Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Christmas lunch #1

Gathering together around the ritual of food and wine is one of my favourite things about Christmas. Over the course of December, I'll get together with most people I know at some point for a meal. Working with a bunch of lovely foodies means that the team Christmas lunch is something to look forward to indeed.

I work in the leafy inner-suburb of Muswell Hill, which has more boutiques, cafes and delis than you could ever need. Yet, for all that muesli money, there's very little in the way of nice independent restaurants or decent pubs. So for our Christmas lunch we went to the Woodman pub at Highgate tube. The Woodman used to be a run-down spot for ageing and under-age drinkers, positioned unfavourably at a junction on grimy ol' Archway Road (A1).

It got 'done up' almost two years ago and now it's a cosy, but spacious, unpretentious pub, with a great kitchen, well-picked wine list and massive outside area. The menu has French, British and Mediterranean influences and the Christmas menu reflected all those.

I had braised Lamb shoulder with aman bayaldi (slow cooked aubergine and other med veg) with olive mash. Joyously, massive bowls of traditional trimmings were placed in the middle of the table so that even non-traditionalists could enjoy pigs in blankets, red cabbage and roast potatoes and parsnips.

To finish I had a chocolate cheesecake, which was unsurprisingly rich and luxurious and had a lovely, caramelly biscuit base.

Most people will have had their Christmas meals by now, but bear the Woodman in mind if you're ever up in that neck of the woods (literally - Highgate and Queens Wood are both within spitting distance of the Woodman!) - it is a welcome change from the chain pubs and restaurants of Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Big brunch

I hate breakfast for the most part. I've gone through almost every cereal brand there is, tried every topping on toast you could think of and experimented with all kinds of milk substitutes - oat, almond, soy, rice. And I've never settled on any one breakfast that I can sustain for any length of time. But one thing I can always come back to is french toast or eggy bread.

As a teenager, it was one of the first things I learnt to cook myself. I can't remember being shown how to do it - but my mum must have shown me at some point. My favourite topping is cooked apples, bacon and maple syrup. On weekend days when I wasn't working at Boots I'd put a CD on and leisurely go about pulling it together.

This is how I do it. For the eggy bread, beat together a couple of eggs and a reasonable splash of milk. Mix in some cinnamon. Get four slices of thick, soft white bread and dip them in the egg mix so that they're covered in the mixture. Heat up a pan with sunflower oil until hot. Fry on both sides until nice and brown.

Meanwhile, you'd have peeled some a big cooking apple, cored and diced it. Fry in another pan in butter. On the other side of that pan put in four rashers of bacon. Cook over a medium heat - adding a handful of currants and a generous pinch of cinnamon while you're at it. Once the apple is soft and the bacon crispy, spread evenly over the eggy bread.

Plop a couple of dollops of greek yoghurt and swirl some maple syrup over it and you're good to go!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Roasted love

Now that it is certifiably winter, there's no better excuse than to be cooking delicious roast dinners. One thing I've learned is that there are whole different worlds of roasting. Thinking about all the roast dinners I've had in my life, I can attribute different styles of roasts to different people. I'd say my mum's are French-inspired - real herbs, lemons and nice vegetables cooked alongside. My grandparents' roasts are much more traditional, served with lovely rich gravy and root vegetables, often straight out their garden. Mmmm.

When it comes to cooking a roast myself, I'm quite a fan of rubbing, marinading and then slow cooking. I tend to buy less classic cuts of meet - lamb and pork shoulders recently. I like grinding up spices - like cumin seeds or fennel seeds - with garlic, salt and chilli, and maybe paprika. Then cooking for hours and hours on a low temperature. I cooked a shoulder of lamb for 13 hours in anticipation of dinner last Sunday and it was just so, so tender and moist. The meat was literally falling off the bone as I took a knife to it, while the exterior was crispy and spicy.

