Thursday, 6 September 2012

Banana oat muffins

Sometimes, the need for something sweet just cannot be avoided. I try to side step it; dodge the craving for doughnuts, persuade myself that a juicy apple will satisfy my craving, but that only works for so long.

You might just give in and snarf down a cookie or two but if you’d like something that’s delicious and a little bit healthier too, this is the recipe for you. These muffins are packed full of slow release oat energy, calcium and all the goodness of bananas. Although they’re chock full of bananas, it’s not an obvious flavour if you’re not they’re biggest fan. They’re just sweet enough, with a touch of honey in the mix, to sate your appetite for cake. If you're sensitive to gluten or coelic, choose gluten free oats which are available in most large supermarkets.

I’ve made them for breakfast and they’ve proved to be a very popular treat but they can be dressed up any way you like. I’ve kept them plain in my original recipe but you can add all sorts; dark chocolate chips or walnut pieces would be divine. Boost their fibre and mineral content with seeds in the batter or sprinkled on top. You can substitute the oats with wholegrain flour or ground almonds if the mood takes you.

On a practical note, beware as these are very sticky as they bake. Use a lightly oiled muffin pan without paper cases otherwise you’ll end up with lots of yummy muffins that you can’t get out of the cases. You can also use lightly oiled silicon cake cases, which work really well too.

Banana oat muffins Makes 6

125g (gluten free) porridge oats
140g low fat yoghurt/fromage frais
1 egg
2tbsp honey
1tsp baking powder
1 banana, mashed
1tsp cinnamon (optional)

 - Preheat the oven to 200C and use a dab of oil to grease a muffin tin or silicon cupcake moulds.
 - Beat the egg, honey and the banana together until combined then stir in the remaining ingredients. Alternatively, place all the ingredients in a blender and whizz until smooth.
 - Divide the batter between cups and bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until dark brown (the colour of over-ripe banana skin!) and springy to the touch.
 - Serve plain or split with a little butter.

Don't like oats? Substitute for wholegrain flour or ground almonds.
Too plain? Add dark chocolate chips and walnut pieces. Or dried fruit and your choice of seeds.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: Le Mercury, Islington, London

Simple, affordable food can be found at Le Mercury, a lovely no-frills French bistro in Islington. My sister, who has recently returned from a year of study in Copenhagen, was in town and we were keen to get some tasty grub that would satisfy without breaking the bank.

We window-shopped our way along Upper Street; Le Mercury is virtually equidistant from Angel and Highbury & Islington stations, which makes is pretty well connected. We wandered in for a late Saturday lunch to find the dining room busy but we were quickly welcomed and shown to a table.

The setting was ideal for a casual lunch as the surroundings were rustic and unpretentious while the service was prompt and friendly. The menu is simple with a fixed price for starters, mains and desserts, though there are a few seasonal specials that buck this trend. There were about eight options for both starters and main courses - plus one or two specials - which reflected the establishment’s French roots.

Our starters arrived promptly. The beef carpaccio was peppery and tender which was complimented beautifully by the rocket salad that it came with. The portion was ideal for whetting my appetite for the rest of the meal. My sister’s chévre salad was a generous slice of grilled goats cheese on a round of baguette with plenty of salad and lashings of nutty pesto. We found it very hard to decide what to have – I’ll have to return for the poached pears with walnuts and blue cheese.

As our empty plates had been whisked away, our mains arrived. The grilled duck breast was beautifully cooked; barely a hint of pinkness lingering in the meat with plenty of moisture still in the meat. I would have liked it to served slightly rare and would specify this next time. The accompaniments of finely sliced cabbage, garlic mash and delicious jus made for an extremely filling meal. No faults to mention on the roast saddle of lamb either – the meat was tender and juicy. It was served with grilled courgettes which provided a nice contrast.

Le Mercury would be ideal for a slap up family meal or get together with friends. The prompt, unobtrusive service could make it a winner for a quiet dinner date too. We enjoyed two courses for around £12 a head (though we didn’t peruse the wine list) so it provides great value as well as quality.

Le Mercury can be found at 140 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1QY Tel: 020 7354 4088. Starters: £3.95. Main meals: £8.95. Dessert: £2.95. Nearest Tube: Angel and Highbury & Islington.

Looking for other options in Islington? Find out more about Ottolenghi's fantastic salads and baked goods to take away or The Castle's tasty pub gruff and great bar.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Chocolate covered coconut macaroons

The world is going mad for macarons, the multi-coloured garish almond based meringue confections popular for afternoon tea around the world. Since I started working in London, I've seen swathes of tourists clutching pastel paper bags from the likes of Laduree. They're not the kind of thing that you find in Somerset! 

I'm partial to the odd macaron; they're cute, (dare I say) girlie and wonderfully bite-sized. However, they are a bit of a pig to bake. Achieving that light and fluffy texture is rather unpredictable, much like the somewhat troublesome meringue. If you're in need of a tasty sweet snack, maybe it would be better to by-pass the chichi and look a little closer to home. 

Macaroons (note the double 'o') are easy to throw together and provide the same deliciously sweet hit without the kitchen faff. According to the wonder that is Wikipedia, English macaroons and French macarons share the same Italian word maccarone or maccherone which derives from ammaccare meaning to crush or beat. Don't run away in horror; this refers to the crushed nuts that are the main ingredient of both recipes. Both are cousins of amaretti, the crunchy Italian almond biscuit. It's a very European affair.

I adore this recipe because it really is so simple. Bung the ingredients together, shape and pop in the oven. Decoration is optional but I like any excuse to mess around with chocolate. I've made these several times and they're an ideal mid-week bake because they're quick and easy to make out of ingredients that tend to lurk in the back of the larder. Oh and they're naturally gluten free too! 

Coconut macaroons
Makes 16 – 20

2 egg whites
300g unsweetened grated coconut (or the same of desiccated coconut)
3 tbsp runny honey (omit if using desiccated coconut)

To decorate
150g dark chocolate
10 glacé cherries (optional)

 - Preheat oven to 180C and line a baking tray with a silicon or greaseproof paper.
 - Whisk together the egg whites and honey (if using).
 - Add the coconut and stir until coated.
 - Scoop out tablespoon dollops of mixture, compact slightly and evenly space on baking tray.
 - Bake for 10 – 12 minutes or until golden brown.
 - Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool.
 - Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of boiling water.
 - Meanwhile, halve the cherries so that they’re ready to garnish.
 - Dip the flat base of each macaroon into the chocolate and place on a tray covered in silicon or greaseproof paper. If you want a particularly luxurious macaroon, allow these to cool and dip again.
 - Drizzle the top of the macaroons with melted chocolate and garnish with a half cherry, dipped in a little chocolate to act as glue.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Broccoli & Feta Potato bake

What a grim day! What happened to (the increasingly lesser spotted) Summer season? I'm certain that I haven't slept through it because I'm definitely not that well rested. Regrettably.

To banish the rainy day blues, I've been tucking into satisfying summer comfort food. This one pot meal is a great way to use up that tired looking bag of potatoes that's been hanging around for a bit too long. You could also use leftover boiled potatoes (skip the par-boiling if they've already been cooked or you'll end up with mush!) so it can be a super thrify meal too. I'm partial to a little ham or bacon thrown in but it's also delicious without if you're going meatless.

