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Apple Strudel

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I’ve made apple strudel many times before, although not for a long time. But I’ve been wanting to make it again ever since enjoying the wonderful version I had at Cafe Landtmann in Vienna a couple of months ago – said to be the original.

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It was gorgeous. Traditionally it’s served with cream, vanilla sauce (never called custard!) or just plain. It was also served slightly warm.

The most obvious place to go in search of a recipe (for I can’t remember whose recipe I used years ago) was the cafe’s website. And indeed, there I did find a recipe. They assumed – not unreasonably – that I would make the pastry myself. But that wasn’t going to happen. I do make pastry; I don’t buy it ready made. And I often make it by hand rather than in a food processor because I think it comes out better that way. But no, I don’t make filo pastry. That’s the exception; that I do buy.

I also looked at Rick Stein’s recipe from his recent Long Weekends series on TV. I love the series (and happily there are more episodes to come in the autumn) because Rick is doing what I love best – well, one of the things I love best! – and that’s going on weekend breaks to great cities. Vienna was in the first series and was especially exciting as it was shown just before my own trip there, and we do indeed see Rick tucking into a very fine apple strudel – in Cafe Landtmann, no less! His recipe is almost exactly the same as theirs, but with a few more instructions and slightly different amounts of the ingredients. Having faith in Rick’s reliable recipes, I decided to follow his instructions, though I was clearly going to end up with much the same result either way.

Apple Strudel

  • 750g Bramley (cooking) apples
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ unwaxed lemon, zest only
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 75g raisins
  • 95g butter
  • 40g white breadcrumbs
  • 6 large sheets filo pastry
  • 1 tablespoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 190C/170 Fan/Gas 5. Line a large baking tray with baking parchment.

I’d bought a pack of ready-made filo pastry.

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Next I peeled, cored and quartered the apples and cut them into slices.

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They started to brown quite quickly so I put the 2 teaspoons of lemon juice in to keep them as fresh as I could while I cut the rest of the apples up. Then I mixed in the cinnamon, lemon zest, sugar and raisins.

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Next melt 20g of the butter in a small saucepan. I made fresh breadcrumbs from the remains of a sourdough loaf that was getting a bit old. I find I can do small amounts with my hand blender in an upright container. Tip the breadcrumbs into the melted butter and stir constantly while you fry the breadcrumbs until they are golden brown.

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Tip the breadcrumbs into the apple mixture and mix well together.

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Now your filling is ready and you need to get the pastry prepared. Melt the rest of the butter (75g). Lay a clean tea towel on a clean surface. Lay the first sheet of filo pastry on top and brush with some of the melted butter.

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Lay another sheet of pastry on top, brush with melted butter, and keep going until all the pastry is used up (there should be a little butter left). Now carefully tip the filling along one long side, leaving about 2-3cm at the edge.

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It did seem like a lot of filling and I wondered if my filo sheets were the ‘large’ size Rick wrote of in his recipe. Well, there hadn’t been a choice in the supermarket. It would have to do. Use the tea towel to help you very carefully roll up the pastry to enfold the filling, tucking the ends in. Then transfer to the lined baking tray with the ‘seam’ side of the strudel on the bottom. Brush the remaining melted butter over the top.

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Bake in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes until golden brown.

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The smell as I opened the oven was wonderful. The strudel seemed to have spread in the middle. I hoped it would all hold together when it came to serving it – although really, as long as it tasted good, it would be OK. Leave it to cool to room temperature then dust with the icing sugar.

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It was so huge, and with only three of us to eat it, I decided to cut it in half and freeze half. It was a bit soggy at the bottom (maybe that explains why Cafe Landtmann put a lot more breadcrumbs in their version) and I could see the apple was quite mushy. Maybe another time I’d not cut the apple slices quite so thin. But really, the test was in the eating. How did it taste?

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It tasted delicious. The filling – despite my worries that it looked overdone – was wonderful and had such a glorious flavour. It was just perfect. Thank you, Rick! I wasn’t quite so happy with my pastry … maybe I do need to make my own! But all in all, it was a great dessert and brought back happy memories of Vienna and the fabulous Cafe Landtmann, which was my favourite cafe there.

 

Restaurant Review: Meson Don Felipe

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I’ve been to Meson Don Felipe, a tapas bar in The Cut near Waterloo station, a number of times. It’s a great location if you’re going to the Old Vic or Young Vic theatres. Once a rather seedy part of the Waterloo area, it’s now bustling with bars and restaurants and is a lively place to head to whether you’re going to the theatre or not. Don Felipe claim on their website to be the first authentic tapas bar in London. They opened in 1987 and aim to give you the Madrid or Seville experience. Having been to both those great cities, I can say they do a pretty good job. It’s a popular place, always crowded and often with a queue to get in. And anytime I’ve been, there’s always been some live music – a Spanish guitarist. You can go in for a snack – just one or two tapas with a drink or the nicest thing is to share a few tapas with a friend or two and make more of a meal of the experience.