Accompaniments matter too. I've been inspired by my recent visit to Moro and served recent roasts with braised cabbage topped with yoghurt and sumac. Celariac mash accompanied a pork shoulder...

...and a full Ottolenghi-esque mezze accompanied the lamb. I served it with roast potatoes and artichokes with lemon and olives, grilled peppers in green tahini, beetroot with yoghurt and dill, lemon braised fennel, and braised cabbage with yoghurt and sumac again. It was delicious.

I'm going to experiment with some other roasting styles over the Winter. I have the Silver Spoon and a friend recently gave me Ripailles, so there should be lots of new inspirations!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

A taste of Kenya

At work I've been lucky enough to have been joined by a lovely Kenyan lady called Nancy on a Commonwealth Fellowship placement. Of course, much of our discussion has been of food, especially lunches. Together we've explored the difference between lasagnes from M&S, Sainsbury's, Planet Organic and Cafe on the Hill, we've delighted in worktime snacking on flavoured rice cakes and cake bars. We googled and googled for Kenyan restaurants in London and, shockingly, there ain't none. The closest we could find was a Ugandan restuarant in Tottenham Hale. Finally, on Friday evening, Nancy cooked Kenyan food for the team and I can taste those amazing flavours!

Nancy prepared:
A goat stew
A banana stew
A bean stew
Ugali (Maize cake)
Sweet potatoes

It looked a little something like this:

The goat stew was my absolute favourite. I'd eaten goat meat before but not for a long time. It was so sweet and tender, with a rich, strong flavour. I can't understand why we don't eat more of it. The sauces were all fairly sweet and mildly spiced. There is a large Indian population in Kenya and their culinary influence is clear - chapati is served with most meals and the spice mixes are similar but subtler.

The bases of the dishes were mostly tomatoes, garlic and onions, before stock was added. Despite being fairly 'conventional' ingredients (bananas excluded, of course) but the flavours were distinctive and exotic. I guess that's the goat and the banana for you! Nancy wasn't able to get quite a few ingredients hat she wanted, even in the multicultural mecca of Finsbury Park. Ingredients, such as ground peanuts, would have showcased a completely different set of flavours if they'd been available.

If you're interested in trying to make some Kenyan food, visit this website

Thursday, 26 November 2009


A few years ago a dear friend bought me the Moro cookbook. This was when I'd just moved back from the culinary wasteland of Germany (you would not believe how terrible supermarkets are there) and I was beginning to get into cooking big time with my flatmates. I was excited to be back in London - land of farmers' markets, normal markets, global food options. I delighted in skipping up Seven Sisters Road to get the generous bundles of fresh herbs, slightly exotic vegetables and fish to make Moro meals. I read about the restaurant time after time in the Observer Food Monthly and in Time Out, I walked past it countless times, I eyed up the menu online. For our birthdays (in June and July), my partner and I decided we would treat ourselves to a meal at Moro. And last weekend, at the end of November, we finally did!

It all started simply, with delicious sour dough bread olive oil. We munched on that while we contemplated the short, but perfectly mouthwatering menu.

It's worth saying that the service is impeccable at Moro. It was a busy Friday night, the restaurant was bustling with contented, enthused punters and they could easily have been hurrying us along, but were friendly, informal and attentive. We finally settled on a selection of sherries - not the kind of sherries that your grandma drinks too much of at Christmas, but exciting, delicate, interesting sherries served perfectly chilled. The website describes them like so:

"Try this selection to discover the sheer deliciousness of bone dry sherry, from the salty sea breeze tang of Manzanilla, through the more pungent, assertive Fino, finishing with the more complex Manzanilla Pasada whose rock pool aromas are overlaid with subtle nutty age."

For starter I had a pumpkin kibbeh stuffed with sweetly spiced onions, raisins and chick peas. It was served with a radish and pomegranate salad and musky seasoned yoghurt.

Pete had swiss chard stalks with raisins and anchovies. It was earthy, salty and sweet all in one.

