Saturday, February 25, 2012

My favourite spicy baked rice

This is one of those dishes I probably wouldn't serve if I had friends coming round to dinner, but yet I love it. It's no fuss, suits what you have at hand, and the leftovers are good too.

It's great comfort food - a little bit stodgy, a little bit spicy, a little bit cheesy. And then there's the joy of the egg yolk flowing beneath your fork...

It is is loosely inspired by something I had in a restaurant several years ago. Very loosely, in fact, since I can no longer remember the original very well. It's evolved to fit my mood and tastes, as well as what's in the fridge or freezer.

Spicy baked rice

Serves four generously

500g / 1lb 2oz of your preferred long grain rice (I use brown basmati)
250g / 9oz frozen spinach, defrosted (or a pack of fresh spinach if you prefer)
Any of the following (or none if you don't have them), chopped: 1 stick celery, 1 sweet pepper, 250g/ 9oz mushrooms, or other vegetables of your choice
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tin (400g) chopped tomatoes
4 eggs
100g/ 4oz mature Cheddar (or other hard cheese)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (or 1 small dried chilli, crumbled, or fresh chopped chilli to taste)
1tsp paprika
1 stock cube
1tsp vegetable oil

Fry the chopped onion and garlic in the oil, along with the celery, pepper or mushrooms if you are using. Add the cayenne or chilli, paprika, and a few gratings of nutmeg. When the vegetables are softened tip in the rice, the crumbled stock cube and enough boiling water to cover.

Cook until the rice is still al dente (adding a little more water if it is getting dry), then stir in the tin of tomatoes and the defrosted spinach.The rice should be a bit on the wet side. Taste and season as you like it - you can add more of the spices if you think it needs it.

Place in an ovenproof dish, make indentations for the eggs and break the eggs in. Grate the cheese all over the top and bake in a medium oven until the egg whites are mostly set and the yolks are runny.

Alternatively, if you are in a hurry, you can poach the eggs separately, leaving them just slightly undercooked, place them in the hollows in the rice, put the cheese on top and place under the grill for a few minutes until the cheese is melted.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A sexy Scandinavian

Money and good food don't always go together, but it can help. This seems to be so in the case of South Kensington, a wealthy corner of London which is home to a few great foodie destinations - Oddono's gelateria, the Hummingbird bakery, La Cave au Fromage. I ate lunch in Madsen while watching passersby gaze longingly into the Lamborghini showroom opposite. Personally, I was happier where I was.

There aren't many Scandinavian restaurants in London, which is starting to be surprising since it seems to be at the cutting edge of world cuisine at the moment. Madsen, to be fair, is not cutting edge, but more importantly it is tasty verging on delicious. There are the obvious dishes like meatballs (Danish or Norwegian, but not Swedish) and gravadlax, but with thoughtful touches, like a mini Jarlsberg cheese quiche served with the gravadlax. And there are other things, which often tend towards the slow-cooked, sticky and deeply savoury: coq au vin, slow-cooked pork belly, topside of beef served on baked onions.

At weekends you can choose from a brunch menu with pancakes, scrambled eggs and Eggs Benedict, or the normal lunch menu. The brunch platter, which features a bit of everything, looked tempting, but I went for the pearl barley and wild mushroom risotto. It was garnished with whole almonds and pickled beetroot. This was without a doubt the first time I have had pickled beetroot on a risotto. It wasn't actively unpleasant, but it did feel a bit like the beetroot had died in vain. The risotto itself was creamy and light, a savoury ambrosia. Västerbotten cheese is one of very few cheeses I am not familiar with, but it was marvellous in the risotto, not unlike Parmesan in fact.

I finished with a small, dense piece of sticky Swedish chocolate cake. It came with some home-made lingonberry ice-cream, which didn't have any striking flavour. Next time I might try the rhubarb trifle, which looked beautiful.

I drank Nils Oscar IPA, a Swedish bottled beer which was pretty good (they do a lager too). There's also a fair-sized wine list. But I was more impressed by the organic teas from Solaris Botanicals. My chocolate chai rooibos tea makes me sound like a parody of the kind of person who has brunch in South Kensington, but was actually remarkably delicious, as well as the first chocolate-flavoured tea I have ever had.

