London: Unabashed Food Hedonism

I spend most of my year cooking home grown food or foraged wild meat and fish at home on North Uist, therefore, when we do get away for a trip, there tends to be a focus on eating the best food we can access/afford wherever we head. This could be Michelin star dining; The Kitchin and Martin Wishart in Edinburgh being our two Scottish favourites, or, as in our trip to London this week, more relaxed, less austere and affordable eating experiences.

I love cooking and preparing food but even I need a break from cooking from scratch on a daily basis. The perfect antidote to ‘Cook’s Fatigue’ is to recharge the batteries with a visit to London, one of my favourite cities in the world and, of course, I had accumulated a list of places I had to eat and some foody items I had to purchase while there. Some of you who read my blog will not be surprised to learn this predictably included a visit to Ottolenghi and Wahaca but this also extended to indulging in some street food and Portuguese food nostalgia, both of which I have been dreaming of for some months.

Bear with me, this is inevitably a long post, so feel free to cut to the chase of the tagine recipe.

Our reason for visiting London was primarily work-related in that The Man Named Sous, (elevated to his real name Eric for this post, given the redundancy of his nom de blog for our London trip) was displaying instruments at the British Violin Making Association annual violin makers event.  I was certainly required as a porter for the event, as we arrived from Edinburgh by train with various instruments including cello, violin and viola.

He had been working very long hours to finish a new cello for this event and another last week in Glasgow where it and other instruments he made were played in the Violin Makers Scotland showcase concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. So new is the cello, pictures of it have been posted in his Facebook page, but have not yet made to his website, Eric Jackson Violins (shameless plugging here, but I am proud of his skill to produce very fine instruments as well as his commitment to his profession).

The event at Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green was a success and it was good for both of us to catch up with people we had not seen for a few years, such as flatmates Eric shared a house with while studying at the Newark School of Violin Making. After the event, we had a few pints in the delightful The Crown Tavern across the road from the venue with violin maker and musician pals and rounded the night off with a curry at Cafe Saffron, Aylesbury Street, which was excellent, good value and service too.

We were staying at a friend’s flat in Highgate, North London, except our friend was not there but in transit back from Algiers, although we did make the acquaintance of his Hungarian friend also staying at the flat. It was nice to be able to spend time with him of an evening, exchanging tales of London, Hungary and the Hebrides, and he also cooked us up a fine Hungarian Goulash as well as kindly gifting me some Hungarian sweet paprika, which I had long ran out of, but used to pick up when I worked in Hungary during my PhD.  I included some of this distinctive spice in my tagine recipe at the end of this post.

paprika

After so much intensity and immersion in the violin making world, we delighted in spending a couple of well-earned days snatching time to explore some of London’s culinary and cultural offerings, although, must it be said it was a bit manic, cramming as much in as we could in so little time.

Street food is currently very much in vogue in the UK and the best place to find a diverse selection is London.  We had heard about the Moroccan Soup Stand in Golbourne Road, which recently won a BBC Radio 4 Food Award. I then read a great post by Craig at Mad Dog TV Dinners, who has great local knowledge of the best markets to visit in London.  He wrote an inspiring and enlightening post about Golbourne Road where I learned about the Portuguese community and associated shops there. Thanks to Craig for the info, his comprehensive post should be read in conjunction with this one to get the full flavour of the experience.

This made a visit to the area mandatory as I was in need of some Portuguese food nostalgia after my recent post about living in the Algarve.  On arrival at Golbourne Road, we found Lisboa Patisserie first (don’t know why it isn’t called Lisboa Pastelaria), so we had to start our afternoon with coffee and pastels de nata.  These were the most authentic I have eaten in the UK. Delicious crisp flaky pastry layers, perfect deep wobbly but steadfast custard within and a deep dark caramelisation on top.  One would never have been enough, and had I not been planning to visit the Moroccan soup stand further down the road, I could have eaten a third!

pastel de nata

The award winning Moroccan soup stand was next. It wasn’t excessively busy and we got a table and were quickly served by the very friendly and helpful proprietors. I had Bissara (green split pea) soup and Eric had Harira.  It was lovely to sit outside sharing a table with Portuguese customers on a beautifully clear crisp afternoon. The soup was really delicious and we decided to go for a tagine next, opting to share a chicken one. Needless to say it was delightful and came with bread to mop up the deliciously aromatic gravy.  A bargain for such authentic cuisine at £6.00.

