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Restaurant Review: Pho Saigon, Twickenham

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When Liz suggested meeting up this evening and asked me to decide where we ate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to try out Pho Saigon in Twickenham. We’d talked about it before. She’d heard from other foodie friends that it was good; I, too, had heard good reports and have been saying for ages that I must visit, but just hadn’t got round to it. On the 15-minute walk from my home, as I was blown around by the tail end of Hurricane Gonzaio that has hit UK today, it seemed a perfect time to be trying out some spicy soup.

I’ve only eaten Vietnamese food a few times before and don’t know a lot about it. Liz – who has been to Vietnam – said she thought pho came from North Vietnam (Hanoi), not the southern Saigon area, so I did a bit of research earlier in the day. Vietnam’s most famous food – pho – a noodle soup, did indeed originate in the north but after the partition in 1954 a slightly different version emerged in the south – Saigon. In North Vietnam you’ll find Pho Bac, in South Vietnam there is Pho Nam. The northern version is more spicy and salty; the southern sweeter. In Hanoi only beef bones are used to make the soup – the broth – while in the south they also add chicken bones and sometimes dried squid (I suppose a bit like adding fish sauce), which gives a deeper flavour. In the south they use more vegetables, especially bean sprouts, which you won’t find in the north, and they also add hoisin sauce (hence the sweetness) whereas in Hanoi they add more spice, particularly chilli.

Pho Saigon describes itself as a street cafe and thus it’s not a surprise that inside it’s fairly basic. It has a bring-your-own policy (so I’d taken along a bottle of chilled white wine). I had booked though. It’s always busy when I pass by and this evening – a cold and blowy Tuesday night, it wasn’t full but it was more than half full. The service was friendly; a friendly welcome and the menus brought quickly with glasses for our wine and an offer to open the bottle and pour for us. Of course, I had to have pho. What else could I choose! But I suggested we share a couple of small dishes first. There weren’t really ‘starters’ as such but some small dishes so we chose some vegetable mini spring rolls with dipping sauce. The menu had said 3 but they brought 4 – presumably since there were two of us. I’m not sure if they charged extra (I’m guessing possibly not) as Liz kindly said she’d pay for the food as I’d brought the wine, and I didn’t see the bill.

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These were good and we had ‘special roast duck with five spices and honey’ to go with it.

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This was a kind of salad; the duck just lukewarm on a bed of salad-y strips, with the rich sweet sauce on top. It was tasty; a little like having Chinese crispy duck without the pancakes. Then came our pho’s. Liz had chosen chicken while I went for ‘traditional’ beef strips.

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It was a delicious dish. Very different from the spicy Thai food I eat quite often, or Laksa, that spicy noodle soup from Malaysia (which I love). It was very delicate in flavour. A lovely broth base with noodles, bean sprouts, coriander; fresh chilli and lemon to add yourself. It was very fragrant but with a softness, a gentleness, to the flavour. Not only was it delicious – it felt very healthy too!

I really enjoyed my meal and would like to go back and try some of their other dishes. It’s very reasonably priced – the pho just £7.95 – so could be a great place to just pop into on the spur of the moment … assuming you can get a table, of course!

Autumn Colours & Vegetable Lasagne

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I feel very fortunate to live near the famous botanical gardens at Kew and one of my favourite times for visiting is on Sunday mornings when I get in early at opening time and beat the weekend crowds. Once away from the main gate, it’s possible to gain a sense that you have the gardens all to yourself, with barely another person in sight. However, it’s not long before the coachloads descend, and that’s usually, an hour or so into my walk, when I decide it’s time to head home. If that sounds a bit unsociable, I apologise. But to me they’re my ‘local gardens’ and what I love about going in when it’s quiet is the peace of the place. There are a number of different areas in the gardens, all quite different to each other, from the formal to a more wooded area, wide open avenues lined with trees and the lake with the beautiful Sackler Crossing bridge, but always there’s a sense of calm and therefore it’s a perfect place to relax or reflect in a meditative way as you wander round.

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I’ve had a season ticket for years and it allows me to pop in whenever I want and it’s great to visit at different times of the year and see what’s in season. This morning I was expecting a riot of autumn colours – blazing reds, burnt orange and deep yellows – and was quite surprised to find remarkably little evidence of autumn, even though we’re halfway through October. It must be the continuing mild weather staving off the onset of winter.

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I found the odd tree changing colour and dropping its leaves, but most bright colour came from gorgeous large displays of flowers planted in clumps at various points.

