East London Saturday

It was a stolen day today – our plans for museum visiting and tea with friends were foiled by unforseen work commitments. Not ours. So we were left with an entirely free agenda. Naturally we decided to fill it with food.

First up, a wander through Victoria Park in blazing sunshine, coupled with cold noses from near zero temperatures.  Then veering off through not-so picturesque industrial estates and along darkened underpasses: all to find the Counter Cafe.  When you see the Ca_lton tower, you’re there.

It’s a brunch menu, served throughout the day.  Two super-smooth lattes to start with, complete with the obligatory antipodean feathered milk tattoo. We chose the Big Breakfast and the French Toast and berries with a side of bacon.  Salty and sweet rules my world.  The Big Breakfast includes skinny sausages, fat slices of lean bacon, sunshine yellow fried eggs on wholewheat toast.  Along with crispy homemade potato cakes, homemade butter beans in tomato sauce and superb tomato relish (available in jars to take away).  The French toast – thick square slabs of golden goodness and fried bananas, scattered with sharp berries and flaked toasted almonds and the obligatory miniature jug of maple syrup for pouring.

The crowd is mixed – Guardian-reading couples, friends gossiping over coffee, walkers fresh from the Capital Ring tucking into substantial breakfasts. They consciously try to use organic ingredients where possible.  Interestingly, less families than the often overrun Pavilion in Victoria Park, another local favourite. I’d quite like to potter down to the Counter Cafe on a working day and settle into the old cinema seats by the window, use the wifi and write in the sunshine.

Fliers on the table directed us down to Stour Space, for their monthly Craft Fair.  It’s an artists’ collective and studio space – super friendly people and a nice collection of designer makers.  So many pretty things – sadly so many makers without websites. Grr. (How?? In this day and age? Mutter mutter </rant>).  The fair is on the last Saturday of every month – certainly worth a look.

Following the canal all the way, we wandered to Broadway Market. We’d been promised Hummingbird today as an afternoon sweet treat – but plans for town went out the window. So we came in search of Violet cupcakes. I have to say, I was slightly perturbed when we got home to discover that they were scattered with flecks of ‘dust or something’. I suppose we’d bought them at the end of the day.  Dammit. They still tasted good – better than good. Some of the best I’ve had.

Passionfruit and Blood Orange.  Wonderful once tucked up at home with tea again. Shortly we’re off to another local Supper Club – And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Bread. It’s the Evil Menu. Should we be scared?

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Talisker Whiskey at Salt

We headed to Salt on the Edgeware Road last night for an early Burns Night celebration, courtesy of Qype and Talisker Whisky.

Most of our fellow guests had already managed to get through a couple of whiskey cocktails before the main event – a tasting run by Colin Dunn and a Burns Night Supper (or a Almost A Week Early Truncated Burns Night Celebration) complete with the awesome presentation skills of Clark McGinn addressing the haggis, which of course was piped into the bar.  I’ve only been to one Burns Night before – in the depths of North Wales, organised by a Sassenach – which was much more involved than this, with the reply from the lassies involving a story about a Kalashnikov. This may or may not have been strictly traditional.

Part of the reason I was keen to attend is that my whiskey knowledge more or less extended to ‘I don’t think I like it’.  Colin talked us through the nose and bouquet of each of three whiskies – I’d have to say that my favourite was the first, the 10YO.  We were encouraged – monitored – to hold the amber goodness in our mouths, swilling it around, for a full ten seconds to release the flavour.

Chilli pepper.

It wasn’t so much a taste sensation as an explosion and a feeling that my taste buds had been temporarily burned off.  I think this is probably common for uninitiated. That dissapates after a while, you get the Ready-Brek glow and it was well matched with Scottish smoked salmon. We went on to sample their Distillers Edition and the 57 degrees North, paired with appropriate dishes (yes we had haggis and tatties) and it grew on me, literally.  I started to understand the attraction of whiskey a little better – I was surprised to find I was much keener on sipping the single malt than having any of the whiskey cocktails that the bar staff conjured up afterwards.  This was certainly helped along by the sublime chocolate mousse – more than one person commented that they’d go back for that alone.

We left with a very generous goodie bag and I was exceptionally taken with the embossed packaging on the small bottle of 10YO that we took away. In case you didn’t already guess, 57 degrees North is one of the geographical coordiates for the Talisker distillery and it’s used on the box.  I like that sort of detail. I’m not expecting to become a everyday whiskey drinker, but much like the introduction to tequila at Wahaca – where I discovered the difference between blanco, reposado and añejo – I feel like I learned something.  Even if it’s only that I’ll be buying my Dad the 10YO for his birthday, it’s still a very good start.

