Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Fruit n' Veg Crisps

How often does a well meaning piece of fruit, offering the promise of good intentions on a Monday get left by the side of your computer at work, slowly degrading over the course of the week to a pathetic shadow of its former glory by Friday? This happens a lot for me.

I'm a grazer. I like to constantly pick at food and I have usually consumed at least one thing edible most hours of the working day. A whole piece of fruit doesn't really fit this criteria - I may just want a bite of apple for now. Its unspoken expectation for me to consume the whole thing in one go is not something I may necessarily want to commit to. And if I don't, it starts to turn the familiar brown as it reacts with the air. I'm not going to eat it after that. I could of course throw back to my childhood years and cut up a bunch of fruit into bite size pieces. And despite how old you are, this always seems to make it easier to eat - it's actually a good option.

I've discovered a different way to consume the fruit and veg I want to eat over the course of the day - turn them into crisps. Packets of vegetable crisps available in the shops are nothing new. But they are high in fat, more often than not fried in oil so not exactly the healthy option. It is in fact very possible and quite easy to replicate these crispy crunchy bite-sized pieces of goodness at home, and without the need for any oil.

These are an excellent alternative to taking whole pieces of fruit to work - I guarantee you'll actually eat these. They're also a great way to consume veg that you would usually not on a daily basis - like beetroot for example.

Fruit n' Veg Crisps

You want one piece of each type of fruit or veg for every day you are making these for. For example, if you're making these snacks for three days, take three apples and three beetroot. Get the biggest beetroot you can find as they'll provide bigger individual crisps. And they're all the ingredients you will need.

The other thing you will need and is well worth investing in is a V-slicer, something like this. They will slice your fruit and veg into uniform wafer thin slices in no time at all, quite difficult and time consuming to achieve without one. They have additional attachments which dice and also julienne your ingredients - great for making coleslaw or when julienne vegetables is required.

Preheat the oven to about 100C (fan).

Slice up your apples so they're wafer thin - skin and all. Slice right through the core, you can just remove any bits of pips or stalks after if they're present.

Peel your beetroot and then slice these the same way. Don't forget you'll get the colour everywhere, so do these last so as not to stain everything else.

Lay all the slices on oven dishes covered with foil - you can overlap them quite heavily as they will shrink considerably. The slices of around two apples will take up almost a whole tray, so really pack them in. You want to be able to fit at least three trays in your oven - I usually have two on shelves and one on the bottom of the oven.

Put the trays in, and give them a couple of hours. As the oven is so low, they're not really cooking but are in fact getting dehydrated. All you will need to do is check them every 20 minutes or so - when you open the oven door you'll be greeted with a face full of apple and beetroot steam, which is exactly what should happen.

When you do check them, shift them all around a bit so they don't stick to each other and the foil. You'll notice them shrinking, and then starting to go crispy. As the beetroot has less water content, they usually get done first. After 1.5-2hrs they will start to feel crispy - as they do remove them from the tray and transfer to an airtight container. The apples will be the last to crisp up.

If you're not sure if they're crispy yet, take the tray out of the oven - often a few seconds exposed to the cold air finishes off the crisping process.

This would work with any root veg and I plan to try them with sweet potato, parsnip, swede - but remember you want something that has a decent diameter or they'll shrivel to nothing. So carrots are also suitable but get huge ones, cut them in half and slice them lengthways rather than across their diameter, so you get a bigger surface area.

I suspect that the lower the water content, the more likely they could burn. So if you do try the above mentioned veg, toss your slices in a very small amount of oil to give them a light coating. You can also season with salt and pepper at this stage if you wish.

In terms of fruit, pears are also excellent alongside the apples.

Keep them all in the container and consume a handful everyday - you've retained all of the fibre and nutrients and just removed the water. The perfect grazing snack.

Alfiyet olsun.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


Shopping lists are a vital part of my supermarket visits - without them I would wonder aimlessly and take twice as long to pick out half as much. They focus your time and your budget on the things that you actually need, and will eat. This week I decided to take it a step further and as any well meaning lifestyle TV show will tell you to do, planned what we were going to eat for the whole week and bought the ingredients accordingly in a single trip - I believe this is known in the industry as the 'big Saturday (or Friday) shop'.

This was the first time we tried this, and it's excellent. It involves one of my virtues and one of my loves - planning and food respectively. It also means several things - firstly, you get to indulge in a bit of recipe ogling as you flick through books, magazines and the internet to work out what you'll be rustling up in the week, in turn resulting in you already looking forward to Thursday's dinner whilst it still in fact only being Saturday morning. Secondly, you use up everything you purchase as you've accounted for it all - if you hate waste like I do, this is only good news. Thirdly, you're not faced with both yourself and the parter returning home from work at the same time and declaring 'so what's for dinner?' whilst exchanging blank looks. Fourthly, the amount of both time and money you spend in the supermarket is greatly reduced - if you're following a list you tend to steer away from 'special offers' which more often than not translate to BOGOF's that you don't really want, resulting in the GOF part being thrown away because it's gone off before you managed to finish the BO part. And finally, you have a tasty well thought out dinner waiting for you at home. You just now need to decide who's cooking it.

Dinner for the weekend often involves red meat (we tend to steer away from it during the week) and it had been more than a comfortable amount of time since I had rustled this one up. Lamb mince, aubergines, yoghurt and feta - added to the list.


