Monday, April 30, 2012

A Highlands odyssey and orange treacle tart

I'm back in London again after a trip to the Scottish Highlands: walking, cycling, marvelling anew at each new view. A lot of cake was eaten, as well as not a few scones. I seemed to notice scones a lot on this trip - if I associate them with anywhere it is with the West Country, but are the Scots even bigger scone enthusiasts, I wonder?

One of the foodie highlights was a brief stop at Glasgow farmers' market on the way further north. The hot offerings included home-made burgers, hog roast and excellent curries. I also bought the first cakes of the trip (ginger cake and banana bread) and crowdie (an traditional Highlands soft cheese, difficult to find down south), which I find irresistible on oatcakes.

One discovery in a pub near Fort William was an orange treacle tart. I loved the hint of zestiness which married with what can otherwise be a piercingly sweet dessert. Here is my approximation at the recipe.

Orange treacle tart

250g shortcrust pastry
450g golden syrup
150g fresh breadcrumbs (white is usual but you can use brown if you prefer, not granary please!)
Zest and juice of one orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Roll out the pastry and line a 20cm tart tin. Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans and blind bake at 190C/gas 5 for 10-15 minutes or until the pastry is lightly cooked. Take out the paper and beans and return to oven for 2 minutes more to dry out. Turn the oven down to 180C/gas mark 4.

Warm the syrup slightly in a pan, remove from heat and mix in the breadcrumbs, orange zest and juice, followed by the eggs.

Pour into the tart case and bake for 30-45 minutes or until lightly set. 

Serve with custard or cream. I would go for custard myself, though the slight tanginess of creme fraiche also works well with the sweet filling.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Not quite electric, but there's some buzz at the Power Station

Battersea Power Station may be a local landmark, but I'm not sure I would name my restaurant after it. It's a stunning building, but that whiff of dereliction, its failure to find a purpose since it stopped burning coal nearly 20 years ago, aren't the kind of associations you necessarily want.

That said, we had a pretty good meal there. It's a neighbourhood cafe and restaurant handily located over the road from Battersea Park rail station and just a couple of minutes from the park. If the summer ever materialises, a lazy afternoon in the park followed by some Mediterranean flavours in the Power Station bar and restaurant might be a great way to spend a day.

We didn't sample much of the menu, just a mezze platter which was unexpectedly heavy on the cured meats - thin Parma-style ham, salami, and cured beef. There were deep fried bits of octopus, some tasty spinach and cheese pastries (I told you these were of the moment), and a couple of meatballs. Plus, of course, hummus, tzatziki, olives and pitta bread. The dips were quite acceptable but blander than some.

At the next table a couple of ladies were enjoying their sea bass fillets in prawn and garlic butter. There are Greek classics like moussaka and kleftiko, plus Greek-style pasta dishes (I liked the sound of the makaroni me kima, "similar to the Italian bolognese, only better".) There are lighter dishes like burgers, you can get takeaway, and they do roasts on Sundays.

From the outside it is easy to believe it's no more than a cafe, but if you venture towards the back you find a casual but quite nicely done restaurant. I'll certainly be back to test it out more fully.

Power Station Bar and Restaurant
161 Battersea Park Road SW8 4BU
0207 7200 632

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wild garlic

I wasn't even looking for anything edible, but wild garlic en masse is hard to miss. It's the broad leaves, the pungent whiff, and depending when you catch it, the starry white flowers. I haven't done any foraging since last autumn's blackberries, so my excitement was considerable.

Wild garlic is one of those plants that is locally abundant but you may not be able to find it for miles around. It likes damp and wooded conditions, often near a stream. I spotted it near Box Hill in Surrey and then, even more copiously, near Arundel in Sussex the very next day.

