Thursday, 20 December 2012

Tomato and mascarpone soup

With my workplace's limited catering arrangements, investing in a food flask was one of the best decisions I've ever made. And one of my favourite things to put in it has been this tomato and mascarpone soup. It's simple, cheap, quick, and keeps me in work lunches for the best part of a week. As with most of my cooking, this is a recipe that can be adjusted to include the flavours you like.

Recipe (enough for around 4-ish lunchtime portions):

400g tin of good quality chopped (or whole) tomatoes in juice
1 tinful of water
1 tblsp tomato puree
Small handful of roughly chopped fresh tomatoes (optional)
1 medium leek, finely sliced
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
A bay leaf
0.5 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp mixed dried herbs (or a larger amount of freshly chopped, soft herbs like basil)
Around 125g mascarpone cheese
Few tblsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Gently heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sized saucepan, and put in the leeks and bay leaf. Leave the leeks to soften for around 10 minutes or so. When they are cooked through, add the garlic, chilli, and herbs, stir for a few minutes and then put in the tomatoes. The fresh tomatoes really are optional, and I tend to chuck them in if I've got some that need to be used up. Fill the empty tin of tomatoes with water and pour this in too, along with the puree. Stir everything, add a bit of salt and pepper, and simmer for around 15 minutes or so. At this stage what you should have is basically a slightly thin tomato sauce. Turn the heat off and then add the mascarpone cheese. Stir this in, and leave the soup to cool for a bit. Once it's just warm, rather than piping hot, blend the soup with a stick blender (or equivalent) and check the seasoning again.

I then heat up portions of soup in the microwave and take it to work in my food flask for desk consumption. The mascarpone makes this surprisingly filling for a soup, and the whole thing is just very warming and tasty. This soup would also work well over the Christmas holidays, when you might want something you can make in bulk and re-heat as needed. And on that note, I'd like to say merry crimbo readers and see you in 2013!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Nigella Lawson's nutella cheesecake

So what can I say about this cheesecake- it took minutes to put together, didn't require cooking, was rich without being sickly, and was generally rather fab. Props to Nigella Lawson for the recipe, which I pretty much followed without any changes. The only thing I slightly adjusted when combining the cream cheese with nutella, was only adding the icing sugar a tablespoon at a time, and stopping when it tasted sweet enough (I think I used less than 60g).

As there's no cooking involved, this was an ideal dessert for making during the week for post-work, (Christmas) social stuff. This is exactly what I did, and I have to say it met with universal approval. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Ichiro, Cambridge, UK

I was really looking forward to visiting Ichiro the other week. I'd heard some good things about this restaurant serving both Japanese and Malaysian food, so was happy to schlep through the cold and rain to get to their recently opened site opposite the neon delights of the 'Leisure Park'.

We were given a warm welcome as we walked into the near empty restaurant, and I was therefore quite prepared to overlook the fact the tablecloth had some random staining on it, and our green tea arriving in a stripey Whittards teapot. The male companion person and I weren't sure whether to stick to the Malaysian or Japanese dishes, but eventually plumped for the latter apart from a starter of roti canai with chicken curry. The roti (or paratha as I would call them) were very good, light and flaky with a slight chew. I tasted a bit of the curry gravy, despite the risk of meat contamination, but was quite disappointed with its slightly acrid taste of insufficiently cooked ground spices.

I've never had takoyaki before, so thought I'd give them a try too. These balls of batter with an octopus filling were pretty tasty. I've nothing to compare them too, but I liked the mild taste of seafood surrounded by a crisp coating.

So a decent enough start before moving onto a bento box each for our main course. I had a mixed tempura bento, and though the prawns and vegetables were relatively oil-free, the batter was quite thick and not the light and airy coating I'd been hoping for. Also in the box were some pieces of omelette, a sort of mashed potato salad, a pineapple and cucumber salad, with quite a lot of rice. And a side of miso soup. Everything was perfectly acceptable, just not particularly remarkable or exciting.

It was at this point that things took a bit of a downturn. I would have considered some mochi for dessert or another drink, but unfortunately the two front of house staff were too busy cooing at each other to notice that we'd finished with our bento boxes. After about 20 minutes of sitting in a still near empty restaurant, hoping someone might take away the dishes, or ask if we wanted anything else, we gave up and the MCP went up to the counter to ask for the bill. This was an unexpectedly irritating end to the evening. So overall, Ichiro didn't turn out to be anything terribly special, and my initially high hopes were dashed. To be fair it wasn't a massively expensive dinner either, and our meal (with non-alcoholic drinks, and including service) came to around £45.

On the basis of their parathas, perhaps their Malaysian dishes are more enjoyable. And I would be prepared to go back to try some of these out. But probably not right away.

