Friday, 28 May 2010

Political couscous disappointment

I love couscous. I get a bit annoyed when people say it is tasteless. It's like saying pasta or potatoes are tasteless - you need to add some other nice stuff to it otherwise it is going to be bland. But despite being a long-term couscous consumer, I only came across giant or Israeli (the name seems to vary depending on political affiliations) couscous quite recently. I was rather impressed with a Tesco grilled vegetable salad that contained a mixture of regular couscous, giant couscous and chickpeas. And so I resolved to try and make my own giant couscous salad.

I used this Merchant Gourmet brand giant couscous, and was surprised to learn that you actually have to boil it like pasta rather than just pour hot water on it like the regular stuff. Although in retrospect it seems quite obvious that the larger grains would require more cooking. But once cooked I proceeded as I would normally, by dousing in olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. I also added some finely chopped red onion, tomato, and grilled courgette.
And the outcome? Unfortunately I didn't really like it. Perhaps I over-cooked it or maybe there are other better brands I should try, but the giant couscous grains were oddly slimy, and didn't absorb flavour in the way that I'm used to with the regular variety. My salad was still perfectly edible but not really enjoyable. I think next time I will follow Tesco's example and combine this with other grains. Any other suggestions?

Merchant Gourmet giant couscous
I rate it 6.5/10

Cost: Around £2.00 for a 300g box

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Jamie's Italian, Cambridge, UK

Image from Jamie's Italian website

I was a bit unsure about reviewing Jamie's Italian as it is essentially a chain, though currently only a small one. But it's my blog so I've decided to go ahead anyway, especially because the opening of this venue was quite a big deal in a little place like Cambridge. The excitement of a new Jamie Oliver branded outlet (and it's no bookings policy) has led to long queues ever since it opened in February, and on a previous attempt to go and eat there we were given a waiting time of around two hours. We ate elsewhere.

But I was still keen to sample some of the Oliver magic, so me and the male companion person (MCP) returned a couple of weeks later. It was still packed on a week night, but at least there was no queue round the block so we were into the bar area pretty promptly with a predicted wait of forty five minutes. The Jamie's Italian in Cambridge is divided into two sections- a bar and small eating area at the front, and a much larger and rather grand dining room at the back. Somewhat randomly this is separated from the entrance by a long black curtain, giving the impression that it contains 'first class' diners who need to be hidden from the economy hordes of those merely waiting to eat.

Anyway, our wait was quite pleasant as I managed to bag us a couple of bar stools and we had some drinks and snacked on some huge green olives that were incredibly nice (as to why they were served on ice I have no idea). We'd been given a buzzer on arrival and when this went off we were escorted into the main dining room. The restaurant is located in part of Cambridge's Guildhall which used to be the tourist information centre. Jamie Oliver's team have done a great job in uncovering the large marble pillars and domed ceiling, adding some subtle lighting and turning it all into an impressive space.

And so the food. We ordered a lot and everything was acceptable if unremarkable. An antipasti dish of crispy squid and garlic aoli was disturbingly small and quite bland. My pasta starter of wild mushroom ravioli was nice enough, but probably would have been much better if it had simply arrived with fried sage leaves and parmesan (as described on the menu), rather than an attempt at a sauce with more mushrooms, chilli and tomato. The MCP's spaghetti bolognese was declared a success though, and to be honest both pasta dishes disappeared pretty rapidly.
I had the fritto misto and a green salad for my main, and the MCP went for the steamed sea bass jauntily called 'fish in bag'. My huge plate (covered in brown paper- reason unknown) contained a selection of sprats, squid, red mullet (I think), a (single) prawn, and a giant deep-fried spaghetti garnish.

The fish was all quite nicely cooked, but I do think the batter could have been lighter and seasoned more. The green salad was entirely comprised of little gem lettuce, and covered with yoghurt and parmesan cheese, and though perfectly fine I really would have preferred a simple oil and vinegar dressing. The MCP enjoyed his fish but did comment on the parsimonious quantity of the other ingredients. Two mussels and a single potato didn't seem particularly pukka. The MCP treated me to this dinner, but you can work out from the menu that the cost of our food, a couple of alcoholic drinks and a couple of non-alcoholic ones was reasonable but certainly not cheap.
But criticisms aside there are a lot of positives about Jamie's Italian. It's a fab venue, little things like the olives, and tap water on the table demonstrated some good thinking, and all the staff we encountered seemed genuinely enthusiastic about their work. But would I be prepared to wait for two hours to eat there? No.

Jamie's Italian
The Old Library
Wheeler Street
Cambridge CB2 3QJ

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Salmon salad nicoise

I was intending to write this post a couple of weeks ago. I was wearing sandals, wandering around in a floaty skirt, and keen on moving on from hearty winter fare to something a little lighter for my dinners. However summer seems to finished now, and I am back to being wrapped in a scarf. Humph.
Anyway, this is one of my favourite quick summer meals. A traditional tuna nicoise salad combines tinned tuna with boiled potatoes, salad leaves, tomato, green beans, boiled egg, anchovies and olives. This version replaces the tinned fish with some freshly grilled salmon fillets, and I've previously used fresh tuna steaks too. I omitted the tomato (realised I didn't have any) and olives (thought the anchovy would add enough saltiness), and added in some finely sliced red onion (for a bit of extra sharpness). This is not one of those recipes that requires precise amounts of ingredients so the below are really only guidelines, and you can also add in the components that I left out if you like them.

Recipe (enough for two):
2 salmon fillets, grilled, skin removed
Around 12 small new potatoes, boiled
2 eggs, boiled until hard or soft, quartered
6 anchovy fillets
1 small red onion, finely sliced
2 generous handfuls of green beans, boiled or steamed until tender
1 bag of mixed salad leaves

Around 6tbsp olive oil
Around 2tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

So simply whisk together the dressing, assemble all the above ingredients, and pour over. I like to eat this while it's still warm with the dressing being absorbed by the potatoes, and their residual heat also slightly softening the onion. But it's perfectly nice at room temperature too. Ideally serve when it's a lovely summer day.