tagine

Afterwards, we naturally gravitated towards the unmistakable smell of bacalau (salt cod) emanating enticingly from the Lisboa Deli.  I wanted to buy some to take home as it has been many years since I have eaten it and I don’t know of anywhere in Scotland that sells it. At the back of the shop, in a room dedicated to bacalau, stood a stack of huge sides of dried cod so loved by the Portuguese, next to a bandsaw on which my kilo of bacalau was cut for me.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this unique set up. I bought some other nostalgic items including quince marmalade and chorizo, becoming aware that if I bought much more, we would not be able to carry it home, given we were already laden on the way down, and I had not yet visited other shops in the street.

As it was, by the time we got to the end of the block, we had bought olives, harissa, an array of herbs and spices and a large bag of rose petals.  We just had to and would worry about how we would carry the stuff back to Scotland later.  We had a fantastic relaxing afternoon in Golbourne Road and I will certainly be returning for supplies and great food next time I am down in London, not to mention to buy a tagine dish, which I simply couldn’t carry this time.

Later that evening, we dropped in at Wahaca at Covent Garden for some Mexican tapas and cocktails.  The restaurant had been recently refurbished and was vibrant and friendly.  We enjoyed a couple of margharitas – the passion fruit version was great, along with a snack of fennel pork scratchings with guacamole, lovely, although I didn’t sense much fennel.  We shared a small selection of tapas dishes including chicken tinga tacos, chicken guajillo tostadas and chipotle chicken quesadillas, then realised everything we ordered contained chicken!.  I also ate them before I realised I should have perhaps photographed them (oops!). Pretty tasty they were too, and surprisingly, not too hot.

wahaca snacks

We could not leave London without a visit to Ottolenghi, but rather than going for lunch or dinner, we opted for brunch at Islington.  As readers will know, I adore the Ottolenghi ethos, flavour combinations and recipes.  Although Ottolenghi sits on a pedestal as high as The Shard, I was not at all apprehensive that a visit may not live up to my expectations.  In fact, the experience was indeed sublime and the food, service and experience utterly flawless.  We both opted for shakshuka.  It had enormous depth of flavour and the perfect balance of heat and richness while still allowing the flavour of the egg yolks to shine through.  The labneh was a a perfect foil to the warmth and richness of the peppers and tomatoes.

shakshuka

This was served with a perfect cappuccino, one of the best I have had in London (no mean feat since we always seek out the best coffee shops, especially those revered NZ places in Soho).  A second cappuccino accompanied the grand finale of the famous Ottolenghi cakes.  It took us a considerable time to choose, the selection was mesmerising.

Otto coffee

otto cakes

In the end I went for a passion fruit meringue tart. In truth, I can’t resist anything containing passion fruit.  I was not disappointed.  This was genuinely one of the best cakes I have ever eaten. Crisp light pastry, oozing passion fruit custard with the perfect balance of sharpness to match the uber light and not too sweet soft, delectable meringue. I was smitten.  Eric chose the rhubarb and ginger cheesecake, which was gargantuan and delicious.

otto meringue

meringue open

otto cheesecake

The display of salads looked so enticing and if there was anyway I could have squeezed in another mouthful, I would have tried some.  At least there’s an excuse to return next time we are in London.

otto salads

In order to recover from our brunch, we visited the Courtauld Gallery to see the ‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’ exhibition.  This was a wonderful opportunity to see a unique exhibition reuniting major paintings from his debut exhibition. Picasso was only 19 years old and this prolific year of his life shaped his future career, notably in the second half of 1901, when Picasso quite radically changed the direction of his work at what was the beginning of his now famous Blue period.

Picasso is undoubtedly one of my favourite artists and when I visited the Picasso museum in Paris over 20 years ago, his work left a huge impression on me. I feel very fortunate to have viewed so many of his early works in one place. It was delightful to see the steps of transformation before the progression to his most famous works which went on to define him as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

No visit to London is complete without an afternoon/evening in Soho. There is always a great buzz and an enormous choice of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Top coffee shops include Flat White and Sacred, where we stopped for a cappuccino.