8 Homerton Street
Cambridge CB2 8NX

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Speedy syrup sponge pudding

I used to love steamed syrup sponge pudding, and I remember the little pots from M&S that were a frequent indulgence when I was a grad student. But I've not had any for ages, as it's not a dessert you often see on menus, and it didn't occur to me to make it myself as things requiring steaming for hours always seem inherently complicated. Anyway, I was delighted when this feature appeared in the Guardian recently with a link to a microwaveable syrup sponge pudding recipe. Even though this cooking method wasn't wholeheartedly endorsed by Felicity Cloake, I decided to give it a go as the possibility of pudding in 7.5 minutes was just too good to ignore.

So this is the recipe- which I followed with one minor alteration; adding a little lemon juice to the golden syrup in the bottom of the bowl (as per Felicity's 'perfect' recipe). This just thins the syrup a bit, and allows it to run down and soak into the sponge. I'd also recommend setting the microwave at 5 minutes initially, rather the full 7.5, as my pudding was almost done at this point.

And the end result? A brilliant steamed syrup sponge pudding! The sponge was light and not too sweet, with a thick topping of unctuous golden syrup. And I served it with loads of cold double cream, which was perfect with the hot sponge and cut through the sweetness of the syrup too. This pudding is ridiculously easy to make, and I suspect it will be appearing on my table again rather soon.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Paneer korma

I cook a fair amount of Indian food, but have yet to find a way to photograph most of it in a way that makes it look terribly appetising. Thus the above picture, that shows something vaguely yellow in a gloopy sauce. But don't let that put you off, as this Shahi-style paneer korma is really rather delicious and quite quick to make.
Shahi-style Indian food usually uses ground nuts and cream, so is pretty indulgent, but as the nights draw in I feel that a little indulgence is no bad thing. So here's my version of some classic Indian comfort food.

Recipe (enough for 2 as a main course):

One block of paneer (c.250g)
1 small onion
A thumb-sized piece of ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 dried bay leaf
0.5 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp ground corriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
0.5 tsp salt (or enough to season)
0.5 tblsp tomato purée
1-2 tblsp ground almonds
Around 50ml double cream
1-2 tblsp plain oil
A few tbslp of water, if needed

Firstly chop up the paneer into small-ish cubes, and sprinkle over the turmeric until the paneer is reasonably well coated. Heat the oil in a flat bottomed pan, and when it's hot carefully place the paneer and any extra turmeric in. Cook the paneer for a few minutes on each side until it's lightly browned and golden, with a bit of a 'crust'. When it's done, take the paneer out and set to one side. Make a paste from the onion, ginger and garlic (by mechanical means for convenience). The smoother it is the smoother your finished sauce will be, but as you can see from the photo above it's not essential. Fry the paste in the remaining oil in the pan for a few minutes, along with the bay leaf and chilli. If the pan is too dry, add a little extra oil. Put in all the ground spices, and carry on cooking for a few more minutes before adding the ground almonds. Once these are lightly toasted, put in the tomato purée  and if needed pour in a little water to create a thick paste. Once everything has been heated through for a few more minutes, add the cream and salt to season. Mix well to form a thick sauce, and then put the paneer cubes back in the pan to heat through. You can adjust the thickness of the sauce by adding more cream (or water) if you want too.

Serve with some plain boiled rice and steamed vegetables to balance out the richness of the cheese and cream.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Leek, mushroom, fake chicken and tarragon pie

I don't eat many pies, but suddenly had a hankering for one last weekend. I think it must be something to do with the clocks going back. I thought I'd stick to the classic combination of leek, mushroom and chicken, but as I don't eat meat, I used Quorn pieces instead. As the Quorn adds no flavour, I added a range of other things to make up for this. Though this could have made everything taste quite muddled, it was actually very good.

Recipe (enough for four hearty portions):

3 medium leeks, finely sliced
Around 8 chestnut mushrooms, quartered
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 heaped tblsp chopped tarragon leaves
300g Quorn pieces, or another vegetarian equivalent
Around 300ml double cream
1 tsp English mustard
1 tblsp pecorino cheese (or a vegetarian equivalent)
2-3 tblsp olive oil
1-2 tblsp butter
Salt and pepper to season
1 pack all butter, ready-rolled puff pastry (320g)
A little milk to glaze

To make the filling, melt around a tablespoon of butter and a little oil, and when it's warm put in the mushrooms. Cook over a high-ish heat until the mushrooms start to brown, and then add in the Quorn, garlic and tarragon. Turn the heat down a little, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the garlic is cooked through and the tarragon wilted. Once it's all done, tip it out onto a plate and allow to cool. Put the rest of the butter and oil in the same pan, and cook the leeks over a medium low heat. Add about 0.5tsp salt and leave the leeks until they are soft, giving them a stir every now and again. Once fully cooked through pour in the cream, grind in a bit of pepper, add the cheese and mustard and stir well. Take off the heat and allow the leeks to cool a bit, then mix the mushrooms and Quorn back in. If the filling is ridiculously thick, stir in a little milk to loosen it. Once the filling has completely cooled, you can assembly the pie.
Spoon the filling into a suitably deep, oven-proof dish and lay the pastry over the top. Trim the edges and make some fancy shapes with the extra pastry if you want to decorate the top. Make a small cross in the centre of the pastry to let any steam escape, and brush the top with milk. Bake at gas mark 6 until the pastry is a rich golden colour.

