Sunday, December 23, 2012

The push for Christmas perfection

I'm just back from enjoying a friend's Christmas ale (brewed with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves) and home-baked bread, including another guest's Christmas fruity walnut and beer bread. This was a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe, (this version made with a mix of Red Stripe and coconut porter, apparently) and was absolutely delicious. No kneading or rising time required - I'll be making it myself as soon as I get a chance.

On the subject of Christmas television cookery programmes, I always have a burst of initial enthusiasm, only to start feeling slightly exhausted by them at some point in December.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The celebrity chefs and the supermarkets

Most of us take it for granted that a bit of home cooking is generally healthier than buying a supermarket ready-meal.

But not if you follow the recipes of some of our celebrity chefs, according to a study in the British Medical Journal that has made some headlines today. The study, which looked at 100 recipes by celebrity chefs and 100 supermarket ready meals, found that the recipes scored worse on calories, sugar, fat and saturated fat.

It's not a perfect study - it only looked at five cookery books, the top-sellers in December 2010, so the recipes aren't the most recent ones, and only four chefs are represented (Jamie Oliver had two best selling books at the time).

Jamie Oliver

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Halloumi with tomato sauce, roasted garlic and peppers

Some of you may remember that I promised to make my grandmother her first dish of couscous. Well, she'd never had it before, and at age 100, I thought it was time she tried out this quick and versatile staple.

But what to serve with the couscous? Tomato sauce and roasted vegetables has long been a favourite of mine with couscous, especially if you make the sauce a bit spicy. But I thought the dish might want a bit more of a focal point.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Socca, farinata and other things you can do with a bag of chick pea flour

A few months ago I bought a bag of chick pea flour from the local health food store. I didn't have any firm plans for it, but it was going cheap due to being near its best-before date, and I can never resist a bargain.

Since then the bag of flour has become unequivocally out of date, and I have wondered what to do with it. It still seems to taste fine. So I have used it as a thickener in some curries, which works quite well. It lends a flavour of its own as well as helping to make a thick sauce (which is happily low-fat too). But it was going to take a lot of curries to get through a 1 kg bag of the stuff. Then I made a simple soup with it, based on a recipe on the packet. It tasted fine, but I've made better soups.

And then I came across socca - or is it farinata? It's a dish found in southern France, Italy, and various other parts of the world. Depending on thickness, it can be a pancake or a flatbread. Either way, it's made from chick pea flour, water and olive oil.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A pearl barley paella

My current obsession with pearl barley hasn't worn off yet. And after last week's not-very-authentic risotto, I decided to make a not-very-authentic paella.

It was a vegetarian version, which I kicked off by sweating some chopped red peppers, onions and garlic. In went the pearl barley, along with some vegetable stock, bay leaves, turmeric, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper. About half an hour later, when the barley was tender, I added some frozen peas, black olives and halved cherry tomatoes. After a few minutes more cooking, and a scattering of chopped fresh rosemary, it was ready to eat.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A spicy, warming tomato risotto

I am becoming increasingly converted to the joys of pearl barley. A couple of years ago I had barely cooked it at all, and now it's almost as regular as rice in my repertoire. Like rice, it works hot or cold, so you can use it in substantial salads. You can also use it in risotto-style dishes, and it's cheaper than risotto rice, more nutritious, and usually grown in the UK. What's not to like?

Well, you won't get the creaminess that you get with risotto rice, though you can compensate for this, maybe by stirring in some crème fraîche at the end. Or you can make a dish that isn't really about creaminess, like this 'risotto'.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Discovering the joys of fruit salad

I am growing to appreciate fruit salad. I'm not sure whether this is a sign of advancing years, or if it's that I've become a bit more health-conscious.

In the past I've mainly come across it in restaurants or buffets, and I've always considered it a poor relation to, well, any other dessert, or cheese for that matter. It's not cooked for a start, and therefore hardly a real dish (I don't consider salad to be a main dish either). And all too often it seems over-stuffed with pieces of hard apple, presumably because apples are cheaper than other fruit. Invariably I would go for any other option.

Photo: mrsmaxspix

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Things you have probably never eaten if you are 100

My grandmother is an adventurous eater. She claims there's nothing she doesn't like, though in fact she is not keen on potatoes. As I've mentioned before, she's also blessed with a healthy appetite.

She happily eats pasta, pizza, stir-fry, Chinese food, and many other things she was never exposed to for most of her adult life. At age 100, I reckon this is impressive.

Sometimes she will comment on an unheard-of item that she has seen in the newspaper or on television. Last week she asked me if I'd ever had couscous, today it was quinoa. The answer to both is yes, although I am sure she's not alone in never having heard of quinoa before.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dukkah: an Egyptian way with nuts and spices

I'd never heard of dukkah, which I know know to be an Egyptian blend of ground nuts and spices. There are endless variations of ingredients, but the usual idea is that you dip some bread in olive oil, then in the dukkah.

You can also use it to jazz up all kinds of things: roasted vegetables, lamb, various beans and pulses, perhaps sprinkled over a hearty soup. It's a nutty, aromatic mixture, not a hot one.
Puy lentils with toasted tomatoes, poached egg and dukkah

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A spice for kings, and a risotto with a difference

They say saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be the one I use most often, but still there’s something special about it which I don’t think is just about perceptions of value.

There’s the golden colour, although you can get that from other spices like turmeric. For me it’s the aroma and flavour that’s special – sometimes described as hay-like, though I think it’s richer and more complex than that. (Not that I go round sniffing hay, you understand.) It's not the strongest-tasting spice, but there's a depth to it, like good wine. It deserves to take centre stage in a dish, and I think introducing other spices runs the risk of masking it too much. A saffron risotto is a wonderful thing, if not exactly the best way to get your five-a-day.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A pumpkin curry for Halloween

Has Halloween got bigger this year? Every pub I go to is decorated with fake cobwebs and giant plastic spiders. The traditional jack o'lantern, when it appears, looks positively tasteful compared to this lot, even if it is a bright orange colour, as bold as a can of Tango or a Sainsbury's carrier bag.

If you've bought a  pumpkin, either for carving or, like me, because you were carried away by the fact that you can buy such a big vegetable for just a pound or two, you may now be wondering what to do with it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cooking with love and the best brownie recipe

We cook for so many reasons: to appease hunger, to tantalise the tastebuds, sometimes for money, sometimes to feed others, and to express love.

I have been cooking for my grandmother recently (one of my astonishing duo of 100-year-old grandmothers) which has prompted my thoughts about the last of these. Until her health declined a few months ago she would make me rice pudding every time I visited, remembering that it was my favourite dessert as a child. Even after she largely stopped cooking she still found the energy to make rice pudding for me, and I was always touched by it, even the time she forgot the sugar.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Edible Bus Stop and a harvest-time tart

One of my favourite London grassroots projects is the Edible Bus Stop, a project which grows food on patches of waste land by bus stops in south London. So I'm pleased to see they're expanding beyond the original two bus stops in Stockwell and West Norwood. Brixton, Clapham Common and Crystal Palace are next. They are starting with the 322 bus route, but other bits of the transport network are on the cards. This weekend they're holding a harvest celebration in Stockwell. There's plenty to celebrate.

It started off as a guerilla gardening project and has gone on to win recognition and awards. I love the idea that a group of volunteers have transformed some derelict land into something attractive and productive. The benefits are numerous - exercise, community spirit,  nicer-looking neighbourhoods, fresh fruit and veg... Three cheers, I say.

