Silk Road, Camberwell

There seems to be little point in crafting an introduction to this restaurant as it has, in recent years, become the worst kept secret in south London.  If you want to show off your knowledge of hidden restaurant gems, this is not the one to mention.  Unless you’re in the company of north Londoners, for many of them will barely have been to Camberwell, let alone Silk Road.  In days gone by, you could rock up to this little cash-only restaurant without a reservation and be seated almost immediately.  More recently however, following a number of rave reviews, including one by Jay Rayner, it is rammed almost every night of the week and nearly impossible to get a table before 9.30.

Of course, the glaringly obvious point would be that it had become a victim of its own success, however I can’t in any way declare this to be true.  In fact, it seems to get better and better with each visit, which keeps us going back more than perhaps we ought to.  Aside from the quality of the food, which I will get to shortly, this is one of the best value restaurants in London.  Our bills have never exceeded £20 a head, including alcohol, and for that price we have feasted on an amount of food so obscene, an extended lie-down was required.

The funny thing is that Silk Road is one of those unassuming places on the busy Camberwell Church Street that you would just walk past if you didn’t know it was there.  The ‘Cash Only’ sign in the window, the slightly faded red sign and the utilitarian communal benches inside does not give any indication that inside is some of the best Asian food in London. And it doesn’t have a website.  I suppose that is part of its charm.

The cuisine at Silk Road could lazily be labelled ‘Chinese’, however it specialises in food from the Xinjiang region (the bit bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), with a few Sichuan dishes thrown in to boot.  The central Asian influence is clear, with the smell of lamb and cumin wafting through the restaurant, and the prevalence of offal on the menu.  Being a landlocked region, there is very little fish on offer, but some very good meat and vegetarian dishes.  Forget any ideas of sweet and sour chicken and prawn crackers, you won’t get them here.

Despite the variety of carnivorous options, my two favourite dishes on the menu are made up of vegetables.  The famous home-style aubergine is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted: tender aubergine and tomato cooked with a huge amount of garlic and an underlying pop of chilli.  The ‘cucumbers in sauce’, also known as ‘smacked cucumbers’ are served raw in a sharp soy-based sauce, also heavily laced with garlic and chilli.  They are wonderful as a cold starter, but I have to say that I prefer the smacked cucumbers from nearby Wuli Wuli (sorry).  Another excellent dish is the home-style cabbage, which I sadly always pass up in favour of the aubergine, but fully intend to order next time.

Cucumbers in sauce

Cucumbers in sauce

Home-style aubergine

Home-style aubergine

The aforementioned smell of lamb and cumin comes from the lamb shish skewers that seem to be on just about every order in the restaurant.  Heavy with cumin, with the afterburn of chilli, these come straight from the grill and smell so good, you will almost inevitably burn your fingers trying to pull the meat from the skewers.  The pieces of lamb are interspersed with little cubes of lamb fat, which I am not overly keen on, but which my husband loves.  These skewers are £1 each (yes, £1) with a minimum order of five per table.  For me, ordering any less than three for just myself is not an option.

Lamb shish skewers

Lamb shish skewers

Another favourite is the twice-cooked pork, which is a one of the few Sichuan dishes on the menu (the countries bordering the Xinjiang region are muslim, so pork is rarely eaten there).  I have had this dish in a number of other restaurants and it consists of slices of belly pork, boiled then fried (hence ‘twice-cooked’) with an oil-based sauce of chillies and lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.  Silk Road’s offering doesn’t quite have the level of heat that we usually expect from Sichuan dishes, but it does have an unexpected sweetness which makes it pleasant, if slightly inauthentic.  The best part about it is the soft, sweet Chinese onions that I pick out and eat with a little boiled rice.  I could happily live on these alone.

Middle-plate chicken

Middle-plate chicken

Silk Road’s speciality is, undoubtedly, their noodle dishes.  The ‘large plate’ and middle plate’ options are huge bowls of soup with meat and wide ‘belt’ noodles of at least an inch wide.  A lot of Chinese friends favour the tripe, but we will often order the chicken.  Pieces of chicken on the bone, served in a spiced thick soup with the enormous noodles slithered in by the waiter at the table.  Middle plate is ample for two, especially if it makes up part of a wider banquet – those noodles are incredibly filling.  Best of all are the smaller, and more manageable, hand-pulled noodles – glutinous and soft without being sticky – the person who makes these obviously knows what they are doing.  Ours came with lamb and cabbage, as well as the obligatory punch of chilli and onion that characterises the restaurant’s dishes.  These came last to the table and we were unable to finish them, so our waiter kindly packed them in a box to take home.

