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Easy Pasta Bake

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Some days don’t go as planned; some days feel as if some mischievous imp is playing havoc with your plans. I was supposed to go to book group tonight to discuss planning for the next 3 months but after a day of delayed work delivery, dying printer (which resulted in having to visit a PC World Megastore – not a happy experience but a new printer purchased) and horrendous traffic jams, I was after home comfort.

The evenings are drawing in fast; it’s dark by 7pm. It’s not particularly cold for the time of year but I felt comfort food this evening needed to be hot and softly soothing. The simplest solution was a pasta bake: two packets of filled tortellini lay in the freezer; there are always tins of tomatoes in my cupboard, milk in the fridge, a large lump of Parmesan to hand. I rummaged in the veg box of the fridge and decided to add shallot, red pepper, mushroom and celery to the tomato sauce.

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The tortellini needed only a couple of minutes in salted boiling water. The tomato sauce was a basic one: a large banana shallot (or small onion) fried in olive oil, a chopped celery stick added with one red romano pepper cut into small pieces.

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Once that had softened I added a few mushrooms, sliced, and when they’d softened, I tipped in 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes.

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I seasoned with salt, freshly ground black pepper, some dried oregano and a splash of red wine (because I had a bottle open, but not essential). As that bubbled away, I made the béchamel sauce: 70g butter, 70g flour, heated and mixed to a roux, about 500ml of milk slowly added to make a moderately thick sauce. Then seasoned with salt, pepper and a good grating of nutmeg at the end.

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I put the cooked pasta in ovenproof dishes then poured the tomato sauce over the top. I made two dishes – one for Lyndsey and me, a smaller one for Jonathan who was delayed at work and would be late. I also put aside one small portion of sauce to pop in the freezer as will make an easy supper for Freddie one evening with some pasta.

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I mixed the tomato in lightly then poured the béchamel over the top. I finished it with a good dusting of freshly grated Parmesan and then popped it into a preheated oven at 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 for about 30 minutes, or until nicely browned.

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I love the slightly crispy cheesy topping contrasting with all the soft silkiness inside.

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I served a green salad on the side. It was such a simple supper but oh so welcome; a lovely rich taste and soothingly easy to eat.

Mercato Metropolitano, Borough, London

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It was my friend Lucia who alerted me to the opening of Mercato Metropolitano, a market that launched in Milan last year, moved to Turin (where it’s still open) and now to London; a branch in Tokyo is planned soon. It’s housed in a disused paper factory, equidistant from Borough station and Elephant & Castle station. It’s an area in south-east London that is changing from being rundown and not a place to feel safe alone at night, to an inevitable gentrification as the ‘smarter’ parts of London move inevitably outwards.

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To say that Mercato Metropolitano is a ‘market’ is to tell only part of the story for their ambitions are much greater than simply selling good food. Yes, you will find some of Italy’s best small producers, farmers’ produce and artisan bakeries and pizzerias and other foods, but founder Andrea Pasca’s passion is very much Italian – and that is to bring the essence of good food to be shared with family and friends to a large communal space. It was clear arriving there last night that Mercato Metropolitano is a meeting place; it’s where friends and family gather. Not only is there food and drink but there will be events, a gym, working spaces and a cinema; cookery classes, a vegetable garden and demonstrations; a barbers and even a pop-up hotel. The market is about promoting a sense of community, social responsibility and sustainability.

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Four of us arrived at about 6.30pm. Looking out at the open space where – having bought drinks and food you can sit – it didn’t look that exciting to be honest: only a few stalls and handful of people. Lucia said she’d learned that the official opening is Thursday (15 Sept) so maybe we’d come too early. Maybe Tuesday wasn’t a good day – they’re open Tues-Sun from 11am to 11pm (midnight on Saturday). However, by the time we left, after 9pm, it was a completely changed atmosphere with lots of people and a really vibrant buzz.

