Tuesday, 28 December 2010

I love Christmas

I love Christmas, especially this one, as I now have a new camera thanks to my lovely boyfriend (and his parents), mum, dad and others. Woop. Early signs are that it takes a beautiful picture, so I'll be working on my photo skillz to up the standard of photography on this blog.

As is well documented, I love Christmas dinner. It's my favourite meal of the year, with so many happy memories evoked. It's evolved over the years: different faces at the table, different settings, new dishes (this year: parsnip and pear croquettes!), shelved dishes (where's the mashed potato and cauliflower and cheese? Rightly relegated!), new customs (the Christmas eve cut price turkey hunt). But I love it for its ritual, its bringing people together and it's slow, social celebration of culinary excess.

This year was a particularly excellent Christmas dinner. Our turkey was the best ever, so succulent and juicy. It was a Marks and Spencer's free range organic bronze feathered beauty that we picked up on Christmas Eve for a third of its original price. The turkey hunt is fast becoming a favourite tradition - my mum has us stationed at supermarkets across Edinburgh at about 3pm on Christmas Eve, waiting for the supermarkets to slash the prices of their top tier turkeys. It's a game of nerves: jump too soon and you pay over the odds, leave it too long and you could be left with nothing. We were very pleased with our turkey.

The trimmings are key, and I think we counted 12 different dishes on our Christmas lunch plate:

Turkey, red cabbage braised with apple, roast potatoes in goose fat, home-made cranberry sauce (with orange zest), carrots with orange, brussels sprouts, little sausages, chestnut stuffing, parsnip and pear croquettes, bacon, leek, bread sauce and gravy. My favourites are the bread sauce (milk slow-cooked overnight with bay leaf and a clove stuffed onion) and the chestnut stuffing (chestnut purée, bacon, onions lemon zest, abundant parsley, breadcrumbs, egg: baked), without which it just wouldn't Christmas at all.

On Boxing Day, my siblings and I walk to the other side of Edinburgh (via the Topshop sale, for our sins) to join my dad and his partner for a second Christmas lunch. My dad isn't mega keen on the whole roast dinner setup, so will often cook a Portuguese style dish. This year he made a very meaty cataplana (it typically has clams, prawns and white fish, but my brother really dislikes fish) with melt-in-your-mouth pork loin and top quality chorizo and black pudding in a rich tomato and wine sauce. It was delicious and went down nicely with the free flowing cava!

The food has been amazing and there's been much more too: home-made ice cream, chestnut cream whip, leftover combinations, brunch out with friends. I'm definitely feeling fooded out and ready for some nice fresh salads and fruit!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Even the pizzas are posh

You only have to flick through the piles of take away menus that come through your front door on a weekly basis to see that tastes are more and more sophisticated, even when it comes to the traditional junk food fest territory of the Friday night take away. The game has been upped and you can now even choose which Italian region you want your pizza from, some Indian take-away menus don't even feature chicken tikka masala and you can get dim sum delivered to your door. Of course, you still get menus with yellowing pictures of huge greasy pizzas topped with rubber cheese and rubber meat, but it's hard to see how those places will survive for much longer when you could have it so much better for the same price.

I've been in essay mode up until recently, spending long weekend days in the library, coming home tired and hungry with little energy to cook. This has meant lots of quiet, relaxed Saturday nights with a take away and a couple of episodes of Mad Men. Very young fogey, but a good excuse to try out some of north London's best pizzas!

Firezza is highly rated by an Italian born and raised friend and specialises in pizzas by the yard. Their bases are thick and rustic without being too doughy, but it's all about the toppings. Plentiful, plentiful top quality hams and salamis, huge basil leafs, sweet onions. Yum. The pizzas are actually huge and we weren't able to finish ours', as much as we wanted to, but they did for a very nice lunch the next day in the lirbary.

It's a small chain and there are a scattering of branches across London. Our nearest is by Highbury and Islington tube. There's a cheaper price (£8.50 a pizza) if you pick up, so I sent the boyf out on his bike to pick ours up.

