Hello darling readers and welcome to the last post of 2015, a year that has been immense for so many different reasons. I really want to apologise for being very MIA over the last few weeks…between searching for and then moving into a new home, being out of the country, changing jobs and getting ready for Christmas, my free time has been scarce to say the least; not an excuse I promise, rather a small explanation of what has kept me from you lovely people – I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and readership and here’s hoping 2016 is a touch calmer!
I always find the start of a new year is accompanied with a multitude of feelings, not the least of which is awe that another 12 months has skipped by in the apparent blink of an eye! There are always things to celebrate in the form of accomplishments made & steps taken, however there can sometimes be a tinge of regret or wistfulness if the journeys begun haven’t walked quite the path expected. Be it good or bad, I hope each and every one of you can commend yourselves on surviving the year, whatever it brought for you and however you feel as you bid it farewell.
As we look back on all that we have done and seen and of course eaten in 2015, I wanted to pick out 12 of my own favourite dishes. Some I have enjoyed in London, some I have loved further afield and a few, I’ve been proud to make in my own kitchen with the help of J of course, the man who is the (freshly baked sourdough) bread to my (salted of course) butter. I hope some of them inspire you to get cooking in the new year and to get out and explore your own neighbourhoods…I would love to know what dishes rocked your world this year!
Tomato salad with pomegranate molasses from ‘Persiana’
Sabrina Ghayour’s seminal cookbook has had pride of place on my shelves since it came out in 2014; I have loved many recipes from it including the lamb & sour cherry meatballs which are so perfect for a dinner party as they can be made the night before and the chicken bastillas which manage to be both light & filling, sweet & savoury, delicious & err, even more delicious at the same time!
This simple and elegant tomato salad drizzled with pomegranate molasses and speckled with crescent moons of pepper & red onion as well as earthy chunks of walnuts is about as perfect a side dish as you could wish for. Visually it’s a glorious Technicolor feast and each mouthful is refreshing & energetic; if you’re after an unassuming but show stopping platter to accompany a dark, rich & meaty main course, this is what you’ve been searching for.
Roast chicken & potatoes from Birdbox
This has been a year of street food for me, namely that which was to be found at Street Feast in Shoreditch at Dinerama and at Hawker House in Canada Water. Both locations offered a fantastic introduction into some of the most exciting global food currently out there in the pop ups, the markets and the air-stream trailers of London and although I ate well – and by ‘well’ please understand that I mean ‘a lot’ – at both nights, the stand out dish for me was courtesy of Birdbox.
A deceptively simple sounding box of chicken & chips was in fact a Bajan inspired & influenced masterpiece of poultry & potatoes; gleaming & sticky rotisserie chicken was hacked into vaguely bite size pieces and piled next to drool inducing roasted potatoes, whose crunchy, caramelised edges and pillowy interiors were the perfect partner to the thyme, lemon & garlic flavours that gave everything an unbelievably heady fragrance. I swear, I might have been given a plastic fork with which to preserve my gentile lady-likeness but if I’d been alone and not surrounded by dozens of the East End’s hippest & hungriest people, it would have been finger food all the way. If you see these guys out and about next year, get involved with some of the best birds in London.
Korean fried chicken from Jin Juu
I never thought of myself particularly as a fried chicken kind of gal but then, until former Iron Chef Judy Joo did the decent thing and opened Jin Juu in Kingly Court, I’d never experienced it in the sort of form that makes you want to finish one sitting, go home, don your Groucho-Marx-moustached-glasses and sneak back incognito for another portion. It’s not that it’s good chicken, it’s that it’s such good chicken, I could happily eat it and only it from the menu. I mean other stuff is good – the edamame beans are freaking awesome and the dessert menu is wickedly wanton – but the chicken is where I pull up a chair, order a drink and hunker down to give that hen some of my closest attention.
The exterior is dark & crunchy whilst the inner thigh meat – top tip right there as the wings offer less meat – is plump & succulent and both are made all the more grab-for-it fabulous by the addition of sweet soy and spicy gochujang sauces and tiny cubes of pickled daikon radish. I know everyone thinks they know where the best chicken in town is but unless everyone is me and I’m talking about Jin Juu, then hands down, everyone is wrong.
Homemade pasta with chicken, parmesan and lemon
I’m going to share something with you which can hardly be called a secret given that there are approximately 60 million Italians in the world but none the less, it changed my life a little and you may well find that it does the same for you. Ready? Making your own pasta is unbelievably easy and relaxing. Yes, that my friends, is it. My pearl of wisdom may be small but it is mighty. There is nothing quite so relaxing and satisfying as rolling out sheet after sheet of soft pasta, the colour of heavy cream and the texture of silk…and then rolling it through the cutting arm only to watch satiny ribbons twist and fall to the worktop below it? Bellissima!