We stopped by at Fernandez and Wells to indulge in some charcuterie and prosecco choosing a three meat platter for £12, consisting of Limoto Iberico de Bellota, Schiena (an Italian version of speck from Trentino) and Cecina de Leon (beef air cured and oak smoked, an interesting alternative to bresaola).

fenandez and wells

charcuterie

Of course, we always dwell for a while in The Crobar. This small, friendly bar is well known in rock and metal circles and has the best classic rock and metal jukebox you will find nowadays (I just realised I make myself sound very old by adding the word nowadays). Everything from classic thrash like Slayer to contemporary heavyweights Mastodon as well as classic and some stoner rock is blasted out.

Staff and patrons are very friendly and it has an exceptionally long happy hour. On arrival, we were deliberating about what to drink and the barman asked where we were from.  ‘Scotland’ we stated blandly and generically.  Turns out he was from Dundee and gave us the rather weird shots we chose on the house.  It is also one of these places that occasionally attracts rock stars and journalists. The night we were in, legendary rock journalists Malcolm Dome and Jerry Ewing were standing at the bar.  I would never have noticed, but Eric has a brilliant memory for names and faces, especially anyone related to music or film.

Crobar

We eventually caught up with our friend, who returned from Algeria sans luggage and had himself been so busy on return, we had only a few hours to see him and his partner (also a friend) for dinner at her home in Kentish Town before we returned to Edinburgh next morning.  It was great to catch up with them and hope we can reciprocate when they visit our Hebridean home.

Lamb Tagine

Inspired by our visit to London and pulling together some experiences from the Moroccan Soup Stand, Portuguese cooking, visit to Ottolenghi and my Hungarian paprika gift, I made this tagine while visiting my parents on our return from London.  The lamb shoulder was purchased from an excellent local butcher. The preserved lemons included in the recipe were some I made and gave to my mum as a gift at Christmas and are so simple and easy to make. I serve this with Portuguese broa bread, my recipe described in a previous post.

Ingredients

600g lamb shoulder, diced

2 onions

5 small tomatoes

skin of 1/2 a preserved lemon, chopped

2 bay leaves

large pinch of saffron

60g dried apricots

80g green olives

600 ml vegetable stock

400g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

40g toasted flaked almonds

1 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

For spice rub:

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground all spice

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

3 green cardamom pods, contents ground

1/4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika

1 tsp harissa

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  • Combine all the ingredients for the spice rub with the oil and rub into the lamb pieces.  Leave to marinade for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  • Add a splash of olive oil to a casserole dish and brown the pieces of lamb.
  • Remove the lamb and add the onion, soften and caramelise slightly.  Return the lamb to the casserole dish or place both in tagine, if you have one.
  • Add the tomatoes, saffron, olives, bay leaves, apricots, chick peas and vegetable stock.  Slow cook in a low oven about 150C for 2 1/2 hours, add the potatoes and preserved lemon with one hour to go, scatter the toasted almonds over the top and serve with bread and /or salads.

tagine

Biscuits with Bartok 1: Peanut butter cookies

Once a week The Man Named Sous gets together with friends to play some music in his acoustically wonderful workshop.  Musical choices for violins range from Bach to Bartok. A lot of Bartok’s work is delightfully infused with the essence of Hungarian and Romanian folk music and other music native to the Carpathian basin and beyond.  His duets are refreshing to listen to and fun to play, therefore popular in the repertoire.

Every musician, of course needs a break from the rigours of the musical challenges. Although we supply the coffee, our hosting skills to provide sweet treats to go with the oh-so-wet coffee are perhaps not as spot on as would be customary and sometimes there is nothing much at all to offer. Meanwhile, cakes and biscuits are contributed by the visiting musicians. Poor show, shame on us (well me actually, the cook).

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say The Man Named Sous likes biscuits.  Hot drinks are simply too wet without them, apparently. The problem is, I am not that partial to biscuits, although there are a few I do really enjoy; amaretti, biscotti, Florentines. Yes, a good biscuit for me means Italian and only consumed in earnest with coffee.

I enjoy making cakes and desserts, usually because of the complexities of processes, combining different elements; creams, meringues and pastry to deliver the dessert.  I love the dark art of baking bread, constantly striving for success and improvement. However, I have singularly failed to engage with biscuit baking to any extent.

Inspired by Bartok and embarrassed by lack of hospitality (in fairness, I have managed the odd bit of cake – we just have to remember not to eat it all beforehand), I am planning a more consistent approach.  I aim to provide a new biscuit each week for the musical gathering, hopefully for a run of 10 weeks (although work may impede occasionally) to see where my biscuit baking foray takes me, hopefully building confidence to produce some unique creations by the end, or at least unique in my culinary repertoire.

