A little blog about food with recipes, reviews, commentary, and honesty.

I also offer event catering and private chef services; check out Earls Barton Eats! for more details.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Food Porn: Gnocchi Al Forno

I am on a total Italian cuisine overdrive this week. My apologies to all the other excellent regional cuisines out there. 

This dish is all about the gnocchi. It does take quite a bit of time and effort to make your own but in my opinion it's easier than making your own pasta, there's less that can go wrong, and you don't need any special equipment. Unless, like me, you're a bit useless at rolling ridged gnocchi with a fork and need a board like this (BTW I don't use a board despite being useless, I just leave the gnocchi as little pillows). 

I've seen quite a few recipes for gluten-free gnocchi on the internet that use at least 3 different flours and starches; I find this completely superfluous. I make gluten-free gnocchi two ways, either with GF plain flour or with cornflour, and both work perfectly and taste just as light and soft. Trust me. 

Ingredients to serve 2:

For the gnocchi:

500g of potatoes; use a variety that makes good mash such as Desiree or Maris Piper
100g of plain flour (or GF plain flour or the same amount of cornflour) and a little extra for dusting
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp of sea salt 

For the sauce: 

2 tins of chopped tomatoes with juice
1/2 a white onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 rashers of smoked pancetta, chopped
6 tbsps of mascapone
2 tsps of oregano
Salt and pepper
Olive oil 

The first step is to make the mashed potato which will be the base of the gnocchi. It's best to make a mash which is as dry as possible so that the gnocchi doesn't go soggy, so I find it best to bake the potatoes whole in the oven and then scoop out the insides, as opposed to boiling the potatoes. Using a ricer is also best for the texture of the gnocchi because it produces a smooth mash, but if you don't have one you can use a potato masher and then pass the potato through a sieve afterwards. 

So bake the potatoes in the oven for about an hour at 180c/160c fan, then when they're done slice them in half (this will help with cooling) and set them aside to cool completely. When they're cool you can scoop out the middles and rice them into a large bowl. 

To the potatoes add the beaten egg, oil, and salt and mix together. Then start adding the flour a little at a time, mixing together as you go, to form a soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead together for just a couple of minutes so that the surface feels smooth and soft. Be careful not to over-knead as the dough will become too stiff! 

Now for the rolling! Take a handful of the dough and roll into a long rope (about 2cm in diameter) on a floured surface. Do this by starting to roll in the middle of the dough with two hands, then slowly move your hands apart whilst rolling to stretch the dough into a rope. Then cut the rope into inch-long pieces to form the gnocchi. At this point you can either leave them pillow-shaped or roll them on a fork or special board to create ridges. Set all the gnocchi aside on a floured board or tray to dry out for at least 30 minutes (but no more than 3 hours) before cooking. 

For the sauce soften the onion and garlic in a frying or saute pan in a little olive oil on a medium heat, then turn the heat up to high and add the pancetta and fry until slightly crisp. Add the tomatoes, oregano, and seasoning and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the sauce is reduced and thick. 

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and add the gnocchi in two batches; this is best to stop them all sticking together. As they're fresh they'll only take about a minute to cook; when the gnocchi float to the top of the water they're done! Drain the gnocchi and add to the sauce. Mix the gnocchi into the sauce gently with a metal spoon, taking care that the gnocchi don't break up. At this point you should also preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan!

Pour the gnocchi and sauce into an oven dish. Make 6 little wells into the gnocchi, evenly spaced around the dish, and into each one spoon a blob of mascapone; during cooking these little blobs will melt into the gnocchi. Then to finish grate parmesan over the entire dish. 

Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes for the parmesan and mascapone to melt. Serve hot in deep plates! 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Food Porn: Sea Bass with Tomato Risotto

I do feel a bit sorry for T sometimes. I regularly force him to be my guinea pig or make him eat food that he has previously expressed a strong dislike for. 

Take risotto; T dislikes risotto as T dislikes rice. Or so he thought. Because I've fed it to him so frequently now he's changed his mind. T now likes risotto, but T still dislikes rice. Odd. 

 I'm not sure whether this is because he has genuinely had a rice epiphany or he's just trying to keep me happy so that I'll cook him more beef. 

Anyway, pan fried sea bass fillets with a tomato risotto anyone? 

