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 √©clairs 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.
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