Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cheese, mushroom and bacon tart

Forget sliced bread. The best food invention ever was ready-made pastry.
With its arrival, any random fridge/cupboard ingredients can be turned into PIE with minimum effort. Pies always look impressive (especially if made in my giant pie dish), go down well with guests and can be cooked in the oven -- all winning attributes in my book.
In terms of filling, pretty much anything goes -- this is an approximate breakdown of a pie (or, strictly speaking, a tart) I made this week for a games night, which reminds me of another pie bonus -- it can be eaten with your hands so is a good snack/buffet food.

Serves 4

1 pack shortcrust pastry
1 punnet of mushrooms
2 onions
150g stilton
150g cheddar
4 rashers of bacon
200g Greek yoghurt (you could also use single cream, sour cream or creme fraiche)
2 eggs
salt, pepper, herbs (I used rosemary and sage)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Butter your pie dish and line it with pastry. Top with baking beans and bake for about 10 minutes.
Chop and fry the onions, bacon and mushrooms until cooked. You could also add garlic, celery, spinach -- anything you like really.
Beat together the eggs with the yoghurt and add the seasoning.
Layer the onions, bacon and mushrooms over the pastry (remove the baking beans first!).
Scatter over the grated cheese. Top with the yoghurt and egg mixture.
Return to the oven for another 20 minutes or so until cooked and browned on top.
Serve with salad or some form of cooked greens.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Chilango: plus ça change....

In the three years we were away from London much has changed (like the arrival of Boris bikes and hundreds of new cyclists on the roads) and much has stayed the same (like the seemingly interminable escalator closures at Bank). Favourite restaurants have shut, but new gems have sprung up. Some changes though have been, at most, skin-deep.
Chilango was a new name on Angel's main drag, attracting long queues of office workers on weekday lunchtimes whenever I passed it.
Not a fan of queues, I am nonetheless intrigued by their destinations and resolved to check the place out on a quieter day.

Inside, I was struck by deja vu.
Turns out that Chilango is a name-changed, redecorated Mucho Mas, which I reviewed 3 years ago. The same owners, the same Subway-style production line, the same free water and expensive Negro Modello, the same extra charge for guacamole (£1). The menu is broadly along the same lines, offering the choice of burritos, tacos, salad or totopos. I went for the latter as I liked the name :-)
The internet suggests totopos are a slightly different type of cornflour flatbread, but here the dish consisted of tortilla chips topped with black beans, lettuce, cheese, sour cream and chicken (£6.30). The online menu also mentions salsa, but I don't recall any and can't spot it on the photo either. It really wasn't great, coming across as a bland and soggy mess, despite the kick of the chilli. May be I should have gone for the burrito, but for that kind of money, I'd say it was a disappointing rip off.
Seems sometimes queues are wrong.

Chilango, 27 Upper Street, Islington, N1 0PN; Tel. 020 7704 2123 www.chilango.co.uk
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Squash Soup

My bookshelf is lined with a dozen or more cookbooks, resplendent with artful photos and names of acclaimed chefs. I love to browse through them, but it is a couple of tattered, old volumes that I come to most often when I am actually cooking.
One of them is Simply Different by Sarah Woodward. Given to me by my mother-in-law, it is 17 years old, out of print and contains not a single picture. And yet, I turn to it time and time again for inspiration and very modern-tasting dishes.
I like how the book is arranged by ingredient, offering inspiration when you find, say, a bunch of sorry-looking carrots at the back of your fridge, a squash in your veggie box or a cheerful sole at your fishmonger's.
This is my version of the pumpkin soup recipe -- perfect for a dreary day.

Serves 4 as a lunch or a hearty starter

900g squash (or pumpkin)
1 large onion
3 sticks celery
3 cloves of garlic
1 litre of chicken stock
200g Greek yoghurt
salt, black pepper

Chop the onion, the celery and the garlic. Fry on a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, with a little oil.
Peel the squash, remove any seeds. Cut into cubes and add to the pan. Stir well before adding the stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes until the squash is tender.
Blitz with a blender. Stir through the yoghurt and season with plenty of black pepper. Add salt if necessary (but you may not need to, depending on how salty your stock is).
Serve with bread.

(The original omits the yoghurt, adds olive oil and parmesan and serves the soup with slices of toasted garlic ciabatta to line the bowls.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Breakfast at Carluccio's

To me, they are a completely alien species.
They don't appear to have the live alarm clocks in the shape of kids, nor do they seem to have come from the early morning church service. And yet there they are, at 10am on a Sunday, queueing -- yes queueing -- for breakfast. I honestly don't know if they've always been there or if it's a new trend. Pre-baby, I was rarely if ever out at that time on a Sunday morning.
In Islington, they have pretty good taste, snaking along Camden Passage outside the Breakfast Club, or further up Upper Street, crowding into Ottolenghi. Both serve good food but I would question whether either is worth queueing for (especially if you consider that people rarely rush their Sunday breakfasts, so you could be waiting for quite a while).
I do hunger badly and possibly do queueing even worse. So we went to Carluccio's, which, mercifully, had plenty of free tables.