For the first ‘Biscuits with Bartok’ I’m going for a straightforward confidence building peanut butter cookie.  I’ve still got my head in the Wahaca cookbook and found this recipe.

Peanut butter cookies

The beauty of this recipe is the speed and ease with which these biscuits can be made – thanks to the assistance of my KitchenAid.  I’m sure it would be pretty quick by hand too. The recipe states it makes about 25 biscuits, but I got about 45, which was great volume and hence value (about 7p per biscuit) compared with inferior shop-bought biscuits. The recipe gives a cooking time of 12-15 minutes at 180C, but my first batch were a bit burnt round the edges at 12 minutes, so 10 minutes was fine for my fan oven.  The biscuits turned out to be lovely, very simple to make, are very light and have a melt-in-the-mouth texture. They were perhaps a bit too rich and buttery for me (I know, that’s the point!). However, The Man Named Sous says differently and so they will devoured with fervour.

Preheat the oven to 180C

Ingredients

180g plain flour

3/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

pinch of salt

225g unsalted butter, softened

200g light brown soft sugar

1 egg plus one egg yolk

200g crunchy peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

120g roasted salted peanuts

Method

  • Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  • Cream the softened butter using a food mixer (if you have one) until pale, light and fluffy.
  • Add the sugar to the butter, then the egg and egg yolk.
  • Gradually mix in the flour, peanut butter, peanuts and vanilla essence.
  • Put the mixture in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.
  • Line baking sheets with silicone/parchment and place a heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto the sheet to form each cookie.  Leave plenty space (about 5cm) between them to allow for spread during cooking.  Top each with a half peanut garnish.
  • Bake in batches for 10 minutes and cool on a wire rack before storing in an airtight jar.
  • Get the kettle on and enjoy with your brew of choice.

Peanut butter bisciuts Peanut butter bisciuts 2

Mole Poblano with turkey – in the dark

Like most other people in our culture, the last week has been Über-indulgent, with the excuse of festivities being used to indulge in copious quantities of meat, cheese and fizz, in particular. I have enjoyed seeing friends and relaxing over good (and very rich) food, however,  I am now almost at The Grinch stage and I must admit that I have been eyeing up the tree with a view to taking it down and am looking forward to getting back to the normal routine that the New Year will bring.  I miss running, and haven’t been out for over 2 weeks, although this has been enforced due to flu before Christmas, and lingering symptoms.

We Scots are supposed to know how to really show the world how to bring in the New Year with our partying and hospitality on Hogmanay.  Hmmm.  My gasket is well and truly blown, so I think I’ll pull the chair up in front of the fire and stare wistfully into the flames for the rest of the evening.

Welcome back wind

It has been a very atypical and surreal weather year in the Outer Hebrides, with the notable absence of wind being, quite frankly, disconcertingly abnormal.  And so it was, a poor forecast and severe weather warning at the start of the weekend heralded the arrival of the Hebridean gales we know and love.  Sometimes.

Before the wind picked up, we walked round the garden and did a check that there was nothing lying around that would sail off as the wind speed increased.  Polytunnel door closed.  Check.  Cold frames latched down.  Check.  Ash pan for the fire empty.  Check.  This is particularly important because we have had many a ‘Big Lebowski moment’ as we end up wearing the ash, trying to empty the ash pan in the wind. We only burn peat, hence the bright orange ash can leave you looking like a belisha beacon, hair coated in fine orange ash, and sneezing.  A lot.

Despite the wind getting up to about 60 mph, gusting to about 80 mph, our intrepid friends arrived for dinner and it was a great relief that the power stayed on without a flicker. Due to the southerly direction of the wind, we also managed a record-breaking lounge temperature as the stove was totally out of control – an amazing 23C!

Damage limitation

The next day, the wind dropped a bit, we sustained no damage but we found our neighbour’s fence had blown down.  They were away and there were sheep in the garden.  Together with our other neighbour (we only have 2 neighbours remotely near us), sheep were herded from the garden and back onto the common grazing, we did what we could to the very exposed fence to brace it in place before the wind got up again as forecast. Our neighbours have a lovely garden, veg and ornamental and it would have been awful to see it trashed by sheep.

