30 December, 2006

Racking up the holiday food

Our local butcher, Andrew Northrop on Mill Road, Cambridge, is great! We wandered in there on spec., our first post-Christmas shopping venture, and asked about getting a rack of lamb. The request was inspired, yet again, by a recipe in "Cook with Jamie" and we were delighted to be told that we could get one on the spot. The butcher prepared it in the "French trimmed" style and even gave us half a dozen miniature paper chefs' hats to cap the exposed bones.

We followed Jamie's recipe to roast the lamb and make a potato and cauliflower dauphinoise to serve with it. The rosemary (for the lamb) and thyme (for the dauphinoise) came fresh from our garden. Rather than spinach, Jamie's choice of vegetable, Lisa prepared a medley of stir-fried broccoli and french beans.

27 December, 2006

New Cookbooks Rule!

Having recived it as a Christmas gift from yours truly, Lisa has been keen to cook from Jamie Oliver's recent book "Cook with Jamie". Last night we indulged in (rump) steak with the cremiest white beans and leeks and tonight we went for the blackened pork (loin) fillets. Both dishes worked well, even with the supermarket meat we used.

Last night's creamiest white beans (we used cannelloni) and leeks were delicious and the leftovers went very well with smoked salmon and cream cheese for breakfast today. Tonight Lisa served the pork with American-style accompaniments: rice cooked with fellini pasta, vegetables blanched and then stir-fried and a tomato and iceberg lettuce salad with a plain viniagrette.

Lisa also received a copy of the River Café Two Easy by Rose Gray & Ruth Rogers of London's River Café, so I epect we'll be dipping into the pages of that in the next few days!

13 November, 2006

New cat on the block

Meet Leonardo, Leo for short. Who's now called Robbie, after going through a number of names that refused to stick. This picture was taken the day he arrived, as a six-week old kitten.

When we first took him in, our intention was to find a good home for him: we have two grown cats of our own, after all! We made handful of attempts to offer him to suitable homes, none of which worked out. After a couple of weeks we had to face up to the fact that we'd grown so used to having him around that we weren't keen to see him go. So it was off to the vet with him to get his first round of shots and we officially conceded that we were now a three cat household.

02 October, 2006

Dream Come True in Shropshire

With the start of the new academical year looming, Lisa and I squeezed in a trip to Shropshire in the last week of September. Ever since I read Malcolm Saville's "Lone Pine" books as a child I've longed to go there and walk the hills that feature in the stories. That it finally came together, after plans to visit the Chilterns and Brecon Beacons fell through, in the week that Lisa celebrated a landmark birthday was just magical. I booked us in to a guest house in Church Stretton, a town which had the dual advantages af a railway station and direct pedestrian access to the hills I was so keen to explore with Lisa.

So, last Monday, we set off by train from Cambridge and, travelling via Birmingham and Shrewsbury, arrived in Church Stretton in the late afternoon. Checked in to Brookfields Guest House, we strolled across town to the Buck's Head Hotel which seemed the most appealing of guest house proprietor Paul's suggestions for eating in town. We weren't disappointed: the food was better than average pub grub, the Timothy Taylor's Landlord was well kept and the bar where we ate was smoke-free until 9pm.

The BBC Weather Forecast had alerted us to the possibility that Tuesday might be the best day of the week, weather-wise, so on returning from the pub we consulted the guides that Paul lent us to plan a walk that would take full advantage of the good weather in prospect. Breakfast was the traditional guest house "full English" fry-up of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes. Straight afterwards Lisa & I set out through the town and out the other side towards our objective of the day: the Long Mynd.

Following the route proposed in the guide, we left Church Stretton via Townbrook Hollow and, once we emerged from the woods, immediately found ourselves immersed in the full glory of the wonderful scenery of the hills. The walk up to the valley head was everything I'd been hoping for and the warm sunshine made the experience perfect. As we walked, the changing perspective continually revealed new delights and we spent plenty of time drinking in the views. Unsurprisingly, Lisa's efforts to capture some of this in photographs were more successful than mine but even so they provide only a faint echo of the impact of actually being there.

