Category Archives: London

Pumpkins (and I’m back)

It’s been a while, I know. Let’s just say I’ve been very busy. (My mother would say lazy, but we won’t split hairs). But Truefoodie is back, and this time she’s trying something new. Well, a little bit new – all posts will now be featuring photography by the lovely Oli (who happens also to be my chap). Bear with us – Oli is new to food photography, and I am new to food styling in my kitchen, in the dark, with a load of Ikea crockery.  But we’ll get there.

For my first post back, I thought I’d talk about pumpkins (and squash). Since the beginning of the summer, Kew Gardens has been running an exhibition called the IncrEdibles, and yesterday we inadvertently walked into its last day. The exhibition – showcasing the exceptional variety of food grown around the world – had moved on to an autumnal theme for its last incarnation, and we were fortunate to be some of the very last people to see the absolutely breathtaking pumpkin house before it was dismantled.Image

I knew that pumpkins and squash came in lots of different shapes and sizes, but I had no idea how vast the family actually was. And they all have such fantastic names – crown of thorns, turk’s turban,  sweet dumpling, potiron tristar triamble (I’m not making this up)… Fortunately for us, it being the last day of the exhibition they were selling all these beauties off, so after a quick google consultation with Sarah Raven, I bought a crown prince, a rouge vif d’Etampes, a kabocha and two munchkins. (I am still not making this up…) The munchkins were too gorgeous to chop up, so they’re going to be varnished and displayed somewhere. I have yet to work out where.Image

The rest I chopped up, skin and all, deseeded and roasted in olive oil until golden, caramelised and sticky. Half of it went into a salad last night, with coriander, basil, toasted macadamias, pomegranate molasses, rocket and goat’s cheese, and the other half I made into this rather nice soup this evening.

Because the pumpkins were already cooked, I don’t have a raw weight for them, but I reckon that one decently sized butternut squash would about cover it if you can’t get anything more exotic. Just roast whatever you have, and any leftovers can be frozen or chucked into a salad. The choice of cream is up to you – I used clotted cream because it was what we had, but double, crème fraiche, yogurt or even cream cheese would all work well. It’s a midweek supper – there are no rules to it.

soupPumpkin, apple and horseradish soup

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 for dinner, with a portion leftover to freeze for a solitary supper

 Drizzle olive oil

2 onions, roughly chopped

2 eating apples (I used braeburns), peeled and roughly chopped

350g (cooked weight) roasted pumpkin or squash

1ltr vegetable or chicken stock

About 2 tsp grated horseradish (English Provender is a good make)

2-3 tbsp of something creamy (see above), plus extra to serve

Spring onions and chilli flakes, to serve

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and when warm, add the onion with some sea salt. Cook for 5-6 minutes over a medium heat, until the onion has softened – it shouldn’t colour. Add the apple, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until everything is very soft but still uncoloured.
  2. Add the pumpkin and the stock, bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered, for around 5 minutes, until the apple is completely cooked. Remember the pumpkin is already cooked, so don’t overdo it.
  3. Add in the horseradish, season very generously, then blend until smooth. Check the seasoning and horseradish and adjust accordingly. Transfer back to the wiped out pan and heat until just simmering. Stir through the cream, check the seasoning again and ladle into bowls. If you want to do a fancy drizzle on top, let the cream down with a little water until pourable and spoon over the soup. Scatter with spring onions and chilli, and serve. If you want to vary the topping, chopped parsley, toasted nuts, or some julienned pieces of apple would all be lovely.

 

 

 

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Filed under London, Recipes, Savoury

Tomatoes on toast

Just in time for the August bank holiday

No matter how appalling the weather has been for the rest of the year – how many barbecues have been rained off and festival goers covered in mud, you can guarantee it will always be hot and sweaty during the last weeks of August. Because the last weeks of August are when we cook Christmas dinner, and, presumably to punish us for being so previous with his son’s birthday celebrations, God likes to play a little joke.

The joyous occasion came to pass last week. While everyone was sunning themselves in parks, I was shoving a roast turkey in the oven and blanching as the idle meat thermometer on the side read 38C. And then we lit a fire. And after a few days of this sweaty festive ordeal, the very last thing I wanted to do was come home to a hot dinner. So I suppose it’s God’s way of mitigating his hilarious heat wave timing by making sure that all manner of gorgeous, refreshing vegetables are in season right now.

