Back in January, the lovely people at Total Greek yoghurt sent me a large amount of their wonderful yoghurt with which I had lots of fun coming up with new recipes and revisiting old (click here and here). Then last week I received an email asking if I’d like to attend a masterclass they were organising with TV cook, Tonia Buxton, cooking traditional Greek Easter dishes. So keen was I to go, I juggled some things round to make myself free, and in the midst of my email conversation with them they kindly invited my son too who, already on holiday this week, was delighted with the invitation.
I’ve said before on these pages that if you are cooking or preparing food that calls for Greek yoghurt, then there really is only one kind you should buy: Total. And I’d like to add that I said that many times before Total sent me a gift of yoghurt or invited me on the course today! Supermarket shelves are full of ‘Greek-style yoghurt’ and it really isn’t the same thing at all. Total’s thick creamy yoghurt is made in Athens and shipped to the UK. It contains only two things: milk and yoghurt cultures. If you look at the labels of Greek-style yoghurts you will usually see many other ingredients: stabilisers, thickeners and sometimes even cream to achieve the creamy consistency. A simple tasting of the real thing alongside the imposter will immediately show you what’s by far the better choice. I nearly always have a pot of Total in my fridge; I love it with just fresh fruit and some honey. But it’s also essential to use the real thing is you’re making dishes like taziki.
Tonia Buxton is a Greek Cypriot and presenter of the award-winning TV series on Discovery Channel, ‘My Greek Kitchen’. She’s also the author of Tonia’s Greek Kitchen and will be in Paul Hollywood’s new series, ‘Paul’s Family Feast’. She’s a wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic tutor and made the day fun as well as informative. She gave us lots of stories and history behind the dishes and ingredients we were using but balanced this with encouraging us to add things as we liked, to our own taste.
The class was held at La Cucina Caldesi in Marylebone (Giancarlo Caldesi even popped in a couple of times to say hello to us and taste the food at the end). It was a nice bright room to cook in and everything had been laid out ready for us. But first of all we spent some time getting to know each other while gorgeous espressos or cappuccinos were made for us by the Caldesi people and Tonia brought round a plate of delicious breads for us to try.
Then we got down to some serious cooking; well, not too serious. Just fun and nice. The first thing we made were some lamb patties where minced lamb was mixed with red onion, breadcrumbs, egg, ground cumin and lots of fresh mint. We were working in fours (though our other couple came a bit later, so this one we did as a two). While Jonathan got the patties mixed, I was cutting up new potatoes, wedges of red onion, courgettes and lemons to be coated in olive oil and put round the patties. It was going to be a one-tray bake – and our lunch!
Tonia was moving round and talking to everyone, helping them, and helped us put our tray together ready for the oven. It was to be baked a little later, nearer the time we would eat. And when it came out of the oven, it not only looked wonderful, it smelled and tasted wonderful too.
The little patties were light and delicious with a spicy cumin edge; the vegetables were perfectly cooked and I especially liked the slightly charred lemon wedges. We made a tahini dressing to go with it, mixing tahini with lemon juice and Total yoghurt and that was fabulous. The sauce was also served with a fish dish we cooked at the last minute.
Next we made a dessert which could go into the fridge for a little before we ate. It was Anarocrema. This is a layered dish of baked then crumbled filo pastry sheets and anari cheese (or you could use ricotta) flavoured with rose water, cinnamon, honey and walnuts. We were given some choices of flavourings so we could make three and try each. Some we added fresh raspberries or strawberries to; there was orange flower water too and pistachio nuts. We were encouraged to be inventive!
The filo had to be brushed with a little oil between five layers then cooked, cooled and crushed into smallish pieces and then layered between the creamy cheese mix.
In between some of this cooking we stopped to play a Greek Easter game with eggs hard boiled and dyed red. It was a bit like an English game of conkers: you challenged others to bash your egg against theirs in a special way and the person with the undamaged – or least damaged – egg at the end was the winner. I think the fact that Tonia won had something to do with a childhood of practice and thus a good technique! But none of us minded that, we just had a good laugh.