Stars: *****

Thanks to @TikiChris and Qype for a great event.

Salt Bar, 13 Edgware Road, London W2 2JE  0207 402 1155

Weekend breakfast: buttermilk pancakes

Buttermilk is one of those things you get in every Irish supermarket but I usually find it difficult to track down here – that’s to say, my local supermarket doesn’t have it.  Odd, as  approximately a tenth of their floor space is given over to Home Baking, bless whoever their buyer is.  When I do find it, there are two recipes I want to make, and this is one of them: buttermilk pancakes.

I use Scott Jenson‘s recipe, though scaled back as below for two people – you’ll still be stuffed – and to use a single standard container of buttermilk.

The Wets
285ml buttermilk
1 egg
40g melted butter
1.5 Teaspoons Vanilla

The Drys
100g white flour
30g sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp  salt

I think it’s probably the vanilla that lifts these, but leaving the batter for five minutes to allow the bicarbonate to react also makes a difference.  You mix the wets, mix the drys, mix them together without overbeating, then cook a quarter cup at a time on a medium heat.  Get your pan ready and prepare to sacrifice the first pancake – my mother always says it’s ‘one for the pan’.


When crater-like bubbles start to appear, it’s time to add your toppings and flip, particularly for fruit like blueberries, sliced bananas or chopped strawberries. We experimented with chocolate chunks (squares of 80% Green & Blacks, because that was all that was lurking in the cupboard, butchered with a mezza luna) but it was a little too sickly even for me. Adding a small amount of flour-dusted milk chocolate chips shortly after you first pour the batter and it’s lightly set would probably work, allowing the chips to sink into the middle of the pancake and not just make a sticky mess when you turn it.

Plain ones work brilliantly with thin crispy rashers of smoked bacon, and maple syrup. A bottle of Prosecco, and nothing to do for the rest of the day is also recommended.  Best weekend breakfast ever.

Wahaca – Burrito testing

Wahaca Canary Wharf

Back in October, at an event organised by TikiChris for Qype, we spent a very enjoyable evening at the Wahaca site in Westfield, tasting their winter menu and being persuaded of the delights of reposado and añejo tequilas.  Tommi and Mark were keen that we gave them honest feedback that evening and impressively, we subsequently found out that they implemented suggestions the next day. I guess it’s true to say that drink talks: we may have been more vocal than they might have expected on one particular topic. The burrito. Or Cabbagegate as the redtops would probably dub it.

Wahaca’s strength is cooking authentic street food. The only dish I wasn’t wild about that night was the Vera cruz fish – Because European influence is strong in that region and though by itself it’s a delicious and healthy option from the menu, I wanted Mexican that night. Not European and certainly not Tex-Mex.

Wahaca Burrito Testing

That’s the problem with burritos. As Tommi explained this weekend at their newest branch in Canary Wharf (my Londonist review here), in Mexico a burrito is a dense parcel of meat, rice and beans that’s designed to be taken out to the fields: robust enough to survive the journey and fuel a day’s labours. What most of us know and love as a burrito is more of a Californian creation – lashings of cheese, guacamole and piquant sauces. From March, Wahaca will be offering burritos in their new takeaway service and they’re determined to get them right from the outset.  They’re staying as true to their ‘real Mexican’ ethos as possible while making them suitable for takeout and perfecting the flavours and combinations.

One of the biggest issues that the menu tasters had back in October was the presence of that one particular ingredient. I’m not necessarily a massive fan of cabbage at the best of times and it overpowered the vegetable burrito. Um, yes, it may have been me who mentioned the word ‘Sauerkraut’ and the burrito aficionados weren’t having any of it. Apparently one of the immediate changes to the Wahaca menu was a noticable reduction in the pickling vinegar.

Favourites on Sunday included chargrilled steak and slow cooked pork – surprisingly, with a complete absence of cabbage, or at least that’s what it tasted like.   The vegetable burrito oozes juicy mushrooms – I’m just too much of a carnivore to ever order it voluntarily.  Tommi isn’t threatening anyone with that knife, rather she was listening intently to the verdict on the custom burritos that she created.  Oddly enough, the clear winner for us did feature cabbage.  Hell, what do we know?

Stars: *****

Keep an eye on their blog for details of when they’ll launch.  It’s going to be good.  Tasty, filling reasonably priced fresh food. Can’t go wrong, really.

Macaroni Cheese

I’m not making resolutions this year – why people make themselves miserable with denial, then miserable with the guilt when they tumble off the wagon is beyond me. So, unsurprisingly, no January dieting either in this household.  Yay!