(If you do find yourself with an extended wait for a table, put your name down in the book and head down to Stormbird, a few doors down, for a pint)

Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church Street, London SE5 8TR

Silk Road on Urbanspoon

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

I am finding being back in London a bit of a struggle.  Whilst it is something of a thrill being able to speak English to everybody, visiting favourite south-east London haunts and seeing comfortable old favourite London landmarks from the top deck of the number 12 bus, getting back into a regular routine is proving to be harder than I expected.  Getting up in the morning is by far the most difficult part, and I find myself needing several cups of coffee before I begin to feel normal.  By the evening, I am completely wiped out and good for no more than watching the Tour de France highlights and falling asleep on the couch.  I think it’s the sudden withdrawal of the lengthy afternoon naps I enjoyed on holiday.  Breakfast and dinner, as you can imagine, have suffered as a result.

Did I also mention that I am skint?  Whilst being a fairly cheap country in comparison to the rest of Europe, Spain will still put a dent in your wallet if you spend two weeks eating out and visiting local attractions.  All the more if you like wine.  If you like wine and gin, well, you can guess how this ends.

When on holiday, I have the best of intentions for my return home.  I will go to the market and buy lots of lovely fresh food and make wonderful, healthy dinners, I will exercise every day and will not eat chorizo with every meal.  I will not drink at lunchtime.  Of course, this is the guilt of eating chorizo with every meal and downing a couple of glasses of red before passing out on a lounger for an afternoon nap talking.  The reality is vastly different.  Tired and (albeit temporarily) poor, I want to sleep as much as possible and make meals that have inexpensive ingredients and take half an hour to make.  Tops.

Before going to Spain, I had the good sense to stock up the freezer which, considering how many errands I was running in those last few weeks, is nothing short of miraculous.  This included a £10 bag of frozen squid from my local fishmonger, Moxons.  Although I tend to only buy fresh or smoked fish, the frozen squid has proven itself on many occasions to be a godsend.  A bit short on a fish pie: defrost some squid.  Need a quick last-minute pasta: defrost some squid.  You get the idea.  Keeping a bag in the freezer means that in those cash-poor few days before pay day, you can make a decent meal without having to fork our your precious pennies on protein.

This squid stir fry is from a Thai food book that I picked up many years ago from a church fete book stall for about 50p.  I think it dates roughly from the early 2000s and I’m not sure how authentic it is, but there are a few gems in there, including some lemongrass pork on skewers that I have been meaning to try for a long time.  There are a lot of curries in there, but the stir fry recipes are the ones I struggled to resist.  This stir fry in particular is so simple and quick to make, and contains very few ingredients.  If you used dried noodles, you’re looking at ten minutes; if you use fresh noodles you can probably do it in less than five.  As well as the squid, the sauce is flavoured with a simple combination of garlic, ginger, soy, lime and sugar.  It is one of the few stir fry recipes I use that contain no chilli (although we tend to douse it in Sriracha afterwards), which is sometimes good to have on hand when you have houseguests that can’t handle the heat.

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

3 nests noodles (I used Sharwood’s Medium Egg Noodles)
7 ready-prepared baby squid
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 inch piece of root ginger, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp granulated sugar
4 spring onions, finely sliced

Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and divide between the two bowls. 

Rinse the squid and pat dry with kitchen paper.  Cut the bodies into rings and halve the larger tentacles.

Heat the oil in a wok and cook the garlic for 30 seconds until golden brown, being careful not to let it burn. Add the squid and stir fry over a high heat for a further 30 seconds.

Add the soy sauce, ginger, lime juice, sugar and spring onions and stir fry for another 30 seconds.  Serve over the noodles.

Viva Espana

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There’s always something bittersweet about arriving home from your holidays.  On one hand, you have your own bed, your own bath and your own kitchen to look forward to.  On the other, the grim realities of work, unpacking and two weeks’ worth of post to open leave you wishing you were still on the beach.  My arrival home, with the smell of suntan lotion still on my skin and my head still fuzzy from the Rioja of the night before, was a whole new chapter: life as a married woman.  With still a few days at my disposal before I had to face the world, I curled up on my much-missed couch to reminisce about my gastronomic adventures in Spain.