In celebration of this, here's an easy harvest recipe. It looks smart but doesn't take too long. If your own harvest includes tomatoes but not courgettes, or vice versa, you can just include one of them.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Baked eggs and tomatoes

Autumn continues apace; mornings are darker and chillier, especially when I am a bit enthusiastically early getting on my bike.

I am enjoying the last of the early autumn veg while I can. Tomatoes and courgettes are what it's all about for me: squashes and pumpkins and chestnuts won't get a look-in for a little while yet.

Tomatoes can be one of my favourite vegetables. I say "can be" because they vary so much. I suppose botanically they are a fruit rather than a vegetable, and the spectrum between sweet lusciousness and pallid tastelessness is wider than, I think, any other vegetable - it is other members of the fruit world, like strawberries and peaches, that have such variability.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Of scones, sandwiches and sweet treats

Afternoon tea is having a bit of a moment. On a weekend afternoon the nicest hotels and tea-rooms all seem to be heaving with people (mostly female) sipping tea and nibbling on tiny cakes. There are variations: champagne afternoon tea, afternoon tea with cocktails, even low tea (a healthier version, apparently). Doggy bags seem almost compulsory, as all the chatting often always leave time for eating many of those cakes.

I wanted to take my aged grandmother for afternoon tea. I quite fancied the Ritz: she expressed a desire for countryside. I couldn't find many posh afternoon tea establishments in the Essex countryside, but we compromised on Brentwood. The Marygreen Manor Hotel came highly recommended. It took me weeks to get a reservation at the weekend, so my hopes were quite high.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

K&S Reign, Streatham

A snake is something I'd never expected to see in a restaurant, but there is, as they say, a first for everything. Luckily this one was in a tank rather than on the menu, though I still think this qualifies as pushing a theme a bit too far.

K&S Reign has a not-entirely grammatical slogan "Let world's fusion be the flavour", and decor it describes as "organic quirky surroundings". There is a jungle theme - hence the snake - so you can expect plants, lots of wood, and a "Nature calls" sign on the toilets.

The theme continues to the menu, where spring rolls are reborn as "veg forest rolls", chips are "bamboo chips" (though as the menu explains, they are still made of potatoes), and so on. An array of flags on the menu are supposed to denote the country of origin of each dish, though mainly it made me realise how many world flags I am unable to identify. I had "chickpea array", which was basically hummus with a few olives and pitta bread, while the other half had "sardine oasis" - a salad of chopped sardines with onion and coriander, which he thought was lovely.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Summer into autumn

It's September and there's a real sense of being at a turning point of the year. On Saturday we spent the afternoon in the sunshine, and cooked a courgette pasta sauce in the evening. It was one of those dishes you slightly make up as you go along. I started by sweating some diced courgettes and garlic with a touch of chilli. It didn't seem to have quite enough interest to carry the pasta. I could have added some lemon and capers, but I didn't have either. I did have some lovely ripe tomatoes, which were a wonderful deep red right the way through to the middle. Into the pan they went for a couple of minutes while I took the stones out of a couple of handfuls of black olives. Served with some basil on top, it was summer on a plate.

Pasta with courgettes, tomatoes and olives

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Herne Hill market

My odyssey around London farmers' markets is proceeding at a somewhat snail-like pace. The trouble is that there are always so many other things to do in the city at the weekend.

But as luck would have it Herne Hill market coincided nicely with Lambeth Country Show, just an apple's throw away.

This market is run by City and Country Farmers' Markets, but it doesn't actually call itself a farmers' market. Alongside the normal farmers' market-type stalls there are stalls from local craftspeople and other local businesses.

The result works quite well, I think. I was impressed by the number of stalls, though I don't know whether this was a larger market than usual.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Racing pigs and London honey at the Lambeth Country Show

I hadn't long been in London when I visited last year's Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park. Now that I'm more of a city girl, the whole concept of having sheep, ducks, goats, owls and racing pigs in the middle of south London seems more bizarre than ever. Racing pigs? I hear you say - yes indeed.

But as this is a food blog, I suppose I'd better tell you about the edible aspects of it. There were the amazing fruit and vegetable sculptures once again, and a produce show displaying perfect plums, purple potatoes, tomatoes like jewels and lettuces as frilly and elaborate as any flower.

The fruit and vegetable carving competition (You can't see it so well here, but the carrot sculpture on the right is a version of Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles artwork of 1993)
I tried some great cakes, including a Jamaican rum cake that was egg free and dairy-free and extremely tasty (made with wholegrain spelt flour, coconut oil and raw cane sugar by the Heavenly Cake Company).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Trattoria da Aldo, Soho

I don't know why Italian food seems to hit the spot so often. It could be the comforting carbs of pizza and pasta, the associations of sunshine and good living, or the bold punchy flavours like olives and garlic. Whatever it is, when in doubt, or when you're just not feeling adventurous enough for an Eritrean or a Vietnamese meal, an Italian restaurant often seems like a good choice.

Trattoria da Aldo was one such recent choice. It's a homely place, slightly old-fashioned and in a part of Soho heaving with tourists, a fair few of whom were coming in the door by mid-evening. Quirky decor helps to distract from the fact that some of the tables are really very close together. It's not a place to go if you're plotting something.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A healthier (but just as delicious) cheese souffle

Are souffles just a lot of hot air or really rather fabulous? At the moment I'm inclining to the latter view. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I made raspberry souffles, which wowed me because they were quite easy, impressive and still fairly low in fat.

So my eyes have been opened to the potential of a couple of eggs and an electric whisk. I've been thinking about ways to make them a bit healthier, too. Traditionally, savoury souffles have a roux of butter and flour as their base, possibly with the addition of milk to make more of a bechamel sauce - you then stir in some in the egg yolks and whatever flavourings you are using, followed by the beaten egg whites. So the butter obviously ups the saturated content a lot. And as I found with my raspberry souffles, you don't necessarily need that.

For a savoury souffle, though, I felt like I might still need some kind of base: partly to make it more substantial, partly to help me melt the cheese and therefore distribute it more evenly, and also because you want some moisture in the recipe, because the evaporation process helps the souffle to rise. I'd recently been making proper custard for my trifle. Now custard is thickened with cornflour and egg yolks, and has a similar texture to bechamel sauce, but with much less fat. This gave me an idea - why not use a savoury "custard" as the base?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Music and food at Hideaway, Streatham

Since moving to Streatham I have become a convert to dinner and jazz. One of the advantages of this part of the world is the rather good jazz club, Hideaway, just down the road. In keeping with its name, it used to be a very discreet place, hardly noticeable from the road, but now there is a jazz cafe out the front and it seems to be trying to raise its profile.

It's not just jazz either - comedy, blues, salsa nights are all on the menu. I have to admit to being slightly sceptical about the food beforehand - I thought the focus might be on the stage rather than on the kitchen. But I was pleasantly suprised the first time, and the good impression was reinforced the second times. I haven't tried the combination of dinner and comedy though - what if there's a hilarious one-liner mid-mouthful? Would you choke on your dinner?

The menu is mostly old favourites, nothing that's going to distract your attention too much from the music, but it's done well and there are imaginative touches here and there. An unctuous chicken liver pate comes with home-made onion marmalade and lots of toast. I've had the soup twice, in broccoli and stilton and asparagus versions. The former was better, although I think that's partly the concept - half the point of asparagus is the texture, and anyway its magic seems to disappear when it is diluted too much. Another starter, goats' cheese and walnut brulee with spiced poached pear, sounds lovely but looked on the small side when I saw it going past.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A new spin on fish and chips

George's is a Greek Cypriot restaurant-cum-fish and chip shop. It seems like a nifty idea - fish is an integral part of Cypriot cuisine anyway, and this way the people of South Woodford can choose between traditional fish and chips (and variants thereof) and something more exotic. So you can have your (award-winning) fish and chips with a side order of mushy peas or feta cheese, a buttered roll or pitta bread. The eponymous George says his parents ran fish and chip shops but his mother still found time to cook delicious Greek specialities at home.

