Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Learning To Cook Like A Proper Cook....

Last year, for Christmas, my now husband bought me a cooking course at Leiths. I know some friends/family were offended on my behalf and expected me to promptly, upon opening the gift card, shove it down his throat and mutter the words bon appetit.
However, I did specifically ask for it so instead met the gift card with glee and excitement then shoved it in the kitchen draw that holds cocktail umbrellas, lots of keys that have no lock and takeaway flyers.

After a busy year of planning and having a wedding, finding and buying a house, I only recently came around to having time to go on the course.
Leiths is famed for being one of the most prestigious cooking schools in London, if not the UK, so courses ranged from bread and cake making, to Indian cuisine and everything in between. But for me the choice was clear.

As previously discussed, I have an entirely unhealthy and obsessive relationships with pasta.
This is a slightly abusive union as is well known, it has a deactivating quality that makes the diner want to curl up and have a little nap immediately after eating it.
This characteristic is so threatening and dangerous that Fillipo Marinetti, a writer who founded the Futurist movement, sought to ban pasta in 1930 because it "led to lassitude, pessimism and general absence of get-up-and-go".
Whilst this is true, a night out on the vino rosso leads to, the more dangerous, face-in-pillow syndrome and I certainly wouldn't want to do away with that.
So, throwing all pasta caution to the wind, I attended Leith's pasta workshop, armed with tupperware and an only slightly dirty apron.

The instructors were affable, patient and made the phrase 'waiting for the pop' (very posh pasta-making terminology) seem almost totally serious.

I've attended a few courses over the years but nothing quite as informative, or, extensive as Leiths.
Our group of thirteen watched the instructor prepare three pasta dishes from scratch, before, in pairs, recreating each one ourselves, with help provided as and when needed.
We made a betroot and goats cheese ravioli, a fresh flower open lasagne with a creamy mushroom sauce and parsley ravioli with prawns.

Wild Flower Open Lasagne w/ Mushroom Cream Sauce

Whilst these recipes will exist in cooking books, the art of making pasta seems to be something you need to be guided through. No book can quite tell you the exact science of what the dough should feel like when it's ready, or, the best technique for using a pasta machine. It's the sort of thing you need to learn in person from someone who knows what their talking about so, unless you have an Italian Nonna locked away in the cupboard kitchen (you shouldn't do this) Leiths is the next best thing.

All the items were helpfully packed away before the workbenches were turned into a dining table so that we could eat one of the items we made and glug some wine to recover from all the hard work.
At £140 for the day course it's not cheap but there are a few extras thrown in, coffee and pastries on arrival, wine with lunch, a recipe book and the luxury of having someone else do all the washing up.

What's more, having never made pasta before, in just under five hours I learnt the recipes from memory. Now, I can make pink/flowery pasta at home which really does make me feel very clever indeed and who can put a price on that?