The hunt for a decent macaroni cheese recipe started some time ago (good restaurant options include the main at Canteen and the side dish in Byron) and then heated up somewhat – all down to EatLikeAGirl tweeting about The Cheeselover’s competition.  I figured this would send us in the right direction, and sure enough… yes I’d heard of Simon Hopkinson but had never actually cooked any of his dishes.  Happily a little Googling pitched up this fairly classic mac ‘n’ cheese recipe (found via What’s For Dinner Darling).

We went with the suggestions of using 200g of pasta, made small store-cupboard substitutions like [lots of] black pepper, specifically whole milk, and 100g of mature cheddar along with 40g of Red Leicester in the sauce: essential for colour. The sauce was indeed stirred for fifteen minutes – what chemical reaction that effects I don’t know.  It was the right decision.

Almost an entire packet of sliced vine tomatoes topped it, sliced about 2mm thick. Good for umami, along with the parmesan, apparently. And another shaving of Red Leicester, more pepper.

Stars *****

The result? An instant classic. Ok, not one I’d cook too regularly because of its stupendous carboliciousness (no dieting does not equate ‘try to be size of a house for 2011’), but velvety cheese sauce coating perfectly cooked pasta and, surprisingly satisfying tomatoes, is a total winner. Perfect to chase away snowy day grumblings.  As a rather accomplished home cook told me recently: “I only cook for love”.  Share the mac and cheese affection.

NYE at Fernandez and Leluu

Photo by Simon Doggett

The first time I met Uyen (above) and Simon (in the kitchen when this was taken, probably) of Fernandez and Leluu, I reviewed their east London supper club for Londonist. Wooed by their enthusiasm and professionalism, and completely overcome by their food, it was a struggle to not immediately book in for the following week. And the week after that. But that’s how you get a reputation as a stalker, or so I’m told.  Rejina of GastroGeek who was actually there the same week, said she felt exactly the same.  We went back in early December for the Miss Saigon Menu, and my personal highlight was Woven Paper rolls with Prawns, Pork, Black Fungus and Vermicelli, (Cha Gio Nem) – little crunchy parcels of prawny goodness.

Fernandez and Leluu Supper Club by you.

Coincidentally, very soon after we’d met Simon and Uyen, we started to think about New Years Eve.  Rather than fight through throngs to the bar and grudgingly hand over mortgage payments as taxi fares, I was musing about cooking at home for friends.  Then I remembered (a) I don’t have a dishwasher and (b) I’d  seen on the F&L website that they were planning to cook that night. We spent the taxi budget on fabulous wine instead. Done!

About twenty five of us spent the evening drinking, eating, laughing our heads off.  Chairs had been begged, borrowed, returned to neighbours who needed them themselves, procured from others.  It was great to see foodie bloggers such as the lovely Luiz in the crowd which was made up of friends of the couple and fans of the supper club.  Uyen’s review and some recipes are here all I can say is – make the pesto. Our version earlier this week, devoured with Gail’s Potato and Rosemary Sourdough didn’t turn out quite as tangy as hers (I suspect she used more basil) but it was delicious all the same – such reward for so little effort, as long as you have a food processor.  I was going to deny that Rejina and I polished off the lot on NYE, then I remembered hiding the wiped-clean dish in the bread basket.

Menu

:: Simon’s Terrine ::

Photo from Simon Doggett's Flickr stream

:: Uyen’s Bolognese Sauce With Pasta ::

:: Uyen’s Pesto & Garlic & Rosemary Bread ::

:: Salmon & Tuna Sashimi With Watercress Salad & Orange, Soy & Mirin Dressing ::

::  Lamb & Chicken Banquet With Roasties & Carrots ::

:: Orange & Vodka Panna Cotta With White Chocolate Shavings & Strawberry Sauce ::

Photo from Simon Doggett's Flickr stream

The sashimi was mouthwatering as always – they insist on collecting the sushi-grade fish from Steve Hatt in Islington on the day it is to be served.  This is the sort of detail that makes you happy to return here again and again and we were delighted to be included in this gathering.   It’s one of those places that I’m willing to give anything a try, from frogs’ legs to weasel coffee.  Apparently Uyen finds it hilarious to watch my face when tasting the first mouthful of each dish, as she speeds back to the kitchen – always elated at just how good it is.  I even tried the pannacotta, which is normally the sort of texture and taste I’d run a mile from.  The plate went back clean to the kitchen.   Our banquet arrived just around midnight and we saw in 2010 well fed, in convivial surroundings, awash with champagne: deeply happy.

Stars:  *****

Fernandez and Leluu’s Supper Club continues into 2010 with dates on the website – some already booked out so be quick.  Also check for Uyen’s recipes and their reviews of London and east London foodie havens.