May’s FAQ marks our 24th interview in this monthly series, so we marked the 2-year anniversary of this interview series with a chat with Russell, the well-traveled creator of wonderful food and cooking blog London Eats. The site made it onto my ‘Favorites’ list from the very first day I discovered its vivid imagery and immersive narrative writing style. Together with fantastic recipes that manage to look uncomplicated thanks to Russell’s gift for description, they never fail to make me feel as though I’ve just personally shared a meal with him or perhaps taken a trip abroad to a new place where good food and drink flow freely. During our chat, he shared his reasons for badly wanting to visit Japan (they run closely parallel to mine), told me about the most memorable foodstuff he encountered while traveling and eating his way through the European Union, and gave what is probably the most comprehensive and engaging answer ever to one of my ingredient challenge questions. Click on in and see what else we talked about.
Flavorful World: With the warm weather season having begun, pair your favorite lunch or brunch dish that is typically served cold, with your favorite cocktail. What aspects of these two items suit them well to one another?
Russell: This is a nice easy one to start with! My brunch favourite is a Finnish mushroom salad that I first tasted in Helsinki when I was there for a wedding. It’s called sienisalaatti and is made with sliced mushrooms flavoured simply with salt, pepper and chives, then enriched with cream. It sounds so simple, but it delivers a very earthy and intensely savoury flavour which is great as part of a brunch spread – it’s really delicious and perfect on a warm morning with crispbread and some other Scandinavian-inspired goodies such as dill potatoes or beetroot salad.
The perfect drink with this would be a glass of good, dry champagne. I think that if you’re going to drink a cocktail in the morning with brunch, you may as well go for the classic, and I think the fragrant, brioche-like notes from champagne do work well during the day. I’m not looking for too much sweetness or too much complexity, so I think these two pair together nicely. If you did want to force me into something a little more fancy, I would suggest a twist on the fizz and turn it into a French 75 with the addition of a little gin and lemon to add a citrus and aromatic kick to enliven the palate.
FW: In my refrigerator, I have two leeks, five purple yams, three extra-large eggs, a cup of dry white wine, and a block of extra firm tofu. Help me utilize these and up to three additional ingredients of your choosing to create a warm meal.
Russell: Wow, this is about the most difficult set of ingredients you could have thrown at me!
The obvious thing with such a rich selection of ingredients would be to make a savoury tart, so I would add pastry for the shell, cream for the filling and some semi-dried tomatoes to add a bit of contrast to the tofu and the yams. But that seems like the easy option.
So how about something more unusual…I’m not familiar with purple yams (even if purple potatoes are starting to appear more often in British stores) but thinking on my feet, I would want to make sure that their colour is a feature of the meal. I could use the yams and eggs to make a purple yam soufflé, so my first additional ingredient would be some milk. Yams are also sweet, so as ingredient number two I would need a strong cheese, perhaps feta or pecorino, to balance their sweetness. I would want to marinade the tofu in miso paste (my number three) before pan-frying or grilling, and I would cook the leeks by slicing in half, covering with the wine, adding a little seasoning and olive oil and baking until tender and the wine has been absorbed. There you have it – purple yam soufflés with marinated tofu and baked leeks, just by adding milk, cheese and miso. Does that sound interesting, and more importantly, would you come to my restaurant if I served this? If this all sounds a bit too fusion, there is always the purple yam, tofu and leek tart…
FW: Having traveled and eaten throughout the European Union, name a food or dish that you’ve most enjoyed elsewhere than in London, and in what EU region you experienced it. What made this food so memorable?
Russell: I’m not going to go for a food or a dish as such, but for an ingredient. It’s dark pumpkin oil that I first discovered when visiting a friend who lived in Styria in Southern Austria. It is really amazing stuff which is also referred to locally as “black gold”.
During the summer months in that part of Central Europe, you come across fields and fields of big, fat pumpkins. These are not grown for their flesh, but for their seeds which are used to make pumpkin oil. It has a rich, deep green colour with an intensely nutty aroma and flavour. It also seems to have a very thick, velvety texture which clings to salads when drizzled. It is used in a wide variety of dishes – salad dressings, drizzled on breads, sauces and can even be used on top of ice cream.
Pumpkin oil is so memorable to me in part due to its distinctive and very delicious flavour, but also its scarcity. Until very recently, it was not well-known, and I loved being able to source bottles of it via my friend whenever she went back home to visit. It is getting more popular these days, and I’m glad, as it really is utterly delicious. I love to use it in risotto for a beautiful colour and distinctive flavour.
FW: As of the date of this interview, which of the ‘On Location’ drinking establishments that you’ve assembled on London Eats have you re-visited most recently? What drink drew you back to that locale, and why?
Russell: That’s got to be Skylon, which is a firm favourite of mine. It is located on London’s Southbank and has great views over the River Thames. The location is fantastic because it’s located amid the buzz of the riverside, but it is also a calm and relaxed place that you can escape to precisely when it is so busy. The crowd is also very mixed – from people meeting up after the end of the working day to those waiting to go to a concert. The décor is also great – the building that houses Skylon, the Royal Festival Hall, was constructed in the 1950s and has been recently renovated. The space is sleek and ever so slightly futuristic, and they offer a good range of cocktails, from classic to innovative contemporary offerings. I love their use of unusual British flavours such as vodka infused with Earl Grey, rhubarb syrup or heather honey and Seville marmalade.