Elsa and I had been to the ‘Painting with Light’ exhibition at Tate Britain. Rather a dull and disappointing one, as it turned out. Supper though, would turn out to be the exact opposite: exciting, full of colour and vibrancy, and just as good as it always is at Don Felipe. We walked there from Tate Britain, following The Thames, crossing over Lambeth Bridge and walking on past The London Eye and cutting down by the British Film Institute towards Waterloo and The Cut. It didn’t actually take that long. Surprisingly, we didn’t have to wait for seats (stools at the bar), although there were only a few left. I guess it was round 6.30 and crowded with people on their way home from work, stopping for a drink and snack, or others having a pre-theatre meal. We ordered half a carafe (50cl) of the house red, a good Crianza, for £11.00, and decided about 4-5 tapas to share would be right. You can always order more! That’s the great thing about tapas.

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The broad beans with cured ham and mint is a favourite of ours, which we couldn’t resist ordering again. I love the sweetness of the beans, the slight saltiness of the ham, all lifted with a kind of freshness by the mint. It’s a brilliant combination.

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The fresh spinach with pine nuts and raisins was delicious. The spinach perfectly cooked retaining both its colour and freshness with the gorgeous addition of crunchy pine nuts and sweet raisins.

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These baby green peppers – Pimientos de Padron – fried in olive oil were good too.

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The Bacalao frito con alioli – deep fried cod with garlic mayonnaise was good as well, though the batter not quite as crisp as I would have liked it.

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Brocheta de Cordero was a skewer of marinated English leg of lamb served on couscous. The lamb had a delicious flavour.

By this time the live music had arrived in the shape of Angus, a Welshman with a Scottish name (according to the regular sitting next to us) who played Spanish guitar.

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Angus was perched somewhat precariously on a small ‘stage’ at the far end, but it gave everyone a view of him and of course the music flowed across the whole restaurant. I like Spanish guitar and it added to the already lively atmosphere and was great entertainment.

The dessert menu arrived and Elsa seemed keen to indulge, so I suggested we shared. We chose the baked cheesecake with fruits of the forest.

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I regaled Elsa with the story of the incredible cheesecake Annie and I had in San Sebastian on the last day at Bar La Vina. Perhaps Don Felipe’s wasn’t quite so stunning as the famous La Vina one, but it was still very good and we enjoyed it.

It was a great evening. I like the place a lot, like the relaxed lively atmosphere. The staff are always friendly and welcoming. It’s a great place with friends or on your own.

Meson Don Felipe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

An Easy Route to a Great Meal

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Sometimes creating a great meal isn’t about spending hours in the kitchen ‘slaving over a hot stove’. Sometimes it’s just about buying top quality food and more or less putting it together. Well, in the case of brilliantly barbecued steak, it also requires a good cook who knows what they are doing. Fortunately for me last night my son Jonathan was to hand, and I don’t know anyone who barbecues better than him.

There was just the two of us for supper. Lyndsey and Freddie are still in Wales. Jonathan offered to take a wonderful rib of beef from the freezer that he’d bought about a month ago. He’d bought two then and we had one straight away. He buys meat from Boarstall Meats at the local Twickenham Farmers’ Market. Boarstall Meats’ farm lies near Aylesbury, just north-west of London. They’ve been selling meat from their own butchery on the farm since 2000. We discovered them at the farmers’ market a few years ago and they’ve become our ‘must go to’ butcher for most of our meat, but especially for anything special – parties, family gatherings, etc. Jonathan has rung them to place special orders and spoken to owner Edward as he’s walking across the fields. I don’t know anywhere to get a better chicken but really, after last night’s beef, I might also say I don’t know anywhere to get a better rib of beef!

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As you can see from the photo, this was a 60-day aged rib of beef. So you know already, it’s going to be special. It was also quite expensive. But what a treat. And of course you want to cook it well and know what you’re doing. Jonathan is an all-round good cook; he’s not just a barbecue cook. He has a Weber barbecue and uses one of their chimneys to attain a high temperature for the coals quite quickly.

Jonathan said he’d prepare the steak as a tagliata – slices of steak laid across a bed of rocket, dressed with oil and balsamic and shavings of Parmesan cheese. It’s one of our favourite dishes. I meanwhile offered to put a mix of new white potatoes and sweet potatoes, coated in olive oil and dusted with za’atar, in the oven to roast.

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I also made a tomato and red onion salad.

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Jonathan didn’t do anything fancy with the steak. It didn’t need it. He just smeared some olive oil all over it with his hands and seasoned it. Then it went on to the hot coals. Because it was such a thick steak, he cooked it with the lid on the barbecue. When he judged it done, it was left on a plate with a loose covering of foil to keep it warm, to rest for a few minutes.

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Then he sliced it thickly.

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It was perfect. A crisp caramelisation on the outside and deeply pink and rare in the middle. Just how we like it! Then he laid it across the bed of rocket and dressed it.

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We sat in the garden. It had been a gloriously warm and sunny day and even with the light fading, it was still warm enough to eat outside. Jonathan opened a bottle of Argentinian Malbec to drink with the steak.

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It has a wonderful aroma and fruitiness but is softer than some Malbecs, making it extremely drinkable, and a wonderful accompaniment to the steak.

