Monthly Archives: November 2012

Thanksgiving in Miami

Today I’m completing the triple – the last part of the grand tour of the East Coast of the US!

As much fun as it was to spend a decent amount of time in New York and Washington DC, these are not places noted for their warm weather in November, so it was off to Miami’s South Beach for a week, staying at the super-fancy SLS South Beach hotel. This is a recent addition to the city, but based in an old art deco building which once housed the Ritz Plaza. It’s quite something to wake up in the morning to be greeted by the inviting blue waters with the sun shining brightly. I defy you to look at the picture below and not be jealous!

I’d love to say that I could write lots about daily cultural events and sightseeing, but the reality is that most of the time was spent lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking around South Beach’s art deco historic district, eating, drinking and buying souvenirs. In my defence, there was a lot of cultural activities up north, so beach life was perfectly acceptable by this stage. The food was also pretty darned good – in particular, I loved the SLS hotel restaurant Bazaar by José Andrés, where the patatas bravas were superb, and the great Escopazzo restaurant, which offered a superb vegetarian tasting menu with wine pairing. Extravagant, yes, but wonderful food.

One of the reasons that we ended up mostly staying in South Beach and doing nothing more challenging than choosing between beer or a margarita is that you need a car. It’s not just that Miami is a fairly car-friendly city, it’s that all of Southern Florida makes having a car pretty much essential. South Beach is on an island, and you can walk everywhere, but if you want to go a bit further afield, you’ve either got to rent a vehicle, take taxis, or brave Miami’s public transport system, and as we had no ride, that made exploration a little challenging.

However, we were keen to check out Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana and the Miami Design District. So we decided to do it by public transport. Yes, public transport. From our perspective, the buses looked quite cool, with their 80s neon Miami Vice style livery and on-board airco. However, many Americans (i.e. those with cars) looked at us like we were utterly mad. Maybe we were naive, but the main problem with trying to get anywhere using a bus was simply that it takes a long, long, long time for something to turn up, then another long, long, long time for you to get anywhere.

Anyway, after a long, long, long trip, we got to Calle Ocho, but Little Havana turned out to be a little less exciting than I had hoped, but I put this down to the fact that it was a cool, cloudy Tuesday morning, so hardly the riot of Latin culture that you might expect. Perhaps Saturday evening after the sun has been beating down all day means the place is alive? Nevertheless, I managed to score a jar of Cuban dulce de leche and find the Gloria Estefan star on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. Then another bus back to Downtown Miami. This was also slow, but those Cuban grannies all look pretty awesome in their designer sunglasses.

Afterwards, I did something I’d been tipped off about years ago – downtown Miami has a driverless elevated train that whizzes around the towers, and it’s free to boot. It was quite fun after the sloooooowness of the bus from Little Havana to practically fly around the city and it offers some great views. After checking out superyachts at the seafront, it was a short taxi ride up to the Miami Design District. Sadly, they were gearing up for a major event, so a lot of places were closed for remodelling. However, I managed to pick up some quite fun Christmas decorations and an earthenware fox from the Jonathan Adler store, all of which seemed suitably OTT to represent Miami in my Christmas box.

The other “big trip” of the week was with a friend who lives just north of Miami to Delray Beach on Thanksgiving, and then on to a dinner with Cuban friends in the evening. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve seen so much food! There was a huge turkey covered in bacon, massive trays of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with nutmeg/brown sugar/marshmallows, greens, cornbread…. I managed a small portion of the veggie goodies, and have to admit the sweet potatoes were pretty amazing, although I could not quite bring myself to eat them with the marshmallows. It was a great night, and we were honoured to be invited to join in with a special celebration.

Other than that, it was a week of palm trees, sun, sand, key lime pie, swimming, flip flops, ice cream and cold beer. I could really get used to these extended holidays! Hope you’ve enjoyed the pics, and normal (foodie) service should resume shortly.

And with that, back to real life in London!

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The Monuments of Washington DC

You might have seen this post before – I accidentally pressed the “publish” button last night!

After the buzz and excitement of New York, the next leg of my trip was to visit Washington DC. The train was, by far, the easiest way to get between these two great cities. We’d pitched up early at the station, but it seems you don’t need to be there more than 15 minutes ahead of time. Any earlier, and you’ll find yourself hanging about on the concourse, desperately looking for a source of free WiFi. Lesson learned!

