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