You might not have tried roasted broccoli before now but I think this will convert you. It brings out a sweet earthy flavour that shows off the little green trees at their best. Coupled with the mushrooms, you'll have a lovely rich mouthful. Don't forget a sprinkling of feta to cut through the warmth and give it a summery taste.
Broccoli & Feta Potato bake

Serves 4

300g new potatoes (or leftover cooked potatoes)
1 large head of broccoli
100g mushrooms, cleaned
handful of spring onions, sliced
50g ham or cooked bacon, roughly chopped (optional)
50g curly kale, storks removed and sliced
4 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
120g feta cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp (gluten free) soy sauce

- Preheat the oven to 180C. Add a drizzle of oil to a large roasting tray and pop into the oven to warm up.
- Boil the kettle while you half or (if they’re big ‘uns) thickly slice the potatoes.
- Prepare the broccoli. Cut bite-sized florets from the main stem, halving any trees that are too big. Cut the stem into chunks.
- Simmer the potatoes (if they need cooking) and broccoli stem for five minutes or until just tender. Throw in the spring onions so that they get a few moments in the hot water then drain the whole lot.
- Remove the roasting tray from the oven and add the potatoes, broccoli stems and spring onions – stand back as they may spit. Move them around in the hot oil so that they are nicely coated and start to colour in places.
- Add the broccoli florets, mushrooms and garlic to the roasting tin and then shove back into the oven for 30 minutes or until the broccoli starting to go a tawny golden colour and is cooked to your liking. I like it with a little bite left in it but this is up to you.
- Meanwhile, boil the kale for 4 minutes or microwave for around 3 minutes until just cooked.
- Remove the tin from the oven. Add the ham/bacon, kale and half of the feta before stirring and putting it back in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Serve generously heaped on plates and covered in the remaining feta cheese.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Summery chicken stew

The Boy and I have spent a glorious week touring the country to see friends and family. Naturally, our trips tend to revolve around food. We’ve barbecued near Bristol, sipped cider on the Cam (bringing a little bit of Somerset to Cambridge!) and noshed on marshmallows on a narrow boat.

Summer signals a flurry of activity for most people – time to make hay while the sun shines. If it’s raining – or if you’re busy dashing about doing a myriad of things simultaneously – you might like to come in after a long day to a bowl of stew.

This creamy chicken stew is light and fresh enough to suit a warm (if damp) summers day. As with all of my recipes, it’s easy and rather forgiving; you can leave it bubbling away on the stove (or in the oven – a similar amount of time at 180C should do the trick) while you go about your business. And, as long as you take care to ensure that it doesn’t boil dry, it won’t be ruined if you accidentally forget about it while you’re taking on the world.

This is a great recipe to have up your sleeve as a versatile and tasty dish. Although I’ve suggested kale, carrots and peas, you could throw in any vegetables that are in season and need using up. Asparagus works well if chucked in at the same time as the kale. In fact, you needed use kale – finely sliced cabbage, greens or spinach would work equally as well. An ideal one-pot supper to cut down on washing up without compromising on taste!

With all of the vegetables and light stock, this is a deliciously healthy meal. I would recommend using Quark instead of cream. It might sound like a Star Trek character but it’s actually a virtually fat free mild cheese that tastes lovely and creamy without being high in calories.

Summer Chicken Stew
Serves 4 – 6

6 chicken thighs, skin on
3 shallots or small onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
½ chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
50g dried apricots, chopped
700ml chicken stock/water
300ml white wine/cider
50g curly kale, stalks removed and sliced
1 tbsp dried tarragon
100g quark or 100ml single cream
50g peas, ideally fresh from the pod but frozen is fine

- Add a drizzle of oil to a pan large enough to take all of the chicken pieces and vegetables with plenty of space over a high heat. Brown the chicken in batches, placing them skin side down for a few minutes and once golden brown, turn over. Remove from the pan.
- Brown the onion for ten minutes until golden brown and soft. Remove and set aside.
- Deglaze the pan with wine/cider; pour in the liquid and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula to remove all of the cooked on flavour.
- Add the chicken and onions to the pan with the garlic, carrots, chilli, tarragon and apricots then cover with stock/water. Top up with boiling water if needed until everything is covered.
- Put a lid on the pan and turn the head down to a gentle simmer. Cook for 30 – 40 minutes until the carrots are tender and the chicken is cooked through.
- Remove from the heat and skin off a cup of the cooking liquor. Set aside to cool while you stir in the kale so that it is submerged in the liquid. The residual heat will cool it nicely.
- Meanwhile, whisk the quark or cream into the cooking liquor until smooth and lump-free. Add this back into the pan, along with the peas and stir through.
- Serve with jacket potatoes, boiled jersey royals or rice.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Low Fat Berry Banana Muffins

As the long weekend approaches, you might be on the lookout for delicious recipes. If we can’t rely on the weather, we might as well ensure that we have tasty things to eat. Whether you’re in need of something for a Jubilee street party or searching of a healthy breakfast treat, this easy muffin recipe is versatile and a great way to get a portion of fruit.

This recipe is low in fat and isn’t as sweet as the processed versions that you’ll find in coffee shops and supermarkets. It’s a great way to use up those forlorn overripe bananas too! The bananas help to keep the muffins nicely moist but don’t provide an overwhelming banana flavour which means that you can chop and change the flavour combinations.

I filled mine with cheap frozen mixed berries from the supermarket but you can add any that you fancy. Go for classic blueberry muffins or add half cherries and half almonds for a summery, seasonal twist.

I think I’ll be packing a few for a weekend bike ride for a little slow release energy!

Berry-nana muffins
Yields 12 muffins

150g whole grain flour
150g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g light muscovado sugar
50g porridge oats, with a little more for garnishing
2 medium bananas, peeled and mashed
300ml low fat yoghurt
5 tbsp sunflower oil
2 egg whites
300g fresh or frozen berries

- Preheat the oven to 180c.
- Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases or squares of greaseproof paper (mine were approximately 10cm x 10cm).
- Mix the flours, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and oats together.
- In a separate bowl, combine the mashed banana, yoghurt, oil and egg.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid mixture. Stir quickly but gently to bring everything together. Don’t panic if the batter looks a little lumpy.
- Gently fold in the berries and divide between the muffin cases, sprinkling each one with a little oats.
- Bake for 18 – 20 minutes until golden brown.

Looking for a way to use up those unwanted egg yolks? Why not make mayonnaise for your weekend barbecues and sandwiches?

Friday, 18 May 2012

Barbecued butterflied salmon

The Boy has always said "Never trust a thin chef" and he seems to follow a similar logic for bushmen. Since I got to know him, I know that I've been wrestling with a rather hefty draw for his affections. He totally loves Ray Mears. His logic is that Ray, with his generous waist line, is not simply surviving in the wilderness but properly living.

His high regard for the portly master of the wilderness extends to his cooking skills. Our feeding-of-the-many-people gave him the ideal opportunity to try out some Mear-esque catering. Our lovely friends at Cronkshaw Fold provided us with a mammoth (whale-like) salmon which inspired The Boy to try out a butterfly technique that he’d seen Ray demonstrate.

After removing the fins and scoring around the head, he gently plied the bones away from the flesh and – voila! – a perfectly butterflied salmon. He then laid it out on the barbecue grill until the skin was satisfyingly crispy and the flesh was meltingly soft and juicy. It had taken on a deep smokey flavour which was incredibly moreish. We served it as it was with no accompaniment as a sort of starter before a vat of risotto was dished out.

It was pretty simple so I think this will become a regular dish at summer barbecues when the weather makes up its mind. I don’t know about you but I don’t think of fish when I think of goodies to slap on the grill. Sausages, for sure. Burgers, defo. Halloumi, my goodness yes. I might do a few prawn kebabs but nothing more adventurous than that. There must be good recipes out there! What are your fish recipes for the barbecue?