Il Bacio is another small chain of Sardinian restaurants across a small stretch of north London: N16, N5 and N4, with lots of avid fans. The restaurants serve a range of Sarindian fare: fish and seafood dishes, pizzas and pastas, while Il Bacio Express on Stoke Newington Church Street focuses mainly on pizzas. The menu, being Sardinian, diverges from the pizzeria norms, with more sea food, olives, capers, fresh herbs and Sardinia specific hams.

The pizzas were delicious, especially for the topping combinations. The slight trade off for more interesting combinations compared to Firezza was that the topping didn't seem as good quality – the olives were quite plain and the meat wasn't as clearly top notch as that on the Firezza pizza.

Finally on the pizza front, not a take away, but I enjoyed the pizza at the Hideaway bar between Tufnell Park and Archway tube. It's a great little late spot, with a great selection of beers, wines and friendly bar staff who went out of their way to meet our cocktail demands (Mad Men themed!). Their pizzas are reputed to be some of the best 'outside Foreign' according to the Observer, so we were keen to try them.

I had a chorizo and almond pizza, which was a winning combination, Spanish inspired. The chorizo was really good quality, very meaty, the peppers sweet and the almonds gave it a good rounded taste. The base was thin but not too crispy, which was a nice experience if not hugely filling. Still very nice and a great place for a local low key evening if you're in the Tufnell Park/Archway/Dartmouth Park 'hood.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Brunchin' brunchin' #1

If my Berlin days taught me anything, it's this: brunch should be the king of all meals. If there's any way of spending your precious weekend days in more joy, let me know. But I can't imagine anything better than gathering some friends together and having good coffee, warm food, fresh juice, reading weekend papers and having a good natter. I've blogged brunch before, but I've always got space for more and want to share some recent favourites:

Lantana is a fairly new Australian brunch joint in Fitzrovia, just off Goodge Street. This means, crucially, that they get good coffee, chilled vibes and a fresh approach to a warm breakfast. I went one Sunday, meeting a doctor friend just coming off a nightshift at UCH. For her it was the end of a long day, for the rest of us it was the just the start. But for all of us, the coffee (flat white, why not?!) was excellent.

I had corn and herb fritters, topped with slow cooked garlicky tomato salsa, sweetcure bacon, creme fraiche with a twist of lime and a rocket salad. So so yummy, fresh, tangy and sweet all in one. Fritters are an utilised medium for the carb - stuffed full of herby flavours, they were a great earthy base for the fresh flavours on top.

One friend had scrambled egg with smoked salmon and fresh herbs, and the other (sweet toothed) opted for brioche french toast with poached pears and ricotta. I did swapsies for a bite of both: delicious. I tend to always go for a savoury brunch though, as amazing as a sweet french toast is. We all liked the Mediterranean flavours with a twist of antipodean zing.

Lantana is popular - we arrived just after 10am, and by 10.30 there were quite a few people waiting for tables. The early bird catches the worm, even if it defeats the point of brunch.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Rooftop one-pot

It's the end of the growing season on our roof terrace, though I can't quite believe the tomatoes lasted until November. It was definitely a learning experience: aubergines can be tough to grow, you need multiple courgette plans for cross pollination, tomatoes need a lot of water, if you grow carrots in a pot they'll be tiny...but still delicious.

On the day we harvested the last of our pot grown carrots I decided to cook a tasty one pot roast dish. I love cooking all the ingredients slowly in one dishes and allowing them to infuse each other. The best meal we had in Croatia was at a plush harbourside in Komiza on Vis, where we had beautiful tender white fish baked in a big dish with potatoes, carrots and copious quantities of herbs and garlic and butter and olive oil. It was so simple and so perfect.

In the absence of fish straight out the sea, I browned some chicken legs and thighs in garlic and olive oil and put in a pyrex lasagne dish, before adding some parboiled (3 mins at boiling) and then halved new potatoes with their skins on, a leek, lots of garlic and all of our lovely little carrots. Lots of olive oil and some knobs of butter, and then into the oven. After a while I added finely chopped rosemary, tarragon, basil (all out the garden) and flat leaf parsley and a splash off white wine. I covered in tin foil and baked for maybe another 30 minutes until it was the perfect combination of crispy roast, melt in your mouth buttery, herby bliss.