Our journey began in San Sebastian with our wedding.  It is a place so magnificent that I could write pages and pages on its many charms.  Once you arrive, step off the bus from Bilbao Airport and walk the 20 or so minutes through the commercial district, you end up at the main square that links the old town to the enormous sweeping beach, La Playa de la Concha, and you realise why it is beloved by so many.  The food, which it is so famous for, does not disappoint and you can be equally as satisfied trawling the many pintxos bars as you can at one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants.  Of course, it’s not all that San Sebastian has to offer, but it is the draw that entices people there.  It is the food that I will mainly talk about, and leave the rest as little surprises to discover for yourself.

It was only during my most recent trip to the city, in March of this year, that I realised how seriously the Basques took gin and tonic.  Before this, I had always focused on the wine (and with the close proximity to La Rioja, how could you not?) but a conversation with my wedding planner alerted me to the fact that you can get a damned good G&T there too.  Far from the single-shot-in-a-tumbler-and-lime-if-you’re-lucky treatment you would expect to receive in your archetypal British pub, the San Sebastian gin and tonic is a work of art.  To start with, a double measure is standard, although you will find that few actually use a measure and free pour up to 100ml of gin into the glass.  The glass of choice is an enormous fishbowl glass, filled with large cubes of ice, and then the gin.  To this they add flavours to enhance the gin, largely fruits and spices.  The tonic is added to just the right quantity and the whole thing delicately stirred.  The strength of the first sip will make you sit up, but you will soon become accustomed.

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Gin and tonic from the hotel bar at Barcelo. Costa Vasca, San Sebastián

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Gin and tonic alchemy at La Gintoneria, San Sebastián

The best gin and tonic I have found in San Sebastian is at La Gintoneria in Gros.  Their gin menu is an extensive collection of gins from all over the world, including the excellent Gin Mare, distilled in a small village not far from Barcelona.  The staff at La Gintoneria understand the use of different added ingredients to enhance the flavour of the botanicals in the gin.  From where I was sitting I spied a stock of juniper berries, grapefruit, cucumber, cardamom pods, rose petals and pink peppercorns.  The drinks, of course, are wonderful, but it is also worth a trip over here for the theatre of their making them.

La Gintoneria, Zabaleta 6, San Sebastian.

Pintxos, the Basque word for small plates or tapas, are ubiquitous across the city and are the preferred way of eating light in the evening following lunch, traditionally the larger meal of the day.  My brother’s arrival from Melbourne with his girlfriend was the perfect excuse for a pintxos crawl around the old town.  Our first stop was, at is very often is, Astelena, a small bar hidden in the corner of Constitucion Plaza.  It was recommended to us on our first visit for its grilled meats and fish and we have since sampled many of their brochetas including an excellent prawn and chorizo skewer.  The best dish on the menu, however, by far is the carrileras, slow cooked beef cheeks served in a rich gravy with a slice of grilled pineapple.  The meat is so tender that a knife is surplus to requirements and the bread basket that accompanies your order throughout the whole of Spain, is perfect for mopping up the sauce.  They have some very good reds at the bar and few over three euros a glass.

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Slow cooked beef cheeks at Astelena, San Sebastián

Astelena, Calle Inigo 1, San Sebastián.

Many people I know that visit San Sebastian on a regular basis agree that some of the best pintxos in San Sebastian are to be found at Atari Gastroteka in the old town.  It’s one of those seemingly unstoppable places that seems to get better with each visit.  When we go at lunchtime, we will usually order a glass of wine and choose a few pintxos from the extensive selection on the bar – they have the same form of things on bread and sticks as the other bars, but with a slightly more leftfield range of ingredients, such as cured salmon and brie that are seldom found elsewhere.  My favourite pintxo is a combination of black olive tapenade, goats cheese, sunblush tomato and serrano ham.  When we visit in the evening, we prefer to find a table and order from the menu.  On our last visit we feasted on delicious jamon croquetas and fois gras and apple puree on walnut toasts.

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A selection of pintxos at Atari, San Sebastián

Atari Gastroteka, Calle Mayor 18, San Sebastián.

I have a bit of a thing for Gros, the less-visited area on the otherside of the bridge, beyond the Kursaal building.  Not only does it have an excellent beach and some beautiful squares, it also has some excellent bars and restaurants that could rival the old town.  La Gintoneria is to be found among its haphazard streets, as well as the wonderful Bar Bergara and a great pizza-pintxos place I can never remember the name of.  My favourite of all is the wonderful Bodega Donostiarra, which has some of the most traditional examples of pintxos to be found in the city.  You won’t find piled-high morsels of extravagance here, but rather the more modest-looking Gildas (anchovies, olives and pickled chillies on sticks – named after Rita Hayworth’s iconic character) as well as plated of jamon and salt cod.  It is their menu, rather than their bar selection, that holds all of the gems.  A salad of vinegary tuna, anchovies and olives is a must, as are their famous chicken wings – tender with a crispy skin and doused in an indecent amount of garlic butter.