The steak was fantastic: such a gorgeous flavour, beautifully tender. It did require Jonathan’s excellent barbecuing skills to produce such a fine meal, but in essence it was an incredibly simple meal. We finished with a couple of strawberry tartlets I’d bought from Your Bakery Whitton in the morning.

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They were quite small – not too big, not too small, just right as Goldilocks might say: the lightest of pastry, crème pâtisserie and fragrantly sweet strawberries. A lovely ending to a very fine meal indeed.

My Week in Food

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It’s been a while since I wrote a post for this occasional series. Life’s been busy but also the truth is that even the most enthusiastic food blogger isn’t eating special food all of the time! Though I do eat very well, even when it’s simple stuff, and I’m lucky to live in London where wonderful food is virtually on tap.

It was that fabulous pizza in the photo above that I ate at Masaniello on Tuesday, which inspired me to write another My Week in Food post. The series enables me to mention great favourite haunts again when another review wouldn’t be appropriate.

So … this is how my week went:

Thursday – Italian colours

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I bought a gorgeous crusty roll from Your Bakery in the morning and made a Tricolore Salad of Italian colours – green avocado, red tomato and white mozzarella – for my lunch.  All dressed with some extra virgin olive oil and a few leaves of fresh basil.

Friday – Golfing Calm

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I had lunch with my friend Liz and she suggested meeting at the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, where she’s a member. She also kindly tells me that as a guest, I can’t pay, so she always buys me lunch when we meet there. You don’t go for the food, although the spinach, bacon and avocado salad was very nice. You go because it’s a little oasis of calm in Richmond. We can easily hear each other talk in the hushed dining room and as you look out over the greens, one could almost be right out in the countryside – except when a plane roars overhead on its way to Heathrow!

Saturday – Gelato & Cricket

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I’m not sure those two things go together. Do the Italians play cricket? Probably not – although they do play rugby! One of the nicest things to do on a warm summer’s day is for me to take a walk into Richmond, buy some gelato from Gelateria Danieli (one of the best in London!) and then sit on a bench overlooking Richmond Green.

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Another oasis of calm. I love watching cricket being played, even though I’ve never got my head round the rules. It’s quintessentially British to look out over a village green and see the cricketers in their whites, listening to the dull thud of the cricket ball hitting the willow bat, with the occasional shout as either someone is bowled out or hits the ball for six.

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In the evening I made the delicious Sea Bass en Papillote for my supper. Another touch of summer.

Sunday – A Son’s Return

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Jonathan, Lyndsey and Freddie had been holidaying in Cornwall all week. Lyndsey and Freddie were then heading to Wales for two weeks to spend time with her family while Jonathan had to return to London for work. In the morning I went for coffee to Corto Italian Deli who serve the most perfect cappuccino, which is just like the cappuccinos you get in Italy – no Antipodean influence, just good coffee in a small cup, the perfect amount of froth and visible crema – that sign of a good coffee. One of the reasons for going was to buy some cold meats for the evening as an antipasti. It’s absolutely the best place I know to buy excellent salame, prosciutto, mortadella, etc.

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As the timing of Jonathan’s drive back from Cornwall was unpredictable, it was the evening I cooked the rack of lamb – great last-minute cooking to accommodate a moveable eating time.

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Monday – Croissants & Pasta

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In the morning I walked to Whitton for coffee and croissant at Your Bakery. Baker Stefano makes the best croissants I know. It’s a 20-minute walk, across a little bridge that passes over Crane River and on through Kneller Gardens, a pedestrian underpass to negotiate a way across the busy A316 and then you’re there.

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In the evening I made a sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic, spinach and pine nuts for a pasta supper.

Tuesday – Pizza Napoli style

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It was totally spur of the moment. I’d been into London and was on the train home unfed and hungry. And it would be a bit late to cook once I got home. I rang Jonathan to find out if he was home yet. It turned out he was on the same train. He came to find me. Let’s go to Masaniello, I said. So we did. And we both had this fabulous pizza with aubergine, pancetta and burrata. We had a nice chat with Livio – owner and head chef – too. We were pretty full at the end but when I saw Livio’s wonderful baba was on the dessert menu, I convinced Jonathan we needed one to share.

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They are the lightest most glorious baba – and not to be missed! I had an espresso with mine.

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Wednesday – A fishy supper

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I walked to Your Bakery again in the morning for coffee and to buy one of their lovely sourdough loaves for lunch.

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In the evening, Jonathan was out. He doesn’t eat fish so it was an opportunity for me to do so! I made the lovely salmon with arrabbiata sauce.

 

Penne with Salmon & Arrabbiata Sauce

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I was cooking for just myself tonight and took a portion of organic salmon out of the freezer in the afternoon to defrost. I eat salmon about once a week. Partly because I love it and partly because it’s a great source of healthy fish oils. I do always buy organic though as some of the farmed salmon isn’t great – pretty tasteless and full of not so healthy additives.