The trip itself took in Philadelphia, Baltimore and coast of Chesapeake Bay. Travelling through the landscape, the evidence of the recent storm was still clear to see – felled trees, fallen power lines and damaged buildings. However, there were also elegant bridges, beautiful forests and lakes whizzing past. Far nicer than the plane for such a short trip!

DC was a new city for me, and I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I have seen it for years on TV, but I wondered what the place was like, the feel, the pulse of the place. Living in London, you’ve got a combination of the fun, exciting city alongside the grand buildings, monuments and institutions of state in one place, somewhere where things are chaotic and unplanned. In contrast, DC was planned to serve as a national capital, with streets based on a neat grid system and wide avenues.

That’s the theory, but there is, quite frankly, nothing that can prepare you for the moment that you first see the Washington Monument by night, or the glistening white dome of the Capitol above the city. This place was intended to impress and I was wowed.

We were staying at Donovan House on Thomas Circle, which is a boutique hotel with a great futuristic feel in the rooms. A padded dark leather band around the middle of the room lent a 2001 feeling (minus the crazy robot) and the bathroom has a spiral shower. It also has a fantastic roof terrace with good views, but sadly it was too chilly to enjoy this other than by sneaking a peek early one morning. Next time…

A great thing about our location was that it was a few minutes to walk to the White House. To the White House. So, of course, that just had to be the first stop. I like to think of myself as being reasonably well-travelled and sufficiently cool not to get giggle like a schoolchild, but I was genuinely excited to be standing at the railing looking at this iconic building. There were even a few protests outside to make it clear that you’re in a place where politics is the life blood of the city.

For that first evening, we had a dinner booked, but enough time to sneak up to the bar on top of the W Hotel opposite the White House, and enjoy cocktails while trying to spot snipers on the roof. A French 75 and a Negroni made us less than efficient at spotting said snipers, but again, it was just so thrilling to be sitting there, drink in hand, taking in the spectacular view. I really want to go back there in summer when the whole terrace is open on a warm evening.

For afterwards, in a rare moment of organisation, I’d booked dinner at a restaurant in the Dupont Circle area called Nora. If I told you this was America’s first certified organic restaurant, you’d think it was a terribly worthy place, but it about as far from the lentils-and-nut loaf brigade as you can imagine. The cocktails were great, and the food superb. As a bonus, they offered a tempting vegetarian tasting menu, but we stuck to the a la carte. I also loved that whereas London folk tend to be loud and raucous, these DC folk were chatting enthusiastically but intimately in the dimmed lighting. Maybe it’s because everyone is discussion political intrigue?

The next day, it was time for some serious sightseeing. In NYC you feel like you’re seeing what the city is about by just walking the streets and looking up from time to time, but in DC, there are monuments galore that you must go to see. I had booked to go to the US Capitol, so it was a quick ride in the surreal DC subway system. I say “surreal” as the system is clean, modern and very retro (the future as imagined in the 1970s), but what was rather strange was the way each station looks the same, and each of them is very dim. It’s like the people running this system want you to feel like you’re deep underground. If they’re replacing the lights, I suggest a higher wattage would not go amiss. But don’t lose that retro look.

Emerging from the darkness back into the light, you get what must be one of the great views in the world, the US Capitol against a perfect blue sky. The air was crisp, and the leaves on the nearby trees added a little extra brightness to the scene. But we were not just there to look at the outside, we were going to do the full tour. And the Americans know how to do a good tour. They start with a film that explains the national motto e pluribus unum (out of one, many) and even I, as one of those Brits who had earlier burned down the original Capitol, found this all very rousing. It was then time to go and see the rotunda, the sculpture gallery (each state can place two statues in the Capitol, made either from marble or bronze), the original chamber of the US Supreme Court and experience a vote in the US House of Representatives. All big, all grand, all impressive. With all of this celebration of the good ole US of A, we felt it was only fitting to have burgers and fries in the Capitol cafeteria. As you’d expect, their burgers and fries were pretty darn good.

