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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Tea break

Shipp's Tearooms
4 Park St
020 7407 2692

It's late Saturday and after visiting my hairdresser, I decide to venture into Borough Market to pick up a few bits and bobs. Twenty minutes later, I'm jammed in a massive throng of people all pushing in different directions to wherever there is free grub to be sampled. The olive stall is one step away from me, but I can't physically move to get to it. I let the crowd carry me away then ride the next surge towards the stall I need. While it's great that the market is so popular, buying a block of tofu and some olives shouldn't be this unpleasant.

When I finally bust my way out of the crowd, I'm in need of a place where I can eat, chillax and nurse my trodden toes.

Carters and I settle on some afternoon tea action at Shipp's tearooms - I was drawn to its kitchy, mismatching chairs and teacup and teapot aesthetic that somehow it suggests that everything will be delicious and homemade.
Not so. The scones are OK but are a little dry and heavy. A thick slathering of clotted cream and excellent raspberry jam save the day.
The vegetarian selection of sandwiches arrive. I don't know about you, but eating eight triangles of cucumber and cheese gets pretty repetitive. I spread some raspberry jam on a few of my cheese sandwiches to keep my tastebuds from going into a coma.
The cakes, however, are much better - Carters's chocolate cake is just like the kind I remember eating as a child and I have an apple almond tart which is nice but not as good as the chocolate cake.

If it's atmosphere and a getaway from the maddening crowds you're after, this could be the place for you; just give the vegetarian sangers a miss and go straight for for the tea and cakes.

Yay! If you get a seat in the window on a Saturday afternoon, the people watching is superb.
Boo! It's just not as great as the decor leads you to believe.
Cost Afternoon tea for two around £35, includes tea, scones, sandwiches and a slice of cake
Veg friendly 2/5
Service 3.5/5

Saturday, 22 March 2008

A mushy salve for the daily grind

Just like Chew I am looking to squash to calm work frazzled nerves (you can even use the leftover squash from her tomatillo recipe here). My last couple of weeks have been so filled with torment (i.e. too much work) that cooking has practically been wiped off the radar. It's a real shame. Super long work days leave no time for proper shopping but then when I do drag my withered self back into the flat, I crave something healthy, comforting, tasty and home made.

If any of you want to share your fast cooking fall backs, I'd love to hear them. In the meantime, hooray for pilaf! It is easy, tastes just as good on day two and can use any vegetable floating in the fridge. It is also a great leftovers lunch for desk slaves. As for squash, they are so flavoursome right now and their sweet, warm, sunny gooeyness is reassuring in times of low morale.

Squash, Pea & Mint Pilaf

1 chopped onion
1 small butternut squash, cubed
A couple of big fistfuls of spinach
fresh mint
a small bunch of fresh sage leaves
A bay leaf
About 300ml veggie stock
170g Basmati rice
Balsamic glaze to garnish (if you want)

Making it

Gently fry your onion in olive oil until soft, then add the squash and fresh sage leaves. You want to get the squash to give in and break up a little (you can cook with a lid on if it helps). If the pan is drying out, add a splash of wine or water or stock. Squash is great in a pilaf because it disperses so well, sticking to the rice and making every forkful sweet and full of flavour. When the squash has softened, add your rice and toss it until coated. Add the bay leaf and veggie stock and bring to the boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer with a tight fitting lid for about 15 minutes. (Resist the temptation to lift the lid for a peek because you'll upset the whole steamy process.) In the last couple of minutes, add the spinach and peas before shutting the lid again. Then let the pilaf cook off the heat for another 5 minutes. Once on the plate, top with torn mint leaves and a drizzle of balsamic glaze if you want.

To counter the forlorn self pity that can accompany the over tired and over worked, the pilaf rice-plumping minutes give you enough time to wash your face, get into your jim jams and select a program on the BBC iPlayer (the squirrel's nuts for those of us without a tele). I watched a brilliantly made Storyville documentary (All White in Barking) that had me glued to the screen. It was just the ticket for taking my mind off the day's crud and providing a little something outside my own world to ponder. Even if it's the wrong side of 11pm when you settle down, if you can't have a tasty dinner in front of the tube at the end of a long day, it's all too easy for the 'work, eat, sleep, repeat' model of living to become far too depressing to bear.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Taking it out on the tomatillo

Tonight I'm suffering from a residual case of The Rage, something I picked up from a very frustrating day in the office. I find the best cure for this is to get out my knife and start chopping stuff into very small pieces.
The victims: those two tomatillos and a whole load of other stuff.