On our lunchtime visit, battered cod or scampi seemed to be the most popular options, though a few of the Greek dishes were getting a look-in. It was a hot day and the outside tables seemed more appealing than the rather dark restaurant at the back. My aged grandmother loved watching the hustle and bustle of people going past, though between the traffic noise and the cries of the greengrocer two doors down, it's certainly not a tranquil spot. (No criticism of the greengrocer, by the way - if I was selling seven peaches or two punnets of English strawberries for just £1 I'd shout about it too.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Not just a trifle

I'm not sure how I've reached my thirties without having made a trifle before now. The only excuses I can offer are that (1) I usually cook for two, and trifle seems rather extravagant and labour-intensive for two, and (2) I always think of trifle as containing jelly, and I'm not really into desserts derived from boiled pigs' feet.

I've now put right my omission, thanks in part to Delia, whose recipe made me realise that you don't need jelly at all. It always featured in my childhood versions (usually made by my gran) but quite a lot of trifle recipes omit the jelly. I think it's a more adult dish without, which seems quite appropriate given that it usually features lashings of sherry.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Simple but delicous raspberry souffles

Where has the last week gone? I wish I knew. Summer seems to be sliding away from under me.

Anyhow, one of the glories of late summer is raspberries. If you go to the market at the end of the day you can sometimes find punnets of them for £1, or even less if you are lucky. Mine are usually just labelled as British, but I guess they may well be Scottish by now.

Raspberries do freeze well, though they never look as good once defrosted. These raspberry souffles can be made equally well with fruit that have been frozen.

These are the first sweet souffles I've ever made, though I've done savoury ones quite a few times. They were somewhat borne out of necessity, in that I didn't have many ingredients, or an opportunity to go to the shops, but I did have some eggs, sugar and raspberries. Which is pretty much all you need for this dessert. I was astonished by how well these turned out, especially considering how little time they took to make. It's also a good way of making a single punnet of raspberries stretch around four people. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Plenty to taste at the Great British Beer Festival

Where can you find a Golden Salamander, British Jewels, White Out and a Trembling Rabbit in London this week? At the Great British Beer Festival, of course. The event’s been displaced from Earl’s Court to Olympia to make way for some kind of sporting event. This means that there isn’t quite as much space, but I must say I prefer the architecture of Olympia to Earl’s Court, which resembles nothing so much as a giant warehouse.

I don't know how packed it will be at the weekend, but midweek the Olympia venue seemed big enough to me – there was plenty of space for milling about, and more beers than you could even think about trying. There were 800-plus brews in all, including foreign and bottled beers, ciders and perries.

I tried some of the more unusual brews, including a Cherry Blonde from Enville brewery in Staffordshire, which had a fantastic balance of fruit and hops. I tried a bottled alcoholic ginger beer from Fentimans, who are better known for their soft drinks. This beer was the genuine article – not an alcopop made with industrial alcohol but brewed with sugar, yeast, ginger root and water. It tasted like an old-fashioned ginger beer, and would be lovely on a summer picnic.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

White Swan, Fetter Lane

Into lawyer-land I went: to Fetter Lane, to be precise. If you don't know it, it runs between Holborn and Fleet Street, roughly parallel with Chancery Lane.

Of course lawyers need to eat, and the White Swan seems the type of place that would please them. Downstairs is a smart but decent pub, where a giant stuffed swan above the door surveys the drinkers below. There are three ales on tap (Wandle, Doom Bar and Golden Sheep when we visited).

Upstairs is a sort of mezzanine drinking area, and then up again is the restaurant - another well-kept room, where the light shines on polished glasses and heavy tablecloths. Although it was 7.30pm and still light outside, the blinds were closed, which seemed a shame, but perhaps they wanted to keep the focus on the table.

The wine list is a serious, leather-bound, multiple-paged affair. To be honest, I felt exhausted lifting it, never mind choosing a wine, and instead opted for a Golden Sheep from the bar downstairs.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A 30-minute picnic

The sun is such a fleeting object this summer that when it appears, like a king on a royal progress, you feel the need to pay appropriate homage. One of my favourite things to do on those all-too-rare warm and sunny evenings is have a picnic somewhere green (generally Tooting Bec Common, this being the nearest green space to our flat).

By the time I’ve got back from work, time is of the essence if we are not to have a picnic in the gathering dusk. So elaborate feasts are hard to achieve, unless I’ve been organised enough, and confident enough of the weather forecast, to do preparation the day before.

I produced this spread in under half an hour a few days ago when the warm, still evening demanded a meal eaten outdoors. Most of the ingredients were already in the cupboard/fridge/freezer, so I didn’t have to go shopping specially. (Feta cheese, incidentally, is a useful standby ingredient, especially as a packet of it usually has a long use-by date). It’s the kind of meal that requires plates and cutlery, but it feels like a proper meal – and I think it’s reasonably healthy, too.

Apparently the sun is due to reappear on Friday, so be prepared...

I've been a bit vague about quantities here, as I don't know how many people you are picnicking with, or how hungry you are feeling. But these recipes are fairly flexible, and I think you will get the idea.

Green beans with tomato and garlic

Empty a tin of chopped tomatoes into a pan with a couple of cloves of chopped garlic. Add a reasonably generous amount of whole green beans (the kind usually called extra fine beans or something similar). The beans should all be coated in tomato but not overwhelmed by it. Simmer for a few minutes until the beans are warmed through, and until any excess liquid, if any, has evaporated. Add black pepper and torn fresh basil leaves (dried oregano will do if you don't have basil). This dish tastes good at any temperature from room temperature through to hot.

Beetroot, walnut and feta salad 
Take some ready-cooked whole beetroot (not the kind in vinegar. You can use raw beetroot and boil them, in which case small beetroot will work better, but then you might be pushing the time limit).
Scatter some chopped walnuts over and crumble over some feta cheese. Add a handful of rocket leaves (though watercress will do, or even baby gem lettuce leaves). I quite like my salads naked, but if you prefer yours dressed, you could drizzle over some olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Variations: A semi-soft goats' cheese might be even better than feta here. Use hazelnuts, perhaps chopped in half, instead of walnuts. Use hazelnut or walnut oil instead of olive if you have some in the cupboard.

Marinated olives 
Take green olives, the kind with stones in, and drain them if they are in any liquid. Place in a small pan with a clove of finely chopped garlic, a little finely chopped or grated lemon zest, some fresh thyme leaves (I used lemon thyme, but normal is fine) and black pepper. Heat gently for a few minutes so the olives can absorb the flavours. Transfer into a container to take on your picnic.
If you’re not keen on green olives, you can use black ones, though I might be tempted to use orange zest instead of lemon and perhaps some cracked coriander seeds instead of the thyme.

Our picnic also included some fresh bread and cherry tomatoes. Some more cheese or some cooked meats wouldn’t go amiss here either.

