Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zest for good food at Zeen

Drummond Street is Euston's version of the Curry Mile. Well, nowhere near a mile, but there is a great selection of Indian restaurants to choose from, including several vegetarian restaurants.

One of my favourites is Zeen: not for the views (it is in the basement) but for its tasty, well-priced food, and some enticing dishes like whole crab cooked with fresh coconut, chilli and coriander, or Goan roasted chicken breast with coconut, mint and coriander.

Starters are worth pausing for: tandoori mushrooms are stuffed with paneer cheese and peppers, the individual flavours still distinct but combining to tongue-pleasing effect. Fish (the variety is not specified) and paneer cheese both come fried with chilli and are not for the faint-hearted. Mixed vegetable pakora are not startling, but a workmanlike, non-greasy rendition. Crispy fried okra with mango was not bad, but cut a bit small for my preference - it seemed more batter than okra.

Main courses are also pleasing: lamb Xacuti, another Goan dish, comes in a fiery sauce, with coconut helping to temper the heat. Dal makhani, one of my favourite pulse dishes, comes with kidney beans as well as black lentils and is in a rich creamy sauce. A lamb biryani and a vegetable jalfrezi were excellent too.

We didn't sample any of the wines, but they do a mean mango lassi, plus Tiger and Cobra lagers.

The restaurant was set up by Zeenat Harnal, daughter of "curry king" Sir Gulam Noon, although they recently mentioned that there had been a change of management, so whether she is still involved is not entirely clear. They don't take Tastecard any more either, whatever the Tastecard website may say, although with main dishes starting at £5, rising to £14 for the chef's specials, it still seems well worth the money.

You can read my review of Masala Hut, also on Drummond Street, here.

130 Drummond Street, NW1
020 7387 0606

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections on London life

The turn of the year always prompts reflections. It's been my first Christmas in London and the new year will be the first I have spent as a resident of this great capital.

(Christmas dinner, incidentally, was roasted pheasant with port gravy, stuffed portobello mushroom as the vegetarian option, plus home-made stuffing, roast potatoes and parsnips, and of course Brussels sprouts. The pheasants actually came from Norwich market, because I happened to be on a trip back there. Although they were cheaper than at the butcher in Balham I was slightly annoyed to find them cheaper still at Oval farmers market the next day! The parsnips and sprouts came from the farmers market, as did my alternative to Stilton, Bath Blue, a lovely creamy blue cheese from the Bath Soft Cheese Co.)

I have settled into a sort of rhythm of London life.
Good things (food-related): endless choice of restaurants, good choice of farmers' markets, plus street markets and convenience stores which mean I don't need to buy much in supermarkets; good value fruit and veg at markets (especially the Inverness Street market in Camden, which is small but conveniently located for my office).
Less good things: increased strain on wallet and waistline due to temptations offered by afore-mentioned restaurants; our local greengrocer is not as good as I would like; produce at farmers' markets is often stretching the definition of local. And I haven't been able to find the equivalent of the great stall on Norwich market which does all kinds of loose groceries, including pulses, grains and herbs and spices. (And a good line in sardonic banter - my request for a kilo of rye and a kilo of barley flakes last week was met with an inquiry about whether I would be shaping it into a particularly disgusting alternative to turkey.) So my home-made muesli has shot up in price now I have to buy these kinds of things in packets from the health food shop.

I've been reminded that human beings are creatures of habit. I could probably explore more shops than I have done, but once you have found somewhere acceptable the default option is simply to return there. Perhaps my new year's resolution is to be more original.

Monday, December 19, 2011

December madness, mince pies and cauliflower cake

It's been a busy December. I haven't been as busy updating this blog as I ought, but there have been plenty of other activities - Christmas parties, attempts to make Christmas cards, attempts to make thoughtful presents, shopping, wrapping, planning. My diet has definitely gone downhill in terms of healthiness. There's just so many boxes of chocolates, mince pies, panettone, gingerbread men, crisps, nuts and cheese straws to be eaten. I haven't even bought most of these things myself, but they have a way of materialising in the office or at Christmas gatherings.

Pre-Christmas socialising tends to mean you eat out more, which generally involves eating food that is less healthy, in greater quantities. Nibbles at drinks parties are invariably the kind that would score red if they had those traffic light health warnings on the front of them. My own lack of self control doesn't help - we went for an Italian meal before the office Christmas party, but that didn't stop me tucking into some of the larger-than-expected buffet when we got there. And it's not even Christmas Eve yet.

I had a lovely festive evening last night making mince pies and listening to festive tunes (Bob Dylan's Must be Santa and Boney M's Mary's Boy Child, to give you an idea). My mince pies make a small gesture towards healthiness - the pastry is with real butter, but the home-made mincemeat has no added fat and not much in the way of added sugar, unlike shop-bought mincemeat. If you'd like the recipe, I got it from Rose Prince in the Guardian.

To compensate I also bought and cooked an enormous cauliflower, which I used for Yottam Ottolenghi's unusual cauliflower cake. It's more like a thick tortilla than a cake, but pretty good. I think even cauliflower-doubters might be won over by it. We had some of it hot from the oven, and the rest at room temperature the next day, with some boiled potatoes and green beans.