For courses visit Leiths

These look like plasticine Stegosaurous but are actually ravioli

Betroot and goats cheese ravioli

Monday, 28 October 2013

Meat & Shake, Tooting Bec

A lot of people tell you about how stressful buying a house is. It's just one of those things, like weddings and break-ups, that you go into knowing you may, somewhere in between searching for your dream home and realising your going to have to settle for an ex-local authority one-bed in Croydon, become a raving lunatic.
I accepted that and having not very long ago carefully packed away my bridezilla tiara, prepared to gain a house-hunting-bitch hat.
What I did not expect is the effect buying a house has on your diet.
With every evening spent viewing awful flats came the inevitable, I'm-going-to-kill-myself-if-I-have-to-meet-another-estate-agent comfort meal. Which, as you are usually a long tube journey away from where you actually live and in a rush, means fast food.
For me and the area I was trying to buy in, the nearest late-night pit stop was Pizza Hut
How can I declare myself a foodie and eat at Pizza Hut? Well, it started with a group viewing of a bedsit in the dark because there was no electricity and ended with a mouse running over my foot.
By the time I heard the estate agent mutter the words 'desirable location,' as I watched someone cycle past us with what I can only guess was a stolen TV, I was ready to kill myself with every type of complex carb.
Now our house hunt has finally come to an end I'm a good dress size larger and through lack of any good food, have been blogging MIA.
So, how did I celebrate finding a tiny little London shoebox to call my own? With more comfort food, except this time some really good stuff.
For the whole time I've lived here Tooting has been a bit barren for good places to eat if you weren't after Indian. Mirch Masala has long been hailed the best Indian in South London but recently a few gastro pubs have popped up like The Antelope and there is now the tapas restaurant at Graveney and Meadow.
But the area is transforming and following 2013's obsession with poshed up American fare, Tooting has it's very own burger joint to add to the mix, Meat & Shake.
As a resident of the area, although not for much longer, I can vouch for the genuine excitement that surrounded the opening of Meat & Shake, not least for all the home owners around here who took it as another sign the area is going the way of Balham et al.
From my experience, Meat & Shake did not disappoint and although I'll soon be moving, I'm coming back just to Tooting just to visit this place.
The focus is definitely on the burgers, along with the usual, cheese, bacon, caramelised onions, other toppings include tacos, turkey bacon and aoili. More unusual offerings were the lamb'ardo, a lamb patty served with feta cheese, pickled onions, sweet pepper yoghurt and coriander. Or, the mouthwatering rib & cheese, pulled beef rib, montery jack cheese and barbecue sauce.
Hot dogs, ribs and wings are also on offer as well as an intriguing grilled beef bone marrow served with crostini.
Shakes, as the name suggests are taken seriously here, it was definitely a beer day for me but my husband told me, through slurps and after wiping the white ring off his beard, that the Oreo milkshake is incredible.
We went for the meat & shake (£8.90) beef patty, cheese, tomato, matchstick fries, turkey bacon, stanton sauce and the johnny (£7.90) beef patty, sauteed onions, creamy mushrooms and swiss cheese.
They were served in delicate, soft brioche buns and though the dressings were delicious, the real star, as it should be, was the burger, which is ground on site freshly every day.
The fries (£2.50) were thin and soft but the real stonking side is the onion rings (£3) which are perfect. Light and crispy instead of dense and greasy, the onion is soft and almost caramelised inside.
I never imagined I would be telling people to go out of there way to visit Tooting if they want a good meal but Meat & Shake is worth the burger commute.
Not only are the burgers better than most of the over-hyped places in central but you won't have to queue for ages, the atmosphere is relaxed and the service couldn't have been better.
I guess it would be silly not to visit the place as much as possible whilst I still live here.
See, moving house really is bad for the waistline.

Meat & Shake on Urbanspoon

Monday, 23 September 2013

Brunch - Balthazar, Covent Garden.

As soon as it was confirmed that London would be home to it's very own Balthazar, an extremely popular French inspired brasserie in New York, expectations began to grow.
When it finally opened and food critics scrabbled to be the first to review it, the accounts weren't exactly positive.
Jay Rayner said "Balthazar has arrived in a cloud of hype, a shame then that it fails to live up to expectations".
Zoe Williams said the food was "undistinguished" and Giles Coren gave the food a 0 out of ten in his review.

Before it had even opened I was a bit bored of hearing about it and by the time it was physically possible for norms like me to get a table I had been convinced by the reviews I had read that it was a massive dissapointment.
The whirl of excitement was over before I had even got close to enjoying it. A bit like when I got into the Lost TV series, a year after everyone else, only to find, after devoting whole days to binge on the programme, that everyone else was over it.
So, I can't say I went into Balthazar with a huge amount of expectation when I visited for brunch this weekend. However, perhaps naively, I assumed that whilst the dinner service had come in for heavy criticism they surely wouldn't struggle to provide a more than adequate brunch.

The decor is like an upmarket Cafe Rouge, with it's false 'authentic' French feel most prominent in the yellowed wallpaper made to look as if it's absorbed a century of Gaelic chain smoking.
It had the rousing hustle and bustle you would expect from a brasserie set right in the heart of Covent Garden, at the weekend. Although, the majority of the activity was by the fleet of waiting staff, colliding, crashing and fumbling over the brunch service.
Our waitress was affable and cheerful but she seemed to be juggling too many tables which lead to myself and diners around me receiving our coffee and teas after we had finished our food.
I ordered the scrambled eggs with Cornish crab (£11.50) and my partner had the New York pancakes with banana (£8).

Having walked past the Balthazar bakery next door, on the way to the restaurant, we opted to try their breakfast pastries based on how impressive the bounty in the bakery window is.
When they arrived the pastries were cold. At the risk of sounding like a right diva, a cold pain au chocolat, or, croissant is a devastating thing. You take each bite knowing how much better it would taste if it had been warmed up and the delicate layers of pastry were crispy rather than hard.
Le Panier (£15) consisted of one pain au chocolat, one plain croissant, one almond croissant, a pain au raisin, some rye bread and a white flute. All were cold and extremely average especially considering the price. 
The 'selection of homemade jams, marmalades and hazelnut chocolate spread,' did not arrive. After ten minutes of fighting to get the attention of the waiting staff we received a strawberry and raspberry jam (nice enough but definitely not superior to the Tiptree brand I buy in the supermarket and a marmalade (the star of the breakfast it was zingy and fresh). The other spread never arrived and no-one explained why.

