Friday, November 19, 2010

Marina & The Diamonds: HMV Forum, Kentish Town

When Marina Diamandis took to the stage in front of a giant screen flashing diamonds, fire and Bond girl silhouettes, and took position behind the mike (and in front of a wind machine that would make Diana Ross weep) there was no doubt that we were in for a night of utterly theatrical and meticulously staged entertainment. It’s easy to lump the 25-year-old chanteuse in with all those other cute, shiny-haired radio-friendly pop tarts (let’s not name names here) but from the opening song – the title track of her debut album, Family Jewels – she proved she’s got the musical chops to back up the flamboyant persona and poptastic stylings.

The half-Welsh, half-Greek singer-songwriter looked totally in control of Kentish Town’s HMV Forum from the get go – pulling fierce, photo-worthy poses behind the mike; indulging the fashion-forward audience with four costume changes; and leading the sharp-suited quartet of musos hovering in the background with an assuredness more fitting of an industry veteran. She might wear her musical influences on her sleeve – Kate Bush, Madonna and Tori Amos spring to mind – but when performing tracks like Are You Satisfied and Mowgli’s Road, it’s clear to see she has a truly unique musical and songwriting style: think dark melodies, swooping vocals, and ubiquitous pop hooks. Watching her play accompanying keys for her spiky ballad Obsessions, you certainly wouldn’t guess she only taught herself piano relatively recently.

Sure, she’s winning mainstream success with the backing of a major label, but her heavy touring schedule and ascension from opening slots in Camden’s dive bars is admirable, to say the least. By the time she performed single Shampain and had an animated and fluent exchange with some Greek fans in the audience it was impossible not to be won over by her charm. She also roadtested a new track, Jealousy, which is sure to have her record execs rubbing their hands together – the soaring vocals over a driving dance beats has ‘hit single’ written all over it. Chances are, the crowd would have been satisfied even without the overblown finale featuring a giant hamburger lowered onto stage and Marina in full U S of A cheerleading regalia. But all in all, a victory of style *and* substance, and the gig showed there’s a lot more to Marina and the Diamonds than cat suits and cartoony props.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vegan pancakes with hot berry sauce

This was my second attempt at vegan pancakes – without an egg, baking powder becomes the rising agent for fluffiness. The first recipe I followed called for THREE teaspoons of baking powder and even less flour – sure, they were light and airy, but also tasted overwhelmingly gassy, like that aftertaste from kalamata olives or semi-sundried tomatoes that have been sitting in the fridge for too long. Most vegan recipes use vegetable oil to replace butter, but I added a generous glug of soy cream (17% fat) which did the job. Perhaps you could replace the cream with 2 tbsp oil if you want. You could also use normal white sugar but muscovado sugar is a bit more interesting, innit.

(Explanation for terrible photo: I reeeeally couldn't be bothered getting off the sinky couch and fetching the camera once I'd started eating. Photo is merely proof, not a serving suggestion...)

2 cups plain flour
2 tbsp brown sugar (‘light muscovado’)
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup soy milk
1/3 cup soy pouring cream
½ tub Tofutti soy cream cheese
1 tbsn icing sugar
tiny bit of vanilla essence
1 cup frozen mixed berries
Squirt of honey

1. Sift the flour, baking powder and sugar into a bowl. The sugar will be a pain to sift through, but persevere! Make a well and gently mix in the soy milk (metal spoon works best!), and cream.
2. Blueberries are the best for pancakes, so if you’re using a frozen berry mix pick out all the nice round little ones and add 1/3 cup into the batter. This will leave 2/3 cup of mostly blackberries and raspberries for the sauce.
3. When I added the batter to a hot, oiled frying pan I was impressed to see they cooked exactly like standard pancakes – when the tops started bubbling open like the top of a crumpet, it was time to flip them over. Don’t burn them because then you’ll have to be a good host and eat them yourself while your guests have the nice golden brown ones.
4. In a bowl, add half the icing sugar, and vanilla essence to Tofutti (this was an afterthought, because the Tofutti was a tiny bit salty). This is meant to be a vegan version of that whipped butter stuff you get on McDonalds hot cakes – something to add some substance to the pancakes, you know?
5. Squirt some honey (a teaspoon, max) onto the remaining berries in a cup, and microwave for 20 seconds, or until steaming hot.
6. To assemble, smear a generous dollop of cream cheese mix onto pancakes and pour berry sauce over the top. Sift the remaining icing sugar over the top – it DOES make a difference, I’m not just being an OCD wannabe food stylist, promise.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Elevating corned beef to sandwich nirvana

The one and only time I’ve made my mum cry I was about eight, and I announced at the dinner table that the corned beef she’d made was “disgusting”. In hindsight, she was probably having a bad day because La Madre is the least emo woman in the history of motherhood. (For the record, she left the kitchen in tears, my dad gave me a belting, and when I went to apologise to her I told her the corned beef wasn’t really disgusting… It was really the accompanying boiled celery, carrot and unidentified root vegetables I found totally repugnant… *I wisely kept this last bit to myself*)

Fast forward 20 years and what I wouldn’t give for a slab of cold corned beef in between bread for lunch, especially after yesterday’s Word of Mouth post about salt beef sandwich bars in the capital. I made the mistake of ordering a corned beef sandwich from the staff café at work a few months back, and it was presented as a lump of gelatinous reconstituted matter, like a cross section of a can of dog food. What the HELL! I still haven’t come to terms with this god-forsaken country’s obsession with ‘reconstituting’ everything that’s good and nutritional (ham, orange juice, the list goes on…). At a massive stretch, it looked like tongue sandwich.

image courtesy of

The purists always mention the signature sangas at Katz's Deli in New York and Schwarz’s in Montreal but honestly, my lasting impression of these places was that I could have made three with the amount of meat they dished up on my plate. (My other impression was that young, hungover ladies dining solo were a rare commodity and attracted extra pickles at no extra cost… score!)

If you’re talking traditional, New York deli sandwich styles, I’d take warm, freshly-sliced, pinky-purple corned beef over pastrami any day. My opinion of condiments is that they're not worth including unless they put hair on your chest, so mix some horseradish and hot English mustard into a Dijon base and slather on both pieces of buttered bread. Stick as much sliced polish dill pickle in as meat, and don’t even think about adding cheese (Marks and Spencer’s New York deli sandwich is pretty damn good, but emmantal cheese gets a thumbs down from this correspondent). Sure, rye bread’s great if you can find an unsliced loaf containing carroway seeds, but dense multigrain works a treat as well. I recommend a bread slice thickness that’s greater than the individual thickness of the pickles or meat, but thinner than the fillings combined.

Now, I ask you: when you can reach sandwich nirvana like this, why would you dish up a poor man’s roast of corned beef wet from the pot, with soggy boiled celery, carrots and white sauce? Sorry mum...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Exploring new horizons in electronic music: The Gaslamp Killer and co.

Are you a fan of hip hop mash-ups, but you’ve worn out your copies of Girl Talk and 2ManyDJs albums? Are you looking for something with a bit more “bite” which goes beyond the boundaries of conventional hip hop and electronic music? Check out the Gaslamp Killer for potential iPod or houseparty musical fodder – it will either intrigue or bewilder… but music that’s a talking point is always a good thing, innit. The hyperactive Los Angelino’s DJ sets drift between improv jazz, psychedelic Hendrix riffs, show tunes from Caberet and fat dubstep beats… and pretty much everything else in between.

