Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Boy Done Good: Italian Adventure

Time to set the scene for my latest, greatest (and, if I’m honest with you, probably last for a while, for reasons which shall be revealed in upcoming posts) Food Epic.

Last weekend, in a romantic move to top all other romantic moves, il huomo whisked me off to a mystery destination. I had had three days’ warning, and only the following clue to go by: ‘you will need your passport’. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know why, but I sure hoped they'd have some decent nosh to keep me going...

What I particularly enjoyed in the brief run-up to said jolly jaunt, was the consistency of reactions by both female and male audiences. The boys: ‘blimey, he’s got style’. The girls: ‘but what on earth are you going to PACK?!’ Quite.

And so it was, that packed with a sufficiently multi-purpose miniature wardrobe, I was duly swept off to the airport, while il huomo deflected a relentless stream of my furious guesswork: could it be Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome? Brighton, Blackpool, Timbuktu? Men, listen well, for here I shall let you in on a secret for free. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you tell a woman she’s being taken somewhere ‘secret’, she will do her darndest to figure out where. Of course, I'd been clever, and before we'd left home, I scribbled a sly note, and slipped it on top of the microwave as future evidence of my budding genius....(but did I get it right?)*.

I was convinced that by the time we had checked on to the plane I would have foiled the whole delicious plot, but there I was quite, quite wrong. Where the heck was Trieste?! Raise your hands if you knew, because I have to confess, I was stumped. No clue. The in-flight magazine soon helped me out, and a few more pointed questions about certain purchases il huomo had made (seriously, what grown man needs a plastic elephant blowing bubbles??) meant that, much to my surprise, by the end of the flight he had caved and told me everything. At least, so I thought.

We were to do a mini-tour of the northeastern-most part of Italy, a melting pot of history and culture, starting in Trieste, and driving north and finally south to end at Venice Carnival (this, should you have been completely flummoxed, was where the bubble-elephant came in). More surprises followed throughout, however.

Of course, the very first thing which flashed into my greedy little brain wasn't culture, or history, or how exciting carnival would be. No no. I'm not ashamed to admit it went along these lines: 'oohhh paaasstaaaa!!' . Now, as you may have read from my previous travel blog, Italy has never disappointed in the food department, and yet on this particular trip I learnt one very important rule. Bend in closely now, and I’ll tell you. Travel round Italy with an Italian....

But enough of the story, I know you’re on the edge of your seats to find out what a blow-by-blow account of the fabulous feasting. Here we go. You may pause for indigestion tablets halfway through reading if necessary:

Post-travel, low blood sugar, an eagerly received Pizza Pugliese – a heavenly topping of olives, capers, anchovies and onions. And real, Italian Pizza. None of that leaden, tastless dough here, this was thin, ever so slightly chewy with a slight crispiness. Molten mozzarella, perfect tomatoe topping. This was Pizza Heaven.

Yet another surprise - first class seats at the opera (an experience which would merit an entire posting in itself, for the people-watching alone!). Three hours later, and at half midnight, we were enjoying a post-opera midnight feast with the leading soprano herself. What an experience. Only in Italy could you imagine breezily entering a restaurant at half midnight and demanding a three course meal with wine. Imagine the same in the UK?! We settled in, and were regaled with stories of heaving bosoms and uncomfortable costumes by the diva herself, as we supped on the most heavenly spaghetti con le alice – pasta perfection, laced with an extraordinary, tastebud-tantalising fresh anchovy sauce. Salty and very, very satisfying.

Linguine con gamberettti e rucola (shrimp and rocket pasta) – a soothing, creamy seafood sauce threaded with the rocket giving it a little peppery kick.

San Daniele prosciutto– Parma, make way. San Daniele is the hidden ham secret of Italy, where velvety folds of the salty-sweet, delicate and tender prosciutto ham are piled high onto plates for your delectation. We each ate an obscenely large plateful of the meat, with the salt quota rendering it almost alarmingly moreish. I fell into bed having eaten my body weight in ham, and dreamt of flying pigs(‘ legs)…

Saccotini con pere e formaggio (little sacks with pears and cheese) – this was a new one on me, an intriguing pasta shaped like little bunched up purses, their little pockets filled with a sweet treasure of pears and cheese, the sweet buttery sauce spooned on top.