The last dish was the fish; to be cooked and eaten straight away: Sea Bream with Olives, Capers, Lemon & Yoghurt Tahini Sauce. This is when we made the tahini sauce that we also ate with the lamb dish. Meanwhile, someone else was assembling chopped garlic, chopped green olives, capers, pine nuts and chopped fresh coriander ready to go into the pan as the fish was cooked. I meanwhile was assigned the job of cooking the fish. Jonathan, who doesn’t eat fish, was given halloumi cheese to pan-fry. When we were ready to go, the pan was heated, the fish lightly seasoned and added to the hot pan and it was only a matter of a few minutes before the dish was ready to eat.
The fish was fried first then transferred to a plate while the olives, garlic, etc were added and cooked a little before being added to the fish as a topping. Some of the tahini sauce was spooned alongside. And it was ready to eat!
It was wonderful. Just so delicious. I love sea bream anyway and cook it quite a lot and this is definitely a great way of cooking it that I’ll do again at home. The tahini sauce was a great addition too. The food was served with some very nice Greek wine and we all sat round chatting and relaxing, Tonia moving round talking to everyone. It was also great talking to Emma and Alice from Total and Wendy, Tonia’s assistant in the kitchen. It had been a fabulous day. What a treat! And a really good course; I felt I’d learnt a lot from Tonia without it being heavy at all, just fun. I came away with a copy of her book so watch out for some more Greek cooking (there has been Greek cooking here before, but not for a while) and I hope to now catch up with watching Tonia on her TV programme (for more about Tonia see www.toniabuxton.co.uk).
Many thanks to Total for the day! And for the fabulous goody bag we came home with:
There I was happily sitting in Butter Beans (formerly Taylor St Baristas Richmond) this morning with my perfect Flat White and a delicious croissant, my copy of today’s Observer open on the coffee table before me; early enough to have grabbed the only sofa, close to the window so the morning sun shone through on to me. Heaven. Well, a kind of heaven. A coffee-foodie heaven. It’s Observer Food Monthly week; the Observer‘s monthly special food colour magazine full of good recipes and interviews and articles. This means before Sunday has gone far into the day, it’s an odds-on favourite for being one of the best Sundays of the month. And there was Jay Rayner talking about guilty food secrets. His included a Mr Whippy ice cream on a hot afternoon in a London park and rather dubious sounding bright red spare ribs. When he asked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall what his guilty food secret was, Hugh said ‘a frothy pint … and Snickers bar’. Jay thought this a bit ‘vanilla’. And I can see why. Who would be guilty about sipping a gorgeous pint of frothy ale? But perhaps the Snickers bar counts as a guilty secret. So, you’ll understand, this soon got me thinking about what my guilty secrets are – in the food department, I hastily add!
And I really struggled to come up with anything truly bad. I’m not claiming any kind of foodie halo here; it’s merely that my tastes have changed over the years and while I might once have chosen a Mars bar or creamy cake, I can no longer tolerate and therefore enjoy things that are too sweet or very creamy. I used to have a sweet tooth. I come from a generation where it was considered good to give a child a slab of white bread, smothered in butter and sprinkled high with refined white granulated sugar – to give them energy. We know a bit better now. But we don’t know everything; food fads change and we suddenly learn that a very low-fat diet is bad for us after all because we need some fats; that butter is really healthier than those horrid tubs of margarine full of all kinds of additives and not a detectable natural thing in them. We can only – if we care to – take note of the current nutritional guidelines and make the best choice at the time.
I used to be incredibly slim, almost skinny, until I hit my 40s, and I could eat anything without putting on a pound, which isn’t good training for eating well. I have to be more careful now (though thankfully not too careful), which is partly why my food habits have changed but more so because I do understand good nutrition now. And what I’ve found is that the less sweet, creamy or synthetic-flavoured things I eat the less I want them. I remember loving Wagon Wheels as a child: a sweet wafer biscuit with marshmallow filling and covered in milk chocolate. They were one of my very favourite things. Then I came across them – quite some time ago now – as an adult and was unable to resist buying one. I was so pleased. This would be a treat. But it wasn’t. I didn’t like it at all; it was far too sweet. I love chocolate – but only dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids, definitely not milk or white – and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t like a marshmallow nowadays.
