Friday, 27 November 2009

Diet kebab anyone?

The Food Standards Agency is soon to release guidelines for our local caffs and chip shops to produce healthy versions of our favourite unhealthy takeaways. The prospect of the nannyish traffic light system, which is now fixed to every supermarket packet, adorning the wall alongside a donor kebab fills me with horror. Yes, the saturated fat levels of golden battered cod may be enough to induce a mild panic if not heart attack, but deep down we already know that we're not exactly nibbling on a carrot stick.

Going to the nearest greasy spoon to find calorie content and salt levels on the menu is surely a step too far? And will government imposed restrictions extend to the cream laden dishes in Michelin kitchens? More ridiculous still would be a late night chippie offering steamed sweet potato sticks or a quinoa salad to go with your burger.

Across the pond American’s are used to calories being displayed on all sorts of menus but surely this clouds choice to the point that diners no longer order what they actually want to eat but rather what they feel they should. Or, arguably worse, will leave a restaurant guilty, haunted by calorie counts and nutritional waffle.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone that doners, chips or pizza should be lauded as health foods but the FSA’s latest drive will hammer another nail into the coffin of the individual’s right to choose. I’d like to be able to indulge in a paper parcel of traditionally cooked fish and chips in all their salty, oily, vinegary deliciousness and savour every moment without the lingering guilt induced by an FSA poster proclaiming them as a ‘bad’ food. And I’m not sure I would want them to be cooked in healthier oil, fat-free batter or low sodium salt flakes.

Besides which, when it comes to kebabs, if you avoid the cylindrical twisting stack of dubious animal meat and go for grilled shish or tandoor kathi, your pitta bread will actually contain something less nutritionally offensive than the over laden high street sandwiches we stuff ourselves with daily.

Before the guidelines go crazy and we’re greeted with weight loss tips as we stagger over the doorsteps of our favourite eateries, it’s about time we celebrated the staggering array of street food that’s all over the capital.

Here are a couple I go back to again and again. They’re so good I’ve sort of stopped exploring so need to hear where yours are???

Good Morning Vietnam, Clapham Junction

Ranoush, High St Kensington

George’s Fish & Chip Bar, Portobello Road
Fish Club, St John's Hill

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Scarsdale Tavern

There are some places that should be kept secret. Local haunts that thrive on anonymity, that you only mention to the people you trust not to ruin them and you wouldn’t mind bumping into if they paid a visit. The unassuming backstreet canteen, neighbourhood coffee shop or third-generation bakery that feel like life enhancing discoveries when first you walk through the door.

Unfortunately much as I try, I’m terrible at keeping secrets. I would be an interrogator’s dream. If there’s any sign that an exciting bit of news might be well received, before I know it, it’s out. So while I’m not one to keep your deepest, darkest skeleton in the closet, I am one to divulge a few of my own.

On a quiet, residential square at the wrong end of Kensington High Street you could almost miss The Scarsdale so unassuming is the entrance. Quietly blending into the adjacent terraced houses as it does seems fitting for a pub that is still very much a local.

In the summer colourful hanging baskets tumble over the railings and now in early winter ever-green plants guide you towards the Georgian building and the welcome heat within. As we walked in we spied a blackboard proclaiming the arrival of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau which meant our tipple was chosen for the day.

For once, finding a table among the assortment of mis-matched wooden furniture presented no challenge and we settled down in a cosy corner next to an antique dealer who throughout our stay played host to various punters. He eventually gave up his table to a trio of affable drunks playing a game that seemed low on rules and high on hilarity.

A bustling square bar takes centre stage, the layout allowing you to completely circle around it, passing through the vaguely formal dining area that stretches back to the kitchen. Finding empty tables here (to sit at them you must be eating) is frustrating when so many loyal regulars cram for space on the other side. I’m sure that most of them, given a pew, would naturally indulge in something more substantial than the moreish wasabi peas, pistachio nuts or twiglets currently stoking their appetites.

The blackboard menu spans the realms of pub grub, a step above standard but not in gastro league, with starters of homemade butternut soup, goats cheese salad or chicken liver pate served in generous portions; each a meal in itself. The fishcakes are hearty potatoey stodge, lacking fish and smothered in sauce - they sell out regularly so can’t be all bad. A peculiar, pungent sauce arrives with our salmon fillet and the lamb salad with mint dressing seemed more like Sunday lunch leftovers than an evening meal.

But the Scarsdale is about atmosphere, not fine dining. If you stick to the burgers, steaks, pies or nachos you’re safe; they seldom leave anything but a clean plate behind them. Venture onto the more elaborate main course combinations and love the place as I do, I have to confess there is room for disappointment.

Guest wines, such as the Beaujolais, occasionally appear at the bar as addition to the concise, wallet friendly house list. And tall elegant brown bottles of Aspall’s Suffolk Cider will tempt even the most abstemious visitor.

I reaslie, reading this back, that the Scarsdale sounds like any number of neighbourhood London pubs. I can’t quite put my finger on why it has such strong pulling power - perhaps it’s just because it’s my local and your own local is always unsurpassable.