Punters at this year’s Golden Plains Festival in March might have caught him spinning his frenetic stuff late into the night, but I caught him in action on Monday night in a dingy club in Angel, when he played a DJ set and then accompanied the rather spaced-out rapper Gonjasufi, who headlined the event. (He also produced Gonjasufi’s debut album, A Sufi and a Killer, released earlier this year.) Music aside, the Gaslamp Killer has the sweetest fro and ‘tache combo ever seen on a white guy, and busts out award-winning air guitar/trumpet/keyboard moves from behind his decks. He also whipped out an iPad that was hooked up to his gear, and bashed out some beats on its shiny touch screen (if I needed any more reasons to justify an iPad investment, there’s one for sure).

In terms of musical pedigree, he comes from the same LA scene as experimental electronic DJ and producer Flying Lotus (a definite highlight of my Sonar festival experience in Spain this past June), and Daedelus, a modern dandy best known for remixing Wagner’s Ring cycle during his complex, sample-heavy live sets. (I’m just a teeeensy bit excited about seeing him at the Ninja Tune 20th birthday party in a couple of weeks…) The New York Times published a nice little summary of the scene earlier this year, which is a good read.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Magic" mushroom papardalle

This month's VEGAN CHALLENGE comes in the form of a hearty pasta with creamy sauce… We’ll call it Pappardelle alla Boscaiola – that's Woodsman's Pappardelle for the no-speaka-Italiano readers.

A creamy vegan pasta? But how is this possible, you ask. Well, it’s all due to a mysterious product called Oatly Cream, which is “pouring cream” made from OATS (I have no idea – it was on the ‘reduced to clear’ table at the health food shop near work; it’s safe to say you will never find this on your local supermarket shelf). I have tried a soy pouring cream from Alpro and to be honest I can’t remember how that one compares, but this oaty one worked a treat.

To ensure vegan status, avoid any fancy pants fresh pastas that contain egg – the standard dried varieties should only contain durum wheat. That said, go for an authentically Italian brand rather than the cheapest home-brand options, as these tend to have a longer window of opportunity for obtaining ‘al dente’ texture. It’s a case of ‘blink and you’ve got sludgy noodles’ with the really cheap ones.

3 shallots, sliced finely
2 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
3 x super big fat field mushrooms, sliced then chopped into little pieces
25gm dried porcini mushrooms, steeped in boiling water in small bowl for 20 minutes
Decent slosh of white wine (let’s say 1/3 large glass; let’s agree I really wasn’t taking notice of quantities when I was onto my second glass in the kitchen)
½ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
250gm Oaty cream (or other non-dairy alternative)
½ cup grated parmesan – clearly this is not vegan, so don’t dump it in the sauce before serving or you’ve pretty much just ruined the meal for your vegan diners. For the non vegans amongst us, go crazy with the parmesan – especially if it’s expensive and authentic reggiano parmeggian.
500gm pappardelle (the extra width works much better than standard spaghetti; alternatively, the farfalle ‘bow tie’ noodles work a treat)

1. Boil a big pot of water for the pasta.
2. Put the chopped fresh mushrooms in a big bowl, and tip the rehydrated porcini mushrooms and mushroom-infused water onto them. Leave to sit while you sautee the shallots and garlic in olive oil (a heavy based saucepan would be ideal, but a wok works fine if you keep an eye on the heat and keep stirring).
3. Add the mushroom mix to the pan and stir on high heat.
4. Toss in the wine and once it’s all started bubbling furiously, reduce to simmer.
5. Add half a handful of parsley. As long as it doesn’t reduce too much, you can leave this on low heat for 10-15 mins, while you cook the pasta.
6. Stir the oaty cream into mushroom mix.
7. Drain pasta when al dente, return to pot and stir through sauce.

Postscript: Heated up for lunch the next day, a lot of the initial "creaminess" had kind of disappeared... Alledgedly sucked up into the pasta. A bit the same as when I've used soy dairy substitutes in a lasagna white sauce. Moral of the story: cook and eat straight away.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The reason I spent my childhood wishing I'd been brutally and relentlessly trained to be an Olympic champion

OK, so there are cult films, and then there are straight-to-video films from the early 1980s whose target audience is girls under 10 – we’re talking really niche audience. Nadia, the 1984 biopic about Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, falls into the latter category. The film traces her gymnastics career from the age of six, when she begins training in earnest under her coach/guru/dictator Bela Karoyli; to her triumph at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, subsequent struggles with form and then – of course – epic comeback before the 1980 Olympics.

Here’s some background: Gymnastics routines used to be judged on criteria that added up to 10, but noone actually ever scored 10. Then 14-year-old Nadia cartwheels into Montreal in 1976 and SEVEN of her routines score 10*. It was way more significant than breaking a world record when you consider the competition score boards couldn’t even display it, only having space for a single digit and two decimal places. (This also makes for the most highly-charged scene in the film…)

I’m pretty confident that every late 20s/early 30s woman who was obsessed with gymnastics was OBSESSED with Nadia. My mate Ange informed me of its availability on the internets, so I recently eschewed my usual ‘Friday night online’ of True Blood fan fiction and strangers’ Facebook wedding photos (I jest… or do I?) to instead watch all 10 dodgy chapters on YouTube. I’ll be diplomatic: the script reads like it’s been translated from English to Romanian and back to English, and the performances are about as wooden as a balance beam. As a sidenote, I now realise my entire grasp of communism came from this movie – think hardened peasants wearing headscarves and drinking cherry brandy during a perpetual winter, with only one black and white TV in each village.

But, refreshingly, it’s free of those distracting love stories that siderail the main narrative (a la Ralph Macchio-Elisabeth Shue in Karate Kid) and there are more retro leotards than an 80s party in Shoreditch. Most importantly, I was inspired to bust out some handstands and a walkover the other night as soon as the credits had rolled – and we all know that’s the requisite response to watching an ultimate sports movie.

* I only just discovered footage of Nadia Comaneci's actual routines from the 1976 Olympics - they're a damn sight more impressive than the watered-down versions in the movie.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mothershuckin' Oysters: A Beginner's Tale

I put oysters top of the list of all those things that demand an acquired taste. The more patronising of us might call them ‘adult’ foods; I don’t, I just silently judge you when you say you don’t like the texture or aftertaste (philistine!!). Also on this list are any mollusc or shell fish that hasn’t been smoked or pureed, coffee, rum and raison ice cream, mango and avocado. (Ok, so these are all the foods that I used to hate and now enjoy, but we’ll just keep pretending I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and a can of Beluga caviar in my tiny hand…). I've got to admit I felt pretty triumphant the day I gleefully realised that slurping down ‘sea water snot’ could actually be quite enjoyable.

Because I’m a fiend for anything with spicy Asian flavours, my preferred dressing is a dipping sauce spooned onto the half shells, containing grated ginger, chopped Thai chilli and coriander stalks, soy sauce, lime juice and a dash of sesame oil. But really, you can’t go wrong with cracked pepper, sea salt and a wedge of lemon.

So anyhoo, last week was old mate Clare’s actual birthday so, rather than have her spend the night commiserating in the bath with a bottle of wine, or trying to reserve a table for nine at Trullo when they’d said eight was their limit, we decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed and collaborate on a dinner party to end all dinner parties. We came, we cooked, we cleaned, we conquered.