The meal was a perfect bridge of the seasons, with summer's fresh herbs and winter's warming root vegetables. Maybe I was just feeling paternal, but our baby carrots were particularly sweet and tasty.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Better baking

The western world is going bake-crazy! American-style cupcakes have been all the buzz for the last few years and by now it seems every second person can effortlessly turn out beautiful ornate cupcakes, perfectly frosted and covered in glitter. The supermarkets are on it too, charging full whack for industrial scale cupcake outputs.

My worry is that there is too much emphasis on the decoration and not enough on the crux of the matter: the cake. While the aesthetics of icing are clearly important and most definitely play a part in your cake decision, the substance, the cakiness of the cake are often forgotten. So many perfectly decorated cupcakes are dry and bland inside; there is often no art to the baking.

But two recent baked experiences have reassured me that some bakers are still passionate about their cake.

My friend Hattie has recently set herself up as a cake-maker and does a good run of traditional, well-made, feel-good baking. Hattie had her first stall at the Kentish Town Community Centre autumn picnic and I bought myself a bespoke sample platter. There were brownies (moist but not too sludgy), chocolate cake (impeccably iced, soft inside), rocky road (very sweet, chocolatey and moreish), as well as carrot cake, old school cupcakes (not American style) and vegan brownies...wow.

Obviously food tastes better when you know how much love goes into it, but Hattie's cakes are some of the best I've had in a while. Save your money next time you think of ordering a Hummingbird and get Hattie to bake you something! Drop Hattie an email on harrietphillips258 @hotmail.com if you want some good cake.

Another great baked experience I had was at the Great Brownie Bake Off at look mum no hands!, everyone's favourite cycle cafe, all in the name of charidee. Chefs gave demonstrations of their best brownie recipes, sharing handy hints and tips as they went along, and then the finished products were passed around the audience. Every 10 minutes or so, another batch of warm brownies would be passed around on plates and I quickly felt a bit queasy from the sheer amount of sugar.

The star attraction was Stacie Stewart, a recent Masterchef finalist, who is a total mod with amazing hair, attitude and cooking skillz. She is also Pete's workmate, so we got introduced and had a quick chat about the cake scene at the moment and agreed about the downsides of Americanisation, or something. Anyway, Stacie was very charming and funny and gave some great tips when she was mixing it up. She says cooking is an art and a science and you got just tell she's got both sides covered.

Stacie baked a chocolate cupcake with a chocolatey mascarpone icing. They were in short supply, so Pete and I shared one. It was very nice. Very soft, light cake and the icing was luxuriously creamy and caramely, but without being too thick or sugary.

I left on a total sugar high, but with a strong desire to get my bake on!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Green, mean, linguine

One of the things I love most about this time of year is the appearance of fancy members of the cabbage family in our greengrocers. My particular favourites are kale and cavolo nero, kings of the cabbages. They both remind me of one of my favourite Portuguese dishes, caldo verde, a simple potato soup with finely shredded greens, topped with chourico and fruity, peppery olive oil. As a kid, I would crave for that rich, seaweedy, green taste but it was only ever to be had on holidays to Portugal.

I like my nice greens braised with garlic and chilli, Tuscan style. I like them in plain meals, where their sheer greenness is able to take centre stage. I recently made the greenest and meanest spaghetti with cavolo nero and it was totally delicious.

What you need (for 3 mains or 4 starters):
Big bunch of cavolo nero
4 cloves of garlic
300g spaghetti
Lots of extra virgin olive oil
Maybe some truffle oil if yr fancy

First, trim the leaves from cavolo nero and discard those woody stalks. Peel the cloves of garlic. Have a saucepan of water on the boil and blanch the cavolo nero and the garlic for four minutes, before draining and squeezing dry. Get the spaghetti boiling.

