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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Monday, 23 May 2011

travel bite: Rome, Italy

I HAVE unfinished business in Rome. I came, I saw, but I did not conquer. There is a slice of Pizza Bianca in a renowned bakery on Campo dei Fiori, awaiting my return...

Within the first few hours of arrival in this city I quickly learnt that my travelling companion and I were of two very different breeds. I was there for the food, to sample the dizzying heights of Rome's pizza, ice-cream and regional specialties; whereas M had come for the ‘bricks’, a term coined in our family for those obsessed with the photography of their surroundings when abroad.

Luckily both of us were happy to meet in the middle. I would never have queued for an hour to enter the Vatican Museum (even if the Sistine Chapel was the prize jewel at the end) despite ultimately being very glad that I did. Whereas for M, it may have seemed a vast exaggeration when I claimed that I was on the brink of tears at missing the lunchtime opportunity to sample Rome’s ‘best’ Pizza Bianca al taglio, but she did offer to return later that day – in spite of it being completely out of our way.

Now, it is easy to become overwhelmed by Rome - a city steeped in things that many feel they ‘should’ see or do. As a result it’s been a struggle to summarise our obscenely jam packed weekend into a concise piece of prose that would not reduce you all to droopy eyed monsters before your computer screens.

Instead I will recommend going by instinct. Even by wandering casually through the city there is much to behold, especially as ancient sites seem to have a tendency to pop up on every street corner. But just for your information, here are what I considered to be the highlights:

Sunday, 22 May 2011

is it wrong...

...THAT I saw food before my eyes when I came upon this plump little chicken roaming free?

Perhaps that's why it ran off so quick.

Though I was only thinking of eggs. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Brunswick House

HIDDEN amongst the glass fronted urban jungle of Vauxhall is a beautiful Georgian Mansion, slightly dilapidated from within, but beaming proudly from its corner post on the busy Wandsworth Road.

Built in 1758 within 3 acres of riverside parkland and once home to the Dukes of Brunswick, this elegant building is now occupied by LASSCO: The London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company. Having restored Brunswick House from the brink of ruin LASSCO now uses it as one of its premises' from which to sell architectural antiques, salvage and curiosities.

This house is a marvel to walk around; an interior of exposed brickwork, floor to ceiling windows, creaky wooden floorboards, a winding stone staircase and a vaulted cellar contains within it an array of vintage pieces to dazzle and explore.

But, there is also another draw for visiting Brunswick House. And as you may have guessed: it does involve food...

At The Brunswick House Cafe diners find themselves seated upon, and in the midst of, LASSCO's antique wares. The daily menu is short - averaging around 10 items - but varied enough in its selection to allow for a satisfying choice. In addition to this there are items such as pastries that can also be picked out at the counter.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, when a slightly more limited brunch menu is served. This did not mean that we were disappointed; if anything it made me certain that I would return at a later date to sample more of what they may have to offer on the ever changing menu. 

The spinach and goat's curd fritatta, drizzled with olive oil and cracked black pepper was delightfully delicate, the goat's curd that graced its top unnervingly light yet creamy. The dish did however feel lacking in a sweet / tangy note - in the way that goat's cheese dishes so often call for. 

The 'wow' dish of the day though was the rare topside beef served on dripping toast with green sauce, a bargain at only £7.20 (and this being the most expensive item on the menu). The deliciously rare mound of beef heaped upon a salty - but not too greasy - wedge of seed-speckled toast was complimented by a tangy, textured sauce (involving capers / parsley) whose sharp bite cut through the beef and dripping flavours perfectly.

We then settled on coffee and cakes for desert as the Eton mess on offer had sold out. An eccles cake was generously filled to the brim with currants; an almond and coconut tart with subtle frangipane filling was sweet yet tempered by the coconut addition, which seemed to influence texture more than flavour. And my Madeira cake arrived gently warmed, fluffy on the inside with a sugar-crisped exterior as its crowning glory: the ideal accompaniment to a bitter black coffee.