I was allocated that very important responsibility of nibblies, which was definitely a step up from my last dinner party contribution, green salad – “really Megs, some lettuce and a cucumber will be FINE” (I choose to believe that I’m never given a bigger task because everyone’s scared of the bar being lifted to irretrievable heights, amirite?). I could have rocked up with some hummus and a packet of crackers, but being a competitive overachiever I decided to do a mad closing-time dash around Brixton market, charming the white wellies off tens of fishmongers, and arrive at Clare’s with an assortment of Scottish oysters on ice. And some lemons. The fact that the oysters were unshucked was no biggie until all the kitchen hands realised noone else had ever actually shucked an oyster – I mean, we’d all seen Rick, Jamie, and Bill do it during many seaside cooking shows, and you just had to jam a screwdriver into that hinge bit and shuck it open, so it wasn’t too involved, right? (See below for imagined technique*)

Because noone other than an OCD utensil hoarder or a Sapphire Coast resident would actually own an oyster shucker (short stubby knife with protective handle), I’d recommend a super-sturdy slotted screwdriver (not a Phillips head!) on a leatherman or a short handle, so the head is easier to manipulate. Knives, forks, spoons and scissors do NOT work.

My job on the shucking production line was to prise the oysters open enough to hear that ‘shuck!’ sound, and then pass them on. Despite initial estimations, we managed to get all 27 oysters open, halved, plated up and eaten. Everyone agreed that the occasional gritty shard in the mouth added a truly fresh and authentic effect. I think they were just being polite because they’d seen the bloody hands and the array of sharp, discarded and broken metal implements lying at close range in the kitchen.

* Image courtesy of Today’s ‘How to Cook’ section on the Guardian website had a step-by-step photo guide which *might* have been useful last week. But they failed to include the icy Tom Collins which I found to be crucial in navigating the process (and a delicious match when we finally ate them).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tramping and Glamping for a weekend in Wales

Enough of this inner-city London lifestyle of foodie snobbery and hipster diversions! It was high time go back to basics and get some fresh country air – and I must admit the prospect of wearing the same clothes and barely bathing for two days was kinda enticing (I can’t lie - I’m a closet grot)

To mark two impending 30th birthdays we decided a weekend of verdant walks in the great outdoors was in order. Not to do things by halves – e.g. a leisurely car tour of the Cotswalds or a B&B in Dorset, for example – we squashed six adults and a pile of untested camping equipment and hard liquor into a VW Touran (only slightly bigger than a VW Golf) and hightailed it to Northern Wales to hike the country’s tallest mountain. The Friday night journey was six-odd hours with a Burger King pit stop. Yep. Hardcore or WHAT.

So we arrived at the world’s most back-to-basics and environmentally-friendly campsite (translation: no lighting, no powered sites; no radios or cars after 11pm and DEFINITELY NO NOISE AFTER MIDNIGHT) just before midnight. Consequently, we pitched tents in drizzling darkness, and hoped to god we hadn’t unwittingly set up camp in a swamp or near a hornet’s nest. (“Hey guys! Let’s camp over here in this huge empty space… Hang on, why hasn’t anyone else camped over here…?”). It was pretty exciting wondering what we’d wake up to find the next morning.

My expectations were pretty much blown to smithereens. The Llyn Gwynant campsite is nestled between the banks of a freshwater lake that’s like glass on a fine morning, and a lush green mountain range peppered with craggy rocks. For the princely sum of £9 a night you can wake up to this little patch of heaven and, most conveniently, meander through some country lanes to the base of Mt Snowdon (there are about 10 hiking routes stretching around the mountain).

You know when you look up a mountain and you see real live clouds gathered in patchy formations? I never knew what it was like to actually walk through one. Turns out, it’s COLD, WINDY AND WET. The weather was pretty woeful for the majority of our walk which, from door to door, clocked in at nearly 7 hours and 25km. The old faithful Coogi cardigan did a stellar job – being the epitome of style and substance, as always – but I finished up soaked to the skin, and all of us swimming in our shoes thanks to an ill-advised “short cut” through a swampy field on the way home.

It’s impossible to be grumpy when you’ve literally and figuratively conquered a mountain. Ok, so I nearly got a bit grumpy when I was overtaken in the vertical scrambling stakes by a family of four kids (Dad: "Kids, are we having fun?" Kids:"YES!!!!"), and a dog with three legs, and there was this weird guy who ran up and down the mountain three times that day (he said he was “training for Mont Blanc” – he wasn't talking about the fountain pen), but we did it, and noone through a hissy fit or slipped over in their inappropriate footwear.

I wish we’d had more time to explore the quaint little village of Beddgelert, a few minutes’ drive from the camping ground. We demolished a bag of local fudge over some jars at the Tanronnen Inn, and the ice cream shop came highly recommended by some locals. By the time we got into deep and meaningfuls with Roger who ran the general store and adjacent B&B (he and his wife are selling the lot - it's time to retire) I was plotting a way to fund a country retreat in Snowdonia – sure, my UK visa runs out in July next year, but where there’s a will there’s a way…

Highlight of the looooooooong drive back to London was the fish ‘n’ chips picnic we had in Abersthwyth, a university town and holiday resort on the west coast. Lunch came courtesy of the Dolphin Restaurant which, in my opinion, represented a perfect amalgamation of an old school chip shop and a New York diner – big, generous booths, no frills menu, and an assumption that everyone wants their chips drowned in salt and vinegar. The mushy peas worked a teat on the battered cod, and the stunning coastal vista swept away any indigestion before the next six hours in the car. All in all, a remarkable weekend and all-too-short taste of Wales' unspoilt drawcards.

Street Car: Sign up as a member for self-service pay-as-you-go car hire around London
Llyn Gwynant campsite: Nantgwynant, North Wales. £9 per night with your own tent.
Argos : Seriously, you can get kitted out with a tent, camping mattress, and most basic camping equipment for under £50.
Tanronnen Inn, Beddgelert, Gwynedd
Dolphin Restaurant, Great Dark Street, Abersthwyth

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Get your reggae reggae on with Jamaican jerk chicken

To the rest of the world, Jamaica is probably best known for creating reggae music, track and field world champions and a legitimate religion based on smoking da weed, but its cuisine really rates a mention, too. With a penchant for stews, puddings and starchy root vegetables not unfamiliar in Anglo cultures, it borrows flavours and spices from Spanish, Indian and Chinese cuisines and, best of all, most recipes only require a BBQ or stock pot, meaning less washing up!

Image courtesy of

This Saturday it’s Jamaican Independence Day, which means the Brixton Market down the road (a.k.a. London’s Afro-Caribbean heartland) will be going OFF. If you only eat Jamaican food once, make sure it’s Jerk chicken. It’s like the Peking duck of Chinese food, or Coq au van for Francophiles. Imagine a KFC Zinger fillet, multiply by 10,000 and you’re still nowhere near imagining how sensationally tasty it is. This recipe is adapted from Levi Roots’ version (he is the undisputed king of Caribbean cooking in these parts) and serves 8 people – or 3 people who’ve just run 15km.