Ingredients for two portions: 

2 sea bass fillets, de-boned
80g of arborio rice
500ml of chicken stock; I used a Kallo cube which is gluten free
100g of tinned chopped tomatoes with juice
1/2 a small white onion, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 tbsps of creme fraiche
30g of parmesan, finely grated
1 handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped 
The rind of 1/2 a lemon, finely grated
1 small glass of white wine
Olive oil
Salt and pepper 
1 small knob of butter

Firstly cook the onion and garlic in olive oil and the butter on a medium heat until softened but not coloured. Add the white wine and simmer for a couple of minutes until the alcohol has cooked away. 

Add the rice and cook for a couple of minutes until the rice begins to appear translucent, then add the tomatoes with the juice and simmer until the juice has been soaked up by the rice. Then begin adding the hot stock a little at a time, stirring occasionally, until the rice has cooked al dente; this will take 12-15 minutes. Finish by adding the parsley, lemon rind, creme fraiche, seasoning, and parmesan and stirring well to combine. If the risotto feels a bit stiff, add a little more creme fraiche. 

Season the sea bass fillets and then heat a little olive oil in a frying or saute pan; when hot add the fillets skin side down. Cook on a medium heat for 3 minutes, then turn and cook for a further 3 minutes on the flesh side. 

Serve the risotto on a plate then add the sea bass fillet on top. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil over the fish and around the plate to finish off. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Food Porn: Toffee Apple Crumble Squares

Sometimes I dream about food. And sometimes I dream-create recipes. 

That might make me sound a bit crazy. Actually there's no 'might' about it... But sometimes when I dream-create recipes I come up with some epic ideas, just like this one. 

The morning after the Toffee Apple Crumble Squares dream I looked on the internet to see if there were any similar recipes doing the rounds, and there were some fruity crumble traybake ones but none like this. All of those recipes used a sponge base, whereas I knew that I wanted to create a crunch-squidge-crunch texture so it just had to be shortbread. And none of those recipes incorporated the squidgy, sugary delight that is toffee, preferring to use a fruit jam or compote. Well that's just not the way I roll. 

So here's the recipe. You can thank my subconscious later. 

Ingredients to make one batch in a 20cm square tin: 

For the shortbread base... 

175g of unsalted butter, cut into cubes
225g of plain flour (substitute for GF plain flour if required) 
75g of golden caster sugar 

For the crumble topping... 

165g of plain flour (substitute for GF plain flour if required) 
105g of unsalted butter, cut into cubes
45g of soft light brown sugar 

For the squidgy filling... 

150g of unsalted butter
1 397g can of condensed milk
150g of soft light brown sugar
2 cooking apples, peeled and cut into small chunks 

First preheat the oven to 180c/160c fan and then line the tin with greaseproof paper or buttered foil, leaving an inch of the paper sticking up around the edge of the tin to make it easy to lift out the traybake when it's done. 

In a food processor (or by rubbing in with your fingertips) pulse all the ingredients for the shortbread until they resemble course breadcrumbs. This is exactly the same method I used in my Salted Caramel Millionaire's Shortbread recipe! Tip the dough into the tin and press down evenly into the bottom until flat, then use a fork to prick the surface of the dough all over. Put the tin into the oven and bake for 5 minutes at 180c/160c fan, then turn the oven down to 150c/130c fan and cook for 35 minutes. When done remove from the oven and set aside to cool. 

For the toffee filling melt together the butter, condensed milk, and sugar in a medium saucepan and then bring to the boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the mixture from burning. While this is boiling, gently fry the apple chunks in a frying pan with a knob of butter for a couple of minutes until the apple is softened and slightly coloured. Then pour the toffee onto the shortbread base, making sure the base is evenly covered, and spread the apple chunks over the toffee. 

For the crumble topping pulse all the ingredients in a food processor (or again rub in with your fingertips) until the mixture resembles course breadcrumbs, similar to the shortbread. Then sprinkle the crumble over the apples and toffee, taking care not to break up the crumbs. Make sure that all the toffee is covered by the crumble, otherwise the toffee is liable to burn whilst in the oven! Then place the tray back in the oven at 200c/180c fan for 25-30 minutes or until the crumble is golden. 

When done remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tray. When cooled remove from the tray, cut into squares and devour! The squares will be crunchy and squidgy, and there'll be the sweetness of the toffee with the sharp tang of apple. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Food Porn: Summer Barbecuing

This week the morbid clouds finally parted to reveal azure skies, golden sunshine, and scorching temperatures. And blimey it was hot. 