You should end up with a richly savoury, vegetarian pie, with a crisp topping. Serve piping hot with lots of vegetables.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Chingri malai curry or Bengali-style prawns with coconut

I don't cook masses of Bengali food, but with the traditional festival of Durga Puja looming, I thought I'd dig out this classic. Chingri malai curry (or indeed malaikari), is a very simple dish combining prawns, whole spices and the rather un-typical Bengali ingredient of coconut milk. Some reading tells me that the word 'malai' probably derives from Malay, and this explains the use of coconut milk too. Like many Indian recipes, there are lots of versions of this around, so this is my one.

Recipe (enough for two as a main dish):
Around 250g raw prawns (shell off, and de-veined)
1 small red onion
1 fat clove of garlic
A thumb-sized piece of ginger
1 tsp turmeric
4-5 green cardamon pods, split
1 large, dried bay leaf
1-2 pieces of cinnamon or cassia bark
1-2 green, Indian finger chillis, pierced a few times
1 tsp ground coriander
2-3 tblsp sunflower oil
Around 100g coconut cream
Around 100ml hot water
1-2 tsp salt for seasoning

Mix the prawns with the turmeric and a teaspoon of salt, and put in the fridge for an hour or so. If you're not going to cook the prawns until much later, leave out the salt. While the prawns are busy turning yellow, make a paste from the onions, garlic and ginger. It's definitely easiest to do this in a food processor, but a pestle and mortar would do the job too. Take the prawns out of the fridge 10 minutes or so before you want to start cooking, and add the salt (if you haven't earlier).
Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pan, and when it's hot (but not smoking) add the prawns. Cook for a couple of minutes, until they are lightly coloured but not fully cooked through. Take the prawns out of the pan, add another tablespoon of oil (if needed) and add all the whole spices. Turn the heat down, so that they are just gently sizzling. After a couple of minutes put the ground coriander, chillies and onion paste in. As they soften, add the water to the coconut cream to create coconut milk which is the thickness of single cream. You may need to adjust the amount of water or coconut cream to achieve this. When the spices and paste have cooked for a good 10 minutes or so, put the coconut in and simmer for around 5 minutes to create a sauce. Put the prawns back in, add a little salt, and simmer again for 5 minutes until the prawns are fully cooked.

You should have a rich, thick coconut gravy which is subtly spiced and still tender prawns. Serve with plain, boiled rice, and let out a small sigh of satisfaction once you've finished eating.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Broccoli pesto mash

I really like broccoli, it's probably one of the green vegetables that I eat most regularly. The tenderstem stuff is ideal as a simple side dish with butter and salt and pepper, and the big green fists of florets are perfect for everything from stir fries to pakoras. So when I was looking for something green to make a pesto with I thought I'd try some cooked broccoli. And it was really good! You can add this 'pesto' to pasta, or if you keep it thick just have it as a mash. I've had it with some pan-fried salmon instead of mashed potatoes, but it would probably go with most things (apart from pudding). I've included a basic recipe below, but do alter the amounts of things based on taste.

Recipe (enough for two):
Around 250g of broccoli florets
1 medium clove garlic
1 big handful pine nuts (lightly toasted if preferred)
Around 50g hard Italian cheese such as parmesan, grana padano, percorino or a properly veggie substitute
Around 1-2 tblsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the broccoli in boiling water for around 8-10 minutes. You want it to be fully cooked through, and probably a bit softer than if you were just eating it on its own (but not boiled to a deathly grey). Drain, and put it and all the other ingredients apart from the oil into a food processor, and whizz together. I have a small Kenwood mini-chopper and make this pesto in two batches, mixing it all together afterwards. Once the pesto ingredients are all combined, but not totally pulverised, add some oil. If you want a loose pesto to go on pasta be generous with the olive oil, but for the mash just use a tablespoon or so to bring it all together. Add some salt and pepper and you're good to go. This process is a bit more complicated without mechanical assistance, but you could probably still crush the garlic, nuts and cheese in a pestle and mortar, mash the broccoli separately and then combine the two together.