Dessert was inspired by a visit to the market where they had beautiful peaches that were bursting with juice, the kind that makes you remember what peaches are supposed to be like. I carried them home carefully and triumphantly. There were also English raspberries, so I just sliced the peaches during the picnic and scattered the raspberries over them. The next day at home, I made a proper peach melba. The raspberries were crushed into a sauce, with a touch of sugar and lemon juice, and served with peaches, vanilla ice-cream and a few more raspberries on top. It was delicious, but the simplicity of our picnic version was just as good in its way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lemon tart to die for in Brixton

Braza's is a neighbourhood restaurant of the best kind. It doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside it is soothing - Ikea-style monotones, dark wood furniture, a few pictures on the wall. It's relaxed enough that on a July evening warm enough to melt butter, there were a few customers in shorts.

The menu is fairly short, but that means they can do everything well. Mains are piri piri chicken, pork ribs, burgers, a fish dish of the day, a frittata and a stuffed pasta. That's all: nothing fancy, but something for everyone.

I started with chargrilled halloumi, tomato and rocket bruschetta. Halloumi too often fails to show any character beyond salty rubberiness. I knew that a bit of heat is essential, but it turns out that the chargrill is its raison d'etre - the singed notes adding a savoury umami-tinge that the cheese needs. The tomato and the rocket were a refreshing contrast, and the bread itself was proper stuff, pleasingly substantial and chewy, doused in a liberal amount of olive oil.

The other half had chorizo with black honey and toasted bread. His bread had been cut a bit too thin, and toasted until any soul had departed, leaving only crispiness behind. The chorizo, though, was magnificent - a whole sausage, partly sliced and then also acquainted with the chargrill until it was bursting out of its skin. Black honey is new to me, but thanks to some in-depth Google research, it appears to be an unusual honey from south-east Asia, made by the world's biggest bees. A terrifying prospect, really, but on the plate it was just a dark brown honey, a pleasingly sweet counterpoint to the fatty, rich (though not very spicy) meat.

The fish of the day was an octopus salad, a quite substantial dish of sliced octopus, green beans, new potatoes and fennel. The fennel had been cooked until it was melting and mild, while the green beans still had their crunch. As for the octopus itself, it was slightly overcooked, leading to a hint of toughness, but it was a decent plate of food nonetheless.

Pumpkin and ricotta tortelloni with creamed spinach was another dish that showed that thoughtful pairing of ingredients is very much what Braza's is about. The pumpkin filling was sweet and slightly fruity, a great match with the green, vegetal, almost earthy notes of the spinach. It wasn't quite as imaginative as a dish from my previous visit, beetroot tortelloni served with wild mushrooms, but was still very good.

Desserts come from a local patisserie, with excellent results. The chocolate and raspberry tart didn't quite live up to my fantasies for it, but only because I would have preferred it a tiny bit richer. The lemon tart, on the other hand, was ridiculously good - thin, crisp pastry, a filling bittersweet as the tears of angels. I may have a soft spot for lemon tart, but it was as good a dessert as I have had this year.

Wines start from £14 a bottle (the house red, a Portuguese wine called Terras d'el Rei, was highly drinkable) and go up to £21. And like a smart neighbourhood restaurant, they have various special offers to entice you in during quieter parts of the week. Tuesday was free dessert night, and judging by the number of tables occupied, it seemed to be working.


45 Tulse Hill
020 8678 0697

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The cleverest chocolate mousse ever...

A few days ago I was at an event at the excellent Wellcome Collection. You may have been there for one of their exhibitions, usually based around science or medicine (the last one, Brains, was particularly popular). Well, this event reached new heights as far as I was concerned, as it involved samples of chocolate mousse. I'm sure there's all kinds of physics and chemistry involved here, but the scientific details somewhat passed me by.

The mousse was created by Mark Greenaway, a top chef (you may have seen him on Great British Menu and the like) in Edinburgh, where he has an eponymous restaurant. His mousse was egg-free, thanks to a nifty device I haven't seen before called a cream whipper. You put your cream-based solution into a stainless steel device like a cross between a jug and a spray can, charge it with some canisters of nitrous oxide (laughing gas to you and me) and out comes an instant, light-as-gossamer mousse. (You can do this with savoury things too, eg to make salmon mousse.) The ingredients here were 70pc dark chocolate, melted with double cream and a little sugar.

Of course, Mark Greenaway didn't become a top chef by just making normal chocolate mousse, even if it is a particularly ethereal one. No, he also made caramelised Coco Pops (melt your sugar, stir in Coco Pops, allow to cool, break up into pieces). In case anyone was horrified by the use of mass-produced sugary cereal in his dessert, he explained that you could puff the rice yourself, but there didn't really seem to be much point. And the final magic touch was a layer of popping candy.

It was intensely chocolatey. It was airy. There were the caramelised Coco Pops to provide a textural contrast. And then there was the popping candy, producing tiny explosions inside your skull. Did I mention this was free? Living in London is great...

Sadly I didn't manage to photograph the chocolate mousse, but here's a picture of a cream whipper instead.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Gay Hussar, Soho

The Gay Hussar is a Soho institution - still there after half a century, its wood-panelled walls covered in caricatures of the politicians, journalists and other prominent people who have dined there over the decades. Photographs of Gladstone and Lloyd George loomed over us as we ate - not necessarily an aid to digestion, but arguably all part of the Gay Hussar experience.

Classic Hungarian cuisine is the name of the game here. In other words, it's not the place to go if you are on a diet - hearty portions, lashings of sour cream, and bacon with nearly everything. The vegetable kingdom is mainly represented by red cabbage and sauerkraut.

The chilled wild cherry soup is a Gay Hussar classic. Whether that is enough to make you want to eat a starter that more closely resembles a dessert is debatable, but I was in adventurous mood. It came a pale rose-pink, with whole cherries hidden like jewels underneath the surface. There was a lactic tang from yoghurt or sour cream, I couldn't be sure which, but it was certainly sweet rather than savoury. Not unlike a fruit yoghurt, in fact. It was far from the greatest soup of my life, but perhaps one of the most memorable.

The other half started with fish dumplings, served with dill sauce and rice. They do a larger version of this as a main course, but it didn't sound quite that nice...They were not dumplings in the sense of Polish pierogi or Japanese gyoza, which are dough wrapped around the filling - these were more like quenelles of fish terrine. They were smooth-textured, rich-flavoured, and the dill sauce was a good accompaniment, with some fluffy white rice to soak it up.

Goulash with galuska

Goulash is possibly the most famous Hungarian dish, and there are several variants of it on the Gay Hussar menu. We tried the veal version and the vegetarian version, which is possibly not the most authentic, but none the worse for that. The veal had been cooked slow and lovingly until it was ready to yield under the slightest touch of a fork, and the sauce was fruity and tangy with paprika and tomato.

The other one was as full-flavoured a meat-free dish as I have encountered - big, beefy chunks of mushroom packed with flavour, the sauce delivering a spicy kick. There were sweet peppers and onions too, but it was all about the mushrooms and the sauce that was so good I asked for a spoon to finish it off. Both dishes came with galuska, tiny, springy egg dumplings, not unlike baby gnocchi.

There's plenty more to tempt if you are not a goulash fan, such as roast duck, duck livers with bacon, onion and paprika, wiener schnitzel, pork fillet with potatoes, bacon and garlic... Smoked breast of goose sounds like richness overload to me, though at least it comes with a kind of bean cassoulet and red cabbage to cut through the fattiness a bit.

Desserts were motivated by pure greed. I had heard good things of the chestnut pudding, described as "chestnut puree with dark rum and vodka". I ordered it in the same spirit of adventure that suggested the cherry soup, and did not regret it. It came like a nest of vermicelli, the chestnut puree shaped into tiny squiggles, with a thick swirl of whipped cream both underneath and on top. I could almost feel my arteries hardening, but hey, it was worth it - the rum giving the chestnut the extra soul it needed.