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A salad of olives, onions, anchovies, pickled chillies and bonito at Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastián

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Chicken wings at Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastián

Bodega Donostiarra, Calle de Pena y Goni 13, San Sebastián.

Our wedding, with 36 guests, was held on the terrace of La Perla de La Concha, which overlooks the beach of the same name.  We were lucky that the temperamental San Sebastian weather was kind to us as this spot has one of the most picturesque views of the bay.  For dinner, we took our guests to our favourite restaurant in the old town, Bodegon Alejandro.  We stumbled upon this one day during a pintxos crawl and were unable to resist the menu, simply displayed on the front door.  Much like Bodega Donostiarra, this restaurant offers a very traditional kind of Basque cuisine, done very, very well.

We started the meal with creamy potato croquetas and plates of acorn-fed Iberico ham, served over a crispbread that was smashed to pieces at the table by a waiter brandishing a stone pestle.

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Potato croquettes and Iberico ham at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

This was followed by a cold lasagne of ratatouille, topped with delicious fresh anchovies and accompanied by a gazpacho cream.

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Cold-marinated anchovies lasagne with gazpacho cream at. Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián (photograph by Simon Steadman)

Merluza, or hake, is traditionally eaten in the Basque region and can be found on most pintxos and restaurant menus.  The traditional way to serve it is with a tomato-based sauce, however for our menu we had the fish served atop olive oil crushed potatoes and a particularly zingy citrus vinaigrette.  The hake at Bodegon Alejandro is the most beautiful fish I have had anywhere – soft as butter with a crispy skin and delicate in flavour.

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Hake with olive oil crushed potatoes and citrus vinaigrette at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián (photograph by Simon Steadman)

The main course was a meltingly tender boned shoulder of lamb served with a simple potato puree and a punchy confit garlic cream.

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Slow cooked boneless shoulder of lamb with potato purée and garlic confit cream at Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

For dessert we chose something traditional of the region: a piece of caramelised french toast accompanied by a subtle cheese ice cream.

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Caramelised french toast with cheese ice cream at. Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastián

Bodegon Alejandro, Calle Fermin Calbeton 4, San Sebastián.

Driving the 1,000km from San Sebastian to our honeymoon destination of Andalucia was a great way to see the diversity of the Spanish landscapes.  The relatively luscious greenery of the Basque country and the mountainous north gives way to vast swathes of industrial land before hitting the urban metropolis of Madrid, where we stayed one night to break up the journey.  South of Madrid is a different beast altogether with miles and miles of farmland, the spectacular heights of the Sierra Nevada and finally the barren, almost desert-like plains of Andalucia.

Our priority was a few days of relaxation, so we headed to the beachside town of Nerja which, we were told, was quieter than the better-known nearby towns of Marbella and Torremolinos.  After marvelling at the size of the room and the hotel’s proximity to the beach, we decided to wander into the town, which is where I very quickly realised that Nerja is not really a place for culinary adventures.  Most of the restaurants were aimed at tourists and, try as we might, we couldn’t seem to find anywhere that was off this trail.  Although some of the food is local and traditional, the quality wasn’t that great.  Most of the dishes came with chips and rice and bread, and almost every menu, regardless of cuisine, had spaghetti bolognaise on it.  After a disappointing (frozen) fried sole on the first night, we were glumly anticipating the next few dinners until, on the following day, we stumbled, quite literally, across Pepe Mese on Playaso Beach.

It was just what we were looking for:  a slightly rustic, almost shack-like, building with a view of the sunset, populated by mostly Spanish locals and not a lurid cocktail with a sparkler in sight.  When I saw the men, I almost clapped my hands with glee.  A World Cup game was playing on the television and we feasted on a plate of plump grilled squid doused in garlic butter and crispy matchsticks of fried aubergine drizzled with sweet cane honey.

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Grilled squid at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

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Deep fried aubergines with molasses at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

When dinner time rolled around the following night we, unsurprisingly, eschewed the brightly-lit restaurant strips of the main town and returned to Pepe Mese.  This time I ordered the dish I order on any menu: fried fish (or fritto misto if you’re on other shores).  This one did not disappoint:  a large plate of squid, hake, octopus and anchovies, coated in a crisp, paprika-spiked batter.  We squeezed over the juice of two gargantuan lemon wedges and attacked it with gusto, knocking back some rather good white wine as we did so.  If there was a meal to be had as the sun goes down and the smell of wood smoke hangs in the air, this is it.