Next, it was a slow wander from the Capitol down to the National Mall. As this time, there was a lot of work underway at the front of the Capitol to erect the stage for the second inauguration of President Obama, and the grassy areas were being re-turfed as part of a renovation project. Great work, but spoiled my ability to get some great pics…grrr… but in the fantastic weather, the Washington Monument looks sensational on the horizon and the various buildings the form part of the Smithsonian lined the Mall like grand old dames of the city. Sadly, when reaching the Monument, it turns out it is closed for renovations until 2014 due to damage caused during a recent earthquake (!), but pressing on, the Lincoln Memorial beckoned in the distance. The reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial offers a spectacular vista of the Washington Monument, but I found the ambiance around the Memorial rather surprising. I had expected a spot of contemplation and reflection on the life of a great man, but there were a lot of loud tourists, people sliding down the banisters, shouting, playing music from iPhones. Perhaps its a sign of my age, but I would have thought people would have treated the Lincoln Memorial differently. But I guess it is better that people are visiting than not.

Walking back through the park, we passed the very moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The style is incredibly simple, and knowing that all of the names on this wall were people who were either killed or were missing in action is overwhelming. I found it hard to comprehend just how many names were engraved in this place. Here, things felt calm and respected, and the presence of flowers showed that these are names which still mean a lot to people today.

From the National Mall, we headed back to get another view of the White House from the front, including something that was attracting a lot of attention – Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. I loved the fact that it looked like the sort of garden that any family could have – in the corner of the lawn, growing what looked like a decent selection of vegetables, and with a couple of kids asking their parents if they could have a garden like the First Lady. There’s an impact being made right there. Afterwards, it was over to Georgetown to get a slightly different take on the city, and enjoy the pretty old houses and leafy streets, which looked prefect in the hazy late afternoon autumn sunshine.

The next day was dedicated to checking out everything that had been missed the day before, namely the wonderful museums of DC. So often when I’m in a new city, I find myself comparing the one or two museums with what we have back in London, and thinking “yeah, it’s nice, but London has more”. Not the case here, however, as DC has some amazing collections. Truly inspirational to have access to so much in such a concentrated area.

The first port of call was the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. This was an old (apparently crumbling) government building until it was taken over, the courtyard given a dramatic makeover with a glass canopy and converted into a gallery. A beautiful space, and I loved the exhibit on great 20th century American personalities. From there, we passed the National Building Museum. While we did not have time to go round, it was topped as a fascinating place to pop into given the huge columns inside the structure supporting a vast atrium.

The next place I wanted to go, and where I was keen to spend as long as I could, was the National Museum of the American Indian. The story of the American Indian population is one that I was not too familiar with, but I found this place both informative and deeply moving. There was some wonderful content showing both the richness of what has been lost across the Americas as well the work that still goes on to protect this cultural heritage today.

The final stop was the National Museum of American History. Here was the chance to see some of the history behind some great American icons – most importantly the Stars and Stripes – as well as the way in which the media has played a fundamental role on shaping the role of presidents and the way they are portrayed. As a favour for a friend who was keen to have some pictures, I passed the exhibition of First Lady fashion. Yes, I saw that Nancy Reagan red china service as well as that Michelle Obama inauguration ball gown. Pictures of her Jimmy Choos are below if you’re into that sort of things…

That evening, there was just time for a stroll around the Mall by night to enjoy the illuminated monuments, before dinner in the Asian restaurant Zentan in our hotel. It turns out, this was the place to be for dinner, going by the number of sexy interns who were hanging around the bar. We’d already had a tip that Zentan is famed for “some salad with like a zillion things in it” and, indeed, there is was on the menu, the Singapore Slaw with 19 ingredients. It was, quite simply, amazing. Crisp fried noodles, tender julienne vegetables, carved carrot shapes, squash, peas, toasted peanuts, plum sauce, daikon…I would struggle to name all 19 ingredients, but I loved it.

The next day, there was just enough time to explore the up-and-coming 14th Street area, before heading off via Ronald Reagan International Airport. We could have flown out of Dulles airport, but come on – you know you want to fly from Ronald Reagan. And with that, the chilly autumnal days of the North-East were behind us and it was next stop Miami!

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Six Days in the Big Apple

You may have noticed the recent blogging min-hiatus, which was due to me going on holiday for two and a half weeks. In November! A sheer delight, and something I have had been looking forward to for a very long time.

I promised a little note of what I got up to as well as some pictures, so here you go! This gallery is probably quite familiar to you if you’ve been following my shots on Instagram, but it’s also nice to see all these little moments in one place.