For those in London, if you only go to Borough market once a year, it should be in August. The stalls are riots of the most divine fruit and veg, piled high, soft, succulent and ripe. It’s absolutely mesmerising. On escaping from the office winter-wonderland in search of an antidote for supper, I was utterly spoiled for choice, but came to rest on the heritage tomato table in Turnips. My god. Row upon row of plump, glossy tomatoes, watermelon striped, primrose yellow, huge red Coeur de boeuf, and elongated San Marzano. Completely ignoring the price tag, I filled bags with the most unusual I could find, took them to the counter, then nearly had a heart attack. On a cautionary note everyone, when being seduced by vegetables in Borough market, always look at the price tag. My haul worked out at approximately £1 per tomato. Hmm. Needless to say I balked, went to remove them, remembered all those mince pies and meekly handed over my card, grabbing a sourdough baguette before scuttling away.

Tomatoes on toast has to be one of the simplest, but most delicious meals on the planet. But you have to have good tomatoes, and while £10 for two people might be a little excessive, when you’ve spent all hot summer day steaming Christmas puddings and making pigs in blankets, it seems worth it. We ate them with a very cold bottle of Viognier, and finished the meal off with fresh figs and a tiny goat’s cheese crottin drizzled with honey. Not a stuffing ball in sight…

Tomatoes on toast for two – hardly a recipe, but worth knowing anyway

Around 600-700g ripe mixed tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1shallot, finely chopped

drizzle sherry or red wine vinegar

pinch caster sugar

2-6 slices (depending on size) sourdough baguette or similar crusty, chewy bread, toasted

1 garlic clove, halved

sea salt and black pepper

handful basil leaves

Mix the tomatoes with 3tbsp of the extra virgin, the shallot, the vinegar (proceed cautiously and keep tasting) and the sugar (ditto). Leave it to sit for 15 minutes so the flavours mix. Rub the bread with the cut side of the garlic clove and place on two plates. Season the tomatoes generously last minute (the salt draws the liquid out of them so do this as late as possible) and taste again. You may find you need a little more vinegar after you’ve added the salt. Toss the basil leaves through and tip on top of the bread, finishing with a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately, preferably outside.

If you like, you can add a few shavings of good Parmesan over the top, but I think it’s just as gorgeous unadorned.

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Léon de Bruxelles

There are certain things that it’s not hard to cook. Mussels are one, provided they’re fresh. Chips are another, provided you have a good fryer. So when I went along to the newly opened Léon de Bruxelles (a franchise of Chez Léon, one of Brussels’ oldest restaurants specialising in moules frites) I thought we were probably in for a good meal. I mean, they’re Belgian, it’s their national dish…and it’s not hard, is it?

Our first impression of the huge restaurant on Cambridge Circus was that it was absolutely freezing. There were a few other diners here and there, but we were shown to a booth in an empty corner that was even colder than the rest of the restaurant. We asked to be moved, and were seated next to the window. With a nice draft. Although no explanation was offered about the temperature, we overheard the lady next to us (swathed in scarves) saying that that their heating was broken. Excellent. And so on to the food…

Now imagine eating them in a fridge

I ordered ‘creamy fish soup’ to start, put off by the hideous adjective, but heartened by the sourdough bread, rouille and cheese that went with it. I was expecting a typical fish soup, rich and velvety, comforting, deeply flavoured, with Gruyère to melt on top and crusty bread to dip in. What arrived was anaemic, flavourless, carelessly blended, with no cheese or rouille, just three sad looking croutons, coated in badly seasoned garlic butter. This is one of my restaurant pet-hates. If you’ve run out of something, or someone’s cocked up the ordering – come clean. Don’t assume I’m moronic enough to have forgotten what I ordered in the 10 minutes it’s taken to heat it up. King prawns cooked in chilli and garlic butter similarly turned up without the promised French bread, and with a side of straight-out-the-bottle Thai sweet chilli. And here’s me thinking we were in Belgium…