Transfer the cavolo nero and garlic to a food processor or, failing that, into whatever you use a handheld blender in, pour in some EVOO, and blend blend blend. When it has the texture of a firm pesto, season with salt and pepper and mix with the cooked and drained spaghetti until it's like a pan of bright green worms. If you are feeling flush, drizzle with some truffle oil.

Plate up, sprinkle generously with parmesan, and crack over some black pepper.

Mmm...healthy and delicious. It really works and tastes super fresh.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A hop over to Berlin

Between finishing my last job and starting the new one, I paid Elizabeth in Berlin a quick visit. Eliz and I moved to Berlin about the same time in 2005 and got to know each other through our love of music and the music blogs we both wrote, commenting on the indie scene in Berlin. I moved back to London after a year to finish my studies, but Eliz stayed on and has a super Berlin life and a super Berlin dog, Pip.

When I lived in Berlin I was an Erasmus student, living off a tidy EU stipend and a London level student loan, going to classes at Humboldt university by day and gigs, bars and restaurants with friends almost every evening. As students, we were most interested in good cheap eats and honed in on a handful of dependable restaurants - a 3€ Thai in Prenzlauer Berg, the "punk" pizzeria at Senefelder platz and many of Berlin's ubiquitous kebab shops. Treatsies was at Gugelhof, an informal but exsquisite restaurant specialising in the food and wine of Alsace. It was here that Chancellor Schroeder took Bill Clinton for dinner when he was in Berlin, don't you know!

With a few exceptions, eating out in Berlin back then was good but not super amazing. But now a foodie revolution is happening and Berlin's eating out offer is better than ever. I stayed with Eliz in Kreuzberg, and within 5 minutes walk there are Mexican taqueira offering what American friends are calling "the best Mexican food I've had outside north America", amazing cafes serving innovative twists on brunch. Supper clubs are popping up and some lovely neighbourhood tratorria have opened. Berlin really has it all!

The meal we had at Maria Peligro on Skalitzerstr was definitely one of the best Mexican meals I'd ever had. We started with margaritas, some of the most luscious guacamole ever and Sikil Pa´k, which is a dip made of pumpkin seeds and habanero chillis. It was super hot, with a sweet, sour and earthy taste.

For a main I had Tacos de Cochinita Pibil, which was shredded pork braised in sour achiote sauce and topped with pickled red onions. Big on the sours, the pork was so tender and the corn tortillas were substantial and soft and definitely homemade. Way, way beyond your run of the mill tex mex that's for sure. Other punters were also very happy with their selections. There are two other restaurants by the same owners in Berlin, but each one comes from a different angle on Mexican cuisine. Just take a butchers at the menu and try not to salivate.

A Vietnamese lunch in Neukoelln with Zara was also super, piled high with fresh ingredients and zingy and spicy. At €5, it gave Monsieur Voung, it's more upmarket rival in Mitte, a run for its money. With just three dishes on the menu for lunch, it was definitely quality over quantity.

But a trip to Berlin ain't complete without some bratwurst, and after a surprisingly unsuccessful trip to Mauer Park fleamarket, we tucked into some warming sausage while we enjoyed the bizarre cult spectacle of stadium-scale outdoor karaoke, munching and swaying along to 80s power ballads sung by Spanish students. Super.

But when I'm in Berlin, it's all about Elizabeth's home cooking. Brunch is a favourite and Eliz makes the best scrambled eggs. I reckon it's all down to the slow-cooking of whole garlic cloves before the eggs even get a look in. Followed by pear-filled mini pancakes, that's you properly set up for the day.

Homeburgers on my first night before a marathon night dancing til 6.30am at White Trash Fast Food were delicious and had Pip sniffing the air jealously as the grown ups tucked in.

Thanks Elizabeth for a super Berlintime. If any readers are going to Berlin and want any further recommendations, just drop me a line!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

New job, new lunch

Just last week I started a new job at Shelter, so I've moved from the heady well-heeled heights of Muswell Hill to the bustling, urban, trend-setting pavements of the Old Street area. It couldn't be further removed from Muswell Hill's child-friendly cafes and tapas restaurants - Old Street is bang in the epicentre of London's work economy - with offices for massive global corporations, super trendy media agencies and charities all standing shoulder to shoulder with independent cafes, shops and thriving markets.