I usually cook it fairly simply but fancied trying something a bit different today. I came across a recipe for putting it into an arrabbiata sauce to serve with pasta in Gino D’Acampo’s Italian Escapes. Salmon is a robust fish able to take strong flavours, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Arrabbiata means ‘angry’ in Italian. The sauce is thought to gain its name from the chilli that goes into the dish, making it hot … heated and perhaps ‘angry’! Gino has a classic combination of chilli, garlic and tomatoes. Some recipes add wine. I decided to begin my sauce with a shallot, finely chopped, and softened in some extra virgin olive oil with a good pinch of dried chilli flakes.

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Once the shallot was softening, I added a crushed clove of garlic (I don’t like to add this too soon or it can go bitter if it starts to brown) and a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes. I use fresh tomatoes in pasta sauce a lot, but with this sauce, I think it really benefits from the strong, full flavour you get from tinned tomatoes.

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I stirred it all together, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then brought to simmer and left to cook for about 10 minutes. (It was enough sauce for 2, so when it was ready, I took half out to freeze for another day.) While it cooked, I prepared the salmon, taking off the skin and cutting it into bite-sized pieces. I also chopped a handful of flat-leaf parsley. Then I added both to the tomato sauce.

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Give it a careful stir to mix the salmon into the sauce. Let it bubble up again and then turn the heat off and put a lid on. This is the best way to cook the salmon so it stays moist and tender. It will cook perfectly well from just the heat of the sauce (this is what Gino does!).

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Now cook the penne (or other pasta). When it’s ready, strain and add to the sauce.

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Stir is all together very carefully so that you don’t break up the tender salmon pieces. Then it’s ready!

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All you need do now is transfer it to a plate or shallow dish.

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I served it with a side green salad. Don’t be tempted to grate Parmesan over it. Italians don’t serve Parmesan with fish pasta dishes. It was a lovely dish; really tasty. The salmon took the slightly fiery arrabbiata sauce well, retaining its own gorgeous flavour. The fish pieces were wonderfully tender and moist from the gentle cooking. A dish I’ll certainly do again!

Roast Rack of Lamb with Mint Pesto

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Being a girl of the fifties, I was brought up in rather an old-fashioned traditional way: ‘children should be seen and not heard’, etc., but also food wise. My mother didn’t believe she’d fed us properly unless we had ‘meat and two veg’ each day and it took me a long time to get over that and believe that when I didn’t eat meat for my main meal of the day, I’d still eaten well! A roast dinner on Sunday was mandatory. This was taken to such extremes that when my dad bought a boat, which he moored in Poole Harbour at first and then Lymington, we could be sailing round the Isle of Wight on a Sunday with my mother below deck in the galley roasting some lamb or beef with roast potatoes for lunch. It’s a demonstration of how our eating habits have changed. The way we eat now is so global, so much more relaxed, that I wonder how many British families still have a traditional roast dinner on Sundays. I suspect not many, or certainly not every Sunday, although it’s nice occasionally and quite popular to go to pubs on a Sunday for a roast.

My roast today would be an updated, more modern roast … a lovely lamb rack, often called ‘French rack of lamb’ but the one I bought this morning in Waitrose was called ‘Welsh rack of lamb’, because, I suppose, it was Welsh lamb. One of the reasons for choosing it is it’s not something I’d cook for just myself – these little racks serve two or three – but Jonathan was driving back from a week’s holiday in Cornwall and would eat with me (Lyndsey and Freddie have gone on to Wales to stay with her family for two weeks). Driving from to London from Cornwall on an August weekend is an unpredictable journey. At best it was going to be about 4 hours, but worst case scenario, it could be much longer. Thus, having a last-minute meal prepared to the point of ‘go’ seemed a good idea. The rack of lamb would only need about 20 minutes cooking in a hot oven. You don’t get much more last-minute than that!

As a child, roast lamb was always served with mint sauce. This was often bought in a jar but home-made it’s simply chopped mint loosened with vinegar and sweetened with sugar. It’s not something I’d particularly want to eat now, so I thought I’d make a mint pesto instead. But why do we eat mint with lamb, I wondered; why is it such a classic combination? I consulted my Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics book and learned that the ‘association between lamb and mint is a reflection of the medieval belief that an animal’s best accompaniment or “tracklement” was a plant that it ate or that grew near where it grazed.’

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I planted a couple of small mint plants in a tub 2-3 weeks ago and they’ve grown enthusiastically. There was plenty for my pesto. I decided to make it in just the same way as classic pesto but substituting mint for basil. I have actually made a basil & mint pesto before, but not just mint.

I pan-roasted about 1 tablespoon of pine nuts until lightly brown. Then put these with 1 small clove of garlic and ½ teaspoon sea salt into a mortar and pestle.

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I picked a small bunch of mint. Then I pounded the pine nuts, garlic and salt together to make a paste. I picked the leaves from the stems of the mint and added those and pounded more until they nicely came together into a green paste.

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Then I added some extra virgin olive oil, little by little, mixing everything together until I had the consistency I wanted. (Traditionally, a pesto – which comes from Liguria in northern Italy – is made with a light olive oil, typical of the region.) Next I added about a tablespoon of freshly grated Parmesan.