I've made this, and allowed it to cool, before it mixing it with hot pasta for dinner. And had it hot straight after being blitzed too. Broccoli is indeed the king of versatility.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Chocolate Guinness cake

I really feel I should like Guinness, after all it does look delicious with its combination of deep chocolate and an ice cream foam top. Unfortunately, no matter how many attempts I have at trying it, hoping that this time I will have a revelatory experience, I still don't like Guinness. However, I know someone who does. So when they had a birthday coming up, a Guinness and chocolate cake seemed like a good choice. I was also encouraged by the recipe descriptions which generally said that you couldn't taste the Guinness and it mainly accentuated the chocolate flavour.

After a bit of research (a.k.a. Googling), I found Gizzi Erskine's chocolate Guinness recipe, which she has slightly adapted from a Nigella Lawson one. This was a great recipe which made a lot of cake, and the only change I made was to use 85% cocoa content chocolate rather than 70%. Actually I also subbed self-raising flour for plain flour and baking powder, but they are both very minor swaps.

May have lost perspective of portion control with this slice. I may also need to invest in a cake stand.

My cake also took well over an hour to cook, but this is probably because I used a smaller tin to cook it in, so it ended up being deeper than Gizzi's original recipe. But the final result was still excellent. This cake was moist, with a deep chocolate flavour and a slightly earthy hint from the Guinness. And despite containing a shedload of sugar it really wasn't overly sweet at all.
So this is an ultra-fantastic cake recipe, that I would very happily make (and eat) repeatedly.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Riverside Restaurant, University Centre, Cambridge, UK

The University Centre in Cambridge is a slightly odd combo of canteen, social club, and sports facility for University staff, alumni and graduate students. It may also embody the epitome of 'town and gown' as if you're not part of the University you would probably never even know that this 1960's monolith is at the bottom of Mill Lane. But due to my family's tenuous connections, the University Centre dinning hall was the first place I experienced the wonders of proper chips (we were an oven chip household) and profiteroles with chocolate sauce. Halcyon days indeed. Anyway, all this means that I have a real soft spot for the Centre, and have been meaning to try their more formal restaurant (which is open to the general public) for absolutely ages. So as the Male Companion Person had a birthday recently I decided to book a table.

Things started quite well, as we were shown to a table by the window with nice views over the river. But to be fair there wasn't much competition for this prime spot, as there was only one other table occupied of the twenty or so available. I initially remained confident that some other diners would appear, but sadly they didn't, so by halfway though our meal we were the only two people there. Ummm, *awkward*. Once we'd got used to the situation and stopped whispering, it wasn't actually too bad and we got on with eating rather than looking around hopefully for other customers.

The Riverside Restaurant does a fixed price menu for either two or three courses, with a brief choice of fish, meat and vegetarian options in a vaguely modern British/European style. Once we'd ordered, they brought out a pre-starter of a smoked haddock risotto arancini-style ball. This was a very promising start to dinner, as the rice was soft and well seasoned and the fish not too strong.

My starter of grey mullet with crab, watercress, samphire with ratta potatoes (which I initially thought were Jerusalem artichokes) was also great- lots of fresh flavours with the fish perfectly cooked with a crispy skin.

The MCP went for a pork and scallop combo, which was also declared to be excellent in terms of both flavour and texture.

Main courses were more fish for me (sea bass with fennel, grapefruit and brown shrimp) and turbot with peas and ham hock for the MCP. The fish was again excellently cooked, and I liked the contrast with the bits of citrus. I wasn't too sure about the very dark hue of the shrimps, but even with this slightly chewy garnish, it was a very pleasant plate of food.  And the MCP seemed perfectly satisfied, if not overcome with excitement, with his turbot too. The one odd note with the main course was the arrival of a small dish of boiled vegetables with some little roasted potatoes, which looked liked it could have come from the canteen upstairs. The carrots and broccoli were not dressed or seasoned, and it was a bit surprising to see them appear with plates of food that were otherwise presented in quite a modern style. I guess some people might want some extra vegetables, and I liked the the fact that there was no supplement for them. But it would seem sensible to serve nicely prepared veg or none at all, rather than a somewhat insipid compromise.

Anyway, onto desserts. This is where things became seriously disappointing for me. After a brief flashback to the early 90's caused by the rosette of cream and half strawberry garnish, I tried something that may have been impersonating a piece of chocolate cheesecake. It was hard to tell, as everything above the sugary base tasted of nothing and had the texture of blancmange. The little cup contained a cardamom (and possibly white chocolate) mousse type thing. I love cardamom, but this was ridiculously strongly flavoured and also far too sweet for me. The lemon syllabub style pudding, topped with a small meringue, was probably the nicest thing on the plate but was still ridiculously sweet. The MCP had a honey panacotta, which he thought was perfectly acceptable. I was irritated by the garnishes and randomly executed chocolate graffiti though.

