Sunday, 16 August 2009

Portuguese Man-of-Snacks

I spent the first two weeks of July travelling around Portugal. I am quarter Portuguese and quarter Brazilian (as well as being half Scottish and lived half of my life in Edinburgh and half in London and a year in Berlin) and have spent many holidays as a young'un in various bits of Portugal.

Many of my early memories revolve around Portuguese food - the first bowl of calde verde of the holiday, taking a break from the sun to chomp on some buttery torades in a smoky pastelaria, the smell of chargrilled sardines, the satisfaction of biting into a warm, freshly baked pastel de nata. My parents would sometimes cook a cataplana when I was a toddler and I would greedily eat their clams, prawns and chorizo, soaking up the fishy tomato sauce with bread.

Portuguese cooking is not well known outside Portugal - not nearly in the same way that many other Mediterranean cuisines are. The wondrous Pasteis de Nata are savoured across most European cities, Nandos is bringing a very small element of Portuguese cuisine to the masses, while the cookbook Piri Piri Starfish is raising the cuisine's profile among foodies.

My recent trip to Portugal was a veritable culinary voyage, eating all my favourite dishes, re-discovering some old tastes and trying out some new dishes. I'm going to detail these in bursts as I blog along. So today it is...Portuguese snack food!

A tasty lunch of beef croquette, pasteis de bacalhau, and a tasty chicken empanada.

Tosta mista - a classic snack lunch of cheese and ham toastie.

Torrados - thick white bread, toasted and drenched in butter. Bliss.

rissois de camarao - a prawn pastry in breadcrumbs.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Eating out in Edinburgh

I grew up in Edinburgh, a city that was most definitely ahead of the curve in developing a café and dining out culture. Back in the late 90s we had great brunch cafés in our neighbourhood (Marchmont) frequented by students, young families, bobos and pensioners alike. Despite our chilly, windy and wet climate, the French restuarants of the Grassmarket spilled out onto the streets, while independent cafés and Scottish bistros popped up in all sorts of nooks and crannies.

The relative absence of mid-price chain restuarants (no ASKs, very few Pizza Expresses, I don't think I've seen any Zizzis, Slug and Lettuces, Ping Pongs, Loch Fynes, etc) means that this significant price bracket is populated by a diverse range of quality, independent, interesting restuarants. In fact, some have been so successful that they have opened up other branches in different parts of town or even in Glasgow (or vice versa).

What with it being festival time in Edinburgh (and me paying a visit), I thought I'd give a run down of my favourites:

A Room in the Town - my all time favourite. A delightful, airy, characterful bistro serving up innovative modern Scottish cuisine. Think haggis terrine and whisky gravy, sea bass with asparagus and cherry tomatoes, games sausage and parsnip mash. You can get a 3 course lunch for under £15 a head, and it's BYOB too.

The Zulu Lounge - just a few paces from my Mum's flat in Morningside, this quirky, cosy South African café is covered in zebra print, has yummy muffins and brownies and whatnot. And specialises in decadent hot chocolates, such as this calorific Cadbury's 'Crunchie' hot chocolate. Ooh my arteries...

Café Andaluz - Stylish tapas restaurant that started out in Glasgow but was so popular they had to open one on George Street in Edinburgh. I ate at the spectacularly moorishly decorated restaurant in Glasgow's West End last night and it was delicious, atmospheric, classy and authentic. My only complaint would be that some of the dishes skimped a bit on key ingredients. Café Andaluz is popular with Edinburgh's Spanish community, so it must be good, right?

Alba Flamenca - another testament to the popularity of tapas in Edinburgh! This intimate restaurant is part of a very popular flamenco dance school, and the short tapas menu and wine list is well chosen and impeccably prepared. It's also a good deal cheaper than Cafe Andaluz, though less atmospheric and stylish.