The only serious complaint is that closing time always comes far too early.

Scarsdale Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Scarsdale Tavern
23 Edwardes Square
London W8
020 7937 1811

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Noodle Noodle

The name isn’t great is it? It doesn’t really inspire you to go inside and test out their offerings. Take any other cuisine and it gets all the more ridiculous – a restaurant called ‘rice, rice’, ‘spaghetti, spaghetti’ or ‘pie, pie’ doesn’t work either but maybe I’m being unimaginative.

Name aside this oriental canteen just north of Victoria station is quite an exciting find. It’s the sort of place you walk past a hundred times without even thinking of going inside. Away from the lunch time chaos, it turns out it’s worth spending a pound or two more than you would in Eat or Pret for an excuse to sit down and chatter over bowls of spicy pad thai, chicken-katsu curry or ramen soup.

Big beakers of juice arrive at the table in record speed and after our order is taken generous portions of fragrant fodder follow close behind. My Tom-Yum soup (£5.95) comes in a cavernous china bowl. Fine rice noodles swim in flavourful spiced stock along with tender poached chicken, spring onions, bean sprouts and a chunk of lemon which leaves a tangy punch. On a cold day like today this is comforting, with a hangover it would be cleansing and really, there are few days that this classic concoction wouldn’t be well received.

Jess, who introduced me to this little place, has spicy fried chicken (£7.95)which arrives with sticky rice and a thick, weirdly bright, sauce. The crunchy crumbed fillet is well received though and judging by the empty plates flying back to the kitchen from all corners the chefs have got the lunch time formula pretty much spot on. Mountainous piles of wok fried noodles, plates of steaming dim sum and all sorts of soups magically disappeared all around us.

Noodle Noodle isn’t gourmet, the ingredients aren’t sourced from suppliers in rolling English valleys and there’s no way the waiters know the provenance of the chicken on your plate but it’s fresh, healthy, quick and satisfying. In comparison to the array of high street vendors offering their latest attention grabbing sandwich it beats them hands down.

Noodle Noodle on Urbanspoon

Noodle Noodle
16-18 Buckingham Palace Road
London SW1W 0QP
020 7931 9911

Monday, 23 November 2009

A date with Daylesford

The first date is a tricky thing and despite being desperate to fall in love last Saturday, the object of my affections was not to be the one. Daylesford Organic in all its wholesome finery has received a mass of praising press and I should by now know that from the peak of expectation the fall to disappointment is all the more acutely felt.

The Daylesford brand, founded by the Bamford family with the first farm shop opening in 2003, has become synonymous with modern organic luxury. Proudly displayed throughout the Westbourne Grove store are Soil Association certifications, organic labels and various testaments to the nutritional wonders of their super foods.

One colourful wall placard describes the happy life of the Friesian herds who’s udders have produced all the milk, butter and cheese that will pass your lips. If you can get your hands on a jug of the white stuff that is, something that we failed to achieve despite numerous pleas from our bereft teacups.

Sitting down at a streamlined glass bench decorated with lines of chalky gravel we looked around for a waiter, first with anticipation, then with frustration and eventually with despair as we found it nearly impossible to spy anyone who might take our order. The manager was doing a sterling job, trying to steer her severely understaffed ship, but ultimately one lonesome person is never going to be able to keep a whole floor of Saturday breakfasters in high spirits.

Because of this we had plenty of time to ponder the concise menu which despite its shortness satisfies most appetites with its variety. A basket of toast (£3), bowl of granola (£5) or pile of pastries (£3.50) being the more traditional options but paperdelle bolognaise (£9.95) and spicy vegetable pad thai (£9.95) make the list for the more adventurous morning eater.

After managing to place our order - this felt like quite an achievement - we were rewarded with swiftly appearing sustenance. Earl grey and elderflower tea and smooth rich coffee were served with a delicious square of soft chocolate brownie; perfectly cooked sticky sponge dotted with white chocolate chips. Next to arrive was a statuesque vase of water, long slivers of cucumber curving through the liquid and for once tap water didn’t feel like the poor man’s choice. Sadly the Virgin Mary lacked for everything, the plain tomato juice missing any seasoning or spice at all.

My plate of scrambled eggs (£4) was perfect: Fluffy, well seasoned, creamy and orange-yolked on top of crunchy buttery sourdough, they paid testament to the happy hens from which they came. Eggs Benedict and Florentine (£6.95) were both devoured with smiles, the bright shiny hollandaise lemony and well balanced.

Sugar-free, wheat-free, granola muesli with almond milk had the potential to resemble chewy cardboard but the glass bowl was full of satisfyingly crunchy cereal, flecked with goji berries and seeds. The pappardelle with bolognaise sauce was sloppily presented in comparison and the flavours good but not memorable.

Plates finally cleared, our verdict was that the food is fine, the atmosphere and service less so. The almost complete absence of staff make dining here a stressful experience for both customers and employees. But there’s something about Daylesford, the concept is so attractive, the ethos so compelling, that I did something I never do in the dating world and after a less than convincing first experience, said yes to date two.