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Mixed fried fish at Pepe Mesa, Nerja

Pepe Mese, Playa de Playaso, Nerja.

It was easier to find good food at our next stop, Ronda, although the majority of restaurants were still aiming for the generic tourist market.  As we walked through the old town and the area surrounding the beautiful puento nuevo (‘new bridge’ – google image it), we saw a number of brightly coloured menus on billboards, in various languages offering, among other things, spaghetti bolognaise.  A few gems were to be found outside of this area.  At the northern end of the Calle Jerez, we came across a small rustic tapas bar called Tapas de Ronda, which was our first stop in the town.  Following a short conversation with a waitress in my terrible broken Spanish I returned to the table to confess to Ollie that I was not entirely sure what I had ordered.  What came to the table was a selection of cold tapas:  potatoes in aioli, Russian salad (everywhere in Andalucia), tomatoes stuffed with tuna and a wedge of potato tortilla.  Just what we needed after a hot drive through the mountains.  Luckily, I knew the word for anchovies – boquerones – so we found ourselves with a plate of them, tender and pungent and with the usual excessive amount of garlic we had started to become very used to.

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Boquerones at Tapas de Ronda, Ronda

The following evening, our appetites were raging after cycling the round trip to a village called Benaojan, 17km from Ronda and 538m above sea level, so we were after something a little more substantial than tapas.  A friend had recommended Bodega San Francisco, located just south of Ronda’s old town for a good place to get some rustic and authentic Andalucian food.  I was keen to try the oxtail, a local speciality sometimes listed on menus as ‘bull’s tail’, probably due to translation.  We ordered two plates of the hearty oxtail stew and were delighted to find the meat tender and falling from the bone and a rich tomato sauce spiced with pimenton.  Alongside this we ordered a somewhat generous plate of pimientos de padron, grilled to the point where there is the slightest of charring and sprinkled liberally with coarse sea salt.

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Pimientos de Padron at Bodega San Francisco, Ronda

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Oxtail at Bodega San Francisco, Ronda

Our final stop on the trip was the Andalucian capital of Seville, to me the most romantic of all Spanish cities.  I had visited once before, in 2010, and was keen to show Ollie some of the places I had visited and loved, primarily the Real Alcazar and its magnificent gardens and the Plaza d’Espana.  Without a list of restaurants to try out and with our budget slightly depleted, we found ourselves in the peculiar situation of not focusing mainly on food.  Our plan was to set about sampling the city’s tapas as we found it.  Many restaurants have a ‘menu del dia’ with a particular dish on offer for that day, and we found that a good place to start.  I was glad to see that bacalao, or salt cod, was as widespread here as in the Basque region, and could often be found in wonderful little hot sandwiches that cost no more than two euros a piece.  Other highlights were some delicious chorizo, a bomba la Barcelonetta, a take on the ham-studded potato croqueta with a rich tomato sauce; and a meaty chickpea stew, typical of the nearby sherry-producing city of Jerez.

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Jerez-style chickpea stew at Vapiano, Seville

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Bomba la Barcelonetta at Bar Europa, Seville

Going off the beaten track and into the north of the city showed us a different side to eating out in Seville.  The neighbourhood restaurants are less ornate than those you will find in the jumbled streets of the old town or the grand boulevards around the cathedral, but they have a rustic charm and are much better value.  You won’t find the restaurants in any of the guide books, but the quality of the food is such that it is worth getting out of the tourist areas to dine with the locals.  At Meson La Esquina we paid three euros for a large plate of perfectly tender slow cooked pork cheeks in the kind of rich tomato and paprika sauce that is typical to this region – it was one of the most flavoursome pork dishes I had ever tasted and could have easily eaten more.  A plate of calamari was excellent and the patatas bravas perfectly adequate, but the pork cheeks were the star.  The place was packed with local people and had a really buzzing atmosphere.  After dinner, we walked a little further down the street to watch Belgium vs. USA with some typically enormous gin and tonics (in fishbowls, of course) for the bargain price of five euros a piece.

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Calamari at La Meson Esquina, Seville

Meson La Esquina, Calle Astronomica 2, Seville.