The second part of our breakfast arrived (my tea didn't) and it was also cold.
The crab was clearly good quality but because the eggs were cold (partly thanks to the large dollup of creme fraiche on top) it was impossible to enjoy.
What had probably been a light and fluffy brioche was, by the time I received it, a lump of dough sodden with cold eggy residue and absorbed crab juices.
The pancakes were enjoyable but no more than those served at The Breakfast Club for half the price.
When we had finished our food and it had been cleared away my tea arrived.
All credit to our waitress, she removed the cost from the bill and was very apologetic but really, as a basic right, breakfast should come with tea, I mean, i'm pretty sure even inmates aren't deprived of  tea with their sloppy porridge.
Balthazar will continue to be busy because of it's location and recognisable brand but I wonder how many diners will be returning guests.
Next time I fancy an indulgent breakfast I'll return to The Wolsey, always sublime and they care about tea far too much to forget to serve it.

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

Monday, 9 September 2013

Italian Pulled Pork

I've always loved cooking, ever since I was a little girl. 

Grabbing a bunch of vegetables to cook from our family vegetable patch, baking cupcakes that I could decorate with hundreds and thousands, my very first dinner party which I produced when I was seven and contained a completely random combination of ingredients but everyone ate happily because I had been so thoughtful.

Or so they thought.

In truth, whilst I loved cooking, I worked out pretty early on that mixing a few things in the kitchen, fluffing some flour about and looking busy can pretty much get you off the hook for doing anything else at all.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that cooking was far more fun than doing chores and by doing one I could avoid the other.

As I teenager I escaped having to do the washing up by baking cakes and as an adult I have alluded most domestic duties by distracting my Husband (still getting used to writing that) with delicious things to eat.

Every now and then, usually when he's cleaning the bathroom, or, chasing me around the sitting room with a hoover, he realises that he's been hoodwinked into cleaning the entire house with the promise of a home cooked meal.

It's at this point, when he's just about to insist I take the bins out, or something similarly horrible, that I bring out the big guns....Man food.

This is how I came to cook this Italian pulled pork last week, in freshly baked baguettes, with melted mozzarella and wilted spinach, to basically distract my husband from the fact I don't do any cleaning.

The next morning I reheated some of the pork and served it on brioche with a poached egg for breakfast. So, that should keep him sweet for a week at least.


I adapted a recipe from Saveur which is the BEST recipe website in the world, even if you do have to translate the Americanisms and work out what the hell a broiler is (it's basically a grill pan and what we call a grill). I kept my pork shoulder whole instead of butterflying and used mozzarella cheese instead.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Chubbily Ever After

I have been MIA for some time having been kidnapped by my own wedding.

A need to fit in a very tight vintage wedding dress meant I had to...with much regret....go on a diet. As a result, my love for umptious piles of gluttonous yum had to be forefeited for months of 'fry lite,' fat-free and teeny mouse-sized portions of food.

Well huzzah. I have a ring on my finger and a burger in my hand. Ding dong the witch is dead and I can eat until my little fat-clodden heart is content!

Almost as soon as I said 'I do' I was wolfing down as many canapes as I could lay my emaciated (possibly a slight exaggeration) hands on. Our wedding reception was spent with me manically eating everything, only taking my focus away from chewing every now and then to randomly shout things like, "GOD I'VE MISSED CAMEMBERT," between mouthfuls.  As in most of my life, I was a vision of elegance and beauty.

On honeymoon the ladylike dining habits continued and after eating my way through Indonesia I was lucky enough to get to do some cooking in Lombok during a lesson with The Lombok Lodge's Chef Jiwa.

Cooking overlooking the beach was certainly more exotic than doing it back in my cramped flat in South London but I'm hoping to recreate these when I get home.

I'm also pretty stoked that I can now pig out forever and ever, happily every after, so will be posting lots of restaurant reviews and recipes over the next few weeks!