This was a bit of a sad end to things (at least for me), as up until the puddings the food had been pretty good. But by this point we were getting aware of being the only table again, and so left pretty promptly. I think overall the Riverside Restaurant does have many things going in its favour- I like it's hidden location and the views over the river make it a good spot for people watching (before sunset); it wins on the value for money front with a set price of just under £30 for three courses; and they were good on some details like seating us so that we both had a view out of the window. I'm sure they would have liked some more customers too, so I'm not going to criticise them on that front. But perhaps turning up the background tinkly music a little would have lifted the deadened atmosphere a bit (and drowned out the sound of the catering manager putting in the turnip order). I did like most of the savoury food too, with dishes both well cooked and flavoured. So I probably would be happy to go back to the Riverside at some point (once they've changed their menu), but perhaps not on a weekday. And I would skip dessert.

University Centre
Granta Place
Mill Lane
Cambridge CB2 1RU

Friday, 31 August 2012

Crab cakes

I was reading this Guardian Word of Mouth piece on crab cakes last week, and realised that I'd never eaten one. I'm sure I've had fish cakes with a lot of potato and a hint of crab, but not these American-style crab cakes which have very little filler. So I thought I'd rectify that this weekend.
I used Felicity Cloake's basic recipe, but made a few adjustments based on ingredient availability and the flavours I like.

Recipe (enough for 4-5 crab cakes):

100g fresh crab (half white meat, half brown meat like this one)
100g tinned crab (ideally lump crab)
2 small, mild spring onions, finely sliced
Around 2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
Around 1 tbsp finely grated grana padano cheese (or similar hard cheese)
A grating of nutmeg
Generous sprinkle of paprika
A bit of salt and pepper to season
A couple of tbsp of plain flour for coating
Sunflower oil for frying

Combine all of the above, except the oil, to form a mixture that is firm enough to form into cake shapes. Lightly dust with plain flour, and refrigerate for an hour or so. I used some brown crab meat in my mix and this seemed to create enough moisture to bind everything so I didn't need to add any egg. Once they've firmed up in the fridge, heat a shallow layer of oil in a large frying pan and when it's hot (but not smoking) gently place the crab cakes in. They are quite delicate, but were relatively easy to turn after a few minutes on each side. Everything in them is cooked, so you're really just heating the crab through and browning the outside a bit.

I really liked these crab cakes served with a bit of salad. They were crispy on the outside, but soft inside, with the brown meat contributing a strong crab flavour. I added a bit of cheese as I quite like to defy convention and have some with seafood, but actually you couldn't really taste it. I think it helped a bit with binding though. I will definitely be making these crab cakes again, but I think I might add some stronger flavours such as chilli, and maybe garlic, as I've found that these combine well with brown crab meat. But anyway, I can now successfully cross crab cakes off the 'to eat' list.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Wahaca, Soho, London, UK

I remember watching Thomasina Miers winning Masterchef many years ago, before the programme developed its comedy edge. She was super-keen on promoting Mexican food, and has done a sterling job since then by opening the Wahaca group of restaurants across London. My knowledge of Mexican food remains limited, but Wahaca has been on my list of central London places to visit for absolutely ages. I am obviously on a roll, as after my recent Dishoom success I followed up by making it to Wahaca a couple of weeks ago.
The Soho branch was absolutely packed when we visited on a weekday evening, but we only had a short wait before we were shown to a table. The Male Companion Person and I shared a main course and range of side dishes, so managed to taste a good range of the fish and vegetarian bits of the menu.

Fish tacos were essentially slightly exotic fishfinger sandwiches, which is no bad thing. If our substantial food order hadn't obscured the bottles, I probably would have added some hot sauce to spice these up a little though. The seasonal squid special, which though flavourful and non-chewy, could have done with something lighter than the thick breadcrumb coating they came in.

We also ordered a big green salad, fried sweet potatoes, and some frijoles. So basically quite a lot of food for two people. I particularly loved the warm frijoles topped with cheese, which was rich and exceptionally moreish (not something you can often say about mashed beans).

I got a bit over-excited at the thought of churros, so we had some of those too. This was the other thing I really loved- fried donuts with a dark chocolate sauce. If they had provided a spoon I would have scooped that sauce more directly into my face too.

So I really liked Wahaca. For me the stand-out dishes were the frijoles and the churros, but everything else tasted fresh and was more than pleasant. The restaurant had a nice buzzy atmosphere, and a special mention has to go to our server-person Maciej (I think); he was obviously looking after several large groups as well as us but was still friendly, efficient and helpful, and did not laugh at me when I completely messed up using the card terminal. Wahaca also seems very reasonably priced for central London, as all the above food, a couple of beers, and a non-alcoholic drink was about £35 (without service). I would happily visit Wahaca again, and well done to Tommi Miers for getting her mini-food empire off the ground too.