The Shelter building is right next to Whitecross Street Market, which has stalls serving lunch every weekday, and a full blown food market on Thursdays and Fridays. I was amazed by the scale of the market and the sheer number of workerbees of all walks of life queuing up at their favourite stalls for a tasty lunch to eat back at the desk.

Being a spendthrift Edinburger, I'm usually all about the packed lunch and try to avoid frittering away my money on cold, factory-made sandwiches. But with all this on my new doorstep, I have resolved to treat myself to lunch out once a week (if I'm being good). So last week I went to Luardo's burrito van, which I had read about in Time Out's article on London's best burritos. I joined the (very long) queue and waited patiently, like a good Brit, to place my order.

Back at my desk, I unwrapped the foil and sunk my teeth in. The pork was generously portioned and so tender it melted in my mouth. It was full of fresh coriander, piquante salsa, rich cheddar, rice, sour cream and luscious guacamole. It more than filled me up and had me wanting to try the other fillings, including the beef, which had sold out by the time I got to the truck.

With so many great stalls to visit, I'm going to make my mission to try all of Whitecross Street's offerings a regular feature.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Oh pizza pizza

I finally made it to Franco Manca, which has probably been London's most talked about pizzeria for the last couple of years. You can tell I'm a bit slow on the zeitgeist these days, but it doesn't help that the original branch was all the way down in Brixton and wasn't open evenings. A 'proper' restaurant opened late last year in Chiswick, way out west, and is thankfully open in the evenings for those of us who don't get to hang out eating pizzas on weekday afternoons.

The concept is simple. Super pizzas, made from carefully prepared sourdough, using tip-top carefully selected ingredients, cooked in a mega hot oven for about 90 seconds. The results are fantastic.

The dough is soft but not too chewy and a little crispy on the outside. The mozzarella is organic and from Somerset and has a lovely creamy, milky taste. Mine was topped simply with the tomato and mozzarella and fresh and dry chorizo and a couple of basil leaves. I couldn't have wanted anything more, it worked perfectly. The chorizo was top quality

With a small glass of very nice house wine and service it was just over £10, which is amazing considering the quality of the ingredients and just how utterly delicious it is.

Instead of desserting at Franco Manca, we popped round the corner to the original Chiswick Italian: Foubert's, for their tasty authentic ice cream. Don't bother with anything else there apparently, but the ice cream is amazing.

Mine was choc chip and amaretto, Celia had lemon and hazelnut (sentimental reasons, don't ask) and I hadn't had such good ice cream since I was cooling off by the Adriatic in July. I can still taste the proper chocolate-ness of the choc chips. Mmm.

So all in, Chiswick ain't a bad place for pizza and ice cream, as long as you manage to avoid the swarms of meeja types hanging around High Road House, the West outpost of Soho House and Shoreditch House.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sunday slackers

I've had a total slacker's weekend, drifting between cafes, restaurants and bars in Dalston, meeting up with friends and enjoying the fine weather. A perky black coffee at Cafe Oto, a trans-African lunch at Open the Gate, the new Black Cultural Centre that has just opened, and then a gorgeously creamy ice coffee at Tina, We Salute You at the end of my road.

But I'll focus on Open the Gate, as neither Tina and Oto ever seem to have any difficulty attracting paying punters in for their delectable cakes and coffees. Open the Gate opened earlier in the summer on Stoke Newington Road just up from the main conglomeration of Turkish ocakbasi restaurants. By day it is a big, bright open space, with more formal dining tables, a more laid back cafe area and a big performance space. African fabrics adorn the walls and ceilings, while the menu celebrates cuisines from all parts of Africa, the Caribbean and even Italy!

We were hungry hippos and ordered full meals, with roasted sweetcorn kernels and friend plantain chips as sides. I had Mafe, which is a West African beef and peanut butter stew. It was rich and nutty, the beef was generous and flavoursome, and was served with a nice crisp salad:

All very good for £5! The girls each opted for Chicken Yassa and the boys for a vegetarian cous cous dish. The Yassa was a sweet and smoky grilled chicken portion that must be running the nearby Nandos scared. The vegetables were stewed and included cabbage and carrots, and were probably the least exciting option, but, hey, veggies can't be choosers.

Coupled with the plantain chips and other snacks, we were all a bit stuffed. It was great to be able to sample dishes from around Africa and the Caribbean, even though the menu might be a little tame and geared at newbies like us. But clocking in at £8 each including a tip, it's good for a cheap and easy lunch.

I hope Open the Gate does well - they are making a lot of effort with their programme, which has everything from poetry readings to African markets, world music to art exhibitions. Dalston is increasingly associated with braying trustafarian hipsters, when its real magic is that people of all walks of life live together and you can dip in and out of cultures from one shop/cafe/restaurant/market stall to the next. Portholes into whole 'nother worlds like this are what separates Dalston apart from London's other young and trendy playgrounds.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Pimp my pizza

I would love it if every evening is a culinary odyssey chez moi. It's not. I wish I had time to prepare a delicious meal from scratch, and I've been doing a lot more of that over the summer having slightly forgotten what it's like to work full-time, study part-time and try and try to have a social life too. When you get home at 8.30 after a full day at work, an hour's lecture and an hour's seminar, you want to eat something quick and easy.

One of my favourite easy meals is a pimped up ready pizza. This one is inspired from a pizza I had when I had to find a decent restaurant to take my Chief Executive and manager out for a meal at Labour party conference in Manchester in 2008. We ended up in a mid-range Italian called the Olive Press just off Deansgate. It wasn't the most exciting restaurant, but I had a very memorable pizza. The pizza was topped with crab meat, chilli, thin lengths of chargrilled courgettes, cherry tomatoes, coriander and a squeeze of lime.

It sounds like it was heavy with toppings, but it was actually fairly light. And the combination of flavours was amazing, so fresh, so fiery. A winning combination of Italian bases and Thai tastes.

So on some of those evenings when I'm too tired and hungry to cook a proper meal, I can whip a pizza out the freezer, layer it with prawns (also out the freezer) or a tin of crab meat, add chilli, cherry tomatoes and chargrilled courgette (sometimes I have some spare stock in), sprinkle some coriander over and, when cooked, squeeze some lime over it.

And then it's ready, and I am happy.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A barbecue for the British summer

My friend Celia and I are on a joint culinary mission. I'm not sure quite what our aim is, but it involves regular dinner dates in central London trying new and interesting restaurants and finding out about cuisines previously unbeknown to us. This week we checked out Koba, a slick and shiny Korean restaurant in Ftizrovia (or, aspirationally, NoHo), my old stomping ground from when I was studying at nearby UCL.

Celia had acquainted herself with the Bibimbap style of Korean food when she stayed in New York, but I was a total newcomer to the cuisine. Koba serves a range of Korean food, including rice and noodle dishes; its speciality, though, is barbecue. Every table has a gas fired hot plate in its centre, and after we had a tasty miso soup, they fired our grill up.

You could order individual selections of meat (including strips of ox tongue!), fish and vegetables to cook on the barbecue, and there are a range of assorted selections too. We opted for the Koba special selection, which included thin strips of pork belly, baby octopus, prawns, beef, marinaded sweet and spicy chicken, and a spare rib.

Sensing that we were novices (and that I have poor motor skills!), the waiters tended to the barbecue in between serving other tables and showed us how to prepare the food. So once a piece of meat or fish is ready, you take it off the grill, dip in some sesame oil, place it in the middle of a leaf, top it with some thin strips of pickled cucumber and then add some spicy bean/peanut satay-like sauce, before rolling the rest of the lettuce leaf around it and eating it like an interesting relative of the dolmades.

The combination was delicious - the smokiness of the meat, the sourness of the pickle, the earthiness of the peanut sauce and the crisp, greenness of the lettuce leaf. The ritual of preparing each item meant there was build up and anticipation and each mouthful stood out.

While it was delicious, novel and fun, it definitely was more of a 'treat' meal at £25 a head. But there were plenty of cheaper things on the menu. Interesting to note that age old benchmark of an authentic eatery - we were some of the only non-Koreans there, so it's a sure sign that Koba offers a taste of modern Korean cuisine if you fancy it!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Dim sum ...and then some...

I do love dim sum - those novel little packages of flavours, the ceremony of sharing dishes, the antiquity of the bamboo containers, the ritual of chopsticks, tea and soy sauce, celebrating each morsel for what it is. Yum.

China Town in central London is the obvious place to have a tasty dim sum meal, and places like New World are a fun experience, with waiting staffing pushing round trolleys coming round with dim sum offerings. Like an old school Yo Sushi. But there's dim sum life outside WC2 and in the last couple of months I have had some excellent dim sum at Yum Cha in Chalk Farm and Shanghai down the road in Dalston.

I went to Yum Cha on a warm Saturday evening before heading to a gig nearby. We had the most tender spare ribs in a rich mandarin sauce, juicy deep fried squid, prawn and pork dumblings, steamed honey roast pork bun, chicken shrimp and rice wrapped and steamed in a lotus leaf. All were fresh and authentic, and very good value for money when the bill came in at £11 each including a beer.

Yum Cha is quite a big place and wasn't too busy, considering that it's slap bang in the middle of Camden Town and is very affordable. If you live in the area, they do dim sum delivery - a novel concept.

For Pete's birthday I took him out for a dim sum lunch at Shanghai on Kingsland High Street in Dalston. We rocked up at about half two on a bustling Saturday afternoon, the main road brimming with all walks of life and the extremists: extreme hipsters, extreme evangelists, extreme Communists. Shanghai, a former eel, pie and mash shop is all tiled walls and tiled floors - a hangover from when Hackney was the main domain of the Cockneys. Some of the tables are in benches and booths in that front section, but the majority of the restaurant is in a fairly traditional parlour style restaurant with chintzy décor and linen table cloths.

The dim sum was totally top notch. We had fried cuttlefish and coriander cakes, which were salty, juicy and chewy in perfect proportions and served with a shallow dish of broth for dipping. The chicken spring rolls had real, discernible (!) bits of chicken and were packed full of tasty bits. Steamed buns with barbecued pork were soft, fluffy and then sticky in the middle and very satisfying, and the steamed dumplings (vegetable dumplings in carrot juice pastry, crystal prawn dumplings, steamed minced meat & chive dumplings) were also perfectly formed and flavoured.

The bill was a scandalously good value £18 for six dim sum portion, drinks and service. And there are savings to be had if you go for dim sum between 3 - 5pm, even on weekends. Utterly scandalous for such delicious food. Being just 10 minutes walk from my flat, I know I'm going to be a regular diner at Shanghai!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Some summer salads

Our (not so) new flat has a roof terrace with views of the City, and overlooks the domain of a family of urban foxes, some BBQ-happy hipsters, a building site and a small council estate. All very London. It has become a veritable jungle of vegetables and herbs growing in ports - courgettes, broad beans, aubergines, tomatoes, basil, mint, rosemary, tarragon, lavendar, salad leaves, carrots. With the recent warm weather we;ve been eating almost every meal on the terrace, whether it's coffee and croissants (to die for!) from Le Belle Epoque to evening meals with crisp white wine. The prospect of al fresco dining inspires summery cooking and I've been making up some nice salads for these balmy evenings.

One was a mackerel Nicoise style affair, with smoked mackerel fillets, served with broad beans, green beans, runny boiled eggs, etc. Play it by ear with quantities, but all you need to do is boil some new potatoes (and when they are almost done, add in the green beans and the broad beans and boil), chop up some cherry tomatoes and some gem lettuce, add the mackerel fillets, whip up a cider vinegrette with lots of pepper and mix it all together, topped with the runny yolked eggs and you have a very nice, healthy, summery salad.

With some green beans and broad beans left over, I re-jigged the salad idea, starting by frying chopped chorizo with onions and garlic, before quickly deglazing the pan with a splash of white wine. I boiled potatoes and added beans, beans and then some peas to the pan like last time. Then I mixed together the vegetables with the chorizo etc, shaved some Manchego cheese into the mix and served as a warm salad.

P.s. sorry about the absence of posts recently! Holidays, etc.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Sizzling spice and all things nice

Even blogging about making curry was enough to make me hungry for Tayyabs, the Punjabi curry house in Whitechapel. So, with a friend down from Glasgow last weekend, we duly paid a visit.

Tayyabs is known for its sizzling slabs of spicy meat, its bargainous prices, its loud and buzzy atosphere and the fact that you are likely to have to queue for about an hour on a weekend evening for a table. We arrived at 7.30pm on a Sunday and were amazed to find the queue was only half its Friday/Saturday length - with only 30 minutes before we were sat at a table. The queue still snakes around the tables and you can watch the diners faces light up with ecstasy as spitting plates of meat and other chargrilled goodies waft past. Tables of students, families, older couples, city workers and multiple generations of Pakistani families are all united by the democratic pricing and prospect of amazing food.

We started with lamb chops and grilled paneer. The lamb chops were sizzling, spitting and giving off the most amazing smell. The meat was crispy and hot on the outside and beautifully tender inside. They brought out the animal in me as I picked them up and gnawed at them to get every last bit of meat off the bone. The paneer was for our vegetarian co-diner, but us meat-feasters shared a cube of it, which was also delicious.

The main courses followed in quick succession. Despite Tayyabs being a palace of meat, I opted to have the baby squash dish, Tinder Masala. The pieces of squash are tender and juicy and the sauce is powerfully spicy, fruity and rich and topped with delicious caremalised onions. Others had Lahori Chickar Chana, a chick pea curry, and Karahi Chicken. I obviously wangled myself a generous taster of each - all were amazing.

Almost the best bit, though, is the naan breads. We each had peshwari naan (rice, however well cooked, is a mere vessel) and boy are they something else. You can smell the butter on them from the other side of the restaurant and they are so soft, spongy, fruity. Wow. I could eat them for every meal, for every day of the rest of my life (which may be significantly shortened by their butter quotient!).

We ate until we could eat no more, and then some. And exited very happy into the warm sunset bathed streets of Whitechapel to take the newly opened East London Line back to Dalston. I have such a long list of restaurants that I want to try, which makes it hard to justify visits to the same places over and over again. But when the food and experience is as fantastic at Tayyabs, I'm prepared to make an exception.

Tayyabs is at:
83-89 Fieldgate Street
E1 1JU

Nearest tube is Aldgate East or Whitechapel.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Marrow viewpoint

A while back I saw marrows going for cheap at Waitrose. Never having cooked with those fantastically oversize courgette-type-things I bought one whopper and then puzzled over what to do with it. A straw poll of foodies at work suggested I make some chutney with it and a quick flick through the Observer magazine revealed a recipe for a marrow and tomato masala. Perfect. So I made both!

The marrow masala was a great opportunity to put some of my newer cooking tools to the test. It required a homemade paste (my first ever!), which required my prized Magimix. Toasting the spices and mixing all the other fragrant ingredients (who knew paste involved so much garlic!?) was so much more satisfying than buying a little jar from the supermarket, and now I have my own super quantity of home-made paste to use for future easy curries.

I layered the ingredients in my le creuset cast-iron casserole dish: onions caremalising nicely at the bottom, big hollowed out marrow sections next, then whole plum tomatoes, tinned chick peas all around and butter on top. And cooked it slow and low for two hours. The end result was impeccably tender, fragrant and juicy. It reminded me a little of the baby squash dish at legendary Tayyabs - maybe not quite there on the spice front, but getting there.

So it was totally delicious and hopefully the start of adventures in curry from scratch. I've often thought that if someone said "You can go any cookery course in the world..." that I'd choose some strand of Indian cooking. It seems to be a whole art and science in itself and one which I enjoy immensely. My birthday is next week, so any places on cookery courses gratefully received!