I used to be a big dessert person. In the days of lots of dinner parties in my life I’d often make two or even three desserts. Now I wouldn’t and when I do it tends to be something like a fruit flan or a dark rich chocolate cake – a Torta Caprese or Sachertorte – and it definitely wouldn’t have cream layered inside it. I like a good pannacotta or tiramisu but I’m not good with syrups, toffee, fudge or sweet caramels (though a bit of salted caramel is pretty good); I don’t like the craze for making puddings or ice cream from sweet bars or Nutella. But if I have guilty foodie pleasures, I guess it would be having a dessert at the end of a good meal not because I was still hungry, but through plain greed. I do find it hard to go out for a meal somewhere special and not have dessert. If the rest of the meal has been good, I just have to see how good their desserts are. Even if I’m feeling quite full enough already. A guilty pleasure is going into Butter Beans midweek and seeing they’ve made some irresistible little lemon & poppy seed muffins (as in the photo above) and indulging; it’s going into New Row Coffee (my favourite cafe in Covent Garden) and having to have a slice of their wonderful mandarin & chocolate cake with my coffee. Even though I don’t really need it.
I wasn’t brought up to be guilty about food and so I rarely am. Yes there was the sugared bread problem, but it wasn’t a regular thing and my parents indulged us in quite sophisticated treats: driving into Soho every Saturday morning to enjoy coffee and cakes at Madame Bertaux in Greek Street, London’s oldest patisserie, established in 1871. It would be heading to an Italian deli round the corner afterwards to buy gooey Gorgonzola cheese and fantastic bread that in those days you wouldn’t have found anywhere else in London, let alone outside the capital. It would be a birthday treat at Wheeler’s in Old Compton Street and eating oysters or Sole Meuniere. It wasn’t that we had loads of money; we didn’t. But food was always the thing; spare cash went on eating well. There was no promise of sweets for being well behaved, but food was a celebration of being together and enjoying good food.
OK. So I really really must have a proper guilty food secret. I have to have chocolate in the house: but dark Montezuma’s or a real treat would be a box of Neuhaus praline selection or the lovely Sprungli truffles A has brought from Zurich. I have an addiction to tarallis – little round breadsticks from Puglia; so much so it’s become a standing joke with a local Italian deli, Corto, that I go in so often to buy them. I love good bread and find it hard to stop at one slice – especially Ruben’s Bakehouse‘s sourdough; I probably too often indulge in a croissant with my morning coffee, even though I’ve already had cereal. I enjoy a glass of wine most evenings and will occasionally indulge in a dram of single malt. I simply love champagne and there really is no other fizz that’s quite like it. I have a passion for good ice cream and when in Italy will visit a gelateria at least once a day. But none of those things are bad; none of them are things to feel guilty about. Just a bit of greediness from time to time; having a bit more than I need just because I can. But I’ll think on. I imagine as soon as I’ve posted this I’ll find myself reaching out for something bad and think, Oh yes!! I forgot about that. Or my children will remind me; you can always count on children (even grown-up ones) to remind you of that failing you forgot about. But you know, a few guilty secrets is no bad thing at all really: la dolce vita; carpe diem, etc.
It was lovely to have my daughter Nicola with me for the night, en route from Birmingham to a week-long course in Tunbridge Wells starting this morning. Birmingham to Tunbridge Wells for a 9.00am start isn’t great; Birmingham to Mum’s in Twickenham for a night and supper and on to Tunbridge Wells the next morning is a much better option. We both love fish and so fish would be on the menu but first I wanted to recreate – well, kind of – the starter I had at the Union Street Cafe on Monday: roasted red peppers with anchovies and wild garlic.
I bought some Romano red peppers and roasted them – no oil or anything else, just straight into a hot (220C/190 Fan) oven, on a baking tray, for about 15-20 minutes, until I could see they were browning and the skin starting to peel away from the flesh. Even at this early stage the smell was wonderful. I lifted them straight into a large freezer bag with a reclosable seal and sealed them tightly.
Once they were cool enough to handle, I took them out of the bag and the skin peeled away really easily. I find this method so much easier than try to char them on an open flame to get the skin off. I guess they don’t have a ‘charred’ flavour but then I’m not a great fan of smokey charred food, and this way their gorgeous sweet flavour shines through in a perfect way. I carefully removed the stalk and seeds and sliced each pepper into 4 pieces lengthways and laid them on two plates.