There were a few aspects that I would tweak if I could: food arrived at different times, plates were slow to be cleared, music could have been more appropriate and the wine list was cheekily priced. But, service was friendly and accommodating (if a little scatty), and their willingness to make adjustments - such as serving cream with the eccles cake - meant that some of the niggles could be forgiven. As with the house itself, the Brunswick House Cafe's imperfections are what gives it character - adjustments can always be made but the fundamental elements should never be changed.  

Monday, 16 May 2011

through rose tinted glasses

STUMBLING home at six in the morning, bleary eyed in the wake of the rising sun, does strange things to a person. Follow this with a fitful morning-to-afternoon sleep and you're bound to be seeing the world in a form of heightened sights and sounds - senses assaulted on all fronts.  

This was how I spent my Sunday afternoon. Meandering in a daze through the suburban streets of South West London. And there was one particular vision that kept recurring before me...

It appears to be rose season. From tight neat blooms to giant cabbage-like heads of petals, not a single rose bush that I passed was lacking in a beautiful blossom or two; or three, or four, or more. I was bedazzled by their beauty.

But most overwhelmingly (bear in mind here that I was in an extremely fragile state at the time) I was struck by the intensity of the perfume that they released. I was literally stopped dead in my tracks at the wonderful aroma that escaped from one particular specimen: a dense bundle of deep fuchsia petals whose smell was so strong and sweet I wouldn't have been surprised if a drop of rose essence had trickled directly from it. 

And so I suggest that we all don our rose tinted spectacles, and where possible bask in the rosy glow of the moment.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

most wanted: bicycles

THESE bikes became my babies during a recent trip to visit family in Poland. After the amount of force feeding I underwent over the Easter period whilst visiting an array of relatives both close and distant, my body was in need of health kick and these beautiful bicycles were to be my aid. 

(Not that I'm complaining about the taste sessions by the way, it's just that I would like to have a little bit of a say in quite how much actually enters my stomach before it bursts into smithereens!)

Both of these bikes were bought from markets in Poland for a fraction of the price of those on sale in London from those riding the 'I'd-like-to-ride-a-trendy-vintage-bike' wave. I would seriously consider shipping one of these over my way if it weren't for the fact that there is a very slim chance that they would see any use in my day-to-day life.

And it would be a shame to not use these magical rides. As soon as you sit upon the leather saddle, and grip on to the neat little handlebars, you feel your posture straighten and eyes look up to observe the scenery that you cycle past. You feel as though you have stepped back in time, to an era when leisurely bike rides through cobbled streets and luscious countryside were the order of a sunny day, made complete only when accompanied by a giant wicker picnic basket brimming with all the treats you could dream of.

The idyll may sound twee and a million miles away from the reality of city life, but still, I want one of these bicycles baaaaadddd......

Saturday, 23 April 2011

on my plate: hot cross buns

It seems a crime that I've not had a single hot cross bun in the run up to Easter. How has this happened?! I'm baffled. But somehow this disastrous slip-up has occurred, and I am adamant that I should remedy it in style.

By 'style', I mean homemade. And by homemade, I mean by me. Risky business. I could end up with a stodgy ball of dough crammed with shrivelled fruit, a burnt 'glaze' adorning the carefully placed cross on top.

But in my mind I am picturing a deliciously springy bun, jam-packed with an aromatic fusion of dried fruit and spices, and a glorious white cross as its crowning glory.

Hmmm. It appears that the result was an amalgamation of the two. Though possibly leaning more towards the former proposed outcome than to the latter.

I followed Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall's recipe, though pinched an idea from Felicity Cloake to infuse the milk with spices before using. Unfortunately I can’t say that this oomphed up the flavour by much. I also found my hot cross buns lacking in sweetness. Their texture was nice enough, though I would have preferred a slightly squidgy-er exterior. Lets just say they were not quite the indulgent treat I was hoping for.

This is not to say I wouldn’t attempt to make a hot cross bun again. I am determined to achieve the glorious wonder of a homemade version that had been promised to me by all who had made them in the past. But in the future I will follow Felicity’s ‘Perfect Hot Cross Bun’ recipe.

I am kicking myself for not simply doing so from the start, she had after all tried and tested many different approaches before settling on her proposed method. And on comparison now of the two different recipes, I can see that Felicity combines a much richer mix of ingredients than Hugh, which I am certain would have yielded a more luxurious batch of hot cross buns. Silly me. Hindsight's a bugger.

But, all is not lost! I still have a tasty bun of sorts on my table. And I will be spreading these Easter treats as gifts amongst loved ones… Lucky them!

NB. Upon a second tasting I now retract that last paragraph. I will be hanging my head in shame at these poor specimens of a hot cross bun, which I will now have to distribute as Easter gifts due to lack of time and funds in order to find suitable replacements. Hmph.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

on my horizon : pretty much nothing (hurrah!)

THE other week I was seeking a void: I wished to absorb my eyes in the vision of a vast expanse of 'nothing'. I was attempting to self-medicate. Do some long-distance exercise with my eyesight.

What I didn't realise was how much I was in fact in need of this physical space to awaken my senses, to put back into perspective how easy it is to derive pleasure from the simplest of things: nature. 

Returning from work to the shoreline of Whitstable not only gave my eyes a refreshing break  from my aforementioned daily cityscape, it also renewed in me a real appreciation for the subtle yet breathtaking visuals that the natural world around us can create. In the built environment it can often be hard to find these little joys, they are overlooked  both mentally and physically. When rushing to catch the train who would ever think to pause for a moment, glace up from the street, and perhaps chance upon seeing that beam of setting sunshine reflecting off a top floor window. 

But in Whitstable there was no rushing. No cramming through crowds. No dipping underground. There was simply a two minute walk to the end of the road, and then a beach. Here I encountered a unerring calm. And a placid sea, as smooth as a lake. 

My feeble attempts to capture this scene in photographs will never do the atmospheric landscape justice. And as I already feel a bit self-conscious about the whole 'back-to-mother-nature' vibe of this post I am not even going to begin to try to express the way I felt in response to my new surroundings.

But what I will say is this. As the world is awakening to the fresh air of spring, and summer feels as though it is just within reach, make sure to take a moment to observe wonders unfurling around you. Once you start looking you will be surprised at how many little marvels pop up around you.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

on my plate: parsley cheese scones / aubergine & goat's cheese frittata

THIS week's on my plate is a two fold post. Firstly, I wanted to rave about some dangerously tasty and ridiculously easy to make parsely cheese scones (recipe curtesy of Dan Lepard). And secondly, I wanted to demonstrate how dinner for one can be a delight not a chore.

aubergine and goat's cheese frittata

Too often I've had conversations with friends about how their desire to make a delicious supper goes down the pan if they are going to be the only recipient.  This may be slightly alleviated if they have a companion in the kitchen - say a housemate cooking their own dinner alongside them - but on the whole it seems that the enjoyment of creating and devouring a dish is intrinsically linked with a desire to share the experience.

I completely get this. There was a time when I would never dream of eating by myself at the dinner table. If left with no choice, then it would be a TV dinner all the way. And if I was - by some unforseen TV malfunction or complete lack of even the most vaguely interesting thing on it - resigned to be without said accompaniment, then I would find any sort of magazine / book / newspaper to distract me from my eating isolation. And whatever I would be absent-mindedly munching on was inevitably a mish mash of whatever I had to hand.

Slowly but surely however, (perhaps in line with my growing interest in food as a whole), I have discovered that it can be equally as satisfying to cook with the same gusto and passion as you would for a loved one even if it is just you reaping the rewards. Try viewing it as a form of pampering - an indulgent treat to be able to sit down in the peace and harmony of a quiet kitchen and enjoy the fruits of your own labour.

Yes there are times when things turn out so well that I wish I had someone to share my 'oohs' and 'ahhs' with. But there are also times when this isn't the case, when I've tried a new dish and the seasoning is a bit off, or when something hasn't quite been cooked to my satisfaction. It's at these moments that I'm glad not to be serving up my culinary disappointment to expectant hungry mouths.

The above aubergine and goat's cheese friatta is an example of one of my recent one-man suppers. It was a concoction of the random bits residing in my fridge. I've never been much of an omellette / frittata person, so this was as much an experiment as it was a way of quickly feeding myself.

I gently softened red onions, leeks and fresh red chilli, then added in cubes of aubergine, coarsely ground black pepper and sweet paprika. Following the addition of blanched baby broad beans and the last few stalks of some coriander, I combined the whole lot with eggs and chunks of goat's cheese. After the underside had set I popped the pan under the grill for a couple of minutes to brown the top, and voila! Some crispy salad leaves and a dash of balsamic vinegar was all I needed on the side of this speedy success.

parsley cheese scone

The parsely cheese scones were also a speedy success. (All this warm weather is definitely inspiring a cook-it-and-go spirit in my kitchen, as the sunshine just keeps calling me outdoors.)

I prepared these for a friend's baby shower involving afternoon tea and champagne.  I know, sounds very la-di-da. But it was in fact just a great excuse for a get together involving silly games and daytime grazing on yummy food and drink. It was a completely unpretentious spread, and full of old school treats such as jam tarts and mini Mr Kipling Battenburgs.

As I couldn't splash the cash with the present I decided to add in the gift of homemade food. And savoury scones just seemed to fit the bill. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

salt marsh

MUCH has been reported on the rise of the 'supper club' scene in London. It is not a new phenomenon. And some predict that it may now be on its way out. Prices for these 'at home' dining experiences rarely dip below £25, and at times nudge their way towards and in excess of £100 if an esteemed chef is to be in residence.

Of course these prices may be justifiedan intimate yet relaxed dining experience alongside great - and at times exquisite - cooking is a pleasure. One may even say it is a coveted experience when 'hot spot' restaurants are popping up incessantly, with 'no booking' policies leaving queues of customers outside peering in, and large prices for small portions (or 'tapas' as is the term du jour).

So, what is the diner seeking good food with a personal touch to do? If it's true that the supper club is on its way out, then where may it - or we - be headed?? I have a suggestion. Perhaps 'out' is code for 'out of London', and perhaps 'out of London' means further than Zone 2. Maybe even that Zones 3, 4, 5 or even (whisper it) 6 may need to be traversed...?

I think this may be the case. And I am proposing first stop Whitstable. Yes, as in Kent. A characterful seaside town from which I have been commuting to London for the past week. (This commute, by the way, was a delight in comparison to the daily slog I usually take part in.)

Whitstable is famed for its colourful beach huts and native oysters. It's a hodge podge of higgledy piggledy houses nestled amongst narrow passages, with a healthy selection of restaurants, boutiques, galleries - and charity shops - for a centre so small. It is definitely a foodie destination in addition a beach escape. And despite a sufficiently large list of delicious options recommended to me for delectation during my stay, my bank balance by no means allowed for me to indulge to my hearts content.

However. At the end of my road there stood an unassuming establishment, curiously not mentioned on said list. It's name was Salt Marsh. Name, address, and telephone number were all that adorned its facade. And on the late Sunday afternoon of my arrival to my temporary new home it was emitting a warm glow and bustling with business.

According to what I could garner from limited information on the internet, this was a little hub of fresh, hearty and homely fare, cooked by a guy called Tony, to the accompaniment of a record player spinning the sounds of days gone by. There were no menus, and no specific opening times. The portions awaiting us were reported to be large. The prices small. So far, so tempting. Oh, and 'daddy' Salt Marsh - Windy Corner Stores - resided at the other end of my street. 

On the evening of my visit, due to a variety of train induced calamities, it meant that M and I did not cross Salt Marsh's threshold until gone 9pm. Anywhere else in Whitstable this would have spelt disaster for our grumbling stomachs, as early closing of kitchens in Whitstable does not seem to accomodate for late night dining (frustrating for a city girl like me, I must admit). But this welcoming mix of eclectic wooden furniture, old fashioned radios and vintage posters, lit by large candles dripping wax directly onto the tables, was thankfully still happy to embrace us as Tony agreed to stay a little longer and cook.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

what's on your horizon?

HOW often these days do we get to savour a view like this first hand.

I long to raise my eyes to a vast expanse of 'nothingness'; I delight in the thought of my eyes roaming the horizon in search of 'something'. 

Last week I stood on the platform waiting for a train after work. I looked up to the departure board from the book I was reading and all I saw was a blur. Panicked at my deteriorating eyesight, I vowed to give my eyes plenty of breaks from staring at my not one, but two, computer screens at work. The most obvious solution was to frequently glance up and train my vision on the furthest point in my eyeline.

Hmm. Furthest Point. Fuuuuuuuuurrrrthest Point. So that would be.....75m away. At a push. And that in itself is not more than a sliver of pavement to be glimpsed at through the glass facade of another building.

Not quite the same as the beautiful skylines presented here by Todd McLellan. Not even close.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

most wanted: Prada stripes

I MAY have already seen a few new season fashion faux pas since the sun has emerged from it's cloudy enclave (think 'stripe / midi-length / ballerina' combo's with a bit of colour blocking thrown in for good measure) but it's not going to stop me from sticking steadfastly to my love of stripes. And if money was no object then Prada's contributions to this particular Spring / Summer trend would definitely play a part in my wardrobe.  Their bold colours, varying widths, feminine details and playful mixing with exotic prints all make for stripes that put a smile on your face and spring in your step.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

on my plate: but not for long

I have a slight problem. As outlined at the onset of the ‘on my plate’ posts, I am slowly working my way through the copious amount of recipes that I'm addicted to finding and filing in my ‘some day I want to make you’ folder. However, (as I have found to also be the case when eating out) I get so excited by the prospect of devouring the food before me that the meal is generally already cosied up in my stomach before I realise that I have missed my opportunity for taking a suitably mouth watering snapshot.

Unfortunately this has been happening to me a lot lately; so much so, that I haven’t a single shred of evidence to show for any of my most recent kitchen exploits. And so, instead I am going to give you a quick verbal run down of my culinary discoveries over the past few weeks...

to start: Roasted Tofu with Spicy Relish courtesy of the Waitrose website. Following my previous success with tofu I thought why not experiment further, especially as roasting sounded so much easier than frying. But. What I saved myself in effort, I inadvertantly lost in taste and texture. I have no qualms in saying that roasting tofu is NOT a good idea. Don't bother. Stick to recipes along the lines of Ottolenghi's black pepper tofu instead.

the main attraction: Angela Hartnett's Cauliflower and Chickpea Curry. This was delicious. Lack of garam masala meant I added more of the other spices as well as fennel seeds, curry powder and tumeric. I also used green lentils instead of chick peas as I had these to hand in a brilliant ready to eat carton pack. (I promise that these are nowhere near as horrid as they sound.)

Ever the fan of a one-pot dish this was a wonderful comfort supper that I am bound to make again. The taste was rich and spicy, with the cauliflower absorbing the flavours well. I'm currently having a cauliflower moment: raw, roasted or in sauce, just never overcooked into a stinky school dinner mush.

on the side: French Beans with Blackened Sage and Hazelnuts, found on my Epicurious phone app. I would recommend this as way of sprucing up your side dishes - especially for those who aren't a fan of the green ones - though do make sure you use plenty of sage for full impact. And lightly toast your hazelnuts. 

for dessert: Nigel Slater's Damson Spelt Cake. This was a revelation. Spelt flour is the way forward in baking. I was worried it's texture may lead to a slightly heavier cake but in fact (and I would like to think that this was also in part due to my enthusiastic creaming together of the butter and sugar) this was a delightlfully spongy baking success. The nutty taste of the flour, alongside the sweetness of the ground almonds complimented the tart plums perfectly, with the sprinkling of sugar creating a moreish crunch on top.

if you're feeling greedy: Sweet and Salty Candy Bar Brownies. This was my not-so-grown up contribution to a friend's grown-up choice of birthday celebration: hosting a dinner party for 22 guests. But I think the small ripple of applause received in appreciation of these childishly jam-packed squares may just say enough. Be warned though - these gooey, fudgy brownies are irresistable when warm from the oven (especially if you throw a few packets of Cadburys Carmel Nibbles into the mix).

