Secret garden

I have a secret. I have been holding out on you for the past few weeks. I have secretly been growing a little garden out on my balcony, and waiting until the time was right to post photos.

It started when I went to the garden centre on Easter weekend. I picked up a couple of window boxes, some compost, and some seed packets. When I say “picked up” I mean “had delivered” – I had left my Oyster card at home and I wasn’t going to be able to carry 60 litres of compost home all by myself. I must admit though, the service at the Camden garden centre is excellent and they did offer to lend me a trolley – I was just put off by the idea of wheeling it all the way back there (a 25 minute walk).

Once I had my compost, I set about sewing my seeds into egg cartons, mushroom boxes, and various other items of discarded packaging. After my seedlings got to about 5cm or so they were transplanted into the windowboxes, which were now making their home on my balcony. I put some of the herbs in little pots on the windowsill too. There they stayed for a few weeks, being bashed about by the wind, until a week or so ago when the sun came out. Then I had some happy vegetables:

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Various lettuces, perpetual spinach, and parsley.

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Mangetout climbing up the balcony netting. Since it got warm this has just shot up. I love it when I spy a new tendril curled around the netting.

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Basil. There’s also some coriander on the windowsill pots.

It’s lovely to be surrounded by so much green, and the lettuce is looking ready to eat. I will report back soon.

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Rhubarb Yoghurt Cake

Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb. It’s the season, so rhubarb being one of my favourite foods of all time it’s all rhubarb, all the time chez moi.

I bought four bunches of rhubarb at the farmer’s market for the princely sum of £4. Now I get the fun of finding creative ways to use it all up! Crumble is my absolute favourite, but it is off the menu this week.

First up we have rhubarb cake:

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Yes, I know, the first rule of food blogging is to only take attractive pictures. This one was taken at night, poorly lit and very poorly styled, and the cake is just not that pretty. BUT it was disappearing quickly so I wasn’t sure if I’d get another opportunity to photograph it, and according to my flatmate it’s my best cake yet. So I couldn’t go without sharing the recipe.

Rhubarb Yoghurt Cake

1 1/4 cup unrefined brown sugar
100g butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup natural yoghurt
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 cups chopped rhubarb

Topping
About 3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 200 degrees (180 fan-forced). Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add the egg and mix well., then stir in the yoghurt.  Mix the dry ingredients together and gradually add to the liquids. Add the chopped rhubarb and stir to mix.

Pour into a prepared 25cm cake tin. Mix the topping ingredients together and sprinkle liberally over the top of the cake. Bake for about an hour, until a skewer or knife inserted into the cake comes out free of cake batter.

Serve warmed, with a dollop of yoghurt.

The Secret Ingredient

On the food blogs lately I have been reading up about the concept of the underground restaurant. An underground restaurant is essentially a restaurant in someone’s own home. In the US they are known as supper clubs, in Cuba paladares, and in Italy cesarinas (the feminine of “Caesar”, because the woman is king in the kitchen!). In London the charge is being led by Horton Jupiter and MsMarmitelover, both former members of an anarchist samba band (true story) and evidently both food-lovers as well. I have also heard tell of a restaurant somewhere in East London where everyone dresses up as Marie Antoinette – if anyone has anything more definite than that let me know, perhaps it is just far too cool for people like me to even know about! I suspect it could be a rumour started by someone who wanted to see how far it would spread.

Anyway, when I found out Horton Jupiter’s restaurant, The Secret Ingredient, ran every Wednesday, and also realised that my birthday was coming up on Wednesday, I had to get a booking. Luckily, someone else cancelled, and we were in!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the place was full of media types – PR, bloggers, a journalist, a Public Affairs guy, you get the picture. Horton’s lovely girlfriend Rachel seated us and whisked our wine away to be chilled, bringing back a bottle of beer or glass of wine that was included with dinner. It being a warm evening, I opted for the beer.

After some chit chat with our table companions, the first course arrived:

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A sort of pickled raw onion salad. I have neglected to mention that the menu is a sort of vegan Japanese tasting menu. The name of the restaurant apparently refers to “umami”, a Japanese word meaning roughly “tasty” or “savoury”. The onion was definitely umami.