Arriving just after Hurricane Sandy, it was clear on the way in from the airport that the city was still in clean-up mode. Even a week later, there were fallen branches and only a partial subway service. I felt it best to steer clear of the hardest hit areas – they need to recover and clean up, and without gawking tourists. It also makes you incredibly grateful to live in a city that does not, by and large, experience this sort of extreme weather.

I was staying in the middle of Manhattan at the NoMad hotel which is “located in the hear of the historic NoMad district” according to their website. The NoMad moniker (which was a new one to me) apparently comes from the area being north of Madison Square, but “the cheap wig and costume jewellery district” would have been a bit more accurate. If you need a Lady Gaga hairbow special, there is a place just down from the NoMad that sells it – you never know when the need may arise! I’m sure that this will probably be a very trendy part of town in about six months, and passé in about twelve, but at the moment, I was staying in a (very small) island of cool in the middle of a lot of weaves and clip-in pony tails. One gem (not of the costume variety) was The Flatiron Room on W 26th Street, which offers a vast array of whisky, either straight or in cocktails (think Old Fashioned or Rye Sours, rather than Mojitos). This place was so good we drank rather too much whisky before dinner at the NoMad hotel restaurant, and doubtless, we made an impression on the restaurant staff for all the wrong reasons…nevertheless, if you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out, or even booking a table to slink along later to enjoy hard liquor and some live music.

What I did like about the neighborhood was its proximity to mega-delicatessan Eataly on Madison Square, which was perfect for morning coffee and Italian pastries. It had what seemed like acres of floor space piled high with just about any Italian food treat you can imagine. I can see how people spend a lot of time and money here, but I used it more for browsing – I can get most of this stuff in London if I look hard enough, and I wasn’t aiming to bring back Italian chestnut flour or Parmesan from New York. I suspect that one you start shopping there, it’s hard to stop. However, in the nearby Whisk I did pick up something more unique, a selection of bitters with some unusual flavours, so ideal to add a little extra something to festive G&Ts. The hotel was also very close to Madison Square’s daily farmer’s market, where you had tables literally groaning with cut-price post-Halloween squash, and I came away with a selection of goodies for daytime picnics, plus maple syrup from Vermont and maple candies made from pure, crystallised syrup. It was here I also came upon one of the most unusual things of the trip – a rye sourdough bread baked with cheese and sauerkraut, made by an upstate farm. It sounded strange and I had to try a slice. At first I wasn’t keen, but by the last mouthful, I was ready for one more. It’s a strange combination, but somehow it worked. With a cold beer on a warm day, it would have been even better.

Of course, it was not just about food, and there was quite a bit of sightseeing on the agenda. On just about every visitor itinerary is the High Line (a park constructed along an abandoned elevated rail track), and for me this was my third visit since it first opened. I walked along the initial section around three years ago, when it was still a novelty and quite quiet. However, it has since taken its place as one of the things to do in the city, and it’s less of an elevated walk and more like a shuffle. A shuffle the does offer some spectacular views across the city, the West River and glimpses of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. By this time, it has extended all the way from 14th Street up to 30th Street (not, ahm, one of NYC’s jewels), but is going to be extended further towards the West River, so I look forward to seeing that next time I’m in town.

In terms of more traditional sightseeing (and so back to food), I wanted to go back to a little breakfast place I love called Elephant & Castle, if for little more than the fact this place shares its name with a London tube station and it offers great pancakes. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump into the West Village and SoHo to check out lavish boutiques selling items I could not afford. It’s fun, but sort of like going to a gallery where you can admire lovely things you will, without a doubt, not be taking home afterwards. I did manage to score some nice items in various cookshops though, adhering to the mantra that I should try to buy things that I cannot get (or can only get with difficulty) back in London.

One of my favourite visits during the trip was to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street. This is a historic building which has been preserved and now serves as a museum, telling the story of various immigrants who came to the US and lived at this address on Orchard Street. We got a tour which told the story of a Jewish seamstress in the late 19th century and an Italian family in the first half of the 20th century. If you get the opportunity, it’s well worth stopping by – stories from the past the have parallels with our times, and the museum makes it all the more real by tracing these people through time via census records to tell their story. In one case, they have recordings of the memories of one woman who lived there as a little girl, which was very moving.

