Monthly Archives: May 2010

On Location: Rasa (Stoke Newington, London)

Today I am very excited to share one of my favourite restaurants – Rasa in Stoke Newington’s Church Street (they have a number of branches, but this is the original). The food is from the Indian region of Kerala, and the fantastic thing for vegetarians – so exciting – is that the branch at 55 Church Street is completely vegetarian (with the sister restaurant across the road serving meat and fish too, hence the street number). I love being able to choose anything on the menu, plus Rasa offers excellent quality and great value – what’s not to like?

I must confess that these days, I’m not very adventurous in terms of what I eat there. I’ve probably tried everything on the menu over the last year, and it is all, without fail, utterly delicious. It’s just that I now know what I like, and I tend to go for it. But nice to be able to do that through choice rather than because there is only a limited veggie choice.

We started the meal with their selection of snacks – pappadoms, banana chips, murukku (rice flour with spices) and achappam (rice flour and coconut, in the shape of a flour). These are wonderfully crisp and aromatic, and work very well with their pickles. Rasa serves six different types, including fruity, citrus garlic, hot…all great. I would usually have a beer with this, but the mango lassi is also good if you feel like something different.

From the starters, we took idli (lentil cakes with coconut chutney), mysore bonda (spicy potato balls, fried and served with coconut sauce) and medhu vadai (ring-shaped dumplings made from beans). These also come on plates of three or four, so perfect for sharing with a group of friends. They are all quite different, with a nice combination of flavours and textures. They are spicy, but not too hot.

I find the mains really good – flavours are  fresh and intensive. The beet cheera pachadi (beetroot curry) stood out a mile and everyone I know who eats there loves it. I’m also a big fan of the masala dosa, a slightly sweet pancake filled with spiced potatoes and served with chutney and a curry sauce. Of course, you’ll also need something to mop up the curry – and there are a great range of wonderful breads, from puffed-up poori to paratha (a coiled wheat bread).

After the curries, I am usually too full to eat a dessert, but if you do have space, the mango ice-cream or the kulfi is a nice sweet treat.

In short – I love this place and go there a lot. The decor is bright pink and there is Indian music in the background, so it’s a little like stepping into a different, brighter world. The service is friendly and pretty quick too. If you’re in Stokey, well worth checking this place out. Be sure to book – it can get busy at night.

Rasa, 55 Church Street, Stoke Newington, London N16 0AR. Tel: 020 7249 0344. Bus: 73, 476, 393. Train: Stoke Newington.

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Pesto Presto!

Yes, yes, pesto is sort of everywhere, but making it yourself – now that is a whole different thing.

Just to straighten things out, I’m taking about Pesto alla Genovese. This is the familiar green stuff, with pine nuts and cheese. I’m not a massive fan of the other types (most often, red pesto), so usually give them a miss. But I have seen a reference to a sauce made in Germany using wild garlic – I can see how that would work. Similar colour, but with a mild yet robust garlic flavour. Definitely one for the “to try” list.

Over the years, I’ve had great pesto and I’ve had lousy pesto. I adore the fresh stuff on plain pasta or bread (yum) and once, in a mousse with Thai vegetable chips and satay sauce (meh…not so good). For the past couple of days, I’ve had a bunch of basil sitting chirpily in my kitchen. With the window open in the increasingly warm weather, it has been fluttering its large, glossy leaves every time there was a breath of wind. Today, I caught a whiff of the aromatic, faintly aniseed basil leaves, and I decided it would make great pesto. I’ve read tales of Italian grandmothers who lovingly use a marble mortar and pestle to grind basil leaves, one at a time, to make a silky-smooth pesto sauce. However, as a modern chef, I throw everything into a mixer. Just basil, salt, pepper, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil and a little garlic, and after a moment or two, a rich emerald-green paste was mine.

I had this just with pasta, and my word – it was great. Much fresher than anything I’ve bought for a while, and as the leaves were not completely pulverised, the pasta was flecked with dark green while the oil took on a brilliant lighter hue. The garlic was also a good addition – I haven’t used it in the past, but it really works wonders and takes the heaviness off the final pesto.

Now I just have to work out how to grow a basil plant that does not mind being picked one in a while…

For the pesto (enough for past for four):

• 30g basil, leaves only
• 30g pine nuts, very lightly toasted
• 30g Parmesan cheese, grated
• 1/2 clove garlic, minced
• salt
• pepper
• 150ml olive oil (but use more or less, according to taste)

Put everything except the oil in a mixer and combine. Once roughly chopped, add the oil and work into a smooth paste.