Spice Box - My dad ordered a take-away from here on Wednesday night and I could not believe how amazing Thai food can be. Spice Box is run with love by two innovative young upstarts and some excellent Thai chefs. It's take-away only and, such is the demand, you'll have to wait a while for it to arrive, but it is so so so worth it.

Mother India - flavours and seasoning to die for at this Glasgow-originating Indian tapas (yes, tapas again). Perfectly sized portions so that you can have 4 dishes between 2 and not feel too full. The food is clearly top quality and the menu has lots of interesting dishes, such as crab samosas!

Le Mouton Noir - Classy, stylish and affordable French restaurant in Bruntsfield. It's classic bistro fare, but excellently done and lovely surroundings.

Favorit - An old favourite (geddit?!) of mine - often open til 1 or even 3am, you can get fancy fruit beers, refreshing Czech lagers, smooties, milkshakes, ice cream floats, brownies, sandwiches, tacos, etc etc. It's stylishly decorated like an American diner and it's just a good place to catch up with friends at any time of day or night.

Toast - Just round the corner from my old house and formerly Kaffe Politik - Marchmont's defining café, this is a great brunch spot at the weekend, with excellent Eggs Benedict and other great options. It does breakfast, lunch and dinner during the week, excellent cakes and coffees and commands the same diverse clientelle as its predecessor.

Le Bon Vivant - A new opening in the upmarket New Town, this is a dark, elegant champagne bar, with a twist: it's totally unpretentious, totally friendly, totally affordable. They sell £1 bites, including deep friend risotto balls, tartes, black pudding, as well as yummy soups (I had smoked haddock and pea chowder - it was delicious).

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

La Voute to the top

Strange things have been happening in Archway over the last few years. Formerly the area had been the subject of ridicule; a grotty, grimey bus interchange, a gyratory system dominated by monolithic decaying office blocks and filthy dive bars. The smug folks of neighbouring Highgate, Muswell Hill and Crouch End would shudder at thought of eating out in Archway...

But things are changing. Sure, Archway is still a grotty, grimey bus interchange; the gyratory system is pretty horrid (I cycle round it twice a day), but there have been some wonderful restaurants and cafés opening in recent years. The most notable is the wondrous 500 - an unassuming-looking Italian at the top of Holloway Road that cooks up imaginative, excellent seasonal cuisine, with great wines and deserts and snacks and everything is so good and VERY affordable. More about that later!

One of my favourites of this new wave of new establishments is La Voute on Archway Island - right in the middle of the gyratory system! You wouldn't know you were surrounded by the A1 though; La Voute is a veritable oasis. Inside it's all clean lines, space, light...almost Ottolenghi-esque. Out the back there's a tranquil patio with plenty of tables out the back, surrounded by bamboo fencing. Look up and you see the backs of rickety Victorian terraces and the top of Archway tower; look around and you see happy couples, young families and students tucking in to brunch, reading the weekend supplements, making the most of the free wi-fi.

The food is Mediterranean-inspired with a definite leaning to the Eastern Med (Turkey, Greece, Cyprus). There are luscious brunch spreads with haloumi, spiced lamb sausages, scrambled eggs, spinach filo pastries. There are tasty toasted sandwiches, quiches, salads, crepes, croissants and pastries. La Voute also does delicious finely crafted patisserie-style desserts for the weekday coffee and cakes crew. The service is very laid back and it's a great place to catch up with friends at a leisurely pace without feeling obliged to keep ordering food. And if you did, it's very affordable too!

Given that it's only open during the day, it's great to see that La Voute seems to be doing a good trade. It's precisely the kind of chilled out hanging out spot serving great quality food and drink that is too rare in London, especially given the number of people who like that sort of thing. Keep up the good work, La Voute!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Come Dine With ME

I'm lucky that many of my friends share my love for food. It means I'm never short of buddies to check out new restaurants with, or try out exciting recipes for, or even to go browsing the fancy kitchen equipment in John Lewis...what a buzz!