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There are plenty of places to sit and eat – inside or out. It was hot – the hottest day in September in London since 1911!! – and we felt in need of a cool drink. Lucia and Michele headed to a bar selling artisan beers, where they were given samples to try before deciding which to buy. Meanwhile, Annette and I headed back to a van selling cocktails for an Aperol Spritz.

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I’d never been served a drink in a half-pint jar before! I decided this was my drink for the night – one would do! It was very good; a great blend of Aperol, prosecco and sparkling water with lots of ice and a big slice of lemon. Delicous and just what was needed! The guy was so friendly and later brought us a few complimentary tomato bruschette basil and garlic. It’s common in Italy to be given free snacks with an early evening drink – the famous Italian aperitivo.

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I bought some snacks from a Sicilian van, including panelle – their special of the day – a kind of fried pancake made with chickpea flour, which reminded me of socca in Nice. They were cut into bite-size pieces and delicious. I also ordered some arancini – but now have to confess that because they were large (not bite-size ones), I cut them up before remembering to take a photo. Arancini are rice balls stuffed with a filling – these were mozzarella & ham, and an aubergine one – and then deep fried. They were very good.

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Much later they brought us a sample of canoli – a Sicilian pastry dessert filled with sweet creamy ricotta.

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This was definitely street food – food prepared to order and as fresh as it could be. There was plenty more food. Lucia found a platter of cheese at one of the stalls inside for us to share. Once we decided it was time to go we looped backwards to take everything in on our way out. One large area has pizza, fried fish, an enoteca (wine bar).

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Moving on into another large area we found more stalls, including a bakery selling Italian breads and a special kind of thin foccacia with a cheese filling.

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Perhaps most exciting was passing through the large warehouse-style supermarket on the way out, a family-run supermarket from Palermo, Prezzomelo e Vitale. Here we found shelves of wine, beer, pasta; tins and jars of vegetables in oil.

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There was a large cheese counter, another with meats and one with all kinds of snacks and antipasti foods.

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There was a greengrocer counter – fresh fruit and vegetables, and huge misshapen ones just as you’d find in a market in Italy (not the uniform ones we have in our supermarkets!).

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I bought some packets of pasta to bring home. Maybe not very adventurous but from producers not easily found in UK. I was particularly pleased to find Sardinian fregula, which Livio puts in his gorgeous fish stew at a local favourite restaurant, Masaniello, but not easily found.

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It was a fun evening and great to see such a wide selection of Italian foods that would be hard to find elsewhere. I can see Italians will love it for a taste of home, but really it’s a great place for anyone to meet up with friends. It will be interesting to go back again once they’ve officially opened and see how it develops but they certainly seem to have got off to a great start. Meanwhile, I’m off to Turin at the end of the month so seeing the ‘Torino’ version of Mercato Metropolitano is definitely on my ‘to do’ list now.

 

 

Travel Gourmet’s Favourite Places to Eat in Soho, London

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Soho is full of places to eat, from classic dining institutions like L’Escargot in Greek Street and Quo Vadis in Dean Street (both places I’ve been to but not for a long time and pre-blog days) to familiar chains like The Real Greek, Cote Bistro, and recent ‘chain’ favourite, Franco Manca (links are to other branches I’ve eaten in). My childhood memories are of Saturday mornings with my parents having morning coffee with gorgeous cakes at Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and buying Italian foods in Camisa deli on Old Compton Street – both still going and still very popular.

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In my long-ago full-time working days as a book editor at Methuen, I remember lunches with authors and agents in another Soho institution, The Gay Hussar, also in Greek Street, which serves fabulous Hungarian food. In Frith Street you’ll find the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which I haven’t been to for so many years I can only remember seeing George Melly there (which does date me!) and further along, Bar Italia, which claims to have brought the cappuccino to London.

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After rediscovering the fabulous Banana Tree last weekend, I realised that many of my favourite places to eat in London are in Soho. So, I thought it would be fun to give you my Top 5 – in no particular order!