A poppy seed strudel was pure comfort food, the dark, sweet filling delicious without being strongly flavoured. It was served hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream providing a welcome temperature contrast.

Prices are not bad for Soho - £5.75 upwards for starters, most mains around the £14-17 mark, and they also do a Tastecard discount, making it very competitive if you have a card.

The wine list includes strong representation of Hungarian wines, both red and white. We drank the house red (variety unspecified), mainly because it was the only one available in a half-litre carafe. It was enjoyable without leaving any particular imprint on tastebuds or memory. If you are feeling brave, there are Hungarian liqueurs including Unicum, a herbal bitters, and the better-known slivovitz, but my spirit of adventure had been exhausted for one night.

The Gay Hussar
2 Greek Street,

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Middle Eastern part 2 - Zengi, Whitechapel

So I was not strictly in need of a big dinner when I arrived at Zengi, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do...

I liked Zengi straight away: unpretentious, simple, an interesting menu blending Turkish, Zengi, Iraqi and Syrian flavours. Downstairs there was a leak in the ladies' toilet, which rather let the place down a bit, but I'll assume that was a one-off.

As you would expect, there was a good selection of mezze, both hot and cold. I wanted to try most of them, but settled for the baba ghanoush and some hummous, though I berated myself afterwards for not getting something more interesting instead of hummous. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with the hummous - it had slightly more texture than many - and the baba ghanoush was excellent. I had been intrigued by the fact that the menu included two aubergine-based dips, the baba ghanoush and moutabel. The differences between the two had escaped me before now, but in Zengi at least, moutabel is a creamier version with yoghurt and tahini added to the eggplant pulp, while baba ghanoush is a fresher-tasting blend of roasted aubergine with green pepper and spring onions, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. I'm sure I've seen the dish that Zengi calls moutabel served as baba ghanoush in some other restaurants, but perhaps I am getting a bit pedantic now... What really set it apart, though, was the home-made flatbread - no pitta bread here. You can watch the chef rolling out the flatbread in front of you before sliding it into the traditional oven.

Main courses include every kind of grilled meat, plus stews of lamb, chicken or vegetables. But inspired by the chef rolling out the flatbread in front of us, we ordered the pide - a Turkish variant on pizza, basically a topped flatbread. Usually these are boat-shaped but I was slightly disappointed to see that these were round like a normal pizza. You can get an array of toppings, but we tried the Zengi special - Turkish sausage with cheese and olives - and a vegetable and cheese version. The results were slightly closer to Italian pizza than I really wanted, but perhaps I should have ordered an more unusual version like the three herb and cheese pide, or the one topped simply with mince, coriander and a dash of lemon.

You can, of course, get baklava for dessert, and they have chocolate cake too. But I had already eaten more than enough for one day.

Prices are reasonable (only £6.50 or £7 for a pide) and you can get a discount if you book with Toptable or a Tastecard, which makes it pretty much a steal. I'm not sure whether it's useful to compare it with Ottoman Palace: both are doing decent food at a good price, but for me, the homemade flatbread at Zengi carries the day.

44 Commercial Street
City of London,
London E1 6LT

020 7426 0700

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Middle Eastern part 1 - Ottoman Palace, Camden

I found myself eating Turkish (or similar) cuisine twice in a day recently. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, and indeed there isn't, it just wasn't entirely planned that way.

The first was lunch in Ottoman Palace on Camden High Street. Now the weekday lunch market in Camden is pretty competitive, and as a result you can eat plentifully and well for under a tenner at a large variety of establishments.

One such is Ottoman Palace. They used to do a reasonably-priced lunchtime buffet, but now lunch is an a la carte affair. It is still cracking value for money - £6.95 for one course, £7.95 for two, £8.95 for three. Or you can have a no-choice menu several mezze to share, followed by vegetarian moussaka, for £8.95.

Greedy folk that we were, we went for the three courses. I had the patlican soslu, a kind of cold stew of aubergines, tomato and onion - think ratatouille without courgettes. Presentation was simple, but that didn't detract from the clear flavours. I managed to nab a bit of my dining companions' falafel and tzatziki, which were both pretty good.

In a striking display of originality, we all had the vegetarian moussaka next. It was one of the better ones I've had - not too stodgy, with a nice cheesy bechamel on top. The base was weighted with slices of potato that, like the aubergines, had absorbed flavours of olive oil and tomato,  but it wasn't too heavy on potatoes.

The lunch set menu does not provide for a choice of dessert but hey, we were only paying an extra quid, and equally exciting, we got a variety of desserts on the plate anyway. Admittedly they were all dinky, but we got a piece of baklava, a wobbly piece of something between a cream caramel and a blancmange, plus a cube of something that was richly chocolatey, dense and stuffed with hazelnuts. All in all I was a happy woman.

I didn't sample the wine list, but there are wines from around the world, starting from £13.50. Instead I had ayran, a Turkish yoghurt drink that is brilliantly refreshing, though some might consider it an acquired taste.

Service was pretty good, and efficient enough to fit a meal into a lunch hour. Despite the low menu prices, they didn't add a service charge to the bill.

I left feeling as stuffed as one of the vine leaves on the menu. Some would say that going out to dinner later in the day was the last thing I needed, but such is my dedication to duty...

A report of my Turkish dinner to follow.

Ottoman Palace
14-16 Camden High Street
Camden London
020 7383 7245

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sparkling stuff in the Chilterns

I recently ventured north of London to visit a vineyard. Daws Hill is in the kind of setting that makes wine-making seem like an idyllic pastime - tucked away in the Chilterns, in gently rolling hills, with red kites soaring overhead (one of these majestic birds is depicted on the wine labels). I walked part of the way there on the Icknield Way, an ancient route - arguably the oldest road in the country - that starts from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and runs all the way to Knettishall Heath on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Idyllic as it all seems, it demands a lot of hard work. The things that can go wrong with a grape harvest are legion - rain at the wrong time, lack of sunshine when it is needed, incursions by rabbits, nutritional problems...and that is before the work of wine-making begins. Luckily, owner Nigel Morgan is full of enthusiasm for his project.

Daws Hill specialises in sparkling Champagne-type wines, and it has recently won medals for some of them. I was struck by the differences between the 2007 and 2008 vintages. They also make a cider using the same Champagne-style methods. I thought it was a lovely drink, intriguingly reminiscent of champagne but with a dry apple flavour at the same time. As for the price, the sparkling wine is £26 a bottle (£28 for the 2007) and cider a bargain £6.

On the afternoon of our visit there had been a wedding in the nearby village church, and as we left the distant strains of Teenage Kicks by the Undertones were drifting across the quiet air - presumably the wedding reception getting under way. Not quite what you expect, but then I suppose Champagne in the Chilterns isn't what you expect either.

Daws Hill Vineyard (Visits by appointment only)
Town End Road
HP14 4DY
01494 483358 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unexpected edibles in south London

I did a fascinating walk through south London at the weekend, and saw food in the most surprising places. There was no intentional foodie theme, but the walk had barely started when I saw trees laden with cherries at Waterloo Millennium Green. I was surprised to see some of them ripe already (especially given the rainy June), though most were not. They were perfectly edible, only slightly on the tart side.