Wahaca Soho
80 Wardour Street
London W1F OTF

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Elizabeth Shaw chocolate

I have always found it hard to say no to chocolate in any form, so when a nice person from Elizabeth Shaw asked if I'd like to try some of their chocolate I responded in the affirmative. I also thought it would be a good chance to try out something completely new to me. In fact, it turned out that I had eaten some Elizabeth Shaw chocolate previously as they make some very acceptable amaretto flavour chocolate straws (or flutes as they seem to call them) that I enjoyed (a.k.a. scoffed a lot of) last year.

The company have now expanded their established range of mint chocolate crisps and added some new flavours which include caramel, honeycomb, butterscotch and a darker chocolate with cocoa nibs. These come in a number of selection boxes and also in bar form. I have to say that I couldn't tell much difference between the butterscotch, honeycomb, and caramel flavours as they all contained bits of honeycomb in them. But they were also very nice, and as the 'crisps' were actually bite-sized discs they did a good job of filling the need for a hit of sweetness after dinner. The cocoa nibs were not embedded in the darkest of chocolate, but it was still pretty decent. And I'm all in favour of not limiting mint chocolate to the Christmas holidays, so enjoyed those too.

So overall, I quite liked these chocolates. They haven't got the funkiest of brand names, but the actual product is pretty good with a few novel twists.

Elizabeth Shaw Chocolates
I rate them: 7.5/10
Cost: From around £2.00 for a bar.

Thanks to Elizabeth Shaw who sent me my chocolate for free and gratis.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Veggie sausage rolls with caramelised onion

I do love a nice picnic, and it looks the weather for them has finally arrived- huzzah! Sausage rolls are a stalwart of al fresco dining, but despite being a non-meat eater I don't like to miss out on anything savoury covered in pastry. So I made these fake sausage rolls with Quorn sausages, lots of red onion, and a good quality ready-made all butter puff pastry. As I've said before, pretty much all meat 'substitutes' like Quorn, soya chunks or textured vegetable protein, don't really taste of much but do add a vaguely meat-like texture to food. So you basically need to ensure that whatever else goes in with meat substitute has enough flavour to carry the entire dish. So for my fake sausage rolls, I added generous amounts of slow cooked caramelised red onion to each one.

Recipe (enough for 12 small sausage rolls):

240g Quorn sausages (I used these new ones they've brought out which come in packs of 4, and they do seem a tad more flavourful than the regular ones)
Around 200g of a good quality ready-rolled all butter puff pastry (I used Tesco finest, but of course you can make your own if you're so inclined)
2 medium red onions (finely sliced)
2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 clove of garlic (finely sliced)
A little salt and pepper to season
A couple of table spoons of olive oil
A little flour to stop the pastry sticking to your board
A little milk to seal and glaze the pastry

Fry the sliced red onions with the thyme over a very gentle heat in a little oil, until they are completely soft and unctuous. This will take at least 20minutes. Add a bit of salt and pepper and the garlic, take out the thyme twigs, and cook slowly for another 5minutes or so. When they are done, take the pan off the heat and allow the onions to cool down a bit. In the meantime, cut each sausage into three pieces. I fried these a bit before I used them but in retrospect that was completely unnecessary, so I won't bother again. When the onions have stopped being piping hot, lay out the pastry on a lightly floured board, place a piece of sausage on it, and add a generous amount of the onion. Make sure you have enough pastry to go round the filling, then cut it, wrap the pastry round and use a bit of milk to glue the two ends together. You can either make each sausage roll individually, or wrap an entire row and trim them afterwards. When you've wrapped all the rolls, put them join-side down on a lightly oiled baking tray and glaze the top of the pastry with milk.
Bake for around 15-20minutes at gas mark 6, or until the sausage rolls are a golden brown. These were great warm straight out of the oven, with a bit of salad and some devilled eggs for an indoor veggie picnic (aka lunch). But now that summer is here I will definitely be making them again (ideally before it starts raining).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Plate Lickers Supperclub, Cambridge, UK

I remember first reading about supperclubs and underground restaurants on the rather excellent blog by Ms MarmiteLover (aka Kerstin). Since then, Kerstin has become a doyenne of the scene and supperclubs have been popping up all over the place. I've unfortunately yet to make it to Kerstin's in London, so I was rather glad when I found out that I could get a taste of the supperclub experience on my doorstep in Cambridge- yay! The Plate Lickers supperclub is run by Miss Igs and The Afternoon Tease, or Ivana and Jo as they are otherwise known. I went along to their second event, which had a vaguely middle eastern theme.

Our secret location turned out to be a church, so I had the unique experience of dining below stained glass and next to some pews. After a welcome drink, we started off with some hummous and an aubergine dip with a hefty garlic kick. This was followed by a chilled, green gazpacho which included some sort of pesto element that made it rich but still refreshing.