Once up on the Long Mynd itself we soon found a comfortable spot to break for lunch. We made short work of our sandwiches, had some coffee from our flasks and then lay back to enjoy the sunshine for a while. After a couple of hours rest we gathered ourselves and set off to return to Church Stretton, this time by way of Ashes Hollow. The descent was easy-going in the early stages but there were a few stretches lower down that needed a little more care. We encountered several sets of school children surveying sections of the lower part of the valley. As on the way up, the scenery continually delighted us to the point that it was hard to take it all in. All the way we enjoyed great walking weather so it all added up to a near perfect day in the hills.

The Ordnance Survey map I was using seemed to show a footpath back from the foot of Ashes Hollow to near the starting point of the walk but the guide insisted that there was no viable alternative to the road. After some debate we opted for the road so we walked down into Little Stretton, noting the Ragleth Inn as we passed, and trudged back to Church Stretton. Walking so far on the road in walking boots left us very footsore on our return to the guest house. We rested our weary feet for a couple of hours then headed out to the Buck's Head again for dinner.

Wednesday's weather started out dull and offered little prospect of improvement so we spent the day shopping in Church Stretton and walked (not in boots this time!) out to Little Stretton for a delightful lunch in the Ragleth Inn. Amongst our purchases was a number of local walking guides, including an updated edition of the one we used yesterday. Consulting this we learned that the path shown on the OS map was now the recommended way to finish the walk. We bought a second copy of the guide to donate to the guest house and maybe save future guests from unnecessary sore feet! For the third, and last, time we took dinner in the Buck's Head.

Thursday was Lisa's birthday. Gallantry forbids that I mention the number involved but this was a significant birthday for Lisa. We had booked dinner for the evening in the Ragleth Inn while we were there yesterday and Lisa wanted to spend her birthday out in the hills again. Today we turned our backs on the Long Mynd and headed for the nearby landmark of Caer Caradoc. We scrambled our way up the southern flank and spent a while enjoying the wonderful views from the top before making our way, more gently, down the southerly end of the hill. We broke for lunch at the foot of Willstone Hill. The weather wasn't very warm so we didn't dally long after eating and set off up and over the hill: again a steep ascent was followed by a more gentle walk down the other side to the village of Hope Bowdler. From there we returned to Church Stretton following a path parallel to the road as far as we could before taking to the road itself to get back to the guest house.

We rested and freshened up then set off for Little Stretton again for dinner at the Ragleth Inn. We ate in the dining room rather than out in the bar and enjoyed a very nice three course meal with a decent bottle of wine in a relaxed and un-fussy atmosphere that suited us perfectly. We walked contentedly back to Church Stretton and the guest house for our last night.

On Friday we returned home to Cambridge by train via Newport in Wales and London, thus completing a circular route. On Monday we returned to our jobs uplifted, refreshed and ready to plunge into the new academical year. The trip was every bit as special as we'd been hoping and looking through the dozens of photographs we took while away brings back wonderful memories of those magical few days in Shropshire and has us vowing to return soon and often to this uniquely beautiful part of the world!

18 September, 2006

The Long Goodbye to Chiara & Other Endings

Tuesday I was invited out to the local Thai restaurant, Sala Thong, for lunch. Just a few minutes walk from where I work, this is a firm favourite as a lunch destination. The food is arguably the best Thai cuisine to be had in Cambridge and the special lunch menu is extraordinary value for money. Lunch was on Anya, one of the Faculty's departing graduate students, who (having completed her PhD in Japanese studies) will be swapping one Cambridge for another when she takes up a job at Harvard in the near future. On this occasion I opted for the lentil curry and the expected high standard was upheld. The company at lunch was every bit as enjoyable as the food.

Our charming Neapolitan friend Chiara departed this week too, having finally submitted her PhD (also in Japanese studies). On Tuesday she made a farewell visit a casa nostra. Home-made pizza was again the dish of the day and Chiara contributed a special Neapolitan touch to one of the three. The base of Pizza Chiara had a raised rim and the topping consisted of Lisa's tomato sauce, a sprinkling of dried oregano, chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese, anchovies, and torn leaves of fresh basil from our garden. Trust me, it tasted every bit as good as it looks!