From the fairly compact breakfast menu I chose the eggs benedict (£7.65). The yolk in the poached eggs was golden and beautifully runny, the ham was thick and flavoursome and the hollandaise was quite passable. I am not sure why they put olive oil on the bread but it didn't really harm the dish.

The husband went for scrambled eggs and mushrooms on toast (£6.75). Carluccio's does mushrooms especially well (I love their mushroom pasta) and this time they also didn't disappoint.
The coffee was a little bitter for my taste, but it was nothing that a bit of sugar couldn't fix.
The service was quick, the baby was asleep and there were plenty of Sunday papers to linger over -- bliss that you don't have to queue for.

Carluccio's, 305-307 Upper Street, Islington, N1 2TU; Tel. 020 7359 8167; carluccios.com

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Macaroni Cheese

For years, I thought pasta was pasta, period.
The choice on the supermarket shelf was a mixture of the aesthetic - are bows cuter than spirals - and the practical - would you rather slurp spaghetti or shovel in neat spoonfuls of macaroni?
Of course, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Italian tradition dictates that long, thin pasta goes with thin, oily sauces, while chunkier and ridgier varieties go with a thicker accompaniment that clings better to their shape. That would explain why carbonara is usually served with spaghetti or tagliatelle, but the rule then clearly fails for bolognaise.
One day, I should do a pasta tasting to see how much difference the shape actually makes. But that doesn't sound nearly as much fun as, say, a wine tasting, and for now I still mostly just have one type of pasta in the cupboard at a time. So, tonight, when the cold weather and the dark evening had me yearning for comfort food, we had fusilli cheese. And very good it was too.

Serves 2-3 hungry people

400g pasta
4 slices bacon
1 pint milk
50g butter
50g flour
4 garlic cloves
200g cheddar
mustard, pepper, nutmeg, salt to taste

Cook pasta per instructions. Fry the chopped bacon.
Slice the garlic and put in a small pan with the milk. Warm until just short of boiling. (Or use a microwave.) Warm milk is my newly discovered secret to a perfect white sauce.
Melt the butter in a small pan, add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Slowly - very slowly - add in the milk, constantly stirring to make the smooth white sauce.
Flavour with mustard, black pepper, nutmeg (and anything else you fancy) to taste. Grate in about half the cheese.
Put the pasta, bacon and sauce in an oven-proof dish. Top with the rest of the grated cheese and put under a hot grill until bubbling.
Serve with a green salad to keep up the pretence of trying to eat healthily.

For the ultimate guide to macaroni cheese variations, check out Felicity Cloake's Guardian column. But for me it's very much an easy, lazy, comforting kind of dish that does not involve the faff of turning on the food processor for breadcrumbs or splashing out on parmesan. Besides, anything that has been under the grill with cheese on top always looks awesome.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guilt-easing Soup

Once upon a time, there was nothing to stop me from just having waffles, or even bread and cheese for dinner.
Now there are two spectres over my shoulder, guilt-tripping me into the kitchen -- the veggie box and the blog.

The veggie box (or rather bag) comes from Hackney's Growing Communities and, for £6 a week, fills my fridge with a selection of vegetables I feel duty bound to use up. The latest batch included some cavolo nero -- a dark green, almost black, leafy Tuscan cabbage. First popularised by the River Cafe cookbooks, it is now widely grown in the UK and can be used in recipes which call for kale or savoy cabbage.

Once I'd ruled out the waffles and determined to use up the greens, my first thought was just to fry them with some bacon and top with an egg. But, while slightly more interesting than grilling a frozen potato-based snack, this still didn't seem sufficiently adventurous to provide blogging fodder. So I leafed through my recipe folder and discovered another way of combining cabbage and bacon -- in a hearty, low-effort soup.

Cavolo Nero, Bacon and Bean Soup
Serves 2 hungry people as a main course.

3 slices of thick bacon
2 stems celery
2 small onions
3 cloves of garlic
handful of rosemary
750 ml chicken stock
1 tin of white beans (eg cannelloni)
250g cavolo nero (or kale, or savoy cabbage)

Chop the vegetables and the bacon into fairly small chunks.
Fry the bacon until seared. Add the onions, garlic and celery and fry for about 5 minutes until softened.
Add the rosemary, stock and drained beans. Bring to the boil and cook for about 20 minutes.
Add the cavolo nero and cook for another 5 minutes.