That evening, dinner was in Dirt Candy in the East Village. The name might sound odd, but it refers to candy from the dirt (earth) i.e. vegetables! The chef/owner Amanda Cohen offers up innovative hearty vegetarian fare, and can also make anything on the menu as a vegan option. I’d read ahead of the trip that this place has been hit by the flooding and power cuts of Sandy, so I was glad that it had re-opened. However, I got my dates wrong, turning up a day early. Luckily, we had theater tickets booked, so could assure the manager we would be out within the hour. Given that it’s a rare treat to find somewhere where you can choose between two veggie dishes on a menu (even if one if often the dreaded mushroom risotto), I felt positively spoiled for choice to have a free run at the menu here. We loved the scallion pancakes, cooked like Danish æbleskiver (or “puff pancakes”) and that chard gnocchi main, but the star was the dessert – aubergine tiramisu with rosemary candy floss. If I’d just been more organised, we could have stayed a little longer to enjoy the great food rather than dashing off to the theatre. Mea culpa.

Yes, NYC is a show town, and I had taken the opportunity to see a play, the oddly-names If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. This is the tale of a dysfunctional British family, and as their lives and relationships fall apart, they destroy the set, culminating in a flood scene. The star of the play was Jake Gyllenhaal, and a few folk have been curious to know how well he did a British accent. Overall, I think he did a reasonable turn, as he wasn’t trying to do the standard posh English. It did wobble a little towards Brummie, West Country and Australian from time to time, but overall, a decent attempt. However, the content was rather heavy going for holiday viewing, so I didn’t exactly leave with the spirit soaring.

However, any feeling of melancholy was swiftly removed by a wander through Times Square. Yes, this is perhaps about the tackiest place that you can go to in this town, but there is something compelling about all that neon. I swear that while standing there, you could feel the heat of the lights on your face in the chilly winter air. It might be lame, but it’s also an exhilarating and vibrant place. I was there as a tourist, and I loved it, even if just for a little while!

On the final day, with another clear blue sky, it was perfect weather to take in the autumnal shades of Central Park, where gingko trees were blazing with gold, and maple trees were brilliant crimson. I also swung by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and managed to acquire a glass pomegranate, thereby continuing my tradition of buying impractical Christmas decorations that then need to be transported with great care in trains and planes (fyi – this pomegranate made it back to London in one piece).

I was also happy to get the chance to meet up with someone I’ve been corresponding with on Twitter, the very lovely Johanna Kindvall, who is behind the great Kokblog site. We went for lunch in a little place in Boerum Hill, and I think it’s great fun to finally meet people you’ve been in contact with for a while. If you don’t know her blog, it’s worth checking out for a fresh take on Scandinavian food seen from a Brooklyn perspective. Dirt Candy was also her tip, so I got to enjoy two tasty meals thanks to Johanna!

For the last evening, I had dinner at the Don Antonio pizzeria, where I had one of the tastiest and naughtiest things I’ve eaten for quite some time. Their house specialty is the Montanara Starita, where the pizza base is quickly fried, before being topped with smoked mozzarella and tomato sauce and popped into the oven. Most likely quite unhealthy, but it was absolutely delicious, and I have to admit that it’s lucky they don’t have a London branch (yet?), as these things could become addictive. But in case the fried pizza was not enough, as a dessert we took something that sounded like “angel hair”. I expected delicate strands of crisp, fried dough akin to churros. Instead, it was a bowl of chunky pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Another dish that could get addictive, and even I had to admit defeat before I got to the half-way point.

With by belly filled and wrapped up against the cold, we went off to see a light-hearted new musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. I loved it – in fairness I had consumed a lot of wine by this point (including more in the theater, which was offering the stuff by the pint!) but it was firmly marketed as a jolly Christmas affair, and I think they got the pantomime theme spot on. There was also a lot of British humour in there, and I did wonder if the audience were getting all of the jokes, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Maybe not high art, but a great night out, even if it’s difficult to know how Mr Dickens might have reacted.

And with that, after six action-packed days and nights, it was time to leave NYC, and head off to catch the train from Penn Station to Washington DC! I hope its not too long until I’m back though.