For a substantial meal on the go, there are a number of places around the city selling huge portions of fried fish for very little money – think of them as Andalucian fish and chip shops if you will.  In fact, in appearance they are quite similar to their British counterparts – a formica counter at the front with the menu up behind to order from, open glass display fronts and little tables around which families crowd.  One particular restaurant, La Isla, was recommended by a fellow south-east Londoner, Hollow Legs, who had visited the city some months previously.  The menu contains a number of different fish options and is priced by weight.  A quarter of a kilo of fried dish, which the waiter assured me was enough for one person, was around six euros.  We ordered half a kilo of the mixed fish (always a favourite), which came in a lacy paper cone with a small sprinkling of salt.  The side order de jour is not chips as we know them in the UK, but crisps.  Although I saw a lot of people tucking in, my Britishness took over and couldn’t quite face eating them with the fish.  Our mixture was a medley of hake, prawns, squid, cuttlefish and some little battered bundles of hake roe which were, surprisingly, the best of the bunch.  A perfect stomach liner for a night of drinking and dark bar flamenco at La Caboneria.

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La Isla, Calle Garcia de Vinuesa, Seville.

If my heart belongs to London, my stomach defintely belongs to Spain.

Out of Office

Is there any greater feeling than when you finish up at work before your holidays and put your out of office on?

In this case, it is both a great feeling and a sad one.  As I may have mentioned before, I am getting married in a couple of weeks and the preparations for this and my honeymoon, as well as tying up all of my work before taking three weeks off, is taking up a huge amount of my time.  So I have decided to take a short hiatus from blogging whilst I get all of this done. 

I will be back online in early July.  In the meantime, I am still posting on Twitter (@boozyrouge) and on Instagram (boozyrouge).

Until then…

When Life Takes Over

This week, I have had the most difficult task of admitting that I was wrong.  In my naivety, I honestly believed that planning a wedding would not impact on my other activities (how clueless I was) and that my baking club, blog and various food-related activities would not suffer as a result.  As you may have seen, Band of Bakers is on a little summer hiatus and my blog posts are becoming fewer and further between.  They are all buried under dress fittings, menu tastings, endless emails and trying to co-ordinate a number of guests who are all travelling to San Sebastian for the ceremony in a little over three weeks.  Add to this a rather monotonous healthy eating regime and an attempt to save money by not eating out and you find that, even if you had the time to write, there would be little to actually write about.

Bottom line:  weddings take over your life.  And I have a wedding planner!

Of course, this is a temporary situation.  My wedding is taking place in the gastronomic capital of Europe, so there will be plenty of subject matter there.  It seems that most people I know have either been to, or are planning a trip to, San Sebastian.  If you haven’t been, it is definitely worth considering for your next holiday, especially if eating and drinking is your thing.  In addition to this, we are embarking on a honeymoon road trip through Andalucia, again very much with culinary endeavours in mind.  I will be returning to London in July when, hopefully, normal service will be resumed.  Until then, I simply ask that you bear with me.

Instead of writing up one of my recipes (I haven’t cooked anything in days) or writing a nice long post about a restaurant I’ve been to (too stressed to pay too much attention), I have instead cobbled together a few things from the last week that have popped up on my food radar.  Kind of like the old days of ‘Monday Miscellany’ but, of course, on a Wednesday.  Even the days all roll into one these days.  I must buy a diary.

 Pizza Making

Anchovy and olive pizza

Anchovy and olive pizza

Last week could have easily been entitled ‘Life in Salad’, so I was obviously thrilled to come home from a particularly gruelling Friday to Ollie making pizza in the kitchen.  Needless to say, I devoured them all.  I looked back through my previous posts for something on pizzas and was surprised to find I had written nothing.  I even have a list of ‘London Pizzas I Love’ scrawled on a piece of notepaper and tacked up next to my desk, so I will write that up at some point.  The picture above is one of three pizzas he made using Dan Lepard’s absolutely foolproof pizza dough recipe, and a topping of anchovies and olives. Bliss.

Southampton Street Food Market

Pork souvlaki - Southampton style

Pork souvlaki – Southampton style

To the sounds of a chorus of “it’s about bloody time”, street food has finally arrived in Southampton.  Yes, I know the majestic 7Bone had a burger stall, one that even featured on the BBC’s Restaurant Man, but that was ages ago.  This market has taken over the strip along the pedestrianised part of the city centre at weekends, the spot previously occupied by the ahem, German market at Christmas.  It hasn’t quite reached the standard of similar markets in London, but is a good starting point (and far cheaper).  I had a perfectly decent pork souvlaki from Greekville, that certainly helped to undo the hangover I had from sinking G&T’s in The Alex the night before.

The Grazing Goat, Southampton

Goat curry with dumplings

Goat curry with dumplings

This is the first of two visits I am making to this new Southampton gastro pub, so will leave the review until I have time to write up the full post.  I just wanted to praise their goat curry with dumplings, which was sublime.