And so on to the main course. The restaurant prides itself on its mussels, of which it has 10 preparations, from traditional Marinières, to slightly bizarre Madras curry cooked with white wine and crème fraiche. Are alarm bells ringing yet? Moules Dijonnaise came in a generous cocotte, fresh, tasty mussels, but totally let down by the sauce, which was curdled and tasted of cheap, uncooked white wine. The frites, Belgium’s gift to gastronomy, were about the most disappointing part of the meal. Powdery, pre-frozen and lifeless, any true Belgian would have felt ashamed. A side salad was similarly uninviting, with fridge cold green beans (although it could have been the temperature of the room), and a salad dressing that had the decided aroma of concentrated lemon juice. French sourdough had, I suspect, been frozen and defrosted – although not completely – the inside was even colder than we were. An entrecôte steak with red wine sauce was perfectly adequate, but I’d rather pay the extra fiver and go to Hawksmoor.

The sea? Or seawater?!

I must confess, we ordered pudding just to see if it would get any worse. It did. A banana split waffle was like the kid’s dessert at Little Chef – aerated whipped cream that dissolved the minute it touched your lips, under-ripe banana and strawberry, and an average waffle only saved by some actually rather good strawberry ice cream. ‘Warm melting chocolate cake with chocolate sauce’ came with a thick skin on top from sitting under the heat lamp (lucky thing), and was heavy with cocoa, but light on actual chocolate.

And don’t think you can just go there for the beer. If you’re expecting an exciting list of Trappist brews and obscure Belgian varieties, you can forget it. It’s terribly pedestrian (Corona is one of the choices) – you’d get a better selection in a decent bar.

So what can I conclude? I honestly don’t know what they’re playing at – there’s a Belgo’s just round the corner doing this sort of cooking extremely well, with more atmosphere and a much more exciting drinks list. What annoyed me more than anything is that this food is so easy to get right – good mussels, good chips, good bread, decent salad dressing and some interesting beers. It’s not exactly Adrià is it?! What I had hoped would be a welcome change to the chain catering horror that is WC2 has in fact just turned out to be a Belgian Café Rouge. I’m very, very sorry Léon. But nil points.

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Salt Beef

Russell Norman. The man appears to be unstoppable. Having brought us Venetian, then American diner, his new venture – Mishkin’s  – opening on Friday promises Jewish comfort food – matzo ball soup, knish, and what I’m most excited about – salt beef. I truly am the grand daughter of a butcher. 

Made from brining and then boiling a rolled beef brisket, salt beef is mainly credited with Jewish origin, although versions of it were around in Britain as early as the 1600s. Tender, juicy and, (you guessed it) salty, there are few things better in a sandwich, slathered with mustard and piled with gherkins and sauerkraut.

Although it’s mainly found in sandwiches, salt beef is surprisingly versatile. To give a for instance, a friend of mine served it at her winter wedding with mash, green beans and gravy. When I first heard about it, my forehead wrinkled a little, but it worked perfectly – it tasted delicious and was a crafty way of serving over 100 people perfectly cooked beef without having to worry about it being pink. It’s fab with fried eggs and chips if you fancy a truck-stop dinner and I also love it in a hash – much the same as you’d have corned beef, or on its own, cold, with bubble and squeak. And gherkins. Always, always gherkins. Salt beef and gherkins are like Pippa Middleton and the Daily Mail. Without one, the other’s existence becomes pretty meaningless…

Salt beef is sadly missing from many menus in London and I can’t understand why, since it’s such a universally popular, cheap preparation of meat. Plus it keeps for ages, so the wastage must be significantly lower than fresh roast beef. But fret not, because it’s extremely easy to make your own. You will need… 

About 1kg beef brisket

200g salt

75g sugar

couple bay leaves and garlic cloves, bashed and peeled

15g mixed pickling spices (I like to use mace, star anise, allspice, juniper, couple of cloves and coriander, but whatever you fancy)

flavourers, for simmering (leek, onion, bay, carrot, thyme etc)

1 Put the beef brisket in a large saucepan with the salt, sugar, bay, garlic and pickling spice. Cover with about 2 litres water, bring to the boil, remove from the heat and leave to cool.

2 Take the brisket out of the liquid, place into a double lined heavy -duty freezer bag and add the brine over the top. Get rid of as much air as possible, then seal the bag and chill for up to 10 days.