My main course was strips of charcoal grilled lamb, served with a smoky, spicy aubergine and bulgur wheat pilav and a shredded cabbage and yoghurt salad. It really was just heaven on a plate - the combination of flavours were perfectly balanced, the meat was super quality and the charcoal imparted just the right amount of smokiness.

Pete had woodroasted pheasant breast, served with onions caremalised in Pedro Ximenez and braised cabbage. I should also say that the wine list was excellent, with a really broad, well-chosen selection of wines by the glass. We had a glass of Gotim Bru and a glass of Mestizaje (described as mid-weight modernist!).

For dessert it had to be the classic Moro yoghurt cake with pistachio and pomegranate seeds. It's something I've made from the Moro recipe book before, so I was keen to try it as it should be. I was pleased to find that my own version wasn't too far off the mark, but this was just stunning: sweet, sour, fruity, nutty, and perfectly paired with a glass of Vino Dulce de Moscatel!

I can honestly say that it was one of the best meals of my entire life. It was a faultless experience, the food and the wine were out of this world, the atmosphere was warm and happy, and punters and waiters alike were equally enthused about the food. Now - to try and replicate at home!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A little something Caucasian...

In 2007 I spent a month in New York following the end of my finals. I spent every day exploring different neighbourhoods and their unique culture and culinary offerings. One day I went to Coney Island and ate the famous hotdogs from Nathan's on the boardwalk. I walked along the other side of the Atlantic a few blocks and ended up at the other Brighton Beach, a Russian enclave known as Little Odessa. All the street and shop signs were written in Cyrillic characters and when I went into a CD shop I was greeted in Russian. My trusty Time Out guide recommended a Georgian restaurant.

It was the most surreal meal of my life. The restaurant was cavernous and plush, like an empty Las Vegas casino. We were the only people in the restaurant, though the waiters were loading up a massive banqueting table behind us for a diaspora feast.

We started with a kind of Georgian mezze and it was then that I fell in love with Georgian cuisine. Positioned between Russia and Turkey, the influences of both cuisines were beautifully present in the dishes. Copious amounts of dill, parsley and coriander were in the spinach salad, pureed beetroot, potato salad and med veg salad, with ground walnuts adding a earthy richness to the former and dotted with gem-like pomegranate seeds. It really was a flavour explosion.

We drunk traditional Georgian semi-sweet red wine - the vineyards are supposedly the oldest in the world and the wine is just so beautiful, rich, complex, ancient. Fairly typical in Georgian cuisine is to serve food at room temperature - for my main I had spring chicken in a walnut sauce, one of the most exquisite and satisfying thing I've ever tasted. All the while a singer sang hi-NRG Slavic ballads to the almost empty room, adding to the otherworldliness of this periphery of New York City.

London has a couple of Georgian restaurants. For a traditional meal, go to Tbilisi on Holloway Road; a restaurant I love so much that I will blog about it in its own right some point soon. Little Georgia near Broadway Market is also good, though a little bit lighter during the day. My mum gave me a Georgian recipe book for Christmas last year and I try and cook a mini feast every now and then.

Recently, with the aide my lovely Magimix, I was able to re-create the chicken satsivi (walnut sauce). I served it with rice and a salad of roasted med veg, dressed in red wine vinegar, fenugreek, ground coriander and lots of fresh herbs. Delicious. Recipe here.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Japanese food: super kawaii!!

When I think about what I do and don't know about food, I realise just how much I don't know. Japanese cuisine is one that I am keen to get to know better. Various friends and colleagues have 'got into it' and invested in Sushi sets and the whole 'nother world of stock cupboard ingredients you need to make it well. A friend whose brother spent a few years in Japan took me to the Japan Centre at Picadilly Circus. I was amazed to find a veritable superstore of all things Japanese - fresh noodles and soups, chiller cabinets with ready meals, a world of dry goods and, downstairs, a bookshop.