Just in case you’re wondering what Skylon actually means, it refers to a slender steel tower that stood on the south bank of the Thames, apparently floating in the air, during the Festival of Britain in 1951. While the structure itself is long-gone, it’s a nice touch that the name lives on through the Royal Festival Hall’s restaurant.
FW: Monday, May 20 through Sunday, May 26 is National Vegetarian Week 2013 in the UK. Tell us your favorite vegetarian dinner entree whose recipe utilizes less than five ingredients.
Russell: I love Middle Eastern flavours, and one of my favourite entrees is based on a Persian dish. It’s a simple salad of young green rocket leaves, plump dates, salty feta cheese and lightly toasted hazelnuts. This gives you a great combination of textures, and the sweet, caramel flavour of the dates is amazing with the sharp creaminess of the feta.
Of course, this recipe does need a little dressing, so I suppose I would have to cheat and use a couple of extra ingredients for the dressing. Is that allowed? I would only need olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper.
If you’re being strict and will only let me have five ingredients in total, I would have to go for a salad of perfectly ripe tomatoes, tossed in olive oil, a splash of little vinegar, plus a little salt and a dash of black pepper. Leave it to stand for half an hour, and it makes a fantastic and very simple start to a summertime meal. Sometimes you don’t need to invest lots of time and effort into making something spectacular when nature has done all the hard work for you.
FW: Which of your recipes would you say has received the most positive feedback from people who have tasted or attempted them?
Russell: My recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns is one of my most popular posts, and I’m really happy that it has worked for lots of people. I lived for a year in the Swedish capital Stockholm, where I developed a weakness for their cinnamon buns, called kanelbullar. They’re different to the buns you find in the US or Britain. The dough is flavoured with cardamom, and the filling is a simple butter-sugar-cinnamon mixture. They’re finished with an egg glaze and sprinkled with “pearl sugar”. And never any icing! There were few things that were as delicious during the cold days of winter when you walked into a café and ordered a cinnamon bun with your coffee.
A few years ago, I tried to find a good source for these Swedish buns in London. While I came close (there is a bakery selling the Finnish version of these buns) I couldn’t find one, so I set to trying to work out a recipe of my own. I think there are a few other bakeries selling these today, but this is one of those recipes that is always popular when I make it, and it’s probably the most popular recipe for people to try at home too. I think the popularity of the recipe is partly due to the simplicity – it doesn’t really rely on any fancy ingredients and you don’t need to master any difficult baking techniques. If you can knead dough, you can make great cinnamon buns!
FW: Tell us a place in the world to which you have never traveled, but hope to visit one day. What food(s) do you most look forward to eating during your time there, and why?
Russell: That’s easy – it has to be Japan! From what I know of the culture, it seems to be so different from anywhere else that I have ever had the privilege of visiting. This also seems to apply to the food – I always love to eat Japanese, and I am fascinated with the different flavours and cooking techniques as well as the unusual ingredients that they use. I love to use miso and soba noodles in my cooking, so it would basically be a dream food holiday.
One aspect of their cuisine that I would really like to explore is their wagashi sweet tradition. There is a shop in the centre of London selling wagashi and it is fascinating how different this is from the European view of cakes and sweet treats. Wagashi are expensive but always exquisite and make use of interesting flavours (red bean, sweet potato or lily root, anyone?). I would love to see some wagashi shops in the main Japanese cities and to understand some of the traditions associated with them.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
Russell: I did quite a bit of thinking about this, but came down in favour of the title The Food We Ate. It sounds a little bit historic, but I think it’s fitting in light of how I see food and the way I approach my blog.
Writing posts and using media such as Twitter and Instagram is very much focused on what is happening right here right now. However, when you start to look back at what you were doing at the same time one, two or five years ago, it is incredible how memories, specifically those related to food, can bring back recollections of the day. A good example is a post I did on elderflower fritters. You might read that post and think you’ve got a good recipe to make an early summer dessert. When I read that, I can remember the day I picked the elderflowers, the hot sunshine, the smell of the blossoms under the sun, and a long bicycle trip through the old, now wild, canal network of East London. I think that shows the power that the digital record that is blogging can carry with it, and even though it is a very public medium, I think that as the creator of each post they still have more personal meaning, and thus more memories, for me. So I would take everything I’ve done to date and badge it as The Food We Ate to chronicle the times in which I lived and the food that went with those times. The two are interlinked, so I think that title works.
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
Russell: I recently moved (from a flat to a house) so I’m enjoying getting into gardening. I’ve got a fairly small space to work with, but it gets lots of sun (when the great British weather is being cooperative) so I’m trying to grow as much as I can. I have cultivated lots of herbs and tomatoes, and my next project is to introduce some heritage varieties of apples and vegetables, so that all my work in the mud and the rain yields results that you can’t buy!
Apart from gardening, I enjoy taking advantage to everything that my adopted home city of London has to offer. The cultural life is amazing, things change rapidly, and I love to check out new restaurants and markets. There is always something different to try – you can never run out of new experiences here.
Finally, I love to travel – new places, new people, new sights and new food to try! The local cuisine always gives you a particular way to experience and place and its people. If there is a local snack, drink or cake, it has to be tried!
*Note to Readers: Pay a delicious visit to the UK without leaving your computer keyboard by visiting London Eats and make sure to follow along on Twitter: @london_eats and Instagram to keep up with its latest accomplishments. You also can (and should) email compliments on Russell’s food photography and recipes to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.