Makes about 6 portions

2 onions, finely chopped

6 large garlic cloves, grated
500g lamb mince
1 tbsp tomato purée
½ tsp ground cinnamon
400g can chopped tomatoes
600g (about 2 medium) aubergines 
150ml Greek yogurt
1 egg, beaten
25g freshly grated Parmesan
50g feta
Dried oregano
Dried mint
Olive oil

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring until soft. Increase the heat, add the minced lamb and cook 5 minutes or so until browned. Drain off the fat in a sieve, then return the meat to the pan.

Add the purée and cinnamon and cook whilst stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, then half-fill the can with water and pour into the pan. Add a decent shaking of oregano, season, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for around 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the grill to medium-high. Cut each aubergine diagonally into 5mm-thick slices. Brush with oil, put half on a baking sheet and grill for a few minutes until golden on each side. Do the same with the remainder.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan). For the topping, mix the yoghurt, egg, dried mint and the cheeses. Season with pepper.

Spread half the lamb mixture in a deep oven proof dish. Overlap with half the aubergine and the rest of the lamb. Top with rest of the aubergine and spoon over the yoghurt mixture. Bake for 35 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Eat piping hot - bloody lovely.

Alfiyet olsun.

Saturday, 19 January 2013


Is there anyone on the planet that doesn't like brioche? The answer to that is of course, no. And if you haven't had the opportunity to try it yet, I suggest you get acquainted with immediate effect and some urgency - a second longer without its existence in your life is a second too long. I suspect there are only a few things that encapsulate the very essence of pleasure more than eating freshly baked brioche still warm from the oven with a slathering of really good jam. Which is what I just did, and it was excellent. So excellent, that this blog post has bumped to the top of the queue of my mini back-log and Heston's Dinner is just going to have to wait. This bread laughs in the face of his Michelin star.

For those who may not be familiar with this bread, it is classically French and slightly sweet. The dough is enriched with eggs and a whole packet of butter. Well, it is French. The best way to eat this is warm with some excellent conserve and a coffee for a weekend breakfast or brunch - oh sod it, make it both.


Makes 1 large loaf

This dough should be made the night before and left in the fridge to firm before shaping and proving - excellent if you want to get ahead. This recipe is from Paul Hollywood's How to Bake.

500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
7g salt
50g caster sugar
10g instant yeast
140ml warm full-fat milk
5 medium eggs
250g unsalted softened butter, plus extra for greasing.

Tip This recipe does really require a mixer due to the eggs and butter that are used - the dough becomes very wet and sticky. However, you could always do it by hand - it will just take quite a bit longer. The technique by hand will be very similar to that used in my panettone post - always good to try out if you haven't before for your hands to get familiar with heavily enriched doughs. However, if you do have a mixer, then this recipe is incredibly simple.

Tip I suggest purchasing some really good quality butter for this. It makes up a large proportion of the end result and will heavily influence the taste of your bread. Seeing as it's a French recipe, I've stuck with the French butter President.

Tip The dried active yeast I use is Allisons and comes in a sealable pot so it's easy to measure out the amount you need, unlike the individual sachets you can get which are usually 7g each.

Put the flour into the bowl of your mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the salt and sugar to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other.

And the milk and eggs (the eggs should be at room temperature) and mix on a slow speed for 2 minutes, then on a medium speed for another 8 minutes until you have a soft, glossy, elastic dough. Add the softened butter a bit at a time and continue to mix for a further 5 minutes, scraping down the bowl periodically to ensure all of the butter is thoroughly incorporated. The dough will be very soft.

Tip the dough into a plastic bowl, cover and chill overnight or for at least 7 hours until it is firmed up and you are able to shape it.

After it has had its time in the fridge, grease a 25cm round deep cake tin. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and fold it on itself a couple of times to knock out the air. Divide it into 9 equal pieces and shape each piece into a smooth ball. You can do this by placing it into a cage formed by your hand against the table and moving your hand around in a circular motion, rotating the ball rapidly. Put eight of the balls around the edge of the tin and one in the centre. Don't worry if they're not yet snug - they will be when they rise.

Cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for around 2 hours in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size - I always do mine in a very low oven, barely switched on.

dough before proving
dough after proving

Heat the oven to 190C and when the brioche has proved, bake for 20-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Bear in mind the sugar and butter in the dough will make it take on colour before it is actually fully baked. Remove the brioche from the tin and cool on a wire rack. Tear off a portion whilst still warm and board the pleasure train.

Alfiyet olsun.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at The Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park - Review

Dressed Snails (c.1884)
Parsley, beetroot, salty fingers & red wine juice
There's been a lot of anticipation around the table we had reserved at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal - a one star Michelin restaurant located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel adjacent to Knightsbridge tube station.

I think a lot of this stemmed from the contestants from Masterchef: The Professionals having the kitchen doors of The Fat Duck welcome them in to both witness and replicate the wonders that take place in its vicinity - this is another of Heston's restaurants located in Bray, Berkshire and opened in 1995 (that long ago? I know). Its three Michelin stars has also seen it voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005. I was transfixed to the box and social media was rife with both gushing adoration over the molecular gastronomy on display, and outright disdain at what many view as a pretentious concept with science having no place in the kitchen. 

And I'll admit, a few moons ago I used to think along similar lines. However, his ever increasing TV presence and feedback from friends of colleagues who have met the man himself, he actually seems like a nice guy - not pretentious at all. And this Masterchef episode got me very excited about the experience that both he and his establishments are looking to give their clients.

Contrary to its name, Dinner serves both dinner and lunch and is viewed as the larger, more accessible, centrally located little sister of The Fat Duck. The menu is inspired by historic British gastronomy and this is represented by every item on it being accompanied by the year that the dish first came to be. 