1. The Palomar – Rupert Street

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The Palomar has become almost legendary in its short life, winning multiple awards, and is now one of London’s most popular restaurants. People will queue for two hours for a seat at the bar overlooking the open kitchen. I’d definitely have to put it in my all-round Top 5 restaurants – not just in Soho. It serves wonderful, exotic, exciting food but eating there is a fabulous dining experience not to be missed.

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If you haven’t been yet – go!! (Click here for my review.)

2. Bocca di Lupo – Archer Street

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I was really going in search of ice cream the lunchtime I first ate at Bocca di Lupo. My Italian teacher Fabio had told me I must try Gelupo for it sold the best ice cream in London (it’s still both our favourites!). Then seeing Bocca di Lupo (who own Gelupo) opposite, I thought I’d eat lunch too. It was full; at first, I thought they didn’t have a seat for me but was then given one at the bar, which is the very best place for a solo diner, but also a food blogger who wants to see everything going on in the open kitchen!

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It lived up to everything I’d heard about it and I immediately wanted to go back with others, which I’ve done – with friends, with family. (Click here for review.) Do go – but don’t forget to have a gelato dessert at the brilliant Gelupo opposite! For me, the best ice cream in London.

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3. Brasserie Zedel – Sherwood Street

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I’d been reading so many good things about Brasserie Zedel and had been meaning to go for ages, but, like Bocco di Lupo, it was a spontaneous visit in the end when I was in the Soho area. And also like ‘Bocca’, it was a brilliant visit, fulfilling all expectations.

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I loved it: there was a great value lunchtime menu, excellent food, a large and buzzing room full of diners and that quintessential touch of Paris about it that made it all the more exciting – even though I was only a few paces from Piccadilly Circus! (Click here for review.)

4. Yalla Yalla – Green’s Court

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It was while I was enjoying one of my ‘days out in London’, visiting an art gallery and then finding a great place to try out for lunch, that I discovered Yalla Yalla. My friend Linda had told me about it and thought I’d like it. I did! I love it and have been back many times. It serves fantastic Lebanese food – and one of my favourite versions of fattoush.

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The atmosphere is cafe-like and relaxed. You can’t book so get there early or be prepared to join the long queue.

5. Banana Tree – Wardour Street

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I wrote only a few days ago about how delighted I was to discover this branch of an old favourite in Soho. This is informal, cafe-style eating at a very reasonable price. You’ll find fantastic food from Indochina – and the best Laksa I know. (Click here for review.)

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There are so many other places to eat in Soho, of course. You might also enjoy Barrafina in Frith Street – their Covent Garden branch is one of my favourite places (click here); Cinnamon Soho in Kingly Street for fine Indian dining (I don’t know this branch but have eaten many times at the original in Westminster and Cinnamon Kitchen in the City – click here). Princi in Wardour Street is a great place for a snack or aperitivo (click here). And you can find more good ice cream at Snowflake in Wardour Street (click here for South Kensington branch review).

Restaurant Review: Banana Tree, Soho

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Banana Tree is a small chain of restaurants serving food from Indochina: Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singapore. The first Banana Tree opened in 1991 in Maida Vale, London, with the aim of serving quick healthy food from the Indochina area. They serve fresh and fragrant salads, slow-cooked curries and stews and barbecued foods. They also specialise in Oriental cocktails and raw fruit and vegetable drinks. They have a separate vegetarian menu with an excellent range for non-meat eaters.

The second Banana Tree opened in West Hampstead in 1997 and now there are 8 branches, mainly in London but the newest is in Oxford. It’s the West Hampstead one I know best from years ago when my son Jonathan lived there, sharing a flat with his friend Rob. I’d often go over on Sunday evenings to visit and we’d go to Banana Tree for supper. We loved the place and the food was always really good. My favourite dish was their Laksa – rice noodles topped with their house special spiced coconut broth, aubergine, tofu and bean sprouts, garnished with coriander and crispy shallots. You can add in chicken or prawns for a little extra. Over the last year or so I’ve gone to other restaurants selling Laksa and always thought, That’s nowhere near as good as the one I used to have at Banana Tree. Then a while ago I was walking along Wardour Street in London’s Soho and saw a branch. I knew I had to go back.