At the bookshop we bought our friend Sabrina a cookbook on Japanese pub food, Izakaya. It tells you all about the very particular and interesting pub food and culture in Japan and, when I went to a new Japanese pub in Clerkenwell, the Crane and Tortoise in August, I was able to tell my co-drinker all about it! Basically, it's a bit like tapas - lots of fried little snacks with exciting Japanese condiments, like wasabi mayonnaise. We had deep fried octopus balls, pork dumplings, and some more conventional potato wedges:

I also went to check out Ikura on Haverstock Hill with my Belsize Park-dwelling chum Tamara who loves raw fish and raves about the endorphins she gets from it. The restaurant is all sleek black and red interiors, but not at all pretentious and expensive. I'm told the food is very authentic, too. We started with delicious spicy grilled octopus, chewy and smoky, just how I like it.

While Tamara gorged on raw fish...

...I opted for a more low-key brothy udon noodles. It was earthy and... gosh, I don't know if I have the vocabulary to describe Japanese food! It made me think of Murakami books - food always features throughout them and I remember various times when a character has been schlurping on udon noodles in the middle of the night in some 24-hour cafe. That strange, somehow health-giving seaweedy taste, the salty both and the bizarre addition of reconstituted seafood bits; it's all other worldly and evocative of Murakami, which is a good thing.

The food was delicious; words fail me right now, but Ikura was good, wholesame, low key and affordable.

After some more sushi for lunch today I have resolved to learn more about Japanese cooking in 2010 and maybe some of it will end up here!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

My Portuguese sweet tooth

My adventures in Portugal at the beginning of July seem like a million miles away with autumn in London getting into full sway. But I'm not too far from Lisboa Delicatessen in Camden where I can buy great pasteis de nata and bring it all back. Looking through my food pictures from Portugal, it struck me how many different Portuguese puddings there are and how integral they are to the cuisine.

Pastries or pasteis are a big part of everyday life in Portugal. Every neighbourhood or town, however grand or scruffy, will have at least one decent pastelaria, where locals will stand at the long bar to have a quick bica (espresso) and a pastry of some sort. When we were in Portugal, we noticed that 3-5pm was a very popular time to engage in this ritual.

The most famous pasteis is the pasteis de nata, or 'Portuguese custard tarts' as some call them. I don't like that description - it puts them on the same level as those insipid chemical custard tarts pensioners buy from supermarkets. Anyway. I had at least 10 in my 14 days in Portugal, and none were better than from the world famous pastelaria in Belem. We had three between the two of us and I could have eaten a couple more!

We visited the town of Sintra, which is full of elegant and dramatic palaces on top of mountains, and were sure to try their local delicacies. These are called queijadas de Sintra and are made with fresh portuguese cheese and sugar and egg and cinammon and have a slightly pungent savoury taste to them, in a good way.

Watching locals ordering and eating is an almost foolproof way of making sure you get a real local taste, so after eating our queijadas, we ordered one of these pastries which was filled with the same cheesy mix as the queijadas. Also delicious.

Pasteis de coco are another popular treat. It's another egg based pastry, this time with coconut and a cherry on top. Ah!

When we were in the Alentejan city of Evora we shared a hefty slice of chocolate cake made by the nuns in the convent. It was as rich and gooey and lovely as it looks.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Come Dine With Me: the conclusion

I posted earlier about the Come Dine With Me 'competition' that some of my friends and I were doing. In total there were four teams, hosting four meals. To recap:

The first couple's meal took place in June. Their theme was Salon de Versailles (think: Marie Antionette era France). This is their summer fruit and prosecco terrine.

My partner and I were up next, in early August. Our theme was modern Scandinavian. I think our star turn was our Smörgåsbord, pictured below.