Followed by…Stewed venison with grilled polenta – a hearty, filling dish, ideal mountain fare. Juniper berries, thyme, bay leaves and red wine played alongside tender meat, with the polenta calming and subduing what might otherwise have been a bit of a boisterous dish. Thank goodness for espresso!

Squid ink spaghetti – I know I repeat myself here, but goodness me the pasta’s good in this country! I may just have to insert a video at some stage, as often the only way I seem capable of describing these is with facial expressions, hand gestures, and general smacking of lips!

Monkfish steamed in prosecco - this was an enigma, so tasty, and such a meaty fish, but what the heck was ‘coda di rospo’ in English?! Well folks, google has lovingly informed me that it is none other than the infamous monkfish. But of course! Yet another mystery solved.

Pizza with Radicchio – absurdly, this dark red cousin of the chicory cooks down so that it is luscious, and almost meaty, its peppery, slightly bitter flavour making an excellent seasonal pizza topping. Different, and oh so good.

Deep breath, and digest.

But wait, there is more! It may seem hard to believe, but we did in fact manage to cram all of these eats into five days. And I've not yet mentioned the extreme over-indulgence of Venice Carnival, where we seemed to be eating and drinking every 10 minutes – stopping for frittole, delicious tiny balls of chocolate-filled fried dough specific to the Venetian region and carnival, candy floss, sugared nuts, as well as savoury treats, and all of the different particular alcoholic drinks of the region. Obviously, we were just making absolutely 100% sure that we'd make it through the upcoming Lent.

It was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of my tastebuds most relentless holidays. Taking their tips from the operatic diva, they got a little big for their boots - a touch spoilt, and slightly demanding. So in order to break them back gently down to earth, and to end the adventure on an excess high, on our flight back home we stopped over in Rome. Unexpectedly dealt a few extra hours in the city, rather than mope around the airport, we zoomed into the city, and ate an ice cream in front of the Fonte di Treve.

What do we think, does the boy get brownie points??

*I guessed Venice, so...nearly...!

Friday, February 27, 2009

A hop, a skip and a jump across town: and another review

No less than 24 hours after my previous evening’s antics, and I was cavorting once again with a different night companion – this time of the Vietnamese variety.

Do not - I repeat, do NOT - venture anywhere further than the confines of Kingsland Road in Shoreditch for bang-on-target authentic Vietnamese food. And that’s an order.

One of the city’s great culinary pleasures, no.72, the Viet Hoa, delivers a non-stop stream of star performers – drool as you lovingly wrap a golden, crispy and oh-so-hot spring roll in its fresh salad jacket, savour the flavour as you dunk it in its piquant fish sauce pool; tip pools of pungent, firey bowls laden with lime, salty fish sauce and chillies onto your plate of bun xa, piles of thin rice vermicelli, fragrant coriander and toasted, garlic-flecked chicken or prawns which, in a flash, morph from dry noodles into a wondrous pool of tasty, nourishing noodles to slurp; delight at the fascinatingly sweet, sharp, sour flavours of steamed tilapia fish with mango, simply teamed with succulent, sticky white rice. There are plenty of dishes which vie for attention, jostling to make it into the final selection. You'll be spoilt for choice - so those are my recommendations to get you started, and get you hooked.

The food is fantastic, the price is right, the staff are a joy and the people-watching riveting.

I ask you, what more could you want from an evening?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: Great Queen Street

Great Queen Street

A trip up to The Big Smoke always guarantees several things:

• A severe dent to the wallet
• Slight culture shock
• The recollection of quite how much you always used to hate the tube
• Smile deficit – not enough people looking happy for my liking/requirement
• BUT – on the positive side – you always know you’ll have a packed repertoire of new and interesting eats to get noshing.

Which is good when you write a food blog. These days my restaurant visits are so few and far between that there’s minimal blog material to be getting on with. So as soon as I get the opportunity to flex my jaw muscles and get chewing, I seize it!