Toast, East Dulwich

Quail with gremolata

Quail with gremolata

Orange cake

Orange cake

Toast may be the perfect place to hide out when the heavens open during a Lordship Lane expedition – warm, cosy and with a good wine list – you could find yourself there for hours.  I have been several times before, but only for coffee and a slice of their delicious banana bread (OK, and some wine), and used to go regularly when it was the old Green & Blue, but yesterday was the first time I actually went in for lunch.  We started with an off menu order of quail with gremolata, £10 including a glass of Cote du Rhone (bargain), then shared a slice of moist orange cake alongside our espressos.  As soon as I am back from Spain and eating out again, I expect Toast will become a regular spot, not least because it is great to have such quality food within walking distance of our flat.

Dinner for One

Chipotle Chicken with Tomato-Avocado Salsa

Chipotle chicken with avocado-tomato salsa

On the rare occasion that I find myself home alone for the evening, cooking dinner for myself goes out of the window.  I know that for many people, getting into the kitchen after a hard day’s work is their way to unwind, but I am usually rather grateful for a night off.  If I’m feeling particularly energetic, I will grill myself something to put atop a salad; if I really can’t be arsed, it’ll be marmite on toast or a trip to the chip shop (Seamasters on Forest Hill Road, just in case you’re interested).

I spend a lot of time cooking for others; whether it be a supper for Ollie and I, lunch for friends, or a birthday cake; and I love it, but I’ve always felt that there is no point in cooking an entire meal just for me.  When I was a student and Ollie spent large chunks of time on tour, I would make a pot of something and live off it for three or four days.  Some people might be horrified by this, but although I love cooking, I also love the thought of spending a whole evening watching Netflix and doing minimal dishes, from time to time.   It seems I’m not the only one.  Many of my friends, especially those with children, will seldom cook a meal when it is just for them.

I was reading an old article by Jay Rayner on the idea of cooking for one.  He argued that this was the perfect opportunity to cook things exactly as you want them, without having to consider anybody else.  He cites putting more heat in a Thai curry and sea salt on chocolate ice cream as his lone dining guilty pleasures.  For me, being home alone is the time to eat the kind of crap that others would turn their nose up at if you presented it as dinner.  For example:  I have one of those toasters with an egg poacher on the side, and love to poach a perfectly circular egg and put it in a split and toasted English muffin with two slices of slappy American cheese and a load of ketchup.  Pretty filthy, but so good.

This weekend Ollie was on his stag do and I was home alone.  Ordinarily, I would have stocked up on all kinds of junk and bookmarked some trash TV on my subscription services, but the image of the wedding dress I have to squeeze into in a little over a month was hanging over me like a giant warning sign.  ‘Dinner for One’ needed a new, healthy makeover.

When rooting through the cupboard for inspiration, I found a little pot of Mexican spice mix that I made back in February.  On sticking my nose in, I realised that it hadn’t lost its potency and, although I initially thought it would be ace in a grilled cheese sandwich, I decided to use it as the basis of something healthier.  When mixed with chipotle paste, lime juice and soy sauce and a little olive oil, it became a very punchy marinade for a lone chicken breast.  To accompany this, a summery salsa of ripe avocados and even riper tomatoes, mixed up with lime juice, chilli and garlic.  A very virtuous meal if ever there was one.

Chipotle Chicken with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

  • 1 tsp chipotle paste
  • Juice of 2 limes, separated
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 medium avocado, diced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 3 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1 jalapeno, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Salad leaves

In a small bowl, combine the Mexican spice mix, chipotle paste, juice of one of the limes and the honey.  Place the chicken breast in a wide shallow bowl and pout over the chipotle mixture.  Use your hands to coat the chicken and leave to marinade in the fridge for at least an hour.

In the meantime, make the avocado-tomato salsa.  In a large bowl combine the avocado, tomatoes, spring onions, chilli and garlic.  Pour over the lime juice and gently stir until the ingredients are well mixed.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Chill in the fridge until needed.

Put a griddle pan over a high heat and, once hot, grill the chicken until cooked through.

Arrange the salad leaves in the bowl.  Slice the chicken breast diagonally and place the slices on top.  Spoon the salsa over the chicken.

Two Ways with Spring Greens

I am one of those awkwardly pretentious people who loves quotations.  I have a dictionary of quotations that my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager, and have  been drawing on it for inspiration ever since.  I have a number of them written in a little notebook I carry around, have them engraved into gifts and almost always write them in birthday cards:  something about age and wisdom for the younger ones and, for the older ones, something about how bloody old they are.