This makes a hearty, warming bowl and has the added bonus of being pretty low on calories. You could grate some parmesan on top to serve, as the original recipe suggested, or like me, you could add a dollop of sour cream. You could also add some black pepper but I would skip the salt, as the stock and the bacon make the soup already quite salty.

Warning: the pale green stems that run through the dark leaves of cavolo nero are very tough. You need to cut them out and just cook the leafy bit. Otherwise, like me, you will end up with some tough and bitter mouthfuls in your otherwise delicious soup.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rex Whistler at Tate Britain

Babies and culture mostly don't mix all that well, unless you count nursery rhymes. Theatres and concerts require a babysitter while serious books (I have discovered) can prove a bit too much for a sleep-deprived post-pregnancy brain. Open air stuff is generally ok though, as are art galleries.
So, we found ourselves at Tate Britain, checking out John Martin's Apocalypse exhibition. His scenes of judgement day and the end of the world were hugely popular with the spectacle-seeking Victorian public, and still look striking today. (If you go, The Evening Standard has a 2-for-1 offer on tickets until the end of the month.)
Our cultural appetites sated, it was time for lunch amidst much more light-hearted art.
The walls of the Tate's restaurant were covered in a whimsical mural by Rex Whistler nearly a century ago, then a 23-year-old art student. Called The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, it charts the progress of a group of seven people "through strange and wonderful lands encountering unicorns, truffle dogs and two giant gluttons guarding the entrance to a cave".
These days, the restaurant's focus is modern British (no unicorns).

In the interests of research, I should have ordered the most unusual thing on the menu, the garden pea panna cotta with turnip, radish, pea shoots and mint oil (£6.50). Instead, I chickened out, and ordered what I actually wanted -- the beef carpaccio with truffle oil and celeriac remoulade (£7.95).
The beef was good quality and the truffle oil added an extra rich, velvety layer of taste. The remoulade -- thin strips of celeriac in a French tartar-like sauce -- was also very nice, but, to my taste buds, did not really go. The portion was also fairly small, even for a starter. I fleshed out the lunch with a couple of side dishes. For £3.25, the mixed leaf salad seemed overpriced - it was literally a handful of standard mixed leaves in a pleasant but unexciting dressing.

The same amount of money was much better spent on a large bowl of chunky chips which succeeded in walking the tricky tight rope between a crispy golden outside and a soft centre.
If you are hungry, the lunch menu is good value at £16.50 for two courses, and includes a selection of wines from the interesting list at £3.75 a glass (served 11.30am-3pm). They have also jumped on to the (now quite overcrowded) bandwagon of afternoon tea, complete with cute multi-teer cake stands. Accompanied kids eat free at lunchtime, and they have high chairs.
I wouldn't trek all the way out to Pimlico for the food, but it's a nice spot to digest the impressions of an exhibition -- this was not our first visit, and is unlikely to be the last.

Rex Whistler Restaurant, Tate Britain, Millbank,
Westminster, SW1P 4RG; Tel. 020 7887 8825

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Banana Tree Canteen

The food was nice enough, but you really must go for the baby chairs. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd be writing when I originally started this blog in 2006.

Banana Tree started out some 20 years ago and has now expanded into a mini-chain across London, attracting good reviews. I stumbled upon their Islington branch the other day, and was lured in by a board promising a lunch from just £5.65. There are more exciting options on the menu -- which spans from Thailand to Singapore, via Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- but that price (plus service charge) bought me a plate of chicken pad thai, washed down with regularly refilled tap water.

The dish smelt burnt when it arrived, although I didn't actually find any culprits for the aroma. A few slices of red chilli added bite, raw bean sprouts provided some crunch and a wedge of lime contributed the zing. There were also a few crispy deep fried tortilla-ish chips on the side. It was a perfectly pleasant lunch, but no more.
The high chair on the other hand was simply awesome. The waiter produced a folded, cloth contraption, about A3 size. As I looked on dubiously, he arranged it into a cunning seat which attaches to the table with a solid metal frame. I'd never seen anything like it before. It would be very useful for visiting friends and family, or just for keeping in the car for times when your chosen cafe or restaurant doesn't have high chairs.

Banana Tree Canteen, 412-416 St John Street, Islington, EC1V 4NJ; Tel. 020 7278 7565; www.bananatree.co.uk
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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Oven Risotto With(out) Madeira

Have some madeira, m'dear
You really have nothing to fear
I'm not trying to tempt you, that wouldn't be right
You shouldn't drink spirits at this time of night

This recipe must have languished in my file for half a decade, since a trip to the island of Madeira from which we brought a bottle of its eponymous sweet, fortified wine. The wine, I think, disappeared at a party years ago. But the recipe caught my eye again this week, as I am on the lookout for dishes that can be prepared in advanced and finished off in the oven. With a baby, this is the only way to eat dinner at a reasonable hour, as I discovered after an early attempt at entertaining saw me plonking the guests in front of the stove while I dealt with an especially grumpy bedtime.