Yesterday evening I met my friend Elsa at the Soho Curzon to see Pedro Amaldovar’s latest film, Julieta. It’s a wonderful film, very emotionally charged with themes of guilt and grief and, as often in Amaldovar films, a study of mother-daughter relationships. Afterwards, I suggested we went to Banana Tree for a meal – it was so close.

Wardour Street was heaving and when we arrived at Banana Tree there was queue but we didn’t have to wait long – about 10 minutes. It was busy with a great buzzing but relaxed feel. There are large communal tables as well as smaller ones. We were lucky that a table for two came free, which made it a little easier to talk as it was quite noisy. I of course just had to have the Laksa and chose to add in some prawns.

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I could see how good it was, smell how good it was, as soon as it was put before me. It tasted wonderful – gorgeously spicy but not too hot; the prawns perfectly cooked so sweet and tender. It really was the best Laksa I’ve had since the last time I went to the West Hampstead branch – and that’s a few years ago! It’s a large bowl of food and we didn’t need starters or desserts.

Elsa meanwhile had said just being in the restaurant with all the lovely smells reminded her of her 6-week trip round the Indochina area at the beginning of the year. She chose the Rendang. Banana Tree describe this as ‘The Legendary Rendang’ – ‘A famous speciality from the Minangkabau Hill Tribe of Indonesia’. It’s a slow-cooked curry, dry and fragrant with a rich, nutty toasted coconut based sauce. You can choose beef or chicken – Elsa chose beef and said it was very good.

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We each had a glass of wine and the bill came to £19 each, including a tip. I’m so pleased I went back and rediscovered Banana Tree. I can only hope they open a branch closer to Richmond/Twickenham soon – and then I’d be there regularly!

Banana Tree Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My Week in Food

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It’s fun doing these ‘my week in food’ posts from time to time and keeping a record of my eating highlights of the week. It hasn’t been a particularly spectacular week food wise, no fancy restaurants, but even so, every day has had its little highlight of some kind and here they are:

Thursday – Memories of Greece

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Supper was something summery to fit the hot day and I blogged my post for a slightly spicy souvlaki (click here).

Friday – A French Coffee Break

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Friday eating began in Paul Bakery in Richmond with 18-month grandson Freddie in tow. This French bakery chain is one of my favourite haunts for morning coffee or a snack lunch and their cakes are fabulous. Freddie has recently discovered babyccinos so in Paul he had one of those with a mini pain au chocolat, while I indulged in a flat white and regular size pain au chocolat.

Saturday – An Indian Takeaway

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We took the easy route for supper on Saturday evening and ordered an Indian takeaway from Tangawizi. It’s our favourite local Indian (it’s even in the Michelin guide) and the only place we get takeaways from. There was however the problem of the rugby at Twickenham stadium slowing local traffic, so instead of a long wait for delivery, Jonathan jumped on his motorbike and picked it up for us. But they do deliver for free within a 3-mile radius on orders over £15.

Sunday

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I decided to head into London and go to Tate Modern to see the major Georgia O’Keefe exhibition. I was excited about going but in the end was rather disappointed by it. It’s had some mixed reviews in the press. I had a snack lunch in the Members’ Room. Not a particularly inspiring open sandwich and salad, mainly because it was on a ridiculously thick slice of bread, but OK. The view though is always spectacular – even when it’s cloudy!

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Monday

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I had a lovely butternut squash and decided to turn it into a risotto for supper (click here for recipe). I rang the changes slightly from my usual recipe by toasting some pine nuts and sprinkling them over the top at the end – which Jonathan said was a great addition.

Tuesday

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I met my friend Elsa for lunch at Corto Italian Deli, one of my very favourite local haunts. A large antipasti plate to share is a perfect light lunch.

