Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: Cucina Rustica, Birmingham

Love was in the air and The Boy and I were searching for an impromptu late night meal on a journey up North. Our rendez-vous? Birmingham. Not the most inspiring of romantic settings, admittedly. It’s not exactly our home turf either so, as the train plodded its way from London to Brum, I frantically tapped away on Tripadvisor.

There were various options but I settled on Cucina Rustica for its positive reviews (it was in the top ten restaurants in Birmingham according to Tripadvisor) reasonably priced menu, proximity to the town centre and the fact that it had a table available at just the right time. It was fate! Or so it seemed.

We found the restaurant pretty easily and there’s tons of free street parking dotted around (pay and display before 6pm) which was convenient. We were ushered to a seating area next to the bar for drinks while we waited for our table to be prepared. The bar tender was charming and friendly and astounded me with his range of gins – I lost count but I think you’d need all of your fingers and toes to keep track of the numbers! The restaurant was busy and had a nice buzz to it. We perused the menu and were then shown to our table in the middle of the crowded dining room. It was a nice setting for a romantic meal – the lights were dimmed, there was music playing and the chatter of happy conversation.

I was keen to share a scallop starter involving parsnip mash, which I’d spied other diners enjoying as we were led to our table, as a starter but it was already getting late and we had places to be (and – you guessed it - people to see). Instead, we nibbled on some Pane e aglio - garlic bread but not as we know it. This isn’t your average baguette; instead, a thin and crispy pizza base with a thin topping of tomato and chopped cooked garlic. It was subtle and a great appetizer because, between two, it wasn’t too much. We were given a complimentary dish of marinated olives too which was a nice touch though it would’ve been nice to have had these with our drinks before we got to the table.

Next, I was faced with a rather large dish of Tagliolini con granchio, a rich pasta dish with crab meat, sun-dried tomato, white wine and a chilli kick. It was delicious and the crab claws provided us with some mid-dinner entertainment as The Boy heroically extracted the tasty bits for me (and sent the claw itself into minor orbit). My only sticking point was that the chef had been a little heavy handed with the chilli. The Boy will vouch for my love of spicy food but the chilli was just a little too much and swamped the delicate flavour of the crab.

Meanwhile, The Boy was slurping his way through a special of Monkfish and Mussels alla Genovese which was a seriously meaty meal. The slab of monkfish came complete with chunky backbone, which isn’t a cut that either of us have seen before. It was firm and perfectly cooked; it always amazes me how meaty a fish like this can taste! The mussels were cooked to perfection too and drizzled with a creamy sauce. The whole thing was served with a side dish of fresh vegetables which made it a good value main course, despite being one of the most expensive.

We’d thoroughly enjoyed our meal and were ready to continue our journey. We were shown the dessert menu but both declined regretfully – mainly due to time and already full tummies – and instead asked for the bill. Then began the waiting game. The previously attentive service dropped off a cliff and we were left at our table for forty minutes. We asked several different serving staff numerous times but to no avail. Eventually, we got up and sought out the manager ourselves who explained that they didn’t like to hurry guests out. This makes sense but we’d asked for the bill. Several times.

Cucina Rustica is a great place to go for a tasty Italian meal. It would be a great venue for a party with friends or a romantic dinner for two. The menu is reasonably priced and the quality of ingredients was high. They fell down on service, unfortunately, but I wouldn’t let this stop you if you’re not in a hurry.

Cucina Rustica can be found at 24 Ludgate Hill, Birmingham, B3 1DX. Tel: 0121 233 2277.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Super Soft Chocolate Cherry Cookies

Sometimes, just sometimes, I hate technology. Namely, when it all goes wrong. The only positive of my internet service having a major paddy and me having to spend the best part of two hours glued to the phone was that I got to catch up on some cooking. 

With the phone sandwiched between my ear and my shoulder, I managed to rustle up a huge batch of warming cauliflower soup. As the time ticked over the first hour and with hold music still ringing in my ears, I turned my hands from savoury to sweet. It was a friend’s (who also happens to be my colleague) birthday and I wanted to make something that was easy to transport but would give us a good sugary kick.
I try my best to be healthy most days – I tend to reach for fruit over biscuits and you’re more likely to see me munching through a homemade salad at lunchtimes than a cheesy Panini – but every so often, I get a cookie craving. Biscuits won’t do. I need something sweet, soft and slightly gooey… A birthday seemed like the perfect occasion to flex my cookie-making-muscles.