The next course was no less tasty:

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The presentation was just gorgeous and befitting the excellent food. The carrots were perfect and I loved the cabbage parcels, although I have no idea what was in them.

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Tofu-based (I think) deep-fried goodies with delicious mushrooms and broccoli. This was a one-between-two plate encouraging sharing with our fellow diners.

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The next course was sweet sticky rice with miso soup – much needed by this stage if you will note the amount of wine left in my glass.

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Lovely ripe fruit in some kind of syrup, and warm sake for dessert.

The entire meal was delicious and the evening was really enjoyable. It was like going to a dinner party but not knowing the host or any of the other guests – sort of like being on Come Dine With Me. The only problem for me, and this was my fault really, is that I forgot Japanese meals are rather light. I’m usually quite a big eater so manage to consume enough food to soak up whatever I drink with my meal. But it being my birthday and the meal being rather light… I definitely drank too much. I’m not sure what Horton made of my rather unjournalistic questioning in the kitchen afterwards! Oh wait, yes I do:

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And then it was back home for me, but no rest for Horton and Rachel – the guests for the next sitting had arrived and were waiting patiently on the back porch.

When I got back home I told my flatmate I was going to open a restaurant in his bedroom, and he could be the charming Italian waiter. He seemed unfazed by the proposition, as long as the tips promised to be good. Watch this space!

I’m also dying to go to MsMarmiteLover’s on a Saturday night. Anyone with me? I tried to set a date with Kavey but there’s not a weekend between now and August that we’re both free!

Pizza Quest Part 3

My quest for the perfect homemade pizza continues… You will recall my first attempt was my bog-standard pizza dough recipe. Second attempt was to make a slightly wetter dough and see if that made a difference. It didn’t – it was just a bit difficult to handle. However, after I put the leftover dough in the fridge for a few days it made a very good pizza:

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Classic Margherita. Mmm.

I made a third dough a few days later, only this time I had managed to get hold of some Italian Tipo 00 flour. It’s a super-fine flour used for making pasta (and pizza!). The dough I made with this was unbelievably smooth and just a joy to handle. I loved kneading it. It made excellent pizzas, which look exactly like the caramelised onion and goat cheese pizza I made first, so I haven’t taken photos. My friend Kalman who used to work in a pizza joint came over for lunch and gave it his seal of approval. And I have to admit it was definitely the best pizza yet. I’m not sure if it was soo much better that the higher price tag was justified. Organic stoneground flour makes a pretty good base too. I may save the rest of the flour for pasta, as you really cannot substitute another flour when making pasta.

I also persuaded a friend, Judy, to accompany me on an outing to go and eat London’s best pizza at Franco Manca. At Franco Manca they make sourdough pizzas out of mostly organic ingredients, cook them quickly in a woodfired oven, and really it is some good pizza. We also fell in love with the organic lemonade. The food was so good I completely forgot to take photos, although Judy did borrow my camera to “Kinnear” a photo of the diners next to us:

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Not bad for a first attempt at Kinnearing, right? It’s pretty hard to be surreptitious with a DSLR.

Marylebone Farmers Market

Yesterday was possibly the most beautiful day I have experienced since moving to London. Sunny, warm, and still. Perfect market weather!

I’d been meaning to go to my local farmer’s market in Marylebone for a while. As I get as many veges as I can eat in my Riverford box, there wasn’t much need for me to go to the market before now. But yesterday I wanted to take advantage of the new season’s vegetables and do some serious cooking.

Marylebone High Street is lovely. It’s got that real villagey feel, if your village is the poshest village on earth that is. The street is full of homewares shops, a charming independent bookshop, health- and natural-food type restaurants, gastropubs, English-rosey-type fashion stores, a lovely church and nice old buildings. And its own Sunday market – who could ever wish for more?

I was impressed by the market. Posh it may be, but it is also a proper farmers market, run by the farmers themselves and full of seasonal and local delights. I will let the photos speak for themselves:

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Technicolor tomatoes.

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Oysters shucked while you wait.

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I ended up with a large quantity of rhubarb, a big bunch of asparagus, a couple of bunches of beetroot, half a dozen eggs, some tomatillos, and a pot of Moroccan mint.

