Saturday, January 28, 2012

A voyage south-west of London and south Indian food worth travelling for

It was one of those winter days so sunny that it feels like a blessing when we set off along the banks of the Thames on our bikes.

Unfortunately, everyone else in south-east London had also been drawn out by the sunshine, which made progress a bit slower than hoped. But we still managed to get to Hampton Court in time for lunch. To be precise I believe this was East Molesey, a town which seems stunningly unprepared for the number of cyclists that stop there to patronise the cafes, pubs and shops. You might imagine that being on the Thames Cycle Route, they would have thought to provide a few bike racks: but seemingly not, with the result that there were bikes locked to every available post, railing or other solid.

Almost the only place along a road packed with cafes and restaurants that had space for us was Cocum, a Keralan restaurant. It turned out this was our good fortune, especially as I love Keralan food. I find it lighter and fresher, with a love of ingredients like coconut, seafood, curry leaves and bananas.

At lunchtime they don't have their tandoor oven on, so not everything on the menu is available. But there's still plenty to choose from.

Some of the dishes will be familiar to most people, such as kormas or birianis. But I wanted something more distinctively south Indian, so I opted for the mango and green banana curry. It was intriguing - much more sweetness, mainly from the mango, than you would usually find in a main course, but balanced by the spices and a creamy coconut sauce. The other half had the Kerala fish curry, which was kingfish flavoured with fenugreek, ginger and curry leaves. The flesh of the fish flaked away under the fork, and the sauce was subtle and complex. We also had a side dish of beetroot thoran. Thoran is often served as a side dish in Keralan cooking - a dry vegetable dish usually flavoured with mustard seeds, dried coconut and more curry leaves. I've had a cracking cabbage version in the past, while this one, made with shredded beetroot, was also excellent. It's certainly a good way to see vegetables that you might think of as unglamorous or boring in a new light.

Some rice and paratha were the perfect accompaniment, while couple of home-made lassis washed the food down nicely. The bill came to just under £25 for the two of us, which seemed reasonable.

We left happy and well-fuelled for our pedal back to south London. I will certainly be visiting Cocum again next time I am in the area.

Kerala fish curry

20 Bridge Road,
Hampton Court,
East Molesey,
Telephone: 020 8941 3540

Friday, January 20, 2012

The trauma of sticking to resolutions

New Year’s resolutions – a good way to improve your lifestyle or setting yourself up to fail?

It gets almost tedious at this time of year hearing about people’s diets, detoxes, trips to the gym, lunchtime jogs around the park, badminton sessions, yoga classes...

I have made just one resolution, but it is tough! Apparently the best way to make goals is to make them specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and timely (SMART for short – clever eh?) So I have been very specific about mine. Basically, since I started my job six months ago I have been eating too many cakes, biscuits and chocolates, mostly because colleagues have a lovely habit of bringing in goodies for everyone to share. The trouble is, once they are right in front of you they are very hard to resist. And I’ve nothing against all these delicious things in moderation, but every day is probably not strictly necessary.

So my resolution is: eat no sweet treats at work for the duration of January. I’m not denying myself too much – I can still have chocolate or dessert at other times, but I reckon if I am healthy at work that will make quite a big contribution to improving my diet. I’ve made it more than halfway through the month, but it is hard going.

Worst bits so far: having serious chocolate cravings yesterday and being able to see the packet of mini Twirls sitting open near me. Then today a colleague brought in some home-made gingerbread cupcakes. I nearly faltered at that point.

We’ll see whether I make it to the end of January. I’ve no intention of denying myself forever, but the question is whether to introduce some kind of moderation longer-term.

How are your New year’s resolutions going?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cauliflower curry

There's a certain lack of glam about winter vegetables. All those roots and brassicas can seem a bit tedious by mid-January.

Cauliflower in particular is a vegetable with which I have an ambivalent relationship. There's the lack of colour, for a start, plus that almost cabbagey whiff and the irritating habit of going from firm to disintegrating mush if you fail to pay sufficient attention when boiling it. But there's plenty of it around now, and when I've managed to get a particularly whopping specimen from the farmers' market it certainly feels good value for money.

Treated in the right way, it can be great. I loved the cauliflower cake I tried a few weeks back, and I think Indian spices are another way to add the je ne sais quoi that cauliflower can lack on its own.

This is a healthy dish, just what you need in January. I've added some interest with tomatoes and green beans too. Feel free to adjust or increase the spices as you think fit. I can't pretend this is a highly authentic Indian recipe, but it tasted pretty good.

Cauliflower, tomato and green bean curry


1 cauliflower
2 onions, diced
1-2 tins tomatoes
8oz/225g whole green beans, trimmed (frozen will work fine)
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp medium curry powder
1 small chilli, chopped small
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
coriander leaves, to taste
1 tsp vegetable oil


Heat the oil in a large pan and add the chopped onion. Stir until the onion is turning golden.

Add the garlic, then a minute later add the cauliflower and the tin(s) of tomatoes - you can use one or two depending on the size of your cauliflower and how much you like tomatoes. Add some water if necessary so there is enough liquid to steam the cauliflower, but not to cover it completely. Put a tight-fitting lid on the pan and simmer for 5 minutes.