Like nettles, it seems to be fashionable at the moment. I use the leaves like a garlicky spinach (the bulb root is not worth bothering with, and anyway, you shouldn't uproot a wild plant) and the flowers as a garnish. Tonight's dinner was pizza with ricotta, portobello mushrooms and wilted garlic leaves: delicious. But I also love a few wilted leaves in a cheese omelette, or in a risotto (perhaps with mushrooms again).  I have used it instead of basil in a pesto, but that's definitely one for garlic-lovers only.

Warning: it is exceedingly pungent raw, although little finely chopped into a salad may be no bad thing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Chocolate Philadelphia

I feel like this stuff has already had more publicity than something you put on toast actually deserves. Anyway, in case you happen to be burning with excitement to learn what it tastes like, the answer is: well, chocolatey cream cheese. It's probably not as cloyingly sweet as Nutella or other chocolate spreads. But it doesn't bowl you over with an intense cocoa flavour either. Just 86 calories per serving, according to the tub, but it's still one-third sugar. What's wrong with good old-fashioned hot buttered toast anyway?

What do you think of it? Let me know using the comments.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A spinach and cheese pie for spring

It's funny how sometimes a dish seems to crop up everywhere. Last weekend I needed something nice to cook for a family meal. It was a sunny early April day and something springlike, not too elaborate and damn tasty was what I was looking for.

So my thoughts turned to spanakopita. It's a Greek filo pastry-wrapped pie with a spinach and feta filling. I cooked it, we devoured it for Sunday lunch and it was pretty good, if I do say so myself. Spinach has a bit of a holier-than-thou good-for-you reputation (I blame Popeye) but treated right, it is one of my favourite veg.

Later that day I was reading the Observer magazine - only to find Nigel Slater's recipe for spanakopita. The next day the other half came home from his weekend away and brought me a copy of the Saturday Guardian magazine. And there was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe for nettle spanakopita. Is this a food trend that I have missed? I hadn't seen either of them when I decided what to cook, so it seemed like a funny coincidence.

Speaking of feta, did you know that it is now protected in Europe with an AOC designation of origin label? It has to come from certain regions of Greece, use mostly sheep's milk, and be made according to traditional methods. Which is why you now get things called "salad cheese" or "Greek-style cheese" on the shelves. I do like proper feta, especially if I am eating it raw, but I have to confess that for this dish I used "Greek salad cheese" (it was still made in Greece, but using cow's milk) and it worked perfectly well. 

Here's my recipe. It's fairly flexible, so feel free to adjust the ingredients as you see fit. I made it in a deep pie dish, but you can make it strudel-shaped or into individual triangle-shaped pastries if you want something more portable.

This is a dish that works really well with frozen spinach, which is cheaper, and saves you the washing and chopping. Use fresh instead if you wish, but I personally wouldn't bother. 

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

900g frozen spinach, defrosted
250g feta cheese (or similar Greek-style cheese), roughly crumbled
2 eggs, beaten
3 spring onions, chopped
About half a bunch dill (more if you really like it), chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
3-6 sheets filo pastry
Melted butter (optional) for brushing


Combine all the ingredients except the pastry and butter in a large bowl and mix well.
Grease a large oven-proof dish like a pie dish, or even a small roasting tin with sides, large enough to accommodate all your filling with room to spare.
Take a sheet of pastry and lay it across the dish so it comes up the sides. Take the next sheet and overlap it a bit, repeating until the base and sides of the dish are covered with 1-2 layers of pastry and you have some pastry overhanging the edge. You will need to work fairly quickly so the pastry does not dry out. If you wish, you can brush each sheet of pastry with melted butter. Most recipes tell you to do this, but I didn't and it worked fine.
Put your filling inside the pastry in the dish. Take the overhanging pastry and fold it over to form a lid. If there isn't enough to cover the top, add another sheet of pastry, rumpling it up a bit to give attractive folds.
Bake in a medium hot oven until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is piping hot.
Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, perhaps with some new potatoes and a salad.

I haven't tried Nigel Slater's version yet, but he suggests using broad beans or peas as well as the spinach. I might try this next time - I like serving peas on the side anyway.

