Friday, 30 October 2009

Potato and parsley bake

I love the Two Fat Ladies cookery show. Although Jennifer Paterson is sadly dead, the shows are still re-run on the Good Food channel. What could be better than the sight of Clarissa Dickson Wright pouring goose fat, clotted cream and lard into most of the recipes as she rants about the virtues of hunting, and Jennifer Paterson extolling the virtues of gluttony and smoking (sometimes breaking into song) while rubbing suet together with fingers that glitter with diamond rings. Both with the poshest of cut glass accents. And the sight of Clarissa and Jennifer riding around on a motorbike with one of them wedged in a teeny side car always cracks me up...

The following recipe is actually based on one of their healthier offerings. My mum used to make this to accompany the Sunday roast, and I'm recreating this from memory. It's fantastic with any roast meat - a herby potato tray bake that is crisp on the top and wonderfully gooey underneath.

Serves 6

1kg floury potatoes (such as Maris Piper)
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock (a good brand is Bouillon)
1 glass white wine
2 large handfuls chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
1.5 Knorr chicken stock cubes, chopped into small pieces

Scrub the potatoes but do not peel them. Slice them up into thin discs either using the slicer attachment of your food processor or a mandolin.

Take a large oven baking dish and grease the bottom lightly with vegetable oil. Add a layer of the potato slices so that they completely cover the bottom. Sprinkle a few slices of garlic, pieces of chicken stock cube and a small handful of parsley over them. Repeat this process, building layers with the potatoes and interspersing with herbs, stock cube and garlic. Finish by putting a layer of potatoes over the top. Then pour the stock and wine over the potatoes - the liquid shouldn't come over the top, but reach about 3/4 of the way up.

Bake for about 45 mins - 1 hour at 180C, until the potatoes have gone golden and crispy on top. They will be a mixture of crisp on the top and wonderfully gooey underneath, with stock, herbs, garlic and wine combining to form a deliciously starchy sauce.

Served with N's roast pork last Sunday - there were five of us and we polished off a whole massive tray like total pigs!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Village East

Ever been out to eat somewhere where the clientele make you feel as though you’ve hurtled into a timewarp? This was the bizarre experience I had when three friends and I went for dinner at Village East, a New York-style bar and restaurant on Bermondsey Street, South London, on Saturday night.

I thought I had Village East sussed out in advance: I used to work in the office directly opposite. I had occasionally gone for after-work drinks there and coveted the distressed leather sofas and retro lamps. It seemed like a cool and buzzy place, with a mixed clientele of people from the local offices and shops. Nothing too dressy or intimidating.

But how the weekend changes everything! The clientele were totally different, and this made the experience quite strange - and tres amusant! We didn’t notice anything awry at first, since we were plentifully distracted by the delicious cocktails and the megawatt enthusiasm of our Kiwi waitress. However, the penny began to drop as the restaurant area became packed out during our meal. I noticed most women were dripping in Very Grown Up glamorous dresses and uber-heavy makeup, drenched in heavy perfume. Lots of designer handbaggage. The men all looked as though they’d come straight from the office – suit jackets (some with sleeves rolled up!) stripy shirts, chinos, loafers. (Sorry, but in my book, chinos are pretty much unforgiveable unless you happen to be Prince Harry and chums hanging about in Mahiki). I got a few sideways looks from the ladies at our neighbouring table as they flexed their manicured talons and gave my Top Shop outfit snooty glances. Don't get me wrong - I love a bit of gloss and a sense of occasion, but when things are, shall we say, in-your-face, I tend to feel a bit freaked. Nonetheless, I didn’t let this deter me too much (I actually got a kick out of being scruffier than them) and our dinner went with a bang.

The food was excellent – and that is the most important thing. Village East excels with its gutsy Modern British-style of cooking, a style that I love, with robust flavours and exciting combinations.

I had king prawns, clams and spaghettini to start:

Baked sea bream with chips for main course:

And a sensational coffee Martini for pudding:

Several cocktails and a pair of wine bottles later, my friends and I clearly hadn't had enough to drink, so we waddled to the bar area. I was listing like the Marie Celeste. As I queued up to place my order, it was then that I felt really out of place. Not to mention the wrong decade. The guy in front of me was wearing – I kid you not – a sleeveless body warmer over a stripy shirt, chinos and a cashmere scarf draped around his neck. I half expected him to have his Ferrari parked up on the kerb and a massive brick-shaped mobile phone wedged under his chin to yap into about market shares. Buckets of champagne were being passed willy-nilly over people’s heads; there was a heady atmosphere of money and excess, as though we had travelled back into that rare time in history: pre the Eighties recession. Never mind the current recession! I felt like an interloper at an Account Director’s yuppie convention. And where was Gordon Gekko shouting out "Greed is good"? I was rudely shoved out of the way at the bar by two ladies with Power Hair and frosted eyeshadow, but I was too tipsy to care too much…and the nice bartender spotted this and served me before them anyway. Hah.