Salsa verde is simply ‘green sauce’ – but it sounds so much nicer in Italian! There are endless variations but basically it’s generally made from a base of green herbs and olive oil. Nigel Slater uses parsley, garlic, capers and olive oil in his ‘classic salsa verde’. With Union Street Cafe’s anchovies in mind, I substituted the capers with anchovies. I always keep a can of anchovies in my store cupboard. They’re used a lot in Italian food to add saltiness and depth, for instance in Pasta alla Puttanesca. I also added some pine nuts, as I would in pesto. So first of all I roasted a good handful of pine nuts till lightly brown in a dry pan. I saved some for decoration at the end and put about 1 rounded tablespoon in my mortar and pestle. I added a small clove of garlic and 1 anchovy fillet and pounded into a paste. You don’t need any salt because the anchovies are very salty. I only added one because they have a very strong flavour, but experiment if you like. Next I added lots of flat leaf parsley leaves, bit by bit, with some olive oil, and pounded away until I had a good sauce. At this point I was so busy talking to Nicola I forgot to take photos of the process so there’s a gap between the nutty paste and the finished product!
I didn’t put the finished plates together until we were ready to eat. I then dribbled some of the salsa verde over the peppers, scattered over the reserved roasted pine nuts and decorated with just one anchovy in the middle. Finally I drizzled over a little extra olive oil. I served it with some of Ruben’s Bakehouse‘s fantastic sourdough bread that I’d bought in the morning so it was still very fresh, to soak up the juices as we ate. It was so delicious: the lovely sweet, soft peppers, the salty salsa verde, the crunchy pine nuts.
For our main course I’d made some Linguine with Prawns, Fresh Tomato & Chilli. When I stopped to buy linguine at Sapori TW1 they’d run out of plain but had some linguine al nero di seppia – linguine flavoured with squid ink. It seemed a happy alternative since I was cooking prawns to go with it. To see my recipe for this dish click here. I’d bought 4 extra, large tiger prawns to cook separately to top it at the end. It was gorgeous. The pasta was really good; quite expensive as it was a posh artisan kind but so delicious I’ll definitely buy more.
Keeping with the Italian theme, I’d bought some little courgette, lemon & walnut cakes from Carluccio’s in the morning and made some espresso to have with them.
Sometimes even the Single Gourmet Traveller doesn’t want to cook everything and I’ve had these cakes before and they are very very good. It was a lovely meal and a great evening with my lovely daughter.
I’ve been wanting to go to the Union Street Cafe since its opening last autumn but didn’t get my act together until Top Table sent me an email last week with an offer of an early evening spring menu for £19 for 2 courses; £25 for 3. I made a unilateral decision and booked it for Annie and me tonight. Fortunately my good friend didn’t take offence at my lack of consultation and said she’d been wanting to go too.
Monday isn’t the best night perhaps, especially on a wet spring evening with a cold wind blowing up, to try out a new restaurant. The walk from Waterloo station down The Cut and into Union Street is a pretty grotty one; run down rather than seedy. The restaurant itself isn’t much to look at from the outside either. But one should never judge a book by its cover so they say, or indeed a restaurant by its exterior.
Inside, as you can see in the photo at the top, it was an attractive blend of warehouse utility and touches of sophistication. It felt comfortable; it felt like the kind of place I like to eat. And it was. Service was friendly and efficient in a perfect way. They were especially nice when I managed to knock over the small glass vase of flowers squeezing between tables to sit down and glass shattered everywhere. I apologised; they said no worries and seemed to really mean it. It did make me realise the tables were quite close together but the restaurant remained less than half full while we were there (Monday night!) so we had no near neighbours.
There was a good choice on our menu – three choices for each course. There was also a large choice of wines by a 500ml carafe, which was great for us because we didn’t want to share a whole bottle. Food was chosen, wine was brought; a jug of water and some bread and olive oil. The bread was very good, as was the oil.
The food is described as Italian with ‘directly sourced artisan ingredients from the Mediterranean’. Annie chose Venetian Style Cuttlefish, Fresh Peas & Chilli Bruschetta to begin, which she said was very good.
I chose Roasted Bell Peppers, Sicilian Anchovies and Fresh Garlic.