J & I have made this dish several times now using Jamie Oliver’s basic pasta recipe and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chicken, parmesan, lemon & basil sauce and it honestly tastes like spring in a dish. It’s light and bright and zingy with emerald leaves dotting mounds of curled, parmesan flecked and citrus slicked pasta; it’s also quick to make and I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t loved it…in short, it’s an applaudably perfect pasta dish.
Meats & cheeses at Cerro de Hijar, Andalucia
High up in the mountains of the Natural Park Sierra de las Nieves and only an hour away from the special brand of hell that is a Spanish airport full of Brits abroad – I’m sorry Malaga, I know it’s not your fault really – is a place where J & I left a piece of our hearts earlier this year; Cerro de Hijar, a small, secluded hotel that overlooks a picturesque white washed town below to the soundtrack of nimble bleating goats, pealing church bells and not much else. If like us, you like your holiday to be something of an escape from city noise and ambling tourists, this is the sort of place that you’ll have to be dragged weeping from at the end your stay…not that I’m speaking from experience there at all you understand.
Among the many lovely things you’ll experience here – sun-loungers overlooking the mountains or private jacuzzi for two anyone? – is a menu that beautifully pairs the classic dishes of the locale with the sophistication of modern dining presentation. There’s something very special about enjoying food that has come straight from the area you’re staying in because it tastes more flavourful, more romantic and more delicious; lazily eating platters of local Tolox cheese, Iberico jamon and tuna carpaccio al fresco, all washed down with regional wine & an air of tranquility is something that will never get old to this would-be Spanish recluse.
Chocolate mousse from Oldroyd
In Angel, I’m lucky enough to live in one of the best places for eating out in all of London. With restaurant laden Upper Street as its main drag and adjacent Essex & Liverpool Roads also generating some of the most interesting spots for you to feed your face in, any new opening piques the interest of the always hungry locals and Oldroyd, from former Chef Director of Polpo Tom Oldroyd, was no exception.
A daily changing menu marries the best of seasonal & local ingredients with fresh & respectful European dishes and while the rabbit & squid paella claimed the savoury crown the night we went, the chocolate mousse with praline & raspberries firmly took the sweet one. Gossamer light yet lusciously rich, these velvety soft mounds of translucent, golden shard topped cocoa pudding are a total lick-the-plate-clean sort of dessert and if I wasn’t fearful of being refused a return visit, I’d have done just that. Small in stature but sizable in style, Oldroyd is the sort of place that makes you look really good for taking someone there so if you fancy a visit, you know where to find me…
Homemade toasted coconut & almond nut butter
Along with avocados, kale & freekah, nut butters ruled the super-food roost in 2015; seriously, you could not throw a piece of gluten free, dairy free, wheat free bread without it hitting a Kilner jar full of creamy, nutty spread. I’d be the first to admit a healthy does of skepticism for some things that come pre-made; I don’t always trust that what’s on the label is what’s in the box, bottle or bag – overpriced bottled waters around the world, I am most definitely talking to you – and this meant if I wanted to taste the purest form of nut butter out there, I’d be making it myself.
Handy then that earlier this year, one of my favourite websites, Food 52, asked for volunteers to try making certain dishes and toasted coconut & almond butter was the one that caught my eye. It wasn’t as quick as I’d imagined it would be but I was using a food processor I’ve had for a while and regular pit stops were needed for it to catch its breath. That said, it was every bit as easy as I’d read it would be – toast the flakes, blanch the nuts then pulse the two together with a sprinkling of sea salt and a squeeze of honey until they become smooth and flowing. I’m not even going to pretend that I couldn’t have eaten the entire jar in one sitting – it’s crazy how different and how much better it tastes than anything which comes decorated with a top hatted peanut. We spooned it onto porridge with bright streams of honey where it tasted like manna from heaven. If you live in a household that loves its PB & J, or even just its PB, I urge you to give it a try and make 2016 the year you make your own.
Goat tacos from Smokehouse
It gets harder as you get older to try things for the first time and really remember them but that’s exactly what happened when I took J to Smokehouse in Islington for his birthday dinner in September. I’m on a bit of a mission now to send as many people as I can to this stylish yet hearty yet welcoming spot on Canonbury Road because I have the biggest crush ever on the food and I will *said in my best 15 year old Valley Girl voice * ‘like, totally die, if they ever close down.’