Urban cherries

Then it was along to Elephant and Castle and the Heygate estate, now mostly boarded up and near-empty after the council moved out most of the residents in preparation for a long-delayed demolition and regeneration plan. In the middle of the tower blocks are tomato plants growing in old car tyres, and carefully tended allotments behind the trees that have finally reached maturity, just as the estate they bring shade to has passed its use-by date. This started out as a "guerilla gardening" project by local residents but is now tolerated by the authorities.
Allotments on the Heygate estate. Picture: Elephant and Castle Urban Forest
From Burgess Park (another municipal project that has taken much longer than planned - the idea was born in 1943, and the final works are due to be completed this summer) a narrow green strip leads to Peckham. This strip is the Surrey Canal Park, no longer home to a canal but a pleasant green corridor. It didn't take long to spot more food - young trees had labels saying "Wild and Edible". I spotted rowan (aka mountain ash) trees and crab apple. I'm not sure if there were other types of tree, but I don't class those as particularly edible - the fruit of both are good for jelly at best.

In terms of other wild food, I saw mallow in abundance in the parks - the leaves are quite tasty, in a slighty glutinous way, and common in North African cuisine. These were mostly a bit insect-ridden though, so I didn't bother sampling them.

And it hardly counts as wild food, but the pub at the end of the walk in Crystal Palace (the Grape and Grain) was selling London Glider Cider, made from unwanted and windfall apples in Woodford Green. A perfect end to a walk of unexpected edibles.

Friday, June 22, 2012

An exotic adventure in Camberwell

I have to confess to feeling a little out of my comfort zone when writing about a restaurant whose name I can barely pronounce.

Kyrgyz Kazakh House serves, as the name suggests, Kyrgyz and Kazakh food, in a slightly unprepossessing location on Camberwell Road. The two countries neighbour each other and have fairly similar cuisine. I've never experienced either before, although those not liking the unfamiliar will probably see a few dishes that they recognise - the menu also has dishes that crop up in Turkish, Russian and Uzbek cuisine.

Starters have particularly Turkish influences - such as kisir (a bulghur wheat salad flavoured with tomatoes and parsley), cacik (the Turkish equivalent of tzatziki), and imam bayildi (a poetically-named aubergine and tomato dish, also found in much of the Arab world). We tried a dish whose name now escapes me, but it consisted of aubergine, pepper, potato and courgette, topped with yoghurt and tomato sauce. I'd expected more of a stew, but the ingredients were cooked individually so that they held their shape and flavour. A flat, cheese-filled pastry was dirty but good - somewhere between a pizza base and a pastry in texture, filled with one of those salty, slightly bland cheeses that you find everywhere in south-eastern Europe. Staying with the stuffed theme, we had some stuffed vine leaves, which were much like any other example of their kind, but none the worse for that.


Main courses include plov, a central Asian dish of pieces of beef (or mutton) served with shredded carrots and rice, grilled meats, and various dumplings. There are samsi, like meat-stuffed samosas, manti, a bit like giant dim sum stuffed with carrots, onion and swede, and various other permutations of dough and meat. The manti were served with sour cream and, more unexpectedly, quite a spicy tomato salsa.

The exotic cuisine is lent an added sense of adventure by the fact that you have to plunge into the bowels of an unassuming hotel to actually find the restaurant. It was quiet when we visited, which I suspect might be linked to the fact that there is no sign from the street that there is actually a restaurant within, let alone a menu in the window. Once you do find it, it's a pleasant surprise, with characterful decor, bright fabrics and even a fish pond making up for the lack of windows.

We didn't strictly need dessert, but we were here for new experiences, so we went for the chak-chak, a Kazakh dessert described on the menu as "the lightest of pastry dishes". I found it a curious thing, to be honest: a sort of cake made of fried dough balls, raisins and whole almonds, mixed with syrup. It wasn't unpleasant, but the texture didn't really do it for me, and it won't displace baklava (also on the menu) as my syrup-and-pastry-based dessert of choice.

The wine list features several Georgian and Turkish wines. We tried the house white from Georgia, a medium dry tipple made from Rkatsiteli grapes, and found it very pleasant, and decent value for £13 a bottle. Prices are reasonable, with starters around £3.50 or so and main courses mostly at the £8 to £10 mark. Service was sweetly efficient.

So I can't claim to give a definitive verdict, given my ignorance about the food of, well, any country beginning with K. But it tasted good to me.

Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant at Pasha Hotel
158 Camberwell Road

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nuovo, Buckhurst Hill

A slightly belated review, this, of a place I went to a few weeks ago.

I think my tardiness has something to do with the way I felt about the place: I wasn't gripped by any strong desire to praise it or damn it.

Nuovo's chef, Frederick Forster, is the proud holder of the title of National Chef of the Year. I wonder slightly about this type of competition - you have to enter  and take part in cook-offs, and presumably there are quite a few chefs who don't bother. Nonetheless you can't visit the restaurant or look at its website without becoming acquainted with this claim to fame, and I daresay you can't blame them.

In a nutshell, everything was quite well done, but very little was remarkable. "Spring asparagus" (we were assured it was English) was served with crispy chicken fritters and grated egg vinaigrette. Unless it was trying to present the famous "which came first" riddle, the chicken fritters had no obvious point - they smacked of gilding the lily. Grilled tiger prawns with black pudding (8.95) were a novel twist on surf and turf, and the jumbo-sized prawns were described as "very tasty". A twice-baked goats' cheese souffle, served with pear chutney, was good, but no better than I could have made myself, and rather small for £8.

Main courses are a bit more generous, notably the linguine alla pescatora (£13.50), which was a heaped plateful, strewn with mussels, prawns, baby octopus and clams. There are very few vegetarian main courses - almost certainly the fewest I have seen in an Italian restaurant - but you can have spinach and ricotta ravioli (decent enough, but not outstanding for £12.95) or a different pasta dish on the set lunch menu.

Desserts are a collection of old favourites - tiramisu, chocolate brownie, fruit salad and so on. I couldn't find any fault, but again I wasn't blown away either.

I thought prices were a little high, but perhaps you pay a premium for eating food cooked by the National Chef of the Year. It had been a pleasant lunch, but I only wish I could say it had been the Meal of the Year.

79 Queens Road
Buckhurst Hill
0208 504 2299
(Also at 88 - 90 High Road, South Woodford, E18 2NA, 0208 518 8007)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Spicy Spanish chick pea salad

A summer's day with a hint of sunshine for a change, and it seemed like a day for a salad. I'm not one for dainty salads, though. Something based mainly on leaves is only good for a side dish as far as I am concerned. I like salads that are hearty, filling and with unexpected combinations of flavours.

This one hits the spot. It is based quite heavily on a recipe in the Telegraph, with a few adaptations according to ingredients I didn't have (piquillo peppers in a jar are not one of my store-cupboard staples) and because I wanted to use less oil.

I love the way the chick peas become infused with the smoked paprika and other flavours, making them more interesting than you ever thought chick peas could be. The touch of sweetness from the pears is unusual, but welcome.


175g (6oz) dry chickpeas or 400g (14oz) cooked, drained chickpeas
1 onion, peeled
1 large bay leaf
1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
A good pinch salt
50g (2oz) sun-dried tomatoes in oil, finely chopped
1tsp ground coriander, finely chopped
1 tsp honey
½ tsp smoked paprika
1½ tbsp sherry vinegar
1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
100g (3½oz) cucumber
1 large ripe pear
150g (5½oz) baby spinach
 Juice of ½ lemon
75g (2¾oz) feta
Sourdough or other crusty bread, to serve (optional)

Soak the chickpeas overnight (if you are using dried chickpeas, which I recommend). Cook according to the packet instructions, with the onion and bay leaf added to the water. Once cooked, discard the bay leaf. You can throw away the onion, or even mash it in to the dressing below, if you want.