Wednesday

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At the end of a busy day it was the simplest of suppers – but with great ingredients: organic salmon, simply grilled with a little seasoning and sumac sprinkled over the top; sweet little new potatoes roasted with red onion and some za’atar; and sprouting broccoli with lemon juice and olive oil drizzled over the top.

GPSmyCity Travel App

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I’m very excited to have been approached by GPSmyCity and asked to contribute some of my travel posts to their app. What is a travel app? you might ask. And why bother to read blog posts through the app – and even pay for an upgrade – when you can just access them via the internet?

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There are two major reasons for taking the app with you when you go away. Firstly, you can read downloaded articles offline and thus don’t need to use up data on your smartphone (especially useful if your provider doesn’t offer a good roaming deal abroad); you can access the downloaded articles when there is no mobile or internet connection available – e.g. on a plane, on the beach – or when reception is poor. Secondly, for any travel article downloaded on to your smartphone or tablet, you have the option to upgrade it by paying a small fee (US$1.99) to bind an offline city map and GPS navigation engine to the article and be given detailed directions that follow routes in the article and take you to all sites and places mentioned. When you want to try out a recommended restaurant, the app will take you there; if you want to visit an interesting cultural or historical site mentioned in the article, it will show you how to get there; or it will take you to a beach or on a walk that the article describes. And remember, the great thing is, this will all be available offline – no searching for that elusive mobile connection or worrying about the cost. You will be able to relax and lose yourself in the city you’re visiting without getting lost because the app will always be there to tell you where you are and show you how to get to where you want to be.

GPSmyCity has been publishing city guide apps on iTunes App Store since 2009 and Google Play since 2013. It’s the largest publisher of self-guided walking tour apps on iTunes App Store and Google Play with over 5,000 city walks in more than 600 cities across the world. It’s been recommended in publications such as the Telegraph, New York Times and Travel Weekly.

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You can get the app for free and download travel articles about the city you’re visiting for free. But if you’re spending a good amount of time in the city and want to get the most out of your visit, then for a small fee you can upgrade to get the GPS link and be ‘taken around’. No more getting lost, no more wasting time trying to find that little bar or fantastic restaurant you read about, no more trying to remember what you read about a particular site of interest. The app will guide you and always be at your side as your personal guide.

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To download the GPSmyCity app on to your phone or tablet, click on the banner in the right-hand column of this blog: ‘Inspiring Travel Articles – Take My Articles With You’, or go to the iTunes App Store by clicking here. So that you can get the true travel app experience and see all the benefits first hand, GPSmyCity are – for the first week of the launch of my articles – offering downloads of the following ones for free:

A Weekend in Vienna

Five Night in Nice – Eat, Drink, Do

The Traveller in Amsterdam

To get your free upgrade, just click on the link(s) above and you’ll be guided through the download.

There are 10 other articles of mine on the app (not included in the free giveaway this week): Travel Gourmet’s Favourite Places in Richmond & Twickenham; A Morning Walk in Kew Gardens; The Rialto Area of VeniceLunch at Locanda Cipriani, Torcello; Breakfast in the Market Place & Cezanne’s Studio; Art & Food in Aix-en-Provence; 48 Hours in San Sebastian; 24 Hours in Bilbao; Lunch at Osteria Francescana (Modena); and My Favourite Things in London’s Covent Garden. I hope there will be more posts to come as I continue my travels; my next stop is Turin at the end of the month, so I’m looking forward to writing about my stay there.

I really hope you’ll give GPSmyCity a try – and remember, you can download the app and articles for free. You only pay if you want the personalised GPS guide and city map. So next time you’re heading to a new city – on holiday or even just a day or weekend trip in your own country – why don’t you try it? Or see what it has to say about where you live – you’ll most likely discover things about your own local city you never knew about before.

Many thanks to GPSmyCity for sharing some of my travel posts and offering the three articles on Vienna, Nice and Amsterdam for free this week.

And please share this post with anyone you know who might be interested!