Farewell to Chiara continued on Thursday with dinner at Lady Patricia's home in Shelford. Lisa and I met up after work and caught the train to Shelford together, joining the others the "Stone House". Our hostess cooked us all a stunning West African dish of chicken in a peanut sauce accompanied by pasta, runner beans and a dish of shrimp and vegetables. We ate out on the terrace in the early evening and then repaired to the kitchen for coffee. To round out the evening we moved to Patricia's "white" room to watch the 1978 film of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" with Robert Powell and a host of other British stars. The film was tremendous fun, the pace never flagging for a moment and with high tension perfectly balanced by moments of humour all the way up until the climactic scene at Big Ben which was brilliantly done. At last the evening was over and we all caught the train back to Cambridge.

On Friday evening, Lisa, Xavier and I paid our first visit to the revitalised "Castle" in central Cambridge. This is an example of the trend that turns basic pubs into lounge bars and was so recently re-opened that the smell of fresh paint was still very pungent. The service and food were great until we tried to pay our bill and leave, at which point chaos reigned as there seemed to be no record kept of what we'd eaten or drank.It rather spoiled the otherwise very pleasant effect but no doubt the staff will get the kinks in the system ironed out promptly.

For the first time in longer than we can remember, Lisa and I spent the entire weekend a deux at home. Our bikes stayed in the shed and the shops on Mill Road had to survive without our custom for once. Towards the end of Saturday we roused ourselves to action in the kitchen and concocted a "store cupboard" Indian meal of lamb keema, a green bean & sweetcorn korma (created by yours truly) and basmati rice. The combination of the dry keema, the wet korma and the plain rice went very well together.

Sunday continued the low key approach to the weekend. I watched the last two stages of the Vuelta a España (a bicycle race of some note, m'lud!) on Eurosport and was gratified to see riders from my Fantasy Cycling Team continue their domination of the race through to the final stage sprint in central Madrid. An hour's strenuous gardening left us feeling hungry so we set to on the pizza trail yet again and treated ourselves to the same thing we've so recently served our treasured guests chez-nous.

The musical background to most of the weekend was an album by Turkish singer Sezen Aksu which was a gift of Chiara and which seemed to match the prevailing mood perfectly.

11 September, 2006

Blackberries & Brice

Our culinary week included large quantities of curry left over from Emma's visit and a reprised moussaka, by yours truly, which was a big hit with the lady of the house. On Saturday, Lisa's colleague from Rheims, Xavier, visited for an evening of home-made pizza and a movie. The pizza dough was made using our bread machine and Lisa made a tomato sauce using tomatoes from our garden. The toppings of the three pizzas all began with the tomato sauce and grated mozarella cheese. To these we added (1) Spanish chorizo sausage (2) Greek feta cheese and olives (3) French goats cheese and red onions.

After dinner we settled down with a few beers to enjoy the movie Xavier brought over with him, the hilarious "Brice de Nice" by James Huth starring Jean Dujardin as the eponymous hero. This had us all in stitches, even though Lisa and I were often dependent on the English subtitles. Knowing and loving Nice as we do, we enjoyed the settings and the humour of a surfer dude waiting for his "big wave" in that most placid of bays. I'd highly recomend checking this out on DVD.

Sunday, we reprised last Sunday's ride, into Cherry Hinton along Coldham's Lane and then through Church End and Fulbourn Old Drift up into Fulbourn itself from where we took the Shelford Road over the Gog Magog hills. We paused for a while to collect blackberries for jam and to take some photographs, then continued down into Great Shelford and back up to the Babraham Road and Addenbrooke's. Our way back was then up Mowbray Road and along Coldham's Lane home.

04 September, 2006

Food & Bicycles

Reading these entries, you might be forgiven for wondering if there's anything much else in our lives!