Meanwhile, mash the crushed garlic and salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the sundried tomatoes and coriander and keep on mashing to a paste. Mix in the honey, paprika and vinegar.

Drain the chickpeas, add the dressing and leave them to absorb the flavours while you prepare the salad.

Cut the cucumber into ribbons using a vegetable peeler. Thinly slice the pear. Mix the cucumber and pear with the spinach leaves. Squeeze the lemon juice over the top, season, drizzle with the olive oil, if using, and toss. The chickpeas should still be lukewarm: spoon them over the salad. Crumble the feta on top.

Serve just as it is or with some bread. I recommend making extra; the salad works very well for a packed lunch the next day.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

L'Infinito, Wanstead - a good lunch, but where was everyone?

I don't know whether everyone in Wanstead was busy having a Jubilee street party or something, but it was very quiet in L'Infinito. I reckon I made the better choice - I'd take decent Italian food like this over flabby quiche, coronation chicken and soggy crisps any day.

They were putting out Union Jack tablecloths on the outside tables yesterday, though there didn't seem any imminent prospect of people wanting to sit outside. Inside it's a bit more elegant, with smart red-and-white table linen and some paintings of the Cornish coast (which are for sale). For my aged grandmother, it was the first outing for a few weeks that was neither to the hospital nor the doctor's, and it seemed like a piece of heaven.

Tap water was offered freely, brought in a glass bottle and replaced without us having to ask - a nice touch, as was the bread and garlic-marinated olives, even if the bread (slightly flabby slices of French stick) was nothing special.

The menu covers most of what you would expect from an Italian restaurant - pizza, pasta, risotto, meat and fish dishes. Most of the pasta dishes are available as starters or main courses, and there are plenty of other starters, including squid served with courgette, mussels and bruschetta.

Potato and courgette soup sounded bland but was actually rather nice, served with some toasted foccacia. Of the mains, chicken served in a mushroom and cream sauce was pronounced excellent, the chicken tender and juicy. Sea bass fillets came with wedges of sauteed new potato and green beans which were either al dente or undercooked, according to your point of view. I can rarely see pizza on a menu without ordering it, I had the mixed vegetable pizza. To my mind it could have done with a little less cheese and a little more tomato sauce, but the base was good, thin in the middle with a soft, chewy crust. I'm not sure what an Italian would think of putting sweetcorn on a pizza, but to be fair it was listed on the menu. (Mind you, sweetcorn pales into insignificance compared with another Italian restaurant I can think of, which is prone to putting carrot and broccoli on its mixed vegetable pizza).

The food arrived in quite a leisurely manner, particularly given that there was hardly anyone else in there. It was no great problem for us, but I would think twice about going there if in a rush.

Things speeded up when we got to dessert - an amaretto-soaked tiramisu for me and a hearty portion of profiteroles for the aged relative. The profiteroles seemed to be covered in chocolate mousse rather than the usual chocolate sauce, but this didn't seem to be a problem and they were demolished in short order.

Prices are fairly standard - £8 to £12 for a pizza, £4.50 to £8 for starters, £13.50 to £15.50 for meat and fish dishes. They accept Tastecard too, which makes the bill very reasonable.

During the course of two hours there were only two other tables occupied for Saturday lunch. Hopefully this can be blamed on the allure of the street parties, or maybe everyone had gone for a lunch of fish and chips or steak and kidney pie on such a patriotic weekend. L'Infinito may not be outstanding, but it deserves more custom than this.

27 High Street
E11 2AA
0208 5305057

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Virtuosity with vegetables at Vanilla Black

I’ve never seen a vegetarian restaurant like Vanilla Black. The menu reads like somewhere aiming for a Michelin star. There are foams and savoury ice-creams and various other outlandish ways of treating familiar ingredients, plus some quite thoughtful combinations of flavours. It is not a path that is generally trodden by vegetarian restaurants, which tend mostly to either the wholefood or the ethnic schools of cookery.

Tucked away in London's legal enclave, not far from the Royal Courts of Justice, it had a slight hush of the courtroom about it, although it may have been that it was early in the evening.

We had an amuse-bouche of green apple jelly with fir pine cream, a brave move given that the aroma of pine is mostly associated with cleaning products. Home-made bread was decent – the seeded wholemeal was a lot more interesting than the buttermilk muffin, I thought.

Yorkshire Gouda with Crisp Black Sheep Ale Bread, Salted Caramel Powder and Ale Soaked Raisins

I have a passion for all kinds of brie – from a buttery Cornish St Endellion to a Brie de Meaux that you can smell at 50 paces. But I’ve never had brie ice-cream, so when I spotted it on the starter menu it seemed like it was meant to be. It came, amusingly, in a mini cone, with plum sauce. The creamy texture of brie lends itself well to ice-cream. Ultimately, though, it was more of a clever conceit than anything else. Cheese straight from the fridge is never at its best, because the cold dulls the flavour, so near-frozen cheese felt like it was missing some of its spirit.

The other half had “Whipped Jacket Potato and Crispy Shallots, Tomato Syrup and Wensleydale Cheese”. It was a big bowl of creamy potato, somewhere between mash and soup, garnished with shallots like mini onion rings. At first I thought it was bland, but then I realised it was incredibly well done – a celebration of a single, simple ingredient, the essence of a buttery baked potato in every mouthful.

I had difficulty choosing a main course, not least because I had difficulty imagining what some of the dishes would be like. Unless you have a hatred of eggs or celeriac, how do you choose between “Poached Organic Hen Egg and Ribblesdale Pudding, Hickory Smoke Potato Croquette and Pineapple Pickle” and “Salted and Ash Baked Celeriac and Foraged Garlic Leaf, Whey Poached Celeriac, Purple Broccoli, Curd and Elderflower Cream”?

In the end I had fried mushroom mousse with pea-filled tarragon pancakes and grapefruit foam. It was like an artwork on the plate, though not exactly substantial (It’s funny how making food look beautiful seems to demand a lot of white space on the plate). It was very good – sweet peas and pea shoots setting off the earthiness of the mushroom mousse. There was rather a lot of grapefruit foam, though, which had a sledgehammer flavour that belied its ethereal texture.

Not the world's greatest picture of Walnut Panna Cotta and Blue Stilton Dumplings
The other half had "Warm Walnut Panna Cotta and Blue Stilton Dumplings". The latter looked like chestnuts and must surely be the world's most elegant dumplings. It all felt a more autumnal than springlike dessert, but was not much the worse for that. The panna cotta was smooth, just-wobbly, and soothing as a mug of Horlicks, while the dumplings added the necessary vim to the plate.

The unusual sweet-savoury combinations continued into the dessert menu, which felt oddly uncompelling. Am I the only one that doesn't much fancy "Liquid Doughnut and Warm Espresso Gel"? Or a "White Chocolate and Cep tart with Corn Flake Cake, Picpoul Sorbet (it's a variety of grape, by the way) and Crispy Tarragon"?  The most appealing sounding was the cheese - "Yorkshire Gouda with Crisp Black Sheep Ale Bread, Salted Caramel Powder and Ale Soaked Raisins". In effect it was cheese, bread and raisins - nothing wrong with that, though I am not sure that making the bread crisp was worthwhile.

