Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Harptree Court Treehouse - yes please!!

My current internship has led to me researching unusual dwellings for an upcoming magazine feature. As someone who is fascinated by this sort of thing, it was quite an interesting brief, but it became even more exciting when I started stumbling across unusual hotels. Being a bit of a sucker for a good hotel - mostly dreaming about visiting rather than actually doing so at the moment - and also being a bit of a romantic at heart, my imagination was captured when I stumbled across this treehouse hotel in Bristol. I thought such things were relegated to the over-active imaginations of 12-year old boys in Enid Blyton novels, so was thrilled to find that such a place exists, and even more to learn that it is in England (typical British weather not withstanding!)

Described as a "boutique cottage in the trees" by one guest, it is a private en-suite hotel room located, quite literally, in the trees. Sounds like heaven, and certainly somewhere I'd love to visit given the chance!

Friday, 17 August 2012

A rusty jewel in the American breakfast crown

My culinary exploration of American breakfast options took a turn into the unknown this week, as I cracked open a pot of Apple Jacks. This is one American cereal that I never tried on family holidays (back in me yoof, like). The idea of a combination of cinnamon and apple flavours is just about acceptable in a pastry, a cheeky danish in the afternoon perhaps, but I was expecting the combination of flavours to be too overpowering for a breakfast cereal.

When I opened the pot, the shape of the cereal resemble the culinary Deity that is Froot Loops, however the colours were disappointingly underwhelming. It may seem obscure to pre-emptively judge a breakfast cereal based on the brightness of colour, but I've come to learn that when we're talking American cereals, brighter colours=more e-number = happier Lau.

Happily, when milk was added, the colours appeared brighter, although still nowhere near the Froot Loops spectrum. The flavours however, were very bland, proving my fears of overpowering flavour to be unfounded, and resembling a lightly perfumed cardboard, as opposed to the slightly more mature sibling in the Froot Loops family that I had been expecting.

It is my conclusion then, that Apple Jacks are the rusty jewel in the otherwise shiny crown of American breakfasts.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Too much of a good thing?

My fascination with American imported food has taken off recently, mostly due to the increase of shops selling these products. Naturally, London has a plethora of these shops, my favourite of which is the Cyber Candy chain. On a recent trip to London, I visited the Camden chain and made a few purchases. The next day, on a trip to Brighton, I stumbled across another of these shops, Hardy's,  and bought a few more bits and bobs to keep my sugar levels up and my nostalgic fibres happy.

A few days later, a trip to Tunbridge Wells revealed at least three shops within the town centre where you can get hold of Lucky Charms, Froot Loops and other American goodies (if you're willing to pay the price). Whilst the trips to the shops in London and Brighton excited me, the number of American food retailers in Tunbridge Wells saddened me.

It took me a while to suss out why this made me sad,  until I realised that it was several fold. What was once a rarity  - the joy of finding my favourite, mainly unobtainable foods - is now occurring in every town. Not only does this mean that the novelty is wearing off, but it also means that they are becoming accessible to more people. Perhaps it's selfish, but I remember, with a bizarre sense of nostalgia, the days when you could talk about Lucky Charms in the UK, and very few people would know what they are, mainly only people who had visited the USA themselves. Somehow having everyone discussing these foods makes them less special, and as they are some of the fondest culinary memories of my childhood, I resent this.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Experimental cooking: chicken and mushroom stroganoff

When I cook, I don't tend to follow recipes too closely. Baking, I follow the recipe to the letter - there is too much potential for things to go wrong otherwise- but cooking tends to be largely experimental.

So when I was left in charge of dinner and I  told my mum we were having [imagine the voice of Jean from Eastenders] "Sausage surprise ....the surprise being that there are no sausages", she looked a tad worried, but left me to it nonetheless.

 My plan was to attempt a chicken and mushroom stroganoff. I tried a creamy beef stroganoff once before, and although the flavour came out well the beef was too tough.

I began by cutting two chicken breasts into thin strips and frying them in oil on a low heat. A few minutes later I added sliced closed cup white mushrooms (a generous amount to allow for fry shrinkage), and began to add in double cream and white wine (approx. 2:1 ratio) and stirred. It's best to add a little liquid at a time and replenish slowly as it evaporates, rather than adding it all at once. I added a couple of teaspoonfuls of gravy granules- it sounds bizarre, but it's an old trick to add both flavour and colour- and a pinch of ground black pepper. I left this simmering on a medium heat for around 15 minutes, stirring near constantly to avoid the cream and wine separating, and meanwhile set the basmati rice on to cook. Finally I added some sweetcorn to the stroganoff and left it to simmer for a further couple of minutes before serving.