This recipe has the major upside that it’s very simple to make, especially if you have an electric whisk. Don’t panic if the raw mixture is thick and gooey – that’s perfect! It should stand up by itself when dolloped onto prepared baking trays. The key here is to space your cookie mixture out across your trays – you want at least 5cm gaps between each one – as they spread as they cook. If you don’t, you ‘ll end up with one massive cooking which is cool until you try to get it off the tray. Don’t over-cook them either – keep a close eye on them once they’re in the oven and make sure you whisk them out of the oven before they get brown. The outer edges should be golden and the middle should still be soft so that they are delectably gooey when they cool.

Sometimes, naughty is nice!

Super Soft Chocolate Cherry Cookies
Makes half a dozen large cookies

200g unsalted butter, softened
170g golden caster sugar
1 egg
225g self-raising flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
50g chopped dark chocolate
50g chopped milk chocolate
50g chopped dried sour (or natural glacé) cherries

-          Preheat oven to 190c.
-          Beat butter, sugar and egg together in a bowl until smooth.
-          Sift in the flour and cocoa then mix again until smooth. The mixture will be thick and sticky – I was lucky enough to be able to use an electric whisk for this bit but if you don’t have any machinery at your disposal, get your biceps ready!
-          Fold in the cherries and half of the chocolate until they are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
-          Using a dessert spoon, scoop out spoonful’s of the mixture on to lined baking sheets making sure that they are well spaced as the mixture will spread as they cook.
-          Pop a few pieces of chocolate into each cookie to make them ultra-chunky.
-          Bake for 12 minutes, turning the tray around half way through cooking time to ensure that they are evenly golden around the outside but still pale and soft in the middle. Don’t overcook; remember that they will continue to cook in their own residual heat once out of the oven.
-          Leave to cool for 5 minutes and then remove from the tray onto a wire rack. Nosh any many as you can while they’re warm and then store any leftovers in an airtight tin.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Stall let down

Everywhere I look, I read the unhappy tales of our home grown producers and suppliers here in the UK. The price wars of the major out-of-town supermarkets have milked footfall from our town centres and this, combined with consumers looking for perfect produce available at all times of the day and night, has threatened many small businesses.

Normally, I’m a vocal advocate of small local businesses. As a consumer, I would rather put my money into a small business that will appreciate the income and will be more likely to feed this back into the surrounding community than a huge faceless corporation. Plus, the produce tends to top-notch because the owners take pride in providing great food and the whole buying process is more personal and friendly. I love becoming a “regular”; you get lots of insider information, tailored recommendations (much better than Amazon!) and a big smile to boot.

I’ve recently started a new job in London and, naturally, I set out during my first week to explore the foodie haunts local to my base in Westminster. I was overjoyed to discover the hustle and bustle of Strutton Ground, just minutes from my office, where the maze of Eat and Pret outlets morph into one-off bakeries and stalls groaning with clothes, hot meals and coffee. I was in my element!

I was especially pleased to find a small grocers stall with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I couldn’t resist buying a bag of figs and some late raspberries to go with my post-cycle breakfasts during the rest of the week. Happily rustling my paper bag of treats, I returned to the office with a smile on my face. Unfortunately, my smile quickly faded the next day when I discovered that my beautifully ripe figs had gone bad in less than 24 hours. I opened them up to find that they were rotten from the core – what a waste! The raspberries were better but were right on the cusp of being over-ripe and some were specked with mould. What a waste!

And herein lies the problem. This might have been bad luck. The stall may be a pillar of quality most of time and may have lots of regular custom. However in my mind, in these hard times every company needs to up their game. I know many consumers who, after my experiences, wouldn’t return. They wouldn’t bother to go back and let the seller know (which I will be – feedback is important) as they’re busy people. They’ll use it as another reason to by-pass their local suppliers in favour of schlepping to the nearest Tesco because you know where you are with the big four. It frustrates me that companies are wasting such a prime opportunity to make a great first impression.

You may say that this is simply natural selection in the business world. If a company doesn’t do what they do well, they won’t survive. And I would agree with you but I would appeal to the small business owners out there – please take note. It genuinely amazes me how many shops - both big and small - seem to get the simple things wrong. If you want to survive in these hard times, you need to up your game! Take pride in your produce, be friendly and offer useful advice – these are simple things that will keep people coming back.

Do you prefer swinging your basket around your local market or filling your trolley at your local supermarket? Do you have any thoughts on your local shops to share?