Butterflied barbecued salmon

You will need:
one whole salmon (ideally gutted and scaled by your fishmonger unless you're hardcore like Ray)
one sharp knfe

- If the fish is fresh from the water, scale it and remove the guts and innards.
- Remove the fins from the belly of the fish.
- Slice just behind the gills; this will help you when you remove the head later.
- Remove the dorsal fin by running the knife along the top of the fish.
- With the fish belly up, run your thumbs along the length of the spine between the skin and the ribs to ease the bones away from the flesh. Do this on both sides and pull out the head, spine and bones in one piece.
- Lay the fish skin side down on a hot barbecue and cook until the skin is charred. If the fish is particularly fleshy and thick, cover it with foil to help cook the otherside.
- Briefly turn the fish over to add some colour to the flesh before serving.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Review: Hotel du Vin, Birmingham

I don't think that I've ever been spellbound by a breakfast table until I was lucky enough to be treated to Hotel du Vin. After a glorious sleep in the biggest big that I've ever had the pleasure of getting lost in (even doing my best starfish impression, I couldn't touch the sides), we traipsed downstairs and were swiftly seated.

The service was prompt and before long, our hot food order had been taken and we were let loose on the selection of chilled and baked goodies to while away the time until our food was ready. In sophisticated surroundings, I grappled to keep my inner child - who was urging me to run circuits around the groaning table, piling my plate ever higher while whooping with excitement - under control. It was truly a feast of breakfast delights. There was fresh banana bread and fruit flapjacks in addition to the common or garden croissants. A bucket, jewelled with dewy condensation, was packed with ice and studded with darling little screw top jars of yogurt and a smattering of fruit compote. There were bowls filled with cereals including a hearty rustic granola, stewed summer fruits and spiced apricots. Even the orange juice was a joy to behold; sweet yet zesty- what a friend might describe as a (pleasant) citrus slap in the face.

Being as restrained as a I could bare (they were, after all, playing jazz at breakfast - tres chic), I daintily (ha!) filled my plate and returned to our table to report back to The Boy. My excitement got the better of me as I blurted out something along the lines of: ohmygoodnessitsamazingtheresEVERYTHING.

Suffice to say, the cold buffet was fantastic and would've been a sumptuous meal in itself. The cooked portion of our meal had quite a lot to live up to! The Boy was pleased with his full English breakfast which was chock-full of quality ingredients including the tastiest bacon either of us have ever experienced. The only thing that it was lacking was some baked beans though I suppose the debate about whether these are an element in a traditional full English should be discussed in at a later date. My French toast (when in Rome, etc) was good if a little greasy. It was served with maple syrup which was lovely but I added some of the stewed summer fruits from the cold buffet which perked it up a treat and gave a pleasant sharp contrast to the otherwise sickly sweetness of the dish.

In short, Hotel du Vin know how to do breakfast!

Hotel du Vin Birmingham can be found at 25 Church Street, Birmingham, B3 2NR. Tel: 0121 200 0600

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Review: Pitt Cue Co, Soho, London

It might just be my sources but the word on the meat scene of the capital has been dominated for some time by three words: Pitt Cue Co. For those of you who have been out of the loop, the minuscule Soho-based restaurant has been making (cow-shaped) ripples in the food scene for a while now - the hype about their no reservations policy has been matched only by that of their fabled barbecued offerings. And, of course, the publicity has started a vicious (ever hungry) circle as the eatery gained popularity which created longer queues and in turn fed its cult status among carnivores.

The combination of urban food myth and char-grilled meats made it an ideal place to take The Boy during one of his infrequent visits to London. Having done our research, we arrived 30 minutes before opening and joined the already sizeable queue. I must admit that, having lived in Britain for my entire life, I'm something of a queue-connoisseur; we Brits like to form lines for everything. However this queue was unlike pretty much any queue I'd witnessed before; the queuee's (as I shall call them) were cheerful. Maybe it was the quirky Soho setting or maybe the glorious smell of searing ribs combined with low blood sugar was making everyone delirious but people were waiting patiently and happily. After several months of shoulder-bargy, foot-squashing, tube-cramming, irate-to-the-point-of-evaporating-with-rage London commuters, I started to think I was seeing things.

Around 6pm, the kitsch lace curtains that lined the bar's windows began to twitch and, finally, the doors opened. I half expected the air of patience to dissolve and for us to rush the entrance like eleven year old's at a One Direction album signing but instead the doorway was barred by a friendly gentleman - keeper of the keys, if you will - who organised the tables. The Boy and I only just made it over the threshold; the queue was cut short just behind us. The place was jam packed and we were seated to eat in the bustling bar which was fine for two but probably would've been a pain for a larger group.

We ordered and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes masking the rumbling of anticipation emitted by our impatient tummies with pleasant conversation while nursing pints of house "Whatever" lager. Dubbed "Whatever" because it's exactly that: any beer that takes their fancy at the time. We got lucky; it was equally moreish and thirst-quenching. Despite the noisy setting, it was quite nice to see the bar staff working away while we waited. They seemed in their element as they churned out cocktails and pulled pints.

Enamelled trays were set down in front of us with a satisfying clink against the wood of the table and I bearly had time to take note of it's contents before instinct took over and I had to start gobbling. I'd chosen brisket with a side of chipotle 'slaw. The meat was so tender; it could have been cut with a spoon. Satisfying for the novelty if nothing else. It was somewhat drowned in barbecue sauce but, to fair, it wasn't your average barbecue sauce. It was seductively smokey and packed full of umami flavours - literally finger licking! The 'slaw was delish and surprisingly refreshing - the creamyness was a delightful contrast to the fragrant sauce on the meat.

The Boy went for pork ribs with burnt end mash and this definitely didn't disappoint. The ribs were mammoth. Literally! Like the gigantic ones that are strapped to the side of Fred's car in the closing titles of the Flintstones. They were juicy and tender too. I found myself feeling rather jealous as The Boy knawed (caveman-style - very apt) on the bones to extract every ounce of flavour. The burnt end mash was much nicer than it sounds - creamy smooth mashed potato covered in a layer of burnt scrag ends from the barbie. Seriously good stuff.

Pickles and a hunk of char-grilled bread were included as standard and worked well. The briny sharpness of the pickles helped to cut through all of the strong flavours while the bread was essential for making the meal finish sociably - I have no doubt that we would've been licking the trays at the end if this hadn't been provided.

All in all, the meal was good value and we thoroughly enjoyed everything (okay, if I'm being picky, they do that annoyingly fashionable thing where they price everything by one decimal place - £1.5 rather than £1.50 - but that can be forgiven). Be prepared to turn up early on a busy night and wear comfortable shoes for the queue. Other than that, if you're in London and you like meat, all I will say is that you must go.

Pitt Cue Co can be found at 1 Newburgh Street, Soho, London W1E 7RB. Open Monday - Saturday for lunch between 12pm and 3pm and for dinner between 6pm and 11pm. Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sticky Toffee Bread and Butter Pudding

Sometimes the simplest combinations are the best. Salty Cheddar cheese paired with sweet and sour Branston pickle, for example, or sweet ripe tomatoes combined with aromatic basil leaves. Both examples are far more than the sum of their parts. Bread and butter is another classic duo which are endlessly versatile; they work as an accompaniment with all sorts from scampi to jam.

I must admit that I was never drawn to the British classic, bread and butter pudding, when I was young. I always associated bread with savoury flavours and so, the idea of adding it to a sweet dish didn't compute. How wrong I was! It's such an easy dessert to make and is very forgiving if you feel the need to bend the recipe to your culinary whims. For my recent al-fresco-feeding-of-the-many-people moment at Cronkshaw Fold Farm, I added a luxurious sticky toffee element - as a nod to another British classic - but you could omit the deliciously sticky dates and caramel sauce for dried cranberries and white chocolate instead. Raisins and nuts would work well too. Or you could go for a virgin version and revel in simple stodgy comfort food. Either way, hot or cold, this ones a winner.