And I’m glad I did because this time the service was quicker, the staff were not so frenetically pressured and there was time to appreciate the surrounding space with it’s bar stacked with loaves of spelt sourdough, pumpernickel and baguettes. Or the meat counters housing pork, lamb, beef and game from valleys of the south west, guarded by startled looking stuffed pheasants. And the flickering open stone fire, ordered shelves of juices, wines and oils and impressive stacks of cakes.

The shop is a decadent emporia housing every food lover’s fantasy. Chocolate covered nuts, sambuca-flavoured honey, pretty pink peppercorns, cases of marons glace, cellophane wrapped biscotti, juniper berries and roasted seeds are just a few of the delights displayed on their elegant shelves. The choice is bewildering – in a good way.

The retail experience is exciting, the food full of flavour and the concept one with which it is easy to be taken with. But the service is so non-existent that date three is still not a sure thing.

Daylesford Organic Larder Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Daylesford Organic
208-212 Westbourne Grove
London W11 2RH
020 7313 8050

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tuna Gravadlax

Never one to read a recipe without immediately wanting to stamp my mark on it, I had the slightly dubious idea of making gravadlax from tuna instead of the traditional salmon.

Undeterred by a Google trawl which returned no similar ideas I ventured into the fishmonger, full of excitement about my culinary invention soon to take the world by storm.

Less than impressed by the idea, they quickly assured me it wouldn’t work, tuna being a very different beast to salmon.

Which is pretty obvious really, I’d realised they weren’t first cousins, but not a reason to give up entirely. They’re both oily aren’t they? And they swim, have scales, fins and gills. Bound to work.
Yet as the fishmonger sceptically wrapped up the gleaming red tuna loin my confidence in this fledgling food was definitely dented.

A few days later it turns out I needn’t have worried though because it works and not only does it work but it’s definitely worth trying out.

The flesh kept its lustrous winey hue, made even more vibrant by the leafy green shards of dill. Finer in texture than when made with salmon, the paper thin slices are unexpectedly delicate.

The colour makes it somehow exotic and it’s delicious eaten on its own, between your fingers with a drink, as you would eat carpaccio or parma ham. Otherwise I’m sure it would pair well with rye bread, drizzled in lemony crème fraiche.

Unlike with a single slab of salmon the two layers of tuna fuse together during the curing time, sandwiching the herbs you use between them. Each slice then has a thick vein of green running through the middle but I wonder what would happen with a little imagination and the addition of red chillies or strips of lemon rind.

Tuna Gravadlax

225g very fresh tuna loin
1 ½ desert spoons rock salt
1 ½ desert spoons white sugar
1 tsp dried dill
15g fresh dill
a little olive oil

In a bowl mix together the salt, sugar and dried dill.

Take a sheet of foil and spoon roughly one third of the salt mixture into the middle. Spread out to about the same size as the tuna slices and place a slice on top. Cover the tuna slice with another third of the salt mix and cover this with a layer of dill leaves. Place the second slice of tuna on top of this, followed by the remaining salt and sugar and a few more leaves of dill.

Fold the foil tightly round the tuna to form a neat parcel. Then wrap in a second layer of foil. Place on a deep plate or flat bottomed container with a second plate on top to weigh it down slightly. Leave in the fridge for two to three days turning the parcel once or twice and draining away any liquid.
Discard any liquid and unwrap the parcel. Slice as thinly as possible and serve with ribbons of beetroot and cucumber. Or freeze for up to three months. It slices even more easily if partially frozen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cider Tasting

As the autumn leaves start their annual descent, the British apple season is upon us. Shelves of amber skinned Cox pippins, caramel brown russets and bright Bramleys fill shops and farmers markets across the country. For anyone with an orchard or even just one solitary tree, finding a use for this influx of flavoursome fruit presents quite a quandary.

Middle Farm in East Sussex provides one tempting solution: cider. Countless varieties of local apples are brought to the farm, passed through a press and distilled to produce gallon upon gallon of this appley brew. Take along your own apples and you will leave with containers full of the stuff.
Endless rows of cider filled barrels line an old farm building which has been lovingly fashioned into a tasting room. Our thimble sized plastic glasses were filled again and again with deceptively potent liquid of up to 8.5% ABV, also available by the pint or barrel.

On tap during out visit was a vat of intense mulled cider. Cigars of cinnamon, a few cloves and chopped winter fruit are gently heated with the cider to produce a fragrant spicy drink with none of the acrid after taste of mulled red wine and hopefully none of the hangover.

The Middle Farm recipe is simple and if anyone’s feeling abstemious it works pretty well with apple juice too. For anyone feeling the opposite adding a glug of brandy doesn't go amiss:

4 pints still cider
3 apples
2 oranges
1 lemon (juice and zest)
2 tsp ground mixed spice
8 whole cloves
2 cinnamon quills
6 tbsp light soft brown sugar

Put all the ingredients into a pan, cover and heat gently for at least 1 hour. Don’t let it boil. That's it, ready to serve.