I was fortunate enough to have the week off work and my two lovely acquaintances, Mel and Lea, were able to wangle a free afternoon, so we decided to opt for a slightly boozy and extended girlie lunch on Thursday. 

There is an a la carte available but the set menu is a good deal - three courses at £36. Set lunch menus at high-end restaurants are a fantastic way to sample the delights the establishment has on offer, without having to fork out for the higher prices that come with an evening meal. However, quite often the lunch will only be available during weekdays as is the case at Dinner. If you happen to work centrally then it's something that is well worth making a regular treat - as EatLikeaGirl does very well in her Posh Lunch Club.

The restaurant is spacious and in fact quite larger than I expected, able to accommodate 126 covers at any one time. There are floor to ceiling glass walls with one side providing a wonderful view into Hyde Park and another providing full view of the kitchen and the unique pulley system they have in place which serves to rotate the spit on an open fire. We were seated next to the kitchen allowing us to periodically glance at the numerous chefs during their stages of preparation and cooking.

Our very warm and approachable waiter explained the concept of the restaurant, talked us through the menus and with the most minimal of arm twisting enticed us to begin with an aperitif in the form of a glass of sparkling wine which came recommended and was in fact delicious - a first for me as I usually don't care for liqueur from white grapes. We placed our orders from the two options for each course from the set lunch menu, and between the three of us covered everything on it. Always a great excuse to dip the fork into the plate of your companions.

Our sourdough bread was delivered with some lightly salted butter - this was in our opinion far too hard and crunchy to eat without having to hide the mess your mouth was making in an attempt to masticate it. A passable situation to be in when with good friends, but I can't imagine this to be the case if your visit is part of a business lunch, which many were clearly there for. 

Regardless, our starters soon arrived and mine was the Lemon Salad (c. 1730) - smoked artichoke, goats curd and candy beetroot. Beautiful on the plate and the freshness from the citrus hit the nose before even bringing the fork to my mouth. The sharp complimented the creamy cool goats curd wonderfully, with regular interjections of bitterness from the leaves on the plate. For any that know me, citrus and sourness in general is one of my most favourite flavours so my starter went down a treat, even if it didn't quite have a 'wow' factor.

Lemon Salad (c. 1730)
Smoked artichoke, goats curd and candy beetroot

Mel and Lea opted for the Dressed Snails (c. 1884) as their starter - a notably beautiful and autumnal looking dish quite arresting in the quality of natural colours presented on the plate. Both burgandy and golden yellow beetroot against the vibrant greens from the parsley sauce and samphire, it was quite the picture.

There is only one flavour in the world that I find very hard to embrace and I actively avoid - it is that of aniseed. Liquorice, fennel, fennel seeds, sambuka, Ouzo, Raki and anything else along those lines is a glaring and flashing no no. It's a huge shame though as fennel looks so incredibly appetising - I just cannot stomach the flavour of aniseed. The mains on offer were duck and fish. 

When eating out, I will more often than not opt for the option I am least likely to cook at home and this is usually red meat - I try to regard it as more of a treat than a regular consumable. So in any other situation, I would have immediately opted for the duck. However, it was delivered with smoked confit fennel and so I swiftly avoided and instead opted for the Roast Ray Wing. As soon as our mains arrived and I sampled some of the duck that both Lea and Mel ordered, I realised this was a mistake. 

Out of the list of aniseed flavour bearing goods mentioned above, fennel is probably the least offensive and I really should have given it a go in such a reputable establishment - it was subtle and crunchy and the duck meat was beautifully sweet. Immediate bout of food envy at the table - dammit. Served with a silky potato mash, rich jus and complete with duck heart (umbles), I'm still kicking myself.

Powdered Duck Breast (c. 1670)
Smoked confit fennel, potato purée & umbles

The fish dish was - ok. Whilst looking very attractive on the plate, I feel most of the flesh was slightly over cooked - more chewy rather than flaky. Working my way across from one side of the fillet to the other, the last forkful was undercooked - while the flesh was opaque there were strings of red blood in it which I'm almost certain shouldn't have been there. 

I pointed it out to the waiter who apologised and said he didn't know why that was there - to be honest I did expect him to return after showing it to the kitchen with a further apology or gesture of good will, but it wasn't mentioned again. 

For a Michelin star restaurant, I don't think this was acceptable. Despite this, the parsnip and butter milk purée was almost unrecognisable, it was that smooth. My brain was tasting parsnip but I was still trying to understand the journey it took to end up as this texture - very pleasing. The voluptuous brown butter sauce dotted with fat and juicy capers was also well received and did not over-power the fish.

Roast Ray Wing (c. 1954)
Parsnip & butter milk purée, sea beet, brown butter & capers

My first dessert (yes first) was much more of a success. Once again, I am immediately drawn to the promise of fresh citrus on a menu and this did not disappoint. A fantastic combination of textures - crunchy sugar crystals topped with a quinelle (I learnt that from Masterchef) of mandarin and thyme sorbet - oh I can still smell it as I type. 

This was alongside a type of sticky and soft orange flavoured bread, with wafer thin crispy segments of mandarin perching on top. It was very good indeed, looked wonderful and a fantastic way to clean the palette.

Orange Buttered Loaf (c. 1630)
Mandarin and thyme sorbet

Mel chose the prune and tamarind tart of which I of course sampled. Whilst a simple looking dish, the skill in obtaining perfection and elegance in a tart is no mean feat and was executed very well, with perfect pastry, smooth set custard and a caramelised top. And again proving to me that whilst flavour combinations may not immediately entice in print, they can and often do pleasantly surprise as was the case here - prune and tamarind not being something I would immediately opt for but it was in fact delightful.