One of my lovely friends (I only have lovely friends, you understand) is gluten intolerant, just like my dear Mum, so my version was made - very successfully, I might add - with gluten-free bread. The custard binds everything together so that the bread, which without gluten is usually very dry and crumbly, was soft and moreish.

Sticky Toffee Bread and Butter Pudding
Serves four (multiply at will)

For the pudding
150g pitted dates
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g butter
10 slices of bread (brown, white, granary – the choice is yours)
400ml milk
2 eggs
25g sugar (plus 1 tbsp to top the pudding)
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the sauce
100g sugar
100g butter
100ml cream

- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Put the dates and bicarbonate of soda in a small saucepan and top up with water until just covered. Place over a low heat and simmer until the dates have broken down, stirring occasionally. Once the process is complete, they will look alarmingly like tar but fear not, as they taste amazing. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together until creamy. Set aside.
- Once the dates have completely collapsed and you've emptied the pan, pour the milk into the saucepan and place over a low heat to warm through. This has the double benefit of infusing the milk with the toffee notes of the dates while making the pan easier to clean (as well as reducing washing up!).
- While the milk is warming, butter the bread then smear with a little date mixture and cut diagonally into triangles.
- When the milk has come to temperature, whisk slowly into the eggs and sugar.
- Place a few slices of the buttered bread into a baking tin, slightly overlapping them as you go. If you have any of the date mixture leftover, add a smear or two of that. Repeat the layers until you've used up all of the bread.
- Slowly pour the egg mixture over the bread and leave it to soak for 30 minutes or so. You might want to press the bread down into the mixture so that it soaks up all of the custard-y goodness.
- Scatter with the reserved sugar and bake for 40 - 45 minutes until golden brown and crisp on top.
- While the pudding is in the oven, melt the sugar in a saucepan over a low heat. Stay on the ball here or you’ll end up with a burnt mess. The edges will start to melt first – as soon as the first centimetre or so starts to turn golden brown remove from the heat and whisk the butter into the mixture.
- Next pour in the cream and return to a low heat, whisking constantly to remove any lumps. Add a pinch of fleur de sel or sea salt if you’re feeling fancy and want to go for a de rigueur salted caramel sauce.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Butternut Squash Risotto with gorgonzola and wild garlic purée

Nothing rings in the lighter evenings like a camping expedition complete with smoke-swathed open fire. Despite the weather, we met up with some friends up North and we needed something to feed the masses al fresco at the lovely Cronkshaw Fold Farm. Given the horrendous wet weather and cool breezes, risotto seemed to fit the bill very well in terms of belly-filling and easy multiplication for a large party. The rain clouds parted for a brief interval so the pan was finished off over the barbecue while everyone drank Parchers (Pimms and Archers schnapps mixed with lemonade, obviously...).

Our night under canvas was somewhat scuppered by the heavens opening as we chomped our way through pudding. The hardened (and particularly warm-blooded) members of the gang earned kudos and man points by slumbering al tento though I must admit that The Boy and I retired to the protection of the farm house to find nocturnal shelter from the deluge.

Wild garlic is still in season and if you're fortunate enough to catch it before it flowers, it's a fantastic free ingredient. It's plentiful in hedgerows and the countryside in general so pick it while you can. You can find lots of friendly faces online who are willing to through in their tuppence-worth on how to identify and pick this pungent delight. The purée featured below makes a fantastic addition to your fridge jar collection as its incredibly versatile. Whisk it into salad dressings, stir through pasta or fold into pesto for a grassy, garlic hit.

Butternut Squash Risotto with gorgonzola and wild garlic purée
Serves four (but easily multiplied for a larger party, as I did)

For the risotto
1  medium-sized butternut squash, halved with seeds removed
1 onion, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced or grated
2 clove garlic, peeled
300g risotto rice
160ml white wine or dry vermouth (or a splash of white wine vinegar)
1l vegetable stock
50g butter
50g parmesan, grated
125g gorgonzola

For the purée
120g (several large handfuls) fresh wild garlic leaves, washed
50ml olive oil

- Preheat the oven to 190C. Peel and chop the squash into 1.5cm chunks. Pop them on a non-stick baking tray with the garlic cloves and stick them in the oven for 30 minutes or so while you make the risotto. Check the squash every so often and turn it with a spoon to ensure that it cooks evenly. The squash is cooked when its soft when pressed, slightly golden and starting to caramelise around the edges.
- Heat a large pan of boiling water and drop the wild garlic leaves into it. Leave them to soak for a mere ten seconds then remove them and plunge into cold water for a minute or two and drain.
- Blitz the leaves with olive oil in a food processor until smooth.
- Heat a little oil in a heavy-based saucepan and sweat the onion and carrot until soft and sweet.
- While you wait, heat up your stock so that it is warmed through and keep it on a low heat.
- Tip in the rice and stir until it has absorbed all of the juices of the vegetables in the pan. Pour in the wine (or vinegar) and keep stirring while that absorbs to ensure that the rice doesn’t stick.
- Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time, stirring until all of the liquid is absorbed before adding more.
- Check the butternut squash, which should be cooked through. (If it isn’t, cover the risotto and turn off the heat below it.)  Mash half of it with the garlic cloves to a course purée and stir this into the risotto with the butter and parmesan. Fold in or top with the rest of the roasted squash, dot with wild garlic purée and sprinkle with chunks of gorgonzola.

Do you love risotto? It's fantastically versatile! Why not try a classic butternut squash risotto, sweet and fresh pea risotto or nutty seasonal asparagus risotto.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Pomegranate & Feta Bulgur Wheat Cous Cous Salad

There seems to be one standard topic of conversation today: the weather. Our chatterings have stubbornly circled the subject like flies buzzing lazily around an enclosed room. Anyone venturing outside has returned sullen and soaked through - ah April, we'll be glad to see the back of you and your persistent showers.

I don't know about you but I was certainly in need of some sunshine to brighten up my lunch break. As the English weather wouldn't provide, I decided to get my fix in a culinary form: pomegranate. I adore its mouth-watering sweet flavour and sharp tangy after taste which makes it an ideal partner to salty, milky feta cheese.

A pairing like this needs a hearty foundation which is why this recipe calls for bulgur wheat. It's basically the butch big brother to cous cous - chunkier and meatier with more bite. It's easy to prepare and is ideal for salads; adding spices in the soaking liquor effectively self-dresses the salad so it just needs finishing off with simple lemon juice and mint. Ideal for prepping in advance and assembling at the last minute! Unfortunately, bulgur wheat isn't suitable for those that are sensitive to gluten but it can be substituted for quinoa or rice if necessary.

Pomegranate & Feta Bulgur Wheat Cous Cous Salad
Serves 2 – 4

1 ripe pomegranate
1 red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 green chillis, chopped
200g feta
1 tsp dried cumin
1 tsp dried coriander
½ tsp cinnamon
Pinch of ginger
Pinch of turmeric
100g dried bulgur wheat
½ veg stock cube
Juice of half a lemon
Small bunch of mint

- Boil a kettle of water with enough water for around three cups of tea.
- Meanwhile, place the stock cube, dried spices and bulgur wheat in a deep bowl. Once boiled, pour water over the dried ingredients until it is completely covered by ½ inch of water. Stir well and set to one side.
- Sweat the onion with a drop of oil over a low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so that it does not stick, until soft and translucent.
- Add the garlic and chilli and allow to soften and the flavours mellow for a minute or two. Set to one side off the heat.
- Remove the seeds from the pomegranate and crumble the feta. Remove the leaves from the mint and roughly chop or chiffonade if you’re fancy.
- Check the bulgur wheat; it should be plump and tender and have absorbed the liquid. If it’s not tender, leave it to soak a little longer. If it’s tender but still has excess liquid, drain through a sieve.
- Assemble the salad by tossing the tender bulgur wheat with the softened onions, pomegranate seeds and crumbled feta. Dress with mint and lemon juice.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Rachel Khoo's Little Kitchen in Paris

Life has been fantastically busy for me in recent weeks. I’m only comforted by the fact that this seems to be commonplace in my social circles at the moment. My diary has been filled up with scribbled times and places and the coming months look even worse. I have resolved to find time to chill out and do very little but I’ve found this rather difficult given my cumbersome schedule to date. I had a moment to reflect on this while I sat on the Tube, zipping from one engagement to another and realised that I’m not actually very good at stopping. I find it difficult to close the door on life and focus on relaxing; it seems like my ‘to do’ list has grown limbs and is incessantly tapping at the door, tapping its foot impatiently. 