8 chicken quarters with skin
1 lemon, juiced
1 quantity dry jerk seasoning (see below)
1 quantity juicy jerk marinade (see below)
Chilli barbecue sauce, to serve

Dry jerk seasoning
1 tsp all-purpose seasoning (I'm gonna admit I have never used this - it's the spice equivalent of Gravox, and is probs packed with MSG - but if Levi says to use it, we'll just go with it, OK?)
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp mixed dried savory, marjoram, oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil and tarragon (or just chuck in a bit of every dried green herb in your cupboard)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

Juicy jerk marinade
4 Scotch bonnet/hot red chillies, deseeded and chopped
1 spring onion, green end only, chopped
1 onion chopped
2 tbsp ground allspice
2.5cm/1 inch piece fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbsp mixed dried herbs
1 tbsp dried basil
3 tbsp all-purpose seasoning
1 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1 tsp fresh ground cinnamon
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp coarse ground black pepper
500ml bottle tomato sauce

1. Rinse the chicken under cold running water, then sprinkle over the lemon juice, drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.
2. Put the chicken in a non-metallic dish. Rub in the dry seasoning, then pour on the juicy jerk marinade and coat the chicken. Refrigerate overnight if you can.
3. Fire up the BBQ. Lay the chicken pieces on the barbecue, cover and cook for 10 minutes on each side or until the juices run clear when you push a knife into the centre.
4. When the chicken’s thoroughly cooked, transfer to a chopping board and chop each piece into about 4 portions with the bones. If you're going Brixton stylee, serve with salad (a.k. shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber) and hot chips. Otherwise serve with your regular classy array of BBQ salads.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The best place in 'souf' London on a Saturday afternoon, innit

In Melbourne, my Saturday morning go-to for killing multiple birds with single stones – e.g. sating a hangover, sucking up some culture, attempting to get my shiz together for the week ahead – was the Preston Market. Here in London, the Brixton Market is a pretty sweet equivalent. The first weekend I arrived, in July last year, I was taken on an excursion to the infamous Franco Manca, but it was the haphazard street stalls selling unidentified veggies (in hindsight, probable yam sub-species) and miscellaneous crap, the crowds of locals cruising around like they had all the time in the world and, above all, the reggaeton and dancehall music floating through every laneway. Nearly a year later, I still break out into a silent boogie when I see the street sign for Electric Avenue.

The market is generally regarded as “the” place for Afro-Caribbean food shopping, but I think it’s still a bit too intimidating for your average Waitrose-type foodie. I’m pretty sure most of the diners who line up for a perch at Franco Manca hightail it to the tube once they’ve polished off the last of their sourdough crusts and organic ales.

Coldharbour Lane entrace to Brixton Village

My hands-down favourite place in the market on a Saturday is Brixton Village – a 1930s market arcade with entries off Coldharbour Lane (beyond the train line) and Atlantic Road (past Argos, on the other side of the road). When I first ventured there last year it was downright grim, and half the shopfronts seemed vacant. But since November, Lambeth Council and Space Makers have supported its transformation into a bonafide community of pop-up shops and culinary enterprises. The “slack space” project apparently offers three months’ free rent to creatives and entrepreneurs, so amongst the six rows of shops and stalls you’ll encounter everything from a Thai massage studio and art workshops to handmade cupcakes and confectionary. The Community shop also sells the Brixton Pound currency, which gives you decent savings on goods and services spent at local businesses.

It’s awesome to see permanent businesses like the Agile Rabbit setting up shop in the arcade – it’s the newest kid on the block, and will hopefully stick around longer than three months. The stylishly no-frills café/pizza bar serves up generous pairs of thin-base pizza squares, which you can eat off grease-proof paper on communal tables. If you’ve ever had to fight the tourists outside the Franco Manca, you’ll appreciate an alternative for fresh, cheap artisan pizza that’s far from the madding crowds – but for how long, who knows... I discovered the Agile Rabbit a few Saturdays ago when I was guiding my frightfully hungover pal through her first Brixton market tour. After splitting a pair of pepperoni squares and a can of coke between the two of us (£4 total) and then chatting to Victor, the owner, I discovered I wasn’t going mad – “I swear to god, this place was not here last weekend…” – it had only opened for business the day before.

Other shop to visit include Federation Coffee – damn fine Melbourne-quality coffee, unfortunately not exactly Brixton-cheap though – and Etta’s Seafood Kitchen, which serves Caribbean-influenced seafood dishes. Ok, so I haven’t actually eaten at Etta’s but I curse this every time I walk past and read the daily specials. It’s Brixton cheap, too. Brixton Village is the place to head on Thursday nights, as all these new pop-ups trade from 6-10pm and you can BYO booze when you eat in. More often than not there’ll be a cracking soundsystem and a huge smoky BBQ pumping near the Coldharbour Lane entrance. The Brixton Village Facebook page gives regular updates about special events and new occupants in the arcade.

How to sleep on couches in London for two months and not outstay your welcome (a.k.a. best-ever Chocolate and Walnut Brownies).

When I arrived in London I managed to doss around the place for about eight weeks before the craving for a dressing table and chest of drawers all got too much and I moved into my own sharehouse. You don’t need a Ph.D in international relations to work out the obvious ‘to do’s when you’re occupying the communal lounge space in someone else’s house for a while:
- Always do the washing up. Everyday. This is a non-negotiable.
- Ensure ready supply of beer/wine and toilet paper.
- Befriend the annoying housemate and listen to their tales of woe so the paying tenants don’t have to.
- Develop a repertoire of curries, lasagnes, and stir fries that the biggest eater/guts/food stealer in the house can eat for a few days at a time.

(image above of Augustus Gloop's untimely end is reminiscent of what you might experience if you eat more than two squares of brownie in one sitting...)

I can’t remember where I found this recipe for chocolate brownies, but they were an absolute WINNER. In fact, I recently passed the recipe on to my mate Em who’d just arrived in London and was looking for ways (other than the list above, obvs) to butter up her generous hosts. It’s essentially chocolate, butter and sugar – clearly a no-brainer. Plus, noone seems to bake too much in this town – probs has something to do with the fact that you can’t swing a cat in most kitchens. Even the most neglected sharehouse kitchen cupboard will usually have a baking tray that could be used (as long as it’s about 5cm deep), although you can pick one up at most pound shops. Before setting out, check there’s a whisk of some description for beating the egg mixture. That’s a non-negotiable.

What to do first:
- preheat oven to 180 degrees
- grease and line (with grease-proof paper) a 20cm square cake tin

125gm butter, warmed to room temperature
200gm good quality dark chocolate (e.g. 70% cocoa), chopped roughly
2 eggs
230 gm (1 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
60gm (1/2 cup) plain flour
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (oh my god, get Black and Green organic if you have to buy some - it's freakin' amazin... so much better than Cadbury etc. – you can tell the difference straight away if you're having it in a hot drink)
100gm (1 cup) chopped walnuts

What to do next:
- Melt butter and half of the chocolate in a bowl set over simmering water
- Remove from heat and leave to cool
- Whisk eggs, gradually add sugar until thick and foamy. If you’re doing this with a hand whisk, it will take a while, but you’ll get there eventually. (albeit with early-onset tennis elbow). Add vanilla essence and blend thoroughly. Add egg mix to chocolate and butter mix.
- Sift cocoa and flour over combined runny mixture, add walnuts and remaining chopped chocolate
- FOLD mixture with large spoon (be gentle otherwise they'll turn out rubbery). Folding is the secret of fluffy baking, my friends.
- Pour batter into tin and bake for 30mins, or top is cooked/dark brown. Put foil over top if it start to burn.
- Cut while still warm and leave to cool completely on wire rack.
- Dust with icing sugar if you're feeling particularly Donna Hay-ish.
- Do not consume more than two pieces in one sitting or risk falling into a diabetic coma and/or suffering massive heart attack.

Brownies will keep for a few days in airtight container but chances are, they’ll be gone by Day 2, especially if made at the start of the weekend. And especially if spied by hungry housemates returning home from a boozy night out.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dumprings! Dumprings!!

A version of the following feature was published on UK arts and culture portal, The Collective Review.

One of the first things I missed when I moved to London was somewhere to get a quick, cheap, fresh dumpling fix. The whole Shanghai dumpling craze in Melbourne has been raging out of control for YEARS: once upon a time a standard Friday night in Shanghai Noodle would involve groups of hipsters sharing one plate of steamed chicken and prawn dumplings while polishing off a dozen long necks of Coopers Sparkling; these days you’re just as likely to wait in line for a table behind packs of inebriated suits (aaahhhh, god bless gentrification…) who’ll inhale a platter apiece in a pit stop during after work drinks.