Prune and tamarind tart (c. 1720)

The same waiter that persuaded us to treat ourselves to sparkling wine as well as the usual bottle of red, also enticed us to opt for a second dessert and final course of ice cream made at the table. We had spotted the spectacle taking place at other tables and I think had already made up our minds that we wanted it at ours. This is the sort of molecular gastronomy you expect from a Heston restaurant so it was difficult to turn away. 

It consisted of a manual hand-turned mixer being wheeled up to the table with liquid nitrogen being poured into some vanilla custard and churned by the machine. After a few seconds and evaporated nitrogen bellowing out from the mixing bowl, the ice cream was complete. We had a scoop in an ice cream cone with freeze dried raspberries and popping candy as our toppings. At £12 each it was probably a bit pricey for what it was, but you of course also pay for the theatre.

All in, the lunch was a very pleasant experience and I would recommend it. This was down to a combination of the service which was excellent, my companionship which was of its usual very high standard, and the dishes that were good. 

I feel I was a little unlucky with my main choice in that I missed out on the better dish, and the issue with my fish fillet. It's also worth noting that the options available for vegetarians are decidedly mediocre according to a colleague who visited for an evening meal with his vegetarian wife. But that aside, it was a very good lunch. Very good, but certainly not mind-blowing (and still not as good as Lima which is my most favourite restaurant I've eaten at of recent months), but that's something I certainly would expect from somewhere like The Fat Duck. I just need to find the funds and try to secure a table there first - both easier said than done.

Alfiyet olsun.
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Square Meal

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Sardine, anchovy and garlic pâté on toast

Alone for the evening means cooking for one. Something I miss quite a lot. Firstly, I really like my own company. I turn everything off and usually enjoy a bit of silence. Secondly, you get to make exactly what  tickles your fancy without having to take anyone else's palette into consideration. A selfish situation to be in, and I like it.

There was a touch of the lurgy about me today, so I was initially thinking of making garlic soup from La Mancha, but by the time I came out of the shower I fancied something entirely different - fish. And I also couldn't be bothered to properly cook anything and contend with pots and pans. A quick glance in the cupboards and I was soon inspired.

Sardine, anchovy and garlic pâté on toast

1 x 250g tin of sardines in olive oil (boneless if you can find it)
2 fresh anchovy fillets
2 cloves of garlic, grated
White wine vinegar
Olive oil
The best bread you have to hand
Capers or black olives (optional)

Tip Anchovy fillets can easily be bought from supermarkets in little jars and kept in the fridge for when you need to use a fillet or two. An excellent item to always have in stock.

Drain your sardines and empty into a bowl. Add the anchovy fillets and grated garlic. Mash with the back of a fork or do this into a pestle and mortar until all broken down and combined.

Tip If your sardines are not boneless, fish out (pun intended) the spines. That's all that were present in mine. The rest of the flesh will be fine.

Add a good splash of white wine vinegar - taste to check if you want any more. Add a good glug of olive oil and continue to combine until you have a paste consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Tip The anchovies will already be salty, so taste it before you add salt.

In the meantime, grill your bread on one side until toasted. Spread your pâté on the un-toasted side and whack under the hot grill for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with a few capers or black olives, drizzle a bit of olive oil on top and eat immediately.

Some flat leaf parsley mixed into this would be a great addition, if you have any to hand (I didn't). This does have raw garlic in it which only sees a brief amount of heat. So a good one to save for when you are cooking for one - unless your other half is into that sort of thing.

Alfiyet olsun.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

January Packed Lunches

New years resolutions are a great tradition, aren't they? You make a handful, by the end of the year you've keep around a quarter. Or at least in my case. I'm not sure if there's anyone out there who doesn't have at least one health or diet related resolution on their list. Mine is to get back into running. I have previously run a half marathon a couple of years back, but no big races since. I've registered for one 10k run and one 15k run this year, with the intention to complete a marathon before I'm 30. I have a good amount of time and I think these are realistic goals, but we shall see.

For those of you who do have health or diet related resolutions, I'll bet that lunch time is the one meal of the day that is easily the most challenging. If you have a dreary lunch of leaves and plain chicken breast waiting for you in the fridge, it takes the most minimal of arm twisting to get you to ditch it and join colleagues for a pizza, burger or pub lunch instead. And who can blame you. Even if you do manage to resist all post-festive cravings towards fat and sugar, these sorts of lunches leave you unfulfilled and reaching for something sweet or carby by 4pm.

If only there was a lunch that was:

  • healthy
  • filling
  • tasty
  • easy
  • inexpensive

This would help with health, diet and finance resolutions. Surely a winner.

Well, here's one.

Wholegrain brown rice with greens and a delicious dressing

Wholegrain rice is high in protein, high in fibre, retains all the nutrients in the whole of the grain, and contains complex carbohydrates meaning a gradual release of energy, unlike sugary foods which give you the initial high followed by the crash. And when cooked al dente has a wonderful bite to it. It should keep you full for a very decent amount of time.

Makes about 3 portions

200-250g wholegrain rice (I used Uncle Ben's)
4 heads of pak choi, sliced (or other similar greens i.e. spinach)
5 cloves of garlic, sliced (have less or more depending on your preference)
Thumb of ginger, grated or thinly sliced
1 red chilli, finely sliced
Chilli bean paste (available from oriental grocers - worth sourcing - see previous post for more info)
Soy sauce 
Rice wine vinegar
Toasted sesame oil
Groundnut oil
Boil your rice in plenty of salted cold water. Once al dente, drain well and set aside.