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Mix it together and then transfer to a small dish. You can use it straight away or make it a bit in advance, as I did, and store it in the fridge with some cling film over it.

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I decided to serve the lamb with a mix of roasted white and sweet potatoes, some of the chicory I made the other day (click here) and some peas., which I dressed with some chopped mint and olive oil.

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You need to preheat the oven to 200C/Fan 180/Gas 6. It’s important to preheat because the actual cooking will only take about 20 minutes, depending on how rare or well done you like your lamb. We like ours quite pink! I only seasoned lightly with salt and pepper as there would be plenty of accompanying flavour from the pesto. I like to sear the meat in a hot pan with a little oil before transferring to the oven so that the outside is nicely browned but the inside will remain quite rare.

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I put it into the oven and while it cooked, Jonathan and I drank some chilled Gavi and ate a few antipasti that I’d bought from Corto Deli this morning, as we caught up on each other’s past week.

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I took the lamb out of the oven after 20 minutes and left it to rest for about 5 minutes.

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Then I sliced it into ‘chop’ sized pieces. It was still nicely pink in the middle, as I’d wanted.

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I drizzled a little of the mint pesto over the ‘chops’ to serve.

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Jonathan opened a bottle of delicious Villa Antinori Toscana 2013 to go with it. The wine is a mix of 55% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 5% Syrah and typical of the Chianti region of Italy. The blend was launched by the Antinori family as far back as 1928. It’s quite expensive but we got some bottles on special offer at Waitrose recently, which was quite a treat. It was lovely with the lamb.

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It was a lovely meal! The pesto has quite a strong flavour so you only need a little to enhance the flavour of the lamb. I thought it was a great alternative way to get the mint flavour with the lamb. Jonathan was pleased to sample my chicory recipe for the first time and we also love the mix of ordinary and sweet potatoes roasted together in olive oil with a little sprinkling of za’atar over them.

 

Sea Bass en Papillote with Tomatoes, Herbs & White Wine

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Sea bass is one of my favourite fish. Known as bar in north and west France and loup de mer in the Mediterranean; branzino or spigola in Italian; lubina in Spanish and zackenbarsch in German, it is generally thought to be one of our finest fish. It has quite a delicate taste and although I chose to add some summery flavours to mine tonight, you need to be careful not to overpower it.

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I have to confess to dithering slightly in Sandys fishmonger in Twickenham. A board proclaimed they had ‘small wild salmon’ and wild salmon is a very special treat indeed, and only available in season – but I’d eaten salmon just a couple of nights ago, so decided I’d save that choice for another day. Then, should I have the sea bass or the sea bream … I like them both … but I saw a perfectly sized small bass so went with that. It cost me just over £5 and I thought I’d maybe want the whole fish, but I asked to have it filleted for ease of eating (feeling lazy as well as indecisive!), and when I opened the bag at home I could see that one fillet would be plenty, so the second went into the freezer for another time.

I usually pan-fry fish like this but fancied cooking it en papillote with some tomatoes, herbs and a dash of white wine. This was not creativity on my part but came about because I’d seen a photo of a similar dish I’d eaten at A Cena some time ago while sorting out some stuff on the blog a day or two ago, and thought I’d try it myself. Like the dish at A Cena, I decided to add some sun-dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil but I also add some fresh baby cherry tomatoes too. I had some thyme and fennel (the herb) growing in my garden, which I thought would work well in the dish, and I opened a lovely bottle of Gavi wine – to add some to the fish and have a glass to drink with it.

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I wanted to add a mild onion flavour but had to take into account that the fish would only take about 10 minutes to cook. I thus chose a shallot. The ones I’d bought were quite large so I used just half and sliced it as thinly as I could. I sliced some of the sun-dried tomatoes and cut the cherry tomatoes in half.

I cut a large piece of greaseproof paper and smeared some olive oil over the middle. Then I lay the sea bass fillet on top, skin side down. Next I scattered over the sliced shallot, followed by the sun-dried then fresh tomato. I lay some sprigs of fresh thyme and fennel on top. I seasoned lightly with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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Next I had to fold it all up carefully so that it was fairly tightly packed. I found a brilliant YouTube online with James Martin showing how to do it ‘Cornish pasty’ style. For those not familiar with Cornish pasties, here’s a how-to photo guide!

Fold the bottom edge of the greaseproof paper over to the top.

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Start making small folds across at an angle.

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Keep going with the folds, folding in fairly tightly towards the edge of the fish.

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Near the end, leave the last bit open so you can pour in a little wine.

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It’s very important to use good wine or you will ruin your fish. Partly because bad or old wine always makes bad sauce or gravy and is vinegary, but also in this instance because the wine won’t have long to cook. Once you’ve poured in a little, fold the last of the paper across to make a tight parcel through which no air should pass.

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I did all the folding on a large baking tray so I wouldn’t have to lift the parcel. I put it into a pre-heated hot oven – 220C/200 Fan/Gas 7 – for 10 minutes.

