Archive for Fish

Networking nightmares

In my last employed job almost everyone’s role included some networking, the success of which was measured not against the potential benefits of making the connection but against the length of time (the longer, the more impressive), the venue (if a Michelin star was involved, all the better) and the wealth of the guest (Times Rich List members preferred). I still remember the black look thrown at me by the chief executive when I declined to join him for some “hobnobbing with four millionaires” at a celebrity chef’s restaurant.

Yes, of course I built strong relationships with the organisation’s members and, no, my answer wasn’t driven by arrogance. I needed the time more than I needed to support his ego boost.

When I went freelance I decided to liberate myself from networking lunches believing that, with so many independent cafés a short walk from my front door, mid-morning or mid-afternoon hour-long sessions over a cup of delicious coffee would be more productive.

Inevitably, freelancers desperate for work have to network wherever and whenever – and compromise (what, me?) has to be faced.

Well-known organisations (chambers of commerce, BNI) tend to meet at breakfast which, for anyone who washes their hair every morning, means a five-thirty alarm call for a seven o’clock sharp start. Business gained by me (I gave them all a good go)? None – probably because my “one minute to win it” was spoken in tongues, the only language I can manage after a short night.

So I was thrilled when I discovered a couple of networking groups which deliberately avoided power breakfasts. Recognising how women prefer to work, they met in the evening over high-class nibbles and drinks. Business gained there? None. Be warned. If you admit to having organised anything, you will be roped in … I seldom networked for me; I networked for the group.

Out of the blue an email invited me to the launch of a new group.  In my town and for women. We met … over lunch (yes, yes, but it was informal and infrequent – monthly – and it worked). Business gained? A sizeable commission at the second meeting on the back of which I gained another through which I got a third – and the first came back for more.

Four years later, it happened again. An email bounced in announcing a new networking group. Several emails followed – from friends, all asking if I’d heard about it and would I be going. Held in a local restaurant, the cost brought two drinks and a range of nibbles. Will I go again? Despite it being at lunchtime, the buzz was energising and the potential – well, who knows, but some useful contacts were made. It’s time to eat not lunch but my words.

Eating my words (drinks party small eats)

No recipe for this one. No photograph either (I forgot to get out my camera). I hope you can picture the scene …

  1. Mini croques monsieur – three-bite rectangles, slightly burnished from a very buttery frying, with a generous dollop of proper creamy béchamel sauce wobbling on the top
  2. Blinis, lavishly buttered when warm, with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of lumpfish roe (I’d have added a coffee spoon drop of crème fraiche and a snip of chives)
  3. Tiny pastry cups of an unidentifiable veggie mix with raw onion (why raw onion when trying to make a good impression is the priority?)
  4. Rounds of fried bread (yet more more butter) with a generous twirl of rare beef on top (they never reached me, stuck in the centre of the room with much of the food passing round the edges)
  5. Small choux pastry lozenges filled with cream and drizzled with melted chocolate (easy to scoff, as many did though not savoury-toothed me)
  6. Slivers of flaky pastry with slices of strawberry layered above crème patissière (very hard to pick up and eat, leaving many with sticky fingers and gloopy lips).

My mother called this sort of food “small eats”. I find the term so much more reassuring, and wholesome, than “canapés”.

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Caught out

“Hello?” It was more of a groan than a greeting, grumping its way out in my early morning voice. Who could possibly need to ring so early, waking me up?  Early? It was 11.30! And on the line was my best client. I sat up and tried to sound professional (though the rustling of the duvet surely gave me away).

What constitutes a best client? Quantity of work is one measurement but this client gives me very little – the annual report (it comes round every year so it’s regular work – and the deadline is December which helps with increasingly expensive Christmases) and, perhaps, a leaflet or two in between. It’s a charity so it gets me at my (very reduced) charity fee. But it pays up with no quibbles – within a fortnight of invoicing.

In my books (where each month there seems to be less and less to double-enter) paying on time is what clients should do; paying early makes me feel they value my work (this is, of course, self-delusion; their accounts department plugs me into their computer without a thought).

If you rely on clients paying on time, you will be forever disappointed. Advised early on by a fellow freelancer, I ask for payment within 14 days. Charities excepted, this is seldom respected but it means I can put the pressure on sooner. When invoices are few and far between, it can make the difference between crashing through the overdraft limit then having to find a more sympathetic bank (impossible) or being able to buy supper (and I don’t mean out; I mean me, a plate and the television). The big guys – household names – have no sense of what it is like to be dependent on a few hundred pounds. If you thought accountants were dull, going freelance will teach you how creative they can be when dreaming up excuses for not paying up.