I think it's a part of human nature that when the weather is blooming gorgeous we suddenly have the impulse to barbecue. I've never quite understood why, when the heat is topping 30c, that we want to hang out over a smouldering pit of coal. Nevertheless I couldn't hold back my barbecuing impulse; I MUST COOK MEAT. 

I decided to do fairly traditional British barbecue fare, but with an international twist. So I incorporated elements of American, Cajun, and Argentinian cuisine in order to spice things up a bit. 

I sort of cheated and cooked pulled barbecue beef stuffed into soft white rolls to begin. Now I know this isn't strictly 'barbecue' in the British sense, being that it was all cooked in the oven, but a) it's 'barbecue' in the American sense and b) I just wanted an excuse to eat it again. 

Cheese-Stuffed Beefburgers 

Having your cheese on the top of your burger is all well and good, but having it on the inside instead creates a core of melty, creamy cheesiness that keeps the burger juicy. I use Emmenthal cheese for these as I like the sweet, nutty flavour and the cheese melts perfectly creamily. These burgers also have a fresh, summery flavour because of the addition of herbs and tomato and you can also make these as 'normal' burgers without the cheese. Another epic burger bonus? These are naturally gluten free!

Ingredients to make 8 stuffed burgers or 14 'normals': 

1kg of lean beef mince
1 small red onion, very finely chopped
1 tbsp of dried oregano
2 tbsps of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbsps of tomato puree
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
6 slices of Emmenthal cheese

Firstly break up the mince strands with your hands in a large bowl; this gives the burgers a better, firmer texture when they're cooked. Add the herbs, tomato puree, onion, seasoning, and the beaten egg and mix all together; I prefer to use my hands to do this to make sure all the ingredients are mixed in thoroughly. 

To shape the burgers it's best to use either a burger press or a cooking ring; this makes it easier to create two even layers with the cheese in the middle. For the barbecue I used a cooking ring as my burger press was too big! Start by pressing a small ball of the burger mixture flat into the bottom of the cooking ring, then place small pieces of the cheese onto the layer (roughly 1/2 a slice per burger but it's up to you) in the middle. Be careful of the cheese being too near the edges as it will leak out whilst cooking. I find it a lot easier to use ready-sliced cheese as grated cheese gets everywhere! 

Then press another small ball of burger mixture onto the top and press down firmly to seal the burger together. Lift the ring off the burger and make sure that the edges are all pressed together with no gaps. Place the burgers into the fridge for at least 2 hours to firm up. 

Make sure your barbecue is ready to cook and the coals are white hot. Place each burger carefully onto the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side initially. Take care when turning the burgers as they will be delicate because of the layering! Then cook for a further 8-10 minutes with the lid on the barbecue (or use a large separate metal lid placed over the burgers on the grill; I use a wok lid) to ensure that they're cooked all the way through. 

Serve hot in the rolls of your choice! 

Steak with Chimichurri Dressing 

Steak cooked over smokey hot coals and served in a roll was a no-brainer for me when planning this barbecue. But me being me I decided to liven it up a bit with a spicy, fresh chimichurri dressing. The dressing is best made 24 hours in advance in order for the flavours to infuse. 

Ingredients to make the chimichurri dressing:

1 large red chilli, finely chopped and deseeded
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tbsps of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tbsp of dried oregano
2 tbsps of red wine vinegar
2 tbsps of extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsps of cold water

This dressing is amazingly simple: mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and place in the fridge for 24 hours for the flavours to infuse. And yes, that's it. 

For the steak sandwiches I used 1 rump steak per 2 people and trimmed them of any fat and sinew. For medium-rare cook the steaks on the hot barbecue for 3 minutes on each side. Then slice the steak into strips and serve in the rolls of your choice; I used ciabatta for crunch. Drizzle a spoonful or two of the chimichurri dressing onto the steak in the sandwich and munch! 

Jerk Chicken Drumsticks 

Chicken drumsticks are a barbecue staple but marinading them in cajun spices and honey makes them hot, sticky, and sweet. This is a very simple jerk marinade, using a ready-mixed jerk seasoning but is best marinaded overnight for the best flavour. These drumsticks are cooked in the oven initially and then finished on the barbecue for flavour; no salmonella here! 