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Back home I started to prepare the lasagne I’d decided to make for supper. It’s a rare thing for me to go veggie on a Sunday. A little of my upbringing and the thought that a proper meal contains meat (meat and two veg!) persists slightly with Sundays, although I do eat lots of meat-free meals during the week. However, I’d come across a tempting lasagne made with kale and mushrooms in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Everyday! yesterday. And I happened to have a large bag of kale and an almost full punnet of chestnut mushrooms in the fridge, so really, I couldn’t do anything other than try this recipe!

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Here’s what I did – with slight adjustments to Hugh’s recipe for making only about half the original amount, and personal preferences. First of all, heat a pint of milk with a bay leaf, a sliced shallot, a few peppercorns and about half a celery stalk (I also added some leaves which give quite a strong flavour). When the milk comes to a simmer, take from the heat and leave to infuse.

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Shred the kale if needed (mine was already prepared) and put in a pan with cold water and some salt; bring to the boil and then simmer for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside. Now slice 250g mushrooms (nice tasty ones like Portabello or chestnut) and put in a pan with about 25g butter. Fry, stirring frequently, until softening. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper, a crushed clove of garlic and a good pinch of dried thyme. Stir well and cook for a minute or so more, then take from the heat and put aside.

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Now make a béchamel sauce: heat 50g butter with 50g plain flour in a pan. Stir to form a roux then slowly add the strained milk that has been infusing, beating well after each addition to make a smooth sauce. Check seasoning and then add salt and pepper to taste. Also add 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard.

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Let it bubble for a minute or two then take from the heat. Mix almost half of it into the drained kale.

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Now everything is almost ready for putting the lasagne together. I used an ovenproof dish that’s about 18 x 25 cm. I also used lasagne sheets that don’t need pre-cooking … but I still always like to soften them first in some hot water. A lasagne with undercooked pasta is not a nice thing! Play safe. I pour boiling water into a big bowl and then put a couple of sheets of lasagne in for a minute or two to soften. It also helps if you need to cut it at all to fit the dish properly. For my lasagne I found 2 sheets for the each of the first two layers were enough but I added an extra one on the top to ensure a good layer that fitted well. Put a little of the remaining béchamel on the bottom of the dish. Then add two lasagne sheets. Cover these with all the kale mixture.

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Even though it wasn’t in the original recipe, I added a good dusting of grated Parmesan too for a nice cheesy flavour at the end. Cover with 2 more sheets of lasagne. Spread over a little of the béchamel (leaving a good amount for the top), then add the mushrooms and another dusting of Parmesan.

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Cover this with the final sheets of lasagne. Spread over the remaining béchamel and then grate over a good layer of Parmesan. Dot with a few knobs of butter and now it’s ready to go into the oven.

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I prepared mine a couple of hours ahead of time and just left it covered until near the time I wanted to eat. Put into a preheated oven at 108C/Fan 160 for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

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Leave to rest for about 5 minutes while you make a green salad to go with it. Then cut a slice and place in a serving bowl or plate. I probably could have squeezed four small portions out of this but it’s probably only big enough for three; or two very healthy portions!

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It was really delicious. Nicely creamy with a good full flavour from the mushrooms and kale. Hugh suggests you could use cavolo nero as an alternative to the kale; I think spinach would work well too. I haven’t made vegetable lasagna much in the past, but now I think I should experiment with some other vegetable mixes! It’s a great way to enjoy more vegetables and not as heavy as a meat lasagne (not that I can ever imagine giving those up!).

 

 

Italian-style Meatballs with Tomato Sauce & Spaghetti

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It’s still unseasonably warm in UK for the time of year but it’s been relentlessly wet since my return from Crete a couple of weeks ago and I’ve had a cold (it’s that time of year!). I had a packet of organic mince (10% fat) in the freezer I wanted to use up. I use mince mainly in Bolognese ragu but decided to make meatballs tonight; I haven’t done that in a while. I thought it would be nicely comforting food for the weather and the last stages of my cold. I’ve made meatballs many times but decided – since I was planning to write it up on the blog – to consult the ‘experts’ and see what they had to say. It seemed to me that the experts made it all a lot more complicated than I normally do. Angela Hartnett adds not only egg but Parmesan and breadcrumbs soaked in milk; Jamie Oliver adds mustard, Jacob’s cream crackers (!!) and egg; Gordon Ramsay adds breadcrumbs soaked in milk, garlic and Parmesan – though no egg. Gino d’Acampo actually came up with most straightforward recipe – just mince, seasoning and parsley … but then spoilt it be adding the wretched egg as well! Why do they want eggs? NO – don’t tell me. I know why people put eggs in mixtures like this but I simply don’t like it. I do, however, approve of the breadcrumbs: breadcrumbs give the meatballs a certain lightness that works well. But not too many. I added 40g to my 400g mince – in other words 10%. And as for Parmesan in the mix … yes, grated Parmesan nicely showered over the finished dish is great, but not in the meat mixture. I decided to stick my with usual simple mixture: mince, breadcrumbs, some dried herbs and seasoning. Then I’d make a nice rich tomato sauce for them to finish them off in; perhaps a hint of warming chilli in that. Perfect!