2 small leeks (approx 250g)
1 large onion
100g mushrooms
350g risotto (arborio) rice
1l chicken stock
300ml madeira (I used white wine)
75g grated cheese (the original calls for parmesan, but we only had cheddar, which to my philistine taste worked fine)
thyme, parsley

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees.
Fry chopped leek and onions in a hot, oiled pan for about 10 minutes, stirring.
Add chopped mushrooms and fry for another couple of minutes.
Add rice and stir to coat well.
Add the stock, wine and thyme. Stir. Bring to the boil.
Place uncovered in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the rice is cooked and the liquid has all been absorbed.
Stir in the grated cheese and fresh parsley before serving.

The result was a delicious and quite convincing risotto. You miss out the therapeutic stirring, but gain time to spend with your guests/partner/sofa/put a baby to bed.
The original recipe calls for Madeira, dried porcini mushrooms, parmesan and tarragon, and claims to serves 6 people.
I adapted it to suit the contents of the fridge and cupboards and the two of us managed to polish off the lot in one evening, though if you add another course (or are less greedy) you could probably stretch it between 4. As long as you stick to the ratio of rice and liquid, you could experiment with all sorts of other ingredients.

PS Apologies for the slightly out of focus photo, I was too hungry to take more than one!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Spaniards Inn

Autumn, more than any other time if year, makes me forget my sworn city girl status and yearn for the countryside. Luckily, that craving for red-golden leaves and the feeling of being miles from anywhere can be satisfied a hop, a skip and a jump from central London - on Hampstead Heath.

A bracing walk calls for a hearty lunch, and the Spaniards Inn has been filling that hole for centuries.
It is an atmospheric old pub, full of nooks, crannies and history. In Dickens's Pickwick Papers, it is the scene of a tea party in the countryside, featuring huge quantities of bread and butter. A few centuries on, the portions are still quite hearty, though the food is luckily more varied.
The husband (for whom I am still thinking of a suitable nickname for this blog) had the 10oz rump steak (£16.25). It was juicy and rare, as ordered, and came with some peppercorn butter. Flavoured butter seems to be the trendy thing for steak at the moment, and in this instance it worked quite well. Lighter than the traditional creamy peppercorn sauce, it let the meat shine through more while still adding a bit of zing.

My attention was caught by the salad with avocado and halloumi, until I realised that it was the exact same dish as the one I had really enjoyed at the Island Queen in Islington a few weeks earlier -- the two pubs must be owned by the same people. So, in the interest of trying more things, I changed my mind at the last minute in favour of the tart with figs, goats cheese, pecans & roasted squash (£11.25). It was a good mix of the sweet and savoury, and went some way towards reversing my broad distrust of figs.
The house red was perfectly drinkable. The half of ale came in a cute half pint tankard, although it could have been better kept. The vegetable accompaniments were also a bit of a letdown - my tart came with an overpowering mound of deep-fried greens (kale?), while the steak was paired with some decidedly anaemic chips.
Overall though it was a nice meal in a lovely setting - not worth the journey in its own right but a great end to a walk on the magnificent heath.

Spaniards Inn, Spaniards Road, Hampstead, NW3 7JJ; Tel: 020 8731 8406 www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk
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Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Gunmakers

Some restaurants pride themselves on having a mission or a premise. The Gunmakers, judging by its website lays claim only to a menu and an address. And, judging by its food, it's on to a winner. On the downside, it means I can't tell you the history of the place or its name, as Clerkenwell is historically more famous for its printers and Italians rather than guns.
In a world of chain sandwich shops and crumbs over keyboards, the cosy pub felt like a gateway into a less hurried, bygone era. A handful of suits were finishing their meals and their drinks when we arrived at about 2.30pm on a weekday.

In one corner, the bar man had started on his lunch. His mackrel looked very good, so we ordered that. The husband pronounced it delicious, and even finished off the accompanying beetroot - a vegetable he normally winces at.

I went for the chorizo toad-in-the-hole, which further confirmed my new-found love of the Spanish sausage. It worked really well with the batter, adding a stronger, more vibrant flavour than the usual English banger. Definitely one to try at home, along with the celeriac mash which came on the side.
We washed it all done with well-kept Mad Goose ale, and I left wishing I still worked in the area and could sneak off for lunches there on a regular basis.

The Gunmakers, 13 Eyre Street Hill, Clerkenwell, EC1R 5ET; Tel. 020 7278 1022 thegunmakers.co.uk; Lunch for 2 around 30 pounds

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