Anyway, I did find time to sit still for thirty glorious minutes and decided that it would be a good time to watch something. In the mood for some light relief and some culinary inspiration, I watched The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo on BBC iPlayer. 

As you know, I’m not the biggest fan of food programmes (am I, Sophie Dahl?) but this was… okay. Better than most, I would say, mainly because she’s cooking in unchartered territory – a real kitchen. A refreshing contrast to the airy loft conversions and country farm kitchens (complete with wood-fired oven) that are the backdrops to most ‘sleb cookery programmes. I’m pretty tired of aspirational kitchens on TV; gimme real any day. Kitchen aside, Khoo is a curvy thirty-something with Hepburn-eque cheekbones who hails from Britain and has since made a name for herself in Paris.  She’s likeable and has less of the smug sheen that I’ve come to associate with TV chefs. As a Brit in France, her mission is to simplify French cookery for the masses.

Despite laying it on thick about her tiny kitchen, I feel like the producers could have made more out of the whole cooking in a confined environment concept. It may be no bigger than your average bathroom but Khoo somehow manages to squirrel a vast selection of tins, baking trays, food processors et al away somewhere. I’d love to try her madeleine recipe but I simply don’t have the space for another tin in my shoebox kitchen. Maybe they should have given us an insight into Khoo’s magic powers of storage?

The recipes are a little hit and miss but on the whole, I like them. She’s a trained pastry chef á La Cordon Bleu so needless to say her sweets look glorious. The chocolate mousse looks to die for though not all of the recipes are available on the BBC website; doubtless because they want to flog you the accompanying book to the series. During the episode that I watched, Rachel made a sumptuous looking stock (Fantastic, I thought. Real stock!) for her Bouillon de Cassolet. I found myself bristling -waste martyr that I am - as the cute and bubbly Rachel merrily discarded a huge hunk of back bacon and a handful of sundried tomatoes as they were apparently only for flavour. So they’re good for flavour but not for eating? Surely not. 

Anyway, little gripes aside, I quite liked The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo. If nothing else, the transitional clips of beautiful Paris kept me happy.Worth a watch if you like that kind of thing.

If you're curious, check out The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo on BBC iPlayer here or watch it as a chaser to Saturday Kitchen at 11:30am on a Saturday morning.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Raspberry pancakes

Make breakfast worth waking up for, that’s my motto. This is mainly because I’m not a morning person so I require a meal with enough allure to pull me out from the warmth of my duvet and shake off my sleepy state. I generally go for a wholesome bowl of muesli or porridge but I decided to try something a little different for a change.

I’ve been eyeing up this hearty pancake recipe on IrvingtonWashington’s blog since Pancake Day. I wanted to get up a few hours early and eat with The Boy who tends to be up and out at the crack of dawn to put in a long day at the office. With a leftover tub of Greek yoghurt in the fridge and a bag of frozen raspberries winking at me from the freezer, it seemed like an opportune moment to try it out. I must admit that I cheated a bit; I made them the night before and then microwaved them in the morning. Even I struggle to be a culinary goddess first thing in the morning…

And oh my, these did not disappoint. Deliciously light yet nicely filling – perfect to kick start your day. They’re not very sweet so they definitely need to be served with syrup, honey or jam. Can't wait to try an apple and cinnamon variation. Ideal for the long Easter weekend!

Raspberry pancakes with caramel syrup
Serves two heartily, makes 10 

For the pancakes
250g low/no fat Greek yoghurt
3 tbsp milk
80g plain flour 
3 large eggs, separated
100g frozen raspberries, defrosted

For the syrup (optional)
6 tbsp caster sugar
50ml water

- If you’re making the syrup, start with this. Heat the sugar in a heavy based pan over a medium heat. It will gradually start to melt – don’t be tempted to stir it! 
- Wait until its completely melted and golden brown then add the water. It will bubble and hiss so stand back and let it do its thing then whisk until smooth.
- Next stir the egg yolks, milk and flour together until combined.
- Whisk the egg whites into soft peaks and gently fold it into the egg yolk mixture. Be careful to do this delicately so as not to knock the air out of the mixture. 
- Fold the raspberries into the mixture.
- Heat a non-stick frying pan over a low heat and wipe with a little sunflower oil or butter. Add spoonfuls of the mixture – I kept mine small and thick, like Scotch pancakes. Cook a few minutes until small bubbles will appear at the edges then ease from the bottom of the pan and turn over for a few minutes more.
- Serve warm with the syrup (if using) or with jam or honey.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Oriental cucumber noodle salad

It’s official: Spring is officially in full swing. The daffodils are out and proud in cheerful yellow hues and there’s a carpet of delicate purple crocuses in St James Park. It’s not all that long until the long Easter weekend, which we tend to fill with socialising and lots of food. Now that the weather is getting warmer, I'm starting to shun my trusty soup recipes and bust out my refreshing salad recipes. I tend to lean towards zingy and fresh flavours in simple combinations that are - as always - easy to throw together.

This oriental-style cucumber and noodle salad is my current favourite. The ribbons of cucumber are cool and refreshing while the dressing of sweetened vinegar, garlic, soy and a touch of chilli is punchy. If you have time, you can toast the sesame seeds but I like to keep them pale and interesting; the toasted sesame oil in the dressing adds richness anyway. Use whatever noodles you fancy; rice ones are tasty if you're observing a gluten free diet. It keeps pretty well and can be made in advance; prepare the dressing and drizzle over before serving.

I call it "oriental-style" because I'm not certain whether it's Japanese, Chinese or something-else-ese. Apologies for my ignorance and enjoy!

Oriental cucumber noodle salad
Serves 2 (or 4 as a side)

For the salad:
½ a large cucumber
1 small cos lettuce
90g dried (rice) noodles
2 tbsp sesame seeds

For the dressing:
50ml white/rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1 tbsp mirin (optional)
Squeeze of lime juice
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce (or to taste)

- Boil the kettle and cook the noodles as per the instructions (mine needed submerging in boiling water for four minutes). Drain and rinse with cold water to stop them from over cooking.
- Meanwhile, warm the vinegar, sugar, garlic and chilli together in a pan over a medium heat, whisking to encourage the sugar to dissolve. Set aside to cool.
- Half the cucumber lengthways and scoop the seeds out with a teaspoon. Finely slice or use a peeler to produce thin ribbons. Finely slice the lettuce.
- Whisk the remaining ingredients into the cooled flavoured vinegar.
- Combine the cucumber, lettuce and noodles and drizzle with dressing and sesame seeds.
- Plate up and scatter with a few more sesame seeds.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

2012 budget and your food bill

All of my channels of news are filled to bursting point with one word: Budget. While the financial types are frantically forecasting for the coming year, my thoughts turn, predictably, to my belly. If you’re wondering how the newly announced budget will affect how much you spend on food, read on.