Back to waking up, which I just have. Freelancing means you can work, wake (and go to the gym) when it suits you but, if your office is in your bedroom, you will be caught out. My solution? A loft extension – with builders arriving at 8am six days a week for 25 weeks. So much for early morning freelance freedom.

A good catch (Smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish salad)

Smoked mackerel from a fishmonger

1 cooked beetroot

2 to 3 tsps grated horseradish root

2 tbsps half fat crème fraiche

Half a lime, squeezed

Watercress or a mixture of various leaves

Black pepper

  1. Make the beetroot salad. Gently stir the grated beetroot into the crème fraiche. Add one or two tsps of lime juice – enough to loosen the mixture and give it a bit of tang. Cut the beetroot into chunks and lightly stir them into the crème fraiche mixture, turning it over once or twice – it’s prettiest if you can see some bright white crème fraiche amidst the pink.
  2. Cut chunks of smoked mackerel or serve it in fillets if you prefer (I like the glistening amber of the skin so tend to chunk it).
  3. Serve it with a few leaves and a small piece of lime to squeeze over, if you like your fish with lemon or lime (I don’t).

Pretty in pink.

The first time I had beetroot in a sauce of some kind was when I was involved in pressure group politics and my then boss, Iain Picton, invited his committee to a strategy discussion over lunch. He’d made a white sauce for the beetroot. It was, of course, immediately a pink sauce. And so is mine today. Two stirs fewer and it would have retained more of its whiteness which would have been prettier.

And here I am eating smoked mackerel again. It is, as you’d expect, from my local fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers) and deliciously moist and soft – nothing like the hard, dry, vacuum-packed, uniformly-dull stuff. Seek the real thing out if you can. It’s such an easy way to eat your two to three portions of oily fish a week – and can be turned into something delicious without any effort.

This blog first appeared as an article in PR Business in which I had my own column for six heady weeks.

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When work is snatched by play

It’s the Real Food Festival and I’m off, following my taste buds, with Gill Thomas who is the brainchild behind the Chiswick Food and Drink Festival. She is testing the potential for a full-blown festival in 2011 by organising a smaller food and crafts fair before Christmas, so we were on the hunt for local (to us) producers or specialist, one-off products that would appeal to west London’s greedy foodies.

Why was I there? Keen to work with restaurants and food businesses I was on the hunt for clients. So, this was genuine work. Until my stomach – and greed – took over. Yes, I came home with a heap of business cards and as many good intentions but I’d spent more time sidetracking myself when there was good tasting to be done (as well as, sadly, when it fell a bit short of expectations).

Attending trade fairs or exhibitions is part of every freelancer’s life. Going with a sense of purpose – and achieving it – requires planning. And that means arriving early to scour through the exhibition guide, marking the stalls you want to visit on the map and planning your route through the hall – and then doing that first, before your feet start complaining. Indulging yourself visiting stalls for personal purposes is a reward served best as afters.

If only I could do as I say. When the subject of your work is your passion, the passion can overwhelm the work. Resisting the urge to stop on my journey to taste and taste again proved hard, especially as it was all presented to me on a plate. I lost focus; I gained weight.

I waddled out well after lunch – annoyingly having forgotten to buy one thing that really grabbed my tongue by the throat – a silky olive oil from Tuscany made by Suzie Alexander. She didn’t lose focus and now lives the dream having moved from St Margaret’s (just across the river from Richmond) to buy an olive grove in Val di Chiana (near Siena) where she is surrounded by other family-run smallholdings making artisan products. She had brought with her the local Pecorino cheese which even had non-cheese loving Gill declaring it delicious. Depending on the season she might also bring farro (spelt) flour, lentils and chick peas, Prosciutto, saffron, truffles and sweet treats such as panforte. You see how I get sidetracked?

So, on this very untypical day, snitching my way round the Earls Court exhibition centre (wood shavings on the floor, livestock in pens – all very Good Life), this was my lunch …

Snatching snitches at the Real Food Festival (Cholesterol and calories)