Worth making? Fresh pesto is so much more vibrant – colour, aroma, flavour – than anything you buy. Really worth having a go at, and makes simple pasta with pesto into a real treat. The trick is to make sure that you don’t overdo the nuts or cheese, so that they balance the basil and don’t overpower it.

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Brixton Macaron Bake and a temperamental oven

I’ve just come back from a great staycation down in Brixton in South London. My friend K and her baby were on their own for the night, so I went down there, we made macarons, and saw some of the local food highlights. To top off the evening, some guests were coming to dinner, and we decided that they would be tasting the results and giving us their verdict.

K had been determined to at least have a go at making macarons during her maternity leave. In the interests of science, we tried two versions: simple (whisk egg whites, add to icing sugar and ground almonds) while the other was rather more laborious (involving preparing meringue with cooked sugar syrup). We also prepared a range of fillings.

Macarons are a combination of cooking, art and chemistry. You need to have an appreciation of the magic that is at work, everything needs to be measured exactly, and you need to have an oven that works. “Oh, did I mention that there is a problem with the oven?“. Eh, no, you didn’t. “Well, the dials are off, so it’s difficult to know the exact temperature of the oven, or even whether it is the oven or the grill that is on“. It looked like this was to be more of a sporting option than I had first anticipated…

We started with chocolate maracons using the easy method. This all went smoothly. I would have preferred to blitz the almonds in a coffee grinder to get them perfectly powdery as they were a little coarse, but this wasn’t a major issue. I piped out a trayfull, then my co-chef for the day had a go. It turned out it was her first time piping macarons, but after a couple of tries, she got the method down to a tee. The texture was good too – the tops smoothed out perfectly. We left them to dry for 20 minutes, baked them, and they came out of the oven looking perfect. Only one of them saw fit to erupt volcano-style. Nice chewy texture too. Result!

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The rise and rise of the Victoria Sponge

I’ve very happy to see that this piece in The Guardian seems to share my views (my post here) about the wonders of the Victoria Sponge!

Get baking!

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On Location: Fika (Shoreditch, London)

Fika means a Swedish coffee break, usually involving a little snack. I know this, because I used to live there. I loved living in Stockholm – lovely coffee bars, and great cakes and snacks. When looking for a place to meet my friend K a couple of days ago, I discovered Fika, a Swedish café/bar/grill with a roof terrace on Brick Lane. While we didn’t make it there in the end, I decided that I really did have to go. Yesterday, I did just that.

Book in hand and with a vague appointment to meet a friend there if she was able to come, I jumped on the tube and headed over to Fika. How would it be? Could I look forward to tucking into a range of Nordic goodies? On the way over, I had ideas kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) and dillpotatis (potato salad with dill) in my mind.

Fika has a pretty slick website, with a philosophy based around simple, fresh food. So far, so good. I turned up, and the place looked promising. The owners have gone for the pared-down Scandinavian shabby-chic minimalist look, with a few ironic twists (reindeer skulls decked out with pearls, astroturf cut into the shape of a reindeer). I checked my watch – it was 3.30pm, so time for coffee and a much-anticipated cinnamon bun.

Except…they didn’t have any cinnamon buns.

I was almost ready to turn around and walk out. What is the point in a Swedish cafe without cinnamon buns? I ordered my coffee and settled for what was euphemistically called a summer berry tart (in May – why?). This might have been alright if it had been cooked properly, but the middle was borderline raw and unpleasantly doughy. It had been heated slightly, I suspect in part to hide the fact it probably wasn’t quite cooked. This cake was not difficult or elaborate, so it pretty bad to flunk on something so simple. This place would last about five minutes on the streets of Södermalm in its current form.

Would I go back? No. Perhaps the mains and savoury dishes are better, perhaps it’s the coolest place on Earth when it gets busy, but frankly, I don’t really care. It’s cute enough as a place for a drink, but from what I had, there are other places on Brick Lane serving great coffee and (in my view) better food, so it’s not as if you need to settle.

Fika, 161a Brick Lane, London E1 6SB. Tel: 020 7613 2013. Tube: Shoreditch High Street.

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On Location: Canteen (Southbank, London)

I met up with my good friend K and her adorable baby yesterday on the Southbank. After the culture, we went for a bite to eat. I had grand plans of heading into the West End or Shoreditch, but of course, these things are a little less easy with a pram. She’s actually great at getting around and doesn’t see London transport as an insurmountable obstacle with a baby in her arms, but still, it probably made sense to stay somewhere local.

This is how we ended up in Canteen. Our initial plan was to try and see if the Skylon cocktail bar served afternoon tea. For the record, it doesn’t, which is a shame as it has a great view over the river. At the back of the same building, there is a branch of Canteen , so with the heavens about to open, we popped in there.