Special mention of the menu goes to the brisket which is fabulous and bigger in portion size than your average Smart Car but it was the Somerset Goat tacos with chipotle aioli that really brought a tear of carnivorous joy to my eye. Lighter than lamb and tangier than mutton, the meat was wonderfully flavourful especially when sat on top of the warm & smoky sauce. If I ever go back and am told that all there is to eat are these make-my-heart-swell-with-joy tacos, I’ll be the first to doff my cap, order a beer and get on with devouring them before news spreads and I have to uncharitably consider sharing.
Peanut butter burger from Bobo Social
Many good things are tucked away in London’s Fitzrovia – pretty little cocktails at the Charlotte Street Hotel and Michelin starred dining at the otherworldly good Lima are two of them and Bobo Social is the third, tapping into the capital’s long standing love affair with the not-so-humble-anymore hamburger. Made with rare-breed beef from British farms, Bobo’s burgers are cooked in Kopa Charcoal Ovens where the meat is seared at 300°C, making it incredibly juicy.
Along with their minimally branded burgers, they offer unusual sides like perfectly sweet & sour deep fried pickles or crispy bacon & dark chocolate fondue (it’s ok, it’s full of antioxidants…) but make no mistake, it’s the burgers you come for and it’s those bad bad boys you’ll be daydreaming about for days after. My pick? The peanut butter & bacon topped behemoth which is nutty and salty and meaty and succulent and, in short, just works. I can’t tell you how or why, all I can do is start your 2016 burger wish list off with it – Bobo might not be as loud as it’s patty toting siblings, but it more than holds its own.
Homemade bacon & egg muffin
Because sometimes you wake up starving. Because sometimes you want crunchy and gooey and toasty and gloopy at the same time. Because sometimes you want the ultimate in comfort food. Because sometimes you want to show Ronald, Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar exactly how it should be done. Because sometimes there is nothing better than this, devoured on your sofa without apology or excuse.
Crispy aubergine slices with honey from Brindisa
Restaurants that take an ingredient you’ve never liked before and serve it to you in such a way that you can’t imagine life without it are a wonder. They manage to overcome years of mistrust and dislike with one casual delivery of a plate and just like that, after dinner at Brindisa this past October, I now have 30 something years of aubergine eating to catch up on.
I have only ever known aubergine as squishy and flaccid. I know. Those are not words that inspire you ever. I have often admired its seductively jewel toned skin from afar but have never eaten it and wanted more. Brindisa changed that and among the vast array of tapas and small dishes on its Soho menu, these crispy fried aubergine slices doused with honey are an absolute stand out. Delicate but robust, they have a sweet earthiness so far removed from the mushy stodginess of past forays into the world of the eggplant, I was beyond thrilled…at last! Something else I can eat! It’s not that I was ever in danger of fading away you understand, more that I’m always just genuine delighted to stumble across something else in the world that I can rapturously eat.
‘African coffee’ at Mavela, South Africa
Last but by no means least, we come to our final international winner and the only entry on this list flying the flag for drinks everywhere. Hand on heart I have only enjoyed anything with coffee in it once before in my life – Salt & Straw in Portland make a Coffee & Bourbon Ice-Cream that would make Mr. Whippy sink down into his cone and cry, it’s so fantastic. I tried it, I loved it, I’ve not since had anything I enjoyed as much as that caffeinated treat…until November when J & I were in South Africa and an early morning game drive heralded the arrival of ‘African coffee’. Ooh I hear you say, that sounds lovely…it must be beautifully roasted, the beans must be of the finest quality, it must be crafted with real skill and precision. Well…no but it’s altogether wonderful none the less.
It’s a tin mug. It’s an instant cappuccino sachet. It’s a sincerely generous glug of Amarula – a sweetly fruity creamy liqueur – and it’s all these things put together and handed to you at 7am as you stand in a sandy river bed and think about how sublime it is to have your morning wake up call there, in the dry dusty heat of Africa, rather than the overcrowded tube carriages that drive grown men to weep into their briefcases. J and I have adventurously re-created this moment back in London – the drink anyway, I fear our landlord would object to us carving a riverbed through the lounge – and we got it pretty spot on. The beauty of food and drink that you love is that it’s always linked to a memory so for us going forward, this unashamedly boozy way to kick-start the morning instantly transports us back to a time & place that was magical in so many ways. It is my heartfelt hope dear reader, that the new year is filled with many such moments for you and your loved ones.