This week isn't going to offer much in the way of contradiction either. Early in the week Lisa created a chicken, mushroom and spinach gratin which proved a big hit, served with brown basmati rice. On Saturday we pulled out a lot of curry stops to entertain our Changchun friend, Emma, to dinner. I contributed my masala bhindi and fragrant basmati rice, Lisa cooked the Keralan dish Kochi chicken curry from Atul Kochhar's "Indian Essence" and made a sublime dal tarka with split red lentils, Emma prepared a cooling cucumber and tomato raita, and the feast was rounded out with paratha bread and pickles from Al Amin. We had mango kulfi (Indian ice cream), also from Al Amin, lined up for dessert but Emma pleaded a full stomach so that stayed in the freezer. As usual, the talk continued long after the food was finished and Emma returned home, clutching her share of the Kulfi, a dinner's worth of left-overs from the meal, and a sea bass long after midnight.

The sea bass was one of two that we got from our local East Asian superstore, Cho Me, on Saturday. We enjoyed ours on Sunday evening, baked in foil with herbs from the garden, served with some variety of choi (also from Cho Me) accompanied by a home-grown salad of mixed leaves and tomatoes.

Prior to the sea bass, Sunday had been a bicycle day. My hopes of travellin to London to see the final stage ofthe Tour of Britain and supporting events in the flesh were scotched by our very late night on Saturday but we did watch the BBC coverage of the race on the TV and enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the reigning world champion, Tom Boonen, win the final stage with veteran Brit Roger Hammond second and rising British star Mark Cavendish third. Watching this on the box inspired us to get out on our own wheels and go for a ride. After our exertions last Sunday, we wanted to see how we felt with some local undulations so, after we rode into Cherry Hinton along Coldham's Lane and then through Church End and Fulbourn Old Drift, we climbed up into Fulbourn itself and, from there, took the Shelford Road. This led us over the Gog Magog hills and down into Great Shelford. Our way back was through Trumpington, along Long Road and Queen Edith's Way into Cherry Hinton, then back through Church End and along Coldham's Lane home.

28 August, 2006

Adventure in search of art

Before I get to the title story, the obligatory weekly round-up of gustatory highlights. Moussaka and wholemeal basmati rice, served up by Simon & Zoe as a thank-you for help installing an ADSL/WiFi modem, proved such an inspiration that we reprised the meal for ourselves four days later. Lisa has done a thorough job describing Saturday's pot-luck dinner in her new Blogger blog: A Cook's Journal. I'd just like to add that the specific jumping off point for the musical exchanges was our "Remains of Tom Lehrer" collection which particularly caught the eye of our Belgian guest.

Sunday we kept our promise to visit an art exhibition in darkest Hertfordshire where Irene, an ex-colleague of mine from a former life, was exhibiting. Google Maps told us that the venue was only a little over seven miles from the nearest railway station, a distance that seemed well within our cycling capabilities, so we loaded up the bikes on the train and set out. Once off the train at Bishop's Stortford, we tangled with the local one-way system for a while before finding our road out into the countryside which was a long uphill drag. What we hadn't realised was that the route was entirely composed of an unbroken sequence of long and/or steep hills which made the ride at least twice as strenuous as we'd anticipated. It took us over an hour to get there but the effort was worth while as the exhibition was thoroughly interesting and mounted in a delightful setting. We were also blessed with the best weather of the three-day Bank Holiday weekend. I was, of course, intrigued to see what Irene had been up to since we were both made redundant by Nortel five years ago: most of the work she was exhibiting had partly involved physically weaving multiple photographs together, a technique I'd never previously encountered and which gives rise to complex images that repay lingering attention. There was plenty of other interesting work on display too, tremendously varied in scale, style and technique. The tea and home-baked cakes were pretty good too! Knowing what faced us, we were better prepared for the ride back to the station and completed the return trip in well under an hour but certainly that was the hardest fifteen miles we've ridden together! Dinner in a rooftop tapas bar in Stortford, with friends (and their son) who'd also attended the exhibition, preceded the train ride back to Cambridge. Nice!

This weekend marked the start of the Vuelta a España, third of the three major cycle races on the professional calendar. After the doping problems that have scarred the sport recently, the anticipation is muted but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that sporting efforts, rather than pharmaceutical skulduggery, will make the headlines from Spain over the next three weeks. Tomorrow (Tuesday) also marks the start of the rather smaller-scale Tour of Britain, I hope to have more to say about that next week.