Chicken Souvlaki, Tzatziki & Freekeh Salad

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We’re experiencing an unusually long heatwave in London. It normally only lasts a day or two but this one has been going on for at least a couple of weeks. I’m not complaining. I love it. And it’s interesting how it affects one’s appetite – not only how hungry (or not so hungry) you feel, but what you fancy eating. I decided to make a summer dish of chicken souvlaki with some tzatziki on the side. Traditionally in Greece you would eat souvlaki with chips – the Greeks serve chips with everything! – but you might also find the grilled pieces of meat wrapped in flat bread.

In a week when our Queen of Cooks, Mary Berry has come to verbal blows with Gregg Wallace (of Masterchef fame) over deep-fat fryers in the kitchen, I can only say I’m with Mary on this one and there’s no deep-fat fryer in my kitchen (and there’s not been one for at least 20 years) and I can only wonder what decade or even century Gregg lives in in his mind, proclaiming that the Brits live on spam fritters and chips! Really, Gregg. No! Mary is definitely right on this one: deep-fat frying isn’t healthy (though of course the occasional bowl of chips or some other deep-fried food is OK as a treat). The closest I come to chips in my house is cutting potatoes (often a mix of white and sweet) into chip shapes, tossing them in a little olive oil and roasting them in a hot oven. But … OK … I’ll admit it: if I was in Greece, on a beach, ordering souvlaki (as I did in Crete a couple of years ago), I’d order a bowl of chips to go with it. At home tonight, I was going for the healthier approach – but also what I instinctively fancied.

I chose to make freekeh salad because I was talking about freekeh with Jonathan last night as he was reading The Palomar Cookbook, which was published only a week ago and I bought him for his birthday on Monday. It’s brilliant. I need my own copy! The Palomar is one of my very favourite restaurants and all my favourite dishes are in it. They talk about freekeh in the book; this glorious smoked green wheat has become one of my favourite grains. For the freekeh salad recipe I served tonight click here. The slight difference to my version this evening was that I didn’t add any tomato but loads of fresh parsley instead.

I knew basically what souvlaki was – marinated pieces of meat, skewered and grilled or barbecued – but thought I should look at a few recipes. I decided to go with Rick Stein’s from his Venice to Istanbul book (with very slight changes). He makes his with pork, which is the most common meat used in Greece, and he says this version comes from Cyprus and is known as Kontosouvli, which apart from the usual olive oil, lemon juice and oregano, has chilli, cumin and smoked paprika too. My tzatziki recipe is a Jamie Oliver one from Jamie Does. The freekeh salad recipe is my own!

Chicken Souvlaki

  • 450g chicken breast
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon hot chilli powder
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Tzatziki

  • ½ large cucumber
  • 200ml Greek yoghurt
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • ½-1 teaspoon dried mint
  • 1½ teaspoons red wine or cider vinegar

Cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces.

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Put the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, whisk well together, and then add the chicken pieces to the marinade and mix well.

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Try to marinate for at least an hour (in an emergency, you skip this and just use straight away). I left mine to marinate for a few hours, having put it all together in the afternoon. Meanwhile, make the freekek salad (click here for recipe).

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To make the tzatziki, coarsely grate the cucumber into a sieve over a bowl. Then add a couple of pinches of salt. Mix, then squeeze with your hand to get out as much liquid as you can – throw the liquid away. Tip the cucumber into a clean bowl and add the rest of the ingredients. Jamie puts in a heaped teaspoon of dried mint but I felt that was too much and next time I’ll only add about half. Probably best to add half and see if you like it that way – you can always add more if you prefer.

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I prepared everything in the afternoon and put in the fridge, so that come supper time, all I had to do was thread the chicken pieces onto skewers.

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I grilled them under a hot grill until nicely browned, but of course it would be great to barbecue them too.

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I loved Rick’s take on souvlaki with the added chilli, cumin and smoked paprika, giving the meat a touch more spiciness than usual. Marinated like this, and cooked quickly under a hot grill, they stay beautifully moist. It was a perfect supper for a hot summer’s evening – and brought back lovely memories of beautiful Greece.