3 When you’re ready to cook, remove the brisket from the brine, rinse and pat it dry. Put back in a saucepan with your flavourers (a mix of any of them is fine), then bring to a very gentle simmer and cook for 2-4 hours, keeping the water topped up to cover the meat until you can run a skewer through it very easily. Remove from the water and eat while still hot, or allow to cool and carve. It will keep for about a week.

So while you’re enjoying that at home, I’m booked into Mishkin’s for lunch at the weekend. And since those corporate swine seem intent on closing the lovely nearby Gaby’s deli who’ve been serving salt beef to the stars since the 60s, (try saying that with your mouth full), I hope that Russell Norman can provide me with a suitable alternative. I have faith. And I’ll keep you posted.

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A cuisine that doesn’t wok my world

Potential for rotten puns notwithstanding, I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food. That is, not sober, anyway. And even when intoxicated, I’ve only ever been able to manage a couple of bites of that cloyingly sticky, syrupy sauce that everything seems to be drenched in before accepting defeat and going to bed. For a good long while I was convinced lemon chicken was an evil combination, having eaten a takeaway once that tasted like misery soaked in Fairy liquid. It was only when I squeezed fresh lemon juice over crispy roasted chicken thighs that I realised it was the stuff of dreams.

I feel the MSG hangover already

But given that I’m so rude about fussy eaters, it didn’t seem right that I could write off an entire cuisine based on a few takeaways and pot luck dinners in Chinatown. After all, you’d be forgiven for thinking British food was beyond the pale if you only ever ate at Wetherspoon’s. And I’ve mentioned before how I feel about La Tasca

So when I was invited to try out Min Jiang – a very upmarket Chinese restaurant at the top of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, I accepted immediately. With a new chef straight from Hakkasan and side dishes whose price would make Abramovich shudder, this, I thought would change my mind about Chinese food.

Except that it didn’t.

It started well enough – the restaurant has that expensive hotel air to it that makes you feel like you’re in Lost in Translation – a sort of timelessness that means it’s ok to sit up all night drinking. Couple that with a 10th floor view over Hyde Park, an excellent watermelon mojito and Matt le Blanc sitting next to us and I was practically Scarlett Johanssen.

The menu caused us few problems, although I did note that I wasn’t thrilled by the sound of any of it and we settled for crispy squid, and crab steamed dumplings with pork broth to start. It may well be my palate’s lack of sophistication but I honestly couldn’t taste the difference between these dumplings and the ones from Ping Pong. They were a little lighter, but the flavours tasted exactly the same to me. And the crispy squid, though perfectly cooked was utterly bland, until you bit into a dried chilli at which point your head nearly came off. These courses were followed by ostrich in Mongolian sauce (made with curry leaves) and double cooked Sichuan pork belly with Chinese leek. We were told we’d need side dishes so we also ordered egg fried rice, four seasons vegetables and noodles with chives.

My first observation when everything came out was that it was all, down to the last stick of celery, fried or coated in oil. This is my main problem with Chinese food – there isn’t the balance of flavour you get with, say, Vietnamese, where their sticky, rich sauces are off-set by pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and limes. There’s no let up, nothing fresh to counterbalance the sickliness and very soon everything starts to taste the same. The dishes were technically well executed – the ostrich incredibly tender and the pork belly thinly sliced to exacting uniformity, and there was something interestingly seaweedy amongst the veg that gave me some relief, but after eating less than half I was already feeling rather sick. The boy fared a little better, but he gave up soon after me. By the time it came to pudding I devoured the faultless passion fruit ice cream, mainly happy that it didn’t taste like the inside of a wok.

So what to conclude…I don’t want to do the restaurant down, because aside from my prejudices the staff were helpful, the wine was delicious and it was so squeaky clean I would have eaten in the loos. I can’t fault it for not being authentic either and it was quite buzzy for a fancypants place on a drizzly recession Monday, and not just with expense account diners. I think that, however unwillingly, I have to surmise that I just don’t like Chinese food. And this doesn’t make me picky, it just makes me really like fresh herbs. And salads. And citrus juice. And steamed vegetables…

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Breakfast like a king…

I’ve often thought that dragging myself out of bed for breakfast with friends before work is a good idea. A coffee, a croissant and a good gossip would start the day off the right way, as opposed to the usual routine of dropping toast crumbs all over my dressing table, or worse, the keyboard of my desk. But more often than not, as the alarm goes off, the duvet’s charms are just too great, and the snooze button is pressed futilely every five minutes for an hour.