  • thin mini-slices of ciabatta steeped in Secolare olive oil from a grove of mature olive trees, some of which are hundreds of years old, and a nibble of Pecorino: Suzie’s Yard (www.suziesyard.co.uk)
  • tiny slivers of Organic milk chocolate infused with cardamom made by Hove-based Holly Caulfield. Holly is also an artist and designed the gorgeous packaging which she makes up herself. She produces 100 bars of chocolate a day, one flavour at a time, and golly, Holly, was it good: Chocoholly (www.chocoholly.com).
  • small cubes of Winterdale cheddar, plain and smoked, made by hand from Fresian cows’ milk by the farmers who own the herd. The milk goes straight from the cow to the cheese vat in under 20 minutes which makes the Betts family the nearest farmers to London who make cheese from their own cows’ milk – instead of what most cheesemakers do: use milk bought from other farmers. Not only that … the cheese is matured on their farm in an underground cave deep in the chalky soil of the North Downs in Kent, giving it a rich, nutty and long-lasting flavour. It was obvious to me why it was a gold World Cheese Awards winner in 2009: Winterdale (www.winterdale.co.uk).
  • curls of smoked sirloin steak (unusual and delicious, giving bresaola a run for its money) and smoked salmon (gloriously mild, moist and moreish), a knob of smoked Cropwell Bishop stilton and a drizzle of smoked olive oil (delicious as a marinade or for dipping, too strong as a dressing in my view). The steak was moist and the smoking subtle; it could easily feature in another lunch on these pages. They also produce smoked garlic, but had run out by the time we reached their stall: The Artisan Smokehouse (www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk).
  • smears of pickles, chutneys and sauces on tiny bits of cream cracker, zinging round my mouth and, in the case of the Scotch Bonnet chutneys, bringing tears to my eyes. The sweet lime chutney was a delight – nothing like a lime pickle, more like a tangy, spicy marmalade. I’d met their maker, Chris Smith aka The Pickle Man, about six months’ ago when having a coffee in Munson’s in Ealing with a foodie friend; he was at the table next to ours and, intrigued by our non-stop talk about food, joined in, giving us each a jar of Brinjal pickle to try. Everything he, son of St John and Dolly Smith whose names are on the labels, produces (to his grandmother’s original recipes) is authentic and far better than any other pickle I’ve ever tried: St John and Dolly Smith’s pickles and chutneys (www.thepickleman.co.uk).
  • a sip of Sipsmith gin and barley vodka – all the way from Hammersmith where it is distilled in a copper-pot still called Prudence. Look out for it in the smartest hotel bars in London: Sipsmith (www.sipsmith.com).

Showing great self-control (by not eating the brochures or packaging).

Snitching was what we did as a family, when no one was looking. In the days of having a larder, there was usually something hanging around just waiting to be snitched – the remains of a roast or a steak and kidney pud, one of my mother’s legendary beef curries, cold roast potatoes, carrots or marrow in a white sauce, gravy, sprouts sprinkled with buttery toasted almond flakes left in the pan after the trout meunière had been devoured. And then there was the snitch box – an old Quality Street tin with “Snitch Box” stuck on the front, a Dymo label willingly punched by me aged about nine (and I still have it – the tin and the Dymo kit). We never knew what my mother had left for us but it was always worth the anticipation.

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Sunshine procrastination

One of the joys of freelancing, I felt instinctively when I first went solo, would be the freedom to take each day as it comes. Sunny and warm? Ring up a friend and suggest a stroll along the river. Cold, wet, windy days could be spent doing the routine drear that comes with work of any sort. Which explains why, time after time, I find myself, as today (fabulously sunny and a sudden invitation to a pavement café lunch), tackling chaotic heaps of crumpled receipts which will, if things go well and I haven’t run out of Tippex, provide neat columns of figures in my double entry accounts book so I can do my VAT return.

VAT return? She must be doing well if she’s bothered to register for VAT! Well, no. On the advice of my accountant (a friend and fellow freelancer; I do like to support others in the same boat), registering for VAT would save me money (clients pay it to me; my VATable expenses reduce my liability) and it would make me look more professional. Ahem.

For many freelancers, registering for VAT has nothing to do with income levels and everything to do with saving the smallest sums while incomes bump along the bottom nearing and, just in time, pulling back from the overdraft limit.

And what a chore it is – and it floors me every quarter, as I sit on the carpet surrounded by piles of this and that and nothing like enough invoices, pledging never again to leave it till the last moment. To save accountancy fees, I don’t just hand over envelopes of receipts. To save my time (at the time, without a thought for future time), I don’t bother to keep them in date order though I do, now, put them in monthly envelopes. It’s a start.

Nor do I, against an initially firm resolution, do my books every month. The quarterly brown envelope arrives from The Controller, HM Revenue & Customs and only then do I think about book-keeping. With the emphasis on “think”.

And so it goes, quarter after quarter, month after month, week after week, day after day.

If your income is high enough and steady, and if your clients’ demands can be anticipated, living a spontaneous life can be yours. Putting off what needs to be done until just before the deadline is the freelancer’s biggest temptation. And I succumb every time. Perhaps, on second thoughts, I should go out for lunch. I can always do the books tonight …

Or I could bring summer indoors.