So when the idea was mooted in April that, as a friendship group, we would embark on our own Come Dine With Me voyage, I was very excited. There's nine people in our 'game', three pairs and one set of three. Such are our busy metro diaries that last night was only the second Saturday evening in all that time that we were all able to come dine with each other.

The first pair to host an evening was Ben and Hattie. They opted for a Palais de Versailles theme. When their handmade invite arrived in the post with butterfly confetti you could almost hear the squeaky sound of the bar being raised. The meal was delicious and served as follows:
- Greeted with pomegranate-laced bubbly
- An amuse bouche of celariac puree topped with caremalised fennel
- Asparagus with hollandaise
- Fricasse of chicken with mushrooms in red wine (both mains served with orange braised chicory)
- Saffron Tarte with wild musrooms (for the vegetarians)
- Prosecco and summer fruit terrines, served with orange zest and cocoa meringues
- Cheeseboard

So for the the next month or so I plotted my theme and menu. The theme was to be modern Scandinavian cuisine, inspired by the website New Scandinavian Cooking and tales of the world's third best restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen. It also helped that my décor is Danish or mid-century in style, and I love Scandinavian indie and pop music.

Ideas for how to top the already high standard included a midsummer's dip in Hampstead ponds (surely we could pretend we were on a beautiful pine forested island on the Stockholm Archipelago), or karaoke to our favourite Scandinavian hits. But I decided to focus on the food and drink and do myself proud with that and my excellent (nordic) taste in music and design!

We started by toasting the evening with a shot of vodka which I had infused with dill and lemon zest for over a week. It tasted pure, perfume-like and elegant. You wouldn't believe it was 40% alcohol.

Next up was the star turn: the Smörgåsbord. I prepared miniature rye bread open sandwiches with salmon I cured myself (with vodka, dill and juniper berries - very easy actually) which was topped with a horseradish foam; a beetroot and apple salad with sour cream; prawns with ginger and orange zest; samphire on a caper and creme fraiche spread. We served it with a sparkling rosé from Provence. It looked stunning set out on our massive white plates and went down a treat.

As an interlude or palate cleanser we served heart-shaped ice cubes with pickle, dill and juniper berries next. It was a little gimmicky, but it buys time for plating up the mains!

The meat eaters main was classic Swedish meatballs with a creamy gravy, served with new potatoes and dill, and a fruity salad of orange and shredded cabbage with a horseradish ice cube on top. The vegetarian main was a tower of portabella mushroom, cinammon and calvados infused apple and jarlsberg cheese with the same sides. The gravy was a particular personal triumph - my mum has tried to recreate the Ikea gravy so many times and this was the closest to the 'original' I've tasted!

Time for another interlude: this time a rose, mint and redcurrant flavoured heart-shaped ice cube. Rosewater is such a clever one. A little splash of it can add a very exotic twist.

The principal pudding was apple, honey and rosemary ice cream which I made totally from scratch and without an ice cream maker! I quickly whipped up (literally) a honey and cinnamon foam to accompany and scattered some dried rose petals over it.

A friend at work who used to run a restaurant advised me to finish the meal with a chocolate hit, which, playing to win, I did. We melted a couple of bars of Green & Black's 70% and mixed it with redcurrants. They didn't quite hold their structure after setting, so were a bit messy, but really hit the spot.

It was really nice to feed so many people and to experiment with Nordic cuisine like that. It was lots of hard work and I was relieved to serve the last course and know that our Come Dine With Me was over and I could look forward to the next two instalments over the coming months.

Incidentally, I've never seen the television programme itself. Am I missing out?!

Oh, and if you are interested you can view some of the recipes which inspired the meal here:
Dill Scnhapps
Cauliflower, shrimp and ginger salad
Swedish Meatballs (Note: for the gravy, I cooked onions and added them in, as well as some paprika and lots of pepper, then puréed it all - much better!)
Cabbage and orange salad
Beetroot, Horseradish and Apple Salad
Gravlax (cured salmon)
Apple ice cream with honey and rosemary