At the moment I’m helping with the research and writing for a friend’s next book so, as is our customary way, we ended the day in a nice restaurant. Not a bad end to the working day!

Whilst normally we work our way through the various decent Italian restaurants in London, this time we went ye olde englishe-style, and hit up Great Queen Street, the sister restaurant to gastropub Anchor & Hope I talked about back in November. And it did its little sister proud, with not only scrumptious dishes, but also brilliant service, and an unexpected little dish hiccup, which led to much hilarity between myself and our waiter.

So what did I tuck into, I hear you cry! Well:

Cod’s Roe Salad with carrots, beetroot and watercress – thin slivers of pungent smokey fish roe, bright orange against an attractive array of violet beetroot chunks, sweet and earthy, candy-sweet baby carrots, and piquant watercress, all bound together with a light horseradish sauce. The perfect combination of salt, sea, sweet, earth and nostril-flaring tang of the horseradish tantalizing and teasing your tastebuds. An ‘on-your-toes’ dish if ever there was one. Not least because, and this is probably not such a good thing, but give the ensuing mirth I just had to mention it – there was, shall we say, an extra added ingredient. I couldn’t quite place it, or mark back to the list of ingredients in the menu, so I called over our (very brash, cheeky Australian) waiter, who was my new gay best friend, and asked him. There’s a first time for everything – I’d never fed a waiter off my dish, he ate the mystery object, couldn’t place it either, muttered ‘do you mind?’ and WHIPPED it off my plate, for a scientific dissection session back in the kitchen. Turned out a rogue mushroom had found its way onto my plate. Not to worry – free entertainment!

Arboath Smoked Haddock with mashed swede and buttered cabbage – an understated diva, this Haddock rather stole the show. Buttery and smokey, and scattered lightly with chives, it sang alongside the support acts - a mellow mashed swede and a heaped spoonful of buttered cabbage. Anyone traumatized by school memories of the veg would soon be guaranteed converts.

So, all in all, a splendiferous show, and worth a return visit.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lamb and Pearl Barley Soup

I'm a terrible one for themed weeks of foods, but for some reason (well, it's seasonal, innit) LAMB is featuring a lot on the menu at the moment. And quite timely it is too, as I have to say, in these frostbitten days at the beginning of the year, there is something about lamb, something I can't quite put my finger on, that really hits the spot on a really bitter cold winter's day.

Of course, I say I can't put my finger on it, but that's not going to stop me from trying my very best to theorise. (Professor NibbleScribbler dons her scientific hat) I believe (and of course, I've got no cold, hard proof), that it has something to do with the fatty texture of lamb, the somehow simultaneously mellow yet robust flavour of the meat. I'm interested to know if anyone else feels the same way as I do here. But then, I'm probably just rabbitting on with noone listening as usual. Still, the birds in the garden like it, heck, I think they even understand me!

So this morning, off I waltzed down to the well-overpriced butcher's down the bottom of the lane, to request two nice generous strips of his best lamb's neck. Coming in at a whopping £9.50, I wouldn't exactly classify this under my previous frugal entries , however, it was a splendiferous-if-not-quite-economic soup which resulted, and you can rest assured that the amount would feed a hungry rugby team. Course, I'm reckoning that if you get yourself on to a cheaper butcher's and you could halve the price.

Anyway, where was I, oh yes, so: Lamb. Today's tummy-warmer was a beaut - 'Lamb and Pearl Barley Soup'. Rock 'n' roll.


1.5 lbs Lamb's neck
1 garlic clove, chopped, glug olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
(optional: 1-2 parsnips, diced)
1/2 tin chopped tomatoes
1 lamb stock cube + 1 litre water
handful chopped parsley, 1 bay leaf
1/4 tspn: dried coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric
splash soy sauce and worcester sauce
couple handfuls pearl barley


1. In a large casserole dish, brown the meat with the garlic in the olive oil on a medium heat. Remove into bowl, and, again in the casserole, cook the onion and celery until golden, then add the carrots and parsnips. Stir, then return the lamb to the pan.
2. Add the tomatoes, a dash each of worcester/soy sauce, then the lamb stock and liquid. Allow to simmer slowly, then add in the spices, parsley, bay leaf and pearl barley.
3. Put in a medium heat oven (sorry, can't be more specific as using an Aga at the moment) to slow cook for 2-3 hours, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally.