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I put 400g good quality minced beef in a bowl, with 40g fresh breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme and seasoning of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. (Traditionally in Italy, a mix of minced beef and minced pork are used, so you can try that if you prefer.) I mixed it all together with my hands, making sure it was all blended together well. Don’t, however, be tempted to use a food processor or any kind of machine: that will only make you a paste and not good meatballs. Now divide the mixture into whatever size meatballs you want. I made mine about golf ball sized, but that’s reasonably big and you might prefer smaller bite-sized ones.

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Roll them in a little olive oil and if you have time, pop them in the fridge for an hour or so to firm up before frying. Then make the tomato sauce. Fry a finely chopped small onion with 1 crushed clove of garlic in some olive oil. I also added 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes. This gave the sauce quite a kick of heat, which I like, but you can just as well leave the chilli out if you prefer.

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When the onion has softened and is starting to go translucent, add 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and also add 1 teaspoon sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes. Give it all a good stir, bring to almost to the boil and then turn down to a simmer gently for about 15 minutes. I like to then blend my sauce with a hand blender. It makes a smoother sauce that clings better to the meatballs and spaghetti, but it also seems to give the sauce a smoother taste. Check seasoning.

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Set aside and cook the meatballs. Fry them in a little olive oil until nicely browned on both sides.

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Now tip the prepared tomato sauce into the meatballs.

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Stir round well. Scatter over a handful of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley.

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Stir and then put a lid on the pan and leave to cook gently for 10-15 minutes – depending on the size of your meatballs. You want them to cook through but overcooking will make them tough.

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Meanwhile cook some spaghetti (about 100g per serving) until al dente. Drain. Return to the pan and add the meatballs. I added just one portion; the other two portions I’ll bag up when cold and freeze. Gently mix the spaghetti and meatballs together and then transfer to a serving dish. I sprinkled over a little extra parsley, drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil and then grated some Parmesan over the top.

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I served a rocket salad on the side. The meatballs were really good: very tender and had held together well (no egg needed!); they were very tasty too. The sauce was so rich and delicious and its smoothness meant it clung beautifully to the pasta and meatballs. I liked the chilli hit but if you don’t like chilli or want a fresher taste, leave it out. Your sauce will still be great. It’s such a simple recipe – for both the sauce and meatballs – but such is the brilliance of Italian cooking that simple equals excellent. That’s why I love Italian cooking so much!

Islamic Art, An Iranian Lunch and the Library of Birmingham

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It’s always a great pleasure to head up to Birmingham to spend a weekend with my lovely daughter, Nicola. It has to be said it wasn’t quite such a pleasure having to get up at 6.30 on Saturday to arrive in time for an appointment with a wedding dressmaker – yes Nicola and Rachael are getting married next year – at 10.00 in central Birmingham. But well, this is what mothers do and it turned out to be great fun, especially as we were looking at rather funky, unconventional dresses. Thankfully my future daughter-in-law’s coffee addiction matches mine so after this we all went in search of flat whites. Then funky wedding dresses were to be followed by Middle Eastern art.

Nicola’s friend, Rebecca (Dr Rebecca Bridgman) is the Curator of Islamic and South Asian Arts at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. She’d offered to give us a personal curator tour of True to Life – New Photography from the Middle East and Symmetry in Sculpture: Recent Work by Zarah Hussain. I often go on curators’ tours of major exhibitions at the Tate but it was nevertheless especially exciting to go on such a personalised tour: Rebecca taking round just Nicola, Rachael, Anna and me. Firstly, we looked at Zarah Hussain’s work: her sculptures are based on the geometric designs used in Islamic art.

'Supersonic Star" © Zarah Hussain/the artist/Birmingham Museums Trust

‘Supersonic Star” © Zarah Hussain/the artist/Birmingham Museums Trust

Her 3-dimensional wall sculptures looked almost like origami suspended from the walls; very simple at first glance but with Rebecca’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic background description, the rest of us were able to appreciate them in a way that might have passed us by without her. We all loved them and played with moving ourselves close and then further away to catch the play of light on the surfaces. Moving on to the photography exhibition, we saw some wonderful and teasingly challenging photographs by contemporary and internationally acclaimed Middle East artists.

