mountain. The Friday night journey was six-odd hours with a Burger King pit stop. Yep. Hardcore or WHAT.

So we arrived at the world’s most back-to-basics and environmentally-friendly campsite (translation: no lighting, no powered sites; no radios or cars after 11pm and DEFINITELY NO NOISE AFTER MIDNIGHT) just before midnight. Consequently, we pitched tents in drizzling darkness, and hoped to god we hadn’t unwittingly set up camp in a swamp or near a hornet’s nest. (“Hey guys! Let’s camp over here in this huge empty space… Hang on, why hasn’t anyone else camped over here…?”). It was pretty exciting wondering what we’d wake up to find the next morning.

My expectations were pretty much blown to smithereens. The Llyn Gwynant campsite is nestled between the banks of a freshwater lake that’s like glass on a fine morning, and a lush green mountain range peppered with craggy rocks. For the princely sum of £9 a night you can wake up to this little patch of heaven and, most conveniently, meander through some country lanes to the base of Mt Snowdon (there are about 10 hiking routes stretching around the mountain).

You know when you look up a mountain and you see real live clouds gathered in patchy formations? I never knew what it was like to actually walk through one. Turns out, it’s COLD, WINDY AND WET. The weather was pretty woeful for the majority of our walk which, from door to door, clocked in at nearly 7 hours and 25km. The old faithful Coogi cardigan did a stellar job – being the epitome of style and substance, as always – but I finished up soaked to the skin, and all of us swimming in our shoes thanks to an ill-advised “short cut” through a swampy field on the way home.

It’s impossible to be grumpy when you’ve literally and figuratively conquered a mountain. Ok, so I nearly got a bit grumpy when I was overtaken in the vertical scrambling stakes by a family of four kids (Dad: "Kids, are we having fun?" Kids:"YES!!!!"), and a dog with three legs, and there was this weird guy who ran up and down the mountain three times that day (he said he was “training for Mont Blanc” – he wasn't talking about the fountain pen), but we did it, and noone through a hissy fit or slipped over in their inappropriate footwear.

I wish we’d had more time to explore the quaint little village of Beddgelert, a few minutes’ drive from the camping ground. We demolished a bag of local fudge over some jars at the Tanronnen Inn, and the ice cream shop came highly recommended by some locals. By the time we got into deep and meaningfuls with Roger who ran the general store and adjacent B&B (he and his wife are selling the lot - it's time to retire) I was plotting a way to fund a country retreat in Snowdonia – sure, my UK visa runs out in July next year, but where there’s a will there’s a way…

Highlight of the looooooooong drive back to London was the fish ‘n’ chips picnic we had in Abersthwyth, a university town and holiday resort on the west coast. Lunch came courtesy of the Dolphin Restaurant which, in my opinion, represented a perfect amalgamation of an old school chip shop and a New York diner – big, generous booths, no frills menu, and an assumption that everyone wants their chips drowned in salt and vinegar. The mushy peas worked a teat on the battered cod, and the stunning coastal vista swept away any indigestion before the next six hours in the car. All in all, a remarkable weekend and all-too-short taste of Wales' unspoilt drawcards.

Street Car: Sign up as a member for self-service pay-as-you-go car hire around London
Llyn Gwynant campsite: Nantgwynant, North Wales. £9 per night with your own tent.
Argos : Seriously, you can get kitted out with a tent, camping mattress, and most basic camping equipment for under £50.
Tanronnen Inn, Beddgelert, Gwynedd
Dolphin Restaurant, Great Dark Street, Abersthwyth

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Get your reggae reggae on with Jamaican jerk chicken

To the rest of the world, Jamaica is probably best known for creating reggae music, track and field world champions and a legitimate religion based on smoking da weed, but its cuisine really rates a mention, too. With a penchant for stews, puddings and starchy root vegetables not unfamiliar in Anglo cultures, it borrows flavours and spices from Spanish, Indian and Chinese cuisines and, best of all, most recipes only require a BBQ or stock pot, meaning less washing up!

Image courtesy of Cosmicchile.com

This Saturday it’s Jamaican Independence Day, which means the Brixton Market down the road (a.k.a. London’s Afro-Caribbean heartland) will be going OFF. If you only eat Jamaican food once, make sure it’s Jerk chicken. It’s like the Peking duck of Chinese food, or Coq au van for Francophiles. Imagine a KFC Zinger fillet, multiply by 10,000 and you’re still nowhere near imagining how sensationally tasty it is. This recipe is adapted from Levi Roots’ version (he is the undisputed king of Caribbean cooking in these parts) and serves 8 people – or 3 people who’ve just run 15km.

8 chicken quarters with skin
1 lemon, juiced
1 quantity dry jerk seasoning (see below)
1 quantity juicy jerk marinade (see below)
Chilli barbecue sauce, to serve

Dry jerk seasoning
1 tsp all-purpose seasoning (I'm gonna admit I have never used this - it's the spice equivalent of Gravox, and is probs packed with MSG - but if Levi says to use it, we'll just go with it, OK?)
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp mixed dried savory, marjoram, oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil and tarragon (or just chuck in a bit of every dried green herb in your cupboard)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

Juicy jerk marinade
4 Scotch bonnet/hot red chillies, deseeded and chopped
1 spring onion, green end only, chopped
1 onion chopped
2 tbsp ground allspice
2.5cm/1 inch piece fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbsp mixed dried herbs
1 tbsp dried basil
3 tbsp all-purpose seasoning
1 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1 tsp fresh ground cinnamon
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp coarse ground black pepper
500ml bottle tomato sauce

1. Rinse the chicken under cold running water, then sprinkle over the lemon juice, drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.
2. Put the chicken in a non-metallic dish. Rub in the dry seasoning, then pour on the juicy jerk marinade and coat the chicken. Refrigerate overnight if you can.
3. Fire up the BBQ. Lay the chicken pieces on the barbecue, cover and cook for 10 minutes on each side or until the juices run clear when you push a knife into the centre.
4. When the chicken’s thoroughly cooked, transfer to a chopping board and chop each piece into about 4 portions with the bones. If you're going Brixton stylee, serve with salad (a.k. shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber) and hot chips. Otherwise serve with your regular classy array of BBQ salads.