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I decided to serve it in the parcel on a plate and put the vegetables I’d cooked – some new potatoes tossed in butter and chopped fresh mint, and some tender stem broccoli dressed with olive oil and lemon juice – in a side dish to keep it all separate.

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The aroma from the fish as I opened the parcel was wonderful, really glorious. And it had cooked to perfect tenderness.

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The fabulous thing about cooking en papillote is that the fish stays so gorgeously moist and takes up the flavours that you’ve added. I thought I’d got this just right – some lovely summery flavours that complemented the fish beautifully without overwhelming it. I should really cook fish like this more often!

Travel Gourmet’s Favourite Things in London’s Covent Garden

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A SMALL HISTORY

Covent Garden is one of the most vibrant and exciting areas of London, full of shops, cafés and restaurants, theatres and the famous Royal Opera House. The area spreads north of The Strand from Drury Lane westwards to St Martin’s Lane and up to the top end of Shaftesbury Avenue. There has been a settlement there since Anglo-Saxon times in the 7th century. At the beginning of the 13th century, the area was a ‘garden’ to Westminster Abbey, with arable land and orchards – hence becoming known as the ‘garden of the abbey and convent’. In 1654 a small fruit and vegetable market opened that grew into a famous one – remember Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? I remember it as a market from my childhood. It grew so big, and there was so much traffic congestion in the area, that the market was relocated in 1974 to the south of The Thames at Nine Elms, near Battersea, and is really just a market for wholesalers now and not nearly such a romantic setting.

 

COVENT GARDEN TODAY

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You won’t find any fruit and vegetable stalls in Covent Garden now, but there’s a daily craft market, which is always fun to look round and you’ll find some lovely things – jewellery, handbags, paintings, all kinds of crafts.

It’s an area I go to regularly – not only because I love it (and indeed lived in the area for the first two years of my life, so it’s sort of ‘home’) but because it’s so convenient for me to get there from SW London where I live: a short train journey to Waterloo station, then a walk across Waterloo Bridge, and I’m there – right into the heart of what is probably my favourite part of central London. Crossing Waterloo Bridge you get a good view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament to the west and St Paul’s Cathedral and The Shard to the east.

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I’m generally just heading into Covent Garden in the evening to meet friends, but one can easily spend a whole day there – and if you do, here are some ideas of the best places to go and things to do.

 

COFFEE TIME

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Coffee houses selling brilliant artisan coffee have become big business in London over recent years. There are lots of places to choose from. But I’m loyal to just two or three favourites and will head to one of these as soon as I’m in the area and fancy a coffee. My first choice has for a long time been New Row Coffee in New Row, that runs off St Martin’s Lane. It has a new owner since I first discovered it and has been renamed The Espresso Room, but I was in there yesterday morning and they still have the same great coffee. They have two other ‘branches’ – FreeState Coffee in Holborn and The Espresso Room in Bloomsbury. Also, if you’re a coffee lover, then you can’t miss going to Monmouth Coffee in Monmouth Street.

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This was one of the first coffee houses of the current fashionable kind, opening its doors in 1978 and roasting beans on the premises until 2004. They serve great coffee and snacks. They’re really friendly too: I turned up one evening a couple of years ago, filling in some time, and they were starting to close up, but invited me in if I didn’t mind them cleaning around me while I drank my coffee!

 

EATING

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Some of my very favourite places to eat anywhere are housed in this small area of London. There are far too many restaurants and cafés for me to give you a comprehensive overview of what’s there, but my favourites are ones I go back to again and again. Top of my list are Barrafina (photo above) in Adelaide Street, which is the most wonderful buzzy place with amazing Spanish food. A bar wraps round an open kitchen so you watch food being prepared; there’s no booking and thus often very long queues, but in the evening I try to get there soon after 5pm when they open for an early supper. I’ve been a few times on my own – these open kitchens are great for solo diners – but with friends too. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. You’re made to feel very welcome and you’ll eat some of the best food in London. You can snack on just a couple of tapas or order more – so it suits any time of day or hunger.

Also on my ‘top’ list is long-time favourite, Joe Allen, an American-style restaurant housed in a basement in Exeter Street. I’ve written about it on the blog many times (click here) and it does one of the best pre-theatre menus I know. I’m there often and have been a regular for at least 15 years! I just love the place. Their sister restaurant Orso, serving Italian food, is great too.

Other places I like are Balthazar and The Barbary, which are quite expensive, for more reasonably priced food Carluccio’s and The Real Greek. I used to go to Wahaca a lot for Mexican food but was put off by one experience and haven’t been back … but I should try it again because it was once a favourite – especially their tequila mojitos! What I do like is their van on the South Bank, under Waterloo Bridge right by the Royal Festival Hall. Stop off for some street food and one of their burritos. Another good place for a snack or great pastries is Paul Bakery in Bedford Street. This branch of the famous French bakery opened in 2000 and was a regular haunt for me for sometime on Saturday mornings when I used to meet my parents there for breakfast. For great ice cream, try Scoop in Short’s Gardens, just off Neal Street.