From the series Qajtar, 1998 by Shadi Ghadirian © the artist/Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and British Museum

From the series Qajtar, 1998 by Shadi Ghadirian © the artist/Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and British Museum

The exhibition encourages you to question what you see: what is real, staged or imaginary? Much of a Middle Eastern woman’s life is lived behind a veil or out of public sight: these photographs allow a freedom of expression not generally witnessed and spark debates about the representation of women. Isn’t this image of an Iranian woman with her can of Pepsi just brilliant? Of course, if this is ‘staged’ then so too is how we see the women outside their homes to some extent. If you’re in or near Birmingham, go and take a look. Check the website for more details: www.bmag.org.uk/events. (And many thanks to Rebecca for providing the images for my blog post.)

It was definitely time for lunch when we emerged from the museum. Outside it was heaving with people.

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There was a big anti Muslim demonstration in the city, rather inevitably matched by an anti fascist demonstration. Large numbers of police were around. Fortunately, all was peaceful and we were able to make our way round the edge of the crowds to our lunch destination in Broad Street. In keeping with our morning of art, we were heading for an Iranian restaurant: Khayyam. Rebecca had heard of it and Nicola had been told about it by her Iranian hairdresser. It was a bit tricky to find – mainly because you had to go right through a kebab takeaway to doors at the back that led into Khayyam. Inside, they looked to be setting up for a big party but said we could take a table. I’ve cooked Iranian food but never eaten it in an Iranian – or Persian – restaurant before so it was quite exciting. We chose a selection of dips – aubergine, hummus and spinach & yogurt to share with bread to begin.

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The dips were great: I especially liked the aubergine and the fabulous flat bread. My main course choice was a delicious chicken dish served with barberries and saffron rice.

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After lunch we parted company with Rebecca, Anna and Linda (who had joined us at the restaurant). Nicola, Rachael and I went on to the Library of Birmingham.

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This incredible and exciting building, designed by architect Francine Houben, was opened in April 2013. It’s been shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2014 – and you can see why. Surprisingly, ‘my girls’ hadn’t been inside it yet so it was a first for all three of us.

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Inside it’s very impressive, reaching right up in the centre to its top and creating a wonderful space of light and calm. You expect calm in a library and here that is achieved, I think, by the sense of flow created by the gliding escalators, the colours, the different ‘layers’ and the slightly warren effect of smaller and larger areas that you move through.

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At the top, we couldn’t go outside because of the demonstrations below, but still the view was great.

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We’d arrived just before they closed at 5pm and were ushered out fairly quickly, but I’m so pleased to have seen it. What a fantastic building! And what a busy but very exciting day! We headed home to Nicola and Rachael’s house. A pot of tea was made. Nicola began making a Melanzane alla Parmigiana for supper; I was summoned to be sous chef. Later prosecco was opened and we finished our full-on day with a light but delicious meal and some fizz. The weekend’s excitement wasn’t quite over though. Next morning we were up fairly early to head north to Staffordshire to see some tipis.

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It was foggy as you can see. Now, it’s only a couple of posts ago I said you wouldn’t find me in a tent. But there are tents … and, well, there are tipis. These are part of the wedding plan. And just how exciting is that! I’m converted. Yes, this is my kind of tent! (For more see: www.elitetents.co.uk)

 

Top Tips for the Single Traveller

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I’ve become a well-practised single traveller over the last eleven years of singledom. To be honest, I was pretty good at it before then: jumping on planes alone to join a husband frequently working abroad for long periods of time; driving from Twickenham to Amsterdam over the period of a couple of years with my children during half-terms and holidays to join their dad. Going back even further, I just grew up with the idea that it was OK to travel alone, eat in restaurants alone, and for me it’s never really threatened any great challenge. It’s just what I do. But for the unpractised it can be quite daunting. And even for me, it’s not quite the same thing doing it through a different kind of necessity now rather than an occasional choice. Well, it is still a choice. But group holidays have never appealed; I’m not that kind of person, heading off with a group of unknowns, although I know lots of other people love it. I’m lucky to holiday often with good friends and my family, but sometimes if I want to get away for a break or go somewhere in particular, then alone is the only option. And there is an appeal to it; there are plenty of pluses even if inevitably some minuses.