Oh, and I have to comment on that last photo. I’ve included it as there were adverts everywhere for the Lindsay Lohan TV movie Liz & Dick. It actually premiered the day after I left the US, so I’m curious to actually see it when it comes out. It’s been tagged as something of a “must see” for various reasons!

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Pumpkin Gnocchi

Yes, I am back from my big holiday in the US – lots of pics and a write-up coming soon! In the meantime…my “back from holiday” recipe

If you’re anything like me, you will have recently gotten into the Halloween spirit and bought lots of pumpkins and squashes, carved them, and then been left with some amazing lanterns plus lots of pumpkin flesh. So what can you do with it? Well, I made the lot into soup, but got back from holiday this week, and still found an assortment of squash in the fruit bowl. So…

While I think I have a pretty amazing pumpkin soup recipe (I usually enhance the flavour with lots of spice and top it off with toasted pumpkin seeds for a bit of crunch) as with so many things, there comes a point where you want something a bit more creative than soup. Back at home, suitcase in hand, I wanted to make something that did not involve a trip to the shops – I’d just “enjoyed” 8 hours in a plane, two busy airports, a severe lack so sleep, jet lag and a trip on the tube, which made a trip to the local store unappealing. So I came up with the idea of making pumpkin gnocchi with the stuff I had in the fridge and cupboard.

At this point, I can imagine some Italians clasping their hands to their faces in horror as an outsider commits culinary heresy with their classic little potato dumplings, but this was a tasty little dish so frankly, I’m not too worried. Indeed, there’s actually a lot of variety out there with gnocchi seemly made from just about anything you can imagine, so there may even be a strand of Italian authenticity in here somewhere.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, provided you’ve got a little time to dedicate to it (i.e. quite good when you’re unpacking cases and making the washing machine work overtime). The squash is roasted in the oven with a little oil and garlic until tender, then mixed up with cheese and flour to make the dough. What was a sheer delight when making the dough was the colour – somewhere between the deep orange of the squash flesh and the sort of vibrant yellow you get from using saffron. My picture doesn’t really do it justice, but it is very firmly on the jaunty side of things.

One realisation I had in making this is that while you want the squash to be soft, you also want it to be on the dry side. I would therefore avoid steaming (which will get you a soft texture, but increases the moisture in the dough) and instead opt for roasting. Pop the squash pieces in a dish, mix with a little olive oil, add some garlic, then cover in tin foil and bake until tender, before uncovering and allowing the edges of the squash to caramelise. This imparts flavour, and keeps moisture levels down. The result? You need less flour in the gnocchi.

I actually made this gnocchi in two batches – one for pictures and a quick bite to eat after my travels, and another the next day for lunch (yup, I’d taken an extra day off to get over the jet lag). The first attempt was based on making large gnocchi. Or at least, these were my attempt at normal-sized gnocchi, they just turned out slightly larger. I had them with a little butter, black pepper, nutmeg and pecorino cheese. While they might look a little large on the place, they were very tasty, with a clear flavour of squash.

For the second version, I rolled the dough into very thing strands, and cut out what were really tiny gnocchi (the side of peanut M&Ms). They looked very pretty when cooked, piled up on the plate, but this time I made a change when serving them. I added only a tiny knob of butter, and instead used a dash of pumpkin oil to impact a rich toasted flavour to the dish. This combination was, frankly, sensational, giving two very different pumpkin flavours in the same dish.

So here you have it – squash gnocchi, made with butternut squash and goat cheese. Now all I need to get hold of is one of those proper little gnocchi rollers to get the ridges right!

To make pumpkin gnocchi:

• 400g squash, peeled and cubed (I used butternut squash)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 100g soft goats cheese
• 1 egg
• 25g pecorino cheese, grated
• 200-225g plain flour
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Place the squash pieces in an ovenproof dish. Add the olive oil and garlic cloves, and mix. Cover with tin foil, and roast until tender (at least 30 minutes). Once ready, remove the tin foil and continue to roast until the edges of the squash are just starting to brown and caramelise. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – if the squash seems watery, reduce the heat to 150°C (200°F) and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, then check again.

2. Put the cooled squash into a bowl (make sure to peel the garlic and discard the skin). Mash, then add the goat cheese, egg and pecorino cheese. Add enough flour to make a soft dough – it will still be quite sticky, so be careful not to over-work. Try to keep your hands and surfaces well-floured to prevent sticking, rather than adding more and more flour to the dough.

3. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into strands, then cut into pieces. You’ve made the gnocchi!

4. To cook the gnocchi, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. In the meantime, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and pour into a serving dish. Once the water is boiling, drop the gnocchi into the water. They are done when they float (around 2-3 minutes). As the gnocchi reach the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place into the serving dish. Serve immediately.

To serve, add the sauce of your choice. I like to coat them in butter, add a little nutmeg and black pepper, and top with pecorino. If you have pumpkin oil, try adding a dash of that too.

Worth making? Easy? Yes. Quick? Not especially, but these are fun to make and delicious solid fare for cold days, so overall, worth the effort.

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En vacances!

After my summer blogging hiatus (moving house! Olympics!), and just as I’d just managed to get back to regular service…I’m delighted to tell you that I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks! I’ll be soaking up culture in New York, politics in Washington DC, and the sunshine in Miami.

If you’ve got hints, tips and tricks for any of these fine places, do feed free to share! Chances are I won’t be posting while I am away, but you can check out some pictures on Instagram or via Twitter (@london_eats).

See you back here in time for Christmas!

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Knäckebröd (Swedish Rye Crispbread)

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that my post about a rather hot lentil soup included some sort of crackers on the side. What were they? While I am sure that folk are not exactly lying awake at night, fretting with uncertainty, I’ll clear up the mystery – they were some terribly healthy Swedish-style rye crispbreads, and of course, they were home-made. We’re good like that round here.

Yes, for when you think about Swedish cuisine, you will pretty quickly get to the classic crispbread (via all the other stereotypes – cinnamon buns, amusingly named sweets like skum and plopp, meatballs, fermented herring…). I find crispbread – or knäckebröd (k-ney-keh-br-uh-d) in Swedish –  to be something of a wonder. It’s incredibly simple, but very tasty when made well, and provides the perfect foil for all manner of toppings. It’s rich in fibre, so clearly good for you, but it also has that amazing crispness. Personally, I love the sort of crispbread that seems to shatter. Those crispbreads that are dry and a bit powdery don’t really do it for me. I prefer the stuff that is thin and slightly toasty, that gives you that noticeable crack as you sink your teeth into it.

For all my culinary Swedophilia (as seen from cinnamon buns, “vacuum cleaner” cakes and dream cookies), I’ve never gotten round to making knäckebröd. Until this weekend that is, and I’m happy to report that it was really rather easy, and the results really rather successful. I was particularly pleased with this picture, when the fellows stacked up neatly like a pile of crisp autumn leaves. They’re probably supposed to stay flatter than mine did, but I actually like the mad, warped shape these guys developed in the oven.

I used a dough which was mostly rye flour and a little plain flour (about 4 parts rye, 1 part plain) in the hope this would make the dough a little easier to work with. Did it work? No idea, as the dough was predictably heavy, as you’d expect with mostly rye flour.

I also went for a yeast dough. It would have been simpler and quicker to just make a plain dough without the yeast, but I wanted to have as much flavour in the crispbread as I could get. I wasn’t using much more than rye flour and salt, so this fermentation stage was going to matter. I started the yeast using some honey and warm water, then mixed up the dough and left to prove overnight. All that rye flour meant that the dough was extremely dense, and while it had not exactly puffed up overnight, it was clear that the yeast had worked it magic, and there was a distinctive sour aroma when I removed the lid from the bowl. The use of yeast was wise indeed.

Now, it was time to bake these bad boys. The trick, I have now learned, is that you need to work in batches. No point in rolling out all the dough, as you are aiming to get something that is about a millimeter thick. If you roll all the dough in once go, you’d better have a very large kitchen. Trust me – small batches here work wonders, and it’s much easier to take out your frustrations with the rolling pin to roll it out to wafer-thinness.

Some people also have nifty little rolling pins that make the characteristic holes all over the knäckebröd, but I had to make do with a fork. In fact, I quite like the randomness of them, they look a little but more artisanal. Sometimes it is nice to get things that look absolutely perfect. Macarons should look perfect. Crispbread…well, it should look very rustic, no?

After the baking, it was time for the taste test. I could not have been more thrilled with how they turned out. At first the toasted flavour comes across, giving way to a tinge of yeast and the sour tang of the proving process. But most thrilling of all (or as thrilling as things get when it comes to crispbread) was the proper, sharp crack as you bit into them. It was beyond doubt that these guys were seriously crisp.