Ingredients for 10 drumsticks: 

10 chicken drumsticks, skin removed
3 heaped tsps of jerk seasoning
2 tbsps of honey
1 tbsp of soy sauce (substitute with GF soy sauce if needed)
4 tbsps of tomato ketchup 

Firstly cut 2-3 slits into the meat of the drumsticks (without cutting all the way through) to allow the marinade to better flavour the meat, then place all the drumsticks into a tray. Mix the jerk seasoning, honey, soy sauce, and ketchup together in a bowl and pour over the drumsticks. Using your hands or two large spoons move the chicken around so that the marinade is covering all the meat thoroughly. Place in the fridge and leave to marinate overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 180c/160c fan. Remove the drumsticks from the fridge and transfer to a roasting tray; pouring the remaining marinade over the top. Cook in the oven for 30 minutes, turning the drumsticks halfway through. This will make sure the meat is cooked thoroughly but for the best flavour and to caramelise the meat it's best to finish on the barbecue. 

Make sure the coals are white hot then place the drumsticks onto the grill. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side or until the skin is darkened and caramelised; don't worry if the meat blackens as this will only add to the flavour!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Food Porn: Pulled Barbecue Beef

Last week I lost my heart to a sandwich. 

A pulled barbecue beef sandwich to be precise. It tasted so good that I would happily marry this sandwich and bear it's children. 

I've been a bit obsessed with cooking real American-style barbecue for a while now, fuelled by copious viewing of Man V Food and my phenomenal crush on Adam Richman. It's also a huge food trend at the moment; with numerous restaurants, pop-up eateries, and street vendors catering for our voracious appetite for meat. 

This is a recipe I've adapted from one featured in the latest Olive magazine; I've swapped some ingredients from the original recipe that I found a bit superfluous and expensive. Be warned it is not a recipe to try if you're short of time or patience; it takes around 4 hours in all. But the hours will be rewarded with tender, juicy, spicy meat that will fill your tummy with joy. 

Ingredients to serve 2-4 (depending on appetite): 

750g of beef brisket - for this tap up your local butcher to source the best quality meat
2 tsps of mustard powder
2 tsps of sea salt
1 tbsp of golden caster sugar
Large soft white rolls (for gluten free substitute for GF rolls of your choice)

For the barbecue sauce: 

50ml of bourbon whiskey - I used Southern Comfort 
1 small onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
250ml of passata
2 tbsps of tomato puree
75ml of white wine vinegar
65g of soft brown sugar
1 tbsp of chilli powder
2 tsps of sea salt
1 tbsp of smoked paprika
2 tbsps of Worcester sauce
Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 150c/130c fan. Mix together the mustard powder, sea salt, and golden caster sugar and rub all over the surface of the beef. Place the beef on a roasting rack set in a roasting tin, cover the beef with foil, and pour some water in the bottom of the tin (enough for it to be around 1cm deep). Place the tin in the oven and cook for 3 and a half hours, until the meat is flaky and tender. 

For the barbecue sauce sweat the onion and garlic in a little olive oil in a medium saucepan. When they're soft add the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil. Then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce is reduced and thick. 

When the beef is cooked remove from the oven and trim the fat from the meat. Pull the meat apart using two forks - this will create flaky, shredded chunks. Mix the pulled beef with the barbecue sauce and pile into the rolls. Then feast while they're hot.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Review: The Dining Room, Derngate, Northampton

All week I've been hankering for a good restaurant to review; somewhere I'd never been before, somewhere a little chic, and somewhere which does pretty excellent British food. Well, I couldn't exactly Google all that. 

I'd already planned to take the lovely Mother to 78 Derngate right here in Northampton; the interiors of which were designed by her favourite, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Out of ease and sheer laziness we decided to try out lunch in the adjoining restaurant, The Dining Room. 

Now I wasn't expecting to review The Dining Room; we were going to have a pedestrian sandwich or salad of some kind before sauntering off around a museum. I was planning to go there for convenience, not pleasure. 

But it was an unexpected gem. And unwillingly was everything I'd been looking for. 

The restaurant itself is adorably boutique (for boutique read 'small'); I think there was seating for just over 20 people who have no sense of personal space. The interior was simplistic with white walls and a few choice photographs of the museum next door, but at one end of the room were beautiful bay windows overlooking Becket's Park. And on a warm sunny day, as we had, it was light and airy, and didn't feel in the least bit crowded. 