Prawn skewer with a tomato and lime foam

Coconut, Prawn and Clam Soup

Coral Fish Confit with AMAZING mashed potato

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Antonio Carluccio - The Collection

Antonio Carluccio is the greedy Italian who launched the popular restaurant chain and has graced cooking programs for as long as I can remember.
He encapsulates everything that's synonymous with Italian cooking, big, colourful and a stickler for tradition.
They are three words which could just as easily be applied to his newest recipe book, The Collection, a hefty volume which documents 300 of his favourite recipes.
From the spinach balls he invented himself 25 years ago, the panzanella his mother cooked him as a child because it was cheap, to traditional Sicilian recipes that have been around for hundreds of years, it almost serves a history of his own journey through Italian food.
Whilst the expected traditional dishes are present the vast majority of recipes in the book try to bring the reader a new selection of Italian food that you won't find in the typical Italian restaurants on the high street.
An extensive and imaginative section on Antipasti provides many unusual suggestions, such as buttered chestnuts and the pages on Italian pickling give the serious foodie a good project for a rainy weekend.
This extensive book could easily feel impersonal as it covers so much ground, however, splattered with quotes from Carluccio's own experiences it becomes a warm, colourful guide.

There are serving suggestions, introductions to the origins of particular dishes but ultimately you get the impression this is simply a collection of the foods he likes to eat, as unedited, larger-than-life and big (on flavour) as he is.

His meticulous eye for detail and love of food pours from the pages as he suggests the best ingredients, some of which, Alpine butter, Ceps and Cardoon (artichoke thistle), will be tricky to find in the local Tesco.

Carluccio himself doesn't have this problem of course, as we see him in the forest foraging for mushrooms then happily rushing home to cook and eat them with all the glee of a child whose just raided the local sweetshop. 

Recipes that caught my eye were Black Angel Hair with Scallops, Rice Bomb with Truffle, Ricotta Dumplings with Porcini Sauce and the majestic looking 'Polenta on the table'. Importantly, all of which felt achievable, no-one wants a book full of intimidating dishes they wouldn't dare try to replicate.

The highest praise for this book is that it made my stomach rumble, my mouth water and me want to get straight into the kitchen and start cooking.

Whilst The Silver Spoon has long been regarded as the bible for Italian cooking, The Collection is like being handed down a true Italian Nonna's own kitchen notes. Simple, uncomplicated cooking and you just know every recipe is going to be delicious.

Buy this book here

Monday, 13 May 2013

Homeslice - Seven Dials

Just to put things into perspective, that's a person's arm just visible in the shot above, not a child, not a hobbit, not a borrower, a person.

See how said arm is dwarfed by the gargantuan sized mega-pizza?

Observe how the giant pizza makes the arm appear to be the size of a topping on it's moon-like doughy base.

'Pimping food,' is a phrase often used but in the world of pizza, Homeslice has the monopoly, having made the largest pizza I have ever been lucky enough to set eyes (and teeth) upon.

London is now happily brimming with delicious, informal and affordable pizza places and Homeslice is the latest offering.

Homeslice originally started life as a mobile wood-fired oven in the courtyard of London Fields Brewery and two years later it's relocated to Neil's Yard.

I visited early on a week night and the place was already bursting at the seams, which meant cozying up to two strangers in order to get a table.

It's has the intimate, elbow-to-elbow seating that's become the norm in many places in London and only adds to the friendly atmosphere of the restaurant.

The guys on hand were personable, attentive and rather than 'serving' made it feel as if you had gone over to their house for the evening.

Pizza is served by slice, whole, or can be chosen half-and-half, we went for the Soppresata (salami with fennel) and rocket and the artichoke and courgette.

Other, very tempting options were white anchovy and chard with Doddington cheese, my 'date' hates fish (and yet I'm still friends with her) so I couldn't go for this, bone marrow and watercress and the more traditional caprese and margheritia.

All are the same price, £4 for a slice and £20 for one (or two halves) of a whole pizza.

I felt flattered that the man serving us reassured us with "don't worry girls, it's a very thin pizza so you will be able to get through it," as if it were ever going to be a problem.

Drinks wise the only choice was by colour, rose, white, or, red, which was served in gigantic (sensing a theme) bottles which are then measured when you leave to assess how much you have drank and therefore how much you will be charged.

Incredibly dangerous for me but I liked the concept none the less and the red wine they had selected was delicious, an Argentinian Malbec.

The pizza itself was thin with crunchy crusts but a soft, moist middle that could be folded in half.

The artichoke was oily but firm enough that it didn't disintegrate when you bit into it, complimenting the soft and delicate courgette. It was slightly sweet and summery and despite wolfing down several slices, felt light.

Soppresata was a revelation for me, I don't think I've eaten it before and the flecks of fennel within it added an aniseed flavour, spiced up by the peppery rocket.

Both toppings were punctuated with soft pillows of cheese which gave a creamy depth but didn't drown the delicate flavours.

Oh and yes, we did finish all of it.

This is where I will be eating pizza for the forseeable future.

Homeslice on Urbanspoon