Holidaying with others isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Even with your nearest and dearest, tensions can arise but holidaying with someone you’re not used to spending 24/7 with can be a disaster. We all invest a lot of expectations in our holidays: we reach mentally for the rarely attainable perfection – I’ve invariably found that even the best holidays have at least one day of imperfection when things don’t go quite so well – and it’s hard to let go of your own way of holidaying. I was talking with my lovely friend Annie the other day about trying to have another break away together some time next year and she remarked that we ‘holiday well’ together. Basically, if you go away with someone you need them to have pretty much the same idea about how to holiday. It’s no good going to a hot and sunny place with someone who hates heat; it’s no good going away with someone who wants to crash on a beach for two weeks and do nothing else if that’s not your style. If you like visiting archaeological sites and art galleries you’ll find a companion who hates that will spoil your own pleasure. And, of course, if like me you just love seeking out good food – restaurants, markets, food shops etc. – then someone who has no interest in food will be a poor holiday mate.

My son and daughter inevitably followed the backpacking trail during gap years and set off alone; well, Nicola travelled round China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand with a small organised group and Jonathan travelled alone in New Zealand but had my cousin on South Island and a family friend on North Island to act as bases for him to return to during his travels. I’ve never really been a backpacking girl. I’m not a tent girl. I’m not a camper girl. No one has yet got me on RyanAir plane. Yes, I like my luxury. But not necessarily super luxury – I don’t usually stay in luxury hotels or apartments – but I do like a proper bed, hot running water and electricity. I did quite a bit of youth hosteling in my youth but nowadays I wouldn’t go near a dormitory; I like a room to myself or shared only with a good friend or family. What I’m getting at here is that I’m of an age where I’m not afraid to say what I like. I’m of an age where I don’t have to prove anything – well, holiday-wise anyway; just as I know what I like I’m also happy to admit to what I don’t like: that you’ll never get me trekking through a jungle or holidaying somewhere it’s minus 40. My years of single travelling have given me an insight into what makes the experience work well for me; I understand my needs better and know what I need to do to take as much of the potential stress out of the trip as possible. Like anyone else, when I go away I want to have a good time; I want to relax and have fun. So here are some of the ways I’ve learnt to give myself the best possible chance of doing that:

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1. It’s an open road: Embrace the freedom to go exactly where YOU want, in the way you want

Your holiday destination is no compromise; or at least, not with another person. I have some self-imposed limitations: I don’t want to go anywhere possibly dangerous for a woman alone; I don’t want to go anywhere that requires vaccinations (I don’t do jabs of any kind); I have a limited budget so have to consider costs. I used to talk about travelling the world one day (partly because I thought that’s what exciting people did) but I’ve come to accept that my holiday comfort zone is pretty much Europe. If the right person said, Come to Asia, Come to Australia, Come to South America, then I’m sure I would go. But I’m a true Europhile; I’m a happy European. I’ve been to Italy so many times yet always love to go back and discover more of it as well as visit favourite places; I can’t imagine not ever going to Paris or Amsterdam or Venice again. My choices now are often governed by food – going to Bologna earlier this year, for instance – and why I’m determined to get to Turin soon. But art will draw me too: like my trip to Aix en Provence last summer or seeing Guernica in Madrid. The beauty of the light, the promise of sun (though unfortunately not entirely realised!) and the friendliness of the Greeks drew me to Crete last month. The bonus for the single traveller is that you can just sit down with a map and think, Yes, this is where I want to go!

 

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2. Time alone – how long is long enough?

When you travel alone you come to know yourself well. There have been times when I’ve felt really proud of myself for some of my lone ventures but I’ve also come to understand my needs better; what I can cope with easily and what will be too much of a challenge. So, as I said above, I don’t feel the need to prove anything so I’m happy to admit that a week on my own on holiday is my limit. I’m really happy on my own for that long (though more frequently I make shorter, weekend-length trips), but two weeks with just my iPhone for guaranteed company would be too much. I know people who think they couldn’t manage that long; I know others who’ve happily gone off for much longer alone. It’s personal. Don’t give yourself unnecessary grief. If you’re not used to holidaying alone, go for short breaks at first. When you feel ready to move on, try just a week. Then maybe you might feel up to longer. But be kind to yourself; don’t give yourself unnecessary stress to outstaying your own single welcome.

 

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3. Small friendly hotels and other places to stay

I’ve never been a fan of large and impersonal hotels but when travelling alone, staying in a small, independent hotel can make all the difference. Regular readers will know that my very favourite hotel is Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo in Venice, where I’ve stayed many times. I’ve first stayed there on my own in 2006 but have since returned many times: with my children, with Annie and again on my own. Owners Walter and Sandro are always so welcoming; they will talk to me in the morning when I come through for breakfast, whenever I come in from a morning or afternoon out; they’ll ask where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and make suggestions. Now they ask me about my family too, since they know them. It makes all the difference and I value it so much. I found similar kindness and friendliness at Hotel Porta San Mamolo in Bologna earlier this year. While in Crete a couple of weeks ago, I chose to stay in a ground-floor apartment that gave me the opportunity to talk to neighbours and passing people rather than move to a quieter apartment with a better view. When you’re on your own, you have to factor in finding company for some of the time.