What you need
2 tomatillos, diced finely
half a big red chili, diced finely
2 shallots, diced finely
2 spring onion stalks and green bits, diced
1 small bunch of coriander
1 butternut squash, halved lengthways and de-seeded
olive oil

The do
Chop the top part of the squash off, cube and throw into the roasting tray. Rub the inside of the squash "bowls" with a little salt. Drizzle everything in a little oil and bake until you can stick a fork into it.

While the squash is in the oven, combine all the ingredients by chopping them on a board and keep on chopping until the pieces are as small as you can get them. Feel that Rage subside!
When the squash is done, fill the squash bowls with the chopped mixture, drizzle liberally with some good olive oil and return to the oven. Pack away the squash offcuts and use for tomorrow's salad or risotto.

When it's all sizzling and heated through it's done - around 15-20 minutes at 180. Cover with chopped coriander leaves.
Ahhhh. Serenity now.

The tomatillos are tarty little buggers - they need a little bit of cooking time, but they marry well with the sweetness of the baked squash, chili and shallots.

Note: For the observant types out there who may be lying awake tonight pondering the lifespan of the tomatillo, I should probably mention that I started this post a few weeks ago, and didn't finish it until right now...sorry!

Also! Thanks to everyone who participated in the tomatillo quiz. Without you, those puppies would have shriveled up at the back of my fridge!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Hello spinach

This morning on my way to work I was waiting at the pedestrian crossing at the end of my street. A cyclist rode past and said "konichiwa". This happens to me randomly at least twice a month without fail, although occasionally "konichiwa" is replaced with "ni hao". I guess sometimes people just really want to say hello.
Here is a Japanese-inspired spinach side dish - the traditional version comes sans lemon but I've thrown it in because spinach and lemon are a match made in heaven.

HORENSO-GOMAAE with a lemony twist

What you need
1 bunch of adult spinach
2 tablespoons good quality soy or tamari
1 teaspoon of mirin
1 wedge of lemon
1 pot of boiling water
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Sesame seeds
bamboo sushi mat

The do
Wash the spinach, and place the whole bunch into the boiling water. After a few minutes, drain. Rinse under cold tap, then lay the spinach across the sushi mat so some stems fall on the right side and some on the left. Roll the mat up like a cigarette and then squeeze firmly over the sink to get rid of the excess water.

Carefully unroll the mat and transfer to a chopping board. With a very sharp knife cut the spinach roll into segments and lay in a small dish.
Combine the mirin, soy, sesame oil and lemon. Pour over the spinach and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Name that foodstuff

I bought this beautiful fruit or vegetable yesterday, but don't know what it is! Can anyone out there help me?

Saturday Night chimichanga

108 Essex Road
London, N1 8LX
020 7226 5551

Lately I've been making a big effort to eat out locally. Mainly because it's kinda nice to be able to stroll home with a full tummy, rather than hop onto a bendy bus and find a clear space to stand amongst the chicken bones and Mc Donald's refuse. Most places in the vicinity of N1 are all show and no go, but in such a huge area I know there has to be at least a few gems.

I'd been past this South American restaurant on Essex Rd hundreds of times, and never gave the place a second thought because its glass frontage just looked a little uninviting. After reading a few good reviews, we decided to check it out.
(At this point I should warn you that I have an obsession with the word chimichanga. Chimichanga, chimichanga, chimichanga.)
OK, now I've got that out of my system I can confidently say that these guys make the best chimichangas I've ever had. Full flavoured black eyed beans and mushrooms with a hint of cheese encased in light, crispy filo served with a spicy salsa. Fantastic. We also had the quinoa fritters and the terrine - also top notch. Another highlight were the Yuca fritas, perfectly deep-fried batons of cassava that put spuds to shame.

Epileptics and people who share Bono's sensitivity to light, beware: eating in this establishment may cause discomfort. There are not one, not two but SEVEN disco balls hanging from the ceiling. It's like prom night without the frocks and cheek to cheek dancing. Despite all this, the food managed to outshine the disco balls, and after a few excellent cocktails from the bar, you'd barely notice they were there.
The dessert menu also looked a treat but I was stuffed to the gills and unable to partake, so if you go, make sure you save some room.

Yay! They have a cloakroom so your coats/scarves/hats won't get in the way of your delicious meal
Boo! Some tables are very close together, which is fine...until you get seated next to a flamboyant man who likes talking to strangers and wears hats indoors (a pet peeve of Carters)
Cost: starters, mains and cocktails for two - around £40
Veg friendly: 3.5/5
Service: 4.5/5