I’ve always thought that VAT – particularly when it comes to food - is a complex concept. You only need to look to the McVities Jaffa Cake Biscuit controversy to realise that the supermarket is a veritable minefield when it comes to tax. You can release your death grip on the biscuit/cake tin for the moment though as the budget has savoury morsels in its sights for the moment. Many large supermarkets now have a hot counter where you can select a rotisserie chicken or hot sausage roll. Several times, I’ve lost The Boy only to find him rooted to the spot, transfixed by the teasing sight of juicy hot poultry spinning away like a baby staring intently at the whirrings of its wind-up mobile.

Currently, supermarkets are able to sell hot food – like the aforementioned chooks and pastry-clad animal offcuts – sans tax because they claim that they’re not designed to be eaten immediately and instead keep the produce hot to improve its appearance. The government plans to tighten up the loop hole that allows this; basically, if anything is sold above “ambient” air temperature, the government wants a slice of the price. The only exception to this rule is freshly baked bread. Although retailers have refused to speculate on future price rises, many expect that they will pass the extra costs on to consumers. This might also cause headaches for sandwich outlets that sell their offerings fresh or toasted as the hot variety – despite having the same ingredients – will cost more. Greggs are up in arms.

For those that like to live on chemicals, sports nutrition and body building drinks are going to be grouped with fizzy drinks to make them VAT-payable. This doesn’t bother me too much for two reasons. Number one: I’m not a huge fan of those types of drinks unless they’re used as a mixer (protein milkshake white Russian anyone? No!?). Number two: I’d rather eat real food than substitute them with the adult equivalent of formula milk.

Alcohol duty will remain the same, much to the disappointment of pubs and bars everywhere. There is no planned change to the escalator which rises the duty paid on beers, wines and spirits at the rate of 2 per cent above inflation until 2015. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) claims that this will lead to the average cost of a pub pint of lager rise to £3.17 and that beer tax has risen by 42 per cent since the policy was introduced four years ago.

Until this point, readers who don’t indulge in alcohol, protein gloop or ready-cooked chicken might have been feeling smug however don’t get too complacent yet. Filling your car might well be painful now but fuel duty is set to rise by 3p (per litre?) in August which will have obvious knock on effects to the cost of running a vehicle. However, this is likely to hit households twofold in a financial double whammy as fuel costs are linked to food costs. All of the food that we buy in the supermarket is transport by road at some point during its journey to the shelf so as fuel prices rise so do distribution costs – a bill that is picked up by the consumer.

How will the budget be affecting what you eat and drink? Let me know your thoughts on the 2012 budget.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Walthamstow Farmers Market

The cosmopolitan streets of London may be the last place that you think of when you go in search of local produce but across our capital, there are numerous markets offering a variety of field and farm fresh ingredients.

Walthamstow’s weekly farmers market is no exception. Head to the top of the Victoria line after breakfast on a Sunday to sample everything from fresh bread to scallops – there’s something for everyone! Their collection of stalls changes week on week but when I visited there were around a dozen sellers touting their wares. You can get your meat, fish and vegetables from several stalls dotted around the pedestrian street as well as a few other unusual treats.

High Aldam Farm hail from Shepton Mallet which isn’t at all far from the flat that I share with The Boy. They have been farming there for generations and decided to invest in buffalo in a bid to diversify the herd. They never looked back and sold most of their cattle in 1999 to raise buffalos in their fields in Somerset. They have been travelling to farmers markets every weekend to sell their cheese, meat and milk for the last 15 years. They even make their own mozzarella! Welfare is paramount to the family who rear their animals to strict organic standards.

Bread can be bought from Aston’s Bakery stall where I counted up around two dozen different types of bread including traditional soda bread and wheat & yeast free deli rye loaves. They’re a family business who have been baking in London for 25 years and are proud that they supply traditional hand crafted bread in all shapes, sizes and permutations. Their stall held a variety of gluten free breads that I’ve not seen before. Needless to say that their emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

Le Moulin tempted me towards their stall with a decadent selection of cakes; the chocolate and pear tart and cream éclairs looked particularly glorious. They’d travelled over from their base in Hornchurch, Essex and can also market veterans. It’s run by a passionate French patisserie chef whose ambition is to bring the best flavours of her nation to the UK.

Millwhite’s Cider were generously handing out free tasters which – needless to say – drew me to their stand. Their Scrumpy is great but I really fell for their award winning Rum Cask Cider. Holding the refreshing middle ground between sweet and dry, it’s extremely drinkable but at 7%, you need go steady.

If all of that larder stocking has got you working up an appetite, the smiley proprietors of the Giggly Pig will serve you a sizzling sausage or bacon bap. They produce a staggering 75 different flavours of banger made from the meat of their Essex-reared outdoor rare breed pigs. There’s also a tea and coffee stall where you can indulge in a hot brew and a rest when your shopping bags start to weigh you down.

Walthamstow is lucky to have a truly charming market which brings a taste of the countryside to the city. You could stock up on fresh ingredients for the entire week here if you wanted. There’s a touch of rural atmosphere which is very welcome what can be a faceless anonymous metropolis.

Walthamstow Farmers Market is organised by the London Farmers Markets and can be found at Selbourne Walk Shopping Centre,(just off the High Street) every Sunday between 10am and 2pm. They have a famously popular plant sale which happens twice a year; the next is on 22nd April 2012.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Lemon muffins with caramelised white chocolate frosting

Add a hint of Springtime freshness to your tea break with this yummy lemon muffin recipe. They’re a sure fire hit with colleagues, family or friends. The basic recipe is quick to make and bung in the oven while you’re making other things. The zingy lemon flavour means that they’re not too sweet and they’re incredibly moist for a butter-free recipe. Add a tablespoon or two of poppyseeds if you’d like to add some bite if you wish.

Keep them naked or swathe them in a creamy topping of caramelised white chocolate frosting. This takes time but is well worth it for the sweet, butterscotch flavour. I'm not usual a fan of cloyingly sweet white chocolate but when Rachel over at What Rachel Ate praised it, I had to give it a try. A lower fat alternative to traditional buttercream, this icing uses soft cheese or quark to give it a silky texture without the added calories.

Lemon muffins with caramelised white chocolate frosting
Makes 12

For the muffins:
200g self-raising flour
150g Demerara sugar
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
180g low fat plain yoghurt
150ml water
75ml sunflower oil, plus a little extra for greasing
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 egg, beaten

For the frosting:
100g white chocolate
1 tsp sunflower oil
100g low fat soft cheese or Quark
40g icing sugar

- Preheat the oven to 120c.
- Break up the chocolate and coat with oil. Spread out on a silicon non-stick sheet on a baking tray.
- Place in the oven for ten minutes. When you remove it, the chocolate should have started to melt. Mix it thoroughly, working the chocolate on the outside to the inside of the sheet, and then spread out again and repeat. You’re aiming for a golden brown caramel colour and a crumbly texture. Keep a close eye on it as it’s easy to burn.
- Once golden brown, set aside to cool and turn the oven up to 190c. Oil or line a muffin tin.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the flour with sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add water, oil, lemon and egg. Mix everything together to form a light moist batter.
- Divide the batter between 12 muffin cups.
- Bake for 12 – 16 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Set aside to cool on a wire rack.
- Blitz the caramelised white chocolate with the icing sugar in a food processor until combined.
- Beat the soft cheese to break it up then add the sugar and white chocolate and stir well.
- Once the muffins are completely cool, dip the top of each one into the frosting or add a dollop of the mixture onto each muffin and smooth with a pallet knife.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ultimate easy tomato soup

Looking for a quick and easy tomato soup recipe to warm you up on a cold day? Check this out!