 

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4. Reach out to others

Well, you might be lucky enough to come across someone to befriend, of course, but the chances are you’ll just be on your own – just as you planned. But I like to do a bit of reaching out. I invariably return to a favourite cafe or restaurant a few times so they get to know me. In Crete recently, I ate lunch or dinner so often at Meraki, just below my apartment, they started to talk to me more, ask me about my day, welcome me when I arrived as almost an old friend; they were wonderfully friendly and it really enhanced my stay. I find on my own that I end up talking to people in all kinds of situations and places much more than I’ve ever done before. That’s partly, I know, because I’m a much more confident and outgoing person than I was eleven years ago, but even so, I think being on your own attracts others to reach out to you. I just love this aspect of holidaying alone and have gained so much from it.

 

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5. Engage with social media

I’m a social media junkie. My son bought me a Twitter mug; his own little joke with me about my Twitter addiction – he doesn’t have an account. I engage with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, not to mention my email account, WhatsApp and iMessage frequently throughout the day. On holiday alone, it has to be said, it’s a kind of lifeline: I’m never really alone. Vodafone have made it all the easier for me with their EuroTraveller deal: £3 a day for being able to use your phone (calls – including to home and in country you’re visiting – and internet access) just as you would at home. My iPhone itself has become a holiday essential and has saved me when lost a few times: Where am I? I ask it – and it tells me!! It is nice to share and if there’s no one at your side to say, What a beautiful view!, What a fantastic meal!, then you can share via your phone and get a response. I’ll post on Facebook or Twitter, if appropriate, but often it’s a message to my lovely daughter who is great at keeping in touch with me while I’m away, and ‘A’ has been great at emailing a lot while I’m away. Getting a response from my son or brother is a little more tricky but in general, when you’re on your own there’s nothing wrong with using social media if you want to connect back home some of the time. Many people want to cut themselves off from home while away; I like to have contact. It’s up to you – what do you want?

 

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6. Safety rules

I don’t mean a list of ‘rules’ but safety reigns supreme: play safe. At home, when I’ve been out in the evening and am coming home late at night, the walk from the bus stop into the back streets can be a little unsettling on my own if there’s no one else around, so I don’t talk into my phone, and I’m attentive. I’m used to it so it would be too much to say I’m scared; I’m not, but I am attentive. Because attentive makes sense. On holiday in an unfamiliar place, it just makes no sense to take risks by going down dark alleys on your own at night. For that reason, I tend to stay close to my hotel or apartment when it comes to eating out in the evening – or be prepared to pay for a cab. But I’m careful in other ways. It hasn’t been a conscious thing but I’ve become aware I’m more careful of myself when I’m doing something like clambering across rocks or swimming out to sea. I like a glass of wine with my evening meal; maybe a chilled small beer at lunchtime, but I never drink much: drunk and alone do not go together well. If there’s no one to watch out for you – watch out for yourself! The other thing I do is make sure my family have all my details: I email my flight numbers and times; my address while away and a contact number for either the hotel or owner of an apartment. For me, this isn’t an opportunity to go AWOL; I prefer people know where I am.

 

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7. Some planning makes sense ..

I’m generally a very organised person, but I’m not a great planner when it comes to holidays. I like to take things as much as I can day by day. It’s not unknown for me to open my guide book for the first time on the flight out. But some planning makes sense. I do buy a guide book and for short trips, I’ve become a devotee of Lonely Planet’s Encounter series which focuses on separate cities, so I now have copies for Istanbul, Amsterdam, Rome and Venice. I print off relevant Google maps before I go: how to find my hotel from the railway station; how to find my apartment from Heraklion airport in Crete last month. I buy a phrase book and always look to make sure there’s a food section so I’ll understand menus! I’ll generally have in mind a couple of particular things I want to do: places I want to visit; things I want to see. I buy foreign currency before I travel to get the best rate. But I don’t like to have my time totally mapped out and often I find, just going with the flow works really well. Sometimes if you’re too focused on the plan, you miss lots of things you’d notice if you just wandered (see more in this post in Crete). The other thing I like to do is take books about the place I’m holidaying in: both non-fiction and fiction, so I’ll get those organised before I go.