Sunshine on a plate

2 red peppers, halved and deseeded

2 cloves of roasted garlic (or use raw garlic, crushed)

8 baby plum tomatoes, halved

8 anchovy slivers, chopped

Olive oil

Black pepper

200g Puy lentils

Kallo organic vegetable stock cube

1 onion, peeled and quartered

I carrot, peeled and quartered

2 sticks of celery, cut into big chunks

Bay leaf

Basil

  1. Fill each half pepper with four halves of tomato (or more or less, depending on the size of the peppers and tomatoes)
  2. Nestle some of the garlic and anchovy pieces under and between the tomatoes
  3. Drizzle two generous teaspoons of olive oil (I used the oil from the roasted garlic) over the mixture in each pepper
  4. Grind on some black pepper
  5. Bake at 160° for about an hour (it depends on your oven so check after about 40 minutes; in mine, I often find they take an hour and a quarter or so). They should be soft, slightly collapsed and burnished in parts
  6. Cook the lentils in the stock with the onion, carrot, celery and bay leaf, until they are al dente. Drain them and, when they are cool, remove the onion, carrot, celery and bay leaves (this can be fiddly particularly if, like me, you feel compelled to scrape off every lentil from every bit of carrot and celery). Gently stir about a tbsp of olive oil through the lentils
  7. Eat as much as you wish, scooping up some of the oil that has escaped from the peppers and sprinkling over some basil. The rest goes in the fridge for another day.

Nutritionally balanced - unlike the columns of figures in my quarterly accounts

I didn’t bother to peel these tomatoes as they had such delicate skins. If you use standard tomatoes, or can only buy baby cherry tomatoes with thick and tough skins, do peel them. It’s silly to spoil this slice of heaven to save two minutes of your time.

And now … where is that Tippex.

A variation of this blog first appeared as an article in PR Business, in which I had my own column (heady days).

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Quick smoked mackerel pâté with a seasonal twist and added memories

I love this time of year. Looking over gardens below my top floor flat, my world glistens with the pale pinks and soft whites of magnolia, cherry and apple blossom, and clematis. I take the long route to the High Road, specifically to walk past other people’s front gardens.

It’s also Alphonso mango time – so I take the even longer route home past my wonderful greengrocer, A&G on Turnham Green Terrace (where they know me as Alphonso Jo). Grown only in Bombay, I can’t look out on Alphonso mango trees here but I remember walking past one, its branches glinting with golden yellow fruit in the pre-monsoon sun, on the way to the park with my ayah, Mary.

By far the smallest mango, the Alphonso’s lack of stature is more than compensated for by its huge flavour. Intensely perfumed, sweet and creamy, its juicy flesh is the colour of 24ct gold and its stone almost free of hair (though floss is useful if you suck it as dry as I do). Called the queen of mangoes, once you’ve had one, no other is worth bothering with.

Something else not worth bothering with after you’ve had the real thing is vacuum-packed smoked mackerel. When I discovered whole smoked mackerel straight from the smokery, at my excellent fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers, next to A&G), Phil said I’d never eat any other. And I never have. Moist, soft, smooth, subtly smoked and not even slightly stridently fishy, it’s a silk versus cotton no-brainer. One fish feeds three to four so, as I don’t have a freezer, I need to think of things to do with it to ring the changes.

Today’s late lunch

1 fillet of a fishmonger’s smoked mackerel

1 tbsp of Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche if you aren’t worried about your fat intake)

Half a lime

Black pepper

Cayenne pepper

One Alphonso mango

Half a red chilli

Bunch of watercress

Olive oil

  1. Holding the mango upright on its curved edge, slice down about an inch in, against the flat central stone. Turn it round and slice down the other side. Cut across the skin surrounding the centre section then peel it away gently, sucking off the fruit as you peel. Cut away chunks of mango from the stone or … let’s be realistic, slurp it off noisily, breathing in its heavily perfumed scent as rivers of golden juice trickle down your fingers. This is no time for manners; it’s a sensuous moment to be shared only with yourself.
  2. Back in the real world, run the rounded tip of a knife through the fruit in the cut-away sides, carving down to (but not through) the skin from top to bottom in strips about 1cm wide. Do the same to cut across the strips creating squares. Scoop out the squares and put them in a bowl.
  3. Finely chop the chilli. Gently mix with the mango and a light squeeze of lime juice.
  4. Roughly mash the smoked mackerel with the Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche), adding black pepper to taste. Slacken it slightly with a squeeze of lime juice (not too much, add it a tsp at a time so you don’t mask the flavour of the fish).
  5. Dollop the pâté on a plate and sprinkle with cayenne pepper (this is for looks, not heat – there’s plenty of that in the chilli). Add the mango salsa and decorate with generous sprigs of watercress drizzled with olive oil.

