Archive for Fruit

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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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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