 

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8. Gently does it … be kind to yourself

A holiday is supposed to be … well, a holiday: recharging the mind and body batteries, relaxing, having fun … a break from stress (unless you’re into danger sports). When you’re on your own, this is particularly important. If things go wrong, there’s no one to share the stress; no one to take over. It’s all down to you. So make things just as easy as you can. I’m willing (and fortunately able) to pay a little more for a few cushion comforts when I go away. Thus, when I flew out to Crete very early in the morning – too early to catch a train to Gatwick – I paid quite a bit more than I would have done for a minicab to take me there, to stay in the Gatwick Sofitel. It gained me a couple of extra hours in bed … and with the long journey ahead and a lone one-hour drive from Heraklion airport to my holiday apartment along Greek roads, being the least tired I could manage seemed like a good plan. Even when staying in an apartment, I rarely cook or even have coffee there. I like to get out. Whereas when I went to France with my family a couple of years ago we often cooked ourselves in the evening; bought food in the markets and boulangeries to take home for lunch; made a big pot of coffee for breakfast in the morning and got croissants from the local bakery to bring back. I don’t push myself to do anything I’m not comfortable with if there’s a choice; and even if it’s something I planned to do before I arrived. I’ll treat myself to little things when I can and do my best to make sure I have a good holiday.

Do you ever travel alone? What’s your best tip for the single traveller?

Greek Leftovers: Baked Feta & Stuffed Tomato

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When you cook a large meal, as I did on Sunday, it’s not unusual to have some things left over. I had a good portion of the stuffing for the peppers left and I considered freezing it, but didn’t in the end so decided yesterday to use it up by stuffing a large tomato. I also had half a block of feta, left over from making the cheese parcels.

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On my first evening in Istron I had baked feta: Bougiourdi. This is feta baked in the oven with tomato, peppers, olive oil and oregano. It was so delicious. I’m so used to using feta in salads rather than cooking with it, that it was quite a revelation to discover how simply baking it transformed the cheese. We’ve been eating a lot of griddled or barbecued halloumi – a Cypriot cheese – over the summer and while I’ve come to quite like it (for a long time I didn’t like it at all), it has to be said, it is quite rubbery – however well you cook it. Feta on the other hand becomes soft and creamy when cooked.

The history of feta goes back to Ancient Greece and a similar cheese is mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey. Since 2002 it has been a ‘protected designation of origin’ in the EU and only feta made in some areas of Greece in the traditional way can bear the name. Feta is usually made from sheeps’ milk, although sometimes a combination of sheep and goats’ milk. It’s ‘brined’ in salt water and thus is usually quite salty, so when cooking with it, you’re unlikely to need extra salt.

For my supper last night, the first thing I did was to prepare the tomato and get it in the oven. I cut the top off of a large, beefsteak tomato and scooped out the seeds inside.

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I then filled it with the stuffing left over from the Stuffed Peppers on Sunday (click here for recipe).

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Put the tomato in a small ovenproof dish and mix together a little water, olive oil and squeeze of lemon and put round the bottom. Cover loosely with foil and put in a 2000/180 Fan oven for about 30 minutes or until the tomato is nicely softened. Meanwhile, prepare the feta. It’s barely a recipe! All you do is put the slice of feta in a small ovenproof dish. Cover it with slices of tomato and slivers of pepper; pour over a little olive oil and sprinkle some dried oregano over it all. You might want a little black pepper too, but it won’t need salt because of the saltiness of the feta.

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I put this into the oven when I took my tomato out. It’s best to serve the stuffed tomato warm rather than hot – that’s more authentically Greek, too – so while it cools a bit, you can cook the feta. Put it into the hot oven for about 15 minutes. The timing will depend slightly on the thickness of your slice of feta but you will see it browning just slightly round the edges once it’s ready. Transfer both the tomato and feta to a serving plate. I also added a little green salad on the side.

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It was all so delicious. The stuffing and herbs give the tomato a lovely fragrant freshness. The vegetables and oregano on top of the feta cut through the salty richness and are complemented by the fruity olive oil. It’s all wonderfully rich in flavour but not heavy and makes the most gorgeous meal.

Memories of Istron: A Greek Supper

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Travel and food are two words that go together for me. Whenever I’m on holiday, enjoying the food of another place is a major part of my enjoyment, and finding out as much as I can about local cuisine. I loved the food I had while staying in Crete a week ago: it was very simple fare; no posh restaurants but simple local tavernas. But for me, simple food with the best, freshest local ingredients is as exciting as a Michelin starred place. It all comes down to doing things well and loving what you eat. Inspired by a holiday, it’s fairly standard for me to want to recreate some of the food I had while away once home and so having Jonathan and Lyndsey round to supper last night was a perfect excuse to go Greek.