Our warm spring days were short lived and it’s been rather blustery and cool here in London in recent days. The weather has regressed my appetite back to the start of Winter when I was craving hot, soothing food to warm my cockles after a chilly day of walking, cycling or simply slogging it out in the office. In my mind, the simplest and tastiest way to do this is with soup.

Soup is fantastic. It’s portable – pop it in a heated thermos to provide a warming lunch on a long walk – and a great way to smuggle tons of vegetables into your diet. The straw poll soup of choice is tomato and I’ve got a nifty trick to increase the goodness as well as the flavour in this common classic. You might think that my twist would involve slow roasted vine tomatoes or the best quality olive oil (which would be lovely but also time consuming or expensive) but it’s a little more unusual than that and it’s in season right now. Beetroot. Yes, you read correctly! This fantastic root is lends its depth of flavour and colour to make a deliciously rich tomato soup. You don’t even need to be the biggest beetroot fan as the taste and tone isn’t out and out beetroot; the addition simply gives it a certain je ne c’est quoi to the finished soup.

Beetroot is bursting with lots of vitamins (including vitamins A, B6 and C) and minerals like potassium, magnesium and iron. Beets are a great source carbohydrates, protein, powerful antioxidants, folic acid and soluble fibre. It’s available in bunches in the supermarket or your local farmers market but it can also be found all year round pre-cooked in shrink-wrapped packets. Either works well though the raw form will increase the cooking time as you’ll need to scrub it, remove the leaves and stork and then microwave with a splash of water until it is soft. Cooking times vary depending on the size of the root but I find it tends to take about 20 minutes on full power. Find out more about the health benefits of beetroot and a myriad recipes too.

This soup recipe is quick, healthy and cheap. It takes less than 20 minutes to prepare and cook. Even better, a portion comes in at about 25p so it’s an absolute bargain! Cheaper and tastier than Heinz cream of tomato any day. You can freeze it in batches and it will also keep well in the fridge for a few days if you whip up a big batch.

Ultimate easy tomato soup
Makes 4 – 6 servings (depending on how greedy you are!)

1 onion
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 400g can of chopped tomatoes
1 300g pack of cooked beetroot or 250g of fresh beetroot topped and tailed and microwaved until soft
100ml water (or stock, if you prefer)

- Chop the onion, carrot and celery and sweat with a little oil (or a splash of water) for five minutes or until softened.
- Meanwhile, chop the beetroot then add to the pan with the tomatoes and water.
- Simmer for five minutes or until piping hot all the way through.
- Blend until smooth then season and serve topped with cheese or low fat yoghurt.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Snapshot: Alternative use for chopsticks #1

Thanks to the selection of oriental eateries near HQ, our office is peppered with single use wooden chop sticks. You'll find them sticking proudly out of pen pots, squirrelled absent mindedly in the back of stationary drawers, lying forgotten under keyboards and scattered, sheathed in their tin paper coats, on desks. They've generally been discarded in favour of more immediate methods of delivery (fork, spoon or simply slurped straight from the takeaway tub) while slaving over the keyboard - either working through lunch or in the midst of a midday youtube marathon.

But these unloved implements can have another life if used well. A chosen few meet after hours for our monthly instalment of Craft Club where my colleagues and I knit, stitch and gossip. I was in the middle of a skill swap - the trade of my colleagues insight into the art of crochet with my (somewhat mediocre) knitting skills - when I realise that, though we had a crochet hook between us, neither of us had knitting needles. I went off in search of a stand-in and happened across these humble chopsticks.

I must admit that they were pretty good (splinters aside!)...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review: Canteen, Spitalfields, London

In a strange turn of events, I first became aware of the small London-based Canteen chain when I heard about their temporary pop-up restaurant in Covent Garden which is in residence until mid-March. I would imagine that, in a normal world, it would be the other way around. Evidentially, my world is (at least) a little atypical (not that I’m surprised). In need of a spot for an early lunch/very late brunch near Liverpool Street train station and Canteen’s Spitalfields location fit the bill.

Having called in advance to try and book a table, I was told that Sundays is the only day that they don’t take reservations. Not such a good start. So instead of booking, we turned up and were greeted by a flustered member of the waiting staff who didn’t seem to appreciate our request for a table. Eventually, we managed to establish that, yes, it was quite full inside and we could wait in a queue for a table indoors or take our pick of the tables outside. We chose a semi alfresco table under the glass roof of Old Spitalfields Market which was nicely sheltered from the elements and gave us a great view of the Sunday stallholders going about their business.

Canteen’s menu revolves around hearty dishes including braised, spiced pigs cheeks and daily changing roast - Sundays is good old beef with Yorkshire puddings but I’d like to try Wednesdays or Saturdays; roast duck with figs. They also serve an all-day breakfast menu, filled with traditional meals – the steadfast bacon sandwich – to the more unusual – rhubarb compote with granola. The combinations seem simple but well thought out.

It took a while for us to be noticed by our waiter in our open-air setting and once we’d ordered, we waited quite a while for our food. My eggs benedict was nicely presented but could have done with a touch more hollandaise to make it really hit the spot. The muffins were grilled until burnt around the edges and the charred taste tainted the entire plate. The poached eggs, however, were good and I believe that they can be a reliable test of a kitchen’s technical ability. One of my friends chose the mutton and vegetable pie of the day which was served with mash, a formidable pile of cabbage and lashings of graving. The meat was tender and it was a very generous portion. By contrast, my other tablemate was somewhat disappointed by the slightly stingy ‘Full English’ breakfast which turned out to be one sausage, one rasher of bacon, one flat mushroom, half a tomato and two eggs. Though the individual elements of the meal were cooked well, I don’t think that he came away feeling particularly satisfied considering the price, poor lamb.

After slow service and slapdash execution, we didn’t think that the 12.5% service charge that they had taken the liberty to add on to the bill was justified. The kitchen is obviously technically able but they seem to lack attention to detail and grasp of timing. It’s a shame because the menu is great; neither too long nor too short with a bias towards fresh, quality ingredients. Go for lunch or dinner when you’re not in a hurry for stodgy filling fare.

Canteen has four outlets in London. Tel: 0845 686 1122. The Spitalfields venue can be found at 15 Crispin Place, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1 6DW.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Fairtrade Fortnight 2012

Guess what? It’s fairtrade fortnight! Did you know that three in every ten bananas bought in the UK are fairtrade? Sainsburys have taken the radical step of only selling fairly traded bananas - even their 'Basics' economy bananas bare the mark.

Fairtrade has always been close to my heart after having the concept drummed into me while at university, which happened to be the first fairtrade university institution. I am passionate ensuring that producers and growers get a fair price for their wares - in an ideal world, all of my foodstuffs would come from the UK but this simply isn't possible (I love rice and sugar... Mmm, rice pudding!). Buying products with the fairtrade mark assures you that you're buying ethical produce and it's on a huge variety of products - from tea and coffee to chocolate and clothes.

Get involved!
Wondering what is fairtrade?

Fairtrade is a term that defines a product which has been bought from a famer or producer who works in decent conditions for a reasonable wage.

Read more about Fairtrade here.

Fairtrade Fortnight runs from Monday 27th February until Sunday 11th March 2012. You can find out more about this years campaign here as well as more details of events near you.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Review: The Castle, Islington, London

We descended en masse to trendy Islington in search of a venue for the congregation of my motley university crew. A mere five minute walk from Angel Station and about an easy ten or so minute stroll from King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations, The Castle won on location and my friends previous positive experiences.

A modern take on the traditional English watering hole, The Castle has seating for about sixty and a short, simple menu featuring the classics. They had a great selection of beers from around the world (not to mention Adnams on tap) and a nice wine list, many of which can be enjoyed by the glass. Service was prompt and welcoming when we arrived. Our table had been laid out downstairs but the Spring sunshine was calling us so we asked to move upstairs to their sun-drenched rooftop terrace and they kindly obliged without a grumble.