Anyone who has a clue (and a car…) knows to forget Melbourne’s Chinatown and get to Box Hill in the ‘burbs. David and Camy’s in Station Street (they used to have a city restaurant off Little Bourke St) serves shanghai dumplings (pork, cabbage and herbs in a crescent-shaped wrapper), shanghai noodles (thick, wormy, homemade noodles in a dark sticky soy sauce with shredded pork and cabbage), and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce BIGGER, BETTER and CHEAPER than anywhere in Zone 1.

…Which is all very well when you have a car and live in Melbourne, but things are a whole lot more depressing when you’re new to London, unemployed, reliant on the £6.30 in your wallet for the next two days, largely friendless, and nursing a mid-week hangover that can only be sated by steamed meat in dough, doused in a 1:1 ratio of soy/chilli sauce. It’s taken a while, but I’m pleased to say I now have options in a few different neighbourhoods…

1. Jen Café, 4-8 Newport St, London WC2H 7JP
Sorry, but this ‘China town’ caper is a total crock – it’s like three streets max and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Chinese people who actually live or hang out there. No matter, just get to Jen Café for the dumplings. They’re Beijing style, apparently. Handmade on the workbench in the window, in fact. £4 a plate, maybe? Cheap, steamed, fried, in chilli oil, whatevs. For Melbournian ex-pats hankering for the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” hospitality championed by the nasty man with the glasses and the even meaner old woman (his mother-in-law, perhaps?) who run Shanghai Dumpling, Jen Café boasts a similar level of service. Arrive in an antsy, stressed mood and you’ll feel like glassing the waiting staff within five minutes.

The last time I was there we were sat infront of a door that stayed ajar whenever anyone entered (it was during winter). The spotlight above us short-circuited whenever someone in the kitchen used the microwave (like, every 30 seconds), and I was shafted with second-hand dumplings rejected by the dude sitting infront of us. The dumplings certainly fill a hole, though.
If you’re still peckish after you’ve (most likely) been sent packing after 19 minutes inside, there’s a seriously sweet food stall out the front of the Asian grocers behind Jen Café (28-29 Newport Court) selling the best pork buns I’ve ever tasted (disclaimer: I only really started eating them in the past couple of years, so I can’t compare them to much). The note I wrote in my phone reads “Chinese chive, pork, chicken, vegie buns”. I think they come in four varieties. They’re like £1 each, I think.

2. Tibetan Momo stall, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Visit the Brick Lane UpMarket on a Sunday and, at some point between buying Japanther’s new EP on vinyl at Rough Trade and buying some pre-loved vintage crap from the unofficial garage sale on Brick Lane (hey, you’ve probably helped pay for some kid’s ticket to Bestival), make sure you try the Tibetan momo from the undercover food market. So ‘momo’ is the Tibetan version of dumplings (who says I don’t do my research…).

These ones come in lamb, pork or chicken, with celery, cabbage and spices (or just plain vegie). Same hand-pressed crescent shape, but with a distinctly heavier (wheatier?) wrapping. I went with lamb – that’s the animal I most easily imagined wandering around behind sherpas at altitude. To really bring out the rustic character of the momo, season liberally with the complementary chunky chilli tomato sauce with mustard seeds – it’s wrong to call it a salsa, but that’s what it’s like. Eat it like a salsa and it will literally blow your head off. In a good way. Steamed or fried, six for £4, eight for £5.50, served with salad.

2. Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR
I’d heard the rumours about Camberwell’s impressive variety of cheap and cheerful non-Western eateries (compared to neighbouring Stockwell and Brixton), and have recently become a little O-to-the-BSESSED with the rather unusual Chinaman blogger who is Southside proud, with his predilection for cheap, good fare with a south-east Asian inflection. As if I didn’t need any more motivation to check out Silk Road’s renowned dumplings, I discover my man J-Ray jumped on its bandwagon MONTHS ago, touting the specialities of its Xinjiang cuisine (that’s the Chinese province bordering – amongst others – Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and home to some serious ethnic tensions).

Given Xinjiang borders pretty much all the “…ajistan” countries – hello, Borat – I arrived there excited to taste how Central Asian flavours (mutton and spices?) would fuse with noodles and dumplings. Vegan BF went with the mixed vegetables and noodles (£6), I got the lamb and onion dumplings (10 FOR £2.50... David and Camy, you're dead to me now) and we shared pak choi with garlic (£5). Let me tell you something for nothing: Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce has stiff competition in the form of pak choi with garlic. Same consistency sauce with liberal slices of fresh chilli, but a revelation.

The dumplings seemed a cross between the standard steamed Shanghai variety and the Tibetan momos – the filling was deffo a bit more rustic (it defintiely tasted like lamb and onion, FYI), ditto the doughier wrapping. Not sure how they’d go once stone cold – clearly they didn’t have time to cool, as I hovered up all 10 with Chinese vinegar and chilli oil at the speed of light. The BF’s noodles were interesting – I’d like to try Silk Road’s noodles with lamb, or even something offaly. The tomato, cabbage, green chilli and garlic stirfry looked, at first, like an Italian sauce gone wrong (the homemade and obviously hand-stretched noodles could pass for tagliatelle at a glance). But when you bite into the totally-redefining-al-dente noodles, you realise how totally crappy all the noodles you’ve ever had were, compared to these. I’d like to confirm if the noodle dough is the same as the dumpling dough. I think it might be.

We clearly didn’t give the menu enough of a shake up to feel fully versed on the culinary pecularities of northwest China, but I’ll be certainly returning for a plate of the lamb and onion, beef and onion, or egg and shrimp and something else dumplings VERY SOON. It would appear the large platter of chicken is the customary dish - it's a 'book 24 hours in advance' number. Oh – Tsingtao beers were £2, and our bill came to under £20 and we were so full we nearly died on the walk home to Stockwell. The end.

Friday, May 7, 2010

GET TO TOOTING! Seriously, guys - it's on the Northern line, it's not that far.

Tooting. First heard of – and promptly forgotten – in a Time Out feature last year touting up-and-coming suburbs (I’d just arrived in London and thought anything beyond Zone 3 on the tube was a provincial wasteland). The fact is, it’s a jewell in south London’s crown, considering its Primark – smaller than Oxford St but bigger than Kilburn – TK Maxx, Tooting Bec Lido being the second biggest pool in Europe (91.5 metres) and – best of all – a collection of Indian restaurants that leaves Brick Lane for dead.

We were meeting up with old mate Em who’d just arrived in town, and was staying in Streatham. First stop, for pre-d’s, was the Tram and Social on Mitcham Rd, right next to the tube station, tucked down a confusing alley that not one, not two, but THREE of us managed to miss.

Think guttered warehouse/factory space filled with mismatched velvet couches and battered chesterfields, retro touches, and all the sorts of things you dream about finding in hard rubbish but never do. For Melbournians, a bit like Little Creatures (space-wise) crossed with the Comfy Chair, if it were located just off Mitchell Road in Thornbury. I wish I’d noted the boutiquey ale we were drinking – a golden ale and a pale ale… something about a goose or a horse? – because it was GREAT. Place was pretty empty while we were there but we ducked back after dinner for another round and it was pleasantly populated – especially for a Wednesday night. It’s totally the kind of place to organise for birthday drinks – big enough to claim a corner, not too intimidating, but enough character to impress people who are trekking over from the wrong side of the river.

On to dinner. We tossed up between Sree Krishna and Apollo Banana Leaf, right next door to each other down Tooting High Street. Main consideration was that APL was BYO, but the little offy across the road didn’t look too inspiring. SK did look slightly fancier and was licensed, so we went there and agreed to try APL’s Sri Lankan fare another time soon.