A lot of the time in Crete, I ate a selection of meze – even as my main meal – and particularly enjoyed those I had a Meraki, a taverna just below my apartment and one of my very favourite meze were Traditional Cheese Parcels with Honey & Sesame. So that was definitely a dish that would be part of my supper. I found recipes in both Jamie Oliver’s Jamie Does and Tonia Buxton’s Tonia’s Greek Kitchen. They’re incredibly easy to make. I bought a pack of frozen filo pastry with six sheets, which would make three parcels – perfect! Lay one sheet out and brush with extra virgin olive oil; lay a second sheet on top and again brush with oil. Then put 100g (half the usual 200g slab) of feta in the middle. Drizzle over a little honey, a few toasted sesame seeds – and I added a little Greek thyme I’d brought back with me, a la Jamie.

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Fold over the pastry and wrap into parcels.

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Brush with more oil and put in a 200C /180 Fan oven for about 30 minutes, until nice browned. Use a slice to carefully transfer to a plate and drizzle over some more honey (I warmed mine with a little raki I’d brought back – Jamie suggests ouzo) and sesame seeds.

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They’re quite large – because there was so much other food, we had just half each. You could, of course, make smaller parcels, especially for a party when you want finger food to hand round. Jamie crumbles his cheese up and flavours it with the honey, sesame, thyme and oil before using as a filling. I chose to have a slab – like Tonia – as this was how it was served to me in Crete. Whatever way you choose to make up these parcels, they are wonderfully delicious: the saltiness of the feta, sweet honey and the lovely softness of the cheese once cooked. I always had them as a meze, but you can serve them as a dessert/cheese course too.

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I had to make a moussaka. I just love moussaka (click here for recipe). I decided to make some stuffed peppers too. Well, actually I’d planned to make stuffed tomatoes but when I weighed three beefsteak tomatoes in Waitrose and the price was nearly £6, I couldn’t bring myself to spend such a ridiculous amount of money on three large tomatoes. So, I picked up two packs (4 peppers) of organic peppers for almost half the cost, instead. Again, I consulted Jamie and Tonia. Now, I’ve made stuffed peppers (and tomatoes!) many times for many years, but wanted to see what they both brought to the ‘Greek’ style. Tonia adds meat, but because I was making moussaka, I didn’t want to do that; Jamie added pistachios. I’ve no idea how authentic that it in Greek cooking but I liked the idea. So, a large onion was chopped and softened in olive oil with a crushed clove of garlic. I sprinkled in some dried oregano (also brought back from Crete), 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 50g chopped pistachios.

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Then I added 100g long grain rice and stirred this round for a couple of minutes to make sure each grain of rice was coated with oil. Then I added a 400g can chopped tomatoes, 100ml water (or stock) and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper and allow to gently bubble away for a few minutes until the mixture becomes drier and the rice is almost cooked. Meanwhile, cut the tops off the peppers and scoop out the seeds. Stand is an ovenproof dish. If they don’t stand well – a couple of mine didn’t – cut a thin slice off the bottom. Fill with the rice mixture and then pop the lids back on.

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Mix 50ml olive oil with 100ml water and juice of 1 lemon and pour round the bottom of the peppers. Cover them loosely with some foil and put in a 200C/180 Fan oven for about an hour. My timing was a bit out as Tonia has said 30 minutes cooking time. This wasn’t nearly enough. Looking again at Jamie, he suggested and hour and fifteen minutes – this would have been better. So, it ended up with the peppers going straight from oven to table and not having time to cool to lukewarm – the Greek way – and perhaps another time I’d cook them for even longer. They still tasted very good though!

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Everything just went on the table so we could eat it as we wanted. There were olives I’d brought back from Crete and some lovely bread – a flute and some fougasse – from Paul bakery. Not Greek maybe, but a delicious accompaniment.

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For dessert I decided to recreate a simple dish I was given twice in Zygos taverna in Istron. These were stewed grapes on a bed of Greek yogurt. They told me they’d cooked the grapes with sugar and something else I didn’t recognise. I gently cooked mine with a little red wine, some sugar and a little vanilla paste. I did this earlier in the day and left them to be served at room temperature.

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It was so simple but very delicious and a perfect way to end the meal. It was a lovely way to remember the holiday and tell Jonathan and Lyndsey a little about my time there. There was quite a bit of food left over too so they took home half a moussaka and one of the cheese parcels. Supper for me tonight will be the other stuffed pepper! But this is food that takes reheating or – made early in the day – being served just warm. The Greeks don’t serve things like moussaka hot. The taste is better warm and it’s also a healthier way to eat. It also makes entertaining easier, because you don’t have to worry so much about timing. And, of course, with leftovers my little nostalgic trip back to Crete via some cooking will last into another day …

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