Learning not to be purist about Alphonso mangoes

I’m normally purist about Alphonso mangoes, eating them just as they are. When I take them to friends who say they’ll put them into a smoothie I look horror struck and lurch into lecturing. But this boxful has been disappointing; every mango has been partly bad and I’ve picked my way around to find enough to chunk. And then I discovered it was heavenly with the pâté. Apologies to everyone who’s experienced my ‘you must not sully an Alphonso’ tirade. Though I do think shoving them in a smoothie is a step too far.

As the last mouthful of mango salsa slid into my mouth I realised that, because Icelandic volcanic dust has brought air freight to a halt, Alphonsos will be stuck, and rotting, in Bombay – and the livelihoods of the pickers and packers will be at risk. I know buying them is bad for my carbon footprint but my guilt is balanced by the fact that I’m helping (I hope) some of the poorest and most exploited people in the world – in my home town. Let’s hope flights resume soon, not just to satisfy my Alphonso addiction.

(Interesting napkin ring? It’s an Indian toe ring – purely decorative and, yes, from my childhood.)

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Avocado, anchovy and Parmesan salad

I’ve borrowed this recipe (slightly adapted) from Mark Hix, whose column in The Independent magazine is one of my favourite things about Saturdays. I’ve loved his column from the start but I still miss Simon Hopkinson’s weekly words. I had a huge thrill when he (Simon) walked past me in Chiswick’s Waitrose, not long after it opened.  Annoyingly, I was already in the queue for the check-out so I couldn’t trail him to inspect his food-shopping habits. I haven’t spotted Mark Hix out and about anywhere but I have been within a couple of yards of Gordon Ramsay (cheering him along during a marathon a few London marathons ago; he looked at me in astonishment when I, astonishing myself, heard myself shouting “Go, Gordon. Go!”).

Mark recommends Pecorino romano; Parmesan is in second place on his list. As I’m addicted to cheese (and recently gave it up, as a daily diet) I thought I’d be more at risk of eating the whole chunk of Pecorino and that I might just nibble at the Parmesan, exercising what passes for self-control with me.  Plus my fantastic deli (Mortimer & Bennett) sells Parmesan already wrapped in bits so I could choose a small bit and feel very smug. I set off – another lovely day, blossom everywhere, students relaxing on the green, no smoke tracks in the sky, a bit more volcano dust on my car (apparently it fell in Chiswick over the weekend) and came a cropper. No Pecorino romano.

You see my problem? I set off for Parmesan and my will power doesn’t even last the four minute walk. “But we do have Pecorino Sardo,” said the French girl behind the counter (whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I still don’t know). “What’s the difference?” I asked, as I noticed that Pecorino is a ewe’s milk cheese and so not as bad for me as cow’s milk Parmesan. I discovered that romano is the  hardest of the Pecorinos; sardo comes next followed by Toscano and Siciliano, the softest and milkiest.  “Perhaps I could have a taste,” I heard myself say, increasing my calorie intake before deciding on the one that was recommended first. And then a remarkable thing happened. The wire cutter slipped, the slice was smaller than I’d asked for, I was offered a bigger piece – and I said no thank you.

Lunch

Half an avocado (ripe, obviously)

Three or four slivers of anchovy in olive oil (I buy them in jars)

25g Parmesan (or Pecorino romano, if you have willpower)

Walnut oil

An oatcake

  1. Run a knife through the avocado flesh from side to side in strips, cutting down to but not through the skin. Carefully scoop out the slices with a teaspoon. Scrape any remaining flesh from the peel and eat (no one’s looking). My mother told me that her mother called this “cook’s perks”. It applies to the oysters of a chicken (or turkey), too. Arrange the avocado pieces on a plate.
  2. Chop the anchovy fillets into chunks and dot them over the avocado.
  3. Flake the Parmesan (I used a veg peeler) and scatter it over the avocado and anchovy.
  4. Drizzle with walnut oil (enough to moisten it, not create a slick).
  5. The oatcake adds a bit of bulk and slow energy-releasing carbs for afternoon energy.

Can you spot the avocado underneath the cheese?

It was divine – a satisfyingly flavourful mix of sweet, salt, cream, crunch, subtle, strong all in balance. The dreaminess of the avocado came through the powerpacked anchovy; the dry crunch of the Pecorino added contrasting texture (crisply salty romano would be even better); the oil gave it a nuance of nuttiness. It didn’t need the oatcake.

And there’s still some Pecorino in the fridge. For the moment.

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