I think I like South Indian curry the most of all “Asian” – I still can’t get my head around that British definition – cuisines. Coconut, fish, hot hot curries… what more do you want? We started off with long necks of Kingfisher (£6ish) and papadums – the onion, yoghurt and mango sauces weren’t anything to write home about, but as usual I could have polished off another dozen papadums. (As is always the case in these situations, I had to restrain myself from re-enacting the blessing and breaking of the eucarist… what can I say, I see a huge, circular flat biscuit and start reciting Communion prayers… That’s what you get from 20+ years of Catholic education. Mum once caught me doing it with a giant salt ‘n’ vinegar chip and went mental at me.)

As for mains, Em and I split an Alleppy fish curry (whole fish curry with spices, tomato and coconut milk, £7.50) and the Malabar chicken (chicken and veggies with coconut, coriander and spices, £4.50). Vegan BF had a dal and a veggie Malabar (£3.50 each). I think we can all agree it was freakin’ awesome. The fish had all its bones and tail bits, but what you couldn’t pick out you could eat. The spices tasted like they were fresh out of the mortar and pestle – an invigorating change when you’re acclimatised to Patak curry pastes. Bill came to £39 with all the bits and bobs included – I think we can all agree that was pretty astounding, given the fine fare and classy surrounds. In short: get to Tooting!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Não falo português."

I read yesterday that there were approximately 30,000 Portuguese-speaking residents in Stockwell (this was via the Good Food Channel website, not the Bureau of Statistics – you can see where my research priorities lie). This makes sense when you’ve seen the concentration of Portuguese bars, cafes and grocers along South Lambeth road and Stockwell road. And we’re not talking Nandos, people (although there is one down opposite Brixton Academy).

I’ve been keen to check out one of the many bar/café/restaurants in the ‘hood which rate as “authentic” according to the following guidelines:
• Meat and fish menu. Simple as that. No frills. With side salad/chips/rice for mains.
• Flat-screen TVs broadcasting soccer 24/7 and positioned so that one is visible wherever you’re sitting
• Roomful of middle-aged male regulars who look slightly perplexed – but not predatory or pissed off, that’s very important! – when three clearly-not-Portuguese ladies walk in and sit down
• Kindly maitre d’/waiter who treats clearly-not-Portuguese ladies like regulars, and un-condescendingly points out the English translation clearly printed underneath each menu item after feeble pronunciation attempt.
• One type of beer available in bottles, but served with a tiny accompanying tumbler for the ladies
• Bottomless plates of olives and/or bread (good in theory, but bad when you’re a greedy carboholic and mains take a while to arrive)
• Simple, unpretentious dishes that YES, you probably could have cooked yourself… if you happened to be a Portuguese grandma
• Meat and fish. Give it to me. Let’s OD on protein and slop up the grease with bread.

So last night we headed to Grelha D’Ouro (“golden grill”) which is just up from the slightly fancier and utterly enjoyable Robato’s (Spanish tapas, great place for a date: maitre d’ wears a tux, flamenco guitarist on the stairs most Friday nights) on South Lambeth road. GdO is split into three areas – bar (yummy-looking trays of tapas thingies behind a glass counter), café (wooden tables, men watching football) and restaurant out the back (slightly moodier lighting, tablecloths, TV screens more unobtrusive).

Olives and crusty bread arrived immediately, house beers (Super Bock, £2 each – sweet, eh?!) arrived ice-cold. Menus were deliciously straight forward with accompanying illustrations (and English translations), and we immediately agreed to ask for cracked pepper when we saw our waiter toting a gimormous grinder from table to table – seriously, it was more than 3” tall. (And yes, that's the only photo from dinner.)

Terese ordered chicken with white wine and mushroom sauce (served with rice, veggies and fries, £9 perhaps?), and Rose ordered salmon steak with veggies (I have no idea - let’s say £10). I went for maximum seafood consumption with two entradas – mussels “in special Grelha D’Ouro sauce” (£5.50ish) and grilled king prawns (£4.50ish).

There was some issue with Terese’s chicken – namely, they forgot about it – which meant we all ate way too much bread, and poor T had to wait another 10 minutes for her food once ours had arrived. My mussels arrived on half shells, which certainly saved my prep time, cooked in a rust-coloured, reduced sauce of onion, tomato, white wine and dill
whatever, it was the first shellfish I’d eaten in months and it was delectable. Ditto the prawns – four fat juicy fellas cooked in a criminally tasty butter that was all too easily soaked up with crusty bread. Needless to say, I totally overdid it and went to bed with a bad case of indigestion.

I’d love to go back and share a fish platter or a soupy seafood rice (£20 for two people; Ronaldo's expression below is a good indication of my order envy face when I saw these delivered to neighbouring diners). The steaks looked pretty tasty too – they were served flesh-side-up on a sizzling stone, so you can flip and eat to your liking. Damnit – I’d just go back for the beer, tapas, and satellite TV…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trainspotters' guide to the Victoria line

Here's another feature of mine that's published on UK website The Collective Review - it's a love letter to my favourite transport route, the Victoria line.

You know you’re well on the way to being a London local when you can converse about tube lines like you might your favourite pizza topping or U2 album (e.g. everyone has their favourite; most will have one they truly detest). In fact, I’d say the tube map is more of a London icon than Buckingham Palace or Big Ben – although beware, new Londoners: it’s not spatially accurate! (Hands up who wasted tens of pounds during their first weeks in the capital, traversing tube lines that could have been power-walked on street level in half the time?!)

The cool kids in Stoke Newington and Hackney might disagree, but vicinity to a tube stop is as much of a priority as broadband internet and for most inner-city sharehouse-hunters. And while the Central line is the system’s longest (74km between West Ruislip and Epping) and the Northern line might have inspired a Jamie T track, for slick efficiency and sheer cool factor, you can’t beat the Victoria line. The pale blue route stretches from Walthamstow in E17 to Brixton in SW9 and offers more bang for your Oyster buck, especially if you’re after a feed, a night on the tiles, or some cultural stimulation. Here are some highlights along the line:

I remember the moment, ‘fresh off the boat’ in London, when I made the connection between this east London locale and the UK’s finest exponents of 1990s white boy hip hop. Walthamstow was the hometown and debut album title of East 17, clearly the grittier option to Take That, in the battle of the boy bands (they were fleetingly massive in Australia, FYI). With the 90s the retro decade du jour, it’s only a matter of time before someone plots a circuit retracing the band’s local haunts in E17, á la Sex and the City tours in Manhattan… right?

Highbury and Islington
Band venue the Garage had a facelift last year, now apparently called the Relentless Garage and boasts a band room that is more basketball court than stylish salon. Still, it attracts an impressive roster of indie bands and is still walking distance from Angel and Islington.

Forget Brick Lane – a more chilled-out option for decent grub from the Indian subcontinent can be found in Drummond Street, near Euston tube. Cheap-as-chips lunch buffets and vegetarian menus are the main drawcard here. Regulars to Raavi Kebab rate it above the legendary Tyabbs in Whitechapel for Pakistani grill, but don’t get caught expecting a beer – it’s a dry zone, people.

The Eagle is an institution on the London gay scene, especially Sunday night’s Horse Meat Disco. An alternative sweaty and glam night out can be found Thursdays to Sundays at Roller Disco at Renaissance Rooms.

Just down from Brixton Academy on Stockwell Road is one of south London’s best skate parks, whether you’re skating, scootering or BMXing – or just watching the talent from the sidelines. Formerly ‘Little Lisbon’ due to the Portuguese community who call it home, it’s attracting more gentrified crowds thanks to recent gastropub facelift on the Canton Arms (the Observer’s Jay Rayner is a loyal fan).