Our other dessert turned out to be the tour de force. Not being a huge peanut butter fan, I was unconvinced by the sound of Peanut Butter Cheesecake and Cracked Cocoa Beans, Banana and Thyme Bread and Toffee Sauce. But it was a joy to eat. Another piece of modern art on the plate, it was not a cheesecake as we know it. Rather there were dainty cylinders of peanut-butter-flavoured, some crumbs (presumably to represent the cheesecake base) and the cocoa beans, crushed into a coarse grit that delivered a visceral punch of chocolate. Together they danced on the tongue, a dance that became a ballet with the addition of the chocolate sauce. You couldn't help but marvel at the effort involved in making each of the components, even the banana and thyme cake, which would have made a perfectly fine dessert on its own.
Peanut butter cheesecake - but not as we know it
Naturally, this does not come cheap - £26 for three courses, £35 for three. Wine starts at £16 a bottle, with just a couple of examples under £20, and goes up to £195. (The £16 bottle, the Tempranillo, was pretty good). Service charge of 12.5% is added to the bill. (If you want cheaper food, though with fewer frills, they now have a sister cafe in Holborn.)

So I won't be going there every week, but I hope we might see more restaurants like Vanilla Black. It's vegetarian food without being holier-than-thou or even a hint of self-denial. It's food that glories in being (mostly) good, exciting. food, rather than in being meatless. Which is how it should be.

Vanilla Black

17- 18 Tooks Court, London, EC4A 1LB
020 7242 2622

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tapas with a twist

Summer has been so slow in coming in that I had begun to think it never would. So had a lot of other people, judging by the way London revelled in the hot weather today. Shorts and sandals emerged from hibernation, the parks were thronged well into the evening and pavements heaving with drinkers.

There are better places than Camden to enjoy the hot weather, frankly - but that is where I was. Luckily I discovered El Parador, a tapas restaurant with a secret garden out the back, a mere olive-stone's throw from Mornington Crescent tube station.

Their garden was baking in the sunshine and packed with lunchers. I had a good feeling as I read the menu. Sometimes tapas places feel wearily familiar: Spanish omelette/ meatballs/ patatas bravas/ calamari/ mushrooms with garlic/ sardines... you eat it with a yawn. El Parador does serve some of these dishes, but lots of more unusual things too. And some of the old favourites come with a twist that is thoughtful rather than just for the sake of it. Chorizo comes with butter beans, roasted piquillo peppers and brandy. Chicken livers are prepared with with shallots, enoki mushrooms and Iberico ham.

There is a slight tendency to over-list the ingredients: El Parador, you don't need to tell me about the black pepper. But on balance I forgive you, especially as nearly every dish of 40 or more sounds worth eating. (The owners have written a recipe book, too, which isn't a failsafe sign of quality, but suggests enthusiasm and a bit of originality, at least.)

Between the four of us we ate two pots of the broad bean puree, made with confit garlic, rosemary and lots of olive oil, and served unexpectedly hot, with bread. Hummus was never this good. There was roasted butternut squash with spinach, chestnuts and feta, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds. Celeriac was advertised with peas and shallots, which were barely in evidence, but still, it was delicious. Meltingly soft, coated with Manchego cheese, it was a dish to convert even the most reluctant vegetable-eater.

Grilled octopus came as a single tentacle, coiled around the plate. Fishcakes, made with smoked haddock and mash, were unusually soft, but not much the worse for that. We also ate beetroot roasted with red onion and butter beans, Ratte potatoes (a fancy variety of new potato) with cherry tomatoes, leeks and chilli, and a Jerusalem artichoke salad from the specials list with a really excellent dressing.

It's a menu that makes excellent use of the whole spectrum of vegetables, not just the obvious "Mediterranean" ones. So there are parsnips, fennel and curly kale. But there's plenty of meaty stuff too, including grilled quail, spicy lamb fillets, and pork belly braised in cider.

Spices make more of an appearance than they do in most Spanish restaurants, with some dishes showing influences of the Asian-Mediterranean borderlands. Harissa, cardamom and star anise all make appearances.

It's definitely a place to try something unusual. The least original dish we had, the pastries filled with spinach and cheese, was also the most pedestrian. As for the bill, tapas dishes are mostly £5 to £7, with a three-for-the-price-of-two offer on weekday lunchtimes.

If you are anywhere near Camden, you should go. Even if it's not sunny. I can't think of a better way of putting summer on a plate.

El Parador Restaurant
245 Eversholt Street
NW1 1BA 
020 7387 2789

Friday, May 18, 2012

Little Bay Farringdon

I was reminded of my question How cheap is too cheap? at Little Bay Farringdon. It's part of a popular mini-chain of restaurants in London and Brighton. At the Farringdon branch they seem to have a more or less permanent "half-price" offer. As it's not exactly extortionate in the first place, this makes the prices ridiculously cheap - £2.65 for a starter, £5.95 for a main course.

I was slightly wary, but the place has good reviews from Time Out and others, so off I went. It's almost worth it for the ahem, striking, decor.

I'm clearly not the only one who likes a bargain, because on a Thursday night the place was packed. There was a bit of a delay in getting the menus - I've never been given bread before the menu before - but after that the service was pretty quick. Actually the food arrived with almost lightning speed.

At these prices it would have been rude not to have a starter, so we ordered moules mariniere and a goats' cheese parcel with Waldorf salad. It wasn't the largest portion of mussels, but reasonable for a starter and frankly a steal for the price. The goats' cheese was wrapped in crispy filo and on some Waldorf salad which was mostly apple, but a nice contrast to the goats' cheese.

About two minutes after our starters had been cleared the main courses arrived: a vegetable moussaka and a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb with roast vegetables and flageolet beans. The lamb had the edge - flaking under the fork after four hours of cooking, the beans flavoured with pesto and some colourful roast vegetables.

Desserts include profiteroles (filled with banana cream - I haven't tried it but my instinct says what were they thinking?), apple cake and cheese platter. We shared a chocolate roulade, slightly too sweet I thought, but very edible. It was served with poached pear and scoop of vanilla ice-cream, a tried-and-tested combination but pretty good nonetheless.

Drinks are not half price, sadly, but still not unreasonable. Red wine starts at £11.95 a bottle and is perfectly drinkable, while the only beer is Budvar in bottles for £3.45.

The whole thing was about £30 including wine, which struck me as astonishingly good value. At twice the price I wouldn't have been blown away, but it wouldn't have been daylight robbery. I still don't know how Little Bay does it, but I suspect I'll be back to find out more.

Little Bay
171 Farringdon Road, City of London, London, EC1R 3AL
020 7 278 1234

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nettles for sale - whatever will they think of next?

The title above says it all really. I was at Oval Farmers' Market yesterday and was amazed to see "wild nettles" for sale alongside the organic veg at the Perry Court Farm stall.

My first thought was - why would you buy something you can get for free on any roadside? And my second thought (which might have been your first thought) - is there much demand for nettles anyway? Now I eat nettles, though I've been a bit remiss in collecting them this spring, but I do feel like I'm very much in the minority.

If you're considering it, they are very good for you - full of iron and other nutrients - but you need to pick them before they start flowering, otherwise they are no good to eat. It's getting a bit late in the season now, certainly around London, but you might still get some decent ones. It's best to just pick the tips. You can even dilute the cooking water and drink it as nettle tea!

Whether you buy them or pick them yourself, nettles are good in curry, frittata or even quiche, in the same way that you'd use spinach. Here's a recipe for nettle pesto.

Nettle pesto

A few big handfuls nettle tops
1 tub ricotta
1-2 cloves garlic, to taste
2oz / 50g pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts
25g/ 1oz grated parmesan or similar cheese, plus extra to taste

Boil the nettles in plenty of water for about 2 minutes or until thoroughly wilted.  Drain and place in a food processor with the other ingredients. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the ingredients as you wish.

Stir into just-drained cooked pasta. Serve with extra parmesan.