Canteen prides itself on serving traditional British fare in a contemporary, relaxed atmosphere. The seating is a little like in a diner, although you are quite close to each other, so it is certainly intimate, but does not feel crushed.

What was pretty obvious from the menu is that there is little by way of vegetarian food. From memory, there was a vegetarian pie, and the barley dish I went for. I think that’s actually a pretty poor showing. I know that you can create a meal through the strategic ordering of side dishes, but that is something I feel is reserved for holidays in France, not going out for lunch in the centre of London. Limited choice aside, I went for barley with marjoram and roasted squash and fennel. Got to say, it was pretty good. It was well-salted, but they had just gotten it right. A nice combination of the slightly chewy barley and the soft squash. The fennel was just right – cooked, but with a little texture and plenty of light aniseed flavour. We had it with a portion of chips – perfectly good, but what had they done with the mayonnaise? One of my little habits from living in Belgium is that I quite like chips with mayo, but this stuff was gelatinous, greasy and a bit off-putting. In the interests of the greater good and love of food, I tried it. It tasted alright, but a bit oily. Then I did what I normally never do – I reached for the tomato sauce, and ate the rest of the chips with that. They need to sort out their mayo! K went for scrambled eggs (“The most yellow eggs I have ever seen”) which looked alright nad seemed to go down well. I’m not a fan of scrambled eggs, so can’t really offer my opinion.

After finishing the mains and a bit of a chat, we finished with tea and shared a cake. We took the cheesecake with hazelnut brittle. This I liked a lot. It was a baked cheesecake, which is often quite dense, but this was light, soft, fluffy and kept a good amount of tanginess from the cream cheese. The slice was massive and a but too much even for two to share, but it was a nice little treat to round off the meal. I’ve been to Canteen at Canary Wharf too, and found their carrot cake and their Victoria sponge to be good as well. Perhaps this is a sign that Canteen is somewhere to come for a quick cake and a cuppa?

Would I go back? Yes, given its location and the fact that there are a few things on the menu. There is not a huge amount of choice for vegetarians, so I am more inclines to come here if passing and hungry, rather than seeing it as a “must come” place for dinner.

Canteen Southbank, Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX. Tel: 0845 686 1122. Tube: Waterloo or Embankment.

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Chocolate and Olive Oil Ganache

Who does not like a rich, luxuriant treat that is a doddle to knock together? I was doing a bit of web surfing and saw various usual “unusual’ combinations – sesame, chilli, pepper – but the one that caught my eye was an olive oil ganache. And why not? Fruity and spicy are two flavours often attributed to good quality olive oil as well as to decent chocolate, so in theory, they should work together.

To try out this idea, I kept things simple. I reasoned that I would just try a straightforward ganache recipe, with oil in the place of butter. I boiled cream and white sugar, poured onto dark chocolate, allowed to cool then stirred in the olive oil. I had thought the olive oil might stop it firming up, but this proved to be unfounded. It looked OK, so time to taste. In terms of flavour, the olive oil enhanced the fruitiness of the dark chocolate I had used. As it melted on the tongue, the chocolate taste yields up the flavour of the olive oil, but the two are clearly working together. There seems to be an impact on texture too – the ganache was silky-smooth, and it melted in the mouth, with a pleasing, slow finish. Plenty of scope to try different types of olive oil too.

To serve this up, I though it would be fun to use it as a simple chocolate spread on toasted sourdough bread, with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of fleur de sel. At the risk of not being modest, this was perhaps the best chocolate spread treat I have ever had. The toasted bread, the oil, the salt, the richness of the chocolate. All comes together wonderfully. I might even be making this as my next brunch treat with friends. So good!

For the chocolate and olive oil ganache:

• 200g dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
• 130ml double cream
• 25g white sugar
• 38g olive oil

Heat the cream and sugar in a saucepan. Boil for 30 seconds. Pour over the chocolate, and stir until smooth (if not all of the chocolate melts, return to the saucepan and warm very gently until smooth, and return to the bowl).

Allow the mixture to cool slightly, and add the olive oil, stirring constantly. Allow to cool completely until firm (in the fridge if necessary).

Serve on warm toasted sourdough bread, drizzle with olive oil crumble some fleur de sel over the top.

Worth making? Definitely! This was much better than I had expected, and would make a great treat for the weekend. You can easily make a larger batch and use as chocolate spread if you like the stuff every day of the week, or even try using for truffles or in a chocolate tart.