Foodies should make the journey for the best range of Afro-Caribbean produce in the heritage-listed Brixton Market, also home to London’s best pizza (Franco Manca) and Nigella Lawson (crossed with Sophie Dahl and Alexa Chung?)’s heir apparent (Rosie Lovell of Rosie’s Café).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Aroi cabbage*

You know those nights when you get home and realise you’ve got a stupidly incongruous collection of ingredients from which to construct a meal, but the stars align and by pure chance (skill?) you put together a Michelin-worthy dish? Although it generally ends in pain (eating enough for three grown men) and shame (scoffing the leftovers for breakfast and realising you now have nothing for lunch), it’s a wonderful ego boost.

Last night, my key ingredient was half a red cabbage. It cost 60p at the market last week and really needed to be used. By chance, I had some Thai basil (the more assertive, aniseedy cousin of the Italian variety) I’d used in a jungle curry on the weekend. In the freezer were some scotch bonnet chillies, and a lump of smoked bacon which I’d previously discovered needed to be used sparingly when stir-frying, as its saltiness was a tad overpowering. I thought I’d better cook the cabbage to cut its bitterness – the thought of a bowl of shredded red cabbage didn’t really turn me on. Given the basil, I thought a Vietnamese-inspired stir-fry might be a goer, to add to the freezer/cupboard staples of chilli, garlic, soy and fish sauce.

Half a red cabbage, shredded
2/3 cup raw bacon, sliced into small pieces
3 garlic cloves, slices
½ scotch bonnet chilli (or 1 birds eye chilli), chopped
1 lime, juiced (I used a lemon, but lime is more authentic)
Soy sauce
Fish sauce
½ cup Thai basil leaves, torn (don’t chop them with a knife – it really makes a difference)
Vegetable oil

1. Heat splash of oil to a wok on high heat, add bacon and toss quickly for like 15 seconds (don’t cook through or brown)
2. Add garlic and cabbage and stir fry with bacon
3. Add chilli (usually I’d add this first thing but it will completely overpower the cabbage if you do… not to mention fumigate your kitchen like capsicum spray)
4. The bacon will contribute the saltiness you’d usually get from soy and/or fish sauce, so just add a TINY bit of both for flavour (like, a teaspoon of fish and a tablespoon of soy).
5. Add lime juice – the sourness will help cut the saltiness. A good stir-frying tip is to pour liquids down the side of the wok instead of on top, so they add flavour from the bottom up (at boiling temperature), rather than just stewing the ingredients on top.
6. When the cabbage is stir-fry “al dente” texture (e.g. not raw but not soggy – you know what I mean), toss in the basil leaves and remove from heat

Ordinarily this would feed two famished people or three people with normal appetites. I think it would make a nice partner to a fried noodle dish, or something with some serious carbs - maybe a pad thai? Speaking of pad thai, I found an awesomely informative post on Chez Pim that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about cooking the classic Thai dish.

* Three weeks in Thailand and the one word I learnt was 'aroi' - "DELICIOUS!". Clearly I was a HIT at every restaurant I patronised...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Staying vegan over a Christian holiday in the land of lamb and Guinness

It’s serious post-holiday blues this week, after an awesomely indulgent and educational five days in Dublin. In between all the sleeping in and movie watching, we totally ticked off all the big ticket attractions: pints, potatoes, pagan ruins, and pony markets.

Our utterly hospitable hosts are Dublin locals which, let’s face it, is a privilege to have when you’re visiting a new city. The combination of a bloody expensive hospitality scene and a well-stocked booze collection at home meant we enjoyed lots of lazy lunches and dinners at home. Our friends went to so much trouble to accommodate vegan BF’s pesky diet… I’m pretty sure there’s a government-sanctioned drive to promote the consumption of meat and diary… especially when a litre of soy milk costs nearly FOUR EURO. Don’t covert it, it’s too painful.
I’ve got more posts to come on the sight seeing, pint drinking and dairy-free easter eggs, but for the time being, check out the vegan spread for the Easter Sunday roast.

The rack of lamb we three omnivores shared was cooked pink to perfection, but honestly, with roast veggies like that – who needs meat?! (Did I just write that…?)

In TV cooking show developments, watching approximately 58 hours of Come Dine With Me over the weekend made me realise how long it’s been since I’ve cooked to impress guests with meat. (The show confirmed that if faced with hosting these typically arrogant, ungrateful and uncouth contestants I’d spend all night boozing on in the kitchen while they no doubt mentally deduced points for my old-fashioned crockery, but that’s material for another post.) Yes, I’m a tighter$e but no, I’m not going to fork out £30 on a fillet of beef when the line between medium and overcooked is a glass of wine and a cheeky ciggie on the balcony. And the reality is the precious leftovers will never make rustic sangas with Dijon mustard and watercress for the next two days – the meat will be hacked and scoffed with cold gravy and spuds at the end of the night once the guests have left and the dishes are done. I just don't see the value for money (or taste).

Give me a big heavy-based casserole pot, a bagful of cheap meat and fresh veggies, pulses soaked overnight, and a cupboard full of individual spices. My justification is that if you’ve spent a whole day slow cooking the bloody thing, the last thing you feel like is seconds after the meal and therefore you’re more likely to actually have leftovers for the days after. Practicality over piggery!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Double dare, physical challenge: vegan lasagne comes up trumps

Some cooks moan about how fiddly and time-consuming it is to make lasagne from scratch, but I say it should only take as long as it takes to cook the Bolognese sauce/tomato sugo down (ideally, about an hour). Oh – plus 45 mins in a moderate oven (180 degrees) to cook it all.

Homemade Bolognese and bechemal lasagne was SUCH a highlight when I was little – I requested it most years for birthday dinners, I think mostly because my dad hated it – but these days I couldn’t eat a plate if you paid me. Indigestion city. Throw some garlic bread and red wine into the mix and I’ll literally be awake all night, screaming for Quick Eze like a junkie gone cold turkey.

Vegetarian lasagne, however, is a different story. It’s such a good dinner party/communal dish because you can make it the day before and feast on leftovers for days. The highlight of my show-stopping version (even if I do say so myself…) is layers of spinach and ricotta mix – same as what you’d stuff cannelloni with – in between the pasta sheets and tomato sugo. As such, I didn’t hold high hopes for veganising this dish – the prospect of replacing ricotta with a variety of soy products seemed wrong on so many levels. Normally I’d incorporate some vegetable layers into the mix – par-cooked sweet potato and/or pumpkin slices (steam or boil), and char-grilled eggplant and/or zucchini (brush them with olive oil and brown them under the grill). But for this first crack I just concentrated on the spinach and tofu mix, with pasta sheets and tomato sauce.

What else… Oh – I picked up a tip from my mate Clare for topping a vegetarian lasagne if you’re not keen on a rich, cheesy lid – spread a layer of hand-torn breadcrumbs (you don’t want them too fine) interspersed with knobs of butter. A nice stale ciabatta or casalinga would have been preferable to the only bread we had the house – Hovis Granary original… hello, grainy high-fibre breadcrumbs on a vegan lasagne – could this be any more of a gross vegan cliché?! Anyone for gluten-free carob-chip cookie…? YUCK. I tried to explain the wrongness of this to vegan boyfriend, but didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for: “What’s wrong with grainy bread? Sounds awesome.” Yeah. But then so does Heinz tomato sauce all over it, doesn’t it.