At the beginning of September, the theme was Glamorous Gourmet. Unfortunately, I was all fluey and had barely functional tastebuds. Luckily, the flavours was strong! We started with a cassis/cava cocktail that had real flowers in, and then went on wheat-free blinis topped with goats cheese, aubergine, and med veg. Next up was slow cooked cherry tomatoes topped with a creamy concoction. The meaty main was duck in a cassis sauce served with mashed potatoes.

This was followed by a lemon tarte with a pine nut crust - sumptuous. Next up was a 'modern cheese board', with plum, Camembert and drizzled with clove oil. We finished with homemade chocolate peanut truffles. Yum.

The final Come Dine With Me was a fortnight ago and the theme was Alice in Wonderland: Mad Hatter's Teaparty. The event took place at my friends' massive warehouse apartment in Dalston, which is in a maze like building. Playing cards lead the way through the corridors to their apartment where we were greeted with an Alice and Wonderland cocktail: an Amaretto sour. Next we took to the picnic tables for a mini meal of blackberry tart, custard tart, buttered toast, turkey sandwich and a toffee. This was chased up with a cocktail contained in a miniature bottle with a 'Drink me' tag attached.

Introduced as starter, we then had a tomato and vodka consommé with a heart shaped ice cube. And next was what we thought was the main course, a freshly made fish and chips and mushy peas wrapped in that day's tabloids. That's where things started getting a bit more zany - the portion was small so everyone asked for more and duly ate more - but the course was followed by another starter: a leek and feta terrine. And THEN we had the main course: pies and salad. By this stage everyone was totally stuffed.

But there was still plenty of eating to be done! A whole pool table covered in desserts - boozy chocolate mousses, cupcakes, jam tarts, chocolate brownies. And even a cheeseboard. Not that anyone had any capacity left!

The results of the competition were announced at the end - all parties' scores were very close, but my team won! Woohoo!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Shroom safari

After a hectic week the last thing you'd want to do is get up at 8 O'clock on Saturday morning, travel for 1.5 hours across north and east London to get to Hainault in Essex and spend the morning getting drizzled on in muddy woodland. But yesterday was different.

I was, in fact, on a fungal foray; mushroom-picking. A friend from work who is also an avid foodie had been banging on since last October about the wonders of this mushroom walk lead by a local self-confessed mushroom anorak. Some of my fondest foodie memories are of walking through fields in the Scottish borders with my Grandad, picking massive, delicious field mushrooms. How could I say no?

About 30 other people also decided to spend this drizzly, but mild, Saturday morning in Hainault Forest in the pursuit of mushroom knowledge and mushroom. The guide knew almost every mushroom we found by site and advised on their edibility. This was my only consideration. We found fungi of all varieties, growing on trees, bright red, prickly, slimy, waxy, aniseedy. I was with six people I knew, so had to restrain my hunter-gather instincts and share my finds, but I ended up with a sizeable haul, including one oyster mushroom, one big parasol mushroom, one puffball, lots of butter caps and quite a few jews' ears.

They made for a tasty cooked breakfast this morning, sautéed with butter, garlic and parsley and then with a splash of calvados and some sour cream. Served on toast, it was a hearty, herby start to a day about town.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Baked happiness

When it comes to comfort food, nothing beats a spicy, Italian style tomato sauce. If, like me, you always have tinned tomatoes, olive oil, chilli flakes and garlic in, you can have it whenever you want, whatever the weather. I could eat it by the spoonful, without accompaniment. Sometimes I like to have it with penne, topped with basil and parmesan. Other times it is the making of a sausage bake.

But one of my all time favourites is the baked aubergine parmigiana. Gorgeous smoky aubergines, chargrilled, combined with this most sumptuous of sauces and heavenly expanses of parmesan cheese. And topped with mozzarella crispy breadcrumbs. Could you get any more comforting?!

It's an incredibly simple dish to make. For 4 people, you'll need two tins of tomatoes, one onion, three aubergine, one packet of mozzarella, garlic, parmesan, breadcrumbs, wine vinegar and basil.