What made the space a little bit more special was the attention to detail. On every table were fresh (real) flowers, crisp linen napkins, and a menu bound in soft leather; it gave you an extra warm feeling of *Oooh*. You could tell that someone really cared about the space, and in turn this gave me a good feeling that they must also really care about the food. 

It was undeniably busy; every single table was full (although admittedly not difficult for a room of this size). Booking in advance is my top tip; if we were 10 minutes later I doubt we would have got in. The restaurant is only open to the public for breakfast and lunch (private parties are catered for in the evenings), but those are the kind of limitations that go with being attached to a historic building. 

The Dining Room is a two person affair; Rachel in front-of house, and Daniel in the kitchen. And that's it; just the two of them. Now this did slow down the service time, but knowing that it's just the two of them and it is so obviously their labour of love means that you find yourself not caring. The service made up for the delays by being extremely friendly and knowledgeable. Although at one point the front of house looked so frantic I was tempted to jump up and help her. 

The menu had a fine selection of teas, coffees, and scrumptious soft drinks by Luscombe's (another top tip: try the Raspberry Lemonade, it was lipsmackingly refreshing). They serve a range of breakfasts up until 11.45am and then a few light bites, ciabatta sandwiches (all £5-£7.50), and a choice of 3 main courses for lunch (all around £8-£10). If you pre-booked you could also have an afternoon tea; all home-made, with one stand of savouries and one of sweets for £16.25 per person. The menu was pleasingly concise and simple, and the main courses were all seasonal and seemed to change regularly. I love a chef who goes with the produce, not against it. Now there was no allergen labelling on the menu, but the front of house knew everything I asked and I trusted her implicitly. 

The food was the star of the show; exactly how it should be. 

We shared main courses of roast chicken breast in a peppercorn sauce served with cubed potatoes and a mix of savoy cabbage and carrots, and a Mediterranean vegetable and sun-dried tomato frittata served with home-made coleslaw and a side salad. To a larger lady like myself the portion sizes were pleasingly generous; the side salad in particular contained half a cottage garden's worth of lettuce. 

For a main course worth £9.95 the presentation was excellent; going with the theme of the entire restaurant there was a real attention to detail. The plates were unfussy but classy and tempting. For one man to do this on his own in a busy peak-time kitchen is really impressive; kudos. 

The frittata had been cooked perfectly; the middle was moist and bouncy without the usual problem of dryness, and the crunchy coleslaw complimented it really well. The chicken was also moist and well-cooked on the whole (one end of the breast was a bit dry but it didn't dampen my enjoyment of it one bit), and the peppercorn sauce was so yummy I actually craved for a bit more of it on the side to mop up. The vegetables were cooked on the good side of al dente and the potatoes had delightful crispy edges. Basically I could have happily eaten both dishes every day. 

For dessert we were salivating over specials of choux pastry filled with vanilla cream and caramel sauce, and a meringue roulade with fresh strawberries and coulis (both amazing value at £4.95). The front of house told us it could be done, but unfortunately with a delay because of the busy kitchen. It was admittedly disappointing, but not for long because then there was the alternative option of immediate cake...

Home-made lemon with lavender and raspberry and almond with white chocolate icing; and boy were they good. Again the portions were generous but there is no sight more exciting than a slab of cake set down in front of you. I obviously couldn't partake in the raspberry and almond because of my allergy but I was reliably informed that it was light, moist, and had the subtle taste of marzipan. I was really pleased that the lavender in the lemon cake was actually the flowers and not an extract; it made for little bursts of flavour rather than tasting like soap. My only (tiny) criticism was that there could have been more lemon icing on top. 

Two courses of excellent quality food and soft drinks in an individual, chic restaurant; yours for the brilliant price of £29. It's not your every day lunch but it is worth every little penny. 

And they do say the best things come in small packages. 

The Dining Room at 82 Derngate, Northampton, NN1 1UH. 

01604 230166 (Booking recommended) 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Food Porn: Salted Caramel Millionaire's Shortbread

I have this terrible habit of cooking food that I don't actually like eating myself. For example I once made T some peanut butter cookies, when I'm allergic to peanuts. I could feel the peanut butter on my hands despite having washed them about 42 times; very Lady Macbeth. 

That probably doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement but y'see I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Hardly any in fact, I'd much rather have some broccoli. 