In the meantime, gently fry your garlic, ginger and chilli in a little groundnut oil in a wok. If you're using pak choi, separate the white parts from the leafy green parts as they take a bit longer to cook. Add the whites and stir fry until slightly softened but still with crunch. When they're done, add the leafy parts and stir fry for a minute or so until just wilted. Stir in as much of the chilli bean paste as takes your fancy - say one to two tablespoons. Season to taste with the soy, toasted sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.

Tip your cooked rice into the wok and thoroughly mix. In a separate little bowl combine some more soy, sesame oil and rice vinegar and pour over the rice mix. Check the seasoning and amend to taste. Squeeze lime juice over it, and you are done. 
You could of course add some lean meat such as chicken strips to the dish, if you fancy it.

What's great about this lunch is you could heat it up if you wish and if your work premises has the tools to do so. Or you could take it out of the fridge an hour or so before lunch and have it at room temperature as more of a salad. The dressing makes it something you'll actually look forward to eating - wonderfully delicious and will fill you up a treat.

Alfiyet olsun.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

chinese spicy pork and aubergine

It's only taken 16 months, but I've finally made it inside my local Chinese supermarket Hoo Hing, about a seven minute walk from my house. And oh my - what a vast Aladdin's cave of exquisite and exotic ingredients. How the hell had I not visited before? I have declared it my best local discovery since the Mauritian food stall at Abbey Mills, Colliers Wood. Hardly really a claim for discovery seeing as it's been sitting there all this time, but I'm beside myself with smugness none-the-less.

I've been inside my fair share of Chinese supermarkets, many in Chinatown in London for a start. But on entering Hoo Hing, one of the first things you're greeted with which I haven't seen in any others, are huge blue tanks full of live sea-dwelling pickings - chunky lobsters clambering over each other with their claws taped shut, incredibly long and slippery eels (I don't think I've ever seen a live eel before!), and large flat turbots gracefully gliding about. Let's just reiterate this - I can buy live lobster seven minutes walk from my house - this is an absolute revelation. Not that I've ever attempted to cook one before, but at least now I can if I want to. And want I shall.

The vast array of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, alongside aisles of temptation in the form of jars and packets galore, I was hugely excited. Not to mention the fact this place also had a restaurant. So I sent Matt off to get the rest of the shopping list while I ordered some char siu pork buns. And they were excellent.

My new favourite food shop inspired me to cook something oriental for dinner, and I was already hankering for some aubergine whilst having my morning coffee (doesn't everyone think of dinner as soon as they wake up?). A basket full of far Eastern goodness and I was fully kitted out.

addictive chilli bean paste - notice almost
empty after just two days
Spicy Chinese pork and aubergine

The pork and aubergine go together very well in this fragrant stir-fry.

Makes about 6 portions 
(serve with rice or noodles)

Groundnut oil

3 x medium aubergines, halved lengthways and cut into 1cm half moons6-8 garlic cloves, finely chopped or grated

A fat thumb of root ginger, grated
2 x red chillies, finely chopped
500g pork mince
Chilli bean sauce (available from Asian grocers)
300ml hot chicken stock
4 heads pak choi, halved and sliced lengthways
Clear rice vinegar 
Toasted sesame oil
4 spring onions, thickly sliced 
2 tbsp cornflour, mixed with 4 tbsp cold water

Heat a wok until smoking and add two tablespoons of the groundnut oil, then fry the aubergine slices with a splash of water until softened and golden-brown all over. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Wipe away the excess oil from the wok, reheat and add some more groundnut oil. Stir fry the garlic, ginger and chilli for a few seconds, then add the minced pork and cook until browned.  Add the chilli bean sauce (about 4 tbsp but adjust to taste) and the hot chicken stock. Return the aubergines to the wok and add the pak choi.

Season, to taste, with the vinegar and sesame oil and bring to the boil. Cook for 3-4 minutes then stir in the spring onions. Add the cornflour paste and stir until the liquid has thickened a bit. If you're still left with liquid don't worry about it, any rice will fully appreciate it.

Spoon the goodness into a serving bowl and eat with chopsticks. Gorgeous.

Startes consisted of some Chinese chive and pork dumplings found in one of the freezer aisles in Hoo Hing. Pop them in some boiling water for around 12 minutes and serve with whatever sauce you fancy - slightly gelatinous exterior with delicious insides. Just what I was hoping for.

Who needs a Chinese take-away when you have a local Chinese supermarket and a good wok.

Alfiyet olsun.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

ICELAND: eating in Reykjavik

Iceland was pretty – well icy. Bloody beautiful, but very cold. And icy. We’re talking about three inches of compacted ice on some of the pavements. I did fall over – only once though. Matt didn’t seem to have any problem with slipping. He puts this down to his size 13 feet – too much contact with the ground to fall over, so I mostly clung onto his sleeve.

But the country is gorgeous - really quite stunning. Exactly the sort of breath taking views I anticipated. The sun started to think about rising around 10am every day and was soon skulking away by 3pm. Because it stays so close to the horizon, the sky was in a perpetual state of sunrise / sunset meaning everything was swathed in a constant dusky pink haze when it wasn’t dark. Reflecting on the undersides of clouds, on the peaks of snowy mountains, on frozen rivers and lakes – it gave the country an ethereal glow.

Particular highlights included:

Hot springs and geysers

The hot springs in the Geysir geothermal field – the heat rising from the bubbling sulphuric waters condensing in the cold air into great columns of steam clouds, cast away by the light breeze against the backdrop of a long and slow sunset. Also, witnessing Geysir itself (the name given to the biggest geyser in Iceland) erupting about 30m into the air.

Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall)

Gullfoss waterfall is Europe’s largest waterfall located in south-west Iceland and is fed by the melt waters of Langjökull glacier (the second largest in Iceland). It’s certainly the most spectacular waterfall I’ve ever encountered. The volumes of water were a lot less that you would see in the summer, however it was so cold that the spray clouds from the tumbling torrents were freezing in mid-air, then hitting your face (and eyeballs). Invigorating, to say the least.

Clear night skies 

Bracing the frigid midnight winds in the exposed and pitch-black Thingvellir national park, frozen fingers trying to set up the SLR on the tri-pod in the hope of catching the other worldly green haze of the Northern Lights. Alas, we weren’t successful but did take some beautiful shots of the night sky.

taken with high ISO and long exposure

Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Gazing down the rifts that mark the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (where the two tectonic plates are pulling apart and leaving water filled gorges) and seeing Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, and the rivers around it being almost completely iced over.

Basking in the Blue Lagoon

Super-heated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines 
that generate electricity in a nearby power plant. The steam and hot water is then fed into the lagoon, full of skin healing minerals like silica and sulphur and kept at a very comfortable 39C.
 We squeezed in a few hours of relaxation on route to the airport on our final day.

New Year's Eve Fireworks
Watching the city of Reykjavik from the roof-top of our apartment erupt with fireworks, filling every available scrap of sky in all directions as far as the eye could see with exploding and cascading riots of colour in the half hour approaching midnight on new year’s eve.

And finally, but of course by no means least, there was the eating.

Eating in Reykjavik

I had a lot of plans for eating in this city (my holiday plans are always centred around the food I will be consuming, and where these sought after venues are located), based on sound research and reviews.  A couple of useful sights for food related information included Cheap eats in Reykjavik and The Best of Reykjavik 2012: Dining and Grub from The Reykjavik Grapevine – the latter an absolute treasure trove of useful information if you’re into your food. I think every city should have a similar level of food related detail available on the web. Definitely one to bookmark if you plan on visiting the city and look forward to the culinary delights it has to offer.

Alas, due to the time of year we visited we were plagued with several of the anticipated venues being closed. Both the 31st Dec and 1st Jan are Bank Holidays in Iceland, and many, many restaurants, cafés and dining outlets were closed over these two days. In addition to this, some didn’t open at all over the whole Christmas period. This meant we had to miss off with heavy-hearts some of the places I had eagerly anticipated. These included:

They do hot dogs  And they do them well. They do them so well that The Huffington Post thinks they could possibly be the best hotdogs in the world.

Danish influence and the only place you’ll find mørrebrød in Reykjavik – tasty open sandwiches with a wide variety of toppings.

Grái Kötturinn 
‘The grey cat’ is a tiny (six tables and it's also quite difficult to identify – we walked past it four times before locating it and then of course realising it was closed) 50’s style café. It’s apparently frequented by local artists (there are lots of them in Reykjavik) and intellectuals and serves excellent breakfasts – think bacon and eggs, fluffy American pancakes, bagels etc. Also noted for its early doors opening hours – from 07.15 – 15.00 on weekdays and 08.00 – 15.00 on weekends.
One of the oldest cafés in Reykjavik – quintessentially Icelandic with breakfasts of eggs, bacon and waffles. Reliable grilled sandwiches mostly based on ham bacon and gouda. Turns into a ‘vin de salle’ at night with a selection of wines and intimate atmosphere.

This hip-happening hostel is known for its excellent breakfast buffets – fresh bread, Icelandic cheeses, cured meats, preserves, porridge.  All you can eat for around £7. Sounds like a great way to start the day. I don’t think this was closed while we were there, but we alas just never made it during our fleeting visit due to some early tour starts.

But fear not – we DID eat.

The Laundromat

The place we ate on our first night. Well known for its family friendly atmosphere – posters proudly displayed urging you to not feel shy about breastfeeding as they like ‘both boobs and babies’. A colourful interior with walls covered in huge maps, photographs and posters. Always buzzing and full of tourists and locals alike. Mostly a young hip crowd (and strangely, didn’t actually see any children in there) – single diners with the glow from their Apple Mac behind their plate on their face just as comfortable in this setting as groups of friends playing cards over their dinners.

This place is reputed to do a mean breakfast, but alas was only open on the first night of our trip, so we didn’t get the chance to try it. But if you are wondering, they sound something like this:

Spiced sausages, bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes, cheese, yoghurt with muesli, fruit, American pancakes, baguette, rye bread and mango and ginger juice - £9.

I’ll take that.

We ordered a couple of bacon cheese burgers with fries. Apart from a bun that didn’t initially seem that appealing (too akin to those you get on cheeseburgers in a Maccy D’s) but in the end tasted alright, this was excellent. Juicy meat that actually tasted of beef, with lettuce, tomato, gherkin (oddly a hint of sweet amongst the sour) along with really excellent hand cut chips. Slightly crispy outside, fluffy inside, already well-seasoned, piping hot. 

Despite excellent burgers, my favourite thing on the table was the chocolate milkshake – exactly how they should be. Full fat milk and ice cream along with wazzed up dark chocolate, so you get little nuggets of it throughout.  You will think I’m crazy, but dip your hot salted chips into your cold sweet milkshake – I'll put money on you enjoying it.  Remember opposites complement each other, before you reach for that straight jacket.