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Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Covent Garden, and serving real traditional English food, is Rules in Maiden Lane. Opened in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it’s the oldest restaurant in London. It’s many many years since I’ve been; it used to be a place my parents took me for a treat. They serve game, classic pies like steak & kidney pie, oysters and traditional English puddings for dessert. It is very expensive but for the true traditional English dining experience, it’s the only place to go.

 

CULTURE

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Covent Garden may offer some of London’s best food experiences but of course it’s also famous for the Royal Opera House. Tickets can cost nearly £200 but you can also get cheap ones for about £15 if you’re willing to sit on a bench or stand or have a restricted view. Just to be inside the auditorium is a brilliant experience in itself.

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Once inside – and you’ll need a ticket for a ballet or opera – you can get a fabulous view out across the Piazza from a balcony off the bar area.

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You’ll find the (slightly cheaper) English National Opera at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane. Remember there are always returns and last-minute deals here and the ROH, so it’s always worth trying if you’re keen to get a ticket but haven’t done so in advance.

Covent Garden is part of London’s Theatreland, expanding out along Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus. There are lots of theatres along The Strand and around Aldwych; the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Though not strictly in the Covent Garden area, only a short walk across Waterloo Bridge will take you to the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall. The only cinema I know of is the Odeon’s Covent Garden branch at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, but a bit further along the same road (and not really Covent Garden) is the Soho Curzon.

The London Transport Museum just off the Piazza is a great destination with kids. Just on the periphery of the area you’ll find great galleries: the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, the National Portrait Gallery (one of my favourite galleries) and the National Gallery.

 

TAKE A WANDER

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Right in the heart of Covent Garden you’ll find the Piazza with Apple Market and Jubilee Way running across (and covered, so great if it’s raining) with the craft markets; there are plenty of shops and cafés and restaurants. There are always some live performers too to sit or stand and watch, including often opera singers on the basement part of the Piazza under Jubilee Hall. Just hanging around in the area is fun in itself.

Long Acre

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Long Acre runs from Leicester Square up to Drury Lane. About halfway up you’ll find Covent Garden Tube station. There are lots of great shops along Long Acre but my favourite by far is Stanfords, famous for its maps and guides.

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For this enthusiastic traveller, this is just the perfect shop to find books about travel. There are not only guides and maps but they’re really good at organising fiction set in other countries. I love to buy novels set in whichever place I’m heading to for a holiday and this is just the place to find what I’m looking for.

Neal Street & Neal’s Yard

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If you’re exploring Covent Garden you just have to wander down Neal Street. It’s not quite as quirky as it used to be and most of the independent shops have gone, but it’s still a great street to take a wander down.

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Here, you’ll also find the entrance to Neal’s Yard.

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The weather was a bit grim yesterday when I took the photo above, but this courtyard is such a pretty place to hang out and eat some healthy food or have a coffee from one of the cafés. This is very much ‘healthy’ London: famous for its alternative therapy rooms and Neal’s Yard Remedies.

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It’s also the place to go to for great cheese – some of the best cheese you’ll find in London. Neal’s Yard Dairy used to be in the yard but has moved just outside into Short’s Gardens for more space. There are also branches in Bermondsey and Borough Market.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Covent Garden – do let me know of any favourites you have!

 

Restaurant Review: The Barbary

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The Barbary opened a few weeks ago to a fanfare of excited reviews. Even before it opened there was excitement, for The Barbary is ‘little sister’ to the wonderful The Palomar, and so expectations were high. Pretty much without exception, the reviews have been great so I was keen to go there soon. However, it was Annie who suggested we went today when we fixed a date to get together.

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Tucked into a little alleyway that leads into Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, with a tiny brass plaque by the door, it would be easy to miss it if you didn’t know it was there. In the main, Neal’s Yard is full of therapy rooms and healthy eating places. There’s no booking at The Barbary so it’s a turn up and queue if a queue has formed (and apparently sometimes that’s a very long queue indeed). On this rainy Tuesday lunchtime in quiet August, there wasn’t really a queue at all. But Annie and I had agreed to meet there just before noon when they open – just in case! As it turned out, we were first in when the doors opened.

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There are just 24 seats – stools – at a horseshoe shaped bar that wraps round an open kitchen. At The Palomar, people sometimes queue for 2 hours for the bar experience, which is a bit of true kitchen theatre, rather than sit at tables at the back – here at The Barbary, that’s all there was. But bars looking over open kitchens is great.

The menu is quite short and divided into three parts: Baking & Grinding (basically breads and dips); Al-la-Esh, which are grilled dishes (subdivided into Land and Sea); and finally Earth. There were also some specials of the day. The cooking takes its inspiration from the Barbary Coast that runs along the north coast of Africa. There’s less emphasis here on the food from Jerusalem that is the heart of The Palomar’s food, but includes food from Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.