But I did eat one of these salted caramel millionaire's shortbread (I know the name is a mouthful, but then so is the cake) and it was actually utterly moorish. The addition of the sea salt in the caramel takes the edge off that cloying sweetness and gives the flavour a bit more of an oomph. 

Ingredients for one batch made in a 20cm square tin: 

375g of unsalted butter
225g of plain flour (for gluten free substitute with GF plain flour)
75g of golden caster sugar
1 x 397g can of condensed milk
4 tbsps of golden syrup
1 tsp of sea salt
350g of good quality milk chocolate
1tsp of vanilla extract

First preheat the oven to 180c/160c fan for the shortbread. Line the 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper, leaving around 1cm of paper sticking up around the edge to make it easy to lift out the cake afterwards. 

In a food processor pulse together the flour, sugar, vanilla, and 175g of the butter, cut up into cubes, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs and the butter is mixed fully with the flour. Tip the crumbs into the tin and press down firmly and evenly to compact them into a flat dough, making sure to get right into the corners. Prick all over with a fork and place in the oven for 5 minutes. After the 5 minutes turn the oven down to 150c/130c fan and bake for a further 35 minutes. When done remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. 

For the caramel melt together the remaining 200g of butter, condensed milk, golden syrup, and sea salt in a medium saucepan. Then bring to the boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the caramel doesn't burn. Turn the heat off and stir vigorously for a couple of minutes to make sure the caramel is smooth, then pour over the cooled shortbread. Place in the fridge to cool and so that the caramel sets firmly, this should take about an hour. 

Break the chocolate into chunks and melt in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Pour the melted chocolate over the caramel and return to the fridge for the chocolate to cool and set firm; this will take at least 2 hours or ideally overnight. 

When the shortbread is all set cut into slices with a heavy sharp knife, heated slightly in a bowl of hot water. This will prevent the chocolate from cracking. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Food Porn: Thai Rice Noodle Soup

For me there are 6 major food groups: carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fats, fibre, and soup. 

I consume soup by the bowlful when the weather's horrible, I feel rough, and the reading on my weighing scales makes me scream in horror. It's also the ultimate in diversification food: you can put anything you damn well like in soup (within reason of course, I'd avoid including poisons, body parts, or precious minerals). 

So today the weather is summer-awful and I only had 2 hours sleep last night, so something hot, sour, and spicy is called for: Thai Rice Noodle Soup (naturally gluten free, boom). 

Ingredients to serve 4: 

1 litre of chicken stock (either fresh or from 2 GF stock cubes) 
375g of rice noodles, fresh or prepared according to pack instructions
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled
2 cloves of garlic
2 sticks of lemongrass
1 large red chilli
2 tbsps of fish sauce
3 spring onions, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 kaffir lime leaf
2 tbsps of coconut cream
160g of oyster mushrooms, sliced
125g of shitake mushrooms; fresh or dried and soaked, sliced
2 pak choi, leaves separated 
2 tbsps of chopped coriander

Firstly make the basic paste; either use a pestle and mortar or a mini electric chopper. Chop and then bash together the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and chilli. Add to a large saucepan and fry gently for a couple of minutes. 

Add the stock, kaffir lime leaf, lime, fish sauce, spring onions, and coconut cream and simmer for 10 minutes to release all the flavours, stirring occasionally.

Then add the shitake and oyster mushrooms; if you've soaked dry shitakes then also add the soaking liquor, and continue to simmer for 4 minutes. Add the pak choi, coriander, and the noodles and simmer for a further 3-4 minutes until the pak choi is tender. Remove the kaffir lime leaf before serving!

And that's it; in 20 minutes you have a steaming bowl of spicy and sour loveliness to cheer you up. 

Like I said before soup is a diverse beast so you can add whatever vegetables or noodles you like really. You can substitute the mushrooms and pak choi for broccoli, beansprouts, or snake beans; really it's entirely up to you. 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: The Cosy Club, Stamford

Stamford is my home-town; I was born there, schooled there, and I existed in it's bubble for 20 years until I clawed my way out into the relative civilisation of the nearest city. You see I just wasn't posh enough to spend another 20 years there; I was being middle-classed out. 

Stamford is as middle-class a town as they come: it's been a Tory safe-seat since the dark ages, it's private school is one of the oldest in the world, every other store is either a designer boutique, high-end estate agents, or aspirational beauty salon. It's pretty much the Knightsbridge of Lincolnshire.