First, chop the aubergine into 1cm slices across the way. Heat up a griddle pan with a little oil and cook the aubergines in batches so they have nice chargrill marks.

Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic and onion and, with a teaspoon of chilli flakes, allow to sizzle for a while in olive oil. Add the two tins of chopped tomatoes and allow to cook, uncovered for about fifteen minutes. Put a little wine vinegar at the end and tear up some basil leaves and stir in.

Once the aubergines are all done and the sauce has thickened put a thin layer of tomato sauce across the bottom of a lasagne kinda dish, then a smattering of parmesan, followed by a single layer of aubergines. Repeat these layers until you’ve used all the ingredients up, finishing with a little sauce and then cover in grated mozzarella. Top this with a scattering of breadcrumbs and put in the oven for about 20 minutes.

Once it's nicely browned and crispy on top, take it out the oven, let it cool a little, and serve in nice big wedges with salad and garlic bread. Ah!

Belissima! So simple, so easy, so happy-making.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

What a Turkey!

Deciding where I want to holiday is always tough. Cuisine is the primary consideration, but that's got to be weighed against authenticity, value, climate, language, etc. My trip to Portugal earlier in the year ticked all of those boxes, but the time spent planning it to make sure that it did tick those boxes was inordinate. To recuperate from the party conference season I wanted an easy, quick fix and decided on Turkey.

The WHERE was the tricky bit. Istanbul was the penultimate destination on my inter rail trip in 2004. I remember the excitement of the 23 hour train journey there from Bucharest, drinking tea and eating salted cucumbers with the conductor, and then arriving in the scorching July heat to find myself, as I had hoped, in another world. I have ideas about travelling through Turkey by train and bus and being very thorough and authentic, so I didn't want to use up too many Turkey credits with this one. In the end, I decided on Oludeniz, on Turkey's south western coast. From my research, it was beautiful, accessible (via package holidays), affordable and still warm and sunny in mid-October.

Oludeniz was indeed beautiful, accessible, affordable and still warm and sunny in mid-October, but it was also full of Brits Abroad. Brits Abroad are not especially keen to immerse themselves in local cultures and cuisines, and the vast majority of the restaurants served full English breakfasts, apple crumble, egg and chips and all those clichéd favourites. There were, however, three great restaurants in the town serving very nice, typical Turkish cuisine, so all was not lost.

The Oba Motel is the last remaining of the hippy settlements that were in Oludeniz long before the asphalt blocks, neon cocktail bars and Turkish delight shops. It still has tree house style huts to stay in, but also features a large, mostly outdoor restaurant service up tasty Turkish cuisine and genial service.

We visited a couple of times, and on both occasions we started with a freebie mini mezze plate, with burnt aubergine, a yoghurt and garlic dip, spiced hummus and a tomato and pepper dip. This was served with the customary so-freshly-baked-it's-all-puffed-up-with-steam pita breads, which are a million miles from those dry pitas you get all vacuum packed from the supermarket.

On my first visit, I had a tasty vegetable casserole, cooked and served in a clay pot. Yummy squash, aubergine, carrots, peas and peppers featured in this simple but satisfying dish.

The other time we visited the Oba Motel, we treated ourselves to a whopping fish platter, with swordfish, calamari, prawns, white tuna and lake trout. All freshly grilled over coals and served simply with the usual sides of rice, chips, salads and green bean stew. The fish was so, so fresh and juicy and laced with just the right amount of char taste.

Desserts in restaurants are seemingly not too big a deal in Turkey, the only dish consistently on menus was baklava, obviously. At Oba we tried a dish, which was warm bananas with (warm) honey, cream and cinnamon. It was really nice, but I'm not sure how traditional it is. Any ideas?

