The modern dining phenomenon of 'grazing' is something I struggle with. Born out of the international rise of tapas, dim sum, and conveyor belt sushi, restaurants of all nationalities have jumped on board the sharing plate band wagon. Cicchetti restaurants serving Italian snacks of Venetian origin seem to be the latest to hit the UK dining scene, following Mexican (Wahaca), Middle Eastern (Nopi), Pacific Rim (Kopapa), French (Brawn, Terroirs) and Basque (Pix Bar). Now even good old British pub grub is trying to get a look in (The Bay Tree).
The problem is when eating in these places, social etiquette always gets in the way of satisfying hunger. Inevitably the first half hour is spent discussing which dishes each person is going to choose 'for the table'. "I don't like anchovies", pipes up one diner. "I'm allergic to mussels", says another. "If you're going to order the scallop dish (£10 for one diver caught beauty) then I don't want the £4 bruschetta" thinks the penny pincher. For a table of any more than 4 people, you normally need a UN peacekeeper in the mix. When it comes to actually ordering, you've forgotten what you agreed on, and the protracted process inevitably ends with the question to the waiter, "Do you think we have ordered enough?" "Yes", he says, but that is only partly true, as you will have ordered enough for the greedy one who helps themselves to all the good stuff, but not nearly enough for the quiet wallflower who holds back to ensure there is enough to go round. That's me folks.
When the food arrives, it is always served in inconvenient portions - I often curse the arrival of three large prawns for a table of four. Or when the three prawns land on a table of two, the faux altruistic struggle between the ladies that lunch begins.
"Mmm, those prawns are delicious, aren't they? We can't leave it. You have the last one!"
"No you have it, I know how much you love prawns, and you know I'm on that diet"
"No, please, I had more of the meatballs than you did!"
"Oh, well, ok. But if I have the last prawn then you have the last battered mushroom."
"Deal!" (but inside all she is thinking is SELFISH COW, SELFISH COW, SELFISH COW!)
Restaurateurs have seen the money making potential of small plate dining. You order a few plates, then order some more and completely lose track of prices and plates as the wine starts to flow. Before you know it you've spent way more than you would have on a three course meal, and you still need to make a stop at KFC on the way home to calm the hunger pangs.
It's not that I don't like the food these places serve. It's just I'm greedy and I don't want to share.
For anyone who feels the same, do what I do and find a quiet moment when no one else is in the house. Make these terrific porcini croquettes, then hide under the bed and don't come out until you have stuffed your face to the point where you can eat no more. Wipe the tomato relish from your face then remove any crumby evidence from the carpet and, when your family get home, put on your best poker face and act like you've just had a boring piece of toast for lunch.
Inside you will be smiling, a big, big mushroomy smile.
Because you're worth it.
Porcini Croquettes With Tomato Relish (serves 1 greedy person)
1 tbsp olive oil
20g dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms, soaked in 40ml warm water
5g grated parmesan
¼ tsp white truffle oil (optional)
30g plain flour
175ml full fat milk
Salt and pepper
For rolling the croquettes
4 tbsp plain flour
4 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
Oil for deep frying
Remove the mushrooms from their soaking liquid and squeeze out any liquid back into the soaking bowl. Dice the mushrooms finely.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil over a low heat. Add the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook on a low heat for 45 seconds.
Combine the mushroom soaking liquid with the milk and add little by little to the roux to make a white sauce. Stir well to beat out any lumps. Stir in the chopped mushrooms, parmesan and truffle oil and cook for about 5 minutes so that the mixture thickens. It should be very thick when ready.
Remove from the pan and spread out on a tray. Cover with cling film and allow to cool to room temperature before placing in the fridge to firm up.
Prepare three bowls or small trays, one with flour, one with beaten egg and one with breadcrumbs. When the mixture is chilled enough to shape, take spoonfuls about the size of a walnut and drop into the flour. Gently shape into a sausage. Coat in egg, then in breadcrumbs and place on a plate. Repeat with the remaining mix.
Heat a deep fat frying or saucepan of oil to 180°C. When hot, carefully place the croquettes in the oil to fry. When golden brown all over, remove and drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot with tomato relish.
500g tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
100ml red wine vinegar
100ml caster sugar
Pinch of dried chilli flakes
Salt and Pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
Sweat the onion in the olive oil with a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
Add the chopped tomatoes, vinegar and sugar and simmer for 30 minutes until the liquid has reduced and is the consistency of jam. Taste, season, and then bottle in sterilised containers. You can blitz the relish in a blender for a smoother finish if you prefer.