One of the most overused quotations is, incidentally, one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s been quoted in a number of terrible romantic comedies and sitcoms, but in the case of the week I’ve just had, it rings very true:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday I organised a very fun and glitzy party that was scuppered somewhat by my waking up with the cold from hell.  This cold persisted into the weekend and on Saturday, with a red nose and sore throat, I celebrated my hen night with twenty of my dearest and, thankfully, healthy friends.  Of course, after a couple of gin and tonics start to blur your brain, it is easy to forget that you are ill until it hits you tenfold the next morning.  Let me be the one to tell you that martinis and decongestant tablets do not mix.

Since then, my cold has developed into a throat infection and a chest infection, which has rendered me more or less housebound for the past few days.  As is always the way when I’m ill, I go running for the same list of things that will make me feel better:  a box set of two or more seasons (this time it is House of Cards, which I am completely obsessed with), several bottles of original Lucozade, an abundance of tissues and as much fruit and vegetables as Ollie can carry back from the supermarket.  Ordinarily I would make my ultimate cold-buster, the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings of my dreams, but south east London is a muggy old place right now, and jointing and stewing a chicken in my tiny kitchen seems far more unappealing than it does in the winter.

Stir fried lamb with spring greens

Instead, I have been upping my intake of green vegetables.  The wonderful thing about spring is the availability of more greens to break up the monotony of purple sprouting broccoli and kale we live on all winter.  I go crazy on asparagus, samphire, gorgeous peppery watercress from my home county of Hampshire and nettles, which I discovered a few years ago.  One of the best arrivals of the season, however, are spring greens, which have the benefit of being both versatile and cheap.  They are the first cabbages of the year and have a strong iron-rich flavour and robust texture that lends itself well to a variety of different dishes.  I have often used spring greens as a substitute for other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pak choi or kale when I have been unable to get my hands on these, or simply have greens in the house.

Risotto primavera

Risotto primavera

I picked up a couple of these cabbages from the Co-op in East Dulwich for about £1 and had enough to make two main meals.  The first was a take on Nigel Slater’s stir fried lamb with broccoli (you can guess which ingredient I replaced) that took from my Asian storecupboard of chillies, fish sauce and lime; and the second was from Italy, a risotto primavera, which succeeded in using up some odds and ends of green vegetables I had in the fridge and freezer:  an old courgette, almost ready for the bin, a rogue celery stick and the ends of some bags of peas and broad beans lurking at the back of the freezer drawer.

The most important thing about cooking with spring greens, at least for me, it to remove the rough stalks in the middle of the leaves.  I can hardly ever get them to cook to a point where they are tender, and always end up picking them out.

Stir Fried Lamb with Spring Greens

  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds removed (keep them in if you like it hot) and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 350g minced lamb
  • Juice of 1½ limes
  • 1½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • Handful finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the  spring onions, garlic and chillies for a couple of minutes until they are soft but not coloured.  Add the lamb mince, breaking up with a spatula, and cook until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime, fish sauce and sugar then pour this mixture into the hot pan and stir through the lamb, cooking for an extra few minutes until some of the liquid has reduced.

Remove from the heat and check the seasoning.  Stir in the spring greens and half of the coriander and cover the pan for a few minutes until the leaves have wilted in the residual heat.  Sprinkle the remaining coriander on top and serve.

Serves two.  Adapted from a recipe by Nigel Slater.

Risotto Primavera with Feta

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 300g arborio rice
  • 150ml dry white wine
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 1l vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • 1 handful broad beans, podded
  • 1 handful frozen peas
  • 25g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or chef’s pan and gently cook the onions, celery and garlic until soft but not coloured, this should take about 10 minutes on a low heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that the grains are coated in the oil.  Turn up the heat and add the white wine to the pan, letting it bubble until almost all of the liquid has been evaporated.  Stir in the diced courgette.

Keeping the pan on a medium heat, start adding the vegetable stock to the rice mixture, a ladle at a time, stirring regularly.  Add the next ladle of stock only when the previous one has evaporated.  Keep adding the stock, stirring as you go, until you have used three-quarters of it.  Taste the rice, it should be cooked but slightly al dente.  If the rice is still too hard, repeat the process of adding stock and stirring until it has reached the consistency that you like.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, seasoning, spring greens, broad beans and peas.  Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes until the butter has melted and the greens have wilted.  Stir again and serve in large bowls, topped with the crumbled feta.

Serves two for dinner and then one for lunch the following day.

*Apologies for my photography – it’s terrible.