I’d definitely recommend Village East for the quality of its food and drink – and the staff really go the extra mile to ensure you have a good time. But I'd advise going during the week instead to avoid this kind of crowd. If you're going on a Saturday, though, perhaps dig out your shoulderpads and take a very large mobile phone with you - you might need to whack someone over the head with it!

Address: Village East, 171 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1
Tel: 020 7357 6082

Monday, 26 October 2009

More pizza at Franco Manca

So I went back to Franco Manca in Brixton for pizza (see previous near-religious-fervour for this cafe in my previous posting) and I took some photos just to get you drooling...

Tomato, chorizo and mozzarella:

Gloucester Old Spot Ham, tomato, mozzarella:

Tomato, garlic and oregano (left); tomato, garlic oregano, capers, anchovy, mozzarella (right):

Organic lemonade:

Monmouth organic espresso (will blow your head off):

Needless to say, not one single crust was left on the plates. I could have died happy right then and there. But I'm glad I didn't because I can soon go back for more (trouser waistband permitting)!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Cheapskate eating

I love places to eat that not only serve fabulous grub but where you struggle to spend a tenner and leave with a full belly and a smile on your face. Sound too good to be true? Living in London makes it relatively easy to find such gems, as the city is truly blessed with a kaleidoscopic array of cuisines and prices to suit every wallet. And what with the recession making us all much more money-conscious, anywhere that is cheap and serving exemplary snackage is definitely on my radar.

Here are two recent finds:

Franco Manca, Brixton, South London

Good God – this is the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. And I don't say that lightly - I'm really fussy when it comes to pizza. Franco Manca doesn't make the process of getting fed easy, but never mind that you have to queue with the tenacity of a bull to get a table here and can’t make reservations (get real: this down-to-earth cafĂ© is in the atmospheric and bustling Brixton Market Arcade, where baskets of live African land snails are shoved next to piles of yams and tins of shoe polish), or that you often eat cheek-by-jowl with total strangers in cramped conditions, and that the majority of clientele appears to be Guardian-reading middle class people like me (why do I find this embarrassing?) – anyway, none of this matters since the sourdough pizzas are just TO DIE. Just the right balance of chewy and crisp dough with lovely smokiness from the wood fire, and impressive toppings from a simple, no-nonsense menu. You can only choose from about four different types of pizza and one daily special. Wine comes in cheap tumblers. The coffee will blow your head off. There is rustic lemonade that looks suspiciously like cider. The restaurant manager does an impressive line in barking orders over everybody's heads like a military sergeant. In the picture above, my friend E is holding her pizza up as though she's been given a fantastic gift! I’m going to queue up there again tomorrow…

Address: Franco Manca, 4 Market Row, Electric Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LD.

Benito's Hat, Fitzrovia, Central London.

For years it was virtually impossible to get decent Mexican food in this country. I was bored by crap nachos smothered in greasy cheese, refried beans out of a tin, no decent chilli in sight. But lo - all of a sudden London is now blessed with a sprinkling of places all versed in the proper ways of Mexican spicing, where the food will be laced with fresh herbs, zingy chilli and smoky black beans. And it's a great cheap way to fill up! We discovered Benito's Hat last weekend after having read good reviews about their freshly-made burritos. My husband opted for the steak burrito - a soft flour tortilla stuffed with strips of smoky beef, lime-infused rice, guacamole, chillies and coriander, and boy was it massive. Rougly the size of a doorstop. I chose the chicken tacos (see below) and they were delicious. Soft corn mini tortillas filled with spicy smoky chicken, grated cheese, guacamole and salad - garnished with a handful of salty tortilla chips. Everything tasted fresh and zingy. We both ate heartily for the princely sum of £9.50. Arriba!

Address: Benito's Hat, 56 Goodge St, London, W1T 4NB. Tel: 020 76373732

And where else could I recommend? Well. I return again and again to the Vietnamese restaurant mile on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch. You will eat like a king at Loong Kee, Viet Grill and Cay Tre (three personal faves) and rarely break the £20 mark. Most of them are BYO, which keeps the cost down, and the food is always sensational. I might have to do a proper posting on the Viet Mile soon...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Posh Rasperry Jelly

No, not the retro stuff made from cubes out of a pack, this is a POSH raspberry jelly made with generous quantities of the real fruit. It's tangy, but not mouth-puckeringly sour, and is MAGIC served up with a shortbread biscuit and a ball of vanilla ice cream on the side. You get all these amazing textures together: soft wobbly jelly, crunchy biscuit and creamy coldness. It's nursery food all grown up. And if you're a bit of a vintage fiend, it's fun looking out in second hand markets for retro jelly moulds like the cute aluminium ones I found in the photos - the accessorising makes me feel like I've gone all Bree Van De Kamp!