Next up was my (vegetarian) main course of courgette and feta fritters, with green beans (dressed with hazelnuts and orange), and cous cous. I've tried to make courgette fritters before, but ended up with some bland discs of stodge. These fritters were delicious though, and I think the generous use of feta was probably why.

A mint tea and orange blossom sorbet followed, though this was probably my least favourite part of the meal. It was a bit sweet for my taste, but I generally don't get on well with seriously icy things anyway due to my teeth being quite feeble and sensitive. Pudding arrived soon afterwards, Baked peaches were stuffed with a sweet nut mix, reminiscent of those hot, sugared nuts (ahem) that you sometimes find people selling in little cones, and were served with a piece of almond and polenta cake. And though we were all rather full by this point I cleaned my plate, which I believe made me the 'winner' of pudding amongst my friends, (I can get quite competitive when it comes to puddings).

Overall, this was a great meal which I thoroughly enjoyed. Supperclubs are obviously very different from conventional restaurants. There are no extensive menus with a range of choices, no surprises about the cost (there was a suggested donation of £30 per person), and no pressure to vacate your table. What you do get is the chance to meet some interesting people in an unusual venue, with some tasty food. I went with friends, but we also had plenty of other interesting folk at our table with lots of general chat, so I would have been quite happy to have gone on my own too. The Plate Lickers girls are obviously enthusiastic cooks, who have invested a lot more than many regular restaurateurs in this venture, as as well as cooking, they are also serving, and (presumably) doing the washing up afterwards too.So props to Jo and Ivana for hosting a fab evening, and here's to many more!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Mushrooms stuffed with scallops

I came up with this dish the other day after randomly seeing a man cooking some of those little queen scallops on Countryfile (my Sunday television viewing is of the non-challenging variety). And having made Ottolenghi's stuffed mushrooms quite recently, I thought that I'd try and add some elements from that recipe too. Cheese and seafood is a bit of a contentious combination, but I thought that the mild, milkiness of Taleggio cheese went really well with both the mushroom base and the scallop filling. I served these mushrooms with some steamed broccoli and braised fennel. And though I was bit concerned that this wasn't going to be enough for dinner it actually was, with quite a small tub of queen scallops stretching to a dinner for two.

Recipe (enough for two):

4 large field mushrooms
3 medium spring onions, sliced
1 clove of garlic, chopped
Around 160g of queen scallops 
Light sprinkling of dried basil or 1tsp of freshly chopped basil leaves
1 tblsp double cream
Salt and pepper to season
Around 200g Taleggio cheese
A few tblsp olive oil

Remove the stalks from the mushrooms, chop them up quite finely, and put to one side. Heat a frying pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil and gently fry the four whole mushrooms until they are cooked through. This should take around 10minutes, but will depend on how large the mushrooms are. Once cooked, take the mushrooms out, and add a bit more oil. Gently fry the spring onions, mushroom stalks, and herbs. Once they've softened, increase the heat a bit, and add in the scallops and garlic. Cook for a few more minutes, season with salt and pepper and then take off the heat. Stir in the cream to bring everything together in a sort of sauce. Next, slice up the Taleggio, spoon the scallop mix into the mushrooms, and top with the cheese. You might not need all the cheese, but it's nice to be generous with it, so try and make sure all of the top of the mushrooms are covered. 
Put the mushrooms under a hot grill for around 5minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling on top. Serve with some vegetables for a pretty speedy supper, while wondering if this might be the first Countryfile-Ottolenghi recipe mash-up.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Cooking from Ottolenghi's Plenty

Although I eat in a meat-free manner, I'm not a proper vegetarian as I'm rather keen on fishfingers (as well as fish and chips). But I still often eat completely vegetarian meals, so am always keen on finding new things to put in them. I'd heard quite a bit about Yotam Ottolenghi, and in fact cooked his black pepper tofu recipe last year. So I was quite excited when some lovely friends bought me his vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, and I've recently tried out a few recipes from it.

Firstly, some sweet potato cakes. The recipe, which initially appeared in Yotam's Guardian column, can be found here and rather unusually I don't think I changed anything about it at all. The recipe is pretty straightforward, as it's basically just mashed potato with some added seasonings, but I did like the idea of steaming the potato (presumably to avoid it getting water-logged through boiling). The cooked cakes were very flavourful, with an excellent combination of sweetness from the potato, and chilli and spring onion savoury-ness. I definitely had to cook these longer than the recommended six minutes though, and they were also a lot less robust than they looked, which made flipping them over a bit tricky. But the end product was worth the careful prodding, and they went very well with the garlicky yoghurt sauce that's suggested accompany them.