3 cans of tinned tomatoes
3 small onions, halved and sliced vertically
4 cloves garlic, crushed – half for the tomato sugo and half for the spinach mix
I packet (250gm) lasagne sheets
I small bowl of pureed spinach – vague, I know – if using those little bricks of frozen spinach, thaw out 8 or 10 and squeeze out any extra liquid
125gm tofu (half a block of cauldron organic tofu), chopped very finely or crumbled
2-3 tsp1 miso soup mix – to mask that manky plasticky soy smell; I’d have loved to try squirt of umami paste or a few teaspoons of red miso paste would have been ideal, but I was too much of a tighter$e to pay £4 for a little jar of the organic stuff at Sainsburys.
3 tbsp Alpro natural yoghurt
1 container Alpro long-life pouring cream
2 slices crusty white bread (e.g. casalinga), crumbed into breadcrumbs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees, and grease a relatively deep, small-to-medium-sized baking dish with olive oil. I found a deep rectangular dish for 67p at a pound shop; it looked suspiciously like a planter box you’d grow herbs in, but despite our fears it did the job and didn’t break in the oven. Who needs Le Creuset, I ask you.
2. Sautee onion and garlic in olive oil for 3 mins, add tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer gently for as long as you can (at least 40 mins). Season with salt and pepper. Add a little sugar if it’s a bit too sour.
3. Thaw and drain water off frozen spinach (jiggle in a sieve, not a colander, if you’ve got one). Stick in a bowl.
4. Add crumbled tofu, crushed garlic, miso powder/paste/whatever, yoghurt, and 3 tbsp of cream. You want it to be reasonable sloppy (and the award for evocative food writing goes to…) so if in doubt, add more cream. Sniff for nasty soy smell – if in doubt, add more garlic, miso, or fresh herbs, if you have them.
5. Now – the assemblage. It’s going to be tomato – pasta – spinach – pasta – tomoto – pasta - spinach… you get the idea. You don’t need too much tomato into the bottom, just a covering. Break and rearrange the pasta sheets to fit the dish, but don’t worry if you have gaps – the pasta swells and warps as it rehydrates, and noone’s going to see how neat the inside layers are.

6. Spoon and spread the spinach and tofu mix ontop of the pasta sheets, and douse with some of the cream, if you’re a fan of rich and creamy bechemal sauce. Probably a good idea to do this on every second spinach layer so it’s not too dry.

7 Keep layering until you build it to a reasonable height, and finish with a tomato layer.
8. Spread the breadcrumbs on top and, in lieu of butter, drizzle with olive oil (do it fast and from height so you get a very fine line) and cream, and salt and pepper.
8. It’s handy if you have leftover tomato sugo – you can always heat it up and serve it with leftovers to make them extra saucy. Or, like, you could just be a total bogan and squirt Heinz tomato sauce all over it...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"I said Pet, I said Love, I said DHAL..."*

A post on utterly gorgeous food blog The Spice Spoon piqued my interest – I know my way around a biryani and could eat pappadums and customised relish (aka from the shop with extra bits and pieces) every day of my life, but Indian dhal is one thing I’ve never really fancied. I figure only boring hippies or really broke dinner party hosts would ever whip up a batch of what is basically porridge with dried peas, right? The Spice Spoon's post on Afghan/Pakistan dal (not "dhal", evidently) as the ultimate comfort food sounded like an easy peasy vegan challenge.
A tutorial in lentil/pea variation will have to wait for another time. Buying the lentils proved confusing – there were at least three types of dried yellow thingies at my local Indian grocers (I jokingly commented they “they probably all taste the same, right?!” which was met with aghast silence – humour FAIL).

Cook’s notes:
I started with best intentions but predictably got a bit haphazard with quantities and flavouring, as is the case whenever I cook anything remotely Asian (that covers Middle East to Japan, FYI): if in doubt, chuck in a tonne of fresh chilli, coriander and salt (it’s slightly more cosmopolitan that eating tomato sauce on everything, ya know?). So yeah – probably as authentically Afghani as a KFC zinger burger, but it was pretty bloody moorish. God knows the possibilities from adding onion, root veggies and tarka into the mix. Tarka, I’ve recently learnt, is a spice-infused oil that you drizzle on top for a real sense of occasion… Western equivalent being a blue cheese sauce over pumpkin soup, perhaps?

Ingredients - admittedly vague, but just as long as you use the same cup for measuring, it's all cool:
2 cups red lentils
1 cup yellow mung dhal lentil thingies. Look for "yellow" and "mung". It worked for me with the Indian grocers (actually, it was far more comically complicated than that, but here's not the time nor place).
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (ok so I used paprika and chilli powder -but what the hey, it's all red and spicy, right?)
1 fat tbsp of tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, smooshed
1 big red chilli, finely sliced (don't bother removing the seeds, it'll give extra spice)
8 cups boiling water
1 handful of fresh coriander, chopped stalks and all

Method (hold onto your hats, kids):
1. Chuck everything (EXCEPT THE CORIANDER) into a big pot, bring to the boil, then simmer with the lid slightly off for 40 mins or so.
2. You'll know it's ready when all the lentils have pureed into the water.
3. Add some boiling water or let it boil away to your preferred consistency.
4. Mix in the coriander just before serving.

Cook's postscript:
If you're confident enough with Indian and middle eastern spices, follow your nose and put together a flavour base that suits your tastes. Even with a laissez faire approach, you can't really go wrong, unless you completely over season the dhal... in which case, turf it, and start again. You'll have probably wasted a whole 40 cents in ingredients (not that we condone food wastage, but seriously - it's not like we're dealing with grain-fed fillet steak...). I'm starting to understand why half the world's population subsists on this stuff.

* Give it up for some old-school Sharon Strzelecki

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Going vegan: a culinary challenge

After spending the past year and a half as an increasingly picky and guilt-ridden vegetarian, my boyfriend has recently bitten the tofurkey bullet and gone full vegan. My close friends have been supportive. It’s clearly more of a big deal to me than him. I do feel like a mother who leaves FHMs around the house for her newly de-closeted son in the hope that he’ll snap out of it. But waxing lyrical on the healing power of from-scratch chicken stock or melt-in-your-mouth sashimi garners no reaction, and he’s not phased when he has to pick bits out of the one vego-friendly dish on a menu. Crazy, I know.

Funnily enough, apart from a weakness for gourmet smallgoods and Vietnamese pork, I rarely eat meat and haven’t touched cow’s milk for five years, meaning I can’t even taste ice cream or a non-soy coffee without my gut swelling like a hot air balloon. Since the BF and I started co-habitating in London with ample freezer space and Tuppaware, I had developed a nice repertoire of soups, curries, tagines, lasagne, moussaka and other vego-friendly dishes. But now? There’s nothing too celebratory about a mixed mushroom risotto without the parmesan (and, let’s face it, half the wedge would be consumed along with half the wine bottle during the cooking…).
I’ll readily admit I’m a kitchen control freak and I’m not about to forsake my place infront of the hob for pre-packaged falafel balls (check the ingredients – some contain egg?!). So I’m considering this gastronomic development a challenge to try new recipes and cuisines, veganise old favourites, and discover whether the new world of nut spreads really compare to melted butter (I think the odds are 1/100, we’ll see though…).

Skate your week off to a good start

It's official: Monday nights are more fun on eight wheels. Roller disco tragics or roller derby wannabes who just want to get down to business should check out London's quirkiest skating venue at Manor House.

There’s something a little peculiar about warning signs outside a venue forbidding knives and weapons on the premises, when you’re lined up amongst young women in casual corporate wear, and it’s 8.15pm on a Monday night. The scene gets altogether more bizarre once you’ve paid three quid to the man at the entrance who’s thoroughly checking all bags (“you can’t take your water bottles upstairs, sorry ladies – we’ll hold onto them down here if you’d like”).

Read the rest of my review published on UK news and entertainment portal here.