Service was laid-back, perhaps a little too much so after our main courses had been brought and cleared away. I'm sometimes surprised by how little inclination waiters have to sell you dessert, and it wasn't as if they were about to close. On the plus side, it meant we could linger slowly over our coffees without feeling we were being rushed out: on the negative side, it might have been nice to be offered a dessert menu (or more drinks) without having to ask.

The two-course set menu is £13.95  at lunchtime, £24.95 in the evening. The a la carte costs a bit more but you can get a discount with a Tastecard. At full price it's not cheap but hey, this is South Kensington

20 Old Brompton Road London
020 7225 2772

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bloomsbury farmers' market

It's taken me a little while to get round to writing about (or more accurately to taking pictures of) this relatively new farmers' market.

It's not the biggest in London by any means but has a good mixture of produce, and I am particularly fond of its fruit and vegetable stall from Perry Court Farm Kent.Other favourites of mine are the Bath Soft Cheese Company (not every week - though they also do Oval farmers' market and probably others), Nut Knowle Farm goats' cheese, and Cakehole bakery. There's also chicken, lamb, and other meat, delicious-looking bread and baked goods, and various hot lunch-type dishes.

I like the Perry Court Farm stall because everything comes from their own farm. In autumn the stall is groaning with apples and pears (and they still have some stored fruit now, as well as unusual apple crisps). Right now you can get beetroot, leeks, cabbages, cauliflowers, spring greens, radishes, spring onions, celery, onions, carrots, potatoes, cavolo nero, spinach and probably a few other things I've forgotten. Pricing is simple - most items are £1 per item/bunch/bag, with some exceptions, such as 6 onions or 5 beetroot for £1. So for a value-minded person like me it pays to select the biggest examples on the stall! This week I got six large red onions, five whopping beetroot and a large head of spring greens for a grand total of £3. (The greens, incidentally, got chopped, stir-fried with some garlic, ginger, chilli and soy sauce, and served with rice. It took me about ten minutes and was simple yet delicious.)

The only slightly annoying aspect of the market is that it starts at 9am, and stallholders have been told not to take any money before then. Apparently this is because of its licence from the council, but I can't imagine Camden Council would particularly care whether some leeks get sold at 8.50am.

Vital stats:

When: Every Thursday 9am-2pm
Where: Torrington Square / Byng Place, behind ULU, WC1E 7HY
Number of stalls: 12 (approx, number varies)
Range of produce: Good
Value for money: 8
Marks out of 10: 8

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pizza and pepper grinders in Battersea

I'm not sure what kind of market Donna Margherita is aiming for, but they have pizzas named "Gay" and "Lesbica", as well as unnecessarily large pepper grinders.

Either way, it appears to be going down well - the place was buzzing on a Monday night, full of youngish Claphamites and energetic waiters who bounded up the stairs and half-skidded across the wooden floors like enthusiastic Dobermans.

It's attracted some rave reviews in the past for the quality of its pizzas. Now there are few foods I love more than a good pizza, so I was keen to try it out.

To cut to the chase: they were good, but I was not blown away. The bases were slightly thicker than normal, especially around the crust, which was fluffy, almost chewy, rather than thin and crisp like a wafer. The middle of the pizza was thinner, but nowhere near the so-stretched-you-can-almost-read-through-it achievements that some restaurants manage with their pizza dough. The Real Ale Drinker and I both felt they could have been cooked a little more, as there was a suspicion of doughiness.

The toppings were cracking, though: a medley of fresh seafood for him, including mussels and clams in the shell, baby octopus, and two king prawns in the centre like some kind of heraldic emblem. Mine had fried aubergine, ricotta, sweet cherry tomatoes, and Parmesan.

We had starters, too: a duo of winter warmers, one of beans and sausage and another lentils with friarelli (a slightly bitter Italian green). I thought the greens got a bit lost, but it was a great rib-sticking dish. Much the same could be said of the beans and sausage. An English person would call it breakfast, I suppose, but the Italians manage to turn it into a pretty good starter.

Despite the energetic waiters, service felt slightly erratic at times - our starters were quite slow to arrive, and the table next to us appeared to have been forgotten about. We weren't offered dessert until so much time had passed that we asked for the bill. I probably wouldn't go there when in a hurry, but it didn't detract from an enjoyable evening.

Pizzas cost from £7.50 to £11, while there are also meat and fish dishes, and the home-made pasta and gnocchi look worth a return visit. Overall verdict: not quite as good as Eco nearby in Clapham Common, but I'd still go back.