So far some of the rhubarb has become cake, and the rest is shortly going to become chutney and crumble, the beetroot has become four jars of delicious chutney (and kitchen has emerged unscathed and not pink), and the tomatillos have become salsa verde, just waiting to be used up on nachos and eggs and all manner of things that need a bit of extra kick. Ideas welcome – I have a big jar of the stuff and it tastes good.

Real Food Festival

I’m getting very behind on the blog front. Please forgive me – I only have a few more days of commission work to go, and soon I will be able to reveal everything I have been working on. For now the pace has slacked off a bit and I have a little more time to blog.

A few weeks ago I went to the Real Food Festival. I managed to get in for free thanks to the nice folks (and by “folks” I mean Suse) at the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog, who had put together a sort of Twitter scavenger hunt thing. Soon after I arrived I met Catherine, another Word of Mouth regular, and we went around together. Much food and drink was tasted but I have to say some of my favourites were:

Rare Tea Company. I first came across Henrietta the glamorous tea lady at the Guardian chocolate tasting. Henrietta only stocks the best whole leaf teas from around the world. She very kindly gave me a tin of green tea to take with me and I can report that it is delicious. It is a very delicate silver-tipped Chinese green tea that almost seems impossible to over-steep. It just does not seem to ever go bitter. The leaves can be re-used several times so although the tea does have a premium price tag, it’s not bad value if you ask me.

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– I am drinking a cup of Henrietta’s tea right now and really it has made me forget about the other producers… oh yes:

Yarty Valley Provisions. Yarty Valley make fruit cordials from Edwardian family recipes. Disclosure time: they gave me a bottle of their Rhubarb and Ginger cordial. But if they hadn’t, I probably would have bought some. It was delicious. Of course we all know how much I love rhubarb.

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Artisan du Chocolat. These guys have a range of single-origin dark chocolates that they pressed us to try one after the other until our tastebuds could cope no more. Really I don’t need to say any more than that. I loved the 75% Venezuelan, and also the 100% bar, yes that’s right, 100% cocoa and nothing else. Oh, and they do a lot of other products for people who aren’t as extremist as I am about their chocolate.

Oddono’s Gelati. I was already a satisfied customer of Oddono’s so they didn’t need to give me free gelato, but the charming Italian men behind the counter did anyway. Oddono’s is quite simply the best gelato I have ever tasted or will ever taste, I suspect. Better than anything I have had in Italy. They make everything daily and do not add any artificial ingredients. So, when you see mango sorbet the colour of a mango, that is simply because of the amount of fruit they put into their sorbet. Unbelievably smooth and tasty.

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Brown paper packages

Sunday is for relaxing at home and eating delicious food.  This applies doubly to Sundays after my fortnightly vegetable delivery from Riverford Organic.

At the moment we are in what is known as the “Hungry Gap”, when all of the winter stores are gone and the summer vegetables are not yet ready for harvest. Riverford plugs the gap with a few more imported vegetables than usual so this week I have some cherry tomatoes and capsicums to liven up the mix. I must admit though that I was a little disappointed when two of the most glorious British vegetables that currently ARE in season were not due for inclusion in my box this week.

So I did what anyone would do and ordered them extra. Two of my favourite things…

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They were so beautifully wrapped it was like getting a present.

I thought very hard about what recipe could possibly be worthy of the asparagus. I had some risotto rice in the cupboard and was tempted to do Rose Grey’s risotto recipe from last Wednesday’s Guardian, but decided I wanted to leave them whole. So I went for the utterly decadent option: hollandaise sauce. A contribution to gastronomy so fabulous the French can almost be forgiven for Napoleon, the Vichy Regime, and the Rainbow Warrior. Never mind that the stuff goes straight to your arteries – I figure that as a (mostly) vegetarian I’m allowed the odd saturated fat blow-out.

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And the rhubarb? Rhubarb is one of my favourite things in the world. It was my favourite food as a young child, when I used to get very excited every time Mum announced we were going out to the garden to pick some. I have a lot of plans for rhubarb this season, but decided to start with an old favourite: crumble.

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There is a part of me that is now plotting ways to use up my remaining vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, capsicums, lettuce, onions and cauliflower) by Thursday so I can change my fortnightly delivery to weekly and get more asparagus and rhubarb next weekend! I think it can be done…