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Turmeric Cous Cous Salad

Another salad. I liked the large grain cous cous I bought a few months ago, but decided to brighten it up by cooking it with a little turmeric powder. The result is bright yellow and fresh looking. I added it to a few lettuce leaves, tomatoes, halloumi, courgette and cress. Nice, simple and tasty.

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Hummus

I love hummus. It’s amazing that just a few chickpeas and a few other ingredients produces something so tasty. The added bonus is that it is substantial and really (probably) good for you.

I nearly always make it at home. There is only one brand I like – Yarden’s hummus is really delicious, with a lovely smooth texture and rich, nutty flavour. Otherwise, I find bought hummus often has a sour, bland taste. Far better to make it at home then!

Nearly everyone I know has their own variation on the recipe. Some keep it simple, really just chickpeas, salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Against this background, I guess my version is the bling bling of hummus. I like to use olive oil, but also a couple of spoons of low-fat natural yoghurt for creaminess and slight tanginess, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, cumin, a little fresh garlic, salt, pepper and – most important of all – quite a lot of good quality tahini (sesame paste). For me, it is the tahini that makes the dish. It thickens the dip, and brings a rich, toasted nuttiness.

Now that (perhaps?) summer is coming, this is great with some good fresh bread and a salad as a light supper on a warm evening. LondonEats is staying positive and hoping that we’ll all be sitting in our gardens very, very soon!

For the hummus:

• 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• juice of 1/2 lemon
• 2 tablespoons natural yoghurt
• 1 generous teaspoon cumin powder
• 1/2 clove garlic, very finely chopped
• salt
• ground pepper
• 4 tablespoons tahini

Put all the ingredients except the tahini, salt and pepper into a food processor and puree until smooth.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add tahini and mix well. This recipe uses quite a lot as I like a strong tahini taste. Use less if you want a smoother hummus, but more if you want it to be quite firm.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and scattering of fresh parsley.

Worth making? This is a really easy recipe and the results are delicious. If you need a dip at short notice, this can also be produced with the most basic items in the store cupboard, and makes a healthy and filling snack.

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On Location: Tibits (Regent Street, London)

You’re in central London, tired and hungry. Where do you eat?

You know all the chains and coffee bars around Oxford Circus tube station, but you don’t really feel like that. This is why I am really happy that my friend F took me to a side street to Tibits, which is part of the Regent Street Food Quarter (I know, I had never heard of this area either, but it seems it has been going for a year and a bit now). This place is vegetarian (yay!), and this fact together with its location was enough to get me through the door.

A bit of digging reveals that this a Swiss concept, from the people behind Hiltl in Zurich, one of Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurants. There is a selection of dishes from a range of cultures, served buffet-style, and the interior has a fresh, funky and bright interior thanks to the work of the Design Guild. So what does all this mean? Yes, it is veggie, but it does not scream this at you, so even carnivores will be happy to chow down in here, and it has a funky, relaxed vibe which is welcome when you realise you are just a couple of minutes from one of Europe’s busiest streets. All this, and the staff are friendly, helpful and efficient.

I really liked the feel of this place. There is a bar area if you are in a prop-yourself-up-with-a-drink mood, tables to sit at for a chat and to plan your sightseeing escapades, and a lot of outdoor seating in a pedestrianised area for when the weather finally gets warm. So much nicer than sitting on a street with buses whizzing past. What was also nice is that it is huge – there is lots of space, and lots of natural light. This might not seem like a big deal, but I really do not like to go somewhere during the day and sit in a bunker. We don’t get that much sun here, so it seems a shame to hide from it. A calm but buzzing atmosphere, rather than busy and hectic.

Tibits has a great selection of fresh juices and smoothies, with a range of food from around the globe in the buffet section – hot dishes, salads, nibbles, bread and fruit. We arrived around 5pm, so went for a glass of Pimm’s and lemonade and made up an ad hoc aperitivo platter from what was on offer. The food was clearly fresh (new platters were coming out with a pleasing regularity while we were there), and there was a nice balance of salads based on healthy lentils, quinoa and cous cous. In our little selection, the marinated mushrooms, cooked aubergine cubes and falafel were all excellent. Fresh and delicious, with judicious use of olive oil. If I have one niggle, it was that I took a few potato wedges, but these were not really that great – I like mine hot and super-crispy, and these weren’t. I think this was a sign that I should stick to the more traditional looking tapas-style efforts or explore the lush-looking salads. Perhaps I should have had the okra in tomato sauce, tofu blocks with dipping sauce or bean and walnut salad? I think those will be for next time, as I will surely be going back.

I would really recommend Tibits – a welcoming, chilled place in this part of time is a welcome discovery, particularly one with a veggie focus. You’ll probably even be able to get a meat water to come here with you!

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