I just love roasted red peppers and these were gorgeous. The bread great for mopping up the juices. The waiter laughed that he didn’t need to ask whether we’d enjoyed our starters! Our plates were clean. We chose the same main course: Sardinian Artichoke, Robiola & Mint Risotto.
I’m so fussy about risottos; I cook them a lot myself and it makes me very critical of others’. But this was really good. We both liked it a lot. The Robiola, a creamy cheese from Piedmont, is popular as a base for sauces and it made the risotto wonderfully creamy. We liked the shallow bowl it came in too – a nice nod to a more rustic (if not authentically rustic) approach to cooking. This was simple food really but well done with good ingredients and a slightly sophisticated edge.
Desserts sounded good but we settled on having just coffees. We sat talking till gone 9, having arrived at 6.30. Annie and I have an excellent capacity for conversation! It was a nice place to sit though; a comfortable, welcoming place to eat and spend an evening. It might not immediately strike you as the Gordon Ramsay joint it is but little touches spoke of chic and thoughtful design. We loved it and we’ll definitely go back.
Nigel Slater must be on holiday because I found some Claudia Roden recipes in my Observer Magazine today. And much as I love Nigel’s recipes I couldn’t be disappointed because Claudia is a culinary hero too. The recipes were from her new edition of The Food of Italy to celebrate its publication 25 years ago in 1989. A 1999 paperback edition of the book has been sitting on my cookery books shelves since … well, probably 1999. It’s certainly been there for a long time, and because it’s falling apart you’d see instantly, if you were here, that it is much used. Note present tense: ‘it is’. It has been much used; it is used a lot. (Sorry, book editor moment there!) It’s one of those books I always turn to for classic Italian recipes. Then when I saw her recipe for chicken cooked with fresh grapes in the Observer it reminded me of another Italian cookery book I often turn to: Robin Howe’s Italian Cookery (1979) and a recipe in it I used to cook a lot: Pollo al Succo d’Uva – chicken cooked in fresh grape juice. I’ve said on these pages before that Robin was one of my authors in my far-back days as a cookery editor and I always feel the same affection for her whenever I cook any of her recipes. She was very particular and exacting. So I hope she would forgive me for adding a touch of Carluccio too. For another favourite recipe is his one of chicken cooked with lots of fresh green herbs. Yes, I thew some herbs in as well. But then this is cooking for me. Looking at books, taking an idea here, and idea there, matching it all up and throwing it all together into hopefully a well-fitting and delicious mix.
The idea of chicken cooked in fresh grape juice appealed for its freshness. London seems momentarily to have forgotten it’s spring with grey clouds and April showers dulling our UK world today but my pots of herbs in the garden are growing well and it’s warm, so I thought the recipe would brighten things up again.
I picked a selection of herbs: parsley, chives, mint and some basil from my indoor windowsill. I chopped them all together fairly finely. Then I used hand blender (or a liquidizer will do well) to turn about 200g green seedless grapes into juice. I strained them into another jug, using the back of a spoon to mash as much through as I could.
Next, I coated a chicken breast (leg would do fine too) in seasoned flour, shaking off the excess, then I browned it in olive oil. When the chicken was nicely browned on both sides, I added the grape juice, 1/2 crushed clove of garlic, the fresh herbs and seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
I brought to a simmer and then let it cook gently, covered, until the chicken was tender and cooked through – about 20 minutes depending on the size of your chicken portion. I lifted the chicken to a warm plate and then added some fresh grapes cut in half (because they were big) and let it all bubble up for a few minutes to warm the grapes and thicken a bit. Meanwhile, I boiled some lovely new potatoes which I tossed in butter once done, and I made a green salad with some baby gem leaves, rocket and sliced fresh fennel.
The chicken was beautifully moist for finishing the cooking in the grape juice. It was quite sweet; I’d forgotten this and don’t have such a sweet tooth as I used to so didn’t get quite the freshness I’d anticipated. But it was still a lovely dish; very simple but with a touch of being special too.