I'll write about the rest of my Turkish culinary experiences later...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Fig and Fennel salad

Not a great start to blogging to take another two week break. But I've been busy guvna, honest! I actually have. My job involves going to each political party's annual conference, staying for about 3 or 4 days at each, putting on an event, meeting politicians and other bigwigs, going to lots of events for interest, to ask questions and live off the endless spreads of canapes, fingerfoods and run-of-the-mill wines. I'm going to blog about all that jazz later. The super-extra time pressure is a self-inflicted part-time Masters which I've signed up to do alongside my full-time job. It's all going to get crazy!

Today, however, I'm going to tell you about a tasty meal I cooked a couple of weeks back before it slips my mind.

I was walking past the fruit'n'veg stall at Kentish Town tube when I was grabbed by a scrawled notice: "4 figs for £1". I picked up 4. Then I saw another scrawled notice: "2 fennel for 50p". I bought 2. I halved and griddled the figs, then sliced top-down the fennels and griddled them too. Meanwhile I roasted quickly some chopped walnuts, prepared some rocket, chopped some manchego cheese, threw the lot together and whisked up a sherry vinegar dressing. was delicious, smoky, earthy. It looked like this:

I have a thing for 'posh' sausages. When I lived in Berlin, you'd think I'd have had plenty of brilliant sausages. But once you've tried the exciting sausages available in farmers' markets and better supermarkets in Britain, German sausages don't cut it. The sausages you get in the supermarket and from street stalls in Germany are so processed you'd hardly know there was meat in them.

While there are clearly many better sausages to be had than the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range, my biggest weakness in sausages has always been their Parmesan and Pancetta blend. Any guest that came to visit me would ask "can I bring anything from Britain? Cheddar cheese? Irn Bru?". No. Parmesan and Pancetta sausages from Sainsbury's. I hadn't seen them in Sainsbury's for about a year and then spotted them at the big 'un in Camden and had to buy a pack. I cooked them and served them with the fig'n'fennel salad and some zingy potato salad too:

All in all, a lovely end of summer meal.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Latin meat sweat

My Dad was in town over the weekend to speak at a conference and we finally hit up one of London's many rodizio restaurants: Rodizio Preto, which is in Pimlico.

A rodizio or a churrascaria is a kind of Brazilian restaurant where various cuts of various meats are grilled on a barbecue, then brought to your table by a waiter who cuts you a portion off and puts it on your plate. Being quarter Brazilian and my Dad being half, we thought we would get back to our roots and discover our Latin spirit. Or something equally contrived.

I hadn't really known what to expect. Pimlico, I'd dismissed as a nothing area: Victoria Station Borders, but was quite surprised to walk down Wilton Street to find a bustling, broad high street lined with restaurants, shops and bars with a well-heeled but not exclusive feel. Preto itself looked bustling, 20 and 30-somethings in their Saturday night finest filled the sprawling outside tables as smartly dressed waiters tender to their meat and alcohol needs. As we approached, my heart sunk very briefly - was this my worst nightmare? A gimmicky good times restaurant?!

You help yourself to an extensive salad bar, which includes various rices, typical Brazilian bean stews, salsas, various potato salads, battered bananas/plantains, croquettes, cabbage stuffed with cream cheese, pork scratchings, onion rings, more cabbage...phew. I filled my plate to the max - I wanted to try everything. With just one piece of meat on it, it looked a little something like this:

Waiters cheerfully walked around with huge cuts of meat on skewers, fresh off the barbecue. They came around at a pace that just allowed you to do one portion justice before saying yes to the next. Different cuts included beef steak, beef ribs, pork shoulder, chicken hearts, chicken wings, turkey breast, lamb , spicy sausage. Etc. I paced myself and tried just about every different cut that was on offer. Each cut was succulent, melt-in-yr-mouth good and you could tell it was good quality stuff.