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

an alternative sunday lunch

I'M not suggesting that the Korean feast I had on Sunday should become a permanent substitute to the comfort of a home-made roast, but it seemed an exciting alternative on what must have been one of the gloomiest days of the year.

(N.B. I am loathe to recommend going out for Sunday roasts, though if you must then I recommend heading straight to Paradise Bar which, to my critical restaurant-made-roast eye, served up an impressive nut roast. And I see no reason why the meat option wouldn't be a winner too.)
steamed dumplings:

But I digress. Jee Cee Neh is to be found off the main high street in New Malden, where there is a thriving Korean community. Hence the multitude of Asian markets and other Korean restaurants that we passed on our way to this particular foodie destination.

I have not eaten much Korean food before - kimchi is about the extent of my knowledge of it - and so as always I was looking forward to something new. Plus I had a desperate craving for dumplings.

pork, tofu, bean sprouts, spring onion, glass noodle

cucumber kimchi

Well my craving was definitely satisfied. And satisfied well. The large dumplings that arrived before us were a masterful example of how a perfect dumpling should be. The silky noodle casing that delicately yeilded to being broken in two (for there was no way a dumpling this large could be consumed in one bite) enveloped a stuffing that was a million miles away from the congealed mass that may often be found lurking inside inferior versions. The contents of this filling was identifiable and flavoursome, with a pleasant texture aided by the crisp spring onion on top.

The tangy bite of the crunchy cucumber kimchi provided a refreshing taste on the palate - not only alongside the dumplings but throughout the rest of the meal too - especially as the chilli was not overwhelming spicy. 
sun du bu ji ge

Keen to sample a cross section of the best that Korean cuisine had to offer we went with the waitress' recommendations of traditional dishes that were apparently most frequently ordered.

Sun du bu ji ge was an uncurdled tofu stew that came bubbling to the table. This was our seafood choice, represented here by clams. There may not have been many of these little creatures in their shells, but the delicate seafood flavour of the broth was a marvel. And the silken tofu was divine, so soft that there was no hope of capturing it with chopsticks. The subtlty of this dish literally stunned us, with flavours slowly unwinding on the palate. This is the dish I will return to Jee Cee Neh for. 

dol sot bi bim bab

deo ji bul go gi deub bab

That's not to say that the other two dishes were poor. Dol sot bu bim bab arrived as a brilliant colour wheel nestled within its heavy black bowl. It was a rainbow of fresh vegetables and beef with a raw egg cracked open in the centre, but I was too slow off the mark with my camera before the waitress stirred a chilli sauce into this sizzling mix (just seconds after it arrived at the table). There was something quite earthy about the flavours in this comforting one pot dish, which made for perfect eating on this dreary Sunday.

Deo ji bul go gi deub bab was my typical last minute panic order, when I just can't bear the thought of missing out on trying one more thing from the menu. And so despite being assured by the waitress that we would certainly have enough to feed two, I opted to add on the chargrilled pork in a rich soy sauce. Upon its arrival, I felt as though our trio of mains was now complete.

I asked for some lettuce leaves to wrap these succulent pieces of salty/sweet belly pork in (as there really wasn't much need to eat any more rice, even if it was delicious), and in addition to this we also received fresh green chillies, garlic cloves and what tasted like a soybean paste with a wonderfully nutty flavour. I have since found out that it was 'doenjang', a traditional Korean condiment indeed made from soybeans, and which in the form that we ate it may have been combined with garlic, sesame oil and a hot pepper sauce called 'gochujang'.

To finish, we were presented with juicy segments of orange, a much needed refreshment following the selection we had just sampled. What was most impressive about Jee Cee Neh was how understated yet rich in flavour the food was. We ate a lot, and yet we were not overwhelmed; purely delighted by the depth of flavour that was packed into each mouthful. 

And the best bit: we were the only English people there throughout our long and lazy grazing. Not your typical experience when out to Sunday lunch.