My version was pretty similar, although I left out nearly all the oil, and just fried the onion in about half a teaspoonful. It didn't seem to miss it. I used nigella seeds, which I think are the same as black onion seeds, although to be honest most of them stuck to the sides of the dish anyway. Perhaps I should have used baking parchment as he said!

Here's the end result:

I reckon it would work with all kinds of other vegetables instead of cauliflower, and since you need the veg to be already cooked it could be a great way of using up Christmas leftovers. The jury's out on whether I'll be trying a Brussels sprout variety...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pig's ear of a beer festival

From wine and cheese to beer...well, it is December! Funnily enough, cheese also featured at the Pig's Ear beer festival in Hackney, which has been running this week.

The name comes from Cockney rhyming slang for beer, and is in its 24th year. It has a fantastic venue in a former chapel, the Round Chapel in Lower Clapton Road. The beers are arranged around the edge ground floor, and upstairs there is pew-like seating arranged round the gallery for those wishing to give their feet a rest and survey what is going on below.

The beer supplies were becoming depleted by the end of Saturday, which was understandable on the last day of the beer festival. But there was an excellent range for most of the night. The Real Ale Drinker's favourite was Worth brewery's Seam Cutter, a porter which he described as roasted-tasting and rich. I enjoyed the Ginger Beer from Pitfield brewery in Essex. There were quite a few handle-with-care strong winter ales, while one that can be drunk more liberally is Felstar's Two Per Cent, an unusually low gravity mild with quite a sweet, fruity flavour. The Real Ale Drinker compared it to cola, though I feel that might have been unfair.

As for the cheese, Wobbly Bottom farm from Hertfordshire had a stall there, much to my delight. I haven't seen this cheese maker since a farm shop in Cambridge some time ago, though apparently they are regulars at Islington farmers' market. It was good to see that they were selling cheese platters and cheese panini made with a selection of their own interesting cheeses - a welcome change from the cheese rolls made with bog-standard mild cheddar that you more often find at beer festivals. Their extra-strong Lancashire has a pungent aroma and is strong enough to knock your socks off. We took home some of their blue cow's milk cheese, which is simply called Blue Cow, but they do several goats' and sheep's cheeses too, including a goat Camembert.

Cheese and wine may be the classic combination, but if you ask me, a lovely pint of real ale with a tasty Cheddar or Lancashire is an all-English pairing that can't be beat.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cheese and wine matching

I love cheese in all its forms: hard or soft; white, yellow or blue; fresh and mild or smelly as a pair of unwashed socks.

I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine either, so this week I took myself off to a cheese and wine tasting at Cave a Fromage, a cheese shop near South Kensington tube. They do group tasting events in the evenings and they will cater for hen parties and birthdays too.

We started with Saint Maure, an unpasteurised goats’ cheese from the Loire valley. It is unpasteurised, log-shaped with a grey rind and a stick of straw running through the middle. We drank it with Sauvignon Blanc, which was a good match, though Sancerre or Fume Blanc would work well too. I’d describe it as medium strength. It was nice but not my favourite goats’ cheese ever, though some of the people there really loved it.

Next was Brillat-Savarin, served with a twist – it had white truffle honey drizzled over it. I’m in two minds about this technique. I love truffles, but generally when I eat cheese I want to taste the cheese. The aroma of the truffles dominated, while the cheese itself was quite mild and very creamy. It is a triple-cream cheese (ie there is cream added to the milk) with a white rind, with a similar texture to Brie. This was served with an unusual rose made from Malbec grapes.
Picture: Andreas Nilsson

This was followed by a one-year-old Comte which was my favourite of the evening – a nutty, rounded flavour, which full but not overpowering. It was served with a robust red wine whose identity I actually failed to note, but such a cheese would go well with a Bordeaux or perhaps an oaky Rioja.

Last of all was a Fourme d’Ambert, which is one of the oldest French cheeses. It is a blue cheese, mild compared with something like Roquefort, but still fairly robust. This particular one was the only pasteurised cheese of the evening – most Fourme d’Ambert is pasteurised, although recently a few artisanal unpasteurised versions have sprung up.

(A couple of people asked me the difference – pasteurised cheese has been heat-treated, and may be slightly safer to eat, at least if you are pregnant or frail – I don't think there’s much to worry about for healthy people. Unpasteurised cheese can often have a fuller flavour, in my opinion anyway. Bizarrely enough, it is heavily restricted in Australia – unpasteurised cheese cannot be made there, with the exception of one cheese which was given special permission earlier this year. )

The Fourme d’Ambert came with a sweet fortified red wine, not unlike port and with a distinctive flavour of raisins. It would also work with a sweet white wine such as Sauternes, or if sweet wines are not your thing, try a red Cotes du Rhone or white Saumur Champigny.

You don't have to use the same cheeses, but this kind of mixture is pretty much what you want for a festive cheeseboard (or a cheeseboard at any other time of year): something hard and mature, something goaty, something soft and white and something blue. These examples were all French, but you could use English cheeses with equally good results. If you only want three cheeses, I'd lose the goats' cheese, but it's up to you. Don't worry about having too many cheeses: quality beats quantity every time.