The diners there were a really diverse bunch: from big tables of birthdaying Brazilians to young families enjoying a rare meal out, over 60s couples to mid-twenties couples, everyone was having a good time, sipping big cocktails, chatting to the waiting staff. It was nice to see so many different people designating a big meal out as a Saturday night's entertainment and being so happy for it. The ceremony and ritual of the rodizio really makes the experience.

If you are thinking of going for a rodizio, you might want to look at this Time Out article which looks at a few of the main one. I've heard Rodizio Rico, a small chain, is a bit more expensive than the others. I would definitely recommend Preto, but there might be better bargains to be had in NW10, which has a big Brazilian population. And wear stretchy trousers (aka buffet pants) - you'll need them.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Red veg

I love going to Parliament Hill Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings and picking up some interesting veg for the weekend. Last weekend I bought a purple cauliflower and a bunch of beetroot.

Pete cooked a beetroot risotto - quickly becoming a staple in our house. Unsurprisingly, it turns out looking like a garish reddy-purple maggot slime. But it has a delicious sweet, root-y celery-like taste that you don't get from beetroot when you prepare it any other way. With added mascarpone, this is a perfectly lovely, rich, warming dish for a cooler end of summer evening.

We use the Times recipe, but with a little less parmesan.

The purple cauliflower went to good use in one of my favourite Ottolenghi salads: Chargrilled cauliflower with dill, capers and cherry tomatoes. The cauliflowers are very lightly parboiled - about three minutes - then flung into a smokin' hot griddle pan until they are nicely charred.

The dressing helps the magic of this dish - 2 parts olive oil to one part cider vinegar, finely chop some capers, add some crushed garlic, salt'n'pepa, some wholegrain mustard. There you have a very tangy jus for your salad.

Combine the charred cauliflower with baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes and pour over the dressing. Chop up a generous handful of dill and drop it in. Enjoy with toasted pitta bread. We served with lemon-y turkey breasts. Yum.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Bull and Last, NW5

It's so typical that you wait ages - years, even - to check out a restaurant and then, when you do go, you have a cold and under-active taste buds. Not ideal! But the Bull and Last, a much touted gastropub on Highgate Road NW5, did not disappoint.

Located just opposite Parliament Hill Fields and, handily, just around the corner from my house, the Bull and Last shot to fame when Giles Coren reviewed it for The Times last autumn, followed by Time Out and The Evening Standard, all singing its praises. I like to try and avoid that kind of hype: let the Zeitgeist hawks have their fun and move on to the Next Big Thing. The pub is nearly always busy when I walk past, but we were seated pretty quickly at lunchtime yesterday.

The Bull and Last is beautifully simple and rustic inside: cavernous Victorian high ceilings and huge windows give a sense of space and light, mismatched stools by the bar, chalked blackboards detailing their suppliers. Good looking, though overworked, waiting staff run around trying not to trip over the many pedigree pooches and children meandering away from the tables of slightly smug north London bohemian families.

Not feeling too hungry and saving a 'big meal experience' at the Bull and Last for a day when I have more active taste-buds, I went for the pigeon and pistachio terrine, which was served with a spiced plum chutney. The terrine was gamy but fresh - a celebration of the pigeon's slightly smoky, meaty flavours. It was paired perfectly with the plum chutney, a bistro salad and some bread.

I was jealous of my co-diners' charcuterie boards. The Bull and Last's homemade charcuterie is now the stuff of legend and included deep-fried pig's head, duck prosciutto, some boozy liver pâtés and other bits and bobs. Also on offer was a fishboard, which a couple at a neighbouring table intimately fed to each other. Nice.

The main dishes change frequently, but there there are traditional homemade snacks such as scotch eggs, black pudding sausage rolls waiting to accompany a pint on the way home from a chilly walk up the Heath. There's lots of proper hearty gastropub fare too, and the desserts are supposedly excellent - there was Fererro Rocher ice cream on the menu when I was there. If the entire menu is as tasty as our snack lunch options, I'm going to have to make quite a few trips back to do the Bull and Last justice.