Easy as that really. Magic.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lamb Pilaff

As my time at home rapidly approaches an end, I appreciate more than ever quite how scrumptious home cooking can be and, when one is elbow deep in daily tasks and getting things done, how incredible the interruption of a proper, home-cooked lunch can be. The world of working away from home will be a strange thing when I go back to it, I tell you. Sandwiches? Eh, wot? Pret a Manger?!? Nah, guv, not fer me thanks. I've got my hot, straight-from-the-cooker Lamb Pilaff. And that, girls and boys, is what I am going to talk to you about today.

It's going to be a bit of a 'cobbled together' recipe, as is my way - as it was all a bit handful of this, dash of that, etc etc. But 'twas too scrumptious not to share.


1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small onion, diced
1-2 small sticks celery, finely diced
2 cupfuls long-grain rice
1 lamb stock cube
spices: cinnamon, 2-3 cloves
handful each of almonds or cashew nuts, sultanas/raisins, chopped apricots
1/2 small onion, sliced thinly
2-3 handfuls of roughly chopped leftover lamb (from a Sunday lunch)

1. Sweat garlic, onions and celery in a pan with some butter and olive oil, when golden add the rice and stir, covering the rice grains.
2. Crumble in the lamb stock, and add enough water to just cover the rice grains. Stir, and continue to stir until most liquid is absorbed. The rice should be a dark yellow colour (as a result of the lamb stock).
3. Add in the spices, dried fruit and nuts and chopped cooked lamb, stirring in, and allowing most of the remaining liquid to cook off.
4. Serve with chopped parsley scattered.

Really good warming lunch, mmm, making my tum rumble as I write in fact.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

All Higgldypiggldy...

Goodness gracious but I'm all over the place with my food blogposts. The truth is, I've been plotting another blog baby, which I hope to be launching into the world on Valentine's day next Saturday (stay tuned - let's see if I can stick to that now blogosphere-proclaimed deadline). The truth is that my life doesn't solely consist of cooking, eating my wares and eating out. It's a whole lot less one-dimensional than that. And I need a blog which reflects this. So the new blog will include characters and scribbles, knitting and well as other musings on life, love, laughter and jellybeans. There will be a method in my madness, ye shall see!

Of course, don't get me wrong - that does NOT by ANY means translate as the young nibblescribbler wasting away, not putting a morsel past her lips. Ha! With all this snow around??! You must be kidding! A girl needs comfort food in times like these!

So let me break down my various noteworthy foodventures over the last month or so. This is blatant cheating, but at the moment I steadfastly refuse to post an individual account of each, you'll have to make do with these scraplets. I figure I can make my own rules here. You can't get to me to tell me off, I'm safe the other side of the screen!

And....we're off...