Gulfoss Kaffi

If you go on a one day Golden Circle tour (which you will do if you visit Reykjavik), then one of the stops will be Gullfoss Waterfall (as seen above). You’ll probably get there around lunchtime and you’ll be hungry. And likely freezing. Climb up the stairs and at the back of the souvenir shop you'll find quite a large café. Order the lamb stew – it’s delicious. A cockle warming broth with chunks of lamb, potatoes and vegetables.  Really incredibly tasty, wonderfully savoury and every piece of meat was tender with no fat or sinew. Served with bread and Icelandic butter and topped off with a very good coffee, I was more than brought back to life from the cutting cold.

Icelandic Fish & Chips

It should come as no surprise that a key part of the Icelandic cuisine revolves around seafood. An island surrounded by the fertile waters of the Norwegian Sea and Atlantic, it's going to produce some wonderfully fresh sea-dwelling ingredients.

Our first encounter with such delights was at a well reviewed fish and chip place at the harbour. It was a sit in restaurant as opposed to fish and chips to takeaway, as we may be more familiar with here in the UK. And I'd call them posh fish and chips, with the restaurant only using organic ingredients. The portions were typically smaller than you would find here, but I suspect that's down to the superior quality of the meat. Regardless, it was in fact the perfect sized meal.

The full menu includes cod, plaice, monkfish, halibut, catfish, ling cod and blue ling but what will actually be available depends on what has been caught that day - an excellent sign of its freshness.
The batter used is made from spelt and barley giving it a lightness and crispiness I've never experienced on battered fish before - an absolute delight. In addition, they choose to oven roast their hand cut chips rather than fry, opting for the healthier alternative.

The also make their own 'skyronnaises' - the name they give to the dips / sauces to accompany your fish. I opted for the blue ling (from the cod family) with chips roasted in olive oil, parsley and Maldon sea salt (below). Matt went for the cod with rosemary chips. We both chose a skyronnaise of classic tartare but more exotic were available such as coriander and lime, ginger and wasabi for example. Our meals were delicious.

Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron)

This is a small green hut by the harbour run by a reputedly salty old sea dog plastered on the interiors via the medium of photography, although we didn’t see him in the flesh on our visit. Three long tables with benches and a fridge full of wonderfully fresh fish on skewers, ready to be pointed out by salivating clientèle  They had salmon, hake, shrimps, cod, angler, catfish, skate, halibut, lemon sole, plaice, blue ling, river trout, smoked eel and all spanking fresh from the sea on the doorstep. 

They’ll grill these for you and are delivered slightly charred and delicious. Other options on skewers to help fill the void are little new potatoes and vegetable skewers. Also on offer was some minke whale meat which I was almost tempted to pick out to try, however at almost £20 for one skewer I decided against it. I’m pleased I was swayed this way as one of the young strapping lads from the English group behind us decided upon a portion, to impress his friends no doubt. I believe the tough red meat sat pretty in his stomach on top of his new years eve hangover, got stuck in his teeth, and was almost impossible to cut with cutlery. He declared he wished he had opted for some succulent salmon instead and his friends laughed into their fresh fish as he tried desperately to swallow almost whole as much as he could to get his money’s worth.

But what you really want to visit The Sea Baron for is the famous lobster soup. And bloody hell – it isn’t half excellent. A spiced, thick tomato based (I think) broth with wonderful pieces of lobster, served in a huge mug. Again, fantastically seasoned – this is something I’ve observed amongst Icelandic cuisine (more about this a bit further down).  Also with celery and carrots. Just really delicious and tasty. Not the flavour I would have expected from it when first launching into the bowl, but more than pleasantly surprised. We feverishly devoured these after a blisteringly cold afternoon out at sea scouring for whales. Alas the only ones we saw that day were in the fridge of the restaurant.

Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar

Quite devastated that the 'best hot dogs in the world' were unavailable, after eating our soup and fish above and with it being our final evening, we were determined to squeeze in a part two to this last meal and decided on a burger from an alternative fast food joint almost equally renowned.

The building to this place was about two minutes walk from the sea baron (make that five if you're taking it slow on the ice), an anusual round hut type venue with an open kitchen, lots of hipster Americana on the walls, ceilings and walls strewn with fairy lights and festive wrapped presents hanging from the ceiling. These burgers were also great and recommended - a bacon cheeseburger with fresh tomatoes and fried onions each and we were definitely fit to bursting.

Dill Restaurant

We booked this table well in advance for our New Year's Eve meal. The restaurant is located in a wild bird reserve in the middle of Reykjavik overlooking the lake and old town. It consists of a small room with 12 tables and an open kitchen, situated in a building built by a renowned Finnish architect in the late 60's.

The New Year's Eve menu consisted of four courses with three amuse-bouches, and the menu was innovative and exciting whilst still using traditional and locally sourced ingredients.

First up and already waiting for you on the table was pine cone in a pot, with wafer thin crispy wafers of smoked lamb and poppadom like Christmas bread precariously perched on the individual plates of the cone. You could smell the smokiness from the lamb immediately after arriving at the table and it had a wonderful saltiness.

This was followed by the second amuse bouche described as 'petrified potato in holiday spirits'. This was in fact a hot new potato coloured blue with squid ink, sitting on soft powdery crumbs of panchetta and halibut, with a carraway mayonnaise and served in the corner of a square of black slate. Very delightful, so much so I used a swipe of my finger to clean up the remaining mayo and without shame.

The third and final appetiser before our main was noted on the menu as 'dried duck, buttermilk and parsnip'. This arrived in the form of pureed parsnip, dried grated duck, pickled parsnip, dried buttermilk. This, while interesting, was probably my least favourite of the appetisers. It was a little too difficult to distinguish the flavours or what was what. 