Although it's quintessentially bourgeoisie, Stamford has it's fair share of benign chain restaurants (Ask, Prezzos, Pizza Express, etc, etc). It also has some absolute gems: Jim's Yard (included in the Good Food Guide 2012), Fratelli Ristorante (in my opinion the best Italian outside of Italy), and Orchid Thai. 

I applauded at the news that a brand new restaurant in the town could join the ranks of the good-uns. The Cosy Club is part of a chain of 4 restaurants in total; the others being in Bath, Taunton and Salisbury. 

It struck me immediately that middle-class was obviously their target market. And upon entering the Stamford branch it occurred to me why this was; it's a restaurant to be seen in

It's interior design is, admittedly, brilliantly bonkers. The building used to be the Post Office sorting room and they've kept the industrial shell and highlighted the exposed pipework and practical lighting. But mixed with this are chandeliers made from deer antlers, grouped flouncy lampshades, portraits of Victorian VIPs, game trophies, and scraps of patterned wallpaper. Their website explains that the interior was inspired by gin palaces, and it indeed made me feel a bit merry. 

The waiting staff certainly looked like they felt at home, bedecked in hipster attire and with their patterned shirts buttoned right up to the neck. But they were incredibly friendly and the service was quick and fuss-free. 

The menu isn't as individual as the décor; it was fairly standard with brunch options, sandwiches, burgers, sharing plates, and fusion main courses. There's nothing wrong with a standard menu, it's just that the décor left you expecting a bit more. The addition of Tapas dishes was interesting but they were a strange blend of traditional and fusion-made-small; I wasn't sure why they were on the menu other than being trend-led. I was pleased that the menu was concise and controlled; I hate overly-long menus as I get all indecisive and panicky when it comes to ordering ("BUT THERE'S SO MUCH TO CHOOSE FROM!"). 

The main problem with the menu was the lack of allergy signposting. There was no indication of which dishes contained wheat, gluten, or dairy; there was an indication of nuts on the dessert menu but it was with incredibly small writing, not an easy symbol. I suspect that including this information would have spoiled the pretty appearance of the menu, but perhaps I'm too cynical. 

As we were there for lunch my companion (my excellent Mother) chose a panini with mozzarella, tomato, and pesto, served with skin-on fries. Since I hadn't had any breakfast I was in the mood for brunch so I opted for a bubble and squeak cake with a poached egg, smoked bacon, and hollandaise. 

The hollandaise was probably the best I've ever had; gorgeously unctuous and creamy, with the right balance of seasoning. I could have eaten a bucket of the stuff. My poached egg was also fairly perfect, with the yolk runny and the albumen firm. But the bubble and squeak cake, the main focus of the dish, was a massive let-down. The taste was fairly nice, the spring onions were a good addition, but the texture was all wrong for me. The outside wasn't crispy, as I'd expected it to be, and the inside was claggy and stodgy; half-way through it I had to stop because the texture was making me feel a bit queasy. 

The dessert menu again was fairly standard; the only truly interesting item, a rhubarb and elderflower crumble, was sold out so I settled for the sticky toffee pudding. Once more it scored on taste but was let down by texture; the toffee sauce was utterly lovely, but the sponge has the granular texture of sugar which hadn't quite been beaten in properly. 

At least the the pricing was right; £25 for two lunch courses with soft drinks. But I felt the food suffered from too much "style over substance". It certainly is the place to be seen, it's the place where you sit by the window and hope that the Joneses look in. In a way that suits Stamford to a tee. But the menu felt like an after-thought to the interior. 

The Cosy Club, The Old Delivery Office, Horseshoe Lane, Stamford, Lincs 

www.cosyclub.co.uk/stamford              01780 767710

Update: The Cosy Club now offer a dedicated gluten free menu on request; which includes brunch, tapas, main course, and dessert options. They also offer fantastic gluten free cakes. After discussion with the branch manager they have changed the cooking method of the bubble and squeak cake to make it crispier! 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review: Mrs Crimble's Home Bake Muffin and Sponge Mix

Before today I'd never really thought about cake mixes. I'd never used one and always felt a bit pompous and arrogant about the fact I always made my own sponges. But I got a Mrs Crimble's Home Bake Muffin and Sponge Mix in order to do my very first product review (get me!). 