  1. Benares - posh indian restaurant to be found on glitzy Berkeley Square near Nobu, yet another poncy restaurant I've an eye to try (only if treated by a bigger wallet than I). The 2nd time I've been to Benares, and it didn't disappoint, as chef Atul Kochhar pleased the eye and the palate (and, unusually, the wallet, with a special credit crunch meal deal) with beautifully presented dishes packed full of indian flavour. I cracked into Tandoor cooked Salmon fillets with spiced Gazpacho salsa, a delightful dry roasted chunk of salmon, lent juiciness by its accompanying sauce, followed by Pan Fried King Fish steaks with Chilli-Garlic Mash and Nilgiri Sauce. I found this slightly unremarkable, exactly as you'd have expected it, with the mash and sauce combining to rather cloying effect. Still, I forgave the meal this when what, frankly, to me was the piece de resistance. Our, by now, bosom buddy waiter (I make a habit of befriending the waiters because a) from past waitressing experience I know how snooty customers can be and b) it makes them much better disposed to treating you nice), appeared in a flash, and carefully placed a tiny flat black glass dish in front of each of the three of us. Into the shallow indentation of each dish, he poured a few drops of water from a jug. Also on his tray I noticed three small, flat round white pellets, which I presumed were the sort of crazy amuse-bouche you tend to get in this type of restaurant. But. EVEN BETTER!! He dropped each into the water and POFF!, as if by magic they were suddenly ten times their height: a little warm hand towel ready for use. Honestly, the guy couldn't have had a better audience than me for this little trick. My eyes were like saucers, my little hands were clapping and I was giggling with glee. I would honestly have paid the entire price of the meal JUST to see this little trick!
  2. Hm, well, then I've already told you about Tayyabs, my favourite Indian restaurant tucked away in East London ...
  3. Charitable soul that I am, that same London-bound week I decided to give Cha Cha Moon, subject of damning scorn from a previous post, another try (mainly through the oft-encountered London dilemma of 'not being able to get home to eat' and 'required dirt cheap prices due to impending poverty') and found it to be in better sorts once again, fully-trained staff in place. Sadly, though, prices look like they'll never again be back to their previously outrageous, and note-worthy economy status.
  4. I was then treated to a handful of home-cooked Sicilian meal (I will elaborate on this in due course, I promise) - examples such as Squid Ink Pasta with Botarga, Steamed Lemon Sole accompanied by spinach and sultanas, and Ricotta Ravioli with Pistachio Sauce.
  5. Reciprocally and nationally obliged to demonstrate that, whilst not quite on a par with Italian cooking, English food can sometimes be pretty darn great I cheated, and brought Il huomo home to be cooked for mum. Well, without a kitchen, I'm restricted and, I know I'm slightly biased, but she does cook the best meals in the land. No pressure then mum, but English National Food Heritage (and Pride) lies squarely on your shoulders. She rose admirably to the occasion, producing a (not-so-English, admittedly, yet completely delicious) chickpea soup, followed by a stellar rendition of Roast Chicken, accompanied by crisped, golden roast potatoes and parsnips cooked in goose fat (divine), steamed cabbage that hovered perfectly between al dente and feather-soft, carrots and a steaming, tasty golden gravy. Nowt more English than that! This was followed by diva-esque puffs of beautiful baked apples oozing with a caramelly butter sauce and sultanas/raisins, poured over with cream. All guests left the table replete to play a fierce game of Cluedo, the resultant competitiveness no doubt fruitsugar-fuelled. No sooner had the main meal commenced digestion, than a round of English tea was brought out; crumpets dripped with butter and lemon curd, and home-made scones groaned with their generous load of raspberry jam and clotted cream. Cholesterol? What's that?!
Any suggestions of how to wow a foreigner with some delicious English fare (it does exist, honest guv!) gladly received...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oh Snow!

If you peek closely, you'll see my favourite little garden bandit, one of our three Robins...puffed up against the snow and cold weather, and hopping jauntily around eating the worms I was putting out for him. Isn't he a cutie?!

So England is snowed in. Which seems the perfect excuse to catch up on weeks and weeks of food-related stories in one higgldypiggldy, disorganised heap. I'm cosied up on the sofa next to the fire, a cashmere throw over my woolly-tighted pins, tapping away whilst sipping the perfect mug of tea and occasionally dunking in a biccie. Could life be any sweeter? There's a definite sense of collective glee in the snowy British air, as everyone bunks off work, revelling in the bona fide excuse that it's impossible (and borderline dangerous) to get into work what with the piles of snow heaped everywhere.

Me, well, following a very brief snow angel session (almost just to make a point), and a brisk welly-clad walk in the white stuff, which left me with rosy cheeks and a healthy appetite, I've mostly stayed indoors nursing the beginnings of a wee sore throat (any excuse to curl up next to the fire really...).

See? Proof I'm not just making it up. We are SNOWED UNDER. You can even compare this exact back garden view with the same frosty version of a few posts back. The world is cloaked with delicious icing....!

Which reminds me about that appetite I worked up...