Vegetarian Moussaka

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Moussaka is one of my family’s favourite dishes and I make it quite often. I’ve also got into the habit of making enough to put together a couple of small individual ones to freeze. Making moussaka from scratch is quite a long job so having one ready for the oven stored in the freezer is a great treat on a night when I don’t feel like cooking or don’t have much time. As for entertaining, moussaka is a very forgiving dish time wise as it can be made in advance and will wait happily for a few hours before going into the oven. Then once it’s cooked, it will also tolerate well being kept warm in a low oven if the meal time is delayed.

It’s my son Jonathan’s birthday today and daughter Nicola and her wife Rachael were coming down from Birmingham for a family meal. I thought preparing a favourite moussaka would go down well and we wouldn’t have to worry too much about timing. But Rachael is a vegetarian, so how could I make a vegetarian version for her? The answer was to substitute Puy lentils for the beef mince (traditionally, lamb is more often used in Greece but I prefer beef). I’d never tried this before but was confident it would work well. I used my usual recipe, an old and classic Claudia Roden one (click here) that I’ve been making for years, and I made the vegetarian version in exactly the same way, except for the meat to lentil substitution.

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Puy Lentil Moussaka

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 250g Puy lentils
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3 medium tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 1-2 aubergines
  • Parmesan

Bechamel Sauce

  • 50g butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 500ml milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • salt & pepper
  • nutmeg

Prepare the sauce base first. Fry the onion in about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil until soft. Add the Puy lentils, cinnamon, chopped tomato, tomato puree and parsley. Stir and cover with water. Bring to the boil and cook for about 20-25 minutes until the lentils are cooked through and most of the water has been absorbed. If it dries out before the lentils are tender, then add a little more hot water.

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When they’re ready, season with salt and pepper. You have to be careful about salting pulses early – a lot of things, beans etc., won’t soften if the salt goes in at the beginning. Puy lentils are generally OK, but I just prefer to not take chances and salt them at the end once they’re tender. Now transfer to a shallow ovenproof dish.

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While the lentils are cooking, prepare the aubergines. You may find 1 aubergine is enough but I used 3 for my two large and two small moussakas. Traditionally they are fried in oil but I now griddle them so the dish doesn’t end up too oily. I slice the aubergine into roughly 1cm slices, brush with oil and put on to a hot griddle. I brush oil over the top and then turn to cook the other side when the bottom side is done. Transfer to kitchen towel to drain. Then lay the aubergine slices across the lentils.

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Here are my vegetarian, meat and two small meat moussakas ready and waiting for the béchamel topping.

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I’d made the two kinds side by side at the same time, chopping onions and tomatoes for both. Now for the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and stir well into a smooth roux. Now slowly add the milk, a little at a time, stirring well with each addition and beating to keep smooth. You might not need all the milk. Stop adding it when you have a smooth but still slightly thickened sauce. Remove from the heat and beat in the egg yolks one at a time.

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Season with salt and pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. Pour over the prepared moussaka base. Then cover with a generous grating of Parmesan.

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Bake for about 45 minutes until nicely browned in a 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 oven.

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I like to follow the Greek tradition of never serving hot dishes like moussaka piping hot. They’re always served lukewarm (which is actually healthier for the stomach and digestion). I think it also tastes better a little cooled. So I take it out of the oven about 10-15 minutes before I plan to serve it.

It turned out to be a gloriously hot day. We sat in the garden with wine and appetisers first and took everything very leisurely. I’d made some labneh and bought hummus and olives, and a baguette and olive fougasse from Paul bakery.

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The labneh always looks so great when you take it out of the muslin and I drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled over some za’atar. It’s so easy to make but a lovely ‘cream cheese’.

Then I carried the two moussakas to the table. Nicola decided to eat vegetarian too. It looked so good that the meat eaters all wanted a taste.

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And it was excellent. My vegetarian diners loved it but I also thought it was a lovely alternative to the traditional meat version and the puy lentil substitution had worked brilliantly. I’m sure I’ll be doing this again!

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