The cauliflower should be nearly cooked - at a point when it is still slightly firm, add the green beans. Cover again and cook for around 3 minutes more or until the green beans and cauliflower are cooked.

Stir in chopped coriander leaves and serve with rice.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pizza perfection

I love it when you have a great meal more or less by accident.

There we were, on Clapham High Street and hungry. It was raining, too, so we didn't spend too much time researching the available options. Eco was pretty much full, which seemed like a near-miracle on the first Wednesday in January. That was the extent of our research, so after a quick drink in the deli next door while they found space for us, we tumbled in.

Eco serves sourdough pizza, which is a perfect example of food fashion. Ten years ago it barely existed in this country, and now they are everywhere, including almost opposite at Breads Etcetera, and a mile or two down the road at Franco Manca in Brixton Market.

So is sourdough pizza better? It's certainly not worse. I tend to think a well-made yeasted pizza base can be just as good, but if nothing else, the fact that a place is using sourdough at least indicates a certain level of care and attention.

Those at Eco are excellent - nice and thin, a hint of chewiness. But it was the toppings that had me more excited. I very nearly ordered the engagingly-named Amore, with roasted peppers, green beans, artichokes, red onions and aubergine. The goats' cheese and coriander pizza also sounded interesting, if a bit mad. I had the porcini and truffle oil, which also featured fontina, white wine and mozzarella. I didn't notice that much truffle oil, to be honest, but the fresh porcini packed enough of a fungal punch that I forgave them.

The other half had the marinara, with octopus, king prawns, squid, cuttlefish and mussels. There was so much going on that he thought the individual seafood flavours got a bit lost. I tend to the view that he should have thought of that before ordering it.

Those craving simpler pizzas are also kept happy with options like margherita, ham or mushroom. The ham is Gloucester Old Spot from a named farm, which is a nice touch. Prices start low, with a margherita at £6.25 or a cheese-free pizza just £4.75. We had some of the most expensive options, at £9.25 and £10.50.

We drank a reasonable bottle of Nero d'Avola, which is the entry point of the wine list at £13.25.

In my excitement to tell you about the pizzas I have skipped over the starters. They do various classic antipasti such as cured meats, tomato and mozzarella salad, and Parma ham with figs. I was drawn to their "dips and bites" which are nibbles served on a platter for sharing, in a combination of your choice. We enjoyed aubergine baked in tomato sauce with pecorino, and a tomato bruschetta on sourdough bread. The tomatoes were a bit pale and tasteless, but with the help of some garlic, olive oil, basil and decent bread, the whole thing was still highly edible.

Oh, and they do lots of pasta, too. And they take Tastecards. What more can you ask for?

162 Clapham High Street
020 7978 1108

Monday, January 2, 2012

Adventures with gnocchi

New year, new challenges...The first was making gnocchi. I've often thought about this, but never done it before.

It sounds a bit fiddly, but then what are holidays for?

There are all kinds of gnocchi - semolina-based, flour-based, even spinach and ricotta, but these were made from potato, flour and egg. The accompanying sauce would be a rich tomato ragu, topped with portobello mushrooms.

I have to admit I wasn't overwhelmed with the results. The sauce was lovely - I will definitely make it again to serve with pappardelle or other pasta - but the gnocchi were well, a bit heavy. I'm not sure whether they were supposed to be like that or not. I've had lighter ones in restaurants, but they may not have been potato-based. And the long-life kind you can buy in a vacuum pack are usually pretty dense. They tasted nice enough though. I think making them smaller might have helped with the heaviness.

Serves 4-8 (depending on how greedy you are) as a main course 


600g floury potatoes
500g flour
1 egg

For the sauce
3 celery sticks, diced small
2 carrots, diced small
2 onions (red or white), diced small
2 tins chopped tomatoes
A couple of sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
About a third to half a bottle of red wine
6 large portobello mushrooms
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Olive oil


For the sauce: Fry the celery, carrots and onion with two of the chopped garlic cloves in a little olive oil for five minutes. Add the tomatoes, rosemary and a third of a bottle of red wine. Simmer for at least 45 minutes or until the sauce is thick. If it starts to get too dry, add a little water or some more red wine if you prefer.

Cut the mushrooms into strips and fry with a little olive oil and the other clove of chopped garlic.

For the gnocchi: Wash the potatoes and boil them whole, with skins on, until tender (this will depend on the size of your spuds). Peel them as soon as they are cool enough to handle and mash or pass through a ricer. Mix in the beaten egg and then stir in the flour. Mix well and knead for a few minutes. It should be moist but not wet - add a little more flour if it seems too sticky.
Shape a manageable amount of the dough into a long sausage and cut into pieces about half an inch wide and half an inch long. You are supposed to mark it with the back of a fork to make ridges for the sauce to cling to, but to be honest I didn't find that doing this or not made much difference. Cook them in boiling water for a few minutes - they are ready when they float to the surface.

Serve with the sauce and top with the mushrooms. You can serve with some grated parmesan, if you wish.