I love small intimate hotels rather than big flashy ones and ‘t Hotel in Amsterdam fitted the bill perfectly for my stay there over the weekend. My daughter discovered it – she sometimes goes to Amsterdam for work – and suggested we book there for our stay. It’s an historic canal house dating from the 17th century and lies on a pretty canal in the Jordaan-Centrum district, Leliegracht. Situated just round the corner from Anne Frank house and Prinsengracht, it’s an ideal location for exploring Amsterdam but also gives you a real feel for the city. Being an old canal house, it’s narrow and stairs are steep and narrow too, and there’s no lift. But the friendly guy on reception offered to carry our cases up and there’s also a chair lift for anyone who can’t climb stairs easily.
It’s a family-run hotel with only 8 rooms. We paid a little extra for a room for a view of the canal and I’m so pleased we did because it was a lovely view.
It could be a little noisy in the day with people passing and boats on the canal, but that’s part of staying in the centre of Amsterdam and not easily avoided, especially if you want a canal view. At night it was peaceful – apart front the sound of bells ringing on the hour. Fortunately we weren’t close enough to any churches for the sound to be loud enough to disturb us. In the morning when I looked out on the pretty peaceful world, the water was so still that I could see reflections of the buildings in the canal.
It was pretty at night too.
Breakfast is served in the reception area where you can look out over the canal and watch the Dutch world go by … and lots of bikes! Everyone cycles in Amsterdam. And it’s a city built for cyclists like no other; cyclists rule the road. We didn’t hire any this time but it’s fun to do so, especially if you want to explore further afield.
Breakfast was included in the price and is a buffet bar but it’s done in a really great way. There are slices of Dutch cheese and hams – a typical Dutch breakfast; juices and bowls of yogurt, fruit salad and dried fruits. There’s a selection of cereals and lots of breads, sweet fruit breads, fruit buns and croissants. The breads and pastries were really good; so good they had to have come fresh from a bakery that morning.
Coffee was freshly ground and brewed to make whatever kind of coffee you wanted. There was hot water and a selection of teas if you preferred tea. There was a big bowl of fresh fruit too: apples, bananas, nectarines.
Amsterdam is a very quirky place. There’s a wonderful laid-back and arty feel to it; there’s a sophisticated cafe society and funky shops and street markets. The people are friendly and easy going; people in restaurants, shops and cafes are friendly yet efficient in a way the Dutch excel at: neither over familiar nor too formal. And the ‘t Hotel reflects this well. It lies in a fashionable area full of art galleries, ceramic shops, wonderful restaurants and cafes and is quite simply the best area to stay in.
Whoever was in reception when you went in would be really friendly and helpful: suggesting things to do, booking restaurants, etc. The breakfast room and bedrooms are simply decorated and furnished but with great style. The beds were very comfortable, there was a fridge and kettle and mugs so you could make your own hot drinks and store anything cold. Everything was done with a nice touch of thoughtfulness and care. This was a hotel that felt loved. Although I was travelling with my daughter I know I’d feel very comfortable there on my own too. And I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before I go back!
We decided to wander round the local Jordaan district of Amsterdam on our last morning. Our Secret Amsterdam book had lots of suggestions for off the main tourist route places of interest. These ‘Secret’ books published by JonGlez are great for when you know a city well and want to see something different to the popular sights.
Zonshofje – hofje of the sun – in Prinsengracht was once a well hidden Mennonite church dating from the 17th century. They were a branch of the Protestant church allowed to practise only if the church didn’t have a frontage on to a public road. The hofje is therefore accessed through a long narrow passageway through a front door – you would have no idea what’s behind from the road. It was beautifully peaceful. No one around but two cats! We moved on down the road to the Van Brienen Hofje. When a baron’s prayer to God was answered he fulfilled his promise to give thanks by building homes for poor Catholic couples.
It was too early for apple pie – we’d just had breakfast -but we passed Winkel, one of the best cafes for buying it and one I used to go to a lot. There was such a big queue it’s obviously still very good.
We wanted a light lunch before heading to the airport so we went to another of Nicola’s favourite cafes just of Prinsengracht, ‘t Smalle. It’s such a typical Amsterdam cafe and lovely inside, although many people has grabbed canal side tables outside.
We enjoyed a typical Dutch lunch of tostis – toasted sandwiches – and poffertjes, little pancakes tossed in butter and sugar. These are gorgeous little treats and sometimes sold from stalls in markets.