Monday, 21 November 2011

No such thing as a free lunch?

Volunteers in the Feeding 5k kitchen working hard to feed the hungry lunchtime masses

Or so they say. Who are 'they' anyway? Because they are wrong.

Friday saw queues that stretched around Trafalgar Square as many hurried to be one of the lucky 5,000 to be fed with surplus food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The sun shone as speakers instilled the captive audience with the virtues of creating less food waste. I stood in raptures as we were told stories of sorry cauliflowers that grew ‘too big’ for the supermarkets standards (!) and delicious but ‘misshapen’ fruit and vegetables that are turned away by the Big Four.

Beautiful curly carrots!

Producers and chefs alike had turned out to meet and share with their knowledge with the public and it was great to see the number of people that had been drawn to the event. I got my (geeky) thrills by spotting Valentine Warner casually mingling with the crowds before his turn on stage to cook in front of the masses.

We arrived early, just before midday, as we were keen to taste what discarded dishes the huge industrial kitchens had put together. I was slightly staggered by the queue – there must have been about two hundred hungry folks ready and waiting – but this moved extremely quickly when food starting being served. There were plenty of friendly volunteers around to direct us to our free portion of vegan veggie curry and rice, which was flavourful but not at all spicy so it seemed to please everyone from us young professionals in office wear to the under-fives in buggies.

Grabbie, grabbie. Visitors go mad for discarded produce.

Once we’d filled our faces, we explored a little more of what the event had to offer. There was an air of premature January-sale-hysteria as volunteers from the wonderful Fareshare and local school children handed out bags of fruit and vegetables, which would have otherwise gone to waste. Although the odd slightly squishy grape was obviously sub-par (though still perfectly edible), the vast majority was virtually perfect. Between us, my group were given half a dozen bananas, a large bunch of grapes, a teensy pumpkin and four or five pears which were all delicious and apparently unblemished. We also saw curly carrots and small pineapples in the arms of fellow revellers. This prompted a lot of healthy debate about the peculiar standards the supermarkets have developed in response to our demands. Why on earth are the supermarkets throwing perfectly good food like this away?

A mere hour inspired a lot of conversations among my peers, which has got to be a good thing. The most common comment that I overheard was the realisation that we’re so lucky to have food at all and disbelief that, while some are starving, we are turning edible food away because it doesn’t conform to our aesthetic expectations. And all of this is before the food even hits our shelves! We throw away about 4.4 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten. If we stop this blatant waste of resources, our family finances will see the benefits as well as the environment that we live in.

If you’re looking for more information on how to reduce your food wastage, have a look on Love Food Hate Waste. If you’d like to help the amazing efforts of Fareshare in redistributing unwanted food to some of the most needy in our nation, have a look at their website. To find out more about the fantastic Feeding 5k day, have a peek at this year's event website.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Falling food waste and a free lunch

Food prices are rising while salaries are staying stubbornly still and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have successfully found and kept hold of a job in the last year or so. Many households are struggling with rising bills and a new study from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has found that the current economic situation has encouraged everyone to reduce the amount of food that we throw away.

Despite a 13 per cent drop in usable food waste, as a nation we still generate 7.2 million tonnes of household food waste every year of which around 60% could have been eaten. This is crazy – when money is tight, we should be watching the (compost) bin as well as our wallets. I don’t think that the confusion over sell by dates helps though hopefully the recent shake-up of regulations will make things clearer for everyone. However, I think many people (and many of my twenty-something-old peers are particularly guilty of this one) need good ways to use-up leftovers.

If you’re London-based and interested in reducing your food waste, you might want to check out Feeding 5k in Trafalgar Square tomorrow. With plenty of inspiration by way of living cooking demos from the likes of Valentine Warner and Thomasina Miers, you can find out great ways to cut the amount of edible stuff that you might otherwise throw away. If you're not London-based, fear not as I'll be schlepping over to capture the best bits (and bites) so that you're not left out.

As well as highlighting clever cooking, the event is championing the work of fantastic charities like Fare Share, a national charity who redistribute surplus food, that would otherwise be discarded, to the most needy. They also provide training on nutrition and safe food preparation. What lovely people!

So head on over to see the waste-eating pigs and flex your muscles while having a go at surplus apple pressing. Oh and you get a free lunch to boot! What more could you want?

Feeding 5k will be taking place on Friday 18th November in Trafalgar Square, London between 12 and 2pm. First come first served!
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