Next up were mushrooms stuffed with Taleggio cheese. This recipe is essentially the same as this one which appeared in the Guardian, but Plenty swaps the fennel for a small onion and a stick of celery and also adds a little taragon to the stuffing too. The mix also contains some sun-dried tomatoes, which I've generally found to be little chewy bullets of bitterness, but either they've really improved in quality or else cooking them for a while really does transform them. I made a minor adjustment, which was using the smaller portobellini mushrooms rather than portobello ones, as I prefer these. Again, this is quite a simple and straightforward recipe but used ingredients that I wouldn't think to put together. And for me Taleggio cheese was a new discovery too, as I've somehow never tried it before.

So overall I thought Plenty was an excellent book. I'd not read Ottolenghi's Guardian column, so these recipes were all pretty new to me. I liked the organisation into chapters on different vegetables, and though many of the recipes aren't the quickest to prepare they all seemed quite original and interesting. I have a list of additional dishes from the book that I'd like to make and, unusually for me, I might well stick to the recipe.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dishoom, London, UK

One of the slightly annoying things about not being based in London is that I hear of lots of great sounding places opening there, but it takes me an age to get round to going to them. To be fair I'm only a 45-ish minute train ride away from Zone 1, but the idea of travelling down just to get some lunch seems a little over the top even for me. So when a good friend suggested a catch up in the big smoke, I immediately thought of where we could go to eat (as well as being delighted I'd be seeing her soon obviously).

I heard a lot about Dishoom and their 'Bombay cafe' concept, when it first opened. The idea immediately appealed, I added it to my list of places to go, and a mere twenty-two months later I've finally made it! I've only been to Bombay once but the interior of Dishoom did seem quite evocative of some of the small restaurants we went to (mainly because of the ceiling fans and loose cabling). The menu is mainly made up of lots of smaller savoury dishes, which I quite like as it makes it easier to taste a range of things, as well as lots of types of chai and lassi.

I ordered a tikka paneer, which came nicely charred (rather than burnt) and skate cheeks koliwada. I hadn't even realised that skate had cheeks, let alone that they were edible, so I was quite keen to try these. What arrived was a generous portion of fishy nuggets in a properly spicy coating, and an accompanying tamarind dip. I really liked the heat and spices in this dish, which didn't overwhelm the fish at all. And it worked really well with the coriander chutney that was provided too. To balance out the protein, I also had a fresh and zingy 'slaw and a roomali roti which was soft and pliant, just as I had hoped it would be.

To finish things off, we ordered a couple of malai kulfis, (which came on sticks). The kulfi was rich and creamy, with a hint of cardamon, and the perfect size for fulfilling a pudding craving. All of this along with some soft drinks, a lassi, and a paneer roll for my friend only came to around £40 (including service). I think this would be excellent value anywhere, but especially so in central London.

So overall, Dishoom really lived up to expectations for me and I would be very happy to go back again. It offers a few interesting and different dishes, the chance to eat Indian food in a slightly more casual setting, a nice atmosphere, and some of the nicest kulfi I've had for ages. My only minor gripe was that a combination of Indian-style piped music and a packed room, meant that it was quite loud and a bit difficult to hear what the staff, and indeed my friend, were saying. However, I guess it did contribute to an authentic Bombay atmosphere, and as I have started complaining about pensions and the weather, it may also indicate that I am getting a bit old.

12 Upper St Martin's Lane
London WC2H 9FB

Monday, 28 May 2012

Simple mint chocolate chip ice cream from Kavey Eats

I spotted this recipe for a quick and easy triple mint choc chip ice cream over on Kavey's ace blog a few weeks ago. I think I was still wearing my big coat, gloves, and boots into work then, so filed it away for when the sun eventually emerged. Which thankfully it has now done- huzzah- ice cream time!

Anyway, I don't think I've ever made a custard from scratch, and though I can't imagine it would be that difficult, what immediately appealed about Kavey's recipe is that it uses a ready-made custard for the ice cream base. I thought this was a great idea, so there was no faffing around with double boilers and spare egg whites for me! Apart from the custard, there are only three other ingredients in this ice cream- mint leaves, mint chocolate and mint liqueur (or peppermint extract). I made some minor changes to Kavey's original recipe, so here's my version.

Recipe (enough for about 6 portions depending on greed):

500ml ready-made 'premium' custard
1-2 tblsp chocolate mint leaves, chopped
100g bar Green and Black's dark mint chocolate, chopped into small chunks
0.5 tsp peppermint extract

Simply combine all of the above ingredients, and either put into an ice cream maker or (as I don't have one) put into a container, put in the freezer, and mix thoroughly every 45 minutes or so for 5-6 hours to minimise ice crystals forming.

This was the perfect ice cream for a hot sunny day- not too sweet, fresh from the mint, and with big chunks of dark chocolate. And it was so genuinely simple to assemble, I will definitely be making this again.

 And in a rather meta development, I'm also submitting this post as an entry into Kavey's Bloggers Scream for Ice Cream May challenge, which has chocolate as its theme.