We were immediately offered water – still or sparkling – and the menus put before us. The girl serving us was happy to explain everything – and some of it needed explaining; what ‘names’ of dishes meant. She suggested that two people needed to order 6-8 small sharing dishes; in the end we chose 6 – and that was plenty. She also knew the wines well and helped us choose glasses, offering a taste before deciding. This kind of attention makes a big difference, though I did feel I needed a bit more time – once the menu was deciphered – to choose, although the girl stood ready with pad and pen. So we ordered two glasses of wine and some bread and dips and asked for more time to make our other choices. As it turned out, it was good to have this break between our ‘starters’ and the rest of the food as plates came quite quickly. I’d definitely do that again!

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The Jerusalem Bagel was large and freshly cooked; warm and wonderfully soft in the middle, nicely crusty outside. It came with a little pack of za’atar to dip into (which in all honesty I thought a bit unnecessary). It was really delicious; I almost wished we’d ordered two – but that would have been really greedy! We’d ordered Zhug, Harissa, Burnt & Pickled Chilli to go with it – which also came with a baby pickled aubergine in the middle.

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Zhug is a Yemeni sauce, bright with herbs and a strong kick from the spices. It was all wonderful and a great way to start the meal with the bagel.

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Sardines Kusbara were a special of the day: butterflied sardines cooked on the grill with a tomato sauce, a kind of chimchurri sauce, and laid on a smearing of labneh. This was good too, although I felt the sardines (and I love simply grilled fresh sardines) were slightly lost beneath the dressings.

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We were told that Pata Negra Neck was a signature dish: Iberico pork with ras el hanout, confit garlic cloves and a date syrup. The pork was gorgeously tender and tasty, and wonderful dipped into the date syrup.

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Cauliflower Jaffa Style shows what an exciting vegetable cauliflower can be. Served with tomato, lemon and coriander on a tahini sauce base, it was very good indeed.

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Our final choice was Fattush – mainly because I can never resist a fattush salad! It was a little disappointing: nicely fresh but lacking a punch, and given that it’s a (Levantine) bread salad, bread a little hard to find and when found it turned out to be very tiny little dried bread biscuits. Of course you don’t want too much bread, but I would have liked a little more, and I’ve had better fattush salads elsewhere.

We were too full for dessert and they were mainly very sweet things – honey drizzled cakes of the Turkish kind or halva ice cream. The only coffee on offer was Turkish coffee – no espresso – so we opted for mint tea.

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It didn’t look that interesting when it turned up – not a mint leaf in sight – but smelled of fresh mint and tasted fine, though a pot would have been a nicer way of serving it.

So – did The Barbary live up to all those high expectations? Sadly, No. It is very good and a lovely place to sit and enjoy some of the kind of food I love best, but neither Annie nor I thought it touched the excellence and specialness of its bigger sister, The Palomar. The Palomar is one of my favourite restaurants (click here for review). I’ve not been that often but each time there’s been that great Wow! factor – it’s like an exciting adventure and the food is sublime, extraordinary, wonderful. I frequently tell people they just have to go to The Palomar – there’s nothing like it. It’s difficult when you go somewhere with such high expectations but I was expecting another version of The Palomar at The Barbary, and it really wasn’t quite that. But it’s still a young thing, barely a few weeks old, so maybe it needs time to mature and find itself a bit more.
The Barbary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Green Harissa Chicken with Braised Chicory

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The house is quiet. Jonathan, Lyndsey & Freddie are living with me temporarily in between house moves. But they’ve gone off to Cornwall for a holiday and so I’m cooking for one again. I took a supreme of chicken from the freezer this morning (a chicken from the farmers’ market, jointed by Jonathan). He’s been using a green harissa – Verbena Harissa by Belazu – a lot. It’s made from lemon verbena, fresh coriander and spices. It’s delicious, so I decided to use it as a glaze for my chicken. I mixed it with a little olive oil to thin it and then smeared it generously over the chicken.

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I decided to cover the chicken in foil for most of the cooking so the harissa wouldn’t burn. It was quite a large portion of chicken so I cooked it for about 45 minutes in a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven, took off the foil and then left it for about another 10 minutes to brown a bit.

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While the chicken was roasting, I prepared the chicory.

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I cut two chicory heads in half lengthways. Then I heated a little olive oil in a frying pan and put the chicory halves in cut-side down to brown and caramelise a bit.

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I love the taste of chicory and often add it to salads, but I liked the idea of the caramelisation to sweeten it a bit when cooked. Once it was nicely browned, I transferred the pieces to an ovenproof dish. Then I added a little chicken stock to the juices in the frying pan and let it bubble up. I squeezed in a little lemon juice, added a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme and seasoned with salt and black pepper.

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Once it had reduced a bit, I poured it over the chicory.

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I covered the dish quite tightly with foil as I wanted the chicory to braise, not roast. Like the chicken, I took the foil off for the last 10 minutes (after half an hour).

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I decided to serve some peas with it all. It needed a bit of colour and I’ve always felt some colour is healthy! Anyway, I love peas.

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It was a lovely supper. I sat in the still warm garden. The chicken was subtly flavoured by the lemon verbena and coriander – which I thought nicely summery flavours – and had a perfect touch of heat from the spices running through it. The slightly bitter chicory was a great accompaniment, the slight sweetness of the edges contrasting with the natural bitterness and it all retaining a nice amount of crunch in the middle.

 

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