21 August, 2006

Curry, dumplings and a haircut

We got in a curry mood this week. Our favourite indian cookbook is called Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar, largely because the food we cook from this book tastes so different from the standard "curry house" cuisine so prevelant in this country. Another "go to" book from our hundred-plus-strong cookbook collection is Shehzad Husain's Vegetarian Indian Cookery. Lisa especially likes my variation on the masala bhindi recipe from the latter volume, made with gorgeous fresh okra from Al Amin store on Mill Road.

Our friend from Changchun (now resident here in Cambridge), Wu Lejun (a.k.a. "Emma"), shook us out of our curry mood when we visited her place and she served us a delightful meal featuring superb steamed dumplings. As so often happens, Emma cooked enough food for at least twice as many diners and we didn't need to be asked twice to take the left-over dumplings away with us! Re-heated and with fresh dipping sauce they furnished two tasty lunches with ease. In contrast with the high-voltage excitement of last week's pot-luck, dinner with Emma was a perfect example of gentle, relaxed conversation which it seemed could have gone on indefinitely.

Having recently been several times acused of having had my hair cut when I hadn't, this weekend I engaged Lisa's services to trim the locks and emerged looking much neater. It is just one of Lisa's multitude of talents that she does an excellent job of cutting my hair. It remains to be seen if the real haircut will attract the same degree of comment as the suspected one(s).

14 August, 2006

Pot luck

After a week hard at work, at work, we enjoyed a total contrast on Saturday evening when we hosted a pot-luck dinner for three friends. None of the friends had been at our place before but we all seemed to be totally at home from the word "go" and the kitchen was a riot of laughter and interaction as dinner was assembled. On a day when I had to take the cats to the vet for their annual vacination boosters and we also has a couple of friends from before we moved to Cambridge drop in with their toddler, I had too much on my plate to also prepare a dish for dinner - good intentions notwithstanding. Lisa, however, contributed enough for us both with some barbecued lamb kebabs and a spectacular hummus. The evening was all too short and we'll do our best to arrange a repeat performance ASAP.

07 August, 2006

Being sociable

Seem to have been out and about more than usual this week. Between doing a bit of computer consultancy on the side, dinner with colleagues and meeting friends in town I've been out far more than I've been in, which is unusual for me.

Sunday Lisa & I took in an exhinition at Kettle's Yard in Cambrigde called "Lines of Enquiry: thinking through drawing" which featured drawings done in the course of their work by a whole range of professionals; from the obvious architects and product designers, through surgeons and astronomers to geneticists and mathemeticians. The drawings themselved ranged from purely functional diagrams and charts to polished final artwork. I felt that the functional items and the private rough workings displayed gave more insight to the subject than the more finished, public items. Well worth a visit!

31 July, 2006

Lots can happen in a week

Rather a different mood prevailing to that of a week ago...

So soon the euphoria of the Tour de France evapourated as the fog of doping descended. Now, our hero winner stands accused of cheating; with little prospect of the verdict being overturned. Who's telling the truth? Will we ever know? Right now it seems we never will know who was honest and who was not. A sad time to be a cycling fan. :-(

On the food front, we had a cracking coleslaw with our barbecued chicken on Saturday night. I got so keen on writing up the recipe for the dish that it became the debut entry in a whole new section of Nightwol's Perch.

24 July, 2006

Busy, busy weekend

Whew! Seem to have had a crowded couple of days. Stayed up all night Friday Night/Saturday Morning talking with family in New York on Skype, which threw the body clock completely out of whack for the next 48 hours.

Daytimes were filled with TV images of the last two days of the Tour de France. OK, so an American won again but a more different race to those we've endured the last few years would be hard to imagine. Having tipped Floyd for the Tour from the start of the season, I was especially pleased that he managed to pull off the win. Just a shame he's not on my fantasy team!

Zuba still rule the stereo after we saw them again LAST weekend in Cambridge and bough their album "Allez" from them after the show.