As for the Gay and Lesbica pizzas, they seem like pizzas for the indecisive. The Lesbica is half mushrooms, parmesan and basil, and half rocket, shavings of parmesan and cherry tomatoes.The Gay is half Margherita and half Parma ham with rocket, parmesan and cherry tomatoes. And I'm still none the wiser as to the point of a three-foot-high pepper grinder. As we all know, size isn't everything, in pepper grinders or in pizzas.

Donna Margherita,
183 Lavender Hill,
London SW11
020 7228 2660

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A pub lunch in deepest Surrey

There's nothing like a few hills to warm you up on a cold day on your bicycle. Well, a pub lunch is a pretty good way of getting warm too, especially if said pub has a real fire.

Outwood is a picturesque Surrey village with a windmill overlooking its extensive common. It is quite a spread out place with no less than three pubs. We selected the Castle, which is quite the gastropub.

Goose rillettes and "braised and roasted lamb in a garlic and rosemary sauce with boulanger potatoes and curly kale" are sample menu items, although there are also pub classics like home-made burgers and fish and chips.

We had a ham, egg and chips from the lunch menu. The ham was home-cooked and the chips were pretty good. I had a creamy, rich broccoli and stilton soup, along with some more chips. An elderly couple at the next table were enjoying their fish cakes.

We managed to resist dessert, but there were a few great old-fashioned puddings, home-made of course, as well as an interesting cheeseboard with local cheeses.

Prices are moderate gastro-pub, around £5 or £6 for starters, £11 to £14 for mains, although you can get lunch dishes for about £8.

There are a few real ales, including some fairly local ones - the Real Ale Drinker had Pilgrim Moild from Reigate, while I had the Harvey's from Sussex.

The Castle,
Millers Lane,
01342 842754 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

South Indian food to keep the cold out

After visiting Cocum, the aforementioned Keralan restaurant in Hampton Court, as well as Ganapati, an excellent south Indian restaurant in Peckham Rye (more on this in due course, probably), I've been inspired to go all south Indian myself.

I bought some beetroot at the farmers' market, and while trying to think what I could do with five beetroot, my thoughts turned to the lovely beetroot thoran I had at Cocum. So I knocked up a version of that, with some vaguely Sri Lankan lentil curry. Served with rice and cucumber raita, it was a pleasingly colourful and delicious meal.

I love the way a thoran takes a rather pedestrian vegetable like beetroot (or cabbage, which can used instead, shredded fine) and makes it light, aromatic and delicious.

This was actually the first time I have cooked with fresh curry leaves. I've used the dried leaves before and found them a bit lacking. The fresh leaves impart a gentle aroma which I associate with south Indian and Sri Lankan food.

A note on mustard seeds: the main types are black or yellow/white. I had the yellow kind, but black are much more commonly used in Indian cooking, and usually have a stronger flavour. Still, the dish didn't seem to suffer too much from using the wrong sort.

The recipes should serve four, at least, depending on what else you have with them.

Beetroot thoran

4 medium beetroot, grated
1 large onion, thinly sliced or chopped
1-2 chillies, to taste, finely chopped
Dessicated coconut - 2-3tbsp
1 tsp vegetable oil
2 tsp mustard seeds
About 12 curry leaves, roughly chopped
1 tsp turmeric
Chilli powder, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan or frying pan and add the mustard seeds. Once they start to pop, add the onion. Cook for 3 minutes or until starting to brown, then add the beetroot, turmeric and curry leaves. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can add a splash of water if it seems to be sticking. Taste and add some chilli powder if you want more spice.

Sri Lankan lentil dahl

300g red lentils or yellow split peas
2 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 cinnamon stick, broken up a bit
5 cardamom pods, crushed
2 tsp mustard seeds
1-2 chillies, finely chopped
1 tsp ground coriander (or whole coriander, crushed in a pestle and mortar, is even better)
10 curry leaves, roughly chopped
1 tsp vegetable oil
4-5 tomatoes (optional)

Fry the onion in the oil, adding the garlic after three minutes. Add the mustard seeds, chillies and spices and cook for two more minutes.
Add the lentils or split peas and enough water to more than cover. Boil until soft, making sure it does not dry out too much. If using tomatoes, add them just before the end of cooking time.