We were then presented with the breads to accompany the meal. A sweet white bread (almost brioche like) and a malted sourdough. On a small wooden board there were two soft butters - a slightly green one with the colouring caused by the presence of spruce oil (the oil from pine or Christmas trees). And goodness, the pine aroma certainly came through making the sensation of eating it fantastically festive. The other butter had little nuggets of salty bacon bits and with these was a little pile of Icelandic salt from the western fjords - very clean and a couple of flakes on the beautiful bread and butter making the mouthfuls a sheer delight.

Now it was time to begin the meal and the first course was described as 'mustard herring, rye bread ice cream, onions and dill'. This was my favourite course of the evening and met all expectations from a cuisine I would hope to find in Iceland. Nordic influenced and with pickled stuff - beautiful. It consisted of pickled herring, rye crumbs, a soft scoop of rye bread ice cream, pickled shallots, small cubes of potato, dill, chives and a mustard sauce. The savoury ice cream was a revelation and the creamy coldness from it complimented the pickled fish so very well. All the textures on the plate married perfectly with the rye crumbs providing a wonderful crunch, and the tang from the pickled presence cutting through the ice cream.

The second course was a fillet of pan fried Icelandic cod, superior even to Norwegian cod the well informed waiter was eager to tell us. It came with sauerkraut, onions cooked in beer, buerre noisette (burnt butter) infused with Christmas aromas including cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, as well as dill oil.  I think perhaps, there were a few too many flavours and aromas going on in this course. I wasn't convinced all the festive spices were necessary with the delicate fish and a nose-full or these aromas was just a bit too overpowering. I also think my fish was slightly over done. An ok plate, but not my favourite.

The next course introduced us to some red meat in the form of a sirloin of beef. Interestingly, we were not asked how we would like it cooked and it came out almost with a pulse - just a bit too rare for me. It was clearly rested very well however as despite it only seeing a few seconds of heat each side, there was barely any blood on the plate. However, this did make it really quite difficult to masticate and swallow - not the best piece of beef I've had cooked for me. Also on the plate was a very aromatic and vibrantly green herb sauce - I think a mixture or rosemary and mint. Also a potato cake topped with a wonderfully pungent Icelandic cheese called 'isbui' - this was essentially like cheese on soft toast slightly charred from a blow torch. There was also an earthy and sweet Jerusalem artichoke purée along with some red cabbage and a couple of sprigs of lambs lettuce. I've said before that cheese and red meat go fantastically well together, and if it wasn't for the chewy beef, this would have been a very well received plate.

Last but certainly not least, was the dessert. I often find it's the starters and the desserts that are the most well executed courses to a meal, and this was certainly the case at Dill Restaurant.  Described on the menu as 'mandarins, spruss and nuts. All you'll want for Christmas' my expectations were not that high. But we were delivered a very welcomed plate of sheer delight - a small carrot and walnut cake, a shard of beautiful cinnamon meringue not at all too sweet, mandarin and carrot foam and sharp, sweet mandarin ice cream. The cold and clean fresh citrus of the plate was well thought out and completely necessary after the rich and complex flavours from the previous courses. This was my second favourite course after the rye starter - wonderful.

All in all, the service and intimate atmosphere at Dill Restaurant was a pleasure, and fireworks across the lake had already begun once we were seated, providing a wonderful view. Whilst some of the courses were a bit hit and miss, I would still recommend it and return.

I've made a couple of observations while in Iceland:

Icelandic drivers don't seem to indicate. Instead they abruptly decide to turn into a side street just as you are crossing it. I can let this slide however as their driving generally it very good with excellent roads and lane discipline - just on the right instead of the left. I reckon I could give it a go. Not to mention the impressive and monstrous super jeeps with wheels up to your shoulders you see occasionally - more than capable of tackling the snowy and rugged terrains of the more mountainous areas.

When it comes to cuisine, Icelandic people are not afraid of their seasoning, and I love that. I certainly have a savoury tooth and I'm not afraid of a decent helping of quality salt in my dishes - this could well be from my Turkish background - I recall aunts shaking salt over their meals for a good 7 seconds before even lifting their cutlery. In addition, flakes of sea salt are often available on the side if you wish to add even more to your dish. A couple of flakes is often perfect at enhancing the flavours in a mouthful.

Water is a fabulous asset in Iceland and present in abundance. I learnt on my trip that all hot water and heating in Reykjavik is directly sourced from the geothermally heated waters underground and reaches houses almost boiling. It's also incredibly cheap (one of the few things that still is in Iceland) so you don't need to feel guilty about having a very long hot shower after a frozen day in the wilderness, as one tour guide was keen to inform us. In addition, every restaurant has tap water readily available and on your table without you even asking for it. The tap water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world, and it goes without question that you would want to drink some. Very few people (only really tourists who are not used to drinking water from taps) order any bottled water, but there is really no need. It's wonderfully refreshing getting tap water delivered without having to feel awkward about requesting it in the first place.

The Arts
The island seems to be full of culture - numerous poets, artists, authors, musicians - some of which have won nobel prizes for their work. Book shops, galleries, cafés frequented by intellectuals, and museums are abundant. There's also an annual music festival in November. With such an incredible landscapes full of science, geology, nature and weather, it would be difficult not to be inspired to channel your surroundings through some form of artistic outlet.

Iceland is a part of Europe that some may not instantly think of paying a trip to. However, it's somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long time and I'm immensely glad I did and would highly recommend.

Afiyet olsun.

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