So there you have it – a super-easy recipe that makes excellent crispbread. But keep in mind that I’m not Swedish, I’m not an expert, and I’m probably biased. In some ways, I have to be, given that I now have a pile of 30 crispbreads in the kitchen, which are slowly being eaten for breakfast and with dinner (note that knäckebröd is not interchangeable with poppadom when eating curry, no matter how good you might think it would be…). That said, you can buy good crispbread these days, and I’m not sure this is something I’ll be knocking up on a weekly basis (if for no other reason than to avoid another glut of the stuff) but this is something that it will be worth tweaking with lots of seeds and/or extra spices in the dough to make crackers for a party. Now it’s just me going mano a mano with those 30 crispbreads…

Now, I said that I like the sort of knäckebröd that is so crisp that it seems to shatter? As you can see from below,  I’m as good as my word!

To make knäckebröd (makes 30):

• 1 tablespoon dried yeast
• 250ml lukewarm water
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 125g plain flour
• 400g rye flour

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the honey and three tablespoons of flour. Set aside somewhere warm until the mixture is bubbling.

2. Combine the rest of the flour, the salt and the yeast mixture until you have a smooth dough. It should be firm, but if it seems too dry, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, and work until smooth. I ended up adding three extra spoons of water.

3. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave the rest overnight. The mixture will only expand slightly, but should smell “yeasty” and slightly sour the next day.

4. The next day, prepare to bake the crispbread. Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, but do not grease.

5. Take one-quarter of the dough. Place on a well-floured work surface (use more rye flour) and roll out as thin as you can – around 1-2mm is idea. Use a bowl as a template to cut out rounds and transfer to the baking sheet (I baked four at a time). Use a fork to prick all over the surface of each crispbread.

6. Bake the knäckebröd for around 8-10 minutes until the pieces are browned. Watch carefully as there is not much difference between done and burnt!

Worth making? An easy recipe with great results. As good as the stuff you can buy, which might put you off, but nice to try if you want to put some unusual flavours in the mixture.

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Fiery Lentil Soup

So what are you up to for Bonfire Night? Baked spuds around the fire, sweets or messy toffee apples?

Personally, I’m a big fan of a flask of soup with some bread to keep the cold out, and I’ve got a recipe that is a guaranteed winter warmer. It’s good old-fashioned lentil soup, which is probably one of the easiest soups to make and I think by far and away one of the most satisfying.

I’ve recently been adding a lot more spices to my food, and that includes a lot more chilli. I’ve actually started to get quite experimental, and I can only apologise to everyone who has been surprised to find allspice cropping up in a range of dishes (albeit – no disasters so far!).

However, today is not an exercise in culinary risk-taking. Rather, it’s my “normal” lentil soup which has been fortified by a sharp twist of lemon juice at the end, and a swirl of chilli paste (in the form of sambal olek). The result is something that is robust, satisfying and packs rather a punch in the flavour department. However, if you’ve got folks around who perhaps prefer things a little milder, adding the chilli at the end avoids them running around looking for glasses of water to kill the heat.

So if you’re off to some Bonfire Night festivities, wrap up warm, keep your pets safe, and have a great evening!

For spicy lentil soup (serves 4, easy to double/triple):

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• knob of ginger, peeled and finely grated

• 3 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mild curry powder
• 2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
• 250g red lentils
• 1 stock cube
• 1 litre hot water
• salt and pepper, to taste
• lemon juice and chilli paste, to serve

1. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and cook on a medium heat until translucent (five minutes).

2. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for two minutes (don’t let them burn). If they get too brown or start to stick, add a dash of water.

3. Add the spices and cook for 30 seconds. If it seems too dry, add some water – this will form a thick paste, and as the water evaporates, it will become oily and cook the spices. Don’t be tempted to add more oil.

4. Add the lentils and carrots and cook briefly, then add the water.

5. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stock cube, and keep simmering until the lentils are tender. Add more water if the soup is too thick, then add some salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add a dash of chilli paste and a squeeze of lemon juice, erring on the side of caution!

Worth making? I think the addition of the chilli takes this from a good soup to a great soup. An excellent choice to keep the chill at bay this week!

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury