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.