The sheep on the common grazings around the house are very tame hooligans and will take any opportunity to access gardens and tasty grass/plants/trees within.  They are also very quick and we cannot even leave our gate open for half an hour without finding a few have sneaked in. They are also completely unperturbed by the dogs and I frequently find Darwin standing at the gate, a flock of sheep on the other side, each staring steely eyed at the other in some kind of Mexican stand-off, usually just before Darwin gets frustrated, emits one sharp bark and the sheep momentarily scatter.

One of the most dangerous acts to partake in here is to wander onto the common grazing with a plastic bag that vaguely resembles a sheep feed bag.  All sheep within the vicinity spot you, do their sheepy thing, bleating and charging at you like a single amorphous, off-white entity and trample you in a bid to access what is in the bag, as it MUST be sheep nuts.

My neighbour swears that one of the local sheep looks like Margaret Rutherford.  The Man Named Sous agrees with this identified resemblance and can spot ‘Margaret’.  I’m not so sure myself…

Mole Poblano with turkey

Safely back in the kitchen and having escaped the vagaries of the gales and sheep, the turkey swan song took the form of mole poblano.  Mole poblano de guajolote, to give the dish its full title is the national dish of Mexico (although mole simply means sauce).  I had the Mexican food bug again after visiting Lupe Pintos deli and stocking up on ingredients, and also reading Mexigeek blog that I follow on Facebook, where there are a series of informative posts about this dish and which helped to inspire me to give it a try, as well as reading some variations in Thomasina Mier’s Wahaca cookbook – ‘Mexican Food at Home’.  So, with that I embarked on my own freeform mole recipe.

The dish appears to commonly contain upwards of 20 ingredients of varying quantities, and I am certain no two moles are the same, and it would be difficult to re-create exactly each time.  That is why I like it so much, as well as for the chilli and the fragrant and aromatic nature of the dish enhanced by nuts, spices, chocolate and sometimes fruit too. The seeds and ground almonds add texture and thicken the sauce, as does the bread.  Stale corn tortilla is also typically added, but I had none, so went with the bread.

Ingredients

2 tomatoes, roasted

2 onions, roasted

6 cloves garlic, roasted

1 dried ancho chilli, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried pasilla chillis, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried mulato chillis, toasted and rehydrated

30g pumpkin seeds

6 allspice berries

6 black peppercorns

15g sunflower seeds

40g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp coriander seeds

1tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp aniseed seeds

50g ground almonds

1 slice of stale bread

sprig of oregano

turkey, Christmas day leftover bits

turkey stock, enough to get the right sauce consistency

pinch of salt

Mole ingredients

Method

Chillis – dried pasilla, ancho and mulato prep

  • First, prepare the three types of dried chillis, discard the stem, cut them in half,  keep the seeds.
  • Heat a dry, heavy based frying pan to a medium heat and add the chillis.  Toast briefly on each side, about 20 seconds until they begin to release their aromas, do not burn as this will taint the mole.
  • Soak in boiling water for 20 minutes (seeds too) to rehydrate
Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

  • Next, dry fry the spices and grind them and put these with the chillis in a food processor.
  • Put the rest of the ingredients in except the chocolate and turkey.  Blitz to a fine paste, adding just enough turkey stock to create a thick paste.
  • Transfer to a saucepan and warm before adding the chocolate.  Be sure to add a little at a time to ensure the mole is balanced as too much chocolate will overpower and spoil the balance of flavours. Adjust the seasoning, add more stock, if required and stir in the turkey pieces. The mole was pretty hot when just made, but mellowed significantly by the next day when we ate it.
Mole before adding turkey

Mole before adding turkey

Finishing touches – accompaniments

I can’t resist turning any Mexican meal into a bit of a banquet.  I made some guacamole – mandatory with any Mexican meal, added some tortilla chips bought in Lupe Pintos, natural yoghurt, basmati rice and flour tortillas – and margaritas, of course.

As I was rolling the final flour tortilla, inexplicably and without so much as a flicker of a warning, the power went off, even though the wind speeds had dropped to about 30 mph. This brought an entirely new perspective to the description of a dark mole. Fortunately, the rice was cooked, but despite our best efforts with the frying pan on top of the stove, it just wasn’t hot enough for the flour tortillas to cook, so we resigned ourself to eating in the dark without them.  Presentation was perhaps not the finest, but what the hell, the atmosphere was just right.

Dark mole is served

Dark mole is served