The final outcome was disappointingly bland. I realise that the sweetcorn was a strange choice, but whilst cooking it I felt that it needed a little extra something than just the mushrooms and chicken. Onions were considered, but the texture of onions combined with the texture of mushrooms is enough to set even the best pearly whites on edge. I also thought about peppers, but thought that would subtract from the creamy taste/texture I was going for and venture further into fruity territory. However, even with the addition of the sweetcorn, the final product needed salt and pepper to add some ooomph (ooomph, I've come to realise, is an essential ingredient to any meal). Perhaps using a different variety of mushroom such as a chestnut mushroom would have given a stronger undertaste. Even so, a herb of some sort would not have gone amiss. Lesson learned for next time!

Monday, 6 August 2012

JB's Diner, Brighton

Wandering aimlessly on a lazy day in Brighton with a friend recently, we had agreed to stick to our usual mantra of cheap and cheerful, reducing our food options down to two choices; Wetherspoons or Pizza Express (we had vouchers!).

Then wandering down a backstreet towards the seafront, we stumbled across a place called JBs. Initially thinking it was a typical seaside chip shop, we then realised it was an American Diner, and were both inexplicably drawn to it. Having a quick glance at the menu outside, the prices seemed reasonable, and we agreed that it was an option. Fast forward a couple of hours, and a few fairground rides and a couple of air hockey matches later, I was still thinking about the burgers on the menu, so we headed back to JBs, not too sure what to expect.

At around 5pm on a dull Tuesday afternoon, only about four tables were occupied, so we were seated and served immediately. The drinks menu, normally the easiest decision for someone as indecisive as me, provided the first hurdle; Dr Pepper as on the menu - one of my favourite drinks, but not usually available in restaurants. But then I saw one of the most exciting things I have ever seen listed on a menu- a Lucky Charms milkshake! I was seriously tempted, but at £5 a pop, it took some serious consideration, to the extent that I had to ask the waitress to return a few minutes later to take our drinks order. In the end, I decided against the idea of the Lucky Charms milkshake, purely based on the price (my heart was saying yes, but my head was telling me I could get almost a whole meal for that in Wetherspoons!).This is a regret that I will live with until my dying day, or at least until the next time I am in Brighton with money in my pocket.

Onto the food, and despite my thoughts of the burger which had drawn me back there, I went for the scampi, and my friend went for the Blues Brothers burger. The food arrived within about 15 minutes, although the episodes of Tom and Jerry being shown on the TVs made time go a lot faster, simultaneous reverting us to our childhoods and, in our exhausted states, causing us to laugh way more than two 20-somethings should have done at a children's cartoon. I wonder if today's children will still be laughing at Spongebob Squarepants when they're in their twenties?

I digress. The food arrived, and we were thoroughly impressed. The portion sizes were very generous (it felt like the fries were multiplying as I was eating them, in a relentless cycle). The side salad, with dressing, was delicious, and far more effort had gone into it than the usual limp lettuce leaves that are half-heartedly placed on the plate.

Stopping halfway through our epically sized meals, waiting for second wind to strike, gave us a chance to fully take in our surroundings. Decorated like a stereotypical American diner, t-shirts from films such as Back to the Future and Ghostbusters hung from the ceiling, whilst the walls were adorned with the usual film star posters, and car number plates and American road signs.  I was particularly enjoying the electronic Coca Cola sign with a countdown to the millennium clock, until I realised that although this felt like very recent history to me, the turn of the millennium had taken place before the children at the next table had even been born. In a quick act of emotional self preservation, my eyes reverted back to the episodes of Tom and Jerry still being shown on the TV screens, allowing me to go back to the innocence of childhood.

Although the food was delicious, the large portion sizes meant that we both left some food on the plates. At this point I was glad that I had not gone for the milkshake, which no doubt would have been even more filling. Although I was upset a not getting a chance to try the Key West Key Lime Pie (something which I have always wanted to try but never got round to), the food I had was more than adequate to sedate me.

The bill came to around £20 for the two meals and two drinks, an absolute bargain considering the quality and quantity of the food, and cementing my intention to return here next time I visit Brighton.

On the way out we noticed that there was a small retail kiosk selling other American memorabilia, however fears for our hastily dwindling finances prevented us from looking too closely.

Owing to my food induced comatose state, I forgot to take a photo when leaving the restaurant, but if you're even vaguely familiar with Brighton, it's pretty easy to find, situated on the seafront about halfway between the pier and the cinema. Alternatively, set your Lucky Charm radar to "milkshake" and you'll find it within seconds.