But not this morning. This morning, the lure of breakfast at the new branch of Hawksmoor dragged me out of bed at 6.30, into a rainy and dark street and a rush hour journey from hell.

Since I reviewed the last Hawksmoor at Seven Dials, the British steakhouse chain has gone from strength to strength, and has recently culminated in a) a new book, and b) a new restaurant in Guildhall.  Undeniably designed to cater to the city crowd, this vast polished wood dining room, unlike its brothers, also opens at seven for breakfast. We shuffled in at 8.30, wet and bad tempered from the tube, and were greeted with a warm welcome and an espresso so strong I felt like I was drinking a shot.

It feels a little like a public school dining room, but in a good way

The menu is, as you would expect, pretty meat heavy. There’s a steak and eggs section, as well as the full English, but also pancakes, pastries, yogurt and granola, which I imagine is for the dainty ladies on the arms of the city boys. But I am no dainty lady, and so my city boy and I plumped for the Hawksmoor breakfast for 2.

Deep breath…smoked bacon chop, sausages made with pork, beef and mutton, black pudding, short-rib bubble and squeak, grilled bone marrow, trotter baked beans, fried eggs, grilled mushrooms, roast tomatoes, toast and HP gravy. Oh, and hash browns. Don’t tell anyone, but we ordered those on the side.

Service was friendly, quick and efficient, and within 10 minutes we were sitting in front of an embarrassing amount of meat. 8 different types on one plate to be exact. The bone marrow, I could have done without – I love it in the evening with salad, but in the morning, it was just too much for me and I gave up after a small bite. (Although apparently the gin in the Buck’s Fizz I also ordered in the morning wasn’t too much for me, so I’m not sure what that says…) The bacon chop was an experience – done on the charcoal grill for a lovely smokiness, but the size defeated us somewhat. The sausages were unbelievably meaty and full of flavour and the hash browns were guilty perfection. The short rib bubble and squeak was divine and the star of the show for me – both crisp and fluffy, with melt in the mouth beef morsels running through it – I could have eaten a whole bowlful with just the homemade ketchup to accompany it. The trotter baked beans were also very tasty, although we were divided on this – he felt that something as sacred as baked beans shouldn’t be tampered with. But I have to disagree. My main criticism is that the toast needed to be much more toasted – done on the grill but not for long enough it was pretty much warm bread, and with such delicious sourdough it’s a pity not to treat it with proper respect. But it hardly ruined the meal, and the (quite large amount) we couldn’t finish was happily bagged up by the staff, and as I write the fashion team are tucking in with glee.

Overall conclusion –  excellent. Possibly a little too much meat on one plate for my taste, but I think they know their audience, as every other table in the restaurant (mainly men) ordered the same thing. The cocktail list is eye opening and had I not been working, would have been happy to sit there and get merrily trashed before lunch. I just hope it catches on…but with bubble and squeak that good, I can’t see how it can fail!

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Want to critique Taste of London? Then read on…

So, to continue in the restaurant critic vein, an email landed in my inbox today about Toptable’s latest venture with Taste of London. They’re offering one lucky foodie the chance to officially review every restaurant at Taste of London, for free. There are 40 restaurants at Taste of London. That one lucky foodie had better be very hungry.

 I think this is a pretty amazing prize, and one guaranteed to appeal to the almost slavish fanaticism with which food enthusiasts can talk about restaurants. Ask your gastro-friend (every circle has one), about the last meal they had out and you’ll rarely get just a couple of sentences. Everyone who likes food, it seems, is a born restaurant critic.

And before I’m lambasted for completely contradicting myself after my last article, I should point out that I think constructive restaurant reviews are always useful, as long as they’re not some excuse for an over-inflated ego to flap about. I’m also very much in favour of getting ‘ordinary Joe’ in to review the restaurants at Taste. Who knows, they could end up being the next Mr Coren.

So if you feel like this is your time to shine, click here to go to Toptable’s entry page. All you need to do is review a restaurant of your choice and send it off. The winner will be judged, and then they’d better start stomach stretching. It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint…

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