Anyway, I've adapted a jelly recipe (originally for blackcurrants) from Skye Gyngell.

Makes enough to serve 6 people

You will need:

285g raspberries (approx 2 punnets)
7 sheets gelatine (the regular home cooking size, not the catering size!)
170g sugar
500ml water
Juice of 1 lemon

Wash the raspberries, then put them in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat and let them simmer gently for 5 - 8 minutes, or until the raspberries have broken down somewhat and the sugar has dissolved, stirring a few times.

Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool slightly, then pop the gelatine sheets in a bowl of cold water and leave them to soften. When the raspberries have cooled down a bit (but are still fairly hot), pour them into a sieve over a large bown and press them through with a wooden spoon so that you extract all the juice and the pips stay behind.

The gelatine sheets can now be taken out of the water - squeeze them between a few sheets of kitchen roll to remove excess liquid. Then mix them into the warm raspberry mixture, stirring well so that they dissolve. Then pass the mixture back through a clean sieve. Mix in the lemon juice. Then pour the mixture into jelly moulds and put into the fridge to set - this takes between 4 and 6 hours.

Serve the jellies cold from the fridge - if you're using metal moulds, dip them for a scant second into a bowl of boiling water before turning out upside-down onto a plate. Delicious eaten with a shortbread biscuit on the side and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

My husband made these amazing cardamom-scented shortbreads to go with our jellies:

He used the recipe for Pistachio shortbread from the Ottolenghi cookbook as a base, but as he didn't have many pistachios, instead using a mixture of crushed pistachios and almonds. He also upped the sugar content, because without it, the dough tasted salty. These shortbreads have a lovely exotic twist brought by the addition of scented cardamom - they are buttery and spicy and impossible to eat in single numbers. Here is the recipe, slightly adapted:

Makes up to 20 cookies

8 cardamom pods
200g butter
25g ground rice (rice flour is fine)
240g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
70g caster sugar
60g mixture of shelled unsalted pistachio nuts and almonds
1 lightly beaten organic egg
2 tbsp caster sugar

Gently crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar, then remove the skins and crush the seeds into a fine powder.

Using an electric mixer with the beater attachment fitted, mix together the butter, ground rice, flour, salt, ground cardamom and the 70g caster sugar. Once the dough comes together, stop mixing.

Turn the dough out the counter, dusting with a little flour, and form it into a log 3 -4cm in diameter with your hands. Wrap the log in cling film and then let it chill in the fridge for an hour.

Roughly chop the nuts, then scatter them on a flat tray. Brush the chilled dough with beaten egg and roll the log into the chopped nuts. Wrap the dough back up in the cling film, and put it back into the fridge for another 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C. Remove the clingfilm from the dough and cut the log into slices 5mm - 1cm thick. Lay them out on a tray lined with baking parchment, spacing them at least 2cm apart. Dust them with the 2 tbsp caster sugar. Bake for roughly 20 minutes - they must not take on too much colour but should remain a pale shade of gold. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before storing in a sealed container - they will keep for up to one week (if you can stop eating them).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Shed

I had a fairly weird experience last night. I paid money to go and eat a set dinner in a total stranger's house - with other strangers - and we sat and ate in their garden shed. That's right. In a garden shed. Ok, so it was a pretty large one, containing two round tables with checked tablecloth and chairs, a few fairy lights hanging here and there, but it was essentially a large potting shed with windows. Some people might think I'm mad...

'The Shed' is one of London's newish 'underground restaurants': basically, this is where you pay to have dinner in a total stranger's home. You pay a suggested 'donation' and the hosts get to play restaurant in their own home, without having to pay any of the associated overheads. About 10 or so of these underground places have sprung up all over London and many think this has emerged as a sort of 'two fingers' to the recession, and also a desire for diners to have a more homely and intimate experience without the starchiness of a posh restaurant. It's all organised through social networking sites such as Facebook, and news is also spread by word of mouth.

So why go? The plus sides are that you meet new people who you would never normally bump into and are encouraged to socialise, you get to nose around a total stranger's house (bliss for me since I'm VERY nosy) and you get to spend an evening doing something a little bit different. The downsides? You never know what you're going to get, or whether your hosts can cook for toffee! And you might get stuck sat next to a dullard. But we were excited since we'd had an excellent experience at The Saltoun Road Supperclub in Brixton (I'd recommend this place to anyone) and hoped for something equally fun and delicious at The Shed.