They promise that the mix is easy to use, creates perfectly yummy gluten free cakes, and is completely reliable; you won't get a duff cake that looks a bit sorry for itself. Well I thought I'd test out these claims...

But then I thought; what do I know? I'm a bit of a food novice, a nobody who just clunks about in the kitchen and makes a mess. No, for this review I'd need a real expert. Someone who actually knows what they're talking about when it comes to cakes. 

And that someone is my very best friend Elena, also known as the fabulous Frivolous Mrs D, and the owner of Sugar & Spice (& All Things Iced). She makes cakes for a living you see so I thought I'd rope her in to help me bake and give her professional opinion on the results. She's even a dab hand at making gluten free cakes to order, so I was quietly confident that she'd know what she was talking about. 

Now, the product... 

At first glance the packaging gets a bit tick from me; simple, colourful, very clearly a gluten free product, eye-catching on a crowded supermarket shelf, and it does what it pretty much says on the hypothetical tin. The instructions for use on the back of the pack were spot-on. I was pleasantly surprised that the instructions were so clear and concise, and also that Mrs Crimble's had included tips on how to diversify the mix by adding different flavourings.  Despite us both being quite experienced in the art of baking, I think the instructions would be easy enough to follow for a complete beginner. Inside the box you get a white packet of dry ingredients; none of the suggested additional flavourings are included. 

Now, the baking... 

I was actually surprised by the use of water in the mix; I had expected milk to be the natural choice so I had to go against my instincts by including it. Mrs Crimble's - I have faith in you. 

The method itself is very straight-forward. Firstly whisk together the egg, melted butter, and water in a medium bowl; then add in the dry ingredients from the white packet and any additions you've decided to include from the tips (we included cocoa powder, a little extra sugar, and chocolate chips - as suggested). Then beat the mix together until it resembles a smooth batter; I did this with a fork and although the mix looks like it's gone a bit wrong to start with (a tad dry and lumpy...), a couple of minutes beating with the fork worked a treat. The resulting batter is smooth, thick, and with the addition of cocoa looks delightfully chocolatey. 

With the mix you have the option to make one large sponge cake or 6 muffins; we went with the muffin option for today. The next steps are exactly the same as making muffins the old-fashioned way: we divided the mix equally between 6 muffin cases placed in a muffin tin and topped with a few extra chocolate chips for decadence. Then we popped them in the oven; the instructions recommend 10-15 minutes at 190c/170c fan. Ours actually took 17 minutes to cook through completely, but oven times and temperatures do vary and who's going to quibble over 2 minutes? When done remove the muffin tin from the oven and leave the muffins to cool completely before devouring. 

Now, the results... 

I'll admit that when the muffins first came out of the oven I was a little sceptical. They looked a bit sunken but that was because of my stupidly big muffin tin, not the mix! They didn't quite have the deep chocolate colour I had expected and I thought I'd undercooked them slightly. 

However upon tasting my initial doubts were proven completely wrong. The muffins were moist, light, and actually really enjoyable; I never choose to eat muffins when I'm out because I always find them too dry and stodgy but these were vastly different. They were chocolatey but I think they could have done with a little more cocoa powder for more of a chocolate hit. If I didn't know they were gluten free I don't think I would have been able to tell them apart from mainstream muffins; except that Mrs Crimble's had a far better texture in my opinion. 

Here's what the expert Elena thought: 

"The muffins are light and airy, and they don't suffer from the powdery texture that a lot of gluten free cakes have. I wouldn't be able to tell they were gluten free if I bought them; I'd much rather have one of these than a shop bought muffin!" 

I think the beauty of using a mix like this is the ease of use and the fact that they're a lot quicker to make. They're also pretty cost effective if you're only making one batch; it's far more expensive to have to buy a large bag of gluten free flour, sugar, starch, xanthan gum, etc. The reliability is also a massive plus; you don't have to worry that you're going to mess up the ratios of flour to starch and end up with rubbish cakes. And with gluten free baking, which can be intimidating and hit and miss at times, this is a godsend. 

My awkward face...
I'd thoroughly recommend having a go with this mix if you're short of time, short of money, and short of patience. I guarantee that you can relax, it'll all end up OK. 

The only problem is that you can't claim the glory of making fabulous cakes all by yourself... 

NB. This product was gifted to me, but this had no reflection on the review itself. The review was unbiased and objective.