Having perused the food on offer which included bangers and mash and steak and chips, we placed an order with the friendly manager. Given that we were a party of seven, we were impressed that our meals came out together though the weekend lunch rush wasn't yet fully under way. We were able to set up a tab for our table by swapping a bank card for a business card bearing the Geronimo chain's trademark pig which read "If you wake up with this in your wallet then you've had a fantastic night and your credit card is still behind the bar". Brilliant!

The world was put to rights over a luxuriously leisurely lunch. One of my party tried the establishment's Elvis Burger (above); beetroot, fried egg, a rasher of bacon, onion ring, tons of salad and - not forgetting - a patty of Angus beef served in a crisp bun with a side of skin-on seasoned chips. It's described as a "heart attack in a bun" for a reason! For those with a less elephantine appetite, their run of the mill Angus burger, with or without the optional rasher of bacon, was popular with our party - meaty and smothered with mature cheese. Another of my friends enjoyed their broccoli and Stilton soup, the flavour of the day, which was smooth and flavourful.

I enjoyed a succulent onion and roast garlic tart on a flakey puff pastry crust topped with goats cheese and a poached ducks egg. The combination of sweet onions, silky yolk, crunchy pastry and sharp crumbly chévre was a delight. The bed of rocket, tomato and cucumber dressed in a wholegrain mustard vinegrette made it a light yet satisfying meal. Unfortunately, the poached egg wasn't quite as well done as I would've liked - the white still clear and gloopy in places - though the yolk was a triumph so alls well that ends well.

We finished things off by sharing a few servings of sticky toffee pudding, which as a bit of a let down. It was more like toffee cake drizzled with a little toffee sauce rather than a steamed pudding drenched in rich caramel goodness. It just didn't quite hit the spot, which was a shame after an otherwise lovely meal.

Overall, The Castle - either inside at the bar or outside on the rooftop - is an ideal venue for a chilled out informal lunch or drinks. Grab a pint or glass of your favourite tipple and take your pick from their pleasingly succinct menu but don't bother with dessert.

The Castle can be found at 54 Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9HF. Tel: 020 7713 1858 Main meals: £8 - £14. Puddings: £5 - £7. Nearest Tube: Angel

Friday, 24 February 2012

Review: Lantana, Goodge Street, London

On a late Friday afternoon, when the dedicated are ringing out their last ounce of enthusiasm at their desks and the work shy are hot footing it to the nearest public house, Lantana is a tranquil space to enjoy a rich cup of coffee and a cake. There's a steady stream of chatter and the hiss of the espresso machine; a great setting for a spot of pre-weekend escapism.

I first heard about Lantana from a friend who's boyfriend is Australian. They raved about the lazy brunch  they'd shared which had been accompanied by a "proper Aussie" coffee or three. I've always loved the concept of breakfast or brunch somewhere further than my front door but my morning appetite precludes this. Very frustrating. Maybe one day I'll manage to keep my rumbly tummy in check with a sneaky slice of toast before heading out for a some maple french toast with bacon, bananas and candied pecans (oh lordy) or baked eggs with roasted mushrooms. That's if I can drag myself out from the cocoon of my duvet in time for breakfast (heck, it's a wrench during the week, let alone at the weekend).

Anyhow, I found myself at a loose end during the long final hours of the working week and decided that a hot drink and cake was in order before I embarked on my habitual weekend train journey. I was lead to a table with a prime view of the serving counter (all the better to see frothy latte art being churned out) and ordered a hot chocolate and a charming little friand cake. It's worth keeping in mind that the kitchen closes at 3pm but fear not as coffee, cake and gravity-defying sub sandwiches are available until closing time.

The hot chocolate (£2.50) was sweet and creamy, a nice change from the powdery, bland imitations that I've seen masquerading as hot chocolate of late. I sipped from my glass (rather than a mug, strangely satisfying) and cast my eye of the menu boards. They had some truly delicious sounding salads chalked up - will have to return for a little more sustinence next time. They have links with the lovely Gail's bakery who supply them with their fantastic sour dough. A match made in heaven!

The friand (£1.90) was fantastic too - a soft, moist almond cake with a lovely sticky crumb and warming marzipan flavour. Mine had a generous slice of juicy apricot baked into the top which equally complimented and contrasted the richness of the almonds.  A real winner and just the right size to knock back hunger without making me feel absolutely stuffed.

The proprietors of Lantana opened with the aim of bringing a cup of Australian café culture to London and you can definitely feel the Aussie influence as you take a seat. I can't quite put my finger on what it is exactly; maybe it's the cute, genuine human staff or their mean flat white coffees or the huge jar of Vegemite displayed proudly on the counter... The atmosphere is relaxed, laid back but not sloppy. The guy working the espresso machine really knew his stuff and everything was spick and span without feeling sterile. The toilets were clean and tidy (a rare and precious thing in central London) and they even have free secure wifi for all the techies out there.

It's a stones throw from Tottenham Court Road so it's an ideal spot to hide away from the maddening shopping crowds. It's a pretty small establishment - seating thirty at most - but if it's packed, you can make a bee-line for their takeaway outlet next door. I have to go back; if not for breakfast then for their take on the English BLT, the BRAT (bacon, rocket, avocado and tomato).

Lantana can be found at 13 Charlotte Place, London, W1T 1SN. Tel: 020 7637 3347. Nearest Tube: Goodge Street.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

From Russia with love - Maslenitsa Festival 2012

Spring feels tantalisingly close now as the weather gets warmer (yay!) and wetter (boo!) and the crocuses start to break through the softening soil. What better way to celebrate the changing of the seasons that to take to Trafalgar Square this Sunday and visit the Maslenitsa Festival.

Russian Sun Festival is an annual event which celebrates of the end of winter chills and the start of Spring with music, dancing and (most importantly) food. With Russian delicacies such as stroganoff and borscht (beetroot soup) as well as traditional pastries and (if you're not already pancaked out) blini's on sale, be sure to bring an empty tummy. Once you've had your fill, there are musical and theatrical performances and lots of stalls selling crafts and souvenirs.

The Maslenitsa Festival will be in Trafalgar Square from 1:30pm until 6:30pm on Sunday 26th February 2012. Entrance to the festival is free. It marks the start of a week of celebrations.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Review: Tombo, Kensington, London

The clean and contemporary interior of Tombo is a refreshing contrast to the smoggy, grimy London streets outside. Everything about the decor and the food is traquil and ordered from the emaculate maki to the wooden hour glasses to tell you when your tea is brewed to perfection. It's a great place to grab a cup of tea or a bite to eat.

We arrived a little before 6pm when they were relatively quiet and started with some delicate Flowering Osmanthus tea (£3.10) which, when steeped, turned a pretty rose petal pink and tasted mildly of Ribena. Delish! Food came in the form of a fantastically savoury black seaweed salad (£3.30) with chickpeas, french and edamame beans dressed in soy. A feast for the eyes and taste buds though a frustration for the chopsticks. The Tombo Combo No 1 (£7.50) provided an elegant centrepiece for our table for approximately two minutes - time enough for it to be duly admired before it was devoured. Each roll was embellished with fresh soft herbs pressed into the rice. We finished with a fragrant pot of blossoming jasmine tea (£3.10) which had a fantastically floral flavour that (plesantly) surprised us all.

The service was prompt and friendly and the café itself was perfectly turned out. It's mere minutes from the crossroad of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road so it's ideally placed for a lunch when you're visiting the London museums.
Tombo can be found at 29 Thurloe Place, South Kensington, London SW7 2HQ. Tel: 0207 589 0018 Food can be enjoyed in or taken away.
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