So, last night we trekked to the Newington Green area of East London and pressed the doorbell of a mysterious garden flat. A rather stressed young man answered the door and ushered us indoors, passing through a very narrow and messy kitchen, where his girlfriend was bent over making lots of meat skewers with a worried expression on her face. Oh dear - this was a sign of things to come, unfortunately. We were shown through a rather gloomy dark back garden to the aforementioned shed. We sat down with four other people and luckily conversation immediately sparked up. We cracked into our wine (it's BYO, of course) and waited for the food. And waited. And waited some more. Then the couple arrived looking incredibly harassed, all the while apologising as they set down some Malaysian chicken sate kebabs on the table. We assured them that we were having a fine old time and not to worry, since we were pretty drunk and chatting away furiously with our new-found friends.

The starters were cleared, with more apologising for things being late. After an hour, the main course arrived (a tasty beef rendang with egg fried rice), again with the same over-apologetic flourishes.

'We so very sorry this is late. Really really sorry. This isn't going how we wanted it to go...really sorry...'
'Seriously it's no problem - we're having lots of fun.'
'Sorry, though, it's unacceptable that you're having to wait so long. Really sorry...'
And so on.

I felt gloomy just watching these poor people (who seemed very nice) go about racked with stress and uber-apologising. It was almost cringeworthy. We all wanted them to stop apologising - chances are, had they just done it once to be polite, we wouldn't have noticed the food taking ages afterwards. Why on earth were they doing this? Feeding strangers in their home with a dodgy oven and grill that was on the blink, not to mention doing full time jobs? Plus, they'd cooked four massive dinner parties in their shed in the past 10 days. They looked as though they were on the brink of exhaustion.

Anyway. The food was fairly good, thankfully. We had chicken sate skewers to start, beef rendang curry and egg-fried rice for main course and a delicious mango fool accompanied with banana bread for dessert. All the plates were cleared, and people were happy with the food. But I really felt awful for the hosts, who seemed totally wrung out by the end of the evening. They said they wouldn't take the standard £16-per-head charge and instead would discount the meal to £10. I couldn't bear to do that, so paid full whack anyway. They'd suffered enough! But because they didn't enjoy themselves, I couldn't really see myself returning again. They certainly cooked fairly well, but the surroundings were a bit glum. (I was also a bit horrified by the skanky bathroom). One of the things I enjoyed so much about The Saltoun Road Supperclub was that the host (Arno) seemed to be having as much of a laugh as his guests. So I haven't been put off - I definitely will be trying out another supperclub soon - it's a totally unique experience. Plus think of the future dinner party anecdotes worth their weight in gold!

Anyone else out there been to any 'underground' supperclubs in the UK or abroad? I'd love to hear about your experiences, good and bad!

Friday, 2 October 2009

A Corner of Eden

My experience of B&B's in this country has mainly been limited to the 'oh-my-god-get- me-outta-here' variety: homes filled to the brim with scary knick-knacks, presided over by a strange couple who follow you from room to room, a list of rules pinned to the door, twitchy net curtains and an artery-clogging fry up delivered under neon strip lighting at an eye-watering 7am in the morning. I feel awkward as though I'm intruding in somebody's home and have done something wrong, and I almost always experience an overwhelming sense of relief upon leaving.

But not at Corner of Eden, no sirree. This isn't your average B&B - it's way too special to lump into the same category. For starters, you're staying in a beautifully restored Georgian farmhouse amid the scenic Cumbrian hills. The rooms are decorated in a tasteful shabby chic style with artful dabs of 'wow' factor, without an atom of naffness. The friendly owners Debbie and Richard have just the right level of attentiveness without being overbearing - and, if you're very good, they'll let you take their two Border terriers Max and Cassie for a walk.

But d'you know what really makes this place super special? (obviously I was going to get around to talking about the food!) You get the full use of a well-stocked 'Butler's Pantry' in which you can help yourself to as much local cheese and home made cakes as you can muster, at any time of day. Debbie home bakes all the bread, and her cakes have won first prizes at the local Village Produce Shows. And if you fancy a booze or two, you help yourself to a wide selection and write your drinks down in an 'honesty book' and pay upon leaving.

The Butler's Pantry - marvel at its wonderment:

Rustic prettiness!

Even after a massive dinner at the local pub, I found I was perfectly able to force down a slice of Debbie's chocolate cake (hardly an effort) and a glass of port before bedtime, sitting in front of the log fire in the living room. Richard had put a decanter of his home made sloe gin in our bedroom, in case we felt like a night cap (of course we did). The breakfasts were top rate, too - the eggs come from Debbie and Richard's hens, the bacon and sausages from the local butcher and the muesli is home made with lashings of delicious coconut and hazelnuts. Upon leaving, Debbie pressed pretty packages of chocolate tiffin slices into our greedy paws so that we didn't fade away with hunger on the motorway (as if). Brilliant!

Two nights were enough to make us feel super chilled out and rested. But in reality I could have stayed a good while longer. And now that I'm back in the real world, everything seems a bit beige...