I haven't yet picked any nettles, so I don't know whether I will be trying Hugh's wild version, but I am not totally convinced by it. I like nettles but find their texture is best when diluted with something else, as in a quiche, souffle or creamy ricotta-based pasta sauce. I think using them in a spanakopita might just be too much nettle.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fine Indian dining at Babur

After possibly the cheapest Indian restaurant in London, it seemed only right to go to one of the more expensive.

So off I went to Babur, somewhat out of my usual territory in Brockley Rise (near Honor Oak Park rail). You can't miss it - there is a giant orange tiger on the roof.

A glance at the list of starters confirms this is not your average Indian restaurant. How about seared mackerel, with green apple and coriander salsa, or clove-smoked ostrich, or maybe tamarind-glazed quail breast? Prices range from £6.95 to £7.95, and mains cost from £12.95 to £16.95 (rice and breads are extra).

The creator of the menu has an appealing way with words - I liked the idea of the "vegetable beggar's purse" as well as the "rise dosa fool's cap" served with the Chettivar masala.

My friend had goat patties with tamarind and raisin chutney, while my cheese-loving side could not resist the chargrilled paneer sandwiched with mint chutney. Both were small, elegant portions beautifully served - mine came with a palette of three extra chutneys, vibrant in flavour as well as colour.

There is quite an impressive wine list, including suggestions to match each of the main courses - something I think more restaurants should do.

My friend took up the suggestion of a glass of New Zealand Pinot Gris to go with her chicken lababdar, a Mughlai dish with tomato and fenugreek. I am generally more of a fan of beer with curry, and I spotted one of my favourites, Clouded Yellow from Cornwall's St Austell brewery. (It's named after the butterfly, but as the name suggests, it can also be served cloudy, like a wheat beer, if you swirl in the sediment rather than letting it settle)

There were too many interesting main courses to list (the clove-smoked Laverstoke Park buffalo caught my eye) but I opted for fig-stuffed spiced potato dumplings with cashew and saffron sauce. This actually seemed more like fig dumplings served with potato patties, but it was a deft balance of sweet and spicy, in a rather wonderful sauce, luxurious with cream and saffron.

A side dish of garlicky spinach and mushroom was nice, though the spinach was lacking in texture, and I wondered if we should have tried the fresh green beans with sweet coconut and spices, or baby aubergine with peanut sauce, instead.

The same wordsmith had seemingly been involved with the menu of enticing cocktails - my favourite names were Darjeeling Mist (gin, ice tea, mint, lime and cassia bark) and Himalayan Spring (whisky, ginger, lime and sherry), although I was less sure about the Currytini (gin, Cinzano, lime cordial, curry leaves and green chilli).

The dessert list is equally different from your average Indian restaurant. Chocolate fondant is one of my all-time favourites, so I was happy to put up with the 15-20 minute wait we were warned of. My friend had the warm oatmeal and whisky pudding made with buffalo milk. Described as "our take on cranachan", I had expected something light, creamy and boozy like the classic Scottish dessert, but it was much denser - more of a crumble topping than a cranachan.

We took up the suggested pairing of dessert wines, a dark Monastrell with the fondant and a orange muscat with the oatmeal pudding. Desserts are £4.75-5.25, or add another £3-ish for a small glass of dessert wine. It made for a sophisticated end to an excellent meal.

All this does come at a price. With a shared (large) portion of rice at £3.25 and a mini-bread basket at £4.25, the bill was £89 before service. You could get a lot of chicken tikka masala for that in your local curry house. Of course, Babur is miles away from that - original, thoughtful and beautifully presented food, and it's only fair to pay for that. If it was in central London I suspect it would be much-talked of in the manner of places like Cinnamon Club and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia. As it's in Brockley, it has mostly just been quietly getting on with serving good food for the last 27 years. Long may it continue.

119 Brockley Rise, London, SE23 1JP.
Telephone: 020 8291 2400
Open